August 21, 2014 § 24 Comments
Once again the “Ten worst…” are back. This time we will talk about those things that the person who we are interpreting for can do to really make our work difficult. As always, this list is not limitative and it only represents what I personally consider the absolute ten worst things that the speaker can do to us as professional interpreters. You may agree with all of them, some, or none of them; but even if you disagree, I believe that the simple mentioning of these issues will help us all focus on ways to solve the problems with the speaker that may arise while we are interpreting, and to prevent them and keep them from happening again. Just like we have done it before, today we will discuss the first five, and we will deal with the rest next in a few weeks. Here we go:
ONE. When the speaker constantly switches between languages. Sometimes we get to an event to find out that the person that is going to speak is fluent in both languages of our combination. That is not bad news of course. The real problem is when this individual comes to the booth and kindly announces that she will be switching back and forth between both languages to keep the audience “engaged.” Of course we all know what this means to us: This will be the interpretation from hell! There are very few things more difficult to achieve than a good rendition when you have to constantly switch from one language to the other, often in the same sentence. This is very taxing on the interpreter and it can lead to “brain confusion” when our poor little brain cannot distinguish anymore and ends up interpreting into the source language (English into English for example) because after so many switches it becomes difficult to switch in the middle of an idea. Therefore, this is a nightmare for the interpreters, but if this is confusing to us, trained professionals who are bilingual and do this for living every day, can you imagine the confusion in the audience? These individuals went to the event to learn something and all of a sudden they find themselves with a headache and zero understanding of what is going on; And to top it off, while these chaos is going on in the booth and the floor of the auditorium, the speaker is ecstatic that she is showing off her command of both languages, her perfect pronunciation and grammar, her lack of accent. No way. My friends and colleagues, this is unacceptable! We have to protect the speaker, the audience, the interpreters’ sanity, and the event. Just imagine the total confusion if there is a dedicated booth for each of the two languages. First, we must understand that most speakers who are truly bilingual decide to do this for the benefit of their audience (some of them even remember the interpreters and decide to do this to give us a “break”). If the switch happens unannounced in the middle of the event, and it becomes obvious that this will be happening during the entire speech, you draw straws, or somehow decide who will bite the bullet, and while one interpreter will have to do the switching back and forth, the other one will communicate to the presenter that she must stay in one language because it is impossible to switch back and forth. This can be succinctly explained in a very respectful professional handwritten note that should be handed to the speaker as soon as possible, even when the speaker has a security detail and it is difficult to approach her. When the event has not started, or in the above scenario after the event, the interpreters have to sit down with the presenter and permanently solve this situation by explaining the difficulties of interpreting when the orator constantly switches back and forth. Make her understand that it will be very difficult for the audience because unlike her, they are not bilingual, so they will be confused and they will have to be putting on and taking off the headsets over and over again; and more importantly, explain that she will look better to her entire audience if she stays with one language. At that point you can even let her choose the language she prefers (unless she is clearly better in one of the two). It is likely that you, as the interpreter, will have to be somewhat flexible and agree to the occasional word or phrase in the other language; just explain to the speaker that there is the possibility that her words be lost to some of the audience as they may not be agile enough to pick up the headphones that quickly. She may then agree to eliminate these phrases. You may have to go along with a couple of questions being answered in the other language. This is fine as long as she announces it, gives the audience plenty of time to put on their earpiece, and sticks to one language throughout her answer.
TWO. When the speaker insists on talking in a language he really does not speak. There are plenty of times when the speaker thinks that he is bilingual but in reality he is not. We already saw the difficulties of interpreting a real bilingual individual who switches back and forth between both languages. This time the problem is quite different. Here we have a situation where the presenter truly believes that his second language is good enough for a speech. This is the typical individual who feels that he can be understood in the foreign language because when he visits the other country he has no problem ordering a beer or asking for the bathroom. If a person begins his presentation let’s say, in English, and a few minutes later, already into the speech, he announces that because he goes to Cancún for two weeks every year, he has learned Spanish and he will now deliver the rest of his remarks in Spanish, the interpreters are in for a very bumpy ride. There are several possible situations: If the person pulls out a piece of paper and starts reading a written speech and the interpreters have it in the booth, even if the person cannot pronounce half of the words correctly, the booth can sight translate the speech for the benefit of half of the audience. Those who speak the language that the speaker thinks he is reading out loud will have to figure out what he is saying. Chances are that between the occasional giggles, they will be able to understand enough to know what the speech is about. If the interpreters do not have the speech in the booth, they will be in a similar position as the audience described above. They will certainly use their experience and skill to protect the speaker and deliver the message, but it will not be good, or pretty. Many times the hardest interpretation is when the person is speaking without a written speech and his vocabulary, syntax, grammar, pronunciation and accent are so bad that the interpreter cannot fully grasp the topic, or at least some parts of the presentation, including names, places and figures that are usually among the most frequent mistakes made by those who do not speak a language fluently. At this point what always happens is that people from the audience start yelling words to help the speaker complete his sentences. This looks terrible, but it actually helps the interpreter because he now understands the words that are being yelled by the audience. In this case the solution is similar to the one above. Most speakers will stick to their native language after reading the interpreters’ note. Most presenters will never attempt to do this again in the future; but be aware of the real world: There will be, now and then, stubborn individuals, as well as those who will feel offended by the interpreters’ suggestion and will do the speech in the foreign language regardless. Under these circumstances the interpreter simply does his best as explained above, but he also communicates with the agency, event organizer, or sponsor, so they are aware of what is happening. Remember, they do not speak the foreign language either, and unless you let them know what is really happening, they will just assume that everything is going great and their speaker is bilingual. One more thing that may need to be done in extreme cases when the speaker is just a total disaster, is to let the audience know, through the interpreting equipment, in a very professional and respectful way, that part of the speech is being lost due to the fact that the booth cannot figure out everything the speaker is saying. Most people will understand what you are referring to because even when you do not speak a language, many times you can tell if the person speaking is doing it with fluency or not. They will also know that everybody is aware of the problem, and that you cared enough to let them know instead of simply ignoring them. The only thing to add is that in those cases when the temporary and permanent solutions above will not work because of the speaker, you will have to make a choice as to whether or not you will work with that individual again in the future.
THREE. When the speaker speaks away from the microphone. There is a universal principle in the interpreting world: You cannot interpret what you cannot hear. It seems obvious right? Well, it may be obvious, but it is not universally known or understood. There are plenty of speakers who tend to move away from the microphone as they speak. When there is a podium with a fixed microphone, often times the speakers try to be more “convincing” by furiously gesticulating in all directions. This often means that they may be facing in the opposite direction from the microphone, making it extremely difficult for those in the booth to hear what they say. Other presenters feel the need to get closer to their audience, so they leave the podium area and walk all over the stage without a microphone; some of them even go down to the well to mingle with the crowd; all of this while constantly speaking without even thinking that microphones are there for a reason. Of course, although difficult to hear them, those sitting in the audience will be able to hear all or part of the speech, but the interpreters upstairs in the booth will hear nothing, even with the door open it will be very difficult to hear this speaker over the interpreter’s own voice; then there is the group of speakers who use a wireless microphone, either a lapel mike, a handheld, or one of those you put over your head and next to your mouth, but they do not turn them on! Finally, there are those instances when the sound system is not working and the show must go on. Obviously, the temporary solution for those who move away or speak away from the fixed microphone is to ask them, on a very professional and courteous manner, to speak into the microphone and stay behind the podium. Those who forget to turn their microphone on should be reminded to turn it on; the real challenge arises in those cases when the sound system is toast and the show must go on. There are several possible solutions to this problem. First, if there is portable interpreting equipment as a backup in the facility, use it. The interpreters would have to leave the booth and move to a table on the stage where they can be close to the speaker and hear him without the benefit of a microphone. The speaker will have to speak louder anyway so that those who do not need interpretation can hear him, so the interpreters will have to turn on their bat radar and listen carefully. For the solution to work, the interpreter doing the rendition will have to speak into the portable transmitter’s microphone on a whispered mode (chuchotage) in order to hear the speaker over his own voice; this will put a tremendous strain on the interpreter’s voice, so there will be shorter shifts and more recesses for the interpreters to rest their voice. If there is no backup portable interpreting equipment at the facility, the presentation will have to switch to the consecutive interpreting mode. The audience will have to get closer to the stage so that they can hear the interpreter, and they will have to be warned of the fact that the speech will take longer because of the interpretation. Another, and most desirable solution, would be to temporarily suspend the presentation while the event organizer or technical team fix the system or provide a backup. As a permanent solution to these scenarios, interpreters should discuss basic protocol with the speaker, asking him to always turn the microphone on, to always speak into the microphone, and to repeat into the microphone the questions or comments by those who may speak without having the benefit of a microphone. It is important to let the speaker know that the interpreters work in a booth behind a closed door, and their only connection to the outside world is through their headphones that will receive everything that is being said into the microphone and nothing else. The speaker must be educated so he knows that, unlike a regular listener in the audience, simultaneous interpreters need to hear the speaker’s voice over their own voice, and speaking on an unnatural way, like whispering, can damage the interpreter’s work tools: his vocal chords. Most speakers may need a few reminders during the session, but they will immediately remember and react accordingly. Finally, a professional interpreter should always discuss Plan B with the event organizers, agency when applicable, and technical team. There should always be a backup system for everything that needs to be used during an event.
FOUR. When the speaker taps on the microphone or says “hello” directly into the mike. The vocal chords are an essential tool to the interpreter, so is his hearing. Throughout our career, every once in a while we are going to encounter speakers that identify themselves with rock stars and want to do a sound check like Keith Richards: They will turn on their microphone, and they will tap on it immediately after. Then again, some of them will just take the microphone next to their mouth, and here I include those who grab their lapel and pull the clipped mike towards their face, and say, in what they consider a very cool way, something like: “yessss!!!” or “testing…testing” or something else they saw in a concert sometime ago. All of these individuals feel great after they do this testing of the equipment. They think they looked cool, professional, and self-confident. Everybody else in the room agree with them; typically, some people in the audience will give them the thumbs up after they perform this sound check, others will simply smile; no one will think it is wrong. No one but the interpreters in the booth who are wearing headphones and have already adjusted the sound levels to what they need, in order to hear the speaker over their own voices. The result is awful and extremely painful. In general, interpreters hearing is very sharp because they are trained to listen and detect any word, any sound that comes from the speaker’s mouth. Imagine the combination of a very acute sense of hearing, a sound system (by the way, already checked by the technicians and adjusted to the taste and needs of that particular interpreter) already at the required level for the interpreter to deliver his rendition, and a person either furiously tapping on the mike, or doing a sound check that would make Bruce Springsteen proud. This is a practice that needs to be eradicated: Zero tolerance. The best way to address this issue and keep it from happening is to simply ask the sound engineer to let the speaker know that the equipment has been tested and that he does not need to test it again. This will hopefully give one of the interpreters enough time to leave the booth and explain to the presenter that there is very sensitive equipment in the booth, that the interpreters will be wearing headsets throughout the presentation, and that any tapping on the microphone, coughing into the mike, ruffling of clothes in case of a lapel microphone, or talk directly into the mike, will affect the interpreters directly; it is important to convey the potential consequences of doing any of this things, such as having an interpreter temporarily incapacitated from doing their job, or a very scary permanent hearing injury which would leave the interpreter without a way to make a living. Of course, an even better method would be to have the agency, event organizer, or sound technician speak to the presenter ahead of time, and even provide some written guide to public speaking that includes a chapter on working with the interpreter in the booth. Many reputable agencies and organizations, as well as most professional seasoned speakers, know of this potential problem, and they avoid this bad habits, but we as interpreters must remain alert in case a speaker slipped through the cracks. Unfortunately, this still leaves us with the occasional banger: the speaker who every now and then, in the middle of the speech will tap into the microphone to “make sure it is working.” This is the worst possible scenario. Some colleagues may disagree, but to me the pain is so sharp when they tap into the microphone, and the risk of losing my hearing is so high, that I truly have zero tolerance for this behavior. If this happens during the presentation and I have a way to communicate with the speaker from the dashboard in the booth, I will immediately do so; if I do not have this option, then I will ask the technician to please go to the stage immediately and ask the speaker to stop. Next, as soon as there is a break, I go straight to the speaker and let him know what happened, acting in a professional manner, I show him that I disliked what he did, and I try to get a commitment that he will pay more attention to what he is doing with the microphone. There have been many instances when I have screamed in pain when a speaker taps into the mike, and the audience has heard it in their headsets. There is nothing in the book of ethics or professional conduct that says that the interpreter must endure pain inflicted by the speaker’s conduct, and I will have zero tolerance for the rest of my career.
FIVE. When the speaker slows down to a crawl. There are some very experienced presenters who have been speaking in public for years, they are well-known and popular; the only problem we have with them in the booth is that despite their long careers, they have never or rarely worked with a foreign language audience. They are not used to the interpreter. Now, these speakers are seasoned and they know what needs to happen to keep their audience’s attention and to drive their message; they know it so well that they come up with “homemade” solutions in order to have a successful presentation before a foreign language audience. The most common change to their public speaking habits is on the speed they use to deliver their message. They slow down to a crawl so that “the interpreters can keep up with the presentation.” Of course, all simultaneous interpreters know that this delivery does more harm than good. The speakers need to realize that their message needs to sound natural to keep the audience engaged, and as long as they speak slowly in the source language, the interpreters will inevitably end up speaking slower in the target language as well. The first thing that needs to happen when this situation arises is to immediately let the speaker know that he needs to speak normally, that he does not need to worry about the booth; that the interpreters are trained professionals who do this for living and they will be fine, in fact much better, if he speaks at a normal, natural speed. This can be accomplished through a direct communication such as a note or a brief message through the technician or one of the interpreters; Many times this is accomplished by signaling the speaker that he needs to speak faster. There are universal signs that almost everybody understands for this. Of course, the way to avoid this type of situation is to educate the speaker ahead of time. I believe that in this situation, when you have a speaker who does not usually work with a foreign language audience, it is the duty of the interpreter to let him know some basic rules and principles about working with an interpreter. One of these principles is precisely to ask the speaker to speak at a normal speed and forget about the interpreter. The presenter should let the interpreters do the worrying; that is part of their job, and they know how to do it.
These are the first five of the ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. I will share the rest of my list in a few weeks. In the meantime, I invite you all to tell us some of your “ten worst” or to opine on any of my first five.
July 8, 2013 § 11 Comments
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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…
June 25, 2013 § 20 Comments
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:
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
March 26, 2013 § 6 Comments
I know that many of you read and contributed to the first posting of this series that dealt with the bad things that judges do to court interpreters. Well, it is now time for the lawyers to be on the spotlight. Several years ago I was retained by an attorney (I had never met before) to interpret for a petitioner during the final hearing of a divorce proceeding (final orders, permanent orders, final decree hearing, depending on the place where you live) The attorney contacted me the day before and agreed to pay my urgent fee usually charged for events requested on short notice. “…It will be really quick…” he said, “…the respondent isn’t even in the country. We’ll be in and out…” So we appeared in court the following morning, the judge took the bench and the hearing began. After the attorney made his arguments to the bench, the judge asked the petitioner how long had he and his wife lived together in the United States. The petitioner answered in Spanish that his wife had never been to the United States. After a few more questions, and while the attorney was sweating bullets because of this “unexpected” development, the judge dismissed the case stating that he lacked jurisdiction over the parties as they had never lived as a married couple within his county limits. Of course, I interpreted everything to the petitioner but it was clear that he did not understand. During the judge’s oral decision that turned into a scolding to the lawyer, the attorney turned to his client and whispered in Spanish: “luego te explico” (I’ll explain later) Once the hearing ended and we were in the hallway inside the courthouse, the attorney approached me and asked for my invoice telling me: “…Give me your receipt so we can get the money from my client and you get paid. I don’t think that he will be willing to pay for anything once he understands what happened…” So the lawyer asked his client for my fee, I got paid cash right there inside the courthouse, and the attorney asked his client to go to this office with him so he could explain what had just happened and the reason why “this judge” had decided not to divorce him “yet.” Well, under any standards this is a horror story that we as interpreters sometimes have to live through; however, this is not a posting about the worst ten things that attorneys do to their clients. This is about the ten worst things they do to us interpreters, so horror stories like the one I mentioned will have to wait for their day on center stage.
Once again keep in mind that I will focus on the attorney, intentionally leaving the 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. I also want to underline that most of the attorneys I work with are real professionals I have worked with for years. Those who fit this article are not on my list of regular clients. Unlike with the judges, we as interpreters get to chose the attorneys we work with, and that is a big difference. 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:
- “You are going to charge me all that money just for talking?” Those lawyers who do not have the slightest idea of what we do and firmly believe that because we speak two (or more) languages we are pocketing easy money. A quick solution would be to stay firm and tell him that we are not just talking, that we are interpreting, and simply say that this is what you charge, that you provide a professional service, and that you will not bargain with them. Long term solution: Talk to the attorney and explain your services in depth. Make him see the advantages of having a real professional interpreter and run by him the potential problems and complications when the service is poorly provided. With certain clients you can even adjust your fee because of the work volume they represent. If all these efforts fail, just fire the client; do not accept any work from him. Remember, a cheap client will be a bad client in all other aspects of the professional relationship. Move on.
- “Here, take these papers and explain them to my client.” There are attorneys that think of us as their servants, paralegals, co-counselors, and many other things. They seem to think that it is a waste of time for them to be around when you are going to be doing “all the talking.” A good short term solution is to ask them with great emphasis if what they mean is that they want you to sight-translate the documents and to tell their client that they will answer any questions after you finish translating. Repeat the last part to the defendant before you start translating, and refuse to answer any questions. For a long term solution you can explain what your legal and ethical boundaries and obligations are, what is exactly a sight translation, and suggest that these documents be read in advance at the detention facility or the law office (depending on each case) If hired by the court, you should ask the coordinator/supervisor to talk to the attorneys in order to avoid these situations in the future.
- “Your Honor, that is not what my client said”. It is common for the Attorney to speak the native language of the defendant. This is usually one of the main reasons a non-English speaker goes to a certain attorney. You and I know that there are many lawyers who think they speak the foreign language even when their level is way below fluency .Any attorney will tell you that it is impossible to know what a client will tell the judge, and they often say something that will hurt them, especially those who come from a different culture. Because of the attorney’s knowledge of the foreign language, he will usually learn the disastrous answer given by his client before the words are interpreted to the judge, and many times they will try to blame the poor answer on the interpretation by saying that their client didn’t say what the interpreter said, or by arguing that the question was not interpreted correctly. One time a lawyer interrupted me in open court arguing that his client had not said what I interpreted, that she was Cuban and therefore I was not qualified to understand and interpret her answers. What I did next is a good short term solution: Simply state on the record that you stand by your interpretation or rendition, and if necessary state your credentials. A more durable solution would be to make sure judges and attorneys know and understand that we are the language experts in the courtroom, that when we make a mistake we admit it and promptly correct it, and that our preparation and credentials go beyond speaking two languages. We should always interpret what the client says, even when the attorney wanted them to say something else.
- “I know I had to pay you long ago, but I cannot pay you because my client hasn’t paid me yet.” It is common for the lawyer to think that “we are in this together” and assume that it is perfectly fine to delay our payment when their client hasn’t paid them. Unfortunately for those attorneys, we have no client-provider relationship with their client. Our legal relationship was established by a written (ideally) or an oral agreement to interpret during a certain specific event at a certain rate. This legally binding agreement is not conditioned to a foreign event such as the attorney being paid by his client who happens to be a third party in this interpretation contract. To solve the problem as expeditiously as possible when you have no written agreement, talk to the attorney (he knows that his payment has nothing to do with you) and negotiate payment; maybe if you give him two weeks to pay; you can also take partial payments if you trust the lawyer, but never wait until he gets paid. Many clients never pay their attorneys when they did not get everything they thought they would get from the case. If you have a written contract, stick to it. Send it to a collections agency or take the lawyer to court if necessary. Remember, this is how you make a living and you earned the money. The long-term solution for all services in the future, especially when you do not know the Law Firm very well, has to be a written contract detailing payment, default of payment, and collection costs. In my experience all attorneys sign it when asked to do so. We have to be smart and take advantage of the legal protections that exist.
- “Sorry Judge, but we are late because the Interpreter took forever reading the plea agreement.” Some attorneys want to save themselves a trip to a detention center by informing their clients about a potential plea agreement when they see their clients in court. I have had many lawyers ask me to read a plea agreement or a presentence investigation report just minutes before a scheduled hearing. I cannot count the times that I have read these documents in holding cells and jury boxes. Then, after reading the always long and exhausting documents, most attorneys answer their client’s questions. Of course, reading these documents really means sight translating them because they are written in English. As you know, this is a difficult task and it takes time to do it right; add to that the time the attorney has to spend answering questions from the defendant and sometimes convincing his client to take the offer because that is the best possible outcome of the case. When done properly, we are talking of hours of work, and I haven’t even mentioned the time it takes for the jail to bring the defendant to the holding cell. Of course it is true that while we are working our tail off doing this sight translation, most attorneys are just sitting there doing nothing. I am sure it is extremely boring and frustrating to see how the time goes by and the time for the hearing approaches, but it does not justify blaming the delay on the interpreter who has been working hard all this time. It is the attorney’s obligation and responsibility to defend and advise his client, they know how long it takes to go over those documents, and they know that it should be done on an earlier date. Such a situation can be avoided by talking to the lawyer as soon as he requests the sight translation and telling him that the process will take time and most likely will not be over by the time the judge calls the case. Now it is the attorney who has to decide what to do: request a continuance, be pushed to the end of the docket, change the hearing to the afternoon, etc., and if he ignores the suggestion, as an officer of the court you can always answer the attorney’s complaint by stating on the record what just happened. This will cover you in case of a formal complaint or investigation by the court. The better long-term solution would be to always agree with the private attorney to do these sight translations days before a hearing, and for the court appointed attorneys and public defenders you should talk to the courthouse’s chief interpreter or administrator and ask them to require these documents to be read to the defendant ahead of the hearing date.
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 frustrating but essential part of a court interpreter’s professional practice.