Do some state courts treat foreigners as second-class litigants?

February 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

For years, and especially during the past few months, there has been a lot of talk about the communities of foreign-born individuals who are physically present in the United States.  All aspects of their lives have been debated and scrutinized: from their immigration status to their religion, from their ethnic origin, to the language they speak at home. Many articles have been written, and many discussions have been held about their right to stay in the country, the impact they have on the economy, and the actions of the federal government regarding their admission to the United States and the exclusion proceedings instituted against them. The policy the federal government has adopted towards foreign-born individuals in the United States has been rightfully questioned, criticized and denounced.

As interpreters, we deal with foreign-born people on a daily basis. We see what happens at the immigration courts (EOIR), the United States Immigration and Citizen Services’ (USCIS) interviews, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hearings, and the federal judicial system.  The news are not always good, but at least they are on the spotlight.  Scandals such as SOSi’s abhorrent practices towards immigration court interpreters, the White House’s six-country travel ban, and the talk about the wall between Mexico and the U.S. are forcing the issue, and eventually things will have to change.

Unfortunately, foreign-born individuals physically present in the United States as immigrants, non-immigrants, and undocumented, face another terrible injustice that is turning into a reality, and eventually it could become an everyday threat: I am referring to a practice followed by state courts in many places that is gaining popularity and acceptance by the establishment, sometimes due to ignorance or indifference, and many times because of incompetence and greed.

This modern form of potential discrimination by state-level Administrative Offices of the Courts against people whose first language is not English has to do with access to justice: It is evident to me that state governments could be systematically discriminating against people who lack fluency, or do not speak English, by denying them the services of certified court interpreters in languages with a certification program, just because state government officials want to save money.

It is undeniable that those states where the language access program is not managed by a professional interpreter are at a tremendous disadvantage because there is a person with neither knowledge nor interpreting background at the helm; but the problem is even worse. Some states where the head of the program is an interpreter, and many state-level courthouses with full and part-time staff interpreters are just passively allowing for this to happen without moving a finger for fear to lose their jobs.

The potentially discriminatory practice goes like this:

During the Obama administration, state-level courts were made aware of the fact that the federal government was going finally to enforce, after almost forty years, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which allows the withholding of federal funds dedicated to the states when the latter do not provide universal access to all the services offered, even if some accommodations need to be made in order to avoid discrimination based on many categories, among them not being able to speak, or fluently speak English. This included all state-level courts.

Before this development many states were running court interpreter certification programs. California had its own program, and in July 1995 Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington State founded a consortium. Other states joined the consortium, and many states began to offer the services of certified court interpreters for criminal cases. A handful of states even provided certified court interpreters for certain litigants in civil cases.  Unfortunately, lack of vision by the Administrative Offices of State Courts and by State Legislatures made the profession’s growth difficult because they refused to pay certified court interpreters a professional fee commensurate to the difficult, and sometimes dangerous, services provided.

This reality, coupled with judges’ ignorance that permitted non-certified court interpreters to appear in court, even though the needed language pair has a certification program, and certified interpreters were available, created an exodus of many of the best interpreters who migrated to more profitable interpreting fields, and made the profession less than attractive to new generations.

When the notice of enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act arrived, the states were faced with the possibility of losing huge amounts of money from the federal government. They knew that to save “their” money, they would need to provide access to justice to all individuals who did not speak English.

They finally realized what they had done (although they did not recognized it, or refused to acknowledge their fault). There were not enough interpreters to fulfill the federal mandate, and they did not want to lose their subsidies!

The best thoughtful solution to this problem would have been to boost the popularity of court interpreting as a profession by actively promoting the career and by making it more appealing. Responsible States would have developed a plan to encourage teaching of court interpreting at universities, colleges and community colleges. They needed to launch a campaign among high school students informing them of the potential opportunities as certified court interpreters. They needed to increase the times they offered their certification examinations, and they needed to pay an attractive professional fee, with cost of living adjustments, to all certified court interpreters. They needed to do this by lobbying State Legislatures for more funds, and if unsuccessful, by cutting or reducing other non-essential services and devoting those resources to the certified interpreter program. It was a matter of priorities and doing the right thing.

This did not happen. Instead of doing these things, state officials got together to see how they could keep the federal money coming their way. This is how the states came up with the Language Access Services Section (LASS), the Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC). A system designed to protect their federal funds while giving the appearance of granting language access to all foreign-language speakers in State-court systems.

As a result of these developments, states opted for the easiest and cheapest solution, which basically follows three major principles: (1) Use video remote interpreting (VRI) as much as possible to reduce costs of an in-person interpreting service, and pay less to the interpreter as they would get paid by the minute, or in more “generous” states by the hour at a much reduced fee; (2) Use all those who demonstrated that they are not fit to become certified court interpreters, by creating a “new classification” of “credentialed interpreters” (Nevada) or “Justice System interpreters” (New Mexico) so that individuals who failed the court interpreter certification exam can work interpreting court proceedings; and (3) Use certified court interpreters as little as possible, while giving the appearance that these questionable new classifications had to be retained because no certified court interpreter was “reasonably available” to do the job.

This is happening in many states, and I ask you to please include in the comment section a report of what is going on in your own states. Because what is currently taking place in Nevada and New Mexico has come to my attention, I will share the main points with all of you.

The Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts is considering implementing this new category of paraprofessionals by rewarding those who fail the court interpreter certification test with access to work in court as interpreters. These decisions are being considered by the Nevada Court Interpreter Advisory Committee which is integrated by judges and administrators, and no independent certified court interpreter is part of the committee. Interpreters do not get notice of the Committee meetings, and so far, the person in charge of the interpreter program at the Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts apparently has shown no desire to inform interpreters ahead of time so they can at least attend the meetings.

Nevada courts use the services of way cheaper paraprofessional non-certified court interpreters even when certified ones are available, and currently, this state’s certified court interpreters are among the lowest paid interpreters in the country, despite the fact that judges and administrators make six figure salaries in Nevada.  It is clear that there is a problem with the state judiciary’s priorities.

The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts is already rewarding those who fail the court interpreter exam by using the services of these much cheaper paraprofessional “justice System interpreters” (JSI) even when certified court interpreters are available.  Under the excuse of unsuccessfully attempting to find a certified court interpreter, they are retaining the services of these individuals even when certified court interpreters were ready and willing to do the job. The State is also resorting to the way cheaper video remote interpreting (VRI) even when interpreters appear from other states and are not familiar with New Mexico law and procedure. It is very concerning that they are using this system and these interpreters for hearings of such importance as sentencing hearings.

The New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee does include a disproportionate minority of independent interpreters; however, it is said that its meetings are sometimes hostile towards independent interpreters who raise objections to the dismantling of the certified court interpreter program, and that some interpreters have been refused work in the state court system even after all possible grounds for denial have been dissipated and proved unfounded.

Despite the fact that judges and the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts make six figure salaries, New Mexico certified court interpreters have not seen a fee adjustment in a number of years, their expense reimbursements have been significantly reduced, and instead of having a professional relationship with a judiciary that makes an effort to prioritize access to justice and find funds to do it, they have been warned by the AOC that there is no money. They face an administration with an attitude that could be interpreted as contempt towards foreign language litigants, moved by a philosophy at the top that apparently believes that the AOC only has a legal obligation to provide “an interpreter”, not a certified court interpreter. To me, this is the pull the rabbit out of the hat principle where you create an “interpreter” category in order to get federal money. It is not about having a warm body next to the non-English litigant. It is about quality.  The federal law requirement had in mind a professional service.

I do not believe that this is the time for interpreters to take it on the chin. There is a lot of turmoil in the country at this time, but the rights of foreigners are center-stage. Let’s seize the moment to protect the profession and make sure that states do not get away with this plan which could potentially discriminate against speakers of a foreign language by treating them as second-class litigants.

I suggest you educate your communities, talk to your state legislators, and speak to your local media. All of it is necessary, but I also propose you do two additional things that could make the difference:

First, I wonder how many litigants are aware of the fact that the individual provided by the court to “interpret” for them is not a certified court interpreter; that in fact, they will be dealing with somebody who has already demonstrated that he or she is not fit to be a certified court interpreter because he or she failed the exam. I would approach people in the courthouse and make them aware of this circumstance; I would even print a flyer explaining to them that this “interpreter” categories are as good as a three dollar bill, regardless of what the government tells them. Ask them how they would feel if instead of a licensed physician, their outpatient surgery was going to be done by somebody who failed to become a licensed doctor.  Ask the foreign language speaker’s attorney what she or he would do if the court were to appoint a person who failed the state bar as the litigant in a divorce proceeding because there were no children to the marriage. You will see how fast they demand a real certified court interpreter for their case.

Second, organize yourselves either through your local professional interpreter association, or independently, and volunteer to attend court hearings where this paraprofessionals are “interpreting” (after all court is open to the public) and keep score. Write down every time one of these individuals is late for court, acts unethically, does something unprofessional, and makes an interpreting mistake. Write down how they enter their appearance in court, see if they claim to be certified court interpreters. After a few months, or during election time, send this information to the State Bar, to the publishers of voters’ guides, to the political parties, to non-for-profit organizations with tremendous weight in court elections such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and to the local media. This way people will know who are the judges who care about access to justice, and who are the judges who only care about getting federal money.

I do not believe that these actions will solve all problems, but they will help to expose these programs for what they really are. If you do not do it, nobody will; not because they do not care, but because they do not know. I now invite you to share with the rest of us the current situation in your own state administrative office of the courts.

What is Presidents’ Day and how do you spell it?

February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

As it happens with other American holidays, many colleagues who live abroad, and others who live in the United States but grew up somewhere else, have asked me the meaning of the holiday we celebrate in the United States on the third Monday in February.  We have had forty five presidents in our country, and people often ask if we honor them all on this day. The answer is no. Let me explain.

The United States is a federation of fifty states and each state has its own legislation and decision-making process.  As a result of this system Americans have two types of holidays: Those that are observed in all fifty states called federal holidays, and those that are only observed in a specific state.  The latter ones are referred to as state holidays.  By comparison with other countries the United States has very few holidays.  The one observed in February is the third one on the calendar and it is just one of two holidays that commemorate the birth of a person (the other one is in January to honor the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

All government offices close on federal holidays but the rest of the American people go to work on many of them.  The February holiday is one of those that the majority of the citizens of the United States will commemorate by going to work.

The U.S. has many founding fathers, all heroes and authors of the great country that we Americans enjoy today, but there is only one “father of the country.”  There is only one George Washington.  Because George Washington was born in the American state of Virginia on February 22, and he is the father of the country, in 1879 The United States Congress determined that all government offices in Washington, D.C. should remain closed to observe his birthday. In 1885 this was expanded to all federal government offices all over the United States.  On January 1, 1971 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” and among other federal holidays, it shifted this one from Washington’s actual birthday to the third Monday in February.  As an interesting footnote I should mention that this piece of legislation moved the holiday to a day between February 15 and 21, so the observance never coincides with Washington’s real birthday on the 22nd.  For many years the holiday was known as “Washington’s Birthday.”

Abraham Lincoln, another beloved American hero, and our 16th. President, was born on February 12.  It was impossible to have two separate holidays to honor these two great men during the same calendar month, so for a long time Lincoln’s birthday was ignored.  A draft of the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” would have renamed “Washington’s Birthday” as “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birth of both beloved presidents.  This is the reason why the observed holiday falls between both birthdays but it never falls on either.  The proposed name change failed in Congress and the holiday continued as “Washington’s Birthday.”  Lincoln’s birthday did not become a federal holiday, but several states, among them Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois adopted it as a state holiday and they observe it on February 12, his actual birthday.

By the mid-1980s retailers and advertisement agencies started to refer to the holiday sales during this time-period as “Presidents’ Day” and the American people would soon follow suit.  Officially the holiday has never been named “Presidents’ Day.”  In fact, some state legislatures have chosen to honor Washington, Lincoln, and other heroes differently during the month of February. For example, the state of Massachusetts celebrates a state holiday called “Washington’s Birthday” on the same day that the federal government observes the federal “Washington’s Birthday,” and in May it celebrates a state holiday named “Presidents Day” honoring the presidents of the United States who came from Massachusetts: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy.  In fact, the holiday falls on Kennedy’s birthday: May 29.  In Virginia where George Washington was born, the federal holiday is legally referred to as “George Washington’s Day.”  In Alabama the federal holiday commemorates Washington and Thomas Jefferson despite the fact that the latter president was born in April, and in New Mexico state government is open on the official federal “Presidents’ Day” because they observe it as a state-paid holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving also known as “Black Friday.”

Now that we know that the third Monday in February is known as “Presidents’ Day” and it also serves the unofficial role of honoring Abraham Lincoln, and now that we understand that although a federal holiday, almost nobody but government employees have the day off on “Washington’s Birthday”, we need to talk about the correct spelling of this official federal holiday known to all Americans by its unofficial name: “Presidents’ Day.”

Today people refer to the holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and “Presidents Day.”  Both versions are considered correct by American dictionaries such as “Webster’s Third International Dictionary” and “The Chicago Manual of Style.”  As the use of attributive nouns has become common in the United States, “Presidents Day” has become the most popular term.  Of course, the spelling “President’s Day” is only acceptable when specifically referring to the birthday of Washington, and Washington alone.  So now you know what to do the next time they ask you to explain what Americans celebrate on the third Monday in February, whether or not you are willing to work on “Presidents Day,” and how to spell the name of this exceptionally unique holiday.  Please feel free to share your comments about the holiday or the way it should be spelled.

The Super Bowl: its influence in American life and public speakers.

February 7, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

This past weekend the United States held the Super Bowl, an ever-growing part of American culture and lifestyle.  It is the most watched TV event in the country, and for all practical purposes, the day when the game is played is an unofficial holiday that happens to be more popular than most holidays on the official calendar.   We have previously discussed how this American football game is not the same football game played in the rest of the world.  This incredibly popular sport in the United States is known abroad as “American football,” and even this designation seems troublesome to many who have watched a little American football and do not understand it very well.  Although it is mainly played holding a ball, the sport is known in the United States as football for two reasons:  (1) Because this American-born sport comes from “rugby football” (now rugby) that in many ways came from soccer (football outside the United States) and (2) Because it is football, but it is not British organized football, which at the time of the invention of American football was called “association football” and was later known by the second syllable of the word “association”“socc” which mutated into “soccer.”  You now understand where the name came from, but is it really football? For Americans it is. Keep in mind that all other popular team sports in the United States are played with your hands or a stick (baseball, basketball and ice hockey). The only sport in the United States where points can be scored by kicking the ball is (American) football. So you see, even though most of the time the ball is carried by hand or caught with your hands, there are times when a team scores or defends field position by kicking or punting the football.   Now, why is all this relevant to us as interpreters?   Because if you interpret from American English you are likely to run into speakers who will talk about the Super Bowl, football in general, or will use examples taken from this very popular sport in the U.S.

Ten days ago, most Americans gathered in front of the TV set to watch the National Football Conference champion battle the American Football Conference champion for the Vince Lombardi Trophy (official name of the trophy given to the team that wins the Super Bowl) which incidentally is a trophy in the shape of a football, not a bowl.  It is because the game was not named after a trophy, it was named after a tradition.  There are two football levels in the United States: college football played by amateur students, and professional football.  College football is older than pro-football and for many decades the different college champions were determined by playing invitational football games at the end of the college football season on New Year’s Day.  These games were called (and still are) “Bowls.”  You may have heard of the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and many others.  When a professional football game was created to determine the over-all champion between the champions of the American and National Conferences, it was just natural (and profitable) to call it the “Super Bowl.”

On this occasion, the fifty-first edition of the championship game was played in Houston, Texas, and the outcome of the game will likely be a topic many American speakers will include in their speeches for years to come.  For this reason, it is important that we, as interpreters, be aware of the result: The New England Patriots, a team that plays in the vicinity of Boston, Massachusetts,  defeated the Atlanta Falcons by coming from behind, overcoming a huge point difference, to win the Super Bowl in overtime after the was tied at the end of regulation.  The leader of this unprecedented come back was the Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady.  Remember these two circumstances: The Patriots came from behind to win the Super Bowl, and Tom Brady led them to victory.  It will surely help you in the booth during several speeches by American speakers in the future.

As I do every year on these dates, I have included a basic glossary of English<>Spanish football terms that may be useful to you, particularly those of you who do escort, diplomatic, and conference interpreting from American English to Mexican Spanish.  “American” football is very popular in Mexico (where they have college football) Eventually, many of you will face situations where two people will discuss the Super Bowl; as you are interpreting somebody will tell a football story during a presentation; or you may end up at a TV or radio studio doing the simultaneous interpretation of a football game for your own or another foreign market.

The following glossary does not cover every term in football; it includes terms that are very common, and in cases where there were several translations of a football term, I selected the term used in Mexico by the Mexican media that covers the sport.

 

ENGLISH SPANISH
Football Fútbol Americano
National Football League Liga Nacional de Fútbol Americano
NFL N-F-L (ene-efe-ele)
American Football Conference Conferencia Americana
National Football Conference Conferencia Nacional
Preseason Pretemporada
Regular season Temporada regular
Playoffs Postemporada
Wildcard Equipo comodín
Standings Tabla de posiciones
Field Terreno de juego
End zone Zona de anotación/ diagonales
Locker room Vestidor
Super Bowl Súper Tazón
Pro Bowl Tazón Profesional/ Juego de estrellas
Uniform & Equipment Uniforme y Equipo
Football Balón/ Ovoide
Jersey Jersey
Helmet Casco
Facemask Máscara
Chinstrap Barbiquejo
Shoulder pads Hombreras
Thigh pads Musleras
Knee pads Rodilleras
Jockstrap Suspensorio
Cleats Tacos
Tee Base
Fundamentals Términos básicos
Starting player Titular
Backup player Reserva
Offense Ofensiva
Defense Defensiva
Special teams Equipos especiales
Kickoff Patada/ saque
Punt Despeje
Return Devolución
Fair catch Recepción libre
Possession Posesión del balón
Drive Marcha/ avance
First and ten Primero y diez
First and goal Primero y gol
Line of scrimmage Línea de golpeo
Neutral zone Zona neutral
Snap Centro
Long snap Centro largo/ centro al pateador
Huddle Pelotón
Pocket Bolsillo protector
Fumble Balón libre
Turnover Pérdida de balón
Takeaway Robo
Giveaway Entrega
Interception Intercepción
Completion Pase completo
Tackle Tacleada/ derribada
Blitz Carga
Pass rush Presión al mariscal de campo
Sack Captura
Run/ carry Acarreo
Pass Pase
“I” Formation Formación “I”
Shotgun Formation Formación escopeta
“T” Formation Formación “T”
Wishbone Formation Formación wishbone
Goal posts Postes
Crossbar Travesaño
Sidelines Líneas laterales/ banca
Chain Cadena
Out-of-bounds Fuera del terreno
Head Coach Entrenador en jefe
Game Officials Jueces
Flag Pañuelo
POSITIONS POSICIONES
Center Centro
Guard Guardia
Offensive Tackle Tacleador ofensivo
Offensive line Línea ofensiva
End Ala
Wide Receiver Receptor abierto
Tight end Ala cerrada
Running Back Corredor
Halfback Corredor
Fullback Corredor de poder
Quarterback Mariscal de campo
Backfield Cuadro defensivo
Defensive end Ala defensiva
Defensive tackle Tacleador defensivo
Nose guard Guardia nariz
Linebacker Apoyador
Cornerback Esquinero
Free safety Profundo libre
Strong safety Profundo fuerte
Place kicker Pateador
Punter Pateador de despeje
Penalty Castigo

Even if you are not a football fan, I hope you find this glossary useful in the future.  Now I invite you to comment on football, sports interpreting in general, or maybe you would like to share a “sports interpreting anecdote” with all of us.

Legal terminology and the good court interpreter.

January 27, 2017 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

For several months I have noticed a proliferation of blog posts, language agency advertisements, webinars, and conference presentations where the interpreter’s knowledge of legal terminology is emphasized.  Seminars, on-line and in-person, focus on the importance of legal terminology and are usually packed with lists of words and phrases found in statutes and regulations. Bilingual glossaries are given away as perks to those who paid to attend the talk, and power point presentations are full of sections of the law that were literally cut and pasted from the statute.

Attendees to this “terminology workshops” are told to memorize the new words and expressions just because “…that is what the Act says” or “this is the term found in the bilingual legal dictionary”, and their questions are often answered with the reading of more sections of the law, without giving any logical reason or explanation as to the why it has to be the way the instructor said so. There are many blog posts, language agency websites, webinars, and conference presentations where current and accurate terminology is shared, but there is absolutely no context.  This is dangerous and it is wrong.

Sometimes we read that a populist government, a well-known linguist, or a prestigious language institution issue statements advocating for legal terminology that is more accessible to the common individual.   This is also extremely dangerous, irresponsible, and very wrong.

Legal terminology is what it is for a reason: It deals with social values higher than accessibility; it deals with legal accuracy and legal certainty, two values that are needed in any society to keep individuals safe.  Free to pursue their lives as they please by creating legal transactions, forming legal bonds, and asserting their legal rights, which are necessary to reach their goals and be happy. To protect this higher values, a legal system needs to be complex and sophisticated. We need the proper terminology to put these concepts, which we call legal precepts, in writing for all to see and observe.  It is a fact that many times they will differ from conventional language, not because legislators, attorneys and judges wanted to, but because they had to. This is why we have lawyers in our society.

Memorizing legal terminology like a parrot is easy, it only requires of memory and patience. Knowing the “why” and “how” of a legal term, and understanding its different meanings and applications according to context is a different story: it requires a deep knowledge of legal philosophy, substantive and adjective law, and the development of an analytical capacity that allows the individual, who has the background mentioned above, to decipher hidden meanings, legislators’ intent, and applicability to the specific set of facts (there is a term in Spanish to describe this essential skill: “criterio jurídico”)  It is only then that we are in a position to truly know the meaning of a term that makes it applicable to our particular set of facts. We need to have context to know when and how to use legal terminology. Everything else is confusing, vague, and potentially damaging to the client.

In Mexican legal Spanish, the term for bankruptcy is different depending on the type of proceedings. The legal term “bankruptcy”, used in the American legal system does not give us enough information to decide the appropriate terminology. We would need to have context to determine if we are facing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, in which case the correct legal term would be “quiebra”, or a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as this would be translated or interpreted as “suspensión de pagos”. Without getting into Bankruptcy Law, I have to tell you that these are two very different legal figures and proceedings with very distinct consequences.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines legal interpretation as: “The art or process of discovering and ascertaining the meaning…” (Black’s Law Dictionary Centennial Edition 6th. Edition p.817)

To be able to properly interpret a hearing or sight translate a legal document, court interpreters must know legal terminology on both languages, but to provide a professional accurate rendition, the interpreter must understand the legal concepts and court proceedings being interpreted, and put everything that is happening at the hearing in context, so the choice of legal terms and concepts in the target language is correct.

It is essential that those teaching legal terminology are skilled in this area so they can answer questions with accuracy, and it is important that they explain the “why” and “how” of the legal terms and concepts that they are teaching. It is also very important that those paying for a webinar, workshop, or glossary, demand this knowledge from their instructors. Everything else is dangerous and unethical.  Please do not get me wrong, I am not calling for all court interpreters to have a law degree (although having one is a tremendous advantage). All I am asking is that you stop and think of all the possibilities before you utter a legal term in court, and that when you pay for a continuing education course, workshop, talk, or webinar on legal terminology, you make sure the instructor does have the required legal knowledge and skill to teach the subject correctly.

I hope that the next time you see an agency advertising that their interpreters know the appropriate legal terminology, you go a little deeper to find out if they are offering interpreters who truly know how select the applicable legal term or concept, of they are simply advertising bilingual parrots for hire. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your ideas regarding this crucial aspect of court and legal interpreting.

The new government could help interpreters in the U.S.

January 20, 2017 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

“We are sorry, but we will not be needing your services after all. We decided to hire some interpreters from the country of the people attending the conference…”  Does this message sound familiar? How about this: “…They decided not to retain me because they found somebody less expensive in South America.” (It could be Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe).

Every interpreter in the United States (and other countries) has been part of this situation too many times in their career. The reality is that many agencies and event organizers are trying to save a buck, and with globalization, it is now very easy to hire a team of interpreters in a foreign country, offer to pay them in U.S. dollars (or euros), and bring them to interpret an event in the United States (or Western Europe) for very little money, compared to what professional interpreters typically make in that market. The foreign interpreters may be excellent, good, or bad; most likely, they will not be acquainted with the local culture, geography, current events, humor, and idiomatic expressions of the place where they are going to interpret, but they will save the agency a lot of money. To them, the little money they will get paid, and the second rate accommodations provided by the promoter of the event will be acceptable because they will be earning more money (and in hard currency) than their typical fees in their home market. The result is not good for the American-based interpreters who cannot afford to work for so little just because of the cost of living and doing business in the United States. I believe that it is not the best possible outcome for the audience either because the foreign-based interpreters (even some of the best) will not be able to understand and therefore interpret all the nuances of the speaker’s presentation just because they do not live in the United States.  Every U.S. interpreter has had this experience when working with a colleague who comes from a different culture, and we have also suffered the painful, stressful situations when we do not get a geographic site, local celebrity’s name, or regional expression because we do not live in the country.

The only one who relatively wins in this situation is the agency or event promoter; and I say relatively wins because they will eventually suffer the impact of this culture-deprived renditions.

To complete the sad picture I have just described, we have the case of those “less expensive” video remote interpreters who provide services for events held within the United States from abroad, and the telephonic interpreting services agencies that have moved a big chunk of their business to foreign countries with little overhead, lax legislation, and much lower salaries. The result: a good number of U.S. based experienced conference interpreters, willing to do video remote interpreting for a fee set by the American market, and many telephonic interpreters, including many who are just entering that market often encouraged by the same agencies alien to the profession but part of the “industry”, will lose their jobs or find little work because the bulk of the interpreting services to American clients are now provided from calling centers in Asia and Central America, and quite a few agencies look for video remote conference interpreters abroad without even looking for them in the United States.

This week a new president takes the oath of office in the United States, and a very prominent part of his agenda deals with protecting American jobs. This is where we can take advantage of the current mood in Washington, D.C., and demand that the new government keeps its promises to the interpreters and translators in the United States.

A new tougher immigration policy will benefit U.S. interpreters if we move our chess pieces wisely.  We must demand Congress, The White House, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security to enforce the labor laws of the United States. You see, most foreign interpreters brought by the agencies enter the United States on a tourist/ visitor visa without ever disclosing the fact that they will work in the U.S.

Working with a visitor’s visa is against the law; misrepresenting your purpose to enter the United States is cause for denial of admissibility and in some instances it could be a crime. Agencies that bring foreign interpreters this way are also breaking the law and should be investigated and fined by the federal government. If the law is properly enforced to protect American workers (that is: all of us) the agencies would need to file a work visa petition with an immigration service center, show a business necessity to bring that individual to do the job, demonstrate that there are no United States citizen or lawful permanent resident interpreters in the United States who are willing and able to perform the service the agency needs in exchange for the prevailing wage or fee for that service in that part of the United States. If the petition is approved, the foreign interpreter would need to attend an interview with a consular agent at the U.S. embassy in his country, and demonstrate that he is qualified to do the job, that he will go back to his country after the assignment is over, and that he has no criminal record anywhere in the world, including any past affiliation to terrorist groups or prior immigration violations in the United States such as deportations, overstays, or having worked without legal authority. Only then, and not a minute earlier, these people could enter the U.S. to work as interpreters for that conference. As you can imagine, this takes time, costs money, and often requires of the services of an immigration attorney. You see, dear friends and colleagues, all of a sudden the U.S. based conference interpreter got a lot cheaper than the foreigner, even if the agency needs to pay market fees in America.  This is our chance to end the “interpreter smuggling” that is happening right now in the United States. Of course, this does not cover foreign interpreters who come as part of the team of a foreign diplomat, head of state, dignitary, or celebrity. Those interpreters will enter the country with their client and for a specific mission that requires of them personally based on other characteristics. They will be paid in their home countries for a service that would not be performed by anyone else, American or foreigner. Even though it has been treated as one and the same, it is very different to enter the United States as the interpreter of the president of Argentina, and enter the country to interpret a conference at the Honolulu Convention Center.

The new government advocates a policy that keeps jobs in the States and will likely sanction those businesses who move abroad and try to sell goods and services back to the American consumer. There is no question that all these interpreting agencies that have moved abroad will qualify for sanctions as long as they provide their services to people in the United States. I believe that the fines and the cost of litigation to keep their facilities abroad selling their services in the United States will be more expensive than closing shop in Costa Rica or India and moving the telephonic interpreting center to Arizona or California.

I understand that this entry may not be very popular with many of my friends and colleagues abroad, but I ask you to please pause and examine your market structure so you can strive for better and more professional conditions in your own countries.  I also believe that much of what I say here can be applied, and in fact has already been implemented in some countries. Only when these conditions even up across the markets we will be able to universally enjoy the advantages of globalization.

You see, dear friends and colleagues in the United States, there is plenty we can do to protect the profession and advance our working conditions under the philosophy of the new administration.  I now ask you to share your comments with the rest of us, and I beg you to please limit your participation to the issues subject matter of this blog, and refrain from politically charged comments either for or against the new government.

How can I get work as conference interpreter?

January 13, 2017 § 14 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The title of this blog entry is a question that I am asked everywhere all the time.  As I travel, I come across many great colleagues, some who just graduated and are now starting their professional careers, some veteran interpreters with a long experience in other fields such as court, healthcare, or military interpreting, and others who, for other reasons, have decided to try their luck as conference interpreters.

The story I hear is basically the same all the time: “I really want to be a conference interpreter, but there is no work”, or “who should I talk to if I want to work as a conference interpreter?”

These questions are valid, and they do need an answer, but before we get to that, I would like to emphasize something else: conference interpreting is difficult and very demanding. Because of its diversity of subject matters, the importance of the events to be interpreted, and the quality-demanding audience that listens to your rendition, it is like no other field. Although interpreting in other areas can be extremely hard, and sometimes it could be high-profile, no other interpreting work requires it every time.

I want to make sure that you understand that I am not saying other fields are easier; in fact sometimes they are more difficult as they demand an accurate professional rendition under adverse circumstances such as noisy courtrooms, military bases, and hospitals; and in the case of court interpreting, they require of a complete rendition with the interpreter having very little time to do it (as it happens with the short consecutive mode that is used in court for the testimony of a witness). I am just making the point that conference interpreting often requires that the interpreter work with a speech produced by a very sophisticated speaker, and (unlike other interpretations where sometimes the target’s native language skills are somewhat limited) it is always rendered to a very knowledgeable audience that, although monolingual, can easily recognize if the registry, terminology, grammar, general vocabulary, and skills of the interpreter are up to the level of the event to be interpreted.

For these reasons, it is quite important to be honest about our skills’ level at present time, and based on that answer, decide if we can move on to answer the question on the title above, or if we should work on our craft first, and postpone the question for later.

There is no single answer that tells us how to get work as conference interpreters. It is very different to work as staff or independent contractor for an international organization such as the OAS, UN, or the European Parliament, where you have to go through certain established protocols and systems, including testing and sometimes background investigations. The criteria to be satisfied and the approval process is also different for those interpreters who want to do conferences for government entities as staffers or independents. For these jobs, testing and security clearances are usually required, always following a process determined by the appropriate country government or particular agency. There is plenty of information on how to try to get these assignments, so we will not cover them further in this post. We will concentrate on how to get conference work as an independent contractor in the private sector.

Conference work in the private sector may include interpreting for corporations, colleges, professional associations, or political and special interest groups.  The events where interpreting is required can go from enormous conferences, business negotiations, professional lectures, and college courses, to political rallies, press briefings, or commencement speeches.  The only thing conference work never includes is the so-called “conference work” that in reality is community interpreting.

I am referring to the assignments to interpret a neighborhood association’s meeting, the planning of an action by a community organization, a recruitment effort by a religious organization, and similar jobs. They do not qualify as conference interpreting because they are done under precarious circumstances such as lack of interpreting equipment, even a booth or at least a table-top. In this so-called “conference interpreting” assignments the interpreter is expected to do the job in sub-standard working conditions and without any quality control.  It is not unusual to find an interpreter working solo on these projects, and there is a practice of mixing professional interpreters with para-professionals in an attempt to mask the lack of quality in the rendition. Organizers of these events believe that they can attract struggling professional interpreters hungry for conference work, and pay them a miserable fee, if they advertise the job as “conference interpreting”, even though it is not.

The first thing qualified professional interpreters need to do if they want conference work is to physically be where the action is. Unlike healthcare, community, and court interpreting, conference interpreting does not happen in every city and town. These are large expensive events, require of planning and take place for a purpose: dissemination of knowledge, motivation of a sales force, rallying behind a specific idea, candidate or organization, presentation of a newly discovered scientific finding, and so on.

Obviously, these events need to be held in cities with infrastructure, airports, train stations, hotels, convention centers, universities, and many times, other unrelated attractions such as beaches, amusement parks, or historical sites.  Conference interpreters need to be in these places; ready, willing and able to jump into an assignment at a moment’s notice. Event organizers, interpreting agencies, and direct clients will always go for the local talent first. It is more flexible and cost-effective. How can an agency call you at the last moment, or how can a colleague ask you to cover for her in case of an emergency, unless you live in the city where the conference is taking place?

Even in the age of remote conference interpreting, clients will go for the local interpreter first because that is the person they know.  It is possible to remotely interpret a conference from a small town anywhere in the world, but it is next to impossible for the agency or event organizer to find these interpreters in a place far away. Interpreters need to be where the assignments are, at least to be seen and acknowledged as part of the very competitive conference interpreter community.

My many years of experience doing this work have taught me that the international organization and government agency work in the United States is in Washington, D.C. and New York City.  I also learned, and statistics back it up, that the private sector conference work in America is in Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, New Orleans, Honolulu, and Miami.  My experience elsewhere, with my language combination, tells me that the action takes place in Cancun, Panama City, Buenos Aires, London, Dubai, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur.  Yes, there are secondary markets, many of them in the Western United States, but they do not have many year-round, simultaneous, world class events. It is not the same to host an annual big event in a city, or to have five to ten big events at the same time in the same city, several at the same venue, as it happens in Chicago’s McCormick Place.  I lived in a mid-size city in the Midwestern United States for a few years, and I did not get any conference work to speak of. Professionally speaking, those were wasted years that I will never get back.  To summarize: regular conference interpreting work requires relocation to one of these cities.

The next important thing to get work is to be able and willing to travel at any time, and with no advanced notice. I have gone from watching TV at home to an airplane bound for Europe with an hour’s notice. In fact, as I write this entry, I am getting ready for a trip abroad to cover an assignment I just got yesterday afternoon. Traveling for conference work means several things: (1) You need to be free to travel all the time without any personal, health, or family obstacles or complications; (2) You must be able to travel anywhere. This means that you have to be eligible to get visas to most countries in the world, and you always need to have a valid passport. (3) You need to be a good businessperson with resources to invest in your career.  This means that you must have the financial resources to buy a plane ticket and hotel room, many times at the most expensive rate because of the late purchase, knowing that it will take weeks, and sometimes months, to be reimbursed by the client. If nothing else, you need to have a healthy international credit card. Personally, just in case I have no time to do it at the last minute, I keep at home enough money in the most popular foreign currencies (euro, pound, Canadian dollar, yen, Mexican peso, etc.) so I can leave right away.  As you can see, conference interpreting is a career that demands a lot, and it is not for everybody.

Finally, to be able to get work, an interpreter who meets all the characteristics above, needs to get in touch with the most reputable agencies, event organizers, big corporations, and offer his services. These interpreters will not get any work, but they cannot give up. They need to insist every few months and systematically contact these major players until one day they get the call. It will probably be because a regular conference interpreter got sick, died, had a conflict or an emergency, and nobody else from the trusted regular roster was available. It is then that the agency will get a hold of the most enthusiastic new interpreter who never let them forget him, despite the fact that he did not get any work for a couple of years.

Then, it is totally up to you: the new interpreter, to be ready, prepared and willing to give the performance of your life. You will only have one chance to show your skills in the booth. This is the day when you must leave a good impression on the agency, event organizer, technicians, and more importantly, the other interpreters you will work with. These colleagues will give feedback to the client, and their opinion carries a lot of weight. They will also become your source of referrals if you are good. Be an excellent booth mate and shine.

One last thing: Please do not charge rock bottom fees for your services. It does not matter how excited you are with your first conference job.  The excitement will be gone in a month and you will have to live with your fees for a long time. A new interpreter who enters the market charging lower fees will soon become the pariah of the profession. Nobody will want to work with you. You must understand that charging less not only hurts you, it hurts your colleagues, and it diminishes the profession.

I hope this long answer helps some of you interested in this fabulous career of conference interpreter. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this topic.

The “must attend” conferences of 2017.

January 5, 2017 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

2016 was a great year for many of us. Quite a few of you developed professionally and became better at what you do. I congratulate you for that important achievement; unfortunately, competitors are still out there, languages are still changing, technology continues to improve, and clients (agencies or direct corporations) are willing to pay for what they need but are looking for the best service at the best possible price.  The question is: How do we adapt to reality, keep up with technology, and improve our service?  The answer is complex and it includes many different issues that have to be addressed.  Today, at the dawn of a new year, the time for planning activities, and programming agendas, we will concentrate on one of them: Professional development.

It is practically impossible to beat the competition, command a high professional fee, and have a satisfied client who does not want to have anything to do with any other interpreter but you, unless you can deliver quality interpreting and state-of-the-art technology.  In other words, we need to be better interpreters.  We need to study, we have to practice our craft, we should have a peer support network (those colleagues you call when in doubt about a term, a client or grammar) and we need to attend professional conferences.

I personally find immense value in professional conferences because you learn from the workshops and presentations, you network with colleagues and friends, and you find out what is happening out there in the very competitive world of interpreting.  Fortunately there are many professional conferences all year long and all over the world.  Fortunately (for many of us) attending a professional conference is tax deductible in our respective countries.  Unfortunately there are so many attractive conferences and we have to pick and choose where to go.   I understand that some of you may decide to attend one conference per year or maybe your policy is to go to conferences that are offered near your home base. I also know that many of you have professional agendas that may keep you from attending a particular event even if you wanted to be there.  I applaud all organizations and individuals who put together a conference. I salute all presenters and support staff that makes a conference possible, and I wish I could attend them all.

Because this is impossible, I decided to share with all of you the 2017 conferences that I am determined to attend:

The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) Annual Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina (April 22-23).  I go to this conference because it is IAPTI. Because it is about us, the interpreters and translators! This conference, and this organization for that matter, presents a unique point of view of our profession that I consider priceless.  It is the only international conference of this size where there are no corporate sponsors. All you see is translators and interpreters like you.  Some of the results of this innovative approach are that the conference attracts a very important group of colleagues that stay away from other events because they are bothered by the corporate presence.  This is the conference to attend if you want to learn how to deal with agencies, corporate clients and governments, because the absence of all those other players fosters this dialogue.  You can attend the presentations and workshops knowing that no presenter is there to sell you anything and that is fun to have at least once a year. Extra added bonus: Beautiful Buenos Aires! I am personally delighted that IAPTI decided to take its conference to Latin America where so many colleagues need these events.

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. (May 19-21) I am determined to be in Washington, D.C. in May for the largest judiciary and legal interpreter and translator gathering anywhere in the world.  This conference lets me have an accurate idea of the changes in this area that is so important for our profession in the United States.  It is a unique event because everybody shares the same field and you get to see and network with colleagues that do not attend other non-court interpreting conferences. Extra added bonus: As the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C. offers interpreters and translators the opportunity to physically see where it all happens: the government institutions and agencies, monuments, museums, and the federal court system: History and the law!

International Federation of Translators (FIT) XXI World Congress in Brisbane, Australia (August 3-5) This is an excellent event to attend for several reasons: It is an international meeting of professionals who actually live all over the world. There are other big events where interpreters and translators from many countries get together, but most of them live in the United States or the United Kingdom; at the FIT World Congress most of the professionals attending the event will be coming from their respective countries, bringing along different perspectives, points of view, and first-hand information on the status of the profession somewhere different from the country where you live. Extra added bonus: Despite the long trip for most of us, the central theme of the congress is “Disruption and Diversification”. Enough said: This are issues that affect all of us and should be near and dear to the heart of all professional interpreters and translators.

XXI Translation and Interpreting Congress San Jerónimo (FIL/OMT) in Guadalajara, Mexico (November 25-26) Every year the Mexican Translators Association (OMT) puts together a magnificent program featuring well-known presenters from all over the world. Coming from an unprecedented success during their XX Congress, the 2017 edition will surely have workshops and presentations in varied, useful, and trending topics. This is the activity to attend this year for those colleagues who work with the Spanish language.  Extra added bonus: The Congress is held in the same venue (Expo Guadalajara) and at the same time as the International Book Fair, one of the largest in the Spanish language world. Besides the professional sessions, attendees can also stroll up and down the immense fairgrounds a purchase some books, listen to some or the most renowned authors in the world, or just window shop in between sessions.

I know the choice is difficult, and some of you may have reservations about professional gatherings like the ones I covered above.  Remember, the world of interpreting is more competitive every day and you will need an edge to beat the competition.  That advantage might be what you learned at one of these conferences, or whom you met while at the convention.  Please kindly share your thoughts and let us know what local, national or international conference or conferences you plan to attend in 2017.

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