Monthly Archives: October 2011

What’s Wrong With This Picture?


I was recently interviewing to hire freelance interpreters, thankful that I was able to participate in a miniscule way to lower the high and static U.S. unemployment rate. One of the applicants took the initiative to tell me she was regularly employed as a freelancer, interpreting insurance claims for a well-known carrier that pays her an exorbitant amount of money to work throughout the state.  I was happy to hear that because I thought she might be good, if she commanded those prices, and we would be able to use her services for a normal fee during her down times.  That was before I read an article in the Economist that put this in perspective. Apparently, institutions and companies with very deep pockets do not always behave rationally.

Much to my surprise, when I tested her with a simulation of consecutive discourse similar to that used in the work she allegedly does, her performance was very poor. And I keep these tests simple to get a general idea of breadth of vocabulary, types of assignments one can do and what training candidates may benefit from.  There was no saving this baby. I tactfully informed her that she needed to improve her performance to work for us.  I did not expound, but unfortunately for her, I don’t think she will keep her current  job long. Sooner or later, someone who can tell the difference will inform the powers that be of her incompetence.

My pronouncement did not faze her. She didn’t skip a beat and blithely offered herself as a conference interpreter no less, which she deemed was more her style as in that mode, she doesn’t have to rely on memory because she  interprets simultaneously. I was mesmerized by the woman’s cheek as that skill is much more demanding than consecutive. I couldn’t resist asking her what experience she had in that field. She gamely answered that she had only done one conference, three months before—her trial by fire.  Undaunted, I asked her about payment and how it had gone. She informed me that she had been recruited by phone, sight unseen, by an agency from another state, to work in Florida.  She was only informed at the last minute that the end client was a well-known company that sells health/weight-loss products and the extent of her preparation was to visit their website the night before.  The day in question, lo and behold, her booth partner, because simultaneous interpreting is done in pairs, never showed and she ended up actually doing the conference by herself the full day. She did admit that by the afternoon her brain was fried.  I cannot but wonder about her audience’s, as interpreters, albeit experienced ones, switch off between one another every half hour to be able to maintain the integrity of the interpretation.

Our intrepid candidate went on to say that she had not yet been paid—some incredibly substandard wage—and that her employer had recently contacted her to do another conference two weeks hence.  She must have seen the incredulous look in my eyes and hastened to say she would not do it unless she was paid for the prior work by the day before the new assignment I only nodded, and asked her if she knew the subject matter for the new conference and what colleague she would be working with. She did not know and could not have cared less. Her only concern was being paid for the first assignment.

That, dear readers, is the seamy side of the current economy. It’s myopically penny-wise and pound-foolish. In one case, the insurance company is paying this  “interpreter” more than trained certified interpreters for something she cannot do properly. I assume her employer does not know either the cost for said service nor the quality he is getting. In the other, this same “interpreter” is paid peanuts to do something she most definitely cannot do. The language company that hired her is getting cheap labor to secure the bid, and the final user is wasting his money, not to mention the time of the attendees, but in this second scenario everybody thinks  he is nominally “saving” money.

This is one little example I happened to witness in my field, of  the type of practices that are keeping us in a vicious circle and that will not help us come out of our economic doldrums. And it seems to not be an isolated instance. I have been told by several familiar with this situation in our state, that many end users are foregoing their historical language providers in search of bilinguals who may be able to do the job for less. The only way to grow the economy is by adding value to our offerings doing whatever is needed to improve our skills and in tandem, encouraging the entrepreneurs in our midst to create jobs for us, which role is more important than that  of the often touted innovators according to Gallup research.  All of us working together will lead the way out of this lost decade.

Adoption Day


Jennifer de la Cruz

Jennifer De La Cruz holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and is a certified court interpreter for Spanish at both the California and federal levels, as well as an ATA-certified translator for Spanish into English. She has developed and taught interpreting and translation courses for over 10 years and has served on various advisory boards for college certificate programs in the field of interpreting and translation. She has been a professional interpreter and translator for about 15 years, spending a decade in the acute-care setting and now working as a staff interpreter at Riverside Superior Court in Southern California.

Of the many impactful experiences I encountered in my former career as an interpreter for an acute-care hospital, the one that stands out as the most emotional is “Adoption Day”.

            The day started off as any other morning, awaiting my first calls to the inpatient wards and the early-shift surgery center. Soon came the call to the maternity ward, where nursing staff was concerned that a Spanish speaking mom was showing no interest in bonding with her new baby daughter. The nurse asking for my help to interpret their conversation led me to the room.  I didn’t quite know whether to expect a case of the baby blues or perhaps an inexperienced new mother. To my surprise, during the conversation I interpreted, it was neither.

Mom already had several young children at home, and was probably in her thirties or later. She appeared to be struggling emotionally, but her message was clear: she had a busy life already, and this newborn was to be put up for adoption. Of course, this announcement came as a surprise to the nursing staff, who soon involved the ward social worker. It turned out that mom had not spoken to anyone about this decision, much less selected an adoption agency or adoptive parents. In fact, as quick as she recovered from the birth, she was anxious to be discharged home and was ready to leave the baby behind. Needless to say, the social worker’s task was to resolve the adoption, from A to Z, in one work shift.

The first task I was asked to perform was a series of sight translations. The agency that the hospital suggested to mom was accepted, and the representative showed up with some five letters from couples. Each letter had a photograph of the couples and, in some cases, other children. In preparing to sit with mom and do my task, I was touched deeply by the sentiment expressed in each letter and knew that I would have but one chance to transmit its message as heartfelt as it was written so mom could make a selection. No longer was I concerned with the perfect word as much as I was with the emotion behind each. I had to interpret with all the sentiment that each letter expressed, as these anonymous couples tried to put their best foot forward in hopes that a mom, this mom, would literally “pick” them.

Both the social worker and I were deeply moved by everything up to this point, and after the letters had been sight translated into Spanish for her, mom spread the letters out over her meal tray and contemplated the particulars of each couple. It didn’t take long for her to make her selection, and she expressed great relief when she considered her task complete. All that was left was some paperwork regarding known medical history and other things the new parents would want to know.  The representative meanwhile left to try to contact the couple, to see if they could visit the hospital before mom was discharged. An appointment was set for the middle of the afternoon.

As expected, the call to return to the maternity ward finally came. The couple selected didn’t speak Spanish, and they desperately wanted to meet mom before they met their new daughter. I was thrilled to have the privilege of being the conduit for communication between people who would likely remember this conversation for the rest of their lives. It was a young and handsome couple, who were unable to have children of their own. Their voices trembled and their bodies quietly shook as they walked into mom’s room, holding each other tighter than I’ve ever seen.

The conversation was a thing of beauty. A little small talk, a few tears, many things understood without words. Mom was relieved. The couple was immensely grateful, and couldn’t stop thanking mom for giving them a daughter that day. They wanted so badly to get to know mom, just a little, and hung on to every word I interpreted as if they were receiving some divine gift.

The last thing I recall about this couple was after the goodbyes. I was being called to attend to other interpreting encounters, and mom was being discharged. The couple left mom’s room moments after I did. I couldn’t help but turn and look back at them, and I their image is engraved in my mind. New mom collapsed into new dad’s arms just outside the room. They wept silently, almost uncontrollably, just a few feet from the woman who made their dream come true.

As I write these words, tears come to my eyes and I feel warm inside, as it was a moment for me, too, that will last forever. Interpreters in the medical field are likely to encounter everything across the spectrum of  life, but few are the truly beautiful moments that as humans we can hold precious in our hearts. Adoption Day will always be one such moment for me.

Free-lance Interpreting: The Nitty-Gritty


Kathleen Shelly

Kathleen Shelly is a Delaware translator and interpreter certified by the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts. She has a master’s degree plus doctoral work in Latin American literature from the Ohio State University, and was a college professor for 12 years.  She has been a member of NAJIT since 2005, and currently holds the office of secretary on the board of directors.

As we prepare to soon launch the official blog for the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), I have asked those interested in being part of that blogging team to make guest appearances on my blog to start publishing their views and becoming familiar with the logistics involved in this art form. Kathleen is the first to share her posts from that group. I know you will enjoy her takes- Blogmaster

The following is the first in a series about the practical aspects of being a free-lance interpreter. We will be discussing topics such as car maintenance, managing assignments, record keeping and general protocol. My idea is to help newcomers become acquainted with the nitty-gritty of the profession, and get feedback from those whose experience and knowledge are greater than my own. All comments and ideas are welcome!

About thirteen years ago, I was informed that my state had become a member of the National Center for State Courts, and that an exam for court interpreters was being offered. Trapped in a dead-end job fielding Spanish-language calls at a credit card company, I jumped at the chance, passed the exam and entered the ranks of free-lance interpreters. Work was rather sparse at first; looking back at my records, I see that I made a whopping $4,450.74 my first year. Over time, I developed my business and client-base, and I am now doing a heck of a lot better, although still far from wealthy.

I love my work. Even at its dullest, it beats the 9 to 5 treadmill I had found myself in before. That is not to say there are no drawbacks. There are indeed. Sometimes, as I drive that hundredth mile, I find myself yearning for the security of the staff-interpreter, that lucky soul who enjoys benefits, a short commute, a guaranteed parking space, taxes deducted automatically, etc. Unfortunately, that option is not open to me, but over time I have learned to deal with the exigencies of my trade.

What is a free-lance interpreter? In essence, we are self-employed business persons who must handle our own work schedule, our own taxes, our own benefits, our own marketing, our own record keeping and, just as important as any of these, our own professional development. The money we make must pay not only for the hours we work in court, attorney’s office or medical setting, but also the time we spend attending to business. People who know how much money I make an hour are often shocked and sometimes outraged. They have no idea how much work it has taken to get to this stage in my career, and the ongoing hours of paper work, study and preparation. I have gone through many years of education—high school, college, graduate school, travel abroad to prepare myself for this work. And, since I rarely work eight hours a day, the amount I earn does not even reflect a full day’s pay.

I always feel a little grim when someone says to me, “Well, being a free-lancer must be great! You can name your own hours, work whenever and wherever you want!” Well, yes and no. You can pick and choose assignments as long as you accept the fact that you will make less money if you get too picky. In addition, it is to your advantage to accept certain assignments to get your foot in the door. If an agency calls you repeatedly and you always turn them down, they will eventually stop calling you. I also hate hearing: “Oh, Monday’s a holiday! You won’t have to work!” Unlike a regular employee, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid, period.

So let’s take a look at some of the facets of being a free-lance interpreter. My next entry will be about car maintenance. Gotta go. I have an appointment with the dealership to find out about that pesky engine light that keeps popping on!

In the meantime, I would love to hear  your freelancing stories so please leave your comments below.

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