Things to look for in an interpreting contract.

December 8, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

There has been a lot of discussion about interpreting services contracts in the past weeks.  The SOSi immigration court interpreter contract was a trending topic all over the social media.  Many colleagues debated, attacked, and defended parts of the contract like I never saw before.  This circumstance, together with other events in the professional world that involve contract negotiation (and the contents of the agreement itself) such as all federal contracts that were up for renewal at the beginning of the new U.S. federal government’s fiscal year, several irregularities with some state government contracts that appeared prior to their new fiscal year in August, and just the wording of quite a few contracts drafted by interpreting services agencies, large and small, made me think long and hard about the importance of negotiating an agreement and reviewing the letter of the proposed contract before committing myself to anything by the power of my signature.

Signing a contract is a very important act that can impact our professional career and reputation for a long time. It is not, as some colleagues may think now and then, a simple ceremonial thing that needs to be done in order to get the big assignment or the prestigious event. A contract is an agreement between two or more parties creating obligations that are enforceable or otherwise recognizable at law. (Black’s Law Dictionary). As Samuel Williston puts it, “A contract is a promise, or a set of promises, for breach of which the law gives a remedy, or the performance of which the law in some way recognizes as a duty…” (A treatise on the Law of Contracts §1, at 1-2. Walter H.E. Jaeger ed., 3d ed. 1957)

I suggest that we should all reflect on the meaning and magnitude of the concept above, and apply ourselves to the negotiating of the terms and conditions that will govern our professional services with a client, and that we review in detail the final document that the client (whether it is a direct client or an agency) tenders for our signature before we undertake any obligations.  In fact, I recommend that before signing any agreement, you give your attorney a chance to review the terms of the contract to see if there are any “unwanted” harmful terms. Even if you do not have an attorney who regularly works with you, I encourage you to get one. It is that important, and in most countries it is tax-deductible as part of the cost of doing business.  Just think for a moment: the other party had a lawyer draft the contract, that attorney is being paid by the party who has an interest in the delivery of the professional service that is different from yours, and many times it is the opposite.  Although ethical and professional, the job of the counterpart’s attorney is to protect his client’s interests, not yours.  Just like you would never enter a car race on foot while the others are driving a car, you should never sign a contract unless, and until, you are familiar with all of its contents because all of your questions have been answered to your satisfaction, and all your concerns have been put to rest.  Remember: You are an interpreter and you provide a professional service.

There are different types of contract that you will encounter during your professional life; government agencies will always have their standard contract, some large agencies, corporations and organizations will have their own contracts as well.  Smaller agencies and direct clients will likely accept your version of a contract or will adapt their own document to your demands and suggestions. Finally, some of your regular clients may not use written contracts. They will negotiate assignments with you more informally. That is fine, but remember, the document is not the contract; the contract is the meeting of the minds, the agreement of the parties. In other words, even in these cases you have a contract.

I always review all contract conditions, even when dealing with the government, and when I dislike a certain term, or I consider necessary to add some conditions, I propose the changes. You will be surprised to learn that more often than not, the counterpart agrees to the amendments to their standard contract. By the same token, I am also flexible and open minded about the counterpart’s proposals and suggestions. I always consider them and give them a lot of thought. On many occasions I agree to the changes, provided they do not leave me unprotected and the potential risk is something I can live with.  Finally, in the case of a regular client who never signs any documents with me, I always put all essential terms of the verbal contract in writing and send them to the client by email as a memorandum of understanding, stating very clearly that by receiving the email and not taking any action within the first 24 hours, the client is consenting to the terms and conditions included on the email. This way essentials such as type of event, dates and location, scope of services and fee are always included, as well as reimbursement of expenses, travel costs and fees, late payment penalties, cancellation policy, and standard working conditions according to the type of assignment (equipment, booths, team interpreting, materials and glossaries, etc.)

As we see above, contracts can come on different presentations and they originate for different reasons depending on the client who drafted the contract; but, regardless of the type of contract, there are always certain things we should look for in an interpreter contract. I will share with all of you some of those items I look for in all contracts, and I hope this helps you as much as it helps me; however, I would like to make it very clear that my suggestion is that you always go to an attorney before signing any contract. The following are just suggestions that have worked for me, but in no way they are intended to constitute legal advice of any kind. All situations are different and I do not know your particular situation, so please understand that this is not legal advice. Only your lawyer can give you that kind of professional help.

These are the things I look for in a professional contract:

First. The scope of the service. I always look for the specifics: What the client is actually retaining me for. It is very important because some clients have the idea that once you are hired, you are theirs during the assignment to do anything that they consider part of the service. They are wrong. You agreed to perform a certain service and you are only getting paid for that service. Nothing else. Be careful about services description that may “include” translation services, being responsible for giving out and collecting interpreting equipment, other peripheral interpreting services not previously discussed such as dinners, press conferences, book signings, etc.

Second. I always pay attention to the wording because it tells me a lot about the client. I look for “telling” words such as interpretation industry (instead of profession) and in the case of an agency, how they refer to their end client: If they refer to them in the contract as “the customer” instead of “the client”, we will have a very difficult relationship because it is clear that my profession is an industrial commercial activity to them. I always discuss these issues when present in the contract, educate the client about the profession, and usually they agree to change the contract’s terminology (at least for my assignments if not for the rest of my colleagues)

Third. The grounds for termination of the contract. This is a crucial item because an early termination could impact your income for at least a few days or weeks. The reasons to terminate a contract early have to be fair, and they should include both parties. I have found many contracts where only the client can do an early termination. That is wrong, unfair, and highly suspicious. The grounds should apply to both parties, and in long-term contracts, they should include the lack of payment or late payment of your fee as a cause for early termination.

Fourth.  The famous confidentiality clause that although redundant since we are professionals and as such are legally and ethically bound to this duty of confidentiality, it should be included for the peace of mind of the client and his attorneys; however, the same provision should always include that the confidentiality will be observed with the exceptions of law. Yes, the law allows you to break this duty of confidentiality, even in the client-attorney privilege case, when there are certain facts that justify the lifting of this duty. For example, if you have to file a lawsuit against your client for lack of payment, or when your client sues you and you need to defend yourself. In those cases (and others) the law allows you to break the duty, limited to what may be necessary, to defend yourself or to exercise legal action.

Fifth. I look for cases where the client contractually limits his liability, and when I find it I do not like it and demand that it be changed. Although many legislations permit that an individual’s liability be reduced or limited by agreement of the parties, it is ridiculous for the other party to suggest, and for you to agree, to be exposed to all kinds of damages in case of a lawsuit, while the agency and the end client just sit and observe how you lose your business (in one of the best possible outcomes) or all of your assets and life-long savings (as a very good possibility). This is a no-no. Everybody should have the same exposure and respond for the damages caused according to their contribution to the loss. This is a very good reason why the parties should always request a copy of the other parties’ liability insurance certificate.

Sixth. There are some provisions that raise many red flags as they denote a clear intent to tilt the balance in favor of one of the parties (and that party is not usually you). Any provision that makes it illegal for the interpreter to talk to the media about the terms and conditions of the contract, unless we are dealing with information protected by the duty of confidentiality or the client-attorney privilege, and all clauses that force you to “consent” to resolve any controversies through arbitration instead of going to court are a huge warning sign.  You see, businesses prefer arbitration because it is less expensive, but mainly, because they get to “pick” the arbitrator. Unless you know several arbitrators that you trust, which is unlikely, they will always get to suggest the arbitrator. This individual will know them, it is very likely that he has presided over other arbitrations with the same party, and he will probably, be inclined to keep the client (your counterpart) happy for business reasons into the future.  Of course this last part cannot be demonstrated and I have no basis to claim that this is what happens during arbitration. The question is: Are you willing to take the chance? I personally would not do it. I would seek justice in the court system. Yes, it will take longer, but impartiality is more common in the courtroom, and if you win, the losing party may have to pay your attorney’s fees.

Seventh.  All terms and conditions must be in writing and they must be part of the written document. Even those terms and conditions contained in an appendix to the main contract should be referenced to and identified within the body of the contract by a number or a letter. Make sure that all attachments are signed by all parties, and dated with the same date as the main contract.  Most legislations abide by the parol evidence rule which clearly states that all agreements previous or contemporary to the signing of the contract must be in writing and appear as part of the physical agreement. Those that do not follow this rule will not be considered as part of the contract.  Be very careful with all those promises and concessions on the side.  They are not part of the contract unless they are in writing and in the document itself.

Eight.  Travel expenses must be included in the contract. The document should clearly state what expenses are reimbursable: airfare, hotel, ground transportation, Per Diem, photocopies, etc. It should also spell the fees payable to the interpreter on traveling days.  Remember, you provide a personal professional service. You cannot provide your services to two clients at the same time, so on the days that you travel to and from the assignment location, you are not working for any client. Unless you like to lose money, you should clearly negotiate and include in the contract your travel fee. There is a cost of doing business, but you should never lose money for accepting an assignment. Maybe one half of your regular fee should be a fair compensation for your travel days. Make sure that reimbursement of expenses for travel days are for total expenses. You can charge a lower fee, but you cannot fly, sleep or eat for less money just because it is a travel day.

Ninth.   The cancellation policy will always be in the contract. I would never sign an agreement that does not deal with this issue.  This policy needs to be negotiated taking into account the time between the cancellation and the cancelled event.  The fact that your client just found out of a cancellation that was decided two weeks ago is no excuse to lower your cancellation fee. It is your client’s obligation and duty of due diligence to be on top of everything the end client is considering, pondering, thinking, and doing.  A last-minute cancellation should require a full fee and reimbursement of all monies disbursed to that point.  Remember, it is not your fault that the client lost the event. That is his risk, not yours.

Tenth.  A good contract should cover payments in detail: amounts, timetables, and penalties in case of late payment.  Just as you had to show up to interpret on the set date, and not 30 days later, the client has the obligation to pay you on the day agreed to, and if he does not, then you must be compensated by virtue of a penalty clause that provides for compensation in case of any delays.  This is extremely important with smaller agencies who sometimes come to the interpreter crying poverty and asking for more time to pay you because their client has not paid them yet.  Although some of you may be tempted to give the small business owner a break, I am not. Do not lose sight of reality: This individual is your client. He is not your partner. Only partners share the risks of doing business. He is not sharing his pay with you. You should not share in the risk. He pays you or else… Where he gets the money from is not your problem.  You should also look for unacceptable provisions, usually inserted by larger agencies, about penalizing you by retaining part of your (already earned) fee.  They often include deductions based on what they consider your “performance” and deduct part of the money you already made. This is unacceptable and illegal.  Nobody should agree to give up part of his fee based on the assessment of others, much less when there are no safeguards in the contract such as notice of the intent to deduct part of the fee, and a mechanism to have a hearing before an impartial authority. How about letting a real judge deal with this issue? Agencies should never get that power from the contract- signing interpreter.

There are many more points to be included and reviewed by the parties, but I believe that at least these basic elements put me on a leveled field with the client as equal parties to a contract. I now ask you to please share any pointers or comments you may have on this very important professional issue.

How to Defend Your Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter.

September 4, 2014 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Good professional interpreters are usually consumed with taking care of their clients, improving their skills, managing their agenda, and marketing to new clients. This takes a lot of time and energy, and it is essential to succeed as an interpreter. Unfortunately, sometimes during their career some interpreters may experience other aspects of the profession that are less pleasant, more time-consuming, and very stressful.

Our professional tools are our brain, mouth, and a language combination. We can make mistakes, we are susceptible to questioning and second-guessing by others, and in our litigious society we are exposed to lawsuits that can leave us with no career, no resources, and a tainted reputation.

There are many circumstances that can affect our career as professional interpreters, but at this time I would like to focus on two of them:

The first one occurs when our work is subject to criticism and questioning by our peers or by others. This often happens in a legal setting. All court interpreters have faced situations when in the middle of a court hearing a judge, attorney, witness, litigant, and even a juror, have interrupted our rendition to correct what we just said. Most of the time we were right and they were wrong. On occasion, because we are not machines, and because nobody can possibly know all regional expressions, these voices do us a favor as they correct our mistake and allow justice to be served. These are the scenarios we usually face when doing our job. It sounds simple and straight to the point: Either we are right and we say so in order to keep the process moving along, or we are wrong, and in that case we correct our error. The same facts are true in a healthcare or community interpreting setting; even at the negotiating table or in the booth during a conference we sometimes make mistakes out of exhaustion, due to bad acoustics, a speaker with a heavy accent, or because we misunderstood a word or term. This is why we have team interpreting, this is why good interpreting equipment, an appropriate conference room, and breaks or recesses are important.

Unfortunately in the real world we have to deal with attorneys who are not happy because their foreign language speaking client or witness is not saying what they wanted them to say in the trial, and with doctors and nurses who want to dodge the consequences of their negligence, and with the party that lost at the business negotiating table, or with the agency that tries to justify the disaster caused by its outdated broken-down interpreting equipment. The first thing they all do is to cast a doubt over the rendition of the interpreter. It is even worse when all of this happens and you know that those who are questioning your work are clearly wrong.

The second situation I want to bring to your attention is when the same individuals mentioned above, decide to go for the jugular and to put the blame on the interpreter’s rendition; so they take you to court. They argue inadequate interpretation and you are sued for damages. How can we defend our work when our rendition is questioned and we know we are right? What can we do to protect ourselves in case somebody takes us to court for damages? There are preventive measures that we can take as interpreters to diminish the possibility of having to defend our work, our assets, and our reputation.

There are also steps we must follow in case our professional work is questioned or attacked in court.

These complex issues have to be addressed, and as true professionals we must be prepared in case this happens to us. For this reason, I will present: How to Defend Our Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter” during Lenguando Londres in London on September 13, 2014 at 2:30 pm. I invite you to attend the event on the 13 and 14 of this month and see how you will be able to interact with some of the superstars of all language-related professions, and I encourage you to attend this presentation where we will discuss these sad but possible scenarios, we will explore the different preventive measures that we should always take in order to avoid an adverse outcome, and we will talk about the path to follow once our rendition or our skill has been formally questioned in a court of law. I hope to see you in London; but even if you are not attending, I ask you to share with the rest of us your experiences on having your rendition questioned, challenged, or having a lawsuit filed against you as an interpreter.

This is a historical moment for the interpreting profession.

June 11, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

It is not very often that we as humans get an opportunity to witness first-hand a truly historical development. The Mexican interpreter community is presently experiencing just that. For a few years now, the Mexican government has been moving towards an administration of justice that is fair, transparent and accountable. The first step was to amend the Mexican constitution and switch from a written trial system to an oral system like the one followed by the United States, the United Kingdom and many other countries whose legal tradition comes from the Common Law System. Globalization has played an important part on these changes, and Mexico is not the only country moving away from a written system inspired by Roman and Napoleonic Law; countries like Chile and Costa Rica decided to adopt the oral system as well, and others are in the process.

In March 2014 Mexico took another significant step when the new National Code of Criminal Procedure (Código Nacional de Procedimientos Penales) was enacted. The next stage of the process calls for the development of a series of precepts and legislation that will cover in detail the various angles of the judicial process and its participants. One of these participants is the court interpreter.

This is the time for the Mexican interpreter community to provide their experience, knowledge, and wisdom to those in government charged with the task of regulating court interpreting services. It seems that the Mexican interpreters listened and answered the call, because there was a round table discussion at the National Institute of Criminal Sciences (Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Penales or INACIPE) a few weeks ago, and the auditorium was full of interpreters and many other legal professionals, including attorneys, administrators and activists. This was a forum where the interpreters contributed their voice to the task of overcoming the communication and language-related problems that come with an oral system of justice.

Some essential elements of the interpreting services, working conditions, and requirements to become a certified court interpreter (perito intérprete) were established to make sure that all interpreting services throughout Mexico are provided by prepared professional individuals who will have all the needed work conditions to do a first-class job. Team interpreting, booths, interpreter location in the courtroom, advanced materials, and an 8-hour maximum work day, were set as the basic requirements; for the first time ever an agreement by all interpreters to work united was reached. It was decided that foreign language, Indigenous language, and Sign language interpreters will cooperate and pursue the same working conditions. There is much to do in the near future, but the foundation has been established. Some of the next steps will include an outreach to the federal and state-level judicial authorities such as the Mexican Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación) and the State Supreme Courts (Tribunales Superiores de Justicia) an information campaign using different media such as blogs like “The Professional Interpreter,” websites like the Mexican Conference Interpreters College (Colegio Mexicano de Intérpretes de Conferencia) website, TV on the Judiciary Channel (Canal Judicial) direct e-mailings, videos on YouTube, and more public forums like the one at INACIPE. Some of the main issues to be discussed in the near future include the qualifications to become a certified court interpreter (perito intérprete) both: academic and personal; the requirements to work as a certified court interpreter (perito intérprete) such as continuing education and legal authority to work in México.

Some people are working very hard to advance and achieve this goal: From INACIPE Director Rafael Estrada and the coordinator of this project Sofía Cobo Téllez, and from the interpreter side Georganne Weller, Hilda Tejada and Lucila Christen. I have had the privilege to closely work with all of them in this project and I have been inspired by their determination to succeed.

Because the world is changing, and I know that many of my colleagues in countries other than Mexico are facing similar situations at different stages, I decided to include this post with the hope that it may motivate, inspire, or encourage somebody else in our interpreting community to step up and do something to improve the quality of the interpreting services in his or her country. I now invite you all to share some of your stories about the changes and professional accomplishments that you have experienced in your country.

Questions of a court interpreting student. Part 2.

June 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I received a message from one of my students of court interpreting in Mexico City. With the new oral trial system that is now being implemented in Mexico there will be many opportunities for interpreters to find assignments in court settings, so she is considering becoming a court interpreter when she graduates from college. She researched the matter, and as she was getting deeper into the world of court interpreting she decided to contact me with some of her doubts. Her questions were very good, so I thought about responding through the blog so that others, in Mexico and elsewhere, with the same or similar concerns could learn a little more about this area of the profession. I asked her if this was an acceptable way to answer her questions, she said yes, so I wrote down my answers. As I was responding to the questions I realized that this would be a lengthy post so I decided to divide it in two parts. Part 1 was posted two weeks ago. I now invite you to read the rest of my answers to her questions.

  • What do you do as a court interpreter when a legal concept in the target language is similar, but not equivalent, to a legal concept in the source language or vice versa? Do you explain it? How do you get the knowledge to identify equivalences or similarities if you studied law?

There are many times when the interpreter faces a situation where there are similar legal concepts but the exact legal term or figure does not exist in the other language. This happens more often between languages from countries that have different legal systems: written Roman Law versus oral Common Law. The general rule for the interpreter is that she does not have to explain or define anything. It is the attorneys’ job and duty to explain the law not only to their client, but if needed, to the court interpreter so she can do her job. In a situation where a competent interpreter who has done her homework runs into a legal concept that she does not understand, she must research it and study it as part of her preparation for the case, and if there is no time for that, she has to inform it to the judge or attorney, depending on the interpreters function in the particular proceeding, so the legal term can be explained to her. Many times the explanation will allow the interpreter to find the correct term in the target language. Interpreters, who have studied Law as your question says, have the advantage of knowing and understanding legal figures and terms without any explanation. If this is the case, and the interpreter is ambitious, she can study the legal figure from the country where she did not study law and this way find a better solution to her problem. This is one of the reasons why most legal systems require interpreters to comply with continuing education requirements. Fortunately for you, with the new legal system being implemented nationwide, Mexican court interpreters will not find this situation very often anymore.

  • What happens when someone, the judge, prosecutor, or defense, realize that the interpretation is wrong or misleading? Is the interpreter penalized, and if so, what sanctions does he face?

Interpreters are human and they perform one of the most difficult tasks in the world. Court interpreting is so complex, that most court systems in the world are now requiring team interpreting for all hearings lasting over an hour. Any interpreter can unintentionally make a mistake and we all do at some point. It is what the interpreter does after the mistake that makes the situation irrelevant or serious. In most countries, mistakes due to bad acoustics, poor delivery by the speaker, interpreter fatigue, etc., can be easily corrected by an observation on the record amending the mistake. Other more serious mistakes due to a complex legal concept or a lack of context may be more relevant but they can also be cured by a correction as previously stated or by an admonition by the judge. Mistakes due to the interpreter’s ignorance can be corrected by the other member of the team who will discuss the discrepancy with the interpreter who made the mistake, and then together the team informs the court, outside the presence of the jury, that there was a mistake, the circumstances are explained, and if necessary, the judge will admonish the jury, and the attorneys will draft a special instruction for the jury that the judge will read at the end of the trial. On rare occasion the error could be so serious that there needs to be a mistrial. I can only recall one case but that particular case was really a judge’s error and not an interpreter’s. The interpreter who made the mistake can be sanctioned depending on the seriousness of the mistake and the applicable law. In general, sanctions could range from an informal reprimand to a temporary suspension followed by a probation period, to permanent revocation of the certification, patent or license. There is usually a formal procedure that includes notice and hearing, and the interpreter is allowed to retain the services of an attorney. Depending on the magnitude of the mistake there could be civil responsibility and the interpreter may be required to pay a fine and damages. This can only happen when ordered by a judge or jury after a civil lawsuit where the interpreter will be allowed to present witnesses and legal arguments through an attorney if he wishes to do so. Like all professionals, interpreters are encouraged to carry civil liability insurance (errors and omissions). If covered, the interpreter will be represented by the insurance attorneys and in most cases all he needs to do is to pay his deductible.

When the mistake is really an intentional act by the interpreter to defraud or mislead another individual, he could face criminal charges, and if convicted, he could go to prison.

  • Are there laws or regulations that state the requirements that need to be met to perform as a court interpreter, and are there any written duties and rights?

All countries that employ the services of court interpreters as part of their judicial process have legislation that sets the minimum requirements to qualify as a court interpreter and to maintain that status. There are also authorities that regulate the profession setting procedures, protocols, responsibilities and rights. There are also ethical canons, and professional responsibility norms that control the way the services are provided. Some countries, like Mexico, are currently in the process of developing these legislation and regulations where all of the interpreter’s duties, responsibilities, work conditions and rights will be included. In the United States there are two levels of legislation and regulatory agencies: the federal level with the United States Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and the Federal Court Interpreter Act as the legal basis, and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) as the implementing federal agency. All states either have or are in the process of developing court interpreter legislation, and they all have a state-level Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) as their implementing agency. In Europe the legal foundation is twofold: it comes from the Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Rights to Interpretation and to Translation in Criminal Proceedings, and from the county-by-country legislation. Court interpreters in Europe have joined forces to ensure access to justice by the founding of the European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association (EULITA). In Canada it is the provincial regulatory bodies that grant the certifications and the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council (CTTIC) applies uniform standards across Canada. Most regulations and rules set minimum fees for court interpreters and basic work conditions.

  • Some government court interpreting websites talk about working with certified and non-certified interpreters; why is that, and what advantages and disadvantages does that bring to the defense, prosecution/plaintiff, or judges?

The only acceptable option is that of a certified interpreter who has studied, tested, and proven to be able to provide the service. This however, is easier to do in smaller countries where there is not a wide variety of languages as there are in a country the size of the United States. In other words, the reason why you see non-certified interpreters even mentioned in these websites is because of the lack of interpreters. It is important to separate non-certified interpreters who work in languages where there is a certification program from those interpreters who work with languages with no certification program. For example, the United States has certification exams for three languages: Spanish, Haitian-Creole, and Navajo; at this time it only offers federal certification for Spanish interpreters, so it is understandable why a very good Russian interpreter is not federally certified. You cannot call them federally certified, but you cannot group them with the Spanish interpreters who failed the federal certification test and by that fact have demonstrated a lack of the minimum requirements to work in federal court in the United States. Depending on their own realities, some states offer certification in certain language combinations and other states do not. There are also administrative law courts in the United States, and remote courthouses in very little towns where there are no certified Spanish interpreters but there are many Spanish speaking litigants because it may be an agricultural center where many immigrants live. The dilemma appears when the system is confronted by a Constitutional mandate to provide interpreter services and a reality that says there aren’t any. It is for these cases that non-certified interpreters are used. In the United States this is happening less at the federal level in Spanish language cases because of new technology that allows a certified interpreter to provide her services remotely from a big city. Certified court interpreters are physically transported to the small towns if the case goes to trial or a long complex hearing is held. Speaking of Spanish court interpreters, the advantage this “compromise” brings to the parties, and in my opinion it is a very questionable one, is that they have an interpreter, they will at least have the best that was found, and the court can always stop the proceeding and demand a certified interpreter be provided either remotely or in person. The disadvantages are obvious: The court and parties will not have an interpreter that at least meets the basic requirements to work in federal court (a certification) The situation worsens when you see courts and attorneys hiring these marginal para-professionals when real certified court interpreters are available solely to save money as these individuals will usually (although not always) be cheaper than a certified court interpreter. There is also another problem in the United States and other countries that will hopefully be avoided in Mexico through legislation: Because the U.S. is a free society, there are plenty of language agencies, language “academies”, and “professional” associations who offer their own self-serving certification so that their lower-level “interpreters” can present themselves as “certified” or “licensed” and make the client believe that they are hiring somebody with professional credentials. There are those who justify this practice for what they call “lesser court cases” such as administrative court proceedings. I completely oppose this practice and I have written and spoken extensively against it.

  • There are some suggested self-study techniques to become a good court interpreter, such as expanding your vocabulary, developing your own glossaries, developing your own interpreter techniques, and others. Do you have any tips or advice on how to do it?

I already addressed part of this question in Part 1 of this post when I discussed some of the things that a student can do to become a better court interpreter. I would add that you can expand your vocabulary by picking ten new words from the dictionary every weekday. At the end of a week you will know fifty new words; you will probably remember 15 to 20 and that will be a net increase of 20 words per week. Not bad. I would do the same with legal terminology. Pick a topic and learn the terms. By week’s end you will remember about twenty percent of what you studied and you will have a much better understanding of that legal figure: a contract, court proceeding, corporate document, etc. You can also develop your thematic glossaries; I would do a different one every month and I would use an application for that. I personally use Interplex because I have been using it for many years so I am used to it; I also like the fact that it is compatible with your telephone and tablet so you can have the glossaries with you anywhere you go. Finally, I suggest that when you watch a real court proceeding or when you go to a courthouse to watch a trial in person, you practice your rendition (in court under your breath of course) and when you do so, pay attention to those things that work for you, and develop them; this could be the way you come up with your own personalized note-taking system. When doing this, many years ago, I realized that it was easier for me to remember numbers and figures if I could associate them to the numbers of the jerseys of professional athletes. I am a big sports fan and I have always naturally remembered the players’ numbers, so for me it is very easy to remember an address let’s say on 3272 Main Street, if all I have to do is to remember Franco Harris (32) Mickey Mantle (7) Derek Jeter (2) Main Street. I know this system only works for me, but it works very well, and I came up with it by developing my own personalized technique.

I hope these answers helped you on your quest to become a court interpreter, and I hope they helped others in Mexico and elsewhere, including the United States, who are considering this profession. I also invite all of you to share with the rest of us any other suggestions or input you may have on any of the ten questions. I would love to hear from students, new interpreters, veterans of the profession; anybody who may be interested in helping the next generation to get there.

Interpreting political debates: Before and during the rendition.

April 29, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every two years we have a primary election season in the United States where the two main political parties (Republicans and Democrats) pick their candidates for the general election in November. Two years after Americans elect a president, they vote again to renew the United States House of Representatives (425 members) and one-third of the United States Senate (33 or 34 Senate seats depending on the cycle because there are 100 Senators) Along with these national offices, many states elect governors, state legislators, and other local officials. Traditionally, before an election, all candidates running for a particular office in the United States publicly debate the issues. It happens within a political party during the primary elections and then again between the candidates from each party during the general election. Because the population of the United States is very diverse and complex, many voters do not speak English, or at least they do not understand it well enough to comprehend a candidate’s platform or position regarding specific issues. Add to this landscape the fact that many regions of the United States have very important concentrations of people from a particular nationality or ethnicity that may have issues that are relevant to their community even when they may not be as important for the general population. This happens with Hispanics and some other groups, and because of the number of people who are interested in a particular issue, there are debates specifically geared to these populations, often held in English because that is the language of the candidates, but organized and broadcasted by foreign language organizations and networks. This exercise in democracy means that we as interpreters are quite busy during political season.

Because of the number of elections and debates, primary elections tend to require more interpreters than a general election; also, due to the regional nature of a primary election, these debates are normally held in smaller towns and cities, increasing the practice of using the services of local interpreters.

This year has not been an exception. I have traveled to many cities and towns all over the country to interpret political debates in elections of all types: governors, senators, U.S. House members, local legislators, and mayors. Most debates have been live, in almost all of them I have interpreted for the T.V. broadcast, but there have been some recorded debates and some radio broadcasts as well. As always, when interpreting a debate I usually run into the same colleagues: the same local professionals, or the same national interpreters (meaning interpreters like me, who by decision of the organizers or the networks, are brought in from a different city) for the races that have a higher profile. Although I know that the pattern will repeat during the general election in the weeks and months before November, I also know that sometimes new interpreters are invited to participate in these events. This year I already worked with some interpreters new to the political debate scene, and I expect to encounter some others during the rest of the primary season and maybe even the general election. As I watched some of my new colleagues prepare for a debate and deliver their services, I reflected on the things that we need to do to be successful at this very important and difficult type of interpretation. These are some ideas on things that we should do and avoid when getting ready to interpret a political debate and when we are at the TV or radio station doing our rendition.

  • Know the political system. One of the things that will help you as an interpreter is to know why you are there. It is crucial to understand why we have primary elections in the United States. We as interpreters will do a better job if we know who can run and who can vote in the election. This requires some research and study as every state is different. In some states voters must be registered with the political party to be able to vote in the primary, while other states hold open primaries where anybody, as long as they are American citizens, can vote. Some states have early voting, others have absentee ballots and there are states that even allow you to mail in your vote. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work. Of course, the more states you work at, the more you have to research and study.
  • Know basic local legislation and politics. When interpreting a state legislators’ debate it is essential to know how is the state government structured: Does it have a unicameral or bicameral system? Are legislators full or part-time? Can governors be reelected? Are there other political parties in that state? A well-prepared interpreter needs to know the answer to all of these and similar questions.
  • Know the most relevant issues and people in that particular state, county, or city. Most questions during these political debates have to do with local matters, not national issues; for this reason, a professional interpreter must become acquainted with local affairs. Read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, and search the web. The shortest way to embarrassment is not to know a local topic or a local politician, government official or celebrity when they pop up during a debate. Know your local issues. It is a must to know if water shortage, a bad economy, a corruption scandal, a referendum, the names of local politicians (governor, lieutenant governor if the state has one, State House speaker, chief justice of the State Supreme Court, leader of the State Senate) or any other local matter is THE issue in that part of the country.
  • Know basic history and geography of the state, and please know the main streets and landmarks of the region. There is nothing worse than interpreting a debate and all of a sudden struggle with the name of a county or a town because you did not do your homework. Have a map handy if you need to. Learn the names of rivers and mountains, memorize the names of the Native-American nations or pueblos in that state.
  • Know your candidates. Study their bios, read about their ideology and platform; learn about their public and private lives. It is important to keep in mind that you need to know about all candidates in the debate, not just the candidate you will be interpreting.
  • Know national and world current events and know your most important national and international issues in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer. It is important to know if there is a war or an economic embargo, it is necessary to know the names of the national leaders and their party affiliation (president, vice-president, speaker of the House, Senate leader, cabinet members) and it is essential to know the names of the local neighboring leaders and world figures in the news (names of the governors of neighboring states, the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico, the secretary general of the United Nations and the OAS, and at least the names of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of state of the main partners, allies, and adversaries of the United States).
  • Know the rules of the debate. You need to know how long the debate will be, how much time a candidate has to answer a question and to refute another candidate, you need to know the order in which they will be questioned, who will be asking the questions and in what order. Try to find this information on line, and request it from the organizers or whoever hired you for the debate. Remember: it is a T.V. event so there is always a schedule and a program; you just need to get a copy.
  • Get acquainted with your candidate’s speech patterns, accent, tempo, and learn his/her stump speech. All candidates have one, and they gravitate towards these talking points every time they have a chance and the moderator lets them do it. The best way to achieve this is by watching as many speeches as you can, especially previous debates, ideally on the same issues, as sometimes debates in the United States are limited to certain issues such as education, taxes, foreign policy, the economy, etc. Most candidates, unless they are brand new, have speeches and debates on You Tube or in the local T.V. stations and newspaper electronic archives; just access their websites and look for them. If possible, at least listen to a couple of speeches or debates of the other candidates in the debate. You will not be interpreting them, but you will be listening to them during their interaction with your candidate.
  • When possible, participate on the distribution of assignments to the various interpreters. How good you perform may be related to the candidate you get. There are several criteria to pair an interpreter with a candidate. Obviously, T.V. and radio producers like to have a male interpreter for a male candidate and a female interpreter for a female candidate. After that, producers overlook some other important points that need to be considered when matching candidates and interpreters: It is important that the voice of your candidate is as similar to your own voice as possible, but it is more important that you understand the candidate; in other words, if you are a baritone, it would be great to have a baritone candidate, but if you are from the same national origin and culture than the tenor, then you should be the tenor’s interpreter because you will get all the cultural expressions, accent, and vocabulary better than anybody else. You should also have a meeting (at least a virtual one) with your fellow interpreters so you can discuss uniform terminology, determine who will cover who in case of a technical problem or a temporary physical inability to interpret like a coughing episode (remember, this is live radio or T.V.)
  • Ask about the radio or T.V. studio where you will be working; in fact, if you are local, arrange for a visit so you become familiar with the place. Find out the type of equipment they will be using, see if you can take your own headphones if you prefer to use your “favorite” piece of equipment; find out if there is room for a computer or just for a tablet. Ask if you will be alone in the booth or if you will share it with other interpreters. Because small towns have small stations, it is likely that several interpreters will have to share the same booth; in that case, figure out with your colleagues who will be sitting where (consider for example if there are left-handed and right-handed interpreters when deciding who sits next to who) Talk to the station engineer or technician and agree on a set of signs so you can communicate even when you are on the air. This is usually done by the station staff because they are as interested as you in the success of the event.
  • Finally, separate yourself from the candidate. Remember that you are a professional and you are there to perform a service. Leave your political convictions and opinions at home. You will surely have to interpret for people who have a different point of view, and you will interpret attacks against politicians you personally admire. This cannot affect you. If you cannot get over this hurdle then everything else will be a waste. This is one of the main reasons why they continue to hire some of us. Producers, organizers, and politicians know that we will be loyal to what they say and our opinions will not be noticed by anybody listening to the debate’s interpretation.

On the day of the debate, arrive early to the station or auditorium where the debate will take place, find your place and set up your gear; talk to the engineer and test everything until you are comfortable with the volume, microphone, monitor, and everything else. Get your water and make arrangements to get more water once you finish the bottles you brought inside the booth. Trust me; you will end up needing more. Talk to your fellow interpreters and make sure you are on the same page in case there is a technical glitch or an unplanned event during the debate. Once the debate starts, concentrate on what you are doing and pretty much ignore everything else. You will need all your senses because remember: there is no team interpreting, all other interpreters are assigned to another individual, it is live T.V. and if you count the live broadcast and the news clips that will be shown for weeks, there could be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) watching your work. If you enjoyed the experience and if you did a good job there will be more opportunities in the future and you will have enhanced your versatility within the profession.

I hope these tips will be useful to those of you in the United States and all other countries where there are political debates, and I invite you to share with the rest of us your comments and tips.

Are the interpreters working conditions in danger?

April 21, 2014 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

A few days ago a colleague contacted me to ask if I had seen the updated United States Federal Court Interpreter Orientation Manual and Glossary. Although I do not exactly know how long ago this version came to be, my answer was that I had not. She asked me to take a look and then tell her my opinion. I read the publication from beginning to end. The first thing I noticed was that some extremely qualified colleagues had been involved in this updating process. Then I read the publication. Most of the manual seemed to be well written and it looked like it covered most of the relevant points and situations that happen in federal cases. That is, until I got to Chapter 3(VII)(C) For your benefit as readers, I transcribe the applicable portion of the manual next:

“Federal Court Interpreter Orientation Manual and Glossary.

Chapter 3: Overview of Court Interpreting.

VII Interpreters in the Courtroom…

C. Number of Interpreters per Proceeding: Team/Tandem Interpreting.

       The number of interpreters may vary according to the type of proceeding and the number of defendants that require interpreter services. To mitigate the effects of interpreter fatigue, proceedings estimated to exceed four hours are often covered by two interpreters through team, or tandem interpreting. The passive interpreter should remain seated in close proximity to the active interpreter and refrain from leaving the courtroom for any significant length of time without good reason…”

Yes dear colleagues, it reads four hours.

For the past eighteen months or so, I have devoted a good part of my time to help and assist in the development of interpreting rules and policy for interpreters in different parts of the world. I have held talks, workshops, presentations and one-on-ones with many interested parties that are developing or restructuring interpreter working conditions and rules of professional performance; and I have done it driven by two priorities: (1) To provide an excellent service and (2) To protect interpreters so they are able to fulfill priority number one.

I have sat in meetings and presentations where I heard of countries where government offices and private agencies require interpreters to work alone when interpreting consecutively regardless of the duration of the assignment; I have heard how individuals in decision-making positions question the need for team interpreting in small conferences or in legal settings. I heard it all and I heard it over and over again. You must know then, that one of the things that kept me going, and gave me the moral authority to dispute the rules or policy with real scientific arguments and data, was the knowledge that in the United States all reputable conferences, the federal judicial system, and many state-level courthouses, were honoring and following the principles of team interpreting and interpreters switching roles from active to support (passive) every 30 minutes or so. Now you can imagine my reaction when I read Chapter 3(VII)(C) above.

Dear friends and colleagues, as many of you know, scientific studies have demonstrated that mental fatigue sets in after approximately 30 minutes of interpreting. These studies show how the quality of the rendition is compromised when an interpreter, regardless of his capacity and skill, continues to interpret beyond this 30 minute marker. Even when the interpreter who has been working for a long period of time thinks that his rendition is accurate, it is not, according to a study by the University of Geneva’s Translation and Interpretation School (“Prolonged turns in interpreting: Effects on quality, physiological and psychological stress.” Moser-Mercer, B. Kunzli, B. & Korac, M. University of Geneva, École de Traduction et d’Interprétation. Interpreting Volume 3(1) p. 47-63. John Benjamins Publishing Co.) Jesús Baigorri Jalón tells us that “…an average of 30 minutes of consecutive work was the maximum time during which a satisfactory (interpretation) could be done; after this time, one runs the risk of deteriorating results due to fatigue…” (“La Interpretación de conferencias: el nacimiento de una profesión. De París a Nuremberg”. Editorial Comares, Granada. P.188)

Recognizing this well-documented issue, and as part of its tradition of excellence and professionalism, the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) clearly indicates in article six of its Professional Standards:

“Article 6…

  • *An interpreter shall not, as a general rule, work alone in a simultaneous interpretation booth, without the availability of a colleague to relieve her or him should the need arise.
  • **One of whom must be able to relieve each of the other two. In certain circumstances this number may be reduced to two (particularly for short meetings or meetings of a general nature, provided that each of the two interpreters can work into both languages)…”

This is also contemplated within the Sign Language interpreter community. The ASL Team Interpreting Guidelines state the following:

“…Interpreting assignments one hour or longer in length with continuous interpreting, will require the use of a team of two interpreters. The teaming allows the interpreters to switch roles every 15-20 minutes. Teaming will reduce physical strain, prevent repetitive strain injury, and prevent mental fatigue which can cause the quality of the interpreting to deteriorate…”

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) issued a position paper on this particular issue, and their study concludes that:

“…Due process rights are best preserved with faithful simultaneous interpretation of legal proceedings… In a controlled study it was shown that interpreters’ work quality decreases after 30 minutes. In the challenging courtroom environment, team interpreting ensures that the comprehension effort required to provide accurate interpretation is not compromised. To deliver unassailably accurate language service, court interpreters work in teams…” (NAJIT Position Paper. Team Interpreting in the Courtroom. March 1, 2007)

Even Wikipedia is aware of the complexities of interpreting and the need for team interpreting when it says:

“…Because of the intense concentration needed by interpreters to hear every word spoken and provide an accurate rendition in the target language, professional interpreters work in pairs or in teams of three, so that after interpreting for twenty minutes, the interpreters switch…” (Wikipedia)

As we can clearly see, the fact that team interpreting is required to do this job, and that those in the team need to switch roles every 30 minutes or so is undisputed. This is why several countries that due to globalization are just starting to use interpreting services more often than before, are adopting the team interpreting principle; most of them agreeing to a 20-30 minute policy for interpreters to switch roles. It cannot be possible that the United States federal judiciary got it wrong. There is no way that these updated rules are telling the professional community (interpreters, judges and attorneys) and society at large (litigants, victims, experts, etc.) that the policy will take us backwards. I just do not believe that is what our government wanted to do.

This all leaves us with two possibilities then: Either the rules are poorly written, and that is why we got this confusion, of the rules committee made a mistake. If it was a mistake, it should be corrected immediately. If the rule refers to something else, it should be re-written to make it clear. As part of my research for this article, I heard that the rules were updated because of the arrival of telephonic interpreting. If that is the case, the language must be amended to show that this rule is meant to apply to telephonic hearings. Then, after they do that, we will have to argue that telephonic hearing also needs team interpreting, but that would be another battle for another day.

Dear colleagues, I know that each judicial district sets its own rules, in fact, I am privileged to work in districts where the team interpreter rule is honored and enforced. I am aware of the fact that these rules will probably not change the way most districts operate; however, they are there, and someone can use them in the future to damage the service and hurt the profession. The rule needs to be amended immediately. Many of us will never work alone. Many of us will demand a team, but there could be new colleagues, greedy ignorant language service agencies, and inept court administrators who may be tempted to use them as an excuse to try to change policy. They would fail. They would lose. They would disappear, but I ask you: Why do we have to fight that battle (again) when all that needs to be done is to amend the manual. Please share your thoughts on this issue with the rest of us.

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

July 8, 2013 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last week I posted my first five worst things an interpreter can do to another interpreter. Next, I share the rest of my list in the understanding that there are plenty more examples of these “worst things,” and inviting you to review my top ten, tell us your “war stories” and share your comments and solutions with the rest of us.

Here we go:

  1. To be a bad interpreter.  The individuals who have worked as “interpreters” for many years and even decades, don’t know anything about the profession, don’t care to know anything about it, and are revered by some as “interpreting gurus.”  We all know who they are, where they are, and how they work. They represent a cancer to the profession because they go around providing a deplorable service, often charging good money, and damaging our collective image.  Most of the time they work in a parallel universe and we rarely encounter them, but when we do, our job can be a disaster as we are faced with a situation where we have no partner to consult, no colleague to collaborate with, and no professional to back us up.  A quick remedy when faced with this situation in the booth or the courthouse is to set the rules straight and ask this person to support by doing certain chores that you will assign. When possible, it would be best to postpone the event, even for a short while, in order to find a replacement for the bad interpreter.  There is no solution to the bad interpreter problem described in this paragraph. It is terminal.
  2. To take advantage of your partner.  The interpreters who do not pull their own weight during an assignment and interpret less than the time previously agreed to; do not return to the booth or courtroom on time for the switch, and those who do not help with the preparations: research, development of glossaries, or assignment of tasks.  These are the people nobody wants to work with because there is never a feeling of team interpreting during the event.   A quick on-the-run solution may be next to impossible, but you can at least talk to them before or during the assignment and voice what you expect them to do.  As a long term strategy it is best to avoid them in the future, always declining a job offer by explaining the reasons why you would love to interpret the conference or trial, but with a different partner.
  3. To try to be the “center of attention.”  This is a very real and unfortunate situation that happens more often than you think.  Some colleagues believe that all events: conferences, court proceedings, surgeries, military interrogations, business negotiations, and diplomatic debates, revolve around the interpreter.  They truly believe this to be the case and refuse to understand that we are an important, even essential part to the process, but we are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the “main event.”  Here I am referring to those embarrassing moments when your partner stops everything that is happening and hyperventilating informs those present that the event cannot go forward at this time because one of the three hundred people in the auditorium has a receiver that is malfunctioning, and after the batteries are replaced and everything is “fine” once again, he or she asks the dignitary who is speaking, and on a very tight schedule, to “repeat the last thing you said so that the person with the receiver with the dead batteries doesn’t miss a word” and then goes on explaining what his or her duties are as an interpreter.   I congratulate you if you have never gone through one of this, but surely you have worked with somebody who complains all the time and interrupts the speaker over and over again:   “Excuse me…the interpreter could not hear the statement because the speaker is speaking away from the microphone…”  “…excuse me, the interpreter requests that the speaker move over to the right so it is easier to hear what she is saying…” “…excuse me… the interpreter requests that the speaker slows down so that everything can be interpreted…” A nightmare!  As an instant solution to this problem you should talk to this interpreter and explain that the participants are very important busy people who have very little time to do this; that as interpreters we should try to adapt to the circumstances, and that we are important, but by no means the most important part of the process.  A long term solution depends on the individual interpreter. Your colleagues often mature and grow out of this “self-centered syndrome.”  They will be fine. For those who never change and adapt, the solution will have to be up to you. It depends on how patient you are, how much you value the participation of this particular interpreter, and how well you know your client.  No easy solution, no “one size fits all.”
  4. To publicly correct and criticize other interpreters.  Those know-it-all interpreters with very little social skills and less discretion who vociferously utter vocabulary and terminology from one end of the room to correct what they think was a bad rendition, and sometimes not happy with this, are happy to show even more disrespect to a colleague by loudly stating the reasons why they are right and you are wrong.  It is very difficult to find anything more unprofessional than these actions.  It is true that team interpreting exists so that colleagues can work as a team and cover each other’s back; it is also a fact that we all make mistakes and that sometimes we do not notice them.  A benefit of having a partner in the booth or courtroom is that we can improve our rendition, and in court interpreting even correct the record, by stating our error or omission. However, decency and professionalism, together with a touch of common sense, tell us that there are better ways to correct a colleague or to offer an opinion that have nothing to do with screaming and yelling.  A simple note, sometimes a stare is enough to get your partner’s attention. When faced with this situation the thing to do short-term is to stay quiet, keep your cool. Let it be forgotten by those who witnessed your partner’s crude behavior. Then, at the earliest possible time, always as a professional well-mannered individual, confront him; let him know that this is unacceptable, and that you expect this will never happen again. Do not let him get away with it. A long-term solution would be to avoid this “colleague” like the plague.
  5. To interpret in a way that hurts your partner’s rendition. First we have the colleague who is too loud. So loud that you cannot concentrate. I am talking the kind that makes the booth vibrate when he speaks; the one you can hear better than your booth partner even though he is interpreting two booths away, and second, we have the interpreter who is very slow during relay interpreting to the point that all the booths waiting for the relay start thinking about doing a direct interpretation even if the source language is not their strength.  Short term you need the loud interpreter to concentrate in his volume and long term you need to help him or her find out the reason for this loud rendition. Many times people who speak loud cannot hear very well.  Maybe the long-term solution will be a hearing aid or a special set of headphones. The solution in the relay interpreting case can only be to endure for the day or until adequate replacement can be found. In the future this interpreter should not be used for relay interpreting situations. There are many excellent interpreters who cannot adapt to the pace of relay interpreting. There is plenty of work that does not involve relay interpreting where a good interpreter is needed.

 As you know, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Please review these “ten worst” and if you are up to it, I would love to read your top ten, top five, or even top one.  This should be good…

The ten worst things an interpreter can do to another interpreter. Part 1

June 25, 2013 § 20 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The “ten worst” series is back again. This time I will talk about those actions, omissions, and attitudes of other interpreters that not only annoy us, which they do, but that also affect our professional performance and the image we project to the client and the professional community.  Obviously, and very sadly, a “ten worst” list is not enough to include all the things we see and hear out there when we are in the booth, the courtroom, the hospital, the battlefield, or anywhere else that interpreters are doing their job.  As always, I am writing this with a therapeutic perspective, trying to add some possible solutions to these problems while at the same time creating empathy and inviting a good healthy laugh when relating to these horror stories. Because of the length of this posting, I have decided to publish it in two parts. This is part one. Part two will be posted next week.

Here we go:

  1. Well, that’s what I charged because that is all they wanted to pay and I didn’t want to lose the client. Nothing really bothers me more than an interpreter that doesn’t know how to charge for his or her services.  This is a business where we provide a professional service and those in the field who don’t understand it and don’t want to understand it are not only working towards a life of misery for themselves and their loved ones; they are hurting us all.  The only reason why some of your clients are always trying to get you to work for less than you deserve is because of this group of interpreters who are willing to do anything for practically nothing. This practice influences your local market because there is a cheap alternative competing against you who is ready to take your client away even if they will make very little money. Let me be really clear, I am not saying that we should constantly overprice what we do, although there is nothing wrong with charging any amount a client is willing to pay: it is a contractual relationship, the meeting of the minds. A quick solution would be to sell your services better than those individuals who charge below the market so the client sees the added value you bring to the job.  Long term solution: Educate your market. Make sure all potential clients know the difference between a good interpreter and a person who will charge little and deliver even less. These paraprofessionals will always exist; in most instances just ignore them. They are not in your league. I don’t know about you all, but I am in the business of working little and making a lot of money. I am not interested in working for peanuts every single day. I can think of many other things I can do with my time.
  2. To snatch the microphone away from you or not to let go of the microphone.  It is very annoying and very distracting to work with somebody who is just watching the clock and the moment the big hand gets to half past or to the top of the hour they grab the microphone or turn off your output on the console. Some of them even stick their wrist between your eyes so you can see that it is time for them to interpret totally disregarding the rendition. They just cannot wait until the natural pause happens and the switch can be seamless.  And then you have those in love with their voice and their rendition who never let go. They simply turn their head away or avoid your stare and continue talking.  Of course I know that I will get paid regardless of who did most of the work, but I am also aware of the fatigue factor and I do not want the audience to suffer through a diminished rendition just because of the ego of my colleague in the booth. In these two scenarios a quick, but many times useless, solution would be to wait for the next break and talk it over with your partner, or in the event that you already know that this will happen because you have worked together in the past, politely and professionally set the “rules of the game” even before you start interpreting.  The long term solution to these very disturbing working conditions would be to refuse to work with that colleague in the future and to explain to the client your reasons for the refusal.
  3. To leave the booth as soon as you take the microphone.  To me it is very difficult to understand how some colleagues perceive team interpreting when they leave the booth or exit the courtroom as soon as they are not actively interpreting.  I understand restroom brakes and important phone calls and e-mails; we are a team and I gladly stay alone when my partner needs to take care of one of these situations.  Is it because they do not know that the supporting interpreter is as important as the one actively interpreting? I have a hard time buying this justification when they have been around for some time and have experienced first-hand the benefits of having a second interpreter sitting next to them.  To me it is very simple: They erroneously understand team interpreting as “tag-team interpreting” which is what wrestlers do when they work in teams. I believe the short-term and long-term solutions I suggested for number 2 apply to this scenario as well. I have a word of caution for my new colleagues and friends who just started in this profession and may feel intimidated or uncomfortable when it is the veteran interpreter who abandons the station:  Treat them as equals. You are doing the assignment because somebody thought you were good at this. Even the “big ones” have to do their job as part of the team.
  4. To cancel at the last minute.  This is another one of those practices that hurt you as a professional who has been scheduled to work with this individual, and also hurts the image of the profession.  Of course I am not talking about an emergency when a colleague has to cancel due to a health issue, a family crisis, or an accident.  I am not referring either to the interpreters who cancel because after accepting the assignments they realized that it was way over their head, unless they cancel the day before instead of two months ahead of time. I am talking about those who were offered another job on the eve of your event, and those who are simply irresponsible and unreliable.   This is a very serious problem that can be worse when you are also the organizer of the event or the interpreter coordinator.  A quick solution could be to talk to the interpreter and see why he or she is quitting at the last minute. Sometimes the reasons can be addressed and corrected (a hotel they dislike, a flight at an inconvenient time, etc.) occasionally a good pep talk can fix it (a last-minute panic attack because of the importance of the event or the fame of the speaker at the conference) and sometimes the cancelling interpreter may agree to start the event while you get a replacement.  A long term solution in this case is a no-brainer: Never work with this person again. Black-list this individual, and if necessary and if the contract allows it: sue him.   It is not wrong to cancel an assignment because you got a better offer to do another job. What is wrong is to cancel at the very last minute.
  5. To refuse to help the new interpreters.  Our job is a personal service. I am hired to interpret because the client wants me to do it; not just anybody to do it. They want me.  I understand and value the fact that getting to the top takes a lot of work, many years of dedication, a devotion to what you do. I applaud those who got to the summit and use it as a marketing tool.  I also love to work with them. It is a pleasure.  Unfortunately, some of these great interpreters do not like to share their knowledge and experience with the new generation.  I have seen, and heard, of instances where the masters of the profession ignore and mistreat the newcomers. They keep the secrets of their trade close to their chest as if afraid that once known, they could be turned against them.  This very real situation creates a nightmare for those scheduling the interpreters for an event and could result on the loss of a client.  As a short-term solution you can talk to the veterans and explain that you need them for the quality of the rendition, and for the same reason, you need them to teach the new interpreters how to work like a superstar, and you need them to help the often nervous newcomers to feel at home in the booth or the courtroom so they can also learn and perform.  Because most veterans are wise and love the profession, the same strategy, at a larger scale, can be part of the long-term solution, together with a campaign to educate and empower the new interpreters so they feel that they also belong in the booth.

These are my first five. Next week I will post the other five. In the meantime, I invite you to share your stories, anecdotes and opinions regarding this part of our professional practice.

Interpreting at the Immigration Court: Is it really headed for disaster?

February 4, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last year a colleague contacted me asking for advice.  She works as an independent contractor interpreter with the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) in the United States. This government agency is better known as the immigration court.  Before I get into the subject matter of this article, let me say a few things that we need to consider as the background of the situation I will describe on the next paragraph: (1) The immigration court is an administrative court. It is not part of the federal judiciary like district court or the court of appeals. It has no link to the U.S. Supreme Court. Its link is to the President of the United States through the Department of Justice. Its judges are administrative law judges appointed by the executive branch. They do not have life tenure nor need to be approved by the Senate as judicial branch judges do. (2) Immigration courts do not hear criminal cases. All cases are civil. Any criminal violation of the immigration laws (illegal reentry, alien smuggling, etc.) are heard by federal district court judges, not immigration judges. (3) There is no constitutional right to an attorney in immigration proceedings because immigration violations are not criminal in nature. For this reason the person accused of the violation is called the respondent and not the defendant. (4) All interpretation services in immigration court are provided by in-house staff interpreters who work for the EOIR, or by an interpretation agency that has a nationwide exclusive contract with the EOIR. This agency’s schedulers assign cases to the independent contractors on their lists, the independent interpreters submit their invoices to this agency, and the agency pays them, not the EOIR. (5) I know many interpreters and agency schedulers who work and have worked in immigration court.  Some of these interpreters, staff, agency supervisors are my friends, and every now and then I have interpreted in immigration court in many parts of the United States as an independent contractor.

It turns out that according to my colleague, by October 1 of last year, the beginning of the federal fiscal year, all immigration proceedings were supposed to be interpreted simultaneously using interpretation equipment. Until now most immigration hearings have been interpreted consecutively without equipment, and the interpretation has been done selectively, meaning that not everything has been interpreted to the respondent. Basically, the only parts of the hearing that are interpreted to the respondent are those when the judge and attorneys address him directly.  I know that by now you are thinking that simultaneous interpretation of the full proceeding is how court interpretation is done every day not just at the federal level, but at the state and local level as well. So, what is the big deal? The difference is that in immigration court, until now, they have been hiring many people who have never interpreted simultaneously.  Moreover, my colleague told me that this simultaneous interpretation was going to be conducted by a single interpreter regardless of the duration of the hearing. No team interpreting under any circumstances.  She also told me that they had contacted the agency but nothing good had come from that communication, except that they were told that they could learn simultaneous interpretation from an on-line tutorial the agency had posted on its “contractors-only” website and that if they ever needed a break they could ask the judge for a recess.  Once she explained their predicament, I thought of a possible solution to the problem.

I must say that between the time I spoke with my colleague and now, and (I believe) mainly because of the pressure applied by most reputable interpreter organizations in the United States, lead by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) The EOIR and the translation agency that hires the independent contractor interpreters have decided not to implement simultaneous interpretation at this time.

I have nothing against the agency that has the contract to provide interpretation services for the EOIR. In fact, I respect what they do: As a business, they are doing exactly what they have to do to profit for their shareholders while at the same time fulfilling the terms of their contract. Also, like I said, I know many interpreters who work in immigration court and some of them are good interpreters, and many more are dedicated and hard-working people; However, the reality is that when many interpreters think of immigration court the first thing that comes to mind is that it is in the hands of an agency that pays very little, demands minimum quality from its interpreters, takes a long time to pay, cancels assignments, and hires many of those interpreters who were not able to work anywhere else.

I have worked in immigration court in different parts of the country and unfortunately, in some ways, this idea is not far from the truth. The agency got this contract, by far the largest interpretation contract with the federal government, bidding a low-cost interpretation service and guaranteeing coverage in all required languages, even the most exotic ones. To fulfill this obligation they developed a program that encompasses a very good business model where they recruit people locally, subject them to a very basic interpretation test, run a security and work-eligibility background check, and provide some entry-level materials on-line. They also hire hard-working administrative staff that rounds up the interpreters at the local level as they are needed and schedules them. The agency has a group of independent contractors, most of them drawn from the same interpreter recruitment system, who have separated themselves from the rest and, after a basic training by the agency, have been willing to become quality-control supervisors of their peers at the local level. Finally, the program includes an interpreter payment system that is lower and less flexible than everything else in the market: No cancelation fees, no parking reimbursement, for many interpreters there is no minimum or a negligible minimum guarantee, a punch-clock system to pay the interpreter, penalties for not having the payment form stamped at the time required (even if the interpreter was already in the facility) and others.  Of course, the EOIR loved the system as a warm body is always standing next to the respondent, the contractor interpreter conveys the basic information to the alien, and the budgetary cost is very low (although I could not find out how much the EOIR pays the agency for each case interpreted.)

It is very difficult to hire so many interpreters, particularly in some of the less common languages. It would definitely be very expensive for the EOIR to attempt to hire all of these interpreters at the local level using a staff interpreter or a clerk. It would also be extremely hard to provide interpretation services at a minimum quality level in some of these languages or areas of the United States.  Maybe the agency system is not the only solution but it is the best. To raise the quality of the interpretation the agency must get these interpreters to do simultaneous interpretation and has to provide the service with two interpreters working together even if it is very hard to find two interpreters to work as a team, particularly in some languages.

As I was arriving to these conclusions it hit me: The federal court system (USAOC) is fulfilling the same needs with higher quality interpretation services, it is doing it at the local level, and it is doing it without an agency as an intermediary. This means that it can be done in immigration court! Then I thought, the federal court system requires of many interpreters every day, but not as many as immigration court where practically all cases require an interpreter. How would the small town get their interpreters for those respondents who speak less common languages? The answer came to me: There are NO immigration courts in any small towns in America. They are all in the largest urban areas and the border towns. It would not be difficult to get interpreters after all. I believe that immigration courts should follow the same procedure as the federal judiciary (and for that matter almost all of the state and local court systems in the country) For the most common languages where there are plenty of interpreters, they should implement and enforce a certification system like the federal court interpreter certification examination where the potential interpreter has to take and pass a very difficult exam before he or she can work in court.  For the other languages they could follow the same criteria used by the federal judiciary to determine who is qualified to work and who is not.  By simply implementing this change, if they pay the same as the judiciary using a half a day and full day fee system, the EOIR would have all federally certified and qualified court interpreters ready to work at a level never seen before in these courts before. This would also include the team interpreting system widely known, accepted, and used at the federal level.  Those presently working through the agency would need to get certified or qualified (depending on the language pair) which means that the good ones would have a higher income and by becoming certified or qualified interpreters, they would also have access to other markets such as the federal and state court systems. Other than waiting for the contract with the interpretation agency to expire, or finding a cost-effective way for an early termination, I see no reason to continue with the intermediary system anymore, unless the agency renegotiates its contract with the EOIR and changes its protocol demanding interpreters meet the same minimum requirements needed to work in the federal court system and pays accordingly. This would probably satisfy everybody without having to get rid of any of the current players.

In the meantime, I suggest these dedicated and hard-working individuals who are presently working in immigration court, and are not certified, start working on improving their skills, getting certified, and while the problem is permanently solved, I invite them to talk directly to the EOIR, and if necessary, to take their case to the media before they have a situation similar to what happened in Great Britain when another agency took over the interpreting services. I also suggest that until the team interpreter standard is adopted, they should take as many breaks as needed when working a long hearing alone, explaining to the judge that they are requesting the break because that type of hearing should be interpreted as a team. If you work as an immigration court interpreter, carry NAJIT position papers with you and give them to judges and attorneys, become members of NAJIT, ATA, and other local professional organizations, go to the annual conferences and present your case to the rest of the interpreter community, the agency does it all the time by getting their staff to present at these conferences. By doing so, you will begin to change the interpreters’ community perception that almost nobody wants to work where you are working. I invite the rest of you to brainstorm, and avoiding postings that contain nothing but complaints, to write down your suggestions so that our immigration interpreter friends and colleagues get what they need and deserve.

Update: on February 11, 2013 EOIR Chief Judge Brian M. O’Leary issued a memo ordering the implementation of simultaneous complete interpretation of all court proceedings without team interpreting. This order will be effective on May 1, 2013.

¿Qué hacer cuando nadie sabe lo que hace el intérprete en un juicio?

May 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Queridos Colegas:

En mis años de intérprete he tenido la fortuna de interpretar en muchísimos juicios y en muchos lugares de los Estados Unidos. Algunos de esos juicios han sido memorables y otros se han esfumado en el olvido. En los últimos tiempos, por razones profesionales, mi trabajo judicial ha disminuido para dar paso a trabajo de conferencia y docencia.  Recientemente fui contratado para interpretar un juicio interesante y diferente, así que aproveché esta oportunidad para prepararme debidamente y trabajar en equipo con una gran colega.

No cabe duda que después de no trabajar en los juzgados por un tiempo se nos olvidan algunas de las realidades con las que tienen que convivir diariamente nuestros colegas los intérpretes judiciales.   El primer día del juicio mi colega y yo estábamos sentados en nuestra mesa de trabajo esperando la llegada del acusado cuando el Juez entró en la sala y desde la puerta preguntó a los abogados de la defensa: “¿Quién es ese hombre que está sentado allá?  Los abogados se miraron entre sí sin saber que contestar.  Finalmente yo fui hacia el Juez y le contesté.  Le expliqué porqué estaba en la sala y le presenté a mi colega de equipo que iba a interpretar el juicio conmigo. El Juez inmediatamente preguntó: “¿Y para qué queremos dos intérpretes?”  De inmediato le expliqué las razones y ventajas de trabajar en equipo, a lo cual respondió: “Entonces solo trabajan 30 minutos y luego descansan.”

Esto, aunado al hecho que uno de los abogados defensores no quería que estuviéramos cerca de la defensa (y estábamos interpretando para su cliente) ya que él “hablaba español y no quería distraerse” con nuestro trabajo, me hizo ver que este juicio iba a ser mucho más difícil de lo que pensaba.  Debo contarles que después de tres semanas de trabajo diario y constante en el juicio, el Juez apreció lo que hacíamos y aprendió a respetar nuestro trabajo profesional. Jamás hubo queja alguna ni comentario derogatorio, y al final del juicio salí de esa sala pensando que al menos habíamos contribuido a la educación de esos funcionarios judiciales. Ahora por lo menos sabían lo que hacíamos y habían entendido que somos profesionistas.

Fue entonces que entendí que este es el mundo en el que trabajan muchísimos colegas diariamente, me di cuenta que no todo el trabajo sucede en conferencias y otros lugares donde conocen nuestro trabajo y agradecen nuestra participación;  Recordé que antes yo también tenía que librar esta batalla constante de concientización y divulgación de nuestra profesión en los tribunales de los Estados Unidos.

Mi pregunta para todos ustedes es la siguiente:  ¿Qué hacen ustedes cuando nadie en el tribunal sabe lo que hace el intérprete en un juicio? Me gustaría comparar notas.

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