January 10, 2019 § 7 Comments
Social media interaction can be a good thing for our professional practice. It helps us to be up to date in current events that affect our work; learn about interpreting, languages, and many other topics relevant to what we do; and it comes in handy to ask for help when stuck on a word or term. Unfortunately, social media can be a two-edged sword when used irresponsibly. It can hurt us individually or as a profession, especially when we, as interpreters, attack or criticize a colleague without actual knowledge of the subject and circumstances that surrounded the event or rendition we are ready to criticize.
I am saddened by colleagues who have never interpreted for a live event on TV broadcasted to millions, and yet they post on line uneducated remarks criticizing the interpreter for not “interpreting everything”, showing the world they have no idea of how broadcast interpreting works as far as screen timing and the expectations of the target audience. They do not stop to think that doing the rendition the way they suggest would take the interpreter into a different, unrelated image on the screen or even a commercial.
Frankly, I am tired of social media posts in chatrooms where ignorant interpreters attack a conference interpreter for not interpreting everything; a court interpreter for interpreting everything, (even the obvious and redundant), and doing it very fast; healthcare and community interpreters for doing the necessary advocacy so their client understands the message, and even the military interpreter for not being neutral and impartial.
At the end of November of last year, we lived through one massive attack and “opinions” by some colleagues who, despite not being well-versed on diplomatic interpreting, filled the digital channels with bizarre remarks.
The incident that triggered such social media activity were the November 30, 2018 remarks by president Trump of the United States, (who had traveled to Argentina to attend the G-20 Summit) and President Macri of Argentina in Buenos Aires. They both appeared before journalists from their respective countries and elsewhere. President Macri spoke first and welcomed Trump. Next, president Trump spoke, but at the beginning of his remarks, while holding a receiver in his hand, he looked at president Marci and said: “…I think I understood you better in your language than I did on this. But that’s okay…” Next, president Trump dropped the receiver he had been given for the interpretation of Macri’s remarks. President Trump’s comment was in English, but its interpretation into Spanish was heard by those present in the hall, and by everyone watching TV in Spanish in Argentina and the United States.
Right after this joint appearance by the presidents, interpreter forums, chatrooms, and tweeter accounts, filled up with strange comments such as: “…I wonder who interpreted for Trump. The rendition was so bad he said he understood better without it…” “…Trump was so mad at the interpreter he tossed the equipment…” “…the interpreter was so brave, she even interpreted the part when Trump said he didn’t understand her…” “…it wasn’t the interpretation, he said that because (Trump) hates Hispanics…” “…Trump did not like that the interpreter had an Argentinian accent, that is why he did it…” Also, the comments we see all the time: “…I wonder who picked those interpreters…” “…I bet you the interpreter isn’t certified…” “…Macri is so incompetent that he hired bad interpreters for his meeting with Trump…”
I watched the joint appearance on TV and I saw something very different from what these colleagues saw: It was obvious from the beginning that president Trump was handed a receiver at the last moment. They were already on stage and president Macri had started his welcoming speech. Trump got the receiver with no explanation as to how it works. He seemed unfamiliar with the receiver. On TV it looked different from the 2-part earpiece-receiver we use most of the time. This one looked like a one-piece receiver you use like a telephone receiver. At one point, it looked like president Trump was trying to adjust something on the receiver: maybe the volume, perhaps the channel. The video shows a lady giving him the receiver in a hurry. It does not show if somebody tested it before handing it to Trump. Maybe he was just adjusting the volume and he accidentally changed the channel on the receiver, or maybe the channel was wrong from the moment the receiver was handed to him. There is no way to tell for sure, but from the first time I saw it live, I realized there was something wrong with the equipment, not the rendition. I immediately answered all emails, tweets, and messages I got from many colleagues all over, sharing what I just said above. I know the two interpreters who worked the event, and they are the best of the best. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) came to the same conclusion. On December 3, 2018 they issued a statement in both, English and Spanish:
Unfortunate that people who did not even watch the live broadcast or the full video were criticizing the interpreters when this was a case of a technical problem. It was disheartening to read on public professional forums how people criticized Trump because he did not like Hispanics, or the Argentinian accent of the interpreter. Before attacking and criticizing, these colleagues should learn the basics of diplomatic interpreting: President Trump was listening in English the rendition by president Macri’s magnificent interpreter, who is a male and speaks with a British (not Argentinean) accent. President Trump’s fabulous interpreter, a female who speaks Spanish with an Argentinean accent, interprets into Spanish for President Macri. Your interpreter interprets what you say, not what the others say. That is the protocol in diplomatic interpreting. The words in Spanish these misinformed interpreters heard during the broadcast when Trump states he understood Macri better in “his language” were by Trump’s interpreter interpreting Trumps remarks about the equipment during president Macri’s words interpreted into English for Trump by Macri’s male interpreter. As for who hired these interpreters; all experienced interpreters, diplomatic or not, know that presidential (and diplomatic interpreters in general) are not retained as an interpreter is hired to do a court hearing or a parent-teacher conference. These interpreters have ample experience in conference and diplomatic interpreting, they have meet academic and skill requirements, passed tests and evaluations, and have been granted security clearance. Usually they are full-time staff interpreters working for their government, or very experienced, trusted independent contractors with a long history of assignments and missions working for their government. Court certification is irrelevant for this work, so the comments about that issue merit no further elaboration. Finally, just like presidents have little to do with the direct supervision of a state dinner, they have even less involvement on the interpreting equipment used for a particular event. These are the links to the English and Spanish versions of the video that clearly depict what I just described: https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=YouTube.be&v=9qN2Cf0FnP8
https://YouTube.be/PWPom4j8H8Y This is the link to the White House transcript of the full remarks by both presidents: https://whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-president-macri-argentine-republic-bilateral-meeting/
Dear friends and colleagues, these attacks, criticism, comments, etcetera, hurt our profession. Few things are more damaging to a profession than its own members’ attacks out in the open for all to see. This happens when some interpreters use social media either to criticize just because they enjoy doing so, or to advance their own career and reputation by pointing out things they would never do. These unfortunate remarks are always harmful, but when uttered with no knowledge or foundation, as it was in this case and many others, it is even worse. The interpreters who follow this practice and post all kinds of irresponsible comments put in evidence their lack of professionalism and build and invisible wall around them, isolating them from any top-tier interpreters and their clients.
The final point I wanted to make concerns mixing our own personal lives and political opinions with our professional image as interpreters. Few people in the world are as polarizing as Donald Trump and Mauricio Macri. Some people love them, others cannot stand them. I have no problem with that. The thing that concerns me is that many interpreters in Argentina and the United States made this a political issue. It always worries me when an interpreter pours his or her political opinions in a professional forum, chatroom, or tweet. As professionals we should separate them both. Please make all political statements and give all political opinions you want, but do it in your personal Tweeter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts; Do not post it in your professional social media or in any group forums or chatrooms you belong to, more so if they are open to the public. We do not know what our clients’ political opinions are, as we do not need to; even if our clients’ opinions match ours, we do not know how they feel about hiring an interpreter so opinionated in social media.
Because we do not know how an agency, or even other interpreters feel about our opinions, or about voicing them in professional forums, we should keep them private, in our personal social media. I occasionally post some funny stuff about topics and issues I disagree with, but I do it in my personal social media. I have never issued a political opinion for or against anything in my professional social media as I consider it unprofessional. I have these tools to educate, inform, promote, and influence issues related to the profession. That is why I limit myself to criticize and expose government entities, multinational agencies, bad practices, and legislation that hurts or could hurt the profession and my fellow interpreter and translator colleagues. That is valid in a professional forum. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this important issue.
July 18, 2018 § 13 Comments
During the last month we have seen plenty of diplomatic activity around the world, most of which involved the president of the United States. First, president Trump met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore; next, he met with several heads of state in Europe during the NATO meetings, and after his visit to the United Kingdom where he needed no interpreter, he met Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
Through current 24-hour news coverage around the world, these encounters and press conferences have put diplomatic interpreters on the spotlight in an unprecedented way. Diplomats and politicians have always known the role of the diplomatic interpreter in these events, but journalists, social media users, and TV viewers are just discovering the importance and complexity of this essential function needed in all diplomatic exchanges when the parties share no common language.
The interpreting profession is growing all over the world, but most of its expansion is coming from the legal, healthcare, and community service fields; therefore, diplomatic interpreting is also new to many interpreters who never had an opportunity to do it.
Many of our colleagues seized the opportunity to highlight the difference between translating and interpreting by constantly bombarding all social media with entries correcting the term used by journalists and lay people, and making it crystal clear that (at least in languages with different words to describe interpreting and translating) those accompanying the presidents were interpreters, not translators. Many of their social media comments showed they knew little about diplomatic interpreting. Look at these remarks found on social media and interpreter forums and chatrooms: “…the interpreters working the summit hopefully demanded team interpreting…Did they consider that North Korean is a different dialect when assigning Trump’s interpreter?…Did they tell interpreters that Kim Jong Un has a Swiss accent?…Kim Jong Un speaks English, but they needed an interpreter to clean up Trump’s remarks…interpreter better watch diplomacy if president does not…Who would want to interpret for Trump?…I bet these interpreters will write a book after the summit…; or this one: “…Why would a woman interpret for Putin and Trump?…”
Diplomatic interpreting is a very specialized field. It requires the same skills needed to interpret in other fields, plus other technical, cultural, ethical and diplomatic knowledge and abilities, and self-confidence, courage, stress control, and refraining from showing personal emotions and opinions. It includes a broad range of elements and factors that make communication possible at presidential level, ministries, international organizations, and international military organizations.
Besides all modes of interpretation used in all other settings, diplomatic interpreting requires impeccable consecutive interpreting that goes beyond memory, note taking and visualization; it also needs of the interpreter’s insights, observations, impressions and readings derived from discreet but careful eye contact with the source and target, which must incorporate body language, gestures, and intonations to convey the most accurate rendition, this while walking on eggshells in a world where nuances are extremely important. Often working with no equipment, diplomatic interpreters must project their voice so they can be heard by the target.
Diplomatic interpreters must possess an excellent simultaneous delivery with the right decalage and comprehension of the issues discussed to provide the right meaning in those topics being addressed at the meeting or conference. They work in the booth like all conference interpreters, but they also constantly interpret simultaneously performing chuchotage escort interpreting for the head of state. This requires additional skills not always needed in the booth, such as extreme concentration to isolate the voice of the source during a state dinner while many others are speaking. Interpreters must master this discipline so their voice can be heard by their target with clarity, while taking care of their voice so they can continue to work as interpreters. “The ability to express ideas clearly, and above all great familiarity with the different cultures is a must…good voice projection and especially modulation are assets which seem to acquire even more weight… because whispered interpretation is commonly required…” (Maria Rosaria Buri. “Interpreting in diplomatic settings”. https://aiic.net/page/7349/interpreting-in-diplomatic-settings/lang/1)
Both, consecutive and escort diplomatic interpreting are rendered at an unprecedented level of stress and pressure.
Sometimes, the job goes to somebody not qualified to be a diplomatic interpreter and the consequences can be ugly. This was the case during Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s visit to the White House in 2010 when he addressed president Barack Obama about pending immigration policy and legislation in the United States. In Spanish, Calderon’s comments were straightforward and clear as he spoke to the common values and principles that united the United States and Mexico. A halting and grammatically incoherent English rendition by the Mexican interpreter followed. The interpretation was so difficult to understand that the American delegation ignored the rendition and used a written translation instead. The Mexican delegation blamed its own translation, and from that point on, president Calderón spoke in English until another interpreter joined his team in Ottawa where his trip continued after Washington, D.C. The Mexican government indicated that the interpreter had come with the presidential delegation, but apparently this individual did not regularly interpret for Calderón. (NBC News. Copyright 2010 Associated Press. (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/37238436/ns/world_news-americas/t/calderon-visit-marred-poor-translation/)
Those who are chosen to work as diplomatic interpreters must have broad knowledge and keep up to date with world political, social, and economic affairs. Keeping abreast of international developments and the issues at stake is essential for interpreters working in any language mediation setting. Diplomatic interpreters must be familiar with dress codes, etiquette, demeanor, the correct form to address dignitaries, tact, and savoir-faire, the principles of being discreet and of not censoring. However, sometimes they must use harsh language when the source does so. In December 1983 then vice president George H.W. Bush went on a secret mission to El Salvador in a civil war. Stephanie Van Reigersberg, when head of the interpreting division of the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State was assigned to accompany him. Bush was there to deliver a warning to a group of military commanders about the government’s death squads. Secret Service agents recommended the vice president call off the meeting, but he refused. “Basically, he cursed them out” Van Reigersberg said. “…having a woman interpreter using that kind of language really got their attention”. After the meeting, she realized that she had been so concentrated on her work she had lost any sense of danger until Bush remarked: “…well, I almost got us both killed, didn’t I?”
Each country has its own internal policy and criteria to select and appoint diplomatic interpreters; for security reasons, most nations choose staff interpreters vetted and cleared as ethical, professional individuals worthy of their nation’s trust. Some others select independent contractors then subjected to rigorous background checks and assigned a security clearance level, with only those with the highest level being assigned for top diplomatic interpretations. Finally, many countries have a mixed system where staff interpreters are used for the most common and widely spoken languages, while independent contractors with top security clearance are retained to interpret in less common languages. In the United States, interpreting for White House and State Department officials is provided by the Office of Language Services (part of the U.S. Department of State). The Office’s “…diplomatic and conference interpreters (are on its) staff, and conference interpreters (are on its) contractor rosters…” (https://www.state.gov/m/a/ols/c57124.htm). Often, the diplomatic interpreter accompanying the head of state is the highest interpreter in their home country. Dr. Yun Hyang Lee, who interpreted for president Donald Trump during the meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, is the current head of the interpreting division of the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State (Time. Eli Meixler, Mahita Gajanan. June 13, 2018)
A diplomatic interpreter is not just selected from an interpreters’ association directory on line. They are trusted, vetted, and tested professionals recognized for their skill and field of expertise. Thoroughness is essential in this work, it is never a matter of finding an equivalent or substituting a word; the interpreter must understand the thought expressed and its underlying meaning to interpret. Interpreters must know the specialized jargon and background information. You cannot interpret what you cannot understand. It is crucial that interpreters have all needed knowledge for each assignment. Sometimes they are privy to the same briefing the president gets; often, because of the delicate matters to discuss, information is subject to secrecy and interpreters only get it at the right moment, but always with time to be prepared for the job. Words are so important in diplomatic interpreting that sometimes they can set the mood for a negotiation: During a U.S.-Soviet summit in Washington, D.C. in December 1987, president Reagan welcomed his cold war rival Gorbachev to the White House to discuss peace. During the official welcoming ceremony, Reagan stated that: “…today marks a visit that is perhaps more momentous than many…because it represents a coming together not of allies, but of adversaries…” The U.S. interpreter on that occasion was Dimitry Zarechnak, and the Soviet interpreter was the legendary Pavel Palazhchenko. When it came the time to interpret the speech, Zarechnak told National Public Radio (NPR) in 2001 he was “…agonizing over the word adversaries” because the Russian word for “adversaries” protivniki, sounds similar to a word that means “disgusting”: protivniy. “…In English, you can have a noble adversary. In Russian it sounds terrible…” he added. Instead of repeating the word “adversaries”, Zarechnak used a Russian word for “competitors” which Gorbachev liked. This same word was used by president Trump this week when he was asked if president Putin was his enemy and he replied that “…I have always said he is (my) competitor…” (National Public Radio NPR (https://www.npr.org/2018/06/11/611734103/the-pressure-of-being-an-interpreter-at-a-high-stakes-summit)
Occasionally, interpreters are indirect recipients of a tense internal relationship within a government structure. This can affect their work and their preparation. During the Nixon administration, president Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger distrusted the State Department and had a less than friendly relationship with secretary of state William Rogers, sometimes they kept the U.S. interpreters out of the meetings for fear they would brief Rogers. This meant that sometimes the interpreters would assist in meetings between the secretary of state and foreign leaders on topics about which the White House had kept the interpreters in the dark. (Harry Obst. “White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation”. ISBN-13:978-1452006154).
Some say that these interpreters participate in making history. This is both: a privilege because they get to be eyewitness to some events that will be in the history books of tomorrow; and a burden because it means more stress and pressure which translate in tremendous responsibility. Interpreters like the ones who accompanied president Franklin D. Roosevelt to Yalta, or like Irene Bruno from the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State who interpreted for president Barack Obama during his visit to Havana in March of 2016.
Diplomatic interpreters are constantly studying and fine tuning their craft. They have great flexibility. On October 23, 2000, Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of State under president Bill Clinton, met former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Albright had the services of U.S. Department of State Senior Korean interpreter Tong Kim. Albright’s mission was to persuade the regime to abandon its long-range missile program. To prepare, Tong Kim learned arms control jargon, reviewed top-secret briefs, and read a dozen books on nuclear bombs. Kim later stated that he “…kept…reading every article in newspapers and academic journals…” He says that when he began interpreting he “spoke like a South Korean, and they did not seem to appreciate it…” so he perfected a North Korean accent and dialect: “I picked up their language, their intonation, their dialect…and that gives them some trust…” (National Public Radio NPR (https://www.npr.org/2018/06/11/611734103/the-pressure-of-being-an-interpreter-at-a-high-stakes-summit)
Due to the nature of the task, these interpreters often work alone and for many hours. Although team interpreting may be feasible for the conference work in the booth (usually a press conference where the second interpreter may not need to have the same level of security clearance, even though they usually do) long consecutive and chuchotage are generally performed by the same interpreter throughout the encounter. This requires that diplomatic interpreters have great stamina and good health. An important point because it takes many years of practice and study to reach this professional level, therefore many diplomatic interpreters are not very young. Add the stress factor, generally present in these events because of the importance of the issues being negotiated, the bilinguals in the room who may think they have a better way to say something, and the constant feeling that if something goes wrong, interpreters could be blamed, even if the mishap was not entirely their fault.
Diplomatic interpreters develop an important working relationship with their source. This relationship takes many shapes and forms; sometimes the source is quite detached, and other times they rely on the interpreter for more than interpreting. We are their cultural advisors and sometimes their local history and geography consultants. For example, Harry Obst, who interpreted for seven U.S. presidents during his career, and was the head of the U.S. Department of State Office of Language Services, recalls how President Lyndon Johnson, who ascended to the presidency suddenly when president John Kennedy was killed, was eager to tap interpreters’ wisdom: “…Johnson would caucus with me before the meeting, and he would say, ‘Look, do you know this person? What is he like? Is he devious? Is he straightforward? It is best to raise a subject straight on or fish around it a bit?’” (Harry Obst. “White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation”. ISBN-13:978-1452006154). During the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki we could see the different relationship that each president has with his interpreter, while president Trump’s interpreter, Marina Gross from the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State, sat on the chair already positioned for her a few feet to the right of the president, president Putin’s interpreter walked on stage, grabbed his chair and put it next to Putin, just a few inches away.
Sometimes diplomatic interpreters working under such pressure make a mistake; they are humans. During a discussion on an open skies proposal between the 41 president of the United states, George H.W. Bush, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, Soviet interpreter Igor Korchilov said the word “verifying” in English, instead of the correct term “verified”. Everybody in the White House Cabinet Room looked at him, including Gorbachev who quickly said: “No, no. I never said that…” On an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, Korchilov remarked: “…To this day, I still feel extremely embarrassed…” On his memoir, Korchilov wrote: “…At the moment I wished the earth could swallow me up…” He then addressed president Bush to apologize, and the American president replied: “…Relax, the good news is that you didn’t start World War III…” He then apologized to Gorbachev who said something all interpreters need to remember: “…Oh, don’t worry, Igor. Only those who do nothing make no mistakes…” (Korchilov Igor, “Translating History: 30 Years on the Front Lines of Diplomacy with a Top Russian Interpreter).
Igor Korchilov made a mistake, but he was a great interpreter who worked as Gorbachev’s interpreter from 1987 to 1990.
Great interpreters make mistakes like everyone else, they just make them on a world stage and everybody finds out, as it happened in the well-publicized case of the joint press conference of U.S. president Barack Obama and king Felipe VI of Spain at the Oval Office in 2015. At the time, Spain was facing an independence vote in Catalonia that could end up in a political and economic crisis for the kingdom. On his remarks, president Obama stated that the United States wanted a relationship with a strong and united Spain (“una España fuerte y unificada”) but the interpreter’s rendition was: “a stronger and united relationship with Spain” (“una relación [cada vez] más fuerte y unida [con España]”) (“El Mundo”. Sept. 2015. http://www.elmundo.es./enredados/2015/09/16/55f9477022601da52a8b45a0.html ) The king, who studied in Georgetown University and speaks English, immediately looked at his delegation and made sure that the Spanish press got the correct presidential statement and not the mistake. Moreover, since interpreter renditions into the foreign language (in this case Spanish) are not shown on American media where they broadcast the president’s remarks in English, nobody noticed the mistake on the American media, but it was big news all over Spain. Once again, this interpreter had faced tougher situations many times.
I hope this gives you all a better idea of what diplomatic interpreters do, who they are, and how they work. I leave you with a quote from David Bernet and Christian Beetz press release for their documentary “The Whisperers”:
“They appear in the shadow of the mighty…the interpreters. They have been around forever or, at least, ever since different languages and cultures have met. The discretion that goes with their job makes interpreters very inconspicuous people. But behind the cloak of professional neutrality, one can discover a cast of fascinating characters who dedicate themselves to their craft with the utmost passion” (David Bernet and Christian Beetz press release for their documentary “The Whisperers” http://www.gebrueder-beetz.de/en/productions/the-whisperers-2#uebersicht)
May 4, 2016 § 11 Comments
Interpreters benefit from the use of the internet in many ways. We can study, do research, market our services, and communicate with each other anywhere in the world by using our telephone. Technology helps us to stay competitive in difficult markets and saves us time. Gone are the days when we had to go to a library to research a topic. We can now access the best libraries worldwide from the booth where we are working.
Social media also gave us the very popular and numerous forums, list serves, and chat rooms that all of us visit regularly. I must confess that, even though I am very active in many social media outlets, I visit very few interpreter forums, and none of the list serves. For me, the main reason to visit these forums is to keep up with the most recent news that impact the profession, so I can widen my knowledge and understanding of everything that is happening out there . For the same reason, I am sometimes turned off by some of our colleagues who visit these virtual sites. I have nothing against learning more about our language combinations, but sometimes it gets to me to see how some interpreters post basic vocabulary questions to the forum members without even bothering to do some research on their own first. I know this is popular with many, and we have discussed it in the past, so I will not dwell on this issue. Like I said, it turns me off, but it does not disgust me.
On the other hand, there is a relatively new trend going around several of the forums that I visit. A practice that has the potential to harm the profession, and end the career of those who participate or advocate this practice.
I am talking about those colleagues who post confidential, and sometimes what can be considered privileged information in the case of court interpreters. I am also referring to those who ridicule and make fun of their own clients.
Interpreting is a profession, and as such, it is governed by a series of legal, moral and ethical principles expected from all those who practice as professionals anywhere in the world. Legal, moral, and ethical rules and principles such as diligence, honesty, and confidentiality are an essential part of an interpreter’s job description. We cannot go around divulging the knowledge acquired in confidence. We are a fiduciary profession. It is not ethical for an interpreter to reveal secrete or confidential information. It is not ethical to share the client’s personal information and private life in public either.
These duties of privacy and confidentiality are even stricter in the case of a court interpreter. Let’s take the case of the United States where court interpreters are legally and ethically bound to keep their mouth shot by Articles 5 and 6 of the Federal Court Interpreter Code of Ethics:
“5: Confidentiality. Interpreters shall protect the confidentiality of all privileged and other confidential information.”
“6: Restriction of Public Comment. Interpreters shall not publicly discuss, report, or offer an opinion concerning a matter in which they are or have been engaged, even when that information is not privileged or required by law to be confidential.”
Moreover, when working as agents of an attorney, interpreters are also covered and bound by the stricter client-attorney privilege; a privilege held by the attorney’s client that gives him the right to refuse to disclose, and to prevent any other person from disclosing confidential communications between the client and the attorney (Black’s Law Dictionary).
Rule 1.6 of the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct, reads:
“Rule 1.6 Confidentiality of Information. (a) A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent…”
These communications cannot be shared with the public, even with a court order, unless the client waives the privilege (there are some exceptions to the rule that do not apply to our subject matter) and the privilege extends to the attorney’s agents who are considered as action as an “extension” of the lawyer. These agents include legal secretaries, paralegals, investigators, and interpreters, among others (“United States v. Kovel,” 296 F.2d 918, 921 2nd. Cir. 1961)
In the past weeks I have read posts and comments in at least two different forums by individuals who present themselves as court interpreters (I do not know them by name or in person) revealing information and details of private conversations between an attorney and his client. Moreover, several people have opined about the issues presented by this individual, without the slightest concern about a conduct that is definitely violating all codes of ethics, and may be illegal. I should mention that a few colleagues warned this person and asked this individual not to do this anymore, but for the most part, the person who was doing the posting, and those commenting on the post, continued their debate like noting had happened. I was so bothered by this use of the forum that I left and never went back, so I do not know how long this debate lasted; and even though I do not know the person who posted this, apparently privileged, information, I got the impression that the privileged information was not posted with the intention to breach a legal duty, but out of ignorance and a lack of desire to learn. I should mention that this person did not give names and other details that could easily identify the holder of the privilege, but there was enough privileged information for anyone interested on learning more about the case to find out who were the parties involved.
The second post that I saw was less likely to pierce the client-attorney privilege, but in my opinion it violated the rules of ethics and professional conduct in a truly disgusting way. This was a post by another person who called himself a court interpreter, and went on to argue that his “job as a court interpreter” was not boring because he saw different and new situations every day. Nothing wrong to this point, but next, he gave some examples of the “variety” of cases he is routinely exposed to, by sharing details of some of these cases, and giving his opinion about the parties involved, in a very offensive and demeaning way. These are some of this individual’s comments: “…The… family was lying through their teeth, but… (the) officials were gullible enough to grant them asylum…” and how about this one: “…hours of telephonic interpreting for illegal immigrants… (I) had to hear and interpret a lot of BS…” or this more troubling one: “…defendant asked why he doesn’t qualify for (a legal benefit) the answer was… he had to rat about the people who paid… for his defense…” Unlike the first case I mentioned above, this individual received many warnings and criticisms for doing what he did, and I believe that for this reason, within a week, this person went back to the same forum and now alleged that the cases were real, but that he had “…added imaginary twists, actions or actors…” that although most (not all) of the cases were not real, “…for the purpose of initiating an intelligent debate, (he) presented them as actual, real cases…” and claimed to be a victim of attacks by those who did not want any “personal opinions”. Finally, to make things even worse, this person defended his posts by indicating that he was justified to do so, because they had been posted in a closed forum… on the internet!
I did not write this blog to attack anybody or to end the career of any colleagues or alleged colleagues. That is why I did not revealed any names of individuals or forums, and I tried to show just enough of the published posts to convey the idea of what is troubling me. I wrote this piece because I see what is going on in these social media outlets and it concerns me. I believe that the rules of ethics and professional conduct must be observed because we are professionals, and more importantly, because they affect others who confided on us as providers of this fiduciary service. It is not the same to betray your clients’ confidence and air private matters the way these people did, or to present the facts of a case to your colleagues in a professional forum, observing all professional and ethical rules, in order to get an opinion or to dissipate a doubt. This is done by all professionals: physicians, attorneys. accountants, and interpreters on a daily basis.
I think that the majority of those who have violated these rules did not know what they were doing, and I believe that social media forums, when used appropriately, are a valuable tool. Perhaps we need to educate those who do not know the rules, and maybe we need to assess the moderators and the guidelines of some of these forums. What we cannot allow is a situation that will leave us all in a bad place as a profession, and in an ugly position as individual practitioners; and I am not even mentioning the tremendous liability that those who violate these canons (and in some cases the law) are exposing themselves to. I ask you to share your comments on this topic, and to do so without any personal attacks.
January 25, 2016 § 5 Comments
It has been about two months since some of our colleagues, for their own very personal reasons, decided to negotiate and enter into a professional services contract with SOSi, and agency part of a bigger operation that was temporarily awarded the contract, for a one-year base period that could be extended, to provide interpreting services at all courthouses and hearings involving the United States Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) better known as the Immigration Court.
For several days now, I have been listening to many colleagues who are now interpreting EOIR hearings all over the United States after signing a contract with SOSi, and the list of negative comments and complaints about the performance of this Defense Department contractor turned language services provider is appalling.
Although I would have never entered into a contract with SOSi after learning everything we found out about this company and its business model over the last few months, and I applaud those colleagues who decided to stay away from this folks, we cannot abandon our colleagues who decided to give this contractor a chance. We have to defend our profession.
After reading emails, messages, personally speaking to colleagues, and talking over the phone, I heard the same terrible stories over and over again. They are unconscionable, but it is more disturbing the disclosure by some colleagues, in confidence and under the condition of anonymity, that they have been warned by this contractor’s agents not to speak ill of the company or suffer the consequences. I was told that this was a reason, at least In part, why some interpreters, very few compared to the ones who are vociferously complaining by the way, are praising SOSi and its practices. I am not saying that some interpreters, perhaps in a certain area of the country, did not receive everything they claim they got from the defense contractor. In these cases some people often get everything they rightfully deserve.
When I heard of these allegations I decided to make a list of the most common “occurrences”, and I decided to read more on the company to see if there was some link between everything the interpreters are saying and the company’s business policy. The first thing I came across was an interview with Julian Setian, CEO of SOS from September 18, 2014 by Lauren Budik of the “Washington Exec” when he was nominated for the “Greater Washington Government Contractor Awards” as “Executive of the Year” in the 75 million to 300 million dollar category. Although the interview is softball and self-serving as most of these “awards” interviews tend to be, there was an answer to one on the questions that it thought was very telling about the philosophy of the new temporary EOIR contractor. To the question: “What are the largest challenges that you predict your business will face in the next five years?” Setian’s answer was: “The biggest challenge in the next five years remains the most obvious… decreased U.S. spending and price pressure in the U.S. government contractor market. Regardless of strategy, that is a reality that everyone in our industry has to contend with…” In other words, SOSi won the award because of their determination to be more frugal than the rest. This could explain the low fees, late and incomplete payments, and all other monetary irregularities our fellow interpreters are suffering. (http://www.washingtonexec.com/2014/09/julian-setian-sos-international-llc-talks-2014-govcon-awards-nomination/)
I also found some very interesting statement by SOSi employees on the website indeed.com
One former employee from Reston, Virginia, states: “…I can not (sic) recommend this company… the senior leadership churns through managers in every department and the turnover is very high with each manager lasting an average of 1 year. This is due to the ineffective top leadership… before considering a position with this company it is advisable to talk to past as well as present employees… and research their (SOSi’s) reputation… by talking to teaming partners, former customers, etc…” A former instrument technician from Marietta, Georgia, stated that there was “… no room for advancement… not treated with respect at all… good old boy system…” (http://www.indeed.com/cmp/Sosi/reviews?fcountry=US) There are many “good reviews” on this site, but the comments above explain, at least in part, the way so many interpreters apparently have been ignored and mistreated by SOSi during these first months of the contract.
Dear colleagues, we are on a permanent campaign to raise awareness of our profession, to protect our status as professionals, not laborers, and to defend professional appropriate working conditions needed for us to do our very complex and demanding work. It is for this reason, and because this contractor is still on its “probationary period” of one year, that we should consider very carefully if it is desirable to keep them there for the rest of the decade. If the answer to this question is no, we need to make sure that the U.S. government and the private bar know of these irregularities and help us decide to terminate the contractual relationship with SOSi once the 1-year base period expires.
Among the many complaints and negative comments about SOSi that have come to me, the following are the most frequent and widely present throughout the country:
- They do not pay on time, apparently in violation of the contractual obligation
- Many payments are partial instead of covering the total fee amount on the COI statement, apparently in violation of the contractual obligation
- When this defense contractor pays the interpreter, many times they electronically deposit a lump sum without any reference to the services been paid, making the interpreter’s bookkeeping impossible or at least confusing, apparently all due to lack of due diligence on the part of the contractor.
- SOSi does not have an accounting system needed for an operation of this size with the United States government. For this reason, the filing of invoices by interpreters are not acknowledged, and quite a few interpreters are being paid a fee lower than the one contractually agreed by the parties, apparently in violation of the contractual obligation.
- This temporary EOIR contractor is not reimbursing interpreters for travel expenses, and it has denied payment in cases when the hearing does not take place and the interpreter is already present at the courthouse of destination, apparently in violation of the contractual obligation.
- On repeated occasions, SOSi’s designated “payment processing” individuals are not fluent in English, and appear to ignore the policy and process to handle payment inquiries.
- Many interpreters have found it extremely difficult to speak to a contractor’s representative to iron out all of these issues, and many times their messages go unanswered.
- The contractor is attempting to run this very complex scheduling process nationwide without having any software to do it. Apparently they are using an Excel sheet just like any mom and pop’s business would do.
These irregularities are creating an environment where many interpreters are seriously considering rejecting all new cases, and in those areas where they are already declining assignments, immigration courts are developing a backlog due to the many cases that must be continued due to the lack of interpreters, and many cases that are heard by an immigration judge have to wait for a long time before one of the few contract interpreters who continue to work with no pay is free to attend that courtroom.
If you are a current immigration court interpreter under the SOSi contract, if you are an immigration court interpreter who did not have the stomach to deal with these individuals (bravo!) and decided to provide interpreting services somewhere else, or if you are an interpreter, not even a court interpreter, just a professional colleague, and your blood boils when you read about the way our current immigration court interpreter colleagues are being humiliated, directly by this defense contractor turned language service provider, and indirectly by the EOIR that apparently could not care less, I invite you to share this information with your colleagues, local media, social media, professional associations, attorneys’ bars and professional associations’ local chapters, like the American Bar Association (ABA) the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the National Immigration Forum, as well as your responsible, honest, caring local immigration judges (there is at least one everywhere and you should know who they are). I also invite you to share any ideas you may have that could eventually help our colleagues who are presently on a very bad situation, as many of them have not received any, or very little, income for quite some time.
December 8, 2015 § 4 Comments
There has been a lot of discussion about interpreting services contracts in the past weeks. The SOSi immigration court interpreter contract was a trending topic all over the social media. Many colleagues debated, attacked, and defended parts of the contract like I never saw before. This circumstance, together with other events in the professional world that involve contract negotiation (and the contents of the agreement itself) such as all federal contracts that were up for renewal at the beginning of the new U.S. federal government’s fiscal year, several irregularities with some state government contracts that appeared prior to their new fiscal year in August, and just the wording of quite a few contracts drafted by interpreting services agencies, large and small, made me think long and hard about the importance of negotiating an agreement and reviewing the letter of the proposed contract before committing myself to anything by the power of my signature.
Signing a contract is a very important act that can impact our professional career and reputation for a long time. It is not, as some colleagues may think now and then, a simple ceremonial thing that needs to be done in order to get the big assignment or the prestigious event. A contract is an agreement between two or more parties creating obligations that are enforceable or otherwise recognizable at law. (Black’s Law Dictionary). As Samuel Williston puts it, “A contract is a promise, or a set of promises, for breach of which the law gives a remedy, or the performance of which the law in some way recognizes as a duty…” (A treatise on the Law of Contracts §1, at 1-2. Walter H.E. Jaeger ed., 3d ed. 1957)
I suggest that we should all reflect on the meaning and magnitude of the concept above, and apply ourselves to the negotiating of the terms and conditions that will govern our professional services with a client, and that we review in detail the final document that the client (whether it is a direct client or an agency) tenders for our signature before we undertake any obligations. In fact, I recommend that before signing any agreement, you give your attorney a chance to review the terms of the contract to see if there are any “unwanted” harmful terms. Even if you do not have an attorney who regularly works with you, I encourage you to get one. It is that important, and in most countries it is tax-deductible as part of the cost of doing business. Just think for a moment: the other party had a lawyer draft the contract, that attorney is being paid by the party who has an interest in the delivery of the professional service that is different from yours, and many times it is the opposite. Although ethical and professional, the job of the counterpart’s attorney is to protect his client’s interests, not yours. Just like you would never enter a car race on foot while the others are driving a car, you should never sign a contract unless, and until, you are familiar with all of its contents because all of your questions have been answered to your satisfaction, and all your concerns have been put to rest. Remember: You are an interpreter and you provide a professional service.
There are different types of contract that you will encounter during your professional life; government agencies will always have their standard contract, some large agencies, corporations and organizations will have their own contracts as well. Smaller agencies and direct clients will likely accept your version of a contract or will adapt their own document to your demands and suggestions. Finally, some of your regular clients may not use written contracts. They will negotiate assignments with you more informally. That is fine, but remember, the document is not the contract; the contract is the meeting of the minds, the agreement of the parties. In other words, even in these cases you have a contract.
I always review all contract conditions, even when dealing with the government, and when I dislike a certain term, or I consider necessary to add some conditions, I propose the changes. You will be surprised to learn that more often than not, the counterpart agrees to the amendments to their standard contract. By the same token, I am also flexible and open minded about the counterpart’s proposals and suggestions. I always consider them and give them a lot of thought. On many occasions I agree to the changes, provided they do not leave me unprotected and the potential risk is something I can live with. Finally, in the case of a regular client who never signs any documents with me, I always put all essential terms of the verbal contract in writing and send them to the client by email as a memorandum of understanding, stating very clearly that by receiving the email and not taking any action within the first 24 hours, the client is consenting to the terms and conditions included on the email. This way essentials such as type of event, dates and location, scope of services and fee are always included, as well as reimbursement of expenses, travel costs and fees, late payment penalties, cancellation policy, and standard working conditions according to the type of assignment (equipment, booths, team interpreting, materials and glossaries, etc.)
As we see above, contracts can come on different presentations and they originate for different reasons depending on the client who drafted the contract; but, regardless of the type of contract, there are always certain things we should look for in an interpreter contract. I will share with all of you some of those items I look for in all contracts, and I hope this helps you as much as it helps me; however, I would like to make it very clear that my suggestion is that you always go to an attorney before signing any contract. The following are just suggestions that have worked for me, but in no way they are intended to constitute legal advice of any kind. All situations are different and I do not know your particular situation, so please understand that this is not legal advice. Only your lawyer can give you that kind of professional help.
These are the things I look for in a professional contract:
First. The scope of the service. I always look for the specifics: What the client is actually retaining me for. It is very important because some clients have the idea that once you are hired, you are theirs during the assignment to do anything that they consider part of the service. They are wrong. You agreed to perform a certain service and you are only getting paid for that service. Nothing else. Be careful about services description that may “include” translation services, being responsible for giving out and collecting interpreting equipment, other peripheral interpreting services not previously discussed such as dinners, press conferences, book signings, etc.
Second. I always pay attention to the wording because it tells me a lot about the client. I look for “telling” words such as interpretation industry (instead of profession) and in the case of an agency, how they refer to their end client: If they refer to them in the contract as “the customer” instead of “the client”, we will have a very difficult relationship because it is clear that my profession is an industrial commercial activity to them. I always discuss these issues when present in the contract, educate the client about the profession, and usually they agree to change the contract’s terminology (at least for my assignments if not for the rest of my colleagues)
Third. The grounds for termination of the contract. This is a crucial item because an early termination could impact your income for at least a few days or weeks. The reasons to terminate a contract early have to be fair, and they should include both parties. I have found many contracts where only the client can do an early termination. That is wrong, unfair, and highly suspicious. The grounds should apply to both parties, and in long-term contracts, they should include the lack of payment or late payment of your fee as a cause for early termination.
Fourth. The famous confidentiality clause that although redundant since we are professionals and as such are legally and ethically bound to this duty of confidentiality, it should be included for the peace of mind of the client and his attorneys; however, the same provision should always include that the confidentiality will be observed with the exceptions of law. Yes, the law allows you to break this duty of confidentiality, even in the client-attorney privilege case, when there are certain facts that justify the lifting of this duty. For example, if you have to file a lawsuit against your client for lack of payment, or when your client sues you and you need to defend yourself. In those cases (and others) the law allows you to break the duty, limited to what may be necessary, to defend yourself or to exercise legal action.
Fifth. I look for cases where the client contractually limits his liability, and when I find it I do not like it and demand that it be changed. Although many legislations permit that an individual’s liability be reduced or limited by agreement of the parties, it is ridiculous for the other party to suggest, and for you to agree, to be exposed to all kinds of damages in case of a lawsuit, while the agency and the end client just sit and observe how you lose your business (in one of the best possible outcomes) or all of your assets and life-long savings (as a very good possibility). This is a no-no. Everybody should have the same exposure and respond for the damages caused according to their contribution to the loss. This is a very good reason why the parties should always request a copy of the other parties’ liability insurance certificate.
Sixth. There are some provisions that raise many red flags as they denote a clear intent to tilt the balance in favor of one of the parties (and that party is not usually you). Any provision that makes it illegal for the interpreter to talk to the media about the terms and conditions of the contract, unless we are dealing with information protected by the duty of confidentiality or the client-attorney privilege, and all clauses that force you to “consent” to resolve any controversies through arbitration instead of going to court are a huge warning sign. You see, businesses prefer arbitration because it is less expensive, but mainly, because they get to “pick” the arbitrator. Unless you know several arbitrators that you trust, which is unlikely, they will always get to suggest the arbitrator. This individual will know them, it is very likely that he has presided over other arbitrations with the same party, and he will probably, be inclined to keep the client (your counterpart) happy for business reasons into the future. Of course this last part cannot be demonstrated and I have no basis to claim that this is what happens during arbitration. The question is: Are you willing to take the chance? I personally would not do it. I would seek justice in the court system. Yes, it will take longer, but impartiality is more common in the courtroom, and if you win, the losing party may have to pay your attorney’s fees.
Seventh. All terms and conditions must be in writing and they must be part of the written document. Even those terms and conditions contained in an appendix to the main contract should be referenced to and identified within the body of the contract by a number or a letter. Make sure that all attachments are signed by all parties, and dated with the same date as the main contract. Most legislations abide by the parol evidence rule which clearly states that all agreements previous or contemporary to the signing of the contract must be in writing and appear as part of the physical agreement. Those that do not follow this rule will not be considered as part of the contract. Be very careful with all those promises and concessions on the side. They are not part of the contract unless they are in writing and in the document itself.
Eight. Travel expenses must be included in the contract. The document should clearly state what expenses are reimbursable: airfare, hotel, ground transportation, Per Diem, photocopies, etc. It should also spell the fees payable to the interpreter on traveling days. Remember, you provide a personal professional service. You cannot provide your services to two clients at the same time, so on the days that you travel to and from the assignment location, you are not working for any client. Unless you like to lose money, you should clearly negotiate and include in the contract your travel fee. There is a cost of doing business, but you should never lose money for accepting an assignment. Maybe one half of your regular fee should be a fair compensation for your travel days. Make sure that reimbursement of expenses for travel days are for total expenses. You can charge a lower fee, but you cannot fly, sleep or eat for less money just because it is a travel day.
Ninth. The cancellation policy will always be in the contract. I would never sign an agreement that does not deal with this issue. This policy needs to be negotiated taking into account the time between the cancellation and the cancelled event. The fact that your client just found out of a cancellation that was decided two weeks ago is no excuse to lower your cancellation fee. It is your client’s obligation and duty of due diligence to be on top of everything the end client is considering, pondering, thinking, and doing. A last-minute cancellation should require a full fee and reimbursement of all monies disbursed to that point. Remember, it is not your fault that the client lost the event. That is his risk, not yours.
Tenth. A good contract should cover payments in detail: amounts, timetables, and penalties in case of late payment. Just as you had to show up to interpret on the set date, and not 30 days later, the client has the obligation to pay you on the day agreed to, and if he does not, then you must be compensated by virtue of a penalty clause that provides for compensation in case of any delays. This is extremely important with smaller agencies who sometimes come to the interpreter crying poverty and asking for more time to pay you because their client has not paid them yet. Although some of you may be tempted to give the small business owner a break, I am not. Do not lose sight of reality: This individual is your client. He is not your partner. Only partners share the risks of doing business. He is not sharing his pay with you. You should not share in the risk. He pays you or else… Where he gets the money from is not your problem. You should also look for unacceptable provisions, usually inserted by larger agencies, about penalizing you by retaining part of your (already earned) fee. They often include deductions based on what they consider your “performance” and deduct part of the money you already made. This is unacceptable and illegal. Nobody should agree to give up part of his fee based on the assessment of others, much less when there are no safeguards in the contract such as notice of the intent to deduct part of the fee, and a mechanism to have a hearing before an impartial authority. How about letting a real judge deal with this issue? Agencies should never get that power from the contract- signing interpreter.
There are many more points to be included and reviewed by the parties, but I believe that at least these basic elements put me on a leveled field with the client as equal parties to a contract. I now ask you to please share any pointers or comments you may have on this very important professional issue.