Some administrators make interpreting very difficult.

June 30, 2015 § 9 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is an extremely difficult profession. Besides mastering their craft, interpreters must know enough about practically everything, possess the will to research and study, and be confident and clear when assisting others who need to communicate in two different languages. This is a plate full of challenges, sleep-deprivation, and the need to be aware that this is a business where we need to excel if we want to survive.  Unfortunately, too many times this tough profession gets even tougher because of ignorant, incompetent, narrow-minded, or lazy, supervisors and administrators, even when they are well-intentioned and mean no harm to the interpreter or the profession.

We all know that there are good, hard-working, and capable administrators, many of them former interpreters who know what it takes to do a good job (although some former colleagues, for whatever reason, have not been successful as supervisors or administrators). I am not talking about them here. Today I am referring to those who fit the description above and have made the lives of our colleagues impossible, and even nightmarish.

There are many examples of poor decisions and unfortunate actions by these “people in power”, and I am sure you all have your fair share of them. My travels take me to so many places where I hear these stories from frustrated interpreters, so I know, as well as you do, that there are numerous examples where to choose from. This selection process was, at the same time, difficult and easy, but I finally settled for the two cases that I will describe below. In choosing them, I took into account the magnitude of the error, and the impact this has on ourselves and our profession. I say to my friends and colleagues who do not practice in the court system that the examples are from the legal field, but they could easily be from medical, community, military, or conference interpreting.

Some time ago, an administrator in a court setting put an interpreter’s knowledge of his duties, legal procedure, and rules of ethics to the test, by reacting unexpectedly to a very delicate situation.

This seasoned veteran interpreter was working in a trial, together with another colleague who apparently was fairly new to the practice.  They were interpreting for a member of the jury who did not know English (the main language in the jurisdiction where the trial was taking place). Although uncommon, there are places where the law allows people of other languages to be a part of a jury. This was one of those cases.

In the middle of the trial, a police officer was called to testify. During the testimony, he went on to describe how he had learned about the circumstances of the case, and part of what he was describing to the jury, had to do with the manner in which he gained access to the home of the defendant.  At that point, the non-English speaking juror that the interpreters were assisting, passed a note to the judge through the bailiff. The judge read the note, and asked the interpreters to sight translate it for him and the attorneys on a sidebar, so the jury would not hear what this person wrote. The note was a question from the non-English speaker to the police officer who was testifying: The juror wanted to know if the officer had authorization from the owner of the house (the defendant) to enter the property. After discussing it with the attorneys, the judge allowed the question, as in this jurisdiction, like in many others, members of the jury are permitted to ask questions during a trial. The veteran interpreter sight translated the question aloud, for the record and for the benefit of the witness and the jury. The novice interpreter stayed with the interpreting equipment ready to simultaneously interpret back the police officer’s answer to the non-English speaking juror. Once the question was posed to the witness in English by the veteran interpreter, he went back to his place next to the novice interpreter. I do not have the transcription of the exact answer, but after a moment, the police officer responded something like this: “…No… but because of the specific circumstances of the situation, this is one of those exceptions allowed by the statute…” and he went on to describe the circumstances and the exception to the rule. Regardless of the truthfulness of the officer’s statement, for all practical purposes, his answer was that he was acting legally when he entered the property. At that point it was for the jury to assess the credibility of the witness and decide if he was telling the truth. After this answer, the jury was well equipped to make that decision. Unfortunately, the non-English speaker juror did not hear a complete interpretation of the answer given by the policeman. As noted above, the rendition the juror heard in English was as follows, and again, I did not have the benefit of the transcript, so the officer’s answer was something like this: “…No… but because of the specific circumstances of the situation, this is one of those exceptions allowed by the statute…” and he went on to describe the circumstances and the exception to the rule. Sadly, the interpretation by the novice interpreter was: “No”. Nothing else.

When the veteran interpreter, who was sitting next to the novice interpreter heard the rendition, and saw how the novice interpreter just kept going without even trying to correct his mistake, the veteran interpreter worried. He immediately realized that there was a juror who had asked a question, and at this time was at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the jury because an interpreter had omitted a crucial part of the testimony. Dear colleagues, while the other jurors heard how the police officer was legally allowed to enter the house of the defendant, the non-English speaker heard the officer say “no”. He heard him answer to his question by saying that he was not allowed to enter the home. The veteran interpreter tried to make eye contact with his colleague, also wrote him a note, but the novice interpreter ignored the efforts of his fellow interpreter, and avoiding his stare, he just kept going as if nothing serious had happened.

As soon as the veteran interpreter realized that his colleague was not planning to correct the rendition, he wrote a note to the judge asking for a moment to talk to him and the attorneys. The bailiff gave the note to the judge who read it, acknowledged the veteran interpreter, and signaled that he would listen to him as soon as it was prudent to come to a stop in the trial.

A few minutes later, the judge took a recess, asked the jury to leave the courtroom, and in open court, without the presence of the jury, he listened to the veteran interpreter who explained what happened. After some debate by the attorneys, the judge decided that he was not going to tell the jury about the misinterpretation; instead, he considered that the best way to cure the mistake was to allow the prosecution to explain during closing arguments that the officer was legally allowed to enter the defendant’s residence because of an exception to the law and that the police officer knew this when he decided to go inside the house. This is exactly how it happened, and the problem was cured by the judge’s decision and thanks to the skill and quick thinking of the veteran interpreter. After the trial the judge thanked the interpreter for disclosing this issue that otherwise would have gone unnoticed by the court.

This would have been a happy ending for everybody, even the novice interpreter who thanks to the actions of his veteran colleague learned from his mistake without harming the legal process .  Unfortunately, there is more to the story.

When the court administrator in charge of interpreter services found out what had happened during the trial, she immediately asked the veteran interpreter to go see her.  Apparently, when the interpreter got there, she was fuming because, according to her, the interpreter had made a big mistake by writing a note to the judge informing him that he needed to talk to him and the attorneys. In the opinion of this administrator, who is not an interpreter or an attorney, the veteran interpreter needed to stand up and immediately state aloud, for the record, that the interpreters needed to correct something, and then immediately correct the mistake of the novice interpreter by doing a full rendition of the police officer’s answer to the non-English speaking juror.  The veteran interpreter could not believe what he was hearing as the administrator spoke of sanctions to the interpreter for not making the correction right away on the record!

Obviously, the veteran interpreter immediately explained to the administrator that her suggested solution was not even an option, that interpreters need to know the basic rules of criminal proceeding, and that doing what the administrator was suggesting as the solution to the problem would have been nefarious. This action could have risked a mistrial because of an interpreter decision to disclose something to the jury without first informing the judge and the attorneys who should be the ones who, after arguing the facts and the law, decide how to cure the error.  Obviously, the judge thought that in this case, instead of correcting the rendition the way the administrator wanted, the appropriate solution was to fix it on closing statements as they did.  Judges can be wrong, but interpreters should not take over the judge’s function and decide what to do in a trial. Even after this explanation, the administrator did not admit the mistake to the interpreter, perhaps to save face, but she knew that the he was right because no sanction was ever imposed to the veteran interpreter. We can clearly see that, an example of an interpreter doing the right thing to correct a mistake was praised by those who knew the law, but it created undeserved stress and generated unnecessary expenses to the interpreter, who had to be worried about possible sanctions by the administrator, and had to spend a day at the administrator’s office instead of earning a living. Some administrators make interpreting very difficult.

The second case happened to me. As you know, I teach workshops and seminars all over the world. On one occasion, the organizer of a workshop that had hired me to teach, among other things, an advanced ethics seminar, contacted me to let me know that the person in charge of approving continuing education credits in a rural state in the U.S. had informed them that she was not going to grant credits because the title of the seminar did not include the word ethics. I was extremely surprised to hear this because that exact seminar had been approved for continuing education credits many times in the past, and in fact, it had been approved for the same seminar in other jurisdictions.

I sensed the concern on the part of the organizers, because even though the state denying the request for credits was small and we would probably get very few interpreters who needed that approval, if any, they felt (as I did) that the credits were deserved.  To alleviate my client’s concern, I wrote a very detailed explanation to this state officer explaining sentence by sentence how the description of the seminar that she was given from the beginning referred to the Canons of Ethics. I even indicated what Canon applied to each one of the parts of the description of my seminar. I further explained that adding the word “ethics” to a title does not qualify a class as ethics, that my experience as a professional instructor had taught me that to get a big crowd to attend a seminar or workshop you need a catchy title, and that was the reason why I had decided not to go with a boring title with the word “ethics” as part of it. That is why we provide a seminar description so that those deciding to attend can make up their minds. To our surprise, this bureaucrat, who has never been an interpreter, is not a lawyer, and has been in the government for over twenty years, rejected the credits request because “…the description (of the seminar) does not match the title (of the presentation…).” Because of the size of the jurisdiction that she represents, we decided not to pursue the continuing education credits that state anymore. This was a business decision, not an academic one; it did not impact my career or my pocket, but for the purpose of this post, I thought it was important to include this ignorant decision by a person who in the past told a newspaper that to find court interpreters: “…we call restaurants, churches…I found a Kurdish interpreter at Target…” It is no mystery why there are so few certified court interpreters in this jurisdiction, and why they are among the worst paid nationwide.  Our colleagues who deal with this individual regularly know well that some administrators make interpreting very difficult.

I now invite you to share with all of us your stories about those occasions when the ignorance of a supervisor or an administrator made your work more difficult, and remember, please do not mention people’s names or places.

Can the interpreter tone down, change or omit anything?

January 13, 2014 § 22 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We know that there are different types of interpreting and they all have their own rules and protocol that must be met in order to achieve communication between parties that do not speak the same language.   It is clear that court interpreting does not allow much flexibility.  These interpreters must interpret everything that is uttered in the courtroom and this is understandable because an interpreter’s rendition in the courtroom has a different goal than any other kind of interpretation: It is for the judge or jury to evaluate the credibility of the individual being interpreted whether he is a witness, a victim, or a defendant.  False starts, stutters, redundancies and statements full of hesitancy must be known by the trier of fact.  There is also a second reason for this complete interpretation: The parties have the right to appeal an unfavorable decision, and they do so to a higher court where the original proceedings will be studied and analyzed for possible legal errors.  The court of appeals scrutinizes these proceedings by reviewing the record.  This record for the foreign-language speaker is the rendition of the interpreters who worked the original trial.  We can see that the “simple” goal of achieving communication between the parties is not the only goal in court interpreting.

In conference interpreting the goals are different.  For a conference to be successful there has to be communication between the parties.  It would be worthless for a conference attendee to go to a presentation and not being able to understand what the presenter is saying.  Knowledge could not be spread, policies could not be developed.  A conference interpreter has to make sure that this communication happens.  His voice and pace should be such that the foreign-language speaker can concentrate on the subject matter without having to spend his energy on trying to hear or understand the interpreter.  The pace is not as fast as it is in court interpreting where everything must be interpreted.  A conference interpreter can achieve his goal even if some redundant, obvious, or irrelevant things are left out of the rendition.  A better paced and clear interpretation is preferable over a rendition where the interpreter has to rush in order to say “Welcome to the Twenty Fifth General Meeting in beautiful Las Vegas Nevada.” It would be perfectly fine to interpret “Welcome to the General Meeting.”  People already know it is the twenty fifth general meeting. It is written all over the convention center.  They already know they are in Las Vegas. They had to pay for a ticket to get there. The interpreter’s omissions did not have an effect on the communication; in fact, it helped because the interpreter was able to speak clearly and at a good pace.

In military interpreting it is necessary to omit certain statements. On one occasion a sergeant from an occupying military was training the newly-created armed forces of the occupied nation.  The sergeant did not speak the local language and he had to scold some members of the other country’s military because they had not been performing as expected.  The episode took place outdoors in the desert. The sergeant was surrounded by members of his military who worked under his command and understood everything as they spoke his language.  There were about 30 or 40 members of the other country’s armed forces who were at attention and listening to the sergeant who was speaking through an interpreter.  Because the interpreter was a local individual, and many local residents resented any type of cooperation with the occupying armed forces, he had to interpret while covered by a blanket and he had to disguise his voice for his own protection.  The sergeant began his “normal” scolding, heard many times by the members of his own military.  It was a crude speech where the sergeant called the foreign soldiers many ugly names, including remarks about their mothers.  He referred to their sexual preferences and told them that they were acting like a bunch of sissys (although he used a more offensive word) The sergeant was not whispering these insults, he was yelling as loud as he could. This went on for about ten minutes.  At the end of the speech, one of the members of the other country’s military stepped forward and replied. He apologized to the sergeant. Told him that they understood his message, and assured him that this would never happen again.   The sergeant seemed pleased with this reaction.

This was a scolding that is customary in the sergeant’s armed forces. The name calling has a purpose and it usually works within that military culture.  The members of the other nation’s military however, came from a very different cultural background. They came from a more religious society, and name calling that included remarks about family and homosexuality were considered an unforgivable insult. Keep in mind that the only reason for this meeting was to motivate the foreign army so they did a better job.  Hardly the type of goal that you would achieve by insulting them.  The military interpreter was facing a situation where his main role was to create communication between two groups of people who spoke a different language, lived on opposite sides of the world, and had a very different culture.  On top of being worried for his personal safety, he knew that communication and understanding through the insults in the sergeant’s speech was not an option.  He also knew that approaching the sergeant and asking him to tone-down his remarks would not be possible.  The sergeant was speaking in front of his own soldiers. He had to be seen as fair, tough and impartial.  Delivering a different speech to the foreign soldiers would have been perceived by his own troop as unfair, as preferential treatment.  This left the interpreter with the important role of being the interpreter and cultural broker.  What he did is that he communicated the message in its integrity, but instead of interpreting the offensive remarks of the sergeant, he substituted them with remarks about honor, justice, love of country, respect for the elders, and other similar cultural values that conveyed the same message and achieved the goal of communication and understanding without anybody feeling offended by the other party.  This remarkable rendition by this military interpreter was recorded. I have seen the video just like many interpreters and linguists who are associated with the armed forces.

This is remarkable, but it is not new or different from what many of us do every day when we replace a local or regional sports remark with another similar one that the listener will understand. I have changed baseball expressions for soccer examples many times because I know that “three and two with two outs in the bottom of the nine” does not mean much to a listener from South America. On the other hand, “la última oportunidad para anotar ya sobre el minuto noventa del partido” conveys the same message. It is just a different sport; in this case soccer.

There are other situations where the interpreter selects certain words and terms depending on the target’s culture and values, and he does it without changing the message.  There is a well-known episode of a sight translation of a diplomatic document involving two heads of state; one of them was a woman and the other was a man from a country where women were not considered suitable to govern.  The negotiation at hand was crucial for both countries. When the interpreter received the document he immediately noticed that the document started with a paragraph that addressed the problem that it would create to negotiate with a woman because of her gender.  On its next paragraph the document went on to spell in clear and certain terms the willingness to reach an agreement on the part of the man’s government.  After reviewing the document, the interpreter decided to leave out all the sexist remarks and instead of them voiced some formal greeting. Then he went on to interpret the essential points of the document.  At the end of the day there was an agreement to the satisfaction of both parties. This may have never happened had the interpreter decided to do a full and complete sight translation of the document.

It all comes to the role of the interpreter and his function as a cultural broker.  Many colleagues, particularly those who come from the court interpreting field, sustain that the interpreter’s job, regardless of the type of interpretation, is to render a full and complete interpretation no matter what.  They base this position in legal and ethical considerations that regulate their field.  Canon 1 of the United States National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) states: “…Canon 1. Accuracy.  Source-language speech should be faithfully rendered into the target language by conserving all the elements of the original message…and there should be no distortion of the original message through addition or omission, explanation or paraphrasing. All hedges, false starts and repetitions should be conveyed…”

The New Jersey Code of Professional Conduct reads: “…CANON 2: FAITHFUL AND ACCURATE CONVEYANCE OF MESSAGES. Interpreters… should faithfully and accurately reproduce in the target language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message without embellishment, omission, or explanation.”

Others, mainly those colleagues working in the conference, diplomatic, and military fields, acknowledge that the main goal is to achieve communication and understanding between the parties by conveying the message in a way that is properly received by the target as if heard in his own language.  The only way to reach this objective is by factoring in all cultural values of the individual: Adapting the words to transmit the same message with accuracy.

Hatim and Mason define the role of the translator along these lines by saying that: “…The translator has not only a bilingual ability but also a bi-cultural vision. Translators mediate between cultures (including ideologies, moral systems and socio-political structures), seeking to overcome those incompatibilities which stand in the way of transfer of meaning. What has value as a sign in one cultural community may be devoid of significance in another and it is the translator who is uniquely placed to identify the disparity and seek to resolve it…” (Hatim & Mason 1990: 223-224)

Pöchhacker applies it to the specific job of the interpreter when he states: “…Since an interpreter’s actions have a much more immediate effect on the progress and outcome of the interaction, it has become increasingly common to construe the interpreter’s mediation activity as one of ‘moderating’ or ‘managing’ the interaction to guide it toward a felicitous outcome…But mediating interactive discourse would of course go further than that [resolving overlapping talk, asking for repetition, or choosing which utterance to interpret, and how] and include actions designed to overcome obstacles to communication such as ‘cultural differences’. Examples include explanatory additions, selective omissions, persuasive elaboration or the mitigation of face-threatening acts…” (Pöchhacker 2008: 13)

Moreover, some would argue that even in the most-strict court interpreting environment language has to pass through the mind of the interpreter. The interpreter then selects from his repertoire the best terms and expressions that will produce a full and complete rendition, but in doing so, he will put forward those words and expressions that his own ideology, background, and culture will provide.

Hermans puts it this way: “… (The translator and interpreter’s) textual presence cannot be neutral, located nowhere in particular. The way a translation overwrites its original may be deliberate and calculated on the translator’s part but as often as not it is unconscious, or barely conscious, dictated by values, preferences, pre-suppositions and perceptions built into the individual and social beings that we are. (Hermans, quoted in Pöchhacker 2008: 15)

Dear colleagues, we see that there is not a clear universal answer to this dilemma that interpreters face every day all over the world.  Some of you may think that the interpreter should just interpret everything as said. That it is not his job to explain or to create a cultural outreach.  Others may agree with those who believe that interpreters and translators are language facilitators and cultural mediators whose mission is to transmit the message from the source to the target in a way that accurately conveys the message even if this means that there has to be some cultural adaptation.  A third group may conclude that it depends on the type of work that the interpreter is asked to perform because his rendition is dictated by the type of interpretation. Please tell us what you think about this fascinating and complex issue.

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