Interpreting Finds Its Voice: The Shared Vision of Association Leaders Cruz and Ferreira

The hotel housekeeper has a complaint, and I am there to interpret it.  Sitting beside the housekeeper, I speak into a cheap handset speakerphone.  On the other end, the hotel owner and district manager listen, encouraging the employee to air her concerns fully into the disembodied device. The interview concludes, the housekeeper leaves, and the district manager begins to give me invoicing instructions.

The owner interrupts: “Oh, and you’ll be sending us a translation with your invoice as well, correct?”

“Excuse me?” My brain doesn’t immediately compute what she is asking.

“You know, a translation of what you and the housekeeper just said.”

Is she kidding?

After a few awkward fits and starts, I finally explain that no, I did not write down everything as I was interpreting it, but that I would be happy to call the employee back. If they wanted to, they could take notes as I interpret the second time around.  Or, if they have an official transcript they want me to translate, I could do that. Otherwise, I could not reproduce verbatim what the employee said after the fact, transcribing and then translating a record for their benefit. That isn’t actually what an interpreter does.

The incident would be funny if it weren’t such a depressing barometer of our society’s profound ignorance about translation and interpreting. Explosive growth in global multilingual communication penetrates every aspect of our lives, from poorly translated instructions for products shipped from China to the interpreters who make it possible for heads of state to talk and the rest of us to listen and understand. Yet interpreting and translation, as professions, remain remarkably invisible.

When will “I am an interpreter” have shared meaning for the average person in the same way that “I am a teacher” or even “I am a politician” does?

And perhaps more pertinent, how will that shared meaning come about?

If NAJIT Chairman Robert Cruz and California Federation of Interpreters (CFI) President Michael Ferreira have their way, that broader recognition and clout will only come about as a result of the efforts of all of us, whether as individual interpreters or as larger association and agency players. However, they see a vital and special role for us, the individual practitioner.

And the moment may indeed be ripe to achieve that kind of visibility.

Both leaders keynoted the recent California Federation of Interpreters (CFI) 10th Annual Continuing Education Conference in Los Angeles. In his address, NAJIT Chairman Cruz emphasized the growing synergy between initiatives undertaken by individual interpreters and interpreter associations, and those spearheaded by outside fields, such as lawyers and the Department of Labor.

Of the many advances in interpreting highlighted by Cruz, it is particularly interesting to note that the top three he cited came from outside the interpreting profession.

  • The Supreme Court decision on Tanaguchi v. Sai Pan Ltd, in which the highest court of the land officially decreed that translation and interpretation are separate professions. NAJIT provided an important amicus brief in support of that position.
  • The inclusion of Translation and Interpreting in the Department of Labor’s Occupational Handbook. Tired of never finding our profession in the drop down list of careers that is included in almost any kind of survey asking about your line of work? Well, that day is now at hand. It may seem trivial, but this change represents a huge shift in public awareness of our craft. You can see the official citation here.
  • The American Bar Association (ABA) launched the ABA Standards for Language Access in Courts. Spurred on by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID), the Standards represent the most comprehensive document to date promoting full language access in courts nationwide. Among other things, it provides detailed guidance for court interpreter conduct and will hopefully contribute to lawyers, judges and court staff gaining a broader appreciation for the crucial role interpreters play.
  •   An increase in media interest about the role interpreters play in the administration of justice. Cruz said, when referring to indications of the growing visibility of our profession: “Lastly, and perhaps counter intuitively, the numerous media requests for interviews with interpreters and their leaders about budgetary constraints and other funding issues [represent another sign of progress]. Once upon a time, the issue of funding language access was moot.”

From inside the profession Cruz remarked on:

  • The newly minted national certification exams for medical interpreters (both the positives and negatives of that process).
  • The formation of a new coalition of professional associations representing sectors as diverse as sign language, conference, medical, and legal. Currently meeting on a monthly basis, this regular communication has helped professional associations to respond to developments in the field in a timely manner and with a more unified voice.
  • The Interpreting Marketplace Study commissioned by InterpretAmerica and conducted by Common Sense Advisory, which shows that a large percentage of interpreters are working cross sector and that we are an aging profession struggling to bring younger practitioners into the fold.
  • National and international discussions on the merits of a generalist interpreter certification. While no consensus has been reached as to whether this is a good or bad idea, the fact that our fragmented and often territorial field is sitting down to hash out this possibility represents a tidal shift for interpreting.

CFI President Ferreira works primarily on the state level, yet his views closely mirror those of his national counterpart. Regarding the Supreme Court case, Ferreira states that henceforth, “In the US judiciary translation shall be translation, interpretation shall be interpretation, and never the twain shall meet. For the first time ever the whole nation read about what makes us interpreters and how we differ from other ‘word smiths.’”

He also affirmed that in the ABA publication on language access, “interpreters loom large as one of the primary factors in providing language access in the nation’s courts.”

Progress indeed.

Both Cruz and Ferreira believe strongly in the need for wider and deeper collaboration among interpreting stakeholders of all kinds: between the diverse array of professional associations, as well as between individual interpreters and their association leadership. It is this latter partnership, in particular, that Cruz and Ferreira target as critical for elevating our profession.

So what can we do, as single players, to contribute to the strengthening of our profession? According to Cruz:

The single most important thing that an individual interpreter can do to affect change is to be the best possible ambassador and representative for interpreting. We all have an obligation as individuals to show our profession in the best possible light. This begins with professionalism first and foremost.

This can involve simple things like our demeanor and appearance, but also by meeting our obligation to always strive to be the most competent interpreter possible through continuing education and training so that certification or credentialing is not the “finish line” but the baseline.

Also, as we adhere to our respective codes of ethics, it is vital that we turn ethical prohibitions into teaching opportunities to those outside of our profession.

Ferreira concurs. Though speaking specifically about court interpreters, he makes a strong case for the importance of professionalism as practiced by each individual interpreter in a way that can be universalized to all sectors:

To achieve better working conditions as an interpreter one must: 1) learn and promote the universally recognized best professional practices that guide the judiciary interpreter profession, and, 2) do something proactive to make these professional best practices part of one’s daily provision of language access services in the courts. [Emphasis in the original.]

Court interpreters must also be united with their colleagues in demanding that best professional practices are implemented in their daily work. We must be both united and militant across the board concerning our best professional practices, or run the risk of losing the respect and confidence of others in the court system to whom we render service.

 A good metaphor for any profession, interpreting included, is the image of a boat, which is owned in common by all the members of the profession, each one owning a plank of the hull. Each and every member of the profession has a vested interest in the craft as it keeps everyone afloat and safe. As you can see, no one member of the profession can take a plank and do with it as he/she deems fit. That cannot be done and expect the USS Court Interpreting to keep from sinking below the waves.

 Cruz wrapped up his keynote by remarking on how easy it is for all of us to want someone else to do this hard work, referring to the frequently heard complaint in conference halls and online that “they ought to…” and “what is wrong with them?”

In response, Cruz was emphatic: “There is no they – you are they.”

Interpreting is indeed approaching a crossroads. It is up to all of us to do our part, whether that is as straightforward as going to work every day and being the best interpreter we can be, as complex as sitting at the negotiating table to bargain for interpreter workplace rights, or as politically fraught as finding common ground among sector specific professional associations.

Ferreira has an equally eloquent way to sum up the work that still remains before “I am an interpreter” becomes universally recognized.

In honor of (and apologies to) Robert Frost:

The halls of justice are lovely, dark, and deep.

But I have language access promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

 

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