Official Government Interpreting is a Serious Matter.
April 19, 2022 § Leave a comment
In our modern world international relations are crucial. Globalization, free trade, security issues, international cooperation are an important part of all nations’ life. When countries without a common language need to communicate, they use the services of highly qualified professional interpreters. Whether a nation calls them diplomatic, official, or conference, interpreters, these individuals facilitate the exchange of ideas and information between government official representatives and leaders. They interpret within international organizations, multilateral summits, and bilateral encounters where trust, skill, precision, professionalism, and ethical conduct are always needed.
In recent times we have all witnessed the magnificent work of these interpreters, sometimes in dangerous or emotional situations, working in war zones, at sites of natural disasters, and pleas for solidarity and help. We have also witnessed less fortunate situations where interpreters have been at the center of an unwanted controversy. I will criticize no interpreter in this post. Those who read me regularly know I defend our colleagues and the profession from unfair attacks from within and without. I will just talk about the practices followed by those who take this work seriously and strive to avoid mistakes and embarrassing situations.
International organizations know of the need for excellency and they all have very rigorous methods to select their interpreters.
Governments are aware of the importance of good, clear, and honest interpretation, and most take extraordinary measures to make sure these elements are always present.
Although not all governments follow the same system to select these interpreters, they all try, within their own resources, to find and use the services of the best interpreters in their respective countries.
Some countries, usually wealthy nations, follow what I consider the best practice to decide who will officially interpret their government officials: They have a dedicated agency or office within their ministry of foreign relations that provides all interpreters for official events. These interpreters are tested on their skills, their qualifications are reviewed, and they are vetted for trustworthiness. According to that country’s needs, these professionals are hired as staff interpreters, and are supplemented by contract interpreters who meet the same requirements as staff, but either work on less frequently used language combinations, or provide their services in language combinations in high demand when there are not enough staff interpreters to meet all needs. All government agencies go through this office to get interpreting services, leaving the assignment of interpreters to those who best know and understand the linguistic needs of an event, and for this reason, minimizing the risk of a poor interpretation. These interpreters provide the official foreign language version of a government position expressed by a government official. Besides members of the executive branch of that government, individuals of the legislative branch often go to this specialized agency to find the interpreters best equipped for this work.
Some countries cannot afford staff interpreters but follow the same system above with a roster of all-contractors. Others cannot afford to cover travel expenses for these interpreters, so they ask their embassies and consulates, and sometimes the dedicated language services office of the host country, for a list of experienced interpreters, within that country, who can do the work.
There are nations who resort to agencies to obtain the interpreters who will officially work an assignment. These are not your workers’ compensation neighborhood agency; they usually are well-known agencies with many years of experience in diplomatic work. Here, these interpreters are also vetted and tested before they are selected for a job. Unfortunately, this system carries risks the options above do not: To select an agency, almost everywhere, governments must follow a bidding process where agencies will try to outbid their competitors, and often this translates into less-experienced and less-qualified interpreters who will work for a lower fee. It could also open the door to favoritism in hiring a certain interpreter the agency is trying to promote. I can see a conflict of interest in this system that could never happen in a system where the language experts of the government hire and pay interpreters directly with no third party (who needs to make money) involved.
The worst situation only happens when government authorities neglect to cover interpreting needs with the professionalism and importance such a vital aspect of a nation’s foreign policy requires. Human errors are that: human, and when that is the interpreter’s mistake, no one is really at fault. Interpreting is a very demanding occupation performed by humans. When the problem is caused by a technical failure, that is somebody’s fault, but not the interpreters’. If interpreters interpret an event they are not capable to interpret, because of lack of experience, poor skills, lack of emotional strength, or any other circumstance that would jeopardize the rendition, like being a translator instead of an interpreter, that individual is guilty of accepting a job they should have rejected the moment they learned what it was about. It is an ethical and professional violation.
However, the real culprit of a failed official interpretation is the government system that permits that someone with no knowledge and little life experience, decide who will be interpreting. When a poorly qualified individual hires someone to interpret a speech by a foreign president, especially when a state of war significantly cripples that foreign president’s options as to finding and retaining an interpreter in a language combination that nation seldomly uses in official events, you will get a poor result. It is an amateur hiring an amateur, and the responsibility of the event is with the one who hires. These are the situations where an irresponsible person hires someone they saw on TV, a person who translates for living, and an individual willing to work solo. Only this level of incompetence will disclose the name of the interpreter who worked in the event when they should have protected this person’s identity and contact information so journalists do not ask for comments from the interpreter who obviously did not even consider abstaining from speaking with the press as all professional interpreters at that level do. Even when a country has in place a system to hire qualified interpreters for official acts, if it is not enforced, and anybody can decide who interprets in the nation’s legislative chamber, then there is no system. I hope the unfortunate reality of war we are living at this time will help us all to understand and value the magnificent job our interpreter colleagues do every day all over the world.
Traveling interpreters, getting to the assignment, and the complexity of their work.
March 14, 2016 § 1 Comment
Interpreting is an exhausting, mentally and physically demanding task that can only be performed at the highest level when the interpreter is recharged with energy and has a rested brain. Once we start interpreting, there is no room for any down time. We need total concentration and full awareness through our five senses, and then some. To make my point even clearer, I ask you to go back to the moment when you get home after a full day of interpreting. You are extremely tired and ready to fall asleep on the couch without any warning. Your brain is shutting down the same way a computer does when it is overloaded.
Interpreting is not an easy task, and the topics we work with are usually difficult, highly sophisticated, and complex. The last thing we need is to show up to work tired or stressed out. We need to be in top mental shape to deliver the kind of service our client expects and is paying for. Interpreters need to rest before an assignment. We do not need to be distracted with any “sideshows” or situations that can affect our concentration or drain our energy right before we get to the booth, courthouse, hospital, or table of negotiations. The risk of not showing to work rested and stress-free is even higher for those of us who constantly travel to do our job.
Add two, five, twelve hours of travel time to the enormous task of researching and studying for an assignment. Factor in jet lag, changes of season (going from a summer weather in the southern hemisphere to a winter weather up north), altitude, local food, and cultural differences. All happening within a very short period, usually from the time you get on an airplane to the time you land at the point of destination. The results could be devastating. A tired interpreter could be the start of a disaster.
Because of the huge responsibility that is riding on our shoulders, and because of our professionalism, it is our responsibility to always bring our “A” game to the booth; but, how can we do it when facing these long trips? The answer is relatively simple: Turn the trip into a relaxing experience; try to make it as pleasurable as possible. Rest, sleep, and try to keep a “normal” life despite of a traveling schedule. It all starts with the way we travel.
We should always try to travel as comfortably as possible. To me, the golden rule is to travel in style so you can recharge the batteries on the way to the assignment. Whether you get there by train or airplane, try to travel first or business class. Leave economy to the tourists. Business class got its name from the idea of delivering a transportation service to the traveler who has a reason to be at the point of destination that is definitely different from going to the beach and drinking a piña colada. When you travel by train on a first class, or private dormitory car, you can sleep, study, relax, and get ready for the job ahead. Flying first or business class is the difference between sleeping on your back, eating a fairly decent meal on the plane, and showering at the port of destination’s airline club before meeting your client and going to the venue.
Granted, traveling first and even business is not cheap. Fortunately, because we travel so much, we can do it if we are a little smart. These are some of the things I suggest you do to be able to travel as you should without having to pay an arm and a leg.
First, get the client to pay for it whenever possible. You will soon find out that in many cases, most clients are willing to pay for a business class ticket when you are traveling a long distance. It is not that difficult to explain how tiresome it would be to fly economy from Chicago to Sydney or even from Seattle to New York City. Educate your client. Explain the advantages of having a well-rested interpreting team. You have nothing to lose.
Second, find out what airline has a hub, or at least has the most flights out of your hometown, and join their frequent flyer program. Most airlines will give you a bunch of miles, or kilometers, just for joining their loyalty program. This will be your preferred airline from now on.
The third thing you need to do is to get rid of all those credit cards that you have, and switch to one or two cards (depending on the place you live) that give you air miles in the main airline that serves your hometown. Once you have it, pay for everything with that card, even those things you usually pay with cash. Pay your credit card bill in full at the end of the month, and there will be no interest to pay, and you will be accumulating miles.
Once you have taken the steps above, book all your flights on your preferred airline. Don’t succumb to the temptation of saving twenty dollars on a cheaper flight with a low-cost carrier. You are now in the business of accumulating miles (or kilometers). You can earn miles even when you travel to places that your airline does not serve. Find out what airlines partner with your preferred air carrier, and fly with them. Most airlines in North and South America, Asia, and Europe are members of the One-World or the Star Alliance. You just need to find out which one of these alliances your airline belongs to.
Research what hotel chains, car rental companies, and restaurant programs offer miles on your preferred airline carrier and do business with them exclusively. You are now adding up miles (or kilometers) every time you buy a plane ticket, pay your cable TV, buy groceries, or go to the dentist.
Once you have enough miles, do not cash them in for a trip to Cancun. Instead, apply them to a yearly membership to your preferred airline carrier’s airport lounge. In fact, if you believe that you can afford it from the start, when applying for the credit card that works with your airline, get the more expensive credit card. It will cost you some five hundred U.S. dollars a year, but it will let you travel with two bags at no cost, and will get you to the airline lounges for free. Do the math. I think it is worth.
Why are you accumulating all these airline miles if you are not going to use them to go to Cancun? Because not all of your clients will be willing to pay for a business class airplane ticket.
Many clients, especially international organizations and government agencies, do not pay for business class tickets because it is against their policy. They are mandated by law or charter to wisely disburse the monies of the taxpayers, members, or donors. They will get you the cheapest ticket on the plane, because they have a deal with the air carrier to get the unused seats for a very low price. You will get these seats, but once that you have them, on your own, without the client’s involvement, you will switch seats to a more comfortable place on the plane a little farther away from the lavatories, with more leg room, and you will not have to endure the middle seat from Toronto to Buenos Aires. You will be able to do this for free because you will be an airline Gold member, Platinum member, and so on. Next, you will ask your client to book you on a plane that leaves at odd hours. These flights tend to be somewhat empty on the first and business class cabins because most business and rich people travel at more convenient times of the day. The reason why you want to be on this flights is that once you have an airline member status, you can request an upgrade to the next higher class for free. There are many empty business class seats on the 5:00 am flight, and one of them will be yours. This will be a deal between you and the airline. It does not affect your client, and you will be able to take care of your health and professional reputation by getting to the booth rested and ready to work.
My final piece of advice: Avoid discount airlines at all cost. You will never relax on these carriers. I truly suffer when I find myself on one of their planes (fortunately a rare event). I remember once around Halloween, when I was traveling from Washington, D.C. to Seattle Washington, a flight that takes around seven hours, and a flight attendant decided to wake up the passengers , many of them were asleep, to “animate them” by organizing several games. Even one of the pilots came out to the main cabin (these airlines have no first or business class) dressed as a wizard, and they started to play these games, interrupting, in my case, the work I was peacefully doing on my computer. You should also keep in mind that most passengers on these carriers are not very savvy travelers, making the getting on and off the plane a very long process, wasting precious minutes that you should be spending taking a shower at the airline club.
Smart traveling is more than a mimosa before the plane pushes back. It is having a work and rest space while traveling to your destination. It is having access to the internet, eating a quality meal, to be able to shower or use the gym at the airline lounge at the airport; it is also getting to know the flight crew when you travel all the time and getting little perks from them during your trip. Remember: it is called business class because it was meant for people like you who travel as part of making a living. I now invite you to share your comments and suggestions as to other ways to make traveling more pleasant and relaxing for the interpreter who calls planet earth “my office”.
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.