Languages in times of crisis. (The Mexican earthquakes)

September 21, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The natural disasters that hit the western hemisphere in the last few weeks, and that I was unfortunate enough to experience one of them first hand, made think of the importance of all languages to achieve effective communication when human lives are at stake.

Natural disasters are not new, they are with us throughout the year during our entire lives, but unless they directly affect us, we ignore them beyond barely learning the superficial facts. This month, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and several Caribbean nations were hit by strong hurricanes. Mexico was struck by two devastating earthquakes. Because these events happened in my backyard, where I have many colleagues, friends, and relatives, I was interested on the details. I wanted to learn about damages, loss of lives, and I wanted to know if the people I care for were safe.

Mexico had two earthquakes: first an 8.2 earth tremor, followed by a devastating 7.1 seismic activity two weeks later (on the anniversary of the earthquake that destroyed Mexico City 32 years earlier). I was working in Mexico City for the first of these tremors, the strongest one in the country’s history, so I got to see first-hand what was done, and what did not happen communication wise.  I was in the United States for the second one. This allowed me to see the language and cultural deficiencies from the perspective of the individual not physically at the scene, who needs to learn as much as possible about the tragedy.

Although I will use Mexico as an example for the things that must enable effective communication during a crisis, I believe that my comments are valid for the terrible hurricanes that hit the United States and many Caribbean countries, and apply to all natural disasters, terrorist acts, and other calamities anywhere in the world.

The first earthquake was on September 7, almost at midnight. It was a terrifying 8.2 on the Richter scale. The earth moved back and forth on a circular motion that lasted for about 90 seconds that seemed like an eternity. I was there. This gave me the perspective of the eyewitness. The second one took place on September 19 shortly after 1 pm. It was a devastating 7.1 on the Richter scale. First, the earth shook up and down followed by an oscillatory movement.  The first earthquake was the strongest (8.2 equals over 20 billion kilograms of dynamite; 7.1 is about 20 billion) but the September 19 tremor caused more damages because unlike the first one, its epicenter was close to Mexico City.

I am sure there are many stories and there will be many official reports on earthquake readiness, construction safety codes, search and rescue operations; the work of the thousands of volunteers who saved so many lives, and government actions in general. No doubt some will be positive and some will be critical of the authorities, but I am not convinced anybody will have the will nor the interest to do an analysis from the language access perspective.

Let me start by sharing my observations as an individual physically present at the scene of the disaster. I acquired this experience during the first of the two earthquakes.  The first thing I noticed was the lack of emergency, evacuation, and similar signs in a language other than Spanish.  There were no signs, in English at least, as lingua franca of this globalized society we live in.  Nothing on Braille either. At the moment of evacuation, based on my conversations with several friends and colleagues staying at different Mexico City hotels, all recorded public announcement messages were in Spanish (I guess this was good news for blind Spanish speakers). Nothing in any foreign or indigenous language.

Once on the street, non-Spanish speakers were given no direction. Nobody approached them to inform them or tell them in their language what they needed to do to be safe.  There were no Sign Language interpreters of any language to communicate this vital information to the deaf and hard of hearing. People were at the mercy of other bilingual tourists who jumped in to brief these foreign visitors on security protocol and the status of the disaster (at least to tell them where to get a blanket. Remember, this was almost midnight in September and many were asleep when the alarm woke them up).  There were no indigenous languages interpreters or bilingual personnel either. Once again, indigenous Mexicans were treated as always: the invisible people no politician dares to talk about.

What needed to happen and must be common practice the next time an earthquake hits Mexico City? Basically, the solution is not cheap, but it is not outrageously expensive either. They must start by translating all signs, and emergency and evacuation instructions into the most popular languages in the world. I would say at least the main Arabic, Asian and African languages, English, Russian, and those of the European Union. They must have translations into all Mexican indigenous languages, and a video with the translation into Mexican Sign Language, American Sign Language, and International Sign Language at a minimum. When a guest checks in, or when a person is hired as an employee, they should get this information in their own language. Once the information is translated, the hotel needs only to print a page, retrieve a Braille version from the filing cabinet, or issue a USB flash drive with the Sign Language translation.  They can ask guests and employees to return the memory sticks when they check out of the hotel or leave the employment.

They also must have evacuation recordings for their P.A. system in at least Spanish, English, and other commonly used languages in their business (if applicable) and train their staff so they can provide basic orientation in many of these foreign, sign, and indigenous languages to the people during evacuation, at least to the point of steering them towards a rescue camp or to a video or telephonic interpreting emergency service where they can talk to real interpreters providing their services remotely.  I am not suggesting that all staff learn how to assist all non-Spanish speakers. Staffers will be assigned one or two languages to memorize these basic instructions. After what I saw in Mexico City, this would be a major improvement, and it can easily be applied to hospitals, airports, train stations, etcetera.

Finally, I think that too many of my interpreter and translator friends and colleagues wasted valuable time addressing concerns of well-intentioned, caring people from abroad who were constantly contacting them to see if they knew if this and that individual were safe.  Most people they were asked about lived in Mexico, but not in the disaster area.  I believe that it is legitimate and humane to care for others and to want to know, but I also think it would be much better if people abroad were to check on a map where the earthquake happened and where their friends live. Understanding that Mexico is a very big country, they would immediately see that people living somewhere else in Mexico would be as susceptible to the earthquake as a Spaniard from Madrid would be had the earth tremor happened in Warsaw. Simple research would save so much time and energy. We can all contribute during a crisis, even from abroad.

My perspective during the second earthquake was very different. This time I learned about the tremor while working in Chicago. I have many relatives, friends, colleagues and clients in Mexico City and I wanted to know what happened: if they were safe, and if there was anything I could do to help.  With a Mexican population in the United States in the tens of millions, this put me in a category shared by a significant segment of the American population right away.

My first reaction was to check on line. I went to Twitter and the internet news organizations to see what they were saying, next, I opened Facebook and WhatsApp to see if there were any concrete updates on the people I care for. Mexicans use Facebook as Americans use Twitter, so this was a good choice. I also remembered how many people communicated by WhatsApp when the telephone lines were down during the first earthquake two weeks earlier.

While I was doing this, I headed to a T.V. set to see what they were showing. I had only access to American TV in English and in Spanish.  Over the air U.S. English TV carried nothing. The cable news networks were showing some images of the devastation, and stayed with the coverage for about thirty minutes before they went back to their usual Trump bashing by the left-wing networks and Trump worshipping by the right-wing networks. Nothing relevant, nothing new, just the same stuff they repeat ad-nausea day in and day out. I was surprised they covered “that much”. That is usually not the case, but with so many Mexicans in the United States I guess they decided this was a sound business decision.

It was time to watch American TV in Spanish. CNN en español, Telemundo, and Univision. All three networks were carrying live coverage. Unfortunately, their coverage was flawed. Let me explain: First, their anchors and most of their on-site reporters were not Mexicans nor knew enough about Mexico to cover such an event. They were saying things that made no sense, not because they are bad journalists, but because they do not know the subject, in this case, Mexico and Mexico City. Mexicans wanted to know the extent of the damage, the neighborhoods affected, and the buildings that collapsed. Unfortunately, because of lack of knowledge, this crucial information was left out or reported wrongly. A CNN anchor woman repeated a thousand times that “children were trapped inside the Enrique Rebsamen School”. This may sound irrelevant to a non-Mexican or to somebody not familiar with the city, but all Mexicans, particularly those from Mexico City know who Enrique Rébsamen (did you notice the accent?) was and have always pronounced the name correctly. This diminishes the credibility of the reporter and creates a lack of trust by the viewer. If you add to this lack of knowledge the accent from Spanish-speaking countries other than Mexico, it becomes very difficult to understand the names of places and individuals. Viewers interested in Mexico who rarely watch American Spanish TV had to deal with unknown regional expressions, an ocean of false cognates, and some very scary Spanglish. Things regular viewers understand because they are used to this deterioration of the language, but incomprehensible for a casual viewer who may forgive the horrendous expression during a soccer match or a telenovela, but not when trying to find out what happened during an earthquake. In just a few hours I heard enough “colapsado” (word that exists in Spanish, rarely used in Mexico, but a favorite of this TV crowd because it is so similar to “collapsed”) to last me a lifetime. I constantly wondered what ever happened to “desplomado” o “derrumbado” more commonly used outside of the United States, but missing in action from the American Spanish language TV networks’ dictionaries. I have nothing against diversity of Spanish accents or good journalists covering a country different from the one they come from, but for a critical situation like this one, Mexicans abroad needed a reporter and an anchor they could understand and could explain where the damages happened, giving the name of the streets, avenues and neighborhoods.

Because my hunger for accurate information was not yet satisfied, I made it home where I can access live Mexican TV. This time I watched Milenio, Azteca and Televisa.

Throughout the entire wall to wall coverage (September 19-20) Milenio had the most objective coverage. Azteca started fine, but then they brought in Patty Chapoy who may be very important in the network, but has nothing to do during a tragedy of this proportions, so I had to leave Azteca to never come back again for fear to run into this nefarious “Ventaneando goddess”.

The worst coverage was that of Televisa. On a moment of national tragedy, they brought back one of the most hated and corrupt “journalists” in Mexican history: Joaquín López Dóriga, who made sure that the official agenda was covered to the last detail. Instead of covering the human drama and giving the facts to the viewer, he spent the entire day praising the government of President Peña Nieto and minimizing the damages and the mistakes of the government. Another “jewel” of Televisa: Paola Rojas, harassed an earthquake victim and obstructed the search and rescue operation so she could quench her thirst for fame and glory. Unfortunately, this was not the worst part of Televisa’s or Azteca’s coverage: They ignored the needs of the deaf community by actively discriminating against thousands of Mexican citizens by not including a Sign Language interpreter during their coverage; in Televisa, arguing that having a square on the screen with a Sign Language interpreter would be “too distracting”, and in TV Azteca because there were already “too many squares on the screen”.

Finally, I could find nothing in any indigenous language, not even government or college TV channels. The only highlight: the Intercultural Indigenous Languages Interpreters Organization (OTIGLI) offered interpreting services to the members of the Indigenous community in hospitals and shelters. I believe that in a crisis like this one, those deciding and developing protocols to save lives and assets must understand the importance of communication. If they do, then they will try to provide the best and most accessible information to everybody, regardless of the language they speak or sign. There are very capable interpreters and translators in Mexico; there are also honest people in the government. I know this because I have met many in the last two years and I am convinced of their commitment and dedication to a more accessible, inclusive Mexican society.  The solutions are not outrageously complex nor they require an obscene amount of resources, but they are not cheap either, they need of honest capable people and a generous amount of resources. Remember that there is not such a thing as the “government’s money”, it is the people’s money. It came from the millions of taxpayers. When viewed this way, suddenly, it is not such an irrational request to ask that more lives be saved by making everything accessible to all. If there was ever a justified expenditure of the taxpayers’ money, this is it. A society cannot be safe, and a government cannot be compassionate or civilized unless it takes care of all of its people. Inclusive, accurate, accessible communication is a good start.

I wish the best to all our fellow humans affected by these earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters anywhere in the world, and I invite you to leave your comments and ideas to improve how a society deals with all languages in a time of crisis.

The U.S. Armed Forces and Memorial Day.

May 29, 2017 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

On the last Monday of May we observe Memorial Day all over the United States. Many friends and colleagues have asked me who do we honor and why. Others confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a federal holiday for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.  It also marks the start of the unofficial summer vacation season throughout the nation. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.

On Memorial Day, the flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon.  It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.

Now that we clarified what Memorial Day is, let’s talk about the armed forced of the United States. There are five branches of American armed forces: the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. The President of the United States is the Commander in Chief.

The United States Army is the largest branch of the armed forces and performs land-based military operations. With the other four branches of the armed forces, plus the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps, is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.

The United States Marine Corps is a branch of the armed forces responsible for providing power projection using the mobility of the Navy, to deliver rapidly, combined-arms task forces on land, at sea, and in the air.

The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the American armed forces. It is the largest Navy in the world, with the world’s largest aircraft carrier fleet.

The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the armed forces, and it is the largest and most technologically-advanced air force in the world.

The United States Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the U.S. military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission (with jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters) and a federal regulatory agency mission as part of its mission set. It operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during peacetime, and can be transferred to the U.S. Department of the Navy by the president of the United States at any time, or by the U.S. Congress during times of war.

To complete this brief description of the United States armed forces, I would like to explain the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff is a body of senior uniformed leaders in the United States Department of Defense who advise the president, the secretary of Defense, the Homeland Security Council, and the National Security Council on military matters. The composition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is defined by statute and comprises the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Vice Chairman, the Military Service Chiefs from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force; and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, all appointed by the President following Senate confirmation. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is, by U.S. law, the highest-ranking and senior-most military officer in the United States armed forces and is the principal military advisor to the president, National Security Council, Homeland Security Council, and secretary of Defense.  Even though the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outranks all other commissioned officers, he is prohibited by law from having operational command authority over the armed forces; however, the Chairman assists the President and the Secretary of Defense in exercising their command functions.

I hope you find this information useful and I hope that it may come in handy when interpreting national defense or military issues involving the United States. I now invite you to add any additional information you may consider useful and relevant to our practice as professional interpreters.

”Sorry. I do not interpret for free.”

May 8, 2017 § 32 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Recently many interpreters have been asked to provide their services for free. The current refugee situation in Europe, immigration policy of the United States, and other crisis around the world, including the awful repression of the people of Venezuela, have created a wave of foreign language speakers who seek help in countries where their native language is not spoken.

I have heard from colleagues asked to go to an airport to interpret for individuals denied admission into the United States. Others have been asked to provide their services during town hall meetings without pay. Several have received requests to work for free during asylum hearings or medical examinations at refugee camps or religious organizations-run facilities.

When asked to “interpret at no charge for these folks who have gone through so much”, many interpreters feel pressured to provide the service, even when this may represent a financial burden to them. Arguments such as “It will not take long, and it really is nothing to you since you speak the language… please help” are often used to corner professional interpreters into a place where it becomes very difficult to decline.

There are plenty of times when the only one asked to work for free is the interpreter. Many non-for-profit organizations have paid staff, and it is these social workers, physicians, attorneys and others who will assist the foreign language speaker. Everyone is making a living while helping these people in need, but the interpreter! Something is wrong with this picture.

Many of the people who work for these organizations do not see interpreters as professionals. They do not consider what we do as a professional service. They just see it as the acquired knowledge of a language that interpreters speak anyway, and they perceive it as something that should be shared for free. They believe that what doctors, lawyers and social workers do is a professional service and deserves pay. To them, we perform a non-professional, effortless task that should be volunteered.  Even if the interpreters questions this idea, and asks to be paid, the answers go from: “We are non-for-profit and we have no money” to “The entire budget will go to pay for doctors and lawyers, and you know they are expensive. There is no money left for you”. And then they go for the kill by closing the statement with: “but you understand; these are your people. They need your help”.

This is insulting. First, they see us, treat us, and address us as second-class paraprofessional service providers. Then, they claim there is no money when we all know that non-for-profits do not pay taxes because of the service they provide, but they have sources of income. Finally, they think we are not smart enough to see how they are trying to use us by playing the guilt card.

I systematically decline these requests because I consider them insulting and demeaning to the profession. Interpreters are professionals just like the other parties involved, their job is as important and essential as the rest of the professions participating in the program, and we must get paid just like the rest of the professionals.

There are instances when attorneys and other professionals provide the service without payment. The difference is that in some countries, lawyers and other professionals must perform some hours free of charge; sometimes several hours worked pro bono can be credited as part of the continuing education hours to keep a professional license current. Even court and healthcare interpreters receive this benefit sometimes. People see it as working for free, but it is far from it. The first scenario is a legal obligation to keep a professional license valid. The second one is a creative way to lure professionals into providing professional services at no charge for needed continuing education credits and an enhancement of their reputation in their community that will see them as willing participants helping in the middle of a crisis.

According to the American Bar Association, eleven states have implemented rules that permit attorneys who take pro bono cases to earn credit toward mandatory continuing legal education requirements (The states are: Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington State, and Wyoming).

I have no problem with interpreting for free if the interpreter must comply with a compulsory social service, or can benefit by receiving continuing education credit.  When the legislation (or the lack of it) is so interpreters get nothing from their service while the others benefit, then interpreters are treated as sub-professionals and I believe they should say no to all those asking them to work under these disadvantageous conditions.

If these non-for-profit organizations want interpreting services for free, they should lobby their legislative authorities or administrative officials to provide continuing education credits to all interpreters who provide some hours of work for free.

Another possible solution would be to allow interpreters to treat these free professional services as a donation to the non-for-profit organizations, making them tax deductible. This would create an incentive and level the field with all other professionals already getting a paycheck, or continuing education credits.   American legislation does not allow interpreters in the United States to deduct the value of their time or services (IRS Publication 526 for tax year 2016).  An amendment to this legislation would go a long way, and would benefit both, non-for-profit organizations and professional interpreters.

Some of you may disagree with me on this subject. I am asking you to detach your professional business decisions, which we should make with our brain, from your emotional decisions that come from your heart.  We all have causes we care about and we willfully, with no pressure, help in any way we can, including interpreting for free. This is something else, and you should do it when nobody else is making a profit or even an income to get by. It is called fairness. On the other hand, we should protect our profession, and the livelihood of our families by refusing all “volunteer” work where some of the others are getting paid or receiving a benefit we are not. Especially when they insult our intelligence by resorting to the “emotional appeal”.

I sometimes donate my services under the above circumstances,   as long as I may advertise who I am and my services. This way I donate my work, but I am investing in my business by enhancing my client base and professional network.  I now ask you to comment on this issue that seems very popular at this time. The only thing I ask from you is to please abstain from the comments and arguments for working for free that appeal to emotions instead of professional businesses.

Interpreter certification: A fight against the establishment.

May 1, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Many of us have devoted years to the struggle to achieve recognition towards the professionalization of what we do. In most countries, interpreters need not have a college degree, the occupation is highly unregulated, and society lacks the knowledge to demand a high-quality professional service. An important number of countries have exercised to a degree some control over who can interpret in certain fields: legal and healthcare interpreting now requires of a certification in several countries. Whether it is called certification, patent, license, or anything else, this is an important step towards professionalization. It is a way to compensate the lack of formal education by giving individuals a chance to demonstrate that they have the minimum skills to practice as interpreters. It reminds me of the beginnings of other now well-established professions. Two centuries ago, people in the United States could become lawyers by passing the State Bar without having to attend Law School.

Although certification does not guarantee the quality of a rendition, it allows the user to decide if an individual is at least minimally qualified to provide the service. This quality-control becomes very valuable to society, but we must be very careful as it is not always what it should.

All professions certify, admit to practice, or something to that effect, their members in one of two legitimate ways: By an administrative act sanctioned by a government because of passing a knowledge and skills test, or, by an administrative act sanctioned by the individual’s peers through a professional association because of passing a knowledge and skills test.

In the United States, and other countries, court interpreters acquire their certification through the former system, while healthcare interpreters get their credential through the latter.

Both systems work fine because they meet the requirements that guarantee an unbiased decision solely based on merit, not self-serving reasons. Besides meeting certain moral and legal requirements, this is achieved by passing a scientifically developed exam rated by an impartial qualified jury. Certifications can only be universally accepted and recognized when they come from such a process. For this reason court and healthcare certifications have become the standard of the profession in many countries.

Unfortunately, because of the lack of legislation, the high demand for inexpensive interpreter services, lack of knowledge by the potential client, and the existence of paraprofessional interpreters willing to work for next to nothing for their quality-absent services, have created a perfect storm for worthless so-called “certifications” that currently inhabit the market in the darker corners of the ugly face of interpreting, feeding themselves on the ignorance, fear, and cowardice of the pariahs of this profession.

Many language agencies advertise their interpreters as “certified” because they have been tested online or by phone and passed an unscientific exam not developed to learn if an applicant is prepared with the minimum professional skills to do the job. Instead, the motivation behind these “exams” has to do with marketing the service, and protecting the agency if a lawsuit occurs caused by the incompetence of their so-called “certified interpreters”. No data is available on the science behind their exams, and there is no information on the quality and impartiality of those rating the examinees.

It gets even worse: many community interpreting, telephonic interpreting, and supposedly healthcare and legal interpreting agencies advertise as “certified” interpreters individuals who attended a workshop, took a class online, read a manual, or went to a class without even taking an exam! The website of one agency brags about the “training” of their “certified” interpreters taught “national ethics and standards of practice for interpreters” in the United States. The problem is there is not such a thing. Each field has its own code of ethics. It also claims that their “certified” interpreters, who apparently work in legal situations, get “…basic skills pre-session preparation…” and they also get skills on “…closing the session…” These are no doubt important issues in healthcare interpreting, but not even the terminology exists in legal interpreting. I wonder how this knowledge, or learning “information on community systems (K-12 schools…)” will show that an interpreter is ready to work in a courtroom, detention center, or law office. Some brag about the number of training hours they offer to their interpreters, but they do not require that they pass an exam; much less a real scientific exam like the ones real certified interpreters must pass. Most of the training hours are devoted to practices to protect the agency from liability, to make the business plan more profitable. Whether they require an online test or just a bunch of classroom hours on a curriculum they created, they have as their main goal to create this impression that their interpreters are certified. They never disclose that their certifications are not officially recognized, that their exams were not scientifically developed, or that they have a vested interest: to offer the paraprofessional services of these “certified” interpreters at a lower cost so they can profit more.

This is not the only problem, dear friends and colleagues, official government policy can also be the main obstacle faced by interpreter certification. I was contacted some time ago by the government of a country outside the United States.  Mexico’s legal reforms took the country from a written court system to an adversarial oral system similar to the one in the U.S.

I was asked to participate in a training program for the new court interpreters for the oral proceedings. I was told this curriculum was necessary for these interpreters to get ready to pass a (certification) test and get what Mexico’s legislation calls a court interpreter patent (same as the certification in the United States, or the licensing in Texas). I was asked to provide may documents and information, even to develop a prospective curriculum and bibliography for my portion of the training (8 hours a day, Monday through Friday for three weeks). The full program was supposed to have a duration of three months at the same pace, and it was to be taught on the campus of the largest college in that Mexican State (Mexico is divided in States just like the United States of America).

After months of negotiations, where I made many concessions regarding the money I would be paid, and my expense account during the three weeks I would be living in that city, and after agreeing to cover my own airfare, to get these young prospective court interpreters what they needed to have a successful and meaningful career, the government officials continued to ask for more documents and concessions, until I gave them an ultimatum. At the end the answer was the one I feared all along: They would not retain me for the program because I was too expensive, but also, because I was a foreigner. They decided that only locals could teach the program. I have no problem with the local talent, and I know some of the other instructors and I vouch for their skill and expertise. The thing that puzzled me was that out of all the instructors, I was the only one who was both: interpreter and attorney, and I was the only one with experience working as an interpreter in court. The decision from above, taken by people who know little, or nothing, about court interpreters, left the certification program for that Mexican State with no court experienced instructors.

In the present world where a college education for interpreters is still years away in many countries, interpreter certification programs play a huge role in advancing the career and protecting the user of the interpreting services. Society must know of these malicious self-serving “certification programs” that are roaming out there with no supervision or regulation. It is imperative that more colleagues get certified as court and healthcare interpreters in the countries, and languages, that the credential is offered. On June 1, of this year, my colleague Javier Castillo Jr. and I have prepared a four-day workshop to prepare those who will be taking the oral portion of the court interpreter federal exam in the United States at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte this summer. The workshop will also help those taking court interpreter oral exams at the State-level, as we will dissect the test, explain what matters to get a passing score, and will practice with tailor-made exercises designed for these workshops you will find nowhere else, so that when the four-day program ends, those who took the course can get a personalized evaluation and know exactly what to do to pass the test. (You can get more information by going to www.fciceprep.com)

As you can see, the road to professionalization is full of obstacles, and some need to be eliminated to get the needed recognition to those legitimate certifications. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments on this issue.

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

February 22, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

The potentially discriminatory practice goes like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A promise to the Iraqi interpreters.

January 31, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

September 11, 2001 changed the lives of everybody in the United States and in many ways it also changed the way so many live around the world. After the despicable attack on the American people, the U.S. embarked on two armed conflicts in a land thousands of miles away from America, and in so many ways different from the west.

Many young Americans were sent to the Middle East to fight these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of them were brave service men and women unfamiliar with the geography, culture, traditions, and languages spoken over there.  It became apparent that communicating in the local languages would be essential to the success of the military operations and to the safety of all Americans, military and civilian, in harm’s way. It was then that the United States armed forces recruited native speakers from the local population who spoke English, and were familiar with the culture and social structure of local tribes and governments, friend or foe.

Soon, these brave volunteers from Afghanistan and Iraq learned basic military skills and protocol, acquired the necessary knowledge to serve as a communication conduit between the Americans and the local dwellers, captured prisoners, and members of the official armed forces of Iraq and Afghanistan; they became the conflict zone interpreters of the United States Armed Forces. Many of them were motivated by their resentment towards the local governments and the corruption of their local officials, others did it out of hope for a new regime without religious persecution; some participated because of their sincere admiration for the United States and its values.  All made the commitment to serve as interpreters for the Americans despite the fact that they well knew that they were risking their own lives and those of their family members.

In exchange for these invaluable and much needed services, the American government promised these interpreters that at the end of the conflict, those who were alive, and their families, would be taken to the United States to start a new life away from any potential risk they may encounter in their home countries as a result of their cooperation with the U.S. during the war. This was an essential part of the agreement. These conflict zone interpreters knew that their heads would have a price once they started working for the Americans. They understood that they were not just risking their lives during the fire exchanges or door-to-door raids; they knew that if left behind by the United States, they would be subjected to unspeakable harm by those who considered them traitors. These interpreters and their families would be killed without a doubt.

When it was time to honor their end of the bargain, these brave interpreters fulfilled their promise by acting as communication liaisons and cultural advisors, to the Americans they were embedded with. They interpreted under the most extreme conditions: in the middle of a fire exchange, during unpleasant interrogatories, when helicopters were flying over their heads making it next to impossible to hear what a soldier or an enemy were saying, and while they were running for cover.

Once the U.S. decided to withdraw from the region, the surviving conflict zone interpreters expected the United States government to fulfill its end of the bargain and take them and their families to the United States. They had risked it all honoring their commitment to interpret from Dari, Pashto, Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac, Armenian, Turkmen, Hazaragi, Uzbek, Balochi, Pashayi, and others languages, into English and vice versa.  Now they waited for Washington to live up to its promises and protect them from the animosity and rancor that permeated their towns and villages.

The U.S. government slowly responded and started the immigration process for these born-abroad American heroes. Unfortunately, and to the dismay of the conflict zone interpreters, the men and women in the military they had helped and protected during the wars, and the international interpreter community, the process came ever so slowly. The entry visas were granted at a piecemeal pace. In fact, to this day, many of these interpreters and their families remain abroad, waiting for their entry visas, and worrying about the violence that constantly surrounds them back home.

Despite the efforts of many professional interpreter organizations and other non-governmental entities demanding that immigration authorities speed up the process, many of these conflict zone interpreters and their relatives have lost their lives during this wait.  It is important to mention that the United States government is not the only one delaying the issuance of these entry visas; regretfully, most western governments are doing exactly the same.

I have been fortunate to meet several conflict zone interpreters, and I am honored that some of them call me their friend. They are regular people. They have interpreting stories they like to share just like you, and they have tales of horror that leave you speechless after you hear them. Tales of fathers killed right before their eyes, older brothers recruited for the army against their will in the middle of the night, mothers and sisters raped in their presence, friends and relatives they never saw again. They went through so much, and yet they are kind, friendly people full of gratitude to the United States for bringing them to a safe place.

It is in the middle of this environment that President Trump’s executive order requiring “extreme vetting” before allowing entry to citizens of several countries becomes enforceable on January 28, 2017. Immigration officers inspecting foreigners arriving at all ports of entry to the United States are ordered to deny entry to all people from seven countries: Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq. The ban includes those individuals who present a visa to the immigration authority, and even those who have been adjudicated status as lawful permanent residents of the United States.  Tragically, the executive order includes all Iraqis without any distinction; among them: all Iraqi conflict zone interpreters who were entering or reentering the country (certain individuals were excluded from this order for national interest reasons, but that is irrelevant to this post). To add insult to injury, the first Iraqi denied entry to the country at JFK International Airport in New York City was a conflict zone interpreter: Hameed Jhalid Darweesh!

What happened to the promised made to our Iraqi colleagues a decade and a half ago? They fulfilled their commitment to the United States, are we not?

Dear friends and colleagues, President Trump’s executive order covers many issues and has many consequences in the real world. As expected, it was challenged in federal court, and like all lawyers knew, the court granted a stay pending a hearing on the merits in February. I understand that many of you oppose the executive order in its entirety; I am also aware that many of you support it. This is not the place to attack or defend these different points of view. As a lawyer, I believe that some of its content will be overturned and some will be upheld by the courts. Those of you in favor or against the order will no doubt pursue different means to make your voice heard. What I ask you on this entry is non-partisan:  We must protect our profession, we have to support our conflict zone interpreter colleagues.

Please understand that the stay ordered on Saturday by Judge Ann Donnelly is temporary. Do not believe news reports, like Yahoo News, that immediately informed that the president had lost. That is false. What the judge did this time happens very often in cases when the potential damage caused by a government act could be serious and irreparable.  The court has to hear the case on its merits and then decide. This will happen next month, and at that time, she may decide that the government is right, that the government was wrong, or most likely, that part of the executive order is constitutional and part of it is not. Even in the event that the judge rules the order unconstitutional, the Administration will appeal the decision. I have no doubt that this case will end up before the United States Supreme Court.

This is too much of a risk. We have to defend our profession. We have to make sure that the promises to our Iraqi conflict zone interpreter colleagues are kept; that the agreement they entered over ten years ago is honored by our government. We have an opportunity to set precedent in our legal system so that it is clear that in the future, those foreign colleagues who cooperate with the United States in other conflict zones, regardless of geographical location, are protected and treated honorably once it is time to come back home.

Regardless of anything else you may do for or against this executive order, I invite you to contact the White House and the Department of Homeland Security and tell them to support an immediate exception to the executive order excluding from the ban all conflict zone interpreters and their families. Explain to them that they risked their lives for the sake of our country, and that the United States promised to protect them and bring them to America. Ask them to keep our promise the same way they kept theirs.  If you live in a State of district where your senators or representatives are Republican, please call both: their local and Washington office to let them know that these colleagues are heroes who fought for the United States and saved the lives of many of their constituents’ sons and daughters by putting their own lives on the line.  We have to do this. We cannot wait for the outcome of a court case that could take a long time and could grant admission to some of this interpreters and exclude others, particularly those who have never entered the U.S.

We have to make sure that the exception to the executive order, and any future legislation, will cover three types of conflict zone interpreters and their families, regardless of their country of origin: (1) Those already admitted to the United States who may reenter the country after a visit abroad; (2) Those already granted a visa to come in who have yet to enter the U.S., and (3) Those colleagues whose application for admission is still pending adjudication or pending a final decision after an appeal or reconsideration of an original denial. They all assisted the members of our armed forces. All of them have to be protected.

I know that some professional associations like AIIC, FIT and IAPTI,  nonprofit organizations like Red T, which  advocates for interpreters in high risk settings, and some interpreter programs like InterpretAmerica will make their voice heard on this issue. That is great; however, nothing gets the attention of a legislator like the voice of their own constituents; this is why you must call, email, or physically go to their local office. Let them know what interpreters do and how crucial is our work. Many of you have spent a lifetime educating attorneys, judges, physicians, nurses, agency managers, event organizers, sound technicians, and many others, so this should come naturally to you.

To conclude, I thank you for supporting our Iraqi colleagues, for defending our profession, and for setting aside your personal political agendas for the cause that we all have in common: The interpreting profession. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your experiences with conflict zone interpreter colleagues, from Iraq or elsewhere, you have met here in the U.S. or abroad if you were serving in the military with any of them. I ask you to please do so without any politically charged arguments for or against the administration, and I ask you to limit your comments to conflict zone interpreters or their family members.

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

January 20, 2017 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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