Should interpreters work under those conditions?

April 24, 2017 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Freelance interpreting is a beautiful career but it has its complications. Besides the general complexities of being an interpreter, independent professionals must worry about getting and keeping clients, the administrative aspects of the business, and the market conditions, including competitors, unscrupulous agencies, and ignorant individuals who, knowing little of the profession, try to set the rules we all play by.

We all have our own personal motivations to work as interpreters. All legitimate and many honorable. I am an interpreter for two main reasons: Because I like working in the booth, and because of the freedom, flexibility and income.

In my experience, I have rarely encountered a colleague who hates the profession (although I have met some). Freedom and flexibility are appealing to many; but with the actual decision to take or reject assignments based on content and other factors, or the relentless pursuit of professional good work conditions and a professional fee, many interpreters bulk at confronting the market and demand what they deserve.

For many years I worked as court and conference interpreter simultaneously. I liked the work in court, the cases, the challenges, the drama, and sometimes the outcome of a legal controversy, but it was wearing me out.  Many times working in court was depressing, not because of the truculent cases or the human misery you get to see in the courtroom, but because of the conversations among many of my colleagues.

It wasn’t unusual to hear interpreters talk about how they could barely make ends meet, or complain of how little work they were getting from the court. Common topics would include choices between paying the rent or a child’s medical bills. The interpreters who dared to talk about a nice dinner in town or an overseas vacation were met with resentment. It was almost like those with a good income had to keep it secret. It was very uncomfortable.

I do not like to see people suffer, and no doubt these colleagues were in pain. The problem is that it was self-inflicted. Being an interpreter who makes little money is a curable disease. It requires that the interpreter practice and study to improve their rendition, grow their vocabulary, and increase their general knowledge. It also needs a good dosage of courage and determination to go out there and look for good clients. Sitting in the courthouse interpreters’ room complaining of how they are not given more assignments, and settling for the fees (low in my opinion) that the judiciary pays interpreters will never get you ahead of the curve. I never liked it when other interpreters would describe themselves as “we work for the courts”. Unless you are a staff interpreter, the courts are your clients, not your boss. Talking to many colleagues all over the world I can say the same for those who work in healthcare: You will never make a lot of money interpreting in a hospital or clinic. The cure for the disease is one paragraph above.

I respect others’ opinion, and we all know what we want to do with our career and our life, but to me getting to know the market (or markets in many cases) where you work does not mean “learning the limits to what you can request or charge”. To some, interpreters who adapt to their market are doing something good. To me, they are just giving up and convincing themselves this is the best they might do. An interpreter who does not accept irrational work conditions or insultingly low fees is on the right track. Those who demand team interpreting for any assignment that will go over 30 minutes to one hour maximum, or ask for a booth with decent interpreting equipment, or want to get the materials ahead of time so they can study, are doing what professionals do. Interpreters who refuse to work under substandard conditions or don’t dare to charge a high fee for fear that the client will go with somebody else are digging their own graves and hurting the profession.

The interpreter who rejects an assignment because the agency wants him to work alone, or the interpreter who walks away from an offer to do a conference for a miserable fee are doing what should be done. Accepting work without materials because “nobody in my market provides materials ahead of time for this type of assignment” and working solo or without a booth because “If I don’t do it I will go out of business” may be adapting to the market, and to some this may be praiseworthy. To me they just are excuses; a pretext to avoid the constructive and educational confrontation with the agency or direct client. This interpreters do not “adapt” to the market, they shape it, and that is good.

I started this entry by emphasizing that to get what we want we must practice and study. Only good professionals may demand (and enjoy) everything we have discussed here. We must be professionals at the time of our rendition in the booth, courthouse, hospital, or TV network. We must earn the trust and appreciation of our client by becoming reliable problem-solvers who will do anything needed from us as professionals to make the assignment a success.  Be flexible as an interpreter. Once, the console failed in the middle of a conference, and instead of suspending the rendition until the tech staff could fix the problem, I jumped right on stage and continued interpreting consecutively until the system was working again. This is what we do. This is the right flexibility the client should expect from us. One time an agency asked me if I could be the driver of some of the foreign visitors I was to interpret for. I immediately refused. Driving is not part of what an interpreter is expected to do as a professional, and neither is to do photocopies, or set up the chairs and tables for the conference.

That we have to get a lot of clients to generate a good income is false. I consider myself a successful interpreter and I probably have fewer clients than many. I am never the first interpreter the agencies most of you are familiar with call, and I don’t want to be. If you are the first name on the list it means you could be undercharging or too willing to accept the agency’s work conditions.  I am the last name on the list, and that is good.

Whether it is because the agency could find nobody else, and they are now willing to pay my fee, or because it is a difficult, or high-profile assignment and they need one of the best, even though they know that my services don’t come cheap.  Well-run agencies make a great deal of money; hospitals charge more than any other service provider in society; attorneys keep one-third of the money awarded in a case (and interpreter fees do not even come from that slice, they are deducted from the part the plaintiff is to receive).

I know we all have our reasons to do what we do with our careers. I respect everybody’s decisions. All I ask you to do is that the next time you evaluate taking an assignment under less than ideal work conditions, or for a lower fee, before saying yes to the agency or direct client ask yourself if adapting to the market is a good thing, or shaping the market to satisfy your needs is better.  I invite you to share your opinions with the rest of us.

Will my clients find me in this association’s directory?

April 17, 2017 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I am tired of getting this call repeatedly: “Hi, I got your name from the ATA directory and I was wondering if you would be available for a medical evaluation (or a worker’s compensation hearing) this Friday…”

Maybe those providing the service would be happy with these calls, but I am not.  Every time I must answer the phone to tell somebody I don’t do that work, and that I refuse to work for peanuts, is a waste of my time.  I do conference interpreting and I don’t like to explain two or three times a week I do not work for fifty dollars an hour.

For years I have almost exclusively worked as a conference interpreter, doing some court or legal interpreting for established Law Firms I regularly work with, generally in civil cases or some federal criminal matters.  Motivated by ATA’s outreach campaign regarding the credentialed interpreter designation and database, I thought that maybe, if I clarified it on the ATA directory that my credentials are United States Department of State Conference-level, and Federal court certification, all these people would stop calling asking me to do work that I do not provide.

I have been an ATA member for many years, and even though the association does many things I am very much against, I also get many benefits from my membership: a monthly publication with some very good articles, a discount on my errors and omissions insurance, good divisional activities, valuable webinars, and a well-known directory.

I logged in to the members section of the website to update my information and take advantage of the new credentialed interpreters’ database in their directory. This happened:

I must start by confessing that I rarely access ATA’s website, so I found it a little bit too crowded; maybe appealing to translators, but I believe it could be a little intimidating for clients looking for an interpreter or translator. After I accessed the “members” section, I looked for a section called “Interpreters’ credentials”, or something similar, but I found nothing. I clicked on the menu where it says “update your contact information” and “update your online directory profile”.

As I got to the profile section, all my information was already there (so I had entered it before). I did not need to change anything. Since I was already inside the program, I reviewed it anyway to see if I needed to make any changes. When I got to the “Interpreting Services” section, I saw that I had previously highlighted “consecutive”, “court”, “escort”, and “simultaneous”. Since I saw a “court” category, I scrolled down to see if I could also highlight “conference”, but the only category left for me to highlight was “sign language”. I thought it was odd. On one hand, if all you are listing are the interpreting you do, then “court” does not belong in here. If they added “court” to make the search easier for the clients, then I would like to see “conference” as an option. I suppose that healthcare interpreters would argue the same for their specialization.

Under the “Certifications” section, I entered my federal court interpreter and my two state-level court interpreter certifications from the drop down menu. I saw nothing for other credentials that are not certifications, but equally important, such as AIIC, U.S. Department of State, European Union, etc. The menu had another category: “other” where I entered my conference interpreting credentials, constantly wondering why I could not find the so much talked about “credentialed interpreter” menu for the new database ATA has been advertising so much. I thought the reason the place to enter that information was somewhere else, perhaps later on the form, was because these other credentials are not certifications and ATA had included them separately.

I kept looking, and my search only found a different category towards the end of the page called: “Additional Information”. That was it. No other place to enter conference interpreter credentials. Knowing I would not get what I wanted, I tested the directory, so I looked myself up. On a simple search I found my information, not as advertised with the credentialed interpreter information, but as I had entered it earlier. I immediately thought of the unwanted agency phone calls that would keep on coming as before.

I ran an advanced search just for English<>Spanish interpreters in Illinois, where I live, asking for State Department conference-level credentials, and the result was “we found none”.  I found this interesting, so I dug deeper to see if there was a problem with the directory search engine. The first thing I tried was a search for interpreters with that same language combination and credentials in the largest state: California. I know several colleagues there with the credentials and are members of ATA. The result was: “we found none”.

At this time I decided that maybe it was a glitch on the search engine, but before concluding that, I wanted to see if I had missed the section where you enter these credentials. I went over the form two more times and I found nothing. At this point I am thinking that maybe I needed to submit my credentials for a verification before the information was displayed, so I went back to the form once again. I read it carefully looking for some instructions or description of such process. I found nothing.

I did the only thing left: I went to the search menu at the top of the page and I typed: “credentialed interpreter process”. The search took me to a page with all the results. At the top I saw one that looked like the information I was looking for, so I clicked on it.

I finally found the explanations and instructions, with a link to a form to start the process. The first thing the program asks you to do is to reenter your ATA membership information. Once you are in the form, you are greeted by a message in red that tells you to submit a separate form for each credential and that you must pay $35.00 USD. As an attorney I must confess that although the red-inked message clarifies that one fee covers all requests, it is ambiguous on a second matter: it reads: “A $35-administrative fee covers all requests for one year.”  I did not understand if this means that for your information to continue to be available indefinitely you must pay $35.00 USD every year, or that any request filed after twelve months is no longer covered by the initial $35.00 USD fee and therefore you must pay again for the new credential.  Finally, I also learned that the process could take up to something like forty days.

After reading this, I stopped for a minute and reflected on what I was about to do: I was ready to send $35.00 USD to ATA (with my documentation) to be a part of this new database, but so far I had had a miserable time looking for, and finding any colleagues with the desired credentials; so far I had found zero conference interpreters. I even had a difficult time finding the instructions to get my credentials reviewed.  My friends, I am pretty active on social media, and even though I am not a computer genius, I am resourceful. Can you imagine how tough it would be for a regular individual looking for an interpreter to navigate through these? Even if I do this, send the documents, pay the fee, and wait the forty days, will my clients find me?

I concluded that I had to do more research first, so I did.

I went back to the directory and tested it:

I did this trying to think like a client and not like an interpreter or an ATA member. The first thing I noticed was that to look for an interpreter, the person doing the search must go through the translators’ section of the advanced search; they must scroll down passing through a section with very confusing questions for somebody who, let’s say, wants to hire an interpreter for a marketing conference at the Marriott downtown. Without being an interpreter, I would not know what to do when asked to indicate if I want an ATA certified or non-certified translator, or what translation tools I will need. As a client, even before reaching the interpreter questions, I would probably close the page and look for a conference interpreter in Google or somewhere else.

Since I had already tried Illinois and California with a result of zero interpreters, I looked first for any conference interpreters with an English<>Spanish combination, with a U.S. Department of State Conference-Level credential in New York State. The result was: none. Then I did the same thing for Washington, D.C. (where most conference interpreters live) Again there were zero. I got the same result in Florida and Texas. Next, I searched the same states for any interpreters with the same combination, but with the AIIC membership credential. The result was: nobody. I considered doing the same for every state in the Union, but (fortunately) I decided against it. Instead, I looked for any conference interpreters with any credential and living anywhere in the world. The result was: 2 interpreters. One U.S. Department of State Seminary-Level colleague in the United States, and one AIIC member in Argentina!

Based on these results, I looked for interpreters in all listed categories. I found this: Under certified court interpreters I found 10 colleagues. Under Healthcare certified I found 4 (2 were also listed as part of the 10 court certified). Under conference credentials I found 2 (one of them is also one of the 11 under court certified). I found 1 telephonic interpreter (also found under another category), and I found zero sign language interpreters.  Looking for simultaneous interpreters I found 10, under escort interpreters I saw there are 9, and as consecutive interpreters they have 14. As expected, all interpreters under the modes of interpretation categories are the same ones listed by specialization. I also noticed that some interpreters I found in this group are ATA Board members.

The page also asks the person doing the search to state if they are looking for a “consecutive, court, escort, sign language, simultaneous, or telephonic” interpreter. My relevant question was stated before in this post, but it is worth repeating for another reason: If I am a client looking for a conference interpreter, how can I find one under this criteria? Ordinary people do not know that conference interpreters do simultaneous interpreting. Even worse, they also do consecutive interpreting in many events such as press conferences for example.

If people we deal with regularly have a hard time referring to consecutive or simultaneous interpreting by their correct name, why would everyday people looking for a conference interpreter know who they need based on this question? If ATA included “court”, and even “telephonic”, they should include conference. Once again, I am sure my healthcare interpreter colleagues want to be heard here as well.

After reviewing the directory my decision was simple. Why would I want to pay $35.00 USD, and perhaps wait up to forty days, to be part of a directory listing a microscopic portion of the interpreting community? Should I encourage my clients to look for a credentialed conference interpreter in a directory that does not even list us as an option, and flatly ignores conference interpreting in their most common questions section, where all explanations and examples are geared to court and telephonic interpreting? And why as interpreters should we reward the work of an association that continues to treat us as second-class professionals by including the interpreter search criteria after the translator search options, instead of having two separate search pages: one for interpreters and one for translators to make it easier for our clients, and to give some respect to the many interpreters who are ATA members? There is no excuse or justification for this.

I know there are plenty of capable people at the helm of the American Translators Association whom I know and respect as friends and colleagues. I also appreciate many of the good things they do for the profession, but at this time, for all these reasons, until we interpreters get from ATA what we deserve as a profession: Unless the search criteria and credentialed interpreter designation process is as prominently displayed on the website as is the translators’ certification; and only when the search criteria addresses the conference interpreter community on a client-oriented, user-friendly platform, I will stay away from the “advanced-options” directory. I hope this post is welcomed as constructive criticism, and as the voice of many interpreters all over the world. It is not meant as an attack on anybody; it is just an honest opinion and a professional suggestion from the interpreters’ perspective. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your thoughts about such an important issue for all interpreters and for the image of ATA.

Are incompetent bureaucrats scaring away good interpreters?

April 10, 2017 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Today we will discuss a delicate subject that cannot be avoided as it impacts all freelance professional interpreters. I am talking about the cost of doing business versus the unreasonable cost of doing business. All professionals know that freedom and independence come with a price and we all know that we must pay it to enjoy the best things in life. It is called the cost of doing business.

The time an interpreter spends developing a client base talking to the best prospects in person, sitting in front of a computer answering their questions, or chatting with them over the phone takes part of our time, and for those who sell personal professional services time is money.  Administrative chores such as printing glossaries, mailing documents and buying office supplies are also part of this cost of doing business. So is invoicing.

Getting paid for services already rendered could be a full-time job unless we are organized and develop a billing system that is accurate, user friendly, and does not take too much of our time. Morose payers, crooked client, and banking mistakes are unavoidable, they will always be there and we must factor them in as part of our business. We consider all these factors when bidding for a contract or providing an estimate. The thing we cannot factor in, and we must stay away from are never-ending bureaucratic proceedings filled with nonsensical steps and inspired by the most pure form of institutional chaos and individual incompetence.  We can encounter this condition anywhere, but it is frequently found in government invoicing procedures.

We are all familiar with the long government invoice forms requesting absurd, and often repetitious, information. Nobody likes them, but sometimes the importance of the contract, or the monetary reward, for jumping through all the hoops justifies the sour moments.  The unforgivable part is when interpreters go through this enormous waste of their time, answer dumbness award-winning questions from a bureaucrat, are disrespected, and what they collect is worth less than the time and energy spent navigating the bureaucratic maze of mediocrity.  This is where we must draw the line.

All governments have obsolete, and often outdated, systems and procedures to pay interpreters. This is clear in the judiciary. You all know of puzzling methods followed by your respective states to pay you for work you did sometimes two or three months earlier. Once they realized they were losing money by working with a court system, some interpreters quit working with these clients, while others thought about it, but for different reasons: real financial need, fear, or ignorance, they remained as contractors for that court system. I stopped working federal cases with Criminal Justice Act appointed attorneys (CJA) two years ago when they changed to a system that injected the attorney as an intermediary between the service provider (interpreter) and client (courthouse) and never regretted the decision. I was losing more money doing paperwork and chasing after CJA attorneys and courthouses than the fee generated by my interpreting services.

I understand that to leave that work or stay and take it on the chin is a complex personal decision that only you can make. I also know of the fact that government agencies will always move slowly and have endless checks and balances because of their work volume. This makes it harder to decide what to do; unless there is a case so full of abuse and lack of respect for the interpreter as an individual, or our craft as a profession you have no choice but to get out of the zest pool before you are permanently harmed. This is what I am told has been happening for some time in a particular state.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you remember other occasions when I have written about irregularities in several court interpreter programs at the state-level, including this state, but this time the stories have a human aspect I could not keep to myself.

Sometime ago, this state adopted a billing system similar to the one used by other states (and non-judicial government agencies) that required certain information from the interpreter and some data about the work performed. In that state, interpreters are paid by the hour with a two-hour minimum guarantee (and a bunch of bizarre rules requiring the interpreter to travel to other cities and counties within the guaranteed period of time we will not discuss in this post). The billing system asks interpreters to enter their time, including the time when the “proceeding” ended. The billing system is confusing and it takes some skill and time to understand it and use it correctly. There is no technical help available on line from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts as far as I know.

As we all know, interpreters are busy interpreting, understanding the culture of the foreign client, and in a court setting they are also paying attention to their surroundings to protect their physical integrity. And to any regular human, the requirement of reporting the time of an assignment and writing down when the “proceeding” ended would be met by entering “3:30 pm”.  In the dark dungeons of immeasurable insanity, an invoice can be rejected if I entered “3:30 pm” and the recording machine that keeps the record shows it ended at “3:24 pm”. The invoice will be sent back even when the times coincide because I entered “3:24 pm” instead of “15:24”. Dear friends and colleagues: They want military time!

You can see that the billing system is twin brother of the bizarre, and it could be intimidating for some colleagues. Depending on where in the world you come from, certain things can make you uncomfortable. Add to it the fact that, in the opinion of many, the staff in charge at the Administrative Office of the Courts (where there is not a single certified court interpreter) is not known for their warmth or devotion to the interests of the interpreters or the well-being of the profession, and you can get situations like the one of a very well-respected interpreter who I have known for many years, and strikes me as a professional and dedicated colleague.

This individual is an interpreter in a language combination common in some parts of the country, but rare in a small state like this one, although there are many speakers of the language all over the state. He felt confused, embarrassed, and intimidated to where, after having some invoices rejected for petty reasons like the one above, he did not invoice the state for about a year. A rare language interpreter, actually, the only certified interpreter with that language pair in the State, worked for a full year without getting paid. Finally, when he sent in all of his invoices to the Administrative Office of the Courts, he was met with a bunch of one-sentence communications (I saw 44) rejecting all of his filings because of some nonsensical excuse. To this day, even without pay and after being disrespected, the interpreter continues to work within the court system because he knows he is the only interpreter in that language combination in the state, and he feels bad for the people who go to the court system seeking justice.

This is not an isolated case. A year earlier, the same thing happened to another interpreter whose invoices were also rejected for petty reasons. This interpreter, also one of the most professional in the state, reacted differently, and after being retaliated against by the Judicial Branch administrative authorities, he decided he had had enough and quit. He is now interpreting for the courts in a different state.  I was told by at least three interpreters that depending on the individual doing the filing, the same insignificant billing mistakes are often overlooked by the administration.  If this was true, it could have something to do with who the person filing the invoice is.  I will not get into that because it is a legal matter that interested parties will no doubt take to court.  The issue we are discussing here is the collateral damage that irrational billing requirements by federal and state-level judicial authorities are creating.

These actions, presumably adopted to protect the quality of the services provided, and watch over the taxpayers’ money, are scaring away many good interpreters because of the undue burden and lack of flexibility by often well-intentioned, but not very knowledgeable, government workers who apply these policies with no discretion or awareness of the damage they cause, and the money they cost to the state.  I for one stopped doing CJA attorney cases, one interpreter in the story moved to a different State, and the only certified interpreter in a rare language pair in the state may decide that he will not take it any longer and decline court assignments, forcing the authorities to hire out-of-state interpreters at a much higher cost to the citizens of the state.  I now invite you to share your stories with the rest of us, and if you fear retaliation, I assure you that your name, place of residence, language combination, and any other information that could identify you, will not be included in your comments.

When client and agency do not listen to the interpreter.

April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

After years of working as a professional interpreter you get to see and live many things. It is called experience. Learning from our mistakes, observing the way other colleagues solve a problem, and years of practice and study make us better interpreters, and gives us the confidence to tackle tough assignments.

Once, years ago, I was retained to interpret during a very important event with the participation of some of the highest government officials from many of the most powerful countries in the world. The event was held in one largest city in the world. It involved several interpreter booths, and interpreters of different language pairs.

The assignment, we were told, was to take place at three venues and it would include all of the guests: A big ballroom for a round table discussion by the dignitaries during the morning session; a press conference in a separate room but at the same facility right before lunch; and where they would eat, there would be several speeches by some of the distinguished visitors right after lunch.  In my particular case, the Spanish booth would have several dignitaries needing interpreting services.

The city hosting the event is a world-class city that holds many top-tier events throughout the year, but it is not the capital of a country.  The local government officials in charge of the activities had great experience with logistics of summits like the one about to take place, and the local interpreting agency is arguably the best one in the region. Unfortunately, they were overconfident and did not prepare for an event involving so many celebrities and such a myriad of languages.

The interpreters in the booths, and the interpretation equipment technicians, who are often the same all over the world, had worked in these conditions many times and knew what needed to happen.

From my first telephonic conversation with the agency, certain things had not been planned thoroughly and I raised my concerns. The main problem was that, after the first session, the dignitaries would have a press conference somewhere else in the building, but unlike the first ballroom, this time there would only be interpreter booths for certain languages: the ones expected to get most questions from the media, and Spanish was not one.

When I asked what would happen if one visitor was asked a question, I was told to just walk to him, whisper the question in his ear, and interpret the answer consecutively.  Logically, I had the two obvious follow-up questions: How am I going to find my way to the guest quickly when surrounded by so many bodyguards; and second: What about the context? Are these VIPs supposed to divine what was said before the interpreter gets to them? Had they thought that these visitors would have no context and no idea about everything said in the press-conference up to that point?

First I was told that they would look into it. Days later nearly at the event, I was told that things would stay the same despite my objections and concerns.  I suspected something would get ugly the next day but it was too late to back out of the project. I was left with one last recourse: Use my experience as an interpreter to do the best I could under those circumstances.

When I arrived to the ballroom on the morning of the event, I was greeted by a well-known interpreter equipment technician who told me right away: “You know there are no booths for you at the press conference and at the luncheon, right?” Well, I knew about the press conference, but the luncheon situation was news to me.  I was told that only the English, Arabic and French interpreters would have booths at those two events. I just threw my hands up in the air, smiled, and told him: “well, at least it couldn’t get any worse, right?” He looked at me right in the eye, and answered: “at least you are not the Korean interpreter. They don’t have a booth here either.  The will be asked to sit right behind the Korean delegation and whisper the entire thing…”  I just turned around and retrieved to the safety of my “morning-only” Spanish booth.

The morning session went fine. My colleague in the booth and I did our job as usual and the round-table moved along as scheduled. I must say I was impressed by the professionalism of my Korean colleagues. After taking a deep breath when they learned there would be no booth, they went to their delegation, sat behind them, and interpreted magnificently without complains or remarks about the adverse circumstances they encountered.

We moved on to the second event. The Spanish interpreters were lucky at the press conference because there were no questions to any of our clients. I felt bad for them as they sat there without understanding a word of what happened during the session, but at least I was not in the shoes of the Portuguese interpreters who had to do their best Harry Houdini impersonation to squeeze in and reach their delegations from Brazil and Portugal to do a whispered rendition for their clients, without the benefit of any prior context, followed by a consecutive interpretation of a long answer by one of the two delegations.

The luncheon was another disaster with little room for extra chairs for the interpreters and without headphones. I call this interpretation “silverware interpreting” because it is difficult to hear anything a speaker is saying when you must listen over your own voice and the symphony of spoons, forks and knives dangling against the china.  I heard no derogatory remarks, but the delegations were not happy with the interpreting infrastructure offered by the program organizers.

I realized there are no valid excuses for these mistakes. It is understandable that clients and agencies who rarely work these events, especially if they are monolinguals, may not think of all these basic needs of the foreign language audience; what is inexcusable is to ignore the interpreters’ and sound technicians’ comments and observations when they live and breathe these programs. Ignorance or stinginess should never be an obstacle to the correct delivery of a professional service.

I now ask you to share with the rest of us those times when you knew more than the agency or the client but they did not listen.

Interpreting depositions correctly.

March 27, 2017 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Next to interpreting in a hearing, legal depositions are the most common professional service provided by court interpreters. They are in high demand, the field is full of potential direct clients, and they usually pay much better than an assignment by the court. With so many apparent advantages, the question that first comes to mind is: Why so many court interpreters do not pursue these assignments? And even among those who provide the service regularly, why is it that so few of our colleagues know what depositions are for, and how to correctly provide the service to ensure top accuracy and quality? Let’s see:

A deposition is the testimony of a witness taken orally (oral deposition) or in writing (interrogatories) outside open court, but in compliance with a court order or statute. It is a pretrial discovery device by which one party, through their attorney, ask oral questions of the other party or of a witness of the other party. It is conducted under oath or affirmation, without a judge, usually at the law office of one of the attorneys or at a court reporters’ office, and a word-for-word transcript is made. Interrogatories are answered in writing under oath or affirmation as well.

Depositions take place in both, criminal and civil proceedings and they are an extremely important part of the discovery process that takes place in an adversarial system, so that the attorneys of one party know what the counterpart or their witnesses will say during the trial. (Fed. R. Civil P.26 et seq.; Fed. R. Criminal P.15)

Oftentimes I run into colleagues who complain about “having to interpret” during a pretrial hearing “instead of interpreting during the trial”. My usual answer has to do with the importance of the pretrial motions and the discovery in general. I try to convey the concept that most cases are won or lost during the pretrial. Ascertaining the facts, excluding illegally obtained evidence, impeaching a witness based on statements made during a deposition, are invaluable as these legal actions and decisions determine what a jury will and will not hear at trial. A litigant exits the pretrial process with a strong winnable case or weakened by the discovery and pretrial motions argued before the judge.

Because of the importance and complexity of a deposition (and all pretrial actions and motions in general) it baffles me how extreme professional interpreting services can be at this stage of the process.

As depositions do not take place in the presence of the court, interpreting services for non-English speaking deponents are left to the professionalism, knowledge, and pocket of the attorney who represents the client. Because many attorneys seldom deal with foreign-language speakers, and for that reason know very little about interpreters and their services, they tend to seek the services of an agency, not for its quality or reputation, but because it was suggested by another colleague who had a case involving a non-English speaker in the past. For the most part the recommendation by the other attorney has to do with things such as: “they are cheap and they are quick”. Quality and experience are mentioned every once in a while.

We all know that, for the most part, there are no standards or policy regulating who can be an agency in the United States. This is an invitation to those with little to no interpreting knowledge to throw their hat in the ring and profit from this very popular professional service.

For the same reason: lack of basic quality standards, many paraprofessionals who unsuccessfully attempted to become certified court interpreters and failed, gravitate to this goose with the golden eggs where they will be on high demand by the above-mentioned ignorant agency owners who in turn will satisfy the requirements of the law office by providing interpreting services that are quick and cheap, regardless of their questionable quality.

But the landscape gets more complicated: For the same good reasons that bottom feeder agencies and paraprofessional interpreters are attracted to depositions, the best of the best in the world of legal interpreting participate in this market as well.

You see,  federal and state court systems retain the services of certified court interpreters, these professionals are for the most part better than non-certified, and from that point of view they are in demand. The problem is that the judiciary does not pay that well, with federal fees being half or less of what a conference interpreter makes, and under constraints of fixed fee schedules and budget cut limitations, the courts are less attractive to the very best in the profession. On the other hand, these top-notch court certified interpreters can negotiate with responsible and experienced law firms that value quality over rock bottom prices. This is the world of the direct client. Reputable agencies who handle big law firms and have a name to protect will also approach and retain these same high quality individuals. In fact, the field is so attractive that even interpreters from the highest caliber who usually do not work in the court system, and despite their vast experience and great skill have never pursued a court certification (but no doubt that candle these assignments because of their knowledge and capacity) provide interpreting services in depositions.

The result of all of the above circumstances and the participation of the wide range of individuals involved in this professional service is a reality where some depositions are interpreted at the highest possible level while at the same time many others are being butchered by paraprofessional interpreters, unscrupulous agencies, and careless lawyers. What a mess!

The good news is that, if they choose to do so, the best interpreters will be able to find good professional profitable clients whose clients will benefit immensely of a properly conducted discovery. The bad news is that many litigants, unaware of this reality, will trust the judgement of their advisers and end up with a defective interpreting service that most likely will impact the outcome of their case one way or another.

The solution to this problem, from the interpreters’ point of view, is relatively simple: stick to the good clients and ignore the bottom feeders. You do not need them, and they think they do not need you.

To me the biggest problem for the best interpreters who work depositions is, dear friends and colleagues, the alarming practice followed by so many of the top interpreters who accept to work alone in a deposition. Yes, I am referring to all of those who work solo, even when they provide services to the richest law firms in the world, including the work they do in very high-profile cases.

Team interpreting is a typical professional practice where two (or more) interpreters work as equal members of a team, rotating responsibilities at prearranged intervals and providing support and feedback to each other. This practice provides continuity and accuracy in the message transmission as it avoids fatigue and allows for word and concept checking during the rendition.

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators of the United States (NAJIT) clearly spells out the function and the need for the second interpreter: “…The typical team is comprised of two interpreters who work in tandem, providing relief every 30 minutes. The interpreter engaged in delivering the interpretation at any given moment is called the active interpreter. His job is to interpret the court proceedings truly and accurately. The other interpreter is called the support interpreter. His job is to… (2) assist the active interpreter by looking up vocabulary, or acting as a second ear to confirm quickly spoken… 4) be available in case the active interpreter has an emergency; and (5) serve as an impartial language expert in the case of any challenge to interpretation…” (NAJIT Position paper Team Interpreting in the courtroom. Primary author: Andrew Erickson. 2007)

Scientific studies have shown that mental fatigue sets in after approximately 30 minutes of sustained simultaneous interpretation, resulting in a marked loss in accuracy. This is so regardless of how experienced or talented the interpreter may be. A 1998 study conducted at the École de Traduction et d’Interprétation at the University of Geneva, demonstrated the effects of interpreting over increasing periods of time. The conclusion of the study was that an interpreter’s own judgment of output quality becomes unreliable after increased time on task.  (Moser-Mercer, B., Kunzli, B., and Korac, M. 1998. “Prolonged turns in interpreting: Effects on quality, physiological and psychological stress.” University of Geneva, École de Traduction et d’Interprétation. Interpreting Vol. 3 (1), p. 47-64. John Benjamins Publishing Co.)

It is true that most reputable agencies and experienced law firms grant the solo interpreter, who is providing the services at the deposition, the choice to take as many breaks as needed. This is often the justification I hear from my colleagues as well.

I am glad that they get to rest their brain and voice every now and then, but it is not enough. There is no scientific conclusion as to how long the interpreter needs to rest before being back in optimum shape in order to continue the rendition with the same quality and at the same level as it was done at the beginning of the session. Obviously, the University of Geneva’s findings suggest that it takes about 30 minutes to get back to the top of your game.

I do not work under these “solo” conditions, but I could assure you that interpreters do not get a 30 minute break for every 30 minutes of service, and if they do, the attorneys would be better served by having a second interpreter actively interpreting during those 30 minutes. You see, it is a myth that having short breaks here and there will protect the interpreter and assure the quality of the service. This “solution” was developed to make everybody feel good even though nothing is really accomplished from the interpreter’s and the interpretation’s perspective. The only “positive” outcome of this solo work with “as many breaks as needed” has to do with the pocketbook of the law office and the profits of the agency. That is all.

But moving beyond that, there is a second, and equally important issue that goes unsolved without team interpreting.

Interpreting is a human task. It is extremely complex and delicate. Depositions present difficult situations that interpreters must solve in order to fulfill the ultimate purpose of the deposition: to ascertain the facts of the case, and to learn the unknown, to be able to ultimately prevail in court. In a deposition setting, interpreters need to understand and convey the message in two different languages, often spoken by individuals of different backgrounds, education, and willingness to disclose the truth. Interpreters need to find in their brain the appropriate scientific terminology, technical word, and regional expression that a deponent has used in the source language. The need to double-check a term, clarify an idiomatic expression, and research a concept are always present; In fact, they are the regular practice of the best interpreters who understand the relevance of the task at hand, and professionally look for the appropriate equivalency with the right syntax and grammar. This is not a job for one. Team interpreting allows the active interpreter to remain mentally fresh, while the support interpreter takes on other functions that would lead the active interpreter to cognitive overload.

For these reasons, it is universally accepted that team interpreting is the standard practice in courtrooms, conferences, international organizations, government events, and any other assignment that may last over 30 minutes. I only agree to do a deposition when I am working with a partner. My sense of professionalism, my reputation, my health, and my sanity, would not allow me to do anything else.

I invite you to stand up for what is right for you and for the profession. Just as you refuse to interpret a trial unless you have a partner, I encourage you to demand team interpreting in all depositions. It is only then that you will be living to the highest standards that a legal process requires. It is only then that you can unequivocally say that you did your best job at a deposition. Working solo, even if you take short breaks, will not relieve fatigue and it will not magically produce a support interpreter who will help you navigate the treacherous waters of legal interpreting.  I now invite you to share your thoughts on this extremely important issue and the terrible practice that permeates deposition interpreting.

Interpreting a live sports event.

March 15, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Today sports play an important role in our world as entertainment and business. We are all aware of the enormous amount of money that events such as the Olympic Games and World Cup Soccer (football outside the United States) generate from advertisers and broadcasting rights.

In a globalized economy, thanks to modern telecommunications, people can follow and root for teams and athletes from every continent. This presents corporations, governments, and sports federations with the challenge of making the games and matches available to everyone, regardless of the language they speak.

The days when the only sports-related events requiring interpreting services were the meetings of the International Olympic Committee, or the conferences attended by FIFA executives are behind us. In this new reality people are watching England’s Premier League, Pay-Per-View world championship boxing, and the Super Bowl from every country in the world. World-class college athletes train and compete in countries where they were not born, and professional hockey and basketball players become stars in foreign countries.  These days all Major League Baseball teams are contractually obligated to provide interpreting services to their foreign-born players who do not speak English fluently, and interpreters living in the United States are getting used to reading ads from professional baseball teams looking for Spanish or Japanese interpreters to be a part of their staff for the entire season.

This time I will skip the description of the professional interpreting services provided by sports conference interpreters during a league or federation meeting where they will interpret for executives, government officials, and athlete’s representatives. I will not discuss the job of sports escort interpreters who accompany professional and amateur athletes for an entire season, acting also as their cultural advisors in everything from training camp to the clubhouse; and from traveling to the away games to opening a bank account, or assisting them during an interview with the media. I have touched on these services before and I plan to do it again in the future.

On this occasion we will talk about the job of the sports media interpreter during a live event.

As a big sports fan, I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to interpret during the broadcast of boxing matches and team sports’ games and tournaments. There are quite a few of us who do this worldwide, but the proliferation of media outlets and the ever-growing public appetite for more sporting events has turned this interpreting field into a more than viable option for many more colleagues in the immediate and long term future.  For this reason, I decided to write about the many services provided by a sports media interpreter during the broadcast of events such as a UFC fight or a soccer game.

Basically, a sports media interpreter can provide professional services in different environments: Live at ringside during a boxing match; live on the basketball court during halftime; live for a quick interview from inside the cage after a mixed martial arts fight; or live before and after a baseball game during a press conference.

One of the most compelling jobs that an interpreter will ever have to perform is that of a ringside or cage-side interpreter for a boxing or mixed martial arts combat. Interpreters sit ringside or cage-side just like the sportscasters; they get a microphone and a headset, and interpret live for the radio or television broadcast the conversation between the fighter and their corner, as well as the encouragement and instructions from the trainer. The task is difficult as the interpreter needs to know sports terminology, idiomatic expressions, and has to be up-to-date on the most current events in the world of that particular sport. A break generally lasts sixty seconds and the broadcast splits the minute between the two corners; therefore, the interpreter has about thirty seconds to render the conversation simultaneously on a clear pleasant voice, but conveying the emotions experienced by those in the red or blue corner.  This must be done in the middle of a noisy arena where music is playing at the highest decibel levels, at the same time that a producer is whispering instructions into the interpreter’s ear through the headphones.

Finally, because these corner conversations are intimate talks between fighters and seconds, there are times when those who are having the conversation code-switch from one language to another (in my case English into Spanish and vice-versa) or use foul words, and even racial slurs.  Interpreters’ concentration is paramount as they have to stay on the target language regardless of the code-switch, and they must decide, according to their contractual obligations with the broadcasting company, or their professional judgement in lieu of the former, whether or not they will interpret the bad words. This has a lot to do with cultural and legal considerations. Audiences in different countries react different to foul language. Sometimes, depending on the network, interpreters have less room to maneuver on the field of profanity. Over-the-air stations usually ban this vocabulary while cable TV is more tolerant. Some countries have a brief time-delay of a few seconds before broadcasting a live event.

Racial slurs are universally left out of the interpretation as they add nothing to the sport-watching experience. The most important rule is to keep it accurate but coherent, informative, and brief. The interpreter never can go beyond the time allotted to the corner conversation. Sometimes there is a second interpreter of another language pair waiting for you to finish so they can start their thirty seconds from the opponent’s corner and you cannot eat up part of their time.  Sometimes it is even more complicated as you have to interpret both corners dedicating thirty seconds to each fighter.

Sports media interpreters also provide their professional services for brief one-on-one interviews with a sports broadcaster. They usually happen at the end of a game or bout, during the halftime of a team sport’s game like football, soccer, or basketball, or in between periods in a hockey match. In boxing and mixed martial arts they take place in the cage or ring, and for the other sports the interview can be on the field, court, or right outside the locker room.

Unless you are working in the clubhouse, these interpreting assignments are performed in a very noisy environment and without a headset which makes it difficult to hear the interviewer’s questions and the athlete’s answers. Because they are extremely short, generally about ten to thirty seconds, the one or two questions by the sportscaster (with the second being a follow-up question many times) are interpreted simultaneously by whispering into the athlete’s ear, and the answers are interpreted consecutively speaking into the microphone held by the interviewer.

All rules above apply to this interpreting situation as the limitations are similar, but there is one unique situation that often arises during these interviews, especially the ones that take place after the game or fight: Regardless of the question they are asked, many athletes start by thanking or acknowledging a higher power, and they end the interview by greeting certain people in their staff, their hometown, or any other group they identify with. Because of time constraints, the interpreter should limit the rendition to the subject matter, leaving out these statements and greetings. Air time is very expensive and the audience has a short attention span.

There are times when TV networks do interviews that are slightly longer right after the fight or game. They do them at a TV set built under the seats of the arena or stadium. Usually, these short interviews take place before the athletes get to the locker room and they last about two to three minutes. For these interviews, the interpreter generally appears on camera between the sportscaster and the athlete and does an abbreviated consecutive rendition of both, question and answer. In this situations, interpreters are given the question ahead of time so they have a chance to figure out how to shorten it by going straight for the main topic at issue. Again, answers are kept to the essential, and the interpreter must look professional and sound pleasant. Interpreters speak into a microphone held by the sportscaster and usually go to the makeup chair before appearing on camera. As you see, to perform these unique tasks interpreters who do this type of work must have deep knowledge of the sport in question, have vast knowledge of the athlete’s career, and need to be up-to-date on everything that is going on in that particular sport. You must keep in mind that there are many in the TV and radio audience who know everything there is to know about the sport. I hope this explains why sometimes some interpreters who are not familiar with this type of work unjustly criticize sports media interpreters’ performance with remarks about everything that was “left out” of a question or an answer. Now you know the true story of the “he didn’t say that” or “that is not what they asked”.

Another common professional service in the world of sports media interpreting are press conferences. Like all similar events interpreted by conference interpreters, sometimes the question is interpreted simultaneously from a booth, and on occasion the rendition is consecutive. Answers are generally interpreted on the consecutive mode, and rarely rendered simultaneously.  When the interpreters are not in a booth, they sit away from the TV cameras at a table with microphones and headsets. Here the interpretation is just like at any other press conference.

In individual professional sports there is usually one press conference on the day before the event and a second one right after the match. For team sports there is usually one before and another one after the game. These team sports’ conferences are attended by the coach of the team and some of the most distinguished players during the game. Before the game the visiting team goes first, followed by the home coach and players. After the game the winning team goes last. Unlike the other interpreting services described above, press conferences are interpreted by teams of two or three interpreters, and unlike most other press conferences in the world, sports press conferences often take place in the wee hours of the night (often spilling over into the next day).

Every day we see more TV stations emerging all over the place; most of them are local in coverage, and because local sports coverage is relatively inexpensive compared to producing TV series or movies, and due to the popularity of sports, especially local teams and athletes, there will be more broadcasts of regional tournaments everywhere. This reality, paired with globalization, which brings to your hometown athletes from other latitudes who many times do not speak the local language, will continue to build up the demand for sports media interpreters all over. I immediately think of the hundreds of professional minor league farm teams in the United States for example.

I hope you will find this brief description of the profession useful when deciding whether or not to apply for one of these jobs. I now ask you to share your thoughts and experiences as sports media interpreters.

A despicable practice in healthcare interpreting.

March 8, 2017 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

For several months I have received phone calls and emails from some of our healthcare interpreter colleagues in the United States complaining about the same situation: Unscrupulous interpreting agencies asking them to work for laughable fees. I know this is not breaking news to you; we all run from time to time into these glorious representatives of the “industry”.  What makes this situation different, and motivated me to write this post, are the shameless tactics used by these agencies’ recruiters. They have decided that giving the interpreter a guilt trip will soften us up enough to work for a miserable fee that will not even pay for gas and parking, or for the babysitter.

Oftentimes when interpreters provide their fee schedule for healthcare interpreting services, these programmers, recruiters, project managers, or whatever may be their official title in that particular agency, throw the ball right back in the interpreter’s court, not to negotiate a professional fee that is fair considering the complexity of the service requested, but for the interpreter to feel awful about turning down an assignment. The argument goes like this: “…but the patient does not speak English and he is really sick… we cannot afford the fee you requested; his condition will get worse unless you help him… the patient really needs you…”  Another version they use brings up the issue of all patients’ right to an interpreter derived from Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.  In that case, the agency representative would add something like: “…but you know these people must have an interpreter if they don’t speak English, and you are the only one in town. We all need to comply with the law. It is your duty as a healthcare interpreter. You cannot use the fee as an excuse…”  To make a long story short, these agencies are passing the ball to the interpreter through guilt trips and fear.

The good thing, dear colleagues, is that interpreters are not obligated to provide professional services under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.  The fact that there may not be an interpreter to assist the patient may be something awful, but it is not your problem. Let me explain:

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 USC Section 200d et seq. prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin (including language, according to President Clinton’s Executive Order No. 13166, Aug. 11, 2000, 65 F.R. 50121) in any program or activity that receives federal funds or other form of federal financial assistance. The term “program or activity” and the term “program” mean all of the operations of a department, agency, special purpose district, or other instrumentality of a State or of a local government; or the entity of such State or local government that distributes such assistance and each such department or agency (and each other State or local government entity) to which the assistance is extended, in the case of assistance to a State or local government. It also includes colleges, universities, or a public system of higher education; and a corporation, partnership, or other private organization, or an entire sole proprietorship if assistance is extended to such corporation, partnership, private organization, or sole proprietorship as a whole, or if it is principally engaged in the business of providing health care, or social services.

Therefore, it is the hospital who has the obligation to provide the interpreter. Not you. In fact it is not the interpreting agency’s legal obligation either. Federal funds and other types of assistance are very important to hospitals and universities for research and other purposes. It is extremely unlikely that one of these institutions would risk losing those resources just because they are unwilling to pay the healthcare interpreter’s professional fee.

If the interpreter is contacted by an agency, it means that said company has a contractual relationship with the hospital or medical institution to provide interpreters in order to comply with the mandate of Title VI. The agency is getting paid by the hospital, but they now want to profit a little more at the expense of the interpreter. When an agency has this plan of action to be more profitable, they direct their agents to generate the highest profit possible. This is when they resort to despicable practices like the ones described above.

It is important that we as interpreters understand the law, and recognize these horrible practices. It is also essential that we take action in two different ways: (1) Always turn down these agencies, and (2) Let the hospital know that their contractor agency is jeopardizing the hospital’s Title VI compliance by scaring away the professional interpreters because of low interpreting fees and disgusting practices such as these guilt trips. I am sure that hospital administrators will put an end to this “activities” very quickly.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us any experiences like the ones above that you, or another colleague had with an agency, and what action you took to stop this from happening again.

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