What is the Electoral College in the United States?

October 20, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

Every four years during the Presidential election season in the United States many interpreters face the Electoral College topic even when their assignments are non-political. This time, no doubt because of the American president, more friends and colleagues from the United States and abroad have contacted me than ever before. Because of its American uniqueness, this topic presents a challenge to many colleagues who usually work outside the United States and to others who live in the country but grew up somewhere else.  The Electoral College is one issue that many Americans do not fully understand, even if they vote every four years.  Interpreters cannot interpret what they do not understand, and in a professional world ruled by the market, where the Biden and Trump campaigns are dominating broadcasts and headlines, this topic will continue to appear on the radar screen. Therefore, a basic knowledge of this legal-political process should come in handy every four years.

Because we are in a unique election cycle, and Election Day will be here before we know it, I decided to humbly put my legal background and my passion for history to work to benefit the interpreter community. I do not intend to defend the American system, or convince anybody of its benefits. I am only providing historical, political, and legal facts so we can understand such a complicated system in a way that if needed, our rendition from the physical or virtual booth is a little easier. This is not a political post, and it will not turn into one.

Every four years when an American citizen goes to the polls on the first Tuesday in November to elect the new president of the United States, that individual does not vote for the presidential candidates. We Americans vote for a preference (Republican, Democratic and occasionally other) and for electors who will go to Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, in December to cast the electoral votes from that state, in the case of 48 states, for the candidate who represents the preference of the majority of the state voters as expressed on Election Day. Other two states, since 1972 Maine and starting in 1992 Nebraska, allocate their electoral votes in a semi proportional manner. The two state’s electoral votes representing the two senators from that state, are assigned to the plurality winner of that state’s popular vote, and the other electoral votes that correspond to that state are given to the plurality winner in the popular vote in each of the state’s U.S. House of Representatives district. Maine has 4 electoral votes and Nebraska has 5. This means 2 and 3 electoral votes respectively will go to the candidate who wins that district, even if the candidate does not win a plurality of the popular vote statewide.

We vote for the people who will go to Washington D.C., to vote on our behalf for the presidential candidate who received the most direct votes from the citizens of that state during the general election.  After the November election, those electors are pledged to the candidate who received the most votes in that state.  The result: We have direct vote elections in each state, and then we have the final election in December when the states vote as instructed by the majority of its citizens. It is like a United Nations vote. Think of it like this: Each state elects its presidential favorite; that person has won the presidential election in that state. Now, after the November election is over, the states get together in December as an Electoral College and each vote. This is the way we determine a winner. Each state will vote as instructed, honoring the will of its citizenry and the mandate of its state’s constitution.  We do not have proportional representation in the United States.

Historically and culturally this country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit: Those who risk everything want everything, and when they succeed, all benefits should go their way. We are an “all or nothing” society. That is even reflected on our sports. All popular sports invented and played in the United States have a winner and a loser by the end of the game: Americans dislike ties because they associate a tie with mediocrity. A baseball game can go on forever until a team wins.  We do the same in politics. Once the citizens have voted, the winner in that state (except for Maine and Nebraska above) gets all the benefits, in this case all the electoral votes; it does not matter if he or she won by a million votes or by a handful. You may remember how President George W. Bush was elected to his first term; he won Florida by a small margin, but winner takes it all, therefore all of Florida’s electoral votes went to him and he became the 43rd. President of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams got to the White House with a margin smaller than George W. Bush. In recent years, another two presidents got to the White House without getting a majority of the popular vote: Bill Clinton twice, and president, Donald J. Trump. According to all presidential polls, if president Trump was reelected, he would go back to the White House after winning the electoral college, but losing the popular vote.

The electoral college was born to have a duly elected democratic government that would replace the monarchy Americans endured in colonial times. The state of communications and the educational level of the American population were such, that it was thought unwise to hold a direct presidential election where the winner of the popular vote would become president of the United States. Access to newly founded Washington, D.C., surrounded by swamps and, for Eighteenth Century standards, far away from most thirteen original states made it uncertain that all states would get to vote in a presidential election. Because only a handful of representatives from each state would go to the capital to cast that state’s votes for president, it was decided that only land holder white men would have a right to vote for these electors. It was decided to exclude white men with no land as they had no vested interest in the election; women were considered unprepared to make such a decision, blacks were slaves and deprived of human rights, including political ones, and Native Americans and other minorities were not considered citizens of the United States, and ineligible to vote.  Eventually, after a Civil War a century later, and several social movements a century after the War, all men and women born in the U.S., or naturalized American citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or national origin, successfully claimed their human right to vote. The American population of the United States territories are nationals of the U.S., and they can vote in a presidential election if they are residing in the 50 states or the District of Columbia.

I mentioned earlier that most Americans like the principle of winner takes it all. Although that is true, the country’s political and legal systems rest on a foundation of fairness and justice. With a nation as diverse as the current United States, a majority believes the only way to maintain these principles is through a balance of the rights of the people on one side, and those of the states on the other. (For those who have a difficult time understanding why the states have rights separate from the people, please imagine the United States as a mini-world where each state is an independent country. Then think of your own country and answer this question: Would you like a bigger or more populated foreign country to impose its will over your country, or would you like for all countries to be treated as equals?) In December when the electors or delegates from each state meet as an electoral college in Washington D.C. to cast their state’s electoral votes, all states have a voice, they are all treated as equal.  This is the only way that smaller states are not overlooked; their vote counts.

We find the final step to achieve this electoral justice to all 50 states of the United States of America (and the District of Columbia) and to the citizens of the country, in the number of electoral votes that a state has; in other words, how many electors can a state send to Washington D.C. in November.  The answer is as follows:  The Constitution of the United States establishes there will be a House of Representatives (to represent the people of the United States) integrated by 435 members elected by the people of the district where they live. These districts change with the shifts in population but additional seats are never added to the House.  When the population changes, the new total population are divided by 435 and that gives you the new congressional district. The only limitations: An electoral district cannot cross state lines (state borders) therefore, occasionally we will have a district slightly larger or slightly smaller, and every state must have at least one electoral district (one house member) regardless of its population.  The American constitution establishes there will be a Senate (to represent the 50 states) integrated by 2 representatives or members from each state, currently that is 100 senators elected by all the citizens of that state. When new states have been admitted to the Union (the last time was 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii became states number 49 and 50 respectively) the senate grows by two new members.

As you can see, all states have the same representation in the Senate (2 senators each) regardless of the state’s size or population. The House of Representatives has more members from the states with larger population, but all states have at least one representative in the house. This way the American system makes sure that the will of the majority of the people is heard in Congress (House of Representatives) and it assures the 50 states that they all, even the smaller ones, will be heard as equals in the Senate. You need both houses of Congress to legislate.

Going back to the Electoral College, the number of electoral votes each state has is the same as its number of Senators and Representatives. The total number of Senators and Representatives is 535 (435 Representatives and 100 Senators) Washington D.C. is not a state; therefore it has no Representatives or Senators, but it has 3 electoral votes to put it on equal footing with the smaller states for presidential elections. Therefore, the total number of electoral votes is 538.  Because of these totals, and because of the American principle of winner takes it all that applies to the candidate who wins the election in a state, to win a presidential election, a candidate must reach 270 electoral votes.  This is the reason California, our most populated state, has 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives and 2 Senators) and all smaller states have 3 (remember, they have 2 Senators and at least one Representative in the House)

The next time you have to interpret something about the Electoral College in the United States remember how it is integrated, and think of our country as 50 countries with an internal election first, and then vote as states, equal to all other states, on the second electoral round in December.  Because on the first Tuesday in November, or shortly after that, we will know who won each state, we will be celebrating the election of a new president, even though the Electoral College will not cast its votes for another month. It is like knowing how the movie ends before you see it.

 

Electoral votes by state Total: 538;

majority needed to elect president and vice president: 270

State number of votes State number of votes State number of votes
Alabama 9 Kentucky 8 North Dakota 3
Alaska 3 Louisiana 9 Ohio 20
Arizona 10 Maine 4 Oklahoma 7
Arkansas 6 Maryland 10 Oregon 7
California 55 Massachusetts 12 Pennsylvania 21
Colorado 9 Michigan 17 Rhode Island 4
Connecticut 7 Minnesota 10 South Carolina 8
Delaware 3 Mississippi 6 South Dakota 3
District of Columbia 3 Missouri 11 Tennessee 11
Florida 27 Montana 3 Texas 34
Georgia 15 Nebraska 5 Utah 5
Hawaii 4 Nevada 5 Vermont 3
Idaho 4 New Hampshire 4 Virginia 13
Illinois 21 New Jersey 15 Washington 11
Indiana 11 New Mexico 5 West Virginia 5
Iowa 7 New York 31 Wisconsin 10
Kansas 6 North Carolina 15 Wyoming 3

I now invite your comments on the way presidential elections are conducted in the United States, but please do not send political postings or partisan attacks. They will not be posted. This is a blog for interpreters and translators, not for political debate.

Democracy, or democracy ATA-style?

October 7, 2020 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are in a political environment in the United States at this time, in a few days we will vote for president of the United States, and this is also election time at the American Translators Association. I write this post because I deeply care for our association and the direction it follows for the benefit or detriment of our professions. This post is not an attack on anybody for who they are, but an expression of opinions and a means to disseminate information you may find useful before you vote. I also did some fact-checking and bring you the elements you will need to separate fact from fiction.

Election of candidates.

I am not familiar with some candidates and the ones I know are probably the same ones most of you recognize from the slate. I just want you to be aware of two important points all voting members should consider before voting. Please do your homework and vote for practicing interpreters or translators. Do not continue to stack the board with agency owners, even if they attempt to portray themselves as practicing colleagues. That may be half-truth, and remember their interests are not yours. They are not illegal, but they are not yours. The second point you must remember is that do not vote for the maximum number of candidates allowed. If there is only one board candidate you like, vote for that person and leave the others blank. When you do not know the candidate, or you have doubts, it is better to abstain. An abstention is powerful, because it increases the chances of your candidates to win as you do not gift a vote to someone you are not sure about. In my case I already voted, and I only voted for one candidate. The individual I chose has disagreements with me, and this candidate is not an interpreter, but he has my trust because I know this person is smart, honest, and not an agency.

I encourage you to think long and hard before you decide on your candidates, and do not feel bad if you just vote for one individual.

The decoupling question.

How can not decoupling be considered illegal? I understand the issue should be raised if a certification were needed to practice translation and ATA were the only certifying entity officially recognized, but neither is true. Certification may give you a competitive advantage and help you dissipate doubts about your professional level, but it is not a legal requirement to work as a translator. Although well-known as a serious credential, ATA has no official recognition as a certifying agency or office. ATA membership is voluntary and certification is one benefit of membership. Nobody can be forced to join ATA, just like no one can be forced to take the certification exam.

Regarding the ABA remarks, whether intentionally, or due to a lack of basic knowledge, it is puzzling that an allegedly practicing court interpreter in Pennsylvania can make the following statement: “Now, as a world class nonprofit association, certification legal experts have repeatedly advised us that it is unseemly and illegal to force individuals to become members just to take and maintain their certification…the ABA and the AMA have no such requirements for professional lawyers and doctors.” 

There is not such a thing as an “ABA Bar Exam.” I am sorry to hear an ATA Board member making such remarks. Perhaps the reason for this regrettable statement can be understood, nut justified, by visiting the Administrative Office of the State of Pennsylvania’s official website: The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania’s Court Interpreters classifies Spanish interpreters in three categories. From higher to lower skill level: Master, Certified, and Conditional. Are considered conditional interpreters those who score 50 percent on a simultaneous, consecutive, and bi-directional sight translation exam (a 49 percent score fails the test) testing the bare-bones minimum skills to interpret in court. Because conditional interpreters, like the person who made these comments, are separated from failing candidates by one percentage point, they may interpret during hearings of lesser complexity where freedom or substantial assets are not at risk. They cannot interpret trials unless they are before a lower court and involve small claims, traffic violations, etc.

Attorneys must pass a STATE BAR EXAM to be able to practice law. They must join that State Bar and remain members throughout their professional life in that State. It is the State Bar that grants and runs the continuing legal education program needed to keep a license valid, and the State Bar is the only body to monitor the rules of ethics are observed, and when they are not, only the Bar can sanction attorneys after notice and hearing. The only thing “illegal” is to practice law without a license (State Bar membership) carrying up to 364 days in jail in most states, and very harsh Civil sanctions, which could include compensatory and punitive damages depending on the harm done. Conditional-level court interpreters often work with pro-se individuals, and, have limited exposure to situations where the law license issue is mentioned. As for the American Medical Association’s part of the statement, since 1933, the certification function has been administered by a separate organization known as the American Board of Medical Specialties. No relation to the AMA, administratively or functionally. Interesting that a candidate who lost an election twice and got to the board by appointment both times gives such an eloquent opinion on something he lacks.

I encourage you to put your interests as a member above the associations economic priorities and reject this amendment. Vote No.

An election with multiple candidates.

I am very troubled by the arguments of those who oppose the amendment because they base their opinion on false assumptions, and because they represent the Institutional viewpoint. That two of the former presidents endorsing the opinion were beneficiaries of unopposed “elections” merits mentioning as it goes to the credibility of the opinion. 

An election is a decision between (at least) two options, anything else can be called a ratification, imposition, proclamation, appointment, or coronation, but not an election. 

Nations, corporations, and associations are governed by those who represent the will of the majority of its citizens, shareholders, or members. From its inception by the Greeks, many centuries ago, this has been called democracy. 

History has seen many totalitarian regimes in countries, corporations, and institutions disguised as “democracies.” Often, arguments to justify this aberration include a consensus by an elite in a position of power indicating they, as self-appointed protectors of the masses, are making the tough decisions; that it would be too dangerous to let citizens, shareholders or members decide because they are not “prepared” for it. 

The argument that an outsider who may be elected president-elect, treasurer, or director would jeopardize the institutional continuity of the people in power sends chills through my body. Elections are to change what a majority dislikes, not to guarantee everything will stay the same. Supporting ATA’s official viewpoint reminds me of those attempting to destroy our nation’s democracy at this time.

To say people not screened and blessed by the ones in power will not perform as needed, will not devote the necessary time to fulfill their responsibilities, or will quit their position shortly after the election, is plain insulting. People run for elected positions because they want to do the job. They want to do the job according to the interests of those who elected them, and sometimes these may not be the interests of those already in power. 

The bylaws are to an association what a constitution is to a nation. Their amendment is a serious matter and it should reflect the decision of that association’s membership based on real information, not a manipulated alternative reality. The only place where unopposed “elections” are welcome and considered a good thing is totalitarian structures populated by those too afraid to face the will of a majority without feeding them first manipulated information. That was tried before, caused many hardships and pain, and after many years it fell because it never represented the view of the majority. I don’t want another Soviet Union in my profession.

I encourage you to put democracy and membership above the current leadership’s appetite for control and support this amendment. Vote Yes.

Please vote. Most members never vote and that took us to where we are. Think of your career, the profession, and how a professional association should serve the interests of its human members, not corporations, or personal ambition.

This time your vote is crucial for the future of ATA. Please read.

September 30, 2019 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Another year went by and several fellow interpreters and translators are getting ready to go to Palm Springs, California, for the annual conference of the American Translators Association (do not let the name misguide you, it includes many interpreters even though for political reasons it was decided not to include us in the name of the organization). Besides the main reasons many attend the conference: seeing old friends and attending some presentations with the never-ending hope to learn something, the yearly gathering is also the opportunity active members have to vote on the future of the association by electing board members and passing or rejecting proposed amendments to the bylaws.

Many of you skip the general meeting because you find it boring, too long, and always the same. I know many more active members who will not go to Palm Springs and have decided not to vote by proxy because they are discouraged with performing board members. I understand your reasons and I have always respected your decision to abstain. Unfortunately, this time is different and I encourage you; actually, please, please vote.

I usually give the reasons I voted for or against a candidate or amendment, and I will do it right now.

Voting is very important because democracy is our legitimate way to have a saying on the direction a country, business or association is going at a particular time. Democracy and ATA are not usually two terms we put together, after all, until we change it, we continue to be an organization where all members pay the same membership, but many do not get to enjoy the same rights, including the right to vote. That must change before the 2020 conference.

There is something else we can change with our votes this year: it is time to let members from outside the board be elected. The way our current board operates resembles more the system of the Soviet Politburo than a Greek democracy. Board members go through a “promotion system” where they are groomed to take over the position, assuring the continuity of the same policies and protecting the special interests that pull the strings. Interpreters and translators are well-read, sophisticated individuals who know there has never been a true democracy in history without opposing points of view alternating in the highest decision-making positions. Let’s get back to the election:

To be worthy of my vote, a candidate has to acknowledge we are a group of professionals, not a gathering of agencies or merchants. I believe it is inexcusable to elect people who continuously advance the interests of agencies, multinational or small, over those of individual members; who refuse to observe basic ethics by voting where they have a personal or business conflict instead of recusing themselves; who support sharing a lobbyist with the Association of Language Companies; and I do not want to elect people who will destroy a professional translator certification by opening it to non-members.

Our road to professionalization must include adopting what other, well-established professions do. Let’s take attorneys: To practice law, an applicant must pass the professional (Bar) exam, AND be a member in good standing of the lawyers’ association in that jurisdiction. Practicing law is more that passing the bar exam; a fiduciary profession, like attorney, or translator, requires that the individual practicing observes ethical and professional rules. It is the State Bar that sanctions lawyers who acted unethically, it is the State Bar that makes sure and keeps track that attorneys comply with continuing legal education requirements to assure clients that a lawyer who passed the Bar thirty years ago is up-to-date on legislation and procedure.

By offering a certification program exclusively to qualified members, and requiring adherence to a code of ethics and continuing education credits, ATA is currently treating translators, and the public, as a professional association. Only true professions self-regulate their practice. Decoupling certification would be equivalent of giving up this status and opening the door to other overseers such as government agencies, creating that way a world of confusing national policies and regulations, as ATA certified translators work from every corner of the planet servicing clients all over the world. Some current Board members want us to believe they will control ethics and continuing education compliance after decoupling. It seems unlikely. They will have no link to the nonmember certified translators. Under those circumstances, unless members want to continue attending the overpriced annual conference, many could consider leaving ATA and just keeping the certification. As an interpreter, this is something I have always admired and keep on my wish list. Interpreters are certified and therefore regulated by a myriad of bodies all over the world.

Another important aspect is that of the cost of the exam. It is widely known that exams such as these ones are more expensive than the fee charged to the examinee. That is fine when done for members, this is one of their benefits. On the other hand, how many of you would be willing to subsidize the certification of non-members with your membership fees? If the answer is to charge more to non-members, then the obvious reaction is: Why not require membership first, and then be eligible to take the test? If the cost is similar, the only reason to choose certification without membership is the desire of the examinee to dodge continuing education requirements, or to ignore the cannons of ethics.

I can think of a scenario where decoupling would be good: Agencies can pay for their translators’ certification one time, and then, with no need for continuing education, sell them to their clients as “ATA certified” until the cows come home. Big profits for the agencies. Bad news for the profession. Once again, this is another example of special interests at work.

Who to vote for?

I will never vote to any board position an individual who is not even a certified translator or interpreter, unless their language combination includes a language without a certification available. Professional credibility comes from your credentials, and the bylaws’ exception for those who achieve professional status through membership review, should only be respected by the voters when the candidate works in a rare or “exotic” language of lesser diffusion. I think it is a shame for people to consider voting for individuals who got to the board by peer review, instead of certification, when your work languages are Spanish or Portuguese. We all know that as soon as a person becomes a translator or an interpreter, they start thinking of certification. We are all out there. We all know that credentials are essential in the real world.

The fact that an interpreter or translator is not certified (or with conference interpreters does not possess a legitimate credential such as AIIC membership, Conference-level by the U.S. Department of State, or membership in a renowned association or government agency in the country where they practice) denotes one of three things: The individual failed to certify because lack of skill, in reality this person does has not worked as a translator or interpreter, but rather as a business manager in an agency (in which case the individual should be running among their peers at the Association of Language Companies, not the American Translators Association) or the person just cares so little for the value of a certification and the professional aspect of our craft, that they disregard the need to study to pass a certification exam.

For president, I will write in Robert Sette, because on top of his experience as a board member, he is the only one running for this position defending the profession by opposing decoupling. I have talked to Robert about interpreters’ issues and our situation within ATA due to the current policy at the top. He has convinced me he will be a president elect who will fight for the professional interests of interpreters and translators. I found Robert an honest and dedicated colleague, an experienced ATA certified translator, with no other motivation than our advancement as a profession.

In ATA’s classic fashion, Secretary and Treasurer are running unopposed. I know them both and they are good professionals. I will vote for them unless they support decoupling. There, I will have nothing detrimental to say about them, They are both nice, decent people, but even if I feel bad about it, I will not give them my vote because of a difference of opinion on this important issue.

For the director position I will vote for Cristina Helmerichs because she is a professional of great moral character who has always protected the profession and her colleagues instead of taking the side of the corporate member agencies.

I will also write in Jill Sommer for the director position because she is an experienced professional, a certified translator who will work with Robert Sette, and because she opposes decoupling of the ATA certification.

For the third director vacancy, I will not vote for a non-certified interpreter or translator, I will never vote for someone who in the past has stated his opposition to recusal as a board member, even in case of a conflict of interest, and I will not vote for someone who supports decoupling of the certification, or continues to sit on the fence without making a commitment. That leaves four possibilities. If more than one opposes decoupling, I will study their platforms and how they answer the questions in Palm Springs, but I also have another choice: Just as I did last year: I can just vote for two directors instead of three. We should all consider that as an option. It is better not to vote for someone than to vote for an individual we believe is not right for the job.

You see, dear friends and colleagues, fellow ATA active members, this year is very important we all vote. If you are attending the conference, please go to the general meeting and vote. If you are not going to Palm Springs, even if you think your vote does not matter, if you believe nothing ever changes with the way ATA operates; even if you have noticed that the election system is less than democratic, please vote by proxy. Open your email and vote. Write down the names of the write in candidates, and contact ATA if you are a voting member and did not receive a ballot. Please repost this blog anywhere you feel appropriate, and contact your fellow voting members, interpreters and translators, and ask them to vote to protect the profession. This is the year when we can drive the change. I am posting this article in many professional groups and ATA social media. It will not be posted in any other professional association’s wall or chat group, unless I first get permission to do so.

Are professional associations actively working against their members?

October 24, 2018 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Several government decisions in the United States and elsewhere have impacted our profession recently, and they all have something in common: They have protected interpreters and translators from some one-sided practices enacted by multinational language providers, copied by smaller interpreting and translation agencies, and adopted by some government bureaucracies to appear as if they are meeting their legal obligations to society.

Some of the most notorious and talked about decisions include the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) order to the U.S. government services contractor SOS International (SOSi) to reclassify its interpreters working in United States state courts as employees in March 2018, bestowing interpreters and translators who worked for this agency as independent contractors with all protections defined by the National Labor Relations Act, including benefits reserved to full-time workers. In April 2018 some Lionbridge contractors who provided their services as software testers at Microsoft, settled a case they had before the NLRB.

Despite the effects of the decision above, it was the landmark ruling on April 2018 by the California Supreme Court in the Dynamex case that shook the status quo like nothing before. California’s highest court ruled that the delivery service provider Dynamex misclassified its workers as independent contractors when they should be protected and treated as employees. Here, the Supreme Court of California adopted the “ABC test” to determine if a contractor is an independent worker instead of an employee. This decision’s repercussions extended to all individuals providing services as independent contractors, including interpreters and translators, when the company is in control of the performance of such service contractually or de facto; to those contractors who perform a service that falls within the usual services regularly provided by the company; and to those contractors who cannot be regularly selling their services to other clients, because they are constantly engaged by the company, leaving them no time to work somewhere else.

There are many interpreters and translators, myself included, who do not want to be employees anywhere; There are many interpreters and translators, myself included, whose professional practice will not be affected by these or other rulings similar to the ones mentioned above; however, many colleagues would benefit from such decisions. These are usually the colleagues who these entities take advantage of. We are talking about colleagues who, for many reasons, cannot ditch the exploiter and have to roll with the punches, accepting work under deplorable conditions such as rock-bottom fees, solo interpreting assignments, interpretations on a pay-per-minute basis, and other abuses practiced by these agencies never stopped by the authorities before.

As expected, many agencies who practice this business model got extremely nervous: This could be the beginning of the end to their lucrative unchallenged practices. They would not allow this to happen.

On August 8, 2018 the Association of Language Companies (ALC) met in Washington, D.C. to conspire about a way to keep independent interpreters and translators from gaining these legal protections and to maintain the up-until-now comfortable uneven field they enjoy. As a first step, they lobbied the United States Congress to change the law and make it impossible for these interpreters and translators to benefit from the administrative and judicial resolutions that protected them. The event was organized by ALC’s lobbyist: The Joint Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (JNCL-NCLIS). During the meeting, ALC delegates argued that “…the added cost of providing full benefits to every single contractor would likely put many (agencies) in danger of going out of business…” They manifested that “…the implications for the “industry” could be devastating…” There are two more ALC summits already scheduled for the first half of 2019.  For more details on the Dynamex ruling and my interpretation of the ways it benefits all independent interpreters and translators, even those who do not deal with these multinational or abusive agencies, please read my blog entry of August 29, 2018.

We can see that a confrontation of ideas and how we view our profession contrasted by the way these entities perceive us as industry laborers may be inevitable. I do not blame the agencies for defending their golden eggs goose. I understand their decision to lobby Congress to protect their interests; unlike professional interpreters and translators, their loyalty is to their shareholders and partners, not to the quality of the service or the profession. We also need to defend our interests, and we will.

To do it, we all know that we face a David and Goliath battle against the ALC and others. They have the finances to fight us in court and Congress. There are no surprises here and we must plan accordingly.

Unfortunately, on top of the known obstacles we need to overcome, potentially, there is an added problem, something that most colleagues are unaware of, something that looks wrong: Some of the professional associations of interpreters and translators, including the largest, use and pay for the services of the same lobbyist ALC is using to undermine the interests of many of their own members: our colleagues.

The American Translators Association (ATA) is represented, in its lobbying efforts, by the Joint Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (JNCL-NCLIS). Let me explain: ATA membership fees are used to pay for the services of JNCL-NCLIS simultaneously this lobbyist is advancing ALC’s cause to kill those government decisions that favor many independent interpreters and translators. ATA is not the only professional association with a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., but it is the largest one, and it is the one with Board members up for election this week at the general meeting in New Orleans. This post is not motivated by any ill feelings towards ATA or any other professional association, but by my desire to have more transparent governance and accountability in our associations to protect our profession from those who try to dehumanize it and turn it into a laborer’s service.

I will now disclose some facts about JNCL-NCLIS so you understand exactly who we are dealing with: Unlike most lobbyists, they are a non-for-profit organization that started servicing foreign language teachers. There was a time, however, when ATA’s leadership decided, without a real explanation to the membership, there was synergy between these teachers and ATA members who are not teachers, but interpreters and translators. ATA pays a yearly fee to JNCL-NCLIS for its services as a lobbyist. This differs from the usual per-hour fees that most lobbyists charge to their clients.  The amount of this annual payment is based on the size of ATA’s membership, because it is paid with our membership fees. The person from JNCL-NCLIS who deals with ATA is Bill Rivers, who also deals with ALC, and continuously works for the advancement of the interests of the agencies. Interests often in conflict with the interests of ATA’s individual membership (us), even though they benefit its corporate members (they).  Bill Rivers deals with ATA’s presidency, not with the Board. The Chair of this lobbyist’s Education and Pedagogy Committee (an unpaid position) is a former ATA President. JNCL-NCLIS has assisted at least one agency owner ATA Board member, along with other agencies, on another matter affecting workers’ compensation for interpreters and translators somewhere in the northwest.

There is a huge conflict of interest, and ATA should retain a different lobbyist, even if the fee is higher. No other association in the world spends the money ATA spends on its annual conference, and an independent lobbyist would be more beneficial to the membership at large than such an extravagant, expensive conference. Corporate members would lose an ally, but professional associations exist to benefit the individual, not the corporations.

Even if JNCL-NCLIS lobbyists are professional honorable people, when lobbying for ALC, they could disclose to House members and Senators they are also ATA’s lobbyists; This will convey the message that interpreters and translators endorse the same positions and business model these multinational agencies do.

Some of ATA Board members are agency owners who vote on decisions that could adversely affect individual interpreters and translators. There is nothing on the bylaws banning this practice, but it is another conflict of interest.

The bylaws need to be amended, if not to bar small agency owners from the Board, to at least keep them from voting where they may have a conflict of interest, or there may be the appearance of one. Meanwhile, all Board members who own an agency, and there are at least three at the moment, and two will remain as part of the Board after this week’s elections, must recuse themselves from participating in any debate and casting any vote where there may be, or may appear to be a conflict of interest. This all judges and corporate board members do every day all over the world.

I invite you to demand that all professional associations with lobbyists on retainer only hire lobbyists that do not represent the interests of the agencies and corporations, and bar all agency owners from voting where there is, or may be a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, I invite you all to vote this week in New Orleans for ATA candidates who oppose the current lobbyist situation and support the recusal of all Board members who own an agency in case of a potential conflict of interest.  I now ask you to share your thoughts on these crucial matters to any professional association.

Moving the profession backwards in these critical times.

February 8, 2016 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I am not breaking any news when I tell you that our profession is under attack from many more fronts than ever before. We have the tremendous struggle that many of our American immigration court interpreters are battling with SOSi; we have the constant reduction of fees, reimbursements, and work opportunities by the court systems in several European countries and all over the Americas; let us not forget some ambitious entities who for no reason other than their own benefit,  have decided to create a hybrid aberration of a community, court, and healthcare interpreter by patching up together pieces of all three in a way that would make doctor Frankenstein proud; and of course, the so-called “interpreting agencies” who cloud their real mediocre services with smoke and mirrors of technology, while offering the rendition of the cheapest, desperate, bottom-feeder “interpreter” they could find.  We now have a newcomer to the pantheon of the interpreter profession serial killers: the government agencies who want to pay less and burden the professional even more with nonsense bureaucratic paperwork that only finds a reasonable justification to exist when viewed through the distorted mentality of a government official.

These are some of the many calamities that we have to face every day worldwide to protect, preserve, and advance our profession and its perception by the real world, despite of the constant efforts by the above mentioned entities to convince the public that we are not professionals, but mere laborers in an “industry” where we should be treated and paid as skilled labor, never as professionals.

It is in the middle of this environment that some colleagues, giving up the professional interpreter banner, or at best misunderstanding the true nature of what we do for living, and enveloped in the blanket of resignation and submission, have opted for listening to these groups above, not for beneficial purposes such as learning what they really want, where they plan to take us to as service providers, and what their weaknesses and needs are, so we have a way to negotiate with them, but to seek compliance and adhesion to their unilaterally created and developed policies, rules, and requirements, in order to please them and keep them happy, or at least not upset, and this way continue to be retained to provide services in exchange for mediocre to offensive fees and working conditions.

Dear friends and colleagues, some of our peers have misunderstood our role in the language services profession, and out of fear, ignorance, misguided good intentions, and yes, in some cases due to ulterior motives, have decided to accept these unilaterally imposed conditions and provide their services in a way that pleases their “client” turned master by the terms sometimes imposed on the interpreter, without questioning, disagreeing, or rejecting these pre-industrial revolution work conditions.

Professional service providers have organized in professional associations for a long time, so they can defend, preserve, and advance their profession without interference of exterior forces who, by the nature of their legitimate mission and purpose, have opposing and conflicting interests to the ones of the professionals. This is honorable, widely respected, universally expected, and practiced by all professions. Professional associations such as the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and many others worldwide, were born for these reasons.  They all have one goal: the best interest of the individual who is a member of the profession.

We as interpreters and translators have some organizations and associations that operate and exist for the same goals than the rest of the professional associations, but every day we see more and more cross-contamination and distortion of the true mission of a professional association when we witness how some of these professional associations are molded after the needs and desires of these other entities that have opposing or conflicting interests with us, just for political and financial reasons.

As a result, instead of having organizations that foster dialogue among interpreters to discuss how to negotiate with, and defend from government and other entities, as all professional associations should, there is now a division in one of the professional associations where, in the opinion of many of us,  government officials, including their staff interpreters and translators (regardless of their personal integrity as they participate as someone else’s agent) now have a forum to indoctrinate interpreters and translators on what they need to do in order to “please the government agency” and fulfill all “requirements” regardless of how bizarre they are; (and they are always one-sided in favor of the government) so the interpreter and translator, like a good soldier, or serf, accepts all conditions, including rock bottom fees, horrendous cancellation and travel policies, and non-sense procedural paperwork requirements, in exchange of the opportunity to be exploited by these agencies.

Some colleagues think that it is great to have these people in the same division with the interpreters and translators, as if we were a job agency, instead of doing what professional associations do: provide a platform for interpreters and translators to debate an issue among themselves BEFORE sitting across the table from the government agency, who is the counterpart of the interpreter and translator, as they have opposing interests. It is the equivalent of having the pharmaceutical companies and health insurance organizations as members of the American Medical Association.

It is true that not all government agencies exploit and humiliate the interpreter; some, regretfully very few and far in between, offer good working conditions and a decent fee at the high end of the spectrum for a government (in the understanding that they will never be able to pay at the same level as the private sector), but even these “good guys” should not be allowed to create their own forums where to influence interpreters and translators from inside the organization; there is a clear conflict of interests, unless the goal is to please the government, language agencies, etc. instead of looking after the interests of the profession and its professionals: the individual interpreters and translators.

Many of us are of the opinion that if you want to have communication and exchanges among interpreter and translator members of an association who primarily provide their services to a government entity, you should be able to do it, but never creating or facilitating a situation where the government agency, through its agents and representatives (even when these individuals are interpreters or translators) has an opportunity to participate, opine, and vote along with individual members. Their role is important, but it comes later in the process, once the members of the association have debated, analyzed and discussed the government agency’s policies, and are ready to negotiate, together or individually.

There is no reason why the government agents need to be present when a member is informing his peers of something that happened to him, or when strategy is being discussed. I invite you to share your comments on this topic, and when participating, please keep in mind that these entities have opposing interests to yours and mine. They answer to a superior within their organizational chart and they are legally and contractually obligated to defend their official position.

Historical time for the interpreter voice to be heard.

September 24, 2015 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Now for several months, every time I talk to one of you, or I read something about the profession, there seems to be a common trend, a constant presence: Interpreting as a profession is been targeted by many different special interest groups.

There are those who seek a huge profit by applying technology and keeping the economic advantage of doing so without sharing with the interpreter, and in fact, reducing the fee they pay either by lowering the amount, or developing a series of strategies designed to leave the interpreter out in the cold.

Then you have those who want to make a living or “comply” with a legal requirement by lowering the standards of the profession, and setting rock-bottom requirements to work, or even creating a brand new branch of interpreting that they found inside the hat where they keep the rabbit. Stingy and ignorant local government agencies and some unscrupulous language training entities fit this description.

We even have the troubling developments that we are currently witnessing with the United States immigration courts, and the tragedy of a few years ago with the United Kingdom judicial interpreters; both of them leaving many of our colleagues in a horrible financial situation and “inspiring” other governments to emulate their questionable, and frankly despicable way of doing business.

Add to all of the above the ever shrinking fees at the courthouses and hospitals, the ever-deteriorating system of the federal court panel attorney payments for interpreting services in the United States, and the fewer conferences in many cities around the world.

At the time when the world population and media is more aware of the need of the interpreter than ever before, this tragic report could be depressing and discouraging; however, it can also be a unique time in history for the interpreting profession. You see, my friends and colleagues, I see what is happening all around us as a tremendous opportunity, which does not come along very often, to change our careers forever. I believe that the time has come for all of us to stand up and fight for the full professionalization and recognition of the extremely difficult and vital work we perform around the clock and around the world.

I firmly believe, and those of you who follow me on social media have noticed, that this is our time to seize the current situation and turn it into an opportunity to impact the interpreting profession for good. I honestly think that if we unite with our fellow translator friends and colleagues, who are going through a similar situation with lower fees, poor quality machine translations, and knowledge-lacking clients and agencies who want to treat them (and pay them) as proof readers and not as professional translators.  I believe that we have so many common interests and a shared desire to have our two professions respected and recognized once and for all.

These are the reasons why, despite my truly busy schedule and comfortable economic and professional situation, I decided to run for the board of directors of the American Translators Association (ATA)

As a total outsider who has decades of experience as an interpreter that has been successful at creating a name, providing a top quality service , and generating a pretty good income, I am convinced that I can offer you all, a voice within the board of the most important and influential interpreter and translator organization in the world. I will bring a different perspective: that of a true full-time experienced professional who has no strings attached to anyone or anything in the organization because of past dealings or compromises that past leaders sometime have.

I bring to the position my determination to tackle the important issues that put our professionalization at risk, such as deplorable negotiating positions before powerful entities who take advantage of their size and economic power; I want to be on the board to make sure that the certification standards proposed and applied by some entities who care about profit and not the quality of the service, do not continue; and if they do, that ATA will not recognize them as equivalent to a real certification or licensing program with the required professional standards.

I am convinced that if I am part of the board, the interpreter community will have a louder voice that reflects our size within the organization, not to argue or create roadblocks, but to enrich the debate with our perspective. Because of my constant travels all over the world, I know the problems faced by interpreters and translators at this time, and I also realize that many of them have the same source and therefore need a common solution.  My years of experience have given me the opportunity to meet so many of the ATA members of the board. There are many who I admire and respect. I have no doubt that we will get along and fight together for the organization, the individual interpreters and translators, but more importantly: for the professions.

Being an outsider to the leadership, but being also a member who is closely acquainted with the functions of a professional association, and participates in dozens of conferences and associations’ general meetings throughout the world, I think I can help the membership grow by simply presenting to the board the concerns and complaints I constantly hear everywhere, starting with: Why should I join ATA? What benefits will I get?

Dear friends and colleagues, for years ATA voting privileges were confined to the certified translators and a few interpreters. Presently, as a result of the associations’ recognition of its interpreter membership, you can become a voting member by a very quick and easy process that will take you less than five minutes. All you need to do is visit:  http://www.atanet.org/membership/memb_review_online.php

Please do it now as the eligibility to vote on this coming election will only include those who completed the process before the end of the month.

Once you are eligible to vote you have to choices: vote live during the ATA annual conference in Miami, or vote ahead of time. I suggest that you vote ahead of time regardless of your plans to attend the conference. This is too important to leave it to your good fortune and you never know what can happen.

Finally, I believe that we can accomplish many things together.  That we can contribute to the advancement of our profession and that of ATA by following these three simple steps: (1) Follow the link above and become eligible to vote. (2) Vote as soon as you can. Do not wait until the conference, and (3) Think carefully about who you are voting for. Thank you very much.

A very simple action by interpreters that can go a long way.

May 22, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear colleges:

A few days ago I was talking to some interpreters about the changes to the profession brought by the new global economy and technological developments. As we discussed the challenges that we now face as interpreters, it became clear that we need to stay at the edge of all technological developments and we must act and react together as a profession.  As we discussed some of our options, we came to a collective realization that we probably are not taking full advantage of the benefits of our professional organizations, especially, the largest and best known of them all: The American Translators Association (ATA)

In the last years, ATA has reached out to interpreters in several ways. As a result, we now have as many interpreters in the organization as we have translators. Unfortunately, a big difference between the two groups of members is that most interpreters are not qualified to vote, not because an impediment on the organization’s bylaws, but because most interpreters do not know how easy it is to switch your membership status to voting member.

There is a misconception that only certified translators can vote in ATA. That is false. Many interpreters qualify to upgrade their status to voting member; it can be done online, it takes about one minute, and it is for free.

Interpreters who have a federal court certification, a U.S. state court certification, those who have passed an interpreting exam with the U.S. Department of State (conference and seminar level) conference interpreters who are members of AIIC, those who have a college degree in interpreting, and some others who meet certain requirements of professional experience, can now go to ATA’s website and upgrade their membership status.  This is the link: http://www.atanet.org/membership/memb_review_online.php

Professional organizations have never been more important, relevant, and necessary. I encourage you to join them if you are not a member, and if you are an ATA member, or if you are one of those colleagues who is considering an ATA membership, I invite you to join. Those of you who are already members, please click on the link above and change your status to voting member. Remember, that is how the United States was born. If you are already a member, make sure your voice is heard and your opinion is counted.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us your experience as you change your status on line to voting member.

As interpreters we must remain at the table of our largest professional association.

October 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

Next week we will meet in San Diego during the American Translators Association annual conference. We will attend interesting presentations, establish new contacts, greet old friends, buy books, and we will have a lot of fun.  However, we will also gather to do something else that is particularly important for all interpreters: we will vote for three directors to the ATA Board. These new officials will represent our interests before the Board for the next three years.

As a professional association, ATA has thirteen officials that make policy and decide issues that affect us all as an organization. We have a President, a President-elect, a Secretary, a Treasurer, and 9 directors.  Being a board member is a hard job, it requires a lot of time and effort and the reward is usually the satisfaction of a job well-done.  We are very fortunate to have very capable and dedicated people at the top of ATA.

The number of translators and interpreters in the organization’s membership are pretty similar, but only two of these thirteen officials are interpreters.   They all do a magnificent job, but it is these interpreters that really voice our perspective in the boardroom. We are two professions united by the word, written and spoken.  I am writing this piece because those two spaces where we as interpreters are represented in the boardroom are up for reelection.  In other words, if we lose one of those two seats we will end up with nothing as it used to be in the past.  In the pursuit of a more balanced organization we should strive to bring our representation up. To do that we cannot afford to lose these two seats. We just can’t.

Cristina D. Helmerichs is a veteran of our profession. She has a professional and administrative resume better than most. She has been an honest and measured voice for all ATA interpreters during the last three years. She was instrumental in the change of the organization’s tag that for the first time included us, the interpreters, as part of the association’s identity.  She presently chairs the Interpretation Policy Advisory Committee, and a couple of years ago she played a significant role on an effort to understand and include many more of our colleagues who were frankly on the verge of leaving ATA and other professional organizations because they felt excluded and ignored. Cristina was Chair of the NAJIT Board of Directors from 1996 to 2004. During her tenure NAJIT saw unprecedented growth in membership; she is also a founder of the Texas Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (TAJIT) and an active member of the Austin Area Translators and Interpreters Association.

Cristina complements these impressive administrative credentials with her professional trajectory as an interpreter. She has worked in the federal court system nationwide, she has been a pillar to the court interpreter scene in the state of Texas for many years, and she has been a conference interpreter all over the country.  Cristina is a regular interpreter trainer, a workshop instructor, and a rater of the federal court interpreter examination.  I know all these things because I have been a member of these organizations when Cristina has been in charge; I have worked with her all over the country interpreting, teaching, and rating federal exams. I have traveled half way across the world with Cristina. I have pet her dogs at her home, and I have been her classmate when we studied diplomatic conference interpretation in Argentina together.  Cristina has been a great friend and she is a spectacular human being. Anybody in Austin will agree with this statement.  I invite you to vote for her next week because we need her at the table.

I also encourage you to reelect Odile J. Legeay, the other interpreter on the board.  Odile is another great professional and very capable board member. During the last three years she has been instrumental in the development of tools that have come to aide all freelancers, such as the standard agreement she developed. Odile is also a great human being. I know all these things because just as in Cristina’s case, I have seen it first-hand. I have worked with her, attended conferences and activities with her, and I have been to her home in Houston where I have seen how well-liked and loved by her peers she is. Together with Cristina, Odile is a voice that we as interpreters must keep at the top of ATA’s decision-making structure. We need their representation. In fact we cannot afford to do without either one of them.

It is also relevant to mention that Cristina and Odile are two of only three Spanish linguists on the board. This is also important when we think that ATA is the most important professional association in the United States, and the U.S. is the number two country with the most Spanish speakers in the world just behind Mexico.  Voting to reelect Cristina and Odile will continue to allow all ATA interpreters to have a voice on a Board of Directors where an overwhelming majority of the members are translators, and it will also help ATA to be more representative of its community (The United States of America) and its membership (Spanish interpreters and translators) by keeping two of the Spanish linguists as part of the Board. The other Spanish linguist, a translator, is not up for reelection this time.

Finally, because this election day we can vote for three directors, I would like to invite you to also vote for Corinne McKay. She is not an interpreter, she is a French<>English translator (and a very good one) who has been instrumental to our joint profession. I know Corinne as a person and she is a great human being, she is responsible and committed. I had a chance to observe her up-close when she was President of the Colorado Translators Association (CTA). At the time I was living in Colorado and I was Chair of the Colorado Association of Professional Interpreters (CAPI). I have seen Corinne present at professional conferences, I saw the key role she played during the ATA annual conference in Denver two years ago, and I know that although not an interpreter, she has tried to bridge that gap in Colorado organizing events to bring the professions closer. I know this because a few years back she invited me to do a presentation on conference interpretation before CTA.

Dear friends and colleagues. I appreciate all of our colleagues that are running, I am sure they are all honorable and capable professionals and human beings, but this time I invite you to keep our voice at the table by reelecting Cristina Helmerichs and Odile Legeay, and I invite you to cast your third vote for a great translator who has proven to be capable as an administrator and will no doubt be a friend to the interpreter community. Please cast these three votes.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with vote at The Professional Interpreter.