The Uncomfortable Situation When the Client Disrespects Interpreters and Foreign Language Speakers.
August 9, 2022 § 2 Comments
The best part of having a well-established professional practice is that your client portfolio is already developed. After years of collaboration, you come to know your clients and they know you. Tensions, concerns and uncertainties about policy, practices, and the relationship, are no more. My preference is to keep my clients and rarely work with somebody I do not know.
Unfortunately, sometimes a project is so interesting, or the conditions are so attractive that you take a chance and try a new client. As you all freelancers know, sometimes this strategy works, sometimes it does not.
A collaboration on a multi-day assignment that was both, interesting and well remunerated came along; it was with someone I did not know and I moved forward. At the time of the preliminary, planning stages of the event things seem fine, although there were some revealing clues I missed, but things did not get truly uncomfortable until the start of the assignment.
On the first day of the event, this person I had never worked with before, a monolingual individual in a position of power who apparently has traveled little, quickly assessed the foreign language speakers and made an instantaneous judgement call that would affect everybody participating in the event, including the interpreting team.
Before 6 in the morning of the second day of the assignment I received a message on my phone informing me, and the rest of the team, that our interpreting services would be needed no longer because everybody in attendance seemed to have an acceptable level of fluency in English. Shortly after, I received an email with my plane ticket to go back home.
Because of a good contract, our fees were not a problem; there was no financial damage derived from this decision, but the process was unprofessional and the way it was handled was disrespectful.
I find it difficult to believe that an individual with no knowledge of foreign languages can conclude that everyone in the audience is fluent in a language that is not their first, and this can be done after observing about two hours of a conference where the audience is mostly listening, and the few questions asked during such a period of time come from people who are confident enough on their foreign language skills to ask them directly, without interpretation, even if they fumble with the words, apply grammar incorrectly, and use false cognates.
The interpreters learned the decision was made to save money (we got paid because of a good contract, but other expenses as lodging, per diem, transportation, etc. would be saved) but no one was ever consulted. Not the interpreters, who know the working languages in the event, and also know, from experience, that as peer-pressure shrinks, attendees use their native languages, especially to ask questions. The audience was never polled to see if they needed interpretation. The decision was based on a single opinion from a monolingual individual whose only goal was to save (little) money, apparently a priority as it became clear when I analyzed all circumstances surrounding the job. Things that seemed irrelevant at the planning stages now made sense: Booking plane tickets on an airplane grounded for 24 months after 2 fatal accidents in one year, because they were cheap; offering a welcome reception with sub-par food and even worse service at a place no-doubt chosen because of the price.
The contract terms protected the interpreters, and even freed our time to work on other assignments on the cancelled dates, but that we were never approached in person to tell us face to face of this decision to dismiss the team, that there was not even a greeting other than a message early in the morning when you are still in bed, and to leave the attendees without the benefit of interpreting services, without even polling them to discover their needs, is inappropriate, unprofessional, and frankly disrespectful. The lesson learned was that you can try new clients when protected by a good, solid contract, and the benefit from this situation was that I did not have to continue my collaboration with such a difficult, one-track mind individual. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your stories about good contracts that protected you from difficult clients, or bad experiences where you lacked said protection.
In tough times: Raise your fees!
May 14, 2018 § 6 Comments
Globalization has created a world market where we all compete, regardless of our location. Although this has raised professional fees for some colleagues in places with small economies, it has hurt most interpreters to a different degree, depending on whether they stuck to their local economy and clients, or they went to the international market and taking advantage of new technology acquired clients they would have never even considered before globalization. In a market like the United States, with very high speed internet, thousands of airports and flights to every corner of the planet, and a very reliable infrastructure, many of us felt no downturn in our business; in fact, we benefited from the change.
Unfortunately, and without getting into politics, some recent U.S. government decisions, and later changes to the way we did business and conducted our international relations, have created a state of uncertainty, and sometimes resentment, which have affected our profession.
Some of the conferences and international events we had interpreted for many years have been cancelled; others have been moved to other countries due to the uncertainty on the admission of visitors to the United States, as the organizers avoided the risk of investing on a project that a significant segment of attendees could not attend because of their country of origin. For the same reason, many international programs at universities, non-for-profit organizations, and government agencies have been considerably downsized or postponed. The situation for community interpreters is not any better, because less foreigners in the country means less litigation and less foreign investment, which impacts court and legal interpreters; and when foreigners visit the United States less frequently, they use hospital and medical services at a lower rate. This hurts healthcare interpreters.
Faced with this reality, it was time for me to decide how I was to continue to enjoy the same income level despite the new reality we are living; and turn this poison into medicine and even generate more income than before.
Many freelancers get scared when they find themselves in this position, and their first impulse is to lower their fees to keep the clients they have, and to advertise their services at a lower fee than before. They operate under the false idea that money is the main motivator in a client decision making process.
Fortunately, my professional experience has showed me that quality trumps price in everything a client values. That is why people spend more money on a better doctor, a safer airline, and a renowned university. All have cheaper alternatives, but with the things people value the most, there is always a thought that crosses their mind: “It is more expensive but, if not for this, what is money for?” At that point I decided to raise my professional fees.
With this in mind, I carefully studied my client portfolio and classified my clients according to their business value, considering the income they produce me, how frequently they require of my services, the affinity of the type of work I do for them to my personal interests, and the prestige a certain client brings to you in the professional world. I considered a separate category for difficult clients, but to my surprise these were very few, and I needed them for my plan to work.
I immediately realized there were clients on that list I wanted to keep no matter what, and there were others that I would lose regardless of my best efforts. They were in a category where my work was not one of those services that they value the most.
I approached my clients according to how badly I wanted to keep them. If I really wanted them, I would explain this change in person when possible, or by phone or Skype if they were abroad or if their schedule could not fit me within a reasonable period of time. Next, I decided to contact the rest by e-mail on a carefully worded communication that was clear, not too long, and that ended with an open invitation to discuss this raise in more depth in person or by phone if they wanted to do so.
It would be a conciliatory email. No ultimatums, or “take it, or leave it” type of notice. I was out to make friends, not to fight with my clients. I knew that I had two things working in my favor: They already knew my work, and I already knew how they like their interpreting.
For my strategy to succeed, I needed to present my proposal to somebody with the authority to decide. Talking to somebody down the totem pole would be a waste of my time. I decided that I would only talk or write to owners of small companies or agencies, and to senior management in larger corporations, organizations, and government agencies. (There is a video on this subject on my YouTube Channel).
I drafted a talking points memo to be used with my “A” list clients when I told them I was raising my fees. The points I would make to the client had nothing to do with globalization, current American politics, or the uncertain future interpreters were facing in the United States. I recapped the successes we had in the past, and I listed some of the professional things I do for them that are not always found in other interpreting services, but I was not heavy about it. I figured that if they had agreed to talk in person or by phone, it was because they already considered me an asset to their company. It was all about the quality of my professional service and the time and effort I would devote to the success of their conferences, projects, and other events.
I lost some clients, none from the “A” list, all those who stayed with me are now happily paying the new higher fees as they are now getting a more personalized service, and because of this new practice, I have acquired new clients, who were in part, referred by my old clients who stayed with me despite the raise. We now have a better working relationship because they know more about what I do, and their internal decision making process to continue working with me made them realize my true value for their organization.
The lesson learned, dear friends and colleagues, is to face adversity with a cool mind, refuse to give in to fears and peer pressure, and with confidence and self-assurance face the problem and win. It is always better to make more money when appreciated, and an added benefit is that instead of contributing to an even bigger depression of our market, you will do your part to pull it out of the shadows of uncertainty. I now invite you to share with the rest of us what you are doing to win as a professional interpreter in this new reality of globalization and political uncertainty.
The new government could help interpreters in the U.S.
January 20, 2017 § 12 Comments
“We are sorry, but we will not be needing your services after all. We decided to hire some interpreters from the country of the people attending the conference…” Does this message sound familiar? How about this: “…They decided not to retain me because they found somebody less expensive in South America.” (It could be Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe).
Every interpreter in the United States (and other countries) has been part of this situation too many times in their career. The reality is that many agencies and event organizers are trying to save a buck, and with globalization, it is now very easy to hire a team of interpreters in a foreign country, offer to pay them in U.S. dollars (or euros), and bring them to interpret an event in the United States (or Western Europe) for very little money, compared to what professional interpreters typically make in that market. The foreign interpreters may be excellent, good, or bad; most likely, they will not be acquainted with the local culture, geography, current events, humor, and idiomatic expressions of the place where they are going to interpret, but they will save the agency a lot of money. To them, the little money they will get paid, and the second rate accommodations provided by the promoter of the event will be acceptable because they will be earning more money (and in hard currency) than their typical fees in their home market. The result is not good for the American-based interpreters who cannot afford to work for so little just because of the cost of living and doing business in the United States. I believe that it is not the best possible outcome for the audience either because the foreign-based interpreters (even some of the best) will not be able to understand and therefore interpret all the nuances of the speaker’s presentation just because they do not live in the United States. Every U.S. interpreter has had this experience when working with a colleague who comes from a different culture, and we have also suffered the painful, stressful situations when we do not get a geographic site, local celebrity’s name, or regional expression because we do not live in the country.
The only one who relatively wins in this situation is the agency or event promoter; and I say relatively wins because they will eventually suffer the impact of this culture-deprived renditions.
To complete the sad picture I have just described, we have the case of those “less expensive” video remote interpreters who provide services for events held within the United States from abroad, and the telephonic interpreting services agencies that have moved a big chunk of their business to foreign countries with little overhead, lax legislation, and much lower salaries. The result: a good number of U.S. based experienced conference interpreters, willing to do video remote interpreting for a fee set by the American market, and many telephonic interpreters, including many who are just entering that market often encouraged by the same agencies alien to the profession but part of the “industry”, will lose their jobs or find little work because the bulk of the interpreting services to American clients are now provided from calling centers in Asia and Central America, and quite a few agencies look for video remote conference interpreters abroad without even looking for them in the United States.
This week a new president takes the oath of office in the United States, and a very prominent part of his agenda deals with protecting American jobs. This is where we can take advantage of the current mood in Washington, D.C., and demand that the new government keeps its promises to the interpreters and translators in the United States.
A new tougher immigration policy will benefit U.S. interpreters if we move our chess pieces wisely. We must demand Congress, The White House, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security to enforce the labor laws of the United States. You see, most foreign interpreters brought by the agencies enter the United States on a tourist/ visitor visa without ever disclosing the fact that they will work in the U.S.
Working with a visitor’s visa is against the law; misrepresenting your purpose to enter the United States is cause for denial of admissibility and in some instances it could be a crime. Agencies that bring foreign interpreters this way are also breaking the law and should be investigated and fined by the federal government. If the law is properly enforced to protect American workers (that is: all of us) the agencies would need to file a work visa petition with an immigration service center, show a business necessity to bring that individual to do the job, demonstrate that there are no United States citizen or lawful permanent resident interpreters in the United States who are willing and able to perform the service the agency needs in exchange for the prevailing wage or fee for that service in that part of the United States. If the petition is approved, the foreign interpreter would need to attend an interview with a consular agent at the U.S. embassy in his country, and demonstrate that he is qualified to do the job, that he will go back to his country after the assignment is over, and that he has no criminal record anywhere in the world, including any past affiliation to terrorist groups or prior immigration violations in the United States such as deportations, overstays, or having worked without legal authority. Only then, and not a minute earlier, these people could enter the U.S. to work as interpreters for that conference. As you can imagine, this takes time, costs money, and often requires of the services of an immigration attorney. You see, dear friends and colleagues, all of a sudden the U.S. based conference interpreter got a lot cheaper than the foreigner, even if the agency needs to pay market fees in America. This is our chance to end the “interpreter smuggling” that is happening right now in the United States. Of course, this does not cover foreign interpreters who come as part of the team of a foreign diplomat, head of state, dignitary, or celebrity. Those interpreters will enter the country with their client and for a specific mission that requires of them personally based on other characteristics. They will be paid in their home countries for a service that would not be performed by anyone else, American or foreigner. Even though it has been treated as one and the same, it is very different to enter the United States as the interpreter of the president of Argentina, and enter the country to interpret a conference at the Honolulu Convention Center.
The new government advocates a policy that keeps jobs in the States and will likely sanction those businesses who move abroad and try to sell goods and services back to the American consumer. There is no question that all these interpreting agencies that have moved abroad will qualify for sanctions as long as they provide their services to people in the United States. I believe that the fines and the cost of litigation to keep their facilities abroad selling their services in the United States will be more expensive than closing shop in Costa Rica or India and moving the telephonic interpreting center to Arizona or California.
I understand that this entry may not be very popular with many of my friends and colleagues abroad, but I ask you to please pause and examine your market structure so you can strive for better and more professional conditions in your own countries. I also believe that much of what I say here can be applied, and in fact has already been implemented in some countries. Only when these conditions even up across the markets we will be able to universally enjoy the advantages of globalization.
You see, dear friends and colleagues in the United States, there is plenty we can do to protect the profession and advance our working conditions under the philosophy of the new administration. I now ask you to share your comments with the rest of us, and I beg you to please limit your participation to the issues subject matter of this blog, and refrain from politically charged comments either for or against the new government.
Much to learn from Mexican interpreter program.
August 30, 2016 § 3 Comments
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.
Improving our knowledge, enhancing our skills in the New Year.
January 18, 2016 § 4 Comments
Many professional responsibilities and obligations come with a new year. As interpreters and translators we must strive to deliver a better service than the year before, and the best way to achieve it is through practice and study. We need to improve our personal libraries, increase our professional resources, and find a way to learn something new and brush up on our ethics, while getting the continuing education credits needed to keep our certifications, patents or licenses.
This is the time of the year when we plan some of the major events that will happen during the year; the time to block some dates on our professional appointment books to be able to attend professional conferences. Those of you who have read the blog for a long time know that every year I share with you those professional conferences that I consider “a must” due to their content, the reputation of the organizations behind them, and the networking benefits derived from attending the event. This year is no exception.
As always, I start my conference “grocery list” by writing down the characteristics that I consider essential for my professional development. This way I make sure that I will not end up at a conference that will take my money and give me little, or nothing, in exchange.
The right conference needs to offer useful and practical presentations geared to different segments of professional interpreters and translators according to their years of practice. There is nothing more confusing to a new interpreter or translator than finding themselves in the middle of a big conference where nothing in the program appeals to them. There have to be workshops and presentations that speak to the new blood, and help them become good and sound interpreters and translators who will enjoy their professional lives. By the same token, we must have workshops that appeal to the experienced professional. There are hundreds of colleagues who stay away from professional conferences because all they see in the program is very basic. They want advanced skills workshops, advanced level presentations, interesting innovative topics on interpreting, translating and languages, instead of the same old seminars that focus on the newcomers and completely ignore the already-established interpreter and translator. Finally, a good conference has to offer presentations and workshops on technology, the business of interpreting and translation from the perspective of the professional individual, instead of the corporate view that so often permeates the conferences in the United States and so many other countries, and it must include panels and forums on how we should proactively take action, and reactively defend, from the constant attacks by some of the other players in our field: agencies, government entities, direct clients, misguided interpreters and translators, and so on.
To me, it is not a good option to attend a conference, which will cost me money, to hear the same basic stuff directed to the new interpreters and translators. We need conferences that offer advanced-level content for interpreters and translators, forums and presentations that deal with sophisticated ethical and legal situations that we face in our professions. At the same time, the new colleagues need to be exposed to these topics on a beginner-level format, and they need to learn of the difficult ethical and legal situations they will eventually face as part of their professional practice.
I do not think that a good conference should include presentations by multilingual agencies or government speakers who, under the color of “good practices to get more business”, use these professional forums, with the organizing professional association’s blessing (because money talks), to indoctrinate new colleagues, and also veterans of feeble mind, on the right way to become a “yes man” or “yes woman” and do everything needed to please the agency or government entity in order to keep the contract or the assignment, even when this means precarious working conditions, rock-bottom fees, and humiliating practices that step by step chip away the pride and professional will of the “linguist” (as they often call them) and turn him into little more than a serf with no will of his own. I want to make clear that I am all for hosting representatives of government offices and honest agencies who share information as to their policy and operations, but no promotion or indoctrination. There are honest businesses and government officers who are willing to follow this more suitable approach. We are all professionals, and we know that there are plenty of conferences organized by these entities, and we can attend them if we want to get that type of “insight” without having to waste presentation time during our own events listening to these detrimental forces.
I do not see the value of attending interpreter and translator associations’ conferences sponsored by those entities who are trying to convince us that we are an “industry” instead of a profession; because an industry has laborers, not professionals, and the latter demand a higher pay. There is no need to spend your hard-earned money on conferences devoted to convince you that machines should translate and humans proofread, that interpreting services must be delivered by video using underpaid interpreters, and that if you dare to speak up against this nonsense, it means that you are opposed to the future of the profession. I want to attend a conference where we can openly debate these modern tendencies of our professions, where we can plan how we will negotiate as equals with the owners of these technologies, and hold a dialogue with the scientists behind these new technologies, without a discredited multinational agency’s president as moderator of a panel, or a bunch of agency representatives giving us their company’s talking points again and again without answering any hard questions.
I want to be part of a conference where experienced interpreters and translators develop professional bonds and friendships with the newcomers to the professions, without having to compete against the recruiters who, disguised as compassionate veteran colleagues or experts, try to get the new interpreters and translators to drink the Kool-Aid that will make them believe that we are an industry, that modern translators proof-read machine translations, and good interpreters do VRI for a ridiculous low fee because they now “have more time to do other things since they do not need to travel like before”.
I want to go to a conference where I will have a good time and enjoy the company of my peers without having to look over my shoulder because the “industry recruiters” are constantly coming around spreading their nets to catch the new guy and the weak veteran.
Unfortunately, there will be no IAPTI international conference this year. Because this organization delivers all of the points on my wish list, I always have to recommend it at the top of my “must-attend” conferences. IAPTI cares so much for its members that after listening to them, it decided to move their annual conference from the fall to a different time of the year. Logistically, it was impossible to hold an international conference just a few months after the very successful event in Bordeaux this past September. The good news is that not everything is lost. Even though the international conference will have to wait until 2017, there will be several “IAPTINGS” all over the world throughout the year. This are smaller, shorter regional high quality events that give us the opportunity to put in practice everything mentioned above. Stay alert and look for these events; there might be one near you during 2016.
For my Spanish speaker colleagues, I truly recommend the VI Translation and Interpretation Latin American Congress (VI Congreso Latinoamericano de Traducción e Interpretación) to be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 21-24, 2016. Because of its impressive list of presenters and speakers, and from the wide variety of topics to be discussed, this congress represents a unique opportunity for all our colleagues to learn and network in a professional environment with magnificent Buenos Aires as the backdrop. I hope to see you there.
For all my judiciary interpreters and legal translators, I recommend the NAJIT 2016 Annual Conference in San Antonio, Texas on May 13-15, 2016. Although this year’s program has not been published yet, NAJIT is the largest judicial interpreter and translator organization in the United States, and perhaps in the world, and it constantly schedules topics of interest to the legal community; this is a great opportunity to network and give this event, and its current Board, a try. I will personally attend the conference for the reasons I just mentioned, and because I have reason to believe that the organization is moving on the right direction towards the professional individual interpreter and translator and their rights.
During the fall of 2016 I will be attending the 20th. Anniversary of the OMT Translation and Interpretation International Congress San Jerónimo (XX Congreso Internacional de Traducción e Interpretación San Jerónimo 2016) in Guadalajara, Mexico on November 26-27. This is a great event every year. It is held at the same time that the FIL International Book Fair at the Expo Guadalajara, and it brings together top-notch interpreters and translators, as well as celebrities of the world of linguistics and literature from all over. This year the congress turns 20 and for what I have heard, it promises to be the best ever! Join us in Guadalajara this November and live this unique experience.
Although these are the conferences I suggest, keep your eyes open as there may be some local conferences that you should attend in your part of the world. I will probably end up attending quite a few more during 2016. I would also invite you to look for smaller events that may be happening near you; events like Lenguando, and other workshops and seminars somewhere in Europe, Asia and the Americas.
Finally, I invite you to share with the rest of us the main reasons that motivate you to attend a conference as well as those things that turn you off.
As interpreters we want new technology, but we need to be very careful.
March 19, 2015 § 4 Comments
Imagine that you just received a phone call from a very prestigious organization that wants to hire you to interpret a conference in Tokyo next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The subject matter is very interesting and the fee is extraordinaire. For a moment you stop to take it all in, smile, take a deep breath, and then it suddenly hits you: You have to decline the assignment because a few minutes earlier you took another job with your most consistent, best-paying client who retained you to interpret a conference on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the same week in Chicago. You hang up the phone and wonder why this is happening to you once again. Why do all good assignments have to be so close in time and so far in space from each other? I am sure the scenario sounds familiar to all of you, because at one time or another, we all face these situations and are forced to make choices. It is obvious that you have to fulfill your contractual obligation to the client who has hired you to interpret in Chicago from Tuesday to Thursday. It is also evident that you needed to turn down the Tokyo assignment because it would take you a full day of nothing but traveling to get to Japan from the United States. Even with the time change you do not have that extra day needed to travel, because, assuming that you make it to Tokyo on Friday afternoon, by the time you get from Narita Airport to the conference venue, it will be too late; never mind the fact that you would be exhausted and in no shape to work three full days at the conference without any rest or time to adjust to the time change. The events and places may be different, but until recently, that has been the story of our professional lives. Every time you think of these missed opportunities you fantasize about doing both events.
What if I tell you that you can do both conferences without changing any dates, and therefore, keeping both clients happy and doubling your income? It is possible! In fact, I have done it myself.
On Tuesday morning you wake up in Chicago, go to the event venue and do your job. The same thing happens on Wednesday and Thursday. Then, very early on Friday morning, because of the time change, you either go to a local studio in Chicago, or sit in front of your computer at home, and do a remote interpretation of the event in Tokyo. Afterwards, because you will be exhausted, you go home and rest until the following early morning when you will remotely interpret again. You do the same for three days.
The result of this technological advantage is that you can do something that until recently was impossible. This is a wonderful example of how technology can help the interpreter. You will make twice as much money that week, because you will work two full conferences, you will not have “dead time” while traveling to and from the venue (usually the day before and the day after the event, and sometimes even longer) and you will keep all your clients happy because you took care of them all. Remember, they wanted you to do the job, not just any interpreter. At the same time the client in Tokyo in this case, ends up a winner, because they didn’t just hire the ideal interpreter for the job, they also spent less money to get you. Yes, my friends and colleagues, the organizers will save money because they will not have to pay for your travel expenses and they will not need to pay you a professional fee for the traveling days (usually at least half of your full-day fee). Everybody wins! As interpreters, we love this kind of technology that helps everybody. You make more money because of the two separate assignments that you will cover, and the organizers will save money as I highlighted above.
We as interpreters want new technology in our professional lives. We cannot deny the benefit of having an interpreter providing services in a remote hospital’s emergency room while she is physically hundreds of miles away from the patient. We cannot argue with the advantage of being able to interpret a trade negotiation between two or more parties who are virtually sitting at the same table even though they are physically in another part of the planet. We cannot ignore the positive outcome of a legal investigation when the investigator can interview a witness in a foreign country while the interpreter is here at home saving the client time and money.
That is the bright side of what is happening right now. Unfortunately, there is also a dark side that we as interpreters have to guard against.
It is a reality that this new technology costs money. It is not cheap, and for the most part, the ones who can afford it, at least on a bigger scale, are the huge multinational language service providers who have recognized all the advantages mentioned above, but for whatever reason, instead of fostering a professional environment where my example above can become the rule instead of the exception, they have seen the new technology as a way to increase their earnings by lowering the professional fees they pay to the interpreters.
It is of great concern to see how some professional interpreter organizations have been infiltrated by these multinational language service providers. It is discouraging to look at a conference program and realize how these entities are paying for everything the interpreter will hear or see at the event. These agencies turn into big corporate sponsors and attend the event with a goal of recruiting as many interpreters as possible, for the smallest amount of money that they can convince them to accept. Just a few weeks ago during a panel discussion at an interpreter conference in the United States, the association invited the CEO of one of these multinational language service providers to moderate the debate, and for that matter, to decide what questions were going to be asked. This individual is not even an interpreter. The real tragedy is that this is not an isolated case, there have been other events, and there are others already planned where the gigantic presence of these conglomerates creates, at the very least, the impression that they decide everything that will be happening at the conference.
As professional interpreters we must be vigilant and alert. Some of these corporations are now propagating on the internet a new strategy where these entities are separating themselves from the machine translation “reputation” by making it clear, to those naïve interpreters who want to listen, that the technology they are using is not to replace the human interpreter, that it is to help interpreters do their job; part of the argument states that thanks to this new technology, interpreters will not need to leave home to do their job, that they will not need to “waste” time going to work or waiting, sometimes for a long time, to interpret a case at the hospital or the courtroom. They argue that thanks to this technology, interpreters will only spend a few minutes interpreting, leaving them free to do whatever they want to do with the rest of their time. Of course, you need to dig deeper to see that they are really saying that with the new technology, they will only pay the interpreter for the services rendered by the minute. In other words, their interpretation of the technological developments is that they can save money, but the interpreter is not invited to the party. My example at the beginning of this post is not an option for most of these multinational language service providers. This is what we have to guard against so that we do not end up making money for 20 minutes of interpreting a day.
Obviously, as you all know, these minute-based fees are ridiculously low, and therefore unappealing to good interpreters. The agencies are ready for this contingency as well. After the exodus of good interpreters, they will continue to advertise their services as provided by “top quality interpreters” because they will mask the lack of professional talent with their state-of-the-art technology. That is where we, as the real professional interpreters, need to educate the consumer, our client, so they see the difference between a good professional interpreter and a paraprofessional who is willing to work for a little more than the minimum wage. These “mass-produced” so-called interpreter services will be the equivalent of a hamburger at a fast food restaurant: mass-produced, frozen, tasteless, odorless, and cheap. We all need to point this out to the world, even those of us who never work for these multinational service providers, because unless we do so, they will grow and reproduce, and sooner or later they will show up in your market or field of practice. Remember, they have a right to be in business and make a profit for their shareholders, but we also have a right to fight for our share of the market by giving the necessary tools to the consumers (our clients) so they can decide what kind of a meal they want to serve at their business table. I invite you to share your opinion on this very serious issue with the rest of us.
State court interpreter certifications could turn meaningless.
October 16, 2014 § 17 Comments
A couple of weeks ago I received an email that concerns me enormously. I am sure that many of you who are based in the United States have received similar emails from state-level judicial agencies. In my case, I got an electronic communication from the Administrative Office of the Courts of one of the fifty states in the U.S. (not the federal government) this was one of those global emails that are sent out to everybody on a master list. Basically, the message was that the National Center for State Courts in the United States (NCSC), apparently in coordination with (at least) some states, is planning to offer remote telephonic interpreting across state lines, and for that purpose, the states (and I assume the NCSC as well) are compiling lists of state-level certified court interpreters who may want to be part of the interpreter pool that will be used to interpret court hearings from a different state. Although I hope the message’s meaning was different, this is what I understood. The email is written in such a way that, to the reader, this idea looks good and beneficial for everyone: the interpreters, because they will have more work (although I would guess that the fees offered by the state governments will not be anything to brag about) the states with underserved populations due to the lack of interpreters, because they will get somebody who has been certified somewhere by a state-level judiciary, and the foreign language speaker, as they will have the services of a professional interpreter instead of a family member or a paraprofessional.
Does it sound good to you? Well, if I understood the email as a communication asking permission to include interpreters’ names on a master list to indiscriminately interpret by phone, regardless of the state, it did not sound even half decent to me. Let me explain:
It is true that state-level certified interpreters are better equipped than paraprofessionals, and therefore the service provided should be of better quality. It is true that all state-level certified interpreters have attended a basic orientation and they have passed a court certification test (now administered by the NCSC or CLAC) and in many cases they have also taken an ethics and professional responsibility test. This obviously puts them ahead of those unscrupulous people that are roaming through the hallways of many courthouses in the United States. Unfortunately, and this is the real and very big problem: these interpreters, who have been certified by one of the fifty states, would now interpret cases from other states where both substantive and adjective law are different. That is the problem. The interpreter will interpret legal proceedings based on legislation that he does not know. Unlike U.S. federally certified court interpreters who work nationwide because they interpret the same federal legislation all across the country, these state-level individuals will have to deal with fifty, sometimes very different, legal systems.
Just like the age to get married and gun control laws vary from state to state, the catalog of crimes and civil law contracts are different. Think of one single situation: battery and assault; or is it assault and menacing? Well, the answer is: it depends on the state, and the differences are radical. Penalties and procedures also change depending on the state. This is why attorneys can only practice in those jurisdictions where they have passed the Bar Exam. It is a very delicate matter.
If this is indeed what the NCSC and the states want to do (and I hope I am wrong) then I am extremely concerned as an interpreter, because this will be another attempt to de-professionalize our jobs and make them look more like the legal secretary who can work anywhere, and less like the attorneys who can only practice in the state (or states) where they are members of the state bar. Sure, I understand that state-level agencies will praise the “benefits” of this solution, which in reality will solve their own problem (not the interpreters’ or the foreign language speakers’): Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This is a state-level priority because states that do not comply will lose federal money.
I am also worried as an attorney for several reasons: First, states will allow interpreting services across state lines using telecommunications. This could be an interstate commerce issue where the federal government has to participate (at least); but the second reason is the one that motivated me to write this post: interpreters who do not know the legal system of a particular state will practice in that jurisdiction. They may physically be in the state where they are certified, but their services will affect a court system, and litigants in another state where they have never demonstrated their capacity to practice. I believe attorneys who represent foreign speakers need to be aware of this potential “solution” so that from the beginning they know that perhaps the case could later be appealed for ineffective assistance of the interpreter. Attorneys need to know that when they are advising their client on an assault charge in their home state, they may be using the services of an interpreter from a state where assault really means battery. Lawyers will need to assess the potential procedural complications in case they sue the interpreter. Jurisdiction will have to be determined, and these lawsuits could end up in federal court.
If this “program” has also been planned for civil cases, then the problem is worse. Remember, there are at least three different civil legal systems in the United States, the one followed by those states who have a system based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition, those whose system comes in part from the days where these territories were part of the Spanish Crown (just think divorce and community property division) and then Louisiana and the Napoleonic written system. As an attorney, or a foreign language speaker, I would not want to have an interpreter from another state, much less one from a state where the system is different.
I sure hope that this “solution” (if conceived as I understood it) is discarded and the states look for better options such as a higher fee for those interpreting in state courts. There are very good and capable interpreters everywhere in the United States, it is just that they will not work for the fees currently offered. A more attractive fee would also encourage others who would like to join the profession but are reluctant because of the lack of money to even make a decent living.
By the way, these problems apply to those languages where there is no certification and the interpreters are registered or qualified to work in court by a particular state.
I really wish I am mistaken and this is not happening in the United States, but if it is, I will continue to watch the developments of this program, and if needed, I will speak up in legal forums to bring awareness of the potential risks generated by using state-level certified interpreters in places where they have never been certified. I now ask you to share your thoughts, and concerns, about this potential change that would end up rendering a state-level court interpreter certification useless.
When the event organizer refuses to hire a full time technician.
September 19, 2014 § 6 Comments
One of my worst nightmares is to be in a situation where I am ready, able, and willing to do my job, and I cannot do it because something beyond my control went wrong… very wrong. In a world where we depend more on technology every day, the importance of all the devices we use in our work is paramount. An entire event can turn into a disaster if technology does not cooperate. To stay competitive, it is extremely important that the professional interpreter be knowledgeable and up-to-date on the latest technological developments that impact our industry, such as computer hardware, software, hand-held devices, and social media; that is undisputable. We should have on that same priority level the operation of headphones and microphones, interpreting consoles, portable equipment, and the basic principles of how the interpreting equipment in particular, and the audio-visual system in general, function. The idea is not to replace the computer engineer or the sound technician; the only goal is to be able to understand a problem so it can be better described to the specialist who will, in turn, take care of the issue. An interpreter who can solve small technical problems with a simple suggestion, and therefore keeps the event on track, is definitely a very valuable asset.
Those who know me are aware of the fact that I am mechanically impaired. I cannot do anything with my hands, and I have never wanted to. I am also a big advocate of hiring professionals to do all jobs, from the auto mechanic to the housecleaning person, and from the accountant to the physician. No “do it yourself” for me. Fortunately, I really like computers, electronic media, and all the gadgets I can put my hands on. This has allowed me to keep up with those issues that are relevant to our profession, but always knowing my limitations and recognizing and appreciating the essential role that the sound technician plays in the interpreting world. To be clear: As far as the interpreters are concerned, the sound technician is the most important individual in the venue. They are that crucial; especially the good ones, those who already know you, the ones that know the type of headphones we prefer, the levels we like, and even the little things that make that particular interpreter comfortable and therefore more productive. They travel with us from town to town or country to country, they know us personally, and we call them friends.
For these reasons, when negotiating an assignment I always insist on top notch equipment and the best technicians. I convey to the event organizer, or the agency, the importance of having a capable technician next to the booth throughout the event. The most experienced and prestigious agencies, convention centers, and event organizers already know it, but some newcomers may need the explanation. During my career I have seen that those agencies and promoters who want to be in the business for a long time, the ones who want to have a good reputation, and the ones who care about the quality of the event, always agree to this very basic, logical, and simple request. Unfortunately, sometimes you run into the ones who keep alive the expression: “the exception to the rule.”
Not too long ago, I was working a very prestigious event where we got to see what happens when you try to “save” money at the expense of the technician. On the day the event started I arrived, as usual, plenty early to check the booth, sound, computers, stage, and everything else that you need to be aware of to have a successful event. As I entered the room, I saw one of my friend technicians from way back. Since I had not been involved on the planning of the event, and I was just a “hired gun”, I was very happy to see such a professional experienced technician in charge of the system. I went on to get ready and did not think much about the technician anymore. It was not until that afternoon when we started having some problems with the sound that I saw my friend again; he went into action and took care of the problem in no time at all. It was seamless.
The next day I arrived at the venue and went straight to the booth to get ready. The colleague who was interpreting with me arrived, we talked for a few minutes and then the event started. Everything was fine for about two hours when all of a sudden we had a problem with the sound. There was a lot of static and the quality was very poor. I looked for my friend the technician. I did not see him outside any of the booths or anywhere else. It was then that one of the event organizers came to the booth and told us that a “technician was on his way to fix the problem.” One of the hosts of this event got on stage and announced that an engineer was going to take care of the sound problem, and that we were going to adjourn until the sound was restored. Everybody got up and headed to the cafeteria.
At that time I saw a couple of individuals coming to the interpreting area, they approached us, and asked questions about the sound. I began to describe what the problem was. As I was describing the problem I noticed the nervousness on the face of this young man who was going to fix the problem. At that point I asked him for my friend, the experienced technician. I had seen him in the room the day before, but I had not seen him that day at all. The young technician told me that my friend was not there, that he had only been hired to do the set up and to be there on the first day in case something went wrong. He then told me that he and the other technician with him were full-time employees of the company that had organized the event, and they were “IT support”, not sound system technicians. He told me that they had never worked with interpreting equipment before, and that everything they knew about these equipment was what they had learned from my friend in the last two days when he and his crew did the equipment set up, and what they saw him doing the day before. It turns out that this very important, and profitable event decided to save money on the tech support.
What happened next was a comedy of errors. These hard-working IT staff had the best intentions and tried their best, but they did not have the knowledge to solve the problem. After almost an hour of unsuccessfully trying to fix the equipment, I suggested they replace all equipment with the back-up units my friend had left in case they were needed. They did it and the event continued. There was another glitch that afternoon when a speaker played a video from his laptop and they expected us (in the booth) to capture the sound from the conference room through our headphones and interpret the video that way. Needless to say, this was impossible. We could barely hear the sound; there was no way to interpret the video that way. I asked them to hook the laptop into the sound system so we could get the sound in our headphones just as if it was coming from a microphone. They did not know how to do it. I described the cable they needed and told them that they could buy it anywhere for very little money. Once I said “little money” they listened. One of their staffers went out, purchased the cable, and we had perfect sound in the booth. The video was interpreted, but there was another delay.
At the end of the day all interpreters from all languages got together, we talked about what happened during the day, and we all decided to request a real sound technician for the duration of the event. When we went to talk to the organizers we found them buried in complaints from the attendees who were not happy about the delays due to equipment malfunction (that could have been resolved in a few minutes like the first day when the professional technician was in the premises) At that point I knew we were getting our technician without even having to request him. Sure enough, after the commotion ended, a representative of the organizers came to inform us that they had talked to the technician and he would be at the event first thing in the morning. He then told us that the professional technician was going to stay for the rest of the event, and that he would be our point of contact in case there was another technical problem. The organizers learned their lesson! Unfortunately, they learned it the hard way. Now they know that there are many ways to cut costs, but having an event without a sound technician is not one of them. As things go sometimes, the next morning my technician friend checked all the equipment and adjusted certain things that had been changed by the IT staff the day before, he stayed with us for the rest of the week until the event ended, and we never had another incident. On the last day, as we were leaving the venue, I reminded all my colleagues from the other booths of this valuable lesson, and I asked them to always remember it, and use it as an example when another agency or event organizer decided to go without a full-time sound technician to cut costs. I now ask all of you to please share with the rest of us your stories of equipment malfunction, and what was done to solve the problem.
Can interpreters benefit from a book written by a translator?
April 30, 2013 § 3 Comments
I recently finished reading “Thoughts on Translation,” Corinne McKay’s new book. It is a compilation of some of her most popular, interesting and well-written posts in her industry-acclaimed blog of the same name (http://thoughtsontranslation.com/) I personally know Corinne as a friend and colleague from a period of my life when I lived in Colorado, her home base. I know first-hand of her commitment to the profession as a well- respected colleague, top-notch translator, and active professional who serves as a board member of the American Translators Association (ATA) and was, during my days in the Denver metro area, a very popular president of the Colorado Translators Association (CTA)
The linguistics family has many members, and I have always considered interpreters and translators as siblings in that family tree, with interpreters being the older sibling because long ago there was interpretation before humans began writing. I know that many interpreters, like me, spend part of their professional career translating, and many translators devote part of their time to interpreting, so that in itself should be a good reason to venture yourselves into the pages of “Thoughts on Translation,” even if you are primarily an interpreter. Interpreters, translators and our other “linguistic cousins” such as transcribers, proof-readers, editors, voice-over talent, dubbing actors, and localization experts have much in common; we work with languages. Now, if you add the ingredient of “freelancer” to that mix, you will come to realize that many times what is good for the translator is good for the interpreter and vice-versa.
“Thoughts on Translation” is directed to translators, but many articles in the book deal with issues common to interpreters and translators. In chapters 1 and 2 Corinne is really talking to all freelance linguists as she explains what it takes to become a successful freelancer in our sibling professions. Tips on how to market your services, setting realistic goals, and membership in professional associations are universal in our careers. On latter chapters she touches upon essential topics like the freelance mindset, how to deal with difficult clients, and how to use online resources; all relevant to the professional interpreter. Finally, she writes about money! Those of you who regularly read my posts know how important it is, in my opinion, to deal with these monetary issues without feeling guilty or uncomfortable because you want to make a good living. The book is very well-written, entertaining, funny, and of course, extremely useful. It constitutes a great tool for those who are just starting as professional interpreters, and it is a good resource for all of my veteran well-established friends and colleagues who, from time to time, need a text to quote in a particular situation.
I encourage you to read “Thoughts on Translation” available from Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/) Barnes and Noble (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/) and In Trans Book Service with our dear Freek Lankhof (http://www.intransbooks.com/) I also invite you to share your thoughts regarding how books by translators can be a useful resource for interpreters.