May 13, 2015 § 2 Comments
Last week, millions of people throughout the world watched on television the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. Boxing is controversial in some quarters, and the fight itself gave both, fans and detractors alike, much to talk about. I was one of those individuals watching the pay-per-view event, but unlike most of the audience, in between rounds my undivided attention was on the boxers’ corners where seconds and coaches were giving encouragement and instructions to both fighters. My reasons for paying close attention to these breaks are very simple: the networks broadcast these conversations in the ring, and many times, because many price fighters do not speak English, this is done through an interpreter. By the same token, the sports channels that broadcast in Spanish in the United States, need interpreters to do the same thing when English is spoken at the fighters’ corners, and when the winner is interviewed from the center of the ring after the official result of the bout is announced.
Sports interpreting is a very difficult field. It requires deep knowledge of the specific sport’s theory, rules, history, statistics, and current events. Many of these interpreters are individually assigned to an athlete by the team, the league, or the sport’s federation. Some of them also function as escort interpreters and cultural brokers to the athlete. Their job requires constant traveling and total dedication. If you like sports, the field is very rewarding, but it is not for everybody.
On top of all the requirements needed to be a sports interpreter, a sports media interpreter must meet an additional set of skills. These interpreters must perform in front of the TV cameras, sometimes for millions of viewers. They need to know the ropes in the world of broadcasting; they have to deliver their rendition with emotion, yet with serenity, in a pleasant voice, and with clear pronunciation. They have to transmit the message within the constraints and limitations of a radio or television broadcast, and they have to do it live, with no second takes.
I have been very fortunate, because throughout my career as an interpreter, I have always been involved with sports media interpreting. I have interpreted many boxing matches, and more recently, I have been working during the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) matches for the major sports networks and for the ones that broadcast in Spanish in the United States. You see, ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes need interpreters when the fighters do not speak English.
Not long ago, I was hired to interpret for both, the English and the Spanish broadcast of a UFC world championship match that took place outside the United States. There were the four basic assignments that all sports media interpreters who specialize in boxing or UFC have to cover: (1) Pre-fight interviews, (2) the weigh-in ceremony, (3) the conversations taking place at the two corners during the match itself, and (4) the interviews and press conference after the event. All four tasks are complex and unique.
When the main event is a title match or involves high profile combatants, the pre-fight interviews can be time consuming and exhausting. Most likely, the interpreter will accompany the fighters to personal appearances for radio and TV shows, to some visits to hospitals or charity organizations, and to some social and even political events such as dinners, personal appearances, and similar activities. Many times there will be a booth for the interpreter to do his job during an interview, but there will be many instances when the interpreter will need to work consecutively as there will be no place to set a booth and no time to lose.
Since full contact sports divide athletes by their weight, boxing and UFC championship have weigh in ceremonies. This is done in the presence of the opponent, and with the accredited media as witness. This is a safeguard in case that a bigger man starts thinking about fighting an individual who is smaller and therefore, perhaps easier to defeat. Weigh in ceremonies have evolved from a simple man-step on the scale routine, to very elaborated and spectacular shows full of music, dry ice, lights, and roaring crowds at the venue. These ceremonies will often be interpreted from a booth in an environment comfortable for the interpreters.
To give viewers a better idea of what is happening in the ring (boxing) and cage (ultimate fighting), for years the TV networks have been showing the action in the fighters’ corners in between rounds. All strategy, encouragement, and information that a fighter gets during the combat are delivered during these conversations. Because many of the contenders hold these corner conferences in their native language, the use of interpreters for the corner conversations has been a fixture for many years. Interpreters have a very difficult task during this minute-long breaks. They need to listen to all that is being said by the trainers and seconds as it is captured by an environment mike and a boom, and it is delivered into their earphones while everything else is going on at the arena. It is common to have code-switching during these conversations because many trainers are Americans and during the instructions, many times they go back to English without realizing it.
Here the interpreter has to be as sharp as ever: sports terminology, strategy, profanity, religious talk, all can (and will) emerge during these in-between rounds sessions. Once the break is over, the corner conversation ends, but the interpreters’ work does not. They have to remain alert and be on the lookout for any potential comments, remarks, or instructions that the corner may shout at the fighter during the round. If this happens, the interpreter has to inform it to the broadcasters so they can decide if they need to pass it on to the audience or not. It is hard for me to convey the full picture of what is going on at this time, but if you can imagine the noisiest assignment you ever had and then multiply it one hundred times, then you will begin to understand what sports media interpreters go through every time. Everybody who has been to a basketball or hockey game knows the noise level at the venue when the music is playing. These interpreters have to do their job, especially in UFC matches, while the noise is as loud as it can be. Picture yourself interpreting specialized terminology, bad words, idiomatic expressions, and similar conversations, all uttered at a volume intended for the individual who is next to you (not the general public) as it is being picked up by a boom a few feet away from the conversation, and you are doing it for millions of viewers from your seat at ring side, through a headset, while the arena’s P.A. system is playing “we will, we will rock you” full blast, your microphone and everything else is vibrating with the noise, and the sports announcers, and also the producer, are talking to you through the same headset at the same time.
I recently worked a fight where we were all crowded around the ring. We, the Spanish interpreters, were sitting to the right of the Portuguese interpreters and to the left of the Japanese interpreters. The English language announcers for Fox were next to the Portuguese colleagues, about ten feet away from us, and the other announcers we were working with: the ones broadcasting in Spanish, were at about the same distance from us as their English counterparts but in the other direction, to the right of the Japanese interpreters. It is the most difficult environment and the ultimate multitasking, all done simultaneously. Add to the job description the fact that the interpreter needs to get up, walk through a very tight space, making sure that he does not step on one of the myriad of television cables that cover the entire floor like a carpet, and climb up to the ring, or into the cage, to consecutively interpret the television interviews with winners and losers after each combat. Not an easy job!
Finally, after it is all over in the ring (or cage) and there is a winner, both fighters and their teams are expected to talk to the media a few minutes after the program is over. This takes place at a (sometimes improvised) press conference room in the arena, and it happens very late at night, or during the early hours of the morning: when the interpreter is already exhausted. This post-fight press conferences are usually attended by many journalists from domestic and foreign radio, television and print. They often block the view of the interpreters literally making it impossible to see the stage from the booth. It is total chaos with journalists, producers, and cameras all over the place; and to complicate things even more, many journalists ask their questions without using a microphone. I remind you, this all takes place after a long and busy day of interpreting.
Generally, interpreting services in the English<>Spanish combination are provided by three sports media interpreters: Two who work the fight and post-fight interviews in the ring or cage, and one who stays behind to do in-between fights interviews with other boxers and celebrities from an improvised studio under the seats of the arena. The two interpreters who work at ringside alternate between the English and the Spanish broadcast, depending on the language spoken by the contenders. These are the same two interpreters that will work the press conference once the event is over and the arena is empty, later that night.
The job is exciting, challenging, and to those of us who love sports it is a lot of fun, the pay is good, and the opportunity to meet the rich and famous is constant; however, we should never lose sight of the fact that this type of interpreting requires a lot of traveling, many hours of preparing for the assignment, very long hours, and the ability to work under very adverse circumstances, especially the noise level and the tight quarters. These interpreters work live, and deliver their rendition to those attending the match in the arena, and to the millions who watch the fight around the world; there is no room for hesitation or second-guessing. It requires of a very unique woman or man willing to work as I have described.
I tip my hat to those of you who do this kind of work, and for the rest of my colleagues, I wish that you found this post informative; you now know of another specialty in our profession, and I hope that the next time you watch a boxing or ultimate fighting match, and even if you just happen to walk by a TV set while one of these colleagues is doing his work; you stop for a moment and see them in action. I am sure you will come to appreciate your own working conditions more after you really see how difficult it is to interpret during one of these events. I invite you to share your thoughts about this topic, and any other type of interpreting that you may have done under extremely difficult circumstances, and please focus on interpreting and leave out your personal opinion about boxing or mixed martial arts.
April 27, 2015 § 6 Comments
I just read a contract that one of the States in the U.S. is asking all court interpreters to sign if they want to continue to work in their system. The document is 38 pages long and it is full of legal terminology, rules, and sanctions that only an attorney can understand. This is not an isolated case. Because of political pressure and budgetary prioritization, court interpreter programs are getting less money from their administrative offices at the state level. In other words: There is hardly any money to pay for interpreting services at the state level in many states.
Although the Civil Rights Act is over fifty years old, it was only a few years ago that the federal government decided to enforce its compliance at the state level in the case of equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language spoken by the user of the service. When the federal government came knocking on the door of each of the fifty states, and told their state judiciary to comply with the law or lose the funds they had been getting from the feds, states started to look for a solution to this problem. In reality, up to that moment, the states were complying with the constitutional requirement to provide court interpreters in criminal cases, but in many states there were no court-funded court interpreters available for civil cases and other additional services offered by the courts to the English-speaking population. The message from Washington, D.C. was loud and clear: In order to continue to receive (much needed) federal funds, the states had to provide interpreters for all services they offered, not just criminal cases.
In some parts of the country the first problem was as simple as this: There were not enough certified court interpreters to meet the legal requirements; in other regions the problem was slightly different: There were plenty of certified interpreters, but the courts were not willing to pay the professional fees commanded by these (for the most part) top-notch interpreters in that state. These professionals had been there for years, but due to the low fees paid by the state court system, they were not even considering the state judiciary as a prospective client.
When faced with this dilemma, a logical and ethical option should have been to develop a program to encourage more young people to become certified court interpreters, train them, and then test them to see if they could meet the state-level certification requirements, set years before and universally accepted as the minimum requirements to do a decent court interpreting job. Some states’ needs could be met this way, but not all of them. For that reason, a second logical step would have been to raise the professional fees paid to court interpreters in order to entice those top-notch interpreters, who were not working for the courts, by making the assignment profitable and attractive. Finally, for those places where this was not enough, state courts could have used modern technology and provide interpreting services by video or teleconference. Administrative offices had to develop a plan, categorize the services offered and decide which ones required of an experienced certified court interpreter, find the ones that a brand new certified court interpreter could provide, and select those instances that, because of their nature and relevance, could be covered remotely by a certified court interpreter elsewhere in the state or even somewhere else. This process also needed that state court judges and officials acted within the constitutional system and asked their respective legislatures for the funds to comply with the federal mandate. It is doubtful that legislatures would risk losing federal funds by not approving such monies; and in those cases where the local legislators would not grant more funds, state court administrators and chief judges needed to do their job, and truly provide equal access to justice to all by reorganizing priorities, and perhaps sacrificing some programs, even those that were near and dear to a judge’s heart, in order to find the funds needed to meet this priority that is above most others, not just because of the federal funds that the state would lose in the event of non-compliance, but because those in charge of the judiciary should consider equal access to justice a top priority, and I really mean at the very top.
Unfortunately, my dear friends and colleagues, most states chose an easier way, even though it did not deliver what the Civil Rights Act intended. They decided not to rock the boat with the legislature and play it safe, they decided not to make true equal access to justice a priority by recruiting and training quality certified court interpreters, instead, they opted for ignoring the excellent professionals in their area by not raising interpreter fees, thus making the assignments profitable to professional interpreters. They decided to come up with a “plan” to keep the federal money in their accounts by making believe that they were complying with the federal mandate of equal access to justice. This is what many of the states decided to do:
Instead of recruiting and training new certified court interpreters, they decided to create a group of paraprofessionals who would “deliver” interpreting services. These individuals were drafted from the ranks of those who had always failed the certification exams, and by recruiting bilingual individuals with no interpreting knowledge whatsoever. States justified their decision by arguing that these individuals would receive the necessary “training” to interpret in certain scenarios of lesser importance, where people who had partially passed the certification test would be considered as professionally qualified (semantics vary from state to state but it is basically the same) even though in the real world they should be deemed as unfit to do the job. Moreover, bilinguals would be trained to “assist” non-English speakers with some administrative matters in the courthouse. Of course, this brilliant decision would set the profession back to the good old days when prevailing judicial culture was that knowing two languages was all you needed to interpret in court; but that was of little importance when balanced against the possibility of cancelling a court program that was politically useful to a judge or an administrator. This is how the “warm body next to the court services user so we don’t lose federal funds” theory was born. The spirit of the law was ignored.
There is as much quality and true access to the administration of justice when a person who failed the court interpreter certification test, or a bilingual court staffer, interprets for a non-English speaker individual as there is medical knowledge when the guy who failed the medical board sees a hospital patient, even if the appointment is to take care of an ingrowing toenail.
Of course, the process above taught court administrators a valuable lesson: court interpreting services was a good place to save money, a wonderful way to channel budget resources somewhere else, and a great way to avoid antagonizing the state legislature, because there would be no need to ask for more money to fund the program. This was the origin of the next step backwards: Fee reduction.
Court administrators did not stop here. They now knew that they could get away with more, so they decided to lower interpreter fees. In most cases the reduction did not come as a lowering of the fee itself; it was accomplished by cutting guaranteed hours, reducing mileage and travel reimbursement, changing cancellation policy, and by creating a new bureaucratic machinery designed to oversee what interpreters do minute-by-minute. Maybe it should be referred to as “to spy” instead of to “oversee”.
Fast forward to today, and you will find these huge interpreting services contracts in many states. The reason for them is not that court interpreters all of a sudden went bad and stopped doing the good work that they did for decades; these contracts are motivated by more reductions to the interpreters’ fees and by developing this super-protection for the state, leaving the freelancer with little or no defense before potential abuse by the court administrators. What other justification can these state contracts have when the federal court interpreter contract is a very short agreement, which usually does not change from one fiscal year to the next, and is drafted and developed individually by every federal judicial district?
These state contracts that court interpreters are expected to sign without the slightest objection, have been drafted by the administrative office of the courts’ legal departments; they have been amended to include any possible ways to reduce the interpreters’ real fee that the states missed when drafting last year’s contract, they include sanctions to interpreters who do not comply with sometimes ridiculous duties, without setting any process of notice and hearing; they are written in a complex style full of legal terms and ambiguity that only an attorney can understand.
I am very fortunate that I do not need to sign one of these contracts, as state courts have not been my clients for several years; but it concerns me, as a defender of our profession, that my colleagues may sign these documents out of fear or hopelessness. I invite all those court interpreters who have been, or will be asked to sign one of these agreements in the next few months, before the new fiscal year starts in July, to seek legal representation. It is your professional career, it is your future. I believe that state (and national) level professional associations should negotiate a deal with a labor relations or civil law attorney, where services would be provided at a lower fee, and offer it as a benefit to their members. In fact, I would like to see all interpreters who are members of a state or regional professional association present a common front and negotiate these contracts with the state administrator. As state court interpreters we need protection, because if we do not act, we will continue to move backwards. They already told many of us that there is no money and they blamed it on the state legislature, now we know that perhaps they did not try to protect the interpreter program no matter what.
They are paying you less, making your work conditions very uncomfortable, they already took some of our work away and gave it to mediocre cheaper paraprofessionals. All professionals negotiate the terms of a contract, and before they reach an agreement, they have the benefit of legal representation. The administrative office of the courts is represented by their attorneys; interpreters, like all professionals, should at least be represented by an attorney before they sign a new agreement. I now ask you to comment on this situation and the ways to recover what we had already achieved in the past, so we can move forward, and for the first time fully comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
October 23, 2014 § 9 Comments
This time I am going to refer to a problem that many of us have encountered during our careers: The individual who is also an interpreter and he or she is difficult to deal with at the professional level, not when we go out and socialize, but when we are doing our job. I am not talking about the lazy interpreter, the self-centered know-it-all interpreter, the bad interpreter, or even the vulgar disrespectful interpreter. My colleagues, this time I want to discuss a situation where a colleague gets an assignment, job, or promotion and has a personality change.
We all know colleagues who have made career changes or have received a promotion; that is great if that is what they wanted to accomplish and I think we would all agree that this makes us happy for that person. In fact, many of these changes have benefited the profession at large because these colleagues are now using their new position or status to improve the quality of the service and the working conditions for all of us. They recognize that one of the reasons for their hiring or promotion was the fact that they have been interpreters in the past: they have walked the walk. These changes have contributed significantly to the advance of our profession. Unfortunately, not everybody reacts the same way.
Some time ago I was in an interpreter social gathering with many old and new friends. As it often happens, some colleagues began to talk shop and it was not long before quite a few of them were talking about an interpreter who had recently been hired or promoted (I did not get all the details) to a position that now rendered this individual as the one with the power to hire interpreters for assignments; This person was now in charge of assigning interpreters, negotiating pay and other labor conditions, and setting protocol and procedure for those who wanted to work with that organization. Apparently, this person had been another freelancer until recently and had been a good colleague, maybe not the best interpreter, but certainly a very reliable one. The person was well-liked by the professional community, so the hiring (or promotion) was received warmly by the other interpreters. It all seemed to indicate that this was going to be an excellent choice for everybody; one of those changes that I was referring to at the beginning of this piece. Unfortunately, it did not happen that way.
Apparently, the freelance interpreters saw many changes once this person was hired and became part of the company’s staff. They all received innumerable emails with memos that were setting rules and policies for everything imaginable: How to report the status of an assignment (right in the middle of the event!) how to get paid, how to invoice, how to write a cover letter, how to dress for work, and many others. These interpreters were not happy. Remember: They were no rookies; most of them were practicing their profession way before this newly hired individual decided to become an interpreter, and they were doing a good job; there were no complaints.
When some of them questioned the newly hired “supervisor” on these changes, the person responded by saying that these changes to the system would help the company’s clerical staff as they would make it easier for them to understand what the interpreters were doing. He never even addressed the fact that this would require of more of the freelancers’ time because they were being asked to do part of the employees’ work for the same fee. Everyone knows that to a freelancer time is equal to money.
According to this policy, they now had to do extra work for the same pay. In other words, by implementing all these bureaucratic rules and policies, the first thing this person did in the new job was to give the interpreters a pay cut. This reminded me of the time when, for a brief period of time, I was part of the system and the first thing I was told was that from that moment on I was a corporate entity and all my decisions and actions should be geared to protect the employer, regardless of what happened to the interpreters. I was told that it was us against them. Needless to say, under that philosophy, I barely lasted a blink of an eye at that job.
After listening to this heartbreaking story, I told the interpreters at the social gathering to diversify even more, to try to work for that individual as little as possible, to reject the bureaucratic memos, to continue to provide a quality professional service, and to keep in mind that although time is money for the freelancer, the rule does not apply to those like this person who will make the same paycheck regardless of how they spend their time. I mentioned that even though this person may be socially friendly and nice to them, they must remember that somewhere deep inside, these individuals are always aware of their professional limitations, and consider that promotions, like the one the individual got in this case, are the zenith of their career; I reminded them that even when we don’t see their job that way, they do, and they will defend their newly acquired status with everything they have. I told them that this strategy of versatility and widening our scope of practice is exactly what I have been doing throughout my career. Eventually, we should always use these nonsensical circumstances as motivation to grow as professionals and look for newer and better professional opportunities. I now ask you to share your personal experience with individuals in similar circumstances to the ones described in this post, and to tell us what you did to either adjust and cope with the circumstances, or to get out of this situation.