September 30, 2019 § 2 Comments
Another year went by and several fellow interpreters and translators are getting ready to go to Palm Springs, California, for the annual conference of the American Translators Association (do not let the name misguide you, it includes many interpreters even though for political reasons it was decided not to include us in the name of the organization). Besides the main reasons many attend the conference: seeing old friends and attending some presentations with the never-ending hope to learn something, the yearly gathering is also the opportunity active members have to vote on the future of the association by electing board members and passing or rejecting proposed amendments to the bylaws.
Many of you skip the general meeting because you find it boring, too long, and always the same. I know many more active members who will not go to Palm Springs and have decided not to vote by proxy because they are discouraged with performing board members. I understand your reasons and I have always respected your decision to abstain. Unfortunately, this time is different and I encourage you; actually, please, please vote.
I usually give the reasons I voted for or against a candidate or amendment, and I will do it right now.
Voting is very important because democracy is our legitimate way to have a saying on the direction a country, business or association is going at a particular time. Democracy and ATA are not usually two terms we put together, after all, until we change it, we continue to be an organization where all members pay the same membership, but many do not get to enjoy the same rights, including the right to vote. That must change before the 2020 conference.
There is something else we can change with our votes this year: it is time to let members from outside the board be elected. The way our current board operates resembles more the system of the Soviet Politburo than a Greek democracy. Board members go through a “promotion system” where they are groomed to take over the position, assuring the continuity of the same policies and protecting the special interests that pull the strings. Interpreters and translators are well-read, sophisticated individuals who know there has never been a true democracy in history without opposing points of view alternating in the highest decision-making positions. Let’s get back to the election:
To be worthy of my vote, a candidate has to acknowledge we are a group of professionals, not a gathering of agencies or merchants. I believe it is inexcusable to elect people who continuously advance the interests of agencies, multinational or small, over those of individual members; who refuse to observe basic ethics by voting where they have a personal or business conflict instead of recusing themselves; who support sharing a lobbyist with the Association of Language Companies; and I do not want to elect people who will destroy a professional translator certification by opening it to non-members.
Our road to professionalization must include adopting what other, well-established professions do. Let’s take attorneys: To practice law, an applicant must pass the professional (Bar) exam, AND be a member in good standing of the lawyers’ association in that jurisdiction. Practicing law is more that passing the bar exam; a fiduciary profession, like attorney, or translator, requires that the individual practicing observes ethical and professional rules. It is the State Bar that sanctions lawyers who acted unethically, it is the State Bar that makes sure and keeps track that attorneys comply with continuing legal education requirements to assure clients that a lawyer who passed the Bar thirty years ago is up-to-date on legislation and procedure.
By offering a certification program exclusively to qualified members, and requiring adherence to a code of ethics and continuing education credits, ATA is currently treating translators, and the public, as a professional association. Only true professions self-regulate their practice. Decoupling certification would be equivalent of giving up this status and opening the door to other overseers such as government agencies, creating that way a world of confusing national policies and regulations, as ATA certified translators work from every corner of the planet servicing clients all over the world. Some current Board members want us to believe they will control ethics and continuing education compliance after decoupling. It seems unlikely. They will have no link to the nonmember certified translators. Under those circumstances, unless members want to continue attending the overpriced annual conference, many could consider leaving ATA and just keeping the certification. As an interpreter, this is something I have always admired and keep on my wish list. Interpreters are certified and therefore regulated by a myriad of bodies all over the world.
Another important aspect is that of the cost of the exam. It is widely known that exams such as these ones are more expensive than the fee charged to the examinee. That is fine when done for members, this is one of their benefits. On the other hand, how many of you would be willing to subsidize the certification of non-members with your membership fees? If the answer is to charge more to non-members, then the obvious reaction is: Why not require membership first, and then be eligible to take the test? If the cost is similar, the only reason to choose certification without membership is the desire of the examinee to dodge continuing education requirements, or to ignore the cannons of ethics.
I can think of a scenario where decoupling would be good: Agencies can pay for their translators’ certification one time, and then, with no need for continuing education, sell them to their clients as “ATA certified” until the cows come home. Big profits for the agencies. Bad news for the profession. Once again, this is another example of special interests at work.
Who to vote for?
I will never vote to any board position an individual who is not even a certified translator or interpreter, unless their language combination includes a language without a certification available. Professional credibility comes from your credentials, and the bylaws’ exception for those who achieve professional status through membership review, should only be respected by the voters when the candidate works in a rare or “exotic” language of lesser diffusion. I think it is a shame for people to consider voting for individuals who got to the board by peer review, instead of certification, when your work languages are Spanish or Portuguese. We all know that as soon as a person becomes a translator or an interpreter, they start thinking of certification. We are all out there. We all know that credentials are essential in the real world.
The fact that an interpreter or translator is not certified (or with conference interpreters does not possess a legitimate credential such as AIIC membership, Conference-level by the U.S. Department of State, or membership in a renowned association or government agency in the country where they practice) denotes one of three things: The individual failed to certify because lack of skill, in reality this person does has not worked as a translator or interpreter, but rather as a business manager in an agency (in which case the individual should be running among their peers at the Association of Language Companies, not the American Translators Association) or the person just cares so little for the value of a certification and the professional aspect of our craft, that they disregard the need to study to pass a certification exam.
For president, I will write in Robert Sette, because on top of his experience as a board member, he is the only one running for this position defending the profession by opposing decoupling. I have talked to Robert about interpreters’ issues and our situation within ATA due to the current policy at the top. He has convinced me he will be a president elect who will fight for the professional interests of interpreters and translators. I found Robert an honest and dedicated colleague, an experienced ATA certified translator, with no other motivation than our advancement as a profession.
In ATA’s classic fashion, Secretary and Treasurer are running unopposed. I know them both and they are good professionals. I will vote for them unless they support decoupling. There, I will have nothing detrimental to say about them, They are both nice, decent people, but even if I feel bad about it, I will not give them my vote because of a difference of opinion on this important issue.
For the director position I will vote for Cristina Helmerichs because she is a professional of great moral character who has always protected the profession and her colleagues instead of taking the side of the corporate member agencies.
I will also write in Jill Sommer for the director position because she is an experienced professional, a certified translator who will work with Robert Sette, and because she opposes decoupling of the ATA certification.
For the third director vacancy, I will not vote for a non-certified interpreter or translator, I will never vote for someone who in the past has stated his opposition to recusal as a board member, even in case of a conflict of interest, and I will not vote for someone who supports decoupling of the certification, or continues to sit on the fence without making a commitment. That leaves four possibilities. If more than one opposes decoupling, I will study their platforms and how they answer the questions in Palm Springs, but I also have another choice: Just as I did last year: I can just vote for two directors instead of three. We should all consider that as an option. It is better not to vote for someone than to vote for an individual we believe is not right for the job.
You see, dear friends and colleagues, fellow ATA active members, this year is very important we all vote. If you are attending the conference, please go to the general meeting and vote. If you are not going to Palm Springs, even if you think your vote does not matter, if you believe nothing ever changes with the way ATA operates; even if you have noticed that the election system is less than democratic, please vote by proxy. Open your email and vote. Write down the names of the write in candidates, and contact ATA if you are a voting member and did not receive a ballot. Please repost this blog anywhere you feel appropriate, and contact your fellow voting members, interpreters and translators, and ask them to vote to protect the profession. This is the year when we can drive the change. I am posting this article in many professional groups and ATA social media. It will not be posted in any other professional association’s wall or chat group, unless I first get permission to do so.
September 23, 2019 § 11 Comments
Today I will not write about a new topic. My post deals with something we have heard for years, and has been brought up to me in various ways recently. During the last few months I have seen interpreting agency websites that claim they only use certified court interpreters to interpret during their conferences. I heard a colleague proudly say in a professional conference for interpreters and translators he always “recommends federally certified court interpreters (in the U.S.)” when hired to interpret in the booth; and I recently had dinner with some colleagues who looked surprised when I told them that retaining certified court interpreters to work in a conference was a bad idea.
This article is not an attack on court interpreting. It is not written against conference interpreters either. I know both disciplines. During my career I have practiced them both. They are complex, demanding professional services that require preparation, skill, and talent. It is difficult to be a court or a conference interpreter, but they are two very different disciplines which require of a competent practitioner, and most of the time, that individual is not the same person. Let me explain:
Conference interpreting is conveying a message spoken in a language into another. It is practiced at international summits, professional seminars, congresses and meetings, bilateral or multilateral meetings of corporate executives, heads of state and government, and meetings between chief executives and labor union representatives (aiic.net April 23, 2012)
Conference interpreters must have a good mind, a complete mastery of their working languages, including an excellent command of their native language. They need an immediate grasp of their passive languages, and a well-developed capacity to express themselves in their own language. To achieve this, they need a good level of general education, a lively and flexible intellect, analytic capacity, the ability to put themselves in the minds of those for whom they are interpreting, and they need to concentrate, have good memory, a pleasant voice and good diction, physically and mentally robust, and able to interpret for a massive audience. (https://aiic.net/page/4003/conference-interpreting-is-the-interpretation-of-a-conference/lang/1)
Court interpreting, on the other hand, is the oral transmission of information by lawyers, judges, litigants, and witnesses from a source language into a target language for a legal proceeding inside and outside a court setting. Court interpreters must be fluent in more than one language, and they need to know of legal terminology and procedure.
A court interpreter interprets in a court proceeding such as arraignments, motions, preliminary hearings, pre-trial conferences, depositions, trials, and sentencing hearings. They also interpret outside the court at attorneys’ offices, detention centers, and prisons. They must completely and accurately interpret for individuals with a high level of education and for persons with very limited language skills without changing register, altering, omitting, or adding anything to what is stated, and without explanation. They need interpersonal skills as they work next to their clients, a good level of public speaking, endurance, concentration, and acute sense of hearing, and the ability to remain neutral, and control and hide their personal emotions regardless of the controversy and the facts of the case. (https://courts.michigan.gov/Administration/SCAO/OfficesPrograms/Documents/access/FAQs.pdf)
Court interpreting has very special characteristics that set it apart not just from conference interpreting, but from all other types of community interpreting such as healthcare, public assistance, school, etc.
Court interpreters must interpret everything said in a hearing, the rendition must be complete; summarizing, omitting speech defects such as false starts, stuttering, and utterances is not allowed. They must maintain the speakers register, which fluctuates from formal and legal when interpreting what attorneys and judges say, to scientific and technical, when interpreting expert testimony, to crude, vulgar speech, idiomatic expressions, and criminal lingo such as gang or drug dealer talk. Generally, they work under adverse conditions without a booth, in crowded and noisy settings, and without a partner. Unless they interpret for a trial, most of their assignments are less than two hours, but they work several assignments in a day with no consideration for the vocal cords. These interpreters’ goal is to interpret everything for the record in case there is an appeal later on, and to provide judges, jurors, and attorneys, all linguistic elements needed to assess the credibility of a witness or a party to the controversy so they can reach a verdict or decision.
Court interpreters cannot explain what they are interpreting. When working for the courts, they must be neutral at all times, and leave all explaining to the legal professionals. Because they are responsible for a complete and accurate rendition, they must correct any errors or mistakes as soon as they realize they incurred on them. Their loyalty is to the record of the proceedings.
Finally, because of the unique nature of their field, court interpreters are officers of the court, they must be certified, they work under oath, and they are covered by the client-attorney privilege which is a higher level of protected confidentiality than any ethical or professional duty conference interpreters abide by.
Conference interpreters serve a different purpose. They interpret so the parties can communicate when they do not have a common language, and because their main objective is that the parties understand each other, their rendition must be coherent, clear, pleasant, rendered at a good pace. They must convey the message which they must understand first, and then transform, reorganize, and render so it is proper of the target language with the right syntax and equivalent expressions. To transmit the main message, conference interpreters need not interpret everything a speaker says, only the relevant portions of the speech. If needed, conference interpreters can summarize, avoid the obvious and redundant, put what is being said in context so it can be better understood by the audience, even if this means the interpreter has to add a reference or short explanation in the target language. Unlike, court interpreters, conference interpreters correct mistakes at the first opportunity it is reasonable to do so, even if several minutes go by, and they can use their rendition to correct mistakes and clarify concepts. Conference interpreters work in teams of 2 or 3, they rarely meet their audience face to face as they perform their services from a booth usually, and their work takes place under a controlled environment with clear sound and few distractions. Conference interpreters work multi-day assignments and must travel often during the year. Unless they are placed under oath due to the nature of the event to be interpreted or for security reasons, they need not work under oath all the time.
There are differences on the way the services are performed:
Conference interpreters work from a soundproof booth most of the time; they hear the speaker through a headset, and their work is mostly rendered in the simultaneous mode. Because the goal is that the foreign speaking audience understand the message, interpreters practice decalage (the length of time between the start of the speech and the beginning of the interpretation) A longer decalage allows for higher accuracy because the interpreter gets more context before interpreting. It also allows for a better paced, clear, pleasant rendition the audience will enjoy and understand.
Court interpreters need to interpret at a speed higher than conference interpreters because they must interpret everything, as it all must go on the record. There is little to no decalage in court interpreting as the simultaneous rendition usually involves more than one speaker. To avoid foreign language speakers get lost, interpreters have to stay as close to the speaker as possible, so the audience sees who is the person being interpreted at that specific time. For example, for the foreign language speakers to understand the rendition during an objection by one attorney, the interpreter has to finish the first speakers’ speech almost with the speaker, and then immediately interpret the objection by the other party. The jurors also should see the reactions of foreign language speakers to what is being said in court. Interpreters need to stay very close to the speaker they are interpreting. Obviously, sometimes this gives interpreters no time to process and put in context what was said, and it is usually very difficult to understand even a good rendition because of the speed of the interpretation. Completeness for the record and not a pleasant paced rendition is what interpreters are looking for.
There is little consecutive interpreting in conference settings. It is usually reserved for official dinners, press conferences, or tours of infrastructure such as industrial plants, military facilities, and others; When there is consecutive interpretation it is long consecutive. Speakers talk for several minutes nonstop, sometimes for up to 20-30 minutes; interpreters concentrate, apply their memory skills, visualization, and take notes. Once the speaker stops, interpreters take a moment to organize their ideas, go to the beginning of their notes, and start their rendition observing the appropriate grammar and syntax of the target language. Once the interpreter finishes the interpretation, the speaker continues his talk, and so it goes until the end of the event. This consecutive interpretation requires of great skill, practice, concentration, and the interpreters’ attitude to be on the spot.
Court interpreters use consecutive interpreting every day, but they practice short consecutive. This mode of court interpreting is used for all dialogues between individuals who do not share a common language. They renditions into the target language have to be on the record. Short consecutive is used when interpreting witnesses’ testimony and questions to the foreign language speaker by the court. Consecutive interpretation in court is often complicated by the difference between the educated speech of attorneys and judges, and the popular, uneducated speech used by many parties and lay witnesses. Interpreters rely mostly on their memory for this rendition, they can ask for repetitions and clarifications from attorneys and parties, and they must start their rendition almost immediately after the question was asked, because their interpretation of the answer by a witness or defendant has to be contemporaneous to the witnesses body language, facial expressions, and other reactions so jurors can take them in as one and better assess the credibility of the person testifying from the witness stand. Unlike conference interpreters, court interpreters start their consecutive rendition while they are still looking for the beginning of their notes (usually one or two pages at the most). Court interpreters’ consecutive interpretation faces another problem: unlike conference interpreters, who interpret for an individual eager to convey his message at the press conference, court interpreters have to interpret consecutively evasive answers, half-truths, utterances, and false starts, often unresponsive. In these settings, many witnesses are testifying against their will, and they try to hide their involvement, or they try to exaggerate or downplay the facts so it is more beneficial to their personal interests.
Sight translation happens in a conference setting rarely; it is usually in a written speech interpreters get ahead of time. Many colleagues do a simultaneous rendition while following along if the speaker deviates, as it frequently happens, from the written statement.
Court interpreters practice sight translation more often. It usually involves documents interpreters never see before the hearing, generally police reports, criminal complaints, indictments, and plea agreements. It is common to see interpreters requesting a recess to look at more complex documents they were just handed in open court without prior notice.
As you can see, these are two very different disciplines, both require of specialists who can do the job, but that court interpreters are certified to work in court means they have passed a rigorous exam that tested their skills as described above, not their knowledge and skills as conference interpreters.
Court interpreters are not lesser interpreters by any means, but their skill is not appropriate for a conference setting. Many colleagues and clients complain of events interpreted by certified court interpreters who spoke very fast, interpreted every single noise that came from the speaker’s mouth, and constantly interrupted a speaker during a consecutive rendition because they are used to a 2 to 3-minute segment before consecutively interpreting it.
There are many interpreters who successfully transitioned from court to conference, and even some who practice both disciplines. The difference is they understood the difference between the booth and the courtroom and acquired the needed knowledge and skills.
Just as it would be disastrous to assign a conference interpreter to do a trial, it is appalling that agencies and court interpreter colleagues accept conference assignments because they believe they are ready for them. Unfortunately, agencies seek these court interpreters because they are paid less money than their conference counterparts, agree to work alone, do not demand preparation materials, and gladly work from a table top or sitting behind a table using portable equipment.
I invite all my conference interpreter colleagues, in places like the United States where we see this situation all the time, to sit down with their clients and explain these differences between court and conference work, and I ask all my court interpreter friends to please understand these are two disciplines. Those who want to cross over to conference work need to do it right, commit to study and practice until they can honestly call themselves conference interpreters. I now invite you to share with us your thoughts on this subject.
August 20, 2019 § 5 Comments
My job takes me to many places all over the world, this means constant traveling by air, and sometimes by land. Transportation is very important and it is key to my performance as a professional interpreter. Recently, some of my travels have taken me to three continents where I have attended professional conferences where I saw many of my friends and favorite colleagues. As always, the conversation took us to a common topic: traveling. We shared how we got to these conferences, and then I realized that most interpreters I know live in a market at least two-flights away from conferences, business meetings, and international events. They all had to travel longer and spent more hours at airports waiting for connecting flights. I immediately thought of how difficult it must be for them to get to an assignment. This is something I rarely considered before; they took twice as long to get to that interpreting booth they were now sharing with me.
I have lived in big and small markets. The difference is huge. We always think of small markets as unattractive for a professional career as an interpreter because of lack of opportunities: no assignments, no venues, no events; sometimes we also discard them due to the shortage of interpreters in less frequently used languages. These are all valid reasons not to live in such markets when your expectations are to find work where you live, but these markets are less than ideal for those willing to travel.
Living in a small market means you have to catch a plane to an airport that is hub to the airline you will fly, switch planes, wait for hours at the airport until it is time for your connection, and then you finally arrive. Some interpreters would even have it more difficult as they have to take three planes, or drive to the first airport from a smaller town where they live. Sometimes this means an additional travel day than those who will get to the assignment from a big city. These colleagues will likely travel on the first airline available because their market does not give them any options, therefore, they will be less likely to achieve airline status.
The biggest disadvantage for these interpreters is their availability. They cannot take as many assignments because it takes too long to get to the venue; and even when they arrive, they will be more tired than their colleagues who took a direct flight and slept on the plane, avoided the stress associated with catching connecting flights, and will have a much better chance to find their luggage at their destination than those whose bags had to be transferred from plane to plane. This is also very important for interpreters who work business negotiations and often need to be somewhere far away on short notice.
For all the professional reasons above, and mainly, because of its airports and geographical location, I chose Chicago as my operations center. The city has two of the largest, busiest airports in the world, and especially O’Hare International Airport offers me options no other airport can offer me in the United States. Chicago is the only city in the United States, and one of only five in the world (London, Johannesburg, Doha, and Dubai) with direct flights to all continents except Antarctica (https://www.travelandleisure.com/travel-news/chicago-international-flights). It is hub to the two biggest airlines in the world: #1 American Airlines, and #2 United Airlines; it is hub to the biggest discount airline in North America: Southwest Airlines, and it is a focus city for Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines, and; O’Hare International Airport is considered America’s best-connected airport.
These are the top ten airports with the most connectivity:
- London Heathrow Airport
- Frankfurt Airport
- Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
- Chicago O’Hare International Airport
- Toronto Pearson International Airport
- Singapore Changi Airport
- Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, Jakarta
- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
- Kuala Lumpur International Airport
- Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris
As professional interpreters, we need to get to the place of the assignment stress-free, and as soon as possible. Traveling wears out your body, it tires your brain. We need to be at the site of the assignment rested and mentally sharp. Direct flights help us do that. Even with the growth of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) big cities will continue to have a competitive advantage over smaller population centers. Shortage of interpreters in many languages other than Spanish and other Western European languages; and lack of facilities where (RSI) interpreters can go to a virtual booth and work side by side with a colleague and a technician, will limit the options of these interpreters in outline areas. I personally do RSI, but I will not do it at home, without a boothmate and on-site technical support, left to my own technical skills to troubleshoot a problem, and hoping for the best as far as internet speed, connectivity, background noises, etc.
The way to get to the next professional level must include living in a big city, and to succeed in the private sector, you need the competitive advantage of having an airport that puts you one flight away from practically everywhere in the world. I now invite you to please share your comments on this important issue.
July 23, 2019 § 2 Comments
Several weeks ago, the president of Mexico held one of his daily press conferences in Mexico City; on this occasion, Jerry Rizzieri, General Director of Mizuho Securities spoke of a credit his bank and others granted to Mexican state-owned oil company PEMEX as an attempt to rescue it from the enormous debt it faces. The event was important for the Mexican government and its president who has vowed to make the oil industry a key component of the Mexican economy. Rizzieri briefly spoke in English, and his prepared speech was sight-translated as a consecutive rendition not by one of the magnificent interpreters that regularly work with the Mexican president, but by Mexico’s Foreign Affairs secretary Marcelo Ebrard. From the moment Jerry Rizzieri stood up and walked towards the podium, Secretary Ebrard followed as if this had been planned ahead of time. The speech was a simple thank you written speech similar to the ones by those who win an Oscar or Emmy, apparently Ebrard speaks English, so there were no incidents except for the awkwardness of having the Secretary of Foreign Affairs sight translating a speech, and his obvious hesitation and confusion about the microphones.
Much was said in Mexico about the unfortunate episode, there was speculation as to whether the left-wing Mexican president, famous for cutting down on public expenses and reducing the budget, had used the services of the Foreign Affairs Secretary instead of retaining professional diplomatic interpreters. Some criticized the incident, others celebrated the episode; even interpreters wrote about it, both: for and against what happened. Opinions are always legitimate, journalists, interpreters, and the people may opine about the issue; but after watching the video, it is clear there were inaccuracies: First, Secretary Ebrard did not do a simultaneous interpretation; he did not do a consecutive rendition either. It is clear from the video that Rizzieri read from a written speech on the podium, and Ebrard did the same. The short speech could have been interpreted simultaneously or consecutively, but apparently government officers decided against it. It is false that you could not do at least a partial simultaneous rendition unless you had interpreting equipment. A diplomatic interpreter could have simultaneously interpreted the speech into president López-Obrador’s ear using chuchotage. Journalists and public would have not understood the speech, but it was a possibility at least for the president. (see minute 0:43 of the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLcxFj-sX_s)
The biggest problem was the lack of professional interpretation, not just for Rizzieri’s speech, but for the event. The president spoke Spanish, and from the video you could conclude that not a word was simultaneously interpreted from the booth, leaving Mr. Rizzieri and his entourage without understanding what was said during the event.
You cannot defend what happened just saying it was a great move that saved taxpayers money by not hiring interpreters for this event. You cannot excuse it by arguing this was an informal event that, due to its brevity, did not justify retaining interpreter services because Secretary Ebrard speaks English.
Far from it, this was an insult to the foreign bankers who traveled to Mexico City to bail out PEMEX. C-Suite executives of international corporations, such as these banks, are used to meeting foreign dignitaries, attend official ceremonies, and speak to their counterparts aided by interpreters. It is likely (at least we hope) that meetings and negotiations took place in the presence of interpreters who make communication possible between the parties. Not having interpreters for the negotiations, or having them, but dismissing them before the press conference was a sign of incompetence, and a show of disrespect to the foreign visitors and those watching the press conference without a professional interpreter. No, this was not cute, this put the office of the president of Mexico in a very uncomfortable situation. Unfortunately, it also confirmed rumors and stereotypes circulating outside Mexico. Professional diplomatic interpreters exist for a reason, they are qualified to bridge the communication gap between two or more parties, respecting the other party’s culture, and this way contributing to the harmonious relations among nations and individuals.
No, this was not a job for the secretary of International Affairs, and no, this cannot be addressed by having a pool of interpreters who volunteer their professional job to interpret for the richest level of the government they pay taxes to. These events require professional, experienced interpreters retained by the Mexican federal government, who are paid like the professionals they are. Anything short of that sets the profession back to the dark ages, in this case interpreting in Mexico. I now invite you to share your comments on this issue or similar experiences you have seen in other parts of the world.
June 25, 2019 § 4 Comments
It has been almost a month since we first learned that our colleague Shin Hye-Yong, who interpreted for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Supreme Leader Kim Jung Un at the Hanoi summit with United States President Donald Trump was apparently detained at a political prison camp charged with undermining the Leader’s authority. This has been called “a critical interpreting mistake” by some in North Korea.
It has been widely reported by reputable press publications in Asia, Europe, and the United States, that the interpreter was blamed for president Trump’s walking away from the negotiating table when apparently the North Korean leader was “ready to continue the negotiations” and uttered in Korean: “Wait! Wait!” Or something similar that his interpreter did not convey in English before the American delegation exited the room. According to the media, Kim Jung Un ordered her detained and sent to a labor camp where she is currently undergoing reeducation and reflecting on her loyalty to the supreme leader of North Korea. Of course, we all know that in the civilized world, an error, if one really was really committed, has consequences that can go from a reprimand to a demotion, or firing, but never to hard labor or incarceration.
It was also reported by South Korean newspaper Chosun IIbo and others that Kim Hyon Chol, North Korea’s special envoy to the United States for nuclear negotiations was executed immediately after the summit. Although this turned out to be false, and Kim Hyon Chol is alive, he has been demoted from his pre-summit position, apparently he spends several hours a day writing essays and reflecting on his loyalty to the supreme leader. Nothing has been reported or leaked about the situation of our colleague Shin Hye-yong or their family.
It is not clear if Kim Jung Un really said these words, and if he did, it was loud enough for the interpreter to hear them, or he spoke under his breath. It is also possible that the interpreter rendered the words in English so low that Trump did not hear them, that she interpreted after the Americans had left the room, or that Trump heard her and ignored her.
I learned of this atrocity against a fellow-interpreter, and against our profession really, while at a conference attended by many colleagues, some of them diplomatic interpreters who have worked with heads of state from many countries. I immediately thought our governments would speak up against these horrible allegations but I also understood governments need to act calmly and wait until there is more information, even when dealing with a black hole of information like North Korea. I also expected our professional associations, those who represent thousands of interpreters and translators throughout the world to raise their voice in support for Shin Hye-yong and in protest for what was done to her and to the profession at large.
I expected those who represent us to react immediately, condemning the allegations and declaring them, if true, unacceptable. The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) proving once again it truly stands shoulder to shoulder with all interpreters and translators, issued a letter condemning the allegations right away. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) mentioned the incident on social media, and several colleagues, individually, have shared their total rejection to what happened in North Korea. Most associations, including the bigger, wealthier organizations with the most members have timidly remained silent. Some of them have reacted like news agencies and have called to corroboration before issuing any statement, even when practically all major publications in the world already talked about this. Others, have argued it is better to remain quiet for now out of fear that a communication condemning these actions against Shin Hye-yong could make her situation worse.
I guess these groups think a protest from a translators and interpreters association will motivate a ruthless dictator to punish an individual more harshly than everything already published by the likes of The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Asahi Shinbun, Chicago Tribune, etc.; like Kim Jung Un keeps an eye on our opinions.
These professional associations completely missed the point: a letter from a professional association will not sway a dictator more than public opinion or world-reputable newspapers; the letters are for us. The purpose of issuing a formal protest by any of them is to show their members, and the profession at large, that in times of crisis, darkness, fear and despair, they are with us, they feel our pain, they have our back. It is for us, thousands of interpreters and translators to feel the associations are protecting the profession, to the point of not accepting anything that hurts what we do, even if they are just allegations. Kim Jung Un will never read these letters nor learn of their contents, but Shin Hye-yong, and her family, might. Perhaps she will hear about the letter from IAPTI in that horrible place where she is being held. Knowing her fellow interpreters throughout the world are aware of what happened to her, they are saddened and they are showing their disapproval will make her feel less alone, hopeless, and isolated where she is.
This was a hot topic for discussion and rage among all of us at the conference; opinions against the North Korean regime’s decision to incarcerate the interpreter, and concern for the recent and constant attacks on the diplomatic interpreting profession were voiced everywhere. There was a comment that stayed with me. I asked a top-level interpreter who works with presidents and other world leaders if she thought interpreter and translator professional associations should speak up and condemn the actions of the North Korean government against the interpreter, even if they had not been confirmed. Her answer was: “What would you want your peers to do if you were in her shoes?” I answered without hesitation: “I would want my colleagues and my professional associations to raise their voice in support of the profession and to defend me”. She told me she would want the same if this happened to her. Next, I asked the same question to as many colleagues as I could, and all of them told me the same. Nobody told me they wanted for the interpreting world to wait for a corroborating source. There was not a single interpreter who bought the argument that speaking up would make things worse for her.
Dear colleagues, our profession, especially diplomatic interpreting, is under attack in many places, from the United States Congress politically motivated posturing demanding interpreter’s notes and threatening a subpoena, to the president of Mexico using his secretary of foreign affairs as interpreter instead of a professional, to the disaster in North Korea.
This is not the first incident involving a North Korean interpreters: It is not clear why Kim Jung Un replaced the experienced interpreter who accompanied him to the first Trump meeting in Singapore with our now ill-fated colleague Sin Hye-yong; we saw the fear in an interpreter’s eyes when in front of the TV cameras Kim Jung Un dropped something and the interpreter took a professional athlete’s dive to catch it before it hit the ground; and we all saw the embarrassing incident with the Vietnamese interpreter who dashed from the helicopter down the red carpet to get to the dictator before he uttered a word to the Vietnamese officials welcoming him to Hanoi.
Professional associations do not need to wait for corroborating sources to protest such serious allegations. They can protest the allegation and condemn it if “it turns out to be true”. Professional associations need to speak up; it is not their job to keep dictators happy, their job is to protect their members and the profession. Last century, world leaders sat on their hands as Hitler invaded Poland, they did not want to upset him, and we all know what happened. Professional Associations are always bragging about “everything they offer” to their members. It is time they offer them solidarity and support. I now invite you to share your opinion on this extremely important issue.
June 12, 2019 § 11 Comments
Think of a colleague, anywhere in the United States, who is battling a devastating illness and cannot get the treatment she needs because she has no health insurance, and medical expenses are so high she cannot cover them. I am sure you know an interpreter who has tried to get a job because he is worried about retirement years from now, but cannot get one because nobody is hiring. Language service providers want independent contractors because they have no legal obligation to provide employment benefits: health insurance, retirement plan, paid holidays and vacation, maternity leave, worker’s compensation insurance. If you prefer, look very carefully at your interpreter colleagues who have a sick parent, a disabled child, or another powerful reason to stay where they now live, and for that reason, they have to interpret for the agencies in town (local and multinational) and they do it in silence because they are afraid of losing these assignments, even when they are poorly paid, and they have to endure terrible, and sometimes humiliating working conditions.
Of course, you can always look at your own practice; I invite you to do so and honestly answer these questions: Do you enjoy having to check in and out with the agency every time you do an assignment? do you feel comfortable asking the person you just interpreted for to write down the hours you interpreted and to sign the form so you get paid by the agency? Do you find amusing having to spend hours on the phone and writing emails so you can get paid for a last-minute canceled assignment the agency does not want to pay? Maybe some of you like staying at the venue after interpreting is over because the agency makes you stay for the full time they retained you, even though all your work is done. Perhaps your definition of professional services includes cleaning up files or making photocopies until your time is up. Do you like it when the agency prints you business cards under their name and forces you to give them to the client? Do you like dodging all clients’ interpreting services questions by referring them to the agency every time? How about micromanaging your time on the assignment?
I doubt you enjoy any of these things, but even if you do, please understand that these intermediaries are taking advantage of you. They are forcing you to perform as an employee without paying you any benefits. Agencies distract you by telling you what a wonderful lifestyle you have, how flexible your schedule is, and everything thanks to them, your benefactors who find you work while you do not even lift a finger.
This is what the California State Legislature is trying to stop by forcing those employers who treat their “independent contractors” as employees to provide all benefits and protections people who do what these interpreters do for the agencies are legally entitled to. Think like an interpreter, stand up for your colleagues and the profession. Do not buy the arguments agencies are propagating. They do not see this legislation from the interpreters’ perspective. They see it from their business perspective.
For a long time, agencies have enjoyed this cozy business model that lets them charge their client for your service, pay you a part of it, and get you to do anything they want without incurring in any human resource expenses. It is a win-win situation for them. It is an abusive scheme for the interpreter.
Big multinational agencies are campaigning hard to defeat these legal protections not because they will “destroy the industry” as they put it, but because they will lose their golden egg goose. There will be no more freebies. They come at you with their lobbyists and make you believe they are on your side, they portray themselves as your savior and use scare tactics to make you think there will be no work for you if they are forced to lower their profits by living up to their legal and moral obligations to the interpreters.
Freelancing is not going to end after the bill becomes the law of the land in California or anywhere else. I am a freelance interpreter and I am not afraid. I do not work with these agencies, big or small, who now claim they are on a quest to save us all. New legislation or status quo will not impact my practice, and it will not impact that of most colleagues I work on a daily basis; however, leaving things as they are, giving back these agencies a position of power over the interpreters who work for them, will keep our less fortunate colleagues in the same deplorable conditions they have been working for all these years. This is a decisive moment. Multinational agencies and their lobby know it. They will fight the State of California with everything they have because they know the Golden State is a place where they can be unmasked and lose their privileges. Interpreters have organized labor backing their efforts because there are unions and guilds in California. Other States do not have them. The middleman knows that California is a decisive battlefield and they are spending money and sending their PR people to “convince” interpreters that defeating this legislation is best.
They argue they will not be able to hire interpreters because it would be too expensive. That many agencies will not survive and interpreters will lose a source of work. That is the point. The bill will only be successful when this serf-owner business model is erased. Will interpreters be more expensive because of the labor benefits? Yes. Interpreters deserve these protections. Agencies will either close or adjust their business models to comply with the legislation. Will agencies hire less interpreters? Of course, but the need for interpreters will not go away. There will be many more interpreters hired directly by clients. Is this going to hurt small agencies? It should. Small agencies should not exist in this business model because the essential condition for their survival is the denial of workers’ rights under the law.
Complaints that the legislation has exempted other professions like physicians and attorneys, but not interpreters are nonsense. Doctors and lawyers are well-established professions. Nobody would ever think of calling a “medical agency” and ask for a brain surgeon for tomorrow at 8:00am. If we want to be treated like these professions, we need to look like them. First step: get rid of the middleman. I know, some will say: “but…hairdressers are excluded and they are not a profession like doctors and lawyers” That is true and it is wrong. They should be covered by the legislation. The difference is: They got a better lobbyist and got their sorry exception in detriment of the people providing beauty services.
What about the argument that smaller agencies will not be able to stay in business because they will not afford it? In my opinion, these so-called agencies are not really agencies; most of them are a solo operation where somebody with connections acts as a referral service. I find this dangerous because these “agencies” just want a warm body with the right language combination for the assignment. I do not get the impression that messages on social media that read: “need French interpreter tomorrow at 2 pm” project exemplary quality control. Moreover, these people are not an agency, they should think and act like professionals and do what I do, and many of my colleagues do (all doctors and layers do the same thing): When your client asks for interpreters in a language combination different from mine, I just suggest a list of trusted experienced professional friends I am willing to vouch for, and let my client decide who he will retain and for what fee. I do not get involved, I do not get referral fees.
Finally, to the argument the ABC test is impossible to overcome: This is false. It can easily be overcome by a real independent contractor relationship. That is the point. If any agency could disguise a de-facto employee as an independent contractor the law would be pointless.
I understand what multinational agencies, their lobbyists, small agencies, and those solo practitioners who call themselves an agency without actually being one are doing. They are defending their very lucrative status quo. They have a right to fight for it and save their “industry”. As always, my concern are the interpreters and the profession, and from this perspective, I see the new California legislation as a step forward to our professionalization because, on top of protecting our colleagues in need, it will weaken the agency model, a necessary condition to become a true profession worthy of a place in the pantheon of professions. This is the time to listen to our colleagues and defend our profession, not the middleman interests.