Effective depositions require team interpreting.

August 8, 2018 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I was recently part of a two-interpreter team that interpreted for 2 depositions. They each took a full day; they were complicated because of the subject; they were difficult because of the deponents; they were important because of their crucial part in the litigation process; they were stressful because of the financial impact the outcome of the case will have once it is decided in court or settled by the parties; and they were exhausting even for two interpreters.

As I was rendering this service, I remembered the many times I have heard colleagues say that depositions can be interpreted solo because they are interpreted consecutively. Honestly, I do not know how this could be possible without compromising the flow of the testimony, the timing of the questions, or the quality of the rendition.

I rarely interpret depositions, but the two or three times a year I am asked to do it, it is always as part of a team of two experienced legal interpreters directly hired by one of the law firms I work with. I know the fact that many agencies contact interpreters for these assignments and ask them to interpret solo. It is clear they follow this practice not because they believe depositions are simple enough to be interpreted by one interpreter, but because they are putting money before quality. Many attorneys, who do not know better, buy into this idea, and by accepting this practice, they contribute to the perpetuation of the idea that consecutive interpreting in a deposition setting does not require team interpreting.

Before the actual deposition, like in any assignment, my partner and I had to study all materials relevant to the case, we had to travel to another state the day before these depositions, check into a hotel, get to the venue the following morning (in a different time zone) early enough to assess the place and determine where we would sit during the sessions, and set up our iPad and other materials at the boardroom table where the deposition was to take place.

The depositions were complicated because of the technical matters discussed, the many dates, places, names, etcetera. They were also difficult because of the deponents’ reluctance to answer the questions. Both deponents spoke Spanish, but they were from different countries, different gender, they had a different background, and conflicting interests regarding the outcome of the case.

Because the attorneys and interpreters were from out of town, the Law Firm was interested in finishing the matter in two days. This meant long hours with short breaks.

Even though we prepared for the assignment, and we were flooded with many documents, there were certain technical terms, types of software, and other concepts not in the package. We had to research on the run by going online and looking up concepts and products. This can only happen when you have two interpreters working as a team where one interprets (active) while the other one (passive or supporting) does the research and passes on the information found to his or her colleague.

I do not see how this could happen when working alone. The interpreter would have to request a break to research what is needed. This would bring at least four unwanted consequences: (1) The deposition would take longer, generating additional costs when held out of town; (2) It would break the rhythm of the dialogue between attorney and deponent, causing attorneys to lose their train of thought; (3) It would cut the flow of an answer by interrupting the way the deponent is describing or telling something, or in another scenario, it would give a deponent time to think an answer eliminating the effect intended by the attorney asking the questions; and (4) The interpreter’s rendition could be compromised because on top of the complex and exhausting task of interpreting everything alone, he or she would now undertake another tiring task: research in a hurry because you are holding up the deposition. To compensate, attorneys would shorten the breaks and the interpreter would have to work more than originally expected with less time to rest.

On both days, we shortened our active interpreter shifts towards the end of the day so we could maintain the quality level of the interpretation. On both days the passive, supporting interpreter, had to research during the sessions; and as always, when you work as a team, we both consulted with each other when needed (doubts about a term, a number, a regional or technical expression) by simply exchanging notes without interrupting the deposition. I will not even mention the impromptu “saves” during a coughing attack or a bathroom emergency.

Depositions happen in civil cases where there is often a lot of money on the line. My experience is that attorneys who do this work are very receptive to the advantages of having the interpreting service provided by a team. They get the importance of a smooth deposition, and they understand the costs saved by avoiding prolonged sessions because of continuous interpreter breaks. As experienced attorneys, they know the difference between a fresh interpreter and an exhausted one. They are aware of how difficult our work is, and they trust our professional advice. For this reason, they will go for a team of interpreters instead of a solo. I would say to those of you who claim this is impossible because the agencies will not go for it: Talk directly to the law office. Do not wait for an agency to find you for a deposition. Go out there and find your attorney clients yourselves. It has worked for me. I now ask you to comment, and I would like to hear what you do when you are unfortunately interpreting a deposition by yourself and you need time to research something where attorneys are working under time constraints because of financial considerations or due to their professional agendas or the availability of the deponents.

Diplomatic Interpreting: Misunderstood and little known.

July 18, 2018 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During the last month we have seen plenty of diplomatic activity around the world, most of which involved the president of the United States. First, president Trump met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore; next, he met with several heads of state in Europe during the NATO meetings, and after his visit to the United Kingdom where he needed no interpreter, he met Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Through current 24-hour news coverage around the world, these encounters and press conferences have put diplomatic interpreters on the spotlight in an unprecedented way. Diplomats and politicians have always known the role of the diplomatic interpreter in these events, but journalists, social media users, and TV viewers are just discovering the importance and complexity of this essential function needed in all diplomatic exchanges when the parties share no common language.

The interpreting profession is growing all over the world, but most of its expansion is coming from the legal, healthcare, and community service fields; therefore, diplomatic interpreting is also new to many interpreters who never had an opportunity to do it.

Many of our colleagues seized the opportunity to highlight the difference between translating and interpreting by constantly bombarding all social media with entries correcting the term used by journalists and lay people, and making it crystal clear that (at least in languages with different words to describe interpreting and translating) those accompanying the presidents were interpreters, not translators. Many of their social media comments showed they knew little about diplomatic interpreting. Look at these remarks found on social media and interpreter forums and chatrooms: “…the interpreters working the summit hopefully demanded team interpreting…Did they consider that North Korean is a different dialect when assigning Trump’s interpreter?…Did they tell interpreters that Kim Jong Un has a Swiss accent?…Kim Jong Un speaks English, but they needed an interpreter to clean up Trump’s remarks…interpreter better watch diplomacy if president does not…Who would want to interpret for Trump?…I bet these interpreters will write a book after the summit…; or this one: “…Why would a woman interpret for Putin and Trump?…

Diplomatic interpreting is a very specialized field. It requires the same skills needed to interpret in other fields, plus other technical, cultural, ethical and diplomatic knowledge and abilities, and self-confidence, courage, stress control, and refraining from showing personal emotions and opinions. It includes a broad range of elements and factors that make communication possible at presidential level, ministries, international organizations, and international military organizations.

Besides all modes of interpretation used in all other settings, diplomatic interpreting requires impeccable consecutive interpreting that goes beyond memory, note taking and visualization; it also needs of the interpreter’s insights, observations, impressions and readings derived from discreet but careful eye contact with the source and target, which must incorporate body language, gestures, and intonations to convey the most accurate rendition, this while walking on eggshells  in a world where nuances are extremely important. Often working with no equipment, diplomatic interpreters must project their voice so they can be heard by the target.

Diplomatic interpreters must possess an excellent simultaneous delivery with the right decalage and comprehension of the issues discussed to provide the right meaning in those topics being addressed at the meeting or conference. They work in the booth like all conference interpreters, but they also constantly interpret simultaneously performing chuchotage escort interpreting for the head of state. This requires additional skills not always needed in the booth, such as extreme concentration to isolate the voice of the source during a state dinner while many others are speaking. Interpreters must master this discipline so their voice can be heard by their target with clarity, while taking care of their voice so they can continue to work as interpreters. “The ability to express ideas clearly, and above all great familiarity with the different cultures is a must…good voice projection and especially modulation are assets which seem to acquire even more weight… because whispered interpretation is commonly required…” (Maria Rosaria Buri. “Interpreting in diplomatic settings”. https://aiic.net/page/7349/interpreting-in-diplomatic-settings/lang/1)

Both, consecutive and escort diplomatic interpreting are rendered at an unprecedented level of stress and pressure.

Sometimes, the job goes to somebody not qualified to be a diplomatic interpreter and the consequences can be ugly. This was the case during Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s visit to the White House in 2010 when he addressed president Barack Obama about pending immigration policy and legislation in the United States. In Spanish, Calderon’s comments were straightforward and clear as he spoke to the common values and principles that united the United States and Mexico. A halting and grammatically incoherent English rendition by the Mexican interpreter followed. The interpretation was so difficult to understand that the American delegation ignored the rendition and used a written translation instead. The Mexican delegation blamed its own translation, and from that point on, president Calderón spoke in English until another interpreter joined his team in Ottawa where his trip continued after Washington, D.C. The Mexican government indicated that the interpreter had come with the presidential delegation, but apparently this individual did not regularly interpret for Calderón. (NBC News. Copyright 2010 Associated Press. (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/37238436/ns/world_news-americas/t/calderon-visit-marred-poor-translation/)

Those who are chosen to work as diplomatic interpreters must have broad knowledge and keep up to date with world political, social, and economic affairs. Keeping abreast of international developments and the issues at stake is essential for interpreters working in any language mediation setting.  Diplomatic interpreters must be familiar with dress codes, etiquette, demeanor, the correct form to address dignitaries, tact, and savoir-faire, the principles of being discreet and of not censoring. However, sometimes they must use harsh language when the source does so. In December 1983 then vice president George H.W. Bush went on a secret mission to El Salvador in a civil war. Stephanie Van Reigersberg, when head of the interpreting division of the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State was assigned to accompany him. Bush was there to deliver a warning to a group of military commanders about the government’s death squads. Secret Service agents recommended the vice president call off the meeting, but he refused. “Basically, he cursed them out” Van Reigersberg said. “…having a woman interpreter using that kind of language really got their attention”. After the meeting, she realized that she had been so concentrated on her work she had lost any sense of danger until Bush remarked: “…well, I almost got us both killed, didn’t I?”

Each country has its own internal policy and criteria to select and appoint diplomatic interpreters; for security reasons, most nations choose staff interpreters vetted and cleared as ethical, professional individuals worthy of their nation’s trust. Some others select independent contractors then subjected to rigorous background checks and assigned a security clearance level, with only those with the highest level being assigned for top diplomatic interpretations. Finally, many countries have a mixed system where staff interpreters are used for the most common and widely spoken languages, while independent contractors with top security clearance are retained to interpret in less common languages. In the United States, interpreting for White House and State Department officials is provided by the Office of Language Services (part of the U.S. Department of State). The Office’s “…diplomatic and conference interpreters (are on its) staff, and conference interpreters (are on its) contractor rosters…” (https://www.state.gov/m/a/ols/c57124.htm). Often, the diplomatic interpreter accompanying the head of state is the highest interpreter in their home country. Dr. Yun Hyang Lee, who interpreted for president Donald Trump during the meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, is the current head of the interpreting division of the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State (Time. Eli Meixler, Mahita Gajanan. June 13, 2018)

A diplomatic interpreter is not just selected from an interpreters’ association directory on line. They are trusted, vetted, and tested professionals recognized for their skill and field of expertise. Thoroughness is essential in this work, it is never a matter of finding an equivalent or substituting a word; the interpreter must understand the thought expressed and its underlying meaning to interpret. Interpreters must know the specialized jargon and background information. You cannot interpret what you cannot understand. It is crucial that interpreters have all needed knowledge for each assignment. Sometimes they are privy to the same briefing the president gets; often, because of the delicate matters to discuss, information is subject to secrecy and interpreters only get it at the right moment, but always with time to be prepared for the job. Words are so important in diplomatic interpreting that sometimes they can set the mood for a negotiation: During a U.S.-Soviet summit in Washington, D.C. in December 1987, president Reagan welcomed his cold war rival Gorbachev to the White House to discuss peace. During the official welcoming ceremony, Reagan stated that: “…today marks a visit that is perhaps more momentous than many…because it represents a coming together not of allies, but of adversaries…” The U.S. interpreter on that occasion was Dimitry Zarechnak, and the Soviet interpreter was the legendary Pavel Palazhchenko. When it came the time to interpret the speech, Zarechnak told National Public Radio (NPR) in 2001 he was “…agonizing over the word adversaries” because the Russian word for “adversaries” protivniki, sounds similar to a word that means “disgusting”: protivniy. “…In English, you can have a noble adversary. In Russian it sounds terrible…” he added. Instead of repeating the word “adversaries”, Zarechnak used a Russian word for “competitors” which Gorbachev liked. This same word was used by president Trump this week when he was asked if president Putin was his enemy and he replied that “…I have always said he is (my) competitor…” (National Public Radio NPR (https://www.npr.org/2018/06/11/611734103/the-pressure-of-being-an-interpreter-at-a-high-stakes-summit)

Occasionally, interpreters are indirect recipients of a tense internal relationship within a government structure. This can affect their work and their preparation.  During the Nixon administration, president Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger distrusted the State Department and had a less than friendly relationship with secretary of state William Rogers, sometimes they kept the U.S. interpreters out of the meetings for fear they would brief Rogers. This meant that sometimes the interpreters would assist in meetings between the secretary of state and foreign leaders on topics about which the White House had kept the interpreters in the dark. (Harry Obst. “White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation”. ISBN-13:978-1452006154).

Some say that these interpreters participate in making history. This is both: a privilege because they get to be eyewitness to some events that will be in the history books of tomorrow; and a burden because it means more stress and pressure which translate in tremendous responsibility. Interpreters like the ones who accompanied president Franklin D. Roosevelt to Yalta, or like Irene Bruno from the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State who interpreted for president Barack Obama during his visit to Havana in March of 2016.

Diplomatic interpreters are constantly studying and fine tuning their craft. They have great flexibility. On October 23, 2000, Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of State under president Bill Clinton, met former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Albright had the services of U.S. Department of State Senior Korean interpreter Tong Kim. Albright’s mission was to persuade the regime to abandon its long-range missile program. To prepare, Tong Kim learned arms control jargon, reviewed top-secret briefs, and read a dozen books on nuclear bombs. Kim later stated that he “…kept…reading every article in newspapers and academic journals…” He says that when he began interpreting he “spoke like a South Korean, and they did not seem to appreciate it…” so he perfected a North Korean accent and dialect: “I picked up their language, their intonation, their dialect…and that gives them some trust…” (National Public Radio NPR (https://www.npr.org/2018/06/11/611734103/the-pressure-of-being-an-interpreter-at-a-high-stakes-summit)

Due to the nature of the task, these interpreters often work alone and for many hours. Although team interpreting may be feasible for the conference work in the booth (usually a press conference where the second interpreter may not need to have the same level of security clearance, even though they usually do) long consecutive and chuchotage are generally performed by the same interpreter throughout the encounter. This requires that diplomatic interpreters have great stamina and good health. An important point because it takes many years of practice and study to reach this professional level, therefore many diplomatic interpreters are not very young.  Add the stress factor, generally present in these events because of the importance of the issues being negotiated, the bilinguals in the room who may think they have a better way to say something, and the constant feeling that if something goes wrong, interpreters could be blamed, even if the mishap was not entirely their fault.

Diplomatic interpreters develop an important working relationship with their source. This relationship takes many shapes and forms; sometimes the source is quite detached, and other times they rely on the interpreter for more than interpreting. We are their cultural advisors and sometimes their local history and geography consultants. For example, Harry Obst, who interpreted for seven U.S. presidents during his career, and was the head of the U.S. Department of State Office of Language Services, recalls how President Lyndon Johnson, who ascended to the presidency suddenly when president John Kennedy was killed, was eager to tap interpreters’ wisdom: “…Johnson would caucus with me before the meeting, and he would say, ‘Look, do you know this person? What is he like? Is he devious? Is he straightforward? It is best to raise a subject straight on or fish around it a bit?’” (Harry Obst. “White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation”. ISBN-13:978-1452006154). During the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki we could see the different relationship that each president has with his interpreter, while president Trump’s interpreter, Marina Gross from the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State, sat on the chair already positioned for her a few feet to the right of the president, president Putin’s interpreter walked on stage, grabbed his chair and put it next to Putin, just a few inches away.

Sometimes diplomatic interpreters working under such pressure make a mistake; they are humans. During a discussion on an open skies proposal between the 41 president of the United states, George H.W. Bush, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, Soviet interpreter Igor Korchilov said the word “verifying” in English, instead of the correct term “verified”. Everybody in the White House Cabinet Room looked at him, including Gorbachev who quickly said: “No, no. I never said that…” On an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, Korchilov remarked: “…To this day, I still feel extremely embarrassed…” On his memoir, Korchilov wrote: “…At the moment I wished the earth could swallow me up…” He then addressed president Bush to apologize, and the American president replied: “…Relax, the good news is that you didn’t start World War III…” He then apologized to Gorbachev who said something all interpreters need to remember: “…Oh, don’t worry, Igor. Only those who do nothing make no mistakes…” (Korchilov Igor, “Translating History: 30 Years on the Front Lines of Diplomacy with a Top Russian Interpreter).

Igor Korchilov made a mistake, but he was a great interpreter who worked as Gorbachev’s interpreter from 1987 to 1990.

Great interpreters make mistakes like everyone else, they just make them on a world stage and everybody finds out, as it happened in the well-publicized case of the joint press conference of U.S. president Barack Obama and king Felipe VI of Spain at the Oval Office in 2015. At the time, Spain was facing an independence vote in Catalonia that could end up in a political and economic crisis for the kingdom. On his remarks, president Obama stated that the United States wanted a relationship with a strong and united Spain (“una España fuerte y unificada”) but the interpreter’s rendition was: “a stronger and united relationship with Spain” (“una relación [cada vez] más fuerte y unida [con España]”) (“El Mundo”. Sept. 2015. http://www.elmundo.es./enredados/2015/09/16/55f9477022601da52a8b45a0.html ) The king, who studied in Georgetown University and speaks English, immediately looked at his delegation and made sure that the Spanish press got the correct presidential statement and not the mistake. Moreover, since interpreter renditions into the foreign language (in this case Spanish) are not shown on American media where they broadcast the president’s remarks in English, nobody noticed the mistake on the American media, but it was big news all over Spain. Once again, this interpreter had faced tougher situations many times.

I hope this gives you all a better idea of what diplomatic interpreters do, who they are, and how they work. I leave you with a quote from David Bernet and Christian Beetz press release for their documentary “The Whisperers”:

“They appear in the shadow of the mighty…the interpreters. They have been around forever or, at least, ever since different languages and cultures have met. The discretion that goes with their job makes interpreters very inconspicuous people. But behind the cloak of professional neutrality, one can discover a cast of fascinating characters who dedicate themselves to their craft with the utmost passion” (David Bernet and Christian Beetz press release for their documentary “The Whisperers” http://www.gebrueder-beetz.de/en/productions/the-whisperers-2#uebersicht)

What makes a good interpreter?

April 16, 2018 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Often when we attend a social event and start a conversation with people we do not know, but know about our profession, we are asked what makes a good interpreter. I know there are many answers to this question; all have value and are probably right. In my case, after being asked the same innumerable times throughout the years, in my personal and professional opinion, three things make a good interpreter.

First, the interpreter must be able to communicate concepts from a source language into a target language.  Webster tells us that an interpreter is one who translates orally for parties in different languages. The main goal is to make sure that a concept was conveyed in such a manner that the person receiving the information, who does not understand the language of the speaker, gets everything those who speak the main speaker’s language got.

To achieve this, the interpreter must understand what is being said in the source language, synthesize what was said, and orally convey it to the receiver with proper grammar and vocabulary in the target language, so it can be understood. Good interpreters “clean” the message so unnecessary words that may sound strange in the target language are eliminated. The good interpreter interprets the “meat” and gets rid of the “fat”. (I know this does not apply to some community interpreting, particularity to court interpreting where everything must be interpreted. This is a global answer, thinking of conference interpreting).  The good interpreter must understand, synthesize, and have command of grammar, culture, and vocabulary.

Second, a good interpreter must have a pleasant delivery that everybody understands. Good voice, décalage, volume, rhythm, pace. Listeners must be so comfortable they forget about the voice in their ear and concentrate in the speech. Voice modulation, clarity, enunciation, are a very important part of a rendition. Heavy breathing, coughing, slurping, rushing through the speech, and chasing speakers too close to what they just said make you look bad, even when you are a good interpreter.

Finally, my third attribute of the good interpreter is team work. The good interpreter lives in a conflict-free environment. They support their colleagues in the booth, are fair, and will go the extra mile to save a rendition. Often, a good interpreter who gets along with others is more desirable than a great interpreter who creates conflict everywhere. Do not misunderstand this attribute of a good interpreter. I never said that an interpreter willing to work more for less, or one who accepts deplorable work conditions, or a low fee are good interpreters. They are not. Easy going differs from easy to fool.

There you have it. To me a good interpreter then, is one who understands a concept, digests it, and conveys it to the client in a pleasant clear voice, so it can be understood by the foreign language speaker; and does it all while being a dedicated professional, good colleague, and decent human.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us your idea of a good interpreter.

When court interpreting is done right.

January 15, 2018 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Most professional, dedicated, court interpreters in Europe and the United States are constantly fighting against the establishment: government authorities who want to dodge the responsibility of administering justice to all, regardless of the language they speak, by procuring a warm body next to the litigant in the courtroom regardless of the skill and knowledge of the individual; ignorant and egotistical judges who believe they know everything about language access and interpreting, and make absurd decisions, when they know less about our profession than anyone else in the room; bilingual lawyers who cannot tell the difference between being a professional interpreter and speaking a second language with limited proficiency; monolingual attorneys who believe interpreting is easy and interpreters are  only an intransigent bunch demanding nonsensical work conditions (like team interpreting) and get paid for what they do more than they deserve;  and of course, greedy unscrupulous agencies who spend most of their time trying to figure out two things: How to pay interpreters less, and how to sell a mediocre paraprofessional low fee foreign-language speaker to their clients.

There are exceptions everywhere and in some latitudes court interpreting can be performed at a high quality level (even though, in my opinion, most court interpreters are still getting paid very little compared to the other actors in a court proceeding such as attorneys, expert witnesses, and judges), but there are no places, that I know of, at least in the United States, where you can find the support, understanding, and respect I found in Mexico during their transition from written court proceedings to oral trials where interpreters play a more relevant role they ever did under the old system.

Cubi (editor) Me, Carreon, Maya

During the last two years I have attended many conferences, meetings, one-on-one interviews, where I have talked to the parties invested in the system about the work court interpreters do, the need for some quality control process such as an accreditation or certification of the professional court interpreter, the non-negotiable principle that interpreters must make a professional fee that will let them have the lifestyle they may choose and will retain them as practitioners of the interpreting profession, and the work conditions for the professional court interpreter to provide the expected service. I have had many memorable experiences, and I will share with you those that I consider essential turning points in the design of the court interpreting profession in Mexico.

For the past two years I have attended the “Taller de profesionalización de los servicios de interpretación de Lengua de Señas Mexicana en el ámbito jurídico” (Professionalization of Mexican Sign Language legal interpreting services workshop), the brain child of Mexico’s federal judge Honorable María del Carmen Carreón, who has done more for the court interpreting profession than any person I know who is not an interpreter. Judge Carreón and her team organized these workshops that bring together Mexican Sign Language interpreters from all over the Mexican Republic, the most influential Sign Language Interpreter professional associations in the country, legal and language scholars, attorneys from all fields, and judges from all levels and jurisdictions: from Federal Supreme Court Justices and State Supreme Court Justices, to federal and state criminal, civil, family, administrative, and electoral judges.

These participants meet for three days at different locations: courthouses and universities, to learn from each other, and exchange ideas on how to make it easier for court interpreters so they can fulfill their role in the administration of justice to all individuals, regardless of the language they speak. The new court interpreting manual I recently published results from this extraordinary professional relationship that has developed among my co-authors: Judge Carreón and Daniel Maya, president of the largest professional association of Sign Language interpreters in Mexico, and me (Manual del Intérprete Judicial en México, Carreón, Rosado, Maya. Editorial Tirant Lo Blanch).

Judge Hernandez

During these trips, I have witnessed the willingness of all parties to learn the new system together, I heard often about the commitment to a good professional fee for those interpreters who get a court interpreter patent as a “perito” (equivalent to a certification or accreditation in other countries), and I saw a system with a new culture of cooperation where interpreters getting materials and full access to a case will be the rule and not the exception. I saw how all actors understand the need for team interpreting without even questioning the reasons behind this universally accepted policy. I heard judges telling interpreters to come to them with their suggestions and requests, and lawyers who want to learn how to work with the interpreter. Our manual has been presented before many institutions, including courthouses and attorneys’ forums to standing room only.

It was at one workshop, and through Judge Carreón, that I met Mexico City Civil Court Judge Eliseo Juan Hernández Villaverde and Mexico City Family Court Judge Teófilo Abdo Kuri.  Both judges graciously invited me to their courtrooms so I could observe how the oral proceedings are being carried under the new legislation, and to have a dialogue on court interpreters’ best practices so our Mexican colleagues can provide their service under close to ideal conditions.

At their respective courtrooms I met their staff and I saw how everyone was treated with dignity and respect. After fruitful talks with both judges, I observed the proceedings, and afterwards met with the judges to physically suggest changes to the courtroom to make it more “interpreter-friendly” to both: sign and spoken language interpreters. To my surprise, these suggestions were welcomed immediately, and Judge Hernández Villaverde rearranged the courtroom right on the spot, in my presence, to make sure that everything was as suggested. Finally, it was agreed that court interpreters and those studying interpreting will have regular visits to their courtrooms where they will observe proceedings and after the hearing can ask questions to the judges.

Judge Abdo

A major factor in the success that Mexico is enjoying, is due to the absence of irresponsible interpreting agencies that hire a high school level “coordinator” to recruit paraprofessionals and convince them to work for a fee (they call rate) that will seem good to them (compared to their minimum wage job prior to becoming an “interpreter”) but would be insulting and disrespectful to any professional interpreter charging the professional fees that their service commands.

There are some in Mexico, judges, attorneys, and interpreters, who are not fully on board, but they are not stopping the new culture. They are not killing the excitement and willingness of all parties to grow professionally in the new legal system the country has adopted.  There are many things to do, but an environment fosters the achievement of those goals.

I hope that me sharing the situation of the court interpreting profession in Mexico can inspire many of us in other countries and legal systems, and teach us to keep fighting for what is right without ever giving up in our dealings with the judiciary, and to never give in to the insulting conditions offered by those who want to see us as an “industry” instead of a profession. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your goals and achievements within your courthouses or hospitals (for healthcare interpreters).

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 health.  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 things 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 § 12 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.

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