November 23, 2020 § Leave a comment
Once again, despite the pandemic and warnings from the Health Authorities, unfortunately, on Thanksgiving Day millions of Americans will gather with friends and relatives to celebrate the most American of all holidays. It is difficult to comprehend how so many of our fellow citizens will put self-interest above society’s public health, but that is not the topic of this post. Just as we know indoor gatherings are not cool this year, we know many think of Thanksgiving as a symbol of the oppression and abuse Native Americans endured when Europeans arrived in the continent. Both perspectives are valid, but this blog is about interpreting, and like every year, I chose this week to reflect on the contributions the first interpreters made to the birth of our nation. This time, we will remember the interpreters that made possible America’s expansion to the west.
Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson organized a scientific and diplomatic mission to the newly acquired lands with the goals of mapping the territories, explore the flora and fauna, find a passage to the Pacific, and to establish diplomatic and commercial ties with local inhabitants of these lands, now part of the United States. The expedition was entrusted to renowned explorers, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Lewis and Clark organized a group of 45 members named the Corps of Discovery, which included officers, 29 military personal, civilians and servants. They left Camp Dubois (in present Illinois) on May 14, 1804. From the beginning, Lewis and Clark knew diplomacy in the new territories would require of the services of interpreters, as most people they were about to encounter would speak French, Spanish, or one of the many indigenous languages. A top priority, they initiated a campaign to recruit interpreters who spoke French, Spanish, and the known indigenous languages, knowing well they would need to incorporate additional interpreters along the way to communicate in other languages they would be discovering along the trip.
The native inhabitants of the Great Plains spoke many languages and dialects. Even those from the same language group were not mutually intelligible all the time. Besides oral communication, Native Americans on the plains communicated through an elaborated system of hand signs to communicate with other nations when they did not know the others’ language. This way they were able to negotiate peace, create military alliances, and trade with one another.
French, Spanish, British, and American trappers and traders living along the Missouri River had interacted with the natives for years, some had married local women, and their children, a product of both cultures, often spoke the language of both parents. George Drouillard, the son of a French father and Shawnee mother was one of them. Captain Lewis recruited him, and Francois Labiche and Pierre Cruzatte. These two spoke French, English, and Omaha.
Although he could speak no Native American language, Private John Baptiste Lapage spoke, and had interpreted between French and English, a valuable resource when communicating with French traders and trappers who lived in the region. Drouillard and Cruzatte were conversant in the Sign Language of the plains, and later, Private George Gibson was also recruited for his knowledge of this Sign Language. Anticipating contact with the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, or Great Sioux Nation, Lewis and Clark realized Cruzatte’s knowledge of Sign Language was limited. Luckily, they ran into a Frenchman named Pierre Dorion, who was married to a Sioux woman, had lived among the Yankton for decades, and was fluent in their language. Captain Lewis hired him immediately. His services proved valuable since Lewis engaged his services to communicate President Jefferson’s peaceful intentions to the local leaders.
By late July 1804, the Captains were eager to hold their first meeting with the representatives from the Oto, Missouri, Omaha, and Ponca, or Pawnee nations. They retained the services of a Frenchman known as La Liberteé, or Barter, who spoke the Oto language. This interpreter deserted before he could provide any services, but another Frenchmen, Fairfong, who lived among the Oto and Missouri, and spoke their language, accompanied the Captains to a summit later known as the “Council Bluff.”
At the summit, Fairfong interpreted consecutively from Oto into French, then Droullard and Cruzatte took relay from French, and interpreted consecutively into English for Lewis and Clark. Because of the interpretation, all parties could communicate and negotiate, and the Council was deemed a diplomatic success.
In September 1804, the Captains held a Council with the Teton Sioux without competent interpreters. This proved to be very difficult, as Clark recorded in his journal: “…we feel much at a loss for the want of an interpreter… the one we have can Speek (sic) but little…” (after a meal) “…Cap. Lewis proceeded to deliver a Speech which we (were) oblige(d) to Curtail for want of a good interpreter.” (Lewis, Meriwether and Clark William. The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Bergon, ed. New York, NY. Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1989. P. 52) The lack of quality interpreting nearly ended in tragedy when after the meeting, one of the Chiefs became “…Verry (sic) insolent in words and justures (sic), pretended Drunkenness & staggered up against (Clark)” (Ibid p. 52, 53).
On October 1804 Captain Lewis visited an Arikara village, and Captain Clark stayed behind to talk to some Frenchmen who arrived by pirogue. Among these men there were two traders named Joseph Gravelines (who Clark always called “Gavellin”) and Antoine Tabeau. Later, Lewis described Gravelines as “…a man well-versed in the language of this nation…” (Ibid p. 61). These new interpreters explained that the Arikara spoke different languages because of a merger of different tribes: They “…do not understand all the words of the others…” (Ibid p. 67). Without the interpreting services of Gravelines and Tabeau, Lewis and Clark could have never held a successful and productive summit with the Arikara. In late October, helped by these two interpreters, they had another successful meeting with the Mandans. At this village the Captains met another Frenchman: René Jessaume, who lived with his Native American wife in the village and offer his interpreting services for as long as they stayed among the Mandan and Hidasta. Jessaume turned into a most valuable assistant as he provided information on the leaders’ personalities, local politics. and local culture. This information helped Lewis and Clark in their efforts to negotiate a peace treaty between neighboring tribes. These actions made Jessaume the first interpreter and cultural broker of the expedition. (Ibid p. 69-72).
At this village the Captains considered the possibility that the northwest passage did not exist. There, they would need to continue by foot, and they would need horses. Learning the Shoshone possessed quality horses, Lewis and Clark decided to meet them and negotiate the acquisition of some. To accomplish this objective, they knew a competent Shoshone interpreter would be essential not just to get the horses, but to communicate their peaceful intentions and fulfill the diplomatic mission ordered by President Jefferson.
On November 4, a Frenchman named Toussaint Charbonneau visited the expedition at the place that would become Fort Mandan and offered his services as an interpreter. He did not speak Shoshone, but one of his two wives, Sacagawea, who had been captured by the Shoshone as a child did. He offered his wife as an interpreter from Shoshone into Hidatsa, and his services from the latter into French, leaving open the need for a French-English interpreter. For this task, the Captains hired Private Francois Labiche who spoke both, English and French. Charbonneau was hired “as an interpreter through his wife.” (Ibid. p. 77, 78). At this time, the Arikara Chief and his men, along with interpreters Gravelines and Tabeau wished farewell to Lewis and Clark and their now 33-member “permanent party” as they sailed up the Missouri River.
In August 1805, while looking to buy horses, crossing the Continental Divide, Captain Lewis and Drouillard encountered some Shoshone. The interpreter communicated through Sign Language as recorded on the journals: “…The means I had of communicating with these people was by way of Drewyer (Drouillard) who understood perfectly the common language of jesticulation (sic) or signs which seems to be universally understood by all the Nations we have yet seen. It is true that this language is imperfect and liable of error but is much less so than would be expected. The strong parts of the ideas are seldom mistaken…” (Ibid. p.98). After the rest of the party joined Lewis, it was discovered that the Shoshone leader, Cameahwait, was Sacagawea’s brother who she had not seen for five years. These circumstances made the purchase of the horses easier, but negotiations had to be carried on through relay interpreting: Lewis and Clark spoke to Labiche in English, Labiche interpreted the message into French for Charbonneau; Charbonneau interpreted into Hidatsa for Sacagawea; and she interpreted into Shoshone for her brother. When Cameahwait spoke, the process was reversed. (Ibid. p. 275). This was the regular interpreting system followed during the expedition. The extensive, consecutive relay interpretation must have taken a long time.
Perhaps the most complicated interpreting session took place in April 1806 during the return trip near the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers when the expedition found members of the Walla Walla Nation. The Captains had no Walla Walla interpreter, so they relied on Drouillard’s Sign Language, but the communication was not going as desired. Fortunately, at this time, Sacagawea found a Shoshone woman among the Walla Wallas. This woman had been taken as a child by the Walla Walla and spoke their language. They could now negotiate with the Walla Wallas. Lewis and Clark spoke to Labiche in English; he interpreted into French for Charbonneau; Charbonneau then relayed to Sacagawea in Hidatsa; she interpreted into Shoshone for the captive woman, who in turn interpreted into Walla Walla for the Head of the tribe.
Most people think of Sacagawea as the interpreter of Lewis and Clark. Her contributions were key to the success of the expedition and the survival of the corps; but communication was only possible thanks to the services of all other interpreters of Lewis and Clark: Toussaint Charbonneau, Francois Labiche, Pierre Cruzatte, George Gibson, George Drouillard, Pierre Dorion, Fairfong, Reneé Jessaume, Josepg Gravelines, and Antoine Tabeau. The Lewis and Clark expedition, and the transformation of the American nation, may have failed for “want of a good interpreter.” Fortunately, they had plenty of capable individuals who bridged the communication gap, and made science and diplomacy possible, by interpreting consecutively, offering cultural advice, working relay into several languages at a time, and using sign language.
On this Thanksgiving Day, let’s remember and celebrate the work of these often-forgotten pioneers who did their best for two bosses who knew from the beginning that having good, reliable interpretation was essential for the success of the most famous expedition in American history.
November 9, 2020 § 7 Comments
The following post first appeared on the website of the International Association of Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI). I wrote it for members of the association, but I believe it is also relevant to this blog:
There seems to be a mystique around interpreters’ fees; how do interpreters set them, how they charge, what they charge for; what is it that they do. I thought that, as head of IAPTI’s Interpreters Committee, and practicing professional interpreter, I should cover the issue. This will clarify what we do, and educate the public.
First, because semantics matter, and they carry a tremendous psychological weight, notice I am referring to interpreters’ fees, not rates. In legal terms, a fee is “a charge…for an official or professional service…” (Black’s Law Dictionary Sixth Edition, West Publishing CO. 1990 p. 614). A rate is an “…amount of charge or payment… for a service open to all and upon the same terms…” and it goes to say: “a rate which applies to… a specific commodity alone…” (Black’s Law Dictionary Sixth Edition, West Publishing CO. 1990 p. 1261). Interpreting is a professional service, and professional services are remunerated by the payment of fees. Rates apply to much commercial services offered to the public, such as airfare rates for example. Rates are paid for commodities. Interpreting services, just like translations, are not commodities. While a consumer pays a rate for a service within an industry, a client pays a fee in exchange of professional services. Interpreting is not an industry; it is a profession.
I will not deal with the concept of how much an interpreter should charge. Because we do not want to get in a controversy about fixing interpreting fees, we will leave that issue alone. It is not relevant to describe an explain what interpreter fees really are.
Each professional interpreter has to decide how much to charge, we have to individually consider what we will consider when setting our fees. Some may include certain concepts that others may not. Formal education, continuing professional formation, years of experience, cultural knowledge specific to a certain nation or social group, and other elements could be considered by many. In the past I have dealt with these issues on my blog: “The Professional Interpreter” (“How should interpreters set their fees.” The Professional Interpreter blog. 2/19/2015 https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/how-should-interpreters-set-their-fees/). Today I will focus on what is behind an interpreter fee.
A good interpretation looks easy, even when you do not know the target language, you can almost hear a melody coming out of the booth and into your earpiece. It sounds fluent, firm, clear and pleasant. It leaves people with the idea that interpreters have an easy job: They travel around the world, get to meet famous people and visit important places, and they have only to sit in a booth for a few hours and speak one language they already know.
People think like this until the day they try to informally interpret for a friend or relative at a restaurant, hotel, or airport. They now realize it is hard to remember everything their friend said and repeat it consecutively. They experience how it is almost impossible to listen to their friend as she speaks in one language while simultaneously speaking the language of the hotel, restaurant, or airline clerk. They see it is very difficult to shadow a speaker even in their same language.
Interpreters do this every day, and they do it under gigantic pressure, and they do it on any topic, regardless of the complexity level. Now try to do what you did with your friend at the airport in a summit involving heads of state; a TV event watched by millions, a death penalty trial, or a highly charged multi-million-dollar negotiation. Then, without being a scientist, or a college professor, or a professional athlete, try to do it on a medical topic, a philosophy conference, or a FIFA World Championship press conference. Did you think that you will be interpreting for many people who do not understand the source language used by the speaker, but they are all specialists in the topics to be discussed during the event?
Finally, add the physical challenge of doing this shortly after arriving to the venue having traveled thirty thousand kilometers, and twenty time zones, in a different hemisphere.
Specialized, professional, expensive service.
Because of technology and globalization, interpreters have to fight for a compensation according to the skills needed to provide their services. The appearance of multinational and smaller local interpreting languages in the market has brought a new actor to the stage. Somebody with no linguistic or cultural link to the profession: the businessperson, or merchant whose main concern is the bottom line, and tries to lower interpreter fees by devaluating what interpreters do. Entrusting their profitability to recruiters and project managers who often know next to nothing about the profession, they have developed scams such as paying interpreters by the minute interpreted!
These guidelines, set by ambitious people foreign to the profession, convince the inexperienced and the needy interpreter to provide their professional services by the minute in telephonic interpreting, and by the hour in other situations, including conference interpreting. I have encountered agencies who wanted to pay for three and one half or four hours in the booth, instead of a full day, arguing that I had just interpreted half of the time and my boothmate had worked during the other half.
Interpreters must charge by the day because Interpreting is a professional personal service. Unlike a civil engineer who can build a bridge and a building at the same time, interpreters can only do one job at a time. If I am in booth “A” all day, I cannot work in booth “B” because I cannot cut myself in half. It is estimated that for each day of work in the booth (or elsewhere) interpreters need to prepare for at least another two days. That is three days the interpreter cannot work for anybody but the client who retained him for one day. If the assignment is away, and the interpreter needs to travel the day before, and go back home on the day after the assignment, it is now 5 days for a one-day assignment in the booth. If the other interpreter is actively working for the next thirty minutes, the passive interpreter is supporting his boothmate; and even if he leaves the booth to use the restroom, he cannot work for anybody else because he cannot cut himself in half. Thinking that an interpreter charges a certain fee for 7 hours in the booth is never accurate. In reality, he is charging much less. Divide that daily fee into all the days the interpreter invested in a single day in the booth. Interpreters do not charge exorbitant fees. You just need to scratch beneath the surface to notice.
The same applies to our colleagues working in courthouses, community centers, hospitals, schools, call centers, and remotely from home. They also need to prepare and travel (even if it is during rush hour in a big city). They can do no other work. They can procure no other income while they sit in court waiting for their case to be called, or in the hospital waiting area until they call the patient. There is not such a thing as interpreting by the minute. That is a mirage created by the multinational agencies. Smoke and mirrors. Interpreters who interpret for five or ten minutes have to be on call all day or at least half a day. They need to be paid a daily fee. It is up to the agencies to be more creative and program a schedule where they have an interpreter busy for a full day interpreting for different hospitals and doctors’ offices. Interpreters rather do this. They want to work; they just don’t want to be insulted with a per-minute fee. No other professionals who charge for telephonic services charge by the minute. Attorneys start the timer before answering a client’s call, and they charge for the time the telephone call lasted plus several minutes before and after the call with a minimum charge of thirty minutes even if the call lasted 2 minutes. Just like interpreters, attorneys sell their time, and it takes time to recuperate your concentration after the phone call so you can go back to what you were doing before. That is because the attorney can generate no other professional income. I know this. I used to practice law. Interpreters need to shake this per minute and per hour concept off their minds. Agencies argue this is the telephonic interpreting model and arguing against it is not knowing what we are talking about. Go tell that to a lawyer.
Court and legal interpreters need to charge by the day also. For once, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts was right when they implemented a full-day, half-day payment system. States and private practitioners must follow. It is up to the interpreter to educate and demand. You can start by charging by the hour, but requiring a four-hour minimum.
To conclude: Interpreters provide a professional personal service which requires of great skill and broad knowledge. They sell their services one client at a time, and their service goes well beyond the rendition itself. Because interpreters sell their time, they must be paid by the day, not by the hour, and never by the minute.
October 27, 2020 § 9 Comments
Every year in October this blog devotes an entry to a Halloween theme. Many of you have told me you enjoy the post because you are into the season’s festivities, or because you learn about other cultures. Some just like it because it brings back nostalgic memories of your childhood or hometown. In the past we have talked about the Day of the Dead celebrations (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2019/10/); Halloween traditional foods around the world (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2018/10/); some of the scariest books ever written (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2017/10/); the scariest movies in all languages (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2016/10/); horror legends and stories (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2015/10/); and America’s favorite monsters (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2014/10/). This time we will remember those weird-looking, sometimes goofy characters that kept us glued to the television when we were kids.
Hosting horror movies on TV is no easy task; the person doing it has to be entertaining, charismatic, and funny enough to act as a safety mechanism to relieve some of the tension created by the suspense of the movie with some humor. These hosts and hostesses have the apparently impossible task of keeping hyperactive children of all ages from changing the channel despite most horror’s showing are cheesy and absurd. The horror movie host role is born when TV stations, often with low budgets, showed the old classic horror movies produced by Universal in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of those movies were good, featured well-known actors and were very scary. Unfortunately, since there are not enough of these movies to keep a weekly TV show running for too long, TV stations alternated these classic films with very bad, poorly produced “B” movies by unknown actors and directors dealing with nonsensical stories and the worst makeup and special effects. Many of these movies never saw a movie theater, and those that were shown had a run shorter than a blink of an eye.
Incredibly, many of the “B” movies became cult films and they are now considered “classic” in a category of their own. A big part of the credit for this success has to go to the hosts and hostesses who, like DJs on the radio, showed them until they were hits. I do not believe too many of us would have ever watched “Santa Claus conquers the Martians” without the sales pitch of a horror movie TV host or hostess. Today, we take a trip down memory lane and remember some hundreds of actors who, for many years, put on a costume and makeup to get into a character. You will recognize some names, you will learn of some for the first time, but they all gave kids the thrill of a horror movie right in the living room of their own homes somewhere in the world.
Boris Karloff. This legendary British actor, known as the monster in the original 1931 Frankenstein movie, and also the narrator in Dr. Seus’ animated film “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” hosted a horror shown in the early 1960s: “Boris Karloff Presents” or “Thriller.” An American anthology TV series where he introduced a mix of macabre tales and suspense thrillers.
Count Gore de Vol. A TV horror host who appeared on a Washington, DC station from 1973 to 1987, played by Dick Dyszel. He was a pioneer of the genre when he became the first host to show on TV the unedited version of “The Night of the Living Dead.” He frequently had Penthouse Magazine models (“pets”) as his guests.
The CryptKeeper. Not all hosts are human; sometimes a puppet can become a star on its own. That is the case of the CryptKeeper, a puppet operated by puppeteer Van Snowden and voiced by John Kassir that hosted HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” and appeared in the opening segment as the storyteller. Later, he would return for the closing segment to offer sardonic commentary or to provide a cynical moral.
Deadly Earnest. He was a late sixties popular “B” horror movie host on Australian TV, first in Perth, and later nationwide. His show: “Deadly Earnest’s Aweful Movies” was so successful that he even presented the “Worst Movie of the Year” award.
Dr. Morgus the Magnificent. Sidney Noel Rideau played the mad scientist on New Orleans TV and performed science experiments live on the show between horror movie segments. Famous for his mad genius eyes, he once said his character was inspired by Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and his loyal assistant Chopsley was his “Sancho Panza.”
Elvira Mistress of the Dark. Cassandra Peterson gained fame on Los Angeles television by playing a character wearing a revealing, black, gothic, cleavage-enhancing gown while hosting “Elvira’s Movie Macabre,” a weekly “B” movie show in the 1980s. Elvira became a household name, bringing Peterson fame, fortune, a movie, videos, and many TV guest appearances.
Emily Booth. This British actress has starred in cult movies in England, and among many other roles as a presenter, she has hosted several TV shows related to cult films, including “Shock Movie Massacre.”
Ghoulardi. A fictional character created by DJ Ernie Anderson to host the horror movie show: “Shock Theater” in Cleveland, Ohio during the 1960s. His costume was a long lab coat covered with “slogan” buttons, horned-rimmed sunglasses with a missing lens, a fake Van Dyke beard and moustache, and a messy wig. He was famous for criticizing celebrities on his show, such as bandleader Lawrence Welk and the Mayor of Cleveland.
Grandpa Al Lewis. Al Lewis reached world fame through his Grandpa character in the 1960s TV series “The Munsters,” and he decided to wear the “Count” outfit again as a host of a TV horror movie show for Superstation WTBS in the late 1980s: “Super Scary Saturday.” Besides introducing the feature “B” movie, Grandpa was often visited by WCW superstars of wresting who would share with him their opinion of the movie shown that evening, and discuss their favorite monsters.
Juan Ramón Sáenz. In the mid-1990s, Juan Ramon Sáenz hosted the radio show: “La Mano Peluda” (“The Hairy Hand”) in Mexico City. At the beginning of the show, the host would suggest a horror, paranormal, or supernatural topic, and listeners would call and share their stories aided by music effects and scary narration. The show was so successful that eventually moved to TV under the name: “Excalofrio.” Sáenz wrote five books about the theme of the show, and he died young. Mexican audience will always remember “La mano peluda…aquí se respira el miedo.” (“the hairy hand… you breathe fear over here.”)
Mystery Science Theater 3000. Joel Hodgson’s show about the last surviving human, Joel Robinson, living in the Satellite of Love with his three robot sidekicks (Crow, Tom Servo and Gypsy) spend their days watching “B” movies and talking over the film, or taking brakes from watching and performing hilarious skits. MST-3000 has been around on and off for the last 3 decades and still has a big following.
Narciso Ibañez Serrador. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Narciso Ibañez Serrador hosted “Historias para no dormir” (“Stories to keep you awake”) where he presented a horror anthology of scary tales written by him on a variety of themes. Even now, viewers in Spain remember this show as a scary classic.
Rod Serling. He had gained fame from world famous “The Twilight Zone” and served both, as on the air host of the show and as a major contributor to the scripts. Serling viewed “Night Gallery” as a logical extension to “The Twilight Zone,” but unlike its famous sister show, that dealt with science fiction, the 1970s “Gallery” focused on horrors of the supernatural and unexplained.
Ronald “The Cool Ghoul”. In 1957 John Zacherle was cast in the role that would set the course of the rest of his career, Ronald, the undertaker host of Philadelphia’s “Shock Theater.” Dick Clark gave him the name “The Cool Ghoul” when the show moved to New York City. Zacherle’s character wore a beret and a goatee, and showed the classic Universal horror movies from the 1930s. His Halloween Day marathons were also a favorite of viewers on the East Coast.
Rubén Aguirre. Long before he was “Profesor Jirafales” in Mexico’s sitcom “El Chavo,” Rubén Aguirre hosted “Tele Terror,” a horror movie show for the now defunct Televisión Independiente de México network on Friday nights during the 1960s. He introduced the movies, sometimes classic Universal horror films, other occasions “B” horror movies, and then he closed the late Friday night show, with some scary remarks about the film just shown.
Sinister Seymour. Larry Vincent was an American actor who presented horror movies in Los Angeles during the 1970s run of “Fright Night” as Sinister Seymour. His style of criticizing the movies was famous. He would appear in a small window which would pop up in the corner of the screen, tossing a quip, then vanishing again. Sometimes he would also appear in the middle of the movie “interacting” with the characters. When he died, he was succeeded on the TV station by “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.”
Svengoolie. Chicago’s own horror movie show, originally starring Jerry G. Bishop, and from the late 1970’s by Richard Koz. Before and after commercial breaks, Svengoolie presents sketches, tells jokes, throws around rubber chickens, and performs song parody spoofs related to the film shown that evening. The show is still on nationwide every Saturday evening on MeTV.
The Damned Witch. “La Bruja Maldita” was a Mexican horror TV show in the 1960s starring Russian actress Tamara Garina as the Damned Witch presenting the weekly horror story when stirring a potion in the cauldron while laughing hysterically and screaming: ¡Mentira! (“it’s a lie”) in Spanish. She would come back after the story for a preview of next week’s episode, and end the show laughing and screaming ¡Mentira! once again.
Vampira. Maila Nurmi, in the early 1950s, a Finnish-American actress was the first horror movie TV show hostess ever. The Vampira character was born when pale-skinned Nurmi attended choreographer Lester Horton’s Bal Caribe Masquerade in a black outfit inspired by the New Yorker Magazine’s cartoon character Morticia from the Addams Family. Each show opened with Vampira gliding down a dark corridor with dry ice fog. Vampira would come to a stop, and looking into the camera she would let out a horrid scream. She would then introduce the feature film while reclined on a skull-encrusted couch. Vampira would invite viewers to write her asking for epitaphs instead of autographs. She came with her loyal pet spider Rollo.
There are many other hostesses and hosts who have used the small screen to introduce millions of viewers to horror movies and “B” movies in general. These are just a few of the better-known. Most left the airwaves long ago, but on Halloween we remember the evenings we spent with them in our childhood. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your horror movie TV host or hostess memories, or if you prefer, tell us of that horror movie you remember every Halloween.
October 20, 2020 § Leave a comment
Every four years during the Presidential election season in the United States many interpreters face the Electoral College topic even when their assignments are non-political. This time, no doubt because of the American president, more friends and colleagues from the United States and abroad have contacted me than ever before. Because of its American uniqueness, this topic presents a challenge to many colleagues who usually work outside the United States and to others who live in the country but grew up somewhere else. The Electoral College is one issue that many Americans do not fully understand, even if they vote every four years. Interpreters cannot interpret what they do not understand, and in a professional world ruled by the market, where the Biden and Trump campaigns are dominating broadcasts and headlines, this topic will continue to appear on the radar screen. Therefore, a basic knowledge of this legal-political process should come in handy every four years.
Because we are in a unique election cycle, and Election Day will be here before we know it, I decided to humbly put my legal background and my passion for history to work to benefit the interpreter community. I do not intend to defend the American system, or convince anybody of its benefits. I am only providing historical, political, and legal facts so we can understand such a complicated system in a way that if needed, our rendition from the physical or virtual booth is a little easier. This is not a political post, and it will not turn into one.
Every four years when an American citizen goes to the polls on the first Tuesday in November to elect the new president of the United States, that individual does not vote for the presidential candidates. We Americans vote for a preference (Republican, Democratic and occasionally other) and for electors who will go to Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, in December to cast the electoral votes from that state, in the case of 48 states, for the candidate who represents the preference of the majority of the state voters as expressed on Election Day. Other two states, since 1972 Maine and starting in 1992 Nebraska, allocate their electoral votes in a semi proportional manner. The two state’s electoral votes representing the two senators from that state, are assigned to the plurality winner of that state’s popular vote, and the other electoral votes that correspond to that state are given to the plurality winner in the popular vote in each of the state’s U.S. House of Representatives district. Maine has 4 electoral votes and Nebraska has 5. This means 2 and 3 electoral votes respectively will go to the candidate who wins that district, even if the candidate does not win a plurality of the popular vote statewide.
We vote for the people who will go to Washington D.C., to vote on our behalf for the presidential candidate who received the most direct votes from the citizens of that state during the general election. After the November election, those electors are pledged to the candidate who received the most votes in that state. The result: We have direct vote elections in each state, and then we have the final election in December when the states vote as instructed by the majority of its citizens. It is like a United Nations vote. Think of it like this: Each state elects its presidential favorite; that person has won the presidential election in that state. Now, after the November election is over, the states get together in December as an Electoral College and each vote. This is the way we determine a winner. Each state will vote as instructed, honoring the will of its citizenry and the mandate of its state’s constitution. We do not have proportional representation in the United States.
Historically and culturally this country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit: Those who risk everything want everything, and when they succeed, all benefits should go their way. We are an “all or nothing” society. That is even reflected on our sports. All popular sports invented and played in the United States have a winner and a loser by the end of the game: Americans dislike ties because they associate a tie with mediocrity. A baseball game can go on forever until a team wins. We do the same in politics. Once the citizens have voted, the winner in that state (except for Maine and Nebraska above) gets all the benefits, in this case all the electoral votes; it does not matter if he or she won by a million votes or by a handful. You may remember how President George W. Bush was elected to his first term; he won Florida by a small margin, but winner takes it all, therefore all of Florida’s electoral votes went to him and he became the 43rd. President of the United States. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams got to the White House with a margin smaller than George W. Bush. In recent years, another two presidents got to the White House without getting a majority of the popular vote: Bill Clinton twice, and president, Donald J. Trump. According to all presidential polls, if president Trump was reelected, he would go back to the White House after winning the electoral college, but losing the popular vote.
The electoral college was born to have a duly elected democratic government that would replace the monarchy Americans endured in colonial times. The state of communications and the educational level of the American population were such, that it was thought unwise to hold a direct presidential election where the winner of the popular vote would become president of the United States. Access to newly founded Washington, D.C., surrounded by swamps and, for Eighteenth Century standards, far away from most thirteen original states made it uncertain that all states would get to vote in a presidential election. Because only a handful of representatives from each state would go to the capital to cast that state’s votes for president, it was decided that only land holder white men would have a right to vote for these electors. It was decided to exclude white men with no land as they had no vested interest in the election; women were considered unprepared to make such a decision, blacks were slaves and deprived of human rights, including political ones, and Native Americans and other minorities were not considered citizens of the United States, and ineligible to vote. Eventually, after a Civil War a century later, and several social movements a century after the War, all men and women born in the U.S., or naturalized American citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or national origin, successfully claimed their human right to vote. The American population of the United States territories are nationals of the U.S., and they can vote in a presidential election if they are residing in the 50 states or the District of Columbia.
I mentioned earlier that most Americans like the principle of winner takes it all. Although that is true, the country’s political and legal systems rest on a foundation of fairness and justice. With a nation as diverse as the current United States, a majority believes the only way to maintain these principles is through a balance of the rights of the people on one side, and those of the states on the other. (For those who have a difficult time understanding why the states have rights separate from the people, please imagine the United States as a mini-world where each state is an independent country. Then think of your own country and answer this question: Would you like a bigger or more populated foreign country to impose its will over your country, or would you like for all countries to be treated as equals?) In December when the electors or delegates from each state meet as an electoral college in Washington D.C. to cast their state’s electoral votes, all states have a voice, they are all treated as equal. This is the only way that smaller states are not overlooked; their vote counts.
We find the final step to achieve this electoral justice to all 50 states of the United States of America (and the District of Columbia) and to the citizens of the country, in the number of electoral votes that a state has; in other words, how many electors can a state send to Washington D.C. in November. The answer is as follows: The Constitution of the United States establishes there will be a House of Representatives (to represent the people of the United States) integrated by 435 members elected by the people of the district where they live. These districts change with the shifts in population but additional seats are never added to the House. When the population changes, the new total population are divided by 435 and that gives you the new congressional district. The only limitations: An electoral district cannot cross state lines (state borders) therefore, occasionally we will have a district slightly larger or slightly smaller, and every state must have at least one electoral district (one house member) regardless of its population. The American constitution establishes there will be a Senate (to represent the 50 states) integrated by 2 representatives or members from each state, currently that is 100 senators elected by all the citizens of that state. When new states have been admitted to the Union (the last time was 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii became states number 49 and 50 respectively) the senate grows by two new members.
As you can see, all states have the same representation in the Senate (2 senators each) regardless of the state’s size or population. The House of Representatives has more members from the states with larger population, but all states have at least one representative in the house. This way the American system makes sure that the will of the majority of the people is heard in Congress (House of Representatives) and it assures the 50 states that they all, even the smaller ones, will be heard as equals in the Senate. You need both houses of Congress to legislate.
Going back to the Electoral College, the number of electoral votes each state has is the same as its number of Senators and Representatives. The total number of Senators and Representatives is 535 (435 Representatives and 100 Senators) Washington D.C. is not a state; therefore it has no Representatives or Senators, but it has 3 electoral votes to put it on equal footing with the smaller states for presidential elections. Therefore, the total number of electoral votes is 538. Because of these totals, and because of the American principle of winner takes it all that applies to the candidate who wins the election in a state, to win a presidential election, a candidate must reach 270 electoral votes. This is the reason California, our most populated state, has 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives and 2 Senators) and all smaller states have 3 (remember, they have 2 Senators and at least one Representative in the House)
The next time you have to interpret something about the Electoral College in the United States remember how it is integrated, and think of our country as 50 countries with an internal election first, and then vote as states, equal to all other states, on the second electoral round in December. Because on the first Tuesday in November, or shortly after that, we will know who won each state, we will be celebrating the election of a new president, even though the Electoral College will not cast its votes for another month. It is like knowing how the movie ends before you see it.
Electoral votes by state Total: 538;
majority needed to elect president and vice president: 270
|State||number of votes||State||number of votes||State||number of votes|
|District of Columbia||3||Missouri||11||Tennessee||11|
|Indiana||11||New Mexico||5||West Virginia||5|
I now invite your comments on the way presidential elections are conducted in the United States, but please do not send political postings or partisan attacks. They will not be posted. This is a blog for interpreters and translators, not for political debate.
October 7, 2020 § 8 Comments
We are in a political environment in the United States at this time, in a few days we will vote for president of the United States, and this is also election time at the American Translators Association. I write this post because I deeply care for our association and the direction it follows for the benefit or detriment of our professions. This post is not an attack on anybody for who they are, but an expression of opinions and a means to disseminate information you may find useful before you vote. I also did some fact-checking and bring you the elements you will need to separate fact from fiction.
Election of candidates.
I am not familiar with some candidates and the ones I know are probably the same ones most of you recognize from the slate. I just want you to be aware of two important points all voting members should consider before voting. Please do your homework and vote for practicing interpreters or translators. Do not continue to stack the board with agency owners, even if they attempt to portray themselves as practicing colleagues. That may be half-truth, and remember their interests are not yours. They are not illegal, but they are not yours. The second point you must remember is that do not vote for the maximum number of candidates allowed. If there is only one board candidate you like, vote for that person and leave the others blank. When you do not know the candidate, or you have doubts, it is better to abstain. An abstention is powerful, because it increases the chances of your candidates to win as you do not gift a vote to someone you are not sure about. In my case I already voted, and I only voted for one candidate. The individual I chose has disagreements with me, and this candidate is not an interpreter, but he has my trust because I know this person is smart, honest, and not an agency.
I encourage you to think long and hard before you decide on your candidates, and do not feel bad if you just vote for one individual.
The decoupling question.
How can not decoupling be considered illegal? I understand the issue should be raised if a certification were needed to practice translation and ATA were the only certifying entity officially recognized, but neither is true. Certification may give you a competitive advantage and help you dissipate doubts about your professional level, but it is not a legal requirement to work as a translator. Although well-known as a serious credential, ATA has no official recognition as a certifying agency or office. ATA membership is voluntary and certification is one benefit of membership. Nobody can be forced to join ATA, just like no one can be forced to take the certification exam.
Regarding the ABA remarks, whether intentionally, or due to a lack of basic knowledge, it is puzzling that an allegedly practicing court interpreter in Pennsylvania can make the following statement: “Now, as a world class nonprofit association, certification legal experts have repeatedly advised us that it is unseemly and illegal to force individuals to become members just to take and maintain their certification…the ABA and the AMA have no such requirements for professional lawyers and doctors.”
There is not such a thing as an “ABA Bar Exam.” I am sorry to hear an ATA Board member making such remarks. Perhaps the reason for this regrettable statement can be understood, nut justified, by visiting the Administrative Office of the State of Pennsylvania’s official website: The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania’s Court Interpreters classifies Spanish interpreters in three categories. From higher to lower skill level: Master, Certified, and Conditional. Are considered conditional interpreters those who score 50 percent on a simultaneous, consecutive, and bi-directional sight translation exam (a 49 percent score fails the test) testing the bare-bones minimum skills to interpret in court. Because conditional interpreters, like the person who made these comments, are separated from failing candidates by one percentage point, they may interpret during hearings of lesser complexity where freedom or substantial assets are not at risk. They cannot interpret trials unless they are before a lower court and involve small claims, traffic violations, etc.
Attorneys must pass a STATE BAR EXAM to be able to practice law. They must join that State Bar and remain members throughout their professional life in that State. It is the State Bar that grants and runs the continuing legal education program needed to keep a license valid, and the State Bar is the only body to monitor the rules of ethics are observed, and when they are not, only the Bar can sanction attorneys after notice and hearing. The only thing “illegal” is to practice law without a license (State Bar membership) carrying up to 364 days in jail in most states, and very harsh Civil sanctions, which could include compensatory and punitive damages depending on the harm done. Conditional-level court interpreters often work with pro-se individuals, and, have limited exposure to situations where the law license issue is mentioned. As for the American Medical Association’s part of the statement, since 1933, the certification function has been administered by a separate organization known as the American Board of Medical Specialties. No relation to the AMA, administratively or functionally. Interesting that a candidate who lost an election twice and got to the board by appointment both times gives such an eloquent opinion on something he lacks.
I encourage you to put your interests as a member above the associations economic priorities and reject this amendment. Vote No.
An election with multiple candidates.
I am very troubled by the arguments of those who oppose the amendment because they base their opinion on false assumptions, and because they represent the Institutional viewpoint. That two of the former presidents endorsing the opinion were beneficiaries of unopposed “elections” merits mentioning as it goes to the credibility of the opinion.
An election is a decision between (at least) two options, anything else can be called a ratification, imposition, proclamation, appointment, or coronation, but not an election.
Nations, corporations, and associations are governed by those who represent the will of the majority of its citizens, shareholders, or members. From its inception by the Greeks, many centuries ago, this has been called democracy.
History has seen many totalitarian regimes in countries, corporations, and institutions disguised as “democracies.” Often, arguments to justify this aberration include a consensus by an elite in a position of power indicating they, as self-appointed protectors of the masses, are making the tough decisions; that it would be too dangerous to let citizens, shareholders or members decide because they are not “prepared” for it.
The argument that an outsider who may be elected president-elect, treasurer, or director would jeopardize the institutional continuity of the people in power sends chills through my body. Elections are to change what a majority dislikes, not to guarantee everything will stay the same. Supporting ATA’s official viewpoint reminds me of those attempting to destroy our nation’s democracy at this time.
To say people not screened and blessed by the ones in power will not perform as needed, will not devote the necessary time to fulfill their responsibilities, or will quit their position shortly after the election, is plain insulting. People run for elected positions because they want to do the job. They want to do the job according to the interests of those who elected them, and sometimes these may not be the interests of those already in power.
The bylaws are to an association what a constitution is to a nation. Their amendment is a serious matter and it should reflect the decision of that association’s membership based on real information, not a manipulated alternative reality. The only place where unopposed “elections” are welcome and considered a good thing is totalitarian structures populated by those too afraid to face the will of a majority without feeding them first manipulated information. That was tried before, caused many hardships and pain, and after many years it fell because it never represented the view of the majority. I don’t want another Soviet Union in my profession.
I encourage you to put democracy and membership above the current leadership’s appetite for control and support this amendment. Vote Yes.
Please vote. Most members never vote and that took us to where we are. Think of your career, the profession, and how a professional association should serve the interests of its human members, not corporations, or personal ambition.
September 23, 2020 § 6 Comments
Every two years we have elections in the United States. Generally, the candidates of the two main political parties (Republicans and Democrats) debate on TV a few weeks before the general election, usually held on the first Tuesday in November. Every four years the country elects a president and vice-president, and every two years Americans vote to renew the United States House of Representatives (425 members) and one-third of the United States Senate (33 or 34 Senate seats depending on the cycle because there are 100 Senators) Along with these national offices, many states elect governors, state legislators, and other local officials. Earlier in those election years, each party holds primary elections to pick their candidates to face the other party’s candidate in the general election. There are political debates within each party before the primaries. While Presidential debates are broadcasted throughout the United States on national TV, debates for State and local-level office are transmitted by local TV stations. Because the population of the United States is very diverse and complex, many voters do not speak English, or at least they do not understand it well enough to comprehend a candidate’s platform or position regarding specific issues. Add to this landscape that many regions of the United States have very important concentrations of people from a particular nationality or ethnicity that may have issues relevant to their community even when they may not be as important for the general population. This happens with Hispanics and some other groups, and because of the number of people interested in a particular issue, there are debates specifically geared to these populations, often held in English because that is the language of the candidates, but organized and broadcasted by foreign language organizations and networks. This exercise in democracy means we as interpreters are quite busy during political season.
Because of the number of elections and debates, primary elections require more interpreters than a general election; also, due to the regional nature of a primary election, these debates are normally held in smaller towns and cities, increasing the practice of using the services of local interpreters.
Before the pandemic, in some States the primary season took place as always, but others had to adjust to debates without a studio audience, and interpreters working from home instead of the event’s venue or the TV studios. During my career, I have traveled to many cities and towns all over the country to interpret political debates in elections of all types: presidents, governors, senators, U.S. House members, local legislators, and mayors. Most debates have been live, in almost all I have interpreted for the T.V. broadcast, but there have been recorded debates and some radio broadcasts. I usually run into the same colleagues when interpreting a debate: the same local professionals, or the same national interpreters (meaning interpreters like me, who by decision of the organizers or the networks, are brought in from a different city) for the races with a higher profile, but sometimes you get to work with a new colleague. As I watched some of my new colleagues prepare for a debate and deliver their services, I reflected on the things we need to do to succeed at this very important and difficult type of interpretation. These are some ideas on things we should do and avoid when getting ready to interpret a political debate from home or at the TV or radio station.
- Know the political system. One thing that will help you as an interpreter is to know why you are there. It is crucial to understand why we have primary and general elections in the United States. We as interpreters will do a better job if we know who can run and who can vote in the election. This requires some research and study as every state is different. In some states voters must be registered with the political party to vote in the primary, while other states hold open primaries where anybody, as long as they are American citizens, can vote. Some states have early voting, others have absentee ballots and many states will allow you to mail in your vote due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work. The more states you work at, the more you have to research and study.
- Know basic local and national legislation and politics. When interpreting a state legislators’ debate it is essential to know how is the state government structured: Does it have a unicameral or bicameral system? Are legislators full or part-time? Can governors be reelected? Are there other political parties in that state? A well-prepared interpreter needs to know the answer to these and similar questions.
- Know the most relevant issues and people at the national level and in that state, county, or city. Most questions during Statewide and local office political debates concern local matters, not national issues; a professional interpreter must become acquainted with local affairs. Read national and local newspapers, watch and listen to national and local newscasts and political shows, and search the web. The shortest way to embarrassment is not to know a local topic or a local politician, government official or celebrity when they pop up during a debate. Know your national and local issues. It is a must to know if water shortage, a bad economy, a corruption scandal, a referendum, the names of local politicians (governor, lieutenant governor if the state has one, State House speaker, chief justice of the State Supreme Court, leader of the State Senate) or any other local matter is THE issue in that part of the country.
- Know basic history and geography of the United States and that state, and please know the main streets and landmarks of the region. There is nothing worse than interpreting a debate and suddenly, struggle with the name of a county or a town because you did not do your homework. Have a map handy if you need to. Learn the names of rivers and mountains, memorize the names of the Native-American nations or pueblos in that state.
- Know your candidates. Study their bios, read about their ideology and platform; learn about their public and private lives. Keep in mind you need to know about all candidates in the debate, not just the candidate you will be interpreting.
- Know national and world current events and know your most important national and international issues if they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer. Know if there is a war or an economic embargo, it is necessary to know the names of the national leaders and their party affiliation (president, vice-president, speaker of the House, Senate leader, cabinet members) and it is essential to know the names of the local neighboring leaders and world figures in the news (names of the governors of neighboring states, the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico, the secretary general of the United Nations and the OAS, and at least the names of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of state of the main partners, allies, and adversaries of the United States).
- Know the rules of the debate. You need to know how long the debate will be, how much time a candidate has to answer a question and to refute another candidate, you need to know the order in which they will be questioned, who will be asking the questions and in what order. Try to find this information on line, and request it from the organizers or whoever hired you for the debate. Remember: it is a T.V. event so there is always a schedule and a program; you just need to get a copy.
- Get acquainted with your candidate’s speech patterns, accent, tempo, and learn his/her stump speech. All candidates have one, and they gravitate towards these talking points every time they have a chance and the moderator lets them do it. The best way to achieve this is by watching as many speeches as you can, especially previous debates, ideally on the same issues, as sometimes debates in the United States are limited to certain issues such as education, taxes, foreign policy, the economy, etc. Most candidates, unless they are brand new, have speeches and debates on You Tube or in the local T.V. stations and newspaper electronic archives; just access their websites and look for them. At least listen to two speeches or debates of the other candidates in the debate. You will not be interpreting them, but you will be listening to them during their interaction with your candidate.
- When possible, participate on distributing assignments to the interpreters. How good you perform may be related to the candidate you get. There are several criteria to pair an interpreter with a candidate. T.V. and radio producers like a male interpreter for a male candidate and a female interpreter for a female candidate. After that, producers pay attention to other important points that need to be considered when matching candidates and interpreters: the voice of your candidate should be as similar to your own voice as possible; but it is more important that you understand the candidate; if you are a baritone, it would be great to have a baritone candidate, but if you are from the same national origin and culture than the tenor, then you should be the tenor’s interpreter because you will get all the cultural expressions, accent, and vocabulary better than anybody else. You should also have a meeting (at least a virtual one) with your fellow interpreters so you can discuss uniform terminology, determine who will cover who if a technical problem occurs or a temporary physical inability to interpret like a coughing episode, or one of the now possible glitches when working from home (power failure, internet speed, thunderstorms, etc.) Remember, this is live radio or T.V.
- Ask about the radio or T.V. studio where you will be working; if you are local, arrange for a visit so you become familiar with the place. Find out the equipment they will be using, see if you can take your own headphones if you prefer to use your “favorite” piece of equipment; find out if there is room for a computer or just for a tablet. Ask if you will be alone in the booth or if you will share it with other interpreters. During the health crisis you should demand your own booth so you can keep your social distance from other interpreters. Because small towns have small stations, several interpreters will likely have to share the same booth; in that case, make sure there are plans to spread up all interpreters even if working in the same big hall or studio. Talk to the station engineer or technician and agree on a set of signs so you can communicate even when you are on the air, and work out a system to communicate with them during the event if you will work from home. Generally, TV and radio stations have able, knowledgeable, and experienced tech support staff so this should not be a problem, but you have to voice your concerns because some are not familiar with the way interpreters work. Station staffers are as interested as you in the success of the event.
- Finally, separate yourself from the candidate. Remember that you are a professional and you are there to perform a service. Leave your political ideas and opinions out of your professional work. You will have to interpret for people with a different point of view, and you will interpret attacks against politicians you admire. This cannot affect you. If you cannot get over this hurdle then everything else will be a waste. This is one of the main reasons they continue to hire some of us. Producers, organizers, and politicians know that we will be loyal to what they say and our opinions will not be noticed by anybody listening to the debate’s interpretation.
On the day of the debate, arrive early to the station or auditorium where the debate will take place, find your place and set up your gear; if working from home get computers, tablets and other equipment ready way before the event; talk to the engineer and test everything until you are comfortable with the volume, microphone, monitor, signal, internet speed, and everything else. Get plenty of water so you do not run out during the debate. Talk to your fellow interpreters and make sure you are on the same page if there is a technical glitch or an unplanned event during the debate. Once the debate starts, concentrate on what you are doing and ignore everything else. You will need all your senses because remember: there is no team interpreting, all other interpreters are assigned to another individual, it is live T.V. and if you count the live broadcast and the news clips shown for weeks, there could be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) watching your work. If you enjoyed the experience and if you did a good job there will be more opportunities and you will have enhanced your versatility within the profession.
I hope these tips will be useful to those of you in the United States and all other countries where there are political debates, and I invite you to share with the rest of us your comments, experiences, and tips.
September 15, 2020 § Leave a comment
These months of confinement have changed our lives in many ways, including how we teach and learn. Despite the terrible consequences the pandemic brought to the professional interpreting world, there have been positive effects: a profession more united than ever before, and the possibility to attend courses, workshops and classes remotely from every corner on earth.
Professional development, expensive and out of many interpreters’ league became affordable overnight. On line classes are often offered free or at a fee considerably lower than in-person training sessions; travel expenses are never an issue when attending a workshop from your kitchen table, and even Ivy League quality institutions are offering a learning opportunity to those who would have never considered enrolling in one of their courses.
On line education and training has been an outlet to deal with the lockup, lack of income, and fear of the uncertain. It has also given instructors, professors, and trainers, a way to make a living in a time of closed college campuses and zero conferences.
Online learning is not new, but, just like video conferences, came of age during Covid-19. Suddenly, interpreters’ appetite to learn how to work remotely, protect and grow their business in a crisis, and going back to relearn the basics, created an immense wave of courses, workshops, webinars, and instructors who now co-exist with the better-known trainers and programs from before the quarantine. As a consequence, some of what is offered online is very good… and some is not.
I have discussed this situation in the blog before. It is very important, but I will not deal with it today. My concern in writing this blog has to do with the benefits from online learning on a professional interpreter. Is this an effective way to continue our professional development? And if so, is it comparable to in-person continuing education?
Instructors, government agencies, professional associations, and individuals are joining online professional development classes by the thousands. Besides the obvious workshops on how to interpret remotely from home, two main groups of colleagues are resorting to online education in the interpreting world: The interpreters driven by an aspirational motivation, and those who take advantage of this inexpensive method of obtaining continuing education credits to keep their license, accreditation, patent, or certification current.
The first group, consisting of an overwhelming majority of community interpreters (court, healthcare, education, etc.) gravitate towards those workshops, courses, and webinars that promise to teach them how to become conference interpreters, improve their simultaneous rendition, shake off their fear to interpret consecutively, learn a better note-taking system, get tips on how to do research, join a conference interpreting practice group, and others.
The second group includes those interpreters, usually court and healthcare interpreters, who must log in a certain number of continuing education hours every year to maintain their ability to practice in their field. To continue to interpret in court and medical settings, many interpreters must prove to their government or professional association they have accumulated the minimum credits needed to practice one more year. The possibility to get these credits on line has been around for years in several countries, but until now, most interpreters preferred to meet their continuous professional development requirements by physically attending an international, national, or regional conference where they could get the credits and do networking simultaneously.
This are very difficult times, but it caught my attention how most professional associations, and government agencies, grant continuing education credits to those attending an online event at the same credit-hour equivalency they do for in-person education. I teach courses, webinars and workshops several times a month. I have been doing it for many years, and my many decades of experience as an interpreter trainer and Law School professor show me that the level of learning online is lower than sitting in a classroom. Attention span, multiple distractions, unsupervised behavior, lack of peer-pressure, computer fatigue, and other circumstances, keep the student from learning at the same rate as a traditional system.
There are studies that show that 65 percent of those taking a webinar, workshop, or course online are multitasking most of the time they are in class. It gets even worse when the individual is attending the webinar by phone. “people often find conference calls to be an opportune time to do many, many other things: 65% do other work; 63% send emails; 55% eat or cook during class; 47% go to the washroom; 44% send text messages; 43% are checking social media; 25% play video games; 21% do online shopping; 9% exercise during class; and 6% are on the phone talking to someone else… Part of the reason all of this is possible… is the magical mute function.” (Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2014/08/what-people-are-really-doing-when-theyre-on-a-conference-call?utm_source=Socialflow&utm_medium=Tweet&utm_campaign=Socialflow)
In 1913, Max Ringelmann, a French engineer, discovered why virtual meetings are often so unsuccessful. Ringelmann asked a team of people to pull on a rope. He then asked individuals (separately) to pull on the same rope. He noticed that when people worked as individuals, they put more effort into pulling than when they worked as a team. We call this the “Ringelmann Effect.” The bigger the group, the less responsibility each individual feels. If one does not feel necessary to the success of the task, it’s easy to tune out or put in less effort. In virtual learning the Ringelmann effect is magnified. When you are not in the room to help “pull the rope” for a class, you might feel less motivated to listen and participate. (Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2020/05/stop-zoning-out-in-zoom-meetings) It is easy to turn off the video and the instructor will never know what the student did during class.
Because of these peculiar circumstances: less attention to what is been taught online, and the lack of certainty that the students gave their undivided attention to the lesson presented online, it does not in seem fair that the same credits be awarded for an online and an in-person workshop. Less credits should be awarded for continuing education online.
A continuing education unit (CEU) or continuing education credit (CEC) is a measure used in continuing education programs to assist the professional to maintain their license, certification, accreditation, or patent as court or healthcare interpreters. Continuing Professional Development (CPD) or Continuing Education (CE) refers to tracking and documenting the skills, knowledge, and experience interpreters gain, formally and informally, when they work, beyond the initial education or training. This ensures interpreters maintain and improve their knowledge and skills needed to provide their professional services in their field. CPD or CE prove that an interpreter stays up-to-date in their field of professional practice.
When an individual takes a workshop in-person, there are forms to be filled and signed, attendance records to prove the person arrived at the beginning of the webinar, and stayed until the end. Those granting continuing education credits review these records before awarding anything to the student. As an attendee, I have signed an attendance list where I state the times I arrived and left countless times. I have filed continuing education forms to prove I attended the workshop on many occasions. As a teacher, I have filed an attendance record with the certification entity, showing who was in the classroom, and I have submitted an abstract of what I intend to teach, including the learning objectives, every time I teach. The question is: How to verify that a student stayed for the entire session during an online workshop?
The well-known CEU Institute, which facilitates the continuing education process to many regulated industries and professions in the United States and Canada, such as the insurance and healthcare industries, and the legal profession, has created a method to verify the integrity of the continuing education process.
The first thing they require is that online teaching must be live and interactive. Recorded webinars will not qualify as there is no way to corroborate attendance or that the person stayed during the lesson. There should be a way for the instructor or somebody else to verify attendance at the beginning, end, and periodically throughout the course. This attendance could be checked from dedicated software where students will be logged out if they do not periodically provide a keystroke, mouse click, or something similar, to periodic question and answer sessions, surveys and polling, to an old-fashioned roll call several times during the webinar. Unless the CEU Institute receives confirmation of attendance tracking from a method like the ones above, no credits will be granted. This is a sample of the webinar affidavit a monitor has to file with the CEU Institute: http://ceuinstitute2019-net.ntc6-p2stl.ezhostingserver.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Monitor-Affidavit-Webinar_Teleconference.pdf
There should be credits awarded for online continuing education only when attendance and participation can de documented and proved, and there should be fewer credit hours when continuous professional development requirements are met online because of the attention issues, distraction factors, and mental exhaustion caused by distance learning through a computer I mentioned before. This would be a matter of debate, but as a starting point, I propose online continuing education be awarded 70% of the credits granted to an in-person educational session of the same subject and duration. Interpreting is a fiduciary profession, and there are high interests on the balance every time court or healthcare interpreters provide their service. We must do everything within our reach to make sure these professionals truly meet all continuing education requirements, not just on paper, not only by going through the motions, but by actually learning and practicing their skill. I now invite you to share your ideas about online continuing education, how to police it, and how to determine the credit hours it deserves.
August 12, 2020 § 16 Comments
Although we are still in the middle of a world-wide pandemic, I have heard from several colleagues that some courts in the United States, and elsewhere, are back in session and they are asking court interpreters to attend in-person hearings. Courts may have their reasons to reopen, but I think is a bad idea for interpreters to answer the call at this time. Covid-19 is very contagious and continues to spread all over the United States and many other countries. This is not the time to risk our health, and perhaps our future, to make the not-so-good court interpreter fees. Technology is such that courthouses can hold virtual hearings, or distance interpreting if they want to have in-person sessions. There are solutions for all judicial district budgets, from fancy distance interpreting platforms, to Zoom, to a simple over-the-phone interpretation with 3-way calling and a speaker phone. Federal courts have provided over the phone interpretation in certain court appearances for many years. Most hearings are short appearances that do not justify risking the interpreter. As for more complex evidentiary hearings and trials, just as conferences have temporarily migrated to this modality, distance interpreting can happen with a few adjustments. If in-person court interpreting is a bad idea right now, in-person interpreting at a detention center, jail or prison, is out of the question. At least in the United States, detention facilities are at the top of places where more Covid-19 cases have been detected.
Court interpreters provide services in accordance to the law and a code of ethics. Neither of them compels interpreters to put their lives at risk just to interpret for a hearing that could happen virtually. I urge you all to refuse in-person interpreting at courthouses and detention centers at this time. Advise judges, attorneys, and court administrators on the available options during the emergency. If after your explanation they insist on having interpreters appearing in person during the Covid-19 pandemic, please decline the assignment. It is obvious your life and health are not a priority for that organization; why should you put them at the top of your clients’ list?
Do not worry about the parties needing interpreting services. That is the attorney’s responsibility. Not yours.
Unfortunately, some of you will sadly agree to physically appear in court to interpret for defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, and victims. If so, at least demand the following from the courts:
All in-person interpreting must be done with portable cordless equipment. Many courthouses already use it, and for those who do not, explain to judges and administrators this is the same equipment tour guides use. Courts should provide personal transmitters to all staff and regular independent contractor interpreters, and interpreters should take care of the transmitter and take it with them at the end of the day. If this is impossible (although these devises are very affordable) then ask the courthouse to keep them clean and safe, and separate from the receivers the parties will use. Interpreters should always have their own personal microphone (whether it is provided by the court or they purchase it on their own). Ask the receivers be kept in individual plastic baggies, and have the individual using the receiver open the bag and put the devise back in the baggie after the hearing. Never handle the receiver. Ask the court to notify all parties needing interpreting services to bring their own earphones (they can use their mobile phone’s if they are wired). The courthouse should have disposable earphones in stock for those who forgot to bring their own. Earphones are inexpensive and can be thrown away after each hearing.
Finally, interpreters should never disinfect the portable equipment. This is a dangerous chore, you do not get paid to do it, and it is not your job. Disinfecting the equipment goes against all federal and state court interpreter rules of ethics:
“Canon 7: Scope of Practice. An interpreter for a LEP participant in any legal proceeding, or for an LEP party in a court-ordered program, must provide only interpreting or translating services. The interpreter must not give legal advice, express personal opinions to individuals for whom interpreting services are being provided, or engage in other activities that may be construed to constitute a service other than interpreting or translating.” All states include this canon in their code of ethics (sometimes the number is different). Interpreting equipment should be cleaned and disinfected by the same people who clean and disinfect everything else in the courtroom.
If you are interpreting in person for an agency or for a direct private client, you must follow the same practices. The agency should assume the courthouse duties. As for your preferred direct clients who you could not talk out of an in-person appearance, use your own personal equipment. If you don’t have it, buy it. Do not borrow the courthouse’s. You do not know how clean it is. I would also add the following when dealing with direct clients using my own equipment: Have disposable latex gloves available for you and the person using the equipment. That way you may assist your direct client with the receiver unit if needed. Have spare disposable earphones available if your clients forgot to bring their own. I suggest you use the earphones you get on the plane for free and you never use because you have your own. The protocol for jail visits is: No jail visits under any circumstance. Period.
Even with equipment, maintain a safe distance between you and the person you are interpreting for. No sitting next to the client. Always use and demand others use facemasks. The sound quality is not the best, but removing the mask to interpret is too dangerous. I suggest you wear a mask that ties or has an elastic that goes around your head instead of the ones you wear on your ears. They are more comfortable and stay in place even if you are speaking,
Most judges are rational people of good moral character, but I have heard of some cases when a judge has ordered the interpreter to remove the mask, get closer to the person who needs an interpreter, and other dangerous actions. If so, try to persuade the judge, if that fails, ask for a recess and try to get the court administrator to see the situation from your viewpoint. If this does not work, or if the judge does not let you speak, or you cannot access the administrator, excuse yourself.
State you cannot fulfill your duty as a court interpreter to interpret the totality of what is being said in court because you cannot concentrate on the hearing when you know the judge is putting you in a dangerous situation. Put it on the record, and leave. If the judge does not allow you to leave the courtroom, or threatens you with a contempt order, then clearly put on the record for a second time the same explanation you already gave, and clearly state you are being ordered to interpret even though the rendition will be incomplete, that you are being held against your will, and that you are respectfully giving notice to the judge that if because of his order you get infected, you will bring legal action against the court and personally against the judge. Do not be afraid. You are not doing anything wrong.
On top of all that, I would never interpret in that Judge’s court again.
There are other things we can do as interpreters to protect ourselves in the rare case we end up in front of a judge that forces you to interpret and do things that risk your health and maybe your life.
You can file a complaint with the circuit court (if a federal case) or the court of appeals with jurisdiction over the judge. In federal cases, this is done according to the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980 (28 USC §351-364) and the Rules for Judicial Conduct and Judicial Disability Proceedings.
If federal, you can send a letter describing the judge’s conduct to the Federal Judges Association (FJA) (https://www.federaljudgesassoc.org) or to the State’s judges association in local matters.
Send a letter for publication on the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal Magazine, or to the State Bar Bulletin so attorneys and others learn of the incident and apply pressure on this individual.
Contact your local non-English radio and TV stations (for Spanish speakers Telemundo, Univision and Azteca America) and suggest an investigative report on how this judge is putting those who appear before him or her, and need interpreting services, at risk during the pandemic.
You can also talk to an attorney and explore the possibility of a lawsuit against the judge and courthouse for negligence.
Finally, write a letter to that courthouse’s chief judge and court administrator informing them that, regardless of the outcome, you will never work in that courtroom again. The letter should detail everything the judge said and did, including past episodes witnessed by you. A person with such a bad attitude did other bad things before.
Court interpreters perform an essential job for the administration of justice, everyone who needs an interpreter should get one, but certain things are above the job; one of them that should always come first is our health. I now ask you to share with us your in-person court experiences, in the United States or elsewhere, during the pandemic.
July 3, 2020 § 20 Comments
Every time I open a social media platform or check my email I find a message from a distance interpreting platform inviting potential clients and interpreters to a free demo session, an advertisement from an interpreting agency announcing they offer the most affordable remote interpreting services, or they have opened an interpreting hub; and I see dozens of posts from interpreters (known and unknown) showing pictures of their laptops, headsets, and microphones while they smile and stare at the wall in front of their desks.
We entered the second half of the worst year in the history of our profession, and we did so full of uncertainty. The time when we will go back to the airport and work from the booth in a conference room is not on the radar yet. Financial losses in the private sector, tight budgets in governments and international organizations, travel restrictions in parts of the world, and an out of control pandemic in many places due to people’s ignorance and terrible performance by government officials in several nations, are testing our patience, bank accounts, and commitment to the profession and colleagues we must defend. I dislike everything I just described, but I understand why it is happening, and I adapt my practice to these temporary circumstances.
I do not understand how some of my colleagues are telling their clients that remote simultaneous interpretation “is pretty good,” and call it “the new normal.” As I was told by a client who spoke to one of these interpreters, not a platform or an agency, some colleagues have even explained to the clients that “…(RSI) can do almost everything an in-person interpretation can, and soon it will be as good and cheaper…” (client and interpreter names omitted for privacy and legal reasons).
Those statements are false, even responsible platforms and agencies agree that distance work has its limitations. RSI and VRI are “OK” for now, they are a resource to deal with a situation during the pandemic and its aftermath in extremis (Merriam-Webster: “In extreme circumstances.” Oxford: “In an extremely difficult situation… it is something to which (humans) will resort”).
Distance interpreting can be useful for certain events or encounters, but due to some factors from outside interpreting, such as technology and infrastructure, and others from inside interpreting, such as lack of support from a boothmate next to the active interpreter, and the deprivation of valuable information and clues gained only by the sensory perception of individuals’ physical presence (an RSI interpreter is at the mercy of the limited sensory information a bandwidth can convey). When not used in extremis, distance interpreting is just a way to hold a meeting or conference at a low cost but without the benefit of interpreting services the way they are meant to be provided. RSI is essentially some businessmen who got funding to develop something that pleases their clients, as long as you do not mention everything missing from the interpretation. To some it is a budget solution, just like Ryanair and Walmart.
Interpreters need to stop to think that by endorsing statements like the ones I mentioned above, they are doing the platforms’ bidding, not the professional interpreters’ community. Propagating such information is bad for the client, it is bad for the event, and it is bad for business. Eventually conferences will be back because nothing can replace the human need for human contact. The meeting after the meeting, a handshake to close the deal, a conference destination to reward the salesforce, the need to get out of the house, and yes, the burdens of distance interpreting on conference attendees will bring our work back, and when it happens we must be ready to embrace our profession the way it is meant to be. Singing the praises of distance interpreting, even though we know of its shortcomings, just because we want to work right now, and we fear falling out of favor with agencies and platforms, will make it harder to convince the end client and event organizer to offer in-person interpreting services again. Right now, you are making little money, but agencies and platforms are having a great year. They will oppose in-person interpreting in the future, not because they are bad awful people, but because it serves them poorly. No doubt distance interpreting is here to stay, there are certain events where it works fine: Corporate board sessions, planning meetings, preliminary business negotiations, and others can be interpreted remotely because of the savings to the company or organization. We will see distance interpreting for marginal court procedures and medical consultations. Government window clerks and airline ticket counter employees could use tablets with RSI. That is fine. Some people fly Ryanair and shop at Walmart.
For now, we need to focus on protecting the benefits of in-person interpreting while providing distance interpreting services in extremis. We also need to listen to our clients, they are the key element to our practice, not the platforms. Our efforts should go to the client; see what they need, help them to solve their problems, and accommodate their preferences. Clients will choose a remote platform that serves their needs, they already know, and saves them money. Be ready to work on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Blue Jeans, Go To Meeting, Skype for Business, Amazon Chime, Cisco Webex, Fuze, Adobe Connect, and others. Not all clients are willing or ready to spend money on an interpreter-dedicated platform and we must accept this for now. Things will change.
A year ago, remote meetings were a small business, used by few around the world. Today everybody with internet access has been to at least one. It went from an obscure unattractive business to a money-making industry, and that gets the big guys’ attention. Now that the lid is off, and the high tech giants know of its profitability, remote meetings, and so distance interpreting, will see so much money on research and development; and soon, the biggest players in the industry will offer their clients affordable, user-friendly platforms integrated to their already known and trusted services, under their well-known name brands. Don’t be surprised if two years from now we are talking of RSI platforms owned by Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Some names we see in the market today could be gone, and others may be part of an acquisition by one of the big leaguers. Nothing is certain, but… remember Betamax. That is why you must focus on your clients, give them advice, and adapt to their needs when needed. Eventually, they will decide where to go, not you. Be flexible, without lowering your standards, adapt to what is out there today, and never sell short in-person interpreting. If not us, who will defend quality of service, and the profession?
May 19, 2020 § 5 Comments
Remote Simultaneous Interpreting, and other forms of remote interpreting, will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis more popular and stronger. It is a great option and no doubt it will get better. There will be good and bad platforms, and interpreters shall continue to work for direct clients while they will continue to struggle with agencies, and defend the profession from existing and newcomer entities’ insatiable appetite for profit at the expense of interpreters’ pay, and at the expense of quality.
In a few short years, there will be a new generation of conference interpreters who never knew the profession without remote work. It will be similar to what we see with the generation that never carried a suitcase full of dictionaries to the booth, or went to the “other booth” to make a phone call from the conference venue.
I have no doubt, however, that in-person interpreting will remain the rule for the meetings and events of higher importance. RSI will take its place at the table, but not at the head of the table, just as the newest invitee to the feast, very popular and sought after for lesser exchanges and negotiations.
But even when the water goes back to its usual levels, there will be many events, such as preliminary business or corporate negotiations, urgent and emergency executive discussions, staffer planning discussions, and routine company and government meetings that will choose virtual events in considerable numbers. Add that to the smaller businesses, local government agencies with scarce financial resources, and non-for-profit organizations’ activities that rarely or never held meetings, workshops or conferences because they could not afford them, and you are left with a big market sector in need of remote simultaneous interpreting.
Many of these events will not retain professional conference interpreters, they will try their luck with community interpreters, court interpreters and others, very good and capable in their field of practice, but inexperienced in conference interpreting. Others will hire top interpreters to do the job.
With time, many new conference interpreters could prefer working from a local hub, and perhaps (oh, God!) from their own homes. Conference interpreting will be more attractive, and turn into a viable option to many interpreters who never considered it in the past because they prefer the home turf over constant travel. Interpreters who like gardening, or want to be involved in community theater, or play softball with their church’s team will happily embrace conference interpreting. We may see colleagues afraid of flying, or some who never had a passport working as conference interpreters without ever spending a night at a hotel.
No doubt these new conditions will attract many good capable people to conference interpreting. The question is: Will these interpreters of the not-so-distant future be like the colleagues who populated the booth all over the world before the pandemic? It is a complex situation, and it is difficult to give a straight answer. All I can say is that I am not sure the job description I included above would be appealing.
I decided to be a conference interpreter because I love interpreting. I enjoy learning and studying about language and communication among humans. I have a passion for helping people understand each other by providing my services; I believe in using the tools of my craft to better the world. If those were the only things that interested me, I could have been a translator, or remain a court interpreter as I was before.
A big part of what made conference interpreting attractive was that it was a place where I could do the above while being myself: extroverted, outgoing, constantly surrounded by extroverted people. Conference interpreting won me over from practicing law because of the traveling around the world. As an attorney I could have continued to travel to many places, but only as a tourist on a vacation. It was different. Conference interpreting allowed me to meet people from all cultures who literally live all over the world. It is appealing because of the opportunity to meet in person people I admire from government, science, sports, the arts, and ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. This has been possible not because of who I am, but because of what I do.
My life differs from the lifestyle of a translator or a community interpreter, from the little things, like never having to buy a bottle of shampoo because hotel rooms always have them, and thinking of doing laundry as putting your clothes in a bag you take to the front desk, to creating the most fascinating and valuable friendships with people who live everywhere. I joined the ranks of those who practice in-person interpreting because thanks to my job, when I say my goodbyes to my friend in Australia, or Japan, or South Africa, or Costa Rica, and I say “I’ll see you soon” I know it will happen. I travel all over, and I always have somebody to see everywhere I go. Finally, and in my opinion, more important, interpreting has allowed me to develop the greatest bond between humans. This will be hard to understand to people who do not work as conference interpreters, but the friendships and relationships with your fellow interpreters are precious and very strong. I am not sure I would be a conference interpreter without the possibility to work and in reality, live with a group of most interesting individuals. People you get to know better than anybody else in your life. You are together for extended periods of time, under stressful situations, with the most diverse backdrops planet earth offers. You travel together, eat together, work together, and socialize, and learn from each other.
Once I was attending a translators/interpreters’ conference somewhere in the world, and during the gala dinner, I got to sit at one of those big round tables with another 10 people or so. Most were translators, many I had never met before. Suddenly, a dear interpreter friend came to my table. I was very happy to see a “friendly face” so we said hi. I greeted my friend and said: “I am so glad to see you. I think I had not seen you since we had lunch in Greece”. My colleague kindly replied: “No. I think we saw each other in Beijing after that”. The translator sitting next to me made a comment I will never forget: “What a peculiar profession and interesting lifestyle. In my job I only go from the bedroom to the computer, and to the movie theater once a week”. To put it as a colleague told me a few months ago during lunch in Buenos Aires: “I love it that we see each other all over the world, and we never have to spend a penny to do it”.
Remote interpreting will change the profile of conference interpreters as a group. People who did not consider the profession, will enter the field. They will be very talented and capable; however, I am not sure that people with a current conference interpreter profile will stay in the profession. Many probably will, but many others will go somewhere else, lured by a profession where they can help better the world, and enjoy the pleasure of human relations, world travel, first-hand culture acquisition, and a profession where isolation will never be a part of the job description. Virtual boothmates are like watching a sports event on TV; it will never be the same as on the field with your teammates. Conference interpreters will not be better or worse than today. They will be different. We will see.
Please share your thoughts with the rest of us, and remember that this post is not talking about the good or bad things of remote interpreting, the platforms, or even the agencies. Its focus is you: the human element of the profession. Thank you.