Remote conference interpreting: The interpreter’s new best friend?

April 23, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I constantly read about all the changes that modernity is bringing to our profession. I read of the new technological developments and I hear the voices of anger and fear from many in our profession. I must tell you that I fully accept and embrace these changes because they make our work easier and better: Who wants to go back to the days before computers and on-line resources when we had to drag along a library to the job? Is there an individual who longs for the days of endless consecutive interpretation before simultaneous interpretation equipment was introduced and developed for the Nuremberg Trials and the United Nations?  We need to keep in mind that as interpreters we work with languages, and as all linguists know, a language doesn’t stand still. Language constantly evolves; it reflects our ever-changing human society. It is not like we didn’t know that languages change when we first decided to enter this career.  I think that those who complain that there is too much new technology in the world of interpretation, and the interpreters who get angry when a new scientific term is created or the legal terminology of a country changes, should pause and think that it is not only their professional world that is being altered; they should think of all the engineers who gladly embrace new technology for our collective benefit, all the physicians who hurry to learn about the new discoveries published on the most recent science publication, all the attorneys who hit the books to learn the newly enacted legal reforms.  I am glad that medical doctors don’t get mad when a new vaccine is announced. I am thankful that they embrace change and learn for the benefit of society.  Dear colleagues, our profession is no different, we should face technological changes with the same attitude all other professionals do.  And by the way, it is also the right business decision as modernization will not stop, it will not slow down, but it will surely leave us behind if we don’t adjust and embrace it.

Just like many of you, I have been doing more remote interpreting than ever before.  At the beginning of my career I had my share of telephonic interpretation for the big agencies as many others did. After I developed my own clientele and as I became better-known I didn’t do much of this work for many years. There were a few exceptions and now and then I did the occasional business negotiation with a foreign counterpart that was done over a speaker phone, the court arraignments by video that some State Courts in the U.S. have been doing for about a decade, and the depositions by video with an attorney asking questions from a different location.  Then we get the economic crisis and the need to rethink procedures to save money during difficult times. This is when a few years ago the immigration courts began to hold master hearings by video from the detention centers, and the federal court system decided to implement the Telephone Interpreting Program (TIP) now widely used to cover most of the outline areas of the United States.

Of course, I have done all of the above assignments and I am familiar with the technology employed, but we were still talking about events where the job was to interpret for one person, usually for a short period of time, generally in regard to a single topic well-known by the interpreter, and with the parties sitting down around a speaker phone or in front of a PC-type video camera.  It was when I started to get requests to do conference interpreting from a facility different from the site of the event that I understood that the trend was irreversible. If I wanted to stay relevant I had to adapt.

I went down career memory lane to my previous assignments and selected those elements that I had learned doing all the jobs mentioned above.  As I was doing it, I began to remember other experiences that would be helpful:  Broadcast interpretation of live TV events that I did in the past such as award ceremonies, presidential debates, and political conventions came to mind. These were assignments that I had worked aided by a TV monitor and oftentimes from a different studio and even a different location after all.

Remote conference interpreting has been around for some time and it continues to grow. I have been able to solve some of my concerns as I have worked more of these assignments. It is obvious that a good sound system and a great technician are key to a successful remote interpretation. I have also learned that the broadcast quality is as important as the sound equipment. Sometimes the equipment is fine, but if the broadcast is poor you will suffer in the booth (or studio) and sometimes it is up to the events going on in the Solar System. Once I had a hard time on an assignment in the United States where the presenter was appearing by video from Scotland. Due to some solar flares affecting earth the transatlantic broadcast was choppy and the image and sound were very poor.

It is important to mention that remote conference interpreting is very appealing for our clients because it will always be more cost-effective than flying a bunch of interpreters to an event, paying for their hotel, ground transportation, meals, and travel time. It also benefits the interpreter as it allows us to do more work without so many travel days, and it puts us on a global market since the interpreter’s physical location will matter less. You can go from one job to another and still sleep at home. You can even do two half-day events on the same day.

At the beginning one of my biggest reservations about remote conference interpreting was that I would not be able to see the speaker or the power point on the screen whenever I wanted, or even worse, that I would never see those asking questions from the audience.  Like many interpreters, sometimes I relay on facial expressions to determine meaning and to understand difficult accents.  I have learned that the solution to all of these concerns can be found on the camera director. This is the person who sits in the video truck or the video room and switches from one camera to another.  A good conversation with the director and his camera operators on the day before the conference starts can be extremely helpful. I have explained to them the importance of seeing the power point on the screen when the speaker changes slides, the advantage of seeing the speaker as he addresses the audience, and the absolute need of having on screen the person asking a question while he is speaking.  This has made my life so much easier!

Of course, not all directors are the same, some are better than others (as I recently learned during an event on the west coast when the director did not work one weekday and the interpreters noticed it immediately, even before we were told that we had a different director for one day) and there are certain things that we miss with remote interpreting (like a world-class chefs’ cooking event I did last year where there were constant references to the smell of food that we could not experience from a different location) but I am confident that as technology advances, we as interpreters prepare better for this new challenges, and the market leaves us no other work alternative, the wrinkles will be ironed and we will be praising remote conference interpreting just as we now do with simultaneous over consecutive. I would love to read your opinions and experiences regarding this very important professional issue.

Should the good interpreter take any assignment offered to him or her?

February 11, 2013 § 24 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I recently worked an event for the Tea Party of Iowa. It was my first experience working with this organization, and I found it interesting, challenging, and important for my professional development and resume. Many of you congratulated me when I posted about this assignment on my Twitter and Facebook accounts, but a smaller number told me not to take the assignment, they told me that they would never accept work from this organization, and a few were truly angry.

From the time I started my career I have always worked understanding that we are professionals and as such we should provide our services as long as we feel capable of doing the job and the pay is what we asked for.  My answer to many of these colleagues was a second question. I asked them how they interpret in the courts for serial killers, rapists and child molesters.  When we work as interpreters we are messengers between two parties. We let them borrow our voice and skill, not our beliefs.

The other argument , and in my opinion a valid one, is that sometimes an interpreter cannot interpret a topic that he or she is uncomfortable with; thus some colleagues refuse to work in a court or a hospital setting.  I find both positions valid. In the real world I have chosen to interpret any subject to any audience as long as I feel prepared to do it and the pay is good.  For this reason I have interpreted death penalty trials, Pro-choice and Pro-life gatherings, NRA conventions, child molester trials, and political conventions.

I know many distinguished colleagues who systematically decline assignments that go against their political views or personal values and I respect that position.  My question to you is: When offered an out of the ordinary assignment, do you have my attitude to take the job as long as it is interesting, you are capable of doing it, and the pay is good, or you take the position of our colleagues who pick and choose based on content?

The ten worst things a judge can do to a court interpreter.

November 30, 2012 § 32 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I know that just the title of this article made you think of a myriad of things that go on in a courthouse that seem to be designed to make the life of the interpreter miserable.  Believe me, you are not alone. For this reason, I decided to compile some of the most infamous ones and share them with all of you. Keep in mind that I will focus on the judge, intentionally leaving the attorney’s worst 10, clerk’s worst 10, witness worst 10, and so forth for future articles.  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.

Here we go:

1.       Please ask him his date of birth.”  Those judges who insist to address the parties on the third person despite what they have been told over and over again.  A quick solution would be to “ignore” the judge and simply interpret on the first person even if “Your Honor” doesn’t. Long term solution: Talk to the judge over and over again. Organize a presentation for all judges and hope these judges show.

2.       Why do we need two interpreters?  We only have one court reporter.”  Those judges who think that a bilingual individual should be able to effortlessly interpret a difficult proceeding on their own, since we are “”just talking after all,” a good short term solution is to have the chief interpreter or his equivalent go to the judge (ideally with the two working interpreters) and explain the reasons why this is needed, assuring the judge that there is a budget for this “inconvenience.”  For a long term solution you can provide some team interpreting literature to the court , and maybe “arrange” a meeting with other judges who understand the team interpreting concept.

3.       Just have a seat. I will take care of the private attorney cases first because they are busy.”   For those state judges who need votes to keep their jobs and want the private bar on their side, a good short term solution could be to talk to the clerk and explain that you are needed somewhere else. Many “nice” clerks will help the interpreter.  A more durable solution would be to meet with the administration and point out the waste of resources caused by an interpreter sitting in a courtroom for hours doing nothing.

4.       When you cannot hear the judge. When the judge whispers or speaks away from the microphone making it impossible to hear what she said. We all know that drama in the court is part of the “showmanship” influence of the media, but we simply cannot interpret what we can’t hear. For a quick fix interrupt the hearing and politely ask the judge to speak louder and into the microphone. Of course, we all know that this request will only be honored for a few seconds, so the lasting solution has to be smarter; maybe getting the court reporter on board as she is probably having the same difficulties, or maybe drafting the IT people as your allies in those courthouses where the hearings are recorded.

5.       “Sorry Mr. Interpreter but we already did the case because the defendant’s spouse speaks English.”   It is getting better, but not everywhere.  You may want to establish a system with the clerk where she does not give the file to the judge unless the interpreter is in the courtroom. Another solution could be to involve the attorneys and explain to them the risk of an appeal for lack of a certified interpreter. Be creative, sometimes it works.

6.       “Would the interpreter stay still and speak lower? You are distracting my jury.”   I was asked once to “speak as lithe as possible.”  You should ask for a sidebar with all parties involved and explain how in order to interpret you need to talk. Maybe suggest the “distracted” juror moves to another seat, and maybe point out to the defense the fact that a “distracted” juror may not be who the parties want to have deciding the faith of their client.  Just a mere thought.

7.       “Why do we need you to interpret?  He’s been in the country for 20 years.”  Sometimes I ask myself that same question, however, the fact is that when the person does not speak English, he has the right to an interpreter. Maybe you can answer the judges question by saying, very politely though, that it is because he does not speak English.  The long-term solution to this problem is non-existent with this particular judge. For the rest, an orientation by the Bar, the court administration, or the local interpreters’ association may prove to be valuable.

8.       “Do not interpret consecutively. We need to get going and you just got new equipment.”   This usually happens during testimony. A way to overcome this obstacle is to explain how the jury needs to hear and understand the answers, and it will be quite difficult for them to hear an answer if both, interpreter and witness are speaking at the same time from the stand. Of course, despite of what some colleagues think, some simultaneous interpretation equipment for the members of the jury would cure this problem,

9.       What do you need the file and jury instructions for? It is a waste of paper”.  I know thie second part of the quote is unthinkable in some states, but trust me, it happened to me some years ago.  To overcome the ruling of this “ecologist” judge, you should ask the court administration or chief interpreter  to get you those materials in advance.  AS a back-up plan, try to get the prosecution and/or defense to understand the need for these documents. However, no matter how difficult or scary, never give up. Do not settle for a trial without a file and jury instructions. You would be setting the profession back!

10.   “I think you can settle parts of this claim, so use the interpreters during lunch.”  This awful judge just put you on a tough spot. You are an officer of the court so you need to perform, however, nobody can work without a break, even if we are “just talking.” Solve this situation by asking for the chief interpreter’s help. He or she should be the one solving this problem. Maybe a second team can work the conference room while you rest, have lunch and get ready to come back for the formal hearing in the afternoon.

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…

When the foreign language speaker and the interpreter don’t use the same terminology.

November 19, 2012 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Although this is not new, it seems to me that technological advances and globalization have generated a more hybrid sui-generis type of terminology that is practically used and applied all over the world.  We had always seen certain terms and expressions cross-over to languages other than their original, but it was not as pervasive as it is now.

In the last few months I have interpreted conferences on many topics where the translation of a word or term we find in the dictionary has nothing to do with the ones used by the native speakers I am interpreting for. In fact, the word in the dictionary is not even known to them.  Of course, the overwhelming majority of these cases have to do with the English language and scientific terminology, but not all.

When confronted by this real-life situation the interpreter needs to decide how to interpret a word, a term and a concept. I have seen some of my colleagues go with the dictionary and use the term in the books, others have chosen the foreign language better-known term. This is not a mere academic distinction as the interpreter is faced with a very serious question for all linguists: Do you select the correct term in the foreign language and educate the listener when he does not recognize the term in his native language, or you adopt the English term and use it just like the foreign language speakers do?  To me this fork on the road is a no-brainer; I always go with the expedient efficient live language, so I use the English or anglicized term that those listening to my rendition understand, even if it is not in the dictionary.  I believe that our role as interpreters is to allow foreign language speakers to receive information as if it were provided in their native language. This way they can concentrate on the substance of the presentation, proposal, or lecture instead of having to divide their attention between their real scientific job and learning new vocabulary in their native language.  I know some colleagues disagree. They think that as interpreters our first loyalty is to the word. They also believe that it is important to point out the real words in a foreign language so that language is preserved for the future.  I don’t find this latter approach useful to the listener who is counting on me to “hear” what he is being told in another language.  Please share your comments and let us know what you think about this issue.

When the client realizes that a cheap interpreter is not the same as a good interpreter.

August 27, 2012 § 15 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Yesterday I received a phone call from a client asking me to interpret a high-profile conference for their organization. Several months earlier this same client had discarded me as a potential interpreter stating that I wanted too much money to do my job.

This is how it all started: When this client, who I will refer to as “Client A”, first won a contract to provide interpretation services for a big company, they contacted those interpreters who had previously worked interpreting for the same big corporation under the agency who had the interpretation contract before “Client A” ousted them during the bidding process for a new contract.   I still remember the first time “Client A” called me. After telling me how they had looked into my professional background and how happy they would be if I were to agree to work for them under this new contract, the person from the agency told me: “…but you are not one of those interpreters who want to charge $600 per day, right?…” Of course I immediately replied: “Of course not. I used to charge that, but it was many years ago when I was not well-known in the industry. Now I charge plenty more.”

Needless to say, after a few months of a little song and dance, I learned through another colleague that they had already retained the services of other interpreters, relatively new to the field, and definitely new to the company the interpretation services were to be provided for.  That was it. I did not dwell on it, and I frankly forgot about the incident.

Now, back to the present, the client started the phone conversation telling me how sorry they were that they had not hired me for these assignments.  He explained their reasons, all of them financial, and then briefed me on the events the less-expensive retained interpreters had done so far.  I learned how the quality of the service was not at the level this big company was used to; I heard how the big company executives had complained about the interpreters, and how they had asked for me by name.  Finally, the client told me that they really wanted me on board; he asked me to name my “price” (fee) and asked me to have lunch with them.

Of course, this was music to my ears!  Yes I was happy to get the contract under favorable terms, but the thing that really made my day was to see the clients’ realization that as a general rule, quality costs money.   I took advantage of this great opportunity to educate the client about our profession, and I was very pleased to see how this client had finally “seen the light”.  I know this issue is a constant struggle for most of my colleagues. For this reason, it is important to hear your comments and stories about other clients who may have learned their lesson as well.

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