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.

How can I get work as conference interpreter?

January 13, 2017 § 15 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The title of this blog entry is a question that I am asked everywhere all the time.  As I travel, I come across many great colleagues, some who just graduated and are now starting their professional careers, some veteran interpreters with a long experience in other fields such as court, healthcare, or military interpreting, and others who, for other reasons, have decided to try their luck as conference interpreters.

The story I hear is basically the same all the time: “I really want to be a conference interpreter, but there is no work”, or “who should I talk to if I want to work as a conference interpreter?”

These questions are valid, and they do need an answer, but before we get to that, I would like to emphasize something else: conference interpreting is difficult and very demanding. Because of its diversity of subject matters, the importance of the events to be interpreted, and the quality-demanding audience that listens to your rendition, it is like no other field. Although interpreting in other areas can be extremely hard, and sometimes it could be high-profile, no other interpreting work requires it every time.

I want to make sure that you understand that I am not saying other fields are easier; in fact sometimes they are more difficult as they demand an accurate professional rendition under adverse circumstances such as noisy courtrooms, military bases, and hospitals; and in the case of court interpreting, they require of a complete rendition with the interpreter having very little time to do it (as it happens with the short consecutive mode that is used in court for the testimony of a witness). I am just making the point that conference interpreting often requires that the interpreter work with a speech produced by a very sophisticated speaker, and (unlike other interpretations where sometimes the target’s native language skills are somewhat limited) it is always rendered to a very knowledgeable audience that, although monolingual, can easily recognize if the registry, terminology, grammar, general vocabulary, and skills of the interpreter are up to the level of the event to be interpreted.

For these reasons, it is quite important to be honest about our skills’ level at present time, and based on that answer, decide if we can move on to answer the question on the title above, or if we should work on our craft first, and postpone the question for later.

There is no single answer that tells us how to get work as conference interpreters. It is very different to work as staff or independent contractor for an international organization such as the OAS, UN, or the European Parliament, where you have to go through certain established protocols and systems, including testing and sometimes background investigations. The criteria to be satisfied and the approval process is also different for those interpreters who want to do conferences for government entities as staffers or independents. For these jobs, testing and security clearances are usually required, always following a process determined by the appropriate country government or particular agency. There is plenty of information on how to try to get these assignments, so we will not cover them further in this post. We will concentrate on how to get conference work as an independent contractor in the private sector.

Conference work in the private sector may include interpreting for corporations, colleges, professional associations, or political and special interest groups.  The events where interpreting is required can go from enormous conferences, business negotiations, professional lectures, and college courses, to political rallies, press briefings, or commencement speeches.  The only thing conference work never includes is the so-called “conference work” that in reality is community interpreting.

I am referring to the assignments to interpret a neighborhood association’s meeting, the planning of an action by a community organization, a recruitment effort by a religious organization, and similar jobs. They do not qualify as conference interpreting because they are done under precarious circumstances such as lack of interpreting equipment, even a booth or at least a table-top. In this so-called “conference interpreting” assignments the interpreter is expected to do the job in sub-standard working conditions and without any quality control.  It is not unusual to find an interpreter working solo on these projects, and there is a practice of mixing professional interpreters with para-professionals in an attempt to mask the lack of quality in the rendition. Organizers of these events believe that they can attract struggling professional interpreters hungry for conference work, and pay them a miserable fee, if they advertise the job as “conference interpreting”, even though it is not.

The first thing qualified professional interpreters need to do if they want conference work is to physically be where the action is. Unlike healthcare, community, and court interpreting, conference interpreting does not happen in every city and town. These are large expensive events, require of planning and take place for a purpose: dissemination of knowledge, motivation of a sales force, rallying behind a specific idea, candidate or organization, presentation of a newly discovered scientific finding, and so on.

Obviously, these events need to be held in cities with infrastructure, airports, train stations, hotels, convention centers, universities, and many times, other unrelated attractions such as beaches, amusement parks, or historical sites.  Conference interpreters need to be in these places; ready, willing and able to jump into an assignment at a moment’s notice. Event organizers, interpreting agencies, and direct clients will always go for the local talent first. It is more flexible and cost-effective. How can an agency call you at the last moment, or how can a colleague ask you to cover for her in case of an emergency, unless you live in the city where the conference is taking place?

Even in the age of remote conference interpreting, clients will go for the local interpreter first because that is the person they know.  It is possible to remotely interpret a conference from a small town anywhere in the world, but it is next to impossible for the agency or event organizer to find these interpreters in a place far away. Interpreters need to be where the assignments are, at least to be seen and acknowledged as part of the very competitive conference interpreter community.

My many years of experience doing this work have taught me that the international organization and government agency work in the United States is in Washington, D.C. and New York City.  I also learned, and statistics back it up, that the private sector conference work in America is in Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, New Orleans, Honolulu, and Miami.  My experience elsewhere, with my language combination, tells me that the action takes place in Cancun, Panama City, Buenos Aires, London, Dubai, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur.  Yes, there are secondary markets, many of them in the Western United States, but they do not have many year-round, simultaneous, world class events. It is not the same to host an annual big event in a city, or to have five to ten big events at the same time in the same city, several at the same venue, as it happens in Chicago’s McCormick Place.  I lived in a mid-size city in the Midwestern United States for a few years, and I did not get any conference work to speak of. Professionally speaking, those were wasted years that I will never get back.  To summarize: regular conference interpreting work requires relocation to one of these cities.

The next important thing to get work is to be able and willing to travel at any time, and with no advanced notice. I have gone from watching TV at home to an airplane bound for Europe with an hour’s notice. In fact, as I write this entry, I am getting ready for a trip abroad to cover an assignment I just got yesterday afternoon. Traveling for conference work means several things: (1) You need to be free to travel all the time without any personal, health, or family obstacles or complications; (2) You must be able to travel anywhere. This means that you have to be eligible to get visas to most countries in the world, and you always need to have a valid passport. (3) You need to be a good businessperson with resources to invest in your career.  This means that you must have the financial resources to buy a plane ticket and hotel room, many times at the most expensive rate because of the late purchase, knowing that it will take weeks, and sometimes months, to be reimbursed by the client. If nothing else, you need to have a healthy international credit card. Personally, just in case I have no time to do it at the last minute, I keep at home enough money in the most popular foreign currencies (euro, pound, Canadian dollar, yen, Mexican peso, etc.) so I can leave right away.  As you can see, conference interpreting is a career that demands a lot, and it is not for everybody.

Finally, to be able to get work, an interpreter who meets all the characteristics above, needs to get in touch with the most reputable agencies, event organizers, big corporations, and offer his services. These interpreters will not get any work, but they cannot give up. They need to insist every few months and systematically contact these major players until one day they get the call. It will probably be because a regular conference interpreter got sick, died, had a conflict or an emergency, and nobody else from the trusted regular roster was available. It is then that the agency will get a hold of the most enthusiastic new interpreter who never let them forget him, despite the fact that he did not get any work for a couple of years.

Then, it is totally up to you: the new interpreter, to be ready, prepared and willing to give the performance of your life. You will only have one chance to show your skills in the booth. This is the day when you must leave a good impression on the agency, event organizer, technicians, and more importantly, the other interpreters you will work with. These colleagues will give feedback to the client, and their opinion carries a lot of weight. They will also become your source of referrals if you are good. Be an excellent booth mate and shine.

One last thing: Please do not charge rock bottom fees for your services. It does not matter how excited you are with your first conference job.  The excitement will be gone in a month and you will have to live with your fees for a long time. A new interpreter who enters the market charging lower fees will soon become the pariah of the profession. Nobody will want to work with you. You must understand that charging less not only hurts you, it hurts your colleagues, and it diminishes the profession.

I hope this long answer helps some of you interested in this fabulous career of conference interpreter. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this topic.

When the interpreter needs to see the speaker in person.

April 19, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Earlier this year I interpreted an event on victims’ rights and vulnerable populations, and part of the assignment took place in the town of Truckee, California, right at the state line with Nevada, in the area of Lake Tahoe.  Among many topics, the conference touched upon the temporary restraining order, and no-contact hearings held at the request of alleged victims by both, the California and Nevada state court systems. The presenters who dealt with this issue were an attorney and a social worker. They both discussed the many obstacles faced by the victims of these crimes, who are often re-victimized by the court proceedings, and the added difficulties when the alleged victim does not speak English. They explained that in these cases, they have to resort to a telephonic interpreting service that is far from ideal, as there are many things that cannot be interpreted or conveyed over the phone in domestic violence, or any type of violence hearings.  The social worker commented that the problems are the same when the alleged victims are taken to a medical facility for care or examination.

All of us have read and talked so much about telephonic and video remote interpreting during the last few years, that I did not think that another blog entry on this issue could be of any interest, but the description of the problems faced by these alleged victims, and a recent personal experience with video remote interpreting where the computer showed image, but the telephone lines did not work, and after almost an hour of fruitless efforts by the technicians, we had to do the remote meeting between Texas and Washington, D.C. using regular Skype, with all of its shortfalls and limitations, is what made me realize that there may be certain events that are not big, that may not be high profile, and that may only impact a handful of people, which necessarily require of in-person interpreting.

Those of you who have been following this blog for years know that I am all for technology and video remote interpreting (VRI), as long as it benefits those providing the service, there is not an intermediary taking advantage of the interpreters, and the quality of the event does not suffer.  My opinion about these technologies has not changed, but I have come to the conclusion that a blanket endorsement of VRI interpreting is as bad and damaging as total opposition to it.   After the California event I mentioned above, I contacted the speakers to hear more about the obstacles they have faced when doing telephone interpreting for these court hearings and medical appointments.

They explained that it is very difficult to convey the gravity of a violent act, or the seriousness of an injury, when the alleged victim points to a part of the body, or describes a symptom, and the interpreter is not there to see the action, to witness the physical motions, or to understand the body language and cultural nuances.  In other words, it is very hard to interpret: “your honor, it hurts here” when the interpreter has no idea of where “here” is.  Remote interpreting in these cases could easily result in the denial of a temporary restraining order (TRO) and the alleged victim could remain unprotected by the law, while the alleged perpetrator may become emboldened by the lack of action by the courts. It could also adversely affect the medical care that an alleged victim needs, simply because the interpreter could not see what was going on at the doctor’s office or the emergency room.

To me, it is clear that the nature of the interpreting assignment, and the ultimate goals of the event interpreted: to protect the life and physical integrity of another human being, or to assess a medical condition and provide the appropriate care and treatment, clearly justifies the expense of physically having the interpreter in the same room as the non-English speaker.  There are cases when a telephonic or VRI interpreter is better than nothing. Nobody is saying that these resources have no application in reality.   Of course, emergency rooms in rural areas, and 9-11 emergency operators are better off with the assistance of a telephonic or video remote interpreter, but the cases we are discussing today do not fall under this category. There is no moral excuse, and I would even say that in my opinion legal justification, for not providing in-person interpreting for these hearings or medical appointments.   Of course it will be more expensive than using a telephone line, but the goal justifies it.  This is an area where governments cannot be saving money.  There are no places in the United States that are so inaccessible that an interpreter cannot get there once he or she has been properly scheduled (and remunerated).  In the case I am referring to, the town in question is less than an hour away from Reno, Nevada. I know there are court and healthcare interpreters in Reno who would be willing to travel to these towns to provide their services in person. The only reason they do not go at this time is that nobody wants to pay them what they deserve as professionals. If the fee was appropriate, interpreters would be going to this town from places as far away as Las Vegas or Sacramento. The same can be said about every town in the country.

VRI and telephone interpreting should never be used in situations where the physical element is crucial for a proper rendition, even when the money savings make it so attractive that those responsible for the event look the other way in order to save money.  I have heard from several colleagues that in the state-level court system of one of the states, video and telephonic interpreting is currently used even when there is not appropriate equipment. Allegedly, even hand-held cellular phones have been used to interpret hearings.  Interpreters also complain that in the same state, complex hearings such as change of plea hearings, those court proceedings where an individual admits guilt in a criminal case that can potentially carry many years in prison, have been held telephonically; and apparently, said state does not have a policy or protocol to educate judges and other court officers as to what hearings should be off limits for telephone or VRI interpreting.  Obviously, a first appearance before court, or a status hearing where no testimony will be heard, and no change of plea will be allowed, are fine for telephonic and VRI interpreting services when the equipment is appropriate and the staff has been properly trained.

Interpreters do exist for many reasons, and sometimes, those reasons are so important that the only acceptable interpreting service is that rendered in person.  We need to make sure that it is now that correct policy is adopted and safeguards are in place. This is the right time as we are still at the beginning of this technological wave that will eventually influence everything we do as professional interpreters. If we do not act at this time, it will be more difficult in the future once systems are in place and money has been spent to do something that should have never been considered as feasible. I ask you to please share your thoughts and comments about this very important topic.

Are we protecting our profession? Part 2.

April 5, 2016 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

On the first part of this entry we discussed the role that professional associations should play on the face of antitrust legislation and its adverse effect on our profession.  Today we will explore another crucial aspect of the profession that has been under siege for several years; and if some external forces have their way, it could set the profession back to the Stone Age.  I am referring to the very popular tendency to minimize the importance of interpreter and translator professional licenses, certifications or patents and the acceptance, and in some cases even blessing, of lesser quality paraprofessionals as the preferred providers of services by many government entities and multinational interpreting and translation corporations who make the decision to hire these individuals, who are unfit to practice the profession, based to the extremely low fee that they command.

It took interpreters and translators many decades of constant struggle to get to the point that their accreditations became widely known and accepted as the standard of quality among those providing the service.  Finally, holding an American Translators Association certification, or proof of many years of experience,  gave the real professional translator the needed tool to argue that she should get the job over the individual whose only credentials were the translation of his parents’ birth certificates and a couple of elementary school reports.  The days when a real professional interpreter would lose an assignment to a person whose only linguistic experience was that he had lived in two different countries during his life, became less common when true professionals started to demand top assignments with their interpreter degrees, or their court, or healthcare certifications in hand.  There was a lot to be done, but interpreters and translators were on their way to educate more prospective clients and government officials every day.  People began to notice the difference on the quality of the service rendered by a real certified interpreter or translator.

But, since nothing can come to the interpreting and translation world without drama and tragedy, technological developments such as CAT tools and telephone/VR interpreting came to be. This should have been a welcome development that benefited interpreters and translators; however, this new technology, combined with a global economy where big corporations seek profit by bastardizing a real profession and turning it into an assembly line, and changing its name from profession to “industry”, injected a new player to our eternal drama:  the opportunist, also known as the “new talent scout” whose sole function was to undermine established professions, like ours, and replace quality professionals with cheap novice paraprofessionals who see this individuals as their ticket out of the flipping burgers world.

Compounding the problem in the United States, there was a new administration in the White House, whose attorney general was determined to compel the state-level agencies who were recipients of federal funds, to provide access to their services for everybody, regardless of the language they spoke. This in itself sounds very good and fair, and in fact it was not just the right thing to do by the administration, it was long due as this mandate had been part of the law since the mid-sixties when Title VI of the Civil Rights Act was enacted.  In fact, to an interpreter or translator who did not know the reality of the American system this would look like a pot of gold. All of a sudden millions of people who needed interpreting and translation services were going to get them! Unfortunately, reality and a short-sighted government opted for the easy way out, a path that was doomed from the beginning. Let me explain: This instantaneous demand for many more interpreters and translators exceeded by far the supply of professionals in the United States, and to meet the mandate, the states decided to enable just about any almost-bilingual individual, to provide translation and interpreting services, instead of promoting more college programs and encouraging American citizens and permanent residents to prepare themselves, and become true professional interpreter and translators, who would have access to professionally remunerated work due to the implementation of this legislation.

When the opportunists, also known as the “new talent scouts” realized what was going on, they immediately saw the possibility for huge profits by providing the required services with tons of these paraprofessionals, who they immediately hired at rock bottom fees.  Moreover, they saw the possibility of making their margins even bigger by using machine translation and retaining humans as proofreaders, and by providing interpreting services by telephone, and lately by video remote interpreting or VRI in some cases, while hiring these new “type” of “interpreters” by the minute (or if they are lucky by the hour).

Government officials liked the solution, but they still had one more obstacle that was keeping them from going all the way with these multinational corporations operated by the opportunists, also known as the “new talent scouts”, who by now were active in social media, writing their own blogs, and organizing their own conferences to build themselves up like interpreting and translation “self-proclaimed gurus”. That obstacle was the certification.

The certification, that extremely difficult and elusive project that took real interpreters and translators several generations to create, and then make known and widely respected, was by now a requirement in the law.  It was obvious that the new paraprofessionals would never pass a certification exam, so the government officials and their “associates” had to think fast, and cheap.

The solution they came up with was the creation of a “second class” tier of people who they call “language facilitators”, “justice-system interpreters”, and many other labels, avoiding this way the uncomfortable, and perhaps illegal alternative of referring to them as translators or interpreters, who, in lieu of a real certification, would be “accredited”, “registered” and many similar names.  Now they argue that these individuals can provide the professional service as long as the content is not too difficult or the event is not very important!

Finally, to end the vicious circle, some of our opportunistic “friends”, also known as the “new talent scouts”, realized that with government officials willing to do whatever possible to go around the true mandate of Title VI, which would require them to use certified, experienced, professionally trained interpreters and translators, they could get another piece of the pie by pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and creating a mutant creature they would call: “community interpreter certification”.

The principle is very simple: What do you do when you have a group of people who cannot pass the interpreter certification exam? You develop another program with an exam easy enough for anybody to pass, and you propose it to the authorities as a legitimate certification for court cases before administrative judges, for client-attorney interviews, and for simple medical events. Do you see the pattern? Once again we have the not-so serious event and the not-so difficult content rationale to justify the use of mediocre individuals, who have only one advantage over the real professional, experienced, certified interpreters and translators: They will work for peanuts; because whatever they get paid will be better than the money they were making before they got “discovered” by the talent agent.  Never mind the fact that administrative law hearings are as complex as Article Three court hearings as I have indicated on a previous entry to this blog a few months ago.

The situation turned for the worse when the implementation of Title VI at the state-level civil courts in the United States was narrowly interpreted by many of their administrative offices, as meaning that only interpreters supplied through the judiciary could provide services in civil matters. This actually killed the main source of income to many entrepreneurial interpreters who had opted out of the bureaucratic, low-paying criminal court assignments, and had developed their own client-base, charging for their services according to supply and demand. Oftentimes, because of the complexity of civil litigation, and because of their type of clients, these interpreters fared much better than their counterparts who stayed on the criminal court bandwagon.  Title VI guarantees equal access to all government funded services, including the administration of justice, but it does not make it illegal for litigants who want to, and can afford it, to hire private interpreters.  In my opinion, this is a classic example of a situation where professional associations needed to protect their individual members, and the profession, by advocating for the availability of private interpreters to be retained for civil litigation.  Unfortunately, instead of taking action, our biggest professional association in the United States not just sat on the sidelines, but welcomed the new “civil court-provided interpreter system”, and remained silent when some states decided to meet the requirements of Title VI by hiring big “interpreting services” agencies (who view our profession as an industry) to program the interpreters for civil cases.

To summarize the situation, we now have an environment fostered by the government authorities, and exploited by the multinational interpreting and translation corporations, plus some small “local talent” that was able to learn fast how to do this thing, where certifications and education do not matter anymore, where assignments are going to questionable paraprofessionals, many of whom have never been able to pass a certification exam, who are working under terrible conditions, in exchange for a miserable fee.  The first logical reaction of any interpreter or translator should be one of outrage, disgust, frustration. The second reaction should be to talk to its professional association and ask it to represent its members and protect them from these nefarious tendencies, thus saving the integrity of the profession.

Attorney and medical associations are vigilant and protective of their members and profession. They do not allow, under any circumstance that paraprofessionals practice law or medicine. In fact, attorney associations set the standards of practice in their profession. No agency or its equivalent is allowed to set the tone.  They have lobbied for, and achieved legal protection: In the United States it is a crime to practice law without a license, and this applies to all court proceedings, including administrative courts.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with some of the bigger translator and interpreter associations.  They keep silent when the government creates these groups of paraprofessionals to “meet” the requirements of Title VI. They invite those who are turning translators into proof readers to their conferences to recruit more of the young talent before they learn to separate good from evil; Instead of protesting, criticizing and denouncing the birth of that Frankenstein’s monster called “community interpreting certification”, they celebrate the lowering of the bar and open wide their organizations’ doors for these paraprofessionals.

Moreover, they welcome as their members many of these multinational corporations, “self-proclaimed” gurus, and opportunists, also known as the “new talent scouts”. Maybe they do so because they do not know of all these terrible things that are happening to the profession. Maybe they let them in because they share their view of interpreting and translation not as the professions they always were, but as industries where the proofreader (formerly known as translator) and the part-time telephone operator (formerly known as interpreter) will happily hold hands at the assembly line and praise the virtues of the big “language” corporations. The question is, what are professional associations for? I now invite you to share your comments about this reality we are living pretty much around the world, and to offer your solutions to the role that a professional association should play in the world of interpreting and translating.

Improving our knowledge, enhancing our skills in the New Year.

January 18, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Many professional responsibilities and obligations come with a new year.  As interpreters and translators we must strive to deliver a better service than the year before, and the best way to achieve it is through practice and study.  We need to improve our personal libraries, increase our professional resources, and find a way to learn something new and brush up on our ethics, while getting the continuing education credits needed to keep our certifications, patents or licenses.

This is the time of the year when we plan some of the major events that will happen during the year; the time to block some dates on our professional appointment books to be able to attend professional conferences. Those of you who have read the blog for a long time know that every year I share with you those professional conferences that I consider “a must” due to their content, the reputation of the organizations behind them, and the networking benefits derived from attending the event. This year is no exception.

As always, I start my conference “grocery list” by writing down the characteristics that I consider essential for my professional development. This way I make sure that I will not end up at a conference that will take my money and give me little, or nothing, in exchange.

The right conference needs to offer useful and practical presentations geared to different segments of professional interpreters and translators according to their years of practice.  There is nothing more confusing to a new interpreter or translator than finding themselves in the middle of a big conference where nothing in the program appeals to them.  There have to be workshops and presentations that speak to the new blood, and help them become good and sound interpreters and translators who will enjoy their professional lives.  By the same token, we must have workshops that appeal to the experienced professional. There are hundreds of colleagues who stay away from professional conferences because all they see in the program is very basic.  They want advanced skills workshops, advanced level presentations, interesting innovative topics on interpreting, translating and languages, instead of the same old seminars that focus on the newcomers and completely ignore the already-established interpreter and translator.  Finally, a good conference has to offer presentations and workshops on technology, the business of interpreting and translation from the perspective of the professional individual, instead of the corporate view that so often permeates the conferences in the United States and so many other countries, and it must include panels and forums on how we should proactively take action, and reactively defend, from the constant attacks by some of the other players in our field: agencies, government entities, direct clients, misguided interpreters and translators, and so on.

To me, it is not a good option to attend a conference, which will cost me money, to hear the same basic stuff directed to the new interpreters and translators. We need conferences that offer advanced-level content for interpreters and translators, forums and presentations that deal with sophisticated ethical and legal situations that we face in our professions.  At the same time, the new colleagues need to be exposed to these topics on a beginner-level format, and they need to learn of the difficult ethical and legal situations they will eventually face as part of their professional practice.

I do not think that a good conference should include presentations by multilingual agencies or government speakers who, under the color of “good practices to get more business”, use these professional forums, with the organizing professional association’s blessing (because money talks), to indoctrinate new colleagues, and also veterans of feeble mind, on the right way to become a “yes man” or “yes woman” and do everything needed to please the agency or government entity in order to keep the contract or the assignment, even when this means precarious working conditions, rock-bottom fees, and humiliating practices that step by step chip away the pride and professional will of the “linguist” (as they often call them) and turn him into little more than a serf with no will of his own.  I want to make clear that I am all for hosting representatives of government offices and honest agencies who share information as to their policy and operations, but no promotion or indoctrination. There are honest businesses and government officers who are willing to follow this more suitable approach. We are all professionals, and we know that there are plenty of conferences organized by these entities, and we can attend them if we want to get that type of “insight” without having to waste presentation time during our own events listening to these detrimental forces.

I do not see the value of attending interpreter and translator associations’ conferences sponsored by those entities who are trying to convince us that we are an “industry” instead of a profession; because an industry has laborers, not professionals, and the latter demand a higher pay.  There is no need to spend your hard-earned money on conferences devoted to convince you that machines should translate and humans proofread, that interpreting services must be delivered by video using underpaid interpreters, and that if you dare to speak up against this nonsense, it means that you are opposed to the future of the profession.  I want to attend a conference where we can openly debate these modern tendencies of our professions, where we can plan how we will negotiate as equals with the owners of these technologies, and hold a dialogue with the scientists behind these new technologies, without a discredited multinational agency’s president as moderator of a panel, or a bunch of agency representatives giving us their company’s talking points again and again without answering any hard questions.

I want to be part of a conference where experienced interpreters and translators develop professional bonds and friendships with the newcomers to the professions, without having to compete against the recruiters who, disguised as compassionate veteran colleagues or experts, try to get the new interpreters and translators to drink the Kool-Aid that will make them believe that we are an industry, that modern translators proof-read machine translations, and good interpreters do VRI for a ridiculous low fee because they now “have more time to do other things since they do not need to travel like before”.

I want to go to a conference where I will have a good time and enjoy the company of my peers without having to look over my shoulder because the “industry recruiters” are constantly coming around spreading their nets to catch the new guy and the weak veteran.

Unfortunately, there will be no IAPTI international conference this year.  Because this organization delivers all of the points on my wish list, I always have to recommend it at the top of my “must-attend” conferences.  IAPTI cares so much for its members that after listening to them, it decided to move their annual conference from the fall to a different time of the year. Logistically, it was impossible to hold an international conference just a few months after the very successful event in Bordeaux this past September. The good news is that not everything is lost. Even though the international conference will have to wait until 2017, there will be several “IAPTINGS” all over the world throughout the year.  This are smaller, shorter regional high quality events that give us the opportunity to put in practice everything mentioned above.  Stay alert and look for these events; there might be one near you during 2016.

For my Spanish speaker colleagues, I truly recommend the VI Translation and Interpretation Latin American Congress (VI Congreso Latinoamericano de Traducción e Interpretación) to be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 21-24, 2016. Because of its impressive list of presenters and speakers, and from the wide variety of topics to be discussed, this congress represents a unique opportunity for all our colleagues to learn and network in a professional environment with magnificent Buenos Aires as the backdrop. I hope to see you there.

For all my judiciary interpreters and legal translators, I recommend the NAJIT 2016 Annual Conference in San Antonio, Texas on May 13-15, 2016. Although this year’s program has not been published yet, NAJIT is the largest judicial interpreter and translator organization in the United States, and perhaps in the world, and it constantly schedules topics of interest to the legal community; this is a great opportunity to network and give this event, and its current Board, a try.  I will personally attend the conference for the reasons I just mentioned, and because I have reason to believe that the organization is moving on the right direction towards the professional individual interpreter and translator and their rights.

During the fall of 2016 I will be attending the 20th. Anniversary of the OMT Translation and Interpretation International Congress San Jerónimo (XX Congreso Internacional de Traducción e Interpretación San Jerónimo 2016) in Guadalajara, Mexico on November 26-27. This is a great event every year. It is held at the same time that the FIL International Book Fair at the Expo Guadalajara, and it brings together top-notch interpreters and translators, as well as celebrities of the world of linguistics and literature from all over.  This year the congress turns 20 and for what I have heard, it promises to be the best ever! Join us in Guadalajara this November and live this unique experience.

Although these are the conferences I suggest, keep your eyes open as there may be some local conferences that you should attend in your part of the world. I will probably end up attending quite a few more during 2016.  I would also invite you to look for smaller events that may be happening near you; events like Lenguando, and other workshops and seminars somewhere in Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Finally, I invite you to share with the rest of us the main reasons that motivate you to attend a conference as well as those things that turn you off.

Video Remote Interpreting: Agencies do not see what I see.

November 9, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Video remote interpreting, or VRI as it is widely known, is one of those topics that are difficult to discuss because some multinational agencies have turned it into an emotionally charged subject.  Those of you who know me personally, and the friends and colleagues who read the blog, know that I have always been a pro-technology individual, that as an interpreter I embrace technological changes and the benefits that come with modernization; and as a person who loves to study history, I recognize that technology has come to the interpreting profession, including VRI, and it is not going anywhere.

In the past, I have written about the benefits of working remotely by video, about how this change is helping us, the interpreters, to work more and better assignments that we could not do before because of the limitations of time and space. I have also told many of you, and I repeat it right here, right now, that even with its deficiencies and set-backs, VRI technology is getting better every day.  I have no doubt in my mind that the day when we don’t worry about VRI technology more than we presently worry about conventional technology in the traditional booth is just around the corner.

To this point everything looks good and promising. It is when you begin to factor in all the other sideshows that generally accompany VRI interpreting that we see the dark side of this issue.

There are some good and honest agencies all over the world; we interpreters know who they are and wish to continue our mutually beneficial collaboration with them; however, during the last two or three years we have been bombarded by these multinational interpreting agencies, and some others not quite as big, who have undertaken the task of proselytizing all the interpreters and all the students of interpretation they can find. It seems that you cannot attend a professional conference anymore without having to sit through a presentation by an executive or an administrator of one of these entities, who almost never is or was an interpreter, and listen to their interpretation of the new reality in our profession. They skillfully present an extremely one-sided view of the changes created by VRI, and launch their efforts to convince the individual interpreter to blindly accept their conclusions and conditions as the only truth.  Dear friends and colleagues, I see things very differently from my perspective as an individual independent interpreter. Let me explain:

The multinationals and the smaller agencies that from now on I will respectfully refer to as their “junior partners” want me to believe that there is this great new technology that is being provided by these huge agencies and their junior partners, that they know how it works and that for this reason they are entitled to be the ones offering this technology to the client (who they often refer to as customer because they see interpreting as an “industry” not a profession). While they are telling me this, I see that they never mention the inventors and researchers, that these individuals are not invited to the conferences and seminars because it is not in the multinationals’ best interest that we, as mere interpreters, meet them and start a direct relationship with the creative talent, thus bypassing the middleman in this equation also known as the agency.

They tell us again and again that VRI changed the old rules and that from now on interpreters better get used to the idea that they will make less money because, by eliminating the need to travel to the site of the event, it will be cheaper to deliver interpreting services. It is just a consequence of modernization. The problem is that what I see are multinational agencies and their junior partners generating all-time high profits because, despite of the savings in travel and other logistics that VRI eliminates and therefore the end-client would not be willing to pay anymore, by reducing the interpreters’ fees because the service is now rendered remotely, they now keep a bigger share of the professional fees paid by the client for interpreter services. I see that an event covered remotely will eliminate travel-related costs, but the professional service of the interpreter is exactly the same. The fact that the interpreter is working from home or from a facility near home instead of from a booth on the other side of the world is irrelevant for the rendition.  There is no logic, there is no reason, and there is no moral justification to demand that a professional interpreter work for less because of his physical location.

They tell us that VRI interpreting for these multinational agencies and their junior partners benefits the interpreter because she will not have to “waste” two days traveling to and from an event. Instead, she will be able to take a second assignment for those “traveling” days; therefore, she will have a higher income.  The problem is that I see a professional independent interpreter, who owns her time, deciding to work one assignment, two, or none. This is a personal decision that has nothing to do with the multinational agency or its junior partner as it does not impact the interpreter’s performance during the assignment with said entity.  There is a good chance that there may not be other assignments available for those days, and in that case, you could argue that the interpreter would actually make less money because she will not be paid the travel fee anymore. I do not include this in my judgment because it is part of the risk of being an independent professional interpreter. It has nothing to do with the multinational entity.

They tell us that healthcare and court interpreters will be better off with VRI because instead of spending hours getting ready to go to work, traveling to the assignment, and waiting for their medical appointment or court hearing to take place, they can stay home and play with their kids, do some gardening or work in their car. It is a win-win situation!  Unfortunately, what I see is an interpreter who goes to the hospital, clinic, courthouse or jail because that is his job, being forced to accept one or two hours of work paid by the minute, instead of a full day of paid work. People go to work because they need to make money. Many would love to stay with their children, plant a tree or fix the attic; unfortunately you don’t get paid for any of those things. That is what vacation is for.

These entities tell us that thanks to VRI many indigenous language interpreters are now working with hospitals and emergency rooms; they brag about this. They are helping these generally ignored and forgotten interpreters. That is not what I observe. When I look at these indigenous colleagues, I see rare and exotic language interpreters providing professional services for a very low fee. We all know that our colleagues in rare and exotic languages command a higher fee than those of us who have a more conventional language combination.

The multinational agencies and their partners tell us that they are the ones who know the market, that as interpreters, we may know how to provide the service, but it is the agency that can get the clients. What I see is that we as interpreters know many people that they do not know. We are in the trenches with those who make an event successful. These are the players that we can go to and keep the interpreter service a reality. They do not know many of them.

These agencies tell us that they are the ones who make sure that interpreters provide their services ethically and professionally. Unfortunately for those who believe this idea, I cannot see how one of their employees, somebody less experienced and with less formal education than the interpreters she “coordinates” by micromanaging and setting demeaning practices used in unskilled labor markets, can do a better job than a professional who will still be around a year from now. Most of these agency employees will not.

The multinational agencies and their junior partners often say that there are many interpreters who are very happy working for them under the existing conditions. What I see is a group of individuals who are scared to death of losing that rock-bottom income that together with their spouse’s wages makes it possible for them to survive. They are too afraid to speak up. Of course, I would not doubt that there may be some who are suffering of the Stockholm syndrome.

They tell us that they are training interpreters, that they are helping them to improve their skills. In reality, what I see is, in my opinion, no more than a bunch of laughable tests and online courses claiming to help you become an interpreter.

These multinational entities constantly say that there are not enough interpreters in the market to meet the current demand. That they are working on training more people to fulfill these need. Unfortunately, all I see is many good interpreters sitting at home without work because they refuse to work under such insulting conditions as the ones often contained in these agencies’ contracts.

Multinational entities and their junior associates tell us that it is them who know the technology; that we do not, that many interpreters are reluctant to learn how to work with VRI technology because they are afraid of the new tools. The truth is that every day more interpreters are getting tired of the middle guy who adds no value to the service and can be replaced at the blink of an eye. Interpreters, inventors and researchers can work together directly.  As far as learning the technology, do not worry. All I can say is that there are many more college degrees on this side of the table. Interpreters will learn.

These are my opinions, it is my perception of what is going on. I truly believe that we as interpreters need to develop a direct relationship with innovators to be in a position where we provide VRI services in a professional dignified way that includes the most essential part of this profession (because it is not an industry): the individual interpreter, embracing those honest agencies who understand their role in this profession and do not try to go beyond, and eliminating all those prone to abuse their position and willing to impose their personal insatiable desires over the professional services they claim to provide.  I now ask you to share your comments on this issue, and to refrain from coming in here to defend the philosophy and practices of the multinational agencies and their junior partners I refer to throughout this entry.  They have plenty of spaces where they can continue to serve the Kool-Aid. We have very limited venues to express our opinion.

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