Who were the real diners at the first Thanksgiving?

November 22, 2021 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

November marks the beginning of the holiday season in the United States with its most important, and uniquely American, event: Thanksgiving.  Interpreters worldwide will interpret speeches by Americans that will include Thanksgiving stories, dinner recipes, family traditions, and Black Friday shopping. Every year I try to share a different part of this celebration that, familiar to all my American colleagues, could be foreign and little-known to others.

This year I picked a topic even unknown to many Americans: The true story of those who gathered over four centuries ago in what we now know as the State of Massachusetts. We all know to a degree the traditional story of a British settlement in what Europeans called the new world; we have heard or read how these individuals who fled the old continent looking for religious freedom had to endure terrible weather, and were on the brink of starvation when a benevolent Native American tribe helped them by teaching them how to grow corn, and where to fish. It all culminated in a peaceful, joint celebration where food was shared. As you probably imagine, things were different in the real world.

The Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims were the English settlers who arrived on the Mayflower and founded Plymouth Colony in what we today know as Plymouth Massachusetts. They gave this name to the settlement to honor the port from where they departed England: Plymouth, Devon. While in Europe, they were part of the Puritan separatist congregation known as the Brownists, who separated from the traditional Puritan Calvinists in the 17th century, arguing their congregations should separate from the state church, and fled religious persecution based on the Act of Uniformity of 1559 in Nottinghamshire, England. They first emigrated to The Netherlands, finding tolerance among the population of Holland where they followed the teachings of Robert Browne who argued true churches were voluntary democratic congregations, not whole Christian nations. They stayed in Leyden, The Netherlands, for several years until they secured the means to emigrate to America, frustrated by the Language barrier and uncomfortable with the “libertine” ways of the Dutch.

The decision to sail to America was not an easy one, there were fears that native people would be violent, there would be no source of food or water, that they may encounter unknown diseases, and that sailing across the ocean was very dangerous. They weighed their options and considered the Dutch settlement of Essequibo, now Guiana, but it was discarded for the same reasons they were leaving Holland. Another option was the Virginia Colony which was attractive because its population was British, they shared language, culture, and it was an established colony. It was discarded because they feared it would produce the same English environment they fled. They thought of the mouth of the Hudson River as a possible settlement, but the land was claimed by the Dutch who founded New Netherland. Finally, a royal patent was secured with the condition that the religion of the Leiden Group, as the Puritans were known in the British Court, were not to receive official recognition. They were told that a land grant north of the Virginia territory had been granted, and the new territory must be called New England. There were other concessions to the investors sponsoring the trip, and they finally left The Netherlands on board a small ship named the Speedwell. They arrived in Southampton where the ship was met by a second, larger vessel: The Mayflower. Unfortunately, by the time they reached Plymouth the Speedwell was deemed unfit to travel, so the Puritans left harbor with only one ship: the Mayflower. 102 passengers made the trip: 73 men and 29 women. There were 19 male servants, 3 female servants, and some sailors and craftsmen who would stay temporarily and then go back to England.

Once on land, the Puritans had several encounters with Native Americans who were familiar with Europeans as they had traded with other French and British Europeans in the past. Only 47 colonists survived the diseases contracted on the Mayflower. Half of the crew also died. The winter of 1619 was devastating. Bad weather ruined their crops and food was scarce. Survival of the settlement required drastic measures such as to request the help of these lands’ original residents: the Wampanoags. These Native Americans, motivated by their own schemes, agreed to help the Puritans providing needed food, water, and teaching them how to grow corn. The following year a good harvest saved the colonists and consolidated the colony. To commemorate the harsh winter of the year before, and to celebrate the brighter future, colonists and Wampanoags feasted together.

The name “Pilgrims.”

The first use of the word pilgrims for the Mayflower passengers appeared in William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.” He used the imagery of Hebrews 11:13-16 about Old Testament’s “strangers and pilgrims” who had the opportunity to return to their old country but instead longed for a better, heavenly country. There is no record of the term Pilgrims being used to describe Plymouth’s founders for 150 years after Bradford wrote this passage, unless quoting him. The Mayflower’s story was retold by historians Nathaniel Morton (in 1669) and Cotton Mather (in 1702), and both paraphrased Bradford’s passage and used his word pilgrims. The first documented use of the term was at a December 22, 1798 celebration of Forefathers’ Day in Boston. Daniel Webster repeatedly referred to “the Pilgrims” in his December 22, 1820 address for Plymouth’s bicentennial which was widely read. Harriet Vaughan Cheney used it in her 1824 novel “A Peep at the Pilgrims in Sixteen Thirty-Six”, and the term also gained popularity with the 1825 publication of Felicia Heman’s poem “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers”.

The Wampanoag.

Though meetings between European explorers and Native Americans tended to degenerate into bloodshed, the lure of trade was too enticing for either party to resist. Europeans sought furs, particularly beaver pelts, to sell back home. The Wampanoags, a nation living in what we now know as Massachusetts, wanted to pick through the strangers’ merchandise of metal tools, jewelry, and cloth. A number of them, including a man named Tisquantum, or Squanto, went to Europe when the vessels returned.

Wampanoags and other nations fell victim of disadvantageous deals with the colonists, sometimes were killed during hostilities or simple differences of opinion, and many died from diseases brought from the old world for which Native Americans’ lacked immunity. In 1614 Captain Thomas Hunt had double-crossed them and took 16 of them to Europe by force, among them an individual destined to play a major role as an interpreter during the First Thanksgiving in later years: Squanto. First, he was taken to Málaga where he spent some time, and probably learned functional Spanish, before convincing a merchant to take him to London where in 1618 he ran into Captain Thomas Dermer. By then Squanto spoke English and convinced Dermer to take him back to America on his next trip.

The Wampanoags were deeply divided over what to do, given the enslavement, murder, and disease that Europeans had inflicted on them. Chief Ousamequin favored cultivating the English as military allies and sources of metal weaponry to fend off the Narragansett nation to the west, who had escaped the epidemic and were using their newfound advantage in strength to reduce the Wampanoags to tributaries. In later years, Ousamequin acknowledged that he would have peace with the English because “he has a potent adversary in the Narragansetts, that are at war with him, against whom he thinks we may be of some strength to him, for our pieces (guns) are terrible to them.” Ousamequin also seems to have believed that the English had weaponized disease, which he hoped to put to Wampanoag use. At one point he asked the English to send the plague against another Narragansett leader whose territories bordered the Wampanoags’.

Many Wampanoags disagreed with Ousamequin. Some attributed the epidemic to a curse put on them by a shipwrecked Frenchman whom they had held as a slave. This Frenchman had admonished the Indians “that God was angry with them for their wickedness, and would destroy them, and give their country to another people.” Several Wampanoags feared that the Pilgrims were conquerors of this prophecy and therefore favored cutting them off. Others saw the Pilgrims as belonging to the same class of men slaving and slaughtering their way along the coast.

A noble Wampanoag named Corbitant conspired with the Narragansetts to unseat Ousamequin and destroy Plymouth. It took an English military strike orchestrated by Ousamequin to snuff out this fire. A year later, Ousamequin warned Plymouth that Wampanoags from the Vineyard and Cape Cod were plotting with the Massachusett nation to attack Plymouth. He stopped these plans by directing an English attack, this time against the Massachusett. It was his way of warning Wampanoag dissidents they would be next if they continued to undermine his leadership.

The First Thanksgiving was the fruit of a political decision on Ousamequin’s part. Politics played a much more important role in shaping the Wampanoag-English alliance than the famous feast. At least in the short term, Ousamequin’s league with the newcomers was the right gamble, insofar as the English helped to fend off the rival Narragansetts and uphold Ousamequin’s authority. In the long term, however, it was a grave miscalculation. Plymouth and the other New England colonies would soon conquer Ousamequin’s people, just as the Frenchman’s curse had augured and just as the Wampanoags who opposed the Pilgrims feared that they would.

Despite all good and all terrible consequences of the colonization of Massachusetts, Thanksgiving Day, as we understand it now, four centuries later, has become a day of peace, family, and sharing. Because it is a lay celebration, it is the most democratic holiday in the United States, held universally across all cultures in all 50 States. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Will greed win over quality medical interpreting in the middle of a pandemic?

September 9, 2021 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

On May 15, 2021 the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) released a study suggesting that an English-to-English exam might solve the shortage of healthcare interpreters in what they call “languages of lesser diffusion,” meaning languages other than Spanish, Arabic or Mandarin. The reason for this “sui-generis” affirmation is very simple: developing actual interpretation exams to test candidates on simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, and sight translation in both: source and target languages would be too expensive and therefore not profitable. Interesting solution: examine candidates’ English language skills (reading comprehension, medical concepts, fill-in the blanks, and what they consider can show the candidate’s “potential correlation with overall interpreting ability”: “listening comprehension.”) An English only exam will catapult an individual into an E.R. to perform as an interpreter without ever testing on interpretation!

What about native English speakers, who in the study scored an average of 87.9% compared to non-native speakers, who scored an average of 76.6%? No problem, says CCHI; passing score is 60% and Spanish language interpreters will continue to take the interpretation exam already in existence. I suppose the expectation might be that people who speak other “languages of lesser diffusion” in the United States have a higher academic background and their English proficiency is higher. Another point that makes this “solution” attractive is that most interpreter encounters in hospitals, offices and emergency rooms involve Spanish speakers, which brings the possibility of lawsuits for interpreter malpractice to a low, manageable incidence. I would add that many people needing interpreting services will not even consider a lawsuit because of ignorance, fear or immigration status. The good news: CCHI concluded that although this English-to-English exam option “is a promising measure…(it)…requires additional revision and piloting prior to use for high-stakes testing.” (https://slator.com/can-a-monolingual-oral-exam-level-the-playing-field-for-certifying-us-interpreters/)

Reading of this report and the article on Slator got me thinking about the current status of healthcare interpreting in the Covid-19 pandemic. How long will the American healthcare system ignore that the country is everyday more diverse and in need of professional, well-prepared healthcare interpreters in all languages? The answer is difficult and easy at the same time.

A difficult answer.

It is difficult because we live in a reality where every day, American patients face a system with very few capable healthcare interpreters, most in a handful of language combinations, and practically all of them in large and middle-sized cities. The two healthcare certification programs have poor exams. One of them does not even test simultaneous interpreting, and the other tests a candidates’ simultaneous skills with two 2-minute-long vignettes (one in English and the other in the second language). Consecutive skills are also tested at a very basic level with four vignettes of twenty-four 35 or fewer-words “utterances” each. It is impossible to assess somebody interpreting skills with such an exam after just 40 hours of interpreter training. (https://cchicertification.org/uploads/CHI_Exam_Structure-Interface-2020.pdf).

Except for those interpreters with an academic background or prepared on their own because they care about the service they provide, the current system provides a warm body, or a face on a screen, not a healthcare interpreter. Because the motivation is a robust profit, it is conceived and designed to protect the interests of insurance companies, hospital shareholders, and language services agencies. It has been structured to project the false impression these entities are complying with the spirit of the law; It is not designed to protect the physician or the patient.  

In 1974 the United States Supreme Court ruled that failing to provide language support for someone with limited English proficiency is a form of discrimination on the basis of national origin (https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2000/08/30/00-22140/title-vi-of-the-civil-rights-act-of-1964-policy-guidance-on-the-prohibition-against-national-origin).  The ruling was later broadened and implemented by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (https://www.ada.gov/effective-comm.htm) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) commonly known as “Obamacare.” (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/1557-fs-lep-508.pdf) This legislation specify that healthcare organizations must offer qualified medical interpreters for patients of limited English proficiency and those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

An easy answer.

Despite the reality we face, the answer to the question above is easily attainable because the healthcare industry has immense financial resources and a system that lets them capture money at a scale no other industry can.

The healthcare sector deals with the lives and quality of living of all individuals present in the United States. Their reason to exist is to save lives, not to produce ever-growing dividends to its shareholders every year. This is an industry that spends unimaginable amounts of money in medical equipment, state-of-the-art technology, physicians, surgeons, nurses, therapists, researchers, attorneys, and managerial staff salaries. New expensive hospitals, medical office buildings, clinics, laboratories, and rehab centers are built all the time. This industry can spend top money in those sectors because it is good for business. It is an investment that produces a profit. I am not even scratching the surface of these expenses, but even if we ignore the money spent in food, gear, vehicles (land and air), utilities, clerical staff, janitorial staff, and medical aide positions, we can safely conclude this is an industry that knows how to spend money when an expense is viewed as an investment that will produce a financial benefit.

Designing good medical interpreter exams in many languages is expensive, paying professional-level fees to healthcare interpreters will cost money, managing a continuing education program will not be cheap, but the healthcare sector cannot cry poverty. They have the funds to do it. It is incomprehensible how a business that bankrupts its patients after one surgery or a chronic disease can argue with a straight face, they can only pay 30 to 50 dollars an hour to a medical interpreter. This is an industry that charges you fifty dollars for a plastic pitcher of water or twenty dollars for a box of tissue they replace every day.

Quality interpreting, and living up to the spirit of the law, cannot happen when an organization spends money to look for shortcuts such as testing English-to-English in an interpreting program. Only the promise of a professional income will attract the best minds to healthcare interpreting. Current conditions, including low pay, an agency-run system, and searching for shortcuts to go around the law will never produce quality interpreters.

If those deciding understand good professional healthcare interpreters are an investment as valuable as good physicians, surgeons and nurses, the solution can begin immediately. Designing and administering a quality interpretation exam will take time, getting colleges and universities to start interpreting programs that include medical interpreting will not be easy, but there are steps that can improve the level of interpreting services right away.   

A higher pay, comparable to that of conference interpreters will immediately attract top interpreters in all languages, at least temporarily or part-time to the field. Many top interpreters see the need for quality services during the pandemic, and they feel a need to help, but they have to make a living and healthcare interpreter fees do not meet the mark.

Instead of thinking of English-to-English exams to create an illusion they are forming interpreters, stakeholders should recruit native speakers of languages where interpreters are hard to find, but they must stop looking for “ad-hoc” interpreters in restaurant kitchens and hotel cleaning crews, and start talking to college students and professors, to scientists and physicians from those countries who now practice in the United States. With current technology, hospitals should look for their interpreters among the interpreter community in the country where a language is spoken and retain their services to interpret remotely, instead of opening massive call centers in developing countries, using the technology to generate a higher profit instead of better quality.  

Hospital Boards must find the money and allocate it to interpreting services. In these cases, such as Medicaid and others, the cost of interpreter services should be considered an operating expense. Insurers do not reimburse for nursing and ancillary staff. Hospitals and practices pay their salaries.

Payers may also benefit by covering interpreter services. Although data are limited according to the Journal of the American Medical Association Forum, studies suggest that when physicians struggle to communicate with patients, they are more likely to order unnecessary tests and treatments. This not only puts patients at increased risk, but also directly increases payer spending. Limited English proficiency patients may need care more frequently or seek treatment in more expensive settings, such as the emergency room, when they cannot communicate with primary care providers. Similar to insurers in fee-for-service arrangements, risk-bearing provider groups in alternative payment models face a similar incentive to curtail unnecessary or wasteful utilization. Poor interpreting services will also result in malpractice lawsuits against hospitals, language service providers, insurance companies and medical staff. In the long run, by far, this makes investing in quality interpreter services and interpreting education/certification programs a smaller expense. “Paying for interpreter services, from cost-based reimbursement, to their inclusion in prospective payment models, to insurer-led contracting of remote interpreters, would not only address the disparities exposed by the pandemic, but also help support practices facing financial peril due to the pandemic.” (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama-health-forum/fullarticle/2771859) It is time to grow up and stand up to the stakeholders in the healthcare sector; it is time to unmask the real intentions of language service providers who take advantage of often-poorly prepared interpreters to get a profit. It is time to have a serious healthcare interpreter certification exam that really tests the candidate’s interpreting skills. We need university and college programs, and a different recruitment system led by hospitals and insurance companies not multinational interpreting agencies, or ill-prepared small local players. Interpreters cannot be made in 40 hours and we can’t have newly trained interpreters learning at the cost of real patients’ safety. The pandemic showed us the importance of healthcare interpreting, let’s seize the opportunity to professionalize it.

This time your vote is crucial for the future of ATA. Please read.

September 30, 2019 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Another year went by and several fellow interpreters and translators are getting ready to go to Palm Springs, California, for the annual conference of the American Translators Association (do not let the name misguide you, it includes many interpreters even though for political reasons it was decided not to include us in the name of the organization). Besides the main reasons many attend the conference: seeing old friends and attending some presentations with the never-ending hope to learn something, the yearly gathering is also the opportunity active members have to vote on the future of the association by electing board members and passing or rejecting proposed amendments to the bylaws.

Many of you skip the general meeting because you find it boring, too long, and always the same. I know many more active members who will not go to Palm Springs and have decided not to vote by proxy because they are discouraged with performing board members. I understand your reasons and I have always respected your decision to abstain. Unfortunately, this time is different and I encourage you; actually, please, please vote.

I usually give the reasons I voted for or against a candidate or amendment, and I will do it right now.

Voting is very important because democracy is our legitimate way to have a saying on the direction a country, business or association is going at a particular time. Democracy and ATA are not usually two terms we put together, after all, until we change it, we continue to be an organization where all members pay the same membership, but many do not get to enjoy the same rights, including the right to vote. That must change before the 2020 conference.

There is something else we can change with our votes this year: it is time to let members from outside the board be elected. The way our current board operates resembles more the system of the Soviet Politburo than a Greek democracy. Board members go through a “promotion system” where they are groomed to take over the position, assuring the continuity of the same policies and protecting the special interests that pull the strings. Interpreters and translators are well-read, sophisticated individuals who know there has never been a true democracy in history without opposing points of view alternating in the highest decision-making positions. Let’s get back to the election:

To be worthy of my vote, a candidate has to acknowledge we are a group of professionals, not a gathering of agencies or merchants. I believe it is inexcusable to elect people who continuously advance the interests of agencies, multinational or small, over those of individual members; who refuse to observe basic ethics by voting where they have a personal or business conflict instead of recusing themselves; who support sharing a lobbyist with the Association of Language Companies; and I do not want to elect people who will destroy a professional translator certification by opening it to non-members.

Our road to professionalization must include adopting what other, well-established professions do. Let’s take attorneys: To practice law, an applicant must pass the professional (Bar) exam, AND be a member in good standing of the lawyers’ association in that jurisdiction. Practicing law is more that passing the bar exam; a fiduciary profession, like attorney, or translator, requires that the individual practicing observes ethical and professional rules. It is the State Bar that sanctions lawyers who acted unethically, it is the State Bar that makes sure and keeps track that attorneys comply with continuing legal education requirements to assure clients that a lawyer who passed the Bar thirty years ago is up-to-date on legislation and procedure.

By offering a certification program exclusively to qualified members, and requiring adherence to a code of ethics and continuing education credits, ATA is currently treating translators, and the public, as a professional association. Only true professions self-regulate their practice. Decoupling certification would be equivalent of giving up this status and opening the door to other overseers such as government agencies, creating that way a world of confusing national policies and regulations, as ATA certified translators work from every corner of the planet servicing clients all over the world. Some current Board members want us to believe they will control ethics and continuing education compliance after decoupling. It seems unlikely. They will have no link to the nonmember certified translators. Under those circumstances, unless members want to continue attending the overpriced annual conference, many could consider leaving ATA and just keeping the certification. As an interpreter, this is something I have always admired and keep on my wish list. Interpreters are certified and therefore regulated by a myriad of bodies all over the world.

Another important aspect is that of the cost of the exam. It is widely known that exams such as these ones are more expensive than the fee charged to the examinee. That is fine when done for members, this is one of their benefits. On the other hand, how many of you would be willing to subsidize the certification of non-members with your membership fees? If the answer is to charge more to non-members, then the obvious reaction is: Why not require membership first, and then be eligible to take the test? If the cost is similar, the only reason to choose certification without membership is the desire of the examinee to dodge continuing education requirements, or to ignore the cannons of ethics.

I can think of a scenario where decoupling would be good: Agencies can pay for their translators’ certification one time, and then, with no need for continuing education, sell them to their clients as “ATA certified” until the cows come home. Big profits for the agencies. Bad news for the profession. Once again, this is another example of special interests at work.

Who to vote for?

I will never vote to any board position an individual who is not even a certified translator or interpreter, unless their language combination includes a language without a certification available. Professional credibility comes from your credentials, and the bylaws’ exception for those who achieve professional status through membership review, should only be respected by the voters when the candidate works in a rare or “exotic” language of lesser diffusion. I think it is a shame for people to consider voting for individuals who got to the board by peer review, instead of certification, when your work languages are Spanish or Portuguese. We all know that as soon as a person becomes a translator or an interpreter, they start thinking of certification. We are all out there. We all know that credentials are essential in the real world.

The fact that an interpreter or translator is not certified (or with conference interpreters does not possess a legitimate credential such as AIIC membership, Conference-level by the U.S. Department of State, or membership in a renowned association or government agency in the country where they practice) denotes one of three things: The individual failed to certify because lack of skill, in reality this person does has not worked as a translator or interpreter, but rather as a business manager in an agency (in which case the individual should be running among their peers at the Association of Language Companies, not the American Translators Association) or the person just cares so little for the value of a certification and the professional aspect of our craft, that they disregard the need to study to pass a certification exam.

For president, I will write in Robert Sette, because on top of his experience as a board member, he is the only one running for this position defending the profession by opposing decoupling. I have talked to Robert about interpreters’ issues and our situation within ATA due to the current policy at the top. He has convinced me he will be a president elect who will fight for the professional interests of interpreters and translators. I found Robert an honest and dedicated colleague, an experienced ATA certified translator, with no other motivation than our advancement as a profession.

In ATA’s classic fashion, Secretary and Treasurer are running unopposed. I know them both and they are good professionals. I will vote for them unless they support decoupling. There, I will have nothing detrimental to say about them, They are both nice, decent people, but even if I feel bad about it, I will not give them my vote because of a difference of opinion on this important issue.

For the director position I will vote for Cristina Helmerichs because she is a professional of great moral character who has always protected the profession and her colleagues instead of taking the side of the corporate member agencies.

I will also write in Jill Sommer for the director position because she is an experienced professional, a certified translator who will work with Robert Sette, and because she opposes decoupling of the ATA certification.

For the third director vacancy, I will not vote for a non-certified interpreter or translator, I will never vote for someone who in the past has stated his opposition to recusal as a board member, even in case of a conflict of interest, and I will not vote for someone who supports decoupling of the certification, or continues to sit on the fence without making a commitment. That leaves four possibilities. If more than one opposes decoupling, I will study their platforms and how they answer the questions in Palm Springs, but I also have another choice: Just as I did last year: I can just vote for two directors instead of three. We should all consider that as an option. It is better not to vote for someone than to vote for an individual we believe is not right for the job.

You see, dear friends and colleagues, fellow ATA active members, this year is very important we all vote. If you are attending the conference, please go to the general meeting and vote. If you are not going to Palm Springs, even if you think your vote does not matter, if you believe nothing ever changes with the way ATA operates; even if you have noticed that the election system is less than democratic, please vote by proxy. Open your email and vote. Write down the names of the write in candidates, and contact ATA if you are a voting member and did not receive a ballot. Please repost this blog anywhere you feel appropriate, and contact your fellow voting members, interpreters and translators, and ask them to vote to protect the profession. This is the year when we can drive the change. I am posting this article in many professional groups and ATA social media. It will not be posted in any other professional association’s wall or chat group, unless I first get permission to do so.

We must protect the interpreter, not the middleman.

June 12, 2019 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Think of a colleague, anywhere in the United States, who is battling a devastating illness and cannot get the treatment she needs because she has no health insurance, and medical expenses are so high she cannot cover them. I am sure you know an interpreter who has tried to get a job because he is worried about retirement years from now, but cannot get one because nobody is hiring. Language service providers want independent contractors because they have no legal obligation to provide employment benefits: health insurance, retirement plan, paid holidays and vacation, maternity leave, worker’s compensation insurance. If you prefer, look very carefully at your interpreter colleagues who have a sick parent, a disabled child, or another powerful reason to stay where they now live, and for that reason, they have to interpret for the agencies in town (local and multinational) and they do it in silence because they are afraid of losing these assignments, even when they are poorly paid, and they have to endure terrible, and sometimes humiliating working conditions.

Of course, you can always look at your own practice; I invite you to do so and honestly answer these questions: Do you enjoy having to check in and out with the agency every time you do an assignment? do you feel comfortable asking the person you just interpreted for to write down the hours you interpreted and to sign the form so you get paid by the agency? Do you find amusing having to spend hours on the phone and writing emails so you can get paid for a last-minute canceled assignment the agency does not want to pay? Maybe some of you like staying at the venue after interpreting is over because the agency makes you stay for the full time they retained you, even though all your work is done. Perhaps your definition of professional services includes cleaning up files or making photocopies until your time is up. Do you like it when the agency prints you business cards under their name and forces you to give them to the client? Do you like dodging all clients’ interpreting services questions by referring them to the agency every time? How about micromanaging your time on the assignment?

I doubt you enjoy any of these things, but even if you do, please understand that these intermediaries are taking advantage of you. They are forcing you to perform as an employee without paying you any benefits. Agencies distract you by telling you what a wonderful lifestyle you have, how flexible your schedule is, and everything thanks to them, your benefactors who find you work while you do not even lift a finger.

This is what the California State Legislature is trying to stop by forcing those employers who treat their “independent contractors” as employees to provide all benefits and protections people who do what these interpreters do for the agencies are legally entitled to. Think like an interpreter, stand up for your colleagues and the profession. Do not buy the arguments agencies are propagating. They do not see this legislation from the interpreters’ perspective. They see it from their business perspective.

For a long time, agencies have enjoyed this cozy business model that lets them charge their client for your service, pay you a part of it, and get you to do anything they want without incurring in any human resource expenses. It is a win-win situation for them. It is an abusive scheme for the interpreter.

Big multinational agencies are campaigning hard to defeat these legal protections not because they will “destroy the industry” as they put it, but because they will lose their golden egg goose. There will be no more freebies. They come at you with their lobbyists and make you believe they are on your side, they portray themselves as your savior and use scare tactics to make you think there will be no work for you if they are forced to lower their profits by living up to their legal and moral obligations to the interpreters.

Freelancing is not going to end after the bill becomes the law of the land in California or anywhere else. I am a freelance interpreter and I am not afraid. I do not work with these agencies, big or small, who now claim they are on a quest to save us all. New legislation or status quo will not impact my practice, and it will not impact that of most colleagues I work on a daily basis; however, leaving things as they are, giving back these agencies a position of power over the interpreters who work for them, will keep our less fortunate colleagues in the same deplorable conditions they have been working for all these years. This is a decisive moment. Multinational agencies and their lobby know it. They will fight the State of California with everything they have because they know the Golden State is a place where they can be unmasked and lose their privileges. Interpreters have organized labor backing their efforts because there are unions and guilds in California. Other States do not have them. The middleman knows that California is a decisive battlefield and they are spending money and sending their PR people to “convince” interpreters that defeating this legislation is best.

They argue they will not be able to hire interpreters because it would be too expensive. That many agencies will not survive and interpreters will lose a source of work. That is the point. The bill will only be successful when this serf-owner business model is erased. Will interpreters be more expensive because of the labor benefits? Yes. Interpreters deserve these protections. Agencies will either close or adjust their business models to comply with the legislation. Will agencies hire less interpreters? Of course, but the need for interpreters will not go away. There will be many more interpreters hired directly by clients. Is this going to hurt small agencies? It should. Small agencies should not exist in this business model because the essential condition for their survival is the denial of workers’ rights under the law.

Complaints that the legislation has exempted other professions like physicians and attorneys, but not interpreters are nonsense. Doctors and lawyers are well-established professions. Nobody would ever think of calling a “medical agency” and ask for a brain surgeon for tomorrow at 8:00am. If we want to be treated like these professions, we need to look like them. First step: get rid of the middleman. I know, some will say: “but…hairdressers are excluded and they are not a profession like doctors and lawyers” That is true and it is wrong. They should be covered by the legislation. The difference is: They got a better lobbyist and got their sorry exception in detriment of the people providing beauty services.

What about the argument that smaller agencies will not be able to stay in business because they will not afford it? In my opinion, these so-called agencies are not really agencies; most of them are a solo operation where somebody with connections acts as a referral service. I find this dangerous because these “agencies” just want a warm body with the right language combination for the assignment. I do not get the impression that messages on social media that read: “need French interpreter tomorrow at 2 pm” project exemplary quality control. Moreover, these people are not an agency, they should think and act like professionals and do what I do, and many of my colleagues do (all doctors and layers do the same thing): When your client asks for interpreters in a language combination different from mine, I just suggest a list of trusted experienced professional friends I am willing to vouch for, and let my client decide who he will retain and for what fee. I do not get involved, I do not get referral fees.

Finally, to the argument the ABC test is impossible to overcome: This is false. It can easily be overcome by a real independent contractor relationship. That is the point. If any agency could disguise a de-facto employee as an independent contractor the law would be pointless.

I understand what multinational agencies, their lobbyists, small agencies, and those solo practitioners who call themselves an agency without actually being one are doing. They are defending their very lucrative status quo. They have a right to fight for it and save their “industry”. As always, my concern are the interpreters and the profession, and from this perspective, I see the new California legislation as a step forward to our professionalization because, on top of protecting our colleagues in need, it will weaken the agency model, a necessary condition to become a true profession worthy of a place in the pantheon of professions. This is the time to listen to our colleagues and defend our profession, not the middleman interests.

Should healthcare interpreters in the U.S. be concerned?

April 9, 2018 § 36 Comments

Dear colleagues:

For several weeks I have been contacted by colleagues who provide their services as interpreters in the health sector of the United States. They have all expressed the same sense of confusion, anguish, anger, and uncertainty many of us have noticed in social media and professional forums on line.

This environment started after the decision by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) to not renew the accreditation of their Spanish language interpreter certification program by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) effective January 1, 2018, and it ballooned after the video of a speech during the California Healthcare Interpreters Association (CHIA) annual conference in Irvine, California in early March was uploaded to the web and watched by interpreters all over the world. Apparently, most interpreters were upset about four things: (1) The decision to terminate the NCCA accreditation; (2) That many learned of this decision by the NBCMI at this conference; (3) That the NBCMI authorities did not informed those candidates scheduled to take the certification exam that the exam they would be taking in 2018, although the same test taken by interpreters certified in the past, was being offered after the Board had quit their accreditation of their Spanish language interpreter certification program by the NCCA; and (4) That many did not like NBCMI’s decision to change the wording on their website portal to show in a casual way, hidden in the text, or at least not highlighted, that they had not renewed said accreditation, and the unofficial explanations and assurances by apparently some people associated with NBCMI that such change would not impact their certification.

I am a veteran of the profession, but like many of you, even though I have interpreted my share of medical events as a conference interpreter, I have never been a healthcare interpreter. Let me explain the healthcare interpreting scenario in the United States.

Healthcare interpreting is an essential part of the health sector in modern society, but despite this and the need to elevate this service to a professional level, healthcare interpreting had a later start than other community-based fields of interpreting like court interpreting.

The United States was no exception, until finally, a few years ago, two organizations took the lead towards the professionalization of the field. Embracing the basic principles and values of the certification program the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) had written about, the Certification Commission on Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters developed and implemented two interpreter certification programs. Both understood the overwhelming need to certify interpreters in the most widely spoken foreign languages in the United States, and they both developed a program for interpreter certification in Spanish (there are other languages now. Please visit their websites to learn about the languages covered by each program).

Unlike court interpreting, which developed certification programs sanctioned by the government at its different levels (federal, state, and initially sometimes local), the healthcare sector had no government authority sanctioning the validity of its certifications; and even though this brought healthcare interpreters a professional freedom enjoyed by other professionals like physicians and lawyers, and denied to court interpreters who have no control over the administration of their certification exams, it also created an uncertainty about the validity of their interpreter certification programs.

Because in a private sector-oriented society like the U.S., the situation healthcare interpreter certification programs were facing is not the exception, but the rule, there is a reputable trustworthy entity that solves this problem: The Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE).

The Institute for Credentialing Excellence, or ICE, is a professional membership association that provides education, networking, and other resources for organizations and individuals who work in and serve the credentialing industry. ICE is a leading developer of standards for certification and certificate programs and it is both, a provider of and a clearinghouse for information on trends in certification, test development and delivery, assessment-based certificate programs, and other information relevant to the credentialing community. ICE created the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) in 1987.

The NCAA’s Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs, which were created in the mid-1970s, were the first standards developed by the credentialing industry for professional certification programs. The NCCA Standards were developed to help ensure the health, welfare, and safety of the public. They highlight the essential elements of a high-quality program.

The NCCA standards follow The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999) and are applicable to all professions and industries. Certification organizations that submit their programs for accreditation are evaluated based on the process and products and not the content; therefore, the Standards are applicable to all professions and industries. Program content validity is demonstrated with a comprehensive job analysis conducted and analyzed by experts, with data gathered from stakeholders in the occupation or industry.

NCCA accredited programs certify individuals in a wide range of professions and occupations including nurses, automotive professionals, respiratory therapists, counselors, emergency technicians, crane operators and more. To date, NCCA has accredited approximately 330 programs from over 130 organizations.

Accreditation for professional or personnel certification programs provides impartial, third-party validation that your program has met recognized national and international credentialing industry standards for development, implementation, and maintenance of certification programs. This solved the problem for both programs and two certification programs were born:

The Certified Healthcare Interpreter credential (CHI) developed by the Certification Commission on Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) that offers a certification exam in Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin in 2 steps: First, a core exam consisting of 100 multiple-choice questions, to be answered in English, on medical terminology, healthcare scenarios and ethics; and to those who pass the core exam, an interpreting exam that tests the candidate’s skill on sight and written translation, and simultaneous and consecutive interpreting.

The Medical Interpreter credential (CMI) developed by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) that offers a certification exam in Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Vietnamese to those who pass (with a score of 70 percent, 80 percent in Mandarin) an interpreting exam that tests skills on sight translation and consecutive interpreting (no simultaneous interpreting or written translation).

Besides competing for interpreter candidates in the same market, both programs needed to convince healthcare providers, insurance companies, patients, and attorneys, that their credentials were reliable, trustworthy, and standard. They started an intensive and successful education campaign that used the NCCA accreditation as one of its most valuable resources.

Even today, CCHI’s website proclaims the validity of its program and skill of its certified healthcare interpreters:

“…Just as healthcare interpreters work hard to get credentialed as “certified healthcare interpreters,” certification programs can also “get certified!” The process is called “accreditation” and, today, it is administered by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), the accreditation arm of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE). Accreditation is the process by which a credentialing or educational program is evaluated against defined standards by a third party and is awarded recognition when found in compliance with these standards. It’s more than just a voluntary membership in an association. Accreditation (and renewal of accreditation) involves a rigorous process that ensures the quality of examinations and certification offered by organizations like CCHI. In fact, NCCA accredited programs certify individuals in a wide range of professions and occupations, including nurses, pharmacists, counselors, EMTs, HR professionals, defense security specialists, and more. CCHI is proud to represent the healthcare interpreter profession as equal among other allied health professions…today, CCHI is proud to offer the only nationally accredited certifications in the interpreting industry. NCCA’s accreditation validates all aspects of CCHI’s certification programs and CCHI as a certifying body…”

To this day NCCA accreditation continues to be a crucial element of the CCHI program.

Apparently, the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) disagrees with this principle, and even though their website lacks detailed explanations or reasons for the decision not to renew accreditation; some colleagues claim they have unofficially argued that continuing NCCA accreditation is unnecessary because their program is now well-established, the accreditation only covered the Spanish certification program, and their exams have not changed from the ones offered during the accreditation era. Several interpreters have indicated that NBCMI claims that a renewal was too expensive; that they had spent fifty thousand dollars on the initial accreditation, and that their Board had directed those financial resources to the development and administration of certification exams in other languages; activity that would be more profitable.

On its official website, NBCMI addresses its decision to end NCCA accreditation:

“…Prior to 2018, the Spanish CMI certificate was subjected to an additional level of NCCA accreditation, but while the National Board remains a member of the Institute of Credentialing Excellence (ICE), each of the National Board programs have been standardized to ensure the CMI certification in each offered language best meets or exceeds nationally accepted standards, including transparency, inclusion, and access…”

It mentions they continue to be members of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE), the parent entity of NCCA, and adds a self-serving statement where they praise their own CMI certification. They emphasize their continued ICE membership adding this statement to their official website:

“…As a proud member of ICE, we stay informed on best practices in developing and administering quality certification [certificate] programs so that we may better serve you…” 

This could be a simple statement of facts, but unfortunately, it could also be misunderstood by some who may think that continued ICE membership affects their CMI program after January 1, 2018.

ICE clearly tells us what membership means:

“…An organization may join ICE at any time whether or not it has any programs accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).  Membership in ICE does not mean that an organization or any of its credentialing programs have been accredited, approved, or otherwise endorsed by ICE…”

Membership in ICE does not mean that an organization or any of its credentialing programs have been accredited, approved, or otherwise endorsed by ICE. We can see this means more than no more accreditation. According to ICE itself, membership means no approval or any other endorsements.

As I write this post, my only goal is for NBCMI to published a written detailed explanation of the reasons they abandoned the NCCA accreditation, the potential consequences this decision can bring to certified medical interpreters, and why candidates scheduled to take the exam in 2018 were not informed of this important change so they could decide to either pursue the CMI certification or perhaps take the CHI exam instead. Spanish language CMI interpreters have a right to know why a certification exam after the NCCA accreditation ended has the same cost as the one offered when the accreditation was in place. How does a business decision to add more languages to the certification program benefit the Spanish language CMIs whose credentialing program lost NCCA accreditation? So far, NBCMI has limited its answer to a statement posted on their newsletter that repeats what they previously said about the validity of the exam and CMI certification, but the explanation of the reasons to discontinue the accreditation have not been disclosed. Dismissing social media as myths and misinformation does not answer the questions so many interpreters want answered.

Some changes have already been impacting those who hold a CMI certification: Some institutions stopped reimbursing the certification exam fee to certification candidates taking the exam in 2018. It has been reported that some clients are now preferring those interpreters holding a CHI certification over a CMI credential; and, a good possibility is that in the future, CMI credentials will be questioned and tested by attorneys who will cross-examine NBCMI certified medical interpreters in the presence of a jury during a medical malpractice trial.

NBCMI needs to explain why NCCA accreditation went from being something they were proud of a few years ago to something no longer needed:

“…The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) is pleased to announce that its Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI) program has been accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), thus joining an elite group of certifying bodies dedicated to public protection and excellence in certification… NCCA accreditation was one of the objectives the National Board set for itself at the very outset…” (NBCMI press release dated January 18, 2013 at Miami Beach Convention Center)

These are valid questions we hope NBCMI will officially address, and they are all legitimate reasons in a free market economy like the United States’ for any interpreter working on the healthcare sector to think very carefully about which one of the two certifications she or he should hold. Let’s hope that at the end of all the confusion and uncertainty the answer is either one of the certifications, but as of today, we do not know if that will be the case, even if both certifications were equally recognized, because one continues to have an accredited certification program and the other one does not. Many of our colleagues would like to know the reason for the changes that both, NBCMI and its parent organization IMIA experienced just now: a new president for NBCMI (we wish her well) and the resignation of IMIA’s president-elect before he officially took office. Interpreters want to know if these changes at this confusing times are related to the decision to end accreditation, or it is just a coincidence.

I now invite you to share your thoughts on this issue, and please, do not write personal attacks, and unless you are officially commenting on behalf of NBCMI, please abstain from sending surrogate comments defending the Board.

The original interpreters. First encounters between Europe and The Americas.

October 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

A few days ago the world commemorated, and debated, a most controversial date. Depending on culture and history, it is known as “Columbus Day”, “Native-American Day”, “Hispanic Heritage Day”, “Day of The Race”, “National Day (of Spain)”, “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”, and maybe other names I do not know. Because it is a widely observed date, and not getting into the political, cultural, and historical debates, I thought it was an appropriate occasion to talk about the first encounters between the European and American civilizations from the perspective of the interpreters’ work.

There were many contacts between explorers, conquistadors, and missionaries from Europe and rulers, warriors, ad common people from the Americas; this meant there were many interpreters struggling to facilitate the communication between peoples who did not know their counterparts’ language. The interpreters often spoke one language and learned the other “on the job”.

There are not enough accounts of what many of these interpreters went through to facilitate communication, but there is enough information about some for us to get an idea of what happened during the first half of the Sixteenth Century in what is now Mexico.  This post deals with two individuals who played a vital role in the conquest of the Aztec Empire by the Spanish Crown, and it includes historical facts, my interpretation of what happened from the interpreter’s viewpoint, and my conclusions on the services provided.

Their backgrounds could not be more different, but these two humans would meet and collaborate in an awesome task that would forever change the world as it was known. I am referring to Jerónimo de Aguilar and Malinalli, also known as Malintzin or “La Malinche”.

Jerónimo de Aguilar.

Jerónimo de Aguilar was a Franciscan friar from Écija, Spain who most likely traveled to The Americas to convert the native population to Catholicism. As all Spaniards, he first arrived in Cuba where he was assigned to a mission in the colony of Santa María La Antigua del Darién (now Panama) where he served for a few years, until some internal strife among the Spaniards forced him to sail to Santo Domingo (now Dominican Republic). His expedition shipwrecked near the Yucatán Peninsula where apparently they hit a sand bar. He survived, but the strong currents took him and the rest of his crew to the beaches of what is today the Mexican State of Quintana Roo. The Spaniards were captured by the locals who sacrificed them to the Maya gods, but Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spanish conquistador, escaped alive just to be taken prisoners and enslaved by the Mayan chief Xamanzana (his name according to Spanish records).

Aguilar and Guerrero learned Chontal, the language of their Mayan captors. Because of their loyalty, the Mayan ruler offered them freedom if they married a Mayan bride. Jerónimo de Aguilar, a friar, refused to break his vows and lived as a slave for eight years. Gonzalo Guerrero married Zazil Há, daughter of Nachan Can, Lord of Chactemal, fathered three children, and became a general in Nachan Can’s army. By applying his military experience, and his knowledge of the Spanish culture and language, he was instrumental on the defeat of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in Champotón in 1517. Although Hernández de Córdoba died from his wounds shortly after his return to his military base in Cuba, this expedition is well documented because among its surviving crewmembers were Christopher Columbus’ pilot: Antón de Alaminos, and famed historian Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

When Hernán Cortés invaded México in 1519 he heard of some Chontal-speaking white bearded men living among the Maya in the Yucatán region. Thinking they might be Spaniards, and envisioning their help as interpreters and translators, Cortés dispatched letters to both, Aguilar and Guerrero, inviting them to join him in his quest. Aguilar accepted the offer and join the expedition. He visited Guerrero, by now an influential general, to convince him to join Cortés. Gonzalo Guerrero explained to Aguilar he had a happy life with a wife and children. He said that because of his current physical appearance (he had tattooed his body and face, and pierced his ears) he could not face the Spanish army, so he declined, asking Aguilar to reassure Cortés of his Catholic faith and loyalty to the Spanish monarch. Maybe he also feared punishment once Cortés learned of his involvement in the defeat of Hernández de Córdoba’s expedition two years earlier.

Once Jerónimo de Aguilar joined Cortés’ army and the general was convinced of his loyalty to Church and Crown, he became Hernán Cortés’ personal interpreter Chontal<>Spanish. This was very useful during the campaign in Mayan lands.

Malinalli.

Malinalli was probably born around 1500 in Oluta (near present Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Mexico) to a wealthy family. Her father was Lord of Copainalá, Oluta and Xaltipa. Some say that he was married to a young and beautiful noble woman named Cimatl. Her place of birth was a border region between the Maya city-states and the Aztec Empire. She got the name Malinalli to honor the Mayan goddess of herbs and vegetation. As she grew up and showed her personality, friends and relatives called her Tenepal (She who speaks lively).

Malinalli’s father died when she was a child, so her mother remarried and had a baby boy. This relegated Malinalli to the role of stepdaughter and put her under the care of her grandmother. During this time her mind is stimulated and motivated to learn. Her grandmother taught her the oral history and traditions of their people and forced her to develop her memory by playing a game every night: Before bedtime, her grandmother would tell her a story that young Malinalli had to visualize and memorize, because the next evening she had to tell the story back to her grandmother before she shared a new story with her. Soon Malinalli’s excellent memory became famous among her peers in the village.

As Malinalli entered her teens, her stepfather sold her as a slave to some Aztec slave traffickers from Xicalango in the Yucatán Peninsula. After hew masters lost a war against the Maya, she was claimed as a slave by the Mayan Lord of Tabasco: Tabscoob. To this point in her life, young Malinalli spoke only her native Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire. Now she quickly learned Chontal, the Mayan language of her masters and became fluent.

When Cortés arrived in Tabasco, already accompanied by Jerónimo de Aguilar as his personal interpreter, he defeated Tabscoob in the Centla battle. Among the spoils of war, he received gold, blankets, and 20 slave women as a present. Among them Malinalli.

Cortés baptized the women so they could be given to his soldiers. Legally, for a good Catholic to be allowed to have concubines, the women had to be baptized and single.  He baptized Malinalli as Marina, and gifted her to his loyal captain Alonso Hernández Portocarrero.

By now, Cortés is advancing towards the Great Tenochtitlan (present Mexico City), site of the Aztec Empire, and he realizes that Jerónimo de Aguilar’s knowledge of Chontal is useless among peoples who speak Náhuatl. It is now that he discovers that Marina speaks both: Náhuatl and Chontal, so he uses her interpreting services combined with those of Aguilar, because Marina did not speak Spanish.

Soon after, Cortés sends Portocarrero back to Spain as an emissary to King Charles V, but he keeps Marina, or “Malinche” as many call her by then, as his Náhuatl interpreter.

Marina and Jerónimo.

It is clear from all accounts that Marina and Aguilar turned into an indispensable asset to Cortés. At the beginning, they practiced relay interpreting on the consecutive mode with Cortés addressing Náhuatl-speaking lords and commoners in Spanish, the source language, Jerónimo de Aguilar consecutively interpreting from Spanish into Chontal, the relay language, followed by Marina’s consecutive rendition from Chontal into Náhuatl, the target language. The answers would have been interpreted back to Cortés through the same process.

There are records showing the use of relay interpreting as described above. I chose consecutive interpreting as their mode of choice for several reasons: It was the customary mode of interpretation in Europe, and explorers and conquerors had been using consecutive interpreters during their campaigns throughout history. Neither Marina nor Aguilar were trained interpreters, they were empiric interpreters, and it is doubtful that they even considered a simultaneous rendition; there is no evidence as to the level of fluency that Aguilar had in Chontal, and they both had to explain concepts and develop vocabulary for things and ideas that were unknown to the counterpart. We must remember that European concepts such as Christianity, and things like horses, harquebuses, and body armors were new to the Native-American population; and the Spaniards had never seen tomatoes, turkeys, tobacco, or chocolate.  These linguistic and cultural difficulties are usually resolved with consecutive interpreting.  We cannot lose sight of the fact that, even today, interrogations, or question and answer sessions are rendered in consecutive mode. Finally, we have information about Marina’s excellent memory, a skill she had developed in childhood because of her grandmother. In her case, consecutive interpreting would have seemed the natural thing to do.

Marina and Aguilar were able to learn foreign languages. Aguilar had learned Chontal, in an environment where nobody else spoke Spanish, by observing his Mayan masters in the Yucatan Peninsula. Young Malinalli mastered the Chontal language while held as a slave. By the time they were part of Cortes’ expedition they had both discovered their interest in foreign languages, and they had realized that interpreting was their ticket to working with the top ranking Spanish officers, including Cortés himself.  As they got deeper into Aztec territory, and Chontal speaking became less of a necessity, Aguilar must have learned Náhuatl, and as historical records show, Marina became fluent in Spanish. I believe that at some point relay interpreting was unnecessary anymore. From that moment on Aguilar and Marina must have rendered interpreting services separately.

Besides language interpreting, these two individuals acted as cultural brokers and advisors to the Spaniards. Because of their lack of knowledge, Cortés and his troops needed plenty of explanations about the natives’ culture, social structure, government, and religion. This was an essential part of their plan. Cortés had only some four hundred Spanish soldiers, fifteen horses and seven cannons; for the campaign to succeed, he needed the military support of some of the native nations enslaved by the Aztecs. This meant plenty of convincing first, and learning how to live side-by-side during the war against the Aztec Empire.   This is how Cortés was joined by the Totonac nation in Cempoala, after he convinced them to turn against their Aztec oppressors, and how he negotiated a peace agreement with the Tlaxcalans after he defeated their leader Xicoténcatl. Both negotiations showed a great deal of diplomacy and awareness of the political situation and tribal hatred these state-nations had for the Aztecs. The role of Marina and Aguilar as interpreters and cultural advisors was the key to success. At this point we see how they were working as diplomatic interpreters, dealing with very sensitive matters at the highest level, and most likely under extreme pressure and total secrecy. These interpreting skills had to be developed by practicing their craft. In Aguilar’s case by putting into practice his knowledge of history acquired through formal education as a friar, and in Marina’s case, by mere intelligence, social skills, and perhaps some memories of her early childhood as the daughter of a nobleman. They also took advantage of what they learned by observing their masters during their years of slavery.

These interpreters’ versatility was crucial for Cortés’ victory over the Aztecs. Aguilar and Marina were interpreters in conflict zones working under unique conditions: Aguilar raised suspicion among the native troops and lords who joined Cortés in his war against the Aztecs, and Marina was perceived as a foreigner by the Spanish soldiers. There is evidence that at least Marina acted as a military interpreter once. While the Spaniards were in the city of Cholula, Marina learned from a local woman that the locals, who outnumbered the Spaniards, were planning a surprise attack against the Spanish troops. Marina took this intelligence straight to Cortés who confronted the Choluteca lords and priests, arrested them, and helped by three thousand Tlaxcalans, killed about six thousand Cholultecas as a warning to all natives who may consider betraying the Spanish forces. Thanks to Marina’s actions, the surviving Cholultecas joined Cortés’ army, and the Spaniards turned a sure defeat into a decisive moment in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Here Marina’s actions are military interpreting textbook.

The highest point of Marina’s interpreting career (and of Jerónimo de Aguilar’s, even though he is not specifically mentioned or depicted on surviving records) were the encounters between Hernán Cortés and the ninth Aztec Emperor: Montezuma II Xocoyotzin. These face to face meetings involved complex concepts and terms about the fundamentals of Christianity, Emperor Charles V’s divine right to govern all peoples, and questioning about gold and treasures. There were also welcoming speeches of peace by Montezuma, and presentation of gifts, including an Aztec calendar, in the understanding the presents were in exchange for Cortés’ withdrawal from Tenochtitlan. Many written and painted accounts of the event depict Marina beside Cortes and right in front of Montezuma. A common positioning for modern diplomatic interpreters, but something that must have made her very uncomfortable and proud at the same time.

Aztec Emperors were deities. Most Aztecs would live and die without ever seeing their emperor. Marina was the daughter of another Nahua nation that had been vassal to the Aztec Empire. She had been enslaved by the Mayans, and she was now a slave woman acting as the interpreter for the most important encounter in Aztec history. She must have known of this, and must have realized that because of her condition of Native-American, she was despised and hated by all Aztecs. The same circumstances must have made this woman “who speaks lively” very proud. I could not imagine these meetings between Cortés and Montezuma without Cortés demanding that Jerónimo de Aguilar be present nearby if Marina needed his assistance, or if the Aztec Emperor refused to speak through a slave of Cortés. It is also possible that despite the loyalty Marina had exhibited since day one, Cortés feared a double-crossing once she was in the presence of such intimidating figure as Montezuma. He needed Aguilar nearby just in case.

Although not documented, it is possible that, after Cortés’ return from defeating Cuba’s envoy Pánfilo de Narváez, either Marina or Aguilar were present during the last exchanges between Cortés and Montezuma once the latter had been taken prisoner by the Spaniards and was asked (or ordered) to speak to his people from the balcony of his palace. The Aztecs revolted against the Spaniards, when absent Cortés, his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado had ordered what is now known as the “Great Temple Massacre”.  Forty-year old Montezuma was killed that evening.

Following the death of the Aztec Emperor, Cortés and his army were driven out of Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs in the biggest defeat of the Spanish army during “La Noche Triste” (The Night of Sorrows). During their retreat to Popotla, Marina and Aguilar were to the back of the column. Almost immediately, Cortés inquired about the whereabouts of his interpreters, and gave orders to make sure that neither Aguilar nor Marina were lost during the escape.

Cortés eventually regrouped in Tlaxcala and launched the decisive campaign that would put an end to the Aztec Empire. During this period, his interpreters were crucial in developing battle plans and recruitment of more allies. After the fall of Tenochtitlan, the role of Marina and Aguilar changes as they become the main interpreters in the collection of tribute and taxes. Cortés built a palace in Coyoacán, near Tenochtitlan, where he lived with Marina for about a year and fathered a son: Martín Cortés.

Because of her service during the conquest of Mexico, and perhaps because of his legitimate Spanish wife Catalina Xuárez, Cortés freed Marina from her slavery by marrying her to one of his captains, who eventually became Mayor of Mexico City: Juan Jaramillo. This way, Cortés fulfilled the promise he made to Marina at the beginning of the expedition. Cortés made her a free woman, married to a good family, and he granted her the lands of Huilotlán and Tetiquipac, once property of her noble biological family.

The following year Cortés would require of her services (and perhaps Aguilar’s as well) one more time for a trip to Las Hibueras (present Honduras) to suffocate a revolt organized by his former lieutenant Cristóbal de Olid. Accounts of this trip indicate that on his way to Honduras, Cortés stopped in Coatzacoalcos (presently in the Mexican State of Veracruz) where Cortés called a meeting with all the local Lords to tell them, through Marina, that they had to be loyal to the Spanish Crown. Among those present were Marina’s mother and half-brother, now baptized as Marta and Lázaro. Apparently, they were very afraid of her; after all, her mother had sold her as a slave and Marina was now Cortés’ closest collaborator. Apparently, Marina called them aside, consoled them, forgave them, and gave them plenty of gold and clothing.  Marina was pregnant by her husband Juan Jaramillo. During this trip, Cortés executed Cuauhtémoc in what is now Campeche, Mexico, extinguishing this way the royal hereditary line to the Aztec Empire.

We know little about Jerónimo de Aguilar after the fall of Tenochtitlan. He probably worked as an interpreter in the collection of taxes for some time. He remained in what was now known as Mexico City until his death in 1531. His house later became the home of the first printing press to operate in the Americas. As far as we know, he observed his celibacy until his death.

After the Honduras campaign, Marina and Cortés never saw each other again. Marina and her husband lived in Mexico City where she gave birth to a baby daughter who they named María. Unfortunately, she was denied access to Martín, her son with Cortés, who was raised by Juan Altamirano, a cousin of Cortés’. We have no official records of her death, but we know it was before 1529. It is speculated that she probably died of smallpox, or perhaps from health problems derived from the trip to Honduras.

Both, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Marina with many other Native and Spanish interpreters that followed, contributed enormously to developing a new Spanish language full of words, concepts and cultural values until then unknown. They played a crucial role in the fusion of these two cultures, races, and (many) languages, and by mere instinct, without knowing it, they were the precursors of consecutive, relay, military, diplomatic, and escort interpreting as well as cultural brokerage.

The fall of the Aztec Empire would have taken longer, and the outcome of the conquest would have been different without the interpreting services of Aguilar and Marina.  Rodríguez de Ocaña, a conquistador that served during the conquest relates Cortés’ assertion that “…after God, Marina was the main reason for (his) success…”  In the “True Story of the Conquest of New Spain,” the widely acclaimed eye-witness account of the conquest, Bernal Díaz del Castillo repeatedly calls her a “great lady” always using the honorific title: “Doña.”

I invite you to share your thoughts about these historical figures so important to the interpreting world, and relevant during this time of the year. I also ask you to remember that this is a post about interpreting, so please abstain from making any politically charged comments.

The scariest movies in all languages.

October 31, 2016 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is Halloween time in the United States and many other places. Whether a native tradition, or an imported commercial scam, the fact is that Halloween is now part of many lives.  In past years, I have used this space to talk about the history of Halloween, we discussed monsters and ghouls, and we told ghost stories from around the world. This time I decided to share with you my fifteen scariest movies of all time.  Contrary to what many think because of the enormous amount of films produced in the United States, my favorite horror movies of all time come from many continents and are in many languages. I think that we as interpreters should look for opportunities to practice our languages and improve our skills, and what a better way to live the Halloween experience than watching some foreign language films. There are plenty more movies, and my list may not include some of your favorites; if that is the case, please contribute to our list by posting a comment at the end, but for now, please let me tell you about the movies, in many languages, that kept me awake at night. I list them in chronological order, but I leave it up to you to decide which one is the scariest. Go ahead, dim the lights, get under the blanket, and prepare yourselves to be spooked:

Nosferatu (1922) Director: F.W. Murnau. Cast: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach. A wonderful silent movie about vampire Count Orlok who expresses interest in a new residence and a real estate agent’s wife. A classic based on the story of “Dracula.”

Dracula (1931) Director: Tod Browning. Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye. The legend of vampire Count Dracula begins here with this original 1931 Dracula film from Bela Lugosi. This is the film by Universal Studios that has inspired so many others, even more than Bram Stoker’s own novel. The movie is in English, but Bela Lugosi was Hungarian and had trouble with the English pronunciation, so the director decided that the vampire should speak very slowly and deliberately, giving Dracula, inadvertently, his unmistakable speech style.

Psycho (1960) Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Janet Leigh. When larcenous real estate clerk Marion Crane goes on the lam with a wad of cash and hopes of starting a new life, she ends up at the notorious Bates Motel, where manager Norman Bates cares for his housebound mother. The place seems quirky, but fine… until Marion decides to take a shower in this Hitchcock classic American film in English.

Even the Wind is Afraid (1967) Director: Carlos Enrique Taboada. Cast: Marga López, Maricruz Olivier, Alicia Bonet, Norma Lazareno. The film is about a group of students in an exclusive boarding school, where a student decides to investigate a local tower that has figured prominently in disturbing her recurring dreams of a hanged woman. She learns from the staff that the person in the dream is a student who killed herself years before, and that others have seen her ghost. This is a suspenseful Mexican movie in Spanish. (“Hasta el viento tiene miedo”)

Kuroneko (1968) Director: Kaneto Shindo. Cast: KIchiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, KIwako Taichi. Kuroneko (The Black Cat) is the tale of a band of marauding samurai who rape and kill two women in the countryside. Awoken by the titular feline, the spirit women vow their revenge on the samurai. Things get complicated when one of their intended victims turns out to be the son of one of the women and the husband of the other, long thought lost in battle. This is an engaging black and white movie in Japanese.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Director: Roman Polanski. Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer. The movie tells us the story of a young couple that moves into an infamous New York apartment building to start a family. Things become frightening as Rosemary begins to suspect her unborn baby isn’t safe around their strange neighbors, and the child’s paternity is questioned. One of the greatest American horror films of all time. It is in English.

Hour of the Wolf (1968) Director: Ingmar Bergman. Cast: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Gertrud Fridh, Georg Rydeberg, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin. In this, his only horror film, the Swedish master brings us the story of renowned painter Johan Borg who is recuperating on an isolated island with his wife when they are invited to the nearby castle and discover that the lady of the house owns one of Borg’s paintings (which we never see), of Veronika, the woman he loved and lost and whose memory begins to obsess him all over again, despite his wife’s steady, practical devotion. This is a great movie in Swedish, although not an easy one to follow, that is full of surrealism in Bergman’s style. (“Vargtimmen”)

The Exorcist (1973) Director: William Friedkin. Cast: Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller. This is a well-known American blockbuster about 12-year-old Regan MacNeil who begins to adapt an explicit new personality as strange events befall the local area of Georgetown. Her mother becomes torn between science and superstition in a desperate bid to save her daughter, and ultimately turns to her last hope: Father Damien Karras, a troubled priest who is struggling with his own faith. This film, in English, is a must see for all horror film fans.

Suspiria (1977) Director: Dario Argento. Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé. A true nightmare from Italian terror genius Dario Argento, Suspiria brings us a menacing tale of witchcraft as a fairy tale gone horribly awry. From the moment she arrives in Germany, to attend a prestigious dace academy, American ballet-dancer Suzy Bannion senses that something horribly evil lurks within the walls of the age-old institution. Besides all of its artistic and clever qualities, this Italian movie has another unique characteristic: Because the cast is multinational, and the actors spoke their lines in their native languages, the movie is dubbed into English, and sometimes the dubbing quality is less than top-notch.

Ring (1998) Director: Hideo Nakata. Cast: Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani, Hiroyuki Sanada, Yūko Takeuchi. This original Japanese version of the movie is about a mysterious video that has been linked to a number of deaths, when an inquisitive journalist finds the tape and views it setting in motion a chain of events that puts her own life in danger. Nakata executes the film in an incredibly smart way, and brings the traditional ghost story firmly into the modern day by melding folklore and technology. There have been several imitations in Japan and elsewhere, but the original, in Japanese, is by far the best. (“Ringu”)

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) Director: Kim Jee-woon. Cast: Im Soo-jung, Moon Geun-young, Yeom Jeong-ah. Based on a famous Korean folk story, the film centers on a pair of sisters who become suspicious of their new stepmother, when one of them starts to have some terrifying visions. From there, things get complicated. This is a true Korean horror movie with Korean actors speaking their language, and it is superior to the American remake released under the name “The Uninvited”. (“Hangul”)

Inside (2007) Directed by: Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. Cast: Aymen Saïdi, Béatrice Dalle, Alysson Paradis, Nathalie Roussel, Nicolas Duvauchelle, François-Régis Marchasson. This French movie is about a grieving woman set to give birth at any minute, who is interrupted by a mysterious intruder who wants the unborn child for herself. The movie is cruel, sadistic and full of violence, including the scene where the pregnant woman accidentally stabs her mother to death, but it keeps you in suspense and very scared. The film is in French. (“Á l’intérieur”)

The Orphanage (2007) Director: Juan Antonio Bayona. Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep, Mabel Rivera, Montserrat Carulla, Andres Gertrúdix, Edgar Vivar, Geraldine Chaplin. It is the tale of a mother and wife returning to the house where she was raised as an orphan, but she now brings her son who starts to see a little boy in a terrifying sackcloth mask, whom he befriends before mysteriously disappearing. The movie is really creepy, but it is also very sad because it deals with a ghost story in which the ghosts are as real as the grief they leave behind. I personally think that this is Spain’s scariest movie ever. In Spanish. (“El orfanato”)

Annabelle (2014) Director: John R. Leonetti. Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard. The movie is a sequel to “The Conjuring”, but in this one, by far scarier than the first on the series (there are more of them now) a couple is expecting their first child, and the husband gives his wife an antique doll she has been trying to find. At night, the wife hears a murder occurring at their neighbors’, and when she calls the police, she is attacked by a woman holding the doll and a male accomplice. The police arrives and kills the man while the woman kills herself by slitting her own throat. A drop of her blood falls on the face of the doll in her arms. Later, a news report shows that the assailants were Annabelle Higgins and her boyfriend who were part of a satanic cult in which they worship a demon with horns. Since Annabelle was holding the doll while dying, the couple tries to get rid of the doll, but this is the moment when all their troubles begin. I personally think this is an extremely scary movie. In English.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) Director: Ana Lily Amirpour. Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marnó, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains. This is a Farsi (Persian) language, American horror film about a young hardworking Iranian man who takes care of his drug-addict father who falls in love with a lonesome hijab-wearing vampire. The movie is in black and white, it was filmed in California, but the story takes place in a fictional Iranian city. Although not as scary as the other movies on the list, it is an interesting and different vampire tale. (“Dokhtari dar šab tanhâ be xâne miravad”)

There you have it, dear friends and colleagues. This is my list of scary movies. I hope you find some of them interesting enough to watch on Halloween; and I also invite you to share with the rest of us some of the titles that you think are very scary, and hopefully you will include some interesting films because of their language.

Are they trying to fool the interpreters and translators?

September 20, 2016 § 17 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

We have been under constant and merciless attacks from the big multinational language “industry” corporations for several years. These uninvited guests at the professional language services table have stubbornly fought to take away the market from the professionals who should service the clients through systematically minimizing the role of the interpreter and translator, and dehumanizing the profession by launching a campaign to convince the weak and uninformed that what we do is an “industry”, not a profession.

In the past we have discussed the oddity of having pharmaceutical companies in the same professional associations with the physicians, and we have talked of the way attorneys defend their craft so it continues to be known as the legal profession, not the legal “industry”. Sadly, as you know, there are individual interpreters, translators, and even professional associations in our field that have decided to tear down that barrier erected by all professions to protect both: the end client of the professional service and the professional service provider, and have happily commingled professional interests and concerns with those of corporate entities whose sole objective is to cut costs, provide a borderline service, as long as it is legal and acceptable, and profit as much as possible.  This translates into often deplorable working conditions for interpreters and translators and substandard, often insulting professional fees.

There is nothing wrong with commercial entities following this model. It is legal and that is what they were incorporated for. The problem arises when greedy professional associations, government bureaucrats, trainers, and individual interpreters and translators begin to campaign for this corporate interests completely disregarding the profession and those who provide quality services.  It is very dangerous to have all of these members and peripheral members of the profession ceaselessly attempting to convince professional interpreters and translators, new and old, that the way of the future leads to a profession bastardized by an “industry” where professional interpreters and translators will have to take their marching orders from minimum-wage high school level coordinators and project managers whose only priority is to squeeze everything they can get from the interpreter and translator and pay a fee (that they cleverly refer to as “rate” to rhyme with the “industry” philosophy they practice and try to propagate) worthy of a hamburger flipper, not a professional service provider. For years they have used scare tactics and “there is no other choice” arguments to coerce many weaker colleagues to give in and drink the “industry’s” Kool Aid.

First they tried to shame and ridicule professional interpreters and translators by spreading unfounded and hateful rumors that the real reasons for our opposition to the crowning of these multinational language “industry” service providers were our ignorance of new technologies and our fear of globalization.  Using their very deep pockets, they took this message to all corners of the earth and repeated these lies until many believed them as true.

We all know that professional interpreters and translators are not opposed to technology; it is common knowledge among our peers that we all welcome the opportunity to work and learn from other high-quality professional colleagues who live somewhere else in the world.  The truth that these entities do not want the professional service user-beneficiary to know is that interpreters oppose the laughable fee (again, referred to as “rate” by them) system these outsiders to the profession propose, where they offer to pay by-the-minute of interpreting service over the phone or video outlet, lower interpreting fees for remotely interpreted conferences because the interpreter “does not need to travel” despite the fact that the service, preparation and effort are the same whether the interpreter is at the venue or twelve time zones away. They forget, or choose to ignore, that their savings are already impacted by modern technology when they save transportation, lodging, Per Diem, and travel day fees customarily paid to interpreters in case of travel. Those are the savings, not lowering the interpreter’s fee.

The same situation applies to translators who have welcomed new tools and best practices that enhance quality and reduce time and effort. The things that real professional translators will not accept, and the multinational language “industry” providers who propose no pay for repetitions, numbers, etc., while pretending to use the best of the best in the translation world as mere “post-editors” of the work that computer program algorithms and paraprofessional translators (who have been paid rock-bottom fees) did, so that the final product that the agency’s client sees is at least half decent. Professional translators know that this is not the way to provide a translation service; they know of the time and effort involved in rescuing a non-existent translation from a deformed text they were just handed by the so-called “project manager” (who have no idea of what they are asking the translator to do) is a professional practice that should never happen, but when it does, it should command an even higher fee than a translation from scratch. These translators are not afraid of technology and they are not against globalization; they oppose a job description that resembles more the work of a babysitter (of incompetent translators) than the professional service of a translator.

I know that I am not telling you anything new. We have all discussed these issues in this blog and elsewhere many times, and we have successfully defended our profession by educating the good clients and through pointing out the nefarious services and products that very often come out of these multinational language “industry” companies.  Yes, there are good agencies. We all know who they are, and we shall continue to work with them on a professional relationship based on mutual respect and understanding, but unfortunately, most agencies act as described above.

The reason I decided to write this new entry was to send you all a warning; to give you the heads up: These multinational entities are back, and they have a new strategy.

You see, they are now trying to convince interpreters and translators that they have changed; that it was all a misunderstanding. That they never meant any harm to the individual interpreters and translators. They want you to believe that they appreciate you and cherish you, and they will come up with very creative schemes.

All you have to do is to look at their conference programs to immediately notice how they are designing strategies to make interpreters and translators happy; to make you feel appreciated and respected, so at the end of the day you give up and agree to work for them under despicable conditions.  Look at the different conference programs and see how they are inviting as presenters of this new approach no others than their very own company executives, and interpreters/translators who have decided to abandon the defense of the profession and join the ranks of the “industry” in exchange for who knows what.

This is their new strategy, so we have to be alert. They must think that this time they will get us, but, dear colleagues, we are no Trojans. We will not welcome their “gift” disguised as a horse.  These are dangerous times and the “industry” has deep pockets that they rather use to destroy the “profession” than to attract high-level professional interpreters and translators by paying professional fees.  We cannot let our guard down. We are not “Little Red Riding Hood” but the big bad wolf is trying to get us.

I now invite you all to share your suggestions and experiences in dealing with these very serious problems; I only ask you not to post any comments defending the multinational language “industry” movement.  This is a forum for professional interpreters and translators. There are plenty of places in cyberspace where those who want to praise the qualities of these folks can ingratiate themselves with the “industry”.

What interpreters should do when asked to charge less for their services.

September 13, 2016 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Lately, it seems to me that there are requests everywhere for interpreters to work for less and even for free. Whether it is the Olympic Games, the political campaign events in the United States, or the community organizers’ voter registration actions.  Everybody seems to want a free ride.  At first impression, it looks like these are worthy causes and we as interpreters should be on board; unfortunately, when you take a second look at the request, you start wondering what is really going on. You see, Olympic Games’ organizers ask us to provide our professional services for free, they tell us it is a righteous idea, it will help to bring people together, and it will contribute to world peace. Then you realize that the physicians, paramedics, attorneys, dietitians, and many other professionals involved with the Olympic movement are not doing their jobs for free, they are getting paid for their professional services.  The same thing happens when you notice that the person asking you to volunteer your interpreting services to a political campaign or to a community organization’s event are paid staffers who do nothing for free. Something is not quite right.

Principled causes and ideas are great and we celebrate their existence, but professional services should always be remunerated, regardless of the virtuous cause they help advance. Otherwise, professionals should only get paid for awful, despicable activities. Under this criteria, healthcare workers should always work for free.

This reminds me of an occasion, many years ago, when a judge asked me to interpret a restraining order application form for free. When I refused stating that I would not do it unless I was paid for the professional service, the judge told me that it would be my fault if I refused and the victim was later harmed by the alleged perpetrator she was seeking protection from. He said that I was greedy.

Despite the fact that this judge was backed by an ignorant selfish interpreter coordinator at that courthouse, I immediately responded that my services were professional, just like the judge’s. I then asked him what kind of moral authority he had to scold me for not working for free while at the same time he was making a pretty fat check for presiding over the hearing. I did not interpret and I never knew what was of that alleged victim that a judge refused to help, because it was up to him to lend her a hand by just approving the payment of my professional interpreting services of the restraining order application.  You see, it is easy to be a Good Samaritan when it is on other people’s dime, it is more difficult when it affects you directly.

It is easy to ask for volunteer work when you are getting paid for asking others. I have nothing against volunteer, charitable work, but it has to be on my terms. I am a professional just like the physician, or the judge of my story, I run my own practice and I have to generate an income to cover expenses and to live the way I want to live; in my particular case, I work hard and provide an excellent professional service to be able to live my lifestyle.

As professionals, we must never lower a fee to give someone a break because they are poor, needy, or just need a break to get back on their feet.  You see, the day you agree to reduce your fee to a client, regardless of the motivation behind your decision, will be the last time you were able to charge your regular fee. From that point on, because everything gets to everybody’s ears in this world, all clients will always ask why you are charging them a full fee when you charged a lower amount to another client.  It is a dead end with no return.  It is a terrible business decision. I think you are starting to see why a lawyer or a doctor ask you to lower your fee for their “needy client or patient” while at the same time they charge them their regular fee.  When someone asks you to provide a professional service for free or at a reduced fee they are belittling the profession; they are automatically placing you in a separate category from the one where doctors, engineers and accountants are.  To lower your fee is a disgrace.

People, clients included should know that they will always be able to find someone else willing to work for a lower fee, but you are not that person. Your services are of the highest quality and that goes hand in hand with a robust fee.  On the other hand, because we should have a spirit of social empathy and solidarity, we must provide certain services pro bono.

Please pay close attention to what I am about to say:  As a professional, I am who decides when to volunteer my services, I decide the causes that are worthy of my time and effort. Professional interpreters should set aside a time for these free services, buy it should be at a time and place you decide; that way you can set the time aside when it does not interfere with your professional practice or your personal life.  You should designate, let’s say, the first Saturday of the month from 8 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon to assist anyone who needs your services for free, and you should do it at a church, community center, or similar venue. During that time, chosen by you, you will interpret legal, healthcare, school or any other community situations that those attending the facility during the previously set hours many need. Once the time is up, and at any other time, you will only see full-fee paying clients.  This is very different from living at the mercy of others who may want you to provide free or discounted professional services at times when you should be taking care of your professional obligations towards your paying clients.  This will immediately put you on the driver’s seat and will make it clear to everyone that you charge for your services, and sometimes, when the cause is righteous, and on your terms, you provide services free of charge. By doing so, you are not lowering the professional standards, you are not harming your own practice, and you are not insulting the profession.

Next time that you are asked to lower your fees or to work for free because the client deserves a break, stand firm on your regular fees, and if you decide that you want to provide a service for free, not discounted, then let that person know the terms of your pro bono services.  I ask you to please share your thoughts on this very delicate issue that is vital to us as individuals trying to make a living, and to the profession at large.

The U.S. Presidents and First Ladies who spoke a foreign language.

February 12, 2015 § 15 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In a few days Americans will observe Presidents Day, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about those American Presidents, and their spouses, who spoke more than one language. It is common knowledge around the world that many Americans do not speak a foreign language, yet, almost half of the forty four men who have been President of the United States spoke, or at least had some knowledge of a language other than English.

Much of what we know about Presidents’ and First Ladies’ fluency in foreign languages came to us through testimonials and documents, and not all of it is undisputed. There is no doubt that Thomas Jefferson spoke fluent French, but his claim that he could speak Spanish seems unlikely. According to a documented conversation he had with John Quincy Adams, Jefferson said that he had learned Spanish in 19 days while sailing from the United States. He probably understood and read some Spanish (He used to say that he had read Don Quixote in Spanish) but that did not make him fluent.

At the beginning of the United States the White House was occupied by many intelligent men who enjoyed reading and learning. In those days many intellectuals learned to read in foreign languages in order to have access to certain scientific and literary works. This probably was the level of expertise that many of the Presidents had. Thomas Jefferson spoke French, and he could read and perhaps write and speak some Greek, Latin, Italian and Spanish.

President John Adams lived in France and became fluent in French. He could also read and write some Latin. His son, President John Quincy Adams spoke French very well, and had a decent Dutch as he went to school in The Netherlands and his wife spoke it. As an adult he learned some German when he was Ambassador to Prussia, and he also read and wrote some Greek and Latin. President James Madison also wrote and read in Greek and Latin, and his Hebrew was fairly decent.

President James Monroe and his entire family spoke excellent French, and it was common to hear the entire family having their conversations in French. President Van Buren was born in New York, but his first language was Dutch. He learned English later in life as part of his education. He also learned some Latin when he was studying English. Presidents Tyler, Harrison, Polk, Buchanan, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur knew how to read and write Latin, Greek, or both.

Despite having a “German-like” accent, President Theodore Roosevelt had an almost fluent French (He confessed that verb conjugation and gender were not his strong points) and he spoke some German. President Woodrow Wilson learned German in college but was never fluent. On the other hand, President and Mrs. Hoover were fluent in Mandarin Chinese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German and French. He also studied some Latin.

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton speak some Spanish and German respectively, but neither one of them can be considered as fluent. President George W. Bush speaks some Spanish and because of his years in Texas, next to the Mexican border, he understands even more. As far as President Obama, it has been said that he has a little understanding of Bahasa Indonesia.

There are a few First Ladies who could speak a foreign language. The first one that comes to mind is Elizabeth Monroe, spouse of James Monroe who spoke French with fluency. John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa, was the only First Lady born in a foreign country (England). She spoke good Dutch.   Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, worked as a teacher of deaf students, and was the first lady who knew American Sign Language).

Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Hoover, was the first woman to graduate from Stanford University with a geology degree. She also spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently. Jacqueline Kennedy lived in France and spoke very good French. She also knew some Spanish. Finally, Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s wife, spoke some functional Spanish.

Now you know, or perhaps confirmed or debunked a prior understanding about the foreign languages spoken by America’s First Families. I understand that this post is probably too generous about the proficiency level of some of our Presidents and First Ladies, and when we compare them to the extensive knowledge of foreign languages that other Presidents and Heads of State have, we are probably far from the top of the list; however, some of our First Families were really fluent and we should acknowledge them here. I now invite you to post your comments about the foreign language knowledge of our American Presidents and First Ladies, and I ask you to share the names and languages fluently spoken by Presidents and Heads of State from other countries.

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