“Get an interpreter for that hearing, and try to spend as little as possible”.

March 13, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every time I read an article about court interpreting, look at your social media posts, or have a face to face conversation with a court interpreter, I cannot help but notice how the working conditions constantly deteriorate. For some time we have witnessed how the court interpreting system of the United Kingdom was completely destroyed and our colleagues had to courageously fight back so the rest of the world knew what had happened in their country. Time continues to run, and nothing has been done to improve that system now run by an entity whose greatest achievement was to sink the quality of interpreting services to an unimaginable low. We have witnessed the difficult times that our colleagues who want to do court interpreting face in Spain. We have heard many stories of court interpreters around the world having to fight for a professional fee, a professional work environment, and respect to the profession.

The situation in the United States is also very sad. It is true that the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act has left little choice to the states. Now, state-level courts that want to continue to receive federal funds must provide interpreting services to all non-English speakers who need to have access to the justice system. The new demand for court interpreters beyond criminal cases has “inspired” many court administrators and chief judges to act in new and more creative ways to satisfy the requirement of having an interpreter next to the non-English speaker, even when the quality of this professional service is at best doubtful. To this day, there are jurisdictions where the question is: Does a warm body fulfill the legal requirement of providing interpreter services? Sadly, in some cases the answer seems to be “maybe”.

But the state courts want to comply with the federal mandate, and it seems that some of them will stop at nothing in order to achieve their goal. A popular formula was born: “Get an interpreter for that hearing and try to spend as little as possible”. The origin of this strategy is not clear, but it is obvious that this solution was not conceived by an interpreter. This is not even the brainchild of an administrator who at least has a basic knowledge of the interpreting profession; moreover, this doctrine has been embraced by some federal level courts as well. Let me explain.

Some court administrators have implemented a fee reduction. Today, some interpreters get paid less for their travel time to and from the place where they will render professional services; they get a lower fee, less compensation per traveled mile (kilometer elsewhere in the world) no reimbursement for tolls and bridges, and other very crafty ways that some courts have devised to pay less for interpreting services.

Other courts have increased the level of “scrutiny” and now watch over the court interpreters’ shoulder while they are doing their job; not the way a client observes the work of a doctor, a lawyer, or any professional individual, but the way a person watches over the performance of the guys who dry your car when you take it to the car wash. Many times this breathing on your neck type of scrutiny is enforced by adding paperwork and bureaucratic requirements to the fee payment process. To the interpreters, this means more time spent in the payment process, while making the same money than before the new requirements were in place. They are effectively making less money than before.

Of course there are also courts that now pay a lower fee during the contracted time if the interpreter’s lips are not moving: They pay a partial fee for the break time and travel time, even though the interpreters, who sell their time, have allocated those hours, or minutes, to that court as a client. Now some courts are tossing high fives at each other because they paid the interpreter a full fee for 45 minutes of work and a reduced fee for the 15 minutes in between cases when the interpreter did not interpret because the judge had to go to the bathroom.

And there is more: some jurisdictions have removed themselves from the payment process in those cases when, due to a possible conflict of interest, the court assigns a particular case to a private independent defense attorney, who is a member of a panel of lawyers, who can be appointed to these cases in exchange for a fee that is paid by the judiciary. This jurisdictions do not accept the interpreters’ invoices anymore; they now require the panel attorney to process the interpreter’s invoice and payment, generating two very sad effects: (1) Sometimes, the interpreter will have to wait a long time to get paid because their payment processing is not a top priority to the lawyer, and (2) It will help to keep alive the idea that interpreters are second-class officers of the court who do not deserve the court’s trust, because it is clear that these jurisdictions opted for a system where the attorney will need to access the court’s computer system to process interpreters’ payments, which is “preferable” over a system where interpreters would have to be granted that same access to the system. Why? Because it is too much of a risk to take? You can arrive to your own conclusions, but the fact is that this policy is very demeaning.

My friends, when you see and hear about all these policy changes you have to wonder: As these new strategies were discussed and adopted, where were the court staff interpreters, and the judges, and the administrators who know what interpreting is about? And once they were implemented, why did the freelancers continue to work under these terrible conditions? I now invite you to comment on this policy changes, other rules you may have noticed somewhere else, and the reason why these changes are being implemented with so little opposition.

The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 1.

August 21, 2014 § 24 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Once again the “Ten worst…” are back. This time we will talk about those things that the person who we are interpreting for can do to really make our work difficult. As always, this list is not limitative and it only represents what I personally consider the absolute ten worst things that the speaker can do to us as professional interpreters. You may agree with all of them, some, or none of them; but even if you disagree, I believe that the simple mentioning of these issues will help us all focus on ways to solve the problems with the speaker that may arise while we are interpreting, and to prevent them and keep them from happening again. Just like we have done it before, today we will discuss the first five, and we will deal with the rest next in a few weeks. Here we go:

ONE.  When the speaker constantly switches between languages. Sometimes we get to an event to find out that the person that is going to speak is fluent in both languages of our combination. That is not bad news of course. The real problem is when this individual comes to the booth and kindly announces that she will be switching back and forth between both languages to keep the audience “engaged.” Of course we all know what this means to us: This will be the interpretation from hell! There are very few things more difficult to achieve than a good rendition when you have to constantly switch from one language to the other, often in the same sentence. This is very taxing on the interpreter and it can lead to “brain confusion” when our poor little brain cannot distinguish anymore and ends up interpreting into the source language (English into English for example) because after so many switches it becomes difficult to switch in the middle of an idea. Therefore, this is a nightmare for the interpreters, but if this is confusing to us, trained professionals who are bilingual and do this for living every day, can you imagine the confusion in the audience? These individuals went to the event to learn something and all of a sudden they find themselves with a headache and zero understanding of what is going on; And to top it off, while these chaos is going on in the booth and the floor of the auditorium, the speaker is ecstatic that she is showing off her command of both languages, her perfect pronunciation and grammar, her lack of accent. No way. My friends and colleagues, this is unacceptable! We have to protect the speaker, the audience, the interpreters’ sanity, and the event. Just imagine the total confusion if there is a dedicated booth for each of the two languages. First, we must understand that most speakers who are truly bilingual decide to do this for the benefit of their audience (some of them even remember the interpreters and decide to do this to give us a “break”). If the switch happens unannounced in the middle of the event, and it becomes obvious that this will be happening during the entire speech, you draw straws, or somehow decide who will bite the bullet, and while one interpreter will have to do the switching back and forth, the other one will communicate to the presenter that she must stay in one language because it is impossible to switch back and forth. This can be succinctly explained in a very respectful professional handwritten note that should be handed to the speaker as soon as possible, even when the speaker has a security detail and it is difficult to approach her. When the event has not started, or in the above scenario after the event, the interpreters have to sit down with the presenter and permanently solve this situation by explaining the difficulties of interpreting when the orator constantly switches back and forth. Make her understand that it will be very difficult for the audience because unlike her, they are not bilingual, so they will be confused and they will have to be putting on and taking off the headsets over and over again; and more importantly, explain that she will look better to her entire audience if she stays with one language. At that point you can even let her choose the language she prefers (unless she is clearly better in one of the two). It is likely that you, as the interpreter, will have to be somewhat flexible and agree to the occasional word or phrase in the other language; just explain to the speaker that there is the possibility that her words be lost to some of the audience as they may not be agile enough to pick up the headphones that quickly. She may then agree to eliminate these phrases. You may have to go along with a couple of questions being answered in the other language. This is fine as long as she announces it, gives the audience plenty of time to put on their earpiece, and sticks to one language throughout her answer.

TWO.  When the speaker insists on talking in a language he really does not speak. There are plenty of times when the speaker thinks that he is bilingual but in reality he is not. We already saw the difficulties of interpreting a real bilingual individual who switches back and forth between both languages. This time the problem is quite different. Here we have a situation where the presenter truly believes that his second language is good enough for a speech. This is the typical individual who feels that he can be understood in the foreign language because when he visits the other country he has no problem ordering a beer or asking for the bathroom. If a person begins his presentation let’s say, in English, and a few minutes later, already into the speech, he announces that because he goes to Cancún for two weeks every year, he has learned Spanish and he will now deliver the rest of his remarks in Spanish, the interpreters are in for a very bumpy ride. There are several possible situations: If the person pulls out a piece of paper and starts reading a written speech and the interpreters have it in the booth, even if the person cannot pronounce half of the words correctly, the booth can sight translate the speech for the benefit of half of the audience. Those who speak the language that the speaker thinks he is reading out loud will have to figure out what he is saying. Chances are that between the occasional giggles, they will be able to understand enough to know what the speech is about. If the interpreters do not have the speech in the booth, they will be in a similar position as the audience described above. They will certainly use their experience and skill to protect the speaker and deliver the message, but it will not be good, or pretty. Many times the hardest interpretation is when the person is speaking without a written speech and his vocabulary, syntax, grammar, pronunciation and accent are so bad that the interpreter cannot fully grasp the topic, or at least some parts of the presentation, including names, places and figures that are usually among the most frequent mistakes made by those who do not speak a language fluently. At this point what always happens is that people from the audience start yelling words to help the speaker complete his sentences. This looks terrible, but it actually helps the interpreter because he now understands the words that are being yelled by the audience. In this case the solution is similar to the one above. Most speakers will stick to their native language after reading the interpreters’ note. Most presenters will never attempt to do this again in the future; but be aware of the real world: There will be, now and then, stubborn individuals, as well as those who will feel offended by the interpreters’ suggestion and will do the speech in the foreign language regardless. Under these circumstances the interpreter simply does his best as explained above, but he also communicates with the agency, event organizer, or sponsor, so they are aware of what is happening. Remember, they do not speak the foreign language either, and unless you let them know what is really happening, they will just assume that everything is going great and their speaker is bilingual. One more thing that may need to be done in extreme cases when the speaker is just a total disaster, is to let the audience know, through the interpreting equipment, in a very professional and respectful way, that part of the speech is being lost due to the fact that the booth cannot figure out everything the speaker is saying. Most people will understand what you are referring to because even when you do not speak a language, many times you can tell if the person speaking is doing it with fluency or not. They will also know that everybody is aware of the problem, and that you cared enough to let them know instead of simply ignoring them. The only thing to add is that in those cases when the temporary and permanent solutions above will not work because of the speaker, you will have to make a choice as to whether or not you will work with that individual again in the future.

THREE.  When the speaker speaks away from the microphone. There is a universal principle in the interpreting world: You cannot interpret what you cannot hear. It seems obvious right? Well, it may be obvious, but it is not universally known or understood. There are plenty of speakers who tend to move away from the microphone as they speak. When there is a podium with a fixed microphone, often times the speakers try to be more “convincing” by furiously gesticulating in all directions. This often means that they may be facing in the opposite direction from the microphone, making it extremely difficult for those in the booth to hear what they say. Other presenters feel the need to get closer to their audience, so they leave the podium area and walk all over the stage without a microphone; some of them even go down to the well to mingle with the crowd; all of this while constantly speaking without even thinking that microphones are there for a reason. Of course, although difficult to hear them, those sitting in the audience will be able to hear all or part of the speech, but the interpreters upstairs in the booth will hear nothing, even with the door open it will be very difficult to hear this speaker over the interpreter’s own voice; then there is the group of speakers who use a wireless microphone, either a lapel mike, a handheld, or one of those you put over your head and next to your mouth, but they do not turn them on! Finally, there are those instances when the sound system is not working and the show must go on. Obviously, the temporary solution for those who move away or speak away from the fixed microphone is to ask them, on a very professional and courteous manner, to speak into the microphone and stay behind the podium. Those who forget to turn their microphone on should be reminded to turn it on; the real challenge arises in those cases when the sound system is toast and the show must go on. There are several possible solutions to this problem. First, if there is portable interpreting equipment as a backup in the facility, use it. The interpreters would have to leave the booth and move to a table on the stage where they can be close to the speaker and hear him without the benefit of a microphone. The speaker will have to speak louder anyway so that those who do not need interpretation can hear him, so the interpreters will have to turn on their bat radar and listen carefully. For the solution to work, the interpreter doing the rendition will have to speak into the portable transmitter’s microphone on a whispered mode (chuchotage) in order to hear the speaker over his own voice; this will put a tremendous strain on the interpreter’s voice, so there will be shorter shifts and more recesses for the interpreters to rest their voice. If there is no backup portable interpreting equipment at the facility, the presentation will have to switch to the consecutive interpreting mode. The audience will have to get closer to the stage so that they can hear the interpreter, and they will have to be warned of the fact that the speech will take longer because of the interpretation. Another, and most desirable solution, would be to temporarily suspend the presentation while the event organizer or technical team fix the system or provide a backup. As a permanent solution to these scenarios, interpreters should discuss basic protocol with the speaker, asking him to always turn the microphone on, to always speak into the microphone, and to repeat into the microphone the questions or comments by those who may speak without having the benefit of a microphone. It is important to let the speaker know that the interpreters work in a booth behind a closed door, and their only connection to the outside world is through their headphones that will receive everything that is being said into the microphone and nothing else. The speaker must be educated so he knows that, unlike a regular listener in the audience, simultaneous interpreters need to hear the speaker’s voice over their own voice, and speaking on an unnatural way, like whispering, can damage the interpreter’s work tools: his vocal chords. Most speakers may need a few reminders during the session, but they will immediately remember and react accordingly. Finally, a professional interpreter should always discuss Plan B with the event organizers, agency when applicable, and technical team. There should always be a backup system for everything that needs to be used during an event.

FOUR.  When the speaker taps on the microphone or says “hello” directly into the mike.  The vocal chords are an essential tool to the interpreter, so is his hearing. Throughout our career, every once in a while we are going to encounter speakers that identify themselves with rock stars and want to do a sound check like Keith Richards: They will turn on their microphone, and they will tap on it immediately after. Then again, some of them will just take the microphone next to their mouth, and here I include those who grab their lapel and pull the clipped mike towards their face, and say, in what they consider a very cool way, something like: “yessss!!!” or “testing…testing” or something else they saw in a concert sometime ago. All of these individuals feel great after they do this testing of the equipment. They think they looked cool, professional, and self-confident. Everybody else in the room agree with them; typically, some people in the audience will give them the thumbs up after they perform this sound check, others will simply smile; no one will think it is wrong. No one but the interpreters in the booth who are wearing headphones and have already adjusted the sound levels to what they need, in order to hear the speaker over their own voices. The result is awful and extremely painful. In general, interpreters hearing is very sharp because they are trained to listen and detect any word, any sound that comes from the speaker’s mouth. Imagine the combination of a very acute sense of hearing, a sound system (by the way, already checked by the technicians and adjusted to the taste and needs of that particular interpreter) already at the required level for the interpreter to deliver his rendition, and a person either furiously tapping on the mike, or doing a sound check that would make Bruce Springsteen proud. This is a practice that needs to be eradicated: Zero tolerance. The best way to address this issue and keep it from happening is to simply ask the sound engineer to let the speaker know that the equipment has been tested and that he does not need to test it again. This will hopefully give one of the interpreters enough time to leave the booth and explain to the presenter that there is very sensitive equipment in the booth, that the interpreters will be wearing headsets throughout the presentation, and that any tapping on the microphone, coughing into the mike, ruffling of clothes in case of a lapel microphone, or talk directly into the mike, will affect the interpreters directly; it is important to convey the potential consequences of doing any of this things, such as having an interpreter temporarily incapacitated from doing their job, or a very scary permanent hearing injury which would leave the interpreter without a way to make a living. Of course, an even better method would be to have the agency, event organizer, or sound technician speak to the presenter ahead of time, and even provide some written guide to public speaking that includes a chapter on working with the interpreter in the booth. Many reputable agencies and organizations, as well as most professional seasoned speakers, know of this potential problem, and they avoid this bad habits, but we as interpreters must remain alert in case a speaker slipped through the cracks. Unfortunately, this still leaves us with the occasional banger: the speaker who every now and then, in the middle of the speech will tap into the microphone to “make sure it is working.” This is the worst possible scenario. Some colleagues may disagree, but to me the pain is so sharp when they tap into the microphone, and the risk of losing my hearing is so high, that I truly have zero tolerance for this behavior. If this happens during the presentation and I have a way to communicate with the speaker from the dashboard in the booth, I will immediately do so; if I do not have this option, then I will ask the technician to please go to the stage immediately and ask the speaker to stop. Next, as soon as there is a break, I go straight to the speaker and let him know what happened, acting in a professional manner, I show him that I disliked what he did, and I try to get a commitment that he will pay more attention to what he is doing with the microphone. There have been many instances when I have screamed in pain when a speaker taps into the mike, and the audience has heard it in their headsets. There is nothing in the book of ethics or professional conduct that says that the interpreter must endure pain inflicted by the speaker’s conduct, and I will have zero tolerance for the rest of my career.

FIVE.  When the speaker slows down to a crawl. There are some very experienced presenters who have been speaking in public for years, they are well-known and popular; the only problem we have with them in the booth is that despite their long careers, they have never or rarely worked with a foreign language audience. They are not used to the interpreter. Now, these speakers are seasoned and they know what needs to happen to keep their audience’s attention and to drive their message; they know it so well that they come up with “homemade” solutions in order to have a successful presentation before a foreign language audience. The most common change to their public speaking habits is on the speed they use to deliver their message. They slow down to a crawl so that “the interpreters can keep up with the presentation.” Of course, all simultaneous interpreters know that this delivery does more harm than good. The speakers need to realize that their message needs to sound natural to keep the audience engaged, and as long as they speak slowly in the source language, the interpreters will inevitably end up speaking slower in the target language as well. The first thing that needs to happen when this situation arises is to immediately let the speaker know that he needs to speak normally, that he does not need to worry about the booth; that the interpreters are trained professionals who do this for living and they will be fine, in fact much better, if he speaks at a normal, natural speed. This can be accomplished through a direct communication such as a note or a brief message through the technician or one of the interpreters; Many times this is accomplished by signaling the speaker that he needs to speak faster. There are universal signs that almost everybody understands for this. Of course, the way to avoid this type of situation is to educate the speaker ahead of time. I believe that in this situation, when you have a speaker who does not usually work with a foreign language audience, it is the duty of the interpreter to let him know some basic rules and principles about working with an interpreter. One of these principles is precisely to ask the speaker to speak at a normal speed and forget about the interpreter. The presenter should let the interpreters do the worrying; that is part of their job, and they know how to do it.

These are the first five of the ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. I will share the rest of my list in a few weeks. In the meantime, I invite you all to tell us some of your “ten worst” or to opine on any of my first five.

When the interpreter thinks the attorney did something sleazy.

July 14, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I was contacted by a colleague who wanted my opinion about a professional situation that was making her life miserable. Her problem was that she had been part of a court assignment where an attorney did something she disliked. At the time she contacted me she was debating about letting it go, or reporting the situation to the judge of the case. I listened to the facts, and I immediately remembered other events where an attorney’s conduct had been questioned by other interpreters. This is her story:

An interpreter was hired to work during a deposition at a law office. While waiting for the assignment to start, she had a conversation with other individuals in the waiting room. One of the others was also a court interpreter. Finally, after a long wait, a secretary came to the waiting room and announced that the deposition had been cancelled. The interpreter went home, she got paid on time for this assignment, and she forgot about this incident.

Several months later, she was contacted by another agency that offered her a transcription/translation assignment. She agreed, and a few days later she received a CD with the audio recording. She began the transcription, and about an hour into the transcription, she concluded that she knew at least one of the voices in the recording; it was the voice of another interpreter, in fact, it was the voice of the interpreter she had been talking to, months earlier at the law office, while she waited for the deposition to start. She immediately knew that she had to stop the transcription and report this circumstance to the agency. A decision had to be made about her involvement in the transcription job. Before contacting the agency, the interpreter decided to see if the other interpreter’s voice was all over the recording or just at the beginning. She had just been working on the transcription for about an hour, so she wanted to find out. She fast-forwarded the recording, and to her surprise, she now recognized a second voice: It was her own voice! She was part of the recording the agency sent her, and the recorded conversation was the one they had at the attorney’s office on the day the deposition had been cancelled months earlier. This obviously changed everything, and the possibility of continuing on the job if the parties consented to it after a full disclosure was now gone. She knew she could not continue transcribing the recording. She immediately contacted the agency and told them what happened. The agency retrieved the recording and sent it to another transcriber. The interpreter was paid for the work done even though the agency knew that they would never use the transcription. The real problem for the interpreter was that she did not know that she had been recorded and she wondered why this had happened, what they were going to use the tape for, and what she should do about the whole situation. She did not even know if the recording was legal or not.

The recording was related to the case where she had been hired to do the cancelled deposition; she knew the attorneys involved, and she had heard that they both practice law very aggressively. She felt bad and she felt cheated. The interpreter thought that this strategy had been sleazy and perhaps illegal. Her first impulse was to contact the judge in the case and let him know that she had been recorded without her consent. Something had to be done.

Fortunately, she waited and thought it over. Without revealing any names or details of the case, she consulted an attorney and learned that in her state, as long as one of the parties to a conversation is aware of the recording, and she consents to it, the rest need not know or consent for the recording to be legal and even admissible in court. Based on this, the interpreter did not go to the judge or anybody else. She had no legal standing and no law had been broken by the attorney who ordered the recording. In fact, she realized that she could not even disclose any of these facts to anybody else because of the interpreter duty of confidentiality, which cannot be broken unless a crime was committed or may be committed unless the interpreter speaks. Going to the judge would have been the wrong thing to do because she really had nothing to report. She learned a valuable lesson after this case because she understood that in an adversarial legal system, the attorneys may do things that we dislike, but as long as they are legal, they are allowed to do them, and we should not get involved or judge the legal strategy.

On the second case I will now share with you, I was interpreting in a plea hearing many moons ago. The defendant was going to enter a plea of guilty to a federal offense. I was working for the court. I arrived to the courtroom about fifteen minutes before the hearing, which was customary at that courthouse, I let the clerk know that I was there, and I sat down to wait for my case. The defense attorney arrived about five minutes later and asked me to help him with his client. He told me that the defendant, who was in detention, was already in the holding cell, and that he needed to talk to him for a few minutes before the judge came out for the hearing. As many of you know, this happens all the time in federal court in the United States, so I agreed and off we went next door to the holding cell. The moment we arrived I realized that the defendant spoke some English and understood many things; however, he was far from being fluent, and definitely needed an interpreter for the most complex legal concepts. As soon as we greeted the defendant the attorney started this, in my opinion, self- serving speech telling his client (the defendant) how hard it was to get him the deal with the prosecution, and that this was his chance to bring the case to an end by just pleading guilty to the charge in the plea agreement. Then the attorney “asked him” but in reality told him “the agreement is almost identical to the version you already saw before when I went to see you with the other interpreter, remember?” and “…the judge is going to ask you if you were interpreted the new version by a certified interpreter and you are going to say yes because if you don’t, then the judge will continue your case for another day, maybe in a month or two, and you will have to sit in jail all that time waiting to come back in here. All of it for a document that practically says the same that the one that was interpreted to you before. Do you understand?” Of course I interpreted all of this to the defendant and he said yes. Next, the attorney told his client that “… when the judge asks you if you have any questions you need to say no, unless you have any questions, and if that is the case we will have to come back before the judge in the future, and he is going to ask you if everything was interpreted to you into Spanish and you will say yes because as you remember we went to the jail and the interpreter interpreted everything, including your questions, right?” The defendant said “yes.” The attorney continued: “…Well then, let me ask you right now: has the plea agreement been explained and interpreted to you in Spanish?” The defendant answered: “yes.” The lawyer continued: “…Has your attorney answered all of your questions with the assistance of an interpreter” The defendant: “yes.” Finally the attorney added: “…Do you have any questions at this time for the judge, for me, or for anybody else about your case, charges and plea you are about to enter?” Once again the defendant said “no.” “…Great” said the lawyer; and added: “… So you know why you are answering the way you are right?” The defendant: “Yes, so I can go to prison sooner.” Attorney: “…and, even though we didn’t interpret the latest version of the agreement, since we went over another version that was practically identical, you will tell the judge that we did right?” Defendant: “Yes, I will tell him that you explained everything to me through the interpreter, and in my mind you did, and I really believe so, and I have no more questions. I know what I am doing and I just want for all of this to be over.”

We went in front of the judge who asked the very same questions. Both, the attorney and his client answered almost with the same words as they had used in the holding cell. The judge entered the conviction and the defendant left very happy with the outcome of the hearing, on his way out he told his attorney: “…thank you very much. You are a great attorney. You know what you need to do for the benefit of your client. I will send you clients…”

Although the attorney and the defendant did not lie to the judge because they phrased everything very carefully, thus avoiding breaking the law, and despite the fact that the attorney had fought for, and vigorously defended his client’s best interest, which was to go to prison as soon as possible so he could start some treatment not offered by the jail, I left the courtroom feeling a little strange. I knew there was nothing for me to do since no laws were broken, and everything had been legal strategy between client and attorney discussed in confidence and under the protection of the client-attorney privilege, but it took me a couple of hours to get over it; you could even argue that I did not get over this case since I am still telling the story so many years later, but the truth is that yes I got over the case, and the reason why I am sharing the story with all of you now is because both the defendant and the attorney have since passed away, so there is no privilege anymore.

I would like to invite you to share similar stories or comments about things you have done or were tempted to do when in your opinion an attorney did something sleazy.

Your Honor, the interpreter cannot hear.

October 14, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Court interpreting can be exciting, interesting, and well remunerated, at times it can be challenging and even frustrating.  It is all part of the job and I accept it as it comes; however, the thing I cannot accept is the noise, poor sound system, bad manners of many attorneys who just won’t stop talking, and the lack of understanding, by many officers of the court, of our need to hear what is being said.

There is a very simple rule: you cannot interpret what you don’t understand and what you can’t hear. It is that simple. Yet, many courthouses have turned into some of the worst possible environments to work.  Many times this happens because of ignorance and lack of will to help improve the court services (which include interpretation for those who do not speak the language used in the courtroom) and on other occasions the courts just turn a blind eye to the problem even though they perfectly know that it is essential for the interpreter to hear what the parties are saying during the hearing.

Among these nightmarish environments to work as an interpreter, we have the attorneys who never stop talking in the courtroom; it seems that they have never thought of taking their conversations to the hallway.  I couldn’t tell you how many times I have overheard conversations about dates from hell, complaints about bosses, stories about spoiled children, and opinions about judges, all while I sat in a courtroom waiting for my case to be called.

Of course I couldn’t leave out of this piece the cheap, old, poorly-kept, and obsolete sound systems that are waiting for all of us at many courthouses.  These artifacts have outlived their useful life and instead of an asset, they constitute an obstacle to our work.  It is very frustrating to try to do your job while the receiver keeps skipping forty percent of your rendition, or when the batteries are so low that you are not sure they will last the entire hearing.  I would like to meet the person who thought that changing batteries, plugging and unplugging equipment, and running around looking for a better transmitter was part of interpreting; and if we are on the “mood” for meeting some of these “pillars of the court interpreting profession,” I would love to meet those who first dared to ask the interpreter to CLEAN THE EQUIPMENT after using it! I have never done it and I sure hope you haven’t either.

We must include all those attorneys who move away from the microphones as they speak, and we couldn’t forget the lawyers who talk so low that nobody can hear them.  Somehow they don’t understand that the interpreter sits behind them (or to the side) and this makes it very difficult to hear them because their voice is projecting the opposite way: towards the judge, witness or jury.  This group’s main characteristic is that after being reminded to speak into the microphone or to speak louder, they do it for about two minutes and then they go back to the old ways.  I guess some of them are just following the lead of that judge who turns away from the microphone when she speaks, or the one who talks so softly that it’s easier to hear when a pin drops in the courtroom even though she is speaking.

Finally, my “favorite”: In some lower courts there is no place for the interpreter to sit in the courtroom.  Interpreters are supposed to sit “wherever” as long as they are not “bothering” anybody else with their work. Often times, the interpreter ends up in the back of a courtroom, behind an easel or a screen, or sitting among the audience.  How can anybody expect you to hear anything under these circumstances?

Of course, it is important to educate the courts. It is necessary to explain that we have to be able to hear what is being said by the judge and the parties over our own voice.  All of this is crucial. We have been “educating” the bench and bar for many years.

Unfortunately, after years of “educating” judges and lawyers, many colleagues and administrators still believe that the solution is to continue. To do the same over and over again until they all finally get it. I disagree.

I think somebody has to say out loud that we have been “educating” them for a long time and it is time for the courts to set the appropriate conditions for us to do our work.  It is time to stop solely “educating” and to start demanding that court administrators and chief judges do their job. We are officers of the court and an essential part to the system. We are not an inconvenience; we are an important step in the administration of justice.

It is true that most federal courthouses now have appropriate equipment, a place for the interpreter, and a noise level adequate for us to do our job, but there is much to be done at the state and lower levels.  It is time for the state judges to start controlling their courtrooms so that people who “need” to talk exit the courtroom, those who need to be heard use the microphones, and those who are in the courtroom to interpret have a place where they can sit, use their computers or tablets, and more importantly, listen to what is being said during a hearing.  We are not mind-readers. We are court interpreters.  Always remember: you can’t interpret what you can’t hear.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with this essential issue turned into a nightmare by many courts.

The interpreter’s frustration of not being understood.

June 4, 2013 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I decided to write about something we all feel, or at least have felt at some point during our career.  I am fortunate to have clients who hire me for assignments that are interesting, relevant, and professionally challenging. I get the topic, prepare, and execute my job to the best of my ability, and  often during an event, I get stopped on a hallway by a person who recognizes me as the interpreter and congratulates me for the rendition or thanks me for my work. Interesting work, good working conditions, and excellent pay are key to a successful career, but that type of appreciation by those you just interpreted for (not by your peers or the agency programmer) is what keeps me going.  That is my motivation to better myself every time I turn on the microphone in that booth.  It is a pleasure to interpret for an audience and see how they are assimilating every word I interpret, how my job is making it worth for them to attend the conference, to listen to the presentation. When I am working I know that people are listening and understanding what I say. That is very rewarding.

Just like many of you, I have also worked in court for many years, and when I do, most of the time the experience is the opposite. When I am retained for a court proceeding I also prepare for my work, develop glossaries, learn the details of the case, and research the relevant legal aspects; however, as I begin to interpret a trial or a hearing, I soon realize that in most cases the defendant or whomever I am interpreting for does not understand what is happening. The purpose of this posting is not to underline the differences between these two kinds of clients; we all know that is a factor, I am not writing this article to talk about attorneys who do not explain the proceedings to their clients either. I am writing this posting to talk about the frustration that comes to you as an interpreter when you realize that after all the preparation and all the hard work, at the end of a two-hour hearing the defendant turns to you and asks you: “what did the judge say?”  Once a colleague told me that the difference between conference and court interpreting was that in conference interpreting you prepare so that your audience understands your interpretation, and in court interpretation you prepare so that the other interpreter who is working the trial with you understands your interpretation, because she is the only one in the courtroom who will.  That may be true.

My question to all of you is a complex one: How do you deal with the frustration that comes from knowing that those you are interpreting for do not, and will not, understand what you are saying, not because of a poor rendition, but because of their level of education?  I am not looking for the legal answer that it is because of the constitutional principle of equal access to the law. I do not want the philosophical argument that it is the fair thing to do to serve justice.  I don’t even want to hear that it is because we are interpreting for the record and not the defendant and our rendition is provided in case there is an appeal, and please do not take the easy way out by telling me that you are never frustrated when this happens.  What I would like to read is your personal way to deal with this very human feeling of frustration of knowing that all your work will not be appreciated, that many times you could be there reciting a nursery rhyme instead of interpreting the hearing and the person you are interpreting for wouldn’t even notice.  In my particular case, I do the best job I can because of me.  I owe it to myself. It is my commitment to my own professional and moral standards to prepare and provide the best interpretation I am capable of.  The owner of the ears that will hear me is irrelevant to my motivation to be the best.  Of course I enjoy the praising that goes on when I interpret at a conference or diplomatic event, but I don’t let that be my motivation to excel. If I do, I would have a difficult time interpreting for those who I know will not understand and I cannot let that happen. Please tell us how you deal with this frustration.

The ten worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Part 2.

April 2, 2013 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last week I posted my first five worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Next, I share the rest of my list in the understanding that there are plenty more examples of these “worst things,” and inviting you to review my top ten, share your “war stories” and share your comments and solutions with the rest of us.

Here we go:

  1. Six.  “Mr. interpreter let me introduce you to my daughter, she took Spanish in high school and spent a month in Costa Rica so I want her to start interpreting my easy cases. Just show her what you do. She’ll pick up in no time.”   I was asked once to help this lawyer’s daughter because she was “really good with languages.”  Fortunately for me, I have no problem establishing my ground rules when at work so I immediately declined.  Unfortunately, I have seen many of my colleagues playing this role of mentor/teacher/parent with the lawyer’s child who just wants to get her dad to send her to a foreign country during the summer and has no intention whatsoever to become an interpreter.  The only solution is to politely explain that you are doing a job and that the lawyers are paying you a lot of money to provide your services; that you are not a teacher (even if you are) and that the “future polyglot“ daughter would not get anything from following you around, so the only thing to be accomplished would be a heftier interpretation services invoice.  I would also bring up the client-attorney privilege rules, and remind the attorney that the daughter’s presence could be a waiver of the privilege, and as such, it is the defendant who has to decide after being advised of these potential complications. A more permanent solution could include a paragraph on the written contract stating that you will not train anybody unless you bring the trainee and the defendant agrees to her presence during the interpretation.
  2. Seven.  “You know what, you charge too much, so I want you to just interpret the main parts of the hearing so I don’t have to pay you that much.”  I have been told this… more than once! You have been hired to do your job: interpret a hearing because the person does not speak English and he has the right to an interpreter. The fact is that, just as the lawyer, you are a professional and you sell your time.  You are there at the courthouse and you cannot be anywhere else. You cannot make money somewhere else because you are committed to this particular client.  You are getting paid to be there and interpret everything that is said (ideally) or everything your client tells you to interpret; but you were hired to BE THERE. Because you charge by the hour, just like the attorney, you need to be paid for the time devoted to the case, whether you are interpreting, waiting for the case to be called by the judge, taking a bathroom or lunch break during a recess, or traveling back and forth between your office and the courthouse or law office.  Maybe you should remind the attorney of this circumstance when he tells you not to interpret and you will see how quickly he changes his mind and asks you to interpret everything.  Here again, the long-term solution to this situation is to educate the attorneys and to have a written contract that states your fee, services, and what you are being paid for.
  3. Eight.  “Do not interpret that!”   This usually happens when the client complains to the court about the lawyer.  I once had a case when the defendant was before a judge to be sentenced for the commission of a crime. After the prosecutor and defense attorney spoke, the judge asked the Spanish-speaking defendant if he had anything to say. As I interpreted this words to the defendant he looked at me, then he turned to the judge and said: “solo que mi abogado es un pendejo.” (just that my lawyer is an asshole) The attorney, who spoke Spanish, and had political ambitions, stopped me immediately and told me not to interpret what the defendant had said. He then told his client in Spanish that he should not tell those things to the judge.  The dialogue looked quite strange even for those who do not spoke Spanish and the prosecutor (who I believe knew all the bad words in Spanish like many Americans do) immediately said  to the court that he wanted to hear what the defendant had said. The defense attorney said that it was privileged information, but the judge ruled that it had been said in open court while addressing him directly so he ordered me to interpret the words, which I did with pleasure, to the endless laughter of everybody in the courtroom. The attorney was mad at me for many months as if I had been the one who said it.  In this case, the outcome was ideal (well not for the defense attorney) because I let the attorneys argue the point and then waited for the judge to decide. The solution to these situations when somebody raises client-attorney privilege is always to let the lawyers argue the law and then wait for the judge’s decision. It is a legal matter and as such, we should keep our opinions to ourselves.
  4. Nine.  I need you to tell the jury that my client did not understand because he speaks a different type of Spanish”  I have been approached, and sometimes retained as an expert witness to convince a jury that a person did not understand what he was told by another interpreter because she had used a “different kind of Spanish.” Of course I testify as an expert all the time, and when I do, it is because I was retained to assess what happened and give my expert opinion about the issue in question. I have never nor will ever take a case where they ask me to testify one way or another, regardless of what really happened.  The simple, and effective solution is to turn down the case; however, most lawyers are not really asking you to lie under oath; in reality they are just asking you to see if their theory is even possible. I usually meet with the attorneys, explain my role, and make sure they understand that most Spanish-speaking people understand Spanish in general, regardless of where they were born, but that there are real idiomatic expressions, cultural practices, and words that have a different meaning depending on the part of the Spanish-speaking world where they were said.  If I notice that the claim is frivolous because of the expressions or words involved, and due to the educational background of the individual, I explain to the attorneys that my testimony would only hurt their case; on the other hand, if I see merit on the allegations, I accept the assignment and go to work. I believe this is the best practice because it grants access to your services to those who really need them while at the same time you are avoiding being part of a useless unrealistic claim.
  5. Ten.  Please collect my fee from my client.”  Very few things can get me going the way this request can. Many lawyers have trouble understanding that we are hired to interpret what they tell their client, not to act as their representative or agent during a legal fee negotiation. Many years ago an attorney handed me an invoice from his law firm without saying anything. Of course, I immediately understood what he wanted. I handed it back and told him: “You gave me this document by mistake.”  I could see him getting mad, and later I learned that he complained to other interpreters that I was not willing to “work for my own pay.”  I never worked with that attorney again, and I have never bargained, collected, or prepared a payment plan for any of the clients of the attorneys I have worked for.  Sadly, I have seen how many of our colleagues play this game and spend hours on hallways and courthouse steps waiving invoices, collecting checks, and handing receipts to those who have never been their clients. It is important to set boundaries from the beginning. We all know that part of our job as interpreters for a private attorney includes interpreting fee negotiations between client and lawyer; that is perfectly fine as we are providing our interpretation services to facilitate the communication between the parties to that professional relationship.  There is an abyss between what I just described and what some attorneys ask the interpreter to do.  Negotiating on behalf of the lawyer is not interpreting and therefore it is not covered by my fee. It is not what I do for living. As I said at the beginning of this post, my clients are attorneys who know how to work with an interpreter and they would never ask me to act as their collections agent, but just in case, you should always be ready to tell the attorney that you are glad to interpret the negotiations, but that you cannot and will not negotiate for them.

As you know, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Please review these “ten worst” and if you are up to it, I would love to read your top ten, top five, or even top one.  This should be good…

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