June 14, 2022 § Leave a comment
I was recently retained to work on an RSI assignment by an official organization. This was not a private market job, but it was a multi-day project that provided the opportunity, even at a distance, to converse with those in charge of the event.
On the last day of this job, I learned from one organizer that they were very happy with the interpreters’ work. I was told they were very impressed by the level of the interpretation and technical support. This person congratulated us for the smooth hand overs, quality of the interpreters’ sound, our preparation for the assignment, justifying our request for so many documents; I heard they were “impressed” by the fact we never stumbled with any of the specialized terms, and we never asked for the speakers to slow down. They also commended our tech support team for “protecting the interpretation” every time they asked for the speakers to mute their microphones to prevent echo, asked the participants not to speak over each other during their exchanges, and when during the dry run they explained the headsets and microphones acceptable for the event.
This person mentioned they will have other similar events soon, and they were under pressure to look for other interpreter services in the private market because our services came at a high price compared to the fees others ask for in the private market.
I let them know that they will likely get a different quality of service at those lower prices because interpreting is an unregulated profession where anyone can claim to be a conference interpreter. I explained that our cost was justified by our services because the organization that brought us to the event only offers interpreters who regularly work with governments and international organizations, with years of experience, who are members of the most prestigious conference interpreters’ association in the world. I took the opportunity to emphasize that all things he congratulated us for, come from such quality level, and that even in the private market, the interpreters I was talking about would not be less expensive, as they charge the same, or higher fees, when working for a private corporation.
The organizer thanked me for sharing this information; told me nobody in the private sector had ever explained that to them, and they now understood the higher cost was justified. This was a brief exchange, but that evening I reflected on the importance of doing a good job, always understanding the client’s needs and thoughts, and never wasting an opportunity to talk to the person in charge of making the decisions when a window opens organically as it happened here.
I Applaud the Professionalism and Humanity Many Interpreters Have Displayed under Terrible Circumstances. ￼
March 9, 2022 § 9 Comments
For some weeks we have witnessed the professional job our colleagues in Ukraine and elsewhere have done under extremely difficult circumstances. We have seen them in action interpreting for journalists throughout the country, even in very dangerous situations; we have seen their stellar performance in the international organizations, bilateral and multilateral government summits, refugee camps, TV networks, and non-governmental organizations. Some of us may have been directly or indirectly involved in some of these services, and many of us have been in touch, at a more personal level, with interpreter friends and their family members in Ukraine, in a neighboring country’s refugee shelter, or living abroad in Ukrainian communities, sometimes for many years.
To many, when we think of our colleagues in these extraordinary circumstances, the first images that come to mind are of Victor Shevchenko’s moving, emotional rendition of President Zelensky’s speech to the European Parliament, and Die Welt Übersetzerin‘s interpretation of Zelensky’s words for the German WELT television channel, truncated by emotion. To these two colleagues, and all others: You are doing an amazing job, and as evidenced in social media and interpreter associations’ websites worldwide, we support you, respect you, and admire you.
These sad times have shown the public that interpreters are not automated beings that take information in a source language, convert it, and then render it in a different target language. Interpreters are human beings, they are world citizens who, to do their job correctly, need to have a bast knowledge acquired by reading, studying, traveling, and life experiences. Interpreting is a human profession, and this is one reason why a machine full of algorithms will never convey the same emotional message our colleagues are transmitting to the world at this terrible time. My motivation to write this post came from the examples above, also from the inappropriate comments by some in social media, sadly including some interpreters, who criticized the emotional renditions with empty arguments too bizarre to even mention. All I will say is I am glad AIIC issued the very valuable resolution against bullying, and I invite those who criticized these interpreters to read this document and learn about professionalism in our craft. I wish all interpreters providing their services during this horrible invasion: physical and mental health, freedom, and a safe return to your loved ones. I now invite you to share your comments, and please abstain from sending political comments justifying the invasion. They will not be posted.
February 7, 2022 § Leave a comment
Because Americans love to bring up sports in a conference, and due to the acquired taste needed to enjoy a sport popular in the United States and few other places in the world, every year I write a post on the biggest sporting event: The Super Bowl.
On February 13 the United States will hold the most watched TV event in our country, a game played on an unofficial holiday, more popular than most holidays on the official calendar. The Super Bowl is the national professional football championship game in the United States of America; and it is not football… at least not THAT football played in the rest of the world. This popular sport in the United States is known abroad as “American football,” and even this designation seems troublesome to many who have watched a little American football and do not understand it well. Although it is mainly played holding a ball, the sport is known in the United States as football for two reasons: (1) Because this American-born sport comes from “rugby football” (now rugby) that came from soccer (football outside the United States) and (2) Because it is football, but it is not British organized football, which when American football invented was called “association football” and was later known by the second syllable of the word “association”: “socc” which mutated into “soccer.” You now understand where the name came from, but is it really football? For Americans it is. Remember that all other popular team sports in the United States are played with your hands or a stick (baseball, basketball and ice hockey). The only sport in the United States where points can be scored by kicking the ball is (American) football. So, even though most of the time the ball is carried by hand or caught with your hands, sometimes, a team scores or defends field position by kicking or punting the football. Now, why is all this relevant to us as interpreters? Because if you interpret from American English you are likely to run into speakers who will talk about the Super Bowl, football, or will use examples taken from this very popular sport in the U.S.
On Sunday, most Americans will gather in front of the TV set to watch the National Football Conference champion Los Angeles Rams battle the American Football Conference champion Cincinnati Bengals for the Vince Lombardi Trophy (official name of the trophy given to the team that wins the Super Bowl) which incidentally is a trophy in the shape of a football, not a bowl. It is because the game was not named after a trophy, it was named after a tradition. There are two football levels in the United States: college football played by amateur students, and professional football. College football is older than pro-football and for many decades the different college champions were determined by playing invitational football games at the end of the college football season on New Year’s Day. These games were called (and still are) “Bowls.” You may have heard of the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and many others. When a professional football game was created to determine the over-all champion between the champions of the American and National Conferences, it was just natural (and profitable) to call it the “Super Bowl.”
The game, which involves two teams representing two regions of the country, will be played in Los Angeles, California. It will be the second time in history that one team playing for the famous trophy will play in its home stadium. Last year was the first time when the Tampa Bay team played at home. Every year the Super Bowl is played in a venue where the weather at this time of the year is more welcoming. There will be millions watching the match from home, and there will be hundreds of millions spent on TV commercials during the game.
As I do every year on these dates, I have included a basic glossary of English<>Spanish football terms that may be useful to you, particularly those of you who do escort, diplomatic, and conference interpreting from American English to Mexican Spanish. “American” football is very popular in Mexico (where they have college football) Eventually, many of you will face situations where two people will discuss the Super Bowl; as you are interpreting somebody will tell a football story during a presentation; or you may end up at a TV or radio studio simultaneously interpreting a football game for your own or another foreign market.
The following glossary does not cover every term in football; it includes terms very common, and where there were several translations of a football term, I selected the term used in Mexico by the Mexican media that covers the sport.
|National Football League||Liga Nacional de Fútbol Americano|
|American Football Conference||Conferencia Americana|
|National Football Conference||Conferencia Nacional|
|Regular season||Temporada regular|
|Standings||Tabla de posiciones|
|Field||Terreno de juego|
|End zone||Zona de anotación/ diagonales|
|Super Bowl||Súper Tazón|
|Pro Bowl||Tazón Profesional/ Juego de estrellas|
|Uniform & Equipment||Uniforme y Equipo|
|Special teams||Equipos especiales|
|Fair catch||Recepción libre|
|Possession||Posesión del balón|
|First and ten||Primero y diez|
|First and goal||Primero y gol|
|Line of scrimmage||Línea de golpeo|
|Neutral zone||Zona neutral|
|Long snap||Centro largo/ centro al pateador|
|Turnover||Pérdida de balón|
|Pass rush||Presión al mariscal de campo|
|“I” Formation||Formación “I”|
|Shotgun Formation||Formación escopeta|
|“T” Formation||Formación “T”|
|Wishbone Formation||Formación wishbone|
|Sidelines||Líneas laterales/ banca|
|Out-of-bounds||Fuera del terreno|
|Head Coach||Entrenador en jefe|
|Offensive Tackle||Tacleador ofensivo|
|Offensive line||Línea ofensiva|
|Wide Receiver||Receptor abierto|
|Tight end||Ala cerrada|
|Fullback||Corredor de poder|
|Quarterback||Mariscal de campo|
|Defensive end||Ala defensiva|
|Defensive tackle||Tacleador defensivo|
|Nose guard||Guardia nariz|
|Free safety||Profundo libre|
|Strong safety||Profundo fuerte|
|Punter||Pateador de despeje|
Even if you are not a football fan, and even if you are not watching the big game on Sunday, I hope you find this glossary useful. Now I invite you to comment on football, sports interpreting, or maybe you would like to share a “sports interpreting anecdote” with all of us.
September 9, 2021 § 4 Comments
On May 15, 2021 the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) released a study suggesting that an English-to-English exam might solve the shortage of healthcare interpreters in what they call “languages of lesser diffusion,” meaning languages other than Spanish, Arabic or Mandarin. The reason for this “sui-generis” affirmation is very simple: developing actual interpretation exams to test candidates on simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, and sight translation in both: source and target languages would be too expensive and therefore not profitable. Interesting solution: examine candidates’ English language skills (reading comprehension, medical concepts, fill-in the blanks, and what they consider can show the candidate’s “potential correlation with overall interpreting ability”: “listening comprehension.”) An English only exam will catapult an individual into an E.R. to perform as an interpreter without ever testing on interpretation!
What about native English speakers, who in the study scored an average of 87.9% compared to non-native speakers, who scored an average of 76.6%? No problem, says CCHI; passing score is 60% and Spanish language interpreters will continue to take the interpretation exam already in existence. I suppose the expectation might be that people who speak other “languages of lesser diffusion” in the United States have a higher academic background and their English proficiency is higher. Another point that makes this “solution” attractive is that most interpreter encounters in hospitals, offices and emergency rooms involve Spanish speakers, which brings the possibility of lawsuits for interpreter malpractice to a low, manageable incidence. I would add that many people needing interpreting services will not even consider a lawsuit because of ignorance, fear or immigration status. The good news: CCHI concluded that although this English-to-English exam option “is a promising measure…(it)…requires additional revision and piloting prior to use for high-stakes testing.” (https://slator.com/can-a-monolingual-oral-exam-level-the-playing-field-for-certifying-us-interpreters/)
Reading of this report and the article on Slator got me thinking about the current status of healthcare interpreting in the Covid-19 pandemic. How long will the American healthcare system ignore that the country is everyday more diverse and in need of professional, well-prepared healthcare interpreters in all languages? The answer is difficult and easy at the same time.
A difficult answer.
It is difficult because we live in a reality where every day, American patients face a system with very few capable healthcare interpreters, most in a handful of language combinations, and practically all of them in large and middle-sized cities. The two healthcare certification programs have poor exams. One of them does not even test simultaneous interpreting, and the other tests a candidates’ simultaneous skills with two 2-minute-long vignettes (one in English and the other in the second language). Consecutive skills are also tested at a very basic level with four vignettes of twenty-four 35 or fewer-words “utterances” each. It is impossible to assess somebody interpreting skills with such an exam after just 40 hours of interpreter training. (https://cchicertification.org/uploads/CHI_Exam_Structure-Interface-2020.pdf).
Except for those interpreters with an academic background or prepared on their own because they care about the service they provide, the current system provides a warm body, or a face on a screen, not a healthcare interpreter. Because the motivation is a robust profit, it is conceived and designed to protect the interests of insurance companies, hospital shareholders, and language services agencies. It has been structured to project the false impression these entities are complying with the spirit of the law; It is not designed to protect the physician or the patient.
In 1974 the United States Supreme Court ruled that failing to provide language support for someone with limited English proficiency is a form of discrimination on the basis of national origin (https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2000/08/30/00-22140/title-vi-of-the-civil-rights-act-of-1964-policy-guidance-on-the-prohibition-against-national-origin). The ruling was later broadened and implemented by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (https://www.ada.gov/effective-comm.htm) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) commonly known as “Obamacare.” (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/1557-fs-lep-508.pdf) This legislation specify that healthcare organizations must offer qualified medical interpreters for patients of limited English proficiency and those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
An easy answer.
Despite the reality we face, the answer to the question above is easily attainable because the healthcare industry has immense financial resources and a system that lets them capture money at a scale no other industry can.
The healthcare sector deals with the lives and quality of living of all individuals present in the United States. Their reason to exist is to save lives, not to produce ever-growing dividends to its shareholders every year. This is an industry that spends unimaginable amounts of money in medical equipment, state-of-the-art technology, physicians, surgeons, nurses, therapists, researchers, attorneys, and managerial staff salaries. New expensive hospitals, medical office buildings, clinics, laboratories, and rehab centers are built all the time. This industry can spend top money in those sectors because it is good for business. It is an investment that produces a profit. I am not even scratching the surface of these expenses, but even if we ignore the money spent in food, gear, vehicles (land and air), utilities, clerical staff, janitorial staff, and medical aide positions, we can safely conclude this is an industry that knows how to spend money when an expense is viewed as an investment that will produce a financial benefit.
Designing good medical interpreter exams in many languages is expensive, paying professional-level fees to healthcare interpreters will cost money, managing a continuing education program will not be cheap, but the healthcare sector cannot cry poverty. They have the funds to do it. It is incomprehensible how a business that bankrupts its patients after one surgery or a chronic disease can argue with a straight face, they can only pay 30 to 50 dollars an hour to a medical interpreter. This is an industry that charges you fifty dollars for a plastic pitcher of water or twenty dollars for a box of tissue they replace every day.
Quality interpreting, and living up to the spirit of the law, cannot happen when an organization spends money to look for shortcuts such as testing English-to-English in an interpreting program. Only the promise of a professional income will attract the best minds to healthcare interpreting. Current conditions, including low pay, an agency-run system, and searching for shortcuts to go around the law will never produce quality interpreters.
If those deciding understand good professional healthcare interpreters are an investment as valuable as good physicians, surgeons and nurses, the solution can begin immediately. Designing and administering a quality interpretation exam will take time, getting colleges and universities to start interpreting programs that include medical interpreting will not be easy, but there are steps that can improve the level of interpreting services right away.
A higher pay, comparable to that of conference interpreters will immediately attract top interpreters in all languages, at least temporarily or part-time to the field. Many top interpreters see the need for quality services during the pandemic, and they feel a need to help, but they have to make a living and healthcare interpreter fees do not meet the mark.
Instead of thinking of English-to-English exams to create an illusion they are forming interpreters, stakeholders should recruit native speakers of languages where interpreters are hard to find, but they must stop looking for “ad-hoc” interpreters in restaurant kitchens and hotel cleaning crews, and start talking to college students and professors, to scientists and physicians from those countries who now practice in the United States. With current technology, hospitals should look for their interpreters among the interpreter community in the country where a language is spoken and retain their services to interpret remotely, instead of opening massive call centers in developing countries, using the technology to generate a higher profit instead of better quality.
Hospital Boards must find the money and allocate it to interpreting services. In these cases, such as Medicaid and others, the cost of interpreter services should be considered an operating expense. Insurers do not reimburse for nursing and ancillary staff. Hospitals and practices pay their salaries.
Payers may also benefit by covering interpreter services. Although data are limited according to the Journal of the American Medical Association Forum, studies suggest that when physicians struggle to communicate with patients, they are more likely to order unnecessary tests and treatments. This not only puts patients at increased risk, but also directly increases payer spending. Limited English proficiency patients may need care more frequently or seek treatment in more expensive settings, such as the emergency room, when they cannot communicate with primary care providers. Similar to insurers in fee-for-service arrangements, risk-bearing provider groups in alternative payment models face a similar incentive to curtail unnecessary or wasteful utilization. Poor interpreting services will also result in malpractice lawsuits against hospitals, language service providers, insurance companies and medical staff. In the long run, by far, this makes investing in quality interpreter services and interpreting education/certification programs a smaller expense. “Paying for interpreter services, from cost-based reimbursement, to their inclusion in prospective payment models, to insurer-led contracting of remote interpreters, would not only address the disparities exposed by the pandemic, but also help support practices facing financial peril due to the pandemic.” (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama-health-forum/fullarticle/2771859) It is time to grow up and stand up to the stakeholders in the healthcare sector; it is time to unmask the real intentions of language service providers who take advantage of often-poorly prepared interpreters to get a profit. It is time to have a serious healthcare interpreter certification exam that really tests the candidate’s interpreting skills. We need university and college programs, and a different recruitment system led by hospitals and insurance companies not multinational interpreting agencies, or ill-prepared small local players. Interpreters cannot be made in 40 hours and we can’t have newly trained interpreters learning at the cost of real patients’ safety. The pandemic showed us the importance of healthcare interpreting, let’s seize the opportunity to professionalize it.
May 3, 2021 § 6 Comments
Sometimes freelance interpreters face a scenario where a client agrees to pay a professional fee, and after the interpretation they refuse to pay, make a late payment, or try to pay less than the fee agreed by the parties. It is not unusual to hear from a colleague struggling to stay afloat as a business because of morose or dishonest clients.
The first thing we must do is assess the client before agreeing to the service, we have to do our homework, find out who the client is, what is their track record. This due diligence is essential to decide if we want to enter a professional relationship or not. The next step should be a negotiation where you listen to the potential client’s needs, establish your conditions, and give expert advice to the client. Once an agreement is acceptable to both parties, you must sign a contract, preferably your own, or the client’s when they require it, as long as all your negotiated conditions are included.
Many times, there is not enough time for a lengthy negotiation, especially when this assignment is short or urgent. When you find yourselves in this situation, negotiate by email, text, or over a telephone or video call. Do noy skip this step. Many times, there is no time to draft a lengthy, written contract; some clients have a less formal approach to their hiring practices. That is fine, but there is something you must do regardless of the situation or the client: You must have proof of the essential terms of the negotiation, in case you have to take action against that client. Let it be very clear I am not giving you legal advice; if you need legal assistance, please see an attorney in your jurisdiction. I am only sharing what I do in these cases:
Email or text your client, even if you were just retained and you are on your way to the assignment; even if you are on the phone with the client. Just let them know you are sending an email spelling out the conditions just discussed because you need it for your internal paperwork. This text or email must include all relevant terms of the agreement, and it should be short and straight to the point. Something like: “Per our recent conversation, this is to confirm that you have retained me to interpret “X” Conference (or other event) to take place in (city and country, or on “X” platform to be used if RSI) on (dates and times of the event). My fee will be “X” amount per day (up to 4, 6 or 7 hours, depending on the type of service: distance or in-person) with an OT hourly rate of “X” amount after that, payable within (30, 45) days from the time I send my electronic invoice to this same email address, and a late interest payment of “X” percent if not paid on time. Please confirm these terms by responding to this email the word: “Confirmed”.
Then, in small print (to keep the email short) but before my signature, I add: “It is agreed by the parties that the recipient of this communication has 48 hours from the date of this email to reject its terms, and not responding to this communication within that time will constitute agreement to all the terms in this communication.” Once again, remember this is not legal advice. Please consult an attorney if you have questions.
When a client does not pay by the date agreed in the contract, send them an email (never a phone call because you want to have proof of this communication) attaching your invoice with a legend stating “Overdue.” And politely “remind” them of the payment. This is enough in most cases. If the client cries poverty, or ignores you, wait 30 days or whatever is customary in your country but charge late payment interest. After that, you repeat the same 30 days later. If the client does not pay, then retain a collection agency. They will charge you to collect, but that is better than nothing. Finally, if this does not work, or if you prefer to skip the collection agency step, take the client to court. Sue for payment of your fees, late payment interests, court costs, and attorney’s fees (when retaining a lawyer). Most morose clients will settle at this time, but if they do not, move ahead with the lawsuit and get a judgement against the client. This does not guarantee you will collect any money, but will go to the client’s credit report. You should also take that judgement to the Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and local Consumer Affairs authority where the client resides. Next, report the incident and provide copy of the final judgement to the client’s professional associations (for disciplinary action) and to your local, national, and international interpreter associations so this client can be included in all black lists to benefit your colleagues. Finally, if applicable, share this information with the ethnic media target of that client’s business, and share it on your social media, just stating the facts, without editorializing to avoid any future complications. This will get your money most of the time, and will teach a lesson to those who violate your professional services contract. It will also send a message to others that you take your work seriously. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your policy to avoid this breach of contract, or to collect unpaid fees.
February 18, 2021 § 7 Comments
This is an article I wrote for the ITI. It was published several months ago, and I now reproduce it on my blog:
The pandemic has been an eye-opener on the future of the profession, and an opportunity to assess everything I was doing right before this crisis. During the last couple of months, I have strengthened my professional bond with my direct clients. Because of the uncertain future, and complicated present, I saw the need to contact my best clients with three objectives: To reassured them I am here to assist them at this time; to show them empathy and remind them I am going through the same difficulties they are facing to remain viable; and to advise them on their best options to deal with urgent matters using RSI until they meet in person again. COVID-19 showed me I did the right thing years ago when I looked for direct clients instead of waiting for the agencies to contact me. I validate this decision every time I hear how agencies are trying to lower interpreting fees; or how they are taking advantage by recruiting desperate or inexperienced interpreters willing to be paid by the minute. I see there is an RSI hype that, from the platform’s perspective is a total success. You can hardly spend a minute on social media without running into an interpreter bragging about their newly acquired skill. Unfortunately, I see how many of these colleagues believe that learning the platform translates into assignments and income. I feel sorry for them because nobody reminded them interpreters get hired based on the quality of their work and their professional experience. It breaks my heart to see how many are spending the limited money they have on expensive microphones, headsets, and even soundproof rooms. Isolation made me appreciate things I never considered before: genuine solidarity among professional colleagues, human contact, my time in the booth, talking to the client face to face, touring a venue before the event, crowded airports, hotel bars after the event, shaking the hand of a good technician in appreciation for making me sound good. Interpreters are social beings and there are many cultures in the world that will demand in-person conferences and meetings when it is safe to do it. Before the virus, RSI was a small business; now tech giants are pouring in their resources. It may be a matter of time before the RSI platforms interpreters are talking about are Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Finally, I learned two lessons: Some professional associations are helping us through these ugly days while others prioritized money over humans and are forging ahead with expensive conferences no one will attend. I learned RSI will get better every day and it will remain the choice for small and preliminary meetings. It will also be used by companies that could not afford in-person events before. We must decide the professional fees and work conditions we need and want. It must be the interpreter who gets the client, not the platform. If we do our job, there will be a bigger pie for all interpreters.
January 12, 2021 § 6 Comments
Now that 2020 ended and we are working towards a better and safer 2021, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months. As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, last year was like no other. 2020 was garbage. It was a terrible year for humanity, and for the profession, and it was even worse for the interpreters.
Stating the facts does not make me a negative individual. This post acknowledges reality because that is the only way we can move forward and leave this awful year in the trash can. To those who say the year was not so bad, because it made us realize what is truly important, I say this is a self-defense mechanism that keeps us from dealing with the horrendous truth; and to those claiming that 2020 was a good year for them, all I can do is ask them how can you celebrate a year when so many millions of people died, many more millions got sick with long-term consequences, lost their jobs, or their business went under with no fault of their own? The year was a dark moment in human history. We saw how many of our colleagues, some great interpreters, left the profession just to feed their families; we saw how the sound technicians, our professional partners, lost their source of income, and with that their homes, cars, health insurance. I was left wondering about the lives of airport, hotel, and airline workers who I used to see several times a week and were left with the sad option of collecting unemployment insurance and visiting food banks to feed their children. I often think of my colleagues enduring the hardship of not working remotely as they now have their children at home because schools were closed many months ago; I see how many colleagues, some top-tier interpreters, are struggling to learn technology, and install the infrastructure at home to enter the world of distance conference interpreting, and literarily suffer as they try to understand a technology that appeared too late in their lives, or cut essential expenses so they can pay for high speed internet, or noise-cancelling headphones. I feel so sad when I see my elderly colleagues getting COVID-19, and sometimes passing away. I had a hard time, like we all did, but fortunately, I was technologically ready to jump on the distance interpreting bandwagon, and even though I am working at home, missing all those things that make life worth living, such as traveling, and enjoying human contact, I was lucky enough to work, remotely, with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.
Our profession saw its conferences migrate to a virtual mode, allowing us to learn and practice, but depriving us from the opportunities to do networking and renew friendships with those colleagues we only see once a year. I congratulate those professional associations that cancelled, postponed, and moved their conferences online, and I shame those associations that put money ahead of their members’ health, and waited until the last moment to switch to virtual. That we will remember.
2020 was the year of fraud and misrepresentation of credentials where sadly, many great instructors and presenters shared cyberspace with unknown, self-proclaimed experts who made money by designing a nice website, attractive advertisement, and nothing else. We saw the growth of our profession in distance interpreting: Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) video remote interpreting (VRI) and over the phone interpreting (OPI). Unfortunately, much of its growth was due to questionable advertisement by some platforms and agencies who scared clients and naïve interpreters by making them believe that in-person interpreting was forever gone, and selling them the false idea that distance interpreting was of the same quality as in-person traditional work. We learned the value of real interpreter-centric professional associations that defended our interests when platforms, agencies, and many clients tried (and continue to try) to lower our standards by retaining unqualified interpreters, violating the rules of professional domicile, and recruiting interpreters and para-professionals willing to work long hours, solo, and for little money. We saw how not even a pandemic can bring us a one hundred percent pariah-safe year.
One of the few good things that happened in 2020 was the defeat of ATA’s Board initiative to decouple membership from certification. I applaud the members who made it possible with their vote.
Finally, to end on a positive note, I say we proved to ourselves that interpreters are resilient, able to adapt to adversity to survive, and good humans. We saw more unity among our colleagues than ever before. This was a welcome development in the ferocious assault by the agencies demanding work for lower pay, and platforms demanding work under substandard conditions. I disagree, however, with the idea that we “learned” how to do this. We just remembered how to do it. It is Darwinian that humans adapt to changing circumstances. That is natural selection.
We now face a new year full of uncertainty, with a poor distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, new mutations of the virus, a world economy in shambles, a hospitality sector, vital to our profession, looking at a long term come back that has not even started, and the usual agencies and their associates looking for a way to make a quick buck at the expense of the interpreter. As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, there were terrible things in 2020, many of us lost family, friends and colleagues; our income was affected, and some of our clients closed. Fortunately, we remembered we are resilient, adaptable, and courageous; we discovered we can work together as interpreters regardless of our geographic location, and we saw there is technology to keep us going during the crisis. Much changed and sadly much stayed the same. I will focus on the good things to come while I guard against the bad ones. I wish you all a better and healthy 2021!
November 23, 2020 § Leave a comment
Once again, despite the pandemic and warnings from the Health Authorities, unfortunately, on Thanksgiving Day millions of Americans will gather with friends and relatives to celebrate the most American of all holidays. It is difficult to comprehend how so many of our fellow citizens will put self-interest above society’s public health, but that is not the topic of this post. Just as we know indoor gatherings are not cool this year, we know many think of Thanksgiving as a symbol of the oppression and abuse Native Americans endured when Europeans arrived in the continent. Both perspectives are valid, but this blog is about interpreting, and like every year, I chose this week to reflect on the contributions the first interpreters made to the birth of our nation. This time, we will remember the interpreters that made possible America’s expansion to the west.
Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson organized a scientific and diplomatic mission to the newly acquired lands with the goals of mapping the territories, explore the flora and fauna, find a passage to the Pacific, and to establish diplomatic and commercial ties with local inhabitants of these lands, now part of the United States. The expedition was entrusted to renowned explorers, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Lewis and Clark organized a group of 45 members named the Corps of Discovery, which included officers, 29 military personal, civilians and servants. They left Camp Dubois (in present Illinois) on May 14, 1804. From the beginning, Lewis and Clark knew diplomacy in the new territories would require of the services of interpreters, as most people they were about to encounter would speak French, Spanish, or one of the many indigenous languages. A top priority, they initiated a campaign to recruit interpreters who spoke French, Spanish, and the known indigenous languages, knowing well they would need to incorporate additional interpreters along the way to communicate in other languages they would be discovering along the trip.
The native inhabitants of the Great Plains spoke many languages and dialects. Even those from the same language group were not mutually intelligible all the time. Besides oral communication, Native Americans on the plains communicated through an elaborated system of hand signs to communicate with other nations when they did not know the others’ language. This way they were able to negotiate peace, create military alliances, and trade with one another.
French, Spanish, British, and American trappers and traders living along the Missouri River had interacted with the natives for years, some had married local women, and their children, a product of both cultures, often spoke the language of both parents. George Drouillard, the son of a French father and Shawnee mother was one of them. Captain Lewis recruited him, and Francois Labiche and Pierre Cruzatte. These two spoke French, English, and Omaha.
Although he could speak no Native American language, Private John Baptiste Lapage spoke, and had interpreted between French and English, a valuable resource when communicating with French traders and trappers who lived in the region. Drouillard and Cruzatte were conversant in the Sign Language of the plains, and later, Private George Gibson was also recruited for his knowledge of this Sign Language. Anticipating contact with the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, or Great Sioux Nation, Lewis and Clark realized Cruzatte’s knowledge of Sign Language was limited. Luckily, they ran into a Frenchman named Pierre Dorion, who was married to a Sioux woman, had lived among the Yankton for decades, and was fluent in their language. Captain Lewis hired him immediately. His services proved valuable since Lewis engaged his services to communicate President Jefferson’s peaceful intentions to the local leaders.
By late July 1804, the Captains were eager to hold their first meeting with the representatives from the Oto, Missouri, Omaha, and Ponca, or Pawnee nations. They retained the services of a Frenchman known as La Liberteé, or Barter, who spoke the Oto language. This interpreter deserted before he could provide any services, but another Frenchmen, Fairfong, who lived among the Oto and Missouri, and spoke their language, accompanied the Captains to a summit later known as the “Council Bluff.”
At the summit, Fairfong interpreted consecutively from Oto into French, then Droullard and Cruzatte took relay from French, and interpreted consecutively into English for Lewis and Clark. Because of the interpretation, all parties could communicate and negotiate, and the Council was deemed a diplomatic success.
In September 1804, the Captains held a Council with the Teton Sioux without competent interpreters. This proved to be very difficult, as Clark recorded in his journal: “…we feel much at a loss for the want of an interpreter… the one we have can Speek (sic) but little…” (after a meal) “…Cap. Lewis proceeded to deliver a Speech which we (were) oblige(d) to Curtail for want of a good interpreter.” (Lewis, Meriwether and Clark William. The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Bergon, ed. New York, NY. Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1989. P. 52) The lack of quality interpreting nearly ended in tragedy when after the meeting, one of the Chiefs became “…Verry (sic) insolent in words and justures (sic), pretended Drunkenness & staggered up against (Clark)” (Ibid p. 52, 53).
On October 1804 Captain Lewis visited an Arikara village, and Captain Clark stayed behind to talk to some Frenchmen who arrived by pirogue. Among these men there were two traders named Joseph Gravelines (who Clark always called “Gavellin”) and Antoine Tabeau. Later, Lewis described Gravelines as “…a man well-versed in the language of this nation…” (Ibid p. 61). These new interpreters explained that the Arikara spoke different languages because of a merger of different tribes: They “…do not understand all the words of the others…” (Ibid p. 67). Without the interpreting services of Gravelines and Tabeau, Lewis and Clark could have never held a successful and productive summit with the Arikara. In late October, helped by these two interpreters, they had another successful meeting with the Mandans. At this village the Captains met another Frenchman: René Jessaume, who lived with his Native American wife in the village and offer his interpreting services for as long as they stayed among the Mandan and Hidasta. Jessaume turned into a most valuable assistant as he provided information on the leaders’ personalities, local politics. and local culture. This information helped Lewis and Clark in their efforts to negotiate a peace treaty between neighboring tribes. These actions made Jessaume the first interpreter and cultural broker of the expedition. (Ibid p. 69-72).
At this village the Captains considered the possibility that the northwest passage did not exist. There, they would need to continue by foot, and they would need horses. Learning the Shoshone possessed quality horses, Lewis and Clark decided to meet them and negotiate the acquisition of some. To accomplish this objective, they knew a competent Shoshone interpreter would be essential not just to get the horses, but to communicate their peaceful intentions and fulfill the diplomatic mission ordered by President Jefferson.
On November 4, a Frenchman named Toussaint Charbonneau visited the expedition at the place that would become Fort Mandan and offered his services as an interpreter. He did not speak Shoshone, but one of his two wives, Sacagawea, who had been captured by the Shoshone as a child did. He offered his wife as an interpreter from Shoshone into Hidatsa, and his services from the latter into French, leaving open the need for a French-English interpreter. For this task, the Captains hired Private Francois Labiche who spoke both, English and French. Charbonneau was hired “as an interpreter through his wife.” (Ibid. p. 77, 78). At this time, the Arikara Chief and his men, along with interpreters Gravelines and Tabeau wished farewell to Lewis and Clark and their now 33-member “permanent party” as they sailed up the Missouri River.
In August 1805, while looking to buy horses, crossing the Continental Divide, Captain Lewis and Drouillard encountered some Shoshone. The interpreter communicated through Sign Language as recorded on the journals: “…The means I had of communicating with these people was by way of Drewyer (Drouillard) who understood perfectly the common language of jesticulation (sic) or signs which seems to be universally understood by all the Nations we have yet seen. It is true that this language is imperfect and liable of error but is much less so than would be expected. The strong parts of the ideas are seldom mistaken…” (Ibid. p.98). After the rest of the party joined Lewis, it was discovered that the Shoshone leader, Cameahwait, was Sacagawea’s brother who she had not seen for five years. These circumstances made the purchase of the horses easier, but negotiations had to be carried on through relay interpreting: Lewis and Clark spoke to Labiche in English, Labiche interpreted the message into French for Charbonneau; Charbonneau interpreted into Hidatsa for Sacagawea; and she interpreted into Shoshone for her brother. When Cameahwait spoke, the process was reversed. (Ibid. p. 275). This was the regular interpreting system followed during the expedition. The extensive, consecutive relay interpretation must have taken a long time.
Perhaps the most complicated interpreting session took place in April 1806 during the return trip near the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers when the expedition found members of the Walla Walla Nation. The Captains had no Walla Walla interpreter, so they relied on Drouillard’s Sign Language, but the communication was not going as desired. Fortunately, at this time, Sacagawea found a Shoshone woman among the Walla Wallas. This woman had been taken as a child by the Walla Walla and spoke their language. They could now negotiate with the Walla Wallas. Lewis and Clark spoke to Labiche in English; he interpreted into French for Charbonneau; Charbonneau then relayed to Sacagawea in Hidatsa; she interpreted into Shoshone for the captive woman, who in turn interpreted into Walla Walla for the Head of the tribe.
Most people think of Sacagawea as the interpreter of Lewis and Clark. Her contributions were key to the success of the expedition and the survival of the corps; but communication was only possible thanks to the services of all other interpreters of Lewis and Clark: Toussaint Charbonneau, Francois Labiche, Pierre Cruzatte, George Gibson, George Drouillard, Pierre Dorion, Fairfong, Reneé Jessaume, Josepg Gravelines, and Antoine Tabeau. The Lewis and Clark expedition, and the transformation of the American nation, may have failed for “want of a good interpreter.” Fortunately, they had plenty of capable individuals who bridged the communication gap, and made science and diplomacy possible, by interpreting consecutively, offering cultural advice, working relay into several languages at a time, and using sign language.
On this Thanksgiving Day, let’s remember and celebrate the work of these often-forgotten pioneers who did their best for two bosses who knew from the beginning that having good, reliable interpretation was essential for the success of the most famous expedition in American history.
October 27, 2020 § 9 Comments
Every year in October this blog devotes an entry to a Halloween theme. Many of you have told me you enjoy the post because you are into the season’s festivities, or because you learn about other cultures. Some just like it because it brings back nostalgic memories of your childhood or hometown. In the past we have talked about the Day of the Dead celebrations (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2019/10/); Halloween traditional foods around the world (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2018/10/); some of the scariest books ever written (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2017/10/); the scariest movies in all languages (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2016/10/); horror legends and stories (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2015/10/); and America’s favorite monsters (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2014/10/). This time we will remember those weird-looking, sometimes goofy characters that kept us glued to the television when we were kids.
Hosting horror movies on TV is no easy task; the person doing it has to be entertaining, charismatic, and funny enough to act as a safety mechanism to relieve some of the tension created by the suspense of the movie with some humor. These hosts and hostesses have the apparently impossible task of keeping hyperactive children of all ages from changing the channel despite most horror’s showing are cheesy and absurd. The horror movie host role is born when TV stations, often with low budgets, showed the old classic horror movies produced by Universal in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of those movies were good, featured well-known actors and were very scary. Unfortunately, since there are not enough of these movies to keep a weekly TV show running for too long, TV stations alternated these classic films with very bad, poorly produced “B” movies by unknown actors and directors dealing with nonsensical stories and the worst makeup and special effects. Many of these movies never saw a movie theater, and those that were shown had a run shorter than a blink of an eye.
Incredibly, many of the “B” movies became cult films and they are now considered “classic” in a category of their own. A big part of the credit for this success has to go to the hosts and hostesses who, like DJs on the radio, showed them until they were hits. I do not believe too many of us would have ever watched “Santa Claus conquers the Martians” without the sales pitch of a horror movie TV host or hostess. Today, we take a trip down memory lane and remember some hundreds of actors who, for many years, put on a costume and makeup to get into a character. You will recognize some names, you will learn of some for the first time, but they all gave kids the thrill of a horror movie right in the living room of their own homes somewhere in the world.
Boris Karloff. This legendary British actor, known as the monster in the original 1931 Frankenstein movie, and also the narrator in Dr. Seus’ animated film “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” hosted a horror shown in the early 1960s: “Boris Karloff Presents” or “Thriller.” An American anthology TV series where he introduced a mix of macabre tales and suspense thrillers.
Count Gore de Vol. A TV horror host who appeared on a Washington, DC station from 1973 to 1987, played by Dick Dyszel. He was a pioneer of the genre when he became the first host to show on TV the unedited version of “The Night of the Living Dead.” He frequently had Penthouse Magazine models (“pets”) as his guests.
The CryptKeeper. Not all hosts are human; sometimes a puppet can become a star on its own. That is the case of the CryptKeeper, a puppet operated by puppeteer Van Snowden and voiced by John Kassir that hosted HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” and appeared in the opening segment as the storyteller. Later, he would return for the closing segment to offer sardonic commentary or to provide a cynical moral.
Deadly Earnest. He was a late sixties popular “B” horror movie host on Australian TV, first in Perth, and later nationwide. His show: “Deadly Earnest’s Aweful Movies” was so successful that he even presented the “Worst Movie of the Year” award.
Dr. Morgus the Magnificent. Sidney Noel Rideau played the mad scientist on New Orleans TV and performed science experiments live on the show between horror movie segments. Famous for his mad genius eyes, he once said his character was inspired by Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and his loyal assistant Chopsley was his “Sancho Panza.”
Elvira Mistress of the Dark. Cassandra Peterson gained fame on Los Angeles television by playing a character wearing a revealing, black, gothic, cleavage-enhancing gown while hosting “Elvira’s Movie Macabre,” a weekly “B” movie show in the 1980s. Elvira became a household name, bringing Peterson fame, fortune, a movie, videos, and many TV guest appearances.
Emily Booth. This British actress has starred in cult movies in England, and among many other roles as a presenter, she has hosted several TV shows related to cult films, including “Shock Movie Massacre.”
Ghoulardi. A fictional character created by DJ Ernie Anderson to host the horror movie show: “Shock Theater” in Cleveland, Ohio during the 1960s. His costume was a long lab coat covered with “slogan” buttons, horned-rimmed sunglasses with a missing lens, a fake Van Dyke beard and moustache, and a messy wig. He was famous for criticizing celebrities on his show, such as bandleader Lawrence Welk and the Mayor of Cleveland.
Grandpa Al Lewis. Al Lewis reached world fame through his Grandpa character in the 1960s TV series “The Munsters,” and he decided to wear the “Count” outfit again as a host of a TV horror movie show for Superstation WTBS in the late 1980s: “Super Scary Saturday.” Besides introducing the feature “B” movie, Grandpa was often visited by WCW superstars of wresting who would share with him their opinion of the movie shown that evening, and discuss their favorite monsters.
Juan Ramón Sáenz. In the mid-1990s, Juan Ramon Sáenz hosted the radio show: “La Mano Peluda” (“The Hairy Hand”) in Mexico City. At the beginning of the show, the host would suggest a horror, paranormal, or supernatural topic, and listeners would call and share their stories aided by music effects and scary narration. The show was so successful that eventually moved to TV under the name: “Excalofrio.” Sáenz wrote five books about the theme of the show, and he died young. Mexican audience will always remember “La mano peluda…aquí se respira el miedo.” (“the hairy hand… you breathe fear over here.”)
Mystery Science Theater 3000. Joel Hodgson’s show about the last surviving human, Joel Robinson, living in the Satellite of Love with his three robot sidekicks (Crow, Tom Servo and Gypsy) spend their days watching “B” movies and talking over the film, or taking brakes from watching and performing hilarious skits. MST-3000 has been around on and off for the last 3 decades and still has a big following.
Narciso Ibañez Serrador. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Narciso Ibañez Serrador hosted “Historias para no dormir” (“Stories to keep you awake”) where he presented a horror anthology of scary tales written by him on a variety of themes. Even now, viewers in Spain remember this show as a scary classic.
Rod Serling. He had gained fame from world famous “The Twilight Zone” and served both, as on the air host of the show and as a major contributor to the scripts. Serling viewed “Night Gallery” as a logical extension to “The Twilight Zone,” but unlike its famous sister show, that dealt with science fiction, the 1970s “Gallery” focused on horrors of the supernatural and unexplained.
Ronald “The Cool Ghoul”. In 1957 John Zacherle was cast in the role that would set the course of the rest of his career, Ronald, the undertaker host of Philadelphia’s “Shock Theater.” Dick Clark gave him the name “The Cool Ghoul” when the show moved to New York City. Zacherle’s character wore a beret and a goatee, and showed the classic Universal horror movies from the 1930s. His Halloween Day marathons were also a favorite of viewers on the East Coast.
Rubén Aguirre. Long before he was “Profesor Jirafales” in Mexico’s sitcom “El Chavo,” Rubén Aguirre hosted “Tele Terror,” a horror movie show for the now defunct Televisión Independiente de México network on Friday nights during the 1960s. He introduced the movies, sometimes classic Universal horror films, other occasions “B” horror movies, and then he closed the late Friday night show, with some scary remarks about the film just shown.
Sinister Seymour. Larry Vincent was an American actor who presented horror movies in Los Angeles during the 1970s run of “Fright Night” as Sinister Seymour. His style of criticizing the movies was famous. He would appear in a small window which would pop up in the corner of the screen, tossing a quip, then vanishing again. Sometimes he would also appear in the middle of the movie “interacting” with the characters. When he died, he was succeeded on the TV station by “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.”
Svengoolie. Chicago’s own horror movie show, originally starring Jerry G. Bishop, and from the late 1970’s by Richard Koz. Before and after commercial breaks, Svengoolie presents sketches, tells jokes, throws around rubber chickens, and performs song parody spoofs related to the film shown that evening. The show is still on nationwide every Saturday evening on MeTV.
The Damned Witch. “La Bruja Maldita” was a Mexican horror TV show in the 1960s starring Russian actress Tamara Garina as the Damned Witch presenting the weekly horror story when stirring a potion in the cauldron while laughing hysterically and screaming: ¡Mentira! (“it’s a lie”) in Spanish. She would come back after the story for a preview of next week’s episode, and end the show laughing and screaming ¡Mentira! once again.
Vampira. Maila Nurmi, in the early 1950s, a Finnish-American actress was the first horror movie TV show hostess ever. The Vampira character was born when pale-skinned Nurmi attended choreographer Lester Horton’s Bal Caribe Masquerade in a black outfit inspired by the New Yorker Magazine’s cartoon character Morticia from the Addams Family. Each show opened with Vampira gliding down a dark corridor with dry ice fog. Vampira would come to a stop, and looking into the camera she would let out a horrid scream. She would then introduce the feature film while reclined on a skull-encrusted couch. Vampira would invite viewers to write her asking for epitaphs instead of autographs. She came with her loyal pet spider Rollo.
There are many other hostesses and hosts who have used the small screen to introduce millions of viewers to horror movies and “B” movies in general. These are just a few of the better-known. Most left the airwaves long ago, but on Halloween we remember the evenings we spent with them in our childhood. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your horror movie TV host or hostess memories, or if you prefer, tell us of that horror movie you remember every Halloween.
October 20, 2020 § Leave a comment
Every four years during the Presidential election season in the United States many interpreters face the Electoral College topic even when their assignments are non-political. This time, no doubt because of the American president, more friends and colleagues from the United States and abroad have contacted me than ever before. Because of its American uniqueness, this topic presents a challenge to many colleagues who usually work outside the United States and to others who live in the country but grew up somewhere else. The Electoral College is one issue that many Americans do not fully understand, even if they vote every four years. Interpreters cannot interpret what they do not understand, and in a professional world ruled by the market, where the Biden and Trump campaigns are dominating broadcasts and headlines, this topic will continue to appear on the radar screen. Therefore, a basic knowledge of this legal-political process should come in handy every four years.
Because we are in a unique election cycle, and Election Day will be here before we know it, I decided to humbly put my legal background and my passion for history to work to benefit the interpreter community. I do not intend to defend the American system, or convince anybody of its benefits. I am only providing historical, political, and legal facts so we can understand such a complicated system in a way that if needed, our rendition from the physical or virtual booth is a little easier. This is not a political post, and it will not turn into one.
Every four years when an American citizen goes to the polls on the first Tuesday in November to elect the new president of the United States, that individual does not vote for the presidential candidates. We Americans vote for a preference (Republican, Democratic and occasionally other) and for electors who will go to Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, in December to cast the electoral votes from that state, in the case of 48 states, for the candidate who represents the preference of the majority of the state voters as expressed on Election Day. Other two states, since 1972 Maine and starting in 1992 Nebraska, allocate their electoral votes in a semi proportional manner. The two state’s electoral votes representing the two senators from that state, are assigned to the plurality winner of that state’s popular vote, and the other electoral votes that correspond to that state are given to the plurality winner in the popular vote in each of the state’s U.S. House of Representatives district. Maine has 4 electoral votes and Nebraska has 5. This means 2 and 3 electoral votes respectively will go to the candidate who wins that district, even if the candidate does not win a plurality of the popular vote statewide.
We vote for the people who will go to Washington D.C., to vote on our behalf for the presidential candidate who received the most direct votes from the citizens of that state during the general election. After the November election, those electors are pledged to the candidate who received the most votes in that state. The result: We have direct vote elections in each state, and then we have the final election in December when the states vote as instructed by the majority of its citizens. It is like a United Nations vote. Think of it like this: Each state elects its presidential favorite; that person has won the presidential election in that state. Now, after the November election is over, the states get together in December as an Electoral College and each vote. This is the way we determine a winner. Each state will vote as instructed, honoring the will of its citizenry and the mandate of its state’s constitution. We do not have proportional representation in the United States.
Historically and culturally this country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit: Those who risk everything want everything, and when they succeed, all benefits should go their way. We are an “all or nothing” society. That is even reflected on our sports. All popular sports invented and played in the United States have a winner and a loser by the end of the game: Americans dislike ties because they associate a tie with mediocrity. A baseball game can go on forever until a team wins. We do the same in politics. Once the citizens have voted, the winner in that state (except for Maine and Nebraska above) gets all the benefits, in this case all the electoral votes; it does not matter if he or she won by a million votes or by a handful. You may remember how President George W. Bush was elected to his first term; he won Florida by a small margin, but winner takes it all, therefore all of Florida’s electoral votes went to him and he became the 43rd. President of the United States. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams got to the White House with a margin smaller than George W. Bush. In recent years, another two presidents got to the White House without getting a majority of the popular vote: Bill Clinton twice, and president, Donald J. Trump. According to all presidential polls, if president Trump was reelected, he would go back to the White House after winning the electoral college, but losing the popular vote.
The electoral college was born to have a duly elected democratic government that would replace the monarchy Americans endured in colonial times. The state of communications and the educational level of the American population were such, that it was thought unwise to hold a direct presidential election where the winner of the popular vote would become president of the United States. Access to newly founded Washington, D.C., surrounded by swamps and, for Eighteenth Century standards, far away from most thirteen original states made it uncertain that all states would get to vote in a presidential election. Because only a handful of representatives from each state would go to the capital to cast that state’s votes for president, it was decided that only land holder white men would have a right to vote for these electors. It was decided to exclude white men with no land as they had no vested interest in the election; women were considered unprepared to make such a decision, blacks were slaves and deprived of human rights, including political ones, and Native Americans and other minorities were not considered citizens of the United States, and ineligible to vote. Eventually, after a Civil War a century later, and several social movements a century after the War, all men and women born in the U.S., or naturalized American citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or national origin, successfully claimed their human right to vote. The American population of the United States territories are nationals of the U.S., and they can vote in a presidential election if they are residing in the 50 states or the District of Columbia.
I mentioned earlier that most Americans like the principle of winner takes it all. Although that is true, the country’s political and legal systems rest on a foundation of fairness and justice. With a nation as diverse as the current United States, a majority believes the only way to maintain these principles is through a balance of the rights of the people on one side, and those of the states on the other. (For those who have a difficult time understanding why the states have rights separate from the people, please imagine the United States as a mini-world where each state is an independent country. Then think of your own country and answer this question: Would you like a bigger or more populated foreign country to impose its will over your country, or would you like for all countries to be treated as equals?) In December when the electors or delegates from each state meet as an electoral college in Washington D.C. to cast their state’s electoral votes, all states have a voice, they are all treated as equal. This is the only way that smaller states are not overlooked; their vote counts.
We find the final step to achieve this electoral justice to all 50 states of the United States of America (and the District of Columbia) and to the citizens of the country, in the number of electoral votes that a state has; in other words, how many electors can a state send to Washington D.C. in November. The answer is as follows: The Constitution of the United States establishes there will be a House of Representatives (to represent the people of the United States) integrated by 435 members elected by the people of the district where they live. These districts change with the shifts in population but additional seats are never added to the House. When the population changes, the new total population are divided by 435 and that gives you the new congressional district. The only limitations: An electoral district cannot cross state lines (state borders) therefore, occasionally we will have a district slightly larger or slightly smaller, and every state must have at least one electoral district (one house member) regardless of its population. The American constitution establishes there will be a Senate (to represent the 50 states) integrated by 2 representatives or members from each state, currently that is 100 senators elected by all the citizens of that state. When new states have been admitted to the Union (the last time was 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii became states number 49 and 50 respectively) the senate grows by two new members.
As you can see, all states have the same representation in the Senate (2 senators each) regardless of the state’s size or population. The House of Representatives has more members from the states with larger population, but all states have at least one representative in the house. This way the American system makes sure that the will of the majority of the people is heard in Congress (House of Representatives) and it assures the 50 states that they all, even the smaller ones, will be heard as equals in the Senate. You need both houses of Congress to legislate.
Going back to the Electoral College, the number of electoral votes each state has is the same as its number of Senators and Representatives. The total number of Senators and Representatives is 535 (435 Representatives and 100 Senators) Washington D.C. is not a state; therefore it has no Representatives or Senators, but it has 3 electoral votes to put it on equal footing with the smaller states for presidential elections. Therefore, the total number of electoral votes is 538. Because of these totals, and because of the American principle of winner takes it all that applies to the candidate who wins the election in a state, to win a presidential election, a candidate must reach 270 electoral votes. This is the reason California, our most populated state, has 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives and 2 Senators) and all smaller states have 3 (remember, they have 2 Senators and at least one Representative in the House)
The next time you have to interpret something about the Electoral College in the United States remember how it is integrated, and think of our country as 50 countries with an internal election first, and then vote as states, equal to all other states, on the second electoral round in December. Because on the first Tuesday in November, or shortly after that, we will know who won each state, we will be celebrating the election of a new president, even though the Electoral College will not cast its votes for another month. It is like knowing how the movie ends before you see it.
Electoral votes by state Total: 538;
majority needed to elect president and vice president: 270
|State||number of votes||State||number of votes||State||number of votes|
|District of Columbia||3||Missouri||11||Tennessee||11|
|Indiana||11||New Mexico||5||West Virginia||5|
I now invite your comments on the way presidential elections are conducted in the United States, but please do not send political postings or partisan attacks. They will not be posted. This is a blog for interpreters and translators, not for political debate.