The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 2.

September 11, 2014 § 19 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Once again the “Ten worst…” are back. Last time we talked about some of the things that the person who we are interpreting for can do to really make our work difficult, and I shared with you my first five; today we will discuss the rest to complete the list of ten. As always, this list is not limitative and it only represents what I personally consider the absolute ten worst things that the speaker can do to us as professional interpreters. You may agree with them all, some or none of them; but even if you disagree, I believe that the simple mentioning of these issues will help us all focus on ways to solve the problems with the speaker that may arise while we are interpreting, and to prevent them and keep them from happening again. Here we go:

SIX.  When the speaker stops in the middle of a sentence, and there is nothing to interpret. Sometimes we run into speakers who have worked with interpreters in the past, but those interpreters were of a different level. They have given speeches or presentations using the services of interpreters who deliver their rendition consecutively; that means that the speaker is used to start and stop many times during the speech. This should not be a problem and the transition to a simultaneous interpreter should be smooth when the speaker worked with good interpreters in the past. There are excellent diplomatic interpreters who work the consecutive interpretation magnificently; the orator can talk in complete sentences and ideas, and he can do it for a long time without having to worry about the interpretation being deficient. This speaker can adapt to the simultaneous interpretation used in conferences easier. The real problem is when the speakers have used the services of not-so-skilled interpreters before: sometimes low-level agency interpreters, sometimes a relative or a friend who is not even a professional interpreter, and they have been told to stop their speech frequently so that the interpreter can render a few words at a time (often sounding nonsensical and monosyllabic) Because the service providers’ professional capacity was so limited, the speaker just assumes that this is the way it needs to be done. The consequences of this type of speech are nefarious. All interpreters know that it is impossible to interpret what has not been said yet, and in these cases, when the speaker stops in the middle of a sentence, half way through an idea, or right after a “difficult” name or technical word, the interpreter is being left defenseless. There is nothing to interpret because the speaker has not said anything yet. Even when the main idea has already been expressed in the source language, or even when the words already uttered make for a good beginning of a sentence in the source language, the interpreter may be unable to say a word because of linguistic or comprehension reasons. The interpreter will not be able to start his rendition when the syntax in the target language is different because the interpreter does not know yet how to start the sentence. Interpreting requires that the interpreter understand and process an idea spoken by the presenter in order to find the right words in the target language; to do this, we as interpreters need to understand that idea. Of course, this is impossible when the interpreter only gets half of the idea. These two realities that interpreters work with all the time, make it impossible to interpret what the speaker has said. Of course, there are agencies, speakers, and unfortunately even interpreters, who will tell you that interpreters must interpret what is being said, that if the speaker is not making any sense, the interpreter should interpret nonsense as well. I am sorry to tell those who subscribe to this theory that they are wrong. The interpreter is never meant to sound like a telegram or a broken record (I understand that this last analogy may sound strange to those of you who were born after records were gone, but I did not find another updated expression that accurately conveys what I am trying to express) One thing is to work in court where the interpreter’s job is to interpret everything because the rendition’s goal is to assess the credibility of the speaker, but that has nothing to do with the job of the conference interpreter who has to act as a bridge between two languages and two cultures to facilitate mutual understanding and comprehension. This can only be achieved when people express themselves in a coherent fashion. Once again, if this is happening during the presentation, the interpreters need to let the speaker know that this is not working and they need to ask him to speak naturally, without any pauses and ignoring the presence of the interpreters in the booth. To prevent this from happening, when we meet the speaker and we learn that this person has only worked with consecutive interpreters, we need to briefly explain simultaneous interpretation to the speaker, and ask him not to pause the way he does when he works with interpreters who do not do a simultaneous rendition. Speakers are usually smart people and they understand the absurdity of speaking like a telegram.

SEVEN.  When the speaker uses metaphors unknown to the audience. A very common occurrence is when in the middle of a presentation the speaker uses an analogy, quotes a character, or resorts to a metaphor that has no meaning or relevance in the culture of the foreign language audience. These are tricky situations because the interpreter has no way to know ahead of time that this will happen, unless the speaker is well-known for turning to these practice in which case the interpreters must discuss it with him ahead of time. This is the permanent solution: to educate the orator so he knows and understands that his message could get lost because of the examples or cultural references he is making during the speech. Once they understand this point, they should be encouraged to omit the allusions, or if that is impossible due to the nature of the message, to at least replace the metaphor or the example with something from the local culture or with something universally known. If the speaker does not like these options, then the interpreter should at least ask him to put his analogies and metaphors in context and to explain what they mean. Going back to the main problem: What is the interpreter to do when the speaker brings up the culturally unknown example or story right in the middle of the speech? Because the interpreter’s job is to facilitate communication between speaker and audience, in my opinion the interpreter can do one of two things: Either find an acceptable equivalent in the audience’s language and culture, or at least explain and put in context, when possible, what the speaker just said. I will give you some examples: Americans are very proud of what they call “Americana,” (American culture and lifestyle) and sometimes they assume that it is universally known. For this reason, many great American speakers use “Americana” during their speeches; one typical example is baseball. Americans love baseball, it is their national pastime, you can find 10 to 15 professional games on TV every summer night, they grow up with the sport, its terminology, its analogies, and its heroes. As far as the rest of the world, unless you come from Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada, Japan, or Korea, most people have never even heard of baseball, and those who have, have never watched a game, much less know its rules and history. On the other hand, if you take the United States off the picture, you will agree that football (which by the way, is called “soccer” in the U.S., is the most popular sport in the world) So when an American speaker brings up a metaphor or a remark from their national pastime and he says: “…It was three and two with two outs at the bottom of the nine with the score tied and on the verge of extra innings…” as an interpreter you have two choices, you can either transplant the analogy to a well-known cultural reference to the audience, in this case I would chose football, or you can just explain what the speaker is saying. In my example, the rendition would go like this: “…it was the last minute of the second half, the score was tied, and they were about to go to overtime…” If I cannot find a similar analogy in the target culture, then I would have explained it like this: “…now the speaker is using an analogy from an American sport called baseball to illustrate that they were at the very end of the line, and nothing had been decided yet…” In other words, if needed to facilitate the communication, as long as it does not alter the message, I would replace Washington with Bolivar, Jerry Lewis with “Cantinflas,” and “more American than apple pie” with “más mexicano que los nopales.” The key is to make sure that you are facilitating the communication without altering the message. That is why we need to study and have a wide knowledge of many things so that we can make these calls and in case we made a mistake, so we can bring the audience back to the speaker’s message. Remember, this is working under extreme conditions, it is not the type of speech we face every day.

EIGHT.  When the speaker is constantly saying: “let’s see if they can interpret this.” I know that most interpreters are very proud of their professional achievements. We all know that this is not an easy career and it is difficult to reach a certain level. Professional interpreters are constantly studying and practicing their craft; they thoroughly prepare for an assignment by researching, studying, and planning, so when it is time to get in the booth and interpret the presentation, they do a magnificent job and make the event a success. It is for this reason that I dislike speakers who think they are clever or even funny when after saying a technical term, or an unusual word or expression, they interrupt their speech to tell the audience: “let’s see if they can interpret this,” or “I hope this didn’t get lost in translation,” or even worse: “I don’t know if this was interpreted correctly…” Who do these individuals think is interpreting for them? Don’t they know that there are two professionals in the booth? Or, do they think so little of themselves that they just can’t imagine anybody spending enough money to get them top quality interpreters? Obviously, I dislike these remarks and the attitude of these speakers. I also know that their comments do not affect our job as far as being able to do the rendition. Of course I could say that these constant remarks are annoying and distracting and they can break an interpreter’s concentration. This is true, but the professionals that we are, we cannot allow for these remarks to bother us. They are uncomfortable, but our reaction should be no different from that of the actor who gets booed while on stage and continues with the performance. Therefore, what is the value of including this annoying practice in my “worst ten”? Besides the ranting session above, it lets me make the point that even this disgusting experiences cannot keep us from doing our job; and if there is a speaker who is constantly challenging the booth or casting doubt on the skill and knowledge of the interpreters, this can create a feeling of mistrust in the audience. By making these remarks over and over again, he is sending a message to the audience that what they are hearing with the headphones may not be accurate or complete. This is unacceptable. Even under these conditions the interpreter’s job is to make sure that there is communication between the parties; therefore, during the first recess, the interpreters need to address this issue with the agency or event organizer, and with the presenter. It is a simple matter of expressing this potential risk in a professional and respectful manner. Many speakers will realize that what they have been doing is not so funny, that they have offended somebody, and that it makes sense when they are told that some of the people in the audience may be second guessing what they have been hearing so far. After the break, most caring savvy presenters will clarify this point with their audience and will refrain from making any more comments about the interpretation. So you see, there was a reason why I included this as part of my “worst ten.”

NINE.  When the speaker refuses to share his materials with the booth. It is common practice for the interpreter to get all of the materials that will be used during a presentation. This is usually done without thinking twice about it. The interpreter accepts the assignment and the materials start to flow into the e-mailbox, or they become available in the cloud. Speeches, resumes, Power Point presentations, publications, newspaper and magazine articles, etcetera; they all come to the interpreter. Everybody knows, from the agency, to the publisher, to the presenter, that these materials are essential to the interpreter’s preparation for the assignment. They are all aware that the interpreter has absolutely no interest in reproducing the materials or to violate in any other way any intellectual property legislation. This is why it is extremely difficult to work those events when the speaker refuses to share his materials or his presentation. For a long time I thought that this would only happen in second-tier assignments where the speakers were not sophisticated enough to understand the role of the interpreter, but I was wrong. I have run into conferences with very well-known researchers, college professors, and others, who refuse to share their materials. Of course this is a problem that either will be resolved before the event, or it will be unsolved but the interpreters will at least know what to expect. The best course of action in these rare cases will be to first talk to the agency and ask them if they would have any problem with you talking directly to the presenter so you can explain why it is that you need the materials. If the agency says no then that’s that. The event will not go as smoothly as it should, but it will not be your fault. On the other hand, if it is possible for you to talk to the speaker, you should explain to him what interpreters do, state the reasons why you need his materials, and even promise him that you will delete the files after the event. Assure him that your interest on his papers does not go beyond the conference, and tell him, if confidentiality allows it, who are some of your clients. This will put him at ease and he will share the materials. You see, sometimes the problem is simply a lack of communication; when the agency contacted him they only asked for the materials (like they usually do) without any explanation as to why they needed them and who was going to use them. The only thing missing was the explanation. On the other hand, when the speaker refuses to share, then you have a difficult bumpy road ahead, but it can be a little smoother if you do your homework. When you have no materials, you need to find them yourself. Get together with the rest of the interpreting team (including all languages as this research will benefit you all) and develop a strategy. Allocate tasks and responsibilities to the team members: Decide who will research on line, who will talk to others in the field to see if you can get some answers to your questions, google the speaker to see if he has any accessible publications online, download and study his previous speeches, and on the day of the event, show up with a fast computer or tablet an a defined plan of action so that the support interpreter is constantly looking up information while the principal is interpreting. Do this throughout the speech, both interpreters switching tasks back and forth. At the end of the day you will not have the materials for the conference, but you will have enough materials and other tools to do a first-class job.

TEN.  When the speaker starts reading very fast. Fewer things can affect more an interpreter’s rendition than a speaker, turned “town crier,” who starts reading at the speed of light from a document that was never shared with the booth. It is true that many presentations include portions of materials that are read aloud; it is a fact of life than many speakers will read their speech from a teleprompter, some people still pull out the little piece of paper and read from it, but most of those cases involve materials that have been given to the interpreters ahead of time. If that is the case, the interpreters will adjust to the speakers speed (because it is also a fact that we all speak faster when we are reading from a prepared text) by either doing a sight translation or, depending on the interpreters’ preference, a simultaneous interpretation of what is being read. It is difficult but doable because the interpreters saw the text ahead of time; they know what the speech is about, they have detected and solved the linguistic and cultural problems contained in the text; in other words, the interpreters did their homework because they were given the chance to do so. The “pulling out of my sleeve the document I am going to read” strategy represents a different kind of problem and all the interpreter can do is to follow the speaker as accurately as possible, trying his best. If possible, even after the reading session started, the second interpreter can go to the speaker’s team and see if they have an extra copy of the speech they may want to share with the booth. This happens more often than you think, and although it is not the same as getting the document ahead of time, at least helps the interpreter with two key elements: First, the names that sometimes are very difficult to understand when we are not expecting them, and second, the interpreters will at least have an idea on the length of the written speech and this will help them plan accordingly and distribute the tasks in the booth. I want to make it clear that top level interpreters will interpret the contents of the document the speaker is reading and transmit the message to the foreign language audience seamlessly, that has never been in doubt, as it has never been in doubt the high difficulty that is involved in an interpretation of this nature.

With these last five of the ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter I conclude my two-part post that started last week. I now invite you all to share with the rest of us some of your “ten worst” or to opine on any of mine.

How to Defend Your Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter.

September 4, 2014 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Good professional interpreters are usually consumed with taking care of their clients, improving their skills, managing their agenda, and marketing to new clients. This takes a lot of time and energy, and it is essential to succeed as an interpreter. Unfortunately, sometimes during their career some interpreters may experience other aspects of the profession that are less pleasant, more time-consuming, and very stressful.

Our professional tools are our brain, mouth, and a language combination. We can make mistakes, we are susceptible to questioning and second-guessing by others, and in our litigious society we are exposed to lawsuits that can leave us with no career, no resources, and a tainted reputation.

There are many circumstances that can affect our career as professional interpreters, but at this time I would like to focus on two of them:

The first one occurs when our work is subject to criticism and questioning by our peers or by others. This often happens in a legal setting. All court interpreters have faced situations when in the middle of a court hearing a judge, attorney, witness, litigant, and even a juror, have interrupted our rendition to correct what we just said. Most of the time we were right and they were wrong. On occasion, because we are not machines, and because nobody can possibly know all regional expressions, these voices do us a favor as they correct our mistake and allow justice to be served. These are the scenarios we usually face when doing our job. It sounds simple and straight to the point: Either we are right and we say so in order to keep the process moving along, or we are wrong, and in that case we correct our error. The same facts are true in a healthcare or community interpreting setting; even at the negotiating table or in the booth during a conference we sometimes make mistakes out of exhaustion, due to bad acoustics, a speaker with a heavy accent, or because we misunderstood a word or term. This is why we have team interpreting, this is why good interpreting equipment, an appropriate conference room, and breaks or recesses are important.

Unfortunately in the real world we have to deal with attorneys who are not happy because their foreign language speaking client or witness is not saying what they wanted them to say in the trial, and with doctors and nurses who want to dodge the consequences of their negligence, and with the party that lost at the business negotiating table, or with the agency that tries to justify the disaster caused by its outdated broken-down interpreting equipment. The first thing they all do is to cast a doubt over the rendition of the interpreter. It is even worse when all of this happens and you know that those who are questioning your work are clearly wrong.

The second situation I want to bring to your attention is when the same individuals mentioned above, decide to go for the jugular and to put the blame on the interpreter’s rendition; so they take you to court. They argue inadequate interpretation and you are sued for damages. How can we defend our work when our rendition is questioned and we know we are right? What can we do to protect ourselves in case somebody takes us to court for damages? There are preventive measures that we can take as interpreters to diminish the possibility of having to defend our work, our assets, and our reputation.

There are also steps we must follow in case our professional work is questioned or attacked in court.

These complex issues have to be addressed, and as true professionals we must be prepared in case this happens to us. For this reason, I will present: How to Defend Our Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter” during Lenguando Londres in London on September 13, 2014 at 2:30 pm. I invite you to attend the event on the 13 and 14 of this month and see how you will be able to interact with some of the superstars of all language-related professions, and I encourage you to attend this presentation where we will discuss these sad but possible scenarios, we will explore the different preventive measures that we should always take in order to avoid an adverse outcome, and we will talk about the path to follow once our rendition or our skill has been formally questioned in a court of law. I hope to see you in London; but even if you are not attending, I ask you to share with the rest of us your experiences on having your rendition questioned, challenged, or having a lawsuit filed against you as an interpreter.

Interpreting political debates: Before and during the rendition.

April 29, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every two years we have a primary election season in the United States where the two main political parties (Republicans and Democrats) pick their candidates for the general election in November. Two years after Americans elect a president, they vote again to renew the United States House of Representatives (425 members) and one-third of the United States Senate (33 or 34 Senate seats depending on the cycle because there are 100 Senators) Along with these national offices, many states elect governors, state legislators, and other local officials. Traditionally, before an election, all candidates running for a particular office in the United States publicly debate the issues. It happens within a political party during the primary elections and then again between the candidates from each party during the general election. Because the population of the United States is very diverse and complex, many voters do not speak English, or at least they do not understand it well enough to comprehend a candidate’s platform or position regarding specific issues. Add to this landscape the fact that many regions of the United States have very important concentrations of people from a particular nationality or ethnicity that may have issues that are relevant to their community even when they may not be as important for the general population. This happens with Hispanics and some other groups, and because of the number of people who are interested in a particular issue, there are debates specifically geared to these populations, often held in English because that is the language of the candidates, but organized and broadcasted by foreign language organizations and networks. This exercise in democracy means that we as interpreters are quite busy during political season.

Because of the number of elections and debates, primary elections tend to require more interpreters than a general election; also, due to the regional nature of a primary election, these debates are normally held in smaller towns and cities, increasing the practice of using the services of local interpreters.

This year has not been an exception. I have traveled to many cities and towns all over the country to interpret political debates in elections of all types: governors, senators, U.S. House members, local legislators, and mayors. Most debates have been live, in almost all of them I have interpreted for the T.V. broadcast, but there have been some recorded debates and some radio broadcasts as well. As always, when interpreting a debate I usually run into the same colleagues: the same local professionals, or the same national interpreters (meaning interpreters like me, who by decision of the organizers or the networks, are brought in from a different city) for the races that have a higher profile. Although I know that the pattern will repeat during the general election in the weeks and months before November, I also know that sometimes new interpreters are invited to participate in these events. This year I already worked with some interpreters new to the political debate scene, and I expect to encounter some others during the rest of the primary season and maybe even the general election. As I watched some of my new colleagues prepare for a debate and deliver their services, I reflected on the things that we need to do to be successful at this very important and difficult type of interpretation. These are some ideas on things that we should do and avoid when getting ready to interpret a political debate and when we are at the TV or radio station doing our rendition.

  • Know the political system. One of the things that will help you as an interpreter is to know why you are there. It is crucial to understand why we have primary elections in the United States. We as interpreters will do a better job if we know who can run and who can vote in the election. This requires some research and study as every state is different. In some states voters must be registered with the political party to be able to vote in the primary, while other states hold open primaries where anybody, as long as they are American citizens, can vote. Some states have early voting, others have absentee ballots and there are states that even allow you to mail in your vote. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work. Of course, the more states you work at, the more you have to research and study.
  • Know basic local legislation and politics. When interpreting a state legislators’ debate it is essential to know how is the state government structured: Does it have a unicameral or bicameral system? Are legislators full or part-time? Can governors be reelected? Are there other political parties in that state? A well-prepared interpreter needs to know the answer to all of these and similar questions.
  • Know the most relevant issues and people in that particular state, county, or city. Most questions during these political debates have to do with local matters, not national issues; for this reason, a professional interpreter must become acquainted with local affairs. Read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, and search the web. The shortest way to embarrassment is not to know a local topic or a local politician, government official or celebrity when they pop up during a debate. Know your local issues. It is a must to know if water shortage, a bad economy, a corruption scandal, a referendum, the names of local politicians (governor, lieutenant governor if the state has one, State House speaker, chief justice of the State Supreme Court, leader of the State Senate) or any other local matter is THE issue in that part of the country.
  • Know basic history and geography of the state, and please know the main streets and landmarks of the region. There is nothing worse than interpreting a debate and all of a sudden struggle with the name of a county or a town because you did not do your homework. Have a map handy if you need to. Learn the names of rivers and mountains, memorize the names of the Native-American nations or pueblos in that state.
  • Know your candidates. Study their bios, read about their ideology and platform; learn about their public and private lives. It is important to keep in mind that you need to know about all candidates in the debate, not just the candidate you will be interpreting.
  • Know national and world current events and know your most important national and international issues in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer. It is important to know if there is a war or an economic embargo, it is necessary to know the names of the national leaders and their party affiliation (president, vice-president, speaker of the House, Senate leader, cabinet members) and it is essential to know the names of the local neighboring leaders and world figures in the news (names of the governors of neighboring states, the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico, the secretary general of the United Nations and the OAS, and at least the names of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of state of the main partners, allies, and adversaries of the United States).
  • Know the rules of the debate. You need to know how long the debate will be, how much time a candidate has to answer a question and to refute another candidate, you need to know the order in which they will be questioned, who will be asking the questions and in what order. Try to find this information on line, and request it from the organizers or whoever hired you for the debate. Remember: it is a T.V. event so there is always a schedule and a program; you just need to get a copy.
  • Get acquainted with your candidate’s speech patterns, accent, tempo, and learn his/her stump speech. All candidates have one, and they gravitate towards these talking points every time they have a chance and the moderator lets them do it. The best way to achieve this is by watching as many speeches as you can, especially previous debates, ideally on the same issues, as sometimes debates in the United States are limited to certain issues such as education, taxes, foreign policy, the economy, etc. Most candidates, unless they are brand new, have speeches and debates on You Tube or in the local T.V. stations and newspaper electronic archives; just access their websites and look for them. If possible, at least listen to a couple of speeches or debates of the other candidates in the debate. You will not be interpreting them, but you will be listening to them during their interaction with your candidate.
  • When possible, participate on the distribution of assignments to the various interpreters. How good you perform may be related to the candidate you get. There are several criteria to pair an interpreter with a candidate. Obviously, T.V. and radio producers like to have a male interpreter for a male candidate and a female interpreter for a female candidate. After that, producers overlook some other important points that need to be considered when matching candidates and interpreters: It is important that the voice of your candidate is as similar to your own voice as possible, but it is more important that you understand the candidate; in other words, if you are a baritone, it would be great to have a baritone candidate, but if you are from the same national origin and culture than the tenor, then you should be the tenor’s interpreter because you will get all the cultural expressions, accent, and vocabulary better than anybody else. You should also have a meeting (at least a virtual one) with your fellow interpreters so you can discuss uniform terminology, determine who will cover who in case of a technical problem or a temporary physical inability to interpret like a coughing episode (remember, this is live radio or T.V.)
  • Ask about the radio or T.V. studio where you will be working; in fact, if you are local, arrange for a visit so you become familiar with the place. Find out the type of equipment they will be using, see if you can take your own headphones if you prefer to use your “favorite” piece of equipment; find out if there is room for a computer or just for a tablet. Ask if you will be alone in the booth or if you will share it with other interpreters. Because small towns have small stations, it is likely that several interpreters will have to share the same booth; in that case, figure out with your colleagues who will be sitting where (consider for example if there are left-handed and right-handed interpreters when deciding who sits next to who) Talk to the station engineer or technician and agree on a set of signs so you can communicate even when you are on the air. This is usually done by the station staff because they are as interested as you in the success of the event.
  • Finally, separate yourself from the candidate. Remember that you are a professional and you are there to perform a service. Leave your political convictions and opinions at home. You will surely have to interpret for people who have a different point of view, and you will interpret attacks against politicians you personally admire. This cannot affect you. If you cannot get over this hurdle then everything else will be a waste. This is one of the main reasons why they continue to hire some of us. Producers, organizers, and politicians know that we will be loyal to what they say and our opinions will not be noticed by anybody listening to the debate’s interpretation.

On the day of the debate, arrive early to the station or auditorium where the debate will take place, find your place and set up your gear; talk to the engineer and test everything until you are comfortable with the volume, microphone, monitor, and everything else. Get your water and make arrangements to get more water once you finish the bottles you brought inside the booth. Trust me; you will end up needing more. Talk to your fellow interpreters and make sure you are on the same page in case there is a technical glitch or an unplanned event during the debate. Once the debate starts, concentrate on what you are doing and pretty much ignore everything else. You will need all your senses because remember: there is no team interpreting, all other interpreters are assigned to another individual, it is live T.V. and if you count the live broadcast and the news clips that will be shown for weeks, there could be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) watching your work. If you enjoyed the experience and if you did a good job there will be more opportunities in the future and you will have enhanced your versatility within the profession.

I hope these tips will be useful to those of you in the United States and all other countries where there are political debates, and I invite you to share with the rest of us your comments and tips.

Great news: Awaited changes for Spanish court interpreting are finally here!

March 24, 2014 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

As many of you know, over the last few years there has been a tendency among Latin American countries to switch from their traditional, and much slower, inquisitorial written procedural legal system, based on Roman and Napoleonic Law, to the quicker adversarial oral Common Law system followed by many Anglo-Saxon countries, including the United States. These changes have been difficult and have required a long time. For many decades, and more so within the last twenty five years, many Spanish speaking individuals have been forced to seek the protection and advantages of the American adversarial legal system to assert their rights, exercise their defenses, and create brand new legal obligations. Differences in the two types of systems, and specialized terminology exclusive to them, made it difficult to communicate with accuracy and legal precision complex concepts that are essential to prevail in a contractual situation and in court. It was then that many concepts and terminology were created out of necessity by translators and interpreters in the United States and Latin America. In many cases with plenty of good intentions and in good faith, but without even considering legal figures and concepts. This is how we got the “first generation” of bilingual “legal terminology” born from a linguistic conception without a legal perspective.

Globalization, immigration, and the exchange of goods and services between the United States and Latin America, especially Mexico, brought us a more coherent and consistent terminology and legal doctrine based on comparative law. This made it possible for interpreters and translators (in the United States and Latin America) to work with attorneys and law firms that required an interpreter/translator with a more sophisticated knowledge of the subject matter and correct terminology than a defendant in a criminal case with no formal legal or business background. It is from this point in time that we see translations and hear renditions that make sense to the legally-trained individual, and use the same language and terminology that lay individuals used to hear back in their country of origin.  These terms and legal figures were correct and they could be found in the law; however, they still required of a legal expert interpretation to be correctly matched to their legal counterpart in the other legal system.

Finally this all changed. Due to the tremendous judicial backlog and the need for more transparency in the administration of justice, several Latin American countries decided to reform their procedural legal systems shedding the old written inquisitorial system and replacing it with the faster and more transparent adversarial system where proceedings are oral and open to the public.

There were many that debated the change but Chile and Mexico undertook the greater changes. Chile decided to create a new system based in part on the German legal system. Mexico decided to base its reforms on the legal system of the United States.

Dear friends and colleagues, the journey to an acceptable, accurate and coherent translation and rendition is finally over: On March 5, 2014 Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law the new Federal Code of Criminal Proceedings applicable throughout Mexico.  This new legislation will apply to all criminal proceedings at all levels: local, state, and federal. This new system embraces an adversarial system similar to the one applied in the United States with public and oral hearings, rules of evidence taken from the American legislation and adapted to the Mexican culture, and a sentencing system based on the one used in America. The biggest differences between the Mexican and American systems are found in the trials. Mexico will only have court trials, the U.S. has both: court and jury trials.

These new legislation gives us the equivalent legal figures, procedural stages and terminology necessary to do a precise rendition and an accurate translation. Moreover, by integration, reference and interpretation, all substantive terminology contained in the criminal, civil, constitutional, and administrative legislation will now make it easier for any interpreter or translator to use the correct terminology and legal concepts. This legislation has been analyzed and drafted by legal professionals; it contains all required legal concepts and structures needed to have a coherent product, and creates, just like American legislation, a separate but precise legal terminology derived from legal concepts and not linguistic considerations. Remember, this is not English, this is not Spanish. We are talking about legal English and legal Spanish. In fact, we are referring to American legal English and Mexican legal Spanish. Translators and interpreters will be able to communicate the legal message to their clients without any ambiguities. No more “agreement/ contract/convenio/acuerdo/contrato salad.” We now have the correct legal figures for each situation. This new terminology is the one that the brand new Mexican court interpreters and legal translators are learning and will use during the proceedings down there.

Some of our colleagues may resist this change but it is inevitable. Arguments that the terminology is too technical and their clients will not understand it do not apply anymore. This is the same terminology they will hear in their own countries, at least the overwhelming majority of the litigants who are from Mexico, or have a connection with Mexico.  We have to keep in mind that we have been using a combination of terminology that was never correct and some valid terms that are now obsolete. You cannot continue to say something wrong and make it right by mere repetition. It is also important to remember that good court interpreters should widen their practice, and only those who can be understood will work with Mexican attorneys. Even attorneys and judges from other Spanish speaking countries will favor the Mexican terminology as it is legal terminology and not just a translation with no legal foundation. Those of you who may consider taking the Mexican court interpreter certification (not in place yet) in order to work in court south of the border, and even those of you who may want to do depositions in Mexico will need these new legal terms. This is the time to learn and grow. This is the time to be ahead of the rest and find your place in the new market. Unfortunately, this is also the time to become obsolete and irrelevant.

Although the law is already gone into effect, the new legal system will be fully implemented by 2016 so there is time for all of us to learn and be ready.

For all of these reasons I have been studying the new legislation, and because of my unique position as an attorney who knows both, the American and the Mexican systems, and as an interpreter who has plenty of experience in both systems, I have designed a series of workshops on this subject. I will teach the first two workshops based on this brand-new Mexican legal system in Mexico City on March 29 & 30, and in Guadalajara Mexico on April 5. In the United States I will teach these legal changes for the first time on May 16 as an all-day pre-conference workshop within NAJIT’s annual conference in Las Vegas Nevada. I invite you to attend these or other workshops that I will be teaching on this subject, and I invite your participation and comments on this issue right here on the blog.

Can the interpreter tone down, change or omit anything?

January 13, 2014 § 22 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We know that there are different types of interpreting and they all have their own rules and protocol that must be met in order to achieve communication between parties that do not speak the same language.   It is clear that court interpreting does not allow much flexibility.  These interpreters must interpret everything that is uttered in the courtroom and this is understandable because an interpreter’s rendition in the courtroom has a different goal than any other kind of interpretation: It is for the judge or jury to evaluate the credibility of the individual being interpreted whether he is a witness, a victim, or a defendant.  False starts, stutters, redundancies and statements full of hesitancy must be known by the trier of fact.  There is also a second reason for this complete interpretation: The parties have the right to appeal an unfavorable decision, and they do so to a higher court where the original proceedings will be studied and analyzed for possible legal errors.  The court of appeals scrutinizes these proceedings by reviewing the record.  This record for the foreign-language speaker is the rendition of the interpreters who worked the original trial.  We can see that the “simple” goal of achieving communication between the parties is not the only goal in court interpreting.

In conference interpreting the goals are different.  For a conference to be successful there has to be communication between the parties.  It would be worthless for a conference attendee to go to a presentation and not being able to understand what the presenter is saying.  Knowledge could not be spread, policies could not be developed.  A conference interpreter has to make sure that this communication happens.  His voice and pace should be such that the foreign-language speaker can concentrate on the subject matter without having to spend his energy on trying to hear or understand the interpreter.  The pace is not as fast as it is in court interpreting where everything must be interpreted.  A conference interpreter can achieve his goal even if some redundant, obvious, or irrelevant things are left out of the rendition.  A better paced and clear interpretation is preferable over a rendition where the interpreter has to rush in order to say “Welcome to the Twenty Fifth General Meeting in beautiful Las Vegas Nevada.” It would be perfectly fine to interpret “Welcome to the General Meeting.”  People already know it is the twenty fifth general meeting. It is written all over the convention center.  They already know they are in Las Vegas. They had to pay for a ticket to get there. The interpreter’s omissions did not have an effect on the communication; in fact, it helped because the interpreter was able to speak clearly and at a good pace.

In military interpreting it is necessary to omit certain statements. On one occasion a sergeant from an occupying military was training the newly-created armed forces of the occupied nation.  The sergeant did not speak the local language and he had to scold some members of the other country’s military because they had not been performing as expected.  The episode took place outdoors in the desert. The sergeant was surrounded by members of his military who worked under his command and understood everything as they spoke his language.  There were about 30 or 40 members of the other country’s armed forces who were at attention and listening to the sergeant who was speaking through an interpreter.  Because the interpreter was a local individual, and many local residents resented any type of cooperation with the occupying armed forces, he had to interpret while covered by a blanket and he had to disguise his voice for his own protection.  The sergeant began his “normal” scolding, heard many times by the members of his own military.  It was a crude speech where the sergeant called the foreign soldiers many ugly names, including remarks about their mothers.  He referred to their sexual preferences and told them that they were acting like a bunch of sissys (although he used a more offensive word) The sergeant was not whispering these insults, he was yelling as loud as he could. This went on for about ten minutes.  At the end of the speech, one of the members of the other country’s military stepped forward and replied. He apologized to the sergeant. Told him that they understood his message, and assured him that this would never happen again.   The sergeant seemed pleased with this reaction.

This was a scolding that is customary in the sergeant’s armed forces. The name calling has a purpose and it usually works within that military culture.  The members of the other nation’s military however, came from a very different cultural background. They came from a more religious society, and name calling that included remarks about family and homosexuality were considered an unforgivable insult. Keep in mind that the only reason for this meeting was to motivate the foreign army so they did a better job.  Hardly the type of goal that you would achieve by insulting them.  The military interpreter was facing a situation where his main role was to create communication between two groups of people who spoke a different language, lived on opposite sides of the world, and had a very different culture.  On top of being worried for his personal safety, he knew that communication and understanding through the insults in the sergeant’s speech was not an option.  He also knew that approaching the sergeant and asking him to tone-down his remarks would not be possible.  The sergeant was speaking in front of his own soldiers. He had to be seen as fair, tough and impartial.  Delivering a different speech to the foreign soldiers would have been perceived by his own troop as unfair, as preferential treatment.  This left the interpreter with the important role of being the interpreter and cultural broker.  What he did is that he communicated the message in its integrity, but instead of interpreting the offensive remarks of the sergeant, he substituted them with remarks about honor, justice, love of country, respect for the elders, and other similar cultural values that conveyed the same message and achieved the goal of communication and understanding without anybody feeling offended by the other party.  This remarkable rendition by this military interpreter was recorded. I have seen the video just like many interpreters and linguists who are associated with the armed forces.

This is remarkable, but it is not new or different from what many of us do every day when we replace a local or regional sports remark with another similar one that the listener will understand. I have changed baseball expressions for soccer examples many times because I know that “three and two with two outs in the bottom of the nine” does not mean much to a listener from South America. On the other hand, “la última oportunidad para anotar ya sobre el minuto noventa del partido” conveys the same message. It is just a different sport; in this case soccer.

There are other situations where the interpreter selects certain words and terms depending on the target’s culture and values, and he does it without changing the message.  There is a well-known episode of a sight translation of a diplomatic document involving two heads of state; one of them was a woman and the other was a man from a country where women were not considered suitable to govern.  The negotiation at hand was crucial for both countries. When the interpreter received the document he immediately noticed that the document started with a paragraph that addressed the problem that it would create to negotiate with a woman because of her gender.  On its next paragraph the document went on to spell in clear and certain terms the willingness to reach an agreement on the part of the man’s government.  After reviewing the document, the interpreter decided to leave out all the sexist remarks and instead of them voiced some formal greeting. Then he went on to interpret the essential points of the document.  At the end of the day there was an agreement to the satisfaction of both parties. This may have never happened had the interpreter decided to do a full and complete sight translation of the document.

It all comes to the role of the interpreter and his function as a cultural broker.  Many colleagues, particularly those who come from the court interpreting field, sustain that the interpreter’s job, regardless of the type of interpretation, is to render a full and complete interpretation no matter what.  They base this position in legal and ethical considerations that regulate their field.  Canon 1 of the United States National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) states: “…Canon 1. Accuracy.  Source-language speech should be faithfully rendered into the target language by conserving all the elements of the original message…and there should be no distortion of the original message through addition or omission, explanation or paraphrasing. All hedges, false starts and repetitions should be conveyed…”

The New Jersey Code of Professional Conduct reads: “…CANON 2: FAITHFUL AND ACCURATE CONVEYANCE OF MESSAGES. Interpreters… should faithfully and accurately reproduce in the target language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message without embellishment, omission, or explanation.”

Others, mainly those colleagues working in the conference, diplomatic, and military fields, acknowledge that the main goal is to achieve communication and understanding between the parties by conveying the message in a way that is properly received by the target as if heard in his own language.  The only way to reach this objective is by factoring in all cultural values of the individual: Adapting the words to transmit the same message with accuracy.

Hatim and Mason define the role of the translator along these lines by saying that: “…The translator has not only a bilingual ability but also a bi-cultural vision. Translators mediate between cultures (including ideologies, moral systems and socio-political structures), seeking to overcome those incompatibilities which stand in the way of transfer of meaning. What has value as a sign in one cultural community may be devoid of significance in another and it is the translator who is uniquely placed to identify the disparity and seek to resolve it…” (Hatim & Mason 1990: 223-224)

Pöchhacker applies it to the specific job of the interpreter when he states: “…Since an interpreter’s actions have a much more immediate effect on the progress and outcome of the interaction, it has become increasingly common to construe the interpreter’s mediation activity as one of ‘moderating’ or ‘managing’ the interaction to guide it toward a felicitous outcome…But mediating interactive discourse would of course go further than that [resolving overlapping talk, asking for repetition, or choosing which utterance to interpret, and how] and include actions designed to overcome obstacles to communication such as ‘cultural differences’. Examples include explanatory additions, selective omissions, persuasive elaboration or the mitigation of face-threatening acts…” (Pöchhacker 2008: 13)

Moreover, some would argue that even in the most-strict court interpreting environment language has to pass through the mind of the interpreter. The interpreter then selects from his repertoire the best terms and expressions that will produce a full and complete rendition, but in doing so, he will put forward those words and expressions that his own ideology, background, and culture will provide.

Hermans puts it this way: “… (The translator and interpreter’s) textual presence cannot be neutral, located nowhere in particular. The way a translation overwrites its original may be deliberate and calculated on the translator’s part but as often as not it is unconscious, or barely conscious, dictated by values, preferences, pre-suppositions and perceptions built into the individual and social beings that we are. (Hermans, quoted in Pöchhacker 2008: 15)

Dear colleagues, we see that there is not a clear universal answer to this dilemma that interpreters face every day all over the world.  Some of you may think that the interpreter should just interpret everything as said. That it is not his job to explain or to create a cultural outreach.  Others may agree with those who believe that interpreters and translators are language facilitators and cultural mediators whose mission is to transmit the message from the source to the target in a way that accurately conveys the message even if this means that there has to be some cultural adaptation.  A third group may conclude that it depends on the type of work that the interpreter is asked to perform because his rendition is dictated by the type of interpretation. Please tell us what you think about this fascinating and complex issue.

When the speaker delivers rude remarks during an official event.

December 16, 2013 § 21 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We all know how difficult it is to interpret for a speaker during a government event, a corporate function or a diplomatic dinner.  Interpreters have to deal with situations like the speaker’s accent, idiomatic expressions, regional or political jokes, sports metaphors, and others that come with the territory.  All difficult but for the most part predictable once we know who we will be interpreting for.

The case I am about to tell you refers to a different situation that arose during an official dinner between top legislators from two countries.  I was retained to interpret for a conference between legislators from two countries and the agenda included a formal dinner on the night of the first day of activities.  The delegations had elected officials from all political parties represented in that legislative body.  One of the countries had representatives from two political parties. The other delegation had individuals representing different political tendencies and ideological persuasion. I teamed-up to work the event with an excellent and experienced colleague.

During dinner, each one of us sat down at opposite sides of this gigantic table, right behind the two main dignitaries, and interpreted the neighboring conversations by whispering what others said.  Then it was time for the speeches. For those who have not interpreted for these events, I have to tell you that these speeches are usually very friendly and cordial. People thank their host, say something good about the place where they are, and perhaps extend an invitation to their country as a way to reciprocate.  This is exactly what was happening during this dinner. The two most senior officials from the host country thanked their guests for attending the event and wished them success during the rest of the conference.  Next, the guest country speakers addressed the gathering in order of representation in their legislature. At the end, a legislator from what I was told was the most radical party to the left of the spectrum got up and began his remarks. Since I still have my notes I will quote him:

He said in Spanish: “Thank you for the invitation. The food was good; however, I want to tell you that you don’t scare me. I didn’t come over here to be brain-washed, and I want you to know that I am not afraid of you, or your huge country, or your billions of dollars.  You don’t scare me guys. If you think you are going to tell me what to do, then you are wasting your time. Look at me; I am not shaking in my boots. Nobody frightens me.   (“Gracias por la invitación. La comida estuvo buena y todo, pero quiero decirles que no me asustan. No vine a que me lavaran el cerebro y quiero que sepan que no les tengo miedo ni a ustedes, ni a su paisote, ni a sus trillones de dólares. No me asustan señores. Si creen que me van a decir lo que tengo que hacer están perdiendo su tiempo. Véanme, no estoy temblando del miedo. A mí no me amedrenta nadie”.) He finished and sat down.

I raised my eyes from my notepad and looked directly at my colleague who was sitting at the opposite end of the table.  For a fraction of a second I pondered how to render the speech. I went through all the mental exercises and considerations we usually go through during an interpretation.  Should I omit anything? Should I soften the tone? What if all hell breaks loose?  Then It came to me: First: One half of those in attendance (the Spanish speakers) already know what was said. Second: Because of the relevance of the issues to be discussed, this conference will go on regardless. Third: The politician who just spoke represents a very small faction in his legislature. Fourth: All my research for this assignment described this legislator as controversial, irreverent, and loud.  I also remembered that, according to what I had read, he often said something and then voted in a more main-stream fashion. After this analysis that lasted a blink of an eye, I thought of professional wrestling: How these huge individuals scream at each other and then nothing ever happens. I immediately thought, this man is the professional wrestler of his country’s legislative politics. As I looked at my wide-eyed colleague, we were able to communicate through facial expressions and we seemed to be in agreement. I would interpret every single word and utterance; and so I did.

Obviously, the dining room turned very tense. The host officials were not expecting anything like this. The rest of the visiting delegation looked very embarrassed by their colleague’s conduct. Fortunately, dessert arrived and everyone’s attention turned to chocolate and ice cream.

Later that night I ran into this same legislator in the men’s restroom. He recognized me, and with a huge grin told me: “I did great didn’t I?” I did not answer.

A few days later a member of the host delegation approached me, and showing me a newspaper in Spanish told me: “…this is the newspaper from the legislator’s hometown. Look at the headlines…” The paper read on the front page:  “Legislator (his name) bravely sets the record straight with those powerful legislators…”  I then understood the exact reason why this man had done what he did: internal consumption. What created the worst moment of the conference, what embarrassed the members of his own delegation, was the same speech that made him a hero back home. I was glad I reacted the way I did and interpreted his words during that dinner.

I now ask you to please share an episode where you had to think fast and decide even faster about a rendition, even if it did not involve deciding what to interpret, like in court interpreting where the dilemma is nonexistent as you are required to interpret everything but other situations where the interpreter has to react quickly in the courtroom may occur.

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.

When your colleague in the booth is not very good. A serious dilemma.

September 9, 2013 § 20 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

I was once faced with a professional, ethical, and moral dilemma: The person working a conference with me was barely at the minimum level required to do a good job.  Those of you who know me personally and the ones who regularly follow this blog know that I am not a “softie” when it comes to rendition. You know that I value my professional standing above everything else.  Well, on the occasion I am about to tell you I did something that I normally don’t.

I was hired to do a four-day conference by an agency that I had worked for several times before. It was not one of my all-star agencies, but we had a good professional relationship: They offered interesting assignments, had a technician on the premises, good pay, and paid on time.  When they offered this particular conference I had just come back from a very demanding trip abroad. The topic was interesting and the facility was great so I accepted. I asked for the name of my colleague in the booth and they told me they didn’t have one yet. I didn’t think much of it and I soon forgot.

About a week before the assignment I received an email from the agency with all of the conference materials. They gave me the name of the interpreter I was to work with. I was busy with other projects so I did not bother calling this colleague to see who she was. Finally, about 2 days before the event I was having dinner with another colleague who knows everybody because she has been around for as long as I have. She said she didn’t know this interpreter. When I got home I looked her up online and I saw that she had many of the right professional memberships, a profile online, and a website. I thought everything would be fine.

As it is my habit, on the first day of the event I showed up early to check the equipment and the booth. She was already there. I didn’t recognize her. We talked for a few minutes. She mentioned several colleagues I knew well, so once again I assumed everything would be OK.

Because of seniority she asked me to start and I agreed. After the first 30 minutes she started her rendition and she scared me to death. She was way behind the speaker, she was leaving many things out, she was missing or misinterpreting essential information, and more importantly, I realized she did not understand the presentation! She knew that she was way out of her league and looked concerned and embarrassed. It was clear that she cared about the job.

After the first two shifts we had our first break and needless to say I was on the phone with the agency demanding another interpreter. They said it would happen, but not until the following day.  After this conversation I considered my options: I could be miserable for the rest of the day while at the same time accomplishing very little; or I could be open and cooperative, support her during her rendition, and provide a better service to the client. I opted for the second choice. I armed myself with patience and understanding and I went back to the booth.  Of course, at that time my feelings towards the agency were such that it would make Jack Nicholson in The Shining look like Mr. Rogers.

We got through the morning with me taking over the microphone many times when she lost the presenter. Then came lunch time. As I was getting ready to leave the booth and look for the best possible single-malt in that part of town, she looked at me and told me with watery eyes: “I know I am doing a bad job but I know I can do it. I have what it takes and I need the money. Please give me a second chance.”  She asked me if we could have lunch together. During lunch she worked very hard; she asked me many questions, took notes and studied the afternoon’s program. I detected a real desire to turn things around.

She did better that afternoon. After work she told me her life story. I heard how she had put her kids through college; how she helped her folks, and how she had a second job in order to make ends meet.  That night as I was dining with some friends the phone rang: it was the agency telling me they hadn’t been able to get somebody else. At this point, after facing the impossibility to get a replacement, I decided to continue the conference with this colleague who had never done a conference in her life but had demonstrated a desire to learn and improve.

The days went by and she improved every day. By the fourth day she knew the terminology, understood the issues, and she was interpreting all relevant parts. We finished the conference. The client was very happy with the interpretation. The agency was grateful that I played ball and made this event happen, and I was satisfied that I had lived up to my professional, ethical, and moral obligations. My new colleague asked me to sign my book that she had purchased online during the week, and asked me to take a picture with her. I did all that and said goodbye. I have not seen her or heard from her ever since. I want to think that she didn’t give up; that she must be studying and practicing in hospitals and courts. I hope we work together in the booth some day, and then, she will carry her weight and will prove me right because I firmly believe that sometimes you have to bank on your knowledge of the profession, and you always need to teach the new ones how to work. Please tell us what you would do in a situation like this one, and please share your professional “soft-side” stories.

The new world of interpreting: Are some staying behind?

August 26, 2013 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Modernization is part of human nature, it’s always been around. From the cavemen who used the first tools, to the invention of writing, to the discovery of new territories, and to the technological advances of the 21st. century, humankind has always strived to be more comfortable, more competitive, and more modern. Sadly, as modernization is in our DNA, so is the desire to resist change. How many wars, social unrests, and atrocities have been committed on the name of “tradition” and to protect the status quo. Fear is a bad advisor; it never stops progress but it slows it down.  Historically people have opposed change arguing that it will bring upon us calamity and disaster. This has never happened. No doubt the primitive hunter feared agriculture as its results took longer than it took to hunt a prey. Veteran sailors feared navigation far from shore because they could fall into the void. Artisans feared the industrial revolution because there would be no more jobs.  All those fears proved to be unfounded. You see, humans are adaptable by nature. We adapt to the circumstances that surround us and make the most of it; that is how progress happens. That is how we measure it.  The interpreters of the League of Nations panicked with the arrival of simultaneous interpretation during the Nuremberg trials and they fought against it when the newly-created United Nations decided to adopt the new technology to have more efficient real time communication during sessions and negotiations.  I think we are going through a similar period right now.

Those from my generation remember the old TV sets that broadcasted in black and white for a few hours every day, the transatlantic flights on airplanes that had to stop somewhere to refuel between America and Europe. Oh, and we were witnesses and users of then state-of-the-art technology like record players, 8-track players, cassette players, walkmans, and CDs.  We watched movies at the theater, on Betamax and VHS cassettes, and we went to Blockbuster making sure we had rewinded the tape after watching it.   What about computers, calculators, contact lenses, microwave ovens, and many other things. They all came and went. They all fulfilled their purpose and we are now better off without them.

The digital era has brought tremendous changes to the way interpreters do business and work nowadays. We now fill up our work agendas, get paid, and prepare for a job at a speed and with efficiency never imagined.  I am enjoying the ride. Unfortunately, some colleagues are not.

Not long ago I was interpreting for a conference that required many languages so there were many booths. The equipment was state-of-the-art. We had consoles that rewind the presenter’s speech, and we had a TV monitor in the booth that received images from cameras in the room that we could operate with a joy stick to see the faces of those asking questions even though they were facing towards the stage and all we could see from the booth was their backs.  Before the start of the first session of the first day of the conference, I heard the two colleagues from a different booth asking the tech person to “please remove that thing from the booth.”  They argued that “it (took) too much room and (they) really didn’t need all those videogames to do a good job.” I have known these colleagues for a long time and their work is excellent. They are some of the best in their language pair. Unfortunately, after overhearing the comments above, and after going by their booth and seeing that they did not have any computers or tablets, I couldn’t help to compare them to other colleagues with the same language combination that I had recently worked with and were taking advantage of all the technology. I felt frustrated by their decision to get rid of the technology, but I also felt sad because I knew then that unless they change, pretty soon they will not be working. Others with similar skills and better technology will take their place.

For some time I have noticed how the gap is widening between those of us who are embracing technology and those wonderful interpreters who resist and fight the change. I still run into colleagues who give you dirty looks when you arrive to the booth and plug in your I-pad. Just this year I have worked with people who are bringing paper dictionaries to work.  Not long ago an interpreter complained to me that the agency was trying to send us all materials to a dropbox instead of emailing them (never mind we were talking of huge files) Another one remarked that it was “distracting” to see me “playing” with the I-pad in the booth and taking notes on the pad instead of “using paper and pencil.” I tried to explain that I was online researching a term to help her with her rendition but she didn’t give me a chance to explain.

Unfortunately these are not isolated cases, and many of these colleagues are really good.  They don’t understand that comments like: “please call me. I hate to do this by email” hurt them with the client. They do not see that the person from the agency is 20 years old and expects you to use Viber, WhatsApp, and Wikipedia.  I am concerned because we may be on the verge of losing very good professionals because of their stubbornness. And it is not just the interpreters. It is some of our professional organizations as well. I work all over, so I am a member of professional organizations all-over the world. Some of them have embraced technology quite well, but others are resisting the change. We still have professional organizations, and some agencies for that matter, which refuse to take electronic signatures, that want to see a FAXED copy of your ID, or that refuse scanned documents. Organizations that “need” to approve your comments in a professional chat-room; “need” a signature to change your address on the directory, or demand copies of your certificates and diplomas.  We have organizations led by the same people who resist change that are becoming irrelevant before our eyes and don’t see it.

My friends, I worry that good capable people may become obsolete because of their resistance to modernization. I can just imagine how good they would be if they “dared” to use technology. The great Charles F. Kittering once said: “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.” He was right. I would love to hear your thoughts on this very delicate but essential issue.

When being politically correct hurts your rendition.

August 5, 2013 § 17 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

A few weeks ago I was on a plane from Atlanta to Chicago. We were ready to take off and I planned to prepare during the flight for an assignment I had that very same evening at my destination.  Then, as we were turning our telephones off to pull back from the gate, the voice of the pilot came over the speakers.  He informed us that there would be a delay because we had to wait for a last-minute passenger who had just booked a seat on our flight.  At that point I thought that we would probably be there for another ten or fifteen minutes so I turned on my phone and began to answer emails. About thirty minutes later the pilot informed us that it would take a little longer. By now some passengers started to question the rationale behind the delay; after all there were at least another ten flights from Atlanta to Chicago later that same day.  About fifteen minutes later the pilot announced that they were asking for volunteers to move from the front to the back of the plane because the last-minute passenger was in a wheelchair.  Some passengers volunteered and moved to the back, a couple of the airline’s ground crew members helped the passenger, who turned out to be an elderly woman, onto the aircraft and into her seat. We assumed we were ready to go.  Unfortunately, at this time the pilot announced that there was some bad weather over Indiana and our flight plan had been altered. The problem: because we had been sitting at the gate for more than an hour, we now did not have enough fuel to go through the new route we had been assigned, so the plane had to refill before take-off.  Re-fueling was going to take about thirty minutes so we deplaned. As I was exiting the plane, I overheard a couple of guys saying that although there were plenty of flights to Chicago, the delay was due to the fact that this elderly woman was covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and therefore, the airline had decided not to offend her by asking her to wait until the next plane where she would board before the rest of the passengers. The second person remarked: “it’s just that nowadays everything is decided based on its political correctness.”  I don’t know if these passengers were right or not, but that made me think of what we, as interpreters, face sometimes when somebody wants us to say, do, or omit something that should be said, omitted or done as part of the interpretation, just because it is not politically correct.

Some years ago, but already within this era of political correctness, I was working as a court interpreter in a criminal trial where a person was accused of murder. It involved Hispanic gang members and that meant that it involved plenty of nicknames.  As the trial progressed, and many witnesses testified before the jury, it became clear that a key player in this murder was a gang member known as “el negro” (the black one) who apparently had witnessed the killing.  All witnesses, one after another, kept referring, in Spanish, to “el negro” as a key witness for the prosecution.

Eventually, there was a recess for I don’t remember what reason, and during the break, one of the prosecuting attorneys, an Anglo woman who was not the lead prosecutor and did not speak Spanish, approached me and told me: “You know, I’d much appreciate it if you stopped referring to Mr. Sánchez (I made up the name for this posting) as <el negro> It would be better if you refer to him as the <African-American> so please do it. I don’t want to offend anybody” I looked at her in amazement. In all my years as an interpreter nobody had asked me to do such a bizarre thing before.  I explained to her that nicknames, just like proper names stay in their original language.  I even explained that it is common for Hispanics to give a nickname to an individual as an expression of sarcasm, thus, the tallest guy could be nicknamed “chiquilín” the fattest man could be called “el flaco” and so on. I even told her that as a prosecutor she should be concerned about the identity issue, and that the correct nickname could be the difference between acquittal and conviction. She understood that I was not to honor her request, but did not like my answer, and so we continued with the trial after the break.

After other two or three witnesses, the bailiff called the name of another witness who entered the courtroom. This was a tall young white man. He was ushered to the witness stand, placed under oath, and asked to have a seat. Next, the prosecutor asked the first question: “Can you please tell us your name and spell your last name for the record.” The witness complied and I interpreted for the jury. Second, the attorney asked: “Sir, do you go by any other name?” The white young man answered in Spanish: “Si, me dicen el negro” (Yes, they call me “el negro”) I interpreted for the jury as I looked at the prosecutor who had requested I be politically correct and refer to the witness nicknamed “el negro” as the “African-American” and with an inner sense of satisfaction I looked at him and then back at her as if telling her: “you see, I did the right thing. Referring to this man as the “African-American” would have been ridiculous and odd.”  From that day I always question political correctness in those situations. My belief is that when someone wants to have a politically correct event, they should talk to the speaker, not to the interpreter; after all, we interpret what others say. We are not the ones who are speaking.  I would like to hear your comments regarding this issue. Please feel free to share any stories you may have that are similar to the one I just told you about.

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