RSI will change the profession. Will it change the interpreter of the future?

May 19, 2020 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Remote Simultaneous Interpreting, and other forms of remote interpreting, will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis more popular and stronger.  It is a great option and no doubt it will get better. There will be good and bad platforms, and interpreters shall continue to work for direct clients while they will continue to struggle with agencies, and defend the profession from existing and newcomer entities’ insatiable appetite for profit at the expense of interpreters’ pay, and at the expense of quality.

In a few short years, there will be a new generation of conference interpreters who never knew the profession without remote work. It will be similar to what we see with the generation that never carried a suitcase full of dictionaries to the booth, or went to the “other booth” to make a phone call from the conference venue.

I have no doubt, however, that in-person interpreting will remain the rule for the meetings and events of higher importance. RSI will take its place at the table, but not at the head of the table, just as the newest invitee to the feast, very popular and sought after for lesser exchanges and negotiations.

But even when the water goes back to its usual levels, there will be many events, such as preliminary business or corporate negotiations, urgent and emergency executive discussions, staffer planning discussions, and routine company and government meetings that will choose virtual events in considerable numbers. Add that to the smaller businesses, local government agencies with scarce financial resources, and non-for-profit organizations’ activities that rarely or never held meetings, workshops or conferences because they could not afford them, and you are left with a big market sector in need of remote simultaneous interpreting.

Many of these events will not retain professional conference interpreters, they will try their luck with community interpreters, court interpreters and others, very good and capable in their field of practice, but inexperienced in conference interpreting. Others will hire top interpreters to do the job.

With time, many new conference interpreters could prefer working from a local hub, and perhaps (oh, God!) from their own homes. Conference interpreting will be more attractive, and turn into a viable option to many interpreters who never considered it in the past because they prefer the home turf over constant travel. Interpreters who like gardening, or want to be involved in community theater, or play softball with their church’s team will happily embrace conference interpreting. We may see colleagues afraid of flying, or some who never had a passport working as conference interpreters without ever spending a night at a hotel.

No doubt these new conditions will attract many good capable people to conference interpreting. The question is: Will these interpreters of the not-so-distant future be like the colleagues who populated the booth all over the world before the pandemic? It is a complex situation, and it is difficult to give a straight answer. All I can say is that I am not sure the job description I included above would be appealing.

I decided to be a conference interpreter because I love interpreting. I enjoy learning and studying about language and communication among humans. I have a passion for helping people understand each other by providing my services; I believe in using the tools of my craft to better the world. If those were the only things that interested me, I could have been a translator, or remain a court interpreter as I was before.

A big part of what made conference interpreting attractive was that it was a place where I could do the above while being myself: extroverted, outgoing, constantly surrounded by extroverted people. Conference interpreting won me over from practicing law because of the traveling around the world. As an attorney I could have continued to travel to many places, but only as a tourist on a vacation. It was different. Conference interpreting allowed me to meet people from all cultures who literally live all over the world. It is appealing because of the opportunity to meet in person people I admire from government, science, sports, the arts, and ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. This has been possible not because of who I am, but because of what I do.

My life differs from the lifestyle of a translator or a community interpreter, from the little things, like never having to buy a bottle of shampoo because hotel rooms always have them, and thinking of doing laundry as putting your clothes in a bag you take to the front desk, to creating the most fascinating and valuable friendships with people who live everywhere. I joined the ranks of those who practice in-person interpreting because thanks to my job, when I say my goodbyes to my friend in Australia, or Japan, or South Africa, or Costa Rica, and I say “I’ll see you soon” I know it will happen. I travel all over, and I always have somebody to see everywhere I go. Finally, and in my opinion, more important, interpreting has allowed me to develop the greatest bond between humans. This will be hard to understand to people who do not work as conference interpreters, but the friendships and relationships with your fellow interpreters are precious and very strong. I am not sure I would be a conference interpreter without the possibility to work and in reality, live with a group of most interesting individuals. People you get to know better than anybody else in your life. You are together for extended periods of time, under stressful situations, with the most diverse backdrops planet earth offers. You travel together, eat together, work together, and socialize, and learn from each other.

Once I was attending a translators/interpreters’ conference somewhere in the world, and during the gala dinner, I got to sit at one of those big round tables with another 10 people or so. Most were translators, many I had never met before. Suddenly, a dear interpreter friend came to my table. I was very happy to see a “friendly face” so we said hi. I greeted my friend and said: “I am so glad to see you. I think I had not seen you since we had lunch in Greece”. My colleague kindly replied: “No. I think we saw each other in Beijing after that”. The translator sitting next to me made a comment I will never forget: “What a peculiar profession and interesting lifestyle. In my job I only go from the bedroom to the computer, and to the movie theater once a week”. To put it as a colleague told me a few months ago during lunch in Buenos Aires: “I love it that we see each other all over the world, and we never have to spend a penny to do it”.

Remote interpreting will change the profile of conference interpreters as a group. People who did not consider the profession, will enter the field. They will be very talented and capable; however, I am not sure that people with a current conference interpreter profile will stay in the profession. Many probably will, but many others will go somewhere else, lured by a profession where they can help better the world, and enjoy the pleasure of human relations, world travel, first-hand culture acquisition, and a profession where isolation will never be a part of the job description. Virtual boothmates are like watching a sports event on TV; it will never be the same as on the field with your teammates. Conference interpreters will not be better or worse than today. They will be different. We will see.

Please share your thoughts with the rest of us, and remember that this post is not talking about the good or bad things of remote interpreting, the platforms, or even the agencies. Its focus is you: the human element of the profession. Thank you.

Interpreters who follow these principles protect their market and earn higher fees.

May 4, 2020 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Just like many people around the world, I am one of those individuals who watch a lot of movies, feel they are amateur movie critics, and always watch the Academy Awards Ceremony on television. Unlike most them, for professional reasons, I am usually on the road on Oscar night. This means sometimes I get to watch the ceremony when people are sleeping, and on the local TV broadcast of the country where I am working. Because the show is in English, TV stations in non-English speaking countries use simultaneous interpreting services (that is great for the locals, but a little uncomfortable to those of us who try to hear the original sound feed, partly covered by the interpreters’ voices).

Occasionally, when I watch the Oscars in a Spanish-speaking country, I do what we all do when we know the two languages used on the screen: I compare the source to the rendition. Most interpreters are very good, but as a spectator, you miss quite a bit of the ceremony’s flavor.

This year I watched the Oscars while working in a foreign country. I looked for the original English broadcast on cable or satellite TV, but my hotel only offered the simultaneously interpreted voiceover broadcast by a local network. I paid attention to both, the rendition and the original speeches in the background. No doubt the interpreters were experienced professionals, their interpretation was spot on, until it was not anymore. The interpreters remained silent during many of the political and current affairs’ remarks by hosts and award recipients. First, I thought it concerned censorship by the local authorities, but after a while it became evident that they were not interpreting those exchanges because they did not fully know what was being said. The Spanish-speaking audience did not get the full Oscar experience because some astute, sharp criticism and very good jokes were left out.

I immediately thought of the globalized interpreting market and how cheap agencies have taken away assignments from local, excellent interpreters in the United States and Western Europe, choosing experienced and way less expensive interpreters from developing economies.

I have discussed this issue with potential clients in developed nations and the comment is always the same: “…but these interpreters (from developing countries) are really good and they work for a fraction of the money you charge…” This is my cue to bring up to the client my competitive advantage.

I take this opportunity to explain the importance of having an interpreter with the right acculturation in the booth so communication may flow between speaker and audience. I make them see the value of making sure their message comes across by eliminating any informational voids and misunderstandings not attributable to a bad interpretation of what was said, but to a poor command of the speaker’s culture and its equivalences in the target language of that specific audience. You cannot communicate if you limit what a speaker may say or do. Analogies, jokes, pop culture, politics, and country-specific rules of etiquette are essential to a successful event. Sometimes I present the testimony of the technicians who work with interpreters all the time, and even without speaking the languages in the booth, they can tell if a joke or a cultural remark got lost in the interpretation.

This is something all interpreters in developed economies must emphasize. We have to drive home that a person who does not live in a country lacks many elements needed for an accurate rendition. No academic degree can replace this immersion.

A proactive strategy is essential to protect your market, more so at this time when many are promoting and using remote interpreting services. You need to drive this point home as it is your leverage. Unlike in-person interpreting when agencies, colleges, or corporations bring interpreters from developing countries to the West to save money in professional fees, and you have the law to protect you from foreigners working illegally as interpreters in a foreign country, and you should immediately go to the authorities without hesitation so violators are sanctioned and removed (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2019/02/06/alert-they-are-interpreting-illegally-outside-their-country/) this is your main line of defense in conference remote interpreting. Healthcare and legal interpreters have other defenses against telephonic, RSI, and VRI interpreting such as the certification or licensing requirement to interpret in such fields. State court interpreters in the United States can even use this argument against remote services by interpreters certified by another state. Interpreters in developing countries could argue the same when protecting their market from foreign interpreters.

The second principle interpreters need to enforce benefits us all, regardless of our country of residence.

Agencies are constantly looking for cheap interpreting services. To find them, they usually look south. Conference interpreters with similar skills and experience in Latin America will get paid about eighty percent less than their counterparts in the United States. Africa, many places in Asia, and certain countries in Eastern Europe are in a similar situation. If you stop and think about it, it is a bad situation for all interpreters; it is unfair to interpreters in developed economies, and it is insulting to our colleagues in the developing world. Let me explain.

When asked, agencies defend the microscopic amounts they pay in poorer countries with two arguments: Cost of living is lower, so interpreters in a country south of the equator do not have the same expenses as their colleagues in a rich country. The second argument is that their lifestyle is different, so an amount that looks low in the West, is actually pretty good, or at least good enough in an underdeveloped nation.

These arguments do not pass muster. That the electric bill is cheaper in a specific country has nothing to do with the professional service provided by the interpreter. Same work and same quality must get same pay.

Frankly, to say that a certain fee is “good enough” for somebody because of where they live is insulting. When clients or agencies offer a low fee to an interpreter in a developing country, what they are really telling them is “you are not sophisticated enough to appreciate a different standard of living, so this will make you happy.  A steak is too good for you, have a burger. Caviar is not for you, have a bowl of beans.”

Many colleagues in these countries agree to such discriminatory practices, and work for less than peanuts, because they are afraid there will be no work. This is a misunderstanding. If they do not take the assignment. Who will do it? Even if they are paid the same fee as an interpreter from the U.S. or Western Europe, it is way more expensive to fly another interpreter from abroad. Remember: same work must get same pay. It is your market, not the agencies’. Reclaim it!

Interpreters will not get paid the same in South America and the United States. These are two markets; two economies. Our goal should always be to get the highest fee a particular market can afford. If you get paid that way, you will be in good shape, even if the amount is considerably less than Western European fees. This goes both ways. If South American interpreters work a local event in their country, they will make less money than American interpreters working a local event back in their country. American interpreters working a local event in South America will get less that their usual fee back home. The reason: The client is in the poorer economy. That is what they can afford.

But if interpreters from an emerging economy work an event in the United States or Western Europe, in-person with the appropriate work visa, or remotely from their home country, they must get paid what American interpreters make for that work. To determine professional fees in a particular market, the interpreters’ country of residence is irrelevant. What matters is the country where the client is located. It is the client who will spend the money.

The task is difficult, and it will take time for you to accomplish it. Remember: to protect our market, we must use our competitive advantage by emphasizing the huge void in communication caused by interpreters who lack acculturation. To make sure we get paid what we deserve, we must quote our fees according to the client’s country of residence, not the interpreters’. I now invite you share your ideas as to how we can achieve these two goals.

How to survive COVID-19 and get ready for what is next.

April 7, 2020 § 8 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

During these weeks of confinement, we have been bombarded with phone calls and emails directed to us as professionals. Most of us are constantly getting emails asking us to reduce our professional fees (“rates” as they are referred to by agencies), to charge our interpreting services by the minute, to register for a webinar, to enroll in a program, to buy software, hardware, or a remote interpreting platform. We get emails and read articles basically telling us that in-person work is gone forever. We get communications from somebody assuring us that, despite these changes, the horrible economy that awaits us at the end of this crisis, they can save us! Add this to the pandemic news broadcasted on TV around the clock, couple it with your (some justified) concerns about your professional future and the uncertainty of the duration, and sooner or later you will be depressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, or scared.

Faced with this reality, I decided I better save my sanity and keep me apt to go back to a more competitive than-ever market awaiting right behind the light at the end of the tunnel. My first thought was: What should I do? and that is how I came up with the three-step strategy I would like to share with all of you.

First step: Eliminate your worries.

I realized that in this new, but temporary world, I needed to feel like I was in charge of my life. I know I am not enjoying full freedom of action because my life, and that of everyone else, depend on my complying with stay at home, social distancing, and other public health rules. I thought, however, that I may control certain things that can improve the quality of my life during these tough times.

I realized that to improve my quality of life in quarantine, I had to settle my financial issues as much as I could. It came to me right away: I had to get paid by all clients who owed me money for work performed before the coronavirus restrictions. Fortunately, there were few in my case. I contacted them all, asked them how they were doing in the middle of this crisis; I wished them well, assured them they could count on me for any interpreting needs now, explained that I was facing the exact same problems they had in front, and I asked them very nicely to please pay me what they owed. In my case, they all paid, but I was ready to negotiate payment terms if needed. I was prepared to accept payment for fifty percent of the amount owed now, and the rest in sixty days. I figured this was a better solution than a total loss, or a threat of litigation that would take even longer to run its course through the system and be very costly. I also have two more clients where the payment is not due yet.

Next, I contacted my clients who cancelled or postponed events to the end of this year or next year and after following the same good bedside manners strategy above, I asked for money. Where I had an Act of God, Force Majeure clause in the contract, I made the clients aware of the fact I knew I had a right to collect from them, and asked them to honor the agreement. I had two of these and they both promptly paid. One of them told me the check was already in the mail (and it was true) and the other thanked me for reminding them of the clause. The legal situation was different with the other seven postponements or cancellations I have had so far, my contract did not cover force majeure. Fortunately, and mainly because my clients are direct clients who value me, not agencies that see me as a commodity, I negotiated with them and got them to reimburse me 100 percent of the expenses I had made (minimal as I will explain later) and they were comfortable with my proposal of paying me fifty percent of my fee.  As I explained, this was the most decent and ethical way to care for each other because we would all absorb one half of the loss. Six of these clients have paid, and I need to test my strategy with the last one who just cancelled yesterday.

Continuing with my income recovery, my next target were airlines and hotels. Most of my work requires traveling, so cancellation of assignments meant cancelling flights and hotel reservations. If you are like me, I treat air travel in two ways: When the client is willing to pay a fully refundable fee for the seat I want, I purchase the ticket and get reimbursed by the client when I bill them after the assignment. When the client cannot, or will not agree to the above, because it is very important to travel business so I can work rested, I purchase the business class seat at the lower non-refundable fee and then get reimbursed by the client as I explained before. You need not worry about this if your client directly buys your ticket. For many reasons, mainly, because it allows me to be in charge of my professional and personal agenda, and if natural disasters occur (hurricanes, snow storms, tornadoes, etc.) and now pandemics, I generally fly on the same airline (or its partners when I have no choice). This makes the refund process much easier. I only needed one phone call to cancel all my flights. Fully-refundable and non-refundable tickets were treated the same during COVID-19. This means there is no cancellation fee or extra charge to change the tickets to a future date. In my case, tickets for those flights to countries where travel is currently banned were fully reimbursed, and tickets for other destinations were refunded by applying the full amount (no deductions) to future flights to the same destinations or to others of similar value, paying the difference for a more expensive destination, or getting a credit for less expensive ones. So far, the deadline to purchase, not to travel, on those tickets is December 31 of this year or earlier if the tickets were purchased before March 1, 2020. All this took me about 5 minutes because traveling on the same airline gives you certain privileges over the rest. This is a reason I constantly encourage my colleagues to travel on the same airline. Delta, United and even Amtrak have announced they will lower requirements to keep status next year. American Airlines should follow soon. Regarding hotel reservations is the same thing. Cancelling a reservation will have no cost to you as long as you do it ahead of time. Even rooms paid in full at the time of reservation are being refunded when cancelled due to COVID-19 if the cancellation is due to a travel ban or quarantine order.

Once I did this, I saw I needed to adjust my budget. I carefully looked at my expenses and saw where I could cut expenses without altering my lifestyle even more. The first thing was the big savings associated with eating at home every day. For years, I had all my meals at restaurants and bars. I can now cover a week of food expenses with the money I used to spend in about 2 days of eating out. Next, I got rid of some expensive cable TV channels I do not need now. I cannot have satellite dish TV because I live in a high rise that does not permit it, but I noticed there were very expensive channels I do not need. I kept my news channels plan and my foreign TV plan because I need the news to see what is going on outside, and I need to keep my window to the rest of the world by watching TV stations from Europe, Asia and Latin America. But I decided I could cancel the very expensive sports package. I can survive without some 40 channels that cannot show me anything new because there are no sports been played at this time anywhere in the world. I will subscribe to this package again once things go back to normal. The same goes for all the pay movie channels. Cancel HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, The Movie Channel, etc. Instead, pay for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu or a similar service. You will save tons of money.

A very important way to save money is to cancel any plans to attend a translation/interpreting conference this year. Many of the good ones have been canceled or postponed until next year already, and others will follow soon. Even if the pandemic is under control later during the year, and air travel and distancing rules are relaxed, events that inexplicably do not cancel this year will have poor attendance and fewer presentations. Even after all restrictions are lifted, people will be afraid to get on a plane or attend a workshop in a room with another 50 individuals. Conferences are a great investment in our continuing education, but understand they are expensive (some of them outrageously expensive). Do not spend your money going to a conference this year.

Do your research. Most governments are offering assistance to independent contractors. Credits, loans, direct payments, unemployment insurance, free medical services, are some benefits our colleagues can get. Do your individual research by country, and sometimes region, province or state, to see what you are eligible for.

Finally, accept that doing a quarantine is fine. Embrace this provisional reality. Reduce your stress. Watch the news once a day. Do not look at the screen every hour to see how many new cases and deaths in the last hour. It is not a sporting event. Read a book, watch a movie, a Broadway musical, or an opera on your smart TV; spend time doing a hobby that relaxes you, whether it is crossword puzzles, stamps, knitting, or playing video games. Just relax, eliminate your worries, be at peace.

Second step: Eliminate the noise.

Once you are relaxed, you need to stay relaxed. The only way to do it is eliminating everything that stresses you out, especially when this uneasiness is caused by others trying to stay afloat (nothing wrong with that) by making you believe you need a service or product they are selling, and you need it now (nothing good with that).

The first thing we need to do is to ignore most of what comes into your home via internet. Guard yourself against scammers who want to tap into your credit cards and bank accounts. Ignore any correspondence from banks or stores asking you to confirm or update your personal information. If your bank wants to contact you, they will send you a secure message to your bank application account. Also ignore a sales pitch from an agency or platform. As of now, we are getting invitations to webinars and online workshops by people we did not even know existed or even if we did, we never knew them as teachers or trainers. Everybody is trying to make money in these tough times, but keep your priorities straight. There are some legitimate webinars offered online at this time (too many in my opinion) but even here, look at your finances and decide if you can afford the webinar now, and also remember that even a class with a great instructor may not be a good choice. Ask yourself how much will you learn from a presentation while wrestling with your kids at the same time. And then you have the free webinars and workshops. They entice you to do it, to give in to peer pressure, and to make you feel guilty for bypassing a free event. Once again, look at your priorities, guard your peace of mind. Understand that many of these free seminars are not free. They are sales events similar to the ones you see late at night on TV. They will not charge you for the seminar, but will encourage to buy their products and services, and will get your information for ulterior purposes. Don’t forget these are people you may know, but they are acting like salesmen. Noting illegal with that, but do not believe everything they tell you. The world is not going to remote interpreting forever. If you are a court interpreter or a community interpreter, you will go back to the jails and courthouses, you will be working at community centers and school classrooms once this is all over. Do not spend the money you don’t have, with no reliable source of income, because of the promise of a future when you will work from home. Remember, if it sounds too good…

If you are conference interpreters, assess if you truly work conferences most of the time. If they call you for two conferences a year, and one of them is at your local community center where you work with your court interpreter friend with a table top booth, think long and hard before buying an expensive computer, microphone, headset and internet service. You probably will get none of the work they spoke about during the free online event.  Even if you are a full time conference interpreter in the United States or Western Europe considering a big investment in times of coronavirus: Have you thought these same agencies now trying to sell you a service or a product, will generally retain the services of interpreters from developing countries where they get paid for a full week of work what you make in one day back in your country? Again, there is nothing illegal here, but think long and hard before building a studio in your home. There will be more events held remotely than before, but big conferences, important business and diplomatic negotiations will continue to be in-person. These have cancelled for now. They have not migrated to remote. Have you heard of the meeting after the meeting? The most important in-person events are going nowhere.

Some chats offered and organized for free by some individuals or professional associations are fine; I recommend them. If you live alone, they allow you to talk to someone besides the cat, and you will know they are not trying to sell you anything.

Please stay away from well-intentioned friends who know diddly about medicine, public health, and the economy, but constantly guide you through how to protect yourself. Do not listen to those calling you to tell you to exercise every day. Right now, you are in quarantine with your life upside down. You are not training for the 2021 Olympics. It is OK to spend the day watching Netflix; do not feel bad because you did not run a marathon around your kitchen table today; you are not a bad professional interpreter if you ignored “the” webinar because you felt like playing videogames. It is OK. No one knows you better than you. I have nothing against the cable company, those who advertise online, or those promoting their webinars. I am only focusing everything from the perspective of the professional interpreter stuck at home with an uncertain future ahead. These are tough times. Eliminate the noise. Have that ice cream.

Third step: Prepare for life after COVID-19

Once you are relaxed and the noise is gone, you can focus on the future by doing certain things you control and will help you fill in your days at home with valuable things.

At the top of this list you must write down: “Keep in touch with my direct clients.” Maintain that relationship by reminding them you are here to help them. Communicate periodically, you know your clients and you know what works better for each case. Do not call them every day; an email every two weeks should be enough. When you email them, do not start by expressing your worries or by asking for work. Show them empathy, ask them about their families, employees, and business. Make them see you understand what they are going through because you are experiencing the same. Be ready to assist them with small things during the crisis by offering, as an exception, remote services while educating them about the pros and cons of a remote solution. Explain to them what they should expect from a remote service with you working from an apartment with 3 children in the room next door so they lower their expectations. Acknowledge they have to make difficult decision, and reassure them of your presence in their back-to-work plans, stressing that you will be ready the day they open their doors again. You must be ready to hit the ground running from day one, even if day one is postponed repeatedly. You do not want them to catch you unprepared. You cannot give them a chance to think of looking for another interpreter because you were not ready.

Never agree to lower fees or poor working conditions during the quarantine of after. Doing so will cause you permanent damage. You will never work for a better fee, and you will be known by other interpreters as the individual who works for peanuts. No colleague will ever ask you to work with them, and people will hate it when forced by a client to share the booth with you. I understand not everybody is prepared to face a crisis that includes total loss of income. If this is your case, think of what I say in this paragraph before you accept the “job” offer. If you must make money to put food on the table, you should look for alternate sources of income. If you interpret you are at least bilingual. Perhaps you can do tutoring on line, lead advanced virtual conversation groups for people learning a foreign language. Many interpreters have a professional degree in other disciplines and others are well-read and traveled. They can tutor on history, literature, English, chemistry, biology, math, etc., I am not asking you to replace professional school teachers, just to tutor kids and adults so they can do their homework, learn and practice something they like, and have something to do while locked up at home. Remember: many parents would love this option and rest from their kids for two hours a day. This way you will make ends meet without permanently tarnishing your professional reputation.

A big part of getting ready for what is coming next is to keep in touch with your trusted colleagues. Make sure that during COVID-19 you talk to those interpreters you regularly share the booth with, and the ones with a different language combination in the booth next door. Email and chat with them regularly. Be all ready as a group so you can tackle a project right away. These are the colleagues you can share direct clients with because you know they will not steal away from you any of them. The key is to be ready to work from day one, before somebody gives your client the idea of contacting an agency. Just as I suggest you stay in touch with your trusted professional group, I tell you not to contact the agencies during COVID-19. Unlike your trusted colleagues and direct clients, this would be a waste of time. Agencies will call you (if you want to work with them) regardless. They look at a list and select you from there. Remember all those bulk mails where they ask you to recommend somebody if you cannot accept the job? They want a warm, inexpensive body. They do not want you. Set your priorities.

Finally, spend quality time with yourself. Do things for you that you never had time to do before. Spend quality time with your roommates: spouse, partner, children, extended family and house guest. Compromise and try to keep the peace. Remember you are all confined to a small space.

Dear colleagues, this post was written for you, the individual professional interpreter, and it offers a perspective that benefits you over anyone else. Please share with the rest of us your comments about the things you are doing to stay sane, safe, and ready to work from day one, and more important: stay healthy and stay safe (physically, mentally, and emotionally).

The other danger interpreters face during the COVID-19 pandemic.

March 23, 2020 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

At the beginning of the year it looked like we were on our way to a great professional future. The booming economy, new technologies and new clients coming into the interpreter services market gave us a feeling of security. Then, it all collapsed. Our shiny future disappeared overnight. The rapid propagation of COVID-19 throughout the world brought the economy to an almost complete halt. Conferences were postponed or cancelled, courthouses closed their doors, hospitals regular routines were dramatically transformed by the overwhelming demand for beds and medical staff. The airlines did not fly anymore, and we were told (sometimes ordered) to stay home. To most independent interpreters this meant a total loss of income for the foreseeable future, coupled with uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. Many of us have seen our source of income disappear, our savings go down, and the money we had, and our retirement funds diminish or vanish in less than a week.

This is the world where we live at this time: health risks, no reliable source of income, and a future nobody can yet forecast in the short and mid-terms.

Unfortunately, there is no time for lamentations; we must keep our minds on these basic goals: Stay healthy; help to stop the spread of this virus by following the rules, spend our money wisely, and protect our profession. Yes, dear friends and colleagues, at some point we will go back to our professional practice, and it is what we do now, during this pandemic, that will determine how we will work once this is all behind us.

Unfortunately, some unscrupulous entities have emerged to prey on our more naïve colleagues and on those who have been affected the most. A despicable multinational translation agency offers work at reduced fees because of the crisis; there is another one telling interpreters to offer remote interpreting services to their direct clients, set the “per-minute fees”, and “just” pay the agency 25 percent of the fee for the use of their platform. Other agencies from less developed countries are taking advantage of this crisis to enter developed economies and offer remote simultaneous interpreting from abroad, using interpreters being paid ridiculously low fees for their services.

Yes, dear friends, they are suggesting you charge “per-minute”, and a platform for 25 percent of your fee. Not even professional athletes’ or movie star’ agents make this money. They get 15 percent, and they represent and protect the interests of their clients. More for your money than just providing a platform.  And there are vendors all over the internet bragging in a celebratory manner they have been saying for a long time that remote interpreting was the future, the solution to all multilingual communication problems. Sadly, some colleagues are taking the bait.

Under current circumstances, regardless of the work you do, it could be tempting for healthcare, court, community, or conference interpreters to accept an assignment from one predator. A “per-minute” payment, a solo assignment, or a reduced daily fee may look good when you have nothing better on your schedule. Please do not do it. Taking these offers will sentence you to a life term of mediocre pay, to a career of second-class assignments, and to a terrible reputation among your peers. In other words: Nobody will ever recommend you for an assignment or willingly work with you again.

There are other ways to procure income without permanently damaging your career: The first thing you need to do is contact all your direct clients, in a tactful way, let them know you are here to help them through these terrible times, and ask them for a time to talk on the phone or chat online about possible solutions.

Then, contact other entities and individuals you have worked with. If you work with a business five years ago through an agency, contact them and offer your direct services for a real professional fee.

Finally, be creative, look around and see who in your immediate universe could benefit from the services of a professional interpreter.

Even if you are working remotely, you must charge your regular professional daily (not per-minute or hourly) fee, plus expenses (depending on the service). If you have to do in-person or on-site interpreting, therefore leaving your house and be exposed to the virus, charge an extra high-risk fee. Do not feel bad about it. This is what professionals working in high risk areas (war zones, high-crime countries, etc.) have always been paid. Look at today’s news and you will see how all big companies are paying an added bonus to their employees who have to work outside their home. The client may cry first, but after a good explanation they will comply. If not, do not work for that client. Obviously, they do not care about you, so why should you care about them?

Currently, in our world, there is a difference between this anomaly’s “reality”, and true reality. During these exceptional times we must satisfy our clients’ needs, make a living and keep our client base.

At this time, we should contact our clients to tell them there is an option, and explain to them that remote simultaneous interpreting is better than noting: it will keep everybody safer, and it will solve urgent and immediate issues. We have to warn them about the voices preaching remote simultaneous interpreting as the salvation of globalization. We must be polite when talking to our clients at this time, always remembering they have problems bigger than remote vs. in-person interpreting. They are trying to save their businesses.

We need to be clear, but we should not lie. We can explain that remote simultaneous interpreting is a viable option for certain business meetings and negotiations, but not for them all. When confidentiality due to the information exchanged, or face-to-face negotiations are necessary to close a deal, in-person interpreting must continue.  We have to let them know of the many risks they would face when using remote simultaneous interpreting for a big or important event. Technology, geography, weather, physics (speed of sound) and lack of visual clues for the interpreters will be risks they need to consider. Tell them of the events that have failed. Platform vendors and interpreting agencies will not address these situations. A good example everyone can understand is the bad experience the Biden campaign went through several days ago when attempting to do a virtual event. (https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/13/politics/joe-biden-virtual-town-hall-technical-trouble/index.html)

Also explain the risks involved in remote simultaneous interpreting when the interpreters are working from a developing country (Please see my post: https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2019/10/17/the-very-real-dangers-of-remote-simultaneous-interpreting-from-our-home/)

You have to make sure your clients understand remote interpreting is appropriate during the crisis, but it cannot be adopted as the preferred option once things go back to normal. We must underline that even when remote interpreting may be a solution, it should not be done from a person’s home, and never by a single individual.

These steps should be taken by all interpreters:

Non-negotiable rule: Absolutely no chuchotage!

Keep your distance at all times. There will be little escort interpreting at this time, but all whispered interpreting, escort, during a press conference, or elsewhere is out of the question. Portable interpreting equipment like the one used by tour guides and court interpreters should be used. Make sure the client’s headphones have disposable protective guards, and dispose of them after every event or when you switch users. For health reasons, I suggest you ask the client to rent the equipment, but if you have to use your own, please charge extra for the equipment, disposable protective ear guards and microphone guards, and disinfectants.

Healthcare interpreters.

If you are a healthcare interpreter, right now you should be working from home using a computer, a tablet, or a telephone. Most reputable hospitals are already following this practice, but even if they have not instituted it, you must set it as one of your working conditions. These are extraordinary times. If it has been good for remote town in Alaska during all these years, it has to be good for New York City or Chicago today. If your physical presence is absolutely necessary, wear safety gear furnished by the hospital (no gear = no interpreter. Sorry) try to work from a different room in the hospital, and if you must be in the same room as others, keep your distance and use portable interpreting equipment provided by the hospital. If someone needs to get closer to the patient because it is hard to hear what they say, let medical staff do it. In the worst possible scenario, they can put a cellular phone by the patient’s mouth so you can hear on another phone at a safe distance. Please remember to charge for your services as described above. Please see AIIC best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting during the COVID-19 crisis below under “Conference Interpreting”.

Community Interpreters.

There is no reason for community interpreters to be providing in-person services. All work can be rendered by phone or video. Schools are out almost everywhere in the world, and government agencies that provide social services and benefits can call you at home for you to interpret for an applicant or benefit recipient. Here again, please charge. Please see AIIC best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting during the COVID-19 crisis below under “Conference Interpreting”.

Court Interpreters.

Most courthouses have continued hearings and trials worldwide, but there are some court appearances that must take place even during toe COVID-19 pandemic. For these services, interpreters must demand remote work, even if it has to be via telephone and rendered consecutively. Most hearings will be short as they will likely be constitutional hearings (arraignments, bond redeterminations, conditions of release, protective orders, probation violations, etc.) if an interpreter is asked to appear in person, all work must be performed using the court’s interpreting equipment (portable or fixed depending on the venue) and under no circumstance interpreters should agree to close contact with victims, defendants, petitioners, plaintiffs, respondents, or witnesses.

Jails, prisons, detention centers, and immigration courts carry additional risks and interpreters should refuse work, unless it is remote, at these locations. Like all others, court interpreters should charge their professional fees as mentioned above in this same post. Please see AIIC best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting during the COVID-19 crisis below under “Conference Interpreting”.

Conference interpreters.

Always remembering everything discussed above about remote simultaneous interpreting, conference interpreters must be very clear when talking to their clients.

First, they should try to convince the client to postpone the event until it is possible to do in-person interpreting, only doing what is necessary to keep the business running and protect the company, its customers, and its employees. It is very important we emphasize that the service we are about to provide is an anomaly. We have to explain to the client that the conditions will not be the best, that even with the best platforms, the interpreters will be working from home, not a soundproof booth, and they will not have on-site technical support. The client needs to know there may be interruptions to the electric power, interference by other internet users, background noise coming from next door, or because your children and dogs are at home, even if they are in a separate room. Explain that you can use one of the free platforms, a paid platform you already use for other things, or that you could download and install another one they may prefer as long as they pay for it. Something as simple as Skype can save the day under these circumstances. Remember that it is unacceptable to do a remote interpretation lasting over 30 minutes without a booth partner (at least a virtual booth partner somewhere else in the world).

Before you provide the service the client must sign a written contract where you will detail your daily fee, the total hours you and your teammate will work per day, overtime fees, and a cancellation clause which must include postponements or cancellations for force majeure (sometimes half of the total fee, sometimes the full fee depending on the time you are notified of the postponement or cancellation. Under these conditions cancellations will be on short notice, so the fee must be a full amount). Your contract must include a release of liability where the client and all others participating in the event, directly or indirectly, release all interpreters of any liability due to any events or circumstances related to the remote service. Also, include that only the law and courts of your country will have jurisdiction over the contract and event. That way you eliminate the need for foreign or international law attorneys and overseas litigation if this happened. Finally, inform your client of all best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting by AIIC (even if you are not a member), and do your best to adhere to them all. (https://aiic.net/page/8956/aiic-best-practices-for-interpreters-during-the-covid-19-crisis/lang/1)

You have to keep in mind that there is a difference between RSI platform providers and interpreting agencies. Always go for the platform providers with your direct clients. Here you are in charge. It is less desirable, and even discouraged, to do RSI through an agency. They will call the shots, communicate with the client, and negotiate your pay with their client, always looking after their own margins. I will soon deal with this issue on a separate post.

Please turn down low paying jobs. They insult our profession. Before selling your soul to an agency, try the strategies I suggest above. Be polite, professional and show empathy when you talk to your clients. Whenever possible, try to help a colleague by referring them to an assignment you cannot or will not take. More important, be patient, stay home, and stay healthy.

I now invite you to share your thoughts about this “other” very real danger we face as interpreters at this time.

The “must attend” conferences of 2020 (Coronavirus Update)

February 23, 2020 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

2019 was a great year for many of us. Quite a few of you developed professionally and became better at what you do. I congratulate you for that important achievement; unfortunately, competitors are still out there, languages are still changing, technology continues to improve, and clients (agencies or direct corporations) will pay for what they need but are looking for the best service at the best price. The question is: How do we adapt to reality, keep up with technology, and improve our service? The answer is complex and it includes many issues that must be addressed. As always, at the time of the year when we are all planning our professional activities, and programming our agendas, I will address one of the key components of our annual plan: Professional development.

It is practically impossible to beat the competition, command a high professional fee, and have satisfied clients who pick you over all other interpreters, unless you can deliver quality interpreting and state-of-the-art technology.

We need to be better interpreters. We must study, we must practice our craft, we should have a peer support network (those colleagues you call when in doubt about a term, a client, or grammar) and we must attend professional conferences. I find immense value in professional conferences because you learn from the workshops and presentations, you network with colleagues and friends, and you discover what is happening out there in the very competitive world of interpreting. Fortunately there are many professional conferences all year long and all over the world. Many of us attending a professional conference are lucky to live in countries where professional development is tax deductible. Unfortunately, we have a “good problem”: There are so many attractive conferences and we must choose where to go.

I understand some of you may attend one conference per year, or maybe your policy is to go to conferences offered near your home base. I also know that many of you have professional agendas that may keep you from attending a particular event, even if you wanted to be there.

I applaud all organizations and individuals who put together a conference. I salute all presenters and support staff that make a conference possible, and I wish I could attend them all.

Because this is impossible, I decided to share with all of you the 2020 conferences I am determined to attend, and sadly, some I will not due to professional engagements. In other years I have attended more conferences than the ones on my list; last-minute changing circumstances and personal commitments let me go to events I had not planned to attend at the beginning of the year. This time, we must keep in mind that the coronavirus pandemic is impacting many conferences and workshops. For that reason, I suggest you check periodically to see if the conferences you selected are still on schedule, and have a “Plan B” of conferences you would attend if your first choice was postponed or cancelled.

As of today, the conferences I plan to attend this year, and those I recommend even if I will not be able to be there, are:

The Second Africa International Translation Conference (AITCO) in Arusha, Tanzania (February 7-8).

This event already happened earlier this month and it was a success. Unfortunately, my professional commitments kept me from this conference which showcased some of the best presenters from Africa and around the world, speaking on interesting, relevant topics to interpreters and translators. This year the conference was attended by International Federation of Translators (FIT) president Kevin Quirk. I talked to him about this event at the end of last year, and shared my unforgettable experience attending their 2019 conference in Nairobi. The fact he was there made me feel as part of the event. I congratulate Alfred Mtawali and the rest of the organizers for putting together such a valuable learning opportunity. I will try my best to be there in 2021.

The Association of Translators and Interpreters of Florida (ATIF), ATA Spanish Language Division (SPD) and Miami Dade College Eduardo J. Padrón Campus (MDEPC) “In Miami Spring Into Action” in Miami, Florida, (Originally: March 20-22. Postponed until further notice).

I will attend this conference because of the program they put together with top-notch presenters, interesting topics, and the college environment of MDEPC’s campus. I attended the prior edition two years ago, and I can hardly wait for this year’s conference. If you are a Spanish language interpreter, translator, proof-reader, linguist, teacher, or you just love Spanish, this is an event impossible to miss. I also recommend it to those Spanish language colleagues looking for quality CE credits who cannot afford the very expensive ATA annual conference. You can meet all your goals here (quality learning, CE credits, networking with Spanish language interpreters, translators, and other professionals from all over the world, and a more intimate setting to spend more time with presenters without the distractions of the more commercial ATA conference with its vendors and agencies that pay to be there).  

The Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters (CATI) 32nd. Annual Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina (Originally: March 28. Postponed).

I will not attend this conference, but I recommend it for several reasons: I have attended it in the past, I know first-hand some of the very talented members of the association’s board, and because they have scored a home run with their keynote speaker. If you are an interpreter or translator in the Carolinas, or if you have a way to attend, regardless of where you live, do not miss the opportunity to listen to our talented colleague Irene Bruno, one of the best, most experienced interpreters you will ever meet. Learn about conference and diplomatic interpreting from the best. Besides Irene’s anticipated presentation, I also find attractive the presentations by Sarah Baker on Sign Language Interpreters and their relationship to their spoken language colleagues, the “LatinX” presentation by Hernán Silva-Zetina and Matthew Benton, and the no-doubt great session where my friend Santiago García  Castañón will show us how to speak better. The conference will take place at Meredith College, and it will be followed by the ATA certification exam on March 29.

Third Translators and Interpreters International Congress Citi Lima 2020 in Lima, Perú (Originally: May 2-3. Postponed until further notice). 

Ever since I heard of this event last year in São Paulo, I have been counting the days to this congress. Organized and sponsored by the Peruvian Translators Association (Colegio de Traductores del Perú) and several prestigious Peruvian universities, this congress promises to be the professional and academic event of the year.  Held at Lima’s Convention Center, this two-day congress has an impressive program packed with interesting, useful, relevant, and current topics. If you are planning a trip to South America in 2020, go to Perú, see the country, learn its history, taste its awesome food, and be part of the professional and academic event of the year. See you in Lima!

National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) 41st. Annual Conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida (June 5-7).

This year legal interpreters and translators from the United States, and a few from abroad, will meet in sunny Florida for the annual conference of the only judiciary interpreters and translators association in the United States. Unfortunately, at this time, NAJIT has not published its program, but based on previous years, you can count on a variety of topics and presenters that will no doubt cover all fields of interest to our colleagues in the legal field. This is a two-day conference (June 6-7) with pre-conference workshops on June 5. In the past, conferences have offered all-day and half-day pre-conference workshops. On a personal note, I will tell you that I was concerned when I heard the conference was going to be in Ft. Lauderdale instead of Miami. I immediately though of the difficulties to get to the site of the conference. I was worried that all you could fly to Ft. Lauderdale were low-cost airlines. Fortunately, I can share with you that conventional airlines fly to Ft. Lauderdale. This will let those of us who prefer these carriers fly into the city instead of having to fly to Miami and then get to Ft. Lauderdale by taxi. I look forward to meeting many friends at this conference.

Sexto Encuentro Internacional de Traductores dentro de la Feria Universitaria del Libro (FUL) in Pachuca, Mexico (September 4-5).

I have attended this conference from its inception and it is bigger and better every year. The conference is held at the Autonomous University of Hidalgo State’s Poliforum at Carlos Martínez Balmori Campus. This year, the guest country will be Russia, and conference presentations and workshops will center on artificial intelligence. I like this event because of the many students who go to the conference from many Mexican colleges and universities. Most conferences are attended by professional colleagues with years of experience, but this “encuentro” is attended by bus loads of students of translation, interpreting, and other-language related fields. The conference takes place within the International University Book Fair (FUL) and its organization by my friends Mireya Ocadiz (the conference), and Marco Antonio Alfaro (FUL) gives it a unique atmosphere. If you live in Mexico, or if you want to learn more about artificial intelligence and our profession, I encourage you to attend this event.

Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters (MATI) 17th. Annual Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (September 12).

I attended MATI’s conference in Chicago last year and I was very impressed with the level of the presentations and attendees from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and other places (even Canada). I saw how the organizers went all out to make sure the conference delivered what all those attending expected. It did. My friend Cristina Green and the rest of the MATI board are doing a great job by bringing to the upper Midwest, where many important cities and colleges are located, a quality event. As a Chicagoan I could not be happier. I am looking forward to meeting all my neighbors and friends from the Midwest in Milwaukee this September.

The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) International Conference in Timisoara, Romania (Originally: October 3-4. Postponed to October 2-3, 2021).

I go to this conference because it is IAPTI. Because it is about us, the interpreters and translators! This conference, held at Banat University in Timisoara, and this organization in general, under the leadership of my friend, the very talented Aurora Humarán and the rest of the board, present a unique viewpoint of our profession I consider priceless. It is the only international conference of this size where there are no corporate sponsors. All you see is translators and interpreters like you. Some results of this innovative approach are that the conference attracts a very important group of colleagues that stay away from other events because they are bothered by the corporate presence. This is the conference to attend if you want to learn how to work with direct clients, deal with agencies from a position of power, negotiate with corporate clients and governments, and improve your skills. The absence of agencies, corporate members, and merchants soliciting your businesses lifts the heaviness of other conferences, and fosters dialogue without having to look over your shoulder. You can attend the presentations and workshops knowing that no presenter is there to sell you anything, and it is fun to have a space like this at least once a year. IAPTI is also famous for its extracurricular activities like the traditional “Sweets from your country” and the post-conference sightseeing. If you have never been to Timisoara, stay after the conference and join us for a city tour, a visit to the beautiful Danube, and a trip to Vlad (the impaler) Dracula’s castle. See you all in Timisoara!

American Translators Association ATA 61st. Conference in Boston, Massachusetts (October 21-24).

Every year, the American Translators Association puts the biggest show on earth. More presentations to choose from, more attendees, more opportunities to network, and this time, Beautiful Boston! I enjoy attending ATA conferences because of the variety, and the many friends and colleagues I get to see every year. However, to take advantage of the conference without being exposed to the many predators that attend every year in the form of agencies, vendors, and “well-intentioned colleagues”, I pick my activities very carefully and never losing sight of the obvious presence of those who want to destroy our profession and turn it into an industry of commodities. It does not escape me that this conference is by far the most expensive interpreting and translation conference in the world, that it is always held at expensive hotels, and that Boston is not cheap. I think it is worth spending my hard-earned money (even if at the time you check in they do not even give you a bag to keep your stuff) but as I said above under “In Miami, Spring Into Action”, if your working languages include Spanish, consider going to Miami instead of Boston. For those who work with languages other than Spanish and think ATA is getting way too expensive, keep in mind that many of the presentations at the ATA conference have been presented at smaller (less expensive) conferences before. Do your homework, review other conferences’ programs, and then decide. With that warning and suggestion, if you can afford it, go to Boston and enjoy the conference. I Believe the participation of my friends, and renowned legal translators Ruth Gámez and Fernando Cuñado (from the famous blog: “Traducción Jurídica”) attending as distinguished speakers of the Law Division will make attending the conference worth.

XXIV Translation and Interpreting Congress San Jerónimo (FIL/OMT) in Guadalajara, Mexico (November 28-30).

Every year the Mexican Translators Association (OMT) puts together a magnificent program featuring well-known presenters from all over the world. Coming from a very successful sold-out XXIIICongress, with more presentations geared to interpreters than ever before, the 2020 edition will have workshops and presentations in varied, useful, and trending topics. This is the activity to attend this year for those colleagues who work with the Spanish language. Extra added bonus: The Congress is held near and at the same venue (Expo Guadalajara) and at the same time as the International Book Fair, one of the largest in the Spanish language world. Besides the professional sessions, attendees can also stroll up and down the immense fairgrounds, purchase books, listen to some or the most renowned authors in the world, or just window shop between sessions. I have been attending this event for over as decade, and I will continue to do so. I hope to see you in beautiful Guadalajara.

XXII International Federation of Translators (FIT) World Congress in Varadero, Cuba (December 3-5).

It is difficult to us, as American citizens, to visit Cuba, but this congress justifies trying to go. The last FIT Congress in Brisbane, Australia was a great experience that left me ready to attend this year’s event, and continue my uninterrupted attendance to this truly world congress. This time, the Asociación Cubana de Traductores e Intérpretes (ACTI) will be the hosting organization, and the site will be legendary Varadero. The theme of the conference is the idea that by removing linguistic and cultural barriers, translators and interpreters foster equal access, and dialogue. International attendance gives you a diverse audience and a wide variety of presenters that will make history by holding for the first time an event of this kind in Cuba. I am determined to start the process to be able to travel to Cuba in December. I certainly hope to see you there!

I know the choice is difficult, and some of you may have reservations about professional gatherings like the ones I covered above. I also know of other very good conferences all over the world, some of the best are local, regional, and national events; others are specialized conferences tailored to a certain field of our profession. I would love to attend many but I cannot. Some of you will probably read this post in a group or website of an association whose conference I will not attend this year, you will probably see me at other conferences not even mentioned here; that is likely. To those I cannot attend this year: I wish you success and productive conferences. Remember, the world of interpreting is more competitive every day and you will need an edge to beat the competition. That advantage might be what you learned at one conference, or whom you met while at the convention. Please kindly share your thoughts and let us know what local, national or international conference or conferences you plan to attend in 2020.

When clients do not provide information in advance.

February 10, 2020 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We are expected to accurately interpret all subjects from one language into another, often to an audience that knows the topic, sometimes to people who have devoted their lives to that subject. We meet these expectations and deliver the rendition by performing many complex tasks, among them extensive preparation, including research and study of the topics to be presented during the conference, lecture, workshop, business negotiation, press conference, court hearing, diplomatic summit, etc.

We are professionally trained to research a subject, understand it, prepare glossaries, and study it, but this is not enough. Knowledge in any subject is infinite and it must be narrowed down to the specific themes to be presented or discussed at the event we were hired to interpret. Speakers have different styles and many have done their own research, written books or papers that will be presented, or at least alluded to, often for the first time, during the dissertation.

Due to these facts, the only way we can deliver the best quality service is by studying the presenters’ materials ahead of time.  This means our client must provide this information: documents, videos, audio recordings, for us to prepare, and we need to get them as far in advance as possible.

Documents are very important because that will be the main portion of the lecture; it often includes power point presentations we must review for several reasons: We need to make sure we understand the contents of every slide, that we find the best equivalent terms in the target language; we must pay attention to the information each slide contains because we need to tell the presenter how long the slide needs to stay on the screen before moving on to the next one, to give the audience time to listen to the interpretation and then see the contents of the slide (words, figures, charts, images, quotes, etc.) This is time consuming and it could take interpreters several days to go through the power point presentation.

Videos are difficult to interpret. Sometimes the sound is not very good, or words get lost behind the sounds of very loud music or noise; the speakers on the video may talk too fast, have a heavy accent, use regional expressions, tell a joke or share a sports story. Many speakers choose movie or TV show clips with nothing to do with the conference, because they were chosen as icebreakers or to drive a point across. There are videos of songs also. Interpreters need to study these videos; some must be watched many times. They have to assess the jokes, idiomatic expressions, cultural differences, and sports analogies, and then decide what to do: find a similar joke in the target language, use an equivalent sports story on a sport the audience will relate to, find the best idiomatic expression on the other language to convey the same message using the same register. Sometimes the best solution is to recommend the speaker not to use the video, particularly when there are cultural concerns.  Then, on the day of the event, interpreters need to make sure the video’s volume and quality of sound is the right one for both: the room and the booth.

Audio recordings could be an interpreter’s nightmare, especially in court interpreting where the quality of the sound is less than desirable because many of these audio recordings come from wiretaps, hidden microphones, concealed body microphones, and so on. These recordings are plagued with obscenities, slang, low register speech, and powerful background noises. Interpreters devote endless hours to listening and sometimes decoding what was said. This time-consuming task must be performed ahead of the event so the interpreter knows the recording’s contents and determines what words to use during the rendition. After reviewing the recording an interpreter can suggest to the client to use a transcript of the audio recording, with a written translation into the target language, and either project it on the screen at the same time the audience listens to the recording and the interpreters simultaneous rendition, or to distribute paper transcripts and translations for the audience to follow along the recording.

These arguments should be sufficient for all clients to provide these materials to the interpreting team ahead of time; many knowledgeable, experienced clients do so and the results are evident: a great interpretation. Others are more reluctant, and there are some who unfortunately neglect the interpreters or clearly decide not to provide an iota of information before the event.

Interpreters need to convey to the client the reason they have to see the materials before the assignment; they have to explain that interpreting is a fiduciary profession, that we are bound by a strict duty of confidentiality, and make them see we have no interest in the information past the day of the interpretation. When the client is concerned about intellectual property rights or national security, Interpreters can offer flexibility to the client, and for an additional fee, they can agree to review said materials at the client’s place of business, but always ahead of the event.

All interpreting services contracts must include a provision stating that the client assumes the obligation to provide all requested and needed materials to the interpreters as early as possible, and always before the event.

Even with such a clause, sometimes, interpreters get no materials, get part of them, or they get all materials, but a video or a slide were added at the last minute and the interpreting team learns of this change at the venue, right before the start of the event, or even worse: during the rendition when the slide is shown on the screen or the video is played.

In these cases, professional interpreters have two reactions coming straight from their gut simultaneously: “I will stand up and walk away. I am not interpreting this”, and “I am a professional, the client’s incompetence or negligence it’s not the audience’s fault. I’ll stay and try my best”. Both reactions are good and have value. Let me explain:

The good client will always deliver materials on time, you need not to concern about them, but there are other clients late with the materials, deliver only part of them, and sometimes forget to provide needed information altogether, but they have potential, you want to keep them, and they will improve if you try a little harder. I say give these clients a second chance.

As soon as it is evident they will not provide materials, talk to them and clarify that what they did was wrong, but, because you are a consummate professional, you will try your best and stay and interpret the event even though the final result will not be nearly as good as it would be if the materials were provided. If they fail again on a second event: drop them, you are wasting your time with them, and time is money.

Finally, if your contract calls for client to deliver all requested and needed materials and the client did not comply, when you are not interested on that client, and it was a nightmare dealing with them during the preparations for the event, I would walk out without interpreting, demand payment of my fees, explain to them they breached the professional services contract they had with you, and if they refuse to pay, sue them for your fee plus damages and your attorney’s fees.

On both cases you taught the client a lesson: To the client you want to keep, you tried to educate them and keep them on your list. To the client you never want to see again, you showed them that interpreters are professionals they cannot take advantage of.

I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this important subject.

The Super Bowl: Interpreters, American football, and a big day in the United States.

January 27, 2020 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

Because Americans love to bring up sports in a conference, and due to the acquired taste needed to enjoy a sport popular in the United States and few other places in the world, every year I write a post on this event.

On February 2 the United States will hold a very American event; it is the most watched TV event in our country, and the day when the game is played is an unofficial holiday that is more popular than most holidays on the official calendar.   I am referring to the Super Bowl: The national professional football championship game in the United States of America; and it is not football… at least not THAT football played in the rest of the world.  This popular sport in the United States is known abroad as “American football,” and even this designation seems troublesome to many who have watched a little American football and do not understand it well.  Although it is mainly played holding a ball, the sport is known in the United States as football for two reasons:  (1) Because this American-born sport comes from “rugby football” (now rugby) that came from soccer (football outside the United States) and (2) Because it is football, but it is not British organized football, which when American football invented was called “association football” and was later known by the second syllable of the word “association”“socc” which mutated into “soccer.”  You now understand where the name came from, but is it really football? For Americans it is. Remember that all other popular team sports in the United States are played with your hands or a stick (baseball, basketball and ice hockey). The only sport in the United States where points can be scored by kicking the ball is (American) football. So, even though most of the time the ball is carried by hand or caught with your hands, sometimes, a team scores or defends field position by kicking or punting the football.   Now, why is all this relevant to us as interpreters?   Because if you interpret from American English you are likely to run into speakers who will talk about the Super Bowl, football, or will use examples taken from this very popular sport in the U.S.

On Sunday, most Americans will gather in front of the TV set to watch the National Football Conference champion San Francisco Forty Niners (they got their name from the 1849 California gold rush) battle the American Football Conference champion Kansas City Chiefs for the Vince Lombardi Trophy (official name of the trophy given to the team that wins the Super Bowl) which incidentally is a trophy in the shape of a football, not a bowl.  It is because the game was not named after a trophy, it was named after a tradition.  There are two football levels in the United States: college football played by amateur students, and professional football.  College football is older than pro-football and for many decades the different college champions were determined by playing invitational football games at the end of the college football season on New Year’s Day.  These games were called (and still are) “Bowls.”  You may have heard of the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and many others.  When a professional football game was created to determine the over-all champion between the champions of the American and National Conferences, it was just natural (and profitable) to call it the “Super Bowl.”

Although the game will involve two teams representing two regions, the game itself will be played in Miami, Florida where the weather at this time of the year is more welcoming. There will be millions watching the match, and there will be hundreds of millions spent on TV commercials during the game.

As I do every year on these dates, I have included a basic glossary of English<>Spanish football terms that may be useful to you, particularly those of you who do escort, diplomatic, and conference interpreting from American English to Mexican Spanish.  “American” football is very popular in Mexico (where they have college football) Eventually, many of you will face situations where two people will discuss the Super Bowl; as you are interpreting somebody will tell a football story during a presentation; or you may end up at a TV or radio studio simultaneously interpreting a football game for your own or another foreign market.

The following glossary does not cover every term in football; it includes terms very common, and where there were several translations of a football term, I selected the term used in Mexico by the Mexican media that covers the sport.

 

ENGLISH SPANISH
Football Fútbol Americano
National Football League Liga Nacional de Fútbol Americano
NFL N-F-L (ene-efe-ele)
American Football Conference Conferencia Americana
National Football Conference Conferencia Nacional
Preseason Pretemporada
Regular season Temporada regular
Playoffs Postemporada
Wildcard Equipo comodín
Standings Tabla de posiciones
Field Terreno de juego
End zone Zona de anotación/ diagonales
Locker room Vestidor
Super Bowl Súper Tazón
Pro Bowl Tazón Profesional/ Juego de estrellas
Uniform & Equipment Uniforme y Equipo
Football Balón/ Ovoide
Jersey Jersey
Helmet Casco
Facemask Máscara
Chinstrap Barbiquejo
Shoulder pads Hombreras
Thigh pads Musleras
Knee pads Rodilleras
Jockstrap Suspensorio
Cleats Tacos
Tee Base
Fundamentals Términos básicos
Starting player Titular
Backup player Reserva
Offense Ofensiva
Defense Defensiva
Special teams Equipos especiales
Kickoff Patada/ saque
Punt Despeje
Return Devolución
Fair catch Recepción libre
Possession Posesión del balón
Drive Marcha/ avance
First and ten Primero y diez
First and goal Primero y gol
Line of scrimmage Línea de golpeo
Neutral zone Zona neutral
Snap Centro
Long snap Centro largo/ centro al pateador
Huddle Pelotón
Pocket Bolsillo protector
Fumble Balón libre
Turnover Pérdida de balón
Takeaway Robo
Giveaway Entrega
Interception Intercepción
Completion Pase completo
Tackle Tacleada/ derribada
Blitz Carga
Pass rush Presión al mariscal de campo
Sack Captura
Run/ carry Acarreo
Pass Pase
“I” Formation Formación “I”
Shotgun Formation Formación escopeta
“T” Formation Formación “T”
Wishbone Formation Formación wishbone
Goal posts Postes
Crossbar Travesaño
Sidelines Líneas laterales/ banca
Chain Cadena
Out-of-bounds Fuera del terreno
Head Coach Entrenador en jefe
Game Officials Jueces
Flag Pañuelo
POSITIONS POSICIONES
Center Centro
Guard Guardia
Offensive Tackle Tacleador ofensivo
Offensive line Línea ofensiva
End Ala
Wide Receiver Receptor abierto
Tight end Ala cerrada
Running Back Corredor
Halfback Corredor
Fullback Corredor de poder
Quarterback Mariscal de campo
Backfield Cuadro defensivo
Defensive end Ala defensiva
Defensive tackle Tacleador defensivo
Nose guard Guardia nariz
Linebacker Apoyador
Cornerback Esquinero
Free safety Profundo libre
Strong safety Profundo fuerte
Place kicker Pateador
Punter Pateador de despeje
Penalty Castigo

Even if you are not a football fan, and even if you are not watching the big game on Sunday, I hope you find this glossary useful.  Now I invite you to comment on football, sports interpreting in general, or maybe you would like to share a “sports interpreting anecdote” with all of us.

What we learned as Interpreters in 2019.

January 13, 2020 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2019 ended and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2020, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months.  As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, this year was packed with learning opportunities.  In 2020 I worked with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had positive developments this year:  For the first time our African interpreter and translator colleagues gathered for the First Africa International Translation Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. I had the fortune to attend the event. It was an eye-opener to see how many capable colleagues from all corners of Africa, and many other places in Europe, South America and the United States were committed to have an excellent program full of content. This conference was attended by true professional interpreters and translators who exchanged opinions, attended workshops and presentations, and enjoyed the beauty of Kenya and the enthusiasm of the local interpreters and translators. On a personal note, I had the privilege to be invited to lecture in front of hundreds of language, translation and interpretation students at Kenyatta University. This was an experience I will never forget. After the conference, our Kenyan colleagues organized a safari which I attended. Another unforgettable experience. In 2020 African interpreters and translators will build on top of last year’s accomplishments and hold the Second Africa International Translation Conference in Arusha, Tanzania.

Another “first” took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the Argentine Association of Sign Language Interpreters (AAILS) held its first conference entitled: “1 Jornada de AAILS”. The event was attended by Argentine Sign Language interpreters from all over Argentina, and by interpreters of other languages and representatives from other translation and interpreting organizations from Argentina and abroad. I was lucky to participate in the preconference workshops and the conference itself. The presentations were educational, fun, and informative. I was pleasantly surprised by the level or participation and the energy and talent of the board members and others who collaborated to the success of the conference.

The interpreting profession in Mexico is stronger every day as evidenced by the Organización Mexicana de Traductores’ (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) very successful conference in Guadalajara, with more presentations directed to interpreters than ever before; The Autonomous University of Hidalgo’s University Book Fair and content-packed conference in Pachuca; and the every-year more successful court interpreter workshop and conference for Mexican Sign Language (LSM) in Mexico City once again. This year’s edition added the participation of Mexico City’s prosecution agency (Procuraduría de la Ciudad de Mexico) to the impressive list of international guests, magistrates, judges, and attorneys already collaborating to the success of this project.

The Brazilian Association of Translators and Interpreters (ABRATES) gave us the biggest show of the year with its magnificent conference. Hundreds of interpreters and translators from all over the world gathered in Sao Paulo, Brazil to learn and exchange experiences on a wide variety of subjects, from academic content to business practices, to the most recent developments in technology, to networking, this was a very-well organized, unforgettable experience.

There were many conferences in the United States: the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in the United States (NAJIT) held an attendance record-breaking conference in Nashville, Tennessee, The American Translators Association (ATA) had its every-year larger, and more expensive conference in Palm Springs, California, but the one to single out because of its content, organization and attendance, was the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters (MATI) conference in Chicago, Illinois. This was a most-needed conference in the Great Lakes Area where many interpreters and translators live and practice, but few quality events are offered. Those who attended the event will be back in 2020 when the conference will take place in Wisconsin, and no doubt they will invite their friends.

On a year packed with great conferences and workshops, interpreters need to know that the prestigious biannual Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) conference took place in Sheffield, England, with an all-interpreter dedicated track. Some of the best-known, most capable interpreters from Europe and elsewhere shared their knowledge through very interesting, informative, and provocative presentations in an atmosphere like only interpreters can create. This, added to the well-known, high quality translation program, and a spectacular venue, made the conference a second-to-none event. I enjoyed it very much, and developed (and renewed) wonderful friendships with great colleagues.

In some parts of the United States, this past year saw the beginning of important changes in the way interpreters and translators provide their services, empowering the individual and limiting abusive practices by language service agencies. Unfortunately, big corporations and small entities seeking to keep the one-sided labor market they have enjoyed for too long, sold some interpreters the idea these changes hurt them, when in reality they only hurt agencies and leave interpreters and translators free and empowered to provide their services without expendable intermediaries. Sadly, instead of using their time and energy to educate direct clients and explain that services would now be provided without the middle guy, these agencies talked some colleagues into defending the interests of the agencies under the misconception they were defending themselves. The year brought positive developments to the largest court interpreter association in the United States. After a few years of problematic ineffective leadership, during the second half of 2019, a majority of the NAJIT Board elected a truly capable, respected professional and proven leader to be its Chair. Now the association faces a promising future.

Once again, this year saw the growth of our profession in Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI). Unfortunately, much of its growth was in home RSI where interpreters, who are not technicians, and cannot control their neighborhood environment, or their country’s infrastructure, are exposed to civil liability while the agencies that hire them remain silent on the subject and professional insurance policies will not cover such events. Combined with the agencies’ growing tendency to hire RSI interpreters in developing countries (where infrastructure is not as reliable as it is in the United States, Japan or Europe) at a fee considerably lower than their counterparts in developed nations, to maximize profits, is the biggest threat our profession will face in 2020.

Unfortunately, 2019 will forever be remembered as the year when the largest association of interpreters and translators in the United States elected as “president-elect” a person who holds no certification as an interpreter or translator despite allegedly working with some of the most common, widely used languages. This creates a serious image problem to the association because there are only two possible explanations when a person is around for many years, claiming as working languages, combinations where certifications are readily available: Either the person has no certification because owners of agencies who do not interpret or translate do not need them, in which case interpreters and translators will have as president-elect an agency owner, not a colleague; or the person translates or interprets without a certification, in which case ATA members will be represented by a person who makes a living by doing exactly what the association fights against: translating or interpreting without being certified. Very sad.

2018 will forever be remembered as the year when ineptitude destroyed the credibility and reputation of the Spanish language federal court interpreter certification exam, until then most trusted interpreter exam in any discipline in the United States. Even though there were two examination rounds in 2019, nobody has been held accountable at the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). The year that ended a few days ago corroborated that ineptitude unacceptable in the private sector has no consequences in the federal government.

Throughout the world, colleagues continue to fight against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and other problems. Some European countries are now facing outsourcing of interpreting services for the first time.

Once again, interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards creating questionable certification programs, and offering pseudo-conferences and webinars to recruit interpreters for exploitation while hiding behind some big-name presenters, many of whom have agreed to participate in these events without knowledge of these ulterior motives.

No year can be one hundred percent pariah-safe, so we had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2019 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services.

As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, much changed and much stayed the same. I focus on the good things while I guard against the bad ones. I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!

How to get (and keep) direct clients.

December 30, 2019 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a profession, but unfortunately, it is not always perceived as such. To be recognized we need to look and behave like better-known professions like physicians, attorneys and accountants. A big part of this effort concerns the way we get our clients. As an attorney, I worked with direct clients, therefore, when it was time for me to practice interpreting, and understanding interpreters are also professionals, I looked for my own clientele. Every time I have a chance, I tell my interpreter friends and colleagues to look for direct clients and move away from the agency-dependent model.

The first thing many colleagues ask me is how they can get direct clients and free themselves from having to deal with agencies, and give them part of what they earned. There is no silver bullet. There are several approaches and we must use the tactics that best suit our specific practice, personality, and needs. I will now share some actions that have brought me positive results and have allowed me to directly work with my clients without intermediaries who tell you what to do, force you to fill out tons of paperwork to get paid, impose nonsensical requirements to the way you deliver your services, and often pay late.

One of the first things we can do is to look at our lives, relatives, friends and acquaintances and see if someone can be a direct client or could be a bridge to get to our clientele. Sometimes a cousin or an in-law might work for a business where our services are needed. Many interpreters live and work in countries different from their birthplace or where they went to school. Look at your classmates and their immediate environment. Sometimes you discover that the kid you saw at the school cafeteria or the college library is now a bank president, owns a big business, married an entrepreneur, or is now an elected official in a position to hire interpreting services. If you have a president, governor, CEO, business owner, or professional on your list, go knock on their doors and renew that relationship. I have done this often and clients have come through former college friends now high-ranking politicians, businesspeople, and professionals in various countries.

Another useful practice is to keep up with business developments in your community, your field of specialization, and economic and political changes where you live. I once learned that one of the biggest companies in the world was moving to my hometown lured by tax incentives. I visited them as soon as they opened for business and offered my services, followed up several times, and when the opportunity came, I provided my services going the extra mile to please them and to develop trust. They do business all over the world and they have been my clients for years now.

I am a firm believer in conferences and I attend plenty of them every year. I go to interpreting and translation conferences all over the world, but unlike many who only attend them to get continuing education credits or to see their friends, I also promote my teaching and training services with fellow colleagues and organizations, and I look for capable newcomers in all languages and from all locations, not to recruit them for an agency and get them to work for peanuts, but to add them to my database I share with my preferred clients when they ask me for a certain language or specialized interpreting service I do not provide.  Part of keeping your direct clients happy, and keeping them away from the agencies, is to point them in the right direction so they can directly retain their other interpreters. No agencies involved, and I do not charge a finder’s fee or take a commission from the interpreters’ pay. My benefit is not the few dollars I can make from sharing my interpreter databank with the client (If I needed that little money to make a living I would not be working as an interpreter) my benefit is the deepening of the bond with my client, that trust that makes you indispensable to them.

I also attend non-linguist conferences on subject matters and sectors I work as an interpreter. If you interpret medicine or biology, go to medical, pharmaceutical, biology and dentistry conferences, that is where you will find your direct clients. In my case, going to business, aviation, financial, legal, and sports conferences and trade shows allows me to meet potential direct clients and try my sales pitch.

Writing articles, blog posts, books and manuals helps you reach potential clients. It is also an ice breaker and a useful tool to back up your position or to explain why the clients need you.

A very successful and reliable way to get direct clients is letting potential clients watch you providing your services to another entity, even their competitors. At many times the counterparty at a negotiation table approaches me after the session and asks me if I would work with them; a person attending a conference talks to me about interpreting for a conference they are organizing somewhere else in the world. I cannot tell you how often attorneys from the law firm opposite to the law office I am providing my services for have asked me how I do long consecutive interpretation, tell me that all interpreters they worked with before constantly ask them to stop so they can interpret short segments, and then invite me to discuss a possible collaboration at a later time.

I keep my eyes and ears open all the time, and when the time is appropriate, the opportunity looks good, and the other person is receptive, I offer my services, it does not matter where: a bar, a sports stadium, an airplane, and many other situations.

I use these opportunities to explain what I do and the value of my services. I explain I am not cheap, and when I learn the person has used interpreters, or they tell me their company uses the services of an agency, I explain to them the benefits of retaining me directly, including the money they will save by elimination the middle guy.

Sometimes I work with agencies and I provide my services to international organizations and government agencies in several countries. There are good agencies, for the most part at the top end of the market, who care for quality and pay professional fees. Professional interpreters can work with some of these high-end agencies, international organizations, and government agencies for occasional services after signing a contract. In these situations, the agency that retains an interpreter to do a Nobel Prize winners conference, or the official entity that hires you for a service where you decide whether you accept the assignment or not, are your direct clients. This is a very different situation from an ongoing, several times a week (or month) assignments where the agency sets conditions, orders you not to talk to their client about your services or qualifications, and calls interpreters based on their availability, not individual skills and credentials. This is a direct client model and such practice is unacceptable.

Up to this point, we have covered several means to get direct clients; we will now deal with the most difficult part of working on your own, like a real professional: You need to keep the client.

Keeping a client is very difficult, mainly at the beginning of the professional relationship, but it is an ongoing challenge. You cannot assume a client will stay with you until eternity. Clients are vulnerable to market changes, economic developments, financial crisis, technological developments, legislative amendments, and C-suite changes that set different priorities and new policy. As interpreters we must navigate through these unchartered waters and stay afloat.

Because this is difficult, and time consuming, interpreters should need to evaluate every professional relationship, and assess each client’s value. When the return on your investment is poor or non-existent, drop that client. Keep the best of the best. Develop a strong relationship only with those clients who will benefit you in all (or at least most) of these areas: honesty, reliability, respect, easy access to the top, flexibility, cooperation, professionalism, pay, field of practice, loyalty.

These are your “A-list” clients. You may only have one, maybe there is nobody there yet. That is fine, but do not lower the bar. It means that at this time your best direct clients are “B-list” entities and individuals. Always keep, and fight to keep your “A-listers”, keep your “B-listers” until you have to make room for an “A-list” client, and dump the rest.

To retain “A-listers” you have to keep them happy all the time. This means you have to provide impeccable service and then you have to go the extra mile. Your job with the “A-lister” goes beyond the booth, the law office, or the negotiating table. It includes consulting, providing suggestions, volunteering evaluations, quick research, flexible hours, and priority services. From suggesting the type of interpreters needed, location of the booths, equipment to be used, cultural aspects to be observed or avoided, witness preparation, speaker orientation before a conference, review of printed materials and Power Point slides and translations, to evaluating sound quality of videos to be interpreted, most convenient hotels, restaurants and coffee shops near the venue in a foreign country, and escort interpreting for the principal, sometimes at no extra cost. To keep the “A-list” client you have to be willing and available to travel at the last minute when needed, and to take the four-in-the-morning phone call from the client.

Not all direct clients need (or deserve) that level of attention, but you have to give them something that your competitors, individuals and agencies, will not provide. You need to offer all services mentioned above, but you have to decide what level of intensity to offer as part of your service case-by-case. You now see why you cannot keep all direct clients, but just the best ones. It is time-consuming, you need to gain the client’s trust and loyalty. That is hard.

It is a lot of work, but it is well-paid, not just monetarily (although this is an essential element) but also in freedom, dignity and appreciation. All excellent, reliable interpreters can work exclusively with direct clients, it is a matter of time and effort. It will take some time, but if you are willing to try, start your transition to direct clients now. I now invite you to share with us your suggestions to get and keep direct clients, and please, do not write to defend agencies, they have their own blogs where they constantly praise the benefits of their business model in the interpreting industry.

The little-known history of the star of the Thanksgiving dinner.

November 27, 2019 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Thanksgiving Day is here again. Millions of Americans will gather with friends and relatives to celebrate the most American of all holidays, and almost all of them will eat the same thing: turkey.

Turkey has become the symbol of Thanksgiving in the United States, people talk about cooking their turkey dinner, they decorate their homes with dishes, tablecloths, and ornaments portraying turkeys. Even the classical well-wishing greeting during this season is “Happy turkey day”.

Turkeys are relatively new to western civilization. They were domesticated and eaten in the Americas for centuries, but Europeans found them for the first time in the 15th century, after Columbus and other explorers established contact with American civilizations. In fact, North America has some of the most spectacular birds on earth; countries have adopted as their national bird. How is it then that in a continent where the majestic bald eagle symbolizes the United States, and the magnificent quetzal is found on Guatemala’s flag, a not particularly beautiful bird won the heart of a nation and became a Thanksgiving star?

Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the Autumn of 1621, it became the Thanksgiving meal of choice after president Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. It is said that Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as America’s national symbol, and this claim is usually based on a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah, dated January 26, 1784, in which he panned the eagle and explained the virtues of the gobbler. Although the turkey was defeated by the regal bold eagle, Americans did not stop their love affair with the turkey. Some have said that we eat turkey on Thanksgiving because this meal is a reminder of the four wild turkeys that were served at the first Thanksgiving feast. A more reliable source explains that the first Thanksgiving in 1621, attended by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony contained venison, ham, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, squash, and waterfowl.

Whether they ate turkey at the first feast or not, the truth is that turkeys are one of the Americas’ most representative species. From the wild turkeys of Canada to the ones of Kentucky, where they even named a whiskey for the bird, to the guajolote of Mexico, as turkeys are known for their Náhuatl name (uexólotl), that is served with mole sauce since pre-Hispanic times as described by Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Bernardino de Sahagun who witnessed first-hand how turkeys were sold at the marketplace (tianguis), to the chompipe tamales, as turkeys are called in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua; to the fricasé de guanajo (guanajo fricassee) as turkeys are called in Cuba, and other dishes cooked with gallopavo, turkey in Argentina, and Piru, as turkeys are known in Brazil. In Mexico female turkeys are referred to as “totol”, from the Nahuatl word “totolin” (hen).

How did this American bird get its most popular names in two European languages: pavo in Spanish, and turkey in English?

The word “pavo” comes from the Latin “pavus”, a bird Europeans found in India and Southeast Asia during the Marco Polo and other explorers’ trips to get species and silk. In English we know this bird as peacock. In Spanish it was called “Pavorreal”. Because 15th century European explorers believed they had reached Asia, not the Americas, when Spanish conquistadors saw wild turkeys, they associated them to “pavus”, or “pavorreal”, thus the name “pavo”.

There are two theories for the derivation of the name “turkey”. According to Columbia University Romance languages professor Mario Pei, when Europeans first encountered turkeys, they incorrectly identified them as guineafowl, a bird already known in Europe, sold by merchants from Turkey via Constantinople. These birds were called “Turkey coqs”; therefore, when they saw American turkeys, they called them “turkey fowl” or “Indian turkeys”. With time, this was shortened to “turkeys”.

The second theory derives from turkeys arriving in England not directly from the Americas, but via merchant ships coming from the Middle East. These merchants were referred to as “Turkey merchants”, and their product was called “Turkey-cocks” or “Turkey-hens”, and soon thereafter: “turkeys”.

In 1550 William Strickland, an English navigator, was granted a coat of arms including a “turkey-cock” in recognition to his travels and being the first to introduce turkeys in England. William Shakespeare uses the term on “Twelfth Night” written in 1601.

Other countries have other names for turkeys: In French they are called “dinde”; in Russian: “indyushka”; in Polish: “indyk”; in Dutch: “Kalkoen” (because of Calcutta); in Cantonese: “foh gai” (fire chicken); in Mandarin: “huo ji”  and it is called “Hindi” in Turkey!

Now you know more about the bird that found its way to all dinner tables in America on the fourth Thursday in November. I now invite you to share with us other stories involving turkeys, their name in other languages, and how you prepare it for the big meal. Happy Thanksgiving!

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