Is it true that interpreters must abstain from public commentary?

December 10, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I have recently read many comments about the court interpreter in California who decided to talk to the media after she provided her services to the defendant in a high profile criminal case. To my surprise, must comments promptly endorsed the position that a court interpreter cannot make any public comment. Such extreme “black and white opinion” is quite concerning.

Before expressing such a sweeping opinion, interpreters should reflect on the purpose of their professional service, the reasons for the rule or legislation, and what the consequences of failing to observe it really are. Let’s see:

The main topic concerning this analysis is confidentiality. The nature of the duty of confidentiality is based on two things: the subject matter or area of interpretation, and a scale of values.

Different subject matters or fields of interpreting will be governed by different legislation, interests, and goals. If the interpreter’s professional practice involves intellectual property, diplomacy, or national security, there will be many limitations and restrictions as to the things the interpreter can share with others. Most of these duties will come from legislation, not canons of ethics of regulations. Many others will derive from contractual obligations regarding commercial brands, patents and copyrights.

The scale of values is also important: The more important the value, the stricter the responsibility.

Revealing the content of diplomatic negotiations could have implications of war and peace, and the interpreter could even go to prison, or at least lose his job and reputation.

Revealing medical information can disrupt a patient’s health or treatment, impact insurance coverage, kill a patient’s future employment opportunities, and generate legal problems for hospitals, physicians and interpreters.

When we provide diplomatic or military interpreting services at certain level, we are required to undergo a security clearance process and we take a legally binding oath to secrecy. Breaching this legal obligation will bring catastrophic consequences to the interpreter.

The California case gives us the opportunity to revisit a court interpreter’s duty of confidentiality, so we can see how sweeping statements like those made by some of our colleagues last week, most of them in good faith, are not so categorically right.

First, we need to understand what is protected by the duty of confidentiality, and who imposes the restrictions on the court interpreter.

Interpreters exist because there must be equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language the court or the parties to a controversy speak. Here we must make a distinction:

(1) The court interpreter as a communication tool to the litigant.
When a plaintiff, defendant or victim cannot actively participate in their legal case because of a language barrier, the court interpreter acts as the ears and voice of the foreign language speaker in communications with the court, his attorneys, and the opposite party. Interpreters render a complete, accurate interpretation of everything that is said during the hearing, and interpret to the court and parties everything the foreign language speaker says. These interpreters handle three types of information: public record, confidential information, and privileged communications.

These are the interpreters hired by the court, paid from the courthouse budget, and selected from a roster kept by the clerk’s office.

When a plaintiff or defendant want to be represented by a private attorney, but they cannot communicate with their attorneys because of a language barrier, those privately retained attorneys can also hire professionals court interpreters in private practice to help them communicate with their foreign speaking client, their client’s relatives, and with those witnesses who do not speak the language of the attorneys. In this case it is the attorney who selects the interpreters from prior experiences or referrals from others; and it is the attorney, not the court, who pays the interpreters’ fees (very likely from the plaintiff or defendant’s assets). This interpreters handle three types of information: public record, confidential information, and privileged communications.

As we can see, in both cases, interpreters work with information that is public record. This means that everybody has access to what was said or done. For example: As a rule, court hearings are open to the public. Anybody can go to the courthouse and sit in the courtroom during a trial. At the State-level, many jurisdictions broadcast their proceedings in public and even commercial TV. All legal arguments, court rulings, and witness statements are heard by all interested individuals.

Both, court appointed and privately retained interpreters are privy to confidential information not because of who the interpreters are as individuals, buy because of what they do for living. This information is sensitive in nature and if disclosed, it could adversely impact third party innocent individuals. For these reasons, interpreters are usually barred from sharing this information. Details surrounding a case that come to the knowledge of the parties, but are irrelevant to the outcome of the controversy are kept from the public. Names of business partners, financial information, paternity, personal health information, sealed court cases, juvenile court records, are just some of the examples that fall under this category.

While working with an attorney, all interpreters learn what is called privileged information. This is crucial, intimate information about the subject matter of the controversy that lawyers need to know to represent their clients and defend their interests. This information is treated differently because it is only when a person knows that statements made to their attorney in confidence cannot be disclosed to anyone, not even the judge or jury in the case, that clients can truly open up to their attorneys and share all details of a case. Those acting as agents of the attorney, such as paralegals, investigators, and interpreters, are covered by the client-attorney privilege, and nobody, not even a judge can compel them to disclose said privileged information.

(2) The court interpreter as auxiliary agent to the administration of justice.
The court system has a vested interest on the perception that the administration of justice within its jurisdiction is equally fair to all citizens, even those who do not speak the language of the court. For this reason, courts have set policy to clarify this principle, and reassure all potential litigants of the impartiality of the court, even in those cases when a foreigner is party to a controversy, especially in criminal cases where life or liberty are at stake.

This principle has motivated some courts (not all of them), in particular in the United States, to go beyond what many would consider reasonable, and impose the strictest restrictions to some of the things court interpreters can and cannot do. Based on this one-sided extremely restrictive rules, the federal courts of the United States abide by the United States District Court Code of Ethics for court interpreters, who have been sworn as officers of the court for the duration of the assignment, and interpret under contract with such court, “…to follow the Standards for Performance and Professional Responsibility for Contract Court Interpreters in the Federal Courts…” (USDC Code of Ethics. Preamble)

The Federal Code of Ethics contains some important principles needed to practice the court interpreter profession that are free of controversy, such as Rule 5: “Confidentiality. Interpreters shall protect the confidentiality of all privileged and other confidential information…”

It also covers other situations where restrictions seem unreasonable and arbitrary, like Rule 3 where it states that: “…During the course of the proceedings, interpreters shall not converse with parties, witnesses, …attorneys, or with friends and relatives of the party, except in the discharge of their official functions…”, or Rule 6: “Restriction of Public Comment. Interpreters shall not publicly discuss, report, or offer an opinion concerning a matter in which they are or have been engaged, even when that information is not privileged or required by law to be confidential…”

Dear friends and colleagues, we must remember that the above restrictions by the United States District Court Code of Ethics only apply to court interpreters who are providing their professional services when they “…are sworn in (and) they become, for the duration of the assignment, officers of the court with the specific duty and responsibility of interpreting between English and the language specified. …In their capacity as officers of the court, contract court interpreters are expected to follow the standards for performance and professional responsibility for contract court interpreters in the federal courts…”

In other words, said restrictions, as they are not the law, but a mere contractual obligation, only apply to those who are providing their services in federal court pursuant to a contract with the court. These blanket restrictions do not apply to any of us when working as interpreters in federal court if we have been retained by one of the parties.

Once we understand this limitation, and the different role interpreters play when they act as a communication tool to the litigant with his attorneys, and in those cases when they also act as an auxiliary arm to the administration of justice and are paid by their judiciary. It is obvious that legal restrictions and limitations such as client-attorney privilege and confidentiality will apply to all interpreters as they are part of the essence of the legal representation, but other limitations that go beyond that scope will not apply to privately retained interpreters as they exist to assure impartiality and transparency to the extreme. This is not necessary with private attorneys and their interpreters as they are publicly known as part of a team: plaintiff’s or defendant’s.

To the latter group of interpreters, sharing what is already public record should be no problem; and in my personal opinion, I do not believe that even court appointed interpreters should be sanctioned for sharing public information with the media. I believe that telling a reporter that a hearing was moved from 1 pm to 2 pm and saving her the trouble to go up 20 stories to read the same information on the court’s bulletin board will hardly raise suspicion of prejudice, particularity when we know that interpreting is a fiduciary profession. To me, it looks very weird when the interpreter refuses to answer such silly questions and reacts by moving away without an explanation.

As far as confidential information, please be aware that the prohibition is not absolute either. A court order can compel you to testify. Please remember that the client holds the right to said confidentiality, and as such, he or she can always give consent. When this happens, confidentiality goes away. Will these ever happen in your professional career? We do not know, but we should always be aware that it is a possibility.

Even client-attorney privilege is not absolute. There are certain exceptions in the law that allow you to pierce the veil of this sacrosanct privilege. Among other possibilities, the client, who holds the privilege, can also lift it by giving consent; you can also pierce it when defending yourself from the actions of the client who holds said privilege. Let’s say that the client sues you arguing that the interpreter did nothing in the case. Under those circumstances you can pierce the privilege to prove that the client is not telling the truth and show the work you did, as long as the privileged information you divulged is limited and tailored to the point you are trying to prove in court. Statements and information provided during a client-attorney communication that include future illegal activity is not covered by the privilege either, and you as interpreter must disclose it to the authorities.

We must remember at all times that different jurisdictions will have different policy, rules and legislation, so we must adhere to all applicable rules, as long as they apply to us, depending on the type of professional service we are going to provide.

In the case of California, please keep all of the above in mind, and understand that Rule 2.890(c)(4) states that: “…An interpreter must not make statements to any person about the merits of the case until the litigation has concluded…”

Notice how the rule does not go beyond the conclusion of the case, because the rule (erroneously in my opinion) does not make a distinction between interpreters privately retained by the parties who act as a communication tool to the litigant, and those retained by the courts who also must play the role of auxiliary agents to the administration of justice and therefore be impartial at all times. Once there are no more appeals, there is no reason for the restriction on the first type of interpreter.

Finally, a couple of thoughts: I was saddened to see how must of my colleagues immediately assume the role of a criminal court interpreter retained by the court. I am always hoping that more interpreters view themselves as independent professionals working with private attorneys. There is an abysmal difference in professional fees, and the work is about the same. I ask you to please think like a private practitioner, instead of accepting the rules without any reservation. Question the rules and try to understand why they compel you to do or abstain from doing something.

It also concerned me how so many of our court interpreter colleagues rush to “obey” anything the courts say without even checking the source of the “command”. Many people criticized and condemned the interpreter who spoke to the media because of what the “Professional Standards and Ethics for California Court Interpreters” say. Please understand that this is just a manual, not legislation, regulations, or a court decision. It is just a didactic tool for those who are trying to understand the profession. Use it as such. Observe the California Rules of Court.

I hope we all understand that professional rules include universal standard values, but they also incorporate local culture so necessary for an administration of justice that reflects the values of the community it is meant to serve. For this reason, I. Sincerely hope we all come to understand that asking for universal rules or codes is not the best legal option. A system like the one we have is an appropriate one. We just need to understand the rules better, and fight to change those we believe constitute a hurdle to our profession. I now ask you to please share your founded legal arguments on this issue that could adversely impact our profession.

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.

Much to learn from Mexican interpreter program.

August 30, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in the first legal interpreting workshop for Mexican Sign Language interpreters in Mexico City. It was a three-day event attended by sign language interpreters from all corners of Mexico.  With the arrival of the new oral trial proceedings to their country, now Mexican interpreters will play an essential role in the administration of justice. Until recently, the country followed a written proceedings system where interpreters were rarely needed, but now, with a system similar to the one in the United States, interpreters will participate at all stages of a court proceeding; moreover, because Mexico kept their traditional substantive law system, based on Roman, French, and Spanish Law, interpreters will also be needed in all proceedings before a Notary Public where a party does not speak Spanish.

Certainly, Mexico is not the first or the only country switching to this more agile and transparent legal system, but what I saw during the workshop showed me a different, and probably better way to incorporate interpreting into the legal system, and provide a professional service by good, quality interpreters.  What Mexican Sign Language interpreters are doing should be adopted as an example by many other interpreter organizations everywhere.  Sign language, foreign language, and indigenous language interpreter programs could benefit from a strategy like the one they are now implementing in Mexico.

Like many countries, including the United States, Mexico is facing problems familiar to all judicial systems: shortage of quality interpreters, ignorance by judges and administrators, lack of a professionalization system that eventually will only allow interpreters with a college degree.  Unlike most countries, and even foreign language and indigenous language interpreters in Mexico, sign language interpreters are trying to achieve all of those goals by partnering with the courts and academia.

The workshop was the brainchild of a judge from Mexico City’s Electoral Court who identified the need to provide deaf citizens a way to exercise their political rights.  The judge devoted her experience, reputation, time, and connections to the project, and after some effort, the Mexico City Electoral Court, Mexico’s Supreme Court, the Mexican National University (UNAM) and some district judges came on board, together with the sign language interpreter associations.

The workshop was held at three different venues in order to get all interested parties involved, and to send a message to Mexican society that the effort was real. On the first day, at the Mexico City Electoral Court, interpreters learned about the Mexican legal system and its recent changes. On the second day, interpreters attended an all-day session at the postgraduate degree school of the Mexican National University (UNAM) where more practical presentations dealing with interpreter problems and participation in a court hearing were discussed. It was refreshing to see how interpreters were able to convey their concerns to some of the highest authorities within the Mexican court system, accomplishing two things: that their voice be heard, and that judges be aware of how little they know and understand of the interpreters’ role in court.  During the second day of the workshop, a program to develop a curriculum for Mexican Sign Language interpreters to get formal education and obtain a diploma after a year of studies sponsored by the Mexican National University (UNAM) and perhaps Madrid’s Complutense University (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) got its kickoff. The idea is that eventually, this program will allow sign language interpreters to learn the law, court procedure, and court interpreting by attending a combination of virtual and classroom sessions for one year, so that at the end of the year they be ready to take a certification exam that will first test their bilingualism, so that only those who have demonstrated proficiency in both languages move on to the interpreting portion of the exam.  Once an interpreter passes the exam, their name will be added to the list of certified court interpreters they judiciary will have and use to determine who is fit to practice in court.  Eventually, the goal is to develop a degree in Mexican Sign Language Interpreting so that all interpreters working the courts have a college degree.

Finally, the third day of the workshop was held at the building of Mexico’s Supreme Court, where one of the Justices addressed the attendees who spent the time learning about the professional and business aspects of the profession. The day ended with a mock court trial where interpreters participated with the help of law students and professors.

I still believe on addressing the private bar directly bypassing court administrators, but in my opinion, the example set by Mexico’s sign language interpreters is a lesson that should be applied elsewhere. Having justices and judges of the highest level, together with college deans and professional interpreter associations generate a plan of realistic action that goes beyond the demagoguery so often practiced by government officials who never had the desire to help in the first place, would change the “balance of power” that court interpreters are suffering in many places, including many states in the U.S. where ignorant administrators pretend to run a court interpreter program with their eyes set on the budget and their backs to court interpreter needs and the administration of justice.  Having the highest authorities within the judiciary to listen, understand, and support interpreter initiatives (that are nothing but efforts to comply with a constitutional mandate) would go a long way, and having the most prestigious universities in the land to volunteer to sponsor a court interpreter education program with an eye on eventually turning it into a college degree, would solve many problems we see today in all languages.  The Mexican approach encourages the interpreter to professionalize by fostering the direct client relationship between courthouse and interpreter, eliminating once and for all the unscrupulous intermediary that charges for the service, keeps most of the money, pays interpreters rock-bottom fees, and provides appalling interpreting services.

I invite all of you, my colleagues, regardless of where you practice: The United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico and elsewhere, and regardless of your type of interpreting: sign languages, foreign languages, or indigenous languages, even those Mexican interpreters who practice as foreign or indigenous language court interpreters, to consider this Mexican strategy. I believe that it has a better chance to work than those other tactics interpreters have attempted to follow for such a long time.

I now ask you to opine on this very innovative strategy adopted by our colleagues in Mexico with the full support of their authorities and academia.

Why do Americans celebrate Labor Day in September?

August 28, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

For those of you who are reading this blog in the United States: Happy Labor Day!

Yes, Monday is Labor Day in the United States and we celebrate it as a major holiday; one of those “real” holidays when the banks are closed, the mail is not delivered, and kids stay home from school. I have been asked many times by my foreign friends and colleagues why is it that we celebrate Labor Day in September instead of May 1st. like most countries in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere do. Then, the second question that always follows the one above is: “But the labor movement celebrated with an international holiday on May 1st. commemorates the events of Chicago in 1886…”

The fact is that most Americans have never heard of the events of 1886 when a peaceful labor rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago suddenly turned violent after police arrived and ordered the meeting to end. A bomb was thrown into the crowd, and the police started to shoot and beat the crowd. In a matter of minutes eight people were killed and over 120 police and civilians were injured. The police seized the opportunity to arrest eight anarchists, that perhaps today would be referred to as labor rights activists, and the authorities charged them with conspiracy to commit murder even though the police had sparked the riot. Seven of the eight arrested were sentenced to death, and one of the jurors at their trial was a relative of one of the dead police officers. This is how the labor movement started in the United States. For a long time the media and government were firmly allied with the business community while labor organizers were viewed as criminals.

Today in the United States labor unions are controversial, and with good reason. Many of them have been run as criminal enterprises, with deep connections to organized crime; many operate in a blatantly coercive and undemocratic fashion. Union demands and strong-arm tactics have crippled some American industries and limited the number of jobs. In today’s America the unions get publicity when they step up to defend a member who should be punished, when the baseball players’ union fights suspension of players who have cheated by using steroids, or when the union protects incompetent teachers in public schools. There are many who support organized labor, although it seems to be less people every day, and labor rights are a good thing that America needed in the 19th. century and still needs today; however, the real perception (well-deserved in many cases) that unions are troublemakers, and the national fight against communism from the cold war days, have put these events in Chicago at the end of the 19th. century in the forgotten corner of American history.

Our Labor Day holiday is very different from most around the world. Instead of commemorating a tragic event, we celebrate those who have contributed to America’s social and economic achievements with their work. Since 1882 we have celebrated labor on the first Monday in September as a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the United States. Labor Day has come to be considered by most Americans as the end of summer; the last barbecue of the year, the beginning of football season, the start of a new school year.   This weekend millions of Americans will gather around the grill, at the shopping malls, and football fields, to officially end the summer of 2014. It is perhaps the second most American of all holidays (after Thanksgiving that is) because it describes the mind and spirit of the American people. Regardless of your political persuasion and your support, love, disdain or indifference towards organized labor, the first Monday in September is a holiday when Americans decided to celebrate work and creativity while most of the world chose to commemorate a tragic event that happened on American soil but is unknown to an overwhelming majority of the American people. I hope this brief explanation of the reasons why Americans are staying home on Monday celebrating a holiday with the same name as another holiday celebrated abroad, but with a very different meaning and motivation behind it, helps you understand better the United States. Now, without bringing up any political views on the labor movement, I ask you to please share with us when it is that you observe Labor Day in your respective countries and why it is a holiday there.

When the interpreter faces a bigot.

July 21, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Unfortunately, because of the type of work we do, all of us had to deal with uncomfortable situations at some point during our careers. To a higher or lesser degree, all of us have fielded questions like “Why do you do this work?” “How much money is “spent” (code word for “wasted”) paying for this service geared to those who do not speak the language of the land?” “How do you feel about helping these people who are not willing to assimilate to the local culture”? “Are they really that dumb that they cannot learn the language?” etcetera. Other interpreters have sat there, listening to comments such as: “If they don’t speak the language they should go back to their country,” “They want to speak their language because they like badmouthing the rest of us,” and some others that I rather exclude from this post because they are offensive and spelling them out contributes nothing to this article.

Of course, those of us who have been more than once around the block have lived through these situations more than our younger colleagues, and for the most part, we have come to understand that those making the remarks are the ones with the problem. In other words, we do not have time for this nonsense, so we just ignore them. This has been my strategy for years and it has worked fairly well.

Unfortunately, an incident happened a few weeks ago. I understand that when we think of bigotry and interpreting, we immediately picture a courtroom, a police station, a government agency, a public school, or a county hospital. You think of court, community, and healthcare interpreters as the ones dealing with these issues all the time. That may be so, but other interpreters (conference, military, media, etc.) have faced their share of this evil when practicing their profession. On this particular case, I was doing some escort interpreting for a foreign dignitary who was visiting the United States from a Spanish-speaking country. This was an important visitor, but he was not a head of state or celebrity; you see, bigotry tends to hide away when the potential target is surrounded by the media and some bodyguards. In this case I was providing my services to a very important foreign government officer who traveled alone. This individual was very sophisticated, formally educated, well-traveled, and very important back in his home country.

After a very successful visit, and once he took care of his business in the United States, we headed to the airport for the check in process. This was the last part of my job. After escorting this person for several days in different cities, after business meetings, formal events, flights, hotels, and other activities, all I had to do now was to take the dignitary to the airport, help him with boarding passes, connecting flights, immigration and customs, and send him off. I have done this thousands of times, all of them uneventful. We arrived to this domestic airport in the American south, and we proceeded to the airline ticket counter. The airport was pretty empty and we walked straight to the counter where we found a middle-aged Caucasian male wearing the airline’s uniform. I handed the passport and other required documents, identified myself as an interpreter, and told him what we needed. He looked at me and then he turned sideways in order to exclude me from the conversation and he addressed the visitor directly. This person, a guest in our country, looked at me and told me that he did not understand. I interpreted what the airline clerk had asked him, and once again told the clerk that the visitor did not understand him because he did not speak English. I explained to him what my role was, and asked him to ask his questions as usual. He looked at me once again, and this time he completely turned so that I was fully excluded from the conversation. He continued to address the visitor in English. The visitor looked for my help and this clerk did not let him. He told him that he “had to listen to the questions and answer them himself.” The guest told him in broken English that he was sorry but he did not understand the questions because he did not know English. The clerk smiled and asked him with a smirk: “You don’t understand English and you live in the twenty first century amigo?” I continued to interpret all this time, and when I saw that this clerk was going to give the visitor a very hard time, I asked the dignitary to step away from the counter and have a seat. I told him that I was going to take care of this situation. The visitor honored my request and went to a chair that was at a good distance from the counter so that the guest would not have to hear what I was about to say. As this was happening, the clerk yelled at him: “hey, ‘amigo’ you cannot leave, I am talking to you.” Once the visitor left, I addressed the clerk directly and once again explained to him the circumstances, including my role as the escort interpreter. He first looked at me for several seconds, then he laughed, and finally he told me that at his airport (remember this was a domestic airport with no international flights) they spoke English because “it was located in the United States.” He told me that he was going to ignore me because his job was to make sure that “this guy” would be able to get around once he was alone. He even told me that he was considering denying him a boarding pass because he was not going to find his way at the hub where he was supposed to take his international flight. He also told me that it made him mad that “…this country was letting in people who didn’t even care to learn English before coming to the United States…” At this point he told me that he needed the guest by the counter alone or he would deny the boarding pass. He then walked away and left. I looked around to confirm what I already knew: there was nobody else from the airline in sight.

Because of time constraints and due to the lack of infrastructure at this airport, I decided to tweet the basics of the incident with the airline hashtag. I immediately got an answer, and in a matter of minutes (maybe seconds) a different airline clerk met me at the counter. This individual took care of the visitor addressing him directly through the interpreter and the rest of the process was completed without incident.

After the visitor left, I decided to follow-up on this incident and I filed a formal complaint against this individual. I did it so that others do not have to go through what we did, and to raise the awareness of the airline. Professionally, I was satisfied with my performance: I took care of the problem, the visitor left as planned, and he noticed very little of what happened, thus avoiding an uncomfortable situation for this person who was a guest in the United States. This episode reminded me that despite the way things may be in the big cities, there are still plenty of places in the United States, and elsewhere, where we as interpreters must be on our toes and be assertive to do our job even when we face adverse circumstances. This time it was an escort interpreter assignment, but these situations are prone to happen in the courtroom, at the hospital, the public school, the government agency, and everywhere unsophisticated individuals are found. Always remember: bigotry could be around the corner, so be ready to act. I invite you to share with us some stories of your interactions with bigots who have directed their hate to you or to your client.

The ten worst things a judge can do to a court interpreter.

November 30, 2012 § 32 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I know that just the title of this article made you think of a myriad of things that go on in a courthouse that seem to be designed to make the life of the interpreter miserable.  Believe me, you are not alone. For this reason, I decided to compile some of the most infamous ones and share them with all of you. Keep in mind that I will focus on the judge, intentionally leaving the attorney’s worst 10, clerk’s worst 10, witness worst 10, and so forth for future articles.  I am writing this with a therapeutic perspective, trying to add some possible solutions to these problems while at the same time creating empathy and inviting a good healthy laugh when relating to these horror stories.

Here we go:

1.       Please ask him his date of birth.”  Those judges who insist to address the parties on the third person despite what they have been told over and over again.  A quick solution would be to “ignore” the judge and simply interpret on the first person even if “Your Honor” doesn’t. Long term solution: Talk to the judge over and over again. Organize a presentation for all judges and hope these judges show.

2.       Why do we need two interpreters?  We only have one court reporter.”  Those judges who think that a bilingual individual should be able to effortlessly interpret a difficult proceeding on their own, since we are “”just talking after all,” a good short term solution is to have the chief interpreter or his equivalent go to the judge (ideally with the two working interpreters) and explain the reasons why this is needed, assuring the judge that there is a budget for this “inconvenience.”  For a long term solution you can provide some team interpreting literature to the court , and maybe “arrange” a meeting with other judges who understand the team interpreting concept.

3.       Just have a seat. I will take care of the private attorney cases first because they are busy.”   For those state judges who need votes to keep their jobs and want the private bar on their side, a good short term solution could be to talk to the clerk and explain that you are needed somewhere else. Many “nice” clerks will help the interpreter.  A more durable solution would be to meet with the administration and point out the waste of resources caused by an interpreter sitting in a courtroom for hours doing nothing.

4.       When you cannot hear the judge. When the judge whispers or speaks away from the microphone making it impossible to hear what she said. We all know that drama in the court is part of the “showmanship” influence of the media, but we simply cannot interpret what we can’t hear. For a quick fix interrupt the hearing and politely ask the judge to speak louder and into the microphone. Of course, we all know that this request will only be honored for a few seconds, so the lasting solution has to be smarter; maybe getting the court reporter on board as she is probably having the same difficulties, or maybe drafting the IT people as your allies in those courthouses where the hearings are recorded.

5.       “Sorry Mr. Interpreter but we already did the case because the defendant’s spouse speaks English.”   It is getting better, but not everywhere.  You may want to establish a system with the clerk where she does not give the file to the judge unless the interpreter is in the courtroom. Another solution could be to involve the attorneys and explain to them the risk of an appeal for lack of a certified interpreter. Be creative, sometimes it works.

6.       “Would the interpreter stay still and speak lower? You are distracting my jury.”   I was asked once to “speak as lithe as possible.”  You should ask for a sidebar with all parties involved and explain how in order to interpret you need to talk. Maybe suggest the “distracted” juror moves to another seat, and maybe point out to the defense the fact that a “distracted” juror may not be who the parties want to have deciding the faith of their client.  Just a mere thought.

7.       “Why do we need you to interpret?  He’s been in the country for 20 years.”  Sometimes I ask myself that same question, however, the fact is that when the person does not speak English, he has the right to an interpreter. Maybe you can answer the judges question by saying, very politely though, that it is because he does not speak English.  The long-term solution to this problem is non-existent with this particular judge. For the rest, an orientation by the Bar, the court administration, or the local interpreters’ association may prove to be valuable.

8.       “Do not interpret consecutively. We need to get going and you just got new equipment.”   This usually happens during testimony. A way to overcome this obstacle is to explain how the jury needs to hear and understand the answers, and it will be quite difficult for them to hear an answer if both, interpreter and witness are speaking at the same time from the stand. Of course, despite of what some colleagues think, some simultaneous interpretation equipment for the members of the jury would cure this problem,

9.       What do you need the file and jury instructions for? It is a waste of paper”.  I know thie second part of the quote is unthinkable in some states, but trust me, it happened to me some years ago.  To overcome the ruling of this “ecologist” judge, you should ask the court administration or chief interpreter  to get you those materials in advance.  AS a back-up plan, try to get the prosecution and/or defense to understand the need for these documents. However, no matter how difficult or scary, never give up. Do not settle for a trial without a file and jury instructions. You would be setting the profession back!

10.   “I think you can settle parts of this claim, so use the interpreters during lunch.”  This awful judge just put you on a tough spot. You are an officer of the court so you need to perform, however, nobody can work without a break, even if we are “just talking.” Solve this situation by asking for the chief interpreter’s help. He or she should be the one solving this problem. Maybe a second team can work the conference room while you rest, have lunch and get ready to come back for the formal hearing in the afternoon.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Please review these “ten worst” and if you are up to it, I would love to read your top ten, top five, or even top one.  This should be good…

Obscenity while Interpreting a Live Broadcast.

March 12, 2012 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

During the past few weeks we have watched many movie award shows and political debates on American TV. Last week I shared my thoughts on interpreting a live political event on TV.  Today I want to talk about another very important element of live media interpretation: The live broadcast “5-second delay” factor that we have in the United States because of the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction incident during a Super Bowl half time show several years ago.

As I watched the Golden Globes from my home, and I saw Meryl Streep  fumble around looking for her eyeglasses to read her acceptance speech after being voted best female actor, I noticed,  like all of you, that she said something that we did not hear but “saw” regarding her frustration about forgetting her glasses.  Although I was watching the broadcast in English, I immediately thought of my colleagues who at that precise time were interpreting the broadcast of the ceremony to the non-English speaking world.

There is a principle in conference interpreting about avoiding the interpretation of all that is irrelevant and all that makes the speaker look bad and does not contribute anything to the listener.   Of course, there are two possible scenarios where the interpreter may need to make a judgment call:  On the first one, the interpreter has a live speech, as many of our colleagues from other countries did during the Streep incident, and a second reality, the one that faced those who were interpreting from the American signal that had the 5-second delay.  The question is: As the working interpreter in this situation, would you skip the “expletives” and just interpret the rest of what Ms. Streep said when she accepted her award?  I would skip it regardless of the way I am getting the feed of the speech. If it is live without any delay I would just interpret everything else, and if I had to deal with the delay, as we often do when we work in the States, I would pace myself so that the listener would not  even realize that there was a 5-second delay on the original broadcast.  Of course, there are those who say that you should interpret everything, and at least use “softer” expressions to convey the flavor of what is happening.  Please tell us what you would do as the broadcast interpreter of one of these events.

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