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

April 30, 2018 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atlanta hosts the largest gathering of U.S. court interpreters this weekend.

May 16, 2015 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

This weekend many of the top-notch court interpreters in the United States will meet in Atlanta for the annual conference of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). For this reason, when I was asked by the Atlanta Association of Interpreters and Translators (AAIT) to write a piece for the special conference issue of their publication “Bridges”, I agreed to first publish it there, and post it here later on the day.

Professional conferences are vital to any activity and we are no exception. As you all know, these are the places where we solidify and improve our knowledge, advance our skills, and refresh our ethics. That in itself makes them invaluable, but NAJIT’s annual conference is much more than that.

Those attending the conference will be pleasantly surprised to learn that many of the living legends of court interpreting will be there, and that they will be joined by some local and brand new talent in our industry.  You see, the conference will welcome more than court interpreters and legal translators. Conference, medical, community, military, and other types of professional interpreters will be in Atlanta adding value to the event, sharing their knowledge and experience, and developing professional networks across disciplines and places of residence.

I invite you to approach old and new colleagues and have a dialogue with them. I believe that these conferences give us an opportunity to do all the academic things I mentioned above; but they also provide a forum for interpreters to discuss those issues that are threatening our profession. Atlanta is giving us a unique opportunity to talk about strategy on issues as important as the development of technologies and the efforts by some of the big agencies to keep these new resources to themselves and use them to take the market to lows that are totally unacceptable to professionals. We can openly talk about strategy to defend our fees, working conditions, and professionalism, while at the same time initiating a direct dialogue with the technology companies who are developing all the new software and hardware that will soon become the standard in our profession.

Finally, the conference will also help you to get more exposure to other interpreters, and will provide situations where we will have a great time and create long-lasting memories and new friendships across the country and beyond. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your motivation to attend this and other professional conferences. I hope to see you this weekend!

How creativity saved the interpretation.

November 21, 2014 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I will talk about two topics you are all very familiar with: Creativity and quick thinking. Two necessary elements in every interpreter’s repertoire that are used to solve problems and avoid catastrophes in the complex business of communication among those who do not speak or understand the same language. An individual must possess a series of characteristics to be a professional interpreter; among them: the ability to take a concept or idea in one language, understand it and process it, and then render it into another language with the appropriate cultural context necessary for the listener to comprehend the message without any effort, therefore freeing him to concentrate on the content of the message the orator is delivering in the foreign language. This multitasking requires of a quick and agile mind. The interpreter cannot be slow in thinking, processing, or delivering the message. It is impossible.

Just as important as a quick mind is the capacity and resolve to act when needed, and in the interpreting world where many times we encounter a reality where some of the cultural concepts of the parties are at odds, the interpreter needs to resort to his creativity and sense of improvisation.

I am sure that you all have had your chance to apply these two skills during your professional career. In my case there have been too many instances when my interpreting partner or I have acted with great speed and creativity to avoid a problem; this made it difficult to decide which one I should use for this post. After a long rewind of some memorable experiences, I picked an instance where creativity and quick thinking were enhanced by the interpreters’ teamwork.

Sometime ago I was working the Spanish booth at a conference in a European country. I cannot remember the exact topic, but it had to do with the environment. There were delegates from many countries and there were interpreters with many language combinations. During the fourth day of the event the morning session was uneventful. My booth partner and I finished our shift in the Spanish booth and went to get some lunch. That afternoon the second speaker was from an English-speaking country where people have a very distinctive accent and way of talking. In the speaker’s particular case the accent was very heavy and it took a few minutes to get used to his speech. Some thirty minutes into the presentation, right after I had handed the microphone to my partner, I heard a knock on the door of the booth. It was one of the Italian booth interpreters. She looked frazzled and frustrated when she told me that her booth was having a very hard time understanding the speaker, and from the questions she asked me about the speech, it became apparent that they were really missing a good portion of the presentation. These interpreters were fairly new, I had never seen either one of them before, but from my observations during the first three days of the conference I could see that they were good, dedicated, and professional. I immediately empathized with them as I recalled the many occasions in the past when a speaker with a heavy accent, weak voice, or bad public speaking habits had made me suffer throughout a rendition. It was clear that they were not going to understand much more during the rest of the presentation that still had about two hours to go; it was also obvious that we needed to do something about it.

After some brainstorming with the Italian interpreter, while our respective colleagues worked in the booth, (the second Italian interpreter no-doubt sweating bullets throughout the speech) certain things became apparent: The two colleagues in the Italian booth were professionally trained interpreters with great command of the booth, and with excellent delivery skills. It was also very noticeable that they both spoke Spanish very well. After these facts were spelled out, we both concluded that the solution to the “heavy accent” issue was a relay interpreting rendition. We decided that the Spanish booth would take the feed from the floor in English, interpret the source in that very heavy accent into Spanish, and then the Italian booth would pick up the feed from our booth in Spanish and deliver it into their target language, in this case: Italian. Because of the teamwork, camaraderie, and will to help on the part of all four interpreters, and due to the experience and skill of the Spanish booth, and the great command of the booth and pleasant delivery of the Italian booth, we were able to deliver our service to both: the Spanish and Italian speakers seamlessly. This would have never happened without the interpreters’ professional minds working very fast to find a solution, and without the creativity of the interpreters that made it possible to switch gears in the middle of a very important event already in progress. Once again I proved to myself (and others) that professionalism and formation count. They are important tools that a real interpreter needs to use when the situation demands it. Without professionalism there is no sense of camaraderie, and without that perception that we are all colleagues, the two booths would have never worked together and solved the situation. I would love to hear some of your stories where creativity, a quick mind, or the sense of camaraderie among professional colleagues helped you to overcome a professional obstacle.

Interpreting for the attorney from hell.

September 16, 2013 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

During my years as an interpreter I have done a lot of court interpreting. I have worked interesting cases, boring proceedings, and nasty trials.  While doing it I have had the opportunity to meet and interpret for great people and I have had the misfortune of interpreting, or better said: attempted to interpret, for horrible speakers.  No doubt you all have had your share of difficult people regardless of the type of interpreting work you do; but court interpreting makes it particularly difficult when you are faced with the consecutive interpretation of the cross-examination of a witness.

For those of you who do not practice in the courts, cross-examination is a phase of a trial when the attorney for the counterpart interrogates a witness offered by their opponent. Because the witness has already testified for the side that originally offered him, the attorney for the other party in the controversy has the right to ask him questions about the contents of the statement provided during the interrogation by the party that presented him as a witness, to test inconsistencies in the testimony; in other words: to impeach the witness. To do it, attorneys are limited as to the questions they get to ask during this cross-examination. They cannot ask anything that goes beyond the scope of the original questions and testimony (called direct examination)

To be able to successfully uncover discrepancies and falsehoods, during cross-examination attorneys ask questions that suggest the answer to the witness and leave no room for long explanations or excuses. They do this by starting or ending all questions with phrases such as: “Isn’t it true that you saw him steal the money?” or “You knew all along where she was hiding, didn’t you?” This way the witness can only answer with a “yes” or “no.”

As you can imagine, this type of questioning is very difficult to interpret, not only because it is done consecutively, but because of the importance of the phrasing. The interpreter must interpret the question into the target language in a way that the answer has to be a “yes” or “no.”  It is also important for the attorney asking the questions, and for the judge and jury, to see the immediate reaction of the witness after he listens to the question as the judge is developing a line of questioning that leads to impeachment, and the jury members are assessing the credibility of this witness.  There are many attorneys that are very good at cross-examining through an interpreter. They know that they need to pause for the question to be interpreted before doing a follow-up question; they know that they must ask questions that are easily interpreted into the target language within the format explained above. Unfortunately, there are also many lawyers who do not know how to work with an interpreter in a trial, even if they have been practicing for a long time.  You probably met these attorneys during your career. So did I.

However, among all those difficult to interpret lawyers I have worked with, there is one that is by far at the top of the list. I call him the attorney from hell.

Sometime ago I was retained to interpret for a very long trial with multiple defendants and many attorneys. My job was to exclusively interpret the testimony of the witnesses that took the stand. I knew several of the attorneys but not all. The trial started and we got to the witness testimony. Everything went fine for several days, until it was time for the attorney of one of the defendants to cross-examine a Spanish speaker witness from the prosecution. The attorney made this experience one of the most frustrating ones in my long career.  In fact, he became a walking-manual of how not to cross-examine when working through an interpreter. First, he would repeatedly ask questions with double negatives, making these questions very difficult to understand, and portraying the witness as a liar when in fact he was trying to understand the attorney’s question. Next, when the witness would say that he had not understood the question (because it was a double negative) the lawyer would make fun of him and repeat the very same question very slowly and loudly. Obviously, he was trying to show the jury that this witness was reluctant to tell the truth, but in reality he was “talking to the wall” since his disrespectful questioning had to go through the interpreter before the witness knew what was asked.  Obviously my interpreter colleague and I did not need him to repeat the question slowly; we needed him to get rid of the double negatives.  By the way, we are not deaf either. I know many people speak very loud when talking to a foreigner who doesn’t know the language as if a loud voice could magically be understood in any language. This attorney never waited for the interpretation to be rendered. He would start making fun of the witness even before the witness had heard the full question; there were many occasions when the judge on his own; or at the request of the interpreter had to ask this attorney to wait for the question to be interpreted before asking something else again.

Imagine this problem, and combine it with countless false stops during the question where the lawyer stops talking, the interpreter starts the rendition, and half way through it the attorney continues with a second part of the question (which by the way is not allowed according to the rules of evidence). The result is a big mess. If this wasn’t enough, the attorney would constantly pull out pages from the witness’ prior statements to the Grand Jury (during the indictment phase of the case) and read for many minutes non-stop, then he would put the document down and ask the witness: “So is it or is it not?”   Obviously it is very difficult to interpret this way as the interpretation of the written statement goes on for a long time, and then the interpreter ends with the question above. Needless to say, the witness gets confused, the attorney loses the jury as they have to sit there for a long time without understanding a word of what is being said, and the attorney gets impatient and interrupts the interpreter telling me or my colleague to stop right there, even though he doesn’t even know how far into the interpretation of the prior statements we got.  Add to all of these atrocities that the attorney was sarcastic and used big words during the entire cross-examination (which many lawyers do and is justified as part of the impeachment process, given the fact that the witness will have a chance to rehabilitation during the re-direct examination by the attorney who originally offered his testimony) and the fact that the lawyer had a paralegal sitting at the defense table next to their client, and this person was acting as a sidekick to the attorney as he was constantly laughing at all the sarcasm during this dog and pony show. We did our job, interpreted everything as we should, asked for repetitions and clarifications every time it was necessary, and kept our composure and professionalism throughout the trial.  Many people probably didn’t even notice the difficulties attorneys like this one create for themselves by not knowing how to work with the court interpreter, and this lawyer will probably work with interpreters many more times before his career is over.  Now I invite you to enter your suggestions when this situation arises in court, and please share your stories about working with difficult attorneys during direct or cross-examination of a defendant or a witness.

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