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 I volunteer at the Harris County District Clerk’s Historical Documents room at the civil courthouse.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.

Why and How We Charge What We Charge. It’s About Time.

parrot scan0001One of the best tools I learned about running a business was calculating the value of my time. It helped me to manage my time by spending it in ways that created or led to future income. Placing a dollar value on your time is key to success as a freelance interpreter or translator. This is a common fact for all small business owners.
But our clients can benefit from learning how we charge and how we spend time on a job. Recognizing the value of a freelancer’s time helps you put an added value on the work we do for you. And when you see that time is not being spent efficiently by the freelancer you chose, then you know you have to find a more professional service provider.
We freelancers have to spend a lot of time that is not paid in order to complete a project. We are not paid for giving an estimate for translation or transcription work and that can take a long time. If our estimate is more than the client budgeted for, then we have lost the time as well as the job. After reviewing the task, if the deadline is shorter than we can finish the job, then again we lose the job and wasted that time. People who charge for estimates soon lose that client to those of us who don’t.
Having a finely tuned system for estimate development works for me. It is based on knowing how long it takes me, individually to translate or transcribe specific assignments. I ask the client to give me those details and they are outlined on my website. I also am free to say no to a job instead of performing that work poorly. Rushes are charged according to the value of me working on weekends and during non-business hours. But I never accept a job that I know, even with overtime hours, I will be so rushed I could make mistakes.
Interpreters measure our paid time in hours of the duration of the assignment. Longer jobs are preferred, obviously, but the duration of a deposition or hearing can’t always be predicted by the client. That’s why we have a minimum charge and the standard is two hours. Also it is common for interpreters to get last minute calls, or “pop ups”. Since we have to try to schedule enough work in advance to make a living, we often have to revise our schedule to fit those in. It is good business for us to be flexible and accommodate the client. Unless the client is continuously calling at the last minute. Whether it is an agency or law firm, it is obvious that they only call you when they have exhausted their list and that is disrespectful. I simply tell those people to take me off their list.
The biggest culprit that wastes time for both interpreters and translators is the cancellation. That is why we charge a fee for that. For interpreting it is completely lost income that we counted on and lost through no fault of our own and we don’t have time to replace it. For translations, we already spent time reviewing for the estimate and setup and we blocked off time for the work. Cancellation terms and fees should be presented up front when scheduled and agreed to in writing before leaving for the interpreting job or starting the translation job.
I learned these lessons when I first started doing this work thirty five years ago. Like all novice freelancers, I felt the obligation to say yes to every job that came my way out of fear of not having more work soon thereafter. We freelancers are basically unemployed at the end of each day unless we have the skills to develop a clientele that relies on us. There is another key to success, provide the best language work on time and you will be trusted and relied upon by the client. I have learned that it is a relationship based on mutual respect and trust.
Here is a good way for a full time employee to understand how the freelancer values time. If your boss assigns you a task and then takes it away and refuses to pay you for that time during your regular pay day. Or if you are called the night before and told not to come in the next day and that day’s pay will be deducted from your paycheck. Full time employees are protected by law against that, including unpaid overtime.
We freelancers have to negotiate those waters with tact and skill. Hopefully we are sailing a well-built ship.

Walking Away In Mid Sentence.

MayagirlbacklScanHas someone ever walked away from you in mid conversation or hung up on you on the telephone? Have you ever done that to someone? It must have been caused by anger, disagreement or frustration. Whatever the reason, the result is information is not communicated. It is also considered very rude and that can result in a deterioration of the relationship.

Today we spend so little time speaking face to face or even on the telephone. It is almost all by email or texting. We can apply the same behavior to these communications. Reading and responding to only part of an email is cutting off the sender from the rest of their message. Fortunately, until you tell them that you only read part of what they wrote, the rudeness factor doesn’t come into play. But the problems associated with acting on incomplete information are worse than a slight. They can cause you to miss or be late to an important meeting, not have all the details to make a decision or not know about a change in your role or responsibility. The list of consequences is proportional to the reasons you are contacted in the first place. And when it is revealed that the email was dismissed or considered not important enough to be read completely, that business relationship is jeopardized.

But what about those long winded emails that never seem to get to a point? They are definitely considered more of an imposition than valuable information. Like I tell the authors whose books I edit, a little honest self-assessment goes a long way. The cure for the habit of pouring words into a message is to first break down your points with bullets. Then put the critical instruction first. Limit or dispense with the niceties and do that cold turkey. Close by telling the respondent to respond with any questions they may have. If you are a hard core babbler, show the message to a friendly critic. If it wins their approval then you have a template.

As a freelance court interpreter, I know my clients are very busy and they are doing me the favor of giving me an assignment. Sometimes a legal secretary, paralegal or court clerk doesn’t provide me with all the details I need. So, my follow up email is succinct. I ask only for what I need to know. As short as one sentence with greeting and closing.

I felt the irritation first hand when I had sub-contractors who repeatedly didn’t read my assignment emails, replying with questions I had already answered. After I responded a few times in short answers including a reference to the already stated information, most people were cured. But others didn’t catch on. These people took up more of my time and became labeled high maintenance. Giving excuses for not having read my email made matters worse. My time was spent providing work, so I replaced them with less demanding freelancers.

My goal is this post will be 510 words or less. Thanks for reading. Please comment.

Craft or Commerce: Which One Wins in Your Work?

I was reading about a pair of successful musicians who spoke about balancing the management of the business end of their bookings and  keeping their songs and performances sharp and entertaining.

They used the quote Amishfather&sonScan “Commerce comes second to craft” and it struck a chord with me. I can hear a chorus of agreement with those words when applied to almost any business. If you have a faulty product (your craft) then your commerce (profit) is not guaranteed. I bet it is a very popular quote to use at annual meetings and the like. Advertising agencies would really put a nice spotlight on their corporate clients with those words.

It is especially true in the field of judicial interpreting and translation. In order to take pride in your work we have to keep improving. But training is new to our field, it is not considered mandatory and is not always accessible. We have to test the self-imposed boundaries to self-discipline. We have to search for and make time for training opportunities.

And yet the ugly truth is that getting hired is not always contingent on a high level of skill in this business. We can find agencies and clients who will assign us a job based on our rate and availability and never ask about our training. And another fact is that they have no standard way to asses our skill level until we are actually working. This void is not found in a lot of industries where training starts with higher education and then is part and parcel of the career path. That is the standard most industries look to when they measure a professional skill. So let’s rise to that expectation. Show high respect for colleagues who pursue training. And consider the high value of the agency or client that asks for your credentials and tests you. They are holding you to a higher standard.

But in a market that does not recognize our craft as a discipline, craft comes second to commerce. There is more focus on how much we will charge than on our qualifications or earned certifications. The concept that some bilingual lawyers or legal staff have that they can gauge our interpreting skill defies the foundation of our craft.

We have to find a balance. I suggest we hold true to placing craft over commerce even if other colleagues, agencies or clients don’t. I also suggest organizing your promotional material be it your website or professional media presence with concrete details that support your actual skills. List training, conferences, earned certifications (State or National licenses and/or professional organizations) and tests passed. This will give the client a standard to measure you by. And your craft will be what they remember you for and the commerce will be a good result of your effort.

Spanglish, Chinglish and Konglish: There’s a name for that.

80sBoatppleScanAn interpreter or translator can be easily tripped up by distinctive wordings that appear to be a mix of both the source and the target language. These wordings are based on the speaker or author merging his or her grasp of two languages and using a term from one language as if it were a component of the other. Our flow can be interrupted when the speaker or text author uses the vocabulary learned in their single language household or social group.
There is a name for this! It is called Second Language Acquisition. In fact it is an entire component of the field of linguistics. I taught a graduate class on this subject for a University of Houston program for Bilingual Educators. Translators and interpreters should take a look at these elements of communication because you will be seeing it in documents and you will hear it spoken.
A professional interpreter or translator never passes judgment on the speaker or author by labeling their language as correct or incorrect. It is our job to learn all the different ways a person may choose to communicate so that we perform in accordance to the highest professional standards.
Second language acquisition elements can dominate the communication patterns of dual language speakers in certain geographic regions. Interpreters in Houston are used to hearing the English term for feeder road used interchangeably in Spanish and English as “la feeder” or ”feeder”. I have seen it in Spanish source texts written as fider. East coast Spanish interpreters hear La Gua Gua for bus because of the predominance of the Puerto Rican use of this term. I invite you, dear readers, to comment and report examples in other languages.
In industrial employment settings, sub groups also demonstrate transference patterns. Names of tools, equipment, materials, employer titles or specific places on a job site (lunch tent) may have very different version that have no resemblance to the dictionary translation.
Job duties and procedures can be expressed by converting the English name (noun) for the equipment into a verb and using that word for their job title or description.
These are examples of Second Language Acquisition Transference.
transfer: influence of similarities and differences between the TL (target language) and a SL (source language) that has been previously (perhaps imperfectly) acquired.
Here are some problems that transference causes which impede the LEP from successfully acquiring the second language:

negative transfer (interference): cross-linguistic influences resulting in errors.
underproduction: learner produces few or no examples of the second language. This is often caused by conscious avoidance of difficult wordings in the second language.
overproduction: learner develops a habit of repeating a transference wording more so than native speakers of the second language.
miscomprehension/misinterpretation: When relying on native language transference the second language is not thoroughly comprehended nor used correctly resulting in production errors:
Why is the linguistic explanation important to Judicial T&I professionals? Because it defines how the speaker or author came to use this untranslatable term. Lawyers and Judges benefit from knowing these elements of the communication process. Lawyers can better represent their client when they know how their witness communicates naturally. Judges benefit from knowing that the testimony is intact and not altered by mistranslated evidence or misinterpreted testimony. Translators can use Second Language Acquisition elements in their translator’s notes.
I will follow up with specific suggested procedures to follow when you face SLA elements in your work. Look for the post: What To Do: Spanglish, Chinglish and Konglish.

Road Wise

MG countryroadScanOne of the most common proceedings I interpret is the vehicular accident deposition. The line of questioning is pretty standard.  The responses are a bit more varied. But here is one response that I have heard three times now. And every time I hear it, I smile quietly to myself.

Question: What street were you driving on when the impact occurred?

Response:   XYZ Street.

Question: How many lanes are there on XYZ Street?

Response:  Two. One in each direction.

Question:   What lane were you driving in?

Response: The middle one.

The Unique Ability to Focus

distractalbqScanInterpreters are obligated to listen and render a verbatim of what we hear. This is a uniquely challenging occupational task, because it is unnatural for humans to ignore what we see people do and suppress reactions to what we hear people say. Even at the subconscious level humans react to this stimuli.

I saw a CBS Sunday Morning segment on autism and it mentioned a study on attention at The Mc Govern Institute for brain research at MIT . Brain scans showed standard neuro stimulation when we faced a person and they faced us or looked away. Whether a witness is looking at me or not is the least of my concerns in a legal proceeding.  I am even ignoring the discerning stares of the Judge, the jury and the attorneys.  But it was news to me.  that, beyond my control, my brain is reacting to the physical behavior of others.  I realized we interpreters are highly adept at controlling our conscious reactions and we stifle subconscious reactions. We don’t act on them. If we do, we will lose focus.

You can witness proof of interpreters excelling at this process of focus, when an untrained bilingual disputes the interpretation provided by a professional interpreter.  The challenger will emphasize and spend time expressing their dissent.  They display excitement over their detection. They look at the others around them soliciting support for their opinion, avoiding eye contact with the interpreter. They emphasize their bilingualism. Their tone is challenging and self-justifying. The last thing they do is to repeat the words they are challenging. But since that isn’t their priority or focus, more times than not, their recall is faulty and they admit not being able to repeat the words verbatim.

Meanwhile, the interpreter’s demeanor is the opposite.  The interpreter is subdued because he or she is sorting through their metal hard drive of what we heard spoken and what we interpreted.  Even during this interruption, that is our focus.

Our sole center of attention is on the words spoken.  We have no personal agenda. Legal interpreters have no vested interest in the outcome of the case. We have no bias. Our task is all consuming and difficult enough as is. The message is a ticker tape of words running across our minds.

Shutting out external stimulation is a real skill.  What caught your eye in the photo from the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico?  The gas balloon looming in the horizon or the teeny tiny lizard we found on the launch field?  

What we do is a process of hearing without feeling any emotional reaction to what is being said. We focus on the words, tone and register that we hear so intently, that we perform machine like. Some of us call it being in the zone. And it does become more automatic the longer you perform and develop the skill.

But at least our brains still sense all the stimuli even though we don’t react to it.

Good to know.

Wording Trends: The Motorized Vehicular Accident, Discovery and Litigation

DianeyellowMGScan      Questions about cell phone use are now standard in these kind of cases. I say motorized because people driving heavy machinery use their cell phones while driving. I’ve seen park landscapers on the phone while driving commercial sized mowers. I’ve seen people on their cell phones while driving combines in fields. Vehicular-pedestrian accidents happen when the pedestrian is on their cell too.
Cell phone use is so common now that we reference it in the comprehensive phrase “being on your cell phone” that includes all the functions performed on a cell phone. People can do any of these tasks with their cell phone: talk, text, read emails, respond to emails, listen to voice mail messages, view maps and other content and listen to music. Did I forget anything? If so, please let me know. I want to be ready to interpret those words.
Attorneys word their questions in a variety of ways. But as accident causes evolve, new vocabulary and phrasing appears. In order to provide the best representation of their clients, lawyers get more and more specific in their questions so the respondent doesn’t overlook a fact not referred to in the question. So, I am already seeing the trend of the all-encompassing question “Were you on your cell phone?” or “Were you using your cell phone?” being rephrased by specifying cell phone functions. Interpreters should become familiar with all the different service providers, the different brand names and styles of phones and the and setting options.
Additional vocabulary for this line of questioning includes, distraction, line of sight, paying attention and focus. All of these terms would be conjugated into the simple past, the present, imperfect indicative, and the conditional tenses. You are going to use the subjunctive for the questions about instructions, necessity, urgency suggestion, preference, possibility, regret and doubt.                                 For examples of accidents and the process of resulting lawsuits and comprehensive training take a look at this excellent book.
The Interpreters Guide to the Vehicular Accident Lawsuit. By Josef F. Buenker

The Inevitable for Freelancers .The Client Decides if You Get the Assignment.

R1-03652-018A     The closest a freelancer comes to dictating a full schedule of assignments is the cattle calls some agencies make to get an assignment filled. This is when they send out a mass email inquiring about availability which they admit is based on the first to respond will be the first to consider. The pivotal word in these inquiries is consider. The client (usually an agency) will take into consideration your rate and the reputation of your performance with that agency. Once your rates and terms are favored, inevitably what occurs next is if you are personally favored by the scheduler. Granted the more professional the agency, the less this behavior takes place. But in the high pressure job that schedulers face every day; the freelancer who is low maintenance and reliable is recalled fondly.

Learn the professional tone of how your client does business and work with them in that same tone or better. This rule is applied across the full range of clients from a single individual who contracts you to a small law firm or a multinational firm through a court system or agency. In each situation your performance and behavior decides how they judge you. Are they so busy that your repeated questions would bother them? Do you need to have them send back your invoices to be corrected? Do you expect them to research your assignments for additional information you need? These are common complaints among schedulers.

How much power does the attorney or judge have in deciding who is assigned to interpret? That depends on the feedback given to the attorney by his or her secretary. If the court is hiring you directly the judge can tell his or her court clerk who to use or not to use. Agencies do get some feedback but mostly, only when it is bad. The agency is most likely going to act on bad feedback if the relationship with the client is on the line. The more professional agencies take into consideration the context of the complaint about the freelancer and interview both parties before acting. If an agency passes on a complaint about you and is going to limit your assignments, be honest if you were improper or unprofessional. If you weren’t, ask to have it investigated with the client telling them that you want to rectify the situation. If it is not proven to be poor interpreting performance, the agency can easily avoid assigning you with that attorney or Judge and everyone is happy.