Be professional at work, or don’t do it!

April 30, 2018 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a profession with so many complexities we often overlook a very important factor: Professionalism no matter what. Let me explain.

Interpreting takes us to wonderful places both physically and figuratively, but sometimes it can take us to the very dark corners of the universe. As interpreters we let people borrow our voice and knowledge of a foreign culture and language to convey a message. Sometimes the venue is not the place we would spend our vacation at; the borrower is not somebody we would invite to dinner, or the message is not something we would cherish. These are the times when we must be professionals.

Fortunately for all of us, there are two ways to be professional as an interpreter: The first one is to evaluate the assignment, do a self-examination of our impartiality, level of tolerance, and physical endurance, and either take the job or turn it down if the auto-evaluation tells us that is the best way to go. Interpreters are human and humans have different reactions to specific situations. Some colleagues may feel that a venue, speaker or subject matter will keep them from doing a good job; others may feel uncomfortable, but will render a top-quality service regardless of the place where they work, the people they interpret for, or the issues discussed in the speech. The important thing is to be honest with ourselves and make the right decision.

For example, I know colleagues who will not interpret in court for a pedophile, a murderer or a rapist; some of my peers will not enter the booth in a venue where they will advocate for or against something they believe in, like gun rights, globalization, pro-life actions, pro-choice groups, and so on. Finally, some people, like myself, will professionally interpret for all of the above, but would never interpret in a hospital with all that smell of Clorox and other disinfectants. The key is to reject those assignments we cannot do without feeling incompetent or unprofessional.

The real problem is when interpreters take the assignment and then perform unprofessionally. The world is a complicated place and we live in it. Sometimes external circumstances physically put us in a place where there are now more things we disagree with than before. It is under these circumstances that we must be honest and turn down what we cannot do at the top of our game, or make the determination to do an assignment we do not like as if we loved it. We will be uncomfortable, but we must perform just like the emergency room physician who saves the like of a mass murderer, or the lawyer who defends the most despicable war criminal. That is professionalism.

For this reason I am disturbed when I hear how some colleagues step out of their interpreter role and do things we are not supposed to do. I am talking about those in the booth who change the register of what the speaker said to either favor or harm the message because they disagree with what was said from the podium; I am also talking about the unfortunate cases when court interpreters in immigration and federal court tone down legal terminology or try to assist the defendant or respondent just because they sympathize with his situation or disagree with the government’s policy or legislation.

Those appearing in immigration court or before a federal judge under an immigration charge have allegedly violated the law of the land. This should never impact our court interpreter’s work. If they were arrested (in federal court) or detained (in immigration court) it was under a legal precept violation or a lawfully issued order. It is irrelevant that we like it or not. Refusing to interpret once you already took the assignment, giving information to the respondent, telling them not to go to court, warning them of the presence of immigration agents, and even refusing to use the legal term “alien”[INA Section 101(3) The term “alien” means any person not a citizen or national of the United States…] choosing the more accepted, but legally incorrect term “immigrant”, are unprofessional acts. We should not take these assignments if we believe we cannot act professionally. As officers of the court, we must act as expected by the law even if we feel uncomfortable doing it.

As a court interpreter I have interpreted for murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and drug lords; as a conference interpreter I have interpreted for conservative and liberal groups; as a media interpreter I have interpreted both: Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Obviously, I do not agree with everything I interpret and I do not like everybody I have interpreted for, but I have always been professional conveying the message as intended by the speaker and with total loyalty to legal terminology and procedure when working in court. I know my limitations, I understand the circumstances that would keep me from being professional all the time, and you will never see me interpreting in a hospital setting. I now invite you to share your thoughts about those events we should turn down when we question our professionalism.

When a professional and business interpreting decision is not popular.

July 15, 2015 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Being a freelancer has many benefits but it also puts us in situations where we have to exercise our judgement and make decisions that will not always be easy. During my many years as a professional interpreter sometimes I have faced choices that required of an exhaustive analytical process in order to decide if I take an assignment or not. To get to the point where I am comfortable with my decision, I usually look at the prospective job from a professional perspective, a business point of view, and a moral (therefore subjective) position.

I try to determine if I am professionally able to provide the service I am expected to deliver: Do I have the knowledge and skill necessary to do a good job? Do I have time to research and prepare in the event the subject matter is unique or different from what I normally do?

If the answer is yes, I assess the business pros and cons of taking the assignment: Will it hurt my business or will it enhance it?

Finally, I go through a self-reflection to determine if I will feel comfortable with the subject matter that needs my interpreting services.

I had to go through this process when a few days ago I decided to provide my interpreting services for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant in the United States.

I understand that many of my colleagues would have turned the assignment down because of the controversy associated with one of the owners of the pageant and the statements he recently made regarding Hispanics, in particular Mexicans, who come across the border without legal documents to do so. After a long and thorough reflection, I decided to go ahead and provide the service because I concluded that it was not contrary to the standards that I described above.

From the professional perspective I concluded that, despite the opinions expressed by Donald Trump about Mexicans and others who enter the United States illegally, this should not impact my ability to do a good job.  I know that many of my colleagues in the United States would have turned the assignment down, and some of you expressed your opinion against my taking on the assignment.  I respect the opinions of others, but I disagree with their posture because it goes against what we do as interpreters. When questioned by some of you, my answer was that most of those objecting to the assignment systematically provide interpreting services to individuals who are not exactly the pillars of our society. On a daily basis, court interpreters bridge the language barrier between the courts and the defendants charged with horrible crimes such as murder, rape, and child molestation.  They provide the service without hesitation because they know and understand that despite the crime, and the criminal, interpreting services are required to deliver justice in our system. The higher value of the job has very little to do with the charge or the perpetrator.  As for those colleagues who do not work in court, I cannot help but picture those assignments where the interpreter works in a conference or a business meeting where the subject matter has to do with issues that are distasteful, controversial, or opposed by a significant segment of the population, such as gun control, military operations, or unpopular business practices.  These interpreters go into the booth and do their best because they recognize that this is the essence of our profession, not because they endorse the philosophy of those they are interpreting for. We all know that these are not our ideas; that we do not have to like the message nor the messenger. We have a job to do, and we do it to the best of our ability.

As a freelancer, it is extremely important to make the right business decision when you agree to do an assignment. To assess the situation, we have to separate the pure business aspect of the situation from all other factors that could cloud our view.  I understand why so many business entities decided to distance themselves from the pageant. For them it was the right choice: they deal directly with the groups that were offended by Trump’s statements.  They are their consumers. The fact that Univision, NBC, and even Chef José Andrés broke up with the Trump emporium makes business sense. They could not risk losing so many consumers, or having people protesting outside their site of business. I agree with what they did.  On the other hand, as an interpreter, I do not deal with Spanish-speaking people as my direct clients. They are the recipients of a service that I provide at the request of my direct client: the agency, event organizer, law office, court system, or international organization.  For a decision to impact my business, it has to hurt my client. In this case, taking the job benefited my business. I acted professionally and did not abandon a client when I was needed the most. This will, no doubt, benefit me for a long time. My clients know that it takes a lot for me to go back on a contractual obligation to perform a service.  I guess that if part of my business depended on working directly with the Spanish speaking community or with organizations that decided to oppose Trump, I would have probably decided differently, but in my situation this was not the case.

Before I decided what to do, I considered the moral aspects of my decision. To do this, I carefully separated two things that should never be grouped as one: What Donald Trump, the politician running for president of the United States said, and what the pageant is and represents to many who had worked for months and years for the success of the event.  Although I disagree with Trump’s statements, and I believe that he should have never generalized his opinions, I also understand that, to a degree, they were taken out of context. It is false that all those who come to the United States are rapists and drug dealers, but it is also undeniable, as my court interpreter colleagues perfectly know, that a good number of those undocumented individuals commit crimes every day. Donald Trump’s remarks made me angry, but the reaction by the corrupt governments of Mexico and other Latin American countries also made me mad. They should be ashamed of themselves, because it is them who push their citizens across the border. They have no right to be offended. They are destroying their people. On the other hand, interpreting for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant does not mean interpreting for Donald Trump. Those of us who participated in the event interpreted for the presenters and contestants who had nothing to do with a statement by a politician who is only part-owner of the pageant and was quoted, at least partially, out of context. I could find no valid moral reason, for me, not to take the assignment and fulfill my contract.

I am only trying to point out that as interpreters, we provide our services to many people. Sometimes we are the “voice” of a revered and admired individual, on other occasions we give the sound of our voice to despicable vile characters.  Many times we interpret events that are in agreement with our way of thinking, many others we interpret topics that we dislike and even disagree with.

I am not saying that we should accept every single assignment that comes our way. All I am saying is that we should analyze the proposed event, and only reject it when professionally, from the business perspective, or morally (as a very personal thing) we conclude that it is the right thing to do.  I know that not all assignments are for all interpreters and I respect that. I know colleagues who will not interpret in court for child molesters; I have colleagues who will not interpret conferences that go against their political or religious beliefs (pro-choice, pro-life, gun control, free trade, etc.) There are gigs that I would surely turn down as well. I do not see myself interpreting for the Nation of Islam or for Nambla for example. However, I believe in assessing all aspects of an assignment before making a decision. We have to remember that this is part of our profession; that we are not the ones speaking and saying those awful things, and we cannot lose sight of the fact that this profession is also a business, and for that reason, we should decide like businesspeople.  I now invite you to share with the rest of us the elements that you consider before rejecting an assignment, and please, abstain from political comments and editorializing about Donald Trump. This post is not about what he said; we all agree that it was wrong. It is about what we have to do as professional businesspeople in the interpreting profession when faced with a controversial situation.

Should the good interpreter take any assignment offered to him or her?

February 11, 2013 § 24 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I recently worked an event for the Tea Party of Iowa. It was my first experience working with this organization, and I found it interesting, challenging, and important for my professional development and resume. Many of you congratulated me when I posted about this assignment on my Twitter and Facebook accounts, but a smaller number told me not to take the assignment, they told me that they would never accept work from this organization, and a few were truly angry.

From the time I started my career I have always worked understanding that we are professionals and as such we should provide our services as long as we feel capable of doing the job and the pay is what we asked for.  My answer to many of these colleagues was a second question. I asked them how they interpret in the courts for serial killers, rapists and child molesters.  When we work as interpreters we are messengers between two parties. We let them borrow our voice and skill, not our beliefs.

The other argument , and in my opinion a valid one, is that sometimes an interpreter cannot interpret a topic that he or she is uncomfortable with; thus some colleagues refuse to work in a court or a hospital setting.  I find both positions valid. In the real world I have chosen to interpret any subject to any audience as long as I feel prepared to do it and the pay is good.  For this reason I have interpreted death penalty trials, Pro-choice and Pro-life gatherings, NRA conventions, child molester trials, and political conventions.

I know many distinguished colleagues who systematically decline assignments that go against their political views or personal values and I respect that position.  My question to you is: When offered an out of the ordinary assignment, do you have my attitude to take the job as long as it is interesting, you are capable of doing it, and the pay is good, or you take the position of our colleagues who pick and choose based on content?

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