Attention interpreters: Butcher or Surgeon?

October 5, 2015 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

For many years I have devoted a considerable part of my time and efforts to promote, develop, and defend the professionalization of our interpreting services. There have been many times when I have been left with no other choice but to fight against the usual forces that tend to diminish, manipulate, and erode our profession:  Greedy agencies who want to hire anybody, regardless of skill, knowledge or qualification, if this move will translate into a greater profit; Ignorant clients who cannot see the difference between speaking a foreign language, and actually interpreting to and from it; Self-serving bureaucrats who care about nothing other than their petty jobs and the opinion of their superiors within their sad organization; and mediocre “wanna-be” interpreters who constantly try to lower standards and expectations in order to fit in the ocean of cynicism and falsehood where they swim portraying themselves as professional and apt individuals, disregarding the nefarious consequences that their devastating services will undoubtedly cause those for whom they “interpret”.

Interpreting is the oldest bilingual profession on earth, but its modern version is relatively new all over the world. Because of historical and empirical reasons, some fields of interpretation have developed faster than others, and for the same reasons they are better regulated, known, and respected by both individuals in the field of communication, and the population at large.  In some parts of the world interpreting services have been part of the legal process for centuries, and due to current tendencies, globalization and commercial relations among all nations, their services are among the better-known and more strictly regulated interpreting services.

In the United States, Europe, and many Latin American countries, oral adversarial legal proceedings and intense trade have produced the certified, licensed, qualified interpreter who has passed through some knowledge and skill assessment process, and complied with legal, ethical, and professional requirements. Many of them have the benefit of a formal professional education as interpreters, attorneys, or other law-related fields which allow them to learn and understand highly sophisticated concepts and the complexity of the legal process.  Because of the subject matter they have to work with, the magnitude of the consequences of those acts and proceedings they participate in as interpreters, and the legally established and sanctioned certification process to be able to work, these individuals are considered by the legislation not only professional service providers, but professionals of a specialized discipline: These interpreters practice legal interpreting.

It is important to keep in mind that not all legislation and systems are at the same developmental level, and even the most evolved ones are far from satisfactory; they do not cover all scenarios or proceedings yet, but they constitute a series of steps in the right direction, and reflect the efforts of hundreds of interpreters, legal experts, administrators, activists, and others who have fought very hard to get to the place where we find ourselves now.

In the United States, interpreting services in a legal proceeding are constitutionally required in all criminal cases, and thanks to the Civil Rights Act, they are mandated in all other proceedings where the federal government is financially involved. There are currently several states that have also incorporated this essential service into their own legislation.

The nature of the services rendered by the interpreter in a legal context are professional as they are linked to the practice of the law by attorneys, judges and other officers of the court. Attorneys cannot practice law without a license, patent, or certification that allows them to present themselves as lawyers, and provide legal services such as advice and representation to their clients.  Judges have to meet many requirements to be able to do their jobs as well.  There is no doubt that it is for this reason that legal interpreters are required to be certified. Just as the attorneys, in the United States an interpreter can be certified at the state or at the federal level.

Attorneys, judges, and their interpreters deal with matters that can impact the life, freedom, pocket, or reputation of an individual. This makes them a very special group: They are subject to rules and canons no other professionals have to observe. It is so important, that nobody can practice law without first been admitted to the bar, (http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/cpr/model-def/model_def_statutes.authcheckdam.pdf) and those who violate the law are subject to penalties that can go from a fine to the loss of freedom. It is a crime to practice law without a license (http://apps.americanbar.org/publicserv/immigration/notario/california.pdf). In the United States, with some exceptions that we are working to eliminate, court interpreters must have a certification or license to be able to provide their services in court when interpreting to or from a language that is part of that state’s certification program. Dear colleagues, this is extremely important, because it is an essential step in our road to full professionalization and recognition of the profession.

Court interpreter certification programs and legislation have a long, long way to go, but so far we have been moving in the right direction.

As an attorney, when I used to practice law, there were few things that bothered me more than to find out that a non-lawyer was practicing without a license and hurting people.  These individuals exist. They are out there, preying on the most vulnerable communities, among them, those who cannot speak the language of the country where they live. There have been many cases of “notarios” busted for practicing immigration law without a law license.  I applaud the efforts of the attorney bars and government agencies who are constantly looking for these predators.

I have not practiced law for a long time, and during all these years I have felt the same way every time I see someone who is not certified to interpret in a legal setting. Unfortunately, the response from professional associations and government authorities has not always been the same as in the case of “wanna-be attorneys”, but there has been progress.

That is why it really bothers me that some are trying to undermine this quest towards professionalization by diminishing the importance of the practice of legal interpreting and by proposing solutions that do not match the legal system philosophy nor satisfy the needs of the parties involved in a legal dispute.   Individuals moved by greed, ambition, or perhaps mere lack of knowledge of the practice of the law have suggested, and are trying to implement, the notion that “not all legal interpreting requires of a certified court interpreter”.  They have erroneously concluded that Article 1 courts do not need of the services of a certified court interpreter, and that many legal acts that involve attorneys and legal advice should be left to community interpreters who will have a different set of skills and a lack of knowledge of substantive and adjective law, including the rules of evidence.  In other words: instead of joining in our struggle to achieve excellency in all fields of legal interpreting by preparing, training, and certifying as many court interpreters as necessary, they have decided to set back our fight for professionalization by arguing that less-prepared interpreters will meet the requirements to practice in legal settings that are outside Article 3 courthouses.  They are playing a very dangerous game. Let me explain:

Currently in the United States only court proceedings before an Article 3 court are required to use the services of a certified court interpreter (if certification into that language is available) Article 3 courts are those that are part of the judicial branch or a government (federal or state). Unfortunately, as of today, Article 1 court proceedings do not require the services of a certified court interpreter (if certification into that language is available) at the federal level and in many states. Article 1 courts are those that are created not by the federal or state constitution, but by congress or a state legislature and are part of the executive branch of government (usually with a degree of independence). They are commonly known as “Administrative Courts”.  Some examples would include, at the federal level, Social Security Hearings and Immigration Courts (EOIR) and at the state level, the most common administrative courts are Worker’s Compensation Courts.  Articles 1 and 3 refer to the articles of the U.S. constitution.

Those in favor of de-professionalization of court interpreting by lowering the requirements needed to work in a legal setting argue that certification only exists for “court interpreting” and not for “legal interpreting” and that administrative courts are less formal than Article 3 courts. For this reason, certified court interpreters should not be necessary.  They also argue that many of the services provided by an attorney are more “community interpreter-related”, making community interpreters better equipped to assist the attorney’s client, as they are more apt to provide feedback to the attorney about cultural nuances than a court interpreter who is very rigid and strict due to the formal court setting training they receive. This is scary and far from the truth.

The first argument that administrative hearings are less formal than a hearing before an Article 3 judge are nonsense. It is true that the proceedings are more relaxed and not as rigorous in an administrative courtroom, but the rules of proceeding and evidence still apply. Attorneys and judges still argue the law, and legal theories are presented with pro and con arguments by the litigants.  Because of the complexity of all of this, and because of the importance of what is being decided, all those lawyers appearing before an administrative judge have to be admitted to practice law in the jurisdiction where they are providing their services.  A law student who does not pass the state bar is as barred from practicing law in an administrative court as he or she is in any court of the judicial branch of the government.  Administrative judges are also attorneys and receive special training to be judges.  Both, attorneys and judges are professionals; we are professionals too. Only certified court interpreters should be allowed to practice in administrative hearings. The complexity and sophistication of the issues before the court require of a professional specifically trained in the legal field to interpret. Nothing less in acceptable. How can somebody interpret something he or she does not understand?

The second most common argument is that current legislation does not require of a certified court interpreter for those legal services that happen outside the courthouse.  It is true that the current law is not clear in this regard, but that does not eliminate the need for a competent specialist who is familiar with the law and procedure.  The law clearly states that all services performed by an attorney that involve legal advice or practice must be provided by an individual authorized to practice law in the given jurisdiction.  Why is the law requiring a licensed attorney to discuss the case with a client, prepare a witness, or conduct a deposition? Because of the highly sophisticated concepts and terminology that will be used during the meeting. Only a certified court interpreter who knows and understands these topics can successfully and safely assist the attorney during these activities. Performing any of the above or similar acts by an individual not admitted to practice law in the jurisdiction is considered unauthorized practice of the law, and that is a crime. For the same reasons, a certified court interpreter should be used at all times.  To the argument that certified court interpreters are not prepared to be cultural brokers or advisors to the attorney in these settings because their training has been too formal and strict, all I can say is that, without putting anybody down, it is very likely that the certified court interpreter will do a better job at bridging this gap between the attorney and his client (not the interpreter’s) because they are usually more experienced and better interpreters than most community interpreters. Moreover, they will also detect cultural hurdles in the legal context that a community interpreter will not be able to notice because of his or her lack of legal knowledge and experience.  To affirm that certified court interpreters will not know how to act and assist the attorney they are working for is plain ignorance. Certified court interpreters know the difference between working as interpreters for the courts where they have to be impartial, and working for an attorney or law office where they are part of the defense, prosecutorial, or plaintiff’s team.  Add to that the fact that they will know the reach and exceptions to the client-attorney privilege in these settings, and the community interpreter will not, or at least will not understand well enough, even if they were just enounced during his training.

There are other paralegal situations and scenarios where a community interpreter can be used without jeopardizing a legal case.  Communications about logistics, social worker appointments, payment plans with the law office, and many others. The golden rule is that when the attorney’s professional service involves a court appearance (any court) an act with potential evidentiary effects (such as a police interview, a law office interview or preparation of a witness) or any occasion where the attorney will provide legal advice or practice law (such as a legal opinion in person or over the phone, or filling up a legal form) the attorney should always be assisted by a certified court interpreter (qualified or licensed depending on applicable legislation) The potential consequences and legal liability of ignoring this rule are enormous as they could impact the life, freedom, assets, or reputation of an individual or a company. When people retain an attorney they expect to see an attorney, they also expect to find a certified court interpreter by his or her side. When you are going to have an operation you want to see a surgeon, not a butcher.

Finally, the argument that the certification is only for “court” interpreting and not for “legal” interpreting, very popular among those who want to de-professionalize court interpreting, can easily be dealt with by remembering that our profession is a work in progress. There is much that we have accomplished in the legal interpreting arena, but there is more to be achieved, among other things, the expansion of certification programs to include testing of civil and administrative procedure. But even without these changes, certified court interpreters are constantly learning and training in all these fields through the continuing education requirements that are in place at the state level, and because of the professional market needs.  Attorneys do not graduate from law school knowing all fields of practice, they graduate knowing where to find what they need so they can learn and understand it applying the legal thinking process they learned in school. It is the same thing with certified court interpreters. As far as the words “court” and “legal” it is probably a better choice to refer to these professionals as certified legal interpreters, but that is just semantics.

Dear friends and colleagues, there is a long way to go, but much has been accomplished in the legal interpreting field. Our efforts should focus on elevating the quality of the profession, not diminishing it. There will always be those who oppose our professionalization, but let them be from outside the profession, not from within. We have to work together to increase the number of interpreters with academic background until it becomes the rule and not the exception; we should continue to encourage other professionals like lawyers, physicians, scientists, and others to join our profession when apt and qualified; we need to strengthen the quality of the certification programs, ideally taking them away from the government just like the attorneys’ bars; and we must demand more and better continuing education programs.

This is the only way to professionalization, full recognition and respect that will ultimately translate into a higher quality service for those in the justice system, and will produce a better income for our colleagues. I ask you to oppose the lowering of the standards and the de-professionalization of court interpreting by sharing this information with your colleagues, attorneys, attorney bars, judges, community activists, and anyone else who may help us defend our profession. I also think that professional associations such as the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) in the United States should prepare a position paper in this very important issue. Professional associations are there to protect their members and the profession. I now ask you to share your comments and opinions regarding this crucial issue that threatens our profession at this time.

The secrets of the business world are now available to all interpreters.

February 6, 2015 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

Most interpreters are (or were) freelancers in the past. Even many of my colleagues who work as staff interpreters for the government or the private sector do some freelancing on the side: After hours and weekend assignments come to mind.

Although most of us do freelance work, it is also common to run into a colleague who is terrified about the business aspect of the profession. There are so many times when I have listened to my interpreter friends describe themselves as “good interpreters, but bad businesspeople”. I know colleagues who have turned down an assignment because the negotiations with the client were too intense or because the paperwork was so demanding. I understand. I have been lucky and I enjoy the business aspect of the profession, but I recognize that sometimes even the most experienced professionals face scenarios where some specialized knowledge comes in handy. Fortunately, I am going to share some good news with all my interpreter friends and colleagues: Help has arrived!

Today I want to talk about Marta Stelmaszak’s new book: “The Business Guide for Translators”. Despite the title, this is a book that speaks directly to all interpreters, as it covers all of our problems, addresses all of our concerns, and lives up to our expectations.

As most of you know, Marta is a professional interpreter and translator, accomplished author, teacher, scholar, and an entrepreneur. She has been a superstar of the profession for quite some time, a popular blogger, and her online “Business School for Translators” is one of the most popular educational tools for interpreters and translators. I should also disclose that Marta is a friend, that I admire her immensely, and that I got the book as a present.

“The Business Guide for Translators” is a 158-page book that reads easily, it is well-written and throughout the book you get the feeling that Marta is having a conversation with you. It is remarkable how so many complex concepts are explained in plain language so that lay interpreters can relate to the issue, and to the proposed strategy to avoid or solve a problem.

Marta divided the book in four chapters: On the first one: Economics, she deals with the basic concepts that all businessperson should know and understand. After reading the chapter, even the most business-challenged individual will be able to grasp the essentials of capital, supply, demand, investment, inflation and competition. The second chapter is entitled: Strategy. Here, the author explains the ideas of core competence, competitive advantage, value curve and chain, as well as customer segmentation; next, she shows the reader how these principles act in the language industry world, and she presents some well-known strategies while at the same time she encourages the readers to take action in their own lives. The third chapter is called: Business Management. In this part of the book, Marta assumes that the reader has become acquainted with all the basic concepts and strategies, and she is ready to take the language professional by the hand from the beginning. The chapter addresses everything from market research and a business plan, to the delivery of a service that represents an outstanding value, and the growth of the business. The last chapter: Business Practice, is a practically-oriented chapter full of advice, suggestions, and examples on how to contact the new client, how to negotiate the terms of the professional relationship, and how to provide the service, including the follow-up phase.

This book applies to what we do. As an interpreter herself, Marta writes from the start that the book is addressed to all language professionals. You can order the book from http://www.wantwords.co.uk/school/business-checklist-book-translators/ I read the book in one day and I recommend it. I also invite you to order it, read it, and keep it handy for future reference. Marta has given to all interpreters and translators a “Rosetta Stone” for language-related business. I now invite all of you to share your interpreting business-related experiences and how you solved them, and I especially would like to hear from those of you who already read the book.

The ten worst things an interpreter can do to another interpreter. Part 1

June 25, 2013 § 20 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The “ten worst” series is back again. This time I will talk about those actions, omissions, and attitudes of other interpreters that not only annoy us, which they do, but that also affect our professional performance and the image we project to the client and the professional community.  Obviously, and very sadly, a “ten worst” list is not enough to include all the things we see and hear out there when we are in the booth, the courtroom, the hospital, the battlefield, or anywhere else that interpreters are doing their job.  As always, I am writing this with a therapeutic perspective, trying to add some possible solutions to these problems while at the same time creating empathy and inviting a good healthy laugh when relating to these horror stories. Because of the length of this posting, I have decided to publish it in two parts. This is part one. Part two will be posted next week.

Here we go:

  1. Well, that’s what I charged because that is all they wanted to pay and I didn’t want to lose the client. Nothing really bothers me more than an interpreter that doesn’t know how to charge for his or her services.  This is a business where we provide a professional service and those in the field who don’t understand it and don’t want to understand it are not only working towards a life of misery for themselves and their loved ones; they are hurting us all.  The only reason why some of your clients are always trying to get you to work for less than you deserve is because of this group of interpreters who are willing to do anything for practically nothing. This practice influences your local market because there is a cheap alternative competing against you who is ready to take your client away even if they will make very little money. Let me be really clear, I am not saying that we should constantly overprice what we do, although there is nothing wrong with charging any amount a client is willing to pay: it is a contractual relationship, the meeting of the minds. A quick solution would be to sell your services better than those individuals who charge below the market so the client sees the added value you bring to the job.  Long term solution: Educate your market. Make sure all potential clients know the difference between a good interpreter and a person who will charge little and deliver even less. These paraprofessionals will always exist; in most instances just ignore them. They are not in your league. I don’t know about you all, but I am in the business of working little and making a lot of money. I am not interested in working for peanuts every single day. I can think of many other things I can do with my time.
  2. To snatch the microphone away from you or not to let go of the microphone.  It is very annoying and very distracting to work with somebody who is just watching the clock and the moment the big hand gets to half past or to the top of the hour they grab the microphone or turn off your output on the console. Some of them even stick their wrist between your eyes so you can see that it is time for them to interpret totally disregarding the rendition. They just cannot wait until the natural pause happens and the switch can be seamless.  And then you have those in love with their voice and their rendition who never let go. They simply turn their head away or avoid your stare and continue talking.  Of course I know that I will get paid regardless of who did most of the work, but I am also aware of the fatigue factor and I do not want the audience to suffer through a diminished rendition just because of the ego of my colleague in the booth. In these two scenarios a quick, but many times useless, solution would be to wait for the next break and talk it over with your partner, or in the event that you already know that this will happen because you have worked together in the past, politely and professionally set the “rules of the game” even before you start interpreting.  The long term solution to these very disturbing working conditions would be to refuse to work with that colleague in the future and to explain to the client your reasons for the refusal.
  3. To leave the booth as soon as you take the microphone.  To me it is very difficult to understand how some colleagues perceive team interpreting when they leave the booth or exit the courtroom as soon as they are not actively interpreting.  I understand restroom brakes and important phone calls and e-mails; we are a team and I gladly stay alone when my partner needs to take care of one of these situations.  Is it because they do not know that the supporting interpreter is as important as the one actively interpreting? I have a hard time buying this justification when they have been around for some time and have experienced first-hand the benefits of having a second interpreter sitting next to them.  To me it is very simple: They erroneously understand team interpreting as “tag-team interpreting” which is what wrestlers do when they work in teams. I believe the short-term and long-term solutions I suggested for number 2 apply to this scenario as well. I have a word of caution for my new colleagues and friends who just started in this profession and may feel intimidated or uncomfortable when it is the veteran interpreter who abandons the station:  Treat them as equals. You are doing the assignment because somebody thought you were good at this. Even the “big ones” have to do their job as part of the team.
  4. To cancel at the last minute.  This is another one of those practices that hurt you as a professional who has been scheduled to work with this individual, and also hurts the image of the profession.  Of course I am not talking about an emergency when a colleague has to cancel due to a health issue, a family crisis, or an accident.  I am not referring either to the interpreters who cancel because after accepting the assignments they realized that it was way over their head, unless they cancel the day before instead of two months ahead of time. I am talking about those who were offered another job on the eve of your event, and those who are simply irresponsible and unreliable.   This is a very serious problem that can be worse when you are also the organizer of the event or the interpreter coordinator.  A quick solution could be to talk to the interpreter and see why he or she is quitting at the last minute. Sometimes the reasons can be addressed and corrected (a hotel they dislike, a flight at an inconvenient time, etc.) occasionally a good pep talk can fix it (a last-minute panic attack because of the importance of the event or the fame of the speaker at the conference) and sometimes the cancelling interpreter may agree to start the event while you get a replacement.  A long term solution in this case is a no-brainer: Never work with this person again. Black-list this individual, and if necessary and if the contract allows it: sue him.   It is not wrong to cancel an assignment because you got a better offer to do another job. What is wrong is to cancel at the very last minute.
  5. To refuse to help the new interpreters.  Our job is a personal service. I am hired to interpret because the client wants me to do it; not just anybody to do it. They want me.  I understand and value the fact that getting to the top takes a lot of work, many years of dedication, a devotion to what you do. I applaud those who got to the summit and use it as a marketing tool.  I also love to work with them. It is a pleasure.  Unfortunately, some of these great interpreters do not like to share their knowledge and experience with the new generation.  I have seen, and heard, of instances where the masters of the profession ignore and mistreat the newcomers. They keep the secrets of their trade close to their chest as if afraid that once known, they could be turned against them.  This very real situation creates a nightmare for those scheduling the interpreters for an event and could result on the loss of a client.  As a short-term solution you can talk to the veterans and explain that you need them for the quality of the rendition, and for the same reason, you need them to teach the new interpreters how to work like a superstar, and you need them to help the often nervous newcomers to feel at home in the booth or the courtroom so they can also learn and perform.  Because most veterans are wise and love the profession, the same strategy, at a larger scale, can be part of the long-term solution, together with a campaign to educate and empower the new interpreters so they feel that they also belong in the booth.

These are my first five. Next week I will post the other five. In the meantime, I invite you to share your stories, anecdotes and opinions regarding this part of our professional practice.

An interpreter ethics class that is useful and fun?

October 23, 2012 § 3 Comments

 Dear colleagues:

This Friday I will be presenting during the ATA Annual Conference in San Diego. This is nothing new of course. Many of you have attended my presentations in the past; however, this time I will be covering ethics for interpreters.

That’s right, I will be delivering a presentation on that arid subject that most of us need in order to (at least) keep our licenses, certifications, or registrations current.  The title of the presentation is: “The Client-Attorney Privilege and the Interpreter’s Duty to Maintain Confidentiality.”  As you can see, it is a legal interpretation topic that up until now has been little explored by our colleagues, by the Judiciary and by the Bar.  When I decided to tackle the “ethics presentation” one-ton gorilla in the room, I set some goals: First, the presentation had to be useful. I had to find a topic that interests interpreters, but more importantly, I had to look for something that would help them with their career; something that they could use time and again for the rest of their professional lives. Then, I decided to find a way to do it fun. Of course, we will not have stand-up comedy (Darn. I guess I thought of it too late to incorporate it) but we will have fun by making this session an interactive exchange where we all explore concrete situations that we face in our profession, and try to find a solution that is legal, ethical, and good for our practice (meaning: our business!)  How many of us know when we are legally bound to do or abstain from doing something because of the person we are working for? How do we know when we are covered by the client-attorney privilege and when we are not? How do we stand up to a Judge when we are ordered to do something we are legally barred from doing? These are some of the everyday scenarios legal interpreters face all the time at courthouses, law offices, jails, board meetings, hospitals, and many other settings.  The goal is that by the end of the session we will all understand the client-attorney privilege, when it affects the work of an interpreter, how it influences what we do, and what are the differences between this privilege and our ethical duty to uphold confidentiality.  I believe that the practical cases I have selected will teach us how to correct some behaviors, how to detect a potential problem, and how to look for a solution.   While we do this, I will also try to dissipate some myths about so-called privileges like the medical, religious, and others. My opinion is that this session represents a great way to get those ethics credits that you may still need, and at the same time you will learn something that will benefit your interpretation practice and business.  The session will be presented in English. I invite you to join me this Friday, October 26 in the sapphire H room at 2:00 PM, and then, after the session is over, I invite you to join me and our good friend Freek Lankhof at the InTrans Book Service stand (6 & 7 of the Exhibition Hall) from 3:30-4:00 PM for a book signing of my new court interpreter manual: “The New Professional Court Interpreter.”  I am sure you will like the book.

Please join me for a fun and useful interpreter ethics session in San Diego!

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