The myth of federally certified Spanish court interpreter fees in the United States.

August 9, 2021 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

There has been some misleading information on line about the income Spanish court interpreters can make in the United States once they are certified at the federal level. This is motivated by the apparent dates for the next certification exam; and I refer to these dates as “apparent” because, not surprisingly, there is no official information, notice, or update on the website of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). This is not unexpected as lack of accountability kept in office the same people behind the last fiasco.  

As a marketing strategy, some exam preparation vendors have said, or at least implied, that federally certified court interpreters make $418.00 U.S. dollars per day, which multiplied by 5 days a week gives you $2,090.00 U.S. dollars per week; and this amount, times 52 weeks in a year is $108,680.00

The daily fee for a federally certified court interpreter is correct. Federal District Courts must pay freelancers said amount when retained for a full-day of work in court. “Unfortunately,” this is the daily fee for freelancers, and independent contractors are not staff interpreters, they do not work for the courthouse 40 hours a week; they are only asked to work when needed, perhaps several times in a month in a “good month,” and usually they are retained for half a day, at the official fee of $226.00 U.S. dollars, not $418.00

Frequency depends on the caseload, but it also depends on other factors such as the place where the interpreter is physically located, the number of certified interpreters in the area, and other criteria developed by each one of the federal districts. A good portion of this interpreter requests are not to work in court, but to assist attorneys from an existing panel, appointed to represent indigent defendants in federal criminal cases, in terms of the Criminal Justice Act, commonly referred to “CJA attorneys.” These interpretation services are paid at the same federal fees approved for court services above, most of these assignments are for half a day, and to be paid, interpreters must do some paperwork, ask the panel attorney to approve and file the invoice, wait until the lawyer gets around to do it, and then wait for the court to pay. In some districts the wait could be substantial.

Unlike state courts, there are few trials in federal court, even fewer that require interpreters, and most scheduled trials end up cancelled because the defendant enters into a plea agreement. In these cases, interpreters often get no money because of the advanced notice of cancellation, and in others, when there is a last-minute cancellation, interpreters get paid for just a few days, even had they set aside weeks for a lengthy trial that is no more.

Lengthy trials are paid as full days, and sometimes interpreters make an important amount of money, but traveling to another city for a federal trial can be tricky. The district court will reimburse all travel and lodging expenses incurred by the interpreter; the key word is “reimburse.” Interpreters have to buy fully-refundable plane tickets, paying for expensive tickets since “airline specials” are not fully refundable and carry many restrictions unacceptable to the federal government. Interpreters also pay for their hotel rooms (here they catch a break because they must get the hotel’s federal employee rate considerably lower that a regular fare) their ground transportation, and all of their meals. The courthouse will reimburse all the expenses after reviewing all invoices submitted by the interpreter, but reimbursement could take several weeks and even months (usually longer that a credit card payment cycle). Many interpreters turn down this out-of-town trial assignments. They cannot afford to advance such amount of money.

Some of you may be thinking: Why should I get certified then? The answer is, because interpreting in federal court pays better than most state courts, and it definitely pays better than most abusive agencies. The important thing is to understand what the federal certification is good for.

If your expectations are to make a high income by working for the federal court system as a freelancer, then you have to reconsider your options and think about applying for a staff court interpreter position in a federal courthouse. But if you value your freedom as an independent contractor, and you have professional plans beyond interpreting the same subjects for the same judges for the rest of your career, then you have to understand the federal certification credential is helpful when you know how to use it.

First, as a newly certified interpreter, you will gain a lot of experience. This is extremely valuable when you start as an interpreter and recognize when it is time to move on.  By going to interpret at the federal courthouse, you will meet attorneys (not federal public defenders or CJA panelists) from big law firms who will hire you as your direct clients. Most of the law firms I am referring to practice civil litigation and corporate law. Working for these clients will eliminate most of your competitors, as most interpreters stay with criminal courthouse work. It will also challenge you to be a better interpreter as cases are varied and usually more complicated than criminal trials. You will also meet the attorneys’ clients, many multinational businesses and Fortune 500 companies, and they will become your clients for non-legal matters where they may need interpreting services.

If you stay in criminal law because of personal reasons, you can also target the big criminal law firms that handle private clients, among them businesspeople and celebrities that could end up as your clients. If you cannot gain access to these law firms and their clients at this time because of your lack of professional experience or due to your physical location, the federal certification will let you work with the United States Attorney where you can negotiate your fee and work conditions without being limited to the official federal fees (as with the court, CJA attorneys, and federal public defenders).   

Working as a freelance certified interpreter in federal court is a great back-up income strategy. Sometimes, direct clients will be scarce. When this happens, contact your federal courthouse and offer your services. They may ask you to work on a day you have nothing scheduled. Under those circumstances, it is better to work for the federal full-day or half-day fee than state court fees, or abusive agencies. Just make sure when you work in federal court you act as a consummate professional, do your best work, and be courteous to all. Courthouse interpreter coordinators will appreciate the work you do, and will understand you are not always available because you are constantly looking for ways to be a better interpreter and move up in the profession.

I hope you now understand better what to expect from a federal court interpreter certification, its potential income and possibilities; and how, when done wisely, it can help you grow as a professional interpreter. You must get certified. Please feel free to share your comments with the rest of us.

What is going on with the federal court interpreter certification test results?

February 20, 2018 § 73 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The federal court interpreter certification is the highest credential a Spanish court interpreter can have in the United States.  Unfortunately, the exam is not available in other languages, but it has historically separated good court interpreters from mediocrity in the legal arena. Fortunately, the exam has been difficult and very demanding through the years, and the result has been a group of better prepared court interpreters who demonstrated they have the minimum knowledge and skill needed in a courtroom. A test this difficult will always have its detractors and there have been plenty of these disgruntled individuals who attribute their failure to pass the test to everything under the sun but their own lack of skills. This is acceptable, and it reinforces that the content of the exam is the right one.

Unfortunately, recent changes, not to the exam contents, but to the way it is administered and graded, have put into question the reliability of the results.

It started a few years ago when, undoubtedly for budgetary reasons, it was decided to reduce the number of exam graders from three to two. It is hard to understand why any deliberating group would ever go from an odd number of decision-makers to an even number, but that happened. Please notice I am not bringing up an earlier change on the administration of the exam when in-person examiners were substituted by a recording device because I believe that change was positive because all candidates listened to the same recordings, and it allow graders to rewind and listen an utterance as many times as needed. This change resulted in a fair exam.

The biggest irregularities happened last September when the exam was administered for the first time by Paradigm Testing, who presumably outbid the former test administrator. While this newcomer to the court interpreter testing arena brought changes and innovations designed to save money, it also imposed an undue burden on the examination candidates. We have all heard many complaints about practice/training exams arriving late, poorly given instructions on operating the testing equipment, proctors staying outside of the exam room making it impossible for candidates to ask questions or report problems on a time-sensitive examination. We all know about the faulty internet connections that took away precious time needed to complete the test; and we all know stories about the infamous click button during the consecutive rendition where examinees had to click a button twice in a small pop-up window for each utterance, and then quickly pick up the pen or pencil and sort papers to get ready for the next utterance. Even the ergonomics was a big concern since the candidates were forced to keep their writing materials to the side because the laptop was directly in front, sometimes taking over most of the space on the table. I always believe that proctors were not just there to police the examinee, but also to facilitate the process.

No doubt these irregularities resulted in some questionable test results for some, perhaps many, of the candidates. I wonder if this is the reason the results of a test taken in September have not been disclosed yet. The Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination for Spanish/English Examinee Handbook states: “…C. Score Reporting Procedures and Timelines… Oral Examination: Scores will be available approximately three months after the administration of the oral examination, and will be sent to the e-mail address provided during registration. The Director of the AO will confer certification on candidates who pass the oral examination, usually within four months following the examination…” (Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination for Spanish/English Examinee Handbook, updated June 1, 2017. Page 4)

Two very important deadlines were missed by Paradigm Testing: Results must be in the candidate’s e-mail box in approximately three months! The exam was in September 2017. It has been over five months. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts had to issue proof of certification to those who passed the test four months after the exam! The AO is in default also. This is very troubling as we all know that the exams were graded last year.

The grading of the exam is another issue that should concern us all. First the reduction from three to two graders, and now a tendency to bring in as graders more staff interpreters than freelancers. This is a matter to be considered as well.  Staff court interpreters are federally certified, and the ones invited to grade the test are very capable professionals. However, they bring to the table certain perspective and limited experience in many areas of the law when compared to freelancers. Most staff interpreters do a magnificent job interpreting those issues that involve federal legislation. Freelancers contribute a broader knowledge and a different perspective. Does this matter? Are they going to test the examinee on non-federal matters? Of course not, but unlike the staff interpreter, the freelancer may tell if a candidate did not know the subject, or just made the mistake of treating it like a local matter. The real issue is, freelancers are more expensive because they must be paid; staffers are getting the same paycheck they would get anyway. Reality shows that many interpreters are not finding grading the exam attractive anymore because they get paid little for the amount of work.

I hope that last September test results are published soon, and they better be free of controversy for the sake of those who took the exam, and for the future of the once very reliable federal certification program. I now invite you to share your stories and thoughts on this very serious matter.

When your new client used to have a bad interpreter.

May 12, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Throughout the years I have written about educating the client, I have shared with all of you my ideas as to how we can make an assignment a total success and leave the client with the unshakable idea that interpreter fees are not an expense but an investment.

Not long ago, a colleague suggested that I write about those relatively common occasions when you work for a client for the first time, he has worked with other interpreters before, and the interpreter who was in that booth before you, the only other interpreter that your client ever met, was the pits.

Obviously, we all know how the story ends if everything goes as planned: The client will love our work and will never go back to mediocrity.  Unfortunately, in many cases this requires of an extraordinary effort and a lot of patience on our part.

The first thing we need to determine is whether or not the former interpreter was really bad, or it is just one of those cases where the client did not get along with our colleague.

I would begin by asking many questions about the interpreter’s performance.  I would find the right questions for the specific client so that, without getting him to feel uncomfortable, the following question marks get an answer: Was he professional? Was he honest? Did he know how to interpret? Was he good at problem solving and communication?  Then, I would ask around. Talk to the client’s staff; seek their opinion. Ideally, if the equipment company is the same one they had in the past, ask the technicians. They always know what is going on.

If you do all of this, and your conclusion is that the interpreter was not a bad professional, and that the only problem was a conflict of personalities with the client, then you will have to do very little as far as educating the client on how to furnish materials, finding the right location for the booth, discussing speaker’s etiquette, and so on. In this situation your challenge will be to either adjust to the particular tastes and demands of the client (to me this is not the best scenario) or, if possible, find common ground with the client, get him to trust you, and develop a professional relationship based on honesty and mutual respect.

On the other hand, if you conclude that the last interpreter was incompetent, the first thing you will need to figure out is why he was bad.  It is only then that you can start the client’s education.

Interpreters are bad or mediocre for many reasons, but some of the most common ones are: (1) They work for an agency that despises quality and is only concerned with profitability; (2) They lack talent or knowledge about the profession; (3) They worked under bad conditions, such as poor quality equipment or alone in the booth; and (4) They were afraid.

If the prior interpreter worked for one of those agencies we all know, and you are now working with the client through another agency, the education must emphasize the fact that not all agencies provide a mediocre service, which usually includes mid-level to low-level interpreters. That you, and all top-notch professionals would never work for such a business, because you only keep professional relationships with reputable interpreting agencies who take pride on the service they provide, including very well-paid top interpreters with significant experience.  If you happen to be working with a direct client, then take advantage of this opportunity to sing the praises of eliminating the middleman. Go into detail on the way you prepare for an assignment, how you choose your team of interpreters, and make sure that the client knows where every cent of the money he is paying you goes. Only then you will be able to prove him what we all know: interpreters make a higher fee when working directly with the client, and the client spends less because the intermediary’s commission is eliminated.

If you determine that the interpreter who was there before you, was an individual who did not have enough experience, preparation, or frankly, he did not have what it takes to be a real professional interpreter, explain this to your client and take this opportunity to educate him on the qualities that are needed to work in the booth. Show him all the years of experience and preparation that have allowed you to work at your present level, share with him the complexities of the interpreting task; convince him of how an ignorant individual could never do the job correctly; and finally, tell him that interpreting is like singing or dancing: It is an aptitude a person is born with and it needs to be developed and improved. Try to convey the fact that there is something else, difficult to put into words, that interpreters are born with.

When you conclude that the previous interpreters had to work under bad conditions, you must explain to the client the importance of having the appropriate environment for an impeccable rendition. Explain how the interpreter cannot do his job if, due to the poor quality of the interpreting equipment, he cannot hear what the speaker said. Convince him of placing the booth where the interpreters can see and hear everything that will be going on. Make sure that the client understands that there are many ways to save money during a conference: a different caterer or at least a menu less ostentatious; a different ground transportation service; a less expensive band for the dance; but never a lesser quality interpreting and sound equipment; never a lesser quality, cheaper interpreter team, because this is the only expense that will make or break a conference.  A conference with the best food, at the most magnificent venue, with a sound and interpreting equipment that does not work, will be a failure. The audience will not be able to hear or understand the speaker they paid for and came to see. They will come back to a second conference when the food was prepared by the second best chef in town, or the event took place in the second nicest convention center, but they will never be back to a second conference when they could not understand what the main speaker said during the first one because the equipment did not work, or the interpreter was exhausted from working alone in the booth.  The client needs to hear this to be able to understand the importance of your working conditions.

Finally, when your conclusion is that the interpreter did a mediocre job because he was afraid, then you have to explain this to the client, and educate him on the benefits of having experienced interpreters in the booth: Professionals who have been through it all, and know how to prevent an incident or solve a problem. Tell the client how these interpreters exude confidence and will never have a panic attack on the job. Make it clear to your client that interpreting for a famous individual or on a difficult subject is intimidating, and only self-confident professionals can assure the success of an event of such magnitude.

In many ways, getting to the assignment after the client has gone through a bad experience will help your cause. You will find a more receptive individual, and you will have a point of reference; something to quote as an example of the things that should not happen. I now invite you to share your comments and suggestions about other ways to take advantage of this type of situation when you come to the job as a second choice because the first one did not work out.

We need to change the classification of interpreting and translation as professions.

April 26, 2016 § 29 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

In general, interpreters and translators find it more difficult to set reasonable fees than most professionals. This is in part because of a new, globalized market, but the main reason for such obstacles has to do with who the individuals providing interpreting and translation services are.

By nature, interpreting and translation have been two of the professions more vulnerable to pretenders and paraprofessionals: the typical “wannabe”. Those individuals who erroneously assume that they can interpret or translate because they speak two or more languages.  We are in a profession where real, bona fide professionals have to compete with usurpers and part-timers who view the profession as a hobby, an activity to entertain themselves while their spouses work to provide for their living expenses, and people with no scruples who try to take advantage of the less-sophisticated non-native speakers of society.

Many are able to negotiate and find a way to make a decent living, while trying to survive in this ocean of professionals and impostors. Some even excel and live very comfortable lives full of respect and recognition.  Unfortunately, many capable people cannot make it. They succumb to their poor negotiating skills, their internal fears, or they just simply lack the stomach required to go to war on a daily basis.  But even those who achieve success in such a competitive field have to face the effects of ignorance, greed, and bad legislation.

All public contracts with the United States government, and many private businesses, follow the same practice: they have to adjust to certain guidelines and rules.  One of them is the price that the bidder will charge the governmental or private sector entity requesting the services, and this directly impacts the amount that an individual should earn based on his or her occupation.

The Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) was a publication of the United States Department of Labor which helped government agencies, and private sector employers, to define many different types of work during the 20th. Century. This publication was later replaced by the O*NET system, a digital data base applicable about a decade ago, depending of the type of work, and the business necessity on a case by case basis. Back then, interpreter and translator positions could require a college degree, and for that reason they could command a higher retribution. Since that time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics (OES 273091) based on questionable surveys, has set the bar pretty low as to the mean wages for interpreters and translators. Moreover, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) considers interpreters and translators, including Sign Language interpreters, as “clerical workers” instead of professionals. This classification carries grave consequences, such as the levels of compensation that government contractors can offer to language professionals in all government contracts subject to public auction. Even worse, this is frequently used as an argument by ignorant multinational entities to offer low fees to many colleagues who tragically agree to work for such breadcrumbs, either for lack of negotiating skills or simply out of fear.

Current market conditions have not fatally wounded all real professional interpreters and translators. There are plenty of conference interpreters, basically all of them with some college degree, or many years of professional experience, who have fared quite well in this Darwinian environment because of their negotiating skills and business acumen.

Amending the current U.S. regulations to classify interpreters and translators as professionals instead of clerical help, would be a giant step towards improving the market conditions and giving language professionals the recognition they deserve; and its impact would reach far away, beyond the U.S. borders, because of the major role that the American market plays in both of our professions.

This would allow those contractors bidding for government work a better argument to justify higher fees for interpreters and translators who could be included as professionals on the business plan without questioning the classification. It would also give us additional tools to be used when negotiating with a frugal and reluctant client from the private sector.  By their nature, both professions require of individuals who should have some type of college degree at a minimum.  A degree in a language-related discipline would be fantastic, but any college degrees could be accepted. Basically, those who graduated from college had to learn how to study and research, and people with higher education are more likely to have more general knowledge, an essential element for interpreters and translators.  Following the criteria of the American government, a degree equivalency could also be accepted at a ratio of 2 years of experience for one year of college. This means that those with 8 years of experience could be considered at the same level as a person with a Bachelor’s Degree.

I believe the time is right to make our move, even though we will face strong opposition from all directions.

Many will fight against officially making a college degree or its equivalent (quantified in a minimum years of experience) part of the essential elements of being a professional interpreter or translator.

The first to oppose this change will be the mediocre “interpreters” and “translators” who do not have and never will get a college degree or its equivalency. They will also oppose this changes because they will lose their market advantage over true professionals: Under current conditions, they can offer their questionable services to many clients for a much lower fee than the rest of us. Once the market evens up by requiring a college degree, their clients will opt for a better professional since price will no longer be an issue.  The second group that would be against any change is the government. With some exceptions here and there, both, federal and state government officials rejoice when they can hire or contract interpreters and translators as “clerical help” and consequently pay them below a professional wage or fee; and if you do not believe me, I invite you to read any interpreter or translator job description for a government position. You will immediately notice that they require a high school diploma, not a college degree.

Of course, the powerful multinational “language service providers” would fight us to death. Remember, current conditions are the way they are because they have lobbied for them to remain unchanged. After all, their concern and priorities on the “scales of quality” dramatically tilt towards profit.  We should expect a good fight from them, after all an “industry” requires of laborers, not professionals.  Finally, I also expect opposition from good, professional interpreters and translators who will meet these requirements of formal education or its equivalent, but will feel “bad” for their fellow mediocre or borderline colleagues who they will want to protect.  I have a proposal for these valued colleagues:

It is undeniable that, at least at the beginning and until there are enough colleges and universities offering careers in interpreting and translation because more people will be interested as the financial compensation will be at a professional level, true professionals will not be able to cover the huge market demand. It is also true that certain translations will be so minor, and some interpreter assignments so short and uninteresting, that most of us will turn them down as they will not appeal to us from the business perspective. I believe that it is possible, like it already happens in most professions, that these jobs be left to those individuals that could not meet the professional requirements, and without presenting themselves as professional interpreters or translators, would be able to perform minor translations and unsophisticated and less consequential interpreting assignments, perhaps on their own, or maybe under the supervision of a professional interpreter and translator (never a multinational entity or any other agency).  By doing this, the market needs would be satisfied, these paraprofessional individuals would be able to make a living by translating birth certificates or interpreting at small claims courts, and the profession would be protected.

I know that to some of you, this sounds complicated and impossible, but it is not. Nothing happens without an effort, and if we want our professions to be respected and recognized, if we want to eliminate the unscrupulous practices of many multinational agencies that are taking advantage of the current system, and if we want more of our colleagues to enjoy better fees and working conditions, we need to start somewhere. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your thoughts and ideas regarding this issue.

An interpreter’s worst nightmare: What to do?

February 22, 2016 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Like all human beings, interpreters have fears and concerns. Everybody has experienced adverse situations and tough times, and nobody wants to be in that situation ever again.  We all worry about getting sick, having no money, experiencing loneliness, suffering a tragic accident, having serious problems at home, and so on. This is normal, and in fact, the possibility of facing one of these scenarios worries most individuals, not just interpreters.  Then, we have the career related concerns: losing your job, not getting any assignments, losing your hearing or your voice, fighting with the bad agencies and unscrupulous colleagues, dealing with morose clients who only pay every other leap year, and many others.  All these things make us miserable, most of them will never happen to us, and if they do, they will likely come into our lives as a “light version” of the problem; but we worry nevertheless.

Everything mentioned above has the potential to keep us up all night and make us lose our appetite, but not one of them can be truly referred to as our worst nightmare.  You see, talking to many colleagues all over the world throughout the years, and reflecting on my own personal fears, I have seen how the things that impact us more, strictly from the professional perspective, are those situations where we cannot perform as expected and, on top of the professional failure, we go through professional embarrassment.  We have all experienced situations when a certain term, word, or fact that we know (or should know) does not come to mind.  This is usually cause for concern, and more so when it happens often or for a fairly long period of time.  For the most part this is taken care of by a note or a whisper from our booth mate with the right term, word, or facts. We correct ourselves, nod at the colleague with a “thank you” gesture, shake up the embarrassing uncomfortable episode, and move on.

The facts I just described above are part of the interpreter’s nightmare, but they are still missing the coup the grace. For this to turn into a horrendous situation, the interpreter’s mishap has to be in public. This sense of embarrassment and professional shame will make you want to shrink to the size of an atom and disappear for the next twenty centuries.  Let me share a story that I witnessed first-hand:

I was retained to work an important high-profile assignment that was going to take place at a country’s top military facility. The name of the country will remain undisclosed for professional courtesy reasons.  The event was attended by people, including many journalists, of about eighty different countries, so there were many interpreters in many language combinations.  On this occasion I had the fortune to work with an excellent colleague, and although I did not know all of the other interpreters, I also recognized many of the other colleagues at the event who had been hired to work other language combinations.  The event presented two tasks for the interpreters: We had speeches and presentations that were to be interpreted simultaneously, but at the end of every high-profile speaker’s presentation there would be a question and answer period that had to be interpreted consecutively.  Interpreters had a table at the end of the stage, and one interpreter from each language pair was supposed to go to the table for the questions while the other interpreter remained in the booth for a simultaneous rendition of the answers. If necessary, interpreters were to rotate every thirty minutes.

The presentations were very technical and many of the questions were more of a political statement by journalists from foreign countries, as it often happens in these events. Throughout the day, my colleagues did a superb job in the booth and with the consecutive rendition at the table. Things were smooth until a journalist, from a country where a language other than English or Spanish is spoken, asked one of this “political statement” type of questions. The question was long, but nothing different from what the others had been asking, and definitely something an interpreter at that level should handle without any trouble.  Once the question was posed, the interpreter looked at her notes and started her rendition. Once she started her interpretation, I noticed that she was not saying what the journalist asked; I am not an expert in this other language, and I would never dare to add it to my language combinations for the booth, but I noticed a big mistake; in fact, as the interpreter was interpreting back the question, I looked at one of my other colleagues who also understands the language at a level like mine or better, and her face told me that I was right.  As the interpreter was speaking, the journalist who asked the question got up from his seat in the audience and without a microphone shouted: “…That is not what I asked. The interpreter is wrong. She did not understand the question, so I will repeat it in English…“  The interpreter sat there quietly, she did not make any noise. She lowered her head and stayed there while the journalist repeated the question in English.  The next few questions were in different languages, so this interpreter did not have to intervene anymore.

Dear friends and colleagues, this is an interpreter’s worst nightmare: to make a mistake and be corrected by the person you are interpreting for; to know that this person, who is not an interpreter and does not speak the target language at a level comparable to yours, is right and you were wrong; to have this all happen during a very high-profile event, and for this to be witnessed by many of your colleagues who work at this very top level of the profession.

In this case the interpreter did not do anything, she did not defend her rendition; she did not ask for clarification of something she did not understand; she did not apologize; she did not get up and leave; she did not cry; she did not ask for her booth mate to replace her; she just remain there, sitting with her head lowered and her hands on her lap.

I did not know this colleague, although I believe that I had seen her in the booth a couple of times before. I do not know if she is new to the profession, which I doubt because no newbies start at the level of the event where this happened.  I do not know if she is a great interpreter, or if this was not her preferred language pair; I do not even know if she was ill, or going through a personal crisis at the time of the incident. All I know is that she had to endure this interpreter’s worst nightmare, and she handled it by staying there, quiet, without moving a finger.

After the event ended I tried to see if those who knew her best were approaching her to show their support, or to show their contempt as it happens sometimes, but no one did. She continued acting as if nothing had happened for the rest of the day, and for the next few days that we worked together at the event.

That night at the hotel, I thought about the incident and wondered how I would have reacted to that situation. I could not tell for sure.  I do not know.  Maybe she checked her rendition as soon as she could to make sure she was truly wrong; maybe she reached the journalist who asked the question and apologized afterwards; maybe she talked to the event organizer and explained what had just happened; maybe she cried with a dear colleague in private; maybe she realized that she was not ready for these events yet.

That night I fell asleep with two certainties: That we are all vulnerable to a situation similar to what happened to this colleague, and that nobody really knows how they are going to react when faced with this horrendous scenario; all we can wish and hope is that it never happens to us and that if it does, our training and experience will guide us to the best reaction to minimize the damage caused by our mistake and to control the negative effects this could have on our professional careers.  I now invite you to tell us about your worst interpreter’s nightmare and how do you think you might react if something like this happened to you.

When the interpreter does not know how to work with the tech team.

September 17, 2015 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Some months ago the event technician approached me during a break and told me a story that made me think of a very important aspect of our practice that is rarely mentioned.  He said that during the prior weekend he had worked a conference with two interpreters he did not know (something extraordinaire for this individual who has worked with just about everybody).

Apparently, the agency had brought them from out of town because they wanted to abate their costs, and from the information the technician gathered, they were court interpreters with very little conference experience. According to him, they were very quiet and not very helpful, and to the dismay of the technician, he even had to decide the location of the booth in the conference room because the interpreters did not make any suggestions or give any input.  He also commented that the quality of the interpretation was poor.

Of course a story like this one frustrates me, as I see once again that there are many in this business with total devotion to the old mighty dollar and total contempt for the quality of the service; but it made me think about the importance of a good relationship with the tech staff.  It is obvious that it does not matter how well-prepared we are for an event if at the time of the rendition we cannot hear the speaker because of a sound system that was not tested, we cannot see the presentation on the screen because of poor location of the booth, or the audience cannot hear a word of what we are saying because of an equipment malfunction. It is essential that we learn how to work with the technician, and this includes not just being nice to the individual, but also our ability to use the equipment, our opinion as to the location of the booth, our willingness to participate in the final run through so that all microphones and consoles are tested and all levels are adjusted.

It is also very helpful to have a communication strategy. Sometimes the technician is next to the booth, but there are times when they are very far away from the interpreters. For this reason, having agreed to some signs and gestures ahead of time will let the technician know that something is bleeding into the system, that a relay button is not working, and many other things.

I have been in situations where the event organizer refuses to pay for a dedicated technician throughout the event, and everybody can tell the difference: When something goes wrong and the technician is there, things get solved and the conference continues. Things can get ugly when there is no technician on the premises, and there are just so many coffee breaks the participants can have while a well-intentioned but unskilled individual tries to fix a problem.

We interpreters should always consider the technician as part of our team. We cannot work without them, so we should include their function when developing our master plan for an event. Besides, having the tech support staff on your side can get you additional benefits: They are often some of the first ones to know of an event, and many times they are asked by agencies and event organizers to suggest interpreters for conferences.  We should recommend the good technicians and in turn they will put out a good word for you.

As you see, this conversation with my technician friend and colleague got me thinking of the importance of their job and how it impacts us professionally as interpreters. It made me pledge that I will never be like the interpreters he worked with the prior weekend who were quiet, had no opinions, and did not know how to work with the technician.  I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments and stories about your relationship with the technical staff.

A bad combination: The interpreter’s ego and sense of denial.

December 4, 2014 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We all know that most interpreters are very gifted and well-educated people, but due to the individual characteristics required for the job, and because of the lifestyle needed to be a top-tier interpreter, we interpreters are also very complicated. Not everyone is able to stand up in front of a crowd of thousands, and many would not be capable of speaking from a booth or a TV studio to millions of people around the world. It takes self-confidence, self-esteem, and courage to do it. These are the qualities of the professional interpreter, and they could also turn into our flaws or defects. All interpreters have a big ego, some can control it better, but the fact is that I have never met an interpreter without one. An ego is a good thing to have, and it comes in handy when interpreting for a dignitary or negotiating a contract. Yes, it is true that sometimes it jumps over the set limits and we have to reel it back. We all know it, we all have experienced it, and for this reason, we are all pretty much tolerant of the occasional diva explosion from our colleagues. We are grown-ups, we are professionals, and we all know how to live with it. The problem is when a colleague has an ego the size of the Sears Tower, she does nothing to control it, and this attitude affects the professional relationship with other colleagues, and gets on the way of the delivery of a quality professional interpreting service. Add to this mix the self-denial often caused by the same ego, and then you have an impossible situation that we all have lived through at one time during our careers.

I once worked with a colleague who at the time was more experienced than me. She was one of those pioneers of the profession who empirically became a good interpreter, in her particular market, which is different from mine as it is in another country, she was well-known and sought-after by some of the biggest names in the interpreting industry. She was widely respected, and in her old age she was also feared because of her influence on the market. She could ruin the future of an interpreter who was trying to access the highest levels with a simple phone call or comment.

In the past, I had worked at the same events she had worked, but until this occasion, I had never worked with her as a team. I was very impressed with the way she interacted with the colleagues, the organizers of the event, the speakers, and the media. It was evident that she knew her craft. I still remember thinking what a great experience this was going to be for me as the younger interpreter in the team (not a very common occurrence nowadays). My expectations collapsed little by little once we were in the booth. The first thing that shocked me was her total ignorance of modern technology. She had no computer skills at all, she did not know what a Power Point was, and complained about the interpreter console because “…it had too many unnecessary bells and whistles that are never used in the booth”. Of course, as the senior interpreter, she started the speech. I was determined to be a good booth partner, to help her with all the “technology” and to be ready with words, terms, water, anything she would need during her rendition. I was paying more attention to her work than I had for a long time, and I was so disappointed. Her speech was choppy as she seemed to get distracted very easily, soon she lagged way behind the speaker, and when she reached the point of no return because of her distance from the source language speech, she just skipped parts of the presentation; some of them crucial to the rest of the speech. The only notes she passed me were complaints about the sound; she claimed it was very low, but in reality it was extremely loud, you could even hear it without the earphones. When she finished her shift and handed me the microphone, she told me that she was going to step outside to talk to the sound technician because it was “impossible to hear the speaker.” I had no problem hearing everything he said during my shift. At the break she informed me that she was very upset because the equipment was bad, the technician had not fixed the problem and he was rude, and that she was going to look for the agency representative to ask him to tell the speakers to speak louder so they can be heard in the booth. I was very uncomfortable with the situation. When she went to look for the people she needed to find to formally complain, I grabbed a cup of coffee with the other Spanish interpreters who were working other rooms during the same event. One of them was a colleague from my market who I know very well. She had worked many times with this “living-legend” when she was at the peak of her career and also recently. I thought she would be a good person to talk to before I decided what to do next. After she listened to my story, nodding in agreement most of the time, she clearly told me that it would be better to leave things as they were. She stated that next to this interpreter, truly an “institution of the interpreting profession”, my credibility was zero, and that the only thing I would accomplish was to be blacklisted from future events, and nothing else. “Don’t you think that all of these colleagues feel exactly as you do? They all do, but they know there’s nothing we can do about it. Just forget it, do your best, and next time she will be dead or you will have another booth partner.” I followed the advice and did nothing.

My colleague was right, I returned the following year, and although the diva was there, I had a different partner in the booth. I felt bad for this new young woman who was in the booth with her, but that was not my problem this time around.

A few years later I received an offer to work as an interpreter of some business negotiations that would require a lot of consecutive interpreting, as part of the job would consist of inspecting mines, manufacturing plants, and exposition pavilions. The job was to last ten days. Because it was interesting, challenging, and well-paid, I immediately accepted the assignment without even asking who would be my colleague for the job. Of course, it was her! The only difference is that now this was about five years later and it would be consecutive interpretation in crowded places where it would be difficult to hear and be heard.

The assignment was a disaster. She could not hear anything and was constantly asking for repetitions to the point of making the parties lose their concentration. Her consecutive was non-existing; after the speaker uttered three words, she would jump in the middle of a statement doing a simultaneous rendition without equipment and with a voice so weak that nobody could hear it. People started to complain because there was a big contrast between her “consecutive” rendition full of requests for repetitions, and constantly stopping the speaker after just a few words, all in a voice so soft that nobody (including me just a few inches away from her) could hear. My consecutive was delivered without interruptions or repetitions and in a powerful voice. The worst part was that she was leaving out of her rendition many important details and she was giving the wrong figures, amounts, prices, etc.

This is when I decided to talk to her. This was five years after the first experience when I decided to remain silent, and during these period of time I had worked plenty of times in this market and was now well-known and respected by colleagues, promoters and agencies. In other words, I felt more confident of my share of the market than five years earlier. I also knew that if we didn’t do something the negotiations would collapse and the project would end in disaster.

That evening I invited my colleague to have a drink at the bar of the hotel. After some small talk, I spoke before she started complaining about everything, I told her that her consecutive had not been complete and that the clients had complained to me that she was interrupting them all the time in order to “interpret” what had been said. I told her that it was very difficult to hear her because she was speaking very softly without making any effort to project her voice. I even told her that her consecutive rendition was always in a softer voice than her normal conversational voice, and that this could be understood as lack of confidence because she did not remember what the speaker had just said in the source language. Finally, I asked her if she was willing to at least try to do the assignment as we had been asked to do it (consecutively) in which case I would do everything I could do to help her, or if she was not comfortable doing so, I asked her if it would be better for me to request a different interpreter for the rest of the job. She immediately became very angry. She blamed it all on me, and accused me of speaking very loud to contrast her more “feminine voice” and turn all the clients against her. She called me a liar and said that her consecutive rendition was impeccable and better than mine. She even claimed that I could not hear the speakers either, but since I was too chicken to complain, I had been inventing half of what I had interpreted. She got up and before storming out of the bar, she told me that she had never been disrespected like that before, that she was staying, and that she was going to ask for me to be taken off the assignment. After she left I was very upset and frustrated by her self-denial boosted by her gargantuan ego, but at the same time I felt a sense of relief: I had made my peace. The agency (and the client) would now decide if I had to leave the assignment. I remember thinking that I did not want to leave, I was enjoying the subject matter and wanted to see how these negotiations were going to end, but at the same time, If I had to leave I would still get paid for the entire assignment, and I had set the record straight with my colleague the diva.

The following morning I got a phone call from the agency informing me that my colleague had had a personal problem overnight and unfortunately she had left the assignment. I stayed on the job until the end and I got another colleague who was very easy to work with and had an excellent consecutive rendition. Months later I learned from another colleague that the client had sent a quality evaluation to the agency complaining about my diva colleague and praising the services rendered by the substitute colleague and me. I also saw on the diva’s online profile that now she does not do consecutive interpretation assignments. I have run into the diva interpreter a few times after this incident, mainly at interpreter gatherings; sometimes she politely greets me, and sometimes she ignores me pretending that I am not there. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some experience that you had with an interpreter whose ego was out of control or was in total denial.

When we are asked to translate useless materials.

April 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We all have clients who at one time or another have asked us to translate materials that we know, or learn after reviewing them, are useless or irrelevant for our client’s objective.

One time I was asked to translate a Mexican court file that was close to forty thousand words. The client needed the translation to avoid that a client be prosecuted for crimes not included in the extradition order issued by the requested party.  When I came on board to participate in the translation process, others had been involved for months (if not years) translating endless documents, international conventions, and case law. I must add that the American attorneys, although excellent and capable, were not very familiar with International Law.  Because of my background as an attorney, from the time I joined the team, I was able to notice the uselessness of translating a bunch of documents that were not going to help the case at all.  Instead of getting all frazzled with the legal terminology, I prepared a memo for the attorneys. It was in English, and had all the American legal terminology they would understand.

The result was amazing. The attorneys finally understood the case as it was processed in the requested country, realized what they had as far as documents, and were able to focus on the relevant materials.  They were very grateful as I saved them a lot of time and money in needless translations, and I made them realize the importance of retaining a translator who knows the subject matter.  Because of this experience, this law office is now my permanent and exclusive client, and my client agenda has exponentially increased.  I have shared this experience with many of my colleagues who have a formal education in relevant fields such as engineering, medicine, chemistry, etc. Although many of them have had similar experiences as translators or interpreters, a significant number  have expressed their frustration when they find themselves in situations like the one I just shared, stating that they do not dare to approach the client the way I did, or telling me that it is not our role as translators to tell the client what to translate. I would like to hear your opinion on this issue.

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