by Katharine Allen on Friday, May 17, 2013
“We need more pay for the work we do.”
“Nobody respects us interpreters.”
“Can we please stop having intruders in this profession?”
“When will people understand that being bilingual doesn’t mean you can interpret?”
“We should boycott if they try to bring in video interpreting.”
“Maybe conference interpreters can demand a partner, but I won’t get hired if I ask for one.”
“Medical interpreter ethics just aren’t ethical compared to legal interpreting.”
“You can’t really call what military linguists do interpreting and translation. They are completely untrained.”
Five years ago, these sentiments were all too commonplace in our field. As was the marked fragmentation and division between interpreters and interpreting sectors.
And five years ago, I sat in the office of my then interpreting professor, Barry Slaughter Olsen, and listened in stunned disbelief as he pitched an idea for what would become the biggest professional risk of my career: what did I think about joining forces to create a new industry event, one which would endeavor to bring more unity, cohesion and recognition to our fragmented profession?
Despite the crazy risk it represented, we signed our names on one dotted line to book a venue and on a second to commission the first ever comprehensive market survey of the interpreting profession in North America. Then we started shopping the 1st North American Summit on Interpreting to vendors, professional associations, and every possible stakeholder we could reach.
In the end, we judged correctly that we were not alone among our peers in wanting more connection, collaboration, and visibility for our chosen profession of interpreting. Against all odds, the Summit was a resounding success. The most important outcome? The unexpectedly powerful collaborative momentum it created.
Five years ago, Web 2.0 was gaining ground, social media was just getting started, the smart phone was in its infancy, and the iPad was just a blip on the horizon. No one could imagine the lightning-fast advance of mobile everything and how it would penetrate all aspects of our lives.
Now we speak of Web 3.0, interpreting and translation apps, digital disruptors, creating social media platforms and social media overload. Google glass and wearable technology are “in beta” realities and the pace of change confronting us makes one thing certain: we cannot imagine five years from now.
Many of us are struggling with feelings of fear, displacement, disorientation, and anger as we watch long years of struggle to build quality and competency standards into our profession threatened. Our wage agreements are under fire. Full-time onsite interpreters are increasingly rare as video penetrates every interpreting sector.
Yet we celebrate these changes as well. We revel in increased communication, the vastly superior access to information and resources, and our newfound ability to work online and connect with colleagues from all over the world. The same technologies that threaten existing models are also opening up new markets and new opportunities. Indeed, ours is a growth field. “Employment of interpreters and translators is expected to grow 42 percent from 2010 to 2020, much faster than the average for all occupations.”
Five years ago, Barry and I founded InterpretAmerica to see if we could get our field talking to each other more, to share the strengths and resources hidden away in individual sectors with the fundamental conviction that a rising tide lifts all boats. We strive for the day when “I am an interpreter” carries as much automatic and esteemed meaning as “I am a doctor” or “I am a engineer.”
In other words, we believed in the potential of collaboration to successfully meet many of the challenges facing our field. So many dedicated professionals from all across our industry were working in isolation to meet those challenges. Many old challenges remain, and others are brand new, especially those created by new technologies.
But one thing has not changed: The power and importance of collaboration. Barry and I have been both honored and humbled to see the kinds of collaborative efforts that lead to real change that have come out of the simple act of gathering a diverse group of stakeholders in our profession together and introducing them to each other. The international discussion on interpreter certification, the founding of the National Interpreters Associations Coalition (of which NAJIT is an important member) and concrete changes in how some technology companies do businesses are just a few examples.
Clearly, our project is just one of many that is achieving the same result. Of all the changes technology is bringing, the ability to collaborate on much grander scales is perhaps the most important new resource to latch onto. [Collaboration] is “a fundamentally generative act. [It] isn’t just about achieving a goal or joining forces; it’s about creating something together that it would be impossible to create alone.”
Our field, once so separate, is now brimming with the possibilities created by such innovative efforts as Streetleverage.com, a collaborative blogging site for the sign language community, the soon-to-be revealed Voices Academy, the newly-minted combination online/onsite Masters in Conference Interpreting at the Glendon College of Translation, and Interpreting for Europe, begun by the European Union to address conference interpreter shortages and now the largest social media site for interpreters anywhere in the world.
As my co-president Barry Olsen recently shared on Facebook:
“For all the possibilities that communication technologies represent, their use for good or ill depends solely on people. Forget all the talk about machines taking over. What happens in the future is up to us.”
All of these innovators and many more will be present at the 4th InterpretAmerica Summit on June 14-15 in Reston, Virginia. Come join us to help shape our profession’s future! Early bird rates good through Monday, May 20th!
 Question posted on the LinkedIn group Professional Interpreters, All Languages”, April 2013
 Occupation Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/interpreters-and-translators.htm
 McGonigal, Jane (2011-01-20). Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Kindle Locations 4367-4368). Penguin Books. Kindle Edition.
 Excerpt From: Eric Schmidt & Jared Cohen. “The New Digital Age.” Knopf, 2013-04-23. iBook.
by Maria Cristina de la Vega on Friday, May 10, 2013
What do a Brazilian Butt-Lift and a Kindle book have in common?
They are two examples of our society’s penchant for instant gratification. Language proficiency and by extension interpreting, nonetheless, are not abilities you acquire overnight. They improve exponentially as you practice, and reflect consciously or not, the experiences of a lifetime.
I came to the U.S., as a Cuban exile with my family, at the age of nine, speaking almost no English. We arrived to a completely new environment, and to what my four brothers and I naively classified as Davie Crockett country from our limited exposure to American folklore. Life in a wooded enclave where we largely fended for ourselves after school and learned to adapt to the Spartan life of New England. While my brothers were out trapping and hunting for fun, I devoted myself to self development through reading, favoring fairy tales as a form of escapism from the inevitable household chores there was no one else to do. One of my fondest memories as a kid, is of creating a tepee in bed with my covers, after “lights out”, when I would read, flashlight in hand, so as not to wake my siblings. Above all else, I wanted to speak English well to fit in, get good grades and make my parents proud of me. Imagine my discouragement when learned that the “F” grades I was so proud of did not stand for “Fine.”
After initially cutting my ties to Spanish, as many first generation exiles do, I went back to my native language by reading an eclectic mix of periodicals. They included magazines my parent’s Cuban friends would give us when they were finished reading them, some of which contained what were for me, riveting excepts of unbridled sexual passion. These came via the stories of Corín Tellado, a prolific writer of romantic novels that were very popular in Spanish-speaking countries and were definitely not permissible reading for an eleven year old at my house. Fortunately, my parents had no time to read magazines so they were unaware of this content. I remember that “tepee-time” required a dictionary to figure out what she was even writing about. That input was thankfully balanced by my mother’s classical texts from the M.A. in Spanish Literature that she went on to get in this country, which she would eagerly share with me. Another favorite, secret childhood activity that fed my avid love for reading in English, was one that I could not share with my parents either because they would have never allowed it. There was a semi-abandoned paper mill a few blocks from my house. It consisted of a warehouse dotted with mysterious, boiling, gurgling vats filled with chemicals, where printed materials were dumped and melted for recycling. Looking back, the place was an accident waiting to happen, without any type of security, but that was the least of my worries. The allure it had for me was is that it was a clandestine, eerie, half lit treasure trove of all kinds of books with adult content I would never have access to otherwise, and comic books, which became a great source of information on American pop culture for me. I would sneak in after school when the workers had left and have a field day going through the musty piles of publications messily stacked in the aisles, beckoning half-heartedly to see if I would spring them from death row.
Ka-ching in more ways than one
While in college, studying plastic arts, I had a revelation. The puritanical work ethic I had eased into in New England had a silver lining, work could be fun! My husband-to-be was writing the dissertation for his PhD. In French Lit, and to supplement his income as an Assistant Professor, he used to do conference interpreting. To me as a twenty-year-old, that simply meant he was paid to talk and seemed infinitely easier to accomplish than my career path at the time.
Fast forward thirty years. Unfortunately it was not as simple as I thought then. However, if you are able to consciously align your values, activities that you enjoy and output that is of worth to a paying segment of society, you will usually end up in the right place. I am fortunate that over the years I was able to harness my desire to work “speaking” in another language (which had never occurred to me), my interest in studying and the discipline to work hard. The universe opened the right doors for me. I audited what conferences I could, signed up for whatever workshops were available and trained hard with generous professionals who shared their time with me. As many before and after me, I did not have the option to go away to school, nor where there many programs offered back then, but I made it a point to secure the mentors and the practice needed to pursue my dream of becoming a professional interpreter.
If interpreting/translating is a field that interests you, rest assured that “where there is a will, there is a way” and opportunities have expanded nowadays that will make this career choice not be as daunting as it may have been in the past because of a lack of standardized resources. Today, we even have our own section in the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Media-and-Communication/Interpreters-and-translators.htm.
by Jennifer De La Cruz on Friday, May 3, 2013
I am continually amazed by the generosity of the talented writers and thinkers in our profession. What seems to be just a few years ago, our pre-Internet ability to connect with colleagues beyond our immediate reach was limited to snail mail and conference settings. Nowadays, there are countless linguists who share a bit of themselves and their knowledge through blogging, tweeting, informative personal websites… the amount of information out there for us to enjoy is just a click away. Somebody is always publishing and the topics are wonderfully varied and pertinent. Nonetheless, trying to keep up with this incessant barrage of ideas (or ‘the scribble,’ as I like to call it) can be paralyzing. The anxiety and polarization caused by countless clicks to stay informed is often referred to as social media overload.
The easy part: Getting up to speed
Consider the viewpoint of somebody exploring our profession for the first time — having ready access to all these resources must be wonderful! I remember having to call a local interpreting school to ask them to mail me a brochure and having to rearrange my life just to get to a class. Now, of course, if we want facts or to take a class, we can often find it online and within minutes, we’ve paid for and downloaded Lesson One, and the learning begins. Our colleagues all around the world are making it possible to access information that they’re sharing in virtual classrooms and other types of learning modalities every moment of the day.
The hard part: Keeping up
Our access to great web content is always going to be something we should advocate for and contribute to if we can. After all, having our profession continue to be packed with well-informed, enthusiastic and capable individuals is a win-win for all of us. But we have to realize that it is next to impossible to be up-to-date on all the information out there and actually read every entry on the myriad of great blogs we might follow. It would be nice, but it’s simply not realistic.
The more we look at content, the more fascinated we can become by the authors, leading us to read more about their paths to success and best advice to hone our skills. Eventually, instant access to the wisest voices drawing us to listen can become impossible to sort through. When we find ourselves paying attention to too much at once, we can be left feeling like we’re simply not keeping up with the Joneses. It’s a double-edged sword, with inspiration and success being one outcome, and feelings of inadequacy and frustration being another. This makes me think of a scene in a Jim Carrey movie, “Bruce Almighty,” where the main character is put into God’s shoes, and is overwhelmed by hearing millions of believer supplications all at the same time. Likewise, we can get so wrapped up in learning and exploring and finding and reading and imitating and connecting… that we can either lose our own path or become unable to determine what it should look like. We can become unsure of whether we’re doing enough or even doing the right things. We constantly search for the answers others have given, but can forget to sit down and look at the answers that best fit ourselves and our life circumstances.
Stepping back to find clarity and purpose
Let’s take a moment to assess how our social interactions and exploration of the cyberworld are in line with our own paths. Let’s be sure that we’re not getting too overwhelmed by our efforts to learn/comment/blog/tweet/link… Maybe we need to be more selective about who we follow or what we read about. Perhaps limiting our reading and participation to certain times would help. Truly assessing how we are handling all this information and being crystal clear about its purpose and value in our professional lives is an absolute must.
Happily, we are better informed now than we ever have been in the past, but our journeys (and our inner peace!) are hindered when we allow ourselves to try to focus on too much, all at the same time. Defining our own circumstances and setting our goals based on them is a crucial first step, while failing to define where we are and where we want to go can lead to a constant cycle of exploring others’ stories, gathering resources we never fully absorb, and taking little or no action.
Of course, there’s a bunch of web sources that put these thoughts into different scenarios and give excellent solutions. Maybe you’ll find some tips below that will help you keep that scribble to a minimum.
by Ewandro Magalhaes on Thursday, April 25, 2013
We mourn the passing of Eyak, once a traditional language spoken in Alaska. Mrs. Mary Jones died on January 21 and took her language with her. Southern Tsimshian, a dialect used in Klemtu, British Columbia is expected to follow soon, surviving only as long as the 95-year-old lady who still speaks it. With her demise her language, and the rich cultural heritage it contains, will be buried along with her, forever.
Through a Scientific American article released some five years ago, I learned from a renowned researcher with a Ph.D from Harvard – and himself now in his eighties – that one language dies every 15 days, on average. That came as a shock, even to the full-time linguist I was back then, whose professional survival ultimately hinged on long-lived languages. I confess I had never really given any thought to the fate of disappearing tongues. For starters, I didn’t know they were dying so fast. Plus, I just took it as a fact of life (which is what it is, after all).
The researcher’s name is Michael Krauss, a professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. His greatest legacy to language documentation is his work on Eyak, conducted through much of the 1960′s. Eyak – a crucial missing link for historical linguistics, with ties to neighboring Ahtna and even distant Navajo – was back then already the most endangered of the Alaskan languages. Prof. Krauss did much to record all that could be retrieved from Mrs. Jones and other heritage speakers before their passing. In so doing, he helped disseminate the novel concept of ‘salvage linguistics.’
While most would agree that it’s still too cold to even talk about Alaska (I’m writing this on a freezing morning in Geneva, with Spring still stubbornly hiding somewhere over the Alps), and that Eyak would be a very long shot for anybody considering a career in interpreting, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Here’s how Prof. Krauss puts it:
These [and many other] languages are the essence of the thinking of uniquely Alaskan people, who have the right to help to retain their language. They are the result of millennia of experience in these environments, the wisdom of the ages. Not only that: they represent different ways of seeing – of understanding – our common human experience.
Languages will continue to die, of course, and not just in Alaska, as there is yet no way to make people immortal. But much can be done while they are still around, if languages (and speakers, if need be) can be put on life support. That’s exactly what Prof. Krauss was commissioned to do.
He and some colleagues from Canada, Japan and Russia were awarded over a million dollars by the National Science Foundation to document several endangered languages over several years. And they are in a hurry: “If it’s ever going to be done, it has got to be done now,” says Krauss, cognizant of the fact that many languages are indeed on the brink of extinction. “Making a record, as much as we can, of a language while it is still there is vital to the future of that language and the people” [that speak it].
Other than try to prevent the death of a language, which is sometimes irreversible, the idea is to preserve enough of the oral traditions, recipes, tales and wisdom and make a record of it before it perishes. The last I checked the project, which dates back to 2008, was in full swing.
I remember releasing a sigh of relief at the end of that article and thinking: “I’m glad Eyak is not one of my working languages!” Then again, come to think of it, Portuguese, Spanish, French and even English will die, too, eventually. Can’t see that coming? Think twice. Remember that Latin was for centuries the language of the world, back when every path led to Rome. Now the Roman emperors are long gone. And so is their language.
So, say a prayer for your working languages, for they are going fast. If it makes you feel any better, we are probably going faster, so in a funny way I guess we are all safe.
by Katharine Allen on Friday, April 19, 2013
Last year, InterpretAmerica published a document titled “Best Practices in the Interpreting Profession: Simultaneous Interpreting in Non-Conference Settings” which I co-authored.
Last month, we completed a draft document titled “Best Practices in the Interpreting Profession: The Professional Medical Interpreter”.
Last night I interpreted for a local school board meeting and forgot all about the best practices I have worked so hard to promote.
I arrived on time and in good order, set up my portable simultaneous equipment, checked with the district secretary for any new materials to be used during the meeting and even had a chance to speak briefly with an invited consultant who would give a brief presentation on green energy in schools. As the community members arrived who needed interpreting, I got them set up with their receivers and then I settled in, minutes and agenda ready to reference on my laptop, and waited for the meeting to begin.
“Good evening. The meeting is called to order at 7:12pm. The first order of business is….”
What did the Board President say? In that instant I realized I had completely forgotten the most obvious “best practice” any interpreter needs to control for first and foremost: Sound.
There sat five board members, the superintendent, the district financial officer and secretary, neatly arranged in front of me, and I could barely hear a word. I immediately moved forward and to the side and spent the rest of the evening alternating leaning forward to try and catch everyone’s comments, kicking myself for being so stupid.
This experience, aside from being a humbling reminder that even veteran interpreters should never get too comfortable in our own shoes, provides a microcosm view of why our field so urgently needs the creation and adoption of best practice recommendations on many fronts and for many audiences.
“Best practice” is a term that has no single agreed-upon definition, having its origins in business and used differently depending on whether you are in IT, marketing, health care, or education. For our purposes, I will borrow the definition from the website Investopedia:
“A set of guidelines, ethics or ideas that represent the most efficient or prudent course of action. Best practices are often set forth by an authority, such as a governing body or management, depending on the circumstances. While best practices generally dictate the recommended course of action, some situations require that such practices be followed.”
The anecdote of interpreting in a small-scale venue such as a school board meeting represents what is an all-too-frequent reality for interpreters providing services in community and business settings all across the country. Our clients are well-meaning but often woefully ignorant of the services they are contracting us to perform. It has always been up to us, the interpreters, to have a good handle on how to insist on the minimum working conditions we need to perform our services professionally and in line with our professional ethics and standards.
In this case, interpreting could benefit enormously from professional associations creating best practice guidelines both for interpreters and end-users to ensure minimal working conditions across a broad swath of settings. With the creation of our “Best Practices in the Interpreting Profession,” InterpretAmerica is attempting to model this idea and to provide targeted resources in areas long unattended.
But extending professional practice into traditional market sectors such as community and medical is just a drop in the bucket. Right now our field faces change on a scope and at a pace never before experienced. The adoption of new technologies and the rush of smart, creative innovators from outside our field seeking to grab part of the burgeoning international market share in the language services industry represent fundamental, irreversible change that our professional associations and industry leadership have yet to respond to.
Two such examples highlight this point.
The smartphone as we know it was introduced just six short years ago, in 2007, when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. The iPad is only three years old. Yet if you look at statistics for the adoption rate for use of smartphone and tablet devices by doctors and nurses, fully 69% of doctors and 96% of nurses report using mobile solutions for day-to-day activities. In just 6 years!
What goes on those “mobile solutions”? Apps and software of all kinds, including machine translation and automated interpreting apps. These include out-of-the-box service delivery models for cheap, easily accessible interpreting services just as Sendboo, VerbalizeIt and Babelverse. Never heard of these services? Take a moment to check them out, because they represent the digital disruptors in our profession. They are going straight to the end-user with business models that promise inexpensive, reliable, and easily accessible services that are platform-neutral (i.e., they work on Android, Mac, PCs, tablets, phones, etc.)
These companies bring the promise of innovation and expanded markets, yet they also urgently need our input and best practice guidelines for ensuring the quality and competence of the language services they provide. Right now, they are operating almost completely outside the established framework of our profession.
The second example is the adoption of something technical that will most of us blink our eyes in non-comprehension: WebRTC. Huh?
WebRTC is web-based communications platform that works across browsers, such as Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer. It offers high quality voice and high definition (HD) video and low–delay communication to web browsers. In other words, as soon as this standard is agreed upon across providers, not only will much better sound and video streaming over the web be possible, it will be platform-neutral. We will be able to convene video-conference meetings between people around the world using different computers, browsers and internet software, with no plug-ins required.
WebRTC is a game-changer for providing high-quality interpreting services world-wide on mobile platforms virtually anywhere. It doesn’t take long to see how that will impact long-standing and hard-won labor agreements for conference interpreters in international settings, currently based on face-to-face interpreting. Nor does it take much thought to understand how likely it is that we will soon be providing video everything – medicine, court interpreting, business conferences, etc.
Michael Sayor, author of The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything, wrote that “genuine globalization will occur when it will be possible to hire a doctor in Bangalore to examine us for $10…That physician will check our temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and conduct an EKG through med sensors connected to our phones or available at a medical kiosk.”
In the face of such rapid and comprehensive change, our profession needs to step up the pace in response. We need best practice guidelines, recommendations for everything from how to move into the digital age by adopting the use of some of these platforms to solid client education resources to protect our working conditions.
The 4th InterpretAmerica Summit – On The Cutting Edge: Bringing Interpreting To The Forefront – takes place on June 14-15 in Reston, Virginia, and is one place to start dealing with these issues. We will be tackling a broad range of difficult but exciting challenges facing our field, from the best use of social media to promote ourselves individually and as a profession, to the digital disruptors changing our work models, to new international and national interpreting standards and how to train the millennial generation of practitioners just entering our field.
Full program and registration details are available at www.interpretamerica.net/summit4
We hope to see you there!
by Maria Cristina de la Vega on Friday, April 12, 2013
Evelyn owns Acta Chinese Language Services, a growing translation company specializing in Chinese translation for business, legal, and government clients. Evelyn is an ATA-certified English-Chinese translator and Maryland court-certified Mandarin interpreter, and has been granted “expert member” status by the Translators Association of China for her professional achievement and leadership roles in the translation industry. She is based in the Washington, DC metropolitan area and truly enjoys both the technical and business aspects of translation and interpreting.
If you are a court interpreter and you would like to both grow your business and cultivate a diverse client base, I hope you find this article helpful—
Let us first look at what professional advantages you, as a well qualified court interpreter, already possess—you are accurate; you have learned legalese; you observe professional boundaries; you practice all three modes of interpreting on a regular basis; you stay calm in face of the unexpected; you know how to respond properly when your interpretation is challenged; and— many but not all— often work in teams and have mastered the art of teamwork.
Where can your advantages be put to good use in non-courtroom assignments? It is quite obvious that you have an edge over other interpreters in a variety of legal assignments outside courtrooms, including depositions, client-counsel meetings, arbitrations, mediations, and administrative hearings. With good preparation, you are also well poised for other assignments such as:
Business negotiations. These require a high degree of accuracy and often involve discussions of contracts. Interpreters who are familiar with legalese make good candidates for such assignments. An additional requirement is knowledge of business. Business negotiations do not always take place in boardrooms. Negotiations—or parts of negotiations—may be done at a formal banquet, in a loud bar, or on the way to a cowboy show. Therefore, it is important to know the etiquette in each setting and be sensitive to nuances in the language in each context.
Inter-governmental talks. Again, these assignments require a high degree of accuracy. They also often involve legalistic language as many inter-governmental talks are centered on treaties, policies, laws, and regulations. Frequent topics for discussion include law enforcement, legislation, and interpretation of the law. Such talks usually require the interpreter to be knowledgeable in an area other than law, for example, knowledge of a particular industry may be necessary when a treaty regarding that industry is under discussion.
Conferences. Even though training programs often distinguish court interpreting from conference interpreting, there is overlap between them. Some conferences focus on legal issues and are attended by judges and attorneys, while others have a legal component. For example, a conference on investment may discuss how the laws and regulations in a country or state affect foreign investment. A good understanding of legal terms certainly eases the stress of interpreting abstruse issues.
The assignments above can be fun, challenging, and a good supplement to your work in the courts and law offices.
Now, you may wonder: how can I get my foot in the door leading to these different types of assignments? Here is my advice:
- Talk to your colleagues. Let them know what types of assignments interest you.
- Attend professional conferences, such as NAJIT’s Annual Conference, the ATA Annual Conference, and your local translators’ association meetings. Meet colleagues who are already doing the type of work you would like to do, including colleagues who work in other languages.
- Try to be helpful to your colleagues, and be reciprocal. Referral is common in the private market. In my own experience, some of my most interesting assignments were referred to me by colleagues. But it never goes one-way—it is “give and take.” There are many ways to be helpful and reciprocal: refer a client; share a glossary; answer a question; volunteer for a professional association; and so on. Writing a blog article for NAJIT and participation in online discussion groups (like the NAJIT listserv) are also contributions you can make to help your colleagues.
- Read widely. Business negotiations, inter-governmental talks, and conferences can cover a wide range of topics—from agriculture to electrical engineering, from world economy to medical technology. Furthermore, interpreters for these assignments frequently find themselves interpreting lines from ancient poems, quotes from a foreign author, as well as idioms and jokes, in addition to whatever legal, business, political, or diplomatic language they are dealing with. The interpreter may not need to be an expert in everything, but a wide knowledge base is necessary for success.
by Jennifer De La Cruz on Friday, April 5, 2013
Mr. Microphone, or “Mike” for short, has been in my life for only the past seven years. Our relationship got off to a rough start, because I didn’t think I needed him so people could hear my interpreting. Prior to meeting Mike, I had worked for nearly a decade as a hospital interpreter, where technology like him was unheard of. So it stands to reason that I would look down my nose at Mike and dismiss his quiet, selfless offer to help me save my voice, and my peaceful demeanor.
If your courthouse is equipped like mine, microphones are commonplace. The technology is present at the judge’s bench, the witness stand, podiums, counsel table and even in the deputy’s drawer for passing around during jury selection. In fact, it’s so common to have voices booming in our courtrooms that even the most intimate of hearings (if you can call them that!) are often assisted by the use of the sound system. So, why is it that some people are still afraid of our friend, Mike?
Well, when I started off as a court interpreter, I certainly didn’t feel like my voice needed to be heard through a sound system, oddly enough. I thought I was pretty good at modulating and keeping just the right volume for the situation. Aside from the use of listening devices (which is a separate topic), the courtroom sound system was new technology that I didn’t think I needed. In the early months, I recall being at the witness stand, terrified to speak into Mike because I felt like I would get distracted by the sound of my own voice. I tended to push it out of my way just enough so that the sound was helped, but certainly not booming through the courtroom. My, how things have changed since then!
Just the other day, I had to interpret for two parties at the same time, one of them appearing by speakerphone. I knew that if I made good use of Mike, I would be heard by all and have the situation under sufficient control. So, I let go of any semblance of Mike-phobia that might have remained in me, and I spoke loud and clear, probably to the dismay of the audience waiting for their cases to be called. Hey, I had to be heard over a phone and it wouldn’t be practical to leave it up to chance and use my normal volume plus Mike. It worked, and he and I solidified our friendship for life.
Using the sound system has helped me keep my stress level to a minimum. No longer do I have to use my diaphragm to push an extra burst of air past my vocal chords to get a booming voice to project; I simply place Mike in a strategic position, and allow him to do the work for me. Having lost the fear of being a distraction to myself has been quite liberating. In fact, my voice has thanked me, too. I haven’t had laryngitis much at all since I’ve worked at the court, and I think it has everything to do with Mike.
A few words must be said about the use of listening devices, where we are speaking into Mike and our listener is wearing earphones of some sort. Because I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a position to ask for feedback from my listeners, I can say that they do, indeed, report getting annoyed with the extra noises we make into Mike. Always remember to keep mouth sounds to a minimum, including breathing or cough drop sounds and, of course, sneezing right into Mike. I’ve found it helpful to have him in a movable position, and whenever I have extra noise I have to make, I can pull Mike away and protect my listener’s hearing experience. Keep in mind that wearing earphones for extended periods is difficult, and we should be courteous enough to avoid the extraneous sounds that aren’t part of our interpreting performance. In fact, generally, it’s advisable to speak slightly to one side of Mike, thus avoiding some of the annoying sounds we’ve all heard when speakers are too close to the device.
So there you have it—a match made in Heaven. My friend, Mike, and I now worked together for years now on a daily basis and I’ve turned into a fan of my own voice. Of course, this has nothing to do with any vanity on my end, but instead my desire to do the best darned job I can, which means keeping my cool and being heard loud and clear. That’s what it’s all about, in the end, and thanks to Mike, this is easier than ever!
Tips on Using Microphones:
by Ewandro Magalhaes on Friday, March 29, 2013
I am ushered through a backdoor by a Korean who calls himself Francisco and who happens to speak near-perfect English, Spanish and Portuguese. He is a regular and quickly shows me around. I sign myself in and stand at a busy intersection of narrow corridors, on occasion leaning out of the way to dodge a nurse or wheelchair.
The first patient approaches, followed by the doctor. I close the door behind me once the three of us have entered the small office. Pablo begins: back pain, difficulty getting out of bed, hard time walking. Complaints overlap as profusely as Spanish words permit, with the patient doing his best to squeeze all his acute and chronic symptoms into the long-awaited five-minute visit. I give his maladies and discomfort a varnish of English as I carry them over to the doctor’s end of the table. Free prescription drugs and recommendations travel back through me in Spanish disguise, landing soothingly on Pablo’s ears. He’ll be OK soon. No big deal. “Gracias, gracias.”
It’s now Maria, Spanish-speaking, Mexican-looking, though actually from Central America. Sad expression, rude hands, voice almost inaudible at the end of a long day of work. Skyrocketing blood pressure, abundant palpitations. “My legs itch and burn when I open the fridge” – go figure! Eleven years in the United States, no English. Homesick and yet unwilling to go back. She needs hypertension medication. She needs a well-deserved rest she cannot afford. She needs attention as well, but is probably too shy to make it known.
I do my bridging number as I best can, imbuing my rendering with empathy and respect, yet careful not to side with either party. Minutes fly by, and the meager time slot is soon over. Maria pushes herself down from the table with a sigh, her chest probably a notch lighter. She almost smiles as she and her doctor shake hands. “Que te vaya bien!” Now it is the doctor who smiles in gratitude.
I allow myself a candy while my colleagues see other pablos and marias in adjacent rooms, in a free health clinic for low-income people, the only hope available to many an immigrant and worker in a 50-mile radius. We’re volunteers helping an English-speaking medical staff communicate in Spanish. Quite a change of gears for conference interpreters like us. Back to consecutive, one-on-one interpretation, in close human interaction. We have emerged from behind the scenes for a close-up look at things in a world of personal, pressing needs.
In-booth conference interpretation, though mostly exhilarating, can be sterile at times. You see the world from a dimly lit cubicle separated from everything else by a solid glass pane, your emotions firewalled by a sophisticated set of gadgets. You are a faceless and evanescent intruder, soon forgotten after the session is adjourned. No lasting impression is left. No permanent memory lingers. No true engagement to speak of. You see the world as if through a long telescope, and the only part of you piercing through is that metallic voice.
Not at the clinic, though. Here one can’t help rubbing shoulders with reality. Here you commit your every sense. Interpreters gain a distinct face, and so do people. Patients have a name, and so do you. Doctors are suddenly too big to hide behind their coats. You stand close enough to hear them breathe. You feel the voices tremble as intimate details are revealed. You watch their gaze scrutinize the floor for signs of hope and away from fear. You shake the hands of ordinary people who long to rest their weary heads on human shoulders, albeit foreign.
Healthcare interpretation is a gentle reminder of what interpreting is about: humans interacting to satisfy immediate needs. It is a departure from the dull routine of stale salutes and compliments lacquered in studied urbanity. It’s an invitation to push ajar the doors of our booths and our soul for a healing gust of fresh air.
by Katharine Allen on Friday, March 22, 2013
Co-author: Kaitlin Heximer, Candidate for the Masters in Conference Interpreting, Glendon School of Translation, York University
“When I think back to the first time I ever interpreted in a formal setting, I would have done things differently if I knew then what I know now about interpreter ethics and best practices. A “simple” medical appointment turned into an epic 11-hour saga at the hospital emergency room with a patient whose sinus problems were quickly overshadowed by his mentally unstable condition.” **
So begins the story that Kaitlin Heximer, my co-author for this week’s blog, has to share. Kaitlin is currently a student in the newly-minted and highly-innovative Masters in Conference Interpretingprogram, offered through the Glendon College School of Translation at York University. She already has a Masters in translation, and is no stranger to the healthcare system herself. She started interpreting just a year ago, as a volunteer interpreter for a refugee resettlement agency.
Her story is worth hearing. It is a stark reminder that despite so much rapid change transforming the healthcare interpreting profession, the “bad ‘ol days” of pressing untrained bilingual staff or volunteers into service are not yet a thing of the past. Hospitals may be jumping on the technology bandwagon in droves, doctors now access video medical interpreters through their smart phones and there are not one but two validated national medical interpreter certifications in the US. However, patients and bilingual individuals trying to help them are still put in high-risk situations with depressing frequency.
Multiple studies show the relationship between poor healthcare outcomes, costly medical errors and increased litigation when professional interpreters are not used. We know the critical difference formal training makes. But outside awareness of this reality has yet to reach a tipping point where it becomes an automatic practice to call in the professional interpreter. Until we reach that point, many entering our field will be subjected to the Wild Wild West conditions Kaitlin describes below.
My first official interpreting assignment was to accompany a male client to a medical appointment. I was volunteering for a social service agency. The client had a sinus condition and was prescribed medication to treat it. When I thought we were wrapping up, the client turned to me and asked me to tell the doctor his throat was closing. I said, “Mr. X says his throat is closing.” The doctor said to me, “Tell him he should go to the emergency room,” so I said, “the doctor says you should go to the emergency room.”
Leaving the doctor’s office, I phoned the social worker who had assigned me to the case to see if another interpreter could cover. I was trying to show awareness of my own limitations as an interpreter, but at the same time make sure that the patient had access to the language services he needed. Though my intentions were good and my instincts on the right track, this was the point where my many mistakes began!
The social worker informed me that there were no other interpreters available, and could I please accompany the patient to the emergency room? Despite misgivings, I said yes. I got the patient through triage pretty quickly, but then a long wait ensued. During this time, the patient became increasingly attached to me. I attempted to get some distance from him but he followed me to where I was or begged me not to leave. After about four hours, the client was becoming increasingly delusional about the hospital staff, screaming and saying they were going to hurt him. I did not know what to do.
I felt it was heartless not to be near him, that he obviously needed help and that I was the only one he could communicate with. I realize now that I am not a mental health professional equipped to deal with people in his state. At the time, I had no guidance as to how to handle the situation. My first instinct was to get the hospital staff to put him ahead in the order of patients to be seen. I went up to the desk, said, “I am an interpreter, I have to get home, and my client is very agitated. Could you please do something to get him seen faster?”
No one was available to tend to my client, so I sat with him for several more hours as he told me the sad story of his life, past and present. He said, “You’re the only person who has ever listened to me.” I did not know what to say, so I said nothing, which was pretty easy because his talking could be called ranting at this point. I knew his throat was not really closing because he could still talk, however it was clear to me that he needed some help. I felt obligated to stay with him. When we finally got in to see the doctors, one of them ordered an EKG. The patient asked me to go with him to the change room to help him take his clothes off. I told him I was not comfortable with that.
No one had told me that I must not accept requests to physically aid patients.
I said I would try to get him a male nurse to assist. He agreed but 20 minutes later when I found one, I went back to where I had left him and he was not there. The doctors asked me to search for him and bring him back, which I did. They did the test and left us alone again. By this time I had been with the patient, mostly alone, for about seven hours. Now I was alone with him in a hospital waiting room with a bed.
No one had told me I shouldn’t stay alone with the patient.
He asked me for ice chips, so I went in search of a nurse who could bring him some. Instead, a nurse gave me some ice chips in a cup, and said “bring these back to him.
No one had told me it was not my job to fill in for nurses or medical assistants.
When it was time for the next step, the client grabbed my hand firmly. Even though I was just his interpreter, he was now seeing me in more of a maternal, comforting sort of role.
In the next hours, I worked very hard to get us seen. I told the hospital staff that the patient was agitated and I the interpreter was tired and that a doctor needed to attend. I inquired (as I already had twice) whether there were any interpreters on call in the hospital. They said no. Eventually, the possibility of a phone interpreter was brought up, but the client said that frightened him, and that after many previous visits to the emergency room, he deserved a real live interpreter.
After an 11-hour shift “on the job”, the client was finally served. I felt good about providing him this service, but I was VERY TIRED.
Despite my best intentions, I failed at establishing myself as a professional with this client. I did not yet have formal training in medical interpreter ethics and standards of conduct. That initial failure led to a relationship with him where he not only wanted, but expected, me to be a confidante and to advocate for him with his counselors, his housing workers and other service providers.
Since that first assignment, I have learned about proper role boundaries for a medical interpreter. I’ve adopted the use of first-person interpreting, conduct pre-sessions for new clients, and never stay in the room with the client when the provider leaves. I know now that clients who are showing mental stress or imbalance need an additional level of care that requires specialized training. I greatly appreciate the new knowledge about interpreter roles that I am gaining in my current educational program, but realize that it represents the exception and not the norm. Knowing what I do now, it is my goal to raise awareness in and outside the field about the limitations and complexities of healthcare interpreting work.
As Kaitlin’s moving story illustrates, public awareness of the critical role interpreters play and of what constitutes a professional medical interpreter lags far behind the level of professionalization our field is reaching. Even those who hire, oversee and use interpreter services are often woefully ignorant of the complex skill set required to competently bridge language barriers. Until those who are outside our profession know this as well as those of us inside our profession, the “bad ol’ days” will remain, in actuality, “now.”
Let Kaitlin’s story be a reminder to all of us about the need for continual client education, and the importance of supporting – in any way we can – the generation of interpreters now entering the field. I look forward to the day when stories like Kaitlin’s truly are a thing of the past.
Raising the profile of the interpreting profession is a major focus for InterpretAmerica. The theme for this year’s 4th InterpretAmerica Summit is On The Cutting Edge: Bringing Interpreting To The Forefront. To be held June 14-15 in Reston, Virginia, the Summit is great opportunity to help make our profession more visible everywhere.
** The patient’s medical details have been changed for the purposes of confidentiality.
 “Do Professional Interpreters Improve Clinical Care for Patients with Limited English Proficiency? A Systematic Review of the Literature” by Leah S Karliner, Elizabeth A Jacobs, Alice Hm Chen, and Sunita Mutha for Health Services Research (2007)
by Bethany Korp-Edwards on Friday, March 15, 2013
How about something a little lighter this week? A quick video review of universal translation/interpreting devices in science fiction. After all, if you’re going to encounter aliens, you have to be able to talk to them! First, the TV episode that inspired the title: Doctor Who, Episode 6.07, “A Good Man Goes to War.”