Interpreters who follow these principles protect their market and earn higher fees.

May 4, 2020 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Just like many people around the world, I am one of those individuals who watch a lot of movies, feel they are amateur movie critics, and always watch the Academy Awards Ceremony on television. Unlike most them, for professional reasons, I am usually on the road on Oscar night. This means sometimes I get to watch the ceremony when people are sleeping, and on the local TV broadcast of the country where I am working. Because the show is in English, TV stations in non-English speaking countries use simultaneous interpreting services (that is great for the locals, but a little uncomfortable to those of us who try to hear the original sound feed, partly covered by the interpreters’ voices).

Occasionally, when I watch the Oscars in a Spanish-speaking country, I do what we all do when we know the two languages used on the screen: I compare the source to the rendition. Most interpreters are very good, but as a spectator, you miss quite a bit of the ceremony’s flavor.

This year I watched the Oscars while working in a foreign country. I looked for the original English broadcast on cable or satellite TV, but my hotel only offered the simultaneously interpreted voiceover broadcast by a local network. I paid attention to both, the rendition and the original speeches in the background. No doubt the interpreters were experienced professionals, their interpretation was spot on, until it was not anymore. The interpreters remained silent during many of the political and current affairs’ remarks by hosts and award recipients. First, I thought it concerned censorship by the local authorities, but after a while it became evident that they were not interpreting those exchanges because they did not fully know what was being said. The Spanish-speaking audience did not get the full Oscar experience because some astute, sharp criticism and very good jokes were left out.

I immediately thought of the globalized interpreting market and how cheap agencies have taken away assignments from local, excellent interpreters in the United States and Western Europe, choosing experienced and way less expensive interpreters from developing economies.

I have discussed this issue with potential clients in developed nations and the comment is always the same: “…but these interpreters (from developing countries) are really good and they work for a fraction of the money you charge…” This is my cue to bring up to the client my competitive advantage.

I take this opportunity to explain the importance of having an interpreter with the right acculturation in the booth so communication may flow between speaker and audience. I make them see the value of making sure their message comes across by eliminating any informational voids and misunderstandings not attributable to a bad interpretation of what was said, but to a poor command of the speaker’s culture and its equivalences in the target language of that specific audience. You cannot communicate if you limit what a speaker may say or do. Analogies, jokes, pop culture, politics, and country-specific rules of etiquette are essential to a successful event. Sometimes I present the testimony of the technicians who work with interpreters all the time, and even without speaking the languages in the booth, they can tell if a joke or a cultural remark got lost in the interpretation.

This is something all interpreters in developed economies must emphasize. We have to drive home that a person who does not live in a country lacks many elements needed for an accurate rendition. No academic degree can replace this immersion.

A proactive strategy is essential to protect your market, more so at this time when many are promoting and using remote interpreting services. You need to drive this point home as it is your leverage. Unlike in-person interpreting when agencies, colleges, or corporations bring interpreters from developing countries to the West to save money in professional fees, and you have the law to protect you from foreigners working illegally as interpreters in a foreign country, and you should immediately go to the authorities without hesitation so violators are sanctioned and removed (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2019/02/06/alert-they-are-interpreting-illegally-outside-their-country/) this is your main line of defense in conference remote interpreting. Healthcare and legal interpreters have other defenses against telephonic, RSI, and VRI interpreting such as the certification or licensing requirement to interpret in such fields. State court interpreters in the United States can even use this argument against remote services by interpreters certified by another state. Interpreters in developing countries could argue the same when protecting their market from foreign interpreters.

The second principle interpreters need to enforce benefits us all, regardless of our country of residence.

Agencies are constantly looking for cheap interpreting services. To find them, they usually look south. Conference interpreters with similar skills and experience in Latin America will get paid about eighty percent less than their counterparts in the United States. Africa, many places in Asia, and certain countries in Eastern Europe are in a similar situation. If you stop and think about it, it is a bad situation for all interpreters; it is unfair to interpreters in developed economies, and it is insulting to our colleagues in the developing world. Let me explain.

When asked, agencies defend the microscopic amounts they pay in poorer countries with two arguments: Cost of living is lower, so interpreters in a country south of the equator do not have the same expenses as their colleagues in a rich country. The second argument is that their lifestyle is different, so an amount that looks low in the West, is actually pretty good, or at least good enough in an underdeveloped nation.

These arguments do not pass muster. That the electric bill is cheaper in a specific country has nothing to do with the professional service provided by the interpreter. Same work and same quality must get same pay.

Frankly, to say that a certain fee is “good enough” for somebody because of where they live is insulting. When clients or agencies offer a low fee to an interpreter in a developing country, what they are really telling them is “you are not sophisticated enough to appreciate a different standard of living, so this will make you happy.  A steak is too good for you, have a burger. Caviar is not for you, have a bowl of beans.”

Many colleagues in these countries agree to such discriminatory practices, and work for less than peanuts, because they are afraid there will be no work. This is a misunderstanding. If they do not take the assignment. Who will do it? Even if they are paid the same fee as an interpreter from the U.S. or Western Europe, it is way more expensive to fly another interpreter from abroad. Remember: same work must get same pay. It is your market, not the agencies’. Reclaim it!

Interpreters will not get paid the same in South America and the United States. These are two markets; two economies. Our goal should always be to get the highest fee a particular market can afford. If you get paid that way, you will be in good shape, even if the amount is considerably less than Western European fees. This goes both ways. If South American interpreters work a local event in their country, they will make less money than American interpreters working a local event back in their country. American interpreters working a local event in South America will get less that their usual fee back home. The reason: The client is in the poorer economy. That is what they can afford.

But if interpreters from an emerging economy work an event in the United States or Western Europe, in-person with the appropriate work visa, or remotely from their home country, they must get paid what American interpreters make for that work. To determine professional fees in a particular market, the interpreters’ country of residence is irrelevant. What matters is the country where the client is located. It is the client who will spend the money.

The task is difficult, and it will take time for you to accomplish it. Remember: to protect our market, we must use our competitive advantage by emphasizing the huge void in communication caused by interpreters who lack acculturation. To make sure we get paid what we deserve, we must quote our fees according to the client’s country of residence, not the interpreters’. I now invite you share your ideas as to how we can achieve these two goals.

Legal terminology and the good court interpreter.

January 27, 2017 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

For several months I have noticed a proliferation of blog posts, language agency advertisements, webinars, and conference presentations where the interpreter’s knowledge of legal terminology is emphasized.  Seminars, on-line and in-person, focus on the importance of legal terminology and are usually packed with lists of words and phrases found in statutes and regulations. Bilingual glossaries are given away as perks to those who paid to attend the talk, and power point presentations are full of sections of the law that were literally cut and pasted from the statute.

Attendees to this “terminology workshops” are told to memorize the new words and expressions just because “…that is what the Act says” or “this is the term found in the bilingual legal dictionary”, and their questions are often answered with the reading of more sections of the law, without giving any logical reason or explanation as to the why it has to be the way the instructor said so. There are many blog posts, language agency websites, webinars, and conference presentations where current and accurate terminology is shared, but there is absolutely no context.  This is dangerous and it is wrong.

Sometimes we read that a populist government, a well-known linguist, or a prestigious language institution issue statements advocating for legal terminology that is more accessible to the common individual.   This is also extremely dangerous, irresponsible, and very wrong.

Legal terminology is what it is for a reason: It deals with social values higher than accessibility; it deals with legal accuracy and legal certainty, two values that are needed in any society to keep individuals safe.  Free to pursue their lives as they please by creating legal transactions, forming legal bonds, and asserting their legal rights, which are necessary to reach their goals and be happy. To protect this higher values, a legal system needs to be complex and sophisticated. We need the proper terminology to put these concepts, which we call legal precepts, in writing for all to see and observe.  It is a fact that many times they will differ from conventional language, not because legislators, attorneys and judges wanted to, but because they had to. This is why we have lawyers in our society.

Memorizing legal terminology like a parrot is easy, it only requires of memory and patience. Knowing the “why” and “how” of a legal term, and understanding its different meanings and applications according to context is a different story: it requires a deep knowledge of legal philosophy, substantive and adjective law, and the development of an analytical capacity that allows the individual, who has the background mentioned above, to decipher hidden meanings, legislators’ intent, and applicability to the specific set of facts (there is a term in Spanish to describe this essential skill: “criterio jurídico”)  It is only then that we are in a position to truly know the meaning of a term that makes it applicable to our particular set of facts. We need to have context to know when and how to use legal terminology. Everything else is confusing, vague, and potentially damaging to the client.

In Mexican legal Spanish, the term for bankruptcy is different depending on the type of proceedings. The legal term “bankruptcy”, used in the American legal system does not give us enough information to decide the appropriate terminology. We would need to have context to determine if we are facing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, in which case the correct legal term would be “quiebra”, or a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as this would be translated or interpreted as “suspensión de pagos”. Without getting into Bankruptcy Law, I have to tell you that these are two very different legal figures and proceedings with very distinct consequences.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines legal interpretation as: “The art or process of discovering and ascertaining the meaning…” (Black’s Law Dictionary Centennial Edition 6th. Edition p.817)

To be able to properly interpret a hearing or sight translate a legal document, court interpreters must know legal terminology on both languages, but to provide a professional accurate rendition, the interpreter must understand the legal concepts and court proceedings being interpreted, and put everything that is happening at the hearing in context, so the choice of legal terms and concepts in the target language is correct.

It is essential that those teaching legal terminology are skilled in this area so they can answer questions with accuracy, and it is important that they explain the “why” and “how” of the legal terms and concepts that they are teaching. It is also very important that those paying for a webinar, workshop, or glossary, demand this knowledge from their instructors. Everything else is dangerous and unethical.  Please do not get me wrong, I am not calling for all court interpreters to have a law degree (although having one is a tremendous advantage). All I am asking is that you stop and think of all the possibilities before you utter a legal term in court, and that when you pay for a continuing education course, workshop, talk, or webinar on legal terminology, you make sure the instructor does have the required legal knowledge and skill to teach the subject correctly.

I hope that the next time you see an agency advertising that their interpreters know the appropriate legal terminology, you go a little deeper to find out if they are offering interpreters who truly know how select the applicable legal term or concept, of they are simply advertising bilingual parrots for hire. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your ideas regarding this crucial aspect of court and legal interpreting.

Low-cost interpreter factories.

June 23, 2015 § 15 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It seems like every time I open my mailbox, see a tweet, or read a professional publication, I see new advertisement for all these interpreter courses, interpreter certifications, interpreter great opportunities, and so on.  There are many government entities, multinational agencies, professional associations, and “professional trainers” who have discovered a new business: create interpreters from nothing!

Let’s see: Just a few years ago Spanish language court interpreters in the United States could only be certified by the United States Administrative Office of the Courts (federal) or by the Administrative Office of the Courts of a state member of what was called the consortium. These credentials were widely known and recognized. Everybody knew what was behind them: a federal certification was more than a state-level certification, and then… there were the non-certified individuals who were precluded from working in the court system, and in those cases when they were used by the government, they were ushered in through the back door because they all knew that they were doing something that should be kept “confidential”.

Well, the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act became a reality for all state courts so the Consortium was no more, it has now been replaced by the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC) and now, in order to keep those federal funds coming, the states have devised a clever plan to circumvent the court certification requirement which would be the thing to do according to law, but very expensive, so they have created this new “category” of people who  cannot pass the certification test, but are allowed to work in court, entering through the front door,  called “qualified”, “conditionally qualified” and other versions of the same thing: an unqualified individual doing a job that is federally mandated and requires of certification.  Yes, it is easier, and cheaper, to mass produce these individuals who, in my opinion, are trained to do a job that does not exist, and pays lower than a professional certified interpreter would work for.  These individuals are now produced in “programs” developed by some states with the help of opportunist community colleges and “professional trainers” who see fit to create a program and go through the motions in order to deliver these paraprofessionals.

But this was not enough. The developments above showed the way to another lucrative business: the development of another category of interpreter who would be called “community interpreter” but would provide services in legal arenas where the court proceedings are of Article One of the U.S. Constitution: Administrative Courts. The reason for this new category, according to those who are now benefiting from its implementation: To fill in the gap in the legal system that was not been serviced by certified court interpreters.  The real motivation: That these courts and their proceedings are not covered by the court interpreter legislation, so there was a great opportunity for agencies to jump in, “certify” their people, and cover the hearings while paying these para-interpreters very little money.  Again, the “certification” programs (sometimes called “diploma” programs) have been developed by individuals who saw the opportunity to make money. There is no official oversight nor legal authority for the existence of these “community interpreters”. The only thing that is clear is that court proceedings in administrative courts are as important and complex as the ones heard in Article 3 courts. This is why, to be able to appear before administrative law judges, attorneys have to pass the same bar exam and be members in good standing of their state bar. No lesser requirements for attorneys, but non-existent requirements for interpreters. Obviously, there is a lot of money to be made in a service where the interpreter pay is so bad that no real self-respecting interpreter would get involved.

Then we have the professional associations and multinational agencies that offer their own “certifications” “qualifications” or whatever they chose to call them, to those left-overs who cannot work anywhere else and have to settle for a quick course online, a 15-minute exam online, and a dismal pay in exchange for telephonic or live interpreting at medical offices, school classrooms, community meetings, and the likes.  I do not blame those who are providing what in my opinion are questionable services, they are taking advantage of a void in the legal system and a weak group of interpreters who do not fight for their profession, reputation, betterment, and income. The blame is on the authorities who chose not to fix the situation and foster the spread of these “interpreter factories” all over; on the ignorant clients who buy the Brooklyn Bridge every time the agency sells it to them, and on the self-respect and ambition lacking so-called interpreters who enable the system to continue, instead of studying to better themselves as real conference, court, healthcare, or community interpreters.

We as professional interpreters need to protect our profession, we need to watch over our future, and we need to stop this do-nothing attitude and stand up, educate our clients, better ourselves, join real professional associations that work for the interpreters and not against them, and embracing the new technology, explain to the client that, compared to those I mentioned above, we represent quality, and many times savings, as we work without the middle man, the only actor who is not necessary in this play.   There are some good agencies, trainers, and professional associations out there, unfortunately, most of them become known to the interpreters once they reach certain level within the profession. It is our job, and responsibility, to point the new colleagues in the right direction.  Please feel free to share your comments with the rest of us, but please abstain from coming here to defend the entities I wrote about. They have plenty of forums where to make their case.

When the interpreter thinks the attorney did something sleazy.

July 14, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I was contacted by a colleague who wanted my opinion about a professional situation that was making her life miserable. Her problem was that she had been part of a court assignment where an attorney did something she disliked. At the time she contacted me she was debating about letting it go, or reporting the situation to the judge of the case. I listened to the facts, and I immediately remembered other events where an attorney’s conduct had been questioned by other interpreters. This is her story:

An interpreter was hired to work during a deposition at a law office. While waiting for the assignment to start, she had a conversation with other individuals in the waiting room. One of the others was also a court interpreter. Finally, after a long wait, a secretary came to the waiting room and announced that the deposition had been cancelled. The interpreter went home, she got paid on time for this assignment, and she forgot about this incident.

Several months later, she was contacted by another agency that offered her a transcription/translation assignment. She agreed, and a few days later she received a CD with the audio recording. She began the transcription, and about an hour into the transcription, she concluded that she knew at least one of the voices in the recording; it was the voice of another interpreter, in fact, it was the voice of the interpreter she had been talking to, months earlier at the law office, while she waited for the deposition to start. She immediately knew that she had to stop the transcription and report this circumstance to the agency. A decision had to be made about her involvement in the transcription job. Before contacting the agency, the interpreter decided to see if the other interpreter’s voice was all over the recording or just at the beginning. She had just been working on the transcription for about an hour, so she wanted to find out. She fast-forwarded the recording, and to her surprise, she now recognized a second voice: It was her own voice! She was part of the recording the agency sent her, and the recorded conversation was the one they had at the attorney’s office on the day the deposition had been cancelled months earlier. This obviously changed everything, and the possibility of continuing on the job if the parties consented to it after a full disclosure was now gone. She knew she could not continue transcribing the recording. She immediately contacted the agency and told them what happened. The agency retrieved the recording and sent it to another transcriber. The interpreter was paid for the work done even though the agency knew that they would never use the transcription. The real problem for the interpreter was that she did not know that she had been recorded and she wondered why this had happened, what they were going to use the tape for, and what she should do about the whole situation. She did not even know if the recording was legal or not.

The recording was related to the case where she had been hired to do the cancelled deposition; she knew the attorneys involved, and she had heard that they both practice law very aggressively. She felt bad and she felt cheated. The interpreter thought that this strategy had been sleazy and perhaps illegal. Her first impulse was to contact the judge in the case and let him know that she had been recorded without her consent. Something had to be done.

Fortunately, she waited and thought it over. Without revealing any names or details of the case, she consulted an attorney and learned that in her state, as long as one of the parties to a conversation is aware of the recording, and she consents to it, the rest need not know or consent for the recording to be legal and even admissible in court. Based on this, the interpreter did not go to the judge or anybody else. She had no legal standing and no law had been broken by the attorney who ordered the recording. In fact, she realized that she could not even disclose any of these facts to anybody else because of the interpreter duty of confidentiality, which cannot be broken unless a crime was committed or may be committed unless the interpreter speaks. Going to the judge would have been the wrong thing to do because she really had nothing to report. She learned a valuable lesson after this case because she understood that in an adversarial legal system, the attorneys may do things that we dislike, but as long as they are legal, they are allowed to do them, and we should not get involved or judge the legal strategy.

On the second case I will now share with you, I was interpreting in a plea hearing many moons ago. The defendant was going to enter a plea of guilty to a federal offense. I was working for the court. I arrived to the courtroom about fifteen minutes before the hearing, which was customary at that courthouse, I let the clerk know that I was there, and I sat down to wait for my case. The defense attorney arrived about five minutes later and asked me to help him with his client. He told me that the defendant, who was in detention, was already in the holding cell, and that he needed to talk to him for a few minutes before the judge came out for the hearing. As many of you know, this happens all the time in federal court in the United States, so I agreed and off we went next door to the holding cell. The moment we arrived I realized that the defendant spoke some English and understood many things; however, he was far from being fluent, and definitely needed an interpreter for the most complex legal concepts. As soon as we greeted the defendant the attorney started this, in my opinion, self- serving speech telling his client (the defendant) how hard it was to get him the deal with the prosecution, and that this was his chance to bring the case to an end by just pleading guilty to the charge in the plea agreement. Then the attorney “asked him” but in reality told him “the agreement is almost identical to the version you already saw before when I went to see you with the other interpreter, remember?” and “…the judge is going to ask you if you were interpreted the new version by a certified interpreter and you are going to say yes because if you don’t, then the judge will continue your case for another day, maybe in a month or two, and you will have to sit in jail all that time waiting to come back in here. All of it for a document that practically says the same that the one that was interpreted to you before. Do you understand?” Of course I interpreted all of this to the defendant and he said yes. Next, the attorney told his client that “… when the judge asks you if you have any questions you need to say no, unless you have any questions, and if that is the case we will have to come back before the judge in the future, and he is going to ask you if everything was interpreted to you into Spanish and you will say yes because as you remember we went to the jail and the interpreter interpreted everything, including your questions, right?” The defendant said “yes.” The attorney continued: “…Well then, let me ask you right now: has the plea agreement been explained and interpreted to you in Spanish?” The defendant answered: “yes.” The lawyer continued: “…Has your attorney answered all of your questions with the assistance of an interpreter” The defendant: “yes.” Finally the attorney added: “…Do you have any questions at this time for the judge, for me, or for anybody else about your case, charges and plea you are about to enter?” Once again the defendant said “no.” “…Great” said the lawyer; and added: “… So you know why you are answering the way you are right?” The defendant: “Yes, so I can go to prison sooner.” Attorney: “…and, even though we didn’t interpret the latest version of the agreement, since we went over another version that was practically identical, you will tell the judge that we did right?” Defendant: “Yes, I will tell him that you explained everything to me through the interpreter, and in my mind you did, and I really believe so, and I have no more questions. I know what I am doing and I just want for all of this to be over.”

We went in front of the judge who asked the very same questions. Both, the attorney and his client answered almost with the same words as they had used in the holding cell. The judge entered the conviction and the defendant left very happy with the outcome of the hearing, on his way out he told his attorney: “…thank you very much. You are a great attorney. You know what you need to do for the benefit of your client. I will send you clients…”

Although the attorney and the defendant did not lie to the judge because they phrased everything very carefully, thus avoiding breaking the law, and despite the fact that the attorney had fought for, and vigorously defended his client’s best interest, which was to go to prison as soon as possible so he could start some treatment not offered by the jail, I left the courtroom feeling a little strange. I knew there was nothing for me to do since no laws were broken, and everything had been legal strategy between client and attorney discussed in confidence and under the protection of the client-attorney privilege, but it took me a couple of hours to get over it; you could even argue that I did not get over this case since I am still telling the story so many years later, but the truth is that yes I got over the case, and the reason why I am sharing the story with all of you now is because both the defendant and the attorney have since passed away, so there is no privilege anymore.

I would like to invite you to share similar stories or comments about things you have done or were tempted to do when in your opinion an attorney did something sleazy.

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