Technology, modernity, and globalization are great for interpreters, it’s just that…

April 19, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are very fortunate to live at a time when there are so many developments that make our lives more comfortable; this includes our profession. Most interpreters realize that there are many positive changes: From the way we now research our assignments, to the social media we use to get more clients, to the places where we work, to the things we now take to the booth. All improvements to the way we used to work just a few years ago.

Nobody wants to go back to the days when you had to go to the library to research and study for an assignment, we now google the subject matter, the speaker, and the venue where we are going to render our services, and we do it from our office, our home, an airplane, and even the beach. Our research library went from the nearby branch of the local library system to all of the Ivy League libraries combined. We now keep up with all developments in the profession, and with current affairs in general, by using the web, and particularly social media. We find out about conferences, online courses, webinars, and business trends with Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, and many others that we also use for getting new clients and keeping the good ones we already have.

Many interpreters who did not have access to important assignments in the past, because of the place where they live, can now interpret remotely using a virtual booth without having to go to the big city or travel half way across the world. This has helped them become better interpreters and broaden their perception of the profession.

I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the days when we used to drag heavy suitcases full of dictionaries, glossaries, and textbooks to the booth. Now, if we have an I-Pad or a tablet in the booth, we have all the libraries in the world, everything the speaker ever said or wrote on a particular topic, and all the information on the subject matter of the presentation updated to the very last minute. Nobody wants to give this up.

You see my friends, interpreters want technology, and they want globalization, but we need to be very careful. I think that sometimes people get confused and mix two separate concepts: (1) Technology and those who create, develop, and improve it, and (2) The big language service providers who are in a race to get all possible benefits out of these developments and are ready to leave nothing behind for the human asset in this equation: the interpreter.

The creators, call them researchers, developers, scientists, or engineers who are constantly giving us new tools to make our lives and careers easier and more comfortable are not the enemy. They spend most of their time trying to find ways to deliver a quality product (or service) to those who are and could be our clients.  They are the ones who brought us all of the positive changes I mentioned above, and many more. This is a crowd we want to be with, we need to.

We must engage these entrepreneurs because they know the science and the engineering, not because they are acquainted with the interpreting profession. We are the experts in this field, the ones they need to hear from, the ones they must listen to, the ones who will tell them what is needed and how. We cannot afford to ignore them, attack them, or dismiss them; we have to sit down and talk to them.

We also have to come to terms with globalization, and I believe that most interpreters have done so. Everybody understands that globalization is here to stay, we cannot (and should not) wish it away. We know that globalization broadens the pool of interpreters that can have access to an assignment, it opens all world markets to the profession. This translates into more opportunities for the good quality interpreter to have more and better work, and it gives the client the possibility to get the most knowledgeable interpreters in a particular field or subject matter, regardless of where they might be physically located.  Obviously, a clear effect of globalization is the ever increasing need to communicate with others who will often speak a different language, thus emphasizing the need for interpreters and translators. The verdict is in: Globalization is great for interpreters because it gives the client access to more and better professionals, and it allows us to get more complex, interesting, and profitable assignments. My friends, we face no threat from new technology or from globalization. Let’s not buy into this argument. We need to stop wasting our time fighting against windmills.  We must concentrate our efforts somewhere else:

We already know what many interpreting agencies are doing under the banner of globalization and technology: They want us to spend our energy fighting against them, they want us to look obsolete and reluctant to change, that is the image they are selling to their clients.  Why would they do that? Because it helps them. By silencing the interpreters’ voice, they get the clients’ undivided attention, and once they have the client in their pocket, they can convince them to do as they recommend. Their goals are different from ours. There is nothing wrong with that, as they owe their loyalty to their shareholders, and we cannot lose sight of it.  The large (sometimes publicly traded) language service agencies’ goal is to generate a big profit by minimizing their expenses as much as possible. They will spend huge amounts of money acquiring this new technology in order to lower their cost of operation. Once the new system is in place, technology will allow them to control the market and offer interpreters a very sad choice: “take very little money for your services, or get out of the way”.  They are banking on their clients’ trust (remember, they have their undivided attention) and they rely on new technology that will let them work with mediocre interpreters as these new technologies will do much of the work that interpreters used to do.  The result will be a very low quality service, but because of this strategy, the clients will never know, or at least it will take them a while to discover the poor choices they made.   Now, the agencies I usually work for do not fall into this category. In this article I am not talking about some big companies who work big conferences and events; I am not including some small agencies who do a great job and pay interpreters very well either. They all understand the importance and value of a quality interpretation.  Here I am referring to those enormous agencies that control a big chunk of the market, and hire thousands of interpreters for laughable rock-bottom fees every day. These are the agencies many of you reading this post work with on a regular basis.

I also want to make it clear that I am not calling them evil. They do what they are supposed to do, and do it very well. The important point for us, as interpreters, is to understand that we do have opposing interests in the profession, and with this realization, we must deal with them not as criminals or monsters, but as antagonistic forces in our professional market, who, in my opinion, bring in less value than the interpreter, as the profession can exist without them, but it cannot without us.

This is what major multinational language agencies are doing at this time. We should not take the bait. Instead of arguing against globalization and technology, we must change the debate and take it to the human talent: The interpreter.

You see, we need to have a two-front approach:

(1) We have to talk directly to those developing the technology, and we need to do it now before the agencies take ownership of the whole issue. The scientists and engineers will talk to us: We are the equipment users. We have to create forums where we can discuss interpreting technology with those developing it; we have to talk costs, service, preferred platforms, software, and many other things. We need to do it as soon as possible, and we need to do it in an environment free of the interests of the major language agencies. In other words, this will never happen if we believe that results can be achieved within an environment controlled by these language service providers. We cannot bring these issues to the table and speak directly to the scientists and engineers in events sponsored by the agencies. There cannot be real progress in a discussion panel where the moderator is the CEO of one of these huge agencies who clearly, and logically, have goals that are different from ours.  Does this mean that we will not sit down and talk to the agencies? Absolutely not. It is just that before we do that, we have to be in a better position to be able to negotiate from strength. The last thing we need right now is to hear fantastic stories from some of these agencies trying to convince interpreters that the technology they now use is great for us because “instead of having to drive downtown to do your work, and instead of having to sit down and wait for a couple of hours before interpreting, you can now devote forty five minutes to the interpreting task from your own home, and then do something else with the rest of your life like mowing the lawn or playing with your kids”.  Of course, this means that instead of paying the interpreter for a full day of work, their intention is to pay for forty five minutes of work. On top of being insulting to the professional interpreter, nobody can make a living that way. They are offering a salary lower than a fast food restaurant and they are doing it with a big smile on their face.

(2) We need to educate the client by speaking directly to them.  Most clients rely on the agency’s knowledge and expertise as far as selecting the interpreters for an assignment. They never really stop to think what it is needed to properly interpret, and the agencies do not want them to spend much time doing that, as it would provoke uncomfortable questions about the quality, training, education, and experience of so many of the interpreters they presently offer to their clients, as these agencies make their decision to hire based on one issue alone: Who is willing to work for less money.

The client needs to know that a good interpreter has years of education and experience, and only after that, interpreters can deliver an impeccable, accurate, clear, and pleasant rendition; they need to be made aware of the fact that real professional interpreters do a comprehensive research of the subject matter, and do not take assignments two hours before the job when the agency representative calls them desperate because they cannot get anybody to cover the event. The client needs to hear how a really good interpreter goes beyond the rendition, works on problem prevention and solving during the event. Once the client understands that a good interpreter sells peace of mind, and especially after they realize that working with the interpreter directly, instead of through an agency, will be more cost-effective, as agencies pay rock bottom fees to the interpreter, while at the same time they charge their clients handsomely, they will become more knowledgeable and will demand good interpreters from the agencies. This is where you, my dear colleagues, need to hold your ground and demand top professional fees from these agencies. I suggest that as part of this education you target the legal department and insurance office of the client, and share with them some of the tragic results of hiring poor quality interpreters. We all know about these unfortunate incidents. I am convinced that these individuals will advise their clients to retain quality interpreters, as they will understand that good professionals are like an insurance policy: More expensive in the short run, but money savers at the end of the day.

Do not be shy about explaining to the client how it does not make sense to spend a lot of money hiring an expensive speaker for a keynote address, a top-notch caterer, and a beautiful venue, if at the end of the day the people who paid to listen to the speaker will not get much out of the presentation because they could not understand the foreign language speaking presenter due to poor quality interpreting.  Your job is to convince them that an expensive interpreter is not an expense, it is an investment.

Never forget that as the human talent in this operation, interpreters are indispensable to deliver the service, just like you cannot benefit from an MRI without a physician’s reading of the results, you cannot have quality interpreting without good interpreters. We can join forces with the technology provider and do a magnificent job. Agencies cannot do the same without good interpreters, unless we let them change the subject so that their client does not see the importance of our service. At this point we will have many options: we will be able to decide if we want to work with large agencies, smaller ones, directly with the client, and even as a professional group, association, or cooperative where we may be able to acquire the needed technology and offer our services bypassing the low-paying agencies.

At this time we will be ready to sit down and negotiate as equals with these gigantic agencies. They are doing a good job at what they are supposed to do; now it is our time to do the same.  Please share your thoughts on this extremely important issue, and when doing so, please abstain from mentioning all the things that agencies can do that we cannot, because we know the things they do, and we understand that although difficult, we could ultimately do them all.  I invite you to contribute to this discussion without defending the agencies. We all know there are already plenty of forums where they can defend themselves.

The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 2.

September 11, 2014 § 19 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Once again the “Ten worst…” are back. Last time we talked about some of the things that the person who we are interpreting for can do to really make our work difficult, and I shared with you my first five; today we will discuss the rest to complete the list of ten. As always, this list is not limitative and it only represents what I personally consider the absolute ten worst things that the speaker can do to us as professional interpreters. You may agree with them all, some or none of them; but even if you disagree, I believe that the simple mentioning of these issues will help us all focus on ways to solve the problems with the speaker that may arise while we are interpreting, and to prevent them and keep them from happening again. Here we go:

SIX.  When the speaker stops in the middle of a sentence, and there is nothing to interpret. Sometimes we run into speakers who have worked with interpreters in the past, but those interpreters were of a different level. They have given speeches or presentations using the services of interpreters who deliver their rendition consecutively; that means that the speaker is used to start and stop many times during the speech. This should not be a problem and the transition to a simultaneous interpreter should be smooth when the speaker worked with good interpreters in the past. There are excellent diplomatic interpreters who work the consecutive interpretation magnificently; the orator can talk in complete sentences and ideas, and he can do it for a long time without having to worry about the interpretation being deficient. This speaker can adapt to the simultaneous interpretation used in conferences easier. The real problem is when the speakers have used the services of not-so-skilled interpreters before: sometimes low-level agency interpreters, sometimes a relative or a friend who is not even a professional interpreter, and they have been told to stop their speech frequently so that the interpreter can render a few words at a time (often sounding nonsensical and monosyllabic) Because the service providers’ professional capacity was so limited, the speaker just assumes that this is the way it needs to be done. The consequences of this type of speech are nefarious. All interpreters know that it is impossible to interpret what has not been said yet, and in these cases, when the speaker stops in the middle of a sentence, half way through an idea, or right after a “difficult” name or technical word, the interpreter is being left defenseless. There is nothing to interpret because the speaker has not said anything yet. Even when the main idea has already been expressed in the source language, or even when the words already uttered make for a good beginning of a sentence in the source language, the interpreter may be unable to say a word because of linguistic or comprehension reasons. The interpreter will not be able to start his rendition when the syntax in the target language is different because the interpreter does not know yet how to start the sentence. Interpreting requires that the interpreter understand and process an idea spoken by the presenter in order to find the right words in the target language; to do this, we as interpreters need to understand that idea. Of course, this is impossible when the interpreter only gets half of the idea. These two realities that interpreters work with all the time, make it impossible to interpret what the speaker has said. Of course, there are agencies, speakers, and unfortunately even interpreters, who will tell you that interpreters must interpret what is being said, that if the speaker is not making any sense, the interpreter should interpret nonsense as well. I am sorry to tell those who subscribe to this theory that they are wrong. The interpreter is never meant to sound like a telegram or a broken record (I understand that this last analogy may sound strange to those of you who were born after records were gone, but I did not find another updated expression that accurately conveys what I am trying to express) One thing is to work in court where the interpreter’s job is to interpret everything because the rendition’s goal is to assess the credibility of the speaker, but that has nothing to do with the job of the conference interpreter who has to act as a bridge between two languages and two cultures to facilitate mutual understanding and comprehension. This can only be achieved when people express themselves in a coherent fashion. Once again, if this is happening during the presentation, the interpreters need to let the speaker know that this is not working and they need to ask him to speak naturally, without any pauses and ignoring the presence of the interpreters in the booth. To prevent this from happening, when we meet the speaker and we learn that this person has only worked with consecutive interpreters, we need to briefly explain simultaneous interpretation to the speaker, and ask him not to pause the way he does when he works with interpreters who do not do a simultaneous rendition. Speakers are usually smart people and they understand the absurdity of speaking like a telegram.

SEVEN.  When the speaker uses metaphors unknown to the audience. A very common occurrence is when in the middle of a presentation the speaker uses an analogy, quotes a character, or resorts to a metaphor that has no meaning or relevance in the culture of the foreign language audience. These are tricky situations because the interpreter has no way to know ahead of time that this will happen, unless the speaker is well-known for turning to these practice in which case the interpreters must discuss it with him ahead of time. This is the permanent solution: to educate the orator so he knows and understands that his message could get lost because of the examples or cultural references he is making during the speech. Once they understand this point, they should be encouraged to omit the allusions, or if that is impossible due to the nature of the message, to at least replace the metaphor or the example with something from the local culture or with something universally known. If the speaker does not like these options, then the interpreter should at least ask him to put his analogies and metaphors in context and to explain what they mean. Going back to the main problem: What is the interpreter to do when the speaker brings up the culturally unknown example or story right in the middle of the speech? Because the interpreter’s job is to facilitate communication between speaker and audience, in my opinion the interpreter can do one of two things: Either find an acceptable equivalent in the audience’s language and culture, or at least explain and put in context, when possible, what the speaker just said. I will give you some examples: Americans are very proud of what they call “Americana,” (American culture and lifestyle) and sometimes they assume that it is universally known. For this reason, many great American speakers use “Americana” during their speeches; one typical example is baseball. Americans love baseball, it is their national pastime, you can find 10 to 15 professional games on TV every summer night, they grow up with the sport, its terminology, its analogies, and its heroes. As far as the rest of the world, unless you come from Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada, Japan, or Korea, most people have never even heard of baseball, and those who have, have never watched a game, much less know its rules and history. On the other hand, if you take the United States off the picture, you will agree that football (which by the way, is called “soccer” in the U.S., is the most popular sport in the world) So when an American speaker brings up a metaphor or a remark from their national pastime and he says: “…It was three and two with two outs at the bottom of the nine with the score tied and on the verge of extra innings…” as an interpreter you have two choices, you can either transplant the analogy to a well-known cultural reference to the audience, in this case I would chose football, or you can just explain what the speaker is saying. In my example, the rendition would go like this: “…it was the last minute of the second half, the score was tied, and they were about to go to overtime…” If I cannot find a similar analogy in the target culture, then I would have explained it like this: “…now the speaker is using an analogy from an American sport called baseball to illustrate that they were at the very end of the line, and nothing had been decided yet…” In other words, if needed to facilitate the communication, as long as it does not alter the message, I would replace Washington with Bolivar, Jerry Lewis with “Cantinflas,” and “more American than apple pie” with “más mexicano que los nopales.” The key is to make sure that you are facilitating the communication without altering the message. That is why we need to study and have a wide knowledge of many things so that we can make these calls and in case we made a mistake, so we can bring the audience back to the speaker’s message. Remember, this is working under extreme conditions, it is not the type of speech we face every day.

EIGHT.  When the speaker is constantly saying: “let’s see if they can interpret this.” I know that most interpreters are very proud of their professional achievements. We all know that this is not an easy career and it is difficult to reach a certain level. Professional interpreters are constantly studying and practicing their craft; they thoroughly prepare for an assignment by researching, studying, and planning, so when it is time to get in the booth and interpret the presentation, they do a magnificent job and make the event a success. It is for this reason that I dislike speakers who think they are clever or even funny when after saying a technical term, or an unusual word or expression, they interrupt their speech to tell the audience: “let’s see if they can interpret this,” or “I hope this didn’t get lost in translation,” or even worse: “I don’t know if this was interpreted correctly…” Who do these individuals think is interpreting for them? Don’t they know that there are two professionals in the booth? Or, do they think so little of themselves that they just can’t imagine anybody spending enough money to get them top quality interpreters? Obviously, I dislike these remarks and the attitude of these speakers. I also know that their comments do not affect our job as far as being able to do the rendition. Of course I could say that these constant remarks are annoying and distracting and they can break an interpreter’s concentration. This is true, but the professionals that we are, we cannot allow for these remarks to bother us. They are uncomfortable, but our reaction should be no different from that of the actor who gets booed while on stage and continues with the performance. Therefore, what is the value of including this annoying practice in my “worst ten”? Besides the ranting session above, it lets me make the point that even this disgusting experiences cannot keep us from doing our job; and if there is a speaker who is constantly challenging the booth or casting doubt on the skill and knowledge of the interpreters, this can create a feeling of mistrust in the audience. By making these remarks over and over again, he is sending a message to the audience that what they are hearing with the headphones may not be accurate or complete. This is unacceptable. Even under these conditions the interpreter’s job is to make sure that there is communication between the parties; therefore, during the first recess, the interpreters need to address this issue with the agency or event organizer, and with the presenter. It is a simple matter of expressing this potential risk in a professional and respectful manner. Many speakers will realize that what they have been doing is not so funny, that they have offended somebody, and that it makes sense when they are told that some of the people in the audience may be second guessing what they have been hearing so far. After the break, most caring savvy presenters will clarify this point with their audience and will refrain from making any more comments about the interpretation. So you see, there was a reason why I included this as part of my “worst ten.”

NINE.  When the speaker refuses to share his materials with the booth. It is common practice for the interpreter to get all of the materials that will be used during a presentation. This is usually done without thinking twice about it. The interpreter accepts the assignment and the materials start to flow into the e-mailbox, or they become available in the cloud. Speeches, resumes, Power Point presentations, publications, newspaper and magazine articles, etcetera; they all come to the interpreter. Everybody knows, from the agency, to the publisher, to the presenter, that these materials are essential to the interpreter’s preparation for the assignment. They are all aware that the interpreter has absolutely no interest in reproducing the materials or to violate in any other way any intellectual property legislation. This is why it is extremely difficult to work those events when the speaker refuses to share his materials or his presentation. For a long time I thought that this would only happen in second-tier assignments where the speakers were not sophisticated enough to understand the role of the interpreter, but I was wrong. I have run into conferences with very well-known researchers, college professors, and others, who refuse to share their materials. Of course this is a problem that either will be resolved before the event, or it will be unsolved but the interpreters will at least know what to expect. The best course of action in these rare cases will be to first talk to the agency and ask them if they would have any problem with you talking directly to the presenter so you can explain why it is that you need the materials. If the agency says no then that’s that. The event will not go as smoothly as it should, but it will not be your fault. On the other hand, if it is possible for you to talk to the speaker, you should explain to him what interpreters do, state the reasons why you need his materials, and even promise him that you will delete the files after the event. Assure him that your interest on his papers does not go beyond the conference, and tell him, if confidentiality allows it, who are some of your clients. This will put him at ease and he will share the materials. You see, sometimes the problem is simply a lack of communication; when the agency contacted him they only asked for the materials (like they usually do) without any explanation as to why they needed them and who was going to use them. The only thing missing was the explanation. On the other hand, when the speaker refuses to share, then you have a difficult bumpy road ahead, but it can be a little smoother if you do your homework. When you have no materials, you need to find them yourself. Get together with the rest of the interpreting team (including all languages as this research will benefit you all) and develop a strategy. Allocate tasks and responsibilities to the team members: Decide who will research on line, who will talk to others in the field to see if you can get some answers to your questions, google the speaker to see if he has any accessible publications online, download and study his previous speeches, and on the day of the event, show up with a fast computer or tablet an a defined plan of action so that the support interpreter is constantly looking up information while the principal is interpreting. Do this throughout the speech, both interpreters switching tasks back and forth. At the end of the day you will not have the materials for the conference, but you will have enough materials and other tools to do a first-class job.

TEN.  When the speaker starts reading very fast. Fewer things can affect more an interpreter’s rendition than a speaker, turned “town crier,” who starts reading at the speed of light from a document that was never shared with the booth. It is true that many presentations include portions of materials that are read aloud; it is a fact of life than many speakers will read their speech from a teleprompter, some people still pull out the little piece of paper and read from it, but most of those cases involve materials that have been given to the interpreters ahead of time. If that is the case, the interpreters will adjust to the speakers speed (because it is also a fact that we all speak faster when we are reading from a prepared text) by either doing a sight translation or, depending on the interpreters’ preference, a simultaneous interpretation of what is being read. It is difficult but doable because the interpreters saw the text ahead of time; they know what the speech is about, they have detected and solved the linguistic and cultural problems contained in the text; in other words, the interpreters did their homework because they were given the chance to do so. The “pulling out of my sleeve the document I am going to read” strategy represents a different kind of problem and all the interpreter can do is to follow the speaker as accurately as possible, trying his best. If possible, even after the reading session started, the second interpreter can go to the speaker’s team and see if they have an extra copy of the speech they may want to share with the booth. This happens more often than you think, and although it is not the same as getting the document ahead of time, at least helps the interpreter with two key elements: First, the names that sometimes are very difficult to understand when we are not expecting them, and second, the interpreters will at least have an idea on the length of the written speech and this will help them plan accordingly and distribute the tasks in the booth. I want to make it clear that top level interpreters will interpret the contents of the document the speaker is reading and transmit the message to the foreign language audience seamlessly, that has never been in doubt, as it has never been in doubt the high difficulty that is involved in an interpretation of this nature.

With these last five of the ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter I conclude my two-part post that started last week. I now invite you all to share with the rest of us some of your “ten worst” or to opine on any of mine.

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