Thanksgiving Post: Interpreters make possible a scientific & diplomatic mission over 200 years ago.

November 23, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

Once again, despite the pandemic and warnings from the Health Authorities, unfortunately, on Thanksgiving Day millions of Americans will gather with friends and relatives to celebrate the most American of all holidays. It is difficult to comprehend how so many of our fellow citizens will put self-interest above society’s public health, but that is not the topic of this post. Just as we know indoor gatherings are not cool this year, we know many think of Thanksgiving as a symbol of the oppression and abuse Native Americans endured when Europeans arrived in the continent. Both perspectives are valid, but this blog is about interpreting, and like every year, I chose this week to reflect on the contributions the first interpreters made to the birth of our nation. This time, we will remember the interpreters that made possible America’s expansion to the west.

Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson organized a scientific and diplomatic mission to the newly acquired lands with the goals of mapping the territories, explore the flora and fauna, find a passage to the Pacific, and to establish diplomatic and commercial ties with local inhabitants of these lands, now part of the United States. The expedition was entrusted to renowned explorers, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Lewis and Clark organized a group of 45 members named the Corps of Discovery, which included officers, 29 military personal, civilians and servants. They left Camp Dubois (in present Illinois) on May 14, 1804. From the beginning, Lewis and Clark knew diplomacy in the new territories would require of the services of interpreters, as most people they were about to encounter would speak French, Spanish, or one of the many indigenous languages. A top priority, they initiated a campaign to recruit interpreters who spoke French, Spanish, and the known indigenous languages, knowing well they would need to incorporate additional interpreters along the way to communicate in other languages they would be discovering along the trip.

The native inhabitants of the Great Plains spoke many languages and dialects. Even those from the same language group were not mutually intelligible all the time. Besides oral communication, Native Americans on the plains communicated through an elaborated system of hand signs to communicate with other nations when they did not know the others’ language. This way they were able to negotiate peace, create military alliances, and trade with one another.

French, Spanish, British, and American trappers and traders living along the Missouri River had interacted with the natives for years, some had married local women, and their children, a product of both cultures, often spoke the language of both parents. George Drouillard, the son of a French father and Shawnee mother was one of them. Captain Lewis recruited him, and Francois Labiche and Pierre Cruzatte. These two spoke French, English, and Omaha.

Although he could speak no Native American language, Private John Baptiste Lapage spoke, and had interpreted between French and English, a valuable resource when communicating with French traders and trappers who lived in the region. Drouillard and Cruzatte were conversant in the Sign Language of the plains, and later, Private George Gibson was also recruited for his knowledge of this Sign Language. Anticipating contact with the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, or Great Sioux Nation, Lewis and Clark realized Cruzatte’s knowledge of Sign Language was limited. Luckily, they ran into a Frenchman named Pierre Dorion, who was married to a Sioux woman, had lived among the Yankton for decades, and was fluent in their language. Captain Lewis hired him immediately. His services proved valuable since Lewis engaged his services to communicate President Jefferson’s peaceful intentions to the local leaders.

By late July 1804, the Captains were eager to hold their first meeting with the representatives from the Oto, Missouri, Omaha, and Ponca, or Pawnee nations. They retained the services of a Frenchman known as La Liberteé, or Barter, who spoke the Oto language. This interpreter deserted before he could provide any services, but another Frenchmen, Fairfong, who lived among the Oto and Missouri, and spoke their language, accompanied the Captains to a summit later known as the “Council Bluff.”

At the summit, Fairfong interpreted consecutively from Oto into French, then Droullard and Cruzatte took relay from French, and interpreted consecutively into English for Lewis and Clark. Because of the interpretation, all parties could communicate and negotiate, and the Council was deemed a diplomatic success.

In September 1804, the Captains held a Council with the Teton Sioux without competent interpreters. This proved to be very difficult, as Clark recorded in his journal: “…we feel much at a loss for the want of an interpreter… the one we have can Speek (sic) but little…” (after a meal) “…Cap. Lewis proceeded to deliver a Speech which we (were) oblige(d) to Curtail for want of a good interpreter.” (Lewis, Meriwether and Clark William. The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Bergon, ed. New York, NY. Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1989. P. 52) The lack of quality interpreting nearly ended in tragedy when after the meeting, one of the Chiefs became “…Verry (sic) insolent in words and justures (sic), pretended Drunkenness & staggered up against (Clark)” (Ibid p. 52, 53).

On October 1804 Captain Lewis visited an Arikara village, and Captain Clark stayed behind to talk to some Frenchmen who arrived by pirogue. Among these men there were two traders named Joseph Gravelines (who Clark always called “Gavellin”) and Antoine Tabeau. Later, Lewis described Gravelines as “…a man well-versed in the language of this nation…” (Ibid p. 61). These new interpreters explained that the Arikara spoke different languages because of a merger of different tribes: They “…do not understand all the words of the others…” (Ibid p. 67). Without the interpreting services of Gravelines and Tabeau, Lewis and Clark could have never held a successful and productive summit with the Arikara. In late October, helped by these two interpreters, they had another successful meeting with the Mandans. At this village the Captains met another Frenchman: René Jessaume, who lived with his Native American wife in the village and offer his interpreting services for as long as they stayed among the Mandan and Hidasta. Jessaume turned into a most valuable assistant as he provided information on the leaders’ personalities, local politics. and local culture. This information helped Lewis and Clark in their efforts to negotiate a peace treaty between neighboring tribes. These actions made Jessaume the first interpreter and cultural broker of the expedition. (Ibid p. 69-72).

At this village the Captains considered the possibility that the northwest passage did not exist. There, they would need to continue by foot, and they would need horses. Learning the Shoshone possessed quality horses, Lewis and Clark decided to meet them and negotiate the acquisition of some. To accomplish this objective, they knew a competent Shoshone interpreter would be essential not just to get the horses, but to communicate their peaceful intentions and fulfill the diplomatic mission ordered by President Jefferson.

On November 4, a Frenchman named Toussaint Charbonneau visited the expedition at the place that would become Fort Mandan and offered his services as an interpreter. He did not speak Shoshone, but one of his two wives, Sacagawea, who had been captured by the Shoshone as a child did. He offered his wife as an interpreter from Shoshone into Hidatsa, and his services from the latter into French, leaving open the need for a French-English interpreter. For this task, the Captains hired Private Francois Labiche who spoke both, English and French. Charbonneau was hired “as an interpreter through his wife.” (Ibid. p. 77, 78). At this time, the Arikara Chief and his men, along with interpreters Gravelines and Tabeau wished farewell to Lewis and Clark and their now 33-member “permanent party” as they sailed up the Missouri River.

In August 1805, while looking to buy horses, crossing the Continental Divide, Captain Lewis and Drouillard encountered some Shoshone. The interpreter communicated through Sign Language as recorded on the journals: “…The means I had of communicating with these people was by way of Drewyer (Drouillard) who understood perfectly the common language of jesticulation (sic) or signs which seems to be universally understood by all the Nations we have yet seen. It is true that this language is imperfect and liable of error but is much less so than would be expected. The strong parts of the ideas are seldom mistaken…” (Ibid. p.98). After the rest of the party joined Lewis, it was discovered that the Shoshone leader, Cameahwait, was Sacagawea’s brother who she had not seen for five years. These circumstances made the purchase of the horses easier, but negotiations had to be carried on through relay interpreting: Lewis and Clark spoke to Labiche in English, Labiche interpreted the message into French for Charbonneau; Charbonneau interpreted into Hidatsa for Sacagawea; and she interpreted into Shoshone for her brother. When Cameahwait spoke, the process was reversed. (Ibid. p. 275). This was the regular interpreting system followed during the expedition. The extensive, consecutive relay interpretation must have taken a long time.

Perhaps the most complicated interpreting session took place in April 1806 during the return trip near the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers when the expedition found members of the Walla Walla Nation. The Captains had no Walla Walla interpreter, so they relied on Drouillard’s Sign Language, but the communication was not going as desired. Fortunately, at this time, Sacagawea found a Shoshone woman among the Walla Wallas. This woman had been taken as a child by the Walla Walla and spoke their language. They could now negotiate with the Walla Wallas. Lewis and Clark spoke to Labiche in English; he interpreted into French for Charbonneau; Charbonneau then relayed to Sacagawea in Hidatsa; she interpreted into Shoshone for the captive woman, who in turn interpreted into Walla Walla for the Head of the tribe.

Most people think of Sacagawea as the interpreter of Lewis and Clark. Her contributions were key to the success of the expedition and the survival of the corps; but communication was only possible thanks to the services of all other interpreters of Lewis and Clark: Toussaint Charbonneau, Francois Labiche, Pierre Cruzatte, George Gibson, George Drouillard, Pierre Dorion, Fairfong, Reneé Jessaume, Josepg Gravelines, and Antoine Tabeau. The Lewis and Clark expedition, and the transformation of the American nation, may have failed for “want of a good interpreter.” Fortunately, they had plenty of capable individuals who bridged the communication gap, and made science and diplomacy possible, by interpreting consecutively, offering cultural advice, working relay into several languages at a time, and using sign language.

On this Thanksgiving Day, let’s remember and celebrate the work of these often-forgotten pioneers who did their best for two bosses who knew from the beginning that having good, reliable interpretation was essential for the success of the most famous expedition in American history.

Remote interpreting. The way it should be.

November 9, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

We live in an environment where everybody is finally acknowledging the technological and economic changes that have disrupted the world of professional interpreting. About half of our colleagues are singing the praises of the innovations while the other half are opposing them. The truth is: Nobody is right and no one is wrong. Many of those who jumped on the bandwagon of video and audio remote interpreting did it with ulterior motives with nothing to do with the quality of the interpreters and therefore with their remuneration as professionals. Their concern was to get there first, and to do it quickly to make a lot of money with little consideration of the side effects of their actions. These call themselves the “industry”: Multinational agencies who sell interpreting services as a used car salesman sells you a lemon, and individuals who rushed to position themselves as intermediaries between these agencies, stingy uneducated end-users, and that group of paraprofessionals who are glad to work as “interpreters” for a handful of crumbs.

You have many capable, seasoned interpreters who refuse to work remotely because of their lack of knowledge about the technology and fearing performing below their well-known widely recognized professional level, not because they cannot interpret, but because they may have a hard time learning how to use the equipment, and even to do the simple things now required in the booth, like typing and searching the web.

There are many others who refuse to work remotely for a good reason: Because the quality of the equipment proposed for the event is subpar, because they are asked to provide a professional service for an insulting amount of money, or due to the deplorable working conditions offered by those who try to equate us with laborers instead of professionals.

For years, I have made my position known to those who care to hear it: I am all for technology if it is of excellent quality and the interpreters who use it are true professionals, making a professional fee and under working conditions that do not differ from those available in live in-person or on-site interpreting. Some of you have heard me praise the tremendous opportunities we have now as interpreters, and how we can now get more interesting assignments and make more money by eliminating travel days (usually paid as half of the full-day fee) and replacing them with more interpreting days where we can make our full-day fee.

Today I will share with you my experience with remote simultaneous interpretation and how this is working out fine for me.

I will be talking about conference interpreting, and what I say will probably be inapplicable to other types of interpreting because of the way multinational agencies and unscrupulous intermediaries have already polluted the environment.  At any rate, what you read here may help your efforts to demand better conditions in court and healthcare interpreting, and to refuse all work offered under such denigrating conditions.

The conference interpreting system I am working with is a cloud-based platform named Interprefy, by a company from Zurich, Switzerland. They are not an agency and they do not retain the interpreters. My business relationship is with their U.S. office: Interprefy USA in Chicago.

When I interpret with them, I physically go to their office in downtown Chicago by the Sears Tower where they have some booths/studios (more about this later) where I work with a live expert technician with me in Chicago. My booth-mate is usually sitting next to me in Chicago, but sometimes she is interpreting from another city or continent from the booth/studio of the company. A second (or third, fourth, etc.) expert technician, who also works for the company, is at the venue to coordinate and if needed fix any glitches at that end. If the interpreter is technologically very savvy, or daring, she can even work from her own home, after the equipment has been set up and tested. For this she must have at least 2 computers and a high speed internet connection.

The set up in my booth is similar to the one we have for our in situ assignments. There is a table with a computer, a very good headset, and a state-of-the-art microphone. If you prefer, you can use your own headset, just like an in-person conference. Your partner sits next to you and he also has a computer, headset and broadcast-style microphone.  Both interpreters have the same equipment. The computer on your desk lets you watch the speaker at the venue, and you can switch to another camera to see the screen on the stage of the people asking questions. There is a giant screen in front of both interpreters where we can watch the power point presentations and videos that the audience sees at the event. This is synchronized so that every time the speaker changes the slide, our screen will display the new one. If we want to see something else, or we want the volume at the podium higher, we can ask our technician at the venue and he will take care. There is a desk full of computers and other equipment behind the interpreters; this is where the main technician sits. We can talk to the main technician by turning around and speaking directly with him, or we can address him, and all other technicians by typing our questions, comments, and requests in the chatroom we all have through the platform. This is how we as interpreters can communicate with our virtual booth-mate when she is somewhere else, or to the other booths if we need something from another language, or for a relay.

The audience at the venue can listen to the interpretation by using traditional receivers and headphones, or by using their laptop, tablet, or phone, if they do so. Finally, if there is a problem with the internet connection, the service can immediately change from the cable or satellite provider, to an over-the-phone connection. This makes for a smooth service where the audience and speaker soon forget that the interpreters are thousands of miles and many time zones away from them.

Now, this is a sophisticated and at the same time, simple way to work a conference remotely; we are not talking about an Ipad on wheels, and from beginning to end, we are working under the watchful eye of expert technicians, not a jailer, court clerk, or nurse “operating” the technology.

We as interpreters can get used to this service because the quality of the product we deliver to the audience is top-notch, and because we work under the same conditions and pay as we do when physically at the conference. We get full dates and half dates, not that per-hour and even per-minute nonsense that the “industry” has imposed on court and healthcare interpreters. The company that runs the platform proudly announces that they only work with top quality conference interpreters in all languages needed. Their business model suggests that the savings are on the booths and travel expenses, not the interpreters.

This service has proven itself in big conferences with several booths from different locations, where there is no room to physically install a booth at the venue, and for less common languages in conferences where widely used languages are interpreted from a booth physically at the conference. Because of the company’s local partners, we as interpreters can easily drive downtown in most major cities and work from their location.

This is how remote interpreting must be, dear friends and colleagues. We cannot compromise quality, working conditions or remuneration just because some of the usual predators have taken over a market. I suggest you demand professional fees and conditions regardless of what type of remote interpreting you do.  Always remember: The end-user is already saving money in booth and travel expenses, do not let them fool you by convincing you that the service will not be profitable unless they pay you by the minute, and nurse Ratched is in charge with the dolly and the tablet.

Remote Simultaneous Interpreters (RSIs) cannot get a fee lower than in-person conference interpreters. Our work as RSIs is more complicated because we must know broadcast interpreting to deal with the voice latency (lag) that could be as much as 5 to 10 milliseconds, and to have extreme concentration and deep knowledge of the subject if gaps or blackouts keep us from hearing a syllable or even a word. Not all conference interpreters can sound seamless under these conditions. This is one reason why the RSI booth looks a little like a broadcast studio. I am convinced that Remote Simultaneous Interpreting is a new and different type of interpreting: A hybrid between broadcast and conference interpreting that requires training and preparation only a professional can embrace.

I now invite you to share your thoughts on this very trendy subject in our profession, and please remember that I have no experience with those other less-sophisticated devices hospitals, detention centers and courthouses are using to save a quick buck.

When the speaker has a heavy accent.

October 23, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I am sure that the title to this article immediately brought some memories to each one of you. A speaker’s heavy accent is one of the most common, yet toughest, problems that a professional interpreter has to overcome in order to provide a high quality service.

A few years ago I was hired to interpret for a medical conference where the main speaker was a very well-known scientist whose research had put him on the run for a Nobel Prize.  The topic was complex and the event was very important. Several hundred physicians, chemists, nurses, and other health professionals had paid a hefty ticket to attend this presentation.  Going by the book, the moment I took the assignment I began my research and studied for the assignment. I worked alone and I worked with the colleague who was going to be my partner in the booth for this job. I should mention that my partner was also a very good and experienced conference interpreter.

The date of the conference finally arrived and I traveled to the city where it was going to take place.  The presentation was going to be on a Monday starting early in the morning, and there was a scheduled reception for all attendees on Sunday evening. One of the perks of the job is that sometimes you get invited to these events, so my colleague and I went to the reception. It is hard to pass on champagne and good caviar!

The following morning I got to the booth with plenty of time to check the equipment and put out any fires if any. My colleague arrived at the same time I did. Everything seemed to be alright. This was before the I-pad/ laptop days and the booths were upstairs in a mezzanine above the conference floor. We had to carry all of our materials upstairs.

The program started and the president of the professional association hosting the workshop came on stage to welcome everybody and introduce the main speaker: Dr. John Doe (real name withheld for obvious reasons) I started the interpretation session that morning, so by the time Dr. Doe was due to appear on stage it was time to switch in the booth. My colleague took over, and as he was adjusting his headphones we saw an oriental man walk on the stage. This was Dr. Doe! “…But…it can be…” I said. He has an American western name.  Well, that was he.  As some of you may know, in the United States anybody can change his name to any name he chooses, and as long as you don’t defraud your creditors, from that point on you are that person. We had studied the speaker’s research work, academic history, every single piece of paper that had his name on it. There was nothing about his place of birth anywhere. There was no way we could have known that he was not a native speaker; and frankly, we never even thought of that possibility.

Dr. Doe took the microphone and started to speak.  You couldn’t understand a thing of what he was saying!!! Absolutely nothing!!! His accent was that thick.  My colleague turned towards me and gestured that he didn’t understand any of Dr. Doe’s speech. I didn’t either.

To this day I don’t know why, but at that point I looked into the conference room as if looking for I don’t know what, and I saw this blonde woman sitting to the side in the very back of the auditorium.  I immediately remembered that I had seen her the night before at the reception next to the oriental man now known to me as Dr. Doe.  I figured that she had to be his wife, girlfriend, assistant, agent, or something similar.  In other words, I thought that she must understand his English.  I signaled to my colleague, who was struggling with the rendition, that I would be right back and I left the booth.

When I approached the blonde lady and I explained our predicament she laughed really hard. I learned that she was Dr. Doe’s wife, she was American by birth, spoke English clearly, and she was able to understand her husband’s English.  I asked for her help.

I went back to the booth accompanied by Mrs. John Doe.  We put a third chair in the booth so she could have a seat. Because of the size of the both we had to leave the door open. We gave her a set of headphones and asked her to repeat everything her husband said. In fact we asked her to interpret from her husband’s English into regular English.  We did relay interpreting from her English into Spanish.  We also used her rendition for the other booths (Portuguese and French as I recall) Very soon the only people who couldn’t understand Dr. Doe were the English speakers as they didn’t have the benefit of a booth. It was funny to see those English speakers looking around and realizing that everybody else was getting the presentation but them.   After much suffering, at the end of the day the Spanish booth was the “hero” that saved the day.  Of course, it was due to my experience and ability to think quickly and to solve a problem. Had I not attended the reception the day before, or had I not remembered the blonde lady by Dr. Doe’s side, we would have had a very difficult experience instead of an anecdote that has been repeated hundreds of times. I would love to hear some of your stories telling us how you were able to overcome an obstacle during a rendition.

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