We should act more like professionals and less like merchants.

April 29, 2019 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Interpreters are constantly fighting to be recognized as a profession, to be respected by their clients, and to be treated and remunerated as providers of a specialized service that requires a strong academic background. Although most interpreters strive to be viewed as fellow professionals of physicians, engineers, attorneys and accountants, many colleagues, including freelance interpreters, behave more like a tradesperson than a professional.

Because of poor legislation, pervasive ignorance, and a myth that any bilingual can interpret, the idea that professional interpreting services can be provided by a commercial agency has been accepted, or at least tolerated, around the world. Professional services have been bought and sold like commodities by businesspeople foreign to interpreting, stingy government agencies, and unscrupulous interpreters willing to sell out their profession to make a quick buck.

A world where physicians provide their services through a commercial agency’s model is unimaginable. Attorneys’ Bars around the world would oppose, and destroy, any efforts to sell legal representation by agencies where a high school teenager, calling herself a project manager, were to assign lawyers to their clients on an availability basis, without considering quality or experience to decide on the attorney who gets the case. Interpreters see this happening every day and do nothing about it. Not even freelancers question this commercial model; they join these merchants and help to undermine their own profession.

I am not naïve. Multinational interpreting agencies are powerful, greedy organizations willing to fight for what they consider their “industry” to the end. They launch advertising campaigns, misinformation efforts to convince potential customers (they do not have clients) that hiring an interpreter is very difficult; that it can only be done through an agency. They spend time and money convincing freelance interpreters they are their allies; they procure them work, deal with the customer, and pay them a fare “rate” (they do not pay professional fees) after taking the portion of the paycheck they have morally earned. Interesting that agencies never disclose interpreters what they charge their customers, and force freelancers to remain silent when approached by one of the customers about their professional fees or availability.

We will not get rid of these agencies, but I know that interpreters will only be viewed as professionals when they act the part. I also know that some, few, are managed by good people.

There are many colleagues around the world who work as I do. We operate as a doctor’s office or a law office work. When contacted by a client about an assignment that will require the services of interpreters in five languages, I provide my client with the name and contact information of trusted colleagues with the experience and language combination needed for the assignment. If the potential project involves languages commonly used in my part of the world, or several interpreters in my own language combination, I even forward the inquiry to my trusted colleagues, my allies. My client takes it from there and individually negotiates the fee. I also suggest, and sometimes forward, the request to a trusted equipment/technical support provider. The client negotiates costs directly with them. It is like going to a building where many physicians have their offices, all independent, but all trusted colleagues; they suggest one of their colleagues depending on the field of specialization needed by the patient, but each doctor negotiates and sends a separate bill. These professional alliances, professional groups, are a network of professionals who know each other’s quality of work, ethical values, and language combinations. The client has to pay the professional interpreters individually, but he need not look for interpreters with the right experience, language pairs, or availability. That is all done by the interpreter who the client contacted first. That interpreter is the point of contact who suggests colleagues she will vouch for, and she is moved by no other interest but her client’s satisfaction. She will not subcontract the other interpreters, she will not charge them a commission or referral fee, she will only do what all physicians do when you go to their office and they suggest you see the dentist downstairs or the eye doctor next door.

There will be instances when you cannot help the client. There are languages you never work with. Sometimes doctors cannot recommend a colleague because they have no proctologist in the building. That does not mean that the professional network they offer to their patients has no value.

My good clients love this option. They understand it is difficult to get quality in all booths. They trust me and know that I would not jeopardize my reputation by referring them to a mediocre interpreter. They know I suggest nobody services because they are cheap. They also trust my judgement and experience a lot more than they trust a young monolingual person with no practical or theoretical knowledge of the profession, who calls himself “project manager” and has met none of the interpreters he will line up for a job. Clients know that project managers abide by company rules and guidelines which include: profit at all costs. They know their professional pool is limited because they can only provide interpreters willing to work with the agency in exchange for lower fees, inadequate working conditions, and disrespectful treatment.  This professional network model operates as a virtual office where my trusted colleagues are all over the world. It has no time or space limitations.

Interpreters who want to grow and expand to a larger scale should do it, but they should do it as law firms do. Incorporate as a professional corporation or a limited liability corporation, not a commercial enterprise like agencies do. These solutions will let you work as formal partners or shareholders and protect from liability without giving up your professional identity. We need not look or operate like an agency. They are not us.

They want to commoditize our profession and turn it into an industry. They are outsiders with a different set and scale of values. We are professionals. We should act as such. I know many of you are already doing what I described. I also know many colleagues will dismiss these ideas and even defend the agency commercial model. I am aware professional associations are guided by board members who own agencies, and as we have seen, even board members refuse to recuse themselves from voting in association matters when there is a conflict of interest between interpreters and agencies. Finally, I know some interpreters are not ready to freelance, they fear they cannot get clients outside the agency world, or they are content with little money. There, stay with the agencies, that is what you like and deserve.  I now invite you to share your thoughts on this critical issue for our recognition as professional service providers.

Interpreting a live sports event.

March 15, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Today sports play an important role in our world as entertainment and business. We are all aware of the enormous amount of money that events such as the Olympic Games and World Cup Soccer (football outside the United States) generate from advertisers and broadcasting rights.

In a globalized economy, thanks to modern telecommunications, people can follow and root for teams and athletes from every continent. This presents corporations, governments, and sports federations with the challenge of making the games and matches available to everyone, regardless of the language they speak.

The days when the only sports-related events requiring interpreting services were the meetings of the International Olympic Committee, or the conferences attended by FIFA executives are behind us. In this new reality people are watching England’s Premier League, Pay-Per-View world championship boxing, and the Super Bowl from every country in the world. World-class college athletes train and compete in countries where they were not born, and professional hockey and basketball players become stars in foreign countries.  These days all Major League Baseball teams are contractually obligated to provide interpreting services to their foreign-born players who do not speak English fluently, and interpreters living in the United States are getting used to reading ads from professional baseball teams looking for Spanish or Japanese interpreters to be a part of their staff for the entire season.

This time I will skip the description of the professional interpreting services provided by sports conference interpreters during a league or federation meeting where they will interpret for executives, government officials, and athlete’s representatives. I will not discuss the job of sports escort interpreters who accompany professional and amateur athletes for an entire season, acting also as their cultural advisors in everything from training camp to the clubhouse; and from traveling to the away games to opening a bank account, or assisting them during an interview with the media. I have touched on these services before and I plan to do it again in the future.

On this occasion we will talk about the job of the sports media interpreter during a live event.

As a big sports fan, I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to interpret during the broadcast of boxing matches and team sports’ games and tournaments. There are quite a few of us who do this worldwide, but the proliferation of media outlets and the ever-growing public appetite for more sporting events has turned this interpreting field into a more than viable option for many more colleagues in the immediate and long term future.  For this reason, I decided to write about the many services provided by a sports media interpreter during the broadcast of events such as a UFC fight or a soccer game.

Basically, a sports media interpreter can provide professional services in different environments: Live at ringside during a boxing match; live on the basketball court during halftime; live for a quick interview from inside the cage after a mixed martial arts fight; or live before and after a baseball game during a press conference.

One of the most compelling jobs that an interpreter will ever have to perform is that of a ringside or cage-side interpreter for a boxing or mixed martial arts combat. Interpreters sit ringside or cage-side just like the sportscasters; they get a microphone and a headset, and interpret live for the radio or television broadcast the conversation between the fighter and their corner, as well as the encouragement and instructions from the trainer. The task is difficult as the interpreter needs to know sports terminology, idiomatic expressions, and has to be up-to-date on the most current events in the world of that particular sport. A break generally lasts sixty seconds and the broadcast splits the minute between the two corners; therefore, the interpreter has about thirty seconds to render the conversation simultaneously on a clear pleasant voice, but conveying the emotions experienced by those in the red or blue corner.  This must be done in the middle of a noisy arena where music is playing at the highest decibel levels, at the same time that a producer is whispering instructions into the interpreter’s ear through the headphones.

Finally, because these corner conversations are intimate talks between fighters and seconds, there are times when those who are having the conversation code-switch from one language to another (in my case English into Spanish and vice-versa) or use foul words, and even racial slurs.  Interpreters’ concentration is paramount as they have to stay on the target language regardless of the code-switch, and they must decide, according to their contractual obligations with the broadcasting company, or their professional judgement in lieu of the former, whether or not they will interpret the bad words. This has a lot to do with cultural and legal considerations. Audiences in different countries react different to foul language. Sometimes, depending on the network, interpreters have less room to maneuver on the field of profanity. Over-the-air stations usually ban this vocabulary while cable TV is more tolerant. Some countries have a brief time-delay of a few seconds before broadcasting a live event.

Racial slurs are universally left out of the interpretation as they add nothing to the sport-watching experience. The most important rule is to keep it accurate but coherent, informative, and brief. The interpreter never can go beyond the time allotted to the corner conversation. Sometimes there is a second interpreter of another language pair waiting for you to finish so they can start their thirty seconds from the opponent’s corner and you cannot eat up part of their time.  Sometimes it is even more complicated as you have to interpret both corners dedicating thirty seconds to each fighter.

Sports media interpreters also provide their professional services for brief one-on-one interviews with a sports broadcaster. They usually happen at the end of a game or bout, during the halftime of a team sport’s game like football, soccer, or basketball, or in between periods in a hockey match. In boxing and mixed martial arts they take place in the cage or ring, and for the other sports the interview can be on the field, court, or right outside the locker room.

Unless you are working in the clubhouse, these interpreting assignments are performed in a very noisy environment and without a headset which makes it difficult to hear the interviewer’s questions and the athlete’s answers. Because they are extremely short, generally about ten to thirty seconds, the one or two questions by the sportscaster (with the second being a follow-up question many times) are interpreted simultaneously by whispering into the athlete’s ear, and the answers are interpreted consecutively speaking into the microphone held by the interviewer.

All rules above apply to this interpreting situation as the limitations are similar, but there is one unique situation that often arises during these interviews, especially the ones that take place after the game or fight: Regardless of the question they are asked, many athletes start by thanking or acknowledging a higher power, and they end the interview by greeting certain people in their staff, their hometown, or any other group they identify with. Because of time constraints, the interpreter should limit the rendition to the subject matter, leaving out these statements and greetings. Air time is very expensive and the audience has a short attention span.

There are times when TV networks do interviews that are slightly longer right after the fight or game. They do them at a TV set built under the seats of the arena or stadium. Usually, these short interviews take place before the athletes get to the locker room and they last about two to three minutes. For these interviews, the interpreter generally appears on camera between the sportscaster and the athlete and does an abbreviated consecutive rendition of both, question and answer. In this situations, interpreters are given the question ahead of time so they have a chance to figure out how to shorten it by going straight for the main topic at issue. Again, answers are kept to the essential, and the interpreter must look professional and sound pleasant. Interpreters speak into a microphone held by the sportscaster and usually go to the makeup chair before appearing on camera. As you see, to perform these unique tasks interpreters who do this type of work must have deep knowledge of the sport in question, have vast knowledge of the athlete’s career, and need to be up-to-date on everything that is going on in that particular sport. You must keep in mind that there are many in the TV and radio audience who know everything there is to know about the sport. I hope this explains why sometimes some interpreters who are not familiar with this type of work unjustly criticize sports media interpreters’ performance with remarks about everything that was “left out” of a question or an answer. Now you know the true story of the “he didn’t say that” or “that is not what they asked”.

Another common professional service in the world of sports media interpreting are press conferences. Like all similar events interpreted by conference interpreters, sometimes the question is interpreted simultaneously from a booth, and on occasion the rendition is consecutive. Answers are generally interpreted on the consecutive mode, and rarely rendered simultaneously.  When the interpreters are not in a booth, they sit away from the TV cameras at a table with microphones and headsets. Here the interpretation is just like at any other press conference.

In individual professional sports there is usually one press conference on the day before the event and a second one right after the match. For team sports there is usually one before and another one after the game. These team sports’ conferences are attended by the coach of the team and some of the most distinguished players during the game. Before the game the visiting team goes first, followed by the home coach and players. After the game the winning team goes last. Unlike the other interpreting services described above, press conferences are interpreted by teams of two or three interpreters, and unlike most other press conferences in the world, sports press conferences often take place in the wee hours of the night (often spilling over into the next day).

Every day we see more TV stations emerging all over the place; most of them are local in coverage, and because local sports coverage is relatively inexpensive compared to producing TV series or movies, and due to the popularity of sports, especially local teams and athletes, there will be more broadcasts of regional tournaments everywhere. This reality, paired with globalization, which brings to your hometown athletes from other latitudes who many times do not speak the local language, will continue to build up the demand for sports media interpreters all over. I immediately think of the hundreds of professional minor league farm teams in the United States for example.

I hope you will find this brief description of the profession useful when deciding whether or not to apply for one of these jobs. I now ask you to share your thoughts and experiences as sports media interpreters.

These interpreters work under very difficult conditions.

May 13, 2015 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last week, millions of people throughout the world watched on television the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.  Boxing is controversial in some quarters, and the fight itself gave both, fans and detractors alike, much to talk about.  I was one of those individuals watching the pay-per-view event, but unlike most of the audience, in between rounds my undivided attention was on the boxers’ corners where seconds and coaches were giving encouragement and instructions to both fighters. My reasons for paying close attention to these breaks are very simple: the networks broadcast these conversations in the ring, and many times, because many price fighters do not speak English, this is done through an interpreter.  By the same token, the sports channels that broadcast in Spanish in the United States, need interpreters to do the same thing when English is spoken at the fighters’ corners, and when the winner is interviewed from the center of the ring after the official result of the bout is announced.

Sports interpreting is a very difficult field. It requires deep knowledge of the specific sport’s theory, rules, history, statistics, and current events.  Many of these interpreters are individually assigned to an athlete by the team, the league, or the sport’s federation. Some of them also function as escort interpreters and cultural brokers to the athlete.  Their job requires constant traveling and total dedication. If you like sports, the field is very rewarding, but it is not for everybody.

On top of all the requirements needed to be a sports interpreter, a sports media interpreter must meet an additional set of skills. These interpreters must perform in front of the TV cameras, sometimes for millions of viewers. They need to know the ropes in the world of broadcasting; they have to deliver their rendition with emotion, yet with serenity, in a pleasant voice, and with clear pronunciation. They have to transmit the message within the constraints and limitations of a radio or television broadcast, and they have to do it live, with no second takes.

I have been very fortunate, because throughout my career as an interpreter, I have always been involved with sports media interpreting.  I have interpreted many boxing matches, and more recently, I have been working during the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) matches for the major sports networks and for the ones that broadcast in Spanish in the United States.  You see, ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes need interpreters when the fighters do not speak English.

Not long ago, I was hired to interpret for both, the English and the Spanish broadcast of a UFC world championship match that took place outside the United States. There were the four basic assignments that all sports media interpreters who specialize in boxing or UFC have to cover: (1) Pre-fight interviews, (2) the weigh-in ceremony, (3) the conversations taking place at the two corners during the match itself, and (4) the interviews and press conference after the event. All four tasks are complex and unique.

When the main event is a title match or involves high profile combatants, the pre-fight interviews can be time consuming and exhausting. Most likely, the interpreter will accompany the fighters to personal appearances for radio and TV shows, to some visits to hospitals or charity organizations, and to some social and even political events such as dinners, personal appearances, and similar activities. Many times there will be a booth for the interpreter to do his job during an interview, but there will be many instances when the interpreter will need to work consecutively as there will be no place to set a booth and no time to lose.

Since full contact sports divide athletes by their weight, boxing and UFC championship have weigh in ceremonies. This is done in the presence of the opponent, and with the accredited media as witness.  This is a safeguard in case that a bigger man starts thinking about fighting an individual who is smaller and therefore, perhaps easier to defeat.  Weigh in ceremonies have evolved from a simple man-step on the scale routine, to very elaborated and spectacular shows full of music, dry ice, lights, and roaring crowds at the venue.  These ceremonies will often be interpreted from a booth in an environment comfortable for the interpreters.

To give viewers a better idea of what is happening in the ring (boxing) and cage (ultimate fighting), for years the TV networks have been showing the action in the fighters’ corners in between rounds. All strategy, encouragement, and information that a fighter gets during the combat are delivered during these conversations. Because many of the contenders hold these corner conferences in their native language, the use of interpreters for the corner conversations has been a fixture for many years. Interpreters have a very difficult task during this minute-long breaks. They need to listen to all that is being said by the trainers and seconds as it is captured by an environment mike and a boom, and it is delivered into their earphones while everything else is going on at the arena. It is common to have code-switching during these conversations because many trainers are Americans and during the instructions, many times they go back to English without realizing it.

Here the interpreter has to be as sharp as ever: sports terminology, strategy, profanity, religious talk, all can (and will) emerge during these in-between rounds sessions.  Once the break is over, the corner conversation ends, but the interpreters’ work does not. They have to remain alert and be on the lookout for any potential comments, remarks, or instructions that the corner may shout at the fighter during the round. If this happens, the interpreter has to inform it to the broadcasters so they can decide if they need to pass it on to the audience or not. It is hard for me to convey the full picture of what is going on at this time, but if you can imagine the noisiest assignment you ever had and then multiply it one hundred times, then you will begin to understand what sports media interpreters go through every time.  Everybody who has been to a basketball or hockey game knows the noise level at the venue when the music is playing.  These interpreters have to do their job, especially in UFC matches, while the noise is as loud as it can be. Picture yourself interpreting specialized terminology, bad words, idiomatic expressions, and similar conversations, all uttered at a volume intended for the individual who is next to you (not the general public) as it is being picked up by a boom a few feet away from the conversation, and you are doing it for millions of viewers from your seat at ring side, through a headset, while the arena’s P.A. system is playing “we will, we will rock you” full blast, your microphone and everything else is vibrating with the noise, and the sports announcers, and also the producer, are talking to you through the same headset at the same time.

I recently worked a fight where we were all crowded around the ring. We, the Spanish interpreters, were sitting to the right of the Portuguese interpreters and to the left of the Japanese interpreters. The English language announcers for Fox were next to the Portuguese colleagues, about ten feet away from us, and the other announcers we were working with: the ones broadcasting in Spanish, were at about the same distance from us as their English counterparts but in the other direction, to the right of the Japanese interpreters.  It is the most difficult environment and the ultimate multitasking, all done simultaneously.  Add to the job description the fact that the interpreter needs to get up, walk through a very tight space, making sure that he does not step on one of the myriad of television cables that cover the entire floor like a carpet, and climb up to the ring, or into the cage, to consecutively interpret the television interviews with winners and losers after each combat. Not an easy job!

Finally, after it is all over in the ring (or cage) and there is a winner, both fighters and their teams are expected to talk to the media a few minutes after the program is over. This takes place at a (sometimes improvised) press conference room in the arena, and it happens very late at night, or during the early hours of the morning: when the interpreter is already exhausted.  This post-fight press conferences are usually attended by many journalists from domestic and foreign radio, television and print. They often block the view of the interpreters literally making it impossible to see the stage from the booth.  It is total chaos with journalists, producers, and cameras all over the place; and to complicate things even more, many journalists ask their questions without using a microphone.  I remind you, this all takes place after a long and busy day of interpreting.

Generally, interpreting services in the English<>Spanish combination are provided by three sports media interpreters: Two who work the fight and post-fight interviews in the ring or cage, and one who stays behind to do in-between fights interviews with other boxers and celebrities from an improvised studio under the seats of the arena. The two interpreters who work at ringside alternate between the English and the Spanish broadcast, depending on the language spoken by the contenders. These are the same two interpreters that will work the press conference once the event is over and the arena is empty, later that night.

The job is exciting, challenging, and to those of us who love sports it is a lot of fun, the pay is good, and the opportunity to meet the rich and famous is constant; however, we should never lose sight of the fact that this type of interpreting requires a lot of traveling, many hours of preparing for the assignment, very long hours, and the ability to work under very adverse circumstances, especially the noise level and the tight quarters.  These interpreters work live, and deliver their rendition to those attending the match in the arena, and to the millions who watch the fight around the world; there is no room for hesitation or second-guessing. It requires of a very unique woman or man willing to work as I have described.

I tip my hat to those of you who do this kind of work, and for the rest of my colleagues, I wish that you found this post informative; you now know of another specialty in our profession, and I hope that the next time you watch a boxing or ultimate fighting match, and even if you just happen to walk by a TV set while one of these colleagues is doing his work; you stop for a moment and see them in action. I am sure you will come to appreciate your own working conditions more after you really see how difficult it is to interpret during one of these events.  I invite you to share your thoughts about this topic, and any other type of interpreting that you may have done under extremely difficult circumstances, and please focus on interpreting and leave out your personal opinion about boxing or mixed martial arts.

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