Interpreters in the driver’s seat: Distance interpreting need not be from home.

December 7, 2020 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Conditions worldwide continue to keep us isolated. Lack of travel, conferences, and all human gatherings have left us without in-person interpreting work, and business, government, and scientific needs have pushed all events that could not be cancelled, or postponed any longer, to remote meetings. By now, most interpreters have worked with distance interpreting platforms, or at least some other less desirable remote option. RSI Platforms have aggressively pursued all markets, and language agencies have found and adopted a way to remain in business while increasing their margins by hiring less-experienced interpreters from developing countries willing to work for fees lower than well-established, renowned colleagues from developed economies. To many of these newcomers to the profession, distance interpreting from home does not look like a problem, and adding the roles of unpaid technician, mechanic, and telephone operator does not seem out of place. They have not work under other conditions.

The rest of us have adapted to distance interpreting; our previous work in the booth lets us see what different platforms offer, and what they do not. With a constructive, critical eye, we can opine as to the better platforms depending on the assignment. We can also understand the enormity of the challenge, the very serious liability exposure, and the added cognitive load that may affect the way we provide our interpreting services.

Platforms and agencies have asked us to interpret from home, and to do it, we had to invest on equipment, training, and a physical space within our homes. Some colleagues had to pass on this work because of where they live. If you cannot avoid a noisy environment you are out of luck, regardless of your interpreting knowledge and skill.

Stressful weeks, dissatisfied clients, and lawsuits can be minimized (not eliminated) by working from a hub. Distance interpreting is not as reliable, and its quality is not as good as in-person work, but there is a world of difference between interpreting from home: by yourself, without a boothmate, with no technical support, and praying the neighbor does not mow the lawn during the conference, and working from a hub with a boothmate (for now) in the booth next door, a technician on site, and all the hardware and software needed to provide the service successfully. Because of the pandemic, interpreters in many countries cannot travel to the hub, even if in the same city, so interpreting from home continues as an in-extremis solution, but even with these restrictions lifted, those colleagues not living in big cities where hubs are will not take advantage of this option. Interpreters in hub cities will also face the obstacle of platform-run hubs where they will always be limited to certain platforms, hardware, and working conditions such as agency or platform-imposed boothmates and lower fees.

The outlook looks grim, but it need not be. There may be a solution.

Like everyone else, most of my work this year has been from home. Pandemic restrictions, and health concerns have kept me in my place for nine months; however, I did not have to do distance interpreting from home twice. That opened my eyes.

Earlier this year, a client hired me to do a multiple day event for one of the largest firms in the world to take place live from many countries around the world in several continents. The assignment would require interpreting services in four languages and relay interpreting would be needed.

This was too big of an event to organize a group of colleagues to work from their home over Zoom and a combination of social media platforms and telephone lines to hear boothmates and do relay. It was clear the complexity of the event required professional technical support. To avoid the solution above, there seemed one option: The client would need to choose one of the local hubs for the event. The problem was that picking a hub would mean using the platform they offered, and having to negotiate the interpreter roster as some hubs push for the interpreters in their “lists.”

Faced with these facts, we brainstormed long and hard, and suddenly, a solution emerged. We live in a big city where many movies and TV shows are filmed; many artists record their music here also, and there are interpreting equipment companies that have suffered even more that interpreters during this conference-free Covid season. We realized that these studios have the infrastructure to hold a multi-lingual interpreting event: physical facilities such as soundproof stages and studios; sound and video equipment with many consoles and tons of microphones, monitors, computers, etc.; and technical staff with years of experience in show business. Not exactly as working with interpreters in the booth, but with enough knowledge and skills to catch up quickly. I even knew some from voice-over and TV interpreting work.

We contacted one studio and voila! They agreed. The cost was way lower than a traditional hub, and they were flexible and eager to learn. They had been dark most of the year, and the staff had been out-of-work, struggling to make ends meet on unemployment insurance checks.

First, we explained our needs; not just our technical needs for the event, but first our public health conditions. There were no problems, the studios underwent a deep cleaning process, ventilation was brought up to health department standards, everybody’s temperature was checked, and we all answered health-related questions before entering the facility, there were plenty of sinks to wash our hands as needed, hand sanitizer was found at every interpreting booth, office, and technician station, and everyone wore masks all the time.

There was a learning curve, but they were quick learners. At first, they expected our work to be similar to a voice-over assignment, and they thought the event would be recorded with the possibility of editing picks. It was explained to them the event would be broadcasted live to many time zones around the world; we put them in touch with the broadcasting company that would provide that service, and I happily saw how the spoke the same language as far as cameras, lighting, sound at the two venues where the speakers would be addressing the audience from, and so on. All interpreters worked from individual booths built with plexiglass dividers so we could see each other and communicate during the rendition. Even during the breaks and lunch time all interpreters socialized keeping a safe distance from each other and separated by plexiglass dividers so we could eat without wearing masks.

The experience was great and since then I have spoken to other studios in my area willing to do the same when the opportunity arises. This temporary hub solution is great because it keeps interpreters in the driver’s seat, not the platforms, not the agencies. We can select our trusted technicians and pick our interpreting team. This brings top interpreting services to the client, reduces interpreters’ stress, liability, and cognitive load during the event, and because you may choose the interpreting platform that better suits the needs of that event, it saves the client money. Distance interpreting as it should be: between interpreters and direct clients, with platforms playing their real supporting, not protagonist, role, and without agencies.

I understand this solution works for all of us who live in big cities, and even some midsize cities with movie, TV, or recording studios, but even towns without these facilities, or big cities where studios are not willing to work with us can create a temporary hub for an event if they have a conference interpreting equipment busines in town. Some of us have spoken to one of such companies in our area, and we have agreed to create a temporary hub whenever it is needed at the company’s warehouse where they can easily erect the same temporary booths we have used at hotels and convention centers for years. Here we will even work with the same trusted technician friends who know us personally from other assignments.

As interpreters we should control our profession and the way we provide our services. Relinquishing these functions to other supporting actors will diminish the quality of the interpreting services, and will affect interpreters’ fees and working conditions. I now invite you to share your opinions and other possible solutions to make distance interpreting better for the client, and safer for the interpreter.

Court interpreters’ priorities: Their health and to interpret.

August 12, 2020 § 16 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Although we are still in the middle of a world-wide pandemic, I have heard from several colleagues that some courts in the United States, and elsewhere, are back in session and they are asking court interpreters to attend in-person hearings. Courts may have their reasons to reopen, but I think is a bad idea for interpreters to answer the call at this time. Covid-19 is very contagious and continues to spread all over the United States and many other countries. This is not the time to risk our health, and perhaps our future, to make the not-so-good court interpreter fees. Technology is such that courthouses can hold virtual hearings, or distance interpreting if they want to have in-person sessions. There are solutions for all judicial district budgets, from fancy distance interpreting platforms, to Zoom, to a simple over-the-phone interpretation with 3-way calling and a speaker phone. Federal courts have provided over the phone interpretation in certain court appearances for many years.  Most hearings are short appearances that do not justify risking the interpreter. As for more complex evidentiary hearings and trials, just as conferences have temporarily migrated to this modality, distance interpreting can happen with a few adjustments. If in-person court interpreting is a bad idea right now, in-person interpreting at a detention center, jail or prison, is out of the question. At least in the United States, detention facilities are at the top of places where more Covid-19 cases have been detected.

Court interpreters provide services in accordance to the law and a code of ethics. Neither of them compels interpreters to put their lives at risk just to interpret for a hearing that could happen virtually. I urge you all to refuse in-person interpreting at courthouses and detention centers at this time. Advise judges, attorneys, and court administrators on the available options during the emergency. If after your explanation they insist on having interpreters appearing in person during the Covid-19 pandemic, please decline the assignment. It is obvious your life and health are not a priority for that organization; why should you put them at the top of your clients’ list?

Do not worry about the parties needing interpreting services. That is the attorney’s responsibility. Not yours.

Unfortunately, some of you will sadly agree to physically appear in court to interpret for defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, and victims. If so, at least demand the following from the courts:

All in-person interpreting must be done with portable cordless equipment. Many courthouses already use it, and for those who do not, explain to judges and administrators this is the same equipment tour guides use. Courts should provide personal transmitters to all staff and regular independent contractor interpreters, and interpreters should take care of the transmitter and take it with them at the end of the day. If this is impossible (although these devises are very affordable) then ask the courthouse to keep them clean and safe, and separate from the receivers the parties will use. Interpreters should always have their own personal microphone (whether it is provided by the court or they purchase it on their own). Ask the receivers be kept in individual plastic baggies, and have the individual using the receiver open the bag and put the devise back in the baggie after the hearing. Never handle the receiver. Ask the court to notify all parties needing interpreting services to bring their own earphones (they can use their mobile phone’s if they are wired). The courthouse should have disposable earphones in stock for those who forgot to bring their own. Earphones are inexpensive and can be thrown away after each hearing.

Finally, interpreters should never disinfect the portable equipment. This is a dangerous chore, you do not get paid to do it, and it is not your job. Disinfecting the equipment goes against all federal and state court interpreter rules of ethics:

“Canon 7: Scope of Practice. An interpreter for a LEP participant in any legal proceeding, or for an LEP party in a court-ordered program, must provide only interpreting or translating services. The interpreter must not give legal advice, express personal opinions to individuals for whom interpreting services are being provided, or engage in other activities that may be construed to constitute a service other than interpreting or translating.”  All states include this canon in their code of ethics (sometimes the number is different). Interpreting equipment should be cleaned and disinfected by the same people who clean and disinfect everything else in the courtroom.

If you are interpreting in person for an agency or for a direct private client, you must follow the same practices. The agency should assume the courthouse duties. As for your preferred direct clients who you could not talk out of an in-person appearance, use your own personal equipment. If you don’t have it, buy it. Do not borrow the courthouse’s. You do not know how clean it is. I would also add the following when dealing with direct clients using my own equipment: Have disposable latex gloves available for you and the person using the equipment. That way you may assist your direct client with the receiver unit if needed. Have spare disposable earphones available if your clients forgot to bring their own. I suggest you use the earphones you get on the plane for free and you never use because you have your own. The protocol for jail visits is: No jail visits under any circumstance. Period.

Even with equipment, maintain a safe distance between you and the person you are interpreting for. No sitting next to the client. Always use and demand others use facemasks. The sound quality is not the best, but removing the mask to interpret is too dangerous. I suggest you wear a mask that ties or has an elastic that goes around your head instead of the ones you wear on your ears. They are more comfortable and stay in place even if you are speaking,

Most judges are rational people of good moral character, but I have heard of some cases when a judge has ordered the interpreter to remove the mask, get closer to the person who needs an interpreter, and other dangerous actions. If so, try to persuade the judge, if that fails, ask for a recess and try to get the court administrator to see the situation from your viewpoint. If this does not work, or if the judge does not let you speak, or you cannot access the administrator, excuse yourself.

State you cannot fulfill your duty as a court interpreter to interpret the totality of what is being said in court because you cannot concentrate on the hearing when you know the judge is putting you in a dangerous situation. Put it on the record, and leave. If the judge does not allow you to leave the courtroom, or threatens you with a contempt order, then clearly put on the record for a second time the same explanation you already gave, and clearly state you are being ordered to interpret even though the rendition will be incomplete, that you are being held against your will, and that you are respectfully giving notice to the judge that if because of his order you get infected, you will bring legal action against the court and personally against the judge. Do not be afraid. You are not doing anything wrong.

On top of all that, I would never interpret in that Judge’s court again.

There are other things we can do as interpreters to protect ourselves in the rare case we end up in front of a judge that forces you to interpret and do things that risk your health and maybe your life.

You can file a complaint with the circuit court (if a federal case) or the court of appeals with jurisdiction over the judge. In federal cases, this is done according to the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980 (28 USC §351-364) and the Rules for Judicial Conduct and Judicial Disability Proceedings.

If federal, you can send a letter describing the judge’s conduct to the Federal Judges Association (FJA) (https://www.federaljudgesassoc.org) or to the State’s judges association in local matters.

Send a letter for publication on the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal Magazine, or to the State Bar Bulletin so attorneys and others learn of the incident and apply pressure on this individual.

Contact your local non-English radio and TV stations (for Spanish speakers Telemundo, Univision and Azteca America) and suggest an investigative report on how this judge is putting those who appear before him or her, and need interpreting services, at risk during the pandemic.

You can also talk to an attorney and explore the possibility of a lawsuit against the judge and courthouse for negligence.

Finally, write a letter to that courthouse’s chief judge and court administrator informing them that, regardless of the outcome, you will never work in that courtroom again. The letter should detail everything the judge said and did, including past episodes witnessed by you. A person with such a bad attitude did other bad things before.

Court interpreters perform an essential job for the administration of justice, everyone who needs an interpreter should get one, but certain things are above the job; one of them that should always come first is our health. I now ask you to share with us your in-person court experiences, in the United States or elsewhere, during the pandemic.

The other danger interpreters face during the COVID-19 pandemic.

March 23, 2020 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

At the beginning of the year it looked like we were on our way to a great professional future. The booming economy, new technologies and new clients coming into the interpreter services market gave us a feeling of security. Then, it all collapsed. Our shiny future disappeared overnight. The rapid propagation of COVID-19 throughout the world brought the economy to an almost complete halt. Conferences were postponed or cancelled, courthouses closed their doors, hospitals regular routines were dramatically transformed by the overwhelming demand for beds and medical staff. The airlines did not fly anymore, and we were told (sometimes ordered) to stay home. To most independent interpreters this meant a total loss of income for the foreseeable future, coupled with uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. Many of us have seen our source of income disappear, our savings go down, and the money we had, and our retirement funds diminish or vanish in less than a week.

This is the world where we live at this time: health risks, no reliable source of income, and a future nobody can yet forecast in the short and mid-terms.

Unfortunately, there is no time for lamentations; we must keep our minds on these basic goals: Stay healthy; help to stop the spread of this virus by following the rules, spend our money wisely, and protect our profession. Yes, dear friends and colleagues, at some point we will go back to our professional practice, and it is what we do now, during this pandemic, that will determine how we will work once this is all behind us.

Unfortunately, some unscrupulous entities have emerged to prey on our more naïve colleagues and on those who have been affected the most. A despicable multinational translation agency offers work at reduced fees because of the crisis; there is another one telling interpreters to offer remote interpreting services to their direct clients, set the “per-minute fees”, and “just” pay the agency 25 percent of the fee for the use of their platform. Other agencies from less developed countries are taking advantage of this crisis to enter developed economies and offer remote simultaneous interpreting from abroad, using interpreters being paid ridiculously low fees for their services.

Yes, dear friends, they are suggesting you charge “per-minute”, and a platform for 25 percent of your fee. Not even professional athletes’ or movie star’ agents make this money. They get 15 percent, and they represent and protect the interests of their clients. More for your money than just providing a platform.  And there are vendors all over the internet bragging in a celebratory manner they have been saying for a long time that remote interpreting was the future, the solution to all multilingual communication problems. Sadly, some colleagues are taking the bait.

Under current circumstances, regardless of the work you do, it could be tempting for healthcare, court, community, or conference interpreters to accept an assignment from one predator. A “per-minute” payment, a solo assignment, or a reduced daily fee may look good when you have nothing better on your schedule. Please do not do it. Taking these offers will sentence you to a life term of mediocre pay, to a career of second-class assignments, and to a terrible reputation among your peers. In other words: Nobody will ever recommend you for an assignment or willingly work with you again.

There are other ways to procure income without permanently damaging your career: The first thing you need to do is contact all your direct clients, in a tactful way, let them know you are here to help them through these terrible times, and ask them for a time to talk on the phone or chat online about possible solutions.

Then, contact other entities and individuals you have worked with. If you work with a business five years ago through an agency, contact them and offer your direct services for a real professional fee.

Finally, be creative, look around and see who in your immediate universe could benefit from the services of a professional interpreter.

Even if you are working remotely, you must charge your regular professional daily (not per-minute or hourly) fee, plus expenses (depending on the service). If you have to do in-person or on-site interpreting, therefore leaving your house and be exposed to the virus, charge an extra high-risk fee. Do not feel bad about it. This is what professionals working in high risk areas (war zones, high-crime countries, etc.) have always been paid. Look at today’s news and you will see how all big companies are paying an added bonus to their employees who have to work outside their home. The client may cry first, but after a good explanation they will comply. If not, do not work for that client. Obviously, they do not care about you, so why should you care about them?

Currently, in our world, there is a difference between this anomaly’s “reality”, and true reality. During these exceptional times we must satisfy our clients’ needs, make a living and keep our client base.

At this time, we should contact our clients to tell them there is an option, and explain to them that remote simultaneous interpreting is better than noting: it will keep everybody safer, and it will solve urgent and immediate issues. We have to warn them about the voices preaching remote simultaneous interpreting as the salvation of globalization. We must be polite when talking to our clients at this time, always remembering they have problems bigger than remote vs. in-person interpreting. They are trying to save their businesses.

We need to be clear, but we should not lie. We can explain that remote simultaneous interpreting is a viable option for certain business meetings and negotiations, but not for them all. When confidentiality due to the information exchanged, or face-to-face negotiations are necessary to close a deal, in-person interpreting must continue.  We have to let them know of the many risks they would face when using remote simultaneous interpreting for a big or important event. Technology, geography, weather, physics (speed of sound) and lack of visual clues for the interpreters will be risks they need to consider. Tell them of the events that have failed. Platform vendors and interpreting agencies will not address these situations. A good example everyone can understand is the bad experience the Biden campaign went through several days ago when attempting to do a virtual event. (https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/13/politics/joe-biden-virtual-town-hall-technical-trouble/index.html)

Also explain the risks involved in remote simultaneous interpreting when the interpreters are working from a developing country (Please see my post: https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2019/10/17/the-very-real-dangers-of-remote-simultaneous-interpreting-from-our-home/)

You have to make sure your clients understand remote interpreting is appropriate during the crisis, but it cannot be adopted as the preferred option once things go back to normal. We must underline that even when remote interpreting may be a solution, it should not be done from a person’s home, and never by a single individual.

These steps should be taken by all interpreters:

Non-negotiable rule: Absolutely no chuchotage!

Keep your distance at all times. There will be little escort interpreting at this time, but all whispered interpreting, escort, during a press conference, or elsewhere is out of the question. Portable interpreting equipment like the one used by tour guides and court interpreters should be used. Make sure the client’s headphones have disposable protective guards, and dispose of them after every event or when you switch users. For health reasons, I suggest you ask the client to rent the equipment, but if you have to use your own, please charge extra for the equipment, disposable protective ear guards and microphone guards, and disinfectants.

Healthcare interpreters.

If you are a healthcare interpreter, right now you should be working from home using a computer, a tablet, or a telephone. Most reputable hospitals are already following this practice, but even if they have not instituted it, you must set it as one of your working conditions. These are extraordinary times. If it has been good for remote town in Alaska during all these years, it has to be good for New York City or Chicago today. If your physical presence is absolutely necessary, wear safety gear furnished by the hospital (no gear = no interpreter. Sorry) try to work from a different room in the hospital, and if you must be in the same room as others, keep your distance and use portable interpreting equipment provided by the hospital. If someone needs to get closer to the patient because it is hard to hear what they say, let medical staff do it. In the worst possible scenario, they can put a cellular phone by the patient’s mouth so you can hear on another phone at a safe distance. Please remember to charge for your services as described above. Please see AIIC best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting during the COVID-19 crisis below under “Conference Interpreting”.

Community Interpreters.

There is no reason for community interpreters to be providing in-person services. All work can be rendered by phone or video. Schools are out almost everywhere in the world, and government agencies that provide social services and benefits can call you at home for you to interpret for an applicant or benefit recipient. Here again, please charge. Please see AIIC best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting during the COVID-19 crisis below under “Conference Interpreting”.

Court Interpreters.

Most courthouses have continued hearings and trials worldwide, but there are some court appearances that must take place even during toe COVID-19 pandemic. For these services, interpreters must demand remote work, even if it has to be via telephone and rendered consecutively. Most hearings will be short as they will likely be constitutional hearings (arraignments, bond redeterminations, conditions of release, protective orders, probation violations, etc.) if an interpreter is asked to appear in person, all work must be performed using the court’s interpreting equipment (portable or fixed depending on the venue) and under no circumstance interpreters should agree to close contact with victims, defendants, petitioners, plaintiffs, respondents, or witnesses.

Jails, prisons, detention centers, and immigration courts carry additional risks and interpreters should refuse work, unless it is remote, at these locations. Like all others, court interpreters should charge their professional fees as mentioned above in this same post. Please see AIIC best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting during the COVID-19 crisis below under “Conference Interpreting”.

Conference interpreters.

Always remembering everything discussed above about remote simultaneous interpreting, conference interpreters must be very clear when talking to their clients.

First, they should try to convince the client to postpone the event until it is possible to do in-person interpreting, only doing what is necessary to keep the business running and protect the company, its customers, and its employees. It is very important we emphasize that the service we are about to provide is an anomaly. We have to explain to the client that the conditions will not be the best, that even with the best platforms, the interpreters will be working from home, not a soundproof booth, and they will not have on-site technical support. The client needs to know there may be interruptions to the electric power, interference by other internet users, background noise coming from next door, or because your children and dogs are at home, even if they are in a separate room. Explain that you can use one of the free platforms, a paid platform you already use for other things, or that you could download and install another one they may prefer as long as they pay for it. Something as simple as Skype can save the day under these circumstances. Remember that it is unacceptable to do a remote interpretation lasting over 30 minutes without a booth partner (at least a virtual booth partner somewhere else in the world).

Before you provide the service the client must sign a written contract where you will detail your daily fee, the total hours you and your teammate will work per day, overtime fees, and a cancellation clause which must include postponements or cancellations for force majeure (sometimes half of the total fee, sometimes the full fee depending on the time you are notified of the postponement or cancellation. Under these conditions cancellations will be on short notice, so the fee must be a full amount). Your contract must include a release of liability where the client and all others participating in the event, directly or indirectly, release all interpreters of any liability due to any events or circumstances related to the remote service. Also, include that only the law and courts of your country will have jurisdiction over the contract and event. That way you eliminate the need for foreign or international law attorneys and overseas litigation if this happened. Finally, inform your client of all best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting by AIIC (even if you are not a member), and do your best to adhere to them all. (https://aiic.net/page/8956/aiic-best-practices-for-interpreters-during-the-covid-19-crisis/lang/1)

You have to keep in mind that there is a difference between RSI platform providers and interpreting agencies. Always go for the platform providers with your direct clients. Here you are in charge. It is less desirable, and even discouraged, to do RSI through an agency. They will call the shots, communicate with the client, and negotiate your pay with their client, always looking after their own margins. I will soon deal with this issue on a separate post.

Please turn down low paying jobs. They insult our profession. Before selling your soul to an agency, try the strategies I suggest above. Be polite, professional and show empathy when you talk to your clients. Whenever possible, try to help a colleague by referring them to an assignment you cannot or will not take. More important, be patient, stay home, and stay healthy.

I now invite you to share your thoughts about this “other” very real danger we face as interpreters at this time.

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.

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