The original interpreters. First encounters between Europe and The Americas.
October 19, 2017 § Leave a comment
A few days ago the world commemorated, and debated, a most controversial date. Depending on culture and history, it is known as “Columbus Day”, “Native-American Day”, “Hispanic Heritage Day”, “Day of The Race”, “National Day (of Spain)”, “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”, and maybe other names I do not know. Because it is a widely observed date, and not getting into the political, cultural, and historical debates, I thought it was an appropriate occasion to talk about the first encounters between the European and American civilizations from the perspective of the interpreters’ work.
There were many contacts between explorers, conquistadors, and missionaries from Europe and rulers, warriors, ad common people from the Americas; this meant there were many interpreters struggling to facilitate the communication between peoples who did not know their counterparts’ language. The interpreters often spoke one language and learned the other “on the job”.
There are not enough accounts of what many of these interpreters went through to facilitate communication, but there is enough information about some for us to get an idea of what happened during the first half of the Sixteenth Century in what is now Mexico. This post deals with two individuals who played a vital role in the conquest of the Aztec Empire by the Spanish Crown, and it includes historical facts, my interpretation of what happened from the interpreter’s viewpoint, and my conclusions on the services provided.
Their backgrounds could not be more different, but these two humans would meet and collaborate in an awesome task that would forever change the world as it was known. I am referring to Jerónimo de Aguilar and Malinalli, also known as Malintzin or “La Malinche”.
Jerónimo de Aguilar.
Jerónimo de Aguilar was a Franciscan friar from Écija, Spain who most likely traveled to The Americas to convert the native population to Catholicism. As all Spaniards, he first arrived in Cuba where he was assigned to a mission in the colony of Santa María La Antigua del Darién (now Panama) where he served for a few years, until some internal strife among the Spaniards forced him to sail to Santo Domingo (now Dominican Republic). His expedition shipwrecked near the Yucatán Peninsula where apparently they hit a sand bar. He survived, but the strong currents took him and the rest of his crew to the beaches of what is today the Mexican State of Quintana Roo. The Spaniards were captured by the locals who sacrificed them to the Maya gods, but Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spanish conquistador, escaped alive just to be taken prisoners and enslaved by the Mayan chief Xamanzana (his name according to Spanish records).
Aguilar and Guerrero learned Chontal, the language of their Mayan captors. Because of their loyalty, the Mayan ruler offered them freedom if they married a Mayan bride. Jerónimo de Aguilar, a friar, refused to break his vows and lived as a slave for eight years. Gonzalo Guerrero married Zazil Há, daughter of Nachan Can, Lord of Chactemal, fathered three children, and became a general in Nachan Can’s army. By applying his military experience, and his knowledge of the Spanish culture and language, he was instrumental on the defeat of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in Champotón in 1517. Although Hernández de Córdoba died from his wounds shortly after his return to his military base in Cuba, this expedition is well documented because among its surviving crewmembers were Christopher Columbus’ pilot: Antón de Alaminos, and famed historian Bernal Díaz del Castillo.
When Hernán Cortés invaded México in 1519 he heard of some Chontal-speaking white bearded men living among the Maya in the Yucatán region. Thinking they might be Spaniards, and envisioning their help as interpreters and translators, Cortés dispatched letters to both, Aguilar and Guerrero, inviting them to join him in his quest. Aguilar accepted the offer and join the expedition. He visited Guerrero, by now an influential general, to convince him to join Cortés. Gonzalo Guerrero explained to Aguilar he had a happy life with a wife and children. He said that because of his current physical appearance (he had tattooed his body and face, and pierced his ears) he could not face the Spanish army, so he declined, asking Aguilar to reassure Cortés of his Catholic faith and loyalty to the Spanish monarch. Maybe he also feared punishment once Cortés learned of his involvement in the defeat of Hernández de Córdoba’s expedition two years earlier.
Once Jerónimo de Aguilar joined Cortés’ army and the general was convinced of his loyalty to Church and Crown, he became Hernán Cortés’ personal interpreter Chontal<>Spanish. This was very useful during the campaign in Mayan lands.
Malinalli was probably born around 1500 in Oluta (near present Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Mexico) to a wealthy family. Her father was Lord of Copainalá, Oluta and Xaltipa. Some say that he was married to a young and beautiful noble woman named Cimatl. Her place of birth was a border region between the Maya city-states and the Aztec Empire. She got the name Malinalli to honor the Mayan goddess of herbs and vegetation. As she grew up and showed her personality, friends and relatives called her Tenepal (She who speaks lively).
Malinalli’s father died when she was a child, so her mother remarried and had a baby boy. This relegated Malinalli to the role of stepdaughter and put her under the care of her grandmother. During this time her mind is stimulated and motivated to learn. Her grandmother taught her the oral history and traditions of their people and forced her to develop her memory by playing a game every night: Before bedtime, her grandmother would tell her a story that young Malinalli had to visualize and memorize, because the next evening she had to tell the story back to her grandmother before she shared a new story with her. Soon Malinalli’s excellent memory became famous among her peers in the village.
As Malinalli entered her teens, her stepfather sold her as a slave to some Aztec slave traffickers from Xicalango in the Yucatán Peninsula. After hew masters lost a war against the Maya, she was claimed as a slave by the Mayan Lord of Tabasco: Tabscoob. To this point in her life, young Malinalli spoke only her native Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire. Now she quickly learned Chontal, the Mayan language of her masters and became fluent.
When Cortés arrived in Tabasco, already accompanied by Jerónimo de Aguilar as his personal interpreter, he defeated Tabscoob in the Centla battle. Among the spoils of war, he received gold, blankets, and 20 slave women as a present. Among them Malinalli.
Cortés baptized the women so they could be given to his soldiers. Legally, for a good Catholic to be allowed to have concubines, the women had to be baptized and single. He baptized Malinalli as Marina, and gifted her to his loyal captain Alonso Hernández Portocarrero.
By now, Cortés is advancing towards the Great Tenochtitlan (present Mexico City), site of the Aztec Empire, and he realizes that Jerónimo de Aguilar’s knowledge of Chontal is useless among peoples who speak Náhuatl. It is now that he discovers that Marina speaks both: Náhuatl and Chontal, so he uses her interpreting services combined with those of Aguilar, because Marina did not speak Spanish.
Soon after, Cortés sends Portocarrero back to Spain as an emissary to King Charles V, but he keeps Marina, or “Malinche” as many call her by then, as his Náhuatl interpreter.
Marina and Jerónimo.
It is clear from all accounts that Marina and Aguilar turned into an indispensable asset to Cortés. At the beginning, they practiced relay interpreting on the consecutive mode with Cortés addressing Náhuatl-speaking lords and commoners in Spanish, the source language, Jerónimo de Aguilar consecutively interpreting from Spanish into Chontal, the relay language, followed by Marina’s consecutive rendition from Chontal into Náhuatl, the target language. The answers would have been interpreted back to Cortés through the same process.
There are records showing the use of relay interpreting as described above. I chose consecutive interpreting as their mode of choice for several reasons: It was the customary mode of interpretation in Europe, and explorers and conquerors had been using consecutive interpreters during their campaigns throughout history. Neither Marina nor Aguilar were trained interpreters, they were empiric interpreters, and it is doubtful that they even considered a simultaneous rendition; there is no evidence as to the level of fluency that Aguilar had in Chontal, and they both had to explain concepts and develop vocabulary for things and ideas that were unknown to the counterpart. We must remember that European concepts such as Christianity, and things like horses, harquebuses, and body armors were new to the Native-American population; and the Spaniards had never seen tomatoes, turkeys, tobacco, or chocolate. These linguistic and cultural difficulties are usually resolved with consecutive interpreting. We cannot lose sight of the fact that, even today, interrogations, or question and answer sessions are rendered in consecutive mode. Finally, we have information about Marina’s excellent memory, a skill she had developed in childhood because of her grandmother. In her case, consecutive interpreting would have seemed the natural thing to do.
Marina and Aguilar were able to learn foreign languages. Aguilar had learned Chontal, in an environment where nobody else spoke Spanish, by observing his Mayan masters in the Yucatan Peninsula. Young Malinalli mastered the Chontal language while held as a slave. By the time they were part of Cortes’ expedition they had both discovered their interest in foreign languages, and they had realized that interpreting was their ticket to working with the top ranking Spanish officers, including Cortés himself. As they got deeper into Aztec territory, and Chontal speaking became less of a necessity, Aguilar must have learned Náhuatl, and as historical records show, Marina became fluent in Spanish. I believe that at some point relay interpreting was unnecessary anymore. From that moment on Aguilar and Marina must have rendered interpreting services separately.
Besides language interpreting, these two individuals acted as cultural brokers and advisors to the Spaniards. Because of their lack of knowledge, Cortés and his troops needed plenty of explanations about the natives’ culture, social structure, government, and religion. This was an essential part of their plan. Cortés had only some four hundred Spanish soldiers, fifteen horses and seven cannons; for the campaign to succeed, he needed the military support of some of the native nations enslaved by the Aztecs. This meant plenty of convincing first, and learning how to live side-by-side during the war against the Aztec Empire. This is how Cortés was joined by the Totonac nation in Cempoala, after he convinced them to turn against their Aztec oppressors, and how he negotiated a peace agreement with the Tlaxcalans after he defeated their leader Xicoténcatl. Both negotiations showed a great deal of diplomacy and awareness of the political situation and tribal hatred these state-nations had for the Aztecs. The role of Marina and Aguilar as interpreters and cultural advisors was the key to success. At this point we see how they were working as diplomatic interpreters, dealing with very sensitive matters at the highest level, and most likely under extreme pressure and total secrecy. These interpreting skills had to be developed by practicing their craft. In Aguilar’s case by putting into practice his knowledge of history acquired through formal education as a friar, and in Marina’s case, by mere intelligence, social skills, and perhaps some memories of her early childhood as the daughter of a nobleman. They also took advantage of what they learned by observing their masters during their years of slavery.
These interpreters’ versatility was crucial for Cortés’ victory over the Aztecs. Aguilar and Marina were interpreters in conflict zones working under unique conditions: Aguilar raised suspicion among the native troops and lords who joined Cortés in his war against the Aztecs, and Marina was perceived as a foreigner by the Spanish soldiers. There is evidence that at least Marina acted as a military interpreter once. While the Spaniards were in the city of Cholula, Marina learned from a local woman that the locals, who outnumbered the Spaniards, were planning a surprise attack against the Spanish troops. Marina took this intelligence straight to Cortés who confronted the Choluteca lords and priests, arrested them, and helped by three thousand Tlaxcalans, killed about six thousand Cholultecas as a warning to all natives who may consider betraying the Spanish forces. Thanks to Marina’s actions, the surviving Cholultecas joined Cortés’ army, and the Spaniards turned a sure defeat into a decisive moment in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Here Marina’s actions are military interpreting textbook.
The highest point of Marina’s interpreting career (and of Jerónimo de Aguilar’s, even though he is not specifically mentioned or depicted on surviving records) were the encounters between Hernán Cortés and the ninth Aztec Emperor: Montezuma II Xocoyotzin. These face to face meetings involved complex concepts and terms about the fundamentals of Christianity, Emperor Charles V’s divine right to govern all peoples, and questioning about gold and treasures. There were also welcoming speeches of peace by Montezuma, and presentation of gifts, including an Aztec calendar, in the understanding the presents were in exchange for Cortés’ withdrawal from Tenochtitlan. Many written and painted accounts of the event depict Marina beside Cortes and right in front of Montezuma. A common positioning for modern diplomatic interpreters, but something that must have made her very uncomfortable and proud at the same time.
Aztec Emperors were deities. Most Aztecs would live and die without ever seeing their emperor. Marina was the daughter of another Nahua nation that had been vassal to the Aztec Empire. She had been enslaved by the Mayans, and she was now a slave woman acting as the interpreter for the most important encounter in Aztec history. She must have known of this, and must have realized that because of her condition of Native-American, she was despised and hated by all Aztecs. The same circumstances must have made this woman “who speaks lively” very proud. I could not imagine these meetings between Cortés and Montezuma without Cortés demanding that Jerónimo de Aguilar be present nearby if Marina needed his assistance, or if the Aztec Emperor refused to speak through a slave of Cortés. It is also possible that despite the loyalty Marina had exhibited since day one, Cortés feared a double-crossing once she was in the presence of such intimidating figure as Montezuma. He needed Aguilar nearby just in case.
Although not documented, it is possible that, after Cortés’ return from defeating Cuba’s envoy Pánfilo de Narváez, either Marina or Aguilar were present during the last exchanges between Cortés and Montezuma once the latter had been taken prisoner by the Spaniards and was asked (or ordered) to speak to his people from the balcony of his palace. The Aztecs revolted against the Spaniards, when absent Cortés, his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado had ordered what is now known as the “Great Temple Massacre”. Forty-year old Montezuma was killed that evening.
Following the death of the Aztec Emperor, Cortés and his army were driven out of Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs in the biggest defeat of the Spanish army during “La Noche Triste” (The Night of Sorrows). During their retreat to Popotla, Marina and Aguilar were to the back of the column. Almost immediately, Cortés inquired about the whereabouts of his interpreters, and gave orders to make sure that neither Aguilar nor Marina were lost during the escape.
Cortés eventually regrouped in Tlaxcala and launched the decisive campaign that would put an end to the Aztec Empire. During this period, his interpreters were crucial in developing battle plans and recruitment of more allies. After the fall of Tenochtitlan, the role of Marina and Aguilar changes as they become the main interpreters in the collection of tribute and taxes. Cortés built a palace in Coyoacán, near Tenochtitlan, where he lived with Marina for about a year and fathered a son: Martín Cortés.
Because of her service during the conquest of Mexico, and perhaps because of his legitimate Spanish wife Catalina Xuárez, Cortés freed Marina from her slavery by marrying her to one of his captains, who eventually became Mayor of Mexico City: Juan Jaramillo. This way, Cortés fulfilled the promise he made to Marina at the beginning of the expedition. Cortés made her a free woman, married to a good family, and he granted her the lands of Huilotlán and Tetiquipac, once property of her noble biological family.
The following year Cortés would require of her services (and perhaps Aguilar’s as well) one more time for a trip to Las Hibueras (present Honduras) to suffocate a revolt organized by his former lieutenant Cristóbal de Olid. Accounts of this trip indicate that on his way to Honduras, Cortés stopped in Coatzacoalcos (presently in the Mexican State of Veracruz) where Cortés called a meeting with all the local Lords to tell them, through Marina, that they had to be loyal to the Spanish Crown. Among those present were Marina’s mother and half-brother, now baptized as Marta and Lázaro. Apparently, they were very afraid of her; after all, her mother had sold her as a slave and Marina was now Cortés’ closest collaborator. Apparently, Marina called them aside, consoled them, forgave them, and gave them plenty of gold and clothing. Marina was pregnant by her husband Juan Jaramillo. During this trip, Cortés executed Cuauhtémoc in what is now Campeche, Mexico, extinguishing this way the royal hereditary line to the Aztec Empire.
We know little about Jerónimo de Aguilar after the fall of Tenochtitlan. He probably worked as an interpreter in the collection of taxes for some time. He remained in what was now known as Mexico City until his death in 1531. His house later became the home of the first printing press to operate in the Americas. As far as we know, he observed his celibacy until his death.
After the Honduras campaign, Marina and Cortés never saw each other again. Marina and her husband lived in Mexico City where she gave birth to a baby daughter who they named María. Unfortunately, she was denied access to Martín, her son with Cortés, who was raised by Juan Altamirano, a cousin of Cortés’. We have no official records of her death, but we know it was before 1529. It is speculated that she probably died of smallpox, or perhaps from health problems derived from the trip to Honduras.
Both, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Marina with many other Native and Spanish interpreters that followed, contributed enormously to developing a new Spanish language full of words, concepts and cultural values until then unknown. They played a crucial role in the fusion of these two cultures, races, and (many) languages, and by mere instinct, without knowing it, they were the precursors of consecutive, relay, military, diplomatic, and escort interpreting as well as cultural brokerage.
The fall of the Aztec Empire would have taken longer, and the outcome of the conquest would have been different without the interpreting services of Aguilar and Marina. Rodríguez de Ocaña, a conquistador that served during the conquest relates Cortés’ assertion that “…after God, Marina was the main reason for (his) success…” In the “True Story of the Conquest of New Spain,” the widely acclaimed eye-witness account of the conquest, Bernal Díaz del Castillo repeatedly calls her a “great lady” always using the honorific title: “Doña.”
I invite you to share your thoughts about these historical figures so important to the interpreting world, and relevant during this time of the year. I also ask you to remember that this is a post about interpreting, so please abstain from making any politically charged comments.
What assignments should interpreters take?
October 12, 2017 § 1 Comment
Sometimes, after turning down a job offer from an individual who had contacted me by email or phone, I wonder if my life would be easier if I turned into a “yes man” and accepted many offers that come my way. It would save me the time I spend explaining why I cannot work under the circumstances proposed, or avoiding all those baseless arguments and laughable excuses from ignorant prospective clients and greedy multinational agencies. No doubt it would be good for my health. I would have more clients, interpret every day, and turn into the darling of all agencies and professional associations. I would probably be “Tony the Yes Man”, “the one who does not make any waves.” “Mr. Takes it in the chin”.
Unfortunately, I immediately remember that I am a professional; that acquiring my set of skills and knowledge has been difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. At this point I always decide not to be the “lovable loser”.
I understand there are many interpreters; government agencies are looking for ways to save money, and private corporations want to be profitable. This only means it is harder to get an assignment; that we must put a bigger effort into finding good clients and well-paid assignments. Professional interpreting is not a hobby; it is a business, and in that world worthwhile things are not free. We must behave like businesspeople; we cannot make everybody happy by accepting any assignment that comes across our table, and we cannot make the agency recruiter’s life easier by giving in to unspeakable working conditions.
We must never forget who we are and what we do. We must protect our profession even when facing a human tragedy. I saw how some of my colleagues, well-intentioned, gave in to the indiscriminate use of bilinguals instead of interpreters during the Mexican earthquakes and Caribbean hurricanes. Some considered that demanding interpreters was inappropriate because of the urgent need for interpreting services. I think they wasted an opportunity to showcase the interpreters’ work to many people who had never heard of interpreting in their lives. I applaud those colleagues who held their ground and defended the use of professional interpreter services.
Recently, I turned down a job offer to interpret for some Spanish speakers, members of another country’s armed forces, because the assignment did not pay for the days off between sessions when interpreting was not required, and because I got no assurance that during the flying lessons there would be a flight instructor on board with direct access to the aircraft instruments if a mistake by the student occurs. The agency recruiter could not understand why I was not willing to risk my life for an assignment that cared so little for the interpreter they had not even bother to check and see if there would be a licensed pilot on board.
I also declined an offer from a small agency to interpret simultaneously non-stop for three hours by myself. The agency rep thought I was a prima donna, and even offered me more money to take the job. I did not. Another agency’s “project manager” got mad because after she booked me (and a colleague) for a conference, two weeks went by and we got no materials from her. When asked on the status of the assignment, she replied that the event organizer had selected a different agency, and for that reason she had not contacted the interpreters. She even said that it was the interpreters’ duty to call the agency to see if an event had been cancelled or not!
When you add these incidents to the many times when the agency coordinator argues with you because you want too much money and the agency is offering an “…amount that many would love to make at work…” ; when they reply with sarcastic emails insinuating that you must be out of your mind to ask for the money you quoted for your services; or those occasions when after they explain the assignment for hours, you finally get to say a word, and let them know your fee and they reply with a simple: “oh, thank you” and hang up.
I am sure that I just described another day at the office for many of you, so the question is: What assignments should I take?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to such a complex question. Part of the answer must do with experience, language combination, the type of interpreting you do, and the part of the world where you live. I will let you figure out that part of the question by yourself or jointly with colleagues in similar circumstances as yours.
The part I can answer, because it has universal application is straight forward: Develop a portfolio of direct clients and take very good care of them. It is difficult to find these clients but they exist. I know because I am fortunate enough to work with many. The important thing is to know where to look for them and how to spot them from a mile away.
The best clients come from referrals from other satisfied clients, colleagues, and technicians. A good story starts like this: “I am contacting you because I was referred to you by…” or “…I want to retain your services because I attended an event you interpreted in the past…”
These people looked for you because of your skills and the quality of your service. They value what you do and want YOU to interpret.
A bad story generally begins with: “…I got your name from the ATA (or any other association) directory and I was wondering if you are still a translator…”
Screen these individuals for only sixty seconds and politely end the conversation if they do not look promising. These prospective clients do not understand who you are. To them, you are just another name on a directory under the language they need and from the location they want. They do not know what you do, and they value your profession so little they even wonder if you are still “translating” because, since you are bilingual, this must be a thing you were doing “in between jobs”. I know some people think that you can get some good clients this way, but it depends on what you consider a good client. So far, I have never found one top client this way.
The other thing to consider, because of its universal application, is the place where you are in the world. Unlike translation, good interpreting assignments do not happen in small towns or mid-size cities. They are in the big cities and not in all of them. If you live in a rural area or a small city, and you want to take the best assignments, you must consider moving to a bigger city. You may need to decide between a certain lifestyle, including few professional competitors and life in the big city where you will be swimming with the sharks. Do your research, and when you do it, make sure there is a market for your language combination in the big market you are targeting. Nothing is worse than moving to another place to find out that your languages are not in demand.
Finally, think of what you want to do. People find certain things very important, even if there is not a lot of money in that field. Do not fool yourself, you will never make a lot of money working as a community interpreter or practicing in a small city, but maybe that is not a crucial factor to you. Some colleagues find working in the community assisting people with little or no money more rewarding than a high-profile wealthy client in the big city. Some interpreters prefer less money and not so famous clients over constant traveling and spending most of the time away from home.
In conclusion, we should all seek clients that will appreciate our work, who select us for who we are as individuals, offer us professional working conditions (treat us with respect, provide materials, understands the need for team interpreting and good technology in a comfortable booth, etc.) and pay professional fees. We should protect the profession and reject prospective clients looking for anybody on a list, disrespect us, want to pay us as laborers, and do not offer the appropriate working conditions mentioned above. The rest are personal judgments we all need to make depending on the lifestyle we want to have and the service we want to provide. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments on this topic.
A client will pay for quality if you know what to do.
August 15, 2017 § 7 Comments
A few months ago I was contacted by a prospective client who I knew nothing about. He was an attorney and was requesting my services for a settlement conference. He explained that his client had been involved in some “out of the ordinary” financial situation and did not speak English.
I was supposed to interpret everything that was said at the conference so he could discuss the proposals with his client afterwards. The conference was to be held during an entire morning in short sessions of about ten to fifteen minutes each, with sometimes as much as an hour between. I was told that the non-English speaker would be present, listening to all parties involved in the potential settlement, but other than a few brief private conversations with his attorney to assess the negotiation, he would not speak at the conference.
After listening to the attorney, and based on my professional experience, I informed him he was requesting a simultaneous interpretation service during the exchanges with the other parties. I explained that the conversations between him and his client would be interpreted consecutively as they would involve a question or two every time they needed to talk. I also asked him to estimate the length of these exchanges.
Once again, he assured me that the settlement conference would be held in approximately ten minute segments, there would probably be three or four, and that after each session, the attorneys for the other party would leave the room and discuss the offer in private for about thirty minutes or even more. I clarified that simultaneous interpreting is a job for an interpreter team of at least two professionals when it lasts over thirty minutes. I also clarified that consecutive interpreting during the question and answer conferences with his client must be brief and kept to a minimum unless he would retain a second interpreter.
He looked extremely surprised. In his words, he had been “using interpreters for this type of work for years” and “…nobody ever mentioned the need for two interpreters…” at that point during the conversation I informed him of my fees and payment policy with new clients. He was not expecting that professional fee.
Sometimes life has a way to teach us all a lesson and this was this attorney’s lucky day. I have no doubts that under normal circumstances he would have turned me down and look for another interpreter, but this was a unique situation. The other parties had flown in from out of town for the settlement conference and his “regular” interpreter (who never brought up team interpreting and obviously charged a lot less for her services) was out of town. The case was complex and he had to concentrate in the settlement; he had no time to shop around for an interpreter.
Later that week we had the settlement conference. I arrived early (before the attorney who hired me) and noticed that an individual was nervously pacing up and down the hall of this gigantic penthouse law office. I approached him and learned this was the person I would interpret for.
I explained who I was and how we would proceed during the settlement conference and during the brief private encounters he would have with his attorney. I then showed him my simultaneous interpreting portable equipment I use for these services, explained how to operate it, and tested it for volume and comfort. It was then that the attorney arrived.
Before we started the conference, all attorneys present were very surprised that I had brought equipment for the simultaneous rendition. They all agreed this was the first time they saw anything like this. The non-English speaker individual remarked that he loved the equipment because he could hear everything without being distracted by the English speakers. At the end, my attorney client loved the equipment. He remarked on how unobtrusive it was and how it allowed for a better flow during the exchange as the attorneys did not lose concentration by the constant interpretation in the background. We also used the equipment for the attorney portion of the private client-attorney conversations, leaving the consecutive mode just for the client’s remarks.
After the assignment was over, the attorney congratulated me for my professional services, he wondered why nobody else had ever used interpretation equipment for these conferences before, and he told me it was now clear why I had been so “picky” at the beginning. “…I see why you are more expensive. You provide another level of service. I think that I will call you from now on…” I thanked him for his words, gave him his fee receipt for the check he gave me right after the service (as previously agreed) and told him that I would love to work with him again provided that I had any availability.
As I was leaving the law firm, I thought about how many of my colleagues let opportunities like this one go to waste because they do not take the time to explain their services to the client, and because they do not try to do something that will set them aside from the rest. In my case, a little innovation for this law firm, and a determination to seize the moment once that the attorney had no choice but to hire me, landed me a new direct client that knows my fees, working requirements, and payment policy, and can hardly wait to hire me again.
Please share with the rest of us any similar stories you may have where your tenacity and business mentality helped you prove that you are a professional and got you a new good client.
Consecutive interpreting: A job for two.
July 17, 2017 § 6 Comments
If you are a regular visitor to this blog you already know how I feel about team interpreting: Just like simultaneous interpreting, a consecutive rendition is a team effort that should not be attempted alone. (For more on this subject, please read my blog entry entitled: “If it is team interpreting, why are so many flying solo?”)
I have written extensively on this subject, and I have made it crystal clear that I never accept a consecutive assignment unless I am, working as part of a team. I also know of the fact that many colleagues believe that, unlike simultaneous, consecutive interpreting can be successfully accomplished solo; and that other interpreters believe that, although team interpreting improves the quality of an interpretation, a big chunk of the market will never buy into this need, and they willingly accept consecutive interpreting assignments without a second interpreter.
“Team interpreting is the utilization of two or more interpreters who support each other to meet the needs of a particular communication situation. Depending on both the needs of the participants and agreement between the interpreters, responsibilities of the individual team members can be rotated and feedback may be exchanged…” (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Standard Practice Paper [(SPP])
You all know what it is like to finish a consecutive rendition without a partner; you have felt the extreme fatigue and the high levels of stress derived from knowing you are performing an incredibly complex task that requires of a huge amount of knowledge, almost instantaneous reactions, and of grave consequences if error occurs, with nobody watching your back.
Originally, team interpreting was conceived as a solution to mental fatigue, but as team interpreting became more popular, and eventually the rule (at least in simultaneous interpretation everywhere) it was noticed that having a support interpreter was not a mere tag-team maneuver to get some rest while your partner was actively interpreting, but it turned into a joint effort that improved the quality of the service by having someone (the support interpreter) assisting the active interpreter with complex information, figures and names; and also acting as a sounding board to corroborate an utterance, research a term, or simply correct a mistake due to fatigue, context, or cultural meaning. The “surprising” result: The rendition was better because the interpreters were neither fatigued nor stressed out, so they could concentrate better on the task of interpreting.
“The goal of team interpreting soon began to shift from reducing interpreter fatigue to also ensuring the accuracy of the target language message and correcting any misinterpretations. While there was still concern about fatigue and interpreters continued to take turns at 20-to 30-minute intervals to ensure they were not hampered by fatigue, teams came to realize that they should both share the responsibility for the accuracy of the interpreted message. This lead to a change in the perceived function of an interpreting team. In addition to relieving each every 20 to 30 minutes, the “feed” interpreter was expected to monitor the “on” interpreter’s interpretation and feed missed information or make corrections as needed.” (Hoza, J. 2010. Team Interpreting: As collaboration and Interdependence. Alexandria, VA. RID Press. ISBN: 978-0-916883-52-2)
Mental fatigue is caused by intense brain activity in highly complex activities such as interpreting. Both, simultaneous and consecutive interpreting require of multitasking. Reasoning, evaluating, executing, and decision making in a matter of instants makes of interpreting a profession subject to deep mental exhaustion that becomes more intense due to the levels of stress while performing the task. Both: mental fatigue and high stress as an aggravated circumstance, happen during consecutive interpreting and they cannot be swept under the rug, or eliminated, by giving the interpreter a bathroom break. Interpreters working solo during a consecutive rendition for over thirty minutes will not be performing as expected just because a “magnanimous” client takes a 15 minute break. Mental fatigue does not work that way.
Fatigue is defined as “A physiological state of reduced mental or physical performance capability resulting from… workload”. (International Civil Aviation Organization [ICAO] Operation of Aircraft. International Standards and Recommended Practices. February 25, 2013). When present, it “places great risk on (the client) because it significantly increases the chance of… (interpreter) error…” (Caldwell, John: Mallis, Melissa [January 2009]. “Fatigue Countermeasures in Aviation”. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. 80: 29-59. doi: 10.3357/asem.2435.2009)
Mental fatigue, like the one caused by consecutive interpreting, causes cognitive impairment and it is important to understand the neural mechanisms of mental fatigue related to cognitive performance. A study to quantify the effect of mental fatigue on neural activity and cognitive performance by evaluating the relationship between the change of brain activity and cognitive impairment induced by mental fatigue using magnetoencephalography, demonstrated that performing the mental fatigue-inducing task causes over-activation of the visual cortex, manifested as the decreased alpha-frequency band power in this brain region, and the over-activation was associated with the cognitive impairment. (Tanaka M, Ishii A, Watanabe Y  Effects of Mental Fatigue on Brain Activity and Cognitive Performance: A Magnetoencephalography Study. Anat Physiol S4:002. doi: 10.4172/2161-0940.S4-002)
The task of consecutive interpreting does not differ from simultaneous interpreting when it comes to mental fatigue. Working solo will bring undue stress levels to the interpreter which will cause more mental fatigue, lack of concentration, and physical fatigue: all contributors to a substandard rendition after 30 minutes. As the interpreter is forced to work longer, the rendition will continue to deteriorate and produce errors and misinterpretations. This diminished mental and physical skills cannot be cured by allowing the interpreter to take a 15 minute break three to five times during a multi-hour consecutive rendition.
I set team interpreting for both, simultaneous and consecutive interpreting as a non-negotiable clause. Clients who have seen the palpable difference between solo and team consecutive interpreting have no problem with this requirement; those unaware of these dire consequences carefully listen to my explanations and promptly agree to an assignment covered by a team of (at least) two interpreters. A few who refuse to listen to my reasons, and those who choose not to believe the arguments, must do without my services.
I understand the hesitation of many colleagues to fight for consecutive team interpreting; I understand less those who fear the agencies’ reaction and opt to remain silent and go solo, but I also know that if all quality interpreters demand a team, the client will have no choice. Perhaps they will first hire the services of a second-tier individual, but they will see the difference and eventually they will be back, ready to hear your arguments and comply with your conditions. I hope that my sincere efforts to convince you to reject solo consecutive assignments affect how we view ourselves. We are the ones behind the wheel. The client is the passenger, and the agency is the guy at the service station with nothing to do with the way you drive. I welcome your comments.
What is the meaning of the term “Founding Fathers”?
July 4, 2017 § 2 Comments
This Fourth of July the United States celebrates its 241st birthday. The founding of our country motivated me to write about a term that is frequently used but seldom understood: “The Founding Fathers”.
Many interpreters, U.S. and foreign born, including some who use the term at work, have told me that they believe they know who we are referring to when we speak of the “Founding Fathers”, but they ignore the meaning of such a phrase. They really do not understand what it truly means. The fact is they are not alone. Let me explain:
Since the foundation of the United States, there has been a great deal of respect for those who made it possible to have a new nation free of tyranny and monarchy, where people would be recognized as equal and govern themselves according to their own collective will. These remarkable individuals made a priceless contribution to the nation and were originally referred to as the “fathers” of the country.
These American heroes included those who participated in the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence, those who signed the Articles of Confederation of 1781, and the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.
Another equally recognized and honored group of American heroes are known as the “framers”. They include all delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the authors of The Federalist Papers. Of the 55 framers, only 39 were also signers of the Constitution.
The “Fathers” are called “Founding Fathers” for the first time by President Warren G. Harding in 1916. The phrase was catchy and stayed.
After 1916 the term “Founding Fathers” has been applied to all those who contributed to the birth of the nation. The original “Fathers”, the “Framers”, and many others who fought for independence on the battle field or at Independence Hall are now referred to as America’s “Founding Fathers”; and the list of “Founding Fathers” is constantly expanding to include all individuals, regardless of race, gender, or national origin, who contributed to the success of the Revolutionary War.
Presently, many authors set some of the “Founding Fathers” aside from the rest and are sometimes called the “Key Founding Fathers”. It is usually these individuals that historians, speech writers, journalists, and lay people have in mind when they speak of the “Founding Fathers”. Columbia University professor, and renowned historian, Richard Morris, identified the following American heroes as the “Key Founding Fathers”: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.
Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Washington were Presidents of the United States. Adams, Jefferson and Franklin were part of the 5-member Committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay authored The Federalist Papers. Jay, Adams, and Franklin negotiated the Treaty of Paris that ended the War of Independence; and George Washington was the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and presided over the Constitutional Convention. Washington, just like Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, did not sign the Declaration of Independence.
Now you know who the “Founding Fathers” are and what the term really means. Just like everything else in the United States of America, it is a group of men and women, some of them foreign born, with diverse ethnicity, who contributed their life’s work, and occasionally their own life, to create the country we honor today. We welcome your comments. Happy Fourth of July!
Interpreters advocating for equal access to healthcare and justice? I say: No.
June 26, 2017 § 11 Comments
Lately, I have been traveling extensively both, domestically and abroad. This has exposed me to many problems and challenges our profession faces all over: An interpreters’ union as the answer to our problems; individuals in decision-making positions constantly advancing the interests of those who seek to eliminate interpreting and translating as professions and turn them into assembly lines at the service of a bizarre “industry”; government agencies charging for interpreting services in settings where it may be legal but it is an unfortunate decision; agencies unilaterally changing contractual terms and interpreters who “celebrate it”; hospitals bragging about their use of non-certified healthcare interpreters…
I will address them all in due time. I will also launch a weekly comment on my You Tube Channel: ”The Professional Interpreter’s Opinion”. First. I would like to bring to your attention a situation I have encountered everywhere, particularly in the United States, that makes me feel uncomfortable.
Everywhere I go: professional conferences, interpreting assignments, interpreters’ social gatherings; and in everything I read: blog posts, newsletters, professional publications, internet forums and groups, and professional emails, a significant group of colleagues are actively advocating for equal access to healthcare services, state-sponsored assistance programs, and administration of justice, to all individuals who do not speak the local official or customary language. With the United States: English.
I have nothing against equal treatment for all people. I think it is needed and deserved. It actually makes me happy to encounter programs or systems designed and executed in a way inclusive of every individual, regardless of the language they speak or sign. The thing is: I do not believe that we as interpreters or our professional associations as entities, should be advocating these changes or the delivery of the services. It is for government authorities and individuals involved in social activism to push for, and implement the policy and legislation that will protect us all and guarantee that equality.
Our role as interpreters should be to make sure those interpreting services that will guarantee equal access to all members of society are delivered correctly, by real professionals who meet all education, certification and licensing requirements, observing the highest professional and ethical standards. This must be our priority, to educate others about the profession, and to denounce those who take shortcuts either by allowing unprepared people to deliver the service, or by ignoring policy and legislation to save a buck.
Some of you may ask: Is this not the same as advocating for equal access for all? The answer is not. Let me explain.
When the Obama administration decided to finally observe Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as it applies to those members of society who do not speak English and request a public service funded by federal money, individual states were told to provide, free of charge, language interpreters in all civil court cases where a non-English speaker requested access to a government program or service funded with money from the federal government. Until then, many state governments were furnishing court interpreters for criminal cases free of charge. Litigants in civil matters had to retain their own interpreters and pay them as all professionals get paid in society: according to the terms of a professional services contract between client and interpreter. Since these fees charged for these services were regulated by the free market, when compared to interpreters’ pay for criminal matters where the state would pay directly to the interpreter based on a preset fee schedule, interpreters would receive a better fee for services provided in state civil court. In a free market this meant that interpreting services were better in civil court. Better interpreters could compete for better pay while other interpreters had to settle for the state-set fee universally paid to all interpreters with no distinction based on their experience or quality of service.
Implementing Title VI ended the system described above as from that moment, state civil court interpreters would be provided at no cost to the litigant, and interpreters’ fees would be paid by the state at the same rate as criminal court cases’. This change killed the practice of many of the better certified court interpreters, in some states because they were banned from court unless working through the state, and in others, because once attorneys and litigants learned of the availability of free interpreters they seldom chose the most-expensive privately retained interpreter (even where they were better than those interpreters offered by the court).
To my dismay, many interpreters celebrated this change and even pushed for its implementation where it had not been adopted by the local courts. I was happy that interpreting services were provided to all, but I was confused on why those making a living as court interpreters would be happy about losing a good source of income.
It is very difficult to understand why so many interpreters actively defend the rights of those who do not speak the official language of a country, and constantly push for an increase on certified interpreters. I believe that our profession would be better served if we, the professional interpreters, were to spend our time, money and efforts promoting renditions of a better quality, the use more capable interpreters, higher professional fees to attract better people to the profession.
Instead of demanding that a civil court furnish an interpreter, or a hospital provide an interpreter to a patient, we should be demanding an end to despicable practices such as allowing those who failed a certification exam to practice the profession as “accredited” “qualified” or whatever. Instead of advocating for more interpreters in a school district, we should be demanding that agencies who unilaterally change the terms of a professional services contract be expelled from the interpreting agencies’ roster. Instead of worrying about how poorly doctors, nurses, attorneys, and judges treat non-English speakers, we should be worrying about state agencies refusing to pay travel expenses and Per Diem to interpreters who travel to provide a service.
I do not say that all those other things are not important. I am not saying those other things are fine. All I am saying is that it is not up to us to advocate for them. There are others whose job is to protect these individuals. Nobody else will protect interpreters but ourselves.
Some may say that part of a community interpreters’ duties include advocating for the client. My answer is that they are right. However, the advocating that community interpreters must do is none of the above. A medical interpreter must advocate for a patient when there is a defective communication due to a cultural barrier. A court interpreter must advocate for the client when the defendant, victim, or witness cannot be understood because of lack of cultural knowledge by the English-speaking parties. That is expected. Being an activist for the rights of the non-English speaking population is not one of the interpreters’ duties.
If interpreters want to participate in activism for these populations they should do it, but not as part of the profession. Involvement in equal- access campaigns as professional interpreters, or as a profession, should be limited to those cases where by promoting the addition of interpreter services to a certain program or service will benefit us as a profession because it will be generating more work opportunities for certified, true professionals who will be making professional fees, while , closing the door to paraprofessionals, those who have failed a certification exam, and all agencies who unilaterally change contractual conditions in detriment of the interests of the interpreter.
This, my friends, is how we should channel our energy when we want to advocate for a cause that touches on the profession . I now ask you to please provide your comments on this issue.
It is the mediocre who disrespect the interpreter.
May 22, 2017 § 12 Comments
A few weeks ago I read a comment by a colleague who had just finished a very important high-profile interpreting assignment. He stated that when the event ended the main speaker thanked the interpreters for their job in the booth. Rightly so, my colleague was very happy and appreciative of the kind gesture.
His comment brought back many personal experiences of instances when speakers and organizers recognized the interpreter team by either praising a job well done, or by thanking us for our dedication and professionalism. At this moment it hit me: With some exceptions, the most important, famous, admired speakers are always kind and appreciative. It is common to be recognized at the end of a hard session. Many commend us for our rendition, others ask for a round of applause for the interpreters. I have been to some events where we have been asked to come out of the booth to be seen and recognized by the audience. It is all about respect, but it is also about education and awareness of the importance of a good interpretation.
These movers and shakers know that without proper interpretation their words would lose their thunder in a foreign language. They know that communication is essential, and our work is key to reach everyone in every culture and language.
For this reason high-profile conference interpreters are always welcome at the auditorium, conference room, and international organization where their services will be needed. From the moment we arrive we are treated with deference and respect, not because of who we are, but because of what we do. Everybody is on board, they all know that we provide a relevant professional service.
Speakers and organizers know and understand the complexity of what we do, so it is just natural we get a breakroom to relax every now and then, that they expect us to work in teams of two and three; that we get paid for travel days, and that we get a compensation appropriate to the service we provide.
As I was thinking of these circumstances, my mind drifted to the way healthcare and court interpreters are treated most of the time. Despite being an essential component to the healthcare system, or a key element to an administration of justice equal for all, doctors, nurses, judges, attorneys and support staff often view interpreters as an inconvenience instead of an asset. They are perceived by many in these areas as outsiders instead of as part of the team. Many resent them and believe that we are overpaid, after all, all we do is talk.
Although some may be motivated by who knows what reason, I think that most of their attitude and policies come from ignorance. Unlike so many people we deal with in conference interpreting, many are not well traveled and lack a sense of international community. A medical diploma or law degree guarantee no worldly view of affairs. To put it simply, they just cannot understand why people do not speak their language, and they attribute their lack of native language skills to being intellectually inferior. They believe that everybody should learn their language and consider translation and interpreting services as a waste of resources and losing the national identity. It is for these reasons, and not necessarily because they dislike the interpreter, after all interpreters speak their language, that they consider our presence annoying and our service a threat to the status quo.
I do not like this, but I can understand why these individuals do not want to treat us with the dignity and respect we are treated at the conference level. The lack of respect and demeaning practices towards interpreters I cannot justify or understand, are those perpetrated by the people in the multinational language agencies who hire unqualified people, pay disgustingly low professional fees, and treat interpreters as laborers instead of professionals.
It is the way interpreters are treated by these entities that greatly contrasts with the dignified treatment we experience in a conference they were not involved. It is these transnational entities, who are on a crusade to destroy our profession and turn it into an “industry” that wants to get us to work the booth, courtroom and hospital like an assembly line.
They know of the complexity and professional nature of our work, they understand how exhausting our craft is, they know of the fact that we sell our time. Yet, they want to pay the lowest fees, who want to take up to three months before they pay us, the ones who do not want to a second interpreter, refuse to pay for travel days, and rarely share the assignment relevant materials. These are the people who demand you call when you get to the assignment and let them know when you leave.
These are the “experts” who distrust us so much they double-check with their client to make sure we really worked for as long as we told them, and treat us like little children by telling us what to wear, where to sit, what to eat, and who to talk to. They know you, they have worked with you in the past, and at the least they researched you before they contacted you for a job. It is not about you, it is about their perception of the profession. To them, in their mythical theory of the “interpreting industry” we are laborers on an assembly line. This serves them better. Once they dehumanize us by turning us into their “industry’s” pawns, they can disrespect us, insult us, and abuse us as interpreters. This or course, only if we let them.
I now ask you to share with the rest of us your thoughts about this important issue.
Are you productive when working under demeaning circumstances?
May 15, 2017 § 1 Comment
Occasionally we all must work with difficult clients. These individuals make an already complex and delicate job more difficult because of their ignorance, rudeness, greed, and sometimes due to their tendency to micromanage everything. If they only knew that all they are achieving is to diminish interpreters’ productivity by distracting them from their task, and creating an uncomfortable environment that interpreters want to leave when they can. I cannot believe that people do not realize that interpreters do a much better job when they feel respected and may flourish in a place where they like to be.
It is a job we are talking about, not a social club, but respect is a must in all human relations and it should never leave the building. It is more puzzling, infuriating, and insulting when this horrendous environment is created by our peers.
We all have received from some agency emails, letters, work orders, contracts, and other documents where they impose dozens of rules, describe dozens of procedures, and include dozens of warnings and threats. We dislike them. They wake up a negative feeling that instantly predisposes us against that client. This is only worse when an interpreter micromanages our assignments and delivers these litany of requirements, warnings, rules, and so on, every time they retain our services.
Recently I got to see one of these monuments to totalitarian control. An obsessive-compulsive communication of 736 words containing nothing about the assignment. They were all rules conceived by this strange mind. The email covered topics such as when to report to the assignment, times for arriving and leaving, even when there was no assignment left to interpret; it had some prohibitions such as telephonic interpreting from this entity’s office, even if the job you were hired to do had been completed and there was absolutely not a chance that your services would be used again. If this is not enough for you, the document repeated many issues already covered between the parties and therefore already enforceable, such as payments and reimbursement of expenses. The long email talked about running late, dress code, and get this: “standards of performance and professional responsibility”!
After reading this 2-page long “small print” to the email where the assignment information took only 2 lines, I was furious, offended, and saddened. It was clear because of the client this was, that the email is sent to every interpreter they assign to a job. For the same reasons, it was also crystal clear that most interpreters getting this email every time they worked with this client, would receive the same despicable communication over and over again.
It is insulting and inexcusable that a client who knows you professionally, and knows the level of commitment and excellence of the interpreters they are hiring, may address us this way. After reading the email I felt more like a laborer and less like a professional. It was disheartening and very telling of the opinion this client has of the interpreters they hire (sometimes) daily.
I brought this up on the day I worked for the client. I got an apology from an individual different from the one who decided on the contents of the insulting email, and I was told that in the future all communications addressed to me would not include such demeaning rules. I was not told that the practice of micromanaging other interpreters and treating them as laborers who need the foreman looking over their shoulder would stop.
I understand there may be some new interpreters, or even some colleagues whose language combination does not allow them to be full time interpreters because of the lack of work. I know of the fact that some may need a refresher on the rules and policies. The problem is that, even in that case, the communication should be worded in a way it shows respect for the dignity of the interpreter as a professional and as a person. It should not include the repetitious recitation of the terms of the contract already signed and agreed to by the interpreter, and it should not be included in every single email. Whether an interpreter is a rookie or a veteran, regardless of how often they work for this client, they are not stupid, one communication reminding them of these matters should be enough.
It saddens me so many colleagues are too afraid to express their feelings about these communications, which are delivered by many clients every day all over the world. It frustrates me so many are so used to this mistreatment by the client, that they do not recognize the insult anymore. I am also convinced that interpreters cannot do their best when they must work for a client who appreciates their work so little, and thinks of them so low. Now that you know how I feel about this despicable practice, I would like to hear what you think and feel about these micromanaging personalities who run some organizations and institutions we often work with.