What we learned as interpreters in 2018.

December 27, 2018 § 16 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2018 is ending and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2019, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months. As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, this year was packed with learning opportunities. In 2018 I worked with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had positive developments this year: The Spanish Division of the American Translators Association held a very successful conference in Miami, Florida, where those of us in attendance could see many friends and colleagues doing great things for our professions. It was an eye-opener to experience first hand how a professional conference organized by one of the divisions of the American Translators Association, working together with the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Florida (ATIF) and Florida International University (FIU), put together a conference we can unequivocally call professional, full of content, at an excellent venue, and attended by true professional interpreters and translators who could freely exchange opinions, attend workshops and presentations, and enjoy an environment free of predatory agencies, product pushers, and colleagues chasing after newcomers to convince them to work for insultingly low fees. Unlike the better-known ATA conference, this event truly felt like a professional conference, not a trade show. In fact, I invite all those Spanish language interpreters and translators who are ATA members, and think that the Fall conference is way too expensive, to attend this conference instead. In my opinion, if you have to decide between the ATA conference and the Spanish Division conference, it is a no-brainer: pick the smaller, more professional Spanish Division event.

Once again, the interpreting profession continues to advance in Mexico, as evidenced by the Organización Mexicana de Traductores’ (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) very successful conference in Guadalajara, The Autonomous University of Hidalgo’s University Book Fair and content-packed conference in Pachuca; and the every-year bigger and more successful court interpreter workshop and conference for Mexican Sign Language (LSM) that took place in Mexico City once again. The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) took its world congress to Valencia, Spain for its best attended conference in history. Workshops and presentations were first-class, and as it is traditional with IAPTI, colleagues attending the conference had the opportunity to interact with their peers from around the world. The largest U.S. contingent attending a IAPTI conference to date, enjoyed the benefits of interacting with colleagues who literally live all over the world. They noticed the difference between attending a conference in the United States with interpreters and translators from many countries, all of them living in the U.S., and IAPTI where all of them live in their respective countries. The benefit you gain from talking to a Polish interpreter who lives in Poland enriches your personal knowledge of the profession more than speaking with a Polish interpreter who lives in New York City. Besides the characteristic IAPTI’s philosophy and agency-free conference, I was happy to see a well-balanced program full of Interpreting workshops and presentations. Finally, like every five years, the Asociación Española de Traductores, Intérpretes y Correctores (Spanish Association of Translators, Interpreters and Editors, ASETRAD) held its conference in Zaragoza, Spain. This congress was by far the best all-Spanish language conference of the year, and just as I do every five years, I invite all my Spanish speaking colleagues to save the time and money to attend the next gathering five years from now. I was involved in other professional conferences and seminars of tremendous level where I was honored to share experiences and exchange ideas with many professional colleagues. Thank you to all my colleagues who attended my presentations, workshops and seminars. It was a pleasure to spend time with all of you in 2018.

This past year saw big changes in healthcare interpreting in the United States with a major struggle between the two leading certification programs. Fortunately, what looked like the beginning of a big conflict, ultimately subsided, and better-informed interpreters are now deciding what to do with their professional future. The year brought positive developments to the largest court interpreter association in the United States. After a major set back at the end of 2017 when two pillars of the court interpreting profession resigned from the Board of Directors, NAJIT went back to capable, experienced professionals, electing a new Board that fits tradition and expectations. Unlike 12 months ago, the association goes into 2019 with a group of experienced and respected Board members and a promising future.

The year that ends in a few days saw the growth of our profession in the field of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI). I had the opportunity to work several assignments remotely, and both, technology and work conditions were as they should be. I also heard from many colleagues who continue to struggle and endure abuse from some agencies who push video remote interpreting (VRI) in less than favorable conditions.

Not everything was good. 2018 took from us some of our dear friends and colleagues. I cannot reflect on the year that ends without remembering three dear and admired colleagues who passed away: Juan José Peña, a pioneer in the American Southwest, mostly in New Mexico. For years, Juan José was a trainer and examiner for the New Mexico State Court Interpreter Certification program; he was the first staff interpreter at the federal court in Albuquerque, and he selflessly helped new interpreters in New Mexico and elsewhere. Carlos Wesley, a powerful and gentle presence in the Washington D.C. metro area for many years, and an examiner for the federal court interpreter certification exam. Esther Navarro-Hall, a kind, selfless, talented colleague who impacted our profession and the lives of many interpreters worldwide as a professor at MIIS, regular trainer all over the globe, habitual presenter at professional conferences, Chair of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) in the United States, and humanitarian, promoting help and assistance to those impacted by natural disasters everywhere. Our lives and profession are better because of them.

Unfortunately 2018 will forever be remembered as a low point in the history of the profession in the United States. It was its darkest hour. I am referring to the inexcusable fiasco that impacted hundreds of interpreters, and continues to do so, because of the ineptitude of government officials, their selected contractors, and the cover up, misinformation, and lack of response that followed for many months: The 2017 oral federal court interpreter certification examination. We go into the new year with many unanswered questions, with no accountability, and with uncertainty for many who took the test, and patiently await to this day for an examination date more than a year after taking the exam. 2018 will be known as the year when ineptitude destroyed the credibility and reputation of the until then most trusted interpreter exam in any discipline in the United States.

The biggest shift in American foreign policy in decades and its impact on our profession continued in 2018. Events held in the United States for many straight years left for other countries because of the uncertainty of American immigration and trade policy. It proved very difficult to plan a big conference and invest a lot of money, without the certainty that attendees from certain countries will be admitted to the United States for the event. International government programs that require of interpreting services were at an unprecedented low, and changes of personnel in the administration, at all levels, impacted the work available to interpreters in the diplomatic, international trade and private sectors.

If not for the federal court interpreter certification exam disaster, the biggest stain of 2018 would be the conspiracy by most multinational and domestic interpreting agencies to do whatever necessary to overturn a California Supreme Court decision that protects independent interpreters by giving them certain rights that greedy agencies oppose, as compliance with the court decision would diminish their ever-growing margins. These agencies are actively pursuing the overturn of the decision by lobbying for legislation against interpreters. Apparently these efforts are led by a lobbyist who, ignoring any conflict of interest, and with the blessing of the largest interpreter and translator association in the United States (either by action, omission, or both) is trying to get Congress to exclude interpreters from the groups protected by the California Supreme Court decision.

Said conspiracy took us trough a research path that showed us how some of the Board members of this “translators and interpreters” association actively support agencies’ efforts, including a Board member who stated he would not even excuse himself from a vote in cases of conflict of interest. Statement that we will surely revisit come election time.

Throughout the world, colleagues continue to fight against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and other problems. More European countries are now facing outsourcing of interpreting services for the first time.

Once again, interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards creating questionable certification programs, and offering pseudo-conferences and webinars to recruit interpreters for exploitation while hiding behind some big-name presenters, many of whom have agreed to participate in these events without knowledge of these ulterior motives.

Of course, no year can be one hundred percent pariah-safe, so we had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2018 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services.

As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, much changed and much stayed the same. I choose to focus on the good things while I guard against the bad ones. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your learned lessons (good and bad) of 2018.

I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!

How to study for the federal court interpreter exam.

June 5, 2015 § 14 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This is the time when every two years many court interpreters in the United States, and abroad, are getting ready to take the federal court interpreter certification exam. This test is only offered every two years to those candidates who have previously passed the written portion of the exam.  The test is relevant mainly for two reasons: (1) those who have this certification can work as interpreters in all federal courts in the United States (all fifty states and all territories) where work conditions are usually better and the pay is slightly higher compared to the state-level courts; and (2) For better or worse, this certification is by far the best-known and universally recognized interpreter credential in the United States, even for work that has nothing to do with court proceedings.  In other words, passing the exam improves the credibility of an interpreter and boosts his resume.

This blog is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of the certification being used as a reference for other non-legal interpreting assignments in the United States, it is just a statement of fact that it is a test widely known by agencies, promoters, and direct clients. It is also a fact that, unlike many other certification exams, the passing rate is very low because the test is really difficult.  Add this to the fact that many interpreters in the U.S. do not have an academic background, and the test turns into a useful tool to decide who to hire for a job. Finally, we must keep in mind that the exam only exists for Spanish, Navajo and Haitian-Creole.

My only goal in writing this post is to contribute to the success of those taking the test some six weeks from now.  I am not going to talk about what to study from the academic perspective. I will not discuss terminology either. Those things should be learned in school and attending workshops and seminars to improve the interpreting skills of the candidate, and to learn how to study for the test in order to pass.

Today, I will limit to those things that are important, and a candidate must do when the exam is a few weeks away. In this case: about six weeks from now.

The first thing that a candidate needs is honesty. Be honest about what you know and what you can do as a court interpreter.  This is the time to work on your weaknesses while at the same time taking care of your strengths as an interpreter. Do a self-examination of everything that will be tested and rank your strengths:  At least you need to know where you rank in:

  • Sight translation of a paralegal document from English into the target language;
  • Sight translation of a legal document from the foreign language into English;
  • Consecutive interpreting of a testimony under very strict time limitations;
  • Simultaneous interpreting of a monologue;
  • Simultaneous interpreting of a dialogue at a relatively fast rate of speech;
  • Legal terminology and procedure; and
  • General vocabulary in both languages.

You can add other categories if you feel they are needed, but you should at least consider the ones mentioned above.  Once you have ranked your skill and knowledge, you have to develop a study plan that will emphasize your weakest points without forgetting about your strengths. Let me explain:

Let’s say that you concluded that simultaneous interpreting is your strongest mode because you practice it daily in your state court or community interpreting assignments. This does not mean that you are going to ignore or neglect simultaneous interpreting for the next six weeks. All it means is that you will dedicate less time to simultaneous than consecutive and sight.  In the same example, you decided that sight translating a legal document from the foreign language into English is your weakest point, but consecutive interpreting, especially under the time constraints of the exam, is something you feel less confident about.  In those circumstances, your study plan for the first two weeks could look similar to this:

  • Sight translation 40% of study time (60 percent of this time for legal documents written in the foreign language)
  • Consecutive interpreting 30% of study time (working on concentration, visualization, memory, and very brief note taking with a rendition starting almost as soon as the speaker stops talking)
  • Simultaneous interpreting 10% (with special attention to expert witness testimony, opening and closing statements)
  • Legal terminology and procedure 10% (making sure to learn the federal jurisdiction terminology and procedure, not the state level vocabulary)
  • General vocabulary 10% (paying attention to “laundry lists”, regional expressions, bad words and slang)

Two weeks later, you self-assess your work and reorganize your study schedule to reflect the newest results. You may decide that you need more time for the consecutive and less for vocabulary and sight translation for example.  From this point on, I would do this self-evaluation every week and adjust my plan accordingly.  It is important to remember that you cannot ignore any of the sections of the test, even if you are very good at consecutive interpreting. It is like playing the piano: you must practice every day to keep your skills sharp.

Because you will be studying a lot, you have to make it fun and interesting. Variety is the key to success and consistency when you study. To increase my vocabulary, I would try to learn 10 new words every day, picking words from the same theme of course; let’s say that today I decided to learn 10 words for items found in a lawyer’s office: desk, chair, file, briefcase, computer, client, pleadings, paralegals, investigators, and telephone. The next day I pick things found in a courtroom, then things in a hospital emergency room, a crime lab, and so on. If I do this every day, by Friday I will have worked with 50 new words; Of course, I will probably remember about 20 of them. That is 20 words I did not know on Monday.

To practice my sight translation from English into the foreign language, I would look for documents that are about the same size as the test to be sight translated during the exam, that are of some quasi-legal content. Letters from your bank, utility company, mortgage creditor and other similar communications usually work pretty well.  For the legal sight translation from the foreign language into English I would look for documents on line or from attorney friends in the country of origin. In the case of Spanish, I know that many of the big law offices in Mexico carry “sample” documents in their websites. You can download and use leases, wills, powers of attorney, court orders and decisions, etc.   Just remember to divide large documents into several exercises so that you are always practicing with a document the size of the one that you will find when you take the test.  Remember to always practice with the same rules as the exam regarding time to review the document and time to provide the rendition. Finally, please record every single exercise you do so you can grade yourself afterwards. You will not be able to see any progress unless you do this.

To practice simultaneous interpreting, I suggest you do two things: First, go to your local federal courthouse and watch a trial or a motions hearing. It does not matter if there is an interpreter or not. You will be interpreting under your breath and you will be taking vocabulary notes for your glossaries.  Please avoid state courts because it is very difficult to hear what is actually happening due to the noise, and also, keep in mind that you need to practice with federal terminology, not state. In fact, if there are staff court interpreters in your courthouse, try to talk to them and see if they can tell you when the trials or long hearings are taking place between now and the test. Who knows? Some of them may be nice enough to let you use a receiver if a court interpreter is working a hearing.  Now, because interpreting under your breath is always carried without any mistakes, you also need to practice yourself. I suggest you access any of the online sources that exist and provide live coverage of trials. Unfortunately, the viewers’ appetite for live court on TV has declined in the United States, so there is no Court TV anymore. Fortunately, you can find hearings on line. A good place to start is http://cvn.com you can also visit: www.nbcnews.com which is showing the Aurora Colorado movie shooting trial live, www.supremecourt.gov/oral has the United States Supreme Court oral arguments for you to listen whenever you are ready to do it. Many state-level Supreme Court websites do the same. I suggest that you record your rendition, and please make sure that your exercises are similar in length to the ones you will have to render when taking the test.

To practice consecutive interpreting, you can use the same resources listed above for the simultaneous exercises, as long as you stop the recording after each question and answer in order to render your interpretation.  Please do no more than 2 repetitions per exercise, and please observe the exam’s time limit at all times. This is crucial for your rendition and note taking practice. Remember, you do not have a lot of time to review your notes and once the time is up, everything you did not get to cover will be considered wrong in the exam.  This is extremely important. Too many people fail because they run out of time taking great notes.  For the consecutive exercises I suggest you draft a family member or a friend who can help you by reading from a text that you can also download from some of the websites above. This will be a great change of pace and will let you concentrate in your rendition as your assistant will be in charge of timing and repetitions.

For legal terminology and procedure, I suggest you focus on federal matters. Remember: This is the federal test. Terms are very important and as you probably know, we are in the middle of a huge change for many Spanish-speaking countries. It is true that many of the terms we have used in the past will now be obsolete and you should learn the new legal terminology developed by these countries’ legislators, scholars, and judges; but for now, for purposes of passing the federal exam, please continue to use the terminology you feel more comfortable with. For the test all terms will be considered correct if they exist in a recognized publication or dictionary.  Obviously, for those terms you do not know yet, I suggest you learn the correct terminology from the start, and if your combination is EN<>ES I suggest the two volumes of Javier Becerra’s dictionary.

To keep your studying fresh and exciting, I suggest you vary the order of the various subject matters: sometimes start with sight, other with simultaneous, etc. Also, I strongly encourage you to have a study-buddy. Someone else who is taking the test and can benefit from the mutual help and encouragement when you are tired, frustrated, or things are just not going as well as planned. With current telecommunications, your study-buddy can be anywhere in the world.  Just remember: You are getting together to study.

Please never study when you are tired, angry or frustrated. You will learn nothing and you will waste your time and energy. Be wise and know when to quit. For that same reason, until the last 2 weeks, have a day off every week, and on that day do not study or even think of the exam. During the last 2 weeks you will need to study every single day. Sorry: No social engagements during those last 14 days.  You will need to end your study at least 24 hours before the test. In other words: please abstain from studying the day before the exam. By now you will know everything you could learn. Let your brain (and body) rest so you can be sharp on the day of the test. If you have to travel to a city to take the exam, try to get there at least one day earlier so you can find the venue ahead of time.

Finally, on the day of the test, wake up early, have a good nutritious breakfast, and do whatever you enjoy doing: listen to music, workout, read a book, watch TV, anything but interpreting. Do not talk to any interpreter friends, especially if they are also taking the test. We know they are showing their support, but this is not the time for you to talk. Get to the test site early, you need to plan for traffic, parking, and public transportation.  Once you arrive at the venue, avoid all others who are taking the test. Do not even acknowledge them. You will have plenty of time to explain why after the exam.  You do not need to think of any term, word, phrase, or anything at this point. Keep your brain rested and stress-free.

During the test, do not start any section of the exam unless you are ready to do it. Adjust the headphones, the volume, and the chair; make sure you have your favorite pens handy, remember to time yourself, especially during the consecutive rendition. Use your time wisely during the two sight translation exercises, make sure you use your repetitions during the consecutive only if you really need them, and please, do not stop any exercise because you will not be able to restart it. Do not stress out if you do not know one word, remember, nobody fails for missing one word, but many people flunk the test for losing concentration and missing many scoring units after losing concentration because of a single word.

Now go out there and start studying very hard. You have been working for this certification for at least one year since you took the written portion of the test. Believe in yourself and do your best to pass the exam.  In the meantime, keeping in mind that we cannot talk about the contents of the exam, I invite other colleagues who have passed the federal court certification test to share their study tips with the rest of us.

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