When clients do not provide information in advance.

February 10, 2020 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We are expected to accurately interpret all subjects from one language into another, often to an audience that knows the topic, sometimes to people who have devoted their lives to that subject. We meet these expectations and deliver the rendition by performing many complex tasks, among them extensive preparation, including research and study of the topics to be presented during the conference, lecture, workshop, business negotiation, press conference, court hearing, diplomatic summit, etc.

We are professionally trained to research a subject, understand it, prepare glossaries, and study it, but this is not enough. Knowledge in any subject is infinite and it must be narrowed down to the specific themes to be presented or discussed at the event we were hired to interpret. Speakers have different styles and many have done their own research, written books or papers that will be presented, or at least alluded to, often for the first time, during the dissertation.

Due to these facts, the only way we can deliver the best quality service is by studying the presenters’ materials ahead of time.  This means our client must provide this information: documents, videos, audio recordings, for us to prepare, and we need to get them as far in advance as possible.

Documents are very important because that will be the main portion of the lecture; it often includes power point presentations we must review for several reasons: We need to make sure we understand the contents of every slide, that we find the best equivalent terms in the target language; we must pay attention to the information each slide contains because we need to tell the presenter how long the slide needs to stay on the screen before moving on to the next one, to give the audience time to listen to the interpretation and then see the contents of the slide (words, figures, charts, images, quotes, etc.) This is time consuming and it could take interpreters several days to go through the power point presentation.

Videos are difficult to interpret. Sometimes the sound is not very good, or words get lost behind the sounds of very loud music or noise; the speakers on the video may talk too fast, have a heavy accent, use regional expressions, tell a joke or share a sports story. Many speakers choose movie or TV show clips with nothing to do with the conference, because they were chosen as icebreakers or to drive a point across. There are videos of songs also. Interpreters need to study these videos; some must be watched many times. They have to assess the jokes, idiomatic expressions, cultural differences, and sports analogies, and then decide what to do: find a similar joke in the target language, use an equivalent sports story on a sport the audience will relate to, find the best idiomatic expression on the other language to convey the same message using the same register. Sometimes the best solution is to recommend the speaker not to use the video, particularly when there are cultural concerns.  Then, on the day of the event, interpreters need to make sure the video’s volume and quality of sound is the right one for both: the room and the booth.

Audio recordings could be an interpreter’s nightmare, especially in court interpreting where the quality of the sound is less than desirable because many of these audio recordings come from wiretaps, hidden microphones, concealed body microphones, and so on. These recordings are plagued with obscenities, slang, low register speech, and powerful background noises. Interpreters devote endless hours to listening and sometimes decoding what was said. This time-consuming task must be performed ahead of the event so the interpreter knows the recording’s contents and determines what words to use during the rendition. After reviewing the recording an interpreter can suggest to the client to use a transcript of the audio recording, with a written translation into the target language, and either project it on the screen at the same time the audience listens to the recording and the interpreters simultaneous rendition, or to distribute paper transcripts and translations for the audience to follow along the recording.

These arguments should be sufficient for all clients to provide these materials to the interpreting team ahead of time; many knowledgeable, experienced clients do so and the results are evident: a great interpretation. Others are more reluctant, and there are some who unfortunately neglect the interpreters or clearly decide not to provide an iota of information before the event.

Interpreters need to convey to the client the reason they have to see the materials before the assignment; they have to explain that interpreting is a fiduciary profession, that we are bound by a strict duty of confidentiality, and make them see we have no interest in the information past the day of the interpretation. When the client is concerned about intellectual property rights or national security, Interpreters can offer flexibility to the client, and for an additional fee, they can agree to review said materials at the client’s place of business, but always ahead of the event.

All interpreting services contracts must include a provision stating that the client assumes the obligation to provide all requested and needed materials to the interpreters as early as possible, and always before the event.

Even with such a clause, sometimes, interpreters get no materials, get part of them, or they get all materials, but a video or a slide were added at the last minute and the interpreting team learns of this change at the venue, right before the start of the event, or even worse: during the rendition when the slide is shown on the screen or the video is played.

In these cases, professional interpreters have two reactions coming straight from their gut simultaneously: “I will stand up and walk away. I am not interpreting this”, and “I am a professional, the client’s incompetence or negligence it’s not the audience’s fault. I’ll stay and try my best”. Both reactions are good and have value. Let me explain:

The good client will always deliver materials on time, you need not to concern about them, but there are other clients late with the materials, deliver only part of them, and sometimes forget to provide needed information altogether, but they have potential, you want to keep them, and they will improve if you try a little harder. I say give these clients a second chance.

As soon as it is evident they will not provide materials, talk to them and clarify that what they did was wrong, but, because you are a consummate professional, you will try your best and stay and interpret the event even though the final result will not be nearly as good as it would be if the materials were provided. If they fail again on a second event: drop them, you are wasting your time with them, and time is money.

Finally, if your contract calls for client to deliver all requested and needed materials and the client did not comply, when you are not interested on that client, and it was a nightmare dealing with them during the preparations for the event, I would walk out without interpreting, demand payment of my fees, explain to them they breached the professional services contract they had with you, and if they refuse to pay, sue them for your fee plus damages and your attorney’s fees.

On both cases you taught the client a lesson: To the client you want to keep, you tried to educate them and keep them on your list. To the client you never want to see again, you showed them that interpreters are professionals they cannot take advantage of.

I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this important subject.

When the speaker delivers rude remarks during an official event.

December 16, 2013 § 21 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We all know how difficult it is to interpret for a speaker during a government event, a corporate function or a diplomatic dinner.  Interpreters have to deal with situations like the speaker’s accent, idiomatic expressions, regional or political jokes, sports metaphors, and others that come with the territory.  All difficult but for the most part predictable once we know who we will be interpreting for.

The case I am about to tell you refers to a different situation that arose during an official dinner between top legislators from two countries.  I was retained to interpret for a conference between legislators from two countries and the agenda included a formal dinner on the night of the first day of activities.  The delegations had elected officials from all political parties represented in that legislative body.  One of the countries had representatives from two political parties. The other delegation had individuals representing different political tendencies and ideological persuasion. I teamed-up to work the event with an excellent and experienced colleague.

During dinner, each one of us sat down at opposite sides of this gigantic table, right behind the two main dignitaries, and interpreted the neighboring conversations by whispering what others said.  Then it was time for the speeches. For those who have not interpreted for these events, I have to tell you that these speeches are usually very friendly and cordial. People thank their host, say something good about the place where they are, and perhaps extend an invitation to their country as a way to reciprocate.  This is exactly what was happening during this dinner. The two most senior officials from the host country thanked their guests for attending the event and wished them success during the rest of the conference.  Next, the guest country speakers addressed the gathering in order of representation in their legislature. At the end, a legislator from what I was told was the most radical party to the left of the spectrum got up and began his remarks. Since I still have my notes I will quote him:

He said in Spanish: “Thank you for the invitation. The food was good; however, I want to tell you that you don’t scare me. I didn’t come over here to be brain-washed, and I want you to know that I am not afraid of you, or your huge country, or your billions of dollars.  You don’t scare me guys. If you think you are going to tell me what to do, then you are wasting your time. Look at me; I am not shaking in my boots. Nobody frightens me.   (“Gracias por la invitación. La comida estuvo buena y todo, pero quiero decirles que no me asustan. No vine a que me lavaran el cerebro y quiero que sepan que no les tengo miedo ni a ustedes, ni a su paisote, ni a sus trillones de dólares. No me asustan señores. Si creen que me van a decir lo que tengo que hacer están perdiendo su tiempo. Véanme, no estoy temblando del miedo. A mí no me amedrenta nadie”.) He finished and sat down.

I raised my eyes from my notepad and looked directly at my colleague who was sitting at the opposite end of the table.  For a fraction of a second I pondered how to render the speech. I went through all the mental exercises and considerations we usually go through during an interpretation.  Should I omit anything? Should I soften the tone? What if all hell breaks loose?  Then It came to me: First: One half of those in attendance (the Spanish speakers) already know what was said. Second: Because of the relevance of the issues to be discussed, this conference will go on regardless. Third: The politician who just spoke represents a very small faction in his legislature. Fourth: All my research for this assignment described this legislator as controversial, irreverent, and loud.  I also remembered that, according to what I had read, he often said something and then voted in a more main-stream fashion. After this analysis that lasted a blink of an eye, I thought of professional wrestling: How these huge individuals scream at each other and then nothing ever happens. I immediately thought, this man is the professional wrestler of his country’s legislative politics. As I looked at my wide-eyed colleague, we were able to communicate through facial expressions and we seemed to be in agreement. I would interpret every single word and utterance; and so I did.

Obviously, the dining room turned very tense. The host officials were not expecting anything like this. The rest of the visiting delegation looked very embarrassed by their colleague’s conduct. Fortunately, dessert arrived and everyone’s attention turned to chocolate and ice cream.

Later that night I ran into this same legislator in the men’s restroom. He recognized me, and with a huge grin told me: “I did great didn’t I?” I did not answer.

A few days later a member of the host delegation approached me, and showing me a newspaper in Spanish told me: “…this is the newspaper from the legislator’s hometown. Look at the headlines…” The paper read on the front page:  “Legislator (his name) bravely sets the record straight with those powerful legislators…”  I then understood the exact reason why this man had done what he did: internal consumption. What created the worst moment of the conference, what embarrassed the members of his own delegation, was the same speech that made him a hero back home. I was glad I reacted the way I did and interpreted his words during that dinner.

I now ask you to please share an episode where you had to think fast and decide even faster about a rendition, even if it did not involve deciding what to interpret, like in court interpreting where the dilemma is nonexistent as you are required to interpret everything but other situations where the interpreter has to react quickly in the courtroom may occur.

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