Who were the real diners at the first Thanksgiving?
November 22, 2021 § Leave a comment
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 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”.
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
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
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
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 § 14 Comments
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.
The delicate, balancing act of escort interpreting.
July 20, 2021 § 3 Comments
Escort interpreting is a unique type of work. It is frequently exhausting, and often it is rendered under stressful or difficult circumstances. Long hours, picky clients, celebrities, noisy environments, could act as a deterrent to these assignments, but the interesting people, beautiful places, and memorable occasions pull interpreters into this work, sometimes provided as consecutive interpretation, and others as whispered simultaneous.
The difficulties above come to mind to many colleagues when considering an escort interpreting assignment, but what most interpreters rarely consider are the potential uncomfortable, and sometimes embarrassing situations we have to live through because of a word, gesture, or attitude of the client we are interpreting for.
Interpreters’ clients are humans, and they sometimes do or say the wrong thing at the least expected moment. Occasionally it is deliberate, often it is a mistake derived from ignorance and not bad faith; but several incidents are created by cultural differences that can be interpreted as bad manners, callousness, or aggressiveness.
As interpreters we must make quick judgements and decide how far we have to take these unintentional mistakes when interpreting.
Intentional insults, ironic comments, and disrespectful attitudes must be interpreted. That is why the client said it. The client wants us to convey that message with our rendition.
When the embarrassing situation is the product of an offensive comment or a remark our client made without noticing it, or perhaps due to the lack of understanding of the other person’s culture and traditions, we have to assess the relevance of the comment, and based on that judgement, interpret the remarks, soften them up a little, or even leave them out of the conversation. It is all a matter of relevance.
Irrelevant comments need not to be interpreted when uttered by mistake or out of ignorance. They add nothing to communication, and for no reason relevant to the discussion, they could create an obstacle to the success of the encounter. Let’s see examples:
One time I was retained to interpret an important business negotiation between the presidents of two Fortune 500 companies. During a reception before the first round of negotiations, the event’s host I was interpreting for approached the president of the visiting firm and his spouse; trying to be nice and welcoming, he greeted them, told them how much he loved their beautiful country, and asked them to recommend him a good beach for the summer. Nice conversation, right? The problem was that the visiting president’s country is land-locked! Instead of interpreting the question as asked, I simply asked for suggestions on places to see during a visit to their country. The question was irrelevant; nobody was offended, and everybody enjoyed the event.
During a formal dinner, my client was sitting next to a very important person from a not-so-wealthy, but very proud nation. Chatting about their children during dinner, the other person bragged about her children’s academic accomplishments, and how it would be easy for them to be admitted to the top university in their country. After listening to this narrative, that went on for several minutes, my client asked: “if your children are such good students, send them to my country so they truly get a good education.” I did not see a need for antagonizing the mother of these kids, so I softened the remarks, and said: “Your children are remarkable students, they could attend college anywhere they wanted to. They will get a great education.”
Under similar circumstances, remarks as the ones in these examples, and many others I have lived through, have been left out or softened up to make them more palatable to the other party. Comments irrelevant to the matter in question, such as: “I did not expect to find your country this clean,” “with such heavy traffic, I don’t understand why you don’t build better roads,” or “all I see on the streets are ugly old cars you never see in my country,” have been left out of conversations because they added nothing to the success of the encounter. Some say that when negotiating peace, a foreign envoy remarked in the presence of Russian Empress Catherine the Great that negotiations with a woman would never be fruitful; the comments were omitted by the interpreter, and peace was achieved.
As interpreters we have to be ready to react instantaneously when presented with these situations, and do our best to interpret what is being said, while recognizing the irrelevant, unintentional offenses, and leaving them out of the rendition. A rigid, inflexible interpreter would create chaos instead of facilitate the communication.
Please share your comments on this important, but rarely discussed peculiarity of escort interpreting.
A new Spanish Federal Court Interpreter Certification exam: Getting it right.
July 6, 2021 § 2 Comments
Several weeks ago, federally certified Spanish court interpreters in the United States received a questionnaire from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts asking for opinions and suggestions for a new version of the certification exam. This was a welcomed move for two reasons: The government is thinking of updating the exam so it reflects the present condition of our society, and they thought about asking those who work in that environment: the Spanish interpreters.
I liked the idea of modernizing the test as a positive step by the USAOC, especially during these uncertain days of an almost post-pandemic America, and the confusion among exam candidates about the oral exam dates with an official version on the AOC website indicating December as the month of the exam, and rumors, and perhaps emails, circulating around stating the exam will be early next year. Now back to the exam:
The new version of the exam needs to continue the same proportions and format of the current versions, including two sight translation exercises: one from English into Spanish involving a quasi-legal document, and one from Spanish into English involving a legal document; two simultaneous interpreting exercises: a monologue in English at a normal speed of 140 words per minute in average, and a bi-directional dialogue of a legal or scientific direct examination of an expert witness at a speed of 160 words per minute in average. Finally, the exam should have one 15-minute-long bi-directional consecutive interpretation exercise with at least two somewhat long segments, at least one “laundry list” of items, and some idiomatic expressions and obscenities.
This means leaving the exam as it is in format, but updating its content to reflect the world where we now live. The exercises must mention technology, update situations and circumstances to reflect concepts like internet, computers, globalization. If the old version of the exam included situations involving a telephone or a typewriter, the new version should replace them with a cellular phone and a computer for example.
The exam needs to test beyond criminal law and procedure, exercises must include civil law and procedure, and some international law that falls under the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary, like extradition proceedings and international child abductions.
More important, the exam needs to mirror social changes, reflect gender equality, and include diversity of speech and culture. English dialogues should not be limited to the English spoken by white Americans; it must include the English spoken by African Americans and Hispanic Americans. It needs to expand its Spanish dialogues and idiomatic expressions beyond Mexico, and encompass not only expressions and cultural references to other Latin American countries, but it also needs to incorporate the Spanish spoken in Spain, and the unique Spanish spoken in the United States.
There are certain things the AOC questionnaire included that, although important, must stay out of this exam.
Legal translation is an important subject, but other than sight translation exercises, a court interpreter certification exam must stay away from testing candidates on translation. Translation is a different profession and it requires different skills, experience, and knowledge. A good number of court interpreters translate, but the government needs to develop a separate translation exam if it wants to certify translation skills. Translation needs writing, it needs an exhausting, extensive, comprehensive exam at the same level as the interpretation exam now offered. You cannot certify a translator through a section of an interpreting exam, and you should not expect interpreters to translate. These are two professions and they need two exams. Those of you who have taken translation exams in college or certification exams such as the one offered by the American Translators Association, know it is impossible to test translation skills by adding a section to a different discipline’s exam. This would not be appropriate as it would misguide on the actual skill level of the candidate, and it would not be fair to the interpreters, who have studied and trained as such, not as translators.
Including a section to test interpreters’ transcription skills was also floated around. Even though transcription may not be considered a different profession the way translation is, it also goes beyond the skills that need to be tested to become a certified court interpreter. It is a reality that federal courts require of transcription services, and some interpreters transcribe wiretaps, telephone calls, police interviews, and other voice and video recorded interactions, but most interpreters do not transcribe; they find it boring, time-consuming, poorly remunerated for the work involved, or they simply dislike it. Unlike consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, it is not part of what makes an individual a court interpreter.
Transcription is a specialized service and should be treated as such. If the Administrative Office of the United States Courts wants to certify transcribers, it should develop a separate test to be offered as an additional exam to those already certified as court interpreters who want to specialize. It cannot be part of an interpreter certification exam, and by the way, it should be remunerated in terms of time spent for a recorded minute, nut lumped with the full or half a day pay interpreters receive from interpreting in court.
Updating the certification exam is an excellent idea. Considering a certification for court translators and court transcribers is also a good point, but commingling these other disciplines with court interpreting is a mistake. There is plenty to be tested in a traditional interpreter certification exam; things could be added and improved without expanding to other professions. Let’s fix the exam, but from the beginning, let’s get it right.
I now invite you to share your ideas about the modernization of the court interpreter exam, and those interpreting modalities you believe must be included.
This must be a priority to all interpreters worldwide.
June 8, 2021 § 10 Comments
September 11 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks in the United States that shook up the world and ushered an era of war and armed conflicts in several regions of the world. This year the date will mark the end of NATO’s military occupation of Afghanistan. The departure of the armed forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and The Netherlands closes a sad chapter of the 21 Century which lasted twenty years; it also shows a vow of confidence in the Afghan authorities, expected to govern the war-torn country on their own (with minimal foreign support) and unfortunately, simultaneously it opens the door for the Taliban to return to its fanatic, inhumane practices, bringing back the terror suffered by the people of Afghanistan before September 11, 2001.
These conflict zone and military interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers are our colleagues. They aided Western armed forces in military operations risking (and often losing) their own lives; they helped NATO forces and international organizations in their efforts to bring peace to cities and villages throughout the country; translated intelligence-packed documents and everyday paperwork; provided language support to contractors in charge of developing infrastructure and construction works that benefitted many soldiers, marines, and civilians (some your family members perhaps); they accompanied Western governments and international organizations’ representatives during campaigns to improve the health, education, administration of justice, and welfare of millions of Afghan citizens. They did the same work you do back in your countries. They just did it under death threats while watching how fellow interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Taliban.
The Taliban has clarified it: they will retaliate against our colleagues after the West leaves on September 11. They will be declared “traitors” and many will be executed. This is not new. It has happened throughout history. Interpreters and translators have been targeted for killing in every war, everywhere. Even when they never held a weapon, even when they did not share ancestry or ethnicity with their victimizers. Even today, after 500 years, many Mexicans refer to Malintzin, Hernán Cortés’ interpreter, as a traitor, and they use the term “malinchismo” (Malintzin-like) to describe a treasonous act. This, even though Malintzin was not of Aztec descent, and her own people were enslaved and oppressed by the Aztecs. Fortunately for Malintzin, Cortés won the armed conflict and was never abandoned by the victorious Spanish empire, even after the war ended.
Some question the motivation that drove Afghan interpreters, translators and cultural brokers to work with the West. Undeniably some did it because they needed the income to provide for their families devastated by the years of Taliban rule; others joined because of the adventure, and even hoping to move to the West at some point; others did it because they were tired of the injustices committed by Taliban authorities, they wanted to end discriminatory practices affecting their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters; others were angry with the way their religious beliefs were hijacked and distorted by those in power, and frankly, others did it because their sympathies were with the West. It does not matter; motivation aside, these courageous men and women risked their lives and their families’ to provide a service needed to protect our friends, neighbors, and family members deployed in Afghanistan. They provided their services knowing of this tremendous danger because the West, our governments, promised them protection. They worked understanding that at some point, if they were still alive, when the Allied Forces left Afghanistan they would take them, and their families, with them. This counts. We have to see them as fellow humans.
Some of these conflict zone colleagues have made it to the West, very few, and it has not been easy. Red tape, political posturing, policy changes, and lack of interest, have made it a nightmare, and have caused many dead colleagues, killed while waiting for a piece of paper, or an interview, or a policy change. If not for the pressure exercised by civil society, many more would have died. It is thanks to the efforts of some organizations, especially thanks to Red T and its allies, and the drive and inspiration of its leader (my admired) Maya Hess, that governments have acted. Most NATO members are currently planning and processing the evacuation of many of these interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families. That is great, but it is not enough. Some are slipping through the cracks. And they are running out of time. September 11 is less than 100 days away and there is much to be done; so much, that some of us fear many colleagues will be left behind.
This can be done. There is precedent. The United States did it in Vietnam on April 30, 1975 with the “Saigon Airlift.” Just like now, many Vietnamese who helped the American government and contractors were evacuated and taken to Guam, a United States Territory, for processing. A similar action could take place. Instead of living them behind, and risking a travesty of justice, questionable individuals could be transferred out of Afghanistan for processing. Those cleared shall be admitted to the Western nation they worked with, and those rejected, because the possibility of infiltration exists, shall be dealt with according to the law.
Time is running out and not one of us can afford to be a spectator. We must support our colleagues. If you are or were in the military you know how important these individuals were to your safety and success; if you have a friend, neighbor, or family member who was or is in the military, consider that perhaps your loved one came back because of one interpreter, translator, or cultural broker; If you, a family member, or a friend work for a contractor in Afghanistan, think that maybe your friend or relative had a job that allowed them to feed their families because of the work of a conflict zone linguist. Contact your president or prime minister; your secretary of defense; your legislative leaders, your private sector, and tell them about these folks; ask them to write to their representatives. Write an op-ed for your local newspaper, share this information with war veterans’ organizations in your area. We should all participate. It will take a few minutes of your life, and you will be helping to save lives and defend our profession. Every year, Every September 11 we remember those who died because of a despicable act of terror. On the 20th Anniversary of this day of remembrance let’s not forget our fellow interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers who helped us for twenty years.
Our current market and the fearful interpreter.
April 19, 2021 § 10 Comments
The post-Covid interpreting market looks very different from what we knew before 2020. Distance interpreting brought in globalization at an unprecedented pace, and with that a new set of rules that for now look like the Wild West. Much remains to be done, and many things will happen before the market settles down and we have a clear view and understanding of a more permanent, stable workplace; but for now, misrepresentations, ignorance, and opportunism, coexist with professionalism, quality, and experience.
The impact of false advertisement and entry of inexperienced individuals has been such, that even well-established working relations between professional interpreters and long-time clients have been affected to a degree.
My professional practice is now strong and steady, but in the last twelve months I experienced first-hand, three times, what this chaos and confusion can do to my business.
First, I was contacted by a long-time client to let me know that the annual assignment I have been doing for seven years was no more. When I asked if the event had been cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic, I was told the conference would be held on line, but it would be interpreted by other interpreters from a developing country charging less than half of my fee. The client told me that to them costs were THE priority, and no argument about quality, experience, cultural knowledge would make them change their minds. I understood. I had lost my first long-term client to a group of inexpensive interpreters with (in the words of the client) had zero experience in these events, but were “enthusiastic, energetic, and cheap.”
Several months later, I was asked by another client who has worked with me for over fifteen years to interpret a one-day event. It was a distance interpreting assignment on a topic I have interpreted often before. The event took place without incident and I invoiced my client. To my surprise, this client’s accounting department contacted me a few weeks later asking me to explain and justify the fee I had charged. The invoice was straight forward; in fact, it was identical to many other invoices I had submitted for similar services. It was a full-day fee. Nothing else. I replied to the accountants, and two weeks later I was contacted by my client. I was told my service rendered on that date did not justify a full-day fee because there was a 2-hour intermission after the first 2 hours and before the final two. I explained that such a service is a full-day because the interpreter is dedicating the full day to the event, including interpreting when the event goes over the first two hours. I also reminded them they had paid this way for years without ever questioning the charge, and the contract obligated them to pay for a full-day of work. The client listened carefully to my arguments and replied that they appreciated my services, but other interpreters who they had been hiring for other language combinations, all court or healthcare interpreters, were charging them by the hour, and they did not charge for the hours in between. We had a good conversation about conference interpreting, quality of the service, and meeting their needs. At the end of a long conversation, we agreed to continue our professional relationship as always, but the client express their hesitancy about replacing their other language combinations court and healthcare interpreters with conference interpreters in the immediate future. I did not lose the client, but it was clear they were moving away from conference interpreters in other less-commonly used languages.
My third experience concerned another very good client that comes with less frequency, but always with multi-day, high-profile assignments. This client sent me an email asking for my availability for a multi-day assignment. After I replied telling them I was available, they responded by asking me if I would do the assignment for a full-day fee about twenty percent below what I usually charge. My answer was no. I got another email a few days later asking me if I was still available, and willing to work for a full-day fee about fifteen percent below my normal fee. I said no again. A few weeks went by and I received a third email informing me that if I was still available, they had “found the funds” to pay me my usual full-day fee. I was available (the assignment was months later in the year) so I agreed to do the job. After signing the contract, I wondered what had happened, and it came to my knowledge from other sources (in the world of interpreting we discover everything sooner or later) that they had “auditioned” other interpreters willing to work for the lower fee, but the client was not satisfied with their performance. I was fortunate the client was looking for quality and they valued my services, even though they hesitated for a moment as they were tricked by the social media mirage we see every day.
These episodes make me wonder what is going on that interpreters will accept worse conditions than the ones offered 20 or 30 years ago. I believe it is fear:
Interpreters fear the client. Instead of starting a negotiation from a place of power, knowing the service they offer has quality, they fear clients will never call them again if they raise any issue. Interpreters fear saying no to a shrinking fee because they think all the work will go to those diving to the bottom, instead of shedding those clients and focusing on quality-seeking organizations. Interpreters fear saying no to long RSI hours because they think the platform will never call them again. They agree to these market-devastating conditions instead of considering taking the client to another platform or even staying with the same one, but working directly for the client without an agency-like platform in the middle. They are equally afraid of charging full fees for RSI cancellations; afraid of asking for team interpreting on depositions and other legal community interpreting events; they will not dare to charge overtime, or a higher fee for complex assignments that require many days of preparation, because they do not understand they do not need the agency if they go to the client directly: There can be interpretation without the agencies, but there cannot be interpretation without interpreters.
Even when there is a contract, interpreters are afraid of charging full-day fees when retained to interpret a few hours throughout the day, and they are afraid to stand up for their rights when the client cuts their fee after the service was rendered as I did in my examples above. Many interpreters sacrifice quality, and put their reputation at risk, hurting their opportunities in the future because they are afraid the client, and more frequently the agency, will be upset if they keep asking for materials, programs, and the name of their boothmates. They do not dare to raise their fees when everything else is going up, including their cost of doing business. Some colleagues willingly take low-paying jobs to post their assignments on social media, and keep quiet on the fee issue because they are ashamed to admit they worked for peanuts, instead of having the courage to denounce the job offer. When offered a rock-bottom fee or despicable working conditions, interpreters must turn down the agency or de-facto-agency platform and, unless contractually impaired, contact the client directly, offer their services and eliminate the middle man. When harassed by a platform or agency for not agreeing to draconian terms, interpreters should move on and look for a better option. There are thousands of agencies, and many interpreting-dedicated platforms that basically do the same. Yes, you may lose clients, as I lost one of three, but you will keep, and find better ones; clients that will let you provide a quality service, protect your health, and develop your reputation and brand for a better future. Let’s get rid of the fear and face the Wild West with courage, determination, and convinced that, unlike agencies, we are an essential part of the process. I now invite you to share with the rest of us how you have protected your market and reputation.