November 23, 2022 § 4 Comments
We commemorated International Conference Interpreters Day on November 20. The date was selected because on that date in 1945 the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg started the trial of those charged with war crimes in Europe, using simultaneous interpretation for a matter relevant worldwide for the first time. Much has been written and researched about the trial, the interpreters, and the birth of simultaneous rendition as we now know it. For years I observed the date remembering these important circumstances that gave birth to the modern version of our profession, but I always wondered about the trials against the war criminals in the Pacific theatre of operations; there seemed to be little information available about the interpretation, the interpreters, and what really happened in Tokyo after World War II. As November 20 was approaching, I decided to find out what happened in Japan, and why these trials were left out as part of the birth of modern conference interpreting. This is what I learned:
The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) was convened on April 29, 1946, over five months after the Nuremberg tribunal was established, to try Japanese political and military leaders for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Twenty-eight Japanese citizens were tried, the tribunal had broader jurisdiction than its counterpart in Germany, as it covered the invasion of Manchuria and World War II, and the proceedings ended on November 12, 1948, making these Tokyo trials almost twice as long as the process in Nuremberg. No defendant was acquitted, but charges were dismissed against one of them because he was found mentally incompetent. Seven defendants were sentenced to death and executed.
Judges represented ten countries (Australia, Canada, China, France, India, The Netherlands, New Zealand, The Philippines, United Kingdom, and United States) with Sir. William Webb, Justice of the High Court of Australia presiding. Most of the prosecution was presented by American prosecutors, but prosecutors from the other nations represented intervened for certain witnesses, defendants, and charges. The defendants were represented by more than one hundred attorneys from Japan and the United States, and the official languages of the trial were English and Japanese.
Trying monolingual Japanese defendants who committed the atrocities on trial under a culture, and using a language so foreign to the members of the tribunal, presented challenges not found in Nuremberg where all languages involved were European, and all crimes had been committed by individuals who shared culture with the judges and attorneys.
There were no English-Japanese interpreters in the West and there were no interpreters in Japan, period.
To solve this problem, the Tribunal hired twenty-seven Japanese citizens fluent in English who knew Japanese culture, history, and traditions, but they were not interpreters; they had no formal training, they had no experience as empiric interpreters either, and unlike the situation in Nuremberg where the interpreters were citizens of the allied countries, these individuals were from the same country as the defendants. It was decided to hold some “auditions” as mock trials to select the interpreters. Legal knowledge or aptitude to learn and understand legal proceedings was an important consideration also. Those selected were hired by the Language Division of the IMTFE. Because these ad-hoc interpreters were Japanese, the Tribunal established the position of Monitor. These individuals were American citizens children of Japanese (Kibei Nisei) who were proficient in both languages. There were four of them. Their job was to supervise the rendition by the Japanese interpreters, and amend the record when needed, due to the lack of experience and technique of the Japanese interpreters. During the War, these monitors: David Akira Itami, Sho Onodera, Hidekazu Hayashi, and Lanny Miyamoto, worked for the Allied Powers’ Translation and Interpretation Section (ATIS) and as children they all attended school in the United States.
The interpreters, and their monitors, worked in a booth; they worked in teams of two or three; they had a rotation according to an established schedule, and they used the same IBM simultaneous interpreting equipment used in Nuremberg,
There was no simultaneous interpretation during the Tokyo trials. Interpretation was rendered as follows:
All written opening statements, closing statements, charging documents, etc. were translated, and when attorneys or judges read them for the record, the translations were read simultaneously by one of the four monitors;
All witness examinations, cross-examinations, and re-direct examinations were interpreted consecutively by the Japanese interpreters. Attorneys and witnesses were instructed to speak clearly, slowly, and to pause frequently to give the interpreters a chance to catch up. Whenever an interpreter fell behind a speaker, the monitor would signal the court so the speaker stop and even repeat what was said. Monitors also assisted interpreters with note taking of names, addresses, figures, etc. Preserving an accurate record was a priority.
When a witness or a prosecutor spoke in a language other than English or Japanese (all defense attorneys spoke English or Japanese) other interpreters would participate. Beside the twenty-seven English-Japanese interpreters, there were seven Chinese, six Russian, six French, and one Dutch interpreters. Relay interpreting was used when one of these languages was spoken in the courtroom.
Because Japanese was not widely known in the West at that time, and because knowledge of Japanese culture was practically non-existing, there was the possibility of conflicting interpretation of terms or concepts. To prevent this from happening, the IMTFE created a system of checks and balances by establishing a Language Arbitration Board to settle matters of disputed interpretation. Once the dispute was resolved by the Board, the arbitrated rendition had to be used for the rest of the trial. This process was used both ways: To solve interpreting issues into Japanese and into English.
After the trial all Japanese who worked as interpreters went back to their prior occupations. None pursued a career as a professional interpreter; however, two of the monitors continued to work (at least occasionally) as interpreters, one for the Japanese diplomatic service, and another one for the emperor.
The trials did not give birth to our profession in Japan; there were no simultaneous interpreters yet, and the equipment had been used for other purposes (synchronized reading of translated texts, and consecutive interpretation from the booth). After learning these facts, it became clear to me why the International Military Tribunal for the Far East is not considered as the birth of modern simultaneous conference interpreting. The Tribunal did all it could to ensure the administration of justice and to preserve the record, but it did not have professional interpreting services, the IBM equipment was not used as it was in Nuremberg, and the trials did not contribute to the development of simultaneous interpreting in Japan.
October 31, 2022 § Leave a comment
During Halloween season we may interpret in events, usually in the private sector, where well-known horror movie themes are played during the breaks, and even to introduce some speakers. One of such events motivated me to dedicate my annual Halloween post to the music that makes the hair stand up on the back of one’s neck. I know there are many great scores and theme songs, but these are the ones I immediately associate with horror films:
The Thing (1982). John Carpenter reached out to Ennio Morricone to score this tale of frozen fear with pulsing and terrifying sounds.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953). This 3-D Universal movie announces the arrival of the creature with the chilling Bah, bah, bahhhh, three-note-motif by Henry Stein, part of the score by Henri Mancini, making this cult-classic beauty and the beast tale directed by Jack Arnold unforgettable.
The Shining (1980). The synthetic sounds created by electronic music innovators Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s makes this Stanley Kubrick’s movie a true horror classic, enhanced by all these avante garde sounds.
Jaws (1975). This John Williams’ master piece is one of the most recognizable movie themes of all times. People immediately associate it with sharks, and danger in general. Even today, after almost 50 years, you can still hear somebody humming the theme at the beach. It is also one of the most popular cellular phone rings of all time.
The Omen (1976). Jerry Goldsmith turns Gregorian chants into some of the scariest music ever heard. The opening song, “Ave Satani” will keep you awake in a lonely night.
Dracula (1931). The grandfather of all horror films and pioneer of sound films, produced by Tod Browning, starring Bela Lugosi, has no movie score, and there are silent moments throughout the movie as a reminder that this was not a silent film and for that reason it did not need music throughout; However, this Universal classic, starts with a rendition of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and elevates the tension and anxiety in an audience waiting for Bram Stoker’s creature.
The Exorcist (1973). Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells contributed to the hysteria and popularity that surrounded the opening of this scary movie that ushered the era of demonic possession and rogue priests’ stories.
Ringu (1998). “The Ring”. Original Japanese version. This classic Japanese horror movie, copied and remade in the west more than once, became a sensation worldwide because of the story, the main character, and Kenji Kawai’s mysterious music.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The music of this horror favorite was composed by Franz Waxman. It includes dramatic music, followed by sweet music, as this is a love story in a horror movie that evokes the loneliness of Mary Shelley’s creature, the fears of Dr. Frankenstein, and the evilness of Dr. Pretorius.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Perhaps the most unsettling opening theme in history. Krzysztof Komeda’s score is not really creepy, but it scares the listener, creating the perfect background for this Roman Polanski’s film.
El Vampiro (1957). “The Vampire” a horror black and white Mexican movie with a great music score by Gustavo César Carrion transports us to the horrors of the hacienda where the vampire lives.
Halloween (1978). John Carpenter directed, produced, and co-wrote Halloween, but he also wrote the world-famous score that immortalized those piano and synthesizer notes that scare the willies out of millions. Because of its simplicity, this score is memorable, easy to reproduce with any piano anywhere, and it stays in your head forever.
Psycho (1960). Arguably, Alfred Hitchcock’s master piece, with the most famous scene of all time, needed a score that projected all the fear and suspense of the story. It got it in the screeching, high-pitch notes composed by Bernard Herrmann. The score starts somewhat unassuming, but it all changes with the stabbing during the shower scene. The strings stab right along with the knife, and sends this movie score to the top of the list, creating a style and genre that others have tried to imitate ever since. I know there are many other great horror movie scores, but these always come to mind when I am in the booth during Halloween season, and the lights are dimmed while one them plays in the room. I now invite you to share with the rest of us some of your favorite scare movie theme songs.
October 5, 2022 § 8 Comments
Court interpreting in the United States, and probably elsewhere, is facing its biggest crisis since the courts worked with professional, certified and accredited interpreters half a century ago. Ignorance and lack of empathy in the court system has created a group of professional, highly specialized interpreters expected to work for subpar fees in both, State and Federal Courts.
Interpreters have been ignored and disrespected in several State systems where court interpreter pay is close to an unskilled worker’s, and has remained unchanged at such levels for years. Answers such as lack of resources, having to wait several budget cycles for the issue to be considered, have no credibility when wages of other officers of the court such as judges, State attorneys, and court reporters are raised and adjusted to inflation.
Spanish language federal court interpreters, arguably the most qualified group of court interpreters in the United States, have not seen a raise for many years, and have been ignored by the Judiciary when two letters signed by most interpreters were answered by the courts sending new contracts to these independent contractors at the same pay as every year for some time; not a word on a raise, or even an inflation cost of living adjustment. Many interpreters did not return the signed contract, others, changed the fees before signing it, and some signed and sent it back with the idea of not accepting any work as long as the fees issue remains unattended. We have learned that Washington, D.C., instead of contacting the various States, took the easy way, and it has been contacting several interpreters to discover what States pay for interpretation, instead of researching what the private sector pays.
This is important because for years, many of the most qualified, sought after, certified court interpreters have been ignoring the call of the courts, choosing instead the more profitable practice of interpreting for private attorneys, arbitrations, and depositions where they can make twice as much as what Federal Court pays. Sometimes even more.
The judiciary expects top-tier interpreters to work under abusive conditions, such as the federal cancelation policy. A few weeks ago, a federal judicial district issued a communication looking for federally certified court interpreters for a trial, the pay would be the same one interpreters are refusing to work for already. The communication stated the following as the court’s cancellation policy: “Because of the nature of the proceedings, in the federal courts, early terminations may occur. An interpreter is not entitled to a cancellation fee or additional compensation if the court gives the interpreter 24-hour notice that a trial will end early…” No compensation if notified 24 hours ahead of time! The court expects interpreters in high demand to set aside one or more weeks for a trial, and then leave them out in the cold if the parties settle, there is a plea agreement, the trial is continued, or the defendant pleads guilty. What individual in their right mind would agree to such terms? Only those who have to take the offer because they can get no work elsewhere. These will be rarely the best interpreters around.
This tendency is growing nationwide, and it is leaving the court system with a limited number of certified interpreters, some who stayed and work for little money because of the service they believe needs to be provided to a vulnerable population nobody in the system seems to care about, and those who cannot get work in the more competitive private sector because of their skill or lack of flexibility to travel or work long hours.
Many hearings, especially the short ones, and other interpreter services usually provided by certified interpreters, will continue to go to untrained, unskilled non-certified interpreters and paraprofessional bilinguals who will put non-English speakers at a disadvantage in their court proceedings. Sometimes, some courts, especially at the State level, may even use interpreters from another State, or those living in a foreign country who provide their services remotely, without a certification, and who gladly accept the low fees because their home country’s economy differs from the United States’.
Some certified court interpreters are even entering the conference interpreting field with no preparation, under the wrong assumption that certified court interpreters can interpret a conference. This complicates the landscape as interpretations in these conferences is deficient, and gives unscrupulous platforms and agencies some resemblance of legitimacy when they advertise the quality of their interpreters.
The constitutional mandate to have court interpreters may be at increasing risk every time judicial authorities remain inactive when interpreters, with justice and equity on their side, demand long overdue work conditions commensurate to the specialized service they provide, including fees that reflect this, and cost of living adjustments every year. Unless something is done to remedy this embarrassing issue, the administration of justice will be unequal, and the victims will all be humans: the litigants and others who appear in court, and the long ignored, and disrespected court interpreters.
August 9, 2022 § 2 Comments
The best part of having a well-established professional practice is that your client portfolio is already developed. After years of collaboration, you come to know your clients and they know you. Tensions, concerns and uncertainties about policy, practices, and the relationship, are no more. My preference is to keep my clients and rarely work with somebody I do not know.
Unfortunately, sometimes a project is so interesting, or the conditions are so attractive that you take a chance and try a new client. As you all freelancers know, sometimes this strategy works, sometimes it does not.
A collaboration on a multi-day assignment that was both, interesting and well remunerated came along; it was with someone I did not know and I moved forward. At the time of the preliminary, planning stages of the event things seem fine, although there were some revealing clues I missed, but things did not get truly uncomfortable until the start of the assignment.
On the first day of the event, this person I had never worked with before, a monolingual individual in a position of power who apparently has traveled little, quickly assessed the foreign language speakers and made an instantaneous judgement call that would affect everybody participating in the event, including the interpreting team.
Before 6 in the morning of the second day of the assignment I received a message on my phone informing me, and the rest of the team, that our interpreting services would be needed no longer because everybody in attendance seemed to have an acceptable level of fluency in English. Shortly after, I received an email with my plane ticket to go back home.
Because of a good contract, our fees were not a problem; there was no financial damage derived from this decision, but the process was unprofessional and the way it was handled was disrespectful.
I find it difficult to believe that an individual with no knowledge of foreign languages can conclude that everyone in the audience is fluent in a language that is not their first, and this can be done after observing about two hours of a conference where the audience is mostly listening, and the few questions asked during such a period of time come from people who are confident enough on their foreign language skills to ask them directly, without interpretation, even if they fumble with the words, apply grammar incorrectly, and use false cognates.
The interpreters learned the decision was made to save money (we got paid because of a good contract, but other expenses as lodging, per diem, transportation, etc. would be saved) but no one was ever consulted. Not the interpreters, who know the working languages in the event, and also know, from experience, that as peer-pressure shrinks, attendees use their native languages, especially to ask questions. The audience was never polled to see if they needed interpretation. The decision was based on a single opinion from a monolingual individual whose only goal was to save (little) money, apparently a priority as it became clear when I analyzed all circumstances surrounding the job. Things that seemed irrelevant at the planning stages now made sense: Booking plane tickets on an airplane grounded for 24 months after 2 fatal accidents in one year, because they were cheap; offering a welcome reception with sub-par food and even worse service at a place no-doubt chosen because of the price.
The contract terms protected the interpreters, and even freed our time to work on other assignments on the cancelled dates, but that we were never approached in person to tell us face to face of this decision to dismiss the team, that there was not even a greeting other than a message early in the morning when you are still in bed, and to leave the attendees without the benefit of interpreting services, without even polling them to discover their needs, is inappropriate, unprofessional, and frankly disrespectful. The lesson learned was that you can try new clients when protected by a good, solid contract, and the benefit from this situation was that I did not have to continue my collaboration with such a difficult, one-track mind individual. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your stories about good contracts that protected you from difficult clients, or bad experiences where you lacked said protection.
July 18, 2022 § 9 Comments
When interpreters you never heard of take to social media, even LinkedIn, to talk about their many RSI assignments, bragging about how they work long hours at odd times of the night, just to be “congratulated” by others doing the same thing, and by people known for hiring interpreters for little pay and poor working conditions, and next you look at what our European Parliament colleagues are doing, you must conclude it is admirable, and worthy of our full support.
These brave interpreters are fighting to protect their health and to work under the conditions previously agreed to, but they are also fighting for the profession. If an institution like the Parliament gets away with violating a collective agreement, and resorts to hiring cheap interpreters, even from places outside the Union, all other interpreters will be next. Those of us who mainly work in the private sector, and as individual contractors with some institutions, must understand that the rules broken somewhere else, and the disregarded agreements, will happen in our market not long from now. These are some of the reasons why we should all support our EP colleagues; but there is another reason we should admire them, respect them, and use them as an inspiration and role model: They understand the value of the service they provide, and they use it as a tool to protect the profession.
It is funny how at the same time these colleagues are fighting this battle, many others have quit, decided not to act, or chose a strategy that does not let them negotiate as equals with those who impact their interpreting practice.
Recently, the court interpreters of an American State, who have been paid one of the lowest professional fees in America, and have not seen a fee raise or cost of living adjustment for years, asked for a $10 USD per hour fee increase, set a deadline for the authorities to respond, and threatened with a walk off if those dates were not observed and their demand for a raise was not honored. First, the action had a lot of support, it got precious media coverage locally and nationwide, but a few days later, after the State gave them questionable reasons, basically denying the raise and telling them they would “consider” their petition for the 2024 budget, despite the determination of some interpreters to go ahead with the walk off, most interpreters gave in and continued to work. They feared not being scheduled to work (for peanuts) anymore.
A few weeks ago, a nationwide association of judicial interpreters held a conference in the United States. Among the guests to speak about their successes on language access to the courts, an individual who has repeatedly lowered court interpreters’ work conditions in one of the States in America was scheduled to participate and praise the accomplishments of the program he is responsible for. I learned of this situation when an interpreter who works in that State reached me in Europe to share the news and to ask me why in my opinion that person had been invited to speak, despite his actions as an administrator which have resulted in leaving approximately 20 or so state-certified court interpreters (a considerable number in a small State like this one) out of work, because of his practice of hiring interpreters without a court certification, and interpreters from other States who work for a pay lower than the one State court interpreters must get paid.
I immediately suggested all interpreters in the State take this opportunity, when the interpreting universe of the United States is paying attention to this conference, to publicly denounce these practices for the world to know. In other words: to bombard the conference Twitter account with stories of how the practice of these government officials is not to observe court interpreter state policy, and to deny court work to those who complain. Even though this was a unique chance to pressure the State, except for a few colleagues, who I salute, the rest of the interpreters decided not to go to war with the State government to protect their profession. They feared retaliation and not being “called to interpret anymore”.
Finally, a few days ago I was asked to sign a petition to the authorities asking for a fee raise for a group of specialty interpreters in the United States. These are the only interpreters authorized to practice at this level; they are an elite group, and considered among the best in their field. Unfortunately, they are also known as the interpreter group that has not seen a raise, or cost of living adjustment in over 6 years. Even though I knew from the start I would sign the letter in solidarity with my colleagues (I rarely work in that system because they pay very little), I read the letter and was sad to see it was a very timid letter applying no leverage. My first reaction was: Why is a government agency that has not cared enough about its interpreters for so many years going to change policy after reading a letter with no teeth? Unlike the interpreters’ letter in the first case above, which at least had a deadline and a threat of strike, these federal court interpreters exercised no leverage. They put no pressure on the authorities.
The European Parliament interpreters showed us the value of our work. If the interpreters in other organizations or public service agencies stopped working, the system would be crippled. The authorities know this and know they would need to avoid such labor stoppage no matter what. All government agencies in the world operate within a budget and it takes time to modify it, but all government agencies in the world have additional emergency funds to be used to keep the government running. Had these interpreters exercised their leverage, their raises would be coming right now.
Interpreters everywhere must understand that communication among those who don’t share a common language is impossible without their services. They need to see there is a great demand for what we do elsewhere; that during the time of a stoppage they can interpret in other fields and venues, especially in these days of distance interpreting. The day most interpreters shake off their fears, doubts, and lack of confidence, and do as our European Parliament colleagues did, their fees and work conditions will finally be as they should. It is a matter of understanding they need us more than we need them.
Like President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “The only thing to fear is fear itself”.
July 5, 2022 § Leave a comment
Interpreting is subject to many external factors that can affect the event to be interpreted. Rescheduling and cancelations are not uncommon. Natural disasters, political crises, financial problems, participants’ illness, transportation issues, and even a pandemic can postpone or scratch a conference, a filed motion, a plea agreement, or a dismissal can continue or cancel a court hearing, and technical issues can interrupt, postpone, or cancel any remote event or RSI interpretation.
Most interpreters, and many clients, understand that interpreters sell their time, and the professional-personal nature of the service makes it impossible for an interpreter to work two assignments at the same time. Because postponements and cancelations are common, and this understanding of how interpreters work and generate income is widely known, practically all interpretation agreements have a cancelation clause.
Unfortunately, there is no cancelation policy uniformity. Most interpreters, and their clients, understand that interpreters must be compensated for a last-minute cancelation, fewer agree this compensation should cover more than last-minute changes.
Because interpreters need to prepare for an assignment, a cancelation impacts interpreters beyond missing a day of work; an interpretation quoted fee represents more than the 3 days of interpreting during the conference or trial, it includes the compensation for the time an interpreter devotes to research, study, planning, and practice for the event. The compensation amount must be linked to the time already spent on the assignment. Complex cases require more preparation, so the compensation must reflect it. Let’s see: A three-day technical, scientific, or specialized conference canceled four weeks before the scheduled start should command higher compensation than a routinary three-day conference, on the same topic, held every year. On the first case a fair compensation could be eighty percent of the agreed fee. Compensation for the second conference, with the same advanced notice, could be fifty percent of the originally agreed fee. Cancelation of a scheduled interpretation received by the interpreter over eight weeks before the event should carry no monetary compensation unless the subject of the conference caused interpreters to begin preparations before that date.
In all cases, the client needs to reimburse the interpreter for all disbursed expenses to the notice of cancelation. This includes airplane or train tickets, hotels, car rentals. Immunizations, Covid tests, photocopies, printing of materials, long distance phone calls, etc.
The situation is more complicated when clients, in good faith, because they want to keep the professional relationship with the interpreter, send a notice of cancelation of the event, and send notice of another assignment for the same dates of the now cancelled event. Under this scenario, clients expect interpreters to cover assignment two on the same terms they were originally retained to interpret assignment one. Clients believe they have protected the interpreter because no work day was eliminated. Many interpreters think the same way.
That is not the case: Although the interpreter will work on the same dates and will make the same money he was expecting from interpreting assignment one, the interpreter needs to prepare for assignment two, a different conference requiring research, study, planning, and practice. The originally quoted fee included preparation for that assignment. Using the same fee for assignment two would mean that the interpreter will now research, study, plan, and practice with no compensation. This is unacceptable.
Interpreters need to understand that the original agreement, the meeting of the minds on services and fees, ended with the notice of cancelation. Even though the client has proposed a different job for the same dates, the interpreters are entitled to compensation for their preparation for the original conference and to reimbursement of expenses. The client has now made a new offer for a different assignment, and fees must be negotiated from the beginning. Once the interpreters assess the complexity of assignment number two, they can quote a fee for that interpretation. The fee should factor in there were no vacated dates from the first assignment, but it has to include preparation tasks for the new event. Once the parties agree, there will be a new interpreting services contract for the second assignment. If the interpreter is hired for the second conference, an adjustment to the cancelation fee for the original contract reflecting there were no vacated dates is appropriate. The goal is to be compensated for all work performed inside and outside of the booth (or virtual booth) and to respect the client by negotiating in good faith and only charging for professional services rendered.
June 14, 2022 § Leave a comment
I was recently retained to work on an RSI assignment by an official organization. This was not a private market job, but it was a multi-day project that provided the opportunity, even at a distance, to converse with those in charge of the event.
On the last day of this job, I learned from one organizer that they were very happy with the interpreters’ work. I was told they were very impressed by the level of the interpretation and technical support. This person congratulated us for the smooth hand overs, quality of the interpreters’ sound, our preparation for the assignment, justifying our request for so many documents; I heard they were “impressed” by the fact we never stumbled with any of the specialized terms, and we never asked for the speakers to slow down. They also commended our tech support team for “protecting the interpretation” every time they asked for the speakers to mute their microphones to prevent echo, asked the participants not to speak over each other during their exchanges, and when during the dry run they explained the headsets and microphones acceptable for the event.
This person mentioned they will have other similar events soon, and they were under pressure to look for other interpreter services in the private market because our services came at a high price compared to the fees others ask for in the private market.
I let them know that they will likely get a different quality of service at those lower prices because interpreting is an unregulated profession where anyone can claim to be a conference interpreter. I explained that our cost was justified by our services because the organization that brought us to the event only offers interpreters who regularly work with governments and international organizations, with years of experience, who are members of the most prestigious conference interpreters’ association in the world. I took the opportunity to emphasize that all things he congratulated us for, come from such quality level, and that even in the private market, the interpreters I was talking about would not be less expensive, as they charge the same, or higher fees, when working for a private corporation.
The organizer thanked me for sharing this information; told me nobody in the private sector had ever explained that to them, and they now understood the higher cost was justified. This was a brief exchange, but that evening I reflected on the importance of doing a good job, always understanding the client’s needs and thoughts, and never wasting an opportunity to talk to the person in charge of making the decisions when a window opens organically as it happened here.
May 17, 2022 § 2 Comments
From the beginning of the pandemic, and the spread of distance interpreting, interpreters have questioned the modality, and more specifically remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) when interpreters are “non co-located” because they are working from home or in the same building but in individual booths. Critics say this physical separation eliminates, or greatly diminishes, the role of the passive interpreter as it precludes teamwork, opens the door to terminological inconsistencies, not having a boothmate next to you affects the quality of the rendition, and it contributes to anxiety and stress because of the handover and the sensation of lack of support from our boothmate. To many, the solution is clear: If you are working remotely, do it from a hub. Interpreters will have “co-location”, there will be technical support, and working conditions, at least in the booth, will be similar to in-person interpreting.
I must confess I endorsed this belief and defended it for months, until reality, market conditions, the pandemic, and my fellow-interpreters showed me what I now believe is a more accurate description of our reality, and a better solution to the “non co-location” matter.
We must begin our analysis by looking at the map of the world. We soon realize that geographically, continents, and the countries within the continents are very different. While countries in Europe are small (most of them smaller than a state in Australia, the U.S., or a Canadian province) and close to each other, distances in the Americas, Africa, and Asia are longer. This important difference has two relevant consequences: most people, interpreters included, will live and work farther away from the big cities; and the distance between countries that speak a different language will be greater. Because of geography, fewer languages will be needed to communicate in a region, reducing the number of interpreters working in many language combinations, including widely used languages in Europe, to almost non-existent, and hubs will be very far from most interpreters.
Most of the world has no hubs and, in many countries, there are a few hubs, but they all are in big cities. Let’s take the United States: The largest economy in the world, the home of most Fortune 500 companies, and the site of many International Organizations. There are only a handful of hubs in the country, all in 5 or 6 cities in a country that spans 8 time zones from Guam to Puerto Rico. Unless they live in one of these cities, an interpreter in the United States would need to fly 6 hours or drive a day and a half to get to a hub. That is impractical, and undoable.
Interpreters living in many of these cities outside or Europe, and even in some European cities, will need an additional two to four hours to go from home to the hub and back, often to interpret for two hours. Mexico City’s traffic could keep a hub-going interpreter inside a car for five hours any day. Many colleagues throughout the planet turn down assignments from a hub. That is impractical, and undoable.
We could fly for hours over a huge chunk of continent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and never fly over a city with a hub. Even interpreters with one hub in their city and willing to put up with the commute cannot use it because the hub can be used only when using a specific platform and nothing else. Temporary hubs are also impractical because there is no equipment, technical support, or enough local interpreters to meet the requirements of an event in all needed language combinations.
There are cities in Asia with hubs, but without interpreters in the language combination needed for an assignment; or there is one interpreter with the required language combination for the event, but the closest boothmate lives 8 hours away by plane in a different country and even continent. Sure, there will be many interpreters with English in their repertoire, but they lack the second language needed for the conference.
Distance interpreting services from home is the right strategy, the appropriate solution, and at this time, “non co-location” is no longer an issue. Let me explain:
As long as there is technical support, and the right infrastructure, RSI from an interpreter’s home provides quality, reliable interpretation at the same level as a hub.
After years of pandemic and distance interpreting, conference interpreters worldwide had time to learn, practice, familiarize, and work many RSI events. Professional conference interpreters have acquired the knowledge to interpret from their home with no one sitting next to them, and have set aside a space with the appropriate equipment to do it.
By now interpreters have used a variety of platforms and have realized that they all function similarly. In 2022 an interpreter can see a platform for the first time and figure out how to use it in a matter of minutes. Everywhere in the world, our colleagues are multitasking and handling 2, 3, and even 4 screens simultaneously to use the RSI or conventional remote platform, to communicate with their virtual boothmate 5 time zones away, handover the microphone at the end of their shift, and perform the duties of a passive interpreter such as writing notes, assisting with term search, communicate with tech support, monitor the active interpreter’s rendition to support them, and see each other on the virtual booth or through a back channel when using a conventional or dedicated RSI platform. These tasks scared many interpreters in 2020. Today they perform them regularly and by doing so, they reproduce the in-person booth in their home-based virtual booth just as a hub would. Of course, RSI from hub or home will never be the same as in-person interpreting for many reasons, but with the same limitations, risks, and potential problems, there is no difference between interpreting from home with a virtual boothmate somewhere else and “co-location” in a hub. I concluded that professional interpreters should do RSI from the place they feel more comfortable, and according to the available infrastructure. Our colleagues who live in a place where hubs are accessible, and prefer to work “co-located” should do it, and interpreters who do not, should work from their home studio with no feelings of guilt or inferiority because there are no hubs in their part of the world. Interpreter performance and the quality of the rendition are the same, except that working from home will eliminate travel and commute stress to the interpreter.
April 19, 2022 § Leave a comment
In our modern world international relations are crucial. Globalization, free trade, security issues, international cooperation are an important part of all nations’ life. When countries without a common language need to communicate, they use the services of highly qualified professional interpreters. Whether a nation calls them diplomatic, official, or conference, interpreters, these individuals facilitate the exchange of ideas and information between government official representatives and leaders. They interpret within international organizations, multilateral summits, and bilateral encounters where trust, skill, precision, professionalism, and ethical conduct are always needed.
In recent times we have all witnessed the magnificent work of these interpreters, sometimes in dangerous or emotional situations, working in war zones, at sites of natural disasters, and pleas for solidarity and help. We have also witnessed less fortunate situations where interpreters have been at the center of an unwanted controversy. I will criticize no interpreter in this post. Those who read me regularly know I defend our colleagues and the profession from unfair attacks from within and without. I will just talk about the practices followed by those who take this work seriously and strive to avoid mistakes and embarrassing situations.
International organizations know of the need for excellency and they all have very rigorous methods to select their interpreters.
Governments are aware of the importance of good, clear, and honest interpretation, and most take extraordinary measures to make sure these elements are always present.
Although not all governments follow the same system to select these interpreters, they all try, within their own resources, to find and use the services of the best interpreters in their respective countries.
Some countries, usually wealthy nations, follow what I consider the best practice to decide who will officially interpret their government officials: They have a dedicated agency or office within their ministry of foreign relations that provides all interpreters for official events. These interpreters are tested on their skills, their qualifications are reviewed, and they are vetted for trustworthiness. According to that country’s needs, these professionals are hired as staff interpreters, and are supplemented by contract interpreters who meet the same requirements as staff, but either work on less frequently used language combinations, or provide their services in language combinations in high demand when there are not enough staff interpreters to meet all needs. All government agencies go through this office to get interpreting services, leaving the assignment of interpreters to those who best know and understand the linguistic needs of an event, and for this reason, minimizing the risk of a poor interpretation. These interpreters provide the official foreign language version of a government position expressed by a government official. Besides members of the executive branch of that government, individuals of the legislative branch often go to this specialized agency to find the interpreters best equipped for this work.
Some countries cannot afford staff interpreters but follow the same system above with a roster of all-contractors. Others cannot afford to cover travel expenses for these interpreters, so they ask their embassies and consulates, and sometimes the dedicated language services office of the host country, for a list of experienced interpreters, within that country, who can do the work.
There are nations who resort to agencies to obtain the interpreters who will officially work an assignment. These are not your workers’ compensation neighborhood agency; they usually are well-known agencies with many years of experience in diplomatic work. Here, these interpreters are also vetted and tested before they are selected for a job. Unfortunately, this system carries risks the options above do not: To select an agency, almost everywhere, governments must follow a bidding process where agencies will try to outbid their competitors, and often this translates into less-experienced and less-qualified interpreters who will work for a lower fee. It could also open the door to favoritism in hiring a certain interpreter the agency is trying to promote. I can see a conflict of interest in this system that could never happen in a system where the language experts of the government hire and pay interpreters directly with no third party (who needs to make money) involved.
The worst situation only happens when government authorities neglect to cover interpreting needs with the professionalism and importance such a vital aspect of a nation’s foreign policy requires. Human errors are that: human, and when that is the interpreter’s mistake, no one is really at fault. Interpreting is a very demanding occupation performed by humans. When the problem is caused by a technical failure, that is somebody’s fault, but not the interpreters’. If interpreters interpret an event they are not capable to interpret, because of lack of experience, poor skills, lack of emotional strength, or any other circumstance that would jeopardize the rendition, like being a translator instead of an interpreter, that individual is guilty of accepting a job they should have rejected the moment they learned what it was about. It is an ethical and professional violation.
However, the real culprit of a failed official interpretation is the government system that permits that someone with no knowledge and little life experience, decide who will be interpreting. When a poorly qualified individual hires someone to interpret a speech by a foreign president, especially when a state of war significantly cripples that foreign president’s options as to finding and retaining an interpreter in a language combination that nation seldomly uses in official events, you will get a poor result. It is an amateur hiring an amateur, and the responsibility of the event is with the one who hires. These are the situations where an irresponsible person hires someone they saw on TV, a person who translates for living, and an individual willing to work solo. Only this level of incompetence will disclose the name of the interpreter who worked in the event when they should have protected this person’s identity and contact information so journalists do not ask for comments from the interpreter who obviously did not even consider abstaining from speaking with the press as all professional interpreters at that level do. Even when a country has in place a system to hire qualified interpreters for official acts, if it is not enforced, and anybody can decide who interprets in the nation’s legislative chamber, then there is no system. I hope the unfortunate reality of war we are living at this time will help us all to understand and value the magnificent job our interpreter colleagues do every day all over the world.
March 22, 2022 § 15 Comments
We are constantly showered with comments and opinions on the way conference interpreters should charge for their services. Even though this is an issue settled long ago, some newcomers to the world of conference interpreting, mainly distance interpreting platforms and language agencies, are attempting to drop our professional business model and replace it with something that works for them, not the client or the interpreter.
Freelance professional conference interpreters have always charged by the day, but in the last two years, agencies and others who come from the world of community interpreting are trying to impose their system and offer to pay by the hour.
Court interpreters, healthcare interpreters, social services interpreters, and all other community interpreters are paid by the hour. That is a different business model that does not work for conference interpreting because the interpreting service is very different.
All community interpreters do a very important and difficult job; they work under conditions no conference interpreter would ever agree to, like noisy courtrooms, small confined areas in hospitals, and some clients who do not know, understand, or appreciate their work.
These is all true and admirable; however, community interpreters do the same type of work every day, often they even do the same repeatedly. Because of the repetitious nature of the task, and the similarities of all the assignments, they usually need little preparation. Court and healthcare interpreters often show up to courthouses and hospitals without even knowing what they will interpret that day. You arrive to court and then you know if your first assignment of the day is a divorce hearing, a felony arraignment, or a sentencing hearing. You do the job, and then you are assigned to another interpretation task. Yes, there are complicated cases and situations, and responsible interpreters try to learn the details of the assignment; yes, there is specialized terminology and procedures, but once you know them, by study or by repetition, all new cases will be an opportunity to apply what you already know.
But conference interpreter is different every day. Interpreters study, research, and practice for every assignment. Yesterday’s assignment was on mining, tomorrow’s will be on agriculture, and next week it will involve international trade. In average, conference interpreters prepare for two to two and a half days for each day they spend in the booth. Unlike community interpreting assignments, they face a very knowledgeable audience in a room where, even after all their study and preparation, they know the topic the least.
Community interpreting assignments that require little or no preparation can be paid by the hour with a minimum fee system. Often interpreters do not even work because court cases get dismissed, continued or settled, and patients do not show up for a doctor’s appointment. A guaranteed two-to-four-hour minimum fee seems like a fair agreement when interpreters set aside their time for an assignment that required no advanced preparation and did not happen.
Conference interpreters always work. Their conferences do not get canceled or postponed. Conference interpreters save a day for a client knowing they must prepare and work, even for distance interpreted events.
The community interpreting business model of charging by the hour with a minimum guaranteed works for court, healthcare and other similar assignments, but it is not a valid business model for conference interpreting.
With the arrival of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) many language agencies around for many years making their living in court and healthcare interpreting saw an opportunity to expand into a field new to them. Even those who claim they were always offering conference interpreting services, in reality were providing community interpreting with portable equipment or a table top. They imposed their community interpreting business model to conference interpreting and that did not work.
RSI also brought many court and healthcare interpreters to conference interpreting. These interpreters, used to charge by the hour, saw nothing abnormal when their known business model was offered to them in the world of conference interpreting. Some platforms saw this and followed by applying this impossible model to conference work performed by these community interpreters.
It must be understood that conference interpreting cannot be paid by the hour as determined by a business model that does not consider the reality of conference work. Veteran conference interpreters, and new colleagues who know and understand the profession, reject this model as it fosters complacency and lack of preparation to make a living on such unrealistic terms. Some will tell you that conference and community interpreting are not that different. The ones making that argument are usually community interpreters or agencies/platforms seeking a higher profit in conference interpreting, not the best human talent.
We often hear interpreters need to adapt to the changing times. That is true and expected; however, adapting to the new reality means mastering distance and hybrid conference interpreting instead of demanding in-person interpreting for all events. It does not mean accepting a new business model that does not consider the services rendered by a conference interpreter, imposed by business entities who want to expand beyond the world of community interpreting.