The interpreter cannot be responsible for the agency’s mistakes.

July 13, 2016 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The interpreters’ work is very difficult and complex. We have to prepare for every assignment, pay attention to many details; and on assignment day, we are expected to be on top of our game. Any mistakes, misuse of words, or omission could be critical and carry dire consequences.

We know this. We understand that, as court interpreters we need to do a complete and accurate rendition keeping the correct registry so that the judge and jury can assess the credibility of a witness. We are fully aware of the importance of an accurate and culturally precise interpretation in the emergency room.  We know that people go to a conference to learn and be informed; and we never forget that those in attendance have paid a lot of money to listen to the speaker, or were sent by their nation or organization to defend or advance an idea that could affect the lives of millions. This is all part of our job. As professionals we embrace it, and we strive to render interpretations of the highest quality and precision.  As interpreters, we also know that sometimes we have to reach our goal under adverse and unfriendly conditions.

The difference between a professional interpreter and somebody attempting to interpret, is that resourcefulness and professionalism let us do our job not just by excelling in the booth, courtroom or hospital, but by anticipating and solving many problems that can arise during a medical examination, a trial, or a keynote speech.  We come prepared, and direct clients, promoters, agencies, courts and hospitals know it.  This is a fact and we are proud of it; however, we should never take the blame for an agency’s mistake, or take on the burden of solving a situation when it is clearly the agency’s duty to do so.

I know so many cases when good, solid, reliable interpreters have damaged their reputation because they covered up for the agency. In my opinion this is a huge mistake.

As professionals, we should own our mistakes and shortcomings; we should also assist the agency and protect them in force majeure cases and when it does not harm our own interests. This does not mean that we need to fall on our swords for a language services agency.

I am not saying we should rat or snitch. I did not say that we should become an additional problem either. All I am saying is that just as we should own our mistakes, the agency must do the same. The good news is that all reputable professional agencies do. The bad news is that many mediocre organizations find it convenient to blame it on the interpreter to save their behind. This is unacceptable. We are talking about our profession and livelihood.

If something happens to the interpreting equipment in the middle of a speech, we should solve the problem by applying our knowledge, skill and experience. Sometimes a little console or headset adjustment can save the day.  On occasion, we will have to leave the booth and interpret consecutively while the tech support team works frantically to fix the problem.  This is expected from a top-notch professional interpreter; but let it be clear that we must never assume the liability or take the rap for mistakes of the agency.

Let me explain: If a judge complains that the interpreter is mixing up the names of the parties to a controversy, or is referring to a male individual as female because the agency (or court) failed to provide the proper documentation before the hearing, the interpreter should say so. We need to make it clear that certain things are the responsibility of others. It is their fault, and the powers that be need to know it.

If an interpreter fails to properly interpret a patient’s idiomatic expression because she was not privy to the individual’s nationality, let the physician know that despite your efforts to learn more about the patient and his medical condition, the agency, hospital, or nurse, refused to share that information with you.  We need to make it clear that certain things are the responsibility of others. It is their fault and the powers that be need to know it.

If the interpreters show up to an assignment one hour before the conference starts, and they learn that there are no working microphones or headsets in the booth, they need to let the speaker and organizers know. We need to make it clear that certain things are the responsibility of others. It is their fault and the powers that be need to know it.  Even if the interpreters decide to start the event with a consecutive rendition, they have to make sure that all interested parties know that it was not their fault, and if they decide to walk away from the assignment, they will be acting according to the law and protocol. They were retained to do a simultaneous interpreting assignment, not a consecutive gig. The agency would be in breach of contract and the organizers and promoters need to talk to them, not the interpreters.

Remember, from the client’s perspective, it is a matter of clarity and education. They need to learn what interpreters are responsible for, and what they are not. From the interpreters’ perspective, it is a matter of professional pride, reputation, and ethics. We will always be judged by our work in the booth, courthouse, hospital, or battlefield. We must never let the assessment extend to the responsibilities of others. This is very important.

Fortunately, this that I write will be a welcome affirmation to all real professional high-level agencies. They know their responsibilities, and they strive, just like we do, to deliver an immaculate service every time they are retained. Unfortunately, this will be read by para-professional wannabe interpreting “agencies” who will feel offended and threatened by the suggestion that interpreters should act professionally while, at the same time, cover their reputation and protect their careers by letting the end-client know that they made a mistake by retaining high quality professional interpreters and a  mediocre agency. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your comments on this extremely important subject for the education of our clients and our professional reputation and livelihood.

The biggest interpreting mistakes in history.

January 9, 2015 § 42 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a very difficult profession. It deals with the widest variety of themes and subject matters, and it completely depends on the human brain. All professional interpreters have made mistakes at one time or another, and we will make some more before our careers are over. Fortunately, good interpreters know how to recognize a mistake, and have the professional honesty needed to own their mistakes and correct them. We all know how to correct a blooper from the booth, with a physician, or on the record in court cases. This is enough in most cases, and we have professional liability insurance for those bigger errors we can make while practicing our profession. Most goof-ups do not go beyond a correction, an apology, and a good dose of embarrassment. Unfortunately, every once in a while an interpreter makes a mistake that can literally impact the entire world. I know that there are many more examples of these catastrophic interpreting mistakes, and I am even aware of many more than the ones I have included in this post. To decide what to include, and to drive home the point that none of us are safe from making an error of this magnitude (and that for that reason we must be alert at all times) I considered the relevance of the mistake, and the variety of interpreters who made them. These are the biggest interpreting mistakes in history that made my list:

In 2006, according to the interpreter’s rendition, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”. It was learned later that what he actually said was “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”. Regardless of your opinion about this statement, it is clear that its reach was different from what the interpreter understood. In a region of the world as delicate as the Middle East a mistake of this magnitude can have huge implications.

To continue with more presidents, in 1976 U.S. president Jimmy Carter spoke to a Polish-speaking audience and opened his remarks by saying: “I left the United States this morning”. The interpreter’s rendition was: “When I abandoned the United States”. Those present laughed at the obvious mistake, but things got more complicated later during the speech when the president said that: “…I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future…” The rendition by the same interpreter was: “I desire the Poles carnally…” and then the interpreter went on to criticize the Polish constitution. Of course these mistakes should never happen at that level, but sometimes they do.

This reminds us of the famous blooper during Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the Polish Embassy in Moscow when he was interpreted as saying, in reference to the United States and the Western World at the highest point of the Cold War: “We will bury you”. Now we all know that what he really said was: “We will outlast you”, and we all know of the consequences that this poor rendition generated during such a tense time in history.

In July 1945 after the United States issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding the surrender of Japan in World War 2, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki called a press conference and in a statement he said: “No comment. We are still thinking about it”. Unfortunately, the interpreter’s rendition was: “We are ignoring it in contempt”. We all know what happened next.

In 1980 Willie Ramírez, an 18-year old, was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. At the time of admission, an interpreter made a mistake and translated the Spanish term “intoxicado” which means poisoned or having an allergic reaction as: “intoxicated”. Willie, who was suffering from an intercerebral hemorrhage was only treated for an intentional drug overdose. As a result, he was left quadriplegic.

St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, studied Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament into Latin. His translation contained a famous mistake, When Moses comes back from Mount Sinai his head has “radiance”, in Hebrew: “karan”; but because Hebrew is written without vowels, St. Jerome read: “keren” which means “horned”. Because of this mistake we have many paintings and sculptures of Moses with horns.

Finally, we all remember Thamsanqa Jantjie, the Sign Language interpreter at the Nelson Mandela funeral. He made meaningless Sign Language motions during the ceremony for unknown reasons. He has since been committed to a psychiatric hospital for schizophrenia.

The lesson is clear. As professional interpreters we have to protect our profession from paraprofessionals, “wanna-be interpreters”, ignorant clients, and unscrupulous agencies, but we also have to watch what we do and say. Nobody is above error, so our only choice is to continue to practice and study, to honestly decline those assignments that we are not ready for, and to look after our colleagues in the booth, the courtroom, the negotiations table, or any other venue where we may be providing our services. I now invite you to share with the rest of us other interpreting mistakes, big or small, yours or a colleague’s, in the spirit of helping our colleagues so that we all learn from each other’s mistakes.

How to Defend Your Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter.

September 4, 2014 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Good professional interpreters are usually consumed with taking care of their clients, improving their skills, managing their agenda, and marketing to new clients. This takes a lot of time and energy, and it is essential to succeed as an interpreter. Unfortunately, sometimes during their career some interpreters may experience other aspects of the profession that are less pleasant, more time-consuming, and very stressful.

Our professional tools are our brain, mouth, and a language combination. We can make mistakes, we are susceptible to questioning and second-guessing by others, and in our litigious society we are exposed to lawsuits that can leave us with no career, no resources, and a tainted reputation.

There are many circumstances that can affect our career as professional interpreters, but at this time I would like to focus on two of them:

The first one occurs when our work is subject to criticism and questioning by our peers or by others. This often happens in a legal setting. All court interpreters have faced situations when in the middle of a court hearing a judge, attorney, witness, litigant, and even a juror, have interrupted our rendition to correct what we just said. Most of the time we were right and they were wrong. On occasion, because we are not machines, and because nobody can possibly know all regional expressions, these voices do us a favor as they correct our mistake and allow justice to be served. These are the scenarios we usually face when doing our job. It sounds simple and straight to the point: Either we are right and we say so in order to keep the process moving along, or we are wrong, and in that case we correct our error. The same facts are true in a healthcare or community interpreting setting; even at the negotiating table or in the booth during a conference we sometimes make mistakes out of exhaustion, due to bad acoustics, a speaker with a heavy accent, or because we misunderstood a word or term. This is why we have team interpreting, this is why good interpreting equipment, an appropriate conference room, and breaks or recesses are important.

Unfortunately in the real world we have to deal with attorneys who are not happy because their foreign language speaking client or witness is not saying what they wanted them to say in the trial, and with doctors and nurses who want to dodge the consequences of their negligence, and with the party that lost at the business negotiating table, or with the agency that tries to justify the disaster caused by its outdated broken-down interpreting equipment. The first thing they all do is to cast a doubt over the rendition of the interpreter. It is even worse when all of this happens and you know that those who are questioning your work are clearly wrong.

The second situation I want to bring to your attention is when the same individuals mentioned above, decide to go for the jugular and to put the blame on the interpreter’s rendition; so they take you to court. They argue inadequate interpretation and you are sued for damages. How can we defend our work when our rendition is questioned and we know we are right? What can we do to protect ourselves in case somebody takes us to court for damages? There are preventive measures that we can take as interpreters to diminish the possibility of having to defend our work, our assets, and our reputation.

There are also steps we must follow in case our professional work is questioned or attacked in court.

These complex issues have to be addressed, and as true professionals we must be prepared in case this happens to us. For this reason, I will present: How to Defend Our Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter” during Lenguando Londres in London on September 13, 2014 at 2:30 pm. I invite you to attend the event on the 13 and 14 of this month and see how you will be able to interact with some of the superstars of all language-related professions, and I encourage you to attend this presentation where we will discuss these sad but possible scenarios, we will explore the different preventive measures that we should always take in order to avoid an adverse outcome, and we will talk about the path to follow once our rendition or our skill has been formally questioned in a court of law. I hope to see you in London; but even if you are not attending, I ask you to share with the rest of us your experiences on having your rendition questioned, challenged, or having a lawsuit filed against you as an interpreter.

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