What assignments should interpreters take?

October 12, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Sometimes, after turning down a job offer from an individual who had contacted me by email or phone, I wonder if my life would be easier if I turned into a “yes man” and accepted many offers that come my way. It would save me the time I spend explaining why I cannot work under the circumstances proposed, or avoiding all those baseless arguments and laughable excuses from ignorant prospective clients and greedy multinational agencies. No doubt it would be good for my heath.  I would have more clients, interpret every day, and turn into the darling of all agencies and professional associations. I would probably be “Tony the Yes Man”, “the one who does not make any waves.” “Mr. Takes it in the chin”.

Unfortunately, I immediately remember that I am a professional; that acquiring my set of skills and knowledge has been difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. At this point I always decide not to be the “lovable loser”.

I understand there are many interpreters; government agencies are looking for ways to save money, and private corporations want to be profitable. This only means it is harder to get an assignment; that we must put a bigger effort into finding good clients and well-paid assignments. Professional interpreting is not a hobby; it is a business, and in that world worthwhile thinks are not free. We must behave like businesspeople; we cannot make everybody happy by accepting any assignment that comes across our table, and we cannot make the agency recruiter’s life easier by giving in to unspeakable working conditions.

We must never forget who we are and what we do. We must protect our profession even when facing a human tragedy. I saw how some of my colleagues, well-intentioned, gave in to the indiscriminate use of bilinguals instead of interpreters during the Mexican earthquakes and Caribbean hurricanes. Some considered that demanding interpreters was inappropriate because of the urgent need for interpreting services. I think they wasted an opportunity to showcase the interpreters’ work to many people who had never heard of interpreting in their lives. I applaud those colleagues who held their ground and defended the use of professional interpreter services.

Recently, I turned down a job offer to interpret for some Spanish speakers, members of another country’s armed forces, because the assignment did not pay for the days off between sessions when interpreting was not required, and because I got no assurance that during the flying lessons there would be a flight instructor on board with direct access to the aircraft instruments if a mistake by the student occurs.  The agency recruiter could not understand why I was not willing to risk my life for an assignment that cared so little for the interpreter they had not even bother to check and see if there would be a licensed pilot on board.

I also declined an offer from a small agency to interpret simultaneously non-stop for three hours by myself. The agency rep thought I was a prima donna, and even offered me more money to take the job. I did not.  Another agency’s “project manager” got mad because after she booked me (and a colleague) for a conference, two weeks went by and we got no materials from her. When asked on the status of the assignment, she replied that the event organizer had selected a different agency, and for that reason she had not contacted the interpreters. She even said that it was the interpreters’ duty to call the agency to see if an event had been cancelled or not!

When you add these incidents to the many times when the agency coordinator argues with you because you want too much money and the agency is offering an “…amount that many would love to make at work…” ; when they reply with sarcastic emails insinuating that you must be out of your mind to ask for the money you quoted for your services; or those occasions when after they explain the assignment for hours, you finally get to say a word, and let them know your fee and they reply with a simple: “oh, thank you” and hang up.

I am sure that I just described another day at the office for many of you, so the question is: What assignments should I take?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to such a complex question. Part of the answer must do with experience, language combination, the type of interpreting you do, and the part of the world where you live. I will let you figure out that part of the question by yourself or jointly with colleagues in similar circumstances as yours.

The part I can answer, because it has universal application is straight forward: Develop a portfolio of direct clients and take very good care of them. It is difficult to find these clients but they exist. I know because I am fortunate enough to work with many. The important thing is to know where to look for them and how to spot them from a mile away.

The best clients come from referrals from other satisfied clients, colleagues, and technicians. A good story starts like this: “I am contacting you because I was referred to you by…” or “…I want to retain your services because I attended an event you interpreted in the past…”

These people looked for you because of your skills and the quality of your service. They value what you do and want YOU to interpret.

A bad story generally begins with: “…I got your name from the ATA (or any other association) directory and I was wondering if you are still a translator…”

Screen these individuals for only sixty seconds and politely end the conversation if they do not look promising.  These prospective clients do not understand who you are. To them, you are just another name on a directory under the language they need and from the location they want. They do not know what you do, and they value your profession so little they even wonder if you are still “translating” because, since you are bilingual, this must be a thing you were doing “in between jobs”.  I know some people think that you can get some good clients this way, but it depends on what you consider a good client. So far, I have never found one top client this way.

The other thing to consider, because of its universal application, is the place where you are in the world.  Unlike translation, good interpreting assignments do not happen in small towns or mid-size cities. They are in the big cities and not in all of them.  If you live in a rural area or a small city, and you want to take the best assignments, you must consider moving to a bigger city. You may need to decide between a certain lifestyle, including few professional competitors and life in the big city where you will be swimming with the sharks. Do your research, and when you do it, make sure there is a market for your language combination in the big market you are targeting. Nothing is worse than moving to another place to find out that your languages are not in demand.

Finally, think of what you want to do. People find certain things very important, even if there is not a lot of money in that field. Do not fool yourself, you will never make a lot of money working as a community interpreter or practicing in a small city, but maybe that is not a crucial factor to you. Some colleagues find working in the community assisting people with little or no money more rewarding than a high-profile wealthy client in the big city.  Some interpreters prefer less money and not so famous clients over constant traveling and spending most of the time away from home.

In conclusion, we should all seek clients that will appreciate our work, who select us for who we are as individuals, offer us professional working conditions (treat us with respect, provide materials, understands the need for team interpreting and good technology in a comfortable booth, etc.) and pay professional fees. We should protect the profession and reject prospective clients looking for anybody on a list, disrespect us, want to pay us as laborers, and do not offer the appropriate working conditions mentioned above. The rest are personal judgments we all need to make depending on the lifestyle we want to have and the service we want to provide. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments on this topic.

Consecutive interpreting: A job for two.

July 17, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

If you are a regular visitor to this blog you already know how I feel about team interpreting: Just like simultaneous interpreting, a consecutive rendition is a team effort that should not be attempted alone. (For more on this subject, please read my blog entry entitled: “If it is team interpreting, why are so many flying solo?”) 

I have written extensively on this subject, and I have made it crystal clear that I never accept a consecutive assignment unless I am, working as part of a team.  I also know of the fact that many colleagues believe that, unlike simultaneous, consecutive interpreting can be successfully accomplished solo; and that other interpreters believe that, although team interpreting improves the quality of an interpretation, a big chunk of the market will never buy into this need, and they willingly accept consecutive interpreting assignments without a second interpreter.

“Team interpreting is the utilization of two or more interpreters who support each other to meet the needs of a particular communication situation. Depending on both the needs of the participants and agreement between the interpreters, responsibilities of the individual team members can be rotated and feedback may be exchanged…”  (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Standard Practice Paper [(SPP])

You all know what it is like to finish a consecutive rendition without a partner; you have felt the extreme fatigue and the high levels of stress derived from knowing you are performing an incredibly complex task that requires of a huge amount of knowledge, almost instantaneous reactions, and of grave consequences if error occurs, with nobody watching your back.

Originally, team interpreting was conceived as a solution to mental fatigue, but as team interpreting became more popular, and eventually the rule (at least in simultaneous interpretation everywhere) it was noticed that having a support interpreter was not a mere tag-team maneuver to get some rest while your partner was actively interpreting, but it turned into a joint effort that improved the quality of the service by having someone (the support interpreter) assisting the active interpreter with complex information, figures and names; and also acting as a sounding board to corroborate an utterance, research a term, or simply correct a mistake due to fatigue, context, or cultural meaning. The “surprising” result: The rendition was better because the interpreters were neither fatigued nor stressed out, so they could concentrate better on the task of interpreting.

“The goal of team interpreting soon began to shift from reducing interpreter fatigue to also ensuring the accuracy of the target language message and correcting any misinterpretations. While there was still concern about fatigue and interpreters continued to take turns at 20-to 30-minute intervals to ensure they were not hampered by fatigue, teams came to realize that they should both share the responsibility for the accuracy of the interpreted message. This lead to a change in the perceived function of an interpreting team. In addition to relieving each every 20 to 30 minutes, the “feed” interpreter was expected to monitor the “on” interpreter’s interpretation and feed missed information or make corrections as needed.” (Hoza, J. 2010. Team Interpreting: As collaboration and Interdependence. Alexandria, VA. RID Press. ISBN: 978-0-916883-52-2)

Mental fatigue is caused by intense brain activity in highly complex activities such as interpreting. Both, simultaneous and consecutive interpreting require of multitasking. Reasoning, evaluating, executing, and decision making in a matter of instants makes of interpreting a profession subject to deep mental exhaustion that becomes more intense due to the levels of stress while performing the task. Both: mental fatigue and high stress as an aggravated circumstance, happen during consecutive interpreting and they cannot be swept under the rug, or eliminated, by giving the interpreter a bathroom break. Interpreters working solo during a consecutive rendition for over thirty minutes will not be performing as expected just because a “magnanimous” client takes a 15 minute break.  Mental fatigue does not work that way.

Fatigue is defined as “A physiological state of reduced mental or physical performance capability resulting from… workload”. (International Civil Aviation Organization [ICAO] Operation of Aircraft. International Standards and Recommended Practices. February 25, 2013).  When present, it “places great risk on (the client) because it significantly increases the chance of… (interpreter) error…” (Caldwell, John: Mallis, Melissa [January 2009]. “Fatigue Countermeasures in Aviation”. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. 80[1]: 29-59. doi: 10.3357/asem.2435.2009)

Mental fatigue, like the one caused by consecutive interpreting, causes cognitive impairment and it is important to understand the neural mechanisms of mental fatigue related to cognitive performance. A study to quantify the effect of mental fatigue on neural activity and cognitive performance by evaluating the relationship between the change of brain activity and cognitive impairment induced by mental fatigue using magnetoencephalography, demonstrated that performing the mental fatigue-inducing task causes over-activation of the visual cortex, manifested as the decreased alpha-frequency band power in this brain region, and the over-activation was associated with the cognitive impairment. (Tanaka M, Ishii A, Watanabe Y [2015] Effects of Mental Fatigue on Brain Activity and Cognitive Performance: A Magnetoencephalography Study. Anat Physiol S4:002. doi: 10.4172/2161-0940.S4-002)

The task of consecutive interpreting does not differ from simultaneous interpreting when it comes to mental fatigue. Working solo will bring undue stress levels to the interpreter which will cause more mental fatigue, lack of concentration, and physical fatigue: all contributors to a substandard rendition after 30 minutes. As the interpreter is forced to work longer, the rendition will continue to deteriorate and produce errors and misinterpretations. This diminished mental and physical skills cannot be cured by allowing the interpreter to take a 15 minute break three to five times during a multi-hour consecutive rendition.

I set team interpreting for both, simultaneous and consecutive interpreting as a non-negotiable clause. Clients who have seen the palpable difference between solo and team consecutive interpreting have no problem with this requirement; those unaware of these dire consequences carefully listen to my explanations and promptly agree to an assignment covered by a team of (at least) two interpreters. A few who refuse to listen to my reasons, and those who choose not to believe the arguments, must do without my services.

I understand the hesitation of many colleagues to fight for consecutive team interpreting; I understand less those who fear the agencies’ reaction and opt to remain silent and go solo, but I also know that if all quality interpreters demand a team, the client will have no choice. Perhaps they will first hire the services of a second-tier individual, but they will see the difference and eventually they will be back, ready to hear your arguments and comply with your conditions. I hope that my sincere efforts to convince you to reject solo consecutive assignments affect how we view ourselves. We are the ones behind the wheel. The client is the passenger, and the agency is the guy at the service station with nothing to do with the way you drive. I welcome your comments.

It is the mediocre who disrespect the interpreter.

May 22, 2017 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

A few weeks ago I read a comment by a colleague who had just finished a very important high-profile interpreting assignment. He stated that when the event ended the main speaker thanked the interpreters for their job in the booth. Rightly so, my colleague was very happy and appreciative of the kind gesture.

His comment brought back many personal experiences of instances when speakers and organizers recognized the interpreter team by either praising a job well done, or by thanking us for our dedication and professionalism. At this moment it hit me: With some exceptions, the most important, famous, admired speakers are always kind and appreciative. It is common to be recognized at the end of a hard session. Many commend us for our rendition, others ask for a round of applause for the interpreters. I have been to some events where we have been asked to come out of the booth to be seen and recognized by the audience. It is all about respect, but it is also about education and awareness of the importance of a good interpretation.

These movers and shakers know that without proper interpretation their words would lose their thunder in a foreign language. They know that communication is essential, and our work is key to reach everyone in every culture and language.

For this reason high-profile conference interpreters are always welcome at the auditorium, conference room, and international organization where their services will be needed. From the moment we arrive we are treated with deference and respect, not because of who we are, but because of what we do. Everybody is on board, they all know that we provide a relevant professional service.

Speakers and organizers know and understand the complexity of what we do, so it is just natural we get a breakroom to relax every now and then, that they expect us to work in teams of two and three; that we get paid for travel days, and that we get a compensation appropriate to the service we provide.

As I was thinking of these circumstances, my mind drifted to the way healthcare and court interpreters are treated most of the time.  Despite being an essential component to the healthcare system, or a key element to an administration of justice equal for all, doctors, nurses, judges, attorneys and support staff often view interpreters as an inconvenience instead of an asset. They are perceived by many in these areas as outsiders instead of as part of the team. Many resent them and believe that we are overpaid, after all, all we do is talk.

Although some may be motivated by who knows what reason, I think that most of their attitude and policies come from ignorance. Unlike so many people we deal with in conference interpreting, many are not well traveled and lack a sense of international community. A medical diploma or law degree guarantee no worldly view of affairs. To put it simply, they just cannot understand why people do not speak their language, and they attribute their lack of native language skills to being intellectually inferior. They believe that everybody should learn their language and consider translation and interpreting services as a waste of resources and losing the national identity. It is for these reasons, and not necessarily because they dislike the interpreter, after all interpreters speak their language, that they consider our presence annoying and our service a threat to the status quo.

I do not like this, but I can understand why these individuals do not want to treat us with the dignity and respect we are treated at the conference level. The lack of respect and demeaning practices towards interpreters I cannot justify or understand, are those perpetrated by the people in the multinational language agencies who hire unqualified people, pay disgustingly low professional fees, and treat interpreters as laborers instead of professionals.

It is the way interpreters are treated by these entities that greatly contrasts with the dignified treatment we experience in a conference they were not involved.  It is these transnational entities, who are on a crusade to destroy our profession and turn it into an “industry” that wants to get us to work the booth, courtroom and hospital like an assembly line.

They know of the complexity and professional nature of our work, they understand how exhausting our craft is, they know of the fact that we sell our time. Yet, they want to pay the lowest fees, who want to take up to three months before they pay us, the ones who do not want to a second interpreter, refuse to pay for travel days, and rarely share the assignment relevant materials. These are the people who demand you call when you get to the assignment and let them know when you leave.

These are the “experts” who distrust us so much they double-check with their client to make sure we really worked for as long as we told them, and treat us like little children by telling us what to wear, where to sit, what to eat, and who to talk to. They know you, they have worked with you in the past, and at the least they researched you before they contacted you for a job. It is not about you, it is about their perception of the profession. To them, in their mythical theory of the “interpreting industry” we are laborers on an assembly line. This serves them better. Once they dehumanize us by turning us into their “industry’s” pawns, they can disrespect us, insult us, and abuse us as interpreters. This or course, only if we let them.

I now ask you to share with the rest of us your thoughts about this important issue.

Should interpreters work under those conditions?

April 24, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Freelance interpreting is a beautiful career but it has its complications. Besides the general complexities of being an interpreter, independent professionals must worry about getting and keeping clients, the administrative aspects of the business, and the market conditions, including competitors, unscrupulous agencies, and ignorant individuals who, knowing little of the profession, try to set the rules we all play by.

We all have our own personal motivations to work as interpreters. All legitimate and many honorable. I am an interpreter for two main reasons: Because I like working in the booth, and because of the freedom, flexibility and income.

In my experience, I have rarely encountered a colleague who hates the profession (although I have met some). Freedom and flexibility are appealing to many; but with the actual decision to take or reject assignments based on content and other factors, or the relentless pursuit of professional good work conditions and a professional fee, many interpreters bulk at confronting the market and demand what they deserve.

For many years I worked as court and conference interpreter simultaneously. I liked the work in court, the cases, the challenges, the drama, and sometimes the outcome of a legal controversy, but it was wearing me out.  Many times working in court was depressing, not because of the truculent cases or the human misery you get to see in the courtroom, but because of the conversations among many of my colleagues.

It wasn’t unusual to hear interpreters talk about how they could barely make ends meet, or complain of how little work they were getting from the court. Common topics would include choices between paying the rent or a child’s medical bills. The interpreters who dared to talk about a nice dinner in town or an overseas vacation were met with resentment. It was almost like those with a good income had to keep it secret. It was very uncomfortable.

I do not like to see people suffer, and no doubt these colleagues were in pain. The problem is that it was self-inflicted. Being an interpreter who makes little money is a curable disease. It requires that the interpreter practice and study to improve their rendition, grow their vocabulary, and increase their general knowledge. It also needs a good dosage of courage and determination to go out there and look for good clients. Sitting in the courthouse interpreters’ room complaining of how they are not given more assignments, and settling for the fees (low in my opinion) that the judiciary pays interpreters will never get you ahead of the curve. I never liked it when other interpreters would describe themselves as “we work for the courts”. Unless you are a staff interpreter, the courts are your clients, not your boss. Talking to many colleagues all over the world I can say the same for those who work in healthcare: You will never make a lot of money interpreting in a hospital or clinic. The cure for the disease is one paragraph above.

I respect others’ opinion, and we all know what we want to do with our career and our life, but to me getting to know the market (or markets in many cases) where you work does not mean “learning the limits to what you can request or charge”. To some, interpreters who adapt to their market are doing something good. To me, they are just giving up and convincing themselves this is the best they might do. An interpreter who does not accept irrational work conditions or insultingly low fees is on the right track. Those who demand team interpreting for any assignment that will go over 30 minutes to one hour maximum, or ask for a booth with decent interpreting equipment, or want to get the materials ahead of time so they can study, are doing what professionals do. Interpreters who refuse to work under substandard conditions or don’t dare to charge a high fee for fear that the client will go with somebody else are digging their own graves and hurting the profession.

The interpreter who rejects an assignment because the agency wants him to work alone, or the interpreter who walks away from an offer to do a conference for a miserable fee are doing what should be done. Accepting work without materials because “nobody in my market provides materials ahead of time for this type of assignment” and working solo or without a booth because “If I don’t do it I will go out of business” may be adapting to the market, and to some this may be praiseworthy. To me they just are excuses; a pretext to avoid the constructive and educational confrontation with the agency or direct client. This interpreters do not “adapt” to the market, they shape it, and that is good.

I started this entry by emphasizing that to get what we want we must practice and study. Only good professionals may demand (and enjoy) everything we have discussed here. We must be professionals at the time of our rendition in the booth, courthouse, hospital, or TV network. We must earn the trust and appreciation of our client by becoming reliable problem-solvers who will do anything needed from us as professionals to make the assignment a success.  Be flexible as an interpreter. Once, the console failed in the middle of a conference, and instead of suspending the rendition until the tech staff could fix the problem, I jumped right on stage and continued interpreting consecutively until the system was working again. This is what we do. This is the right flexibility the client should expect from us. One time an agency asked me if I could be the driver of some of the foreign visitors I was to interpret for. I immediately refused. Driving is not part of what an interpreter is expected to do as a professional, and neither is to do photocopies, or set up the chairs and tables for the conference.

That we have to get a lot of clients to generate a good income is false. I consider myself a successful interpreter and I probably have fewer clients than many. I am never the first interpreter the agencies most of you are familiar with call, and I don’t want to be. If you are the first name on the list it means you could be undercharging or too willing to accept the agency’s work conditions.  I am the last name on the list, and that is good.

Whether it is because the agency could find nobody else, and they are now willing to pay my fee, or because it is a difficult, or high-profile assignment and they need one of the best, even though they know that my services don’t come cheap.  Well-run agencies make a great deal of money; hospitals charge more than any other service provider in society; attorneys keep one-third of the money awarded in a case (and interpreter fees do not even come from that slice, they are deducted from the part the plaintiff is to receive).

I know we all have our reasons to do what we do with our careers. I respect everybody’s decisions. All I ask you to do is that the next time you evaluate taking an assignment under less than ideal work conditions, or for a lower fee, before saying yes to the agency or direct client ask yourself if adapting to the market is a good thing, or shaping the market to satisfy your needs is better.  I invite you to share your opinions with the rest of us.

Interpreting depositions correctly.

March 27, 2017 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Next to interpreting in a hearing, legal depositions are the most common professional service provided by court interpreters. They are in high demand, the field is full of potential direct clients, and they usually pay much better than an assignment by the court. With so many apparent advantages, the question that first comes to mind is: Why so many court interpreters do not pursue these assignments? And even among those who provide the service regularly, why is it that so few of our colleagues know what depositions are for, and how to correctly provide the service to ensure top accuracy and quality? Let’s see:

A deposition is the testimony of a witness taken orally (oral deposition) or in writing (interrogatories) outside open court, but in compliance with a court order or statute. It is a pretrial discovery device by which one party, through their attorney, ask oral questions of the other party or of a witness of the other party. It is conducted under oath or affirmation, without a judge, usually at the law office of one of the attorneys or at a court reporters’ office, and a word-for-word transcript is made. Interrogatories are answered in writing under oath or affirmation as well.

Depositions take place in both, criminal and civil proceedings and they are an extremely important part of the discovery process that takes place in an adversarial system, so that the attorneys of one party know what the counterpart or their witnesses will say during the trial. (Fed. R. Civil P.26 et seq.; Fed. R. Criminal P.15)

Oftentimes I run into colleagues who complain about “having to interpret” during a pretrial hearing “instead of interpreting during the trial”. My usual answer has to do with the importance of the pretrial motions and the discovery in general. I try to convey the concept that most cases are won or lost during the pretrial. Ascertaining the facts, excluding illegally obtained evidence, impeaching a witness based on statements made during a deposition, are invaluable as these legal actions and decisions determine what a jury will and will not hear at trial. A litigant exits the pretrial process with a strong winnable case or weakened by the discovery and pretrial motions argued before the judge.

Because of the importance and complexity of a deposition (and all pretrial actions and motions in general) it baffles me how extreme professional interpreting services can be at this stage of the process.

As depositions do not take place in the presence of the court, interpreting services for non-English speaking deponents are left to the professionalism, knowledge, and pocket of the attorney who represents the client. Because many attorneys seldom deal with foreign-language speakers, and for that reason know very little about interpreters and their services, they tend to seek the services of an agency, not for its quality or reputation, but because it was suggested by another colleague who had a case involving a non-English speaker in the past. For the most part the recommendation by the other attorney has to do with things such as: “they are cheap and they are quick”. Quality and experience are mentioned every once in a while.

We all know that, for the most part, there are no standards or policy regulating who can be an agency in the United States. This is an invitation to those with little to no interpreting knowledge to throw their hat in the ring and profit from this very popular professional service.

For the same reason: lack of basic quality standards, many paraprofessionals who unsuccessfully attempted to become certified court interpreters and failed, gravitate to this goose with the golden eggs where they will be on high demand by the above-mentioned ignorant agency owners who in turn will satisfy the requirements of the law office by providing interpreting services that are quick and cheap, regardless of their questionable quality.

But the landscape gets more complicated: For the same good reasons that bottom feeder agencies and paraprofessional interpreters are attracted to depositions, the best of the best in the world of legal interpreting participate in this market as well.

You see,  federal and state court systems retain the services of certified court interpreters, these professionals are for the most part better than non-certified, and from that point of view they are in demand. The problem is that the judiciary does not pay that well, with federal fees being half or less of what a conference interpreter makes, and under constraints of fixed fee schedules and budget cut limitations, the courts are less attractive to the very best in the profession. On the other hand, these top-notch court certified interpreters can negotiate with responsible and experienced law firms that value quality over rock bottom prices. This is the world of the direct client. Reputable agencies who handle big law firms and have a name to protect will also approach and retain these same high quality individuals. In fact, the field is so attractive that even interpreters from the highest caliber who usually do not work in the court system, and despite their vast experience and great skill have never pursued a court certification (but no doubt that candle these assignments because of their knowledge and capacity) provide interpreting services in depositions.

The result of all of the above circumstances and the participation of the wide range of individuals involved in this professional service is a reality where some depositions are interpreted at the highest possible level while at the same time many others are being butchered by paraprofessional interpreters, unscrupulous agencies, and careless lawyers. What a mess!

The good news is that, if they choose to do so, the best interpreters will be able to find good professional profitable clients whose clients will benefit immensely of a properly conducted discovery. The bad news is that many litigants, unaware of this reality, will trust the judgement of their advisers and end up with a defective interpreting service that most likely will impact the outcome of their case one way or another.

The solution to this problem, from the interpreters’ point of view, is relatively simple: stick to the good clients and ignore the bottom feeders. You do not need them, and they think they do not need you.

To me the biggest problem for the best interpreters who work depositions is, dear friends and colleagues, the alarming practice followed by so many of the top interpreters who accept to work alone in a deposition. Yes, I am referring to all of those who work solo, even when they provide services to the richest law firms in the world, including the work they do in very high-profile cases.

Team interpreting is a typical professional practice where two (or more) interpreters work as equal members of a team, rotating responsibilities at prearranged intervals and providing support and feedback to each other. This practice provides continuity and accuracy in the message transmission as it avoids fatigue and allows for word and concept checking during the rendition.

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators of the United States (NAJIT) clearly spells out the function and the need for the second interpreter: “…The typical team is comprised of two interpreters who work in tandem, providing relief every 30 minutes. The interpreter engaged in delivering the interpretation at any given moment is called the active interpreter. His job is to interpret the court proceedings truly and accurately. The other interpreter is called the support interpreter. His job is to… (2) assist the active interpreter by looking up vocabulary, or acting as a second ear to confirm quickly spoken… 4) be available in case the active interpreter has an emergency; and (5) serve as an impartial language expert in the case of any challenge to interpretation…” (NAJIT Position paper Team Interpreting in the courtroom. Primary author: Andrew Erickson. 2007)

Scientific studies have shown that mental fatigue sets in after approximately 30 minutes of sustained simultaneous interpretation, resulting in a marked loss in accuracy. This is so regardless of how experienced or talented the interpreter may be. A 1998 study conducted at the École de Traduction et d’Interprétation at the University of Geneva, demonstrated the effects of interpreting over increasing periods of time. The conclusion of the study was that an interpreter’s own judgment of output quality becomes unreliable after increased time on task.  (Moser-Mercer, B., Kunzli, B., and Korac, M. 1998. “Prolonged turns in interpreting: Effects on quality, physiological and psychological stress.” University of Geneva, École de Traduction et d’Interprétation. Interpreting Vol. 3 (1), p. 47-64. John Benjamins Publishing Co.)

It is true that most reputable agencies and experienced law firms grant the solo interpreter, who is providing the services at the deposition, the choice to take as many breaks as needed. This is often the justification I hear from my colleagues as well.

I am glad that they get to rest their brain and voice every now and then, but it is not enough. There is no scientific conclusion as to how long the interpreter needs to rest before being back in optimum shape in order to continue the rendition with the same quality and at the same level as it was done at the beginning of the session. Obviously, the University of Geneva’s findings suggest that it takes about 30 minutes to get back to the top of your game.

I do not work under these “solo” conditions, but I could assure you that interpreters do not get a 30 minute break for every 30 minutes of service, and if they do, the attorneys would be better served by having a second interpreter actively interpreting during those 30 minutes. You see, it is a myth that having short breaks here and there will protect the interpreter and assure the quality of the service. This “solution” was developed to make everybody feel good even though nothing is really accomplished from the interpreter’s and the interpretation’s perspective. The only “positive” outcome of this solo work with “as many breaks as needed” has to do with the pocketbook of the law office and the profits of the agency. That is all.

But moving beyond that, there is a second, and equally important issue that goes unsolved without team interpreting.

Interpreting is a human task. It is extremely complex and delicate. Depositions present difficult situations that interpreters must solve in order to fulfill the ultimate purpose of the deposition: to ascertain the facts of the case, and to learn the unknown, to be able to ultimately prevail in court. In a deposition setting, interpreters need to understand and convey the message in two different languages, often spoken by individuals of different backgrounds, education, and willingness to disclose the truth. Interpreters need to find in their brain the appropriate scientific terminology, technical word, and regional expression that a deponent has used in the source language. The need to double-check a term, clarify an idiomatic expression, and research a concept are always present; In fact, they are the regular practice of the best interpreters who understand the relevance of the task at hand, and professionally look for the appropriate equivalency with the right syntax and grammar. This is not a job for one. Team interpreting allows the active interpreter to remain mentally fresh, while the support interpreter takes on other functions that would lead the active interpreter to cognitive overload.

For these reasons, it is universally accepted that team interpreting is the standard practice in courtrooms, conferences, international organizations, government events, and any other assignment that may last over 30 minutes. I only agree to do a deposition when I am working with a partner. My sense of professionalism, my reputation, my health, and my sanity, would not allow me to do anything else.

I invite you to stand up for what is right for you and for the profession. Just as you refuse to interpret a trial unless you have a partner, I encourage you to demand team interpreting in all depositions. It is only then that you will be living to the highest standards that a legal process requires. It is only then that you can unequivocally say that you did your best job at a deposition. Working solo, even if you take short breaks, will not relieve fatigue and it will not magically produce a support interpreter who will help you navigate the treacherous waters of legal interpreting.  I now invite you to share your thoughts on this extremely important issue and the terrible practice that permeates deposition interpreting.

Immigration interpreters: Show courage, or prepare to die!

December 5, 2016 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Last week many of our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States received written communication from SOSi, the government’s contractor, asking them to accept a new adhesion policy, which would require them to bid as low as possible in order to qualify for continuing sub-contractor status, as immigration court interpreters, after their current contract expires in a few weeks.

This notice, in the form of an ultimatum, required interpreters to provide their lowest possible hourly “rate” bid for the entire period of performance, and would become the sole basis for priority of case assignments in the future.  Moreover, the agency set top possible fees according to language combinations, and indicated that those bidding above said amounts would not be considered.

The maximum fees to be used as point of departure for this dive to the bottom of the barrel are insulting at best.  If you received the communication you saw the proposed maximum amounts, but for those of you who did not, it is important to be aware of the fact that these fees are way below the court interpreting fees set by the other federal courts (Article Three). The communication expressly mentions that SOSi will not honor the full-day or half-day rates policy that all other federal courts observe.  They also decided that travel expenses will be standardized with no room for negotiation, ignoring variations in cost of living, weather impact on travel, and so on. Finally, for obvious corporate reasons such as lack of candidates to be exploited at this time, and keeping up with this “serf-landlord model”, the agency gives interpreters a chance to extend their present fee conditions for a period of 45 days or until the end of January 2017.

The current Article Three federal court interpreter fees are: for a full-day of work $418.00, for the first half of the day: $226.00, for the second half of the day: $192.00, and $59.00 per hour or part thereof when the interpretation goes past 8 hours.

If you consider that the above federal court fees are for interpreters working under better conditions, such as team interpreting, access to court files for preparation, sometimes one or two cases for the day, reimbursement of travel expenses according to cost of living of the place interpreters travel to; and then you compare it to the conditions historically endured by immigration court interpreters: working solo (with bathroom breaks if you are lucky) hostile treatment in many courts, dozens of cases when interpreting Master Hearings, etc., then you come to the natural conclusion that immigration court interpreters should make the same fees as other federal court interpreters, or perhaps even more if working conditions do not improve. We cannot forget the difference in time elapsed before payment either.  As you probably guessed, immigration court interpreters have to wait longer to see their meager paychecks.

I am not going to go back to my conversations with many of you about a year ago when I warned you of future deplorable working conditions with this agency, and many of you assured me that everything was fine, that you had negotiated a better deal than ever before, and that SOSi had realized that interpreters should be treated as professionals. Well, it turns out that I was right, and that all those of you who refused to sign a contract and decided to look for other green pastures did the appropriate thing, broaden their professional horizons, and avoided having to deal with an agency that is so demeaning to all professional interpreters.

Obviously, as I said before, these posts are directed to those real professional court interpreters who are constantly improving their skills and pursuing certification (or qualification for those languages where no certification is available). I have nothing for those who refuse to pursue certification; that avoid continuing education, or argue that immigration court interpreting is so unique that no professional credential can benefit them.

But to those proud professional immigration court interpreters who view their occupation as a professional service and understand the importance of what they do, I invite you to consider this: Another year went by and SOSi continues its path to commoditization of immigration court interpreting; they moved ahead with their plan to transform you into language laborers who will blindly obey any order given without questioning. Their goal is to profit as much as possible (nothing wrong with that) by creating the illusion that they are providing a professional service while in reality delivering sub-standard interpretations without any regard for the consequences on the lives of those directly (respondents) and indirectly (American society at large) involved (this is wrong).

Dear colleagues, this is your last chance to act; by next year the monster will be too big for you.  It is clear that the agency’s goal is to get the cheapest possible “interpreter” available, and to continue to look for a cheaper one. It is also clear that they do not have enough of these language laborers at this time. Thus the reason for them to extend your current contractual terms for another 45 days or so. They need this time to find your replacement, not based in quality, but in bargain price.

As of today, without you they have to close shop. They just cannot provide the service EOIR hired them to do. Understand that you have leverage, keep in mind that by next year, with a more aggressive prosecution of immigration cases under a new White House, EOIR will surely need more interpreters than ever before. It is simple demand and supply. Today you control your destiny.

For this reason, it is important that you act, seize the moment, and protect your dignity. I invite you all to send a message loud and clear to SOSi, EOIR, and the immigration attorneys. Send your bids for a fee not lower than the federal court interpreter fee, and send it for full-day, half-day, and overtime. Tell them that reimbursement of travel expenses will be negotiated on a case by case basis, and do not sign the contract extension. Moreover, send your bids to SOSi, but copy the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), your local immigration courthouse, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Let them all know that you are professionals providing a critical service to the administration of justice.

Explain that you cannot accept the proposed conditions because of the complexity of what you do. Tell judges and lawyers that a SOSi certification is not a court interpreter certification at all; let them know that Spanish interpreters can obtain a federal court certification, that other languages can get state-level certifications, and that for those languages with no certification program, there are other options to prove your professional qualifications such as college degrees, translator certifications by the American Translators Association (ATA) or a passing grade on the translator or seminary-level interpreter exams by the U.S. Department of State (DOS).

During the last twelve months I learned how many people at EOIR were under the impression that a certification by SOSi was the same as the federal court interpreter certification. I saw the faces of many immigration attorneys when they learned that so many of the interpreters they regularly use in immigration court are not court certified, and I heard many of them telling me that, knowing now of this lack of certification, they understood why they never saw them in any other courthouse.

It would be unfortunate to learn that some of you decided to lower your head and take the extension, or bid according to their unconscionable terms. It would also be a gigantic waste of the greatest opportunity you will ever have to finally professionalize immigration court interpreting. Giving in, or giving up at this time would be the first step to your professional death. Immigration court interpreters, it is time to show courage and determination, or to prepare to die.

I now invite you to share your comments on this important topic at this crucial time.

U.S. Immigration Court interpreters’ other enemy.

October 18, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

About two months ago the California immigration court interpreters started a movement to force the hand of SOSi and the EOIR with the goal of achieving better work conditions, a professional pay for the services rendered, and to keep the authorities from hiring new interpreters and interpretation students for a lower fee.  This entry will not deal with the merits or the outcome of such movement. We will talk about the elephant in the room: the big obstacle to the professionalization of the interpreting services in American immigration courts that can be changed by the interpreters themselves.

I know that this blog entry will make some uncomfortable, and I do not like to do that. Unfortunately, my life-long effort to fight for the professionalization of interpreting does not allow me to keep silent. To me, that would be equivalent to betraying my own professional standards. I write this piece with respect and with no desire to offend, knowing that by the time some of you finish reading this article, you will feel offended. I only ask you to reflect on what bothered you, and honestly acknowledge, at least to yourself, that you are not really up to save the profession (as a true profession, not as a laborer’s occupation) in the immigration court arena.

For several years now, there has been a tendency to credentialize interpreters who provide services to the public, who perform a fiduciary function.  Because of the wide variety of languages regularly spoken in the United States, and due to the millions of people who do not speak English at all, or at least good enough to go through a legal or medical process, most efforts have been applied to the certification of Spanish interpreters, by far the most popular foreign language nationwide, and finding other solutions for the other languages.

Court interpreters had an early start and developed the federal Spanish court interpreter certification exam. Many States followed and the States’ Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification was born, later taking us to the current Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC).

Healthcare interpreters followed suit and developed two different interpreter certification programs (the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters: CCHI, and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters’ CMI program) both of them widely spread and recognized throughout the United States. Granted, the term “medical interpreter” to describe the functions of these professionals is less accurate that “healthcare interpreter”, and compared to the court interpreter certification federal and state-level exams, both healthcare certifications are way behind in content and degree of difficulty; but unlike court interpreter certification programs, healthcare interpreters have achieved something extremely valuable that court interpreters can only dream of: an examination administered by an independent entity, just like lawyers and physicians, instead of the uncomfortable government-run court interpreter programs that always raise the issue of the real conflict of interests when the entity certifying interpreters is the same one who hires them.

At any rate, healthcare interpreters in the United States now have a way to prove that they are minimally qualified to do their job, that they adhere to a code of ethics, and that they comply with continuing education requirements that will keep them current in language, interpreting, terminology, and medical issues. In other words, healthcare interpreters sitting at the table with court interpreters can now bring up their credential and feel at the same professional level than their legal colleagues, instead of having to give a speech about how certifications do not mean a thing, that it is working in the trenches that makes you a good interpreter, and that your field is so unique that no existing certification exam could test what is needed to work in that field.

Well, dear friends and colleagues, this takes me straight to a very real, and somewhat uncomfortable problem, faced everyday by immigration court interpreters in the United Stets: They have no certification program requirement to work in court, and for that reason, there is no way to prove a certain minimum level, thus allowing bad interpreters to work in the immigration court system for years.

Court interpreting is a highly skilled occupation that requires of a professional provider. By its nature, it is also a fiduciary function where a judge, attorneys, respondents and witnesses must trust the knowledge and skill of the interpreter who will speak throughout the proceedings while at least half of those present will not understand a word of what was said. It is an awesome responsibility that cannot be left to the paraprofessional or the untested.

Presently, all Article Three courts in the United States, at all levels (federal and state) have a Spanish language court interpreter certification program that includes minimum requirements to take the exam, passing a comprehensive and difficult test (at least at the federal level), observing a code of ethics, and (with the exception of the federal program) complying with continuing education in the legal, interpreting, and language fields to be able to keep the certification. These courts are part of the Judiciary Branch of government.

Immigration Courts are not a part of the Judiciary. They are in the Executive Branch of government and are referred to as Article One courts because of their legal basis in the U.S. Constitution. The thing is, my colleagues, these courts deal with societal, family, and personal values and interests as important as those heard by Article Three judges. They are courts of law that abide by a set of substantive and adjective laws.  For practical reasons, they operate just like any judicial court: there is a judge, there are parties (one of them will be the government just like in criminal law), there are witnesses, and there are attorneys.  Although the controversies are different, immigration proceedings also include a first appearance, motions hearings, a court trial, and a verdict. There is a burden of proof, rules of evidence and procedure, and the possibility of an appeal to a higher court (Board of Immigration Appeals). The fact that the terminology calls these hearings “master calendar”, “bond redetermination”, “credible fear”, or “individual hearing” does not make much difference.   The cases are as different from those interpreted in an Article Three courtroom, as a criminal case differs from a civil or a family law proceeding.

The skills required to interpret are the same as in any other type of court proceeding: There is a need for simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, as well as sight translation. Interpreters use equipment just the same (in fact, in many cases even the same brand), and the expected ethical and professional conduct of the interpreter is the same.

It is a fact that immigration court interpreters are disrespected by their client: the EOIR on a daily basis. There is no denial that they make little money, work long hours, and they do it solo, regardless of the complexity or duration of a hearing. It is also well-known that they are treated in humiliating fashion by being forced to jump through many administrative hoops that no other court interpreter will ever face, in part because they are subcontracted by a multinational agency that tries to keep control over the interpreters without physically being at the courthouse, but also in part because interpreters are not considered professionals, they are not acknowledged as officers of the court.

I firmly believe that the only way to earn the credibility they need so much, Spanish language (for now, and ideally all widely used language combinations later) immigration court interpreters in the United States must demand a court interpreter certification requirement to be able to work.  They need it for their credibility among their peers and with the public opinion.  Once they have a credential, together with a code of ethics and continuing education requirements, they will be in a much better position to negotiate with anybody.

Because immigration court is a federal matter, and the services provided by the interpreter are the same as the ones in all federal courts, I think that the certification they need to have is the already existing FCICE. It would be very simple, all they need to do is convince the EOIR of this need. The exam already exists, all these interpreters would need to do is register and take the test. Then, if both, EOIR and the immigration interpreter community think it is appropriate, there could be a short immigration terminology exam (although I don’t think it necessary just like current certified court interpreters do not need to test every time they interpret a different kind of hearing. Part of an interpreter’s duty is to get ready for an assignment and that professional obligation should be enough).  This would be the best way to demonstrate that their simultaneous, consecutive, and sight skills are at a minimum level to deserve that trust we discussed above. In fact, by getting EOIR to agree, immigration interpreters would have until the Summer of 2018 to take and pass the written portion of the federal exam, and then until the Summer of 2019 to take and pass the oral test. In the meantime, it could be agreed that those currently working would continue to do so until the Summer of 2018.

This solution would immediate put immigration court interpreters at the same negotiating level as their Article Three federal counterparts; In fact, it would benefit everyone: Currently federally certified Spanish court interpreters would consider working in immigration court as the pay would be the same (or almost), and newly federally certified immigration court interpreters would have the opportunity to broaden their professional horizons and work in federal courts.

Of course, this means that two things must happen: First, the certification exam cannot be a “Mickey Mouse test” like the ones offered to immigration court interpreters by multinational agency contractors; they have no scientific value and a very poor reputation. And second, immigration court interpreters need to understand that those who do not pass the exam must go, regardless of the time they have been a fixture at the immigration courthouse. Any other “solution” would defeat the purpose and discredit the credential. This, my friends, is the “other” enemy of the U.S. immigration interpreter: the bad interpreter who has never been able to pass a court certification exam, knows that they never will, and spend all their time and energy trying to convince others that certifications are worthless, exams are rigged, and that the only way to learn the profession in in the courtroom.  These people have to go away. They are like a cancer that is slowing down the progress of the rest of their colleagues.

To argue “unity” to protect and keep these individuals is misleading. Professional unity can only happen among professionals, and the individuals I just described above may be paraprofessionals but they are definitely not professional material. Imagine for one moment going to the hospital for emergency surgery and being told that the person who will operate on you has never taken or passed the Board, but has a lot of experience. Would you let this non-doctor cut you open?

I understand it is very hard to set aside our emotions and empathy for these individuals, but it is time to think of yourselves, your families and your peers. Unless you want to continue to struggle as an immigration court interpreter, you have to get certified. A decision to dodge the certification issue, or to settle for a lower standard of certification, because someone who cannot pass the test convinced you to support other options, will be a vote for the status quo, sacrificing the good ones to protect those who do not deserve to be there.

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