When the interpreter does not hear the speaker.
October 21, 2015 § 7 Comments
In recent weeks I have been contacted by two different colleagues who basically had the same problem: What do you do as an interpreter when you did not hear what the speaker said, and the cause of the problem is the speaker himself? I thought about the question, and I realized that this situation is more common than we may think when we first consider it.
There are many reasons why an interpreter’s professional life can get complicated, and one of them is a poor speaker. There are also a multitude of circumstances that arise during a conference, negotiation, trial or interview, that will not let us hear what was said, many of them can be traced to a deficient sound system, bad interpreting equipment, wrongly situated interpreters’ booth, technician’s ineptitude, and others. Today we will focus on those occasions when the problem can be traced back to the speaker.
There are basically three kinds of speakers for the matter that occupies us this time: The experienced speaker, the novice, and the careless. A seasoned individual used to public speaking will speak clearly, at a good pace, and with the audience in mind. If these speakers are used to an international audience, they will also adjust the form and content of their speech so it can be interpreted to a series of foreign languages without major problems. With some exceptions, we find these orators at the events of the highest level. They are the group that creates the least problems for the interpreters, and can be approached with suggestions to improve the rendition into the target languages.
Many novice speakers have to deal with fears and insecurities, their experience addressing a crowd is non-existent or at best very limited, and they ignore the details and even the basic rules that must be observed when talking to a diverse, multicultural, and foreign language speaking audience. They can be very difficult to interpret, and hard to hear; but once they are past their fears and insecurities, they are usually receptive, coachable, and willing to work with the interpreters.
It is the careless speaker that causes most of the interpreters’ headaches. Many of them have been around long enough to know how to speak in public and how to address a foreign language crowd; they all know that there are special considerations by the orator when a speech needs to be interpreted into another language, but they consider it of little significance and dismiss it. Some of them are even worse, as they truly ignore the basic rules of public speaking before an international audience because they just don’t see any benefit or motivation to learn them. These are the speakers that will keep interpreters sleepless all night.
Besides separating this problem from all technical and logistics occurrences that can cause difficulties when listening to the speaker, to be able to look at this issue in detail, we must deal separately with the different types of interpreting where the situation may be present sometimes.
The most common situation is when the speaker abandons the microphone. The presenter leaves the podium with the fixed wired microphone and walks around the stage speaking directly to the audience without any devise, or holds a handheld mike as he speaks, but keeps the microphone pointing to the opposite direction from his mouth, making it impossible to hear in the booth what was said. The problem could also exist when the speaker has a lapel microphone which has been poorly placed on his body or when he ruffles the mike with his hands or clothes.
The best way to avoid this issue is through education. With the exception of the experienced speaker, most people will benefit from a brief orientation on how to work with interpreters. Reputable truly professional agencies and event promoters will likely take care of this issue by providing some literature to the presenter ahead of time, or by asking the speaker to set aside a few minutes before the speech to talk to the interpreters who will let him know what adjustments he needs to make for the benefit of the booth and more importantly, for the benefit of the foreign language speakers who are in the audience as guests or as paid ticket holders. I suggest that you have a standard brochure, prepared by you to be given to the speaker, where you address and explain all these nuances and considerations that must be kept in mind when speaking before an audience with interpreters. This can be used when the agency is not that reputable or experienced and does not even think about this speaker orientation aspect of the event, and you can offer it as an added value to the client, and charge for it.
Next, unless it is an experienced individual or a very busy dignitary or celebrity with no time to spare, you need to be ready to meet with the speaker before the event anyway; even if it is just to ask if he read the brochure and to inquire if he has any questions, or, as it will no doubt happen many times, to go over the contents of the brochure with those orators who “did not have time to read the brochure ahead of time”. It requires that at least one interpreter from the team (usually the lead interpreter for the event) arrive to the venue a little earlier. When there are several booths, you can distribute responsibilities so that an interpreter is testing the equipment with the technicians while you are meeting with the speaker about the orientation brochure.
The strategy above should take care of most situations, but you have to be prepared for the speaker who forgets what he was told during the orientation and leaves the microphone behind in any of the ways described above. In that case your options are limited a somewhat drastic measures: (1) Your first option should be interpreter console in the booth (when available) and let the speaker know that he is not using the microphone, or that he did not turn it on, by pressing the slow-down button on the console. This is a discreet way to communicate with the presenter without leaving the booth. (2) When the interpreter console does not have this button, as many older models do not, then the interpreters should use the help of the technician, and ask him to let the speaker know that there is a problem, either by the technician approaching the stage and communicating with the speaker by discreet signs, or by passing a note to the podium. (3) If the technician is not around at that particular time, one of the interpreters will have to leave the booth and hopefully, from the back of the room, get the attention of the orator. If this is not possible due to the booth location, lighting of the room, or the distance to the stage, then the interpreter should approach the stage and deliver the note to the speaker. (4) Finally, there will be times when none of the above options may be available because the interpreters’ booth is in a place relatively inaccessible from the stage (many built-in booths have access from the street through a separate entrance from the main auditorium’s). In those rare cases the interpreter can get to the speaker by asking the audience he is interpreting for, to please ask the speaker to speak into the mike. This is a drastic measure but it is better than leaving half of the attendees in the dark as to what the speaker said during the presentation.
The situation in court is different. First, unlike a conference setting, there will be several people speaking back and forth during the same occurrence, usually a hearing. Some of them will be aware of the need to be heard by the interpreter while others, like the witnesses and the parties to the litigation, will not even realize that the hearing is being interpreted into a foreign language. The most common scenarios where it will be difficult, if not impossible, to hear what has been said will be when the person speaking moves away from the microphone. In the case of the witnesses and litigants the problem could also be that they simply do not speak loud enough.
Because of its rigorous rules and protocol, and because there is a record being kept of the hearing, interpreters in this setting have an easier way to correct a party when they cannot hear what was said. It is enough for the interpreter to raise her hand and voice and state aloud (in the third person because there is a record of the hearing and therefore the voice of the person speaking has to be announced for the transcriber) that “the interpreter cannot hear the attorney, judge, witness, plaintiff, etc., and ask that the parties speak into the microphone. Thank you”. Some interpreters may prefer to ask the judge to admonish the parties to speak louder or using the microphone, by stating aloud, immediately after the word or phrase was uttered, that: “the interpreter respectfully asks the court to instruct the parties to speak louder and into the microphone”. Because as a general rule there are no booths and the interpreters are very close to the judge and litigants, this can easily be accomplished in an expeditious way. The only word of caution would be that the interpreters must find the best place to locate themselves (in those courtrooms where there is no interpreter desk) to avoid interrupting the proceedings very often. Another valuable resource that should be used before interrupting the hearing is a simple consultation with the passive interpreter in the team. Many times the passive interpreter may be able to discern what was said because, unlike the active interpreter, she is not listening to the hearing over her own voice at this time.
This problem could be easy to solve or very difficult during a consecutive rendition. It depends on the venue. When doing consecutive interpreting in court, usually for a party or witness who is testifying from the stand, the solution is the same as in the case of simultaneous court interpreting above. Sometimes, if the word that was not heard is irrelevant to the hearing, the interpreter can ask the witness, who is sitting next to her, directly. It would be better, and safer, to announce this circumstance first by stating aloud: “the interpreter will ask the witness to clarify (or repeat) a word that the interpreter did not hear…”
When the interpreter is working as an escort and there are words that he did not hear because of background noise, or because the speaker turned her heard the other way when she said the word, the interpreter can simply and informally stop her on the spot and ask her to repeat what she just said. This is quite common when visiting touristic attractions, industrial plants, or places where crowds gather such as markets, plazas, train stations, and so on. The same solution can be applied to healthcare interpreting during doctor or nurse appointments.
The situation is quite more complicated in the case of a long consecutive rendition during a press conference, diplomatic negotiation, or a ceremony. In this case there could be different scenarios: (1) When the interpreters are working as a team, the passive interpreter can help the active colleague in a similar way as described above when we dealt with court interpreting. (2) The situation is more difficult when the interpreter is working alone. Many times the solution will depend on the style of the interpreter as he could start the rendition while slipping a note to an aide asking for a term that he did not hear, he could ask the speaker to repeat the term after he finished his statement and before the interpreter starts the consecutive rendition, or the interpreter can go ahead with the rendition and stop to ask at the time when the word that he did not hear was said by the speaker. This may sound quite scary, but we must remember that this case scenario will rarely happen as interpreters are well-prepared for these events and know the relevant terminology; Many times the word that the interpreter did not hear can be inferred from the context of what the speaker said, sometimes the name is repeated later on the speech and the interpreter heard it the second time, and the word may turn out to be irrelevant to the message and therefore it can be left out. Remember, this is not short court consecutive interpretation.
As we clearly see, once again we face the reality that interpreting is a very difficult profession, but many of the complications and problems that appear during the rendition can be prevented and resolved with good preparation, which includes educating the speaker. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some of the times when you had to face this same issue, and tell us how you solved the situation and saved the day.
The interpreter’s frustration of not being understood.
June 4, 2013 § 12 Comments
Today I decided to write about something we all feel, or at least have felt at some point during our career. I am fortunate to have clients who hire me for assignments that are interesting, relevant, and professionally challenging. I get the topic, prepare, and execute my job to the best of my ability, and often during an event, I get stopped on a hallway by a person who recognizes me as the interpreter and congratulates me for the rendition or thanks me for my work. Interesting work, good working conditions, and excellent pay are key to a successful career, but that type of appreciation by those you just interpreted for (not by your peers or the agency programmer) is what keeps me going. That is my motivation to better myself every time I turn on the microphone in that booth. It is a pleasure to interpret for an audience and see how they are assimilating every word I interpret, how my job is making it worth for them to attend the conference, to listen to the presentation. When I am working I know that people are listening and understanding what I say. That is very rewarding.
Just like many of you, I have also worked in court for many years, and when I do, most of the time the experience is the opposite. When I am retained for a court proceeding I also prepare for my work, develop glossaries, learn the details of the case, and research the relevant legal aspects; however, as I begin to interpret a trial or a hearing, I soon realize that in most cases the defendant or whomever I am interpreting for does not understand what is happening. The purpose of this posting is not to underline the differences between these two kinds of clients; we all know that is a factor, I am not writing this article to talk about attorneys who do not explain the proceedings to their clients either. I am writing this posting to talk about the frustration that comes to you as an interpreter when you realize that after all the preparation and all the hard work, at the end of a two-hour hearing the defendant turns to you and asks you: “what did the judge say?” Once a colleague told me that the difference between conference and court interpreting was that in conference interpreting you prepare so that your audience understands your interpretation, and in court interpretation you prepare so that the other interpreter who is working the trial with you understands your interpretation, because she is the only one in the courtroom who will. That may be true.
My question to all of you is a complex one: How do you deal with the frustration that comes from knowing that those you are interpreting for do not, and will not, understand what you are saying, not because of a poor rendition, but because of their level of education? I am not looking for the legal answer that it is because of the constitutional principle of equal access to the law. I do not want the philosophical argument that it is the fair thing to do to serve justice. I don’t even want to hear that it is because we are interpreting for the record and not the defendant and our rendition is provided in case there is an appeal, and please do not take the easy way out by telling me that you are never frustrated when this happens. What I would like to read is your personal way to deal with this very human feeling of frustration of knowing that all your work will not be appreciated, that many times you could be there reciting a nursery rhyme instead of interpreting the hearing and the person you are interpreting for wouldn’t even notice. In my particular case, I do the best job I can because of me. I owe it to myself. It is my commitment to my own professional and moral standards to prepare and provide the best interpretation I am capable of. The owner of the ears that will hear me is irrelevant to my motivation to be the best. Of course I enjoy the praising that goes on when I interpret at a conference or diplomatic event, but I don’t let that be my motivation to excel. If I do, I would have a difficult time interpreting for those who I know will not understand and I cannot let that happen. Please tell us how you deal with this frustration.
Do court interpreters need to understand the legal proceeding they are interpreting?
May 13, 2013 § 8 Comments
Many times during my career when working as a court interpreter I have been told by some colleagues that they do not enjoy court hearings where attorneys argue the law. They say they much prefer to interpret witness testimony because the hearing is about the facts of the case and not about the law. More than once, when I have asked a court interpreter what was the hearing she just finished about, the answer has been: “I don’t know, legal things, boring stuff.” Some others have told me that it was “…lawyers arguing…and I didn’t understand…”
I have always approached my work with the idea that you cannot interpret what you do not understand. To me it seems impossible to do a good job when you cannot interpret in context, when you do not know where the speaker is taking the argument to. I understand that not all court interpreters went to law school and some of the issues litigated in court are difficult to understand even for lawyers and judges. I am also aware of that “blank” our mind seems to produce after we finish working. In fact, for my own sanity I am glad it happens. “In one ear…out the other…”
This is not what I am referring to in this posting. I am talking about the minimal legal knowledge a court interpreter needs to have to do a good job. I also know for a fact, because I have a law degree, that the more you understand the proceedings, the better your rendition, because you will be able to follow the trend of thought, to anticipate the speaker’s next move, and to employ the correct terminology and vocabulary. I believe that court interpreters should at least know as much about the law as a paralegal. We need to understand the issues to be litigated in a motions hearing so we can do a good rendition. We also need to understand the process during that hearing; we need to know what is allowed and what is not. Court interpreters should do their homework and prepare for a trial or hearing, but on top of that they should know rules of evidence and rules of criminal and civil procedure. It is easier to interpret a trial when you actually know why the attorney is objecting to a question and how he is objecting to it. In my experience it is this type of knowledge that lets you develop a strong relationship with the big law firms, with the key players in the legal world. Court interpreting is as much a part of that world as it is of the world of linguistics. Unfortunately, some colleagues do not seem to realize it
It is for this reason that during the NAJIT Annual Conference in St. Louis Missouri I will be presenting in Spanish: “Evidence. A comparative Study between Mexico and the United States.” During the presentation I will walk those attending trough the evidentiary process in the legal system of the two countries where the people we more often interpret for either live or come from. We will cover topics such as discovery, admissible and inadmissible evidence, types of objections, exceptions to the hearsay rule, different burdens of proof, judicial notice, best evidence rule, and many more. I invite you to attend the presentation on Sunday, May 19 at 11:00 am during the NAJIT conference in St. Louis. I hope to see you there, but even if you are not able to attend, please tell us if you believe that court interpreters should know the basics of the law, and specifically procedural law.
When law enforcement agencies do everything they can to avoid hiring a real interpreter.
August 17, 2012 § 9 Comments
The other day one of my colleagues asked my opinion about the quality of the Spanish a police officer was using during a recorded interview. This colleague had been retained by the defense to analyze and transcribe the video of a police interview by a police woman in a very small town in the Midwest. As I sat there and listened to the nonsensical utterances that were emanating from this officer’s mouth, I went down memory lane and lived through them all again. I will never forget the police department that used a monolingual (in English) Hispanic woman as an interpreter for all of their investigations because “she grew up 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border…(and that)…was enough to assume she spoke enough Spanish to communicate with the suspects…” and how could I forget the police station that hired as interpreters all those who had failed the court interpreter certification test because “…they were cheaper and knew about the same…” Never mind the disastrous results like the time when a little girl who had been the alleged victim of sexual abuse was considered to be a liar because the police interpreter did not know how to say “Christmas tree” in Spanish. And the time when the “interpreter” referred to the pedestrian charges as the “pedophile charges”. And yes! There was the man who interpreted the polygraph tests into Spanish and explained how to wear the wires by lifting, holding, bending, and stretching the suspects. Hulk Hogan would have been proud of his technique.
During all my years as an interpreter, and specifically through my work as a court interpreter, I have learned that the common denominator among most police forces in the country seems to be their desire to save money on interpretation. Apparently the fact that the investigation is jeopardized by using the services of unqualified or under-qualified linguists is not a concern. Even in those towns where cases are systematically dismissed by the prosecution, or dismissed by the judges, because of violations to the rights of the defendant, or where indictments are based on faulty testimony, all due to a lack of communication between the English speaking authority and the non-English speaker defendant, victim, or witness, because of poor interpretation, chiefs of police, budget analysts, and city administrators are choosing the cheaper service provider over the sound and accurate legal investigation.
We all know that a dollar saved on a bad interpreter will translate on thousands of dollars spent on a new trial, an appeal process, or a brand new investigation. Every time I have a chance, I talk to law enforcement administrators and try to explain how a real interpreter costs more, but at the same time she saves you money. A $100.00 per hour interpreter will do her job correctly in two hours, while a mediocre $40.00 per hour individual will take longer, as he struggles to understand the language, comprehend the process, and communicate the concepts to both, police officer and non-English speaker. After 8 long hours with a bad “interpreter”, the investigation moved very little, the legal process was violated several times, the cheap interpreter cost $320.00, and he has to come back the next day to finish the interview. There were no savings.
So, as I sat there watching this video, looking at my colleague working so hard, writing down the mistakes of the interpreter doing the interview, making footnotes of her omissions, charting the additions she volunteered into the interview, and listening to my interpreter friend telling me how this police woman, part-time “interpreter” had already caused the dismissal of many cases because of her lack of skill and knowledge, I came to a strange realization: The good interpreters are losing these police assignments to the bad ones, but because of this policy by the police departments, these good interpreters are now working as expert witnesses and linguistic advisors to the parties. Therefore, at the end, the good interpreter wins because it is more lucrative to be the expert witness or advisor. But wait; what about the defendant, the victim, and society at large? They may all get their justice in the long run after a lengthy legal process of appeals and re-tried cases, but in the meantime the victim will not feel safe, the innocent defendant will sit in a cell, and society will pay a hefty legal bill. All because the police department wants to save by hiring the bad interpreter. I would like to read your comments and experiences about this topic.