Janis Palma

by on Friday, May 27, 2016

The NAJIT Renaissance

Yes, I heard someone use that word during the NAJIT conference this past May 14 & 15 in San Antonio, Texas: Renaissance. And it was so fitting! The energy in the air was electrifying. The conference attendants were excited about the conference topics, and very happy to see friends and colleagues from every corner of the nation and then some. The pre-conference workshops on Friday, May 13, just like the conference program, had record-breaking registration numbers. Needless to say, there were also great parties, one hosted by the Texas Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (TAJIT), one by the “federales”—the lively group of federally-certified interpreters who don’t need much of an excuse to get together and have a good time—plus the miscellaneous forays to a local salsa club by just about anyone who still had the energy to go dancing after a full day of conference presentations.

Sessions on vocabulary and terminology, video remote interpreting, memory, interpreting and legal translation techniques, just to name a few, reflected the high level of sophistication our profession has reached. Conference attendees included judiciary, medical, and community interpreters, legal translators, and interpreting/translation students. The atmosphere was always one of congeniality, including the management staff who always kept a smile on their faces no matter how many people gathered in front of the registration table at once to ask for one thing or another. Kudos to Rob and Susan Cruz, and their assistant during the conference, Frankie, for their excellent planning and execution! And I must add that it was great to have Freek Lankhof, from InTrans Book Service, come out of his retirement to delight us once more with his spot-on selection of book titles.

The keynote speaker during the annual meeting and luncheon, Michael Mulé, from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, gave a powerful presentation with a unique perspective on the critical role interpreters play in providing access to justice for every limited- and non-English speaker. The session on immigration interpreter trends was equally forceful on the issue of access to justice, with the peculiar twist of an exchange between the panelists and the audience that turned out to be very enlightening for the attorney on the panel, Juan González, who practices immigration law in South Texas. These and many other sessions brought to the forefront a clear call to action for every NAJIT member: all language services stakeholders need to be continuously educated, and it is up to each one of us to do it. In fact, NAJIT already has materials available on its website that any member can download and use.

Several ideas were bounced around on this topic during a very lively and productive Town Hall meeting Sunday morning. One was to create local chapters, and holding regional conference. Both of these would boost our national association’s capacity to provide more direct and concrete assistance to members in their local advocacy and educational initiatives. Another idea was to work in coordination with state organizations to reach more language service users in a cohesive educational initiative. Having state bar associations award Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credits to attorneys who attend these sessions could certainly be a strong incentive for them to attend, helping us reach that highly-elusive audience.

Also during the Sunday morning Town Hall meeting, fellow NAJIT member Agustín de la Mora challenged all of us to bring in at least two new members to NAJIT by next year’s conference. And I can add: let’s bring at least one new NAJIT member to next year’s conference. All in all, this seems to be a great time to take NAJIT to the next level, building on the experience and enthusiasm of our current Board and every one of our members. Growing our numbers is key, however, because the higher the numbers in our membership rolls the greater our association’s “clout” to reach and influence decision- and policy-makers.

In response to a concern raised by another long-time NAJIT member, Daniel Sherr, about those professionals who always ask “why should I join NAJIT? What’s in it for me?” I like to respond by borrowing John F. Kennedy’s words, with a twist: it’s not what NAJIT can do for you, it’s what YOU can do for NAJIT! And the one thing you can do right now is join your professional association, join NAJIT, and help our collective voice grow stronger and reach farther. Be part of this NAJIT Renaissance!

Gio Lester

by on Friday, May 20, 2016

What Would You Have Done?

This is the second installment of our new feature What Would You Have Done? in which we bring real situations for our readers to comment on. The idea is for us to help each other overcome or prepare for unexpected situations. Drop us a line.

And if you have an experience to share, please write to the Editor. Our work is confidential and all identifiable details are removed from the stories shared with us to maintain our compliance with our Code of Ethics.

The story below is one that takes place in almost every deposition, and many of you are familiar with the feeling we interpreters get and how uncomfortable we feel.

Depositions, being less formal than court hearings, afford us more opportunities to address attorneys, ask questions and clarify doubts. We also get to feel more personally targeted. It seems that opposing attorneys try to object and disrupt interpreters just to unsettle them and then blame the loss of the case on bad interpreting.

The colleague in our story certainly felt that way after a long, drawn out deposition in which opposing counsel was bilingual. Objections were not only a matter of form or language used by the deposing attorney. They were also directed to the interpreter, disrupting the rhythm of the proceedings, as well as the conciseness and clarity of the records, not to mention the interpreter’s concentration and mental agility.

In the case used for this article, the interpreter confronted the attorney, and explained that in one specific challenged rendition the word choices made were based on the case being criminal rather than civil, and that the choice had been informed by the interpreter’s personal experience practicing law for over a decade in the country of the deponent’s origin. There was no more criticism or critique of the interpreter’s rendition as the deposition resumed.

What would you have done?
1-   Acted exactly as the interpreter in the case
2-   Relied on the tried and true “The interpreter stands by his/her rendition.”
3-   Informed the attorney who hired you to tell opposing counsel to stop interrupting.
4-   Removed yourself from the case, asking the agency to send someone else.
5-   …


by on Friday, May 13, 2016

NAJIT’s Professional Conference—What Makes It Different

- This post  was originally published on June 8, 2012. It seems a very fitting post to welcome NAJIT’s 2016 Conference and its attendees.

I really enjoyed the NAJIT conference this past May in Boston—my first ever. I had the opportunity to get to know people I had previously met only through emails, through the listserv, or by phone. By chance, I met some people that I thank my lucky stars I ran into, and with whom I anticipate a long and fruitful correspondence. I found that the classes I took were, in the main, informative and thought-provoking. The food was good, organization was top-notch, the city was beautiful, the conversation was stimulating and there were opportunities galore for networking and schmoozing.

But do you know what struck me the most, something I did not expect? There was an enormous feeling of camaraderie, an unselfish interchange of ideas, a feeling of professional solidarity that, as a person who has attended her share of conferences, I found greatly encouraging.

I have indeed attended many other professional conferences in the course of my varied careers. As a college professor in the 1980’s, I went to quite a few Modern Language Association conventions. Since more than one-fourth of the 30,000 members of the MLA attend their annual convention, the number of attendees is staggering—anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 people. It’s difficult to locate people you do know, let along meet new ones. There are numerous divisions, each concentrated mainly on the study of the literature of a given country or countries, along with others dedicated to interdisciplinary and educational fields. Careful planning is of the essence to get into the sessions you want to attend. Although I was a professional among professionals, there was no feeling of “we’re all in this together,” but rather one of disparity. For the general member, each division presents its own mini-conference and, given the magnitude of the event, there is little opportunity for contact with the myriad others occurring in the same space.

The annual American Translators Association conference is not quite as overwhelming, but still, trying to find your way around among some 2,000 people speaking dozens of different languages can be daunting. It takes extensive planning to find the people you want to get together with and also meet the people with whom you would like to begin a professional relationship. Here too, once you find your group, you are in a warm cocoon you never need to leave. My experience is that most people feel a certain disconnect with the larger group around them and make little attempt to reach out, let alone share feelings of solidarity with fellow conference-goers.

The MLA, founded in 1883, and the ATA, founded in 1959, have both been around for a long time. NAJIT, on the other hand, which began in 1978, is a relative newcomer to the world of professional associations. The membership of the MLA and the ATA consists of professionals whose fields are well-established and well-respected. In contrast, we interpreters have had to fight every step of the way to become recognized as professionals and to establish our work as important, indeed essential for there to be equal access to the legal system in this country on every level. In addition, we strive constantly to extend our mission ever further to include the fields of medical, community and signed language interpreting. We seek inclusion, not division.

So we interpreters tend to be a feisty bunch. Our struggle has made us strong as individuals and as a group. We are supportive of each other and vociferously communicative when we get together. There may be cavilers—those who say “well I didn’t like this” or “it was better last year.” I don’t know about that–for one thing, I wasn’t there last year. But I have been to conferences sponsored by other organizations, and there is one thing I am very sure of: NAJIT is a young and vigorous organization. We truly seek to make changes for the better in this world, and there are not that many organizations that can say that. What I felt at the NAJIT conference was overwhelmingly positive. Amidst all our differences of language, of location, of interpreting venues, we stand united. We are NAJIT!

“Tips for Attending Professional Conferences”  Sociologists for Women in Society, Prepared by: Tamara L. Smith, Career Development Committee Chair http://www.socwomen.org/web/images/stories/resources/career_dev/sws_tipsforconferences.pdf

“6 Musts When Attending Professional Conferences” Career Management: Keepin’ It Real by Cindy Billington   http://maysblogs.tamu.edu/careermanagement/2011/05/27/6-musts-when-attending-professional-conferences/

“Making the Most of Professional Conferences”  The Chronicle of Higher Education   http://chronicle.com/blogs/onhiring/making-the-most-of-professional-conferences/29611


Gio Lester

by on Friday, May 6, 2016

Thoughts on Interpreting

- By Gio Lester © 2016

Living in Miami, Florida, a bilingual city for sure, one thing we notice is that every other attorney is a bilingual. Most of them have studied Spanish or their family is from one of the myriad Spanish-speaking Latin American countries, or they themselves were educated in one of them. The fact that I work with Brazilian Portuguese does not deter them; after all Brazilian Portuguese is just Spanish with a funny accent (yes, I have heard that).

Even when it is not one of the active languages in a case, Spanish is still present. During an arbitration I interpreted at, the lead judge acknowledged the ghost in the room, the third language we were not using, but yet was in everyone’s mind. The proceedings were in English, and a few witnesses spoke only Portuguese. However, the Spanish speaking lawyers were always checking the interpretation and the deponents’ statements back into Spanish.

TrustWhenever I enter a deposition room, I tell the court reporters I am on their team, that I am there to make sure their job is done as easily as and accurately as possible. And it has resulted in great alliances. They will defend me before I even open my mouth, “Will the attorneys please take turns?” Or my favorite, “Sir, if you don’t wait for the interpreter to finish I can’t do my job.” You get the picture: the lawyer speaks enough Spanish to make out key words in Brazilian Portuguese in the deponent’s utterance and jumps to the next question.

Lawyers also have a predilection for negative questions during deposition. But that will work best in a direct interaction. It has the potential of becoming a problem when interpreters are present as the questions may become convoluted because of the sentence structure in the foreign language or the cultural logic. And instructions to deponents – I have to say Brazilian are notorious for not following them – should also focus on explaining the purpose of the procedure to allay cultural bias and fears.

Since I rarely do court work, my most extensive experience with judges is restricted to immigration and I have witnessed a lot of understanding, grace and compassion. But I hear my colleagues’ complaints, and I see that it is not only a dislike for our professional class that leads to the problems we encounter, it is also a cultural void that almost paralyses the system.

I really would love to see NAJIT put together workshops or videos targeting lawyers and judges. “Make it easier on yourself – the secrets of working with interpreters!” or “Cultural awareness can help you get through a deposition faster” – these are two of the workshops I have in mind. Any takers?

Gio Lester

by on Friday, April 29, 2016

What Would You Have Done?

Dear Readers,

This is a new feature of The NAJIT Observer. And it is written by YOU. Yes, you. We will submit a situation – real life on the trenches – and ask you to come up with solutions, suggestions, opinions or simply comments.The idea is to enrich each other’s repertoire of experiences and grow together. We already know we will not have enough time to commit every error or right move in the Book of Life. So, let’s learn together from one another.

This took place sometime ago, in a courtroom somewhere. It was a custody case involving a minor and her parents. The following characters were present at the hearing: Judge, Father’s lawyer, Father, Mother’s lawyer, Mother, Minor Child (four years old), Guardian ad Litem, Interpreter.

The Interpreter was told he would only be helping the Mother who would not be deposing, but needed to be aware of what was going on. Fine. The hearing was going as planned; they were arriving at the desired outcome when the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) was called to present his observations of the supervised visitations. That is when things got a bit frustrating for the interpreter.

Fact 1: The GAL did not speak the parents’ language, was not familiar with the parents’ culture, had a very strong bias towards one of the parents, and was really concerned with the child’s well-being.

Fact 2: The minor child had been living with the residential parent (father) and the visit subject of the GAL’s comments was the third visit with the child after a five-month hiatus.

The GAL commented that during the visit the Mother would not stop making physical contact with the child (touching the child’s hair, holding the child’s hand, smoothing the child’s clothing) and she found it disturbing. The GAL did not give any information regarding how the child reacted to the physical contact.

It so happens that in that family’s culture physical contact is a strong non-verbal form of communication and the parent’s behavior was more than acceptable in their culture, it was expected. However, the Mother’s lawyer, who happened to share the same cultural background as the parents, did not say a word and the negative observation remained in the Mother’s file with the court.

The interpreter spoke with the Mother’s lawyer after the fact, but the lawyer did not do anything and did not plan to do anything about that lack of cultural understanding on the part of the Guardian ad Litem and the resulting blemish in the Mother’s record.

1- Asked to speak as a Cultural Broker and enlightened the court and all present as to the cultural significance of the physical contact;
2- Spoken with the lawyer after the fact and left it alone, just as the interpreter in the case did;
3- Told the mother to speak up and ask her lawyer to allow her to defend herself;
4- Just interpreted and done nothing else;
5- [Fill in the blank]

Please use the comments field below and let us know your solutions and why.

Do you have an interesting situation you’d like us to publish in the next installment? Share it with us.


Janis Palma

by on Friday, April 22, 2016

Business and Fun: mixing it up in San Antonio

It’s the last week of April and NAJIT’s Annual Conference is just around the corner. Before we know it, we will be in San Antonio, polishing skills, learning what’s new in the field, catching up with old friends and making new ones. And although I know that keeping my skills honed and knowledge updated are critical components of my professional development, the best part of that weekend for me is spending time with my very extended NAJIT family.

All work and no play is never good, believe me! But the good news is that in our world, no play time is ever a waste. Whenever NAJIT members get together, we know very well how to mix it up, and even when we are singing or dancing, someone will find a way to turn it into a discussion on some obscure term and what would be the best way to translate it.

The challenges we face day in and day out are never far from our minds, and being with colleagues from all over the country—sometimes from other countries as well—is a great opportunity to bounce ideas off each other and find creative solutions to common problems we would not have thought of on our own.

NAJIT’s Annual Conference has been the petri dish for many innovative ideas that have contributed to the professionalization of judiciary interpreters and translators, such as the Code of Ethics developed in our organization’s very early stages, or the position papers developed later on, all of which have brought with them greater respect from those other professionals with whom we interact on a daily basis. NAJIT has also nurtured ground-breaking projects that have contributed to our collective growth as we transitioned from the “Dark Ages” of judiciary interpreting and translating to our current status as a widely recognized profession.

Of course, if we did not need to do any more work to improve the relative status of some members of our profession in certain geographic pockets where the “Age of Enlightenment” has yet to arrive, we could spend the whole weekend partying and forget about all the other educational sessions included in the conference. But the truth is we still have a lot of work to do, and we need to do it together. So if you have not yet registered for the conference in San Antonio, there’s still time. We all need to be there. We all have a responsibility to keep our profession vital and current, to uphold and promote the highest competency and ethical standards, and to forge bonds of professional solidarity that will further strengthen the standing of our organization and our chosen professions in the United States and beyond.

And, of course, we all need to have a little fun every once in a while, too. So I hope to meet all of you there, in San Antonio, by the River Walk, maybe with some mariachi music in the background and a heart full of joy because I will be hugging old friends and embracing new ones that will last me a lifetime.


by on Friday, April 15, 2016

Old Reliable: Your Car and You

This articles was first published in February, 2012. It is just as timely now as it was then. Hope you find some information to help you with your taxes this year. After all, we are supposed to be filing our taxes today!

The following does not pretend to be a compilation of dos and don’ts about either car maintenance or tax deductions. I am hoping to provide some pointers and the means to find more information, especially about taxes. 

  I have a shameful confession to make. I never owned a car until I was almost 40 years old. I just never needed one.  Not that I didn’t know how to drive; I did—I just didn’t have a car of my own. When I was a kid, I could use my parents’ cars. Then when I went away to college I neither wanted nor needed one. The same went for graduate school. Later, as a college professor, I lived right next to the school in a downtown area. Who needed a car? If absolutely necessary, I could always borrow somebody else’s. It wasn’t until much later in life that I saw that I would need some kind of reliable way to transport self and stuff from place to place, with all the responsibilities and consequent headaches attached.

How I envy free-lancers who work in an urban environment! The subways, the buses, the quick, cheap taxi ride to get from one court to another or from home to that early morning assignment…  How wonderful it must be!  No parking problems, no GPS foul-ups, no tiny Mapquest printouts!  But no, I chose to go live in the boonies, where the nearest courthouse is at least a half-hour drive away.

So now I am the proud owner of a car. It’s not new by any means, but it takes me where I need to go. Why? Because I take very good care of it. With the help of a supportive husband, I have learned when to take the darn thing in for maintenance, when to change the oil, when to rotate the tires, why pay attention when that pesky engine light goes on. Yes, some day, I’d like to get a brand new car, but meanwhile, I am happy to say that I can get to my assignments in a timely manner, and quite confidently too, thank you.

That is not to say that anything could happen at any time, in spite of all your care and attention to Old Reliable. Just a few weeks ago, a colleague called in a panic because his car was having transmission problems. Could I cover the case? Fortunately, I could and did. Now, I know that Frank takes meticulous care of his vehicle. You just never know. But your best bet is to do everything you can to forestall any problems. You ignore you car’s needs at your peril.

Now let’s talk about your car and your taxes. I noticed in Gio Lester’s piece last week (Basic Acconting II) that she touched briefly on this subject, and I’d like to make some clarifications. If you are a free-lancer, not only is your gas deductible, but also the cost of your car’s maintenance, any mileage not paid for by your client, parking and tolls, among quite a number of other possible deductions (See http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p463.pdf Section 4, pp. 15-26)

Keeping a record of your maintenance is easy. Just keep the receipts in a file you can locate and consult later and/or make an accounting as you go along. This includes things like new windshield wipers and fluid, oil, etc.  I usually keep a log because I am too lazy to go back through the receipts and add it all up. So much quicker!

Mileage is a little trickier. When I work in a neighboring state, all of my mileage is reimbursed. In my own state, I am paid a certain amount for anything over 25 miles. Any mileage not paid for is deductible. Since I keep a daily log of my assignments, I enter in the mileage amounts the same time that I enter the assignment. This way I can just add things up at the end and voila, it’s off to the accountant!


Car maintenance








by on Friday, April 8, 2016

Meet the Candidates

Heidi Cazés-Sevilla Gerda Prato-Espejo
Heidi Cazés-Sevilla and Gerda Prato-Espejo have an invitation for you. They are NAJIT’s Nominations Committee and want to make sure we are ready to cast our votes and don’t forget to do so. After all, WE are NAJIT!

Conference time is near, and with it, we have NAJIT’s Annual Meeting, during which the new Board of Directors is announced.

The affairs, business and concerns of the Association are vested in our Board, and the Directors form a diverse active body that discusses and decides the route NAJIT follows in the present and the future, and how it represents the interests of all of us, its members.

NAJIT Elections

Meet the Candidates

This year, there are six wonderfully qualified candidates running to fill out the three open director slots on the Board. Our candidates are Rafael Carrillo, Dan DeCoursey, Gladys Matthews, Ernest Niño-Murcia,  Maria Palacio , and Hilda Shymanik. They are all our colleagues who are willing to volunteer their time to our association.

It is up to us to decide who will serve on the Board and to help us in our decision-making the candidates have all submitted bios and statements for us to learn more about them.  Now it is our turn: just click on their names above (or on the picture to the left) to see their profiles and statements before you vote.

NAJIT is a forward thinking and thriving organization. To keep pace with our lifestyles and technology, NAJIT Board elections are handled electronically. All Active and Life Members can vote online or mail in their ballots. You need to cast your vote before May 11, 2016 (follow the link above for more details). The votes will be tallied and the results announced during the Annual Meeting on May 14.

Your participation matters!! Make sure your voice is heard.  VOTE!

Gio Lester

by on Friday, April 1, 2016

An Interview with Katty Kauffman

Katty KauffmanKatty Kauffman is a Federally Certified Court Interpreter, member and Advisory Board Member for South America of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), a member of the American Translators Association (ATA) and the National Association of Judicial Translators and Interpreters (NAJIT). She is also a graduate of Pedro de Valdivia University School of Law in Santiago, Chile where she currently resides.  In addition to working in the freelance market where she has interpreted at four Summits of the Americas among other major international events– Katty serves as translator, interpreter and consultant on interpreter qualification and selection policy to Office of the Public Prosecutor of Chile.  Since the roll out of new criminal procedure in Chile in 2000, Katty has interpreted at numerous international conferences on comparative criminal procedural law and trained prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement and judges in the use of interpreters in the courtroom.  She has also put her skills to use at numerous trials and hearings under the new system in Chile.

In this interview, Katty affords us a peek into the judicial process in another country, Chile.

TNO- What stands out the most about cases that use interpreters?

Under the Criminal Procedure Reform instituted over a decade ago, interpreters are now clearly distinguished from translators in criminal proceedings. This is not the case in civil proceedings where the two terms continue to be erroneously deemed interchangeable.

Most of the proceedings, both civil and criminal, involve only Spanish-speaking parties, so what makes cases with an interpreter stand out is their rarity. Having an interpreter present creates a whole new dynamic! The parties rarely know what to expect from an interpreter, but are, fortunately, usually very open to learning and are grateful for the guidance and orientation of qualified professionals.

TNO- Other than understanding their English, what are markers we should look for in determining whether or not the interpreters provided are performing up to the minimum standard, especially in a language we do not speak?


Image courtesy of Internations.org

In Chile’s criminal courts, the languages most in demand are English and Chilean Sign Language. For most other languages, the Prosecutor’s Office (responsible for hiring interpreters in all cases, as per a Supreme Court ruling) looks at the qualifications of the individual using a checklist I helped develop. Unfortunately, most are not trained court interpreters and many have no interpreting experience at all. It’s a shame, but it is also a fact of life. On the bright side, when a trained professional is not available, the Prosecutor informs the court and asks the parties to take that into consideration by speaking more slowly, in chunks, lowering the register, etc. Interpreters too can interrupt, ask for repetition, and so forth in order to ensure effective communication without fear of angering the litigants or the court. In sum, the parties tend to be very tolerant and cater to the interpreter’s needs. It’s actually kind of nice.

TNO- From your perspective, how do judges react to the use of translated documents and interviews?

In Chile, documents must be introduced by a witness, so the translator will be called in to testify both to the process used in the translation and to the content of the document. If the translator doesn’t remember what they translated (due to elapsed time, for example), they may be shown the document to refresh their memory. But it is the translator’s testimony that will serve as the record, not the document. The translator is paid as an expert witness. Fortunately, on cross the translator’s version is rarely impeached.

TNO- What are the greatest difficulties in dealing with remote interpreting? And the best part?

In some cases, the courts authorize witnesses to testify from abroad. Unfortunately, they do not use high-tech systems and–over interpreter objections– the connection is frequently via Skype. Suffice it to say, this is highly problematic.

TNO- In your opinion, how can proceedings involving interpreters go more smoothly?

At the risk of preaching to the choir, having the court provide good equipment, ensuring the use of team interpreting during trials or any proceeding over 45 min in length is, of course, a boon. That said, we are incredibly fortunate in Chile to be at the forefront of a new era in oral proceedings and to be trailblazers for the generations to come.

It behooves us, therefore, to adhere as carefully and as strictly as possible to Codes of Ethics from jurisdictions with a longer-standing tradition, such as NAJIT’s, so that we can set a solid course for the future.

TNO- Is there a memorable experience involving a different culture or language in your portfolio that you cherish or hate?   


Image courtesy of u21health.org

At the beginning of the reform in Santiago, a case came before the 1st Magistrate Court of Santiago. It so happened that the judge spoke very good English and had been trained in oral litigation in the US… where he learned the difference between a translator and an interpreter.

In this particular case, a LSP (limited Spanish proficiency) defendant was brought in for an initial appearance, but there was no interpreter. The judge agreed to a continuance to give the prosecutor time to find one. The prosecution called the local Interpol office and they sent someone over to the court. The first question the judge asked was: Are you able to interpret these proceedings here today? The response was classic: No, Your Honor, I am a translator, not an interpreter. The sound clip of the judge’s reaction is music to any interpreter’s ears: Mr. Prosecutor, my order was very clear. I told you to bring before this court an IN-TER-PRETER not a translator. Mr. Prosecutor, what part of IN-TER-PRETER did you not understand?

Needless to say, that judge is one of my favorite people.


Janis Palma

by on Friday, March 25, 2016

Building Bridges (to one another)

We build too many walls and not enough bridges.
- Isaac Newton

We see that “building bridges” metaphor often when someone is referring to the work done by translators and interpreters. We bridge languages and cultures by enabling people to communicate effectively, even if they do not speak, read, or understand the same language. But there are other bridges that are also important, in fact, I would say essential, for us to build and maintain throughout our careers: bridges to one another.

One of the great challenges we must tackle as professional interpreters and translators is learning how to be colleagues and competitors at the same time, particularly those who work as independent contractors or have their own business. The line that separates those two can get blurred sometimes and we have to be very careful not to stray too far from the middle ground because there may be times when the only person who can give us a hand is precisely the one competing with us in the same market.

Suppose you have an interpreting assignment scheduled for 9:00 a.m. and when you wake up that morning you realize you have such a sore throat you can’t even talk. Who will you text to come to your rescue? Or say you have a translation deadline and when you are still halfway done you get a call to go to the hospital because someone very close to you has had an accident. Who can you trust to finish that job for you and help you save face with the client? Indeed! It’s that colleague who offers her freelance professional services to your same pool of clients (or potential clients.)

If this has not happened to you yet, chances are it will! You will need the help of someone you can trust and respect to cover for you in an emergency. That trust and respect is something we each have to earn, it is not automatic just because we all belong to the same group of professionals. It is the natural consequence of the manner in which we behave towards our colleagues—whether or not we are in their presence.

Think of doctors, and specialists within that community of health professionals: how often have you heard one doctor speak ill of another one? Even when they do not like each other, or disagree with a colleague’s treatment protocol, they will never say so openly to a patient. In fact, attorneys in medical malpractice lawsuits have a very hard time finding expert witnesses because those who belong to the same community refuse to testify against one of their own. Therefore, experts have to be “imported” from other parts of the country, or else they are “professional experts” who hire their services as such and do not really belong to a community of practicing physicians.

Building bridges of professional solidarity strengthens our individual and collective standing in the communities we serve, be it legal, medical, or any other. When outsiders see members of a profession speaking ill of each other or otherwise attempting to undermine their reputation (evidently to seize a larger share of the market), the negative impact of such behavior goes far beyond the individual, making everyone look bad. It is embarrassing even when outsiders are polite and remain unaligned with one side or the other.

It actually serves no one’s best interest to create or encourage divisions among members of a professional group. And while it would be unreasonable to expect everyone to agree on everything all the time, we certainly can have an expectation of respectful civility, even when we cannot see eye to eye on a given issue. So let’s each one of us work on building more bridges to our fellow interpreters and translators, and encourage all our colleagues and competitors to do the same.