October 20, 2020 § Leave a comment
Every four years during the Presidential election season in the United States many interpreters face the Electoral College topic even when their assignments are non-political. This time, no doubt because of the American president, more friends and colleagues from the United States and abroad have contacted me than ever before. Because of its American uniqueness, this topic presents a challenge to many colleagues who usually work outside the United States and to others who live in the country but grew up somewhere else. The Electoral College is one issue that many Americans do not fully understand, even if they vote every four years. Interpreters cannot interpret what they do not understand, and in a professional world ruled by the market, where the Biden and Trump campaigns are dominating broadcasts and headlines, this topic will continue to appear on the radar screen. Therefore, a basic knowledge of this legal-political process should come in handy every four years.
Because we are in a unique election cycle, and Election Day will be here before we know it, I decided to humbly put my legal background and my passion for history to work to benefit the interpreter community. I do not intend to defend the American system, or convince anybody of its benefits. I am only providing historical, political, and legal facts so we can understand such a complicated system in a way that if needed, our rendition from the physical or virtual booth is a little easier. This is not a political post, and it will not turn into one.
Every four years when an American citizen goes to the polls on the first Tuesday in November to elect the new president of the United States, that individual does not vote for the presidential candidates. We Americans vote for a preference (Republican, Democratic and occasionally other) and for electors who will go to Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, in December to cast the electoral votes from that state, in the case of 48 states, for the candidate who represents the preference of the majority of the state voters as expressed on Election Day. Other two states, since 1972 Maine and starting in 1992 Nebraska, allocate their electoral votes in a semi proportional manner. The two state’s electoral votes representing the two senators from that state, are assigned to the plurality winner of that state’s popular vote, and the other electoral votes that correspond to that state are given to the plurality winner in the popular vote in each of the state’s U.S. House of Representatives district. Maine has 4 electoral votes and Nebraska has 5. This means 2 and 3 electoral votes respectively will go to the candidate who wins that district, even if the candidate does not win a plurality of the popular vote statewide.
We vote for the people who will go to Washington D.C., to vote on our behalf for the presidential candidate who received the most direct votes from the citizens of that state during the general election. After the November election, those electors are pledged to the candidate who received the most votes in that state. The result: We have direct vote elections in each state, and then we have the final election in December when the states vote as instructed by the majority of its citizens. It is like a United Nations vote. Think of it like this: Each state elects its presidential favorite; that person has won the presidential election in that state. Now, after the November election is over, the states get together in December as an Electoral College and each vote. This is the way we determine a winner. Each state will vote as instructed, honoring the will of its citizenry and the mandate of its state’s constitution. We do not have proportional representation in the United States.
Historically and culturally this country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit: Those who risk everything want everything, and when they succeed, all benefits should go their way. We are an “all or nothing” society. That is even reflected on our sports. All popular sports invented and played in the United States have a winner and a loser by the end of the game: Americans dislike ties because they associate a tie with mediocrity. A baseball game can go on forever until a team wins. We do the same in politics. Once the citizens have voted, the winner in that state (except for Maine and Nebraska above) gets all the benefits, in this case all the electoral votes; it does not matter if he or she won by a million votes or by a handful. You may remember how President George W. Bush was elected to his first term; he won Florida by a small margin, but winner takes it all, therefore all of Florida’s electoral votes went to him and he became the 43rd. President of the United States. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams got to the White House with a margin smaller than George W. Bush. In recent years, another two presidents got to the White House without getting a majority of the popular vote: Bill Clinton twice, and president, Donald J. Trump. According to all presidential polls, if president Trump was reelected, he would go back to the White House after winning the electoral college, but losing the popular vote.
The electoral college was born to have a duly elected democratic government that would replace the monarchy Americans endured in colonial times. The state of communications and the educational level of the American population were such, that it was thought unwise to hold a direct presidential election where the winner of the popular vote would become president of the United States. Access to newly founded Washington, D.C., surrounded by swamps and, for Eighteenth Century standards, far away from most thirteen original states made it uncertain that all states would get to vote in a presidential election. Because only a handful of representatives from each state would go to the capital to cast that state’s votes for president, it was decided that only land holder white men would have a right to vote for these electors. It was decided to exclude white men with no land as they had no vested interest in the election; women were considered unprepared to make such a decision, blacks were slaves and deprived of human rights, including political ones, and Native Americans and other minorities were not considered citizens of the United States, and ineligible to vote. Eventually, after a Civil War a century later, and several social movements a century after the War, all men and women born in the U.S., or naturalized American citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or national origin, successfully claimed their human right to vote. The American population of the United States territories are nationals of the U.S., and they can vote in a presidential election if they are residing in the 50 states or the District of Columbia.
I mentioned earlier that most Americans like the principle of winner takes it all. Although that is true, the country’s political and legal systems rest on a foundation of fairness and justice. With a nation as diverse as the current United States, a majority believes the only way to maintain these principles is through a balance of the rights of the people on one side, and those of the states on the other. (For those who have a difficult time understanding why the states have rights separate from the people, please imagine the United States as a mini-world where each state is an independent country. Then think of your own country and answer this question: Would you like a bigger or more populated foreign country to impose its will over your country, or would you like for all countries to be treated as equals?) In December when the electors or delegates from each state meet as an electoral college in Washington D.C. to cast their state’s electoral votes, all states have a voice, they are all treated as equal. This is the only way that smaller states are not overlooked; their vote counts.
We find the final step to achieve this electoral justice to all 50 states of the United States of America (and the District of Columbia) and to the citizens of the country, in the number of electoral votes that a state has; in other words, how many electors can a state send to Washington D.C. in November. The answer is as follows: The Constitution of the United States establishes there will be a House of Representatives (to represent the people of the United States) integrated by 435 members elected by the people of the district where they live. These districts change with the shifts in population but additional seats are never added to the House. When the population changes, the new total population are divided by 435 and that gives you the new congressional district. The only limitations: An electoral district cannot cross state lines (state borders) therefore, occasionally we will have a district slightly larger or slightly smaller, and every state must have at least one electoral district (one house member) regardless of its population. The American constitution establishes there will be a Senate (to represent the 50 states) integrated by 2 representatives or members from each state, currently that is 100 senators elected by all the citizens of that state. When new states have been admitted to the Union (the last time was 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii became states number 49 and 50 respectively) the senate grows by two new members.
As you can see, all states have the same representation in the Senate (2 senators each) regardless of the state’s size or population. The House of Representatives has more members from the states with larger population, but all states have at least one representative in the house. This way the American system makes sure that the will of the majority of the people is heard in Congress (House of Representatives) and it assures the 50 states that they all, even the smaller ones, will be heard as equals in the Senate. You need both houses of Congress to legislate.
Going back to the Electoral College, the number of electoral votes each state has is the same as its number of Senators and Representatives. The total number of Senators and Representatives is 535 (435 Representatives and 100 Senators) Washington D.C. is not a state; therefore it has no Representatives or Senators, but it has 3 electoral votes to put it on equal footing with the smaller states for presidential elections. Therefore, the total number of electoral votes is 538. Because of these totals, and because of the American principle of winner takes it all that applies to the candidate who wins the election in a state, to win a presidential election, a candidate must reach 270 electoral votes. This is the reason California, our most populated state, has 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives and 2 Senators) and all smaller states have 3 (remember, they have 2 Senators and at least one Representative in the House)
The next time you have to interpret something about the Electoral College in the United States remember how it is integrated, and think of our country as 50 countries with an internal election first, and then vote as states, equal to all other states, on the second electoral round in December. Because on the first Tuesday in November, or shortly after that, we will know who won each state, we will be celebrating the election of a new president, even though the Electoral College will not cast its votes for another month. It is like knowing how the movie ends before you see it.
Electoral votes by state Total: 538;
majority needed to elect president and vice president: 270
|State||number of votes||State||number of votes||State||number of votes|
|District of Columbia||3||Missouri||11||Tennessee||11|
|Indiana||11||New Mexico||5||West Virginia||5|
I now invite your comments on the way presidential elections are conducted in the United States, but please do not send political postings or partisan attacks. They will not be posted. This is a blog for interpreters and translators, not for political debate.
November 7, 2016 § 7 Comments
This Tuesday is Election Day in the United States, and people going to the polls means the political season is over for politicians, campaign staffers, beat reporters, and yes: interpreters. Unlike any other presidential campaign during my professional life, the last eleven months were full of surprises and unusual challenges for the interpreter. First, we had sui-generis primary elections; on the republican side we interpreted stump speeches and presidential debates full of disqualifications, insults, rudeness and unparalleled vulgarity, and we learned to interpret for non-politicians like Trump, Carson, and Fiorina. On the democratic side we interpreted stump speeches at campaign rallies where the candidate who motivated and inspired the crowd the most did not get the nomination, and we worked presidential political debates that, compared to what was going on at the republican party, seemed low-key and frankly boring. Even some of the victory and concession speeches after the primaries were bizarre at times. And then came the general election campaign.
Although it may seem that from the interpreter’s professional perspective both campaigns were about the same, and they are both ending with speeches where nobody talks about their platform, but about how awful the other candidate is, it was not like that at the beginning. Starting with the democratic convention, Clinton run a very conventional campaign; the speeches were of the kind the interpreter expects to hear during a presidential race. On the other hand, the republican campaign started with a very different convention full of insults and disqualifications among the supporters of the different candidates. There was also a very strange “endorsement” speech that really was a non-endorsement address by Texas Senator Ted Cruz (followed by one of the strangest press conferences I have interpreted in my life) And of course, the constant chants of “lock her up” from the floor of the convention that we as interpreters decided not to interpret since the chants did not come from the podium, and we were there to interpret the speeches, not the crowd’s reactions, the same way a sports interpreter is there to interpret what journalists and athletes have to say, not the screams coming from the bleachers. And then, we had the three debates.
Even though I only interpreted the second and third debates, I watched them all, and for the first time in my life, partly out of curiosity, and partly motivated by many blog posts by other colleagues, I also watched the interpretation rendered by friends and colleagues from other countries.
Because of the unusual candidates and the tone of the presidential campaign, many foreign radio and TV stations carried the debates, and in many cases the interpreters were not from the United States and they were physically abroad working from a studio in their hometowns. First, I congratulate my colleagues for the great job they all did; despite the fact that I could not understand the rendition into some of the languages I watched, I observed the professionalism and delivery of the interpreters working the debates and I salute them all. I also want to take a moment to address all of my colleagues who have ferociously criticized the work of some of these colleagues, and ask them to please consider the difficulty of doing this work with technicians, radio or TV equipment, and the awareness that many people are listening to your rendition live, and later on to the recorded version that will be replayed over and over again. Next, I ask the same critics to recall the times when they have interpreted a live unscripted event before millions of people and assess their performance. I suspect that most of those screaming the loudest against these interpreters have never done this kind of work. I did not listen to all of my colleagues, and I suspect that there were probably some bad renditions, especially if the interpreter selection was left to an agency more interested in finding cheap interpreters and less inclined to pay for high quality, but the overwhelming majority of those who interpreted the debates did a magnificent job.
For me, it was interesting to see how some of these foreign interpreters had difficulties with things we don’t even think about because we live in the American culture and system. Basic political concepts, idiomatic expressions, and references to U.S. geography and history were cause for pause and struggle. The mechanics of the debates presented an unfamiliar situation to some colleagues who grew up and live in countries where there are no political debates, and if there is such a thing, it is often a staged show with soft questions by a friendly panel, that look more like a press conference where the candidates take turns answering questions and ignoring the other opponents also at the podium. Because of our socio-political reality in the United States, we do not interpret foreign leader debates for the American audience, and for this reason I do not really know what it feels like to interpret a foreign debate such as the ones between Clinton and Trump, but as an interpreter who lives in one State and often interprets gubernatorial, congressional, and local government debates somewhere else, I have to prepare to deliver a professional rendition.
Some of the things I do to get ready to interpret for a political debate include: reading about local and campaign issues, learning about the candidates’ background, views, and platform. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work, learn the structure of the State government, read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, search the web, know basic history and geography of the place where you will interpret the debate, know national and world current events in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer; and finally: know the rules of the debate.
Finally, there is another issue that merits comment: From their own comments, it was clear that for many colleagues interpreting Donald Trump was nearly impossible. I disagree.
It is true that Trump often leaves sentences unfinished, that he does not follow a logical pattern when he talks, and he often interrupts others. Interpreting somebody who behaves this way may be hard, but it is not uncommon. My years of court interpreting took me to many individuals whose speech is much more difficult to interpret, yet I did, and so do hundreds of colleagues who work at the federal and state-level courthouses of the United States every day. If an interpreter spends an entire professional career interpreting in the booth, working with highly educated people, or just with those whose main objective is to convey their message to an audience, interpreting for a person of Trump’s characteristics will be extremely tough; however, those interpreters who had a broader formation, including some work with criminals and witnesses who will do anything to say as little as possible in a court of law, and to mislead a judge and jury every time they have a chance, will find themselves in familiar territory when they listen to Donald Trump.
We have a few days to go: Election Day and the aftermath when we will deal with the results. There are a few more things to interpret in this political season, but we are at the very end of what will forever be a unique presidential campaign cycle for everybody, including the interpreter community that had to deal with situations we never encountered in the past, and for the first time, turned into an international affair for interpreters everywhere. I now ask you to share with us your experiences, thoughts, and comments, from an interpreter’s perspective, about this political campaign, the conventions, the presidential debates, and interpreting for Donald Trump.
September 4, 2012 § 2 Comments
This is political convention time in the U.S. where every four years our two political parties come together to nominate their candidate to the presidency of the United States. As I watched the Republican convention on TV last week and I get ready to watch the Democrats this week, my first thought goes to my friends and colleagues who are doing the interpretation this year. Because of the global importance of the American president, these gatherings get coverage, and therefore interpretation, all over the world. Some interpreters work from their home countries via electronic feed and others physically attend the meetings.
In the past I have interpreted for conventions and other political events such as debates, but when I think of my political interpretation work, the one assignment that first comes to mind is my interpretation of President Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention four years ago in Denver Colorado.
In January 2008 I received a phone call asking me if I would be interested in working as a broadcast interpreter during the Democratic convention in Colorado. After checking my schedule and agreeing to a fee, I started an assignment that would give me a small role in our country’s history. The first steps were tedious and frustrating as I had to go through an exhaustive security background check because of the event and the people I was going to have access to during the convention. I even remember one occasion when I was working in Hawaii and I received a phone call from the network asking me if I could attend a security meeting the following day. After I explained that I was physically unable to make it in such short notice, they arranged for me to participate via teleconference from my hotel room in Honolulu. That was when it first hit me that it was going to be a huge event. Of course, after we learned that Barack Obama had officially won the primary election, and once we were briefed on the specifics of some of the events by the Democratic National Committee, we knew that this convention was going to be unique because the acceptance speech was going to take place at an outdoor facility; and this was no regular outdoor facility, it was Invesco Field at Mile High, the stadium where the Denver Broncos play football. I immediately thought of the implications this would have for me as an interpreter who now had to interpret a speech given outdoors before a crowd of 80 thousand screaming supporters, as it was broadcasted live to millions of people in the United States. Not to mention the millions who would hear my rendition after the fact as they watched or listened to a newscast on thousands of local stations around the world. All I could think of was what a great opportunity it was for me as an interpreter and as an American, and on top of it I was been handsomely paid for my services. I understood the enormity and relevance of this job, and I understood its importance, regardless of my political inclinations or those of the people who had hired me. Those of you who know me also know that I take on interpretation assignments because of their uniqueness and because of what they pay. I have never applied my own political views or opinions to my interpretation work, in fact, most of you do not even know my political persuasion because that is irrelevant for the work I do. This is one of the reasons why I have repeatedly worked with both political parties. They all know I will do a good and impartial job.
After many, many, many virtual and physical meetings with the network, the Democratic National Committee, the convention committee, the technical support people, security gurus, and many others, it was finally show time. The convention started on a Monday but my assignment was to interpret for candidate Obama who was going to give his speech on Thursday. For this reason, I had time to honor another previous commitment to work somewhere else that Monday. This meant that by the time I arrived in Denver the convention was on its second day. As soon as I arrived in downtown Denver I was ushered to the Pepsi Center for a meeting. The Pepsi Center is an arena where the first three days of the convention took place. I will never forget the first time I entered the arena where the Nuggets and the Avalanche play professional sports. The security was incredible, and once I made it through all the questioning, frisking, and walking through metal detectors, I finally arrived to the top floor where everybody was running around wearing as many credential tags around their necks as I was. All of a sudden I recognized many faces I knew from TV, there was Sam Donaldson, Brian Williams, and Sean Hannity.
After this very long meeting, I went back to my place and debated what to do next. I had two options: I could study more glossaries and practice more Obama speeches or I could kick back and relax. I thought of the many hours I had already spent watching and practicing interpreting Obama’s campaign speeches, his debates with Hillary Clinton, and all the newspaper articles and political briefs I had read for the past several months. I also reflected on my many years of following politics and world affairs on the news and in person; I thought of all the other politicians I had previously interpreted for: George W. Bush, John Kerry, John McCain, Bob Dole, Richard Gephardt, Bill Richardson, Jesse Jackson, and many more, and I came to the realization that I was well prepared, that I had been preparing for this moment all my professional life, and I concluded that this assignment was just like all others. After these private reflections I decided to do the latter: Take a break and relax. That evening I went back to the Pepsi Center to visit the booth, talk to the other interpreters that were working the rest of the convention, and to get more acquainted with the technical people who would work the booth with me on Thursday night.
This was fun. I met some great interpreters from all over, watched part of the session and got familiar with the equipment we were going to use at the stadium for the acceptance speech. I even got to meet Senator Ted Kennedy who came to the booth to say hi to our next-door neighbor TV anchorman Jim Lehrer. Wednesday went by very fast. I spent most of the day fielding phone calls from many of my friends and colleagues who wanted to wish me luck (and some of them wanted to know how I got the gig. You know how this is)
Finally on Thursday morning I went to a last meeting at the Pepsi Center where the crew was already tearing apart the stage. During this morning meeting Senator Obama stopped by to say hi to everybody at the meeting (all 300 of us) After the meeting, as we were breaking for lunch before getting on the buses that were going to take us to Invesco Field, my producer approached me and asked me if I could amend my contract and interpret for one more politician besides the acceptance speech. They wanted me to interpret for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who was famous for discarding written speeches and going with whatever came to his mind. After some fee negotiating and other conditions to guarantee I was fresh for the main speech I accepted, so now I had two assignments instead of one.
Getting through security at the stadium was an excruciating experience, but definitely nothing compared to the hours the delegates and attendees had to endure on their feet waiting to clear security. My credentials made me look like I was wearing a cowbell but they helped this time. Once at the booth it became very clear how difficult it was going to be to listen and to interpret. Are you familiar with the stadium-type of sound system? That is what we had, well almost what we had. I went into the booth and sat down, stared at the console before me, looked at the TV monitor on my desk, and I said to myself: This is between you and this microphone. Nobody else counts. Forget about all those listening out there. Next I worked with my tech guy on the signs I like to use from the booth. Once he memorized them I moved on to other things. As the network people brought me water and asked what I wanted for dinner (and I declined as I did not want to risk having any problems during my rendition) I inquired about Obama’s speech. My producer said that we did not have it yet but it would be coming very soon. Time went by and it was time to interpret for Governor Richardson. As expected, he followed the text of his speech for the first two lines and then he improvised. I honestly had no problem because I had worked with him in the past and I had lived in his State, so many of his references were familiar to me. Once he finished I asked for Obama’s speech once again. The answer was the same; it will be here very soon.
Well, the speech was not there yet when they announced Senator Obama and he went on stage. As he was on stage walking from one end of that Greek structure they built on the football field saying “thank you” many times, I finally hear that my printer in the booth is going. The speech started to come in. I furiously grabbed the pages as they were coming out. It was too long. Way too-many pages. At that point I made an executive decision. Just see how many pages to get an idea of how long the speech is going to be, then, put it aside and just concentrate and interpret as he is delivering the speech. That is what I did. If you have interpreted for President Obama you know that it is very difficult to interpret his speeches (even when it may not seem like it is)
My strategy worked very well. I just stayed with the speaker and interpreted the entire thing. Sometimes closing my eyes, sometimes looking at the monitor, occasionally looking at my sound engineer to make some adjustments. To be honest with you, I never looked at the stage downstairs while I was working. Finally after this was all over I left the stadium very happy and satisfied with my work. That night, as I was packing to go to Cancun the following morning on a well-deserved vacation, I thought of how lucky I was to be hired to interpret that particular event. The first time that an African-American had accepted a big party nomination for president of the United States. I did not know whether he was going to win or lose the November election, but it did not matter, circumstances had allowed me to be a part of history. Regardless of my politics, regardless of whom I voted for, in some part of the Spanish-speaking world my voice will be linked to this major event forever. I would love to read some of your stories about how you have prepared for, and rendered, some difficult or relevant interpretation during your career.