Beyond The Job. Discovering then Rewarding the Preservation of Workplace Treasures.

I remember the first time my eyes locked with his. It was in his courtroom the 11th District Civil Court of Harris County, Texas. I stood before him at the bench, with my right hand raised while he gave me the Court Interpreter’s Oath. This is how our professions were first intertwined, both pivoting on the same respect and dedication to the U.S. Judiciary. 

Many people don’t realize that every U.S. court maintains original documents and  records from all cases and business filed with the court – back to the date the court was founded. This translates into hundreds of years of evidence in the form of testimony, maps, affidavits, personal identifications, tintype photographs,  earliest of business records that date back to the 1700s. Try and picture a land grant request  ( in Spanish) by Stephen F. Austin before Texas’s independence from Mexico,  petitions by slaves suing for their freedom and winning (the plaintiff signed with an X ) all the way to  the present generation when John Lennon’s doodles made  while attending Yoko Ono’s child custody case were included in the records of that trial.  Since evidence then, as now, is admitted after inspection for veracity, you have history being told of every aspect of life, from personal, to commercial to national events.

But  if not preserved, all of that will be shredded or disintegrate.Gloved hand

 The time constraints on a Judge are extensive.  Judge Mark Davidson has had an outstanding judicial career, serving as judge of the 11th District Court for twenty years  before his retirement in 2009 and on into his appointment as Judge of the MDL court for the Asbestos litigation.  But in the 1990s when Judge Davidson sought out a century-old court document and was handed an envelope filled with yellow colored confetti , the result of the ancient document  never having been preserved, he made the time to take action. Judge Davidson, William Kroger, a partner in Baker Botts law firm, and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson  headed the effort to preserve documents within Harris County leading up to the creation of the Harris County District Clerk’s Historic Documents Room, which opened to the public in 2006. The room holds documents from the late 1700s-1951, and is used today by  authors, filmmakers historians, judges, lawyers and the public  research.  Seeing the result of this project, the Texas Supreme Court mandated that the Historical Document Reading Room and the Historical Document Preservation Project were the model for all state courts across Texas should follow. A spring 2009 meeting with Justice Jefferson, Judge Davidson and Galveston County Clerk Latonia Wilson led to the creation of the Texas Court Records Preservation Task Force by the Texas Supreme Court. Then Judge Davidson worked with State Representative Sarah Davis to create HB 1559 and carry it to passage in 2011. The bill provided that court records, stored in courthouses across Texas, would receive temporary protection from destruction. So in his spare time, he identified the risk of the destruction of history, developed a solution and acted on it.

In 2013, I was named Chair of the Historical Preservation Committee of my chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and that’s how I learned about  the existence of the Historic Document Room in our Harris County Courthouse and that the court greatly needed help to protect them.    

After meeting with Judge Davidson, I assembled a team of DAR members, all experienced preservationists, genealogists and history lovers to volunteer in the room all day twice a month to build a searchable database of every case filed since the early 1800s. We also transcribe the documents hand written ( with quill pen!), we raise funds for the preservation process and we give private tours of the room. I am now invited to speak to groups on the rich history we find and how they can help with this project.  My skills as an interpreter benefit because I also learn terminology and can analyze  the similarities of testimony given over 150 years ago. For the last three years I have been blissfully volunteering in Judge Davidson’s shadow.

Judge Davidson,medalFast forward from the day he gave me the Interpreter’s Oath to March 2016 and the photograph you see. Judge Mark Davidson is being awarded the National Medal for Historic Preservation before a packed room of dignitaries including his colleagues named above and yours truly.  I proudly nominated him because he obviously earned it.  But I was also personally motivated because he showed me how to make time for a good cause while maintaining respect and dedication to our profession.

Look for more posts on my discoveries among these treasures.

For information on the Historical Document Room at the courthouse please go to  http://www.hcdistrictclerk.com/Common/Default.aspx and click on Historical Documents.

 

Either Way, It’s The Same Horns. My Take Away from a Lawyer’s Rant.

Longhorn reciprocal scan0001Knowing what your client needs and expects from you is a baseline for providing a great product or service. But when you go a step further and learn the inner workings of your client’s work experience, you will be able to use that insight to resolve some tough problems and your own company will benefit.

My market is the judicial field. Non-paying or slow paying clients is the most common complaint I hear from colleagues, both freelance court interpreters and Translation and Interpreting agencies alike. I’m not immune to this experience. I have perfected rates and terms that meet and surpass the high standards set by the judiciary and lawyers. I deliver them whenever someone enquires about my services or availability and I politely require acceptance in writing before I accept an assignment. But as much as I study my client’s industry and keep up with their regulations and legislation, I haven’t found the magic tactic to guarantee on time payment.

Then I read the post by a lawyer who was really angry at clients who don’t pay him. http://lawfirmsuites.com/2013/10/shop-talk-deadbeat-clients/

He had me at the title of the post Clients Who Don’t Pay Piss Me Off. Notwithstanding the irony of the source of the complaint, after reading that post, I can honestly say I felt his pain.

I have heard a lot about the business of law and I have paid attention. I listen to shop talk by clients who are personal friends and I ask questions. I grew up in a family of lawyers that includes two Supreme Court Justices. In my continuing education classes, I teach interpreters to pay attention to the business of law. But the raw resentment expressed in this man’s post is exactly how I feel when I have to enter into the ugly phase of collecting a fairly earned fee. The fact that collecting from law firms is a regular component of doing business for me and my colleagues makes this lawyer’s perspective all that more valuable.

Every situation that he describes in his post has happened to me. I have endured clients not paying, delaying payment and not responding to late notices or phone calls, and even clients asking you to cut the already agreed upon rate after the assignment is completed, His sense of betrayal and having been disrespected is all too familiar. It is disrespectful to not be paid your hard earned fees.

When I read his advice to lawyers: You shouldn’t do business with clients who do not respect the value of your services, I wondered if he had read my articles or attended one of my classes.

My take away from that post was that I can now apply a layer of empathy to my terms policy. I can approach clients from a more shared experience. We are both giving our best services to the client. We are held to an oath and regulations most professionals wouldn’t tolerate. And we both truly respect the judicial system that we serve.

But the most significant take away I got from that post is knowing I can say to my client, ”I understand”.

Top Ten Signs that tell me I’m going to Love Working with this Agency

 

From the first point of contact, the Translation/Interpretation agency shows me the voyage I will go on if I chose to work with them.  The danceScan

They reveal their professionalism in this field and their respect for a good contractor  by how they speak to me, what they tell me about themselves and their operation and the contents of the all important contract and agreements. Some sound like sweat shops with supervisors who worked at the Gulag, others are working out of a dry cleaners with about as much knowledge of  court interpreting.  But when I match the criteria listed below,  I have found some T&I agencies that are so well run that I get excited about the mutually productive and enjoyable relationship we will have. And for some, it has been many years of a great experience working together.

See if your next agency contact shows you these signs.
1. Their entire staff has done professional interpreting or translating  work and they know the terminology, the expectations, the market and the work they are going to ask me to do.

2. They have read my resume and are familiar with my specialization and credentials.

3. They know the laws and regulations that I am bound to and that they are bound to.

4. They negotiate rates and terms instead of insisting I adhere to theirs.

5. They aren’t collecting resumes that they never read.

6. If they can’t afford my rates, they tell me instead of never calling me.

7. Their contract reflects correctly and specifically the interpreting proceedings or translating legal material work that they expect me to do.

8. Their contract is intelligently crafted to reflect a contractor –subcontractor relationship and does not include irrelevant responsibilities applicable to employees.

9. They are respectful and polite and never condescending. They show how they realize that with all the big money clients in the world, their company fails without good contractors who actually do the work.

10. They don’t ask me to find them another subcontractor for an assignment, also known as doing their job for which they are paid a salary .

In your experience, is there another sign?

The Waterfall Witness

Despite all the terminology compiled and studied before a proceeding, the way a witness responds to a question can hold the most surprises for the legal interpreter.  So we have to change our listening and processing mode for each different style of responsiveness. We base our performance on canons of professional responsibility for completeness, not paraphrasing and not omitting what is said. But if we don’t catch every word spoken, we run the risk of failing our oath.

Witnesses respond according to their reaction to the question and to the way the subject matter is emphasized. Sometimes they are intimidated by the process. Sometimes they show anger while facing the representative of those they hold responsible for damages or those who sued them. It is an entirely personal behavior no matter how much preparation they were given by their lawyer.

The easiest back and forth to interpret is the orderly question followed by the short response with no heightened emotion by either party. The other extreme is the witness who either launches into or builds up to a rapid free flow of extensive narrative, without a pause whatsoever. I call this the Waterfall Witness. Waterfall

The interpreter needs to develop three skills to master the rendering of waterfall testimony.
1. Prediction. Observe the witness long enough to catch any emotion beyond complacence. Note the length of the responses to the personal history questions. If they are beyond the scope of the question, you have warning of a pattern there. If the witness dissects the question in the answer, that can erupt in long winded hostility. Grief lends itself to listing memories. Anger becomes confrontation and repetitive phrasing of the stated issues.
2. Pace duplication. As linguists we are listening in order to render. You will have to erase any reaction to the content of the testimony in order to retain it. The best way is to keep pace with the speaker. Duplicate the tempo of the speaker with either your notetaking or your simultaneous interpreting.
3. Keep track of the topic. The waterfall witness will add topics and stray off topic. Your notetaking should highlight the new topic and the key word they use. I have even drawn a hierarchical map with arrows charting the response from topic to topic.

I have found that in a deposition the attorneys rarely interrupt a waterfall witness simply because they want to hear everything this witness may possibly have to say about the issue. If they do it is through an objection. But in trials, attorneys will interrupt via objections and the Judge will interrupt with an instruction. So the interpreter also has to monitor the point when the judge interrupted during the witness’s testimony for the court reporter to hear that clearly. Then the full instruction to the witness has to be interpreted along with their response. Even then, you cannot rest because the objecting attorney may reply with a “Thank you, your honor”.

The interpreting mode can be an issue. Trying to take fully accurate notes of a 300 word missive at the pace of emotional discourse is risky. I expand my note taking to include topic with key words and identify the order in the response. I go through a lot of paper. It is easier to go into simultaneous mode which can be done in a deposition. But  in court it  is hard for the jury, the court reporter and the judge to hear you not to mention the attorney further back in the courtroom. If you are allowed to use simultaneous, I suggest getting permission from the Judge to step forward closer to the court reporter and then speaking louder.

All told, taking on a waterfall witness is not for the novice interpreter. So practice a lot and go watch one in court. Remember, witnesses have the right to testify in the form that is natural to them. So, it is up to us to raise our skill level to meet this challenge.

DEAR AGENCY, I Remember You Well.

Dear Translation and Interpreting Agency,

At 7:00 this morning your office called me for a last minute “pop up” assignment for this afternoon or as you called it “an emergency” because another interpreter had backed out of a deposition. I was headed to a prove up hearing and I called you back as soon as I had parked at the courthouse. I quickly told you I would be available and to please send me the notice by email and I’d confirm once I got out of court. Your scheduler said she had my email address. Your company name rang a bell, and over the next hour, it gnawed at me, sounding more like a warning siren for a tornado.

As soon as I got back to my office I looked your name up in my files and sure enough you were there, in bright, bold red lettering – on my Restricted Agency List. And there was the report on you. We had history a few years back. You were scheduling me for work but you weren’t paying me on time, and you didn’t pay my late fees when you paid three months late. Yes, you had received, acknowledged, and agreed to my rates and terms in writing. You did not reply to and erased emails, then you avoided phone calls. I called colleagues in your state and learned you had several complaints from interpreters there. When I used a different phone, I finally spoke to the owner, and she was condescending and rude. She dismissed my request for payment saying,” she would pay me when she got around to it.”Longhorn reciprocal scan0001

I won’t work for you. I’m turning you down. You don’t respect subcontractors. We do the work you count on us to do and we count on you to pay us fairly and honestly. We are the fuel that keeps your business running. We expect you to manage your business professionally too.

Most probably that is the same reason the other interpreter backed out. And this is the consequence of your incompetence. You will hear “No” from the professional, licensed, and certified interpreters either because you disrespected them or they heard about your practices. You will have to send unskilled bilinguals on jobs because they will and not know how to expect to be treated right but they won’t know how to perform professionally either. Witnesses will lose the right to have their testimony heard due to the errors, which should matter above all else. Your clients will see their ineptitude and you will lose more and more clients.

Now, in the spirit of generosity, if you want to stay in this business, I will tell you how you can turn this around. You know who you have treated unfairly. Contact them and acknowledge your mistakes, apologize and make amends. Pay the full, agreed to payments that you owe. Be the better person and include interest. Prove that you know how to treat us respectfully. Then you can rejoin the ranks of the agencies for whom we gladly give our best efforts.

Sincerely yours,

The Freelance Interpreter.

You Made a Mistake. Time to Tour the Impact Zone.

You can’t shake the uneasiness. Maybe while you were interpreting in a deposition, an attorney objected and then asked to have the question and your interpretation read back. Then nothing more was said about it. Maybe in the translation you just finished, there was one unfamiliar phrase repeated throughout, but you made the deadline and it is already in the hands of the client. The more you think about it, the more you feel that you made a mistake. You aren’t sure if anyone caught it since you haven’t received a complaint…yet. At this point, your conscience won’t leave you alone.

Lightning storm jpg
That is a good thing. That means you care about your work product. Embrace your conscience with a big Thank You.  I will walk you through what goes on after you’ve left the stage. Because the more you know about the impact of your work- good or bad; the more you’ll know how to improve. Look for two upcoming posts: what you can do to resolve a mistake and what to do when the client wrongly claims you made a mistake.
When a mistake is discovered, here’s what happens on the client’s end.
If you were working for an agency, they will hear the complaint from their client. A professional agency should give you a chance to tell your side, so they will contact you and ask you about the job. Some will test your honesty by not mentioning the complaint, to see if you will reveal the mistake to them. Others will be honest and tell you exactly what the client said. This allows you to help the agency rectify the problem and thus help them keep their client. If they keep that client, you have a better chance to stay on with the agency but it is likely you won’t be sent on assignments for their specific client. If the agency has to resolve the problem on their own you could easily lose the agency as your client. Often the agency will need to discount or not charge their fee to keep the client so there is a financial burden to them.
Fact: The agency can replace you with another freelancer much easier than they can replace a paying client.

If you were working directly for a client, you may not hear about the complaint until after they themselves have decided what to do about it. If this mistake has affected their client’s case, the firm has to act quickly and follow the rules of civil or criminal procedure. If they have to tell their client what happened, then your name takes another hit. Hell hath no fury like an attorney in damage control mode.

Fact: Most interpreters don’t realize the repercussions of misinterpreted testimony.
Unless you have a long term, exclusive relationship with this client, chances are you won’t hear about the complaint at all. Lawyers don’t like adding the task of questioning you to their agendas. You will begin to notice they don’t schedule you anymore and then your overall work load drops off. It is usually because they simply mentioned the experience with you to another lawyer, which snowballs, tarnishing your reputation.
Mistakes are ethical and procedural slip-ups too. Judicial professionals hold us to the same standards they are held to. Being late and delaying a deposition costs both parties time and money. Missing a deadline on a translation can set back the client’s production schedule. A breach of confidentiality or privilege can result in a mistrial. This is why clients react so strongly to these mistakes.
Reasons for mistakes never outweigh the repercussions. This awareness will give you the additional instinct to avoid them.

When to Buy into a Client’s Complaint.

The longer you freelance in this business, if you make the effort to keep getting training, you can count on five things to happen.
1. Your performance will get better and better.
2. What was once difficult will be easy.
3. Your confidence will get more and more solid.
4. You will enjoy the work every time.
5. You will also face a client’s complaint about your work that will take you right back to how nervous you felt when you were just starting out.
UnhappyrockScanSo when faced with a complaint about your work, when do you stand up for yourself and when do you just move on? The answer is when you know, without question, which of the following is true:
1. You did not make any mistakes or
2. The client is right and you made an error in your performance.

The only way to know is if you are distinctly aware of your performance by practicing constant and honest self-assessment.   Interpreters need to listen to what they themselves are saying and rely on the instant recall of the last interchange. Most professional interpreters have retention of the prior several seconds. All interpreters should truthfully acknowledge a check list of their own weaknesses, which most clients object to, including heavy accents, pronunciation and grammar mistakes and being late. Translators need to practice good time management and make mental notes of their word choices and the options they can choose from. We also need to invest in a good proofreader since fresh eyes can make or break your reputation. We also have to know the regulations and expectations of competitive professional interpreting or translation. That is the only way we can know if we made a mistake and were to blame or not.

I’ve learned that most interpreters and translators usually know when there was a grey area in their work product. We also know when our performance is at risk because of the environment or setting we are working in. An example would be when the interpreter faced with screaming attorneys and witnesses all talking over each other. The freelance translator can be uneasy when given a barely legible copy or a deadline that is moved up from the original one. But we do have the right to tell the client of the risk to our performance and ask that it be remedied. And we, as freelancers have the right to turn down any job.

But there is still the probability that the client is wrong in their accusation. My profession has an inexcusably low percentage of end user knowledge of the fundamentals skills required to be an interpreter and /or translator as well as our process and regulations. The biggest culprit is the client who feels they are more fluent than a licensed trained and qualified translator or interpreter.

Honest self-assessment can lead to fewer mistakes in your control. It happens to all of us. Every now and then a mistake slips into our normally impeccable work product. I have three more posts about this. One tells what happens when the client discovers a mistake, how to resolve it when you did make a mistake and how to handle the client wrongly claiming you made a mistake when you didn’t.

The Perils of the Pro-Se Witness

Court interpreters should prepare carefully for the pro se witness. A Pro Se witness is a litigant who chooses to go to trial without an attorney or legal representation. “Pro se” is a Latin term, meaning “on one’s own behalf” and a “litigant” is someone who is either suing someone or is being sued in court.Gorilla

The right to appear pro se in a civil case in federal court is contained in a statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1654. Thus, anyone can appear pro se, and anyone who appears before the Court without an attorney is considered pro se. Interpreters can find out if either party is pro se by looking at the case style or reviewing the court docket online. There won’t be a pro se party in the following cases:
A. When the litigant is a corporations or a partnership.
B. A pro se litigant may not represent a class in a class action.
C. A non-attorney parent may not appear pro se on behalf of a child, except to appeal the denial of the child’s social security benefits.

This post covers both scenarios, the pro se witness needing an interpreter, or if the witness for the opposing counsel needs a full trial interpretation. The interpreter should be prepared for many objections and rulings and interruptions to ongoing testimony. Tempers can flare and there will be a lot of people talking over each other. This interpreting setting is not a smooth question and answer process.

Pro se witnesses often don’t know the correct procedure for testifying in a courtroom or the trial procedures litigants have to follow. I also notice that most pro se witnesses are so focused on having their say that when they are told they have to follow certain steps, they get irritated. There can be disruptions with such normally quick and effortless procedures such as pre-trial motions and agreements and document filings. Just getting to the point when they are put under oath will take longer than you are used to.

The interpreter must be ready for objections and instructions by the judge during pro se testimony. Such litigants usually aren’t familiar with testimony limitations, such as hear say, mentioning insurance and references to evidence not admitted. Another pattern I see is the tendency to testify in the narrative. This is when they tell a story instead of following the standard question-answer format which allows opposing counsel to object to a question before it was answered.

The best advice for interpreters with a pro se litigant is to pack your patience. Be prepared by knowing the potential objections and the definitions which the judge will use to explain them. You will use note taking a lot to cover the talk overs, interruptions, long, rambling responses and compound questions. I recommend that you brief the pro se on the correct process of speaking through an interpreter. But hold fast to the limitation of your scope of work and do not ever provide advice on how to proceed or define terminology.

In my classes I always suggest observing a case with a pro se litigant before you interpret such a case. Justice of the Peace courts often have pro se litigants. Get permission to observe from the bailiff first and then sit back and be prepared to be amazed.

The Document Translation Gold Mine for the Court Interpreter.

A lot of us claim to be translators or interpreters but not both. For many years I too, only claimed to be a court interpreter and I would only accept in person assignments for legal or law enforcement proceedings. Then I discovered the treasures that translating legal documentation provided.
FtBCtyjailScanThe fact is the terminology that stumps us the most is legalese. Not the rantings of an emotional witness but terms like: “The Plaintiff prays” and “Requests for Admissions “and “General Denial”. The most abundant source of this is the continuous stream of legal documents produced in the discovery phase of the civil lawsuit. Most of my colleagues consider the pre deposition, pretrial phase as a lawyer’s only domain so they don’t even investigate what happens before we step in, when the parties face each other. I believe the best preparation is knowing as much as possible about what happened before I step in and what is expected to happen afterwards. So I studied these phases from the attorney’s point of view and I discovered all the words that had ever stymied me. Since then I have never been even delayed in providing an accurate translation of those terms.
I incorporated these assets into a continuing education course I developed on civil discovery for licensed court interpreters and translators in Texas. From the start to when the class finished, comments like “That’s what that means”, or “That’s what they are talking about” echoed around the room.
Whether in court or a deposition, we can be handed such documents, as exhibits, and asked to sight translate them. So, studying samples first is key to seamless sight translation. In depositions, questions may contain phrasings taken directly from these standard forms but the interpreter may not be handed a document to refer to. Recognizing the document title, the interpreter can then know the terms associated with that document and their meanings and usage. Documents such as Plaintiff’s Original Petition, Original Set of Interrogatories and Verification of Employment can show the foundation for the questions and objections we hear and must be familiar with.
Then I made another amazing discovery of my own. I volunteer at the Harris County District Clerk’s Historical Documents room at the civil courthouse. This room houses court records dating back to the 1700s; through the period Texas was a part of Mexico, then a Republic and then after joining the United States as the 28th state of the Union. I index and transcribe evidence and court transcripts, the earliest written in quill pen. Some, originally written in Spanish, were translated over 180 years ago. Our court system has followed the same processes with the same legalese for centuries. I found Plaintiff’s Original Petitions, Charges to the Jury and Summons as old as the Republic of Texas. They contain the exact same phrasings of those used today.
So, try translating legal procedural documents. Study and practice with them. Your interpreting skills will grow and your performance will shine.

Handing the Witness Something He can’t Possibly Read

Mayan HirogliphicsA deposition in a contract dispute is going smoothly. A certified court interpreter is interpreting the questions asked by the attorneys and the responses given by the witness. The questioning attorney has a document marked as an exhibit and hands it to the witness, asking him to verify what it is. The witness looks puzzled. The contract, all 15 pages, is in English. The witness states that he cannot read English and he is unable to read the exhibit. The witness’s attorney sits silent and unaccommodating.  The solution to this potential confusion and delay is sitting right there at the table.

Professional court interpreters are able to read out loud documents that are written in English into the witness’s language. This is called sight translation and it is included in our scope of practice. We are trained to know and understand legal terms, specialized industrial, commercial and discovery material terminology and the correct translations for such terminology in the written form, just as we are trained in the spoken form. We read the document out loud at a smooth uninterrupted pace. Sight translation is part of the licensed court interpreter’s job. But we can’t offer to assist one side or the other during the questioning process, whether a trial or deposition; it is up to the attorneys to know to ask us to perform this function.

While on the record, state that you are requesting that the interpreter sight translate, to the witness, the marked document, specifying the passage or section. For example state “The third paragraph on page three. Or, “The second sentence of the first paragraph starting with “In the event of “and ending with “notify your supervisor”. This allows the section or document sight translated to be correctly indicated in the record.

When the section has been sight translated, the interpreter should state in English for the record, “The specified section has been sight translated to the witness.” The attorney can then ask the witness if they understood what was read to them or simply follow up with the question.

Most short passages from legal or standard commercial documents are easily sight translated. In a courtroom setting provide the interpreter with a copy of the document to be sight translated long enough before they take the stand so they can quickly review it for needed term translation.

If the text is specialized terminology, do yourself and the interpreter a favor and advise them of the subject matter prior to the deposition. At examinations under oath, when you introduce the document to be marked, show it to the interpreter to review in case they need to look up terminology.

I have sight translated Subpoena Duces Tecums, Requests for Production, notices, contracts, agreements, applications for employment, accident reports, warning labels, safety manuals, ship’s log books, product use instructions, prescription labels, letters, bank statements, ingredient lists for natural remedies and deposition transcripts. With the exception of poetry, any document that the rules allow to be handed to the witness being questioned can be accurately sight translated. This is just another way the language barrier is removed allowing due process to continue unrestrained.