Is RSI better when we share the same space? …not really.

May 17, 2022 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

From the beginning of the pandemic, and the spread of distance interpreting, interpreters have questioned the modality, and more specifically remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) when interpreters are “non co-located” because they are working from home or in the same building but in individual booths. Critics say this physical separation eliminates, or greatly diminishes, the role of the passive interpreter as it precludes teamwork, opens the door to terminological inconsistencies, not having a boothmate next to you affects the quality of the rendition, and it contributes to anxiety and stress because of the handover and the sensation of lack of support from our boothmate. To many, the solution is clear: If you are working remotely, do it from a hub. Interpreters will have “co-location”, there will be technical support, and working conditions, at least in the booth, will be similar to in-person interpreting.

I must confess I endorsed this belief and defended it for months, until reality, market conditions, the pandemic, and my fellow-interpreters showed me what I now believe is a more accurate description of our reality, and a better solution to the “non co-location” matter.

We must begin our analysis by looking at the map of the world. We soon realize that geographically, continents, and the countries within the continents are very different. While countries in Europe are small (most of them smaller than a state in Australia, the U.S., or a Canadian province) and close to each other, distances in the Americas, Africa, and Asia are longer. This important difference has two relevant consequences: most people, interpreters included, will live and work farther away from the big cities; and the distance between countries that speak a different language will be greater. Because of geography, fewer languages will be needed to communicate in a region, reducing the number of interpreters working in many language combinations, including widely used languages in Europe, to almost non-existent, and hubs will be very far from most interpreters.

Most of the world has no hubs and, in many countries, there are a few hubs, but they all are in big cities. Let’s take the United States: The largest economy in the world, the home of most Fortune 500 companies, and the site of many International Organizations. There are only a handful of hubs in the country, all in 5 or 6 cities in a country that spans 8 time zones from Guam to Puerto Rico. Unless they live in one of these cities, an interpreter in the United States would need to fly 6 hours or drive a day and a half to get to a hub. That is impractical, and undoable.

Interpreters living in many of these cities outside or Europe, and even in some European cities, will need an additional two to four hours to go from home to the hub and back, often to interpret for two hours. Mexico City’s traffic could keep a hub-going interpreter inside a car for five hours any day. Many colleagues throughout the planet turn down assignments from a hub. That is impractical, and undoable.

We could fly for hours over a huge chunk of continent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and never fly over a city with a hub. Even interpreters with one hub in their city and willing to put up with the commute cannot use it because the hub can be used only when using a specific platform and nothing else. Temporary hubs are also impractical because there is no equipment, technical support, or enough local interpreters to meet the requirements of an event in all needed language combinations.

There are cities in Asia with hubs, but without interpreters in the language combination needed for an assignment; or there is one interpreter with the required language combination for the event, but the closest boothmate lives 8 hours away by plane in a different country and even continent. Sure, there will be many interpreters with English in their repertoire, but they lack the second language needed for the conference.

Distance interpreting services from home is the right strategy, the appropriate solution, and at this time, “non co-location” is no longer an issue. Let me explain:

As long as there is technical support, and the right infrastructure, RSI from an interpreter’s home provides quality, reliable interpretation at the same level as a hub.

After years of pandemic and distance interpreting, conference interpreters worldwide had time to learn, practice, familiarize, and work many RSI events. Professional conference interpreters have acquired the knowledge to interpret from their home with no one sitting next to them, and have set aside a space with the appropriate equipment to do it.

By now interpreters have used a variety of platforms and have realized that they all function similarly. In 2022 an interpreter can see a platform for the first time and figure out how to use it in a matter of minutes. Everywhere in the world, our colleagues are multitasking and handling 2, 3, and even 4 screens simultaneously to use the RSI or conventional remote platform, to communicate with their virtual boothmate 5 time zones away, handover the microphone at the end of their shift, and perform the duties of a passive interpreter such as writing notes, assisting with term search, communicate with tech support, monitor the active interpreter’s rendition to support them, and see each other on the virtual booth or through a back channel when using a conventional or dedicated RSI platform. These tasks scared many interpreters in 2020. Today they perform them regularly and by doing so, they reproduce the in-person booth in their home-based virtual booth just as a hub would. Of course, RSI from hub or home will never be the same as in-person interpreting for many reasons, but with the same limitations, risks, and potential problems, there is no difference between interpreting from home with a virtual boothmate somewhere else and “co-location” in a hub. I concluded that professional interpreters should do RSI from the place they feel more comfortable, and according to the available infrastructure. Our colleagues who live in a place where hubs are accessible, and prefer to work “co-located” should do it, and interpreters who do not, should work from their home studio with no feelings of guilt or inferiority because there are no hubs in their part of the world. Interpreter performance and the quality of the rendition are the same, except that working from home will eliminate travel and commute stress to the interpreter.

Official Government Interpreting is a Serious Matter.

April 19, 2022 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues,

In our modern world international relations are crucial. Globalization, free trade, security issues, international cooperation are an important part of all nations’ life. When countries without a common language need to communicate, they use the services of highly qualified professional interpreters. Whether a nation calls them diplomatic, official, or conference, interpreters, these individuals facilitate the exchange of ideas and information between government official representatives and leaders. They interpret within international organizations, multilateral summits, and bilateral encounters where trust, skill, precision, professionalism, and ethical conduct are always needed.

In recent times we have all witnessed the magnificent work of these interpreters, sometimes in dangerous or emotional situations, working in war zones, at sites of natural disasters, and pleas for solidarity and help. We have also witnessed less fortunate situations where interpreters have been at the center of an unwanted controversy. I will criticize no interpreter in this post. Those who read me regularly know I defend our colleagues and the profession from unfair attacks from within and without. I will just talk about the practices followed by those who take this work seriously and strive to avoid mistakes and embarrassing situations.

International organizations know of the need for excellency and they all have very rigorous methods to select their interpreters.

Governments are aware of the importance of good, clear, and honest interpretation, and most take extraordinary measures to make sure these elements are always present.

Although not all governments follow the same system to select these interpreters, they all try, within their own resources, to find and use the services of the best interpreters in their respective countries.

Some countries, usually wealthy nations, follow what I consider the best practice to decide who will officially interpret their government officials: They have a dedicated agency or office within their ministry of foreign relations that provides all interpreters for official events. These interpreters are tested on their skills, their qualifications are reviewed, and they are vetted for trustworthiness. According to that country’s needs, these professionals are hired as staff interpreters, and are supplemented by contract interpreters who meet the same requirements as staff, but either work on less frequently used language combinations, or provide their services in language combinations in high demand when there are not enough staff interpreters to meet all needs. All government agencies go through this office to get interpreting services, leaving the assignment of interpreters to those who best know and understand the linguistic needs of an event, and for this reason, minimizing the risk of a poor interpretation. These interpreters provide the official foreign language version of a government position expressed by a government official. Besides members of the executive branch of that government, individuals of the legislative branch often go to this specialized agency to find the interpreters best equipped for this work.

Some countries cannot afford staff interpreters but follow the same system above with a roster of all-contractors.  Others cannot afford to cover travel expenses for these interpreters, so they ask their embassies and consulates, and sometimes the dedicated language services office of the host country, for a list of experienced interpreters, within that country, who can do the work.

There are nations who resort to agencies to obtain the interpreters who will officially work an assignment. These are not your workers’ compensation neighborhood agency; they usually are well-known agencies with many years of experience in diplomatic work. Here, these interpreters are also vetted and tested before they are selected for a job. Unfortunately, this system carries risks the options above do not: To select an agency, almost everywhere, governments must follow a bidding process where agencies will try to outbid their competitors, and often this translates into less-experienced and less-qualified interpreters who will work for a lower fee. It could also open the door to favoritism in hiring a certain interpreter the agency is trying to promote. I can see a conflict of interest in this system that could never happen in a system where the language experts of the government hire and pay interpreters directly with no third party (who needs to make money) involved.   

The worst situation only happens when government authorities neglect to cover interpreting needs with the professionalism and importance such a vital aspect of a nation’s foreign policy requires. Human errors are that: human, and when that is the interpreter’s mistake, no one is really at fault. Interpreting is a very demanding occupation performed by humans. When the problem is caused by a technical failure, that is somebody’s fault, but not the interpreters’. If interpreters interpret an event they are not capable to interpret, because of lack of experience, poor skills, lack of emotional strength, or any other circumstance that would jeopardize the rendition, like being a translator instead of an interpreter, that individual is guilty of accepting a job they should have rejected the moment they learned what it was about. It is an ethical and professional violation.

However, the real culprit of a failed official interpretation is the government system that permits that someone with no knowledge and little life experience, decide who will be interpreting. When a poorly qualified individual hires someone to interpret a speech by a foreign president, especially when a state of war significantly cripples that foreign president’s options as to finding and retaining an interpreter in a language combination that nation seldomly uses in official events, you will get a poor result. It is an amateur hiring an amateur, and the responsibility of the event is with the one who hires. These are the situations where an irresponsible person hires someone they saw on TV, a person who translates for living, and an individual willing to work solo. Only this level of incompetence will disclose the name of the interpreter who worked in the event when they should have protected this person’s identity and contact information so journalists do not ask for comments from the interpreter who obviously did not even consider abstaining from speaking with the press as all professional interpreters at that level do. Even when a country has in place a system to hire qualified interpreters for official acts, if it is not enforced, and anybody can decide who interprets in the nation’s legislative chamber, then there is no system.   I hope the unfortunate reality of war we are living at this time will help us all to understand and value the magnificent job our interpreter colleagues do every day all over the world.

Conference Interpreting Cannot Be Charged by The Hour.

March 22, 2022 § 15 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We are constantly showered with comments and opinions on the way conference interpreters should charge for their services. Even though this is an issue settled long ago, some newcomers to the world of conference interpreting, mainly distance interpreting platforms and language agencies, are attempting to drop our professional business model and replace it with something that works for them, not the client or the interpreter.

Freelance professional conference interpreters have always charged by the day, but in the last two years, agencies and others who come from the world of community interpreting are trying to impose their system and offer to pay by the hour.

Court interpreters, healthcare interpreters, social services interpreters, and all other community interpreters are paid by the hour. That is a different business model that does not work for conference interpreting because the interpreting service is very different.

All community interpreters do a very important and difficult job; they work under conditions no conference interpreter would ever agree to, like noisy courtrooms, small confined areas in hospitals, and some clients who do not know, understand, or appreciate their work.

These is all true and admirable; however, community interpreters do the same type of work every day, often they even do the same repeatedly. Because of the repetitious nature of the task, and the similarities of all the assignments, they usually need little preparation. Court and healthcare interpreters often show up to courthouses and hospitals without even knowing what they will interpret that day. You arrive to court and then you know if your first assignment of the day is a divorce hearing, a felony arraignment, or a sentencing hearing. You do the job, and then you are assigned to another interpretation task. Yes, there are complicated cases and situations, and responsible interpreters try to learn the details of the assignment; yes, there is specialized terminology and procedures, but once you know them, by study or by repetition, all new cases will be an opportunity to apply what you already know.

But conference interpreter is different every day. Interpreters study, research, and practice for every assignment. Yesterday’s assignment was on mining, tomorrow’s will be on agriculture, and next week it will involve international trade. In average, conference interpreters prepare for two to two and a half days for each day they spend in the booth. Unlike community interpreting assignments, they face a very knowledgeable audience in a room where, even after all their study and preparation, they know the topic the least.

Community interpreting assignments that require little or no preparation can be paid by the hour with a minimum fee system. Often interpreters do not even work because court cases get dismissed, continued or settled, and patients do not show up for a doctor’s appointment. A guaranteed two-to-four-hour minimum fee seems like a fair agreement when interpreters set aside their time for an assignment that required no advanced preparation and did not happen.

Conference interpreters always work. Their conferences do not get canceled or postponed. Conference interpreters save a day for a client knowing they must prepare and work, even for distance interpreted events.

The community interpreting business model of charging by the hour with a minimum guaranteed works for court, healthcare and other similar assignments, but it is not a valid business model for conference interpreting.  

With the arrival of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) many language agencies around for many years making their living in court and healthcare interpreting saw an opportunity to expand into a field new to them. Even those who claim they were always offering conference interpreting services, in reality were providing community interpreting with portable equipment or a table top. They imposed their community interpreting business model to conference interpreting and that did not work.

RSI also brought many court and healthcare interpreters to conference interpreting. These interpreters, used to charge by the hour, saw nothing abnormal when their known business model was offered to them in the world of conference interpreting. Some platforms saw this and followed by applying this impossible model to conference work performed by these community interpreters.

It must be understood that conference interpreting cannot be paid by the hour as determined by a business model that does not consider the reality of conference work. Veteran conference interpreters, and new colleagues who know and understand the profession, reject this model as it fosters complacency and lack of preparation to make a living on such unrealistic terms. Some will tell you that conference and community interpreting are not that different. The ones making that argument are usually community interpreters or agencies/platforms seeking a higher profit in conference interpreting, not the best human talent.

We often hear interpreters need to adapt to the changing times. That is true and expected; however, adapting to the new reality means mastering distance and hybrid conference interpreting instead of demanding in-person interpreting for all events. It does not mean accepting a new business model that does not consider the services rendered by a conference interpreter, imposed by business entities who want to expand beyond the world of community interpreting.

What we learned as Interpreters in 2021.

January 31, 2022 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2021 ended and we are working towards a better, “vaccinated”, and safer 2022, 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 peculiar, but better than 2020. It was a year of change in all imaginable ways, and those changes included the interpreting world. Some were good, others were terrible; some are permanent, and others…well, the jury is still out.

Last year was the year of science and public health. It was the year when we were vaccinated, and in some countries, we were even boosted. Unfortunately, it was also the year of economic disparities, where rich countries protected their citizens, and poor nations still struggled to get public health policy in place and control the pandemic. It was the year of ignorance by science deniers and political zealots who refused to live up to the social contract and protect others even when choosing not to comply for their own benefit. In 2021 millions of people died of Covid; Delta and Omicron became household names; and just like the year before, millions got sick with long-term consequences, lost their jobs, or their business went under with no fault of their own. Some of our colleagues, many of them great interpreters, continued to leave the profession overwhelmed by technological changes, market uncertainty, and aggressive, ethically questionable practices by some of the language service providers.

2021 was the year when our profession finally came to terms and universally accepted distance interpreting as a permanent, new way to deliver our professional services, from now, depending on the circumstances and characteristics of the event, interpreting is to be delivered in person, remotely, or as a hybrid of both. The consolidation of these changes probably produced the largest adaptation efforts by professional interpreters in history. By the end of 2021 the norm was that conference and community interpreters had the infrastructure and basic technological skills to deliver their service from a place other than the venue of the event, whether it was from home, a hub, or someone else’s place of business. Because learning and adapting is always good, these were the brightest highlights of the year.

Unfortunately, not everything was good. Change brought along unfairness, abuse, and deception. The same changes that helped our professional market, provided the right circumstances to harm our profession.

Just like during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th. Century, today’s changes have brought a wave of bad practices that financially benefit some of those with the loudest voice while hurting conference interpreters and the users of their service. Some of those distance interpreting providers have ignored ethical and professional rules by opening the door to inexperienced, unqualified individuals, often from other fields of interpreting, whose main credential is to provide interpreting services for a ridiculously low fee and to do it under very poor conditions. By recruiting these interpreters and diverting the clients’ attention to technology instead of service quality, the post-pandemic market offers conference interpreting on-demand: interpreters on standby, willing to start an assignment with a couple of hours’ notice, without time to prepare, often working alone from their home thousands of miles away, and doing it during the night. Last year made it popular to sell conference interpreting as over-the-phone interpreting companies have always sold their services, with interpreters on-call getting paid by the minute or by the hour. The line got blurry, the message now is there is no difference between a business, diplomatic, or scientific conference and a phone call to say hi to a mail-order groom or bride half way across the world.

2021 changed the way we use professional social media. It turned it into a self-promoting infomercial by the big service providers, and a place where this new post-pandemic self-proclaimed RSI interpreters go to brag about the work they do, post their photos of the venue, and publicly opine about the event they just interpreted with no regard to the professional rules and canons of ethics they never heard about before becoming “RSI conference interpreters”.

Going back to the positive, I congratulate those professional associations that held their conferences online or had hybrid events. A special mention to ITI, OMT and NAJIT for holding big, high-quality conferences using creativity, technology, and thinking of their members’ health. My thanks to all smaller associations that had conferences remotely, and a tip of the hat to FIT and IAPTI for postponing their events until 2022. Unfortunately, an association had a hybrid conference, but, unlike all other associations above, did not allow speakers to present remotely, cancelling their participation unless they physically presented from the venue. There were many disappointed conference attendees who booked the event thinking they would hear certain speakers just to learn later these speakers would not present. There were no explanations, just a cancellation notice, leaving these presenters, who had agreed to present, in a bad situation as the association members were not told about the inflexible “present in-person or else” rule, even where speakers could not travel for medical reasons or due to the country they would be traveling from.

Another wonderful gesture that showed professional solidarity was the decision by most professional associations to freeze membership renewal fees, reduce them as it was the case of IAPTI, and even offer a solidarity fund to help those members who wanted to keep their membership but could not afford to cover these fees due to the pandemic. Here again, the largest, and one of the most expensive, professional association in the world, went the opposite way and decided to substantially raise its membership fees for 2022.

We proved to ourselves once again that interpreters are resilient, able to adapt to adversity to survive, and good humans. We saw how the professional unity with our colleagues found in 2020 continued last year. We now face an uncertain year, but we have a road map and a strategy that will help us thrive in these new circumstances. Fortunately, we are resilient, adaptable, courageous, and now we know that even though many things have changed, many others stayed the same. Let’s all focus on the good things to come while we guard against the bad ones. I wish you all a prosperous and healthy 2022!

The new reality of interpreter traveling.

December 27, 2021 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The world has changed and it will never get back to where we were at the beginning of 2020. Even when the pandemic turns endemic, immunizations are widespread, and science learns how to treat and cure this disease, some aspects of life will forever change. Just after September 11, 2021, traveling will be one of those things.

After staying home mainly working remotely for twenty one months, I finally traveled by plane to a foreign country. I previously took two domestic trips during the pandemic: one by car and one by train, but this was my first time going abroad and getting back to what for many years was my regular routine: airports, airplanes, and hotels. During this December, I traveled once and booked other three trips by air. As an individual who used to travel about 300 days a year and fly two or three times a week in the pre-Covid world, these were the changes I found:    

Before accepting an assignment abroad, find out the health department requirements for the country of destination to see if you are eligible, and even if you are, determine if it is feasible to meet them all.

You need to know if the country you are traveling to:

  1. Currently admits people from your country of origin;
  2. Requires proof of full vaccination (2 doses) or needs evidence you received a booster;
  3. Accepts the shots you received as proof of immunization. Many countries will only accept those vaccines approved by the World Health Organization (WHO);
  4. Needs recent negative Covid test results before you leave your country of origin (The test must be performed within 72, 48, or 24 hours before boarding a plane to the country of the assignment);
  5. Will accept a rapid test result or will ask you to show a negative PCR;
  6. Do not admit individuals, regardless of their country of habitual residence, who have traveled to certain third countries within a given period of time before embarking to the country of destination (presence in a third country within 5 days, 10 days, etc. before traveling to destination);
  7. Requires you test for Covid immediately after arriving to the country of destination, or needs you to test multiple times during your stay in their country (3 days after arrival and then 7 days after arrival for example);
  8. Will ask you to quarantine upon arrival (10 fays, 14 days, 20 days, etc.)
  9. Needs you to register with their National Public Health System before entering their country or immediately after arrival;
  10. Needs you to get a special application or immunization card to prove your vaccination status before you can enter the Country, or if you need to carry your original vaccination card at all times while visiting their Country;
  11. Requires you get a local government immunization card that must be scanned at all restaurants, bars, and other public places before you may enter;
  12. Demands proof of Covid insurance covering medical expenses and quarantine stay at a hotel if you test positive during the trip;
  13. Will the Country of destination treat third-Country stays differently depending if you:
  14. Just changed flights at that Country and stayed in a designated area;
  15. Remain inside the airport between flights;
  16. Left the airport just to go to another airport in the same city to catch the plane that took you to the Country of destination;
  17. Left the airport for a few hours, observing health department protocol and did not stay overnight in the Country;
  18. Spend several days in the third-Country;
  19. The Covid levels in the third-Country at the time of your visit, or the reliability of that Country’s official statistics and reports;
  20. Needs a letter by a physician clearing you for international travel after recovering from Covid before your trip to the Country where you will work as an interpreter.

You need to know if your country of residence:

  1. Will ask for a negative Covid test performed within a certain period of time before reentering the Country (24, 48, 72 hrs.);
  2. Will accept a rapid test result or will ask you to show a negative PCR;
  3. Requires you test for Covid immediately after arriving home, or needs you to test multiple times after arrival (3 days after arrival and then 7 days after arrival for example);
  4. Will ask you to quarantine upon arrival (10 fays, 14 days, 20 days, etc.);
  5. Needs a letter by a physician clearing you after recovering from Covid abroad before your return trip.

Researching these rules is imperative before accepting any assignment. Sometimes you may be precluded from doing a job you do every year because the immunization shots you received are not on the WHO list. Consider how burdensome the requirements to enter a country are before you commit yourself to the assignment: testing and compilation of required documents could take too long or the process may be too expensive to justify such a short assignment. Before saying yes to more than one event, consider if you have enough time between 2 assignments in different locations. What will happen if you test positive at the first destination and you have to quarantine? What of you test positive at your last assignment and now you cannot go back home in time for another local assignment you already booked. We need to be very careful with our professional schedule as we must consider factors we never needed to ponder before the pandemic.

Once you clear the above, and before you take the assignment, make sure you check the following:

  1. Will the airline reimburse me or credit the cost of the ticket to my account if the trip gets cancelled or postponed due to the cancellation of the event, change on the foreign Country’s visitors’ admission policy, or if you tested positive for Covid before or during the trip? If so, how long will you have to use that credit before you lose the money, and how many times will the airline honor a cancellation of the same ticket for Covid-related reasons;
  2. Does your health insurance policy cover emergency medical and hospitalization expenses above if Covid occurs?  If it does, will the terms of coverage differ from those that apply at home, such as deductible, copayments, maximum amount covered, etc.?
  3. Will you need a Covid insurance travel policy that covers medical and quarantine hotel stays while traveling abroad? Make sure it covers the countries you visit, there are no preexisting condition exclusions, it covers transportation by ambulance, and gives you enough coverage to pay for a hotel during your quarantine. Some countries are way more expensive than others. Shopping for Covid insurance coverage is difficult, many plans cover medical but not hotel stay; others offer little coverage for quarantine-related expenses, and others are more expensive because they cover things you will probably won’t need, like evacuation coverage, unlike the assignment is in a volcanic area or a small island;
  4. Does the country of destination offer medical services and quarantine stay free of charge? Some Countries do.

It is only after you consider all of these elements that you can truly decide to accept or turn down an in-person assignment abroad.

If you are taking the assignment, you will be doing the right thing if you:

  1. Book a plane ticket that is fully refundable if cancellation due to Covid-19 occurs;
  2. Book a first-class or business seat on the plane. This will keep you away from other passengers who may be unmasked, cough, sneeze, or spit. If your client does not want to cover the ticket, and you want to do the assignment, use frequent flyer miles to upgrade to one of the more desirable seats;
  3. If short flights occur (3-4 hours) abstain from eating or drinking anything on the plane. That way you will not need to remove the mask. In longer flights, make arrangements with the airline ahead of time so your meals are served before or after other passengers eat. First and business class seats give you enough privacy on wide-body airplanes for this to go unnoticed by others;
  4. Have disposable wet towels and hand sanitizer handy to clean your immediate area and to use before and after meals if applicable.
  5. Become a TSA Pre-check, Clear, or a Global Entry member so you can clear airport security through expedited lines, avoiding close and prolonged contact with other passengers;
  6. At the airport, stay at the airline club if possible; there are fewer people and there is a better chance to keep your distance from others. Because first-class and business seats let you board the plane before others, the time spent at general areas of the airport is brief.
  7. To keep socially distanced, get to the airport by car (your own, rental, taxi, Uber, or other single-passenger company) and avoid public transportation like train, subway or bus.
  8. Wear a N95 or KN95 mask at all times: From the moment you leave home until the time you close the door of your hotel room;
  9. Reserve a room at a contactless hotel so you can use your phone to check in, check out, and open your room. If your stay will be a week or shorter, ask the hotel not to clean your room so nobody but you enter. They can deliver fresh towels and toiletries daily upon request.
  10. If possible, ask for a room with a refrigerator and microwave so you have the option to have your meals in the room. Have food delivered to your hotel room;
  11. Ask for a hotel room with ethernet connection. By now you already know why we need this. Take your own ethernet cable and adapter in case you need them. Take your own headset so you do not use the ones in the booth.
  12. Obviously, request individual interpreting booths or large booths where you can stay distanced from your boothmate.

Before you sign a contract with your client, make sure it covers cancellations due to Covid-19 and a clause where the client assumes the risk of not having your interpreter services if you have to quarantine in that or other country or an authority denies you entry due to a pandemic-related issue. You must consult with already booked clients before accepting other travel assignments that could affect the service because of a Covid-19 related issue.

Finally, you have to prepare yourself for the emotional aspect of traveling to interpret in times of a pandemic. Airport clubs will be quiet and scarcely populated; if you are a frequent flyer, be prepared to learn some of the staff you knew for years may have died in the last 2 years, and be ready for the reunion with airport/airline/club staffers and flight attendants you have not seen for almost two years.

Be careful when you travel, but do not stay home unless public health policy dictates so. We need to reclaim our jobs as conference interpreters. Our clients need it, our markets need it, the profession need it, and for our own sanity: we need it.

Please leave comments or suggestions about this new travel adventure we are just starting in many parts of the world, and please, if you plan to comment against masking, public health, or science, please save your time as we will not post those comments.

Who were the real diners at the first Thanksgiving?

November 22, 2021 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

November marks the beginning of the holiday season in the United States with its most important, and uniquely American, event: Thanksgiving.  Interpreters worldwide will interpret speeches by Americans that will include Thanksgiving stories, dinner recipes, family traditions, and Black Friday shopping. Every year I try to share a different part of this celebration that, familiar to all my American colleagues, could be foreign and little-known to others.

This year I picked a topic even unknown to many Americans: The true story of those who gathered over four centuries ago in what we now know as the State of Massachusetts. We all know to a degree the traditional story of a British settlement in what Europeans called the new world; we have heard or read how these individuals who fled the old continent looking for religious freedom had to endure terrible weather, and were on the brink of starvation when a benevolent Native American tribe helped them by teaching them how to grow corn, and where to fish. It all culminated in a peaceful, joint celebration where food was shared. As you probably imagine, things were different in the real world.

The Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims were the English settlers who arrived on the Mayflower and founded Plymouth Colony in what we today know as Plymouth Massachusetts. They gave this name to the settlement to honor the port from where they departed England: Plymouth, Devon. While in Europe, they were part of the Puritan separatist congregation known as the Brownists, who separated from the traditional Puritan Calvinists in the 17th century, arguing their congregations should separate from the state church, and fled religious persecution based on the Act of Uniformity of 1559 in Nottinghamshire, England. They first emigrated to The Netherlands, finding tolerance among the population of Holland where they followed the teachings of Robert Browne who argued true churches were voluntary democratic congregations, not whole Christian nations. They stayed in Leyden, The Netherlands, for several years until they secured the means to emigrate to America, frustrated by the Language barrier and uncomfortable with the “libertine” ways of the Dutch.

The decision to sail to America was not an easy one, there were fears that native people would be violent, there would be no source of food or water, that they may encounter unknown diseases, and that sailing across the ocean was very dangerous. They weighed their options and considered the Dutch settlement of Essequibo, now Guiana, but it was discarded for the same reasons they were leaving Holland. Another option was the Virginia Colony which was attractive because its population was British, they shared language, culture, and it was an established colony. It was discarded because they feared it would produce the same English environment they fled. They thought of the mouth of the Hudson River as a possible settlement, but the land was claimed by the Dutch who founded New Netherland. Finally, a royal patent was secured with the condition that the religion of the Leiden Group, as the Puritans were known in the British Court, were not to receive official recognition. They were told that a land grant north of the Virginia territory had been granted, and the new territory must be called New England. There were other concessions to the investors sponsoring the trip, and they finally left The Netherlands on board a small ship named the Speedwell. They arrived in Southampton where the ship was met by a second, larger vessel: The Mayflower. Unfortunately, by the time they reached Plymouth the Speedwell was deemed unfit to travel, so the Puritans left harbor with only one ship: the Mayflower. 102 passengers made the trip: 73 men and 29 women. There were 19 male servants, 3 female servants, and some sailors and craftsmen who would stay temporarily and then go back to England.

Once on land, the Puritans had several encounters with Native Americans who were familiar with Europeans as they had traded with other French and British Europeans in the past. Only 47 colonists survived the diseases contracted on the Mayflower. Half of the crew also died. The winter of 1619 was devastating. Bad weather ruined their crops and food was scarce. Survival of the settlement required drastic measures such as to request the help of these lands’ original residents: the Wampanoags. These Native Americans, motivated by their own schemes, agreed to help the Puritans providing needed food, water, and teaching them how to grow corn. The following year a good harvest saved the colonists and consolidated the colony. To commemorate the harsh winter of the year before, and to celebrate the brighter future, colonists and Wampanoags feasted together.

The name “Pilgrims.”

The first use of the word pilgrims for the Mayflower passengers appeared in William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.” He used the imagery of Hebrews 11:13-16 about Old Testament’s “strangers and pilgrims” who had the opportunity to return to their old country but instead longed for a better, heavenly country. There is no record of the term Pilgrims being used to describe Plymouth’s founders for 150 years after Bradford wrote this passage, unless quoting him. The Mayflower’s story was retold by historians Nathaniel Morton (in 1669) and Cotton Mather (in 1702), and both paraphrased Bradford’s passage and used his word pilgrims. The first documented use of the term was at a December 22, 1798 celebration of Forefathers’ Day in Boston. Daniel Webster repeatedly referred to “the Pilgrims” in his December 22, 1820 address for Plymouth’s bicentennial which was widely read. Harriet Vaughan Cheney used it in her 1824 novel “A Peep at the Pilgrims in Sixteen Thirty-Six”, and the term also gained popularity with the 1825 publication of Felicia Heman’s poem “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers”.

The Wampanoag.

Though meetings between European explorers and Native Americans tended to degenerate into bloodshed, the lure of trade was too enticing for either party to resist. Europeans sought furs, particularly beaver pelts, to sell back home. The Wampanoags, a nation living in what we now know as Massachusetts, wanted to pick through the strangers’ merchandise of metal tools, jewelry, and cloth. A number of them, including a man named Tisquantum, or Squanto, went to Europe when the vessels returned.

Wampanoags and other nations fell victim of disadvantageous deals with the colonists, sometimes were killed during hostilities or simple differences of opinion, and many died from diseases brought from the old world for which Native Americans’ lacked immunity. In 1614 Captain Thomas Hunt had double-crossed them and took 16 of them to Europe by force, among them an individual destined to play a major role as an interpreter during the First Thanksgiving in later years: Squanto. First, he was taken to Málaga where he spent some time, and probably learned functional Spanish, before convincing a merchant to take him to London where in 1618 he ran into Captain Thomas Dermer. By then Squanto spoke English and convinced Dermer to take him back to America on his next trip.

The Wampanoags were deeply divided over what to do, given the enslavement, murder, and disease that Europeans had inflicted on them. Chief Ousamequin favored cultivating the English as military allies and sources of metal weaponry to fend off the Narragansett nation to the west, who had escaped the epidemic and were using their newfound advantage in strength to reduce the Wampanoags to tributaries. In later years, Ousamequin acknowledged that he would have peace with the English because “he has a potent adversary in the Narragansetts, that are at war with him, against whom he thinks we may be of some strength to him, for our pieces (guns) are terrible to them.” Ousamequin also seems to have believed that the English had weaponized disease, which he hoped to put to Wampanoag use. At one point he asked the English to send the plague against another Narragansett leader whose territories bordered the Wampanoags’.

Many Wampanoags disagreed with Ousamequin. Some attributed the epidemic to a curse put on them by a shipwrecked Frenchman whom they had held as a slave. This Frenchman had admonished the Indians “that God was angry with them for their wickedness, and would destroy them, and give their country to another people.” Several Wampanoags feared that the Pilgrims were conquerors of this prophecy and therefore favored cutting them off. Others saw the Pilgrims as belonging to the same class of men slaving and slaughtering their way along the coast.

A noble Wampanoag named Corbitant conspired with the Narragansetts to unseat Ousamequin and destroy Plymouth. It took an English military strike orchestrated by Ousamequin to snuff out this fire. A year later, Ousamequin warned Plymouth that Wampanoags from the Vineyard and Cape Cod were plotting with the Massachusett nation to attack Plymouth. He stopped these plans by directing an English attack, this time against the Massachusett. It was his way of warning Wampanoag dissidents they would be next if they continued to undermine his leadership.

The First Thanksgiving was the fruit of a political decision on Ousamequin’s part. Politics played a much more important role in shaping the Wampanoag-English alliance than the famous feast. At least in the short term, Ousamequin’s league with the newcomers was the right gamble, insofar as the English helped to fend off the rival Narragansetts and uphold Ousamequin’s authority. In the long term, however, it was a grave miscalculation. Plymouth and the other New England colonies would soon conquer Ousamequin’s people, just as the Frenchman’s curse had augured and just as the Wampanoags who opposed the Pilgrims feared that they would.

Despite all good and all terrible consequences of the colonization of Massachusetts, Thanksgiving Day, as we understand it now, four centuries later, has become a day of peace, family, and sharing. Because it is a lay celebration, it is the most democratic holiday in the United States, held universally across all cultures in all 50 States. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

What about the interpreters resettled from Afghanistan?

November 11, 2021 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We take this time of the year to express our gratitude and to honor those who serve or served in the Armed Forces. This year, our thoughts and actions must go beyond the brave women and men who serve our country. We need to include our fellow interpreter and translator colleagues who resettled, or are resettling from Afghanistan.

I understand many interpreters and their families are still trying to leave Afghanistan. Their lives are in terrible danger and we must never forget our commitment as allied forces to protect them and bring them to a safe place. I am also aware of the colleagues and their families currently staying at military bases around the world waiting for the day when they will be relocated to a western country. These interpreters, translators and their relatives deserve our help until no one is left behind.

Today I focus my attention on another group of colleagues that grows everyday all over the world: The Afghan interpreters who have resettled in western nations and are facing the daunting challenge of starting a new personal, professional, and family life in a place with a different culture, language, climate, population, and economy.

The plight of Afghan conflict zone interpreters does not end when they land in America, Australia, the U.K., or any other allied nation. In many ways it gets more complicated. Although their lives are not in danger anymore, they now face an unknown society for the first time, and they do it for the most part alone. All countries receiving interpreters assist them with temporary services and financial help, but the help is not permanent. The interpreters need to learn how to survive in countries where individuals are on their own often. In the United States, Afghan interpreters get from the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) a one-time stipend of $1,200.00 U.S. Dollars per person (adults and children receive the same amount). Said amount must be used within 90 days. Local authorities, other federal agencies, NGOs, religious organizations, provide additional help with money, housing, clothes, food, and assistance on learning how to get a job, rent a house, buy groceries, get their children enrolled in school, gain access to healthcare, mental health services if needed, and civics; everything from learning English (or the language of the country where they resettled) to how to open a bank account, pay the electric bill, or use a microwave.

In America, qualifying adults can get monthly refugee cash assistance in amounts that depend on the household size, but a single adult gets about $415.00 U.S. Dollars a month for the first 4 months; then, the assistance goes down to a little less than $200.00 per month, and it can decrease even more depending on the income the resettled refugee is earning by then. All assistance is temporary as these interpreters are expected to get a job and support themselves and their families.

Support service providers’ goal is to get them gainfully employed as soon as possible; so, most of these colleagues end up doing manual labor, even if they have professional education. This is where interpreters, and their professional associations from the host countries need to help.

We need to understand some of the Afghan interpreters were really supporting our armed forces as bilingual cultural facilitators; they may not be ready or may not even want to make a living as interpreters or translators, but many are professionally trained as physicians, nurses, engineers, or school teachers. We could give them orientation as to what is needed to practice their profession in their new countries. I have no doubt bilingual nurses, doctors and teachers will be needed to meet the needs of the rest of the refugees.

There are also many conflict zone interpreters with the gift and interest to professionally interpret. These empiric interpreters would easily make a living as community interpreters, working as court, healthcare, or school interpreters everywhere Afghans are resettled.

Afghan interpreters and translators must understand they could have a bright future if they are willing to learn.  Professional interpreters, translators, and associations can guide them in their efforts to get a formal education as an interpreter, or to get a court or healthcare interpreter certification, license, or accreditation. Once the honeymoon ends, and it will, unless they get prepared, to work in the west, these Afghan refugees will be considered interpreters no more.

There is more we can do to help those who pursue a career as interpreters or translators: We can suggest they settle in big urban diverse population centers with an established Afghan community, where they will not only find more work, but they will also avoid discrimination. We can suggest they contact their religious organizations and mosques as part of the process of integration into their communities; and yes, we should warn them about language service agencies who will try to hire their services for a very low pay when in fact, due to the complexity and short supply of their languages, they should be top income earners. Both, Afghan interpreters and society need to understand these colleagues need our help as much as those they will be hired to interpret for, and all organizations and individuals must have the decency to abstain from asking interpreters and translators to work for free or at a discounted fee. This may be the best help we can offer them as a profession. Please share these ideas with your colleagues and professional associations. Figure out a way to help our newly-arrived colleagues treating them with respect, and protecting them from abusive members of society that will try to take advantage of them.

Halloween in America: The origin of the words we use and its history in the United States.

October 27, 2021 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

In our globalized world, this time of the year interpreters everywhere encounter references to the American celebration of Halloween, not an official holiday in the United States, but the second-most broadly observed event in the country after Thanksgiving.

Unlike other cultures elsewhere in the world, the American Halloween has no religious context the way All Souls Day and All Saints Day in Europe. It is not about remembering and honoring the dead like Obon in Japan or Day of the Dead in Mexico and other countries (Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, and the Philippines). There is no praying, washing gravesites, or setting special altars. Just like Thanksgiving, American Halloween is a secular celebration. Unlike the other events I have mentioned, it includes everybody in the country. Although the “official” day of Halloween is October 31, it is really a season, not just a single day when adults hold costume parties, very popular centuries ago, but scarce in the 21st. century. It is also an event for children to dress-up as famous and infamous characters, real and fictitious, and go door to door asking for candy with the formulaic question: “trick or treat.” Because of its Celtic origin, the festivity is understood as scary, but this is not the case; children and adults dress as movie and mythical monsters, but they also dress as heroines and heroes, angels, movie stars, animals, food, and even politicians!

People eat “scary” food, watch “scary” movies, read “scary” stories, and decorate their homes with ghosts, vampires, spider webs and pumpkins, but it is in the spirit of celebration. There is no fear, sadness, religion, or evil motives behind the festivities. It is an unusual event, and it is very American, but it was not always that way.

The word Halloween (sometimes spelled Hallowe’en) is short for All Hallow Even (All Saints’ Eve) and it was first used in the 18th. century (Merriam-Webster Dictionary) and it is believed it has its origins in the Celtic festival Samhain, when ghosts and spirits were believed to be abroad (Oxford Dictionary) held to celebrate the changing of the seasons from light to dark, which usually happens in the northern hemisphere around November 1. As part of the celebration, people would light fires, dress in animal costumes, and tell each other’s fortunes.

Everywhere they settled, early Christians tried to get rid of this pagan celebration and replaced it with a religious day. Pope Gregory III erased Samhain, and instituted All Saints’ Day on November 1, a celebration of Christian martyrs and saints. He also established All Souls’ Day for the remembrance of the souls of all dead on November 2. Later, All Saints’ Day became All Hallows Day, and the day before, October 31 became All Hallows Eve which evolved into Halloween.

When Europeans arrived in what is now the United States, they brought their traditions with them, including the celebration of Halloween. Influenced by many cultures and traditions, Halloween in the American colonies changed. All Hallows Eve became a time to party to celebrate the harvest. Many continued the European tradition of lighting fires, dressing in costume, and tell scary stories from the old world.

By mid-19th. Century, Irish immigrants arrived in the United States and they brought their own Halloween traditions, including dressing in costumes, asking their neighbors for food and money, and pulling pranks in the evening. Americans did the same thing and it eventually turned in what we now know as “trick or treating.” In 1820 Washington Irving’s short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” became one of the first distinctly American ghost stories centered on the holiday.

By the 1920s pranks had become expensive and costly in the big cities, and for this reason, cities and towns organized family-oriented Halloween celebrations. Once candy manufacturers released special Halloween-themed candy, modern “trick-or-treating” was born.

Besides “trick-or-treating,” the other main tradition of American Halloween is the carving of pumpkins into faces with a candle (now sometimes battery-operated) inside. The Irish brough the tradition to the United States almost 200 years ago. They carved Jack O’ Lanterns out of turnips as pumpkins did not exist in Ireland. This custom comes from the legend of “Stingy Jack and the Jack O’ Lantern.”

Stingy Jack was an old drunk who played tricks on everyone, even the Devil himself. One day he was at his favorite pub drinking with the Devil who offered to buy Jack a drink in exchange for his soul. The Devil turned into a coin to pay for the drinks, but Jack stole the coin and put it in his pocket where he kept a cross, this prevented the Devil from changing back. Finally, Jack agreed to free the Devil after he agreed to wait before taking his soul. Years later, Jack ran into the Devil by an apple tree. When he saw Jack, the Devil wanted to take his soul right there. To buy some time, Jack asked the Devil to climb up the tree and get him an apple. As soon as the Devil was up in the tree, Jack trapped him by placing crosses all around the tree. Then Jack made the Devil promise he would not take his soul when he died.

Many years later, Jack died and arrived at the gates of Heaven. Saint Peter knew who he was and because of all the bad deeds he did during his life, Jack was denied entry. With no other choice, he turned around and went down to Hell. The Devil was at the gate and he was very surprised when Jack asked him to let him in. The Devil true to his word, told him he had to keep his promise and denied Jacks request. Confused and sad, Jack was left to pace in the darkness between Heaven and Hell. As he was walking towards eternal darkness, the Devil felt sorry for him and gave him an ember from Hell’s fire to help him light his way. Jack had a turnip, his favorite food, with him; he hollowed up the turnip and placed the ember inside. From that day onward, Jack roamed the earth without a resting place, only with the turnip to light his way. The Irish called the ghost “Jack of the Lantern,” later abbreviated to “Jack O’ Lantern” as we know him today. When the Irish got to America, they discover it was easier to hollow pumpkins than turnips, and that is how this American tradition was born. Halloween as we know it today, is one of our oldest holidays and an important part of the American culture. Next time you are interpreting during this holiday season, and an American speaker brings up Halloween, you will be better prepared to do your rendition. To all my friends and colleagues in America, and everywhere in the world: Happy Halloween!

A client’s message on hiring interpreters abroad

October 6, 2021 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I am about to share a personal experience with a client that, in my opinion, has value. I understand what you are about to read may upset some of you. I do not write it to offend anybody. I just ask you to read the post until the end, and reflect on the words of this client who should remain anonymous although he knows of this article.

During one of the in-person interpretation jobs I have done during the pandemic I had the opportunity to meet a very interesting individual who is now my client. It all started with an email asking for my availability for an in-person conference after indoor activities, observing all public health security measures, were allowed again. We exchanged a few emails, signed a contract and two weeks later I was at the venue some five hours before the event.

As soon as I arrived, I noticed the portable booths were not installed in a place convenient to the interpreters so I approached the person who seemed in charge of preparations. I explained we needed to move the booths and asked them to do so. I was told they would do it as there was plenty of time before the public arrived, but they needed the “go ahead” from their boss due in the building any minute. I waited for about fifteen minutes before the boss arrived.

He immediately approved the change and asked me if we could spend a few minutes talking about my services. We moved to an adjacent room and over a cup of coffee we talked for over an hour. He told me they had held two events remotely in the past twelve months and they were excited to be back face to face. I asked if they had interpretation for those two events and he explained they had hired a company to interpret, but he was not sure he wanted to continue working with this business, so he went shopping for interpreting services and found me. I listen to what he had to say about his company and his expectations for the interpreter team; next, instead of wasting his valuable time teaching him we are interpreters, not translators, or explaining to him why interpreting is so difficult (I have never met a lawyer or a physician who explains how tough Constitutional Law is, or how sophisticated is human physiology), I asked a lot of questions to have a better picture of their needs and that way decide how to support their events better.

He shared that the interpretation had been average but not what they expected. He told me at some point the interpreters seemed confused and the audience complained about sound quality and rendition. He told me who he hired and he also said the interpreters were working from abroad. He was surprised the interpreter team was not based in the United States. I explained how many agencies and platforms are using interpreters based somewhere else as this reduces their costs and increase their profit. I told him we had the same problem before the pandemic as some agencies would bring interpreters from overseas, often without getting a work visa, arriving in the country on a tourist/business visitor visa (B1/B2) or as part of a Visa Waiver Program (VWPP) if they were from a country covered by it. When entering the country, they would not disclose the purpose of their visit to the authorities. These interpreters would work for a lower fee, stay two or three in the same hotel room, and work under conditions American interpreters would not accept. I told him how these interpreters, many more of them now, hired by direct clients, language services agencies, or remote interpretation platforms (through their chosen business model to appear as if they were independent from the hiring entity) are now doing distance interpreting from developing markets, working for fees lower than interpreters in developed markets, and under conditions inacceptable in Western Europe and the United States such as longer hours, interpreting solo, working without previous dry runs, and with no legal protections.

The client, a top-level executive of a major corporation, paused for a minute and added: “You know, I am in a business where many follow the same practice. They hire people who are in the United States without a legal immigration status, pay them little, and offer them zero benefits. It is illegal, but they do it anyway because it is profitable. They argue Americans would not do farm, construction, or hospitality work, and they are right. Nobody in their right mind would work under such conditions. They take advantage of these immigrants because they know they need the money to send back home…”

I was about to agree with his words when he continued speaking: “…I see the same thing now. These interpreters don’t come to our country. They remain in Latin America or Eastern Europe, but they are treated the same, and for the same reasons. That is wrong. I am glad I had this chat with you because from now on we will only hire interpreters who live in the United States. That is what we do with our employees, everybody needs to have papers to work here…”

I told him I have nothing against my colleagues abroad, I explained many are excellent interpreters, and I have no problem working remotely with them as long as they do not accept lower fees or sub-standard working conditions by Western World standards. I finished my conversation telling him I hoped he would be happy with the interpretation service we were about to provide, and asked him to please hire me time and again for in-person and distance events where only U.S. based interpreters, or interpreters abroad working for the same pay and conditions as those in the country would work.  

That evening after the event, I thought of my new client’s words. I was happy he understood our situation as interpreters in the industrialized world, and I reflected on how I had never seen what he just showed me: Those who hire interpreters abroad do it because our colleagues agree to take little money and poor work conditions with no benefits or legal protection. These industrialized world direct clients, agencies and platforms are hiring people who could not work in the United States or Western Europe if the events were held in-person, because when working remotely they can get away with their practice of paying low fees, offering remote solo assignments, asking interpreters to work many hours remotely, not paying royalties when profiting from recorded interpretations of events, and providing no legal protection if a work-related injury occurs, such as temporary or permanent disability due to acoustic shock for example. All of our colleagues in these countries, many first-class interpreters, need the money, more so now because of the pandemic, and those hiring them are maximizing their profits by taking advantage of such circumstances. When questioned about these practices, some of these entities argue that a lower fee may not be considered appropriate in the U.S. or Western Europe, but in the countries where these interpreters live it is good income. “It is good for them.” That explanation is demeaning as it is telling our colleagues: “We know you know we dine at Three-Michelin Star restaurants, but McDonald’s is good enough for you.”      Conference interpreters and those community interpreters in unregulated fields are at a higher risk of this exploitation than community interpreters who require a certification or license to work like court and healthcare interpreters. My client made me think and notice certain things I had not paid attention to before, such as the permanent recruitment campaign by some of these entities in the developing world while nobody is doing a thing to stop it. In my case, I got two benefits from my conversation with this client: I now explain to clients, colleagues and students the ugly side of these practices, and I got a solid, good new client who has hired me on another two occasions after that first event. I now ask you to share your thoughts, and please do not send comments defending the agencies or platforms. Unlike most interpreters, they have their own media outlets to do so.

The myth of federally certified Spanish court interpreter fees in the United States.

August 9, 2021 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

There has been some misleading information on line about the income Spanish court interpreters can make in the United States once they are certified at the federal level. This is motivated by the apparent dates for the next certification exam; and I refer to these dates as “apparent” because, not surprisingly, there is no official information, notice, or update on the website of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). This is not unexpected as lack of accountability kept in office the same people behind the last fiasco.  

As a marketing strategy, some exam preparation vendors have said, or at least implied, that federally certified court interpreters make $418.00 U.S. dollars per day, which multiplied by 5 days a week gives you $2,090.00 U.S. dollars per week; and this amount, times 52 weeks in a year is $108,680.00

The daily fee for a federally certified court interpreter is correct. Federal District Courts must pay freelancers said amount when retained for a full-day of work in court. “Unfortunately,” this is the daily fee for freelancers, and independent contractors are not staff interpreters, they do not work for the courthouse 40 hours a week; they are only asked to work when needed, perhaps several times in a month in a “good month,” and usually they are retained for half a day, at the official fee of $226.00 U.S. dollars, not $418.00

Frequency depends on the caseload, but it also depends on other factors such as the place where the interpreter is physically located, the number of certified interpreters in the area, and other criteria developed by each one of the federal districts. A good portion of this interpreter requests are not to work in court, but to assist attorneys from an existing panel, appointed to represent indigent defendants in federal criminal cases, in terms of the Criminal Justice Act, commonly referred to “CJA attorneys.” These interpretation services are paid at the same federal fees approved for court services above, most of these assignments are for half a day, and to be paid, interpreters must do some paperwork, ask the panel attorney to approve and file the invoice, wait until the lawyer gets around to do it, and then wait for the court to pay. In some districts the wait could be substantial.

Unlike state courts, there are few trials in federal court, even fewer that require interpreters, and most scheduled trials end up cancelled because the defendant enters into a plea agreement. In these cases, interpreters often get no money because of the advanced notice of cancellation, and in others, when there is a last-minute cancellation, interpreters get paid for just a few days, even had they set aside weeks for a lengthy trial that is no more.

Lengthy trials are paid as full days, and sometimes interpreters make an important amount of money, but traveling to another city for a federal trial can be tricky. The district court will reimburse all travel and lodging expenses incurred by the interpreter; the key word is “reimburse.” Interpreters have to buy fully-refundable plane tickets, paying for expensive tickets since “airline specials” are not fully refundable and carry many restrictions unacceptable to the federal government. Interpreters also pay for their hotel rooms (here they catch a break because they must get the hotel’s federal employee rate considerably lower that a regular fare) their ground transportation, and all of their meals. The courthouse will reimburse all the expenses after reviewing all invoices submitted by the interpreter, but reimbursement could take several weeks and even months (usually longer that a credit card payment cycle). Many interpreters turn down this out-of-town trial assignments. They cannot afford to advance such amount of money.

Some of you may be thinking: Why should I get certified then? The answer is, because interpreting in federal court pays better than most state courts, and it definitely pays better than most abusive agencies. The important thing is to understand what the federal certification is good for.

If your expectations are to make a high income by working for the federal court system as a freelancer, then you have to reconsider your options and think about applying for a staff court interpreter position in a federal courthouse. But if you value your freedom as an independent contractor, and you have professional plans beyond interpreting the same subjects for the same judges for the rest of your career, then you have to understand the federal certification credential is helpful when you know how to use it.

First, as a newly certified interpreter, you will gain a lot of experience. This is extremely valuable when you start as an interpreter and recognize when it is time to move on.  By going to interpret at the federal courthouse, you will meet attorneys (not federal public defenders or CJA panelists) from big law firms who will hire you as your direct clients. Most of the law firms I am referring to practice civil litigation and corporate law. Working for these clients will eliminate most of your competitors, as most interpreters stay with criminal courthouse work. It will also challenge you to be a better interpreter as cases are varied and usually more complicated than criminal trials. You will also meet the attorneys’ clients, many multinational businesses and Fortune 500 companies, and they will become your clients for non-legal matters where they may need interpreting services.

If you stay in criminal law because of personal reasons, you can also target the big criminal law firms that handle private clients, among them businesspeople and celebrities that could end up as your clients. If you cannot gain access to these law firms and their clients at this time because of your lack of professional experience or due to your physical location, the federal certification will let you work with the United States Attorney where you can negotiate your fee and work conditions without being limited to the official federal fees (as with the court, CJA attorneys, and federal public defenders).   

Working as a freelance certified interpreter in federal court is a great back-up income strategy. Sometimes, direct clients will be scarce. When this happens, contact your federal courthouse and offer your services. They may ask you to work on a day you have nothing scheduled. Under those circumstances, it is better to work for the federal full-day or half-day fee than state court fees, or abusive agencies. Just make sure when you work in federal court you act as a consummate professional, do your best work, and be courteous to all. Courthouse interpreter coordinators will appreciate the work you do, and will understand you are not always available because you are constantly looking for ways to be a better interpreter and move up in the profession.

I hope you now understand better what to expect from a federal court interpreter certification, its potential income and possibilities; and how, when done wisely, it can help you grow as a professional interpreter. You must get certified. Please feel free to share your comments with the rest of us.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with intérprete at The Professional Interpreter.