Is interpreter continuing education online as good as in-person learning?

September 15, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

These months of confinement have changed our lives in many ways, including how we teach and learn. Despite the terrible consequences the pandemic brought to the professional interpreting world, there have been positive effects: a profession more united than ever before, and the possibility to attend courses, workshops and classes remotely from every corner on earth.

Professional development, expensive and out of many interpreters’ league became affordable overnight. On line classes are often offered free or at a fee considerably lower than in-person training sessions; travel expenses are never an issue when attending a workshop from your kitchen table, and even Ivy League quality institutions are offering a learning opportunity to those who would have never considered enrolling in one of their courses.

On line education and training has been an outlet to deal with the lockup, lack of income, and fear of the uncertain. It has also given instructors, professors, and trainers, a way to make a living in a time of closed college campuses and zero conferences.

Online learning is not new, but, just like video conferences, came of age during Covid-19. Suddenly, interpreters’ appetite to learn how to work remotely, protect and grow their business in a crisis, and going back to relearn the basics, created an immense wave of courses, workshops, webinars, and instructors who now co-exist with the better-known trainers and programs from before the quarantine. As a consequence, some of what is offered online is very good… and some is not.

I have discussed this situation in the blog before. It is very important, but I will not deal with it today. My concern in writing this blog has to do with the benefits from online learning on a professional interpreter. Is this an effective way to continue our professional development? And if so, is it comparable to in-person continuing education?

Instructors, government agencies, professional associations, and individuals are joining online professional development classes by the thousands. Besides the obvious workshops on how to interpret remotely from home, two main groups of colleagues are resorting to online education in the interpreting world: The interpreters driven by an aspirational motivation, and those who take advantage of this inexpensive method of obtaining continuing education credits to keep their license, accreditation, patent, or certification current.

The first group, consisting of an overwhelming majority of community interpreters (court, healthcare, education, etc.) gravitate towards those workshops, courses, and webinars that promise to teach them how to become conference interpreters, improve their simultaneous rendition, shake off their fear to interpret consecutively, learn a better note-taking system, get tips on how to do research, join a conference interpreting practice group, and others.

The second group includes those interpreters, usually court and healthcare interpreters, who must log in a certain number of continuing education hours every year to maintain their ability to practice in their field. To continue to interpret in court and medical settings, many interpreters must prove to their government or professional association they have accumulated the minimum credits needed to practice one more year. The possibility to get these credits on line has been around for years in several countries, but until now, most interpreters preferred to meet their continuous professional development requirements by physically attending an international, national, or regional conference where they could get the credits and do networking simultaneously.

This are very difficult times, but it caught my attention how most professional associations, and government agencies, grant continuing education credits to those attending an online event at the same credit-hour equivalency they do for in-person education. I teach courses, webinars and workshops several times a month. I have been doing it for many years, and my many decades of experience as an interpreter trainer and Law School professor show me that the level of learning online is lower than sitting in a classroom. Attention span, multiple distractions, unsupervised behavior, lack of peer-pressure, computer fatigue, and other circumstances, keep the student from learning at the same rate as a traditional system.

There are studies that show that 65 percent of those taking a webinar, workshop, or course online are multitasking most of the time they are in class. It gets even worse when the individual is attending the webinar by phone. “people often find conference calls to be an opportune time to do many, many other things: 65% do other work; 63% send emails; 55% eat or cook during class; 47% go to the washroom; 44% send text messages; 43% are checking social media; 25% play video games; 21% do online shopping; 9% exercise during class; and 6% are on the phone talking to someone else… Part of the reason all of this is possible… is the magical mute function.” (Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2014/08/what-people-are-really-doing-when-theyre-on-a-conference-call?utm_source=Socialflow&utm_medium=Tweet&utm_campaign=Socialflow)

In 1913, Max Ringelmann, a French engineer, discovered why virtual meetings are often so unsuccessful. Ringelmann asked a team of people to pull on a rope. He then asked individuals (separately) to pull on the same rope. He noticed that when people worked as individuals, they put more effort into pulling than when they worked as a team. We call this the “Ringelmann Effect.” The bigger the group, the less responsibility each individual feels. If one does not feel necessary to the success of the task, it’s easy to tune out or put in less effort. In virtual learning the Ringelmann effect is magnified. When you are not in the room to help “pull the rope” for a class, you might feel less motivated to listen and participate. (Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2020/05/stop-zoning-out-in-zoom-meetings) It is easy to turn off the video and the instructor will never know what the student did during class.

Because of these peculiar circumstances: less attention to what is been taught online, and the lack of certainty that the students gave their undivided attention to the lesson presented online, it does not in seem fair that the same credits be awarded for an online and an in-person workshop. Less credits should be awarded for continuing education online.

A continuing education unit (CEU) or continuing education credit (CEC) is a measure used in continuing education programs to assist the professional to maintain their license, certification, accreditation, or patent as court or healthcare interpreters. Continuing Professional Development (CPD) or Continuing Education (CE) refers to tracking and documenting the skills, knowledge, and experience interpreters gain, formally and informally, when they work, beyond the initial education or training. This ensures interpreters maintain and improve their knowledge and skills needed to provide their professional services in their field. CPD or CE prove that an interpreter stays up-to-date in their field of professional practice.

When an individual takes a workshop in-person, there are forms to be filled and signed, attendance records to prove the person arrived at the beginning of the webinar, and stayed until the end. Those granting continuing education credits review these records before awarding anything to the student. As an attendee, I have signed an attendance list where I state the times I arrived and left countless times. I have filed continuing education forms to prove I attended the workshop on many occasions. As a teacher, I have filed an attendance record with the certification entity, showing who was in the classroom, and I have submitted an abstract of what I intend to teach, including the learning objectives, every time I teach. The question is: How to verify that a student stayed for the entire session during an online workshop?

The well-known CEU Institute, which facilitates the continuing education process to many regulated industries and professions in the United States and Canada, such as the insurance and healthcare industries, and the legal profession, has created a method to verify the integrity of the continuing education process.

The first thing they require is that online teaching must be live and interactive. Recorded webinars will not qualify as there is no way to corroborate attendance or that the person stayed during the lesson. There should be a way for the instructor or somebody else to verify attendance at the beginning, end, and periodically throughout the course. This attendance could be checked from dedicated software where students will be logged out if they do not periodically provide a keystroke, mouse click, or something similar, to periodic question and answer sessions, surveys and polling, to an old-fashioned roll call several times during the webinar. Unless the CEU Institute receives confirmation of attendance tracking from a method like the ones above, no credits will be granted. This is a sample of the webinar affidavit a monitor has to file with the CEU Institute: http://ceuinstitute2019-net.ntc6-p2stl.ezhostingserver.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Monitor-Affidavit-Webinar_Teleconference.pdf

There should be credits awarded for online continuing education only when attendance and participation can de documented and proved, and there should be fewer credit hours when continuous professional development requirements are met online because of the attention issues, distraction factors, and mental exhaustion caused by distance learning through a computer I mentioned before. This would be a matter of debate, but as a starting point, I propose online continuing education be awarded 70% of the credits granted to an in-person educational session of the same subject and duration. Interpreting is a fiduciary profession, and there are high interests on the balance every time court or healthcare interpreters provide their service. We must do everything within our reach to make sure these professionals truly meet all continuing education requirements, not just on paper, not only by going through the motions, but by actually learning and practicing their skill. I now invite you to share your ideas about online continuing education, how to police it, and how to determine the credit hours it deserves.

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.

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).

Lack of understanding, common sense = constitutional conflict in court?

November 12, 2018 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

I recently learned that some federal district courts got involved in the way federal prosecutors pick their interpreters for hearings. I have practiced in federal court for many years, and the decision on who will interpret for the office of the United States Attorney has always been left to the prosecutors who know the case better than anybody else. This means they, and their prosecutorial team of paralegals, investigators, detectives, and law enforcement agents, know the language complexities of a particular case, and therefore, better equipped to decide who they need for that interpreting assignment.

I do not dispute that some districts, because of a lack of federally certified court interpreters, or out of plain ignorance, have never tried a case where the assistant U.S. attorneys (AUSA) have their own interpreters for a trial. Some districts are so small, the AUSA office does not even have a staff interpreter. Some districts are so remote, that even the court tries cases with unqualified court interpreters (usually certified or accredited at the state level) because it is next to impossible to get somebody to the courthouse. Evidentiary hearings and trials require that an interpreter be physically present at the hearing. Remote interpreting is not a viable option for these proceedings.

That some have always followed this practice does not make it right, and courts in districts in urban centers where federally certified court interpreters are available have no reason to inject themselves in what should be an internal process of the Department of Justice. Let me elaborate:

The American legal system, and all legitimate legal systems in the world, are based on an independent judiciary free to decide with no pressures or fear of retaliation. The United States Constitution recognizes and enshrines this principle through the separation of powers. The Executive Branch of the federal government originates from Article 2. The Judicial Branch stems from Article 3.

With administration of justice in a criminal case, all individuals in the United States have the rights and protections established by the Constitution and secondary legislation; mainly, the right to a public and fair trial by their peers, starting with a presumption of innocence, charging the Executive Branch of government, through the United States Department of Justice, with the burden of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, in an orderly regulated process, presided by and controlled by the Judicial Branch of government. To put it simply: Because the government cannot be judge and party, it is an agency from outside the Judicial Branch, in this case the Justice Department, who prosecutes the case on behalf of the U.S. government, including the citizens that the government must protect from the bad guys.

We can see that having the burden of proof is no small task. Federal prosecutors must investigate de facts, test and evaluate the evidence found, and prepare a case that will persuade the jury and judge of an individuals’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt. If successful, the Justice Department will meet its duty to protect society. This is no easy task; it also means that individuals will lose their assets, their freedom, and even their life.  A prosecutorial team must have the best team available to fulfill its function, and that is extremely difficult.

Federal prosecutors must call witnesses to testify in the trial. When these witnesses do not speak English, their testimony must be interpreted into English to benefit the defendant, the defense attorneys, the judge, and the jury. It is only then, after the rendition of the interpretation, that the defendant will have exercised his constitutional right to confront the witness or accuser. It only after the rendition that a judge or jury can assess the credibility of the witness. It is this time they will decide if they believe all, part, or nothing of the witness’ statement.

But most of the work is done before the witness steps in the courtroom and takes the stand. Prosecutors and their teams test, evaluate, and prepare their witnesses before a trial. Questions are asked many times, in many ways; adjustments are made. Not to influence testimony, but to present the truth clearly to the trier of fact (judge or jury). Usually the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution is very complex, specialized, scientific. Dense concepts and sophisticated terminology must be interpreted into English during the trial; cultural concepts must be clarified before the final rendition (many expert witnesses come from abroad just for the trial); legal systems compared so the accurate term in the target language is rendered by the interpreter. Leaving loose ends is not an option: The prosecution must prove, and the standard could not be any higher: beyond reasonable doubt. Prosecutors and their teams, assisted by the interpreters, go over the testimony with every witness as many times as needed. These interpreters must research, study, practice, develop a common glossary for each testimony. The witness gets used to that team of interpreters and the interpreters get used to the witness.

The interpreters for the prosecution know the case, they are familiar with names, dates, places, and other key information that must be interpreted with accuracy. From gang slang, to amounts of drugs, to family relationships. It all needs to be well-understood so the interpretation heard in trial is accurate, pristine, and truthful.

Confidentiality is essential to our justice system. It lets the parties tell the truth to their attorneys so they can represent, in a criminal case, a defendant or society with full knowledge of the facts. Confidentiality is also very important when it comes to the lawyers’ strategy. Prosecutors and defense attorneys develop a strategy to win a case. The interpreters for the prosecution know the strategy and facts, and they are covered by the veil of secrecy. Using a court appointed interpreter to interpret for the prosecution generates a conflict of interest. You cannot be judge and party simultaneously. Even the most professional, trustworthy interpreters should never be placed in such situation. The sole appearance of conflict is enough to cast a shadow on the proceedings. Client-attorney privilege only exists when there is an expectation of privacy. How could this be argued when the same interpreter hears all confidential details?

The independence of the prosecutorial interpreters is so important, that even their payment differs from that court appointed, public defender, and Criminal Justice Act (CJA) attorney interpreters receive.  I am not referring to staff interpreters, I am talking about independent contractors retained to work in a case. While interpreters for the court, public defender, and CJA attorneys are paid through the judicial system (Judicial Branch of government) interpreters for the prosecution are paid by the United States Department of Justice (Executive Branch). The funds come from different budgets to assure independence, absence of conflict of interests, and separation of powers. The Office of the United States Attorney pays better that the courts, and unlike the latter, fees are negotiable between the parties (interpreters and AUSAs). This can also be relevant if you think that most more experienced, better trained interpreters would rather work for the prosecution, leaving a smaller pool of top-level interpreters to work for the courts, and increasing the risk of an inaccurate rendition of a prosecutorial witness’ complex testimony during the trial.

The widely, and constitutionally backed, practice of having a separate interpreter team for the prosecution in federal cases must continue as long as we have separation of powers, and a system where one party has the burden of proof. There is no rational justification for this practice by the executive branch of government, to be changed by court staff, from a different branch. Such decisions are being made in courthouses where none of the issues above were given any thought, where prosecutors did not reflect on the implications of such changes, and a decision was unilaterally made, perhaps due to a lack of understanding that lead to this policy deprived of common sense. If the decision at these district courts was made unilaterally, we have a separation of powers issue; if it was decided for monetary reasons, remember that interpreter fees are paid from two budgets (executive and judiciary); if it was decided to avoid comparisons between experienced prosecutorial interpreters, and perhaps less qualified court appointed ones, it was motivated by unethical reasons and it shows a disappointing level of professionalism; and if this was a joint decision by the courts and AUSAs in some districts, they must address the conflict of interest and at the least the appearance of conflict.

Our legal system has been around for 250 years. It has organically adjusted its parts to observe the fundamental democratic principles, starting with an independent judiciary, a separation of powers, and the rights and protections to the individual and society. In today’s world where many things that were, are no longer, let’s hope this is not changed by the capricious decision of a few. I invite you to share your thoughts on this issue.

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