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Laughter Is the Best Medicine

This is the second installment of funny experiences  I have encountered throughout my interpreting career. I invite you to  laugh along with me.

My first interpreting assignment was in a Workers Compensation court.  Our fledgling company had a very good client who represented a large insurance carrier.  One day, he called in for a last minute job right after I had finished my training to start interpreting.  There was no one else available so I went, trembling in my boots.  I was 22 years old.  My backup plan in the event I needed time to think, or something went wrong, was to “accidentally” spill coffee on my lap during the proceeding.

This attorney had met me during my training when I accompanied other interpreters so he knew I was new and the guy was a prankster.  He also had a glass eye which made it difficult to maintain visual contact. In the middle of the hearing he looks at me, winks, wrinkles his bad eye shut, and putting his hand to his mouth makes believe he is putting the glass eye in his mouth and slushing it around…  I froze, my heart beating violently, waiting for opposing counsel or the judge to say something.  They never did because they knew him and realized he was just having fun with me. Thankfully, I recovered my composure before putting plan B into motion because I had a very limited professional wardrobe.

One of my favorite stories involves my brother, Alberto Salazar, who was a world-class marathoner in the eighties, when he was around 21 years old.  I happened to be visiting at my parents’ home in Boston shortly after one of his big wins there when a local Hispanic paper came to interview him.  Knowing full well that my brother spoke only “kitchen” Spanish because he left Cuba at 2 years of age,  I offered to interpret for him.  He looked at me naively and said, “Thanks but I can do this”.  Just then, my three year old son ran into the room and went to sit on his uncle’s lap.  The reporter asked him in Spanish who that was and with a big smile my brother assertively answered “Ese es mi nieto” (That is my grandson)  The woman looked at him puzzled and  said, something to the effect of “You are so young to be a grandfather….”

The following anecdote stems from Cuban culture.  It took place back in the early 90’s when George H.W. Bush was in office. Our company was called at the last minute, around lunchtime, to provide an interpreter for the President at an interview he was going to give at the Homestead Air Force Base in Florida to a Hispanic TV Station.  I had gone home to have lunch and my scheduler found me there.  There was no one else available.  Remember there were few cellphones back then.  My mother-in-law happened to be at home and insisted, like a good Cuban grandmother of her generation, that I take a sandwich with me that she quickly whipped up, lest, God forbid, I should skip lunch and feel faint. There was no time to eat it so I just stuffed it in my purse for later and set off.

I arrived at the site, was escorted to an empty office and asked to wait. The Secret Service then informed me that they would be inspecting the room with a canine explosives search unit.  I panicked from embarrassment thinking the dogs would be drawn to my purse because of the sandwich and quickly threw it into the first drawer I saw before they came  in. Happily, the dogs were so well trained that they didn’t even blink when they went by the drawer.  Even though it was food, it was not what they were looking for.  I rescued my lunch after the search and enjoyed it on my way back from the assignment.

Another gem took place in Cancun where I took a team of interpreters in the late 1980’s to work the Miss Universe Pageant.  Our Greek interpreter was  a Greek Orthodox priest, who worked as a freelancer with us for many years.  When the team took a taxi to go to the venue, the driver asked us what we were there for and we explained that we traveled around the world with the Pageant every year.  He was awestruck and said how lucky we were to actually have contact with the contestants.  Seeing Father’s clerical collar, he asked what he did specifically.  Without missing a beat, our interpreter told the taxi driver with a straight face that because of his religious credentials, his job was to physically “inspect” the contestants to certify whether they had breast implants or not.  Needless to say, the man’s jaw dropped to the floor. He shook Father’s hand vehemently, wished him luck and said to count on him if he needed an assistant in Mexico.

Have you ever been in a situation where you run into a client that you have to greet but you can’t remember his name?  I was in court once, training an interpreter, when I saw an attorney who used our services on a regular basis.  I had to say hello and introduce my companion so it was imperative I remember his name.  My brain quickly narrowed the possibilities down to two as he approached me. I picked one, smoothly said hello and introduced my companion.  I was very proud that I had made the correct choice.  He stepped into the elevator to leave the court when as the doors were closing, he glibly called out “Great to see you too Mrs. Suarez…”

That’s it for today. I hope you enjoyed the post and that you will write and share your own stories with me!

Transplant Lessons

It’s been 6 months since I was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a precursor to leukemia, and told that unless I underwent a successful bone marrow transplant, I would not survive another year. See my post “Sobering News and Turbo-Charged Learnings”. I was extremely lucky that the youngest of my four brothers happened to be a perfect match for me and was able to donate his stem cells to be transplanted into my bone marrow after my own bone marrow was annihilated by chemo treatments during a short four day period. Otherwise, I could still be waiting for a donor with time running out as so many others I have heard about.

It was a harrowing four months before the transplant, fighting opportunistic infections that had me in and out of hospitals  during that time and isolated in my apartment when I was not in the hospital, because I was immuno-compromised and could not afford catching even a simple cold. Towards the end of that period the doctors suspected I could have already degenerated into acute myeloid leukemia which would have substantially reduced my chances for the transplant to cure me. In addition, it would have required months of debilitating chemo to make the leukemia retreat to a point where I could undergo the transplant.  Luckily, when I  underwent a biopsy, it showed that I was still under the threshold for AML.  The doctors were able to proceed with the transplant in the beginning of February. I will be under regular medical treatment for the next two years but hopefully my life has been saved.  Nonetheless, there are no guarantees.  The statistics show that there is around a 50% probability that one can succumb to a complication post-transplant or that the illness may come back.

Why do I mention this? Despite the odds, I feel I have a new lease on life. Part of a successful outcome depends on seeing the glass half full instead of half empty and additionally, we can only live in the present.  The past is gone and we don’t know if there will be a tomorrow, hence the saying by Horace, carpe diem.

I would like to share with you some of the realizations I have come to in the past months, some of which were completely contrary to my former lifestyle:

  • Enjoy life now.  The day you pass on to greener pastures no one will remember how much time you spent working.  People will remember relationships, and any support or help you may have given them. Do not waste opportunities to reach out to others.  Even a simple smile can be uplifting.
  • Have balance in your life.  Do not leave things you like to do for a mythical time in the future when it might be more appropriate to indulge.  When you can’t do something specific, don’t dwell on it. There is plenty to enjoy and limitations allow you to try items you like but may not have been part of your short list.
  • Be aware of limitations for perspective but do not dwell on them.  Know that nothing happens randomly and we are all on different paths. Do the best that you can with the 5% of our minds that we control, knowing that there is another 95% that we do not control and yet there is a higher power we can access to guide us and bring it into our scope.
  • Freely accept help and good wishes without feeling that you are imposing or indebted to the giver.  Give them freely yourself, without any expectation of gain.
  • Develop yourself spiritually as it will hone your intuition and help you to discern the big picture of what is going on in your life and what you need to focus on.
  • Remember and pray for all those who are ill or in dire circumstances and especially those who are alone and have no one to turn to.

Please share your thoughts with me on these and other lessons you may have learned through experiences in your own life or from the lives of those close to you.

I look forward to hearing from you.

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!

Competition, as we know it in the interpreting profession, is broadly defined by Merriam-Webster as “the effort of two or more parties acting independently to secure the business of a third party by offering the most favorable terms.”

Is it really a dog-eat-dog world?

Unfortunately, our widespread scarcity-mentality often urges us to think that there is a finite number of resources available for which we must all compete. Business guru Steven Covey says “People with a scarcity mentality tend to see everything in terms of win-lose. There is only so much; and if someone else has it, that means there will be less for me. The more principle-centered we become, the more we develop an abundance mentality, the more we are genuinely happy for the successes, well-being, achievements, recognition, and good fortune of other people. We believe their success adds to…rather than detracts from…our lives.” He goes on to state that if you’re “Principle Centered” then “Your source of security provides you with an immovable, unchanging, unfailing core enabling you to see change as an exciting adventure and opportunity to make significant contributions.” I would assert that individuals express their thoughts, create their reality, and that nothing happens randomly. Some of us have become more adept than others at manifesting. At any given point in time we are all visualizing different possibilities. The fact that we entertain them means that they are accessible to us in some plane in the continuum that we know as time and it is a matter of attuning our personal energy to the energy of the desired object in order to attain them. In practical terms this means that we must be able to excel in the performance of the job at hand, and successfully portray ourselves as competent to be considered for it.
We must also be aware of the fact that prosperity is a mindset—you will always have as much as you internally feel that you deserve, and no two people have the same definition of what prosperity and success entail. Quantum theory tells us that there is an infinite universe of possibilities and it is our individual attention that forces them to collapse into reality.

See the glass half full

When we compete for a job, an assignment or an award, we must focus on our strong points rather than fearing what the competition may do because that will only detract from our efforts and strengthen our rivals. We must put our best foot forward and detach from the outcome. If we do not achieve a particular goal, we must trust that at a higher level it was not meant to be because we were not ready for it or it would have been counterproductive for us at our current stage of development. We cannot wallow in frustration, resentment or bitterness when something does not come through. It will only weaken whatever else we are involved in. We may not be able to connect the dots at the time but the reason for that outcome will usually become apparent in time. We must likewise have our ear to the ground to be aware of coincidences that point to changes in our lives that we must be ready to embrace to fulfill previously laid good intentions, and be aware that as we are all interconnected, favorable outcomes have also to be considered in terms of all involved rather than just egocentrically.

Appearances are not always what they seem

I have experienced, among many others, a business case in point that illustrates these principles precisely. Approximately 25 years ago, I pitched the services of my company to the Miss Universe Host Committee which was looking for a team of interpreters to work for the pageant when they came to Miami. I was successful in my bid and we did that work for ten years. Subsequently, the managing company changed hands and they started using another LSP. I did not dwell on the loss of this client and shortly thereafter, I was hired by a well-known cable company to provide the simultaneous interpretation of not only the Miss Universe Pageant but several other shows, under much better terms. That client lasted another ten years and recently their producers told me they wanted to experiment with other female talent to revamp the programs. I accepted that change, expecting that it would open doors for me in other areas and within two weeks I was hired to do a significant number of live TV shows personally, which I would have been unable to do under the prior schedule, while also providing interpreters with different language combinations for those same gigs. It’s a matter of giving change a free rein in your life and expecting that the universe will lead you to where you need to be to receive the abundance that you are tuned into.

A Premier Exponent of Broadcast Interpreting – Cesar Cardoza

I think we can learn much from colleagues who are at the top of their game and so I like to write about some of the ones I have been fortunate to meet and with whom I have enough of a rapport that they have agreed to have a public conversation about their work.  I am sure there are many of these individuals and  trust I will be able to feature more of them on an ongoing basis.

This is my friend Cesar whom I met many years ago when we started to work together on “live” shows for CNN. He is not only an excellent interpreter but has a wonderful sense of humor and an enthralling voice that mesmerizes you.  I reminds me of when I was a little girl in Cuba and at lunchtime I would sometimes take a nap with my grandmother while she listened to a radionovela.  There was an actor back then by the name of Enrique Santiesteban, who had such a voice.  He would say “bebe de mi copa pequena” (take a sip from my glass darling) and every female from an eight year old to an eighty year old would melt in her shoes.  I can say this has happened to me while working with Cesar in a recording booth.  I get so caught up listening to his melodic voice that it takes a swift kick to make sure I not lose my cue.

Without any further ado, here is a brief intro into the life of one of our interpreting colleagues on TV:

What was your background and how did you get involved with interpreting?

I am a journalist, and I was sort of “pulled into” interpreting due to the nature of my work. I worked for several years in international broadcasting and quite often I had to interpret material for my audience… I fell in love with it and as they say, the rest is history.

Walk us through a typical day when you were working for CNN in Atlanta?

For an interpreter in the news business, I would say there is no such thing as a “typical day”. Occasionally you get advance notice of an event, but more often than not, you have to go with the flow. This is especially true with breaking news… it is quite challenging because you really don’t know what to expect, and at a moment’s notice you may have to switch… let’s say… from science to politics, to finances, to terrorism or military issues…

Tell us about some of your most challenging assignments? How did you prepare?

On many occasions the challenge for me, like for almost every journalist and interpreter, is to remain focused on what you are doing regardless of whatever else may be happening… You are interpreting and at the same time you have to be mindful of the time… you are getting instructions from the director or the producer… you may need to consult a reference as you are interpreting… and so on.

The challenges abound… sometimes in the middle of a very dense political speech, the speaker throws in a joke and you have to interpret it faithfully… keep it witty or funny within the context and convey the point that the speaker is trying to make…

You may have, lets say, a message from the Pope and he quotes the Bible… you have to refer to the “official” biblical text… you cannot paraphrase… Sometimes the news event may be emotionally overwhelming on a personal level, yet, you cannot lose  focus of the task at hand.

Is/was stress management important in your work? What resources do/did  you employ to release stress?

Absolutely, there is no way to avoid stress but if you try to organize yourself before hand, it is a big help. In our case, for example, you keep meticulous track of your reference material… dictionaries, glossaries, etc. If you have enough lead time you may create a playbook for the event with whatever material is available in both languages.  The way you manage your work space also helps… where you keep your notes… where  you put your scripts or program rundowns… it is like having a mental map that help you stay the course no matter what happens. Sometimes the adrenalin pumps so hard that you also feel the stress after the event…

What are you currently doing?  Do you enjoy that more?  Why?

I work for CNN but now I am based in Miami. I am Senior Interpreter/Copy Editor for CNN en Español. I love what I do. It give me a very unique perspective of what is going on in the world and you get your information straight from the key players… it is a pleasure and a privilege to have the responsibility of conveying the news to our viewers… it has been said that journalists “write the first draft of history”… for an interpreter in the news business… it is exactly that… we bridge the language gap and become a link between the viewer and the newsmakers.


How Goal Setting Compares to Mountain Climbing

My mountain climbing experience, while limited, includes an excursion on the beautiful Inca Trail, in Peru.  There are many allegorical parallels between mountain climbing and goal setting which I’d like to discuss.

Adapt to your environment

Upon reaching the summit, as with any goal, you can expect to feel a great sense of achievement, but on the way toward your goal you will certainly encounter obstacles. On the Inca trail I had altitude sickness, but following instructions, I became accustomed to the scarce oxygen and at daybreak was able to enjoy seeing the breathtaking Sun Gate, offering spectacular views of Machu Picchu, our  goal on the climb.

Fortunately, by the time you make it to the top either in mountain climbing or through one of  life’s lessons, you have usually acquired the equanimity to calmly enjoy your surroundings, plus a quiver of tools that  allow you to overcome difficulties. Along the way, you start understanding your new environment.  Once you reach your goal, the problems may not have changed, but you will have. You will be better equipped to understand them, deal with them and experience the unique transformations that can only come after a journey.  In many cases, as you develop, your vision changes.  You mature as you assimilate lessons. Your arsenal is fortified, though perhaps not in the way you anticipated.

As the old Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” To reach the top, one must first visualize how to get there.  At ground level, perspective is not the same as at the summit, where you have a bird’s eye view of the topography. At first, it may seem that the climb is through an impenetrable jungle but as you climb methodically,  you are better able to pick your paths.  The view improves as you gain altitude and the trees start to thin out. The winning combination is knowing what you want and which of your personal values support your goals.

Have faith

In any project, have faith that you can accomplish whatever you can imagine. Start taking baby steps to implement that vision. That you can imagine the result is an indication that you have the necessary resources to go forward. There is no greater deterrent to fulfilling goals than inertia or fear of failure, which keeps one from taking action, as when, for example, a person decides not to follow his dream of becoming an accomplished musician because of the practice, auditions and competitions that are part of the journey.

In practice however, everything sorts itself out gradually and the more ground one covers, the more prepared one is to overcome once seemingly insurmountable odds.  Once you mindfully begin the ascent, hitherto unseen opportunities open along your path and hasten progress.

I am reminded of when I made the commitment to go back to school for an MBA  at the age of 56.  It had been over 30 years since I had been a student.  I had a phobia about the level of math skills I would need. I had tried to go back to school before and had had to drop out for lack of time. I was fully engaged in running my language services company on a day-to-day basis, and the economy was in the midst of a recession. We were working twice as hard for less profit. It seemed impossible, yet one step at a time, I submitted the paperwork, attended orientations, took online courses and hired a tutor to supplement my finance and accounting skills. I found an executive program that met on Saturdays so I could continue to work. I focused on putting my best foot forward and was persistent in my efforts to do well.

Be tenacious

I was the eldest student in the class and at the end of two years was voted most outstanding by the faculty.  It all happened because I sustained my vision of getting the degree and applied personal values such as sense of responsibility, appetite for problem-solving and love of knowledge.    It was a taxing but rewarding experience which has stood me in good stead. Yet it would not have happened if I had not confidently started the climb and stuck it out. The experience led me to corroborate that one can achieve whatever one can visualize. Since then, I have gone on to fulfill other personal and business goals once considered farfetched, like offering  interpreting services around the globe, being a guest lecturer, writing articles regularly for several publications, getting an advanced scuba diver certification, and teaching yoga.

My brother, Alberto Salazar, a world-class marathoner in the 1980’s, relates similar experiences in striving toward significant goals.  While only in his twenties he tallied major victories at the New York and Boston marathons. He visualized himself winning, held that image, trained and learned from the experts. During each   race, he would just concentrate on placing one foot in front of the other, until he crossed the finish line.  I remember visiting him after he set a world record at the NY Marathon in 1981.  He was lying in bed in a suite at the St. Regis, enthusiastically chatting with the family, when I noticed the bed sheets around his feet were all bloodied.  He explained matter-of-factly that he had lost several toenails in the process.

Here, then, is one of the many lessons to be learned: always be  prepared to put some skin in the game if you consider the result  worthwhile.

Sobering News and Turbo-Charged Learnings

Dear readers:

My last post was October 22.  Since then, my life has involuntarily changed 180°. I have been diagnosed with a condition I didn’t even know existed, Myelodysplastic Syndrome, which is a preliminary stage to Acute Myeloid Leukemia.  Conventional medicine is telling me that left unchecked I will not be alive a year from now and that the only “cure”, with no guarantees, is a Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT).  Assuming we find a donor, which is a feat and that I survive the transplant which is an inordinate ordeal, there is no assurance it will take or not come back. So you are probably asking, why is she discussing a very private matter here on what is ostensibly an interpreting/translation blog?

The reason is that there are a lot of lessons to be learned for everyone, that because of my condition and my predisposition to learning and self-development, I am being taught at lightning-like speed. I hope I am up to the challenge of learning and  I am grateful to be learning. I want to tell you what some of the more apparent lessons have been, in case they may resonate with you.

I love the work that I did.  It is exciting, fun, challenging and interesting but it was only my work, not my life.  I am not my job, despite appearances, I am a much more versatile being.  More of a spirit dressed in a body, and now I am coming to terms with the fact that the body does not last forever, while the spirit does. We need to feed the latter which is what gives sustenance to the body and we have to arrange our lives to put this in perspective through our actions.  I am not saying that I worked myself into this situation altogether but it was definitely a factor and I am sure some of my colleagues are driven people, similar to me.  You have to look deep and hard into all the activities that you invest your time into and be discriminative when you decide which you will undertake and the reason why.  The more reasons you can connect to the welfare of others and your own spiritual development, the more on track you will tend to be.

Your relationships are another corollary. In the brief time since I was diagnosed, I have seen very positive changes in the family dynamics of both my immediate and extended family. Make sure that your house is in order and that you harbor happy/peaceful thoughts about everyone who is part of your life, to the degree that you can, and only you can manage that. Negative thoughts, be they feeling sorry for yourself or disapproving of  others, harm you more than those you find at fault. It is my belief that these emotions, feelings, desires, etc., percolate from your energy body to your physical body and manifest accordingly in due time and that incubation period varies from individual to individual. As a constructive step in this regard, I have for many years been receiving daily inspirational quotes from Ralph Marston at  Someone did me the great favor of subscribing me and I will be forever grateful. The daily email that I receive and often forward to others serves to put my day in perspective and train my mind to follow positive paths. I also subscribe to “I Quote Wisdom” and “Tiny Buddha” on Twitter, which give you bite-sized chunks of insight that likewise help to mold your thoughts along the right lines.

On a more spiritual level, I began to meditate years ago and seriously started practicing yoga about seven years ago.  This has been an incredible moral support and tool for self-development throughout the years and especially in these circumstances.  If you have ever entertained the idea; to start, it is a great investment in your health.

This all begs the question, why did this happen if she followed this advice?

I daresay I did not start the process soon enough and I needed  to learn the lessons above now, among others, and thus a method has been initiated that I can either take advantage of or try to deny.  I am going for the first alternative and I ask all of you who believe, to keep me in your prayers.

In the meantime, I will continue my usual business-related posts as time and health permit and perhaps sneak in a philosophical reflection here and there that I feel may benefit others.

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.

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.

Profile of a Talented Interpreter and Administrator at S.D.N.Y.

Nancy Festinger

I am trying to create an awareness in our community about various players in our profession that stand out, whose work differs in some sense from the type of assignments I normally engage in, working for private attorneys, the courts and at conferences for multinational companies. In my world, that is the status quo.

I had heard about Nancy Festinger, the legendary chief interpreter at the Southern District of New York for years through several colleagues in NYC, but I had never had the opportunity to meet her. For those who are not familiar with it, the Southern District is one of the most influential and active federal district courts in the United States, largely because of its jurisdiction over New York’s major financial centers.

Nancy and I finally coincided in Scottsdale, AZ at the NAJIT annual conference a few short years ago.  She was the then editor of Proteus, the NAJIT newsletter. We hit it off at the event and she asked me if I would be interested in writing a regular column for Proteus. It was a great opportunity for me because Nancy is a gifted writer and I learned a lot from having her edit my articles.

When I conceived the idea of writing profiles/interviews of colleagues for my blog, I immediately thought of her because her job is unique. She is in contact with very varied circumstances and interpreters.

Here is her story.

How did you become involved with interpreting?

I became interested in interpreting, as so many of us did, by chance—although any language-oriented person will gravitate toward areas in which linguistic knowledge can be applied.

From a young age, I was fascinated by language, probably because of the many languages in my family history. My grandparents, all of whom had been born in Russia and emigrated to the U.S. at different ages, spoke with heavy accents, in splintered syntax. One grandfather had spoken four or five different languages in his line of work. My mother’s first language was French, though she stopped speaking it at the age of 11. All this was intriguing. I was a bookish kid who loved reading and playing word games. I still remember my amazement at a little pink book I found in the library called You Can Write Chinese. What a great title!

After college, all I knew was that I wanted to work with language. I felt most drawn to literary translation because I knew it would teach me about writing. (A traditional MFA program held no attraction.) I had a thirst for “real life,” so I worked for a few years, then decided to go to Spain for a year. When I came back to NY, I got a contract to translate a book of oral history, which I had read while I was there. While I was working on the translation, I picked up a continuing education catalog from a local college, and saw a class titled “Court Interpreting: An Alternative Career for the Bilingual Individual.”  It piqued my interest, and I signed up. (Lucky for me, since it was the first and only time the course was ever offered.)  I especially liked the word “alternative” since I had been to an alternative college in the 1970s, a time when so many of us were questioning conventional career choices.

In class we had a great student-teacher ratio: five students to two teachers, one of whom was a staff interpreter in state court (David Fellmeth) and the other a freelance interpreter in federal court (Dena Kohn), who shortly thereafter became head of the SDNY interpreters unit.  During our court visit, I was surprised to see the interpreter sitting right next to the defendant! Thanks to the teachers’ encouragement, at the end of the semester, I trotted off to state court to see if they needed summer per diems. Of course I didn’t really interpret yet, I just had some basic notions, a little practice, and high motivation. These were the days before interpreter exams for state court. Street crime was rampant and Spanish interpreters were in demand. I talked to someone for five minutes and was told to come in the following day and report to the interpreters’ room, an L-shaped corridor behind the court security officers’ desk. About 15 interpreters were crammed in there, a combination of staff and per diem. One day turned into a whole year; I learned everything that year– and took the federal certification exam the following year.  My former teachers were the ones who got me involved in CITA, which later became NAJIT. I started out licking envelopes and somehow 25 years went by, there was always something to do!

How did you ultimately get hired as the chief interpreter for the Southern District of NY?

One thing followed another. After becoming federally certified in 1982, I spent 8 years freelancing, sometimes traveling to trials in other districts, but mostly working in the two federal courts in NYC.  In 1990, the SDNY expanded its staff from 2 to 5, and I applied for a full time position. When they offered me the job, I hesitated for a few days, because I wanted to retain the freedom to do books. I’d worked on other book translations during this period, but every time I did, I ended up losing money.  I had no sick days, no vacation days…Finally, I concluded that working full-time would be the best decision. In 1993, our then-chief (Patricia Michelsen) moved to Virginia, the supervisory position opened, and I applied for it. We are now six staff interpreters with two administrative assistants and a large pool of contract interpreters. I enjoy it tremendously, wear a lot of different hats, and still interpret as much as I can. You have to stay active or you lose your skills. The administrative part—coordinating scheduling and billing for contractors— while necessary, is not as exciting.

What is the most interesting aspect of your job?

I’d have to say the variety, which makes it a creative problem to keep actively engaged on all fronts. Having a dependable and talented team around me has enabled me to do a lot of different things. I get to know interpreters of many languages; orienting and coaching newcomers to the field; providing support to interpreters and observing them in action; interacting with courthouse personnel on every level; reading the growing literature in the field; talking directly to judges about interpreter protocol; advisory committee work; special projects such as creating our website or database glossary; working in myriad ways with NAJIT on professional issues;  preparing workshop or conference material; plus the everyday interpreting and translating assignments. I still enjoy interpreting legal arguments and translating letters to the judge, for example. Then there is the challenge of staying organized, so that all the information on hand is well classified and easy to access for the staff, the community of freelancers, researchers, the bench and bar, and the public.

What has been the most demanding assignment of your career?

Here I’d have to say a recent effort to identify Songhai interpreters for a major trial. My office spent the better part of a year tracking down leads, talking to people nationally and internationally. The best candidates we could find  had good command of both English and Songhai but no interpreting experience, so we had to figure out a way to train them. We hoped they would have what it took, but there were no guarantees. Watching candidates build up their skills, from first hesitant stabs to smooth simultaneous, was a real thrill. My staff and I designed and implemented the training program. Convincing the court of the need to do this was another matter.

What are the challenges our profession is facing and how can we strive to meet them?

I think we have the same challenges now as we’ve always had—how to attract high-quality people to the field, especially in languages not frequently needed by the court system. Most courts need interpreters who will continue to provide professional service for decades.  Time marches on and court cases only become more complex linguistically. In languages of lesser diffusion, the Catch-22 is you need highly skilled people on an occasional basis, so there is no incentive for those who interpret languages of lesser diffusion to get training– even if the training were more readily available. The challenge for courthouses is to find ways to provide court-sponsored training for freelancers. We need to develop talent where it exists, create attractive career paths so that people of ability are attracted to the field and can remain in it, and then encourage interpreters to keep honing their skills. How can we strive to meet these challenges? I think NAJIT and other associations are going a long way toward building a corps of committed professionals, and issuing persuasive position papers on professional issues. The court entities who use interpreter services have an obligation to create good working conditions, decent pay, and sufficient, effective support. That seems like a no-brainer, but it takes a huge public relations effort to get that message across to the powers that be.

Administratively, we have a whole other cohort of challenges, having to do with efficient scheduling, trend tracking, and streamlining bureaucratic paperwork.

Tell us how you went about creating the court-sponsored training for Russian, Fuzhou and Arabic interpreters in your court. Has that initiative continued to be developed?

In my experience, most court administrators don’t get involved in the nitty gritty of what interpreters do or what their departments  need. We are a niche unit within the courthouse, because no one else can do what we do, and most people don’t understand the details.  We are like a boutique business. My theory for getting things done in this environment is to take initiative, prepare a convincing report, and try to make it easy for higher-ups to rubber-stamp what I propose. While it is hard to predict what languages will be needed in the future, I looked at usage statistics and saw a need to reinforce our roster in our district’s most-requested languages after Spanish. I thought we needed to have language-specific training, one language at a time. When the first seminar was successful, it was easy to build on it and do the same thing with other languages. We on the staff did all the teaching in English, we got guest speakers from different court units, we hired expert interpreters to coach and supervise practice sessions, and we gave attendees lots of study material to take home. We tested interpreters before and after in short samples of simultaneous, and noted the difference. It was an awful lot of work, but it paid off.  Many of the interpreters who attended those seminars continue to work with us a decade later. The relatively small investment by the court ($5,000) paid off in spades. After these 3 languages, I didn’t continue because there was no other language whose usage statistics warranted a training program.

If you could implement one change in the interpreting dept of the SDNY, what would that be and why?

I would have the court reimburse conference registration fees for staff interpreters, or contribute to travel costs to attend conferences.  Every professional conference we attend is out of our own pockets, when the court has a vested interest in our continuing education.

Tell us about the most funny or satisfying assignment you ever did.

Actually, it wasn’t an assignment except in the sense that I gave it to myself, but it’s had a great effect on the esprit de corps. It turned out to be the best public relations plug for interpreters I ever could have come up with!  To counteract the intense seriousness with which people take their jobs, I decided I needed some comic relief, so I put together a musical comedy revue. It’s been going on now for 17 years. (We did it one year at the NAJIT conference in NY.) The Courthouse Follies started as an interpreters’ show and then spread to the whole courthouse. We make fun of everyone: politicians, judges, attorneys, ourselves. The material emerges from a collaborative process–for the past 10 years my co-writer has been a federal defender, and we also have material submitted by one of our judges. The rehearsals—always difficult because frequently half the cast can’t make it—have to be coordinated and directed, and for lack of anyone else, I do that, too. We hire a pianist, and whoever is willing (including judges and attorneys) can be in the cast, usually about 25 people. It’s expanded to have costumes, dancing, whatever we can think of. Everyone contributes ideas. A lot of improvisation happens on the night of the show. Crazy lot of work to pull it together, but once we’re in front of an audience, it all pays off.  It’s very satisfying because I get to see all these otherwise serious people guffawing at human foibles and the legal system itself. It’s the ultimate revenge fantasy for an interpreter.

Can you give us an example?

Well, you know the song New York, New York from the musical On the Town?

Imagine watching court employees in a chorus line, singing these lyrics:

SDNY, it’s a helluva court

The trials are long and the tempers are short;

We get to keep all the drugs they import

SDNY, it’s a helluva court!

Commentary on 2nd Session of #IntJC

Our second discussion over Twitter took place yesterday at 10pm Tokyo time.  This time we had nine participants from Spain, Slovenia, Venezuela, Japan, U.S., and Belgium. The topic at issue was Stress and Interpreting.  For a full transcript of the 1.5 hr. discussion, click here.

The reason this topic was chosen is because interpreting is acknowledged by most in our ranks to be a stressful occupation due to the fact that you only have one shot at getting it right and many times there are significant stakes involved. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), 90% of visits to the doctor are caused by stress and stress is linked to 6 leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis and suicide. Furthermore the WHO (World Health Organization) estimates that mental diseases including disorders caused by stress will be one of the leading causes of disabilities by 2020.

Some quick findings from our chat were that there is a thin line between positive excitement and stress.  Stress being when one has difficulties in coping with a situation.  And stress is not caused by an event that is imposed on you but rather by the way that you react to it. Interpreters stated that the majority of the symptoms experienced were cognitive ( poor concentration and forgetfulness), subjective (moodiness, anxiety), and psychological (increased blood pressure).

Outside stressors were reported in some parts of the world where disturbances of the peace and protests actually impact performance.  Some reported forgetting personal life stresses when working in the booth, although I think that that is a conscious decision we make to refuse to entertain these matters in order to be able to do the job.  However, our emotions are always present if only subliminally and they affect us 24X7. I was surprised to hear that last minute calls for work were experienced everywhere, although most of those on the call tended to turn down those offers.  I had thought it was predominantly a U.S. phenomenon  for some reason.

Some of the favorite techniques to combat stress among the group were time management, other interests outside of work (a/k/a having a life), salsa dancing, cooking, playing an instrument and yoga.

What I like most about our meetings/chats is not so much our conclusions, as nothing is rigorously substantiated, but the fact that we are creating a valuable network of interpreter friends around the world.  We are a sounding board for one another and we have begun to share common concerns, experiences and responses in a simple and fun environment. Our next meeting is scheduled for October 8, same time as before.  The subject matter has not yet been determined.  Please come hang out and opine, we all want this to be an inclusive group and the more diverse we are, the more we will all learn from it.  What would you like to be discussed?  Leave suggestions here or on Twitter under #IntJC.  See ya!

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