U.S. immigration interpreters under siege again.

August 23, 2016 § 8 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is not common that I write a blog entry hoping to be wrong, but on this occasion I hope I am mistaken. Let me explain:

2015 was a very difficult year for our immigration court interpreters in the United States. After decades of working with the same agency, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) granted their court interpreting services contract to a new contractor that is better known for their multi-million dollar contracts with the United States Department of Defense than for their interpreting services.  This new contractor: SOSi, won the licitation process by bidding lower than anybody else, and to keep the operation profitable for their stakeholders, they attempted to hire inexperienced interpreters and pay them extremely low fees under unimaginable work conditions.

The interpreters rallied against the newcomer’s offer, united like never before, and took to the social media, traditional media, and professional associations for support. The movement became quite strong and as a result of these actions by our immigration court colleagues and their allies, SOSi was left with no choice but to offer contracts to many of the more experienced interpreters under work conditions similar to the ones they were used to with the former contractor, and in many cases with the interpreters getting better fees than before. SOSi agreed to these terms and addressed some of the main concerns that the EOIR had about the way they were to offer interpreting services nationwide by hiring some of the support staff that had previously worked for the previous contractor: LionBridge.

At the time, it looked like SOSi got it and decided to do things the right way; unfortunately, their temporary contract with the United States Department of Justice was about to expire and they had to move quickly to turn that provisional contract into a permanent contractual obligation. To achieve their goals, once that interpreters, immigration judges, and public opinion subsided, they decided to go after the interpreters once again.

During the last few days, many immigration interpreters received an email from SOSi notifying them the following changes to their policy:

“…In the coming weeks, we plan to release a competitive Request for Quote (RFQ) to anyone who is interested in continuing to work on the program…”

In other words, in a few weeks, interpreters will have to bid for work at the EOIR, and assignments will go to the lowed bid.  Is SOSi going to pay its interpreters the same rock-bottom fees they had in mind a year ago when their master plan was derailed in part by their ineptitude, but mainly because the quality interpreters refused to work for such insulting fees.

I hope I am wrong, but as I continue to read SOSi’s communication, I detect a Machiavellian cleverness I did not see last year. Let’s read another segment of the same email:

“…In the meantime, we are issuing extensions to current Independent Contractor Agreements (ICAs) at the current rates.  You will have seven days to review and execute those extensions in order to be eligible to continue working on the program past August 31, 2016….”

The way I read the paragraph, and I hope I am wrong, I get the impression that SOSi is taking away from the interpreters the argument of “contracts with rock-bottom fees” by offering its current contractors a new contract under the same professional fees (incorrectly called “rates”).  By doing this, the Defense Contractor turned interpreting service provider, if questioned by EOIR, can defend itself arguing that their individual interpreter contracts contain the same terms as the prior contract, and that the interpreters who work for a lower fee than the one in their contract, do so by voluntarily participating in the “competitive request” process in order to get more work.  Of course, we can assume (from the contractor’s own words) that there will be very few assignments for those interpreters who do not participate in the bidding process. They will probably work only when nobody else is available.

Finally, SOSi’s communication states that “…The goal of the changes is to provide the best, most cost-effective service to the DOJ…”

Of course they have to watch these costs; that is an essential part of their contract with the government. The problem is that they also need to make a profit, and the more the better.  The question is: How can you increase your profit when your client (EOIR) will not pay you more? To me, the answer seems clear:  They will pay less to the service provider (the interpreter).

I could be wrong, but I do not believe that SOSi will pass on to the EOIR the “savings” from low-bidding interpreters on a case-by-case basis. Record keeping and reporting of these individual cases would be more expensive than simply paying the contractually agreed fees.  From the email, I understand that SOSi will get the same paycheck from the government, but their profit will go up from the money they will save by paying the interpreter a miserable fee.  The United States federal budget for 2017 shows an increase on the appropriations that go to the EOIR from 420 million dollars to 428.2 million.  There were no cuts, and in my opinion, even knowing that most of the EOIR budget goes to many other priorities, it is very hard to understand why SOSi would want interpreters to provide the same services for less money. (https://www.justice.gov/jmd/file/821961/download)

Dear friends and colleagues, I sincerely hope that my appreciations are all wrong and SOSi will honor the contracts, discard the “lower-bid” system that they seem to spouse, and things continue to improve for our immigration court colleagues; but in the event that I may be totally, or even partly right, I believe our colleagues will be better served by sounding the alarm and being in a state of alert and ready to act once again. There are just too many loose ends that require not just an explanation, but a public general commitment by SOSi not to go back to last year’s unsuccessful attempt to pay less for professional interpreting services. I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this issue, and if you have solid evidence (not wishful thinking) to prove my conclusions wrong, please share them with the rest of us.

How to study for the federal court interpreter exam.

June 5, 2015 § 14 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This is the time when every two years many court interpreters in the United States, and abroad, are getting ready to take the federal court interpreter certification exam. This test is only offered every two years to those candidates who have previously passed the written portion of the exam.  The test is relevant mainly for two reasons: (1) those who have this certification can work as interpreters in all federal courts in the United States (all fifty states and all territories) where work conditions are usually better and the pay is slightly higher compared to the state-level courts; and (2) For better or worse, this certification is by far the best-known and universally recognized interpreter credential in the United States, even for work that has nothing to do with court proceedings.  In other words, passing the exam improves the credibility of an interpreter and boosts his resume.

This blog is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of the certification being used as a reference for other non-legal interpreting assignments in the United States, it is just a statement of fact that it is a test widely known by agencies, promoters, and direct clients. It is also a fact that, unlike many other certification exams, the passing rate is very low because the test is really difficult.  Add this to the fact that many interpreters in the U.S. do not have an academic background, and the test turns into a useful tool to decide who to hire for a job. Finally, we must keep in mind that the exam only exists for Spanish, Navajo and Haitian-Creole.

My only goal in writing this post is to contribute to the success of those taking the test some six weeks from now.  I am not going to talk about what to study from the academic perspective. I will not discuss terminology either. Those things should be learned in school and attending workshops and seminars to improve the interpreting skills of the candidate, and to learn how to study for the test in order to pass.

Today, I will limit to those things that are important, and a candidate must do when the exam is a few weeks away. In this case: about six weeks from now.

The first thing that a candidate needs is honesty. Be honest about what you know and what you can do as a court interpreter.  This is the time to work on your weaknesses while at the same time taking care of your strengths as an interpreter. Do a self-examination of everything that will be tested and rank your strengths:  At least you need to know where you rank in:

  • Sight translation of a paralegal document from English into the target language;
  • Sight translation of a legal document from the foreign language into English;
  • Consecutive interpreting of a testimony under very strict time limitations;
  • Simultaneous interpreting of a monologue;
  • Simultaneous interpreting of a dialogue at a relatively fast rate of speech;
  • Legal terminology and procedure; and
  • General vocabulary in both languages.

You can add other categories if you feel they are needed, but you should at least consider the ones mentioned above.  Once you have ranked your skill and knowledge, you have to develop a study plan that will emphasize your weakest points without forgetting about your strengths. Let me explain:

Let’s say that you concluded that simultaneous interpreting is your strongest mode because you practice it daily in your state court or community interpreting assignments. This does not mean that you are going to ignore or neglect simultaneous interpreting for the next six weeks. All it means is that you will dedicate less time to simultaneous than consecutive and sight.  In the same example, you decided that sight translating a legal document from the foreign language into English is your weakest point, but consecutive interpreting, especially under the time constraints of the exam, is something you feel less confident about.  In those circumstances, your study plan for the first two weeks could look similar to this:

  • Sight translation 40% of study time (60 percent of this time for legal documents written in the foreign language)
  • Consecutive interpreting 30% of study time (working on concentration, visualization, memory, and very brief note taking with a rendition starting almost as soon as the speaker stops talking)
  • Simultaneous interpreting 10% (with special attention to expert witness testimony, opening and closing statements)
  • Legal terminology and procedure 10% (making sure to learn the federal jurisdiction terminology and procedure, not the state level vocabulary)
  • General vocabulary 10% (paying attention to “laundry lists”, regional expressions, bad words and slang)

Two weeks later, you self-assess your work and reorganize your study schedule to reflect the newest results. You may decide that you need more time for the consecutive and less for vocabulary and sight translation for example.  From this point on, I would do this self-evaluation every week and adjust my plan accordingly.  It is important to remember that you cannot ignore any of the sections of the test, even if you are very good at consecutive interpreting. It is like playing the piano: you must practice every day to keep your skills sharp.

Because you will be studying a lot, you have to make it fun and interesting. Variety is the key to success and consistency when you study. To increase my vocabulary, I would try to learn 10 new words every day, picking words from the same theme of course; let’s say that today I decided to learn 10 words for items found in a lawyer’s office: desk, chair, file, briefcase, computer, client, pleadings, paralegals, investigators, and telephone. The next day I pick things found in a courtroom, then things in a hospital emergency room, a crime lab, and so on. If I do this every day, by Friday I will have worked with 50 new words; Of course, I will probably remember about 20 of them. That is 20 words I did not know on Monday.

To practice my sight translation from English into the foreign language, I would look for documents that are about the same size as the test to be sight translated during the exam, that are of some quasi-legal content. Letters from your bank, utility company, mortgage creditor and other similar communications usually work pretty well.  For the legal sight translation from the foreign language into English I would look for documents on line or from attorney friends in the country of origin. In the case of Spanish, I know that many of the big law offices in Mexico carry “sample” documents in their websites. You can download and use leases, wills, powers of attorney, court orders and decisions, etc.   Just remember to divide large documents into several exercises so that you are always practicing with a document the size of the one that you will find when you take the test.  Remember to always practice with the same rules as the exam regarding time to review the document and time to provide the rendition. Finally, please record every single exercise you do so you can grade yourself afterwards. You will not be able to see any progress unless you do this.

To practice simultaneous interpreting, I suggest you do two things: First, go to your local federal courthouse and watch a trial or a motions hearing. It does not matter if there is an interpreter or not. You will be interpreting under your breath and you will be taking vocabulary notes for your glossaries.  Please avoid state courts because it is very difficult to hear what is actually happening due to the noise, and also, keep in mind that you need to practice with federal terminology, not state. In fact, if there are staff court interpreters in your courthouse, try to talk to them and see if they can tell you when the trials or long hearings are taking place between now and the test. Who knows? Some of them may be nice enough to let you use a receiver if a court interpreter is working a hearing.  Now, because interpreting under your breath is always carried without any mistakes, you also need to practice yourself. I suggest you access any of the online sources that exist and provide live coverage of trials. Unfortunately, the viewers’ appetite for live court on TV has declined in the United States, so there is no Court TV anymore. Fortunately, you can find hearings on line. A good place to start is http://cvn.com you can also visit: www.nbcnews.com which is showing the Aurora Colorado movie shooting trial live, www.supremecourt.gov/oral has the United States Supreme Court oral arguments for you to listen whenever you are ready to do it. Many state-level Supreme Court websites do the same. I suggest that you record your rendition, and please make sure that your exercises are similar in length to the ones you will have to render when taking the test.

To practice consecutive interpreting, you can use the same resources listed above for the simultaneous exercises, as long as you stop the recording after each question and answer in order to render your interpretation.  Please do no more than 2 repetitions per exercise, and please observe the exam’s time limit at all times. This is crucial for your rendition and note taking practice. Remember, you do not have a lot of time to review your notes and once the time is up, everything you did not get to cover will be considered wrong in the exam.  This is extremely important. Too many people fail because they run out of time taking great notes.  For the consecutive exercises I suggest you draft a family member or a friend who can help you by reading from a text that you can also download from some of the websites above. This will be a great change of pace and will let you concentrate in your rendition as your assistant will be in charge of timing and repetitions.

For legal terminology and procedure, I suggest you focus on federal matters. Remember: This is the federal test. Terms are very important and as you probably know, we are in the middle of a huge change for many Spanish-speaking countries. It is true that many of the terms we have used in the past will now be obsolete and you should learn the new legal terminology developed by these countries’ legislators, scholars, and judges; but for now, for purposes of passing the federal exam, please continue to use the terminology you feel more comfortable with. For the test all terms will be considered correct if they exist in a recognized publication or dictionary.  Obviously, for those terms you do not know yet, I suggest you learn the correct terminology from the start, and if your combination is EN<>ES I suggest the two volumes of Javier Becerra’s dictionary.

To keep your studying fresh and exciting, I suggest you vary the order of the various subject matters: sometimes start with sight, other with simultaneous, etc. Also, I strongly encourage you to have a study-buddy. Someone else who is taking the test and can benefit from the mutual help and encouragement when you are tired, frustrated, or things are just not going as well as planned. With current telecommunications, your study-buddy can be anywhere in the world.  Just remember: You are getting together to study.

Please never study when you are tired, angry or frustrated. You will learn nothing and you will waste your time and energy. Be wise and know when to quit. For that same reason, until the last 2 weeks, have a day off every week, and on that day do not study or even think of the exam. During the last 2 weeks you will need to study every single day. Sorry: No social engagements during those last 14 days.  You will need to end your study at least 24 hours before the test. In other words: please abstain from studying the day before the exam. By now you will know everything you could learn. Let your brain (and body) rest so you can be sharp on the day of the test. If you have to travel to a city to take the exam, try to get there at least one day earlier so you can find the venue ahead of time.

Finally, on the day of the test, wake up early, have a good nutritious breakfast, and do whatever you enjoy doing: listen to music, workout, read a book, watch TV, anything but interpreting. Do not talk to any interpreter friends, especially if they are also taking the test. We know they are showing their support, but this is not the time for you to talk. Get to the test site early, you need to plan for traffic, parking, and public transportation.  Once you arrive at the venue, avoid all others who are taking the test. Do not even acknowledge them. You will have plenty of time to explain why after the exam.  You do not need to think of any term, word, phrase, or anything at this point. Keep your brain rested and stress-free.

During the test, do not start any section of the exam unless you are ready to do it. Adjust the headphones, the volume, and the chair; make sure you have your favorite pens handy, remember to time yourself, especially during the consecutive rendition. Use your time wisely during the two sight translation exercises, make sure you use your repetitions during the consecutive only if you really need them, and please, do not stop any exercise because you will not be able to restart it. Do not stress out if you do not know one word, remember, nobody fails for missing one word, but many people flunk the test for losing concentration and missing many scoring units after losing concentration because of a single word.

Now go out there and start studying very hard. You have been working for this certification for at least one year since you took the written portion of the test. Believe in yourself and do your best to pass the exam.  In the meantime, keeping in mind that we cannot talk about the contents of the exam, I invite other colleagues who have passed the federal court certification test to share their study tips with the rest of us.

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.

Is it medical interpreter, or healthcare interpreter?

June 26, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I have struggled with the issue of how to refer to a growing number of our colleagues whose work mainly takes place in hospitals, clinics, or medical and dental offices. Their primary function is to enable communication between a person who does not speak the language of the land and a healthcare provider: physician, dentist, nurse, psychologist, paramedic, and other support staff. As you all know, this area of interpretation has been around for some time, but it has just become formally regulated in the recent past. Because of globalization and its migration consequences, now many countries experience the need to have somebody to bridge the gap of communication that has developed between native speakers and immigrant communities. These developments have augmented the need for court interpreters, legal translators, school interpreters and many others; the healthcare field has not been an exception; in fact, this is the area where we can appreciate the most dramatic changes to the old “business as usual” format. Unlike other interpreting specialties, like conference, military and court interpreting, which have been around for a long time, these new service providers just organized a few years ago. Great efforts and devotion on the part of some individuals have produced important results like the creation of professional associations, the adoption of ethical and professional responsibility canons, and the development of certification programs and examinations. This is truly admirable.

There are two organizations in the United States that have emerged as standard-bearers of this profession: The International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA) which endorses the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters exam, and the Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI).

Keeping in mind the services provided by these professionals (based on the organizations’ websites, several hospitals’ information, and conversations with many of my esteemed colleagues) I reviewed all information I could find on the two certification exams that test English, professional conduct and ethics. To a lesser degree they test some medical-related vocabulary that a true bilingual individual should know, without any medical or pharmacological terminology studies, and they include very short paragraphs, or vignettes as one of the test refers to them, where patient and healthcare provider communicate regarding the symptoms that the non-native speaker is experiencing. The dialogue is an everyday conversation at a moderate to low register. Finally, I also noticed that the main part of the score overwhelmingly goes to the consecutive interpretation, leaving simultaneous and sight translation at about 10 to 15 percent each.

I am convinced that the work these colleagues do is essential to the healthcare industry and well-being of those individuals who otherwise would see their chances of receiving appropriate services diminished by reason of the language they speak. Nobody is disputing this. I also applaud the conditions under which they constantly work in hospitals, emergency rooms, and urgent care facilities where people perform under great stress. The writing of this post was simply motivated by my need to find a term I can feel comfortable with when referring to my colleagues, but before I am ready to form an opinion I should also consider what the rest of the world is doing and saying on this issue.

In Europe the services performed by our medical interpreters are part of what is known as public service interpreting or community interpreting in some countries. This public service interpreting also covers legal interpreting but not court interpreting as I will explain in a moment.

Public service interpreting refers to those services provided by an interpreter to help two individuals who speak different languages so they can communicate regarding everyday affairs, personal issues, including important topics, in cases when individuals who speak the same language would usually speak for themselves, but in this particular situation, because of the language difference, and cultural considerations, an interpreter is needed.

My dear friends and colleagues, conference interpreters provide their services to make it possible for individuals who do not speak the same language to communicate, by interpreting almost exclusively on the simultaneous mode, complex information at a high register. Their audience is usually formally educated. Court interpreters provide their services in cases when one or more individuals do not speak the language employed in court, to make it possible for officers of the court, litigants, jurors, and others, to communicate on the simultaneous, consecutive, whispered, and sight translation modes, everyday information, complex legal concepts and terminology, and expert witness testimony, at a variety of register levels.

Now I ask you to contrast these job descriptions with the job that public service interpreters such as school interpreters, welfare services interpreters, church interpreters, and community organization interpreters do. These professionals (and sometimes paraprofessionals that may include a family member) provide their services so that individuals who do not share the same language can communicate about important everyday matters such as parent-teacher conferences, services provided by religious organizations, and dealings with government agencies at the customer service window or over the phone. This work is almost exclusively performed on the consecutive mode, unlike court interpreting, and there are no formal rules to keep the interpreter from asking questions and give explanations to facilitate the communication. The main objective is to bridge the language gap without any consideration for rules of evidence or procedure. These interpreters can interrupt the parties and ask them to speak slower or in shorter sentences. While conference and court interpreters work with complicated and sometimes rarely used words as part of their everyday job, public service interpreters work with common vocabulary; not simple words, but words that anyone with a certain level of formal education, regardless of any interpreting training, should know.

This explains why we occasionally see conference interpreters in the courtroom and court interpreters in the booth. It also explains why conference interpreters, and not medical interpreters, interpret medical and pharmaceutical conferences; and why court interpreters, not medical interpreters, interpret the expert testimony of a pathologist or other medical professional during a trial.

I mentioned earlier that there was a difference between court and legal interpreters in many countries, and why the latter are considered public sector interpreters: A court interpreter provides her services in a formal court setting and during out of court events that are related to a current or future court or legal proceeding. A legal interpreter assists an individual who needs help with his dealings with the authority, such as getting a driver’s license, applying for government benefits, or requesting government documents. These interpreters are clearly outside the scope of the very strict canons of ethics and professional responsibility that govern the activity of court interpreters. Just as we may encounter a conference interpreter in court or a court interpreter in the booth, we may find a school interpreter or a medical interpreter in a government agency assisting a foreign language speaker with some excruciating government administrative process. I hope the example clarifies the issue, but I also ask you to look at this very carefully, because there are some who would like to assimilate the services provided by a court interpreter outside a courtroom to those of a public service or community interpreter; they would argue that these services are “legal” and not court services. They are wrong.

They are wrong because the terminology of legal versus court interpreter that was valid in the past does not apply to our globalized world. When most countries had a written legal system there was very little work for a court interpreter. In those days legal translators did most of the court work because everything was done in writing. Legal interpreters were then relegated to in-office interviews and customer service windows. If you consider that migration was less popular than it is now, then you would have a very low demand for court or even legal interpreters. Lack of migration did not impact legal translators who had to translate official documents, contracts, deeds, and many other written statements that originated within the other country. At the time the legal interpreter was really a community or public service interpreter. That reality is so different from ours. Presently, an interpreter who works before an administrative law judge, such as an immigration court, workers’ compensation court, or social security court, is subject to the same ethical and professional rules as the court interpreter who appears before a traditional court. The fact that some jurisdictions allow for non-certified or licensed interpreters to provide their services in administrative law courts does not mean that community interpreters should do the job. These courts still abide by rules of evidence and procedure, the interpreter has to act as if working before the traditional judiciary, the job must be done at a higher register, with specialized complex legal terminology, and on a simultaneous interpreting mode that does not allow to stop the procedure so the interpreter can request the litigants to slow down, or a consecutive rendition where the interpreter cannot ask the parties to speak in shorter sentences. The same can be said for civil depositions, jailhouse visits, and the transcription of wiretaps. On the other hand, those individuals who are appearing before the motor vehicle office are better off employing the services of a community interpreter because this professional knows more about handling situations where the interpreter has the freedom to step outside the box to achieve communication between the parties.

After considering all of these concepts and possible scenarios, and after reviewing the materials I have mentioned before, I understand that there are arguments to be made for the term medical interpreter, but I just do not believe that in my book that would be accurate. I think that the appropriate and accurate way to describe this very important segment of our profession is the one adopted by the Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). For this reason, I believe that we should call our colleagues Healthcare Interpreters instead of Medical Interpreters. Please let us all know your comments on this issue that to some may seem irrelevant, but is actually very important.

The ten worst things that interpreters can do to themselves.

April 1, 2014 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the past we have used this series to underline some of the problems that we face when practicing our profession; we have vented a little, laughed a little, but most importantly, we have discussed short-term and long-term solutions to all of these problems. It is now time to look in the mirror and list those things that we do to ourselves, sometimes without even realizing it, that can personally harm us and sometimes even hurt the profession as a whole. Let’s take a peek:

  1. Lower your fee to keep the client. This is the worst of the worst of the worst thing any professional can ever do. Interpreters are professionals and their service commands a professional fee. We are not talking about general labor, this is specialized complex work. Sadly, many of our colleagues are afraid of losing the client and in order to keep the cheap client happy they are all too-ready to drop their fees to the basement. Dear colleagues, I don’t know about you, but I am in the business of working less and making more. I rather work two days a week and make the same money that other interpreter makes in five days. I can find plenty of things to do on those other three days, including looking for more business and having availability for those well-paying last minute assignments. I know some staff interpreters argue that this does not apply to them because they have a fixed income, but it does apply to them because they also interpret on weekends, after hours and during their vacation time. Others may say that sometimes we have to lower our fee because the client truly cannot pay what we ask. For those situations you need to remember that our services are expensive. This is not something for people to pay with their left over income. We provide a service that is paid with saved or even loaned money. That is just how it is. As far as “feeling guilty” in a particular situation, my suggestion is to donate your work for free in those cases. It has worked better for me, and when you ask for a receipt, in many places it is tax deductible as a charitable contribution. Never lower your fee because that harms you and it also hurts the profession. The client has to get used to the fact that interpreters are professionals providing a professional service, but we can only achieve this goal when it is us, the interpreters, who believe that we are professionals and provide a professional service.
  2. Be unprepared. The best way to make sure that a client will never call you again is to show up unprepared. Interpreting is a very difficult profession because we are one of the very few professions where we are required to know our craft and to have a very detailed knowledge of the client’s occupation. It is never enough to go to work as a good simultaneous or consecutive interpreter; it is never acceptable to go to work as a true bilingual individual. We need to be those things and we also need to know the subject matter to be interpreted, the work and background of the presenters, the educational level of the audience, and the basic technology needed to operate the interpretation equipment in the booth. Those colleagues who are afraid to ask for presentations and other materials ahead of time are killing themselves. Unless they already know the topic, those who choose not to study or at least read about the issues to be covered by the presenter are simply committing malpractice.
  3. A nightmare in the booth. Among interpreters there are very few things more detrimental to an interpreter’s reputation than bad behavior in the booth (or the courtroom, the hospital, the gala dinner, or any other place where we render our services) Always remember: Interpreting is a team sport. We need to have the support of our colleague in the booth as much as they need to have ours. Always be courteous to your teammate, because we practice a team and not a tag-team profession, be alert and ready to help when you are not interpreting, do not leave the booth or abandon your interpreting station unless it is an emergency, before you start an assignment talk with your booth-mate about little things such as shifts, where to sit, having the lights on or off in the booth, uniform terminology, and all other details necessary to have a successful rendition. The nicer you are to the other person in the booth the more people will want to work with you, and more people translates into more work.
  4. Stay away from social media. This is a relatively new addition to my top ten but it is becoming more important every year. In a global economy where technology allows for fast travel, remote interpreting, and instant communication, your name needs to be out there for all to see. The least expensive and a very effective way to stay competitive is to get involved in all kinds of social media. It is easier to develop networks when you do Twitter, you establish connections through Linked-in, you create and maintain a professional page on Facebook, Google+, and so on. At least try to keep up with some of them. Write a blog or at least comment on other colleagues’ blogs to stay visible. It is essential to have a website for clients to find you, learn about your background and experience, and to pay you by credit card or PayPal. Those who stay away from social media will stay away from main stream interpreting and will eventually be forgotten.
  5. Unwillingness to travel. Good interpreters must be flexible. We are in a profession that cannot be practiced from an office, cannot be practiced from a single city, and at certain level cannot be practiced in one single country either. Unless you are a staff in-house interpreter somewhere, or as a freelancer you have decided to settle for a certain professional level (that is not even remotely near the top of our profession) then you have to be willing to travel everywhere, anytime, for as long as needed, and on very short notice. Unfortunately these are the rules of the game. Unlike translators, we need to be on the move. This is something you need to ponder long and hard if you are truly committed to be a first-class full-time interpreter. Of course, this is not for everybody. Many people decide to practice a less involved version of the profession and choose to remain in a single town and only work within a geographically limited area. Others prefer to travel once or twice a year, or maybe want to have notice way before the assignment. This is fine if you want practice the profession at that particular level and you make it well known. Those who try to have the two lifestyles of staying at home and pretend that they are willing to travel will eventually hurt their career as sooner or later it will be common knowledge that they are not really that flexible.
  6. Ignore technology. One of the most exciting aspects of practicing our profession in the twenty first century is the technology we now have. Staying away from electronic dictionaries, internet search engines, and other technological advantages we now have over our colleagues who worked 20 years ago will soon put you on a “B” list. We must understand and embrace change. It is so convenient to take notes on an iPad, to interpret in a booth with a console that rewinds the last few seconds of a speech, to have all your research materials and presentations stored in the cloud, that every day we see more of our colleagues doing it. The day when hard copy dictionaries and steno pads will be a vanished species is practically around the corner. And speaking of the corner, video remote interpreting already turned the corner and it is coming towards you at the speed of light. Instead of fighting it and resisting it, we need to embrace it, we need to be a part of this technologies’ development process. There will always be a need for live “in-person” interpreting, but most work will be done remotely. Technology allows it in many different settings and the market wants it. Warning: Do not be like those interpreters who fought against simultaneous interpretation equipment 60 years ago because you could end up like them.
  7. Avoid interpreter conferences. Unfortunately many colleagues have decided not to go to professional conferences; many more go to the minimum required to keep their professional certifications, accreditations and licenses current, and a great number of interpreters are willing to attend a conference provided that it is near their hometown. We have heard many excuses and explanations to justify this reluctance to attend conferences and workshops: The program is not attractive, I know more than the presenters, it is too expensive, they are boring, you don’t learn anything… Sadly, those who view professional conferences this way have it all wrong. Our conferences at all levels: international, national, regional and local, are all beneficial. Not everything presented will always be new to you, but there is always something to learn. You may have more professional experience than some presenters, but they may have done some research that will increase your vast knowledge. Some are more expensive than others but they last longer and therefore may be enough to meet the year’s continuing education credits requirement, and they are also tax deductible in many countries. Conferences are never boring if you really understand their value: You attend them to develop a professional network. Yes, you go to a conference with your business cards and a few one liners to break the ice so you can get more work, get a better deal on the purchase of interpreting equipment, buy the newest dictionaries and textbooks, and as an added bonus: You go to have fun. Avoiding professional gatherings make you invisible to your peers, to the agencies, and to the rest of the world.
  8. Be timid when negotiating work conditions. Once again, those who are timid or afraid will rarely get excellent work conditions to do their job. It frustrates me to see a good interpreter working under terrible conditions and it happens all the time because many of our colleagues are afraid to ask for the right booth, the full-time technician, the best booth location, all conference materials, and so on. It really saddens me to see how some very capable interpreters are willing to accept an assignment without paid travel days, Per Diem, and a fair cancellation fee. By accepting these substandard working conditions the interpreter hurts his career and he harms all of us as a profession. There are plenty of good clients willing to pay what we deserve, but every time that somebody works under this less-than-acceptable conditions it gets more difficult to convince the agency or the ultimate client that the standard conditions are needed to get the best human talent and the best service. Don’t be afraid of losing the bad client. A cheap client is only a good client when the word client goes after the word “former.” Always remember: If you go along with this substandard conditions only once you will never get the full standard working conditions again.
  9. Mistreat the new interpreters. Even with all the new technology interpreting is a human being profession. The problem is that we are not eternal and eventually, because of the growing market, or due to our aging process, new blood will need to come into the profession, just like we once did. Those of you who know me or follow the blog know that I am all for teaching and sharing with the newcomers to the booth, the battle field, the courtroom, the medical office, and elsewhere. Clients and agencies want to keep the quality of the interpretation in their events, and the only way to ensure that continuity is to hire and train the next generation. The label of “problematic” goes to those veteran professionals who ignore, scold, or patronize young interpreters. As you know, clients are not very willing to hire a problematic interpreter for an assignment. They rather skip their name and move on to the next one on the list. If you care for the profession, if your reputation matters to you, and if you want to work until you decide to retire, just be nice to the new ones. In fact, just as you can teach them a thing or two, they can also teach you technology and help you become more marketable. It is a win-win situation.
  10. Wait for the assignment to come to your doorstep. Understanding the market is a requirement to be a successful interpreter. The good assignments will come to you if you go out there looking for them. I will never understand those colleagues who sit at home waiting for the agency, the courthouse or the hospital to call. A true professional has to look for work. You need to be a good interpreter, a knowledgeable individual, and a reliable professional, but unless you let others know that you are all of those things the world won’t even know that you exist. The career of an interpreter includes interpreting, studying, and marketing. Remember, this is a profession but it is also a business. Never lose sight of it. An interpreter who does not look for work is a lazy interpreter, and a lazy interpreter is a failure.

Dear colleagues, I am aware that there are many other bad things that we do to ourselves. These are some of the ones that in my opinion require of our attention. We have to avoid them and correct them. Please feel free to share with us those things that we do to ourselves and in your opinion hurt us as professionals or harm us all as a profession.

Attention certified court interpreters: You could be losing part of your profession!

January 27, 2014 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In my opinion the title of this posting is not an exaggeration of what is happening to the court interpreting profession in the United States and some other places.  Let me explain:  There are groups of community activists, profit-hungry interpreter training entities, and interpretation agencies (that do not represent the best interests of court interpreters) who are advancing the idea that court interpreters should only be required in the courtroom, and that out of court legal interpreting should be left to “other” type of interpreter who would provide a service that would be a mix of community and legal interpreting. They argue that court interpreters are required in court because of the impartiality that is needed and due to the formalities that must be observed. On the other hand, they claim that an out of court legal setting (that they refer to as “quasi-legal”) should be left to other interpreters without court interpreter certification who would (after they get trained by this special interest groups) be able to provide a service that, according to them, has a lot of community interpreting and some legal terminology that could be easily acquired by these “interpreters.”

This approach concerns me very much because as an attorney I do know that there are very delicate and extremely difficult legal issues that take place out of court.  These individuals have suggested that family law mediations, preparation of wills, and other legal services, be provided with the assistance of a non-certified court interpreter.  I dare to say that the best attorneys, the more difficult issues, and the ones that affect more people’s lives, are found outside the courthouse.  You only need to visit a corporate attorney or a corporation’s legal department to see it.

All legal interpreting should be done by certified court interpreters because they are the ones that know the law, are familiar with the terminology, and are backed up by a certification system run by the state or federal government.

There was a similar movement in the United States a few years ago.  That one proposed that to abate costs such as paying for the services of an ophthalmologist, optometrists should be allowed to perform certain types of surgery.  Let me clarify: an ophthalmologist is a physician, an optometrist is not.  You go to the optometrist when you need a new pair of eyeglasses. You go to the ophthalmologist when you need cataracts surgery.  Dear colleagues: We are the ophthalmologists in this example.  These special interest groups are trying to take away part of our field and give it to these new “optometrists.”  To do it, they are arguing that these individuals would do a job that nobody is doing and that does not need certification as a court interpreter.  What they are not telling you is that they will profit immensely from this scheme.  The trainers will make money by “training” these people, the agencies will make money by paying a lower interpretation fee to these individuals who will not be court certified, some state governments will continue to receive federal funds because they would be “guaranteeing access” to non-English speakers who go to court and do not need to appear before a judge, and the community activists will be happy because in their mind court interpreters charge too much for their services and their clients cannot afford it.

But wait a minute, let’s stop right there and talk about the losers under this scheme:

Many court interpreters make over half of their income from legal interpreting outside the courtroom: mediations, depositions, jail visits, witness preparation, sight translation of documents, arbitrations, administrative court hearings, and many other legal scenarios.

Attorneys have a legal duty to vigorously represent their client in order to achieve what is best under the specific circumstances.  It is hard to see how this can be accomplished by using lesser-interpreters, and in many cases paying the agency the very same fee they would pay for a competent professional. Attorneys do not know that the agency pays a lower fee to these non-certified individuals and therefore they get to keep more money.

The parties to a controversy or those seeking legal advice are paying for the best possible service, even those who approach non-for-profit organizations have to pay for filing fees and other administrative expenses.  It is only fair that when you go to see an attorney, the attorney’s advice be interpreted by the lawyer’s equivalent in the interpretation field: a certified court interpreter.

Our system, our government, the taxpayers… they all lose under this scheme. A poor interpretation will have consequences. I have seen many criminal cases being dismissed because of the police interview of the defendant. Those who advocate this change are proposing that non-certified court interpreters do police interviews. A poorly sight translated contract, an incomplete will due to a bad interpretation, an unfair parenting time schedule because of lack of understanding of the law on the part of the interpreter, they all lead to litigation and litigation costs money.  Surgery by an optometrist…  I would love to see the reaction of an administrative court judge when he is told that because his courtroom is not a real one he will have the services of a non-certified court interpreter.

It is true that in many places some of these services are currently performed by non-certified individuals.  It is true that the special interest groups will defend themselves by saying that with their “home-grown certification” the people who interpret in those settings will be doing a better job than the one that is provided right now.  The excuse that there is a great need for interpreters in many languages that have no court certification program is not valid either.  There are interpreters in these languages that have been evaluated by the court system and allowed to work in court. Until there is a court certification program by the state, these are the interpreters who should be doing all of the legal work. The “solution” proposed by the special interest groups does not improve the quality of the service.

Instead of rushing towards mediocrity and spending time and effort justifying why it is a good option, these special interest groups should join forces with the professional community (certified court interpreters, attorneys and government) and strive to attract more quality individuals to the profession, to demand first that everybody be certified as a court interpreter and that there be continuing education for those who may want to specialize in family law mediation, corporate planning, international arbitration, immigration law, etc.

Instead of marching in lockstep with the interpretation agencies, all community organizations and true trainers, who are concerned about the quality of the interpretation and the fulfillment of the existing demand, should join forces with the professional certified court interpreter community to demand from these agencies a better pay to the real quality-proven interpreters.

Dear colleagues, I don’t know if this will happen and I would not be surprised if these special interest groups and individuals attack and criticize what has been said in this posting.  Learn from our colleagues who are already fighting a battle to keep or recover their profession in other countries like the U.K.  We have to defend our profession. Paralegals are not opening shop all over to offer their legal services out of court. Do you know why? Because the lawyers would not let them. They would be charged with practicing law without a license. We need to do the same. We need to defend and protect our profession.

For that reason I ring this wake up call.  Be alert!  Educate your colleagues and clients; do not let them take this huge piece of you professional field away.  You will lose and everybody will lose.

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.

Some judges foster the use of non-certified interpreters.

December 9, 2013 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Unfortunately this topic is not new to anyone. It seems like we have been listening to the same complaint for many years, but during the past few months I have heard and read enough disturbing stories to decide that it was my time to contribute my two cents to the defense of our colleagues:  the real professional court interpreters. Before I continue, I must clarify that this posting refers to Spanish language court interpreters.  I recognize that interpreters in other languages are in a different situation as they do not have a federal certification program in the United States.  That is an issue for a separate blog post.

I learned that there are federal district courts in the Southern and Midwestern States where the federal court interpreter certification is not “required” to interpret a hearing or even a trial.  I was told that there may be other federal courts elsewhere in the United States where they also follow this practice.  I have to confess that I have been very lucky to live and work in places where this has never been an issue. In fact, I live in a city where I have never even met non-certified court interpreters.  The Federal Court for the Northern District of Illinois provides federally certified court interpreters for all of its cases.

The most common complaints that I have heard from certified interpreters is that these courthouses have clerks, administrators, and judges who don’t see the need to hire federally certified interpreters because they think they are too expensive, it is too difficult to get them, or because they are happy with the services provided by non-certified individuals who have been providing their “services” to these judges.    There is a federal district courthouse in the Midwest that hires one certified and one non-certified interpreter to work their trials.  Fortunately, most certified interpreters refuse to work under these circumstances. Unfortunately, this courthouse then hires two non-certified individuals. Their argument is that it is cheaper and the non-certified individual has a state court interpreter certification.  Another courthouse in the South routinely hires non-certified interpreters under the explanation that their judges like these non-certified individuals who have been doing “a good job” for many years.  There is a federal district court judge who states on the record at the beginning of a hearing that the Spanish speaker is being assisted by a certified interpreter, without giving opportunity to the federally certified court interpreter to enter her appearance on the record by clearly stating that she is federally certified.  This way the judge, intentionally or unintentionally (we don’t know) makes it impossible for the certified interpreter to separate herself from the non-certified individual.  In fact, because of this maneuver, I heard that some attorneys that have appeared before this judge for many years are shocked when they learn out of court that the “other” individuals appearing in court are non-certified.

I would like to think that most of these situations arise from the lack of knowledge among judges and court staff.  Many of them do not know the difference between a federally certified court interpreter (the ones who can appear in court) a state certified court interpreter, and non-certified individuals who just happen to accept assignments knowing that they are not supposed to.

For the benefit of some of you who might be reading this article, and with the hope that some of my colleagues may share the following information with judges, clerks, attorneys and others, I will touch upon some of the basic differences between a federally certified court interpreter and a state certified interpreter.

According to the Court Interpreter Act, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts shall establish a program to facilitate the use of certified interpreters in judicial proceedings instituted by the United States (28 USC § 1827) To fulfill this mandate, the United States AOC has developed a certification program that all Spanish interpreter candidates must pass to be certified. The certification program is administered in two parts: a written exam to test the true bilingualism of the applicant who has to pass (with a minimum score of 80) each of the two sections: English and Spanish. Those who pass this first stage must wait for a full year and then take the oral exam that consists of difficult exercises to test the examinee’s interpretation skills, legal terminology and comprehension, and language proficiency.  To pass this test a candidate must score a minimum of 80 on each of its 5 sections: sight translations from English into Spanish and Spanish into English, two simultaneous interpretations at very high speeds: one a monologue and one a dialog, and a lengthy and complicated consecutive interpretation.  Passing rates for this very difficult exam are among the lowest in any professional field.

A person can become state certified after meeting the requirements of that particular state. The format and minimum scores vary depending on the state. Some require a written test, others do not. Some offer a written test on the basics of the legal process, others require prove of bilingualism.  The oral test can be the same in different states as they all use the services of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) but the way the test is administered and graded is different from state to state. Some states let the applicant take the oral exam by parts (first the simultaneous exam and maybe months later the consecutive and sight)

Of the many differences between the federal certification program and the states’ programs, perhaps the most important are the content of the exam and the minimum scores required to pass it.  State exams have fewer sections than the federal test. They do not have a simultaneous interpretation dialogue, the simultaneous interpretation exercise is offered at a lower speed, the sight translation documents are not legal, but paralegal documents, and the subject matter of the exercises is based on topics that are under the jurisdiction of a state court.  The minimum score to pass a state certification exam is 70.  Some states allow that examinees retest only on those sections where they got a failing score.  The passing rate for the state court interpreter examination is far higher than the federal rate.  In fact, there are many state certified court interpreters who have repeatedly failed the written and oral federal certification examination.  As you can see, there is a significant difference between these certifications.  It is important to mention that for federal court purposes a state certified interpreter is a non-certified interpreter.

The federal court interpreter program exists because of a constitutional mandate. The VI Amendment of the United States Constitution states that: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to… be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him… and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense…”  (Amendment VI. 1791)

The Court Interpreter Act clearly states that: “…Only in a case in which no certified interpreter is reasonably available as provided in subsection (d) of this section, including a case in which certification of interpreters is not provided under paragraph (1) in a particular language, may the services of otherwise qualified interpreters be used…”  [28 USC § 1827(b)(2)]

Looking at the statute you can easily conclude that the courts are obligated to seek the services of federally certified interpreters.  There were certified interpreters ready and able to work in all the cases I have mentioned in this article.  It was the clerk or the judge who preferred to use the non-certified individuals.

Even smaller federal district courts now have access to federally certified court interpreters through the federal judiciary’s Telephone Interpreting Program (TIP)  The TIP, available nationwide, allows an interpreter at a remote location to deliver simultaneous interpretation of court proceedings for defendants and consecutive interpreting for the court record by means of a two-line telephone connection.  This program has been very successful and has kept the highest quality of interpretation in the courtroom.

It seems to me that after reading this posting, all federally certified court interpreters who are ignored or passed over by a courthouse, and later find out that a non-certified individual has been hired to “interpret,” should be able to explain the legal reasons not to do so.  Unfortunately, sometimes this may not be enough. All federal judicial districts are independent. They make their own decisions. All federal district court judges are appointed for life.    When an explanation is not enough to change a bad habit, there are other means to achieve the desired results.

When faced with the situation above, the interpreter should talk to the defense attorney and express his concerns about the defendant’s constitutional rights being violated. The V amendment indicates that: “No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…” (Amendment V. 1791) For a person to have due process there has to be legal representation. A defendant cannot participate in his defense unless he understands the charges against him and confronts his accusers. This is impossible if he cannot communicate with his attorney (See Amendment VI 1791 above)  It is important to make it clear to the defense attorney that because of this violation of the defendant’s constitutional right to a due process, there are grounds for a dismissal, or at the least for an appeal, even before the trial takes place.

As far as the non-certified individual who is working at the courthouse, even with the blessing of a judge, there are several things that can be done: When the individual states that he is certified, or when the judge states on the record that this person is certified and the “interpreter” does not correct the record, there can be consequences if this person has a state certification.  This should be brought to the attention of the state agency that oversees the performance of state certified interpreters. This lack of moral character could be grounds for a suspension or even a revocation of the state certification. Remember, state certified court interpreters are (state level) officers of the court.

There are also certain things to be done when the individual does not have a state certification. If at the beginning of the hearing, or at any time during the process, this person was placed under oath or affirmation and indicated that he was certified, or even if he remained silent when the judge or the clerk put him under oath as a certified interpreter, he may have committed perjury or at least misrepresentation and therefore he could be prosecuted for this crime.   This individual could also be subject to other sanctions depending on the state where the act was perpetrated.  Practicing a profession without a license or certification could be a misdemeanor in some states. The person may be subject to jail time or at the least to a fine.

Finally, the non-English speaker defendant or his dependants may be able to sue the “interpreter” for damages caused by him as an individual who provided a service without having the certification to do so, and perhaps committing fraud or inducing the error at the time of celebration of the professional services contract. If the non-English speaker thought that this individual was certified, there was no “meeting of the minds” and therefore the contract wasn’t valid; this means that he can sue the “interpreter” for damages and he may not have to pay him for what he did. This is a good remedy for those who appear in court pro-se.

There are many resources to right a wrong. The first step should be to try to educate the bench and bar. I encourage you to speak before the defense bar and the assistant U.S. attorneys. Make sure the court knows that all these resources exist; that they can use TIP.  Always remember: you need to make sure they are aware that you know what is required, and that they know that you are willing to campaign for the use of certified interpreters in your district.  Please share with the rest of us your experiences with non-certified interpreters and what you did to fix the situation in your federal district court.

Big change to the way the federal court interpreter exam is rated in the U.S.

July 22, 2013 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As I write this posting many of my friends, colleagues, and students are taking the toughest court interpreter exam in the United States: The federal court interpreter certification test. There are other court or legal exams given by government agencies at the federal and state level, and even the private sector has designed some interpreter exams, but no test is as demanding as the federal certification exam.  This week, just like one summer week every two years since the test has been in place, hundreds of Spanish-English interpreters: veterans, newly graduated, newcomers to the United States, and many others who previously passed the written test (at least one year earlier) are culminating months on study, practice and psychological preparation as they leave their hometown and travel to some of the largest cities in the country to have their skills  tested for some forty five minutes. During that period of time they will attempt to demonstrate that they are ready to interpret simultaneously, consecutively, and to sight-translate in the United States federal courts.

Within the profession it is very well known that this is not an easy exam; in fact, the passing rate of the attorney bar exam is substantially higher than the federal court interpreter certification test.  As someone who has gone through both exams I can even say that it is harder to get certified as an interpreter.  Traditionally there have been two systems to rate the examinee’s rendition: For many years the test was administered orally before a live jury of three certified interpreters who would rate the applicant’s performance.  Years later the system changed to a recorded test where the examinee would sit in a room with a proctor and record the rendition. Afterwards, the recording was reviewed by a team of three certified interpreters that would rate the performance based on the recorded material.  This year, for the first time ever, the renditions will be rated not by a jury of three certified interpreters, but by teams of two.

This change is as radical as the switch from a live oral test to a recorded one.  Generally in life we encounter all kinds of panels, juries, and other deliberation groups that consist of an odd number of members, and there is a reason for that configuration: You eliminate the possibility of a tie, you discard the scenarios where an even number of people can agree to one thing and at the same time another even number of people agree to another making a majority decision very difficult.  The odd number gives you unanimity or a tie breaker. In other words, it assures you that there will be a final decision. In the case of the federal court examination a final vote of 3-0 or 2-1.

The new system will no doubt result in many unanimous decisions of pass or fail, but there will be ties, and when the two raters cannot reach a consensus the exam will be sent to another panel who will rate it and decide.  The system seems fair, I am not so sure that it will be as quick and efficient as the 3-rater panel, but it seems like a reasonable solution to a tie.  I know many of the raters and as far as I can tell, an overwhelming majority have rated exams in the past; many of these interpreter-raters have scored tests under the two previous systems and most of them have demonstrated to be fair and capable.  I do not believe that this will make the exam easier or more difficult, I don’t know if this will make it more efficient, and I don’t know yet if this will make it as fair as it has always been in the past. Everything indicates that it will be fine, but to know for sure we have to wait and see. I will be carefully watching the outcome as I am interested to see not only if more people fail under this new system, but also if more people pass. Big changes one way or the other could be a symptom that something is not as it was before.  I give them the benefit of the doubt and today I assume that everything will be fine; it is just that a jury of two looks a bit strange.  Please share your thoughts on the test and this new rating system.

Is the U.S. Supreme Court Decision Defining the Concept of “Interpreter” Good for Judicial Interpreters? Part II.

June 4, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

After dealing with the bigger issues affected by the Alito decision affirming the definition of an interpreter in the Taniguchi case, I now direct your attention to the more practical consequences of the decision.   First, this was a decision by the United States Supreme Court about the court fees in a case involving legal translation. In other words, it does not affect anything outside the U.S., it does not affect any interpreters and translators in non-judicial settings, and it does not directly apply to any court interpreters and translators at the state and local jurisdictions.  Of course, what I indicated above will stop nobody from bragging about the affirmation of the interpreter concept by the Supremes.

It is really our legal interpreter and translator friends and colleagues who will be dealing with the aftermath of the decision. The parties in federal civil cases will be more reluctant and careful when retaining the services of a legal translator.  Private Law Firms will demand lower translation fees.  The answer to this situation should be a professional and aggressive legal translator who will not give in to the desired adjustment.  We have to keep in mind that private law firms charge substantial fees for civil litigation, and they charge all costs separately from their fee. In other words, the translator will be paid with the client’s money, not the attorney’s. It is also a good idea to ask for a down payment and to draft a contract that clearly states that translation services shall be paid upon presentation of the invoice, regardless of the attorney’s plan to “recover” from the other party. That is the lawyer’s problem, not the translator.

When the attorney requesting translation services is a CJA, the interpreter must ask him to first obtain approval from the trial judge. Once the judge has signed a minute order, the translator can provide her services and then submit her invoice to the court for payment.  In all other criminal cases when the court hires the translator to translate court documents such as presentence investigation reports or plea agreements, the translator should not worry. These services are covered by the law as it is part of the defendant’s right to actively participate in his defense and the right to access to the courts. This is important to keep in mind, as there will probably be cases when the Alito decision may create some confusion as to the services that have to be paid by the court.  Remember, in this case it is the judiciary who is paying for the translation services, not a private party who has paid, and now seeks that the judge order the other party to reimburse him the fees.

It is also important to keep in mind that as a practical matter, translation services, and transcription services, can be provided and paid by the government as expert services.  Please keep handy a copy of 18 U.S.C. § 3006A(e)(1) and 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6) in case you have to argue the law with a client.   Finally, keep in mind that for some time attorneys, judges, and private citizens will be extra careful when it comes to translation services, even interpretation services could be affected by this decision of the Court.  Protect your clients, work with them; a good potential solution could be a sight translation of the voluminous documents so the attorneys can decide what it is that they really need translated. A summary translation (like the ones prepared by our military translator colleagues) can also be an option, as it will help the attorneys decide what to translate.

Be very careful, be alert, remember, if you are a court interpreter, legal interpreter, legal translator, linguistics expert witness, or legal foreign-language transcriber, the Alito decision could affect your market. I invite you to share with us any strategies that you may be following to minimize the effects of the Court decision.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with sight translation at The Professional Interpreter.