Atlanta hosts the largest gathering of U.S. court interpreters this weekend.

May 16, 2015 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

This weekend many of the top-notch court interpreters in the United States will meet in Atlanta for the annual conference of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). For this reason, when I was asked by the Atlanta Association of Interpreters and Translators (AAIT) to write a piece for the special conference issue of their publication “Bridges”, I agreed to first publish it there, and post it here later on the day.

Professional conferences are vital to any activity and we are no exception. As you all know, these are the places where we solidify and improve our knowledge, advance our skills, and refresh our ethics. That in itself makes them invaluable, but NAJIT’s annual conference is much more than that.

Those attending the conference will be pleasantly surprised to learn that many of the living legends of court interpreting will be there, and that they will be joined by some local and brand new talent in our industry.  You see, the conference will welcome more than court interpreters and legal translators. Conference, medical, community, military, and other types of professional interpreters will be in Atlanta adding value to the event, sharing their knowledge and experience, and developing professional networks across disciplines and places of residence.

I invite you to approach old and new colleagues and have a dialogue with them. I believe that these conferences give us an opportunity to do all the academic things I mentioned above; but they also provide a forum for interpreters to discuss those issues that are threatening our profession. Atlanta is giving us a unique opportunity to talk about strategy on issues as important as the development of technologies and the efforts by some of the big agencies to keep these new resources to themselves and use them to take the market to lows that are totally unacceptable to professionals. We can openly talk about strategy to defend our fees, working conditions, and professionalism, while at the same time initiating a direct dialogue with the technology companies who are developing all the new software and hardware that will soon become the standard in our profession.

Finally, the conference will also help you to get more exposure to other interpreters, and will provide situations where we will have a great time and create long-lasting memories and new friendships across the country and beyond. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your motivation to attend this and other professional conferences. I hope to see you this weekend!

Is it medical interpreter, or healthcare interpreter?

June 26, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I have struggled with the issue of how to refer to a growing number of our colleagues whose work mainly takes place in hospitals, clinics, or medical and dental offices. Their primary function is to enable communication between a person who does not speak the language of the land and a healthcare provider: physician, dentist, nurse, psychologist, paramedic, and other support staff. As you all know, this area of interpretation has been around for some time, but it has just become formally regulated in the recent past. Because of globalization and its migration consequences, now many countries experience the need to have somebody to bridge the gap of communication that has developed between native speakers and immigrant communities. These developments have augmented the need for court interpreters, legal translators, school interpreters and many others; the healthcare field has not been an exception; in fact, this is the area where we can appreciate the most dramatic changes to the old “business as usual” format. Unlike other interpreting specialties, like conference, military and court interpreting, which have been around for a long time, these new service providers just organized a few years ago. Great efforts and devotion on the part of some individuals have produced important results like the creation of professional associations, the adoption of ethical and professional responsibility canons, and the development of certification programs and examinations. This is truly admirable.

There are two organizations in the United States that have emerged as standard-bearers of this profession: The International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA) which endorses the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters exam, and the Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI).

Keeping in mind the services provided by these professionals (based on the organizations’ websites, several hospitals’ information, and conversations with many of my esteemed colleagues) I reviewed all information I could find on the two certification exams that test English, professional conduct and ethics. To a lesser degree they test some medical-related vocabulary that a true bilingual individual should know, without any medical or pharmacological terminology studies, and they include very short paragraphs, or vignettes as one of the test refers to them, where patient and healthcare provider communicate regarding the symptoms that the non-native speaker is experiencing. The dialogue is an everyday conversation at a moderate to low register. Finally, I also noticed that the main part of the score overwhelmingly goes to the consecutive interpretation, leaving simultaneous and sight translation at about 10 to 15 percent each.

I am convinced that the work these colleagues do is essential to the healthcare industry and well-being of those individuals who otherwise would see their chances of receiving appropriate services diminished by reason of the language they speak. Nobody is disputing this. I also applaud the conditions under which they constantly work in hospitals, emergency rooms, and urgent care facilities where people perform under great stress. The writing of this post was simply motivated by my need to find a term I can feel comfortable with when referring to my colleagues, but before I am ready to form an opinion I should also consider what the rest of the world is doing and saying on this issue.

In Europe the services performed by our medical interpreters are part of what is known as public service interpreting or community interpreting in some countries. This public service interpreting also covers legal interpreting but not court interpreting as I will explain in a moment.

Public service interpreting refers to those services provided by an interpreter to help two individuals who speak different languages so they can communicate regarding everyday affairs, personal issues, including important topics, in cases when individuals who speak the same language would usually speak for themselves, but in this particular situation, because of the language difference, and cultural considerations, an interpreter is needed.

My dear friends and colleagues, conference interpreters provide their services to make it possible for individuals who do not speak the same language to communicate, by interpreting almost exclusively on the simultaneous mode, complex information at a high register. Their audience is usually formally educated. Court interpreters provide their services in cases when one or more individuals do not speak the language employed in court, to make it possible for officers of the court, litigants, jurors, and others, to communicate on the simultaneous, consecutive, whispered, and sight translation modes, everyday information, complex legal concepts and terminology, and expert witness testimony, at a variety of register levels.

Now I ask you to contrast these job descriptions with the job that public service interpreters such as school interpreters, welfare services interpreters, church interpreters, and community organization interpreters do. These professionals (and sometimes paraprofessionals that may include a family member) provide their services so that individuals who do not share the same language can communicate about important everyday matters such as parent-teacher conferences, services provided by religious organizations, and dealings with government agencies at the customer service window or over the phone. This work is almost exclusively performed on the consecutive mode, unlike court interpreting, and there are no formal rules to keep the interpreter from asking questions and give explanations to facilitate the communication. The main objective is to bridge the language gap without any consideration for rules of evidence or procedure. These interpreters can interrupt the parties and ask them to speak slower or in shorter sentences. While conference and court interpreters work with complicated and sometimes rarely used words as part of their everyday job, public service interpreters work with common vocabulary; not simple words, but words that anyone with a certain level of formal education, regardless of any interpreting training, should know.

This explains why we occasionally see conference interpreters in the courtroom and court interpreters in the booth. It also explains why conference interpreters, and not medical interpreters, interpret medical and pharmaceutical conferences; and why court interpreters, not medical interpreters, interpret the expert testimony of a pathologist or other medical professional during a trial.

I mentioned earlier that there was a difference between court and legal interpreters in many countries, and why the latter are considered public sector interpreters: A court interpreter provides her services in a formal court setting and during out of court events that are related to a current or future court or legal proceeding. A legal interpreter assists an individual who needs help with his dealings with the authority, such as getting a driver’s license, applying for government benefits, or requesting government documents. These interpreters are clearly outside the scope of the very strict canons of ethics and professional responsibility that govern the activity of court interpreters. Just as we may encounter a conference interpreter in court or a court interpreter in the booth, we may find a school interpreter or a medical interpreter in a government agency assisting a foreign language speaker with some excruciating government administrative process. I hope the example clarifies the issue, but I also ask you to look at this very carefully, because there are some who would like to assimilate the services provided by a court interpreter outside a courtroom to those of a public service or community interpreter; they would argue that these services are “legal” and not court services. They are wrong.

They are wrong because the terminology of legal versus court interpreter that was valid in the past does not apply to our globalized world. When most countries had a written legal system there was very little work for a court interpreter. In those days legal translators did most of the court work because everything was done in writing. Legal interpreters were then relegated to in-office interviews and customer service windows. If you consider that migration was less popular than it is now, then you would have a very low demand for court or even legal interpreters. Lack of migration did not impact legal translators who had to translate official documents, contracts, deeds, and many other written statements that originated within the other country. At the time the legal interpreter was really a community or public service interpreter. That reality is so different from ours. Presently, an interpreter who works before an administrative law judge, such as an immigration court, workers’ compensation court, or social security court, is subject to the same ethical and professional rules as the court interpreter who appears before a traditional court. The fact that some jurisdictions allow for non-certified or licensed interpreters to provide their services in administrative law courts does not mean that community interpreters should do the job. These courts still abide by rules of evidence and procedure, the interpreter has to act as if working before the traditional judiciary, the job must be done at a higher register, with specialized complex legal terminology, and on a simultaneous interpreting mode that does not allow to stop the procedure so the interpreter can request the litigants to slow down, or a consecutive rendition where the interpreter cannot ask the parties to speak in shorter sentences. The same can be said for civil depositions, jailhouse visits, and the transcription of wiretaps. On the other hand, those individuals who are appearing before the motor vehicle office are better off employing the services of a community interpreter because this professional knows more about handling situations where the interpreter has the freedom to step outside the box to achieve communication between the parties.

After considering all of these concepts and possible scenarios, and after reviewing the materials I have mentioned before, I understand that there are arguments to be made for the term medical interpreter, but I just do not believe that in my book that would be accurate. I think that the appropriate and accurate way to describe this very important segment of our profession is the one adopted by the Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). For this reason, I believe that we should call our colleagues Healthcare Interpreters instead of Medical Interpreters. Please let us all know your comments on this issue that to some may seem irrelevant, but is actually very important.

Many medical interpreters are missing out on a prestigious and profitable field.

March 16, 2014 § 21 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last year I interpreted for several medical and pharmaceutical conferences.  Some were presentations of scientific papers before an audience of  peers, others were geared to non-physicians who work in the pharmaceutical field.  All of them were interesting and they all paid well.  They also had something else in common:  There were absolutely no medical interpreters or former medical interpreters in any of the booths.  As I sat in the Spanish booth during a conference on the 98th floor of the Hancock Building in Chicago, I examined all the booths for the other languages and realized that there were excellent, very dedicated professional conference interpreters everywhere.  I knew the interpretation was going to be top-notch, but I couldn’t help but notice that there were no medical doctors, registered nurses, or medical interpreters anywhere.

My friends, conference interpreters are second to none as far as quality and professionalism; they prepare for every assignment and show up to work equipped with the experience, knowledge, and skill needed to take care of just about any possible situation that may arise during the assignment.  A conference where real conference interpreters are hired to work could not be in better hands.  However, even though the same can be said of any other subject matter, in the United States, and other countries, you can find former attorneys and court interpreters in many events that deal with legal and business issues.  Medical interpreting attracts hundreds of interpreters in the United States alone.  Every day these professionals work in hospitals, clinics, emergency rooms, and medical offices, so the logical question is: Why this does not happen in the medical conferences?

I do not have a general answer, but based on my observations and years in the profession I can bring up the following factors:

There are several very capable medical interpreters who regularly work as conference interpreters.  I know this because some of them are my friends and I have shared the booth with many.  The problem is that there are not enough of them.  Please understand that here I am referring to what is generally recognized as conference interpreting, and purposely excluding community interpreting even though some colleagues, in my opinion erroneously, on occasion refer to this boothless informal interpretation as conference.

Compared to legal interpreters, medical interpreters have a tougher time “breaking away” from medical interpreting because there is a widely shared concept that medical interpreters are not good or professional.  This is a belief that many agencies, and even other interpreters, share.

Now, we have to recognize that this characterization of the medical interpreter profession has some truth to it.  At least in the United States until fairly recently there was no regulation or minimal standards in medical interpreting.  Many bilinguals who failed the court interpreter certification went to the medical field because there were no rules and often no quality control.  Because the conditions were so poor in this unchartered territory, many language agencies filled the void by taking over most of the things needed to provide a medical interpreting service.  They were setting policy and criteria as far as who could work, how they could work, and more importantly, how much these interpreters would be paid.  For years I heard this all over the United States: “Medical interpreting? No way! It pays nothing.”  Unfortunately my friends and colleagues, that was (and regrettably still is) the case.

So there you have it.  Most interpreters who had invested time and money studying and getting themselves ready to practice their profession did not want to work for very little pay.  This scared many good people away from the field.

There is much to be done at this time. Too many doctors and hospital administrators to educate, too many bad agencies to expel from the field, and too many mediocre interpreters to push to the side so there is room for those, new and experienced professionals, willing to play ball under the new rules of certification, ethics and uniformity.

It is certain that the profession will continue to grow and will eventually catch up with older interpreting fields such as conference, diplomatic, court, and military interpreting.  As this happens, medical interpreting will attract more capable professionals, competition will be brutal like in all profitable professional environments, and interpreting fees will dramatically increase.  In the meantime during the process, and in my opinion, to enhance our professional versatility and skills, good medical interpreters who want to elevate their profession, better themselves, and receive a fair decent compensation for their service will have to look at expanding their practice.  To achieve this goal you basically have two options:  The less complicated possibility of doing medical-related work that up until now, with some exceptions, has been handled by court interpreters:  interpreting for independent medical examinations and evaluations specifically done for litigation purposes in the area of worker’s compensation and civil law.  Medical interpreters should be able to learn and provide these services by taking advantage of their medical knowledge.  The sad part is that this field, like most of the medical interpretation field, is controlled by agencies that pay very little. In fact, they are many times the same agencies that hire interpreters for medical work.

The second option, and my motivation for writing this piece, is conference interpreting.  Undoubtedly a more difficult goal.  Medical conferences require of knowledge in the medical, biological, and pharmacological sciences.  Good medical interpreters should already have it, especially if they have a medical or nursing background.  It also requires familiarity with the “medical culture.”  Medical interpreters come in contact with it on a daily basis.

Conference interpreter also requires that the professional providing these services be able to do it simultaneously. It demands agility of mind and speedy thinking while handling very complex concepts and precise terminology.  It requires of booth etiquette and assignment preparation, and it must be performed as a team.  Most if not all of these characteristics are not part of an everyday medical interpreter repertoire.  It sounds hard and complicated because it is very difficult and extremely sophisticated work.

However, my dear friends and colleagues, the rewards are enormous: you get to develop as an interpreter by acquiring the master key that opens the door to all interpreting work: simultaneous rendition. Working as the interpreter for a medical conference you will earn amounts never seen in the medical interpreting field, and you will learn about the science and policy that is applied to hospitals, medical practitioners, and insurance companies every day.  As conference interpreters you will experience the satisfaction of doing a job that is understood by all those who are listening as part of your sophisticated audience.  Now, you may say that conference interpreting will not give you the satisfaction of helping to save a life, of being a part of preventing a disease; that you decided to become a medical interpreter for this reason.  That is not true. As a medical conference interpreter you will be right in the middle of saving lives as the interpreter who reveals a medical breakthrough for the first time in your language pair; you will be the voice of physicians who will ask questions about a new drug or procedure; and of course, keep in mind that you will not stop medical interpreting. You will diversify your practice and widen your clientele.  I look forward to the time when I regularly get to share the booth of a medical conference with a professional and highly capable interpreter with a medical interpreting background.   I invite you to share your thoughts and opinions about this very important professional aspect of our profession.

InterpretAmerica: One Profession. One Real Profession.

June 9, 2013 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

It seems to me that a week never goes by without running into a colleague who is angry, frustrated, or confused about the new technology that is coming into our profession, an interpreter who is thrilled and excited about all these very same changes,  and a colleague telling me that he or she was misunderstood, humiliated, obstructed, or underpaid while doing his or her job.  Some of them react with anger, others with frustration, a few seem resigned, but a growing number of our fellow interpreters have been reacting to these real-life situations by taking action, doing something about it. Finally, interpreters finding a solution to this “never-ending” situation.

As those of you who know me personally (and many others have figured out by reading this blog) know, I have always considered myself a professional at the same level as all those who we provide our services to:  scientists, politicians, attorneys, diplomats, physicians, military officers, school principals; and I try to act that way when  I provide my interpretation services.  I feel that we should all consider ourselves a real profession, perhaps even a profession above many others as we are also a little bit of an art. For this reason, when I first heard of InterpretAmerica about three years ago, I immediately fell in love with this idea of Katharine Allen and Barry Olsen.

I attended InterpretAmerica the last time it was held on the east coast two years. It was like a dream.  The medical interpreters were there sitting next to the court interpreters, the military interpreters were having a conversation with the agencies; the equipment companies were there having a chat with the educational institutions, and the conference interpreters were sharing experiences, and learning, from the community interpreters.  All interpretation fields under one roof!  The colleagues from the east coast were there, so were those from the west coast, the European Parliament, the professional organizations, I saw board members and influential colleagues from ATA, AIIC, NAJIT, IMIA, and many more.

This week, InterpretAmerica will hold its Fourth Summit in the Washington, DC area.  Looking at the schedule and list of speakers, it looks like this will be a very useful and interesting event.  Unfortunately, this year I will not be able to attend the summit due to professional obligations, but I will be checking in regularly with many of my friends who will be there, and for the first time, I can follow the webcast of the second day if I chose to.  As you know, I have devoted this blog to everything important and useful to our profession. This is one of the most important efforts in the history of interpretation in the United States. I encourage you to attend the summit, to exchange ideas, to take those ideas back home where you should share them with your colleagues.  And to those of you who cannot attend this year’s summit, I invite you to get the webcast and to set aside the dates of next year’s gathering and go. I invite all my colleagues who are attending the summit, or have attended one in the past, to share their experiences for the benefit of all.  I wish all the best to Katharine and Barry.

Intérpretes: ¿Vale la pena obtener una certificación médica?

October 5, 2012 § 7 Comments

Queridos colegas,

Durante el verano dedico buena parte de mi tiempo a la enseñanza de nuestra profesión; es durante estos meses del año que muchos estados de la Unión Americana concluyen su ciclo fiscal y por lo tanto programan talleres y presentaciones para satisfacer sus requisitos de educación continua ya sea al final o al inicio de su año fiscal.

Durante mi viajar por el país impartiendo estas clases me percaté de un fenómeno relativamente nuevo y que se ha ido acentuando en los últimos dos o tres años: Cada vez son más los intérpretes médicos que acuden a estos cursos anteriormente aprovechados exclusivamente por intérpretes judiciales.  Al concluir una ponencia, o durante un descanso, yo acostumbro platicar con los estudiantes y es así que me he enterado que muchos de ellos toman estas clases primordialmente dirigidas a los intérpretes que trabajan en los tribunales no porque desean convertirse en intérpretes jurídicos,  lo hacen para estudiar, practicar y aprender con la meta de presentar y aprobar uno de los exámenes de interpretación médica.

Independientemente de lo encomiable que resulta la dedicación de estos colegas, me he dado cuenta del deseo que tienen de profesionalizar su ramo de la interpretación. Enhorabuena porque el campo médico es bien difícil, yo lo sé bien debido a las conferencias médicas que he interpretado durante mi carrera.  Sin embargo, al charlar con estos intérpretes médicos, también me doy cuenta que mientras ellos estudian y se esfuerzan por capacitarse, el ejercicio de su especialidad profesional está en gran parte monopolizado por agencias de interpretación que tienen contratos de exclusividad con los hospitales, cobran bien por el servicio prestado, y pagan sumas irrisorias y desproporcionadamente bajas a los intérpretes que contratan.  Por lo que los colegas me cuentan, me he enterado que un intérprete médico no puede trabajar en los hospitales a menos que lo haga a través de una de estas agencias.  Inmediatamente la pregunta llega a mi mente: ¿Tanto estudiar, tanto esforzarse para ganar una baba de perico mientras la agencia está ganando dinero a carretadas?  Algo no parece correcto.

La experiencia que conozco y con la cual encuentro un punto de referencia es la de la interpretación judicial ya que las agencias que trabajan con intérpretes de conferencia, al menos las buenas y más conocidas, pagan bien y tratan al colega con respeto.  Yo recuerdo casos en interpretación judicial cuando el intérprete no podía contratar directamente con el juzgado o con los abogados. Si quería trabajar solo tenía una opción: la agencia. Recuerdo que así era, y por cierto con resultados nefastos de explotación y mediocridad en parte del suroeste de los Estados Unidos donde hasta hace no mucho tiempo los intérpretes no trabajaban directamente para los tribunales ni negociaban directamente con los bufetes jurídicos. Platicando con mis colegas sé que este ”sistema” sigue imperando en algunos estados.   El ejemplo más palpable de poca paga y mediocridad en muchos (agrego que no todos) quienes prestan sus servicios en el campo jurídico lo seguimos encontrando hasta la fecha en los juzgados administrativos de migración.

La pregunta entonces queda: ¿Qué deben hacer estos intérpretes médicos capaces, entusiasmados, motivados y profesionales para recuperar su campo profesional y de esa manera justificar (para ellos, no para doctores, pacientes o compañías de seguros) el requisito de la certificación médica?  Me gustaría escuchar sus opiniones, especialmente las de aquellos que están en esta situación. Les pido que incluyan sus comentarios y que se enfoquen al tema de este artículo: la interpretación médica como rehén de las agencias.  Ya dejaremos para otro día la disyuntiva de que existan dos certificaciones médicas y aún no haya uniformidad ni consenso respecto a este tema.

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