When clients do not provide information in advance.

February 10, 2020 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We are expected to accurately interpret all subjects from one language into another, often to an audience that knows the topic, sometimes to people who have devoted their lives to that subject. We meet these expectations and deliver the rendition by performing many complex tasks, among them extensive preparation, including research and study of the topics to be presented during the conference, lecture, workshop, business negotiation, press conference, court hearing, diplomatic summit, etc.

We are professionally trained to research a subject, understand it, prepare glossaries, and study it, but this is not enough. Knowledge in any subject is infinite and it must be narrowed down to the specific themes to be presented or discussed at the event we were hired to interpret. Speakers have different styles and many have done their own research, written books or papers that will be presented, or at least alluded to, often for the first time, during the dissertation.

Due to these facts, the only way we can deliver the best quality service is by studying the presenters’ materials ahead of time.  This means our client must provide this information: documents, videos, audio recordings, for us to prepare, and we need to get them as far in advance as possible.

Documents are very important because that will be the main portion of the lecture; it often includes power point presentations we must review for several reasons: We need to make sure we understand the contents of every slide, that we find the best equivalent terms in the target language; we must pay attention to the information each slide contains because we need to tell the presenter how long the slide needs to stay on the screen before moving on to the next one, to give the audience time to listen to the interpretation and then see the contents of the slide (words, figures, charts, images, quotes, etc.) This is time consuming and it could take interpreters several days to go through the power point presentation.

Videos are difficult to interpret. Sometimes the sound is not very good, or words get lost behind the sounds of very loud music or noise; the speakers on the video may talk too fast, have a heavy accent, use regional expressions, tell a joke or share a sports story. Many speakers choose movie or TV show clips with nothing to do with the conference, because they were chosen as icebreakers or to drive a point across. There are videos of songs also. Interpreters need to study these videos; some must be watched many times. They have to assess the jokes, idiomatic expressions, cultural differences, and sports analogies, and then decide what to do: find a similar joke in the target language, use an equivalent sports story on a sport the audience will relate to, find the best idiomatic expression on the other language to convey the same message using the same register. Sometimes the best solution is to recommend the speaker not to use the video, particularly when there are cultural concerns.  Then, on the day of the event, interpreters need to make sure the video’s volume and quality of sound is the right one for both: the room and the booth.

Audio recordings could be an interpreter’s nightmare, especially in court interpreting where the quality of the sound is less than desirable because many of these audio recordings come from wiretaps, hidden microphones, concealed body microphones, and so on. These recordings are plagued with obscenities, slang, low register speech, and powerful background noises. Interpreters devote endless hours to listening and sometimes decoding what was said. This time-consuming task must be performed ahead of the event so the interpreter knows the recording’s contents and determines what words to use during the rendition. After reviewing the recording an interpreter can suggest to the client to use a transcript of the audio recording, with a written translation into the target language, and either project it on the screen at the same time the audience listens to the recording and the interpreters simultaneous rendition, or to distribute paper transcripts and translations for the audience to follow along the recording.

These arguments should be sufficient for all clients to provide these materials to the interpreting team ahead of time; many knowledgeable, experienced clients do so and the results are evident: a great interpretation. Others are more reluctant, and there are some who unfortunately neglect the interpreters or clearly decide not to provide an iota of information before the event.

Interpreters need to convey to the client the reason they have to see the materials before the assignment; they have to explain that interpreting is a fiduciary profession, that we are bound by a strict duty of confidentiality, and make them see we have no interest in the information past the day of the interpretation. When the client is concerned about intellectual property rights or national security, Interpreters can offer flexibility to the client, and for an additional fee, they can agree to review said materials at the client’s place of business, but always ahead of the event.

All interpreting services contracts must include a provision stating that the client assumes the obligation to provide all requested and needed materials to the interpreters as early as possible, and always before the event.

Even with such a clause, sometimes, interpreters get no materials, get part of them, or they get all materials, but a video or a slide were added at the last minute and the interpreting team learns of this change at the venue, right before the start of the event, or even worse: during the rendition when the slide is shown on the screen or the video is played.

In these cases, professional interpreters have two reactions coming straight from their gut simultaneously: “I will stand up and walk away. I am not interpreting this”, and “I am a professional, the client’s incompetence or negligence it’s not the audience’s fault. I’ll stay and try my best”. Both reactions are good and have value. Let me explain:

The good client will always deliver materials on time, you need not to concern about them, but there are other clients late with the materials, deliver only part of them, and sometimes forget to provide needed information altogether, but they have potential, you want to keep them, and they will improve if you try a little harder. I say give these clients a second chance.

As soon as it is evident they will not provide materials, talk to them and clarify that what they did was wrong, but, because you are a consummate professional, you will try your best and stay and interpret the event even though the final result will not be nearly as good as it would be if the materials were provided. If they fail again on a second event: drop them, you are wasting your time with them, and time is money.

Finally, if your contract calls for client to deliver all requested and needed materials and the client did not comply, when you are not interested on that client, and it was a nightmare dealing with them during the preparations for the event, I would walk out without interpreting, demand payment of my fees, explain to them they breached the professional services contract they had with you, and if they refuse to pay, sue them for your fee plus damages and your attorney’s fees.

On both cases you taught the client a lesson: To the client you want to keep, you tried to educate them and keep them on your list. To the client you never want to see again, you showed them that interpreters are professionals they cannot take advantage of.

I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this important subject.

What makes a good interpreter?

April 16, 2018 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Often when we attend a social event and start a conversation with people we do not know, but know about our profession, we are asked what makes a good interpreter. I know there are many answers to this question; all have value and are probably right. In my case, after being asked the same innumerable times throughout the years, in my personal and professional opinion, three things make a good interpreter.

First, the interpreter must be able to communicate concepts from a source language into a target language.  Webster tells us that an interpreter is one who translates orally for parties in different languages. The main goal is to make sure that a concept was conveyed in such a manner that the person receiving the information, who does not understand the language of the speaker, gets everything those who speak the main speaker’s language got.

To achieve this, the interpreter must understand what is being said in the source language, synthesize what was said, and orally convey it to the receiver with proper grammar and vocabulary in the target language, so it can be understood. Good interpreters “clean” the message so unnecessary words that may sound strange in the target language are eliminated. The good interpreter interprets the “meat” and gets rid of the “fat”. (I know this does not apply to some community interpreting, particularity to court interpreting where everything must be interpreted. This is a global answer, thinking of conference interpreting).  The good interpreter must understand, synthesize, and have command of grammar, culture, and vocabulary.

Second, a good interpreter must have a pleasant delivery that everybody understands. Good voice, décalage, volume, rhythm, pace. Listeners must be so comfortable they forget about the voice in their ear and concentrate in the speech. Voice modulation, clarity, enunciation, are a very important part of a rendition. Heavy breathing, coughing, slurping, rushing through the speech, and chasing speakers too close to what they just said make you look bad, even when you are a good interpreter.

Finally, my third attribute of the good interpreter is team work. The good interpreter lives in a conflict-free environment. They support their colleagues in the booth, are fair, and will go the extra mile to save a rendition. Often, a good interpreter who gets along with others is more desirable than a great interpreter who creates conflict everywhere. Do not misunderstand this attribute of a good interpreter. I never said that an interpreter willing to work more for less, or one who accepts deplorable work conditions, or a low fee are good interpreters. They are not. Easy going differs from easy to fool.

There you have it. To me a good interpreter then, is one who understands a concept, digests it, and conveys it to the client in a pleasant clear voice, so it can be understood by the foreign language speaker; and does it all while being a dedicated professional, good colleague, and decent human.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us your idea of a good interpreter.

The ten worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Part 2.

April 2, 2013 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last week I posted my first five worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Next, I share the rest of my list in the understanding that there are plenty more examples of these “worst things,” and inviting you to review my top ten, share your “war stories” and share your comments and solutions with the rest of us.

Here we go:

  1. Six.  “Mr. interpreter let me introduce you to my daughter, she took Spanish in high school and spent a month in Costa Rica so I want her to start interpreting my easy cases. Just show her what you do. She’ll pick up in no time.”   I was asked once to help this lawyer’s daughter because she was “really good with languages.”  Fortunately for me, I have no problem establishing my ground rules when at work so I immediately declined.  Unfortunately, I have seen many of my colleagues playing this role of mentor/teacher/parent with the lawyer’s child who just wants to get her dad to send her to a foreign country during the summer and has no intention whatsoever to become an interpreter.  The only solution is to politely explain that you are doing a job and that the lawyers are paying you a lot of money to provide your services; that you are not a teacher (even if you are) and that the “future polyglot“ daughter would not get anything from following you around, so the only thing to be accomplished would be a heftier interpretation services invoice.  I would also bring up the client-attorney privilege rules, and remind the attorney that the daughter’s presence could be a waiver of the privilege, and as such, it is the defendant who has to decide after being advised of these potential complications. A more permanent solution could include a paragraph on the written contract stating that you will not train anybody unless you bring the trainee and the defendant agrees to her presence during the interpretation.
  2. Seven.  “You know what, you charge too much, so I want you to just interpret the main parts of the hearing so I don’t have to pay you that much.”  I have been told this… more than once! You have been hired to do your job: interpret a hearing because the person does not speak English and he has the right to an interpreter. The fact is that, just as the lawyer, you are a professional and you sell your time.  You are there at the courthouse and you cannot be anywhere else. You cannot make money somewhere else because you are committed to this particular client.  You are getting paid to be there and interpret everything that is said (ideally) or everything your client tells you to interpret; but you were hired to BE THERE. Because you charge by the hour, just like the attorney, you need to be paid for the time devoted to the case, whether you are interpreting, waiting for the case to be called by the judge, taking a bathroom or lunch break during a recess, or traveling back and forth between your office and the courthouse or law office.  Maybe you should remind the attorney of this circumstance when he tells you not to interpret and you will see how quickly he changes his mind and asks you to interpret everything.  Here again, the long-term solution to this situation is to educate the attorneys and to have a written contract that states your fee, services, and what you are being paid for.
  3. Eight.  “Do not interpret that!”   This usually happens when the client complains to the court about the lawyer.  I once had a case when the defendant was before a judge to be sentenced for the commission of a crime. After the prosecutor and defense attorney spoke, the judge asked the Spanish-speaking defendant if he had anything to say. As I interpreted this words to the defendant he looked at me, then he turned to the judge and said: “solo que mi abogado es un pendejo.” (just that my lawyer is an asshole) The attorney, who spoke Spanish, and had political ambitions, stopped me immediately and told me not to interpret what the defendant had said. He then told his client in Spanish that he should not tell those things to the judge.  The dialogue looked quite strange even for those who do not spoke Spanish and the prosecutor (who I believe knew all the bad words in Spanish like many Americans do) immediately said  to the court that he wanted to hear what the defendant had said. The defense attorney said that it was privileged information, but the judge ruled that it had been said in open court while addressing him directly so he ordered me to interpret the words, which I did with pleasure, to the endless laughter of everybody in the courtroom. The attorney was mad at me for many months as if I had been the one who said it.  In this case, the outcome was ideal (well not for the defense attorney) because I let the attorneys argue the point and then waited for the judge to decide. The solution to these situations when somebody raises client-attorney privilege is always to let the lawyers argue the law and then wait for the judge’s decision. It is a legal matter and as such, we should keep our opinions to ourselves.
  4. Nine.  I need you to tell the jury that my client did not understand because he speaks a different type of Spanish”  I have been approached, and sometimes retained as an expert witness to convince a jury that a person did not understand what he was told by another interpreter because she had used a “different kind of Spanish.” Of course I testify as an expert all the time, and when I do, it is because I was retained to assess what happened and give my expert opinion about the issue in question. I have never nor will ever take a case where they ask me to testify one way or another, regardless of what really happened.  The simple, and effective solution is to turn down the case; however, most lawyers are not really asking you to lie under oath; in reality they are just asking you to see if their theory is even possible. I usually meet with the attorneys, explain my role, and make sure they understand that most Spanish-speaking people understand Spanish in general, regardless of where they were born, but that there are real idiomatic expressions, cultural practices, and words that have a different meaning depending on the part of the Spanish-speaking world where they were said.  If I notice that the claim is frivolous because of the expressions or words involved, and due to the educational background of the individual, I explain to the attorneys that my testimony would only hurt their case; on the other hand, if I see merit on the allegations, I accept the assignment and go to work. I believe this is the best practice because it grants access to your services to those who really need them while at the same time you are avoiding being part of a useless unrealistic claim.
  5. Ten.  Please collect my fee from my client.”  Very few things can get me going the way this request can. Many lawyers have trouble understanding that we are hired to interpret what they tell their client, not to act as their representative or agent during a legal fee negotiation. Many years ago an attorney handed me an invoice from his law firm without saying anything. Of course, I immediately understood what he wanted. I handed it back and told him: “You gave me this document by mistake.”  I could see him getting mad, and later I learned that he complained to other interpreters that I was not willing to “work for my own pay.”  I never worked with that attorney again, and I have never bargained, collected, or prepared a payment plan for any of the clients of the attorneys I have worked for.  Sadly, I have seen how many of our colleagues play this game and spend hours on hallways and courthouse steps waiving invoices, collecting checks, and handing receipts to those who have never been their clients. It is important to set boundaries from the beginning. We all know that part of our job as interpreters for a private attorney includes interpreting fee negotiations between client and lawyer; that is perfectly fine as we are providing our interpretation services to facilitate the communication between the parties to that professional relationship.  There is an abyss between what I just described and what some attorneys ask the interpreter to do.  Negotiating on behalf of the lawyer is not interpreting and therefore it is not covered by my fee. It is not what I do for living. As I said at the beginning of this post, my clients are attorneys who know how to work with an interpreter and they would never ask me to act as their collections agent, but just in case, you should always be ready to tell the attorney that you are glad to interpret the negotiations, but that you cannot and will not negotiate for them.

As you know, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Please review these “ten worst” and if you are up to it, I would love to read your top ten, top five, or even top one.  This should be good…

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