The Making of a Court Interpreter

Reflections on language access standards and the actual interpreting in the New York State Courts

I. New York and the US are in the vanguard of court interpreting

The United States has been at the vanguard of court interpreting ever since the Court Interpreters Act of 1978 and the creation of the Federal Spanish Court Interpreter exam under the auspices of the University of Arizona and Dr. Roseann Dueñas González.1 New York was one of the first states to provide free interpreters in every type of judicial proceeding, including civil and family court matters. As the New York State Court Interpreter Manual sets forth, court interpreters must “faithfully and accurately interpret what is said without embellishment or omission, while preserving the language level and/or register of the speaker.” This standard of “legal equivalence” derives from the Court Interpreters Act, which “is designed to put non-English-speaking witnesses, defendants, and litigants on an equal footing with those who are English-speaking” (Tayler, M. R., 1988). “Interpreters must be able to translate with exactitude…while accurately reflecting a speaker’s nuances and level of formality…The interpretation cannot be a summary or convey only the gist of the original source message” (Federal Judicial Center, 1989).2 Despite the admirable work that many of our court interpreters do in the courts, the actual standard would tend to fall short of this ideal of equal access. How do we address this discrepancy?

II. What it takes to be an interpreter

The interpreting profession requires a very broad and high-level skill set. The following is a non-exhaustive list of requisite skills for interpreters:

(1) Interpreters must of course have superior or native command of their two working languages.

(2) They must be able to multi-task complex skills. Simultaneous interpreting requires use of at least 22 cognitive skills at any given moment. 3

(3) The interpreter has to have an exceptional short-term memory combined with excellent note-taking techniques for the consecutive mode.

(4) The interpreter must be able to untangle complex or vernacular utterances at a quick pace in every mode of interpreting.

(5) This process also applies to sight translation, which requires quick-paced translation out loud of written texts ranging from high- to low-register.

(6) Translation in the strict sense, transferring one language into another, is the underlying skill for all language interpretation and takes many years of training, study, and practice to master. A good translator’s understanding of the ideas behind the words results from continued practice, research, and contemplation of her working languages. Idiomatic translation is a fine art.

(7) Clear diction is necessary, in both languages, even at very fast rates of speech.

(8) Accents and dialects with which the interpreter is less familiar are bound to occur. While this deficit underscores the need for continuing education, the interpreter needs to be able to make sense quickly of novel forms of expression and render them into the target language.

(9) This deciphering is also necessary when people speak unclearly or inaudibly.

(10) Other ancillary skills also play a role, such as being able to work under pressure in the high-stakes adversarial judicial environment.

(11) Avid reading is necessary in order to expose oneself to one’s working languages in their many variants. The good interpreter constantly researches, grappling with the new vocabulary and terminology that continuously arises.

(12) Since human interaction is also a constant in court interpreting, court interpreters must be highly proficient in interacting with lawyers, judges, litigants or defendants, witnesses, court officers and clerks, other court staff, and the general public in the courthouse.

New interpreters have to immerse themselves in a plethora of vocabulary and terminology. Of course there are court terms, such as a criminal—as opposed to a civil—complaint, disorderly conduct, or an order to show cause. But there is also a larger orbit of terms that can come up in court. For instance, when I started, I was not sure how to translate “irregular heartbeat,” “nail-polish remover,” or “syringe” into Spanish. Of course, an interpreter may have excellent all-a-round vocabulary in her working languages. Yet in reality she is dealing with two linguistic worlds. What is more, experience living in one language culture is not the mirror image of the other and, thus, the interpreter’s knowledge of one language does not always neatly correspond to that of the other. Finding all the appropriate equivalents requires ongoing exposure to language in context, in addition to study and research. We must strive to expand our knowledge of our pair of working languages so that they replicate each other as completely as possible. The court interpreter will probably come up to speed more quickly in using the court argot than in the larger orbit of general vocabulary that can come up on occasion in court.

III. Coming up to speed

Given the extremely high espoused standard of court interpreting and the broad gamut of skills it entails, few or no individuals command them all at the outset. They will have to work hard, especially in their early career, to complete their toolbox. Training opportunities are sorely lacking, especially for languages other than Spanish. Since there is not an obvious, established course of study to hit the ground running as a court interpreter, as undesirable as the situation may seem, much of the education interpreters get is empirical—learned on the job. The fact that the only official requirements for entry are a high-school diploma, passing the written and oral certification exams, and passing the background check can be misleading. The job is extremely demanding, and there are probably not enough fully qualified candidates to fulfil demand.

The certification exams have gotten more and more difficult since they were first instituted in the 1980s. In New York State, 1,502 people participated in the exam cycle ending in 2016, of which 106 passed, 969 failed, 420 did not show up, and 7 were disqualified. These results were after the application of a bell curve on both the written and oral portions, without which, far fewer than the 106 would have passed. The pass threshold on both exams is 70% accuracy. These exams occurred with optimal sound conditions and hence are atypical of the acoustical conditions in the courts. Assuming the last oral exam is a fair representation of what one can expect to find in court, the goal of “legal equivalence” seems illusory. What is more, it appears that many of the candidates who passed before application of the curve were previously certified, practicing court interpreters.4

On a brighter note, even after the curve adjustment, the 106 who passed this time overall seem to be performing at a higher level than the top 106 from the last exam cycle (2009-2011). The most recent written and oral exams were both far more difficult than the previous time. I took both and scored about the same both times even though I was much more qualified the second time around. I personally know of five formerly certified per diem interpreters who failed the last exam. Just about every one of the 106 newly certified interpreters who were available to work in New York City was employed as staff within six months of publication of the exam results.

IV. Interpreters are not the only link in the chain of communication

The entire onus of language access should not fall on the shoulders of interpreters alone. The individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) for whom interpreters interpret do not always express themselves clearly or understand what they are told in their own language. Attorneys often do not elucidate the legal issues at stake to their clients. Indeed, some attorneys do not always even express themselves clearly in English. Attorneys often go on the record engaging their clients in complex legal transactions without prior conferencing. Lawyers and judges often speak at lightning speed or inaudibly. When one translates English to Spanish, there is about a 25% expansion in the number of words.5  Thus, the Spanish has to be even faster than the English. While court users from the general public are often lost in the court system, working interpreters find themselves in the crossfires of rampant miscommunication.

Finally, while interpreters are not permitted to determine the policies that govern their working conditions, we hope that those in charge of court policies will partner with us to ensure that interpreters remain a strong link in the chain of communication.

V. Some possible solutions

(1) The introduction of monitoring: The Office of Court Administration (OCA) set out a comprehensive language access plan in March 2017, which includes a monitoring program that was set to launch in fall of that year. The obvious objective would be to control quality. Yet the monitoring also should serve to ascertain a realistic standard. I hope that this program will encourage better interpreting in the courts and does not have unwanted negative side effects, like punitively singling out certain interpreters who happen to be the object of the monitoring. Any observer should keep in mind that the performance of an individual interpreter is largely the reflection of the OCA’s historical investment in quality enhancement.

(2) Glossary exchanges: Translation is not an exact science. Ongoing research and consultation with colleagues and subject-matter experts are a must, as is the creation, expansion, and sharing of glossaries.

(3) Facilitate a dialogue about acceptable standards: The monitoring of interpreters and the glossary exchange could facilitate a necessary dialogue between interpreters, administrators, the monitors, judges, lawyers, and other stakeholders about current existing standards and realistic and acceptable standards to pursue henceforth. It seems self-evident that the participation of court interpreters will always be essential in whatever dialogue takes place about language access.

(4) Take stock of the available court interpreter training programs: By law and by moral obligation, the courts need to make every effort to achieve legal equivalence for LEP individuals. The New York State Office of Court Administration, along with the interpreters’ Local 1070, and professional interpreter organizations, such as the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), the American Translators Association (ATA), or the New York Circle of Translators, should identify and utilize the existing training within and without the court system and examine how the courts can partner with training institutions, the union, and professional organizations to improve training programs and further tailor them to the reality on the ground in the New York State Courts.

(5) Engage in partnerships: The courts should also consider partnering with the New York Bar Association, domestic and foreign law schools, and foreign professional organizations. This collaboration would furnish additional resources to enable court interpreters to do their job more professionally. With regard to languages of lesser diffusion, foreign translator and interpreter associations hold great potential for enabling interpreters of those languages to do their jobs better. There may not seem to be many resources for interpreters of Polish or Turkish in this country, but there are sizable markets and hence extensive experience in Poland and Turkey, respectively, in translating and interpreting English. Foreign law schools are also a great potential resource for languages of lesser diffusion, in particular for the pursuit of the best possible equivalent of US (and New York) legal terms. This translation work and research is already being done, and it would be a misfortune not to take advantage of these valuable resources.

(6) Invest in language access: Finally, to make greater strides towards full language access, more money will have to be invested to make training accessible and jobs attractive.

Leonard Morin is a staff interpreter at Manhattan Criminal Court. He previously practiced as a freelance translator and interpreter from 2004-2015. Leonard interprets Spanish and Dutch and translates chiefly legal and cartography-related documents from Dutch, Spanish, and German into English. He earned a propedeuse degree in law in the Netherlands and graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Latin American Studies from Columbia University. Leonard has earned translation and interpreting certificates and won academic prizes for his Spanish and German. He previously served separate terms as president and secretary of the New York Circle of Translators and is currently a delegate of his union Local 1070 to District Council 37.

1-de la Vega, María Cristina (2013). “Roseann Dueñas González: No Longer a Voice in the Wilderness.” ATA Chronicle. Consulted on November 18, 2018 at:
2-Tayler, M. R. (1988). “Interpretation/translation assistance in immigration proceedings.” Immigration Journal, 11(3), 57-61. Found in: Dueñas González, Roseann (1991). Fundamentals of Court Interpretation: Theory, Policy and Practice. Carolina Academic Press. Durham.
Federal Judicial Center. (1989, June). Court interpreter qualification process amended, Navajo and Haitian Creole certification planned (1989-241-150-00006). The Third Branch: Bulletin of the Federal Courts, 21(6), 7. Washington, DC: U.S. GPO. Found in: Fundamentals.
3-Fundamentals. Pg. 176
4-I participated in the last two exam cycles, ending in 2011 and 2016, respectively. The latter was markedly more difficult than the former. After the last exams, I participated in the so-called computational review in which the OCA explained the grading methodology. The civil service list of candidates who passed the exam was published online, where it remained several months until it was apparently taken down.
5-Transfluent. “Why Spanish Uses More Words Than English: an Analysis of Expansion and Contraction.” Transfluent translation agency Web site, consulted on November 18, 2018 at:


Election time is here. Below are the candidate statements for President and Vice-President

Candidate for President

Milena Savova                        

My name is Milena Savova and I am running for President. I have been a member of the Circle since 1996 and I am an Active Member of the ATA. My working languages are Bulgarian and English.

My first job after graduating from the English Department of University of Sofia, Bulgaria, was a translator and interpreter at the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I left after six months to go to graduate school. But I have never quit translation and interpreting. In fact, I incorporated translation into my Ph.D. thesis. I also taught theory and practice of translation at Sofia University.

When I moved to New York in the early 1990s I thought that I was done with that part of my life until I joined the Circle. I found like-minded colleagues whose stories matched those of my free-lance colleagues in Bulgaria. I also started translating once again. I was awe-struck by the knowledge and professionalism of the Circle members.

Later in 1996, I was hired as Director of the Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting at what was then the School of Continuing Education (School of Professional Studies now) of NYU and held that position until 2015.

During my tenure at NYU, we expanded our translation and interpreter certificate programs and launched a Master of Science in Translation. I made sure that the Department developed a close relationship with the Circle and we supported each other. The Circle was always my first go-to resource for hiring instructors. My team and I always encouraged our students to join it as early as possible in order to get their feet wet in the profession.

The NY Circle of Translators is a special organization reflecting the nature of our city and the Tri-State area. It may very well have the largest representation of language pairs of all ATA chapters. We also have veteran members with many years of experience alongside new ones and students.

If I were to be entrusted with the leadership post, I would make sure that every voice is heard and all members feel comfortable in our organization. We need to follow new developments in the language professions and assist our members in mastering them. I would also like us to recognize the differences among those translators/interpreters working with the commonly used languages, such as Spanish and French, and those working with languages of lesser distribution, such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, etc. We must not forget translation companies.

Should I be elected I am sure the board members would also have ideas about our future work and I would listen to them too because I believe in team work.

Candidates for Vic-President

Kate Deimling                    

I’ve been a freelance French-to-English translator for over 11 years, after obtaining a Ph.D. in French from Columbia University and working in academia. ATA-certified since 2009, I specialize in advertising and marketing, art and culture, international development, and fiction and non-fiction. Within the advertising and marketing field, I specialize in transcreation and copywriting, with a focus on luxury brands. I developed a specialty in art and museums while working as the in-house translator for and as the New York correspondent for the French art newspaper Le Journal des Arts. I have spoken on the craft of translation and the translation industry at Duke University, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and Columbia University, as well as this year’s annual ATA conference. I’ve translated five books on topics ranging from the French wine industry to Renaissance portraiture. From 2014-2015 I was program director of the New York Circle of Translators. In 2015, I founded the NYCT’s mentoring program, which I still manage today.

The NYCT has been very valuable to me throughout my career as a translator and I would like to serve on the board once again, this time as vice-president, and contribute to sustaining the organization’s growth and momentum. I hope to support the other board members in any way I can as we maintain the Circle’s program of regular activities and plan for the future. 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the New York Circle of Translators, and I would like to help the NYCT celebrate this milestone. This is a great opportunity to reflect on our organization’s achievements and to raise our profile.

Annette Vazquez     

Hello, my name is Annette Vazquez and I am translator/interpreter. I obtained my Bachelor’s degree from Montclair State University in Spanish with a concentration in Translation.

I am very honored to be asked to run for vice president of the New York Circle of Translators. Through the years I have watched the organization change in leadership to keep up with the times while also fostering camaraderie, professional development and opportunities for translators and interpreters alike. Nonetheless, the work does not stop there–we need to create awareness of the value of our profession in order to thrive and succeed in these uncertain times.

If elected I hope to collaborate alongside with the president and the board to continue the livelihood of the organization by supporting, developing and maintaining a cohesive sense of community with the members.

3 Ways Technology Is Improving the Hospital Interpreter Career Field

Reblogged with permission from e-voice, the blog of the ATA Interpreters Division,

As healthcare facilities encounter an increasingly diverse patient population, the demand for qualified medical interpreters continues to grow. In an attempt to provide language services to all non-English speaking patients, healthcare facilities are increasingly integrating healthcare technology into their existing language access plans. Such technology includes interpreter scheduling apps, video remote interpretation, and over-the-phone interpretation.

The use of these technologies provides significant benefits not only to healthcare providers, but also the medical interpreters working with them. Here’s how:

Simplified Scheduling

Interpreter scheduling apps are now becoming common practice in hospitals and health systems. They have been shown to improve interpreter efficiency, streamline scheduling and provide access to a wider range of qualified interpreters. Likewise, such apps connect interpreters with a greater number of hospitals and health systems, expanding their professional network.

“Technology enables the interpreter to diversify talents and strengthen their pool of clientele”

For both the interpreter and the healthcare provider, interpreter scheduling apps greatly simplify the task of requesting and accepting jobs. Healthcare providers can send a request to qualified medical interpreters in the surrounding area who then receive a notification on their mobile phone with session details. If the session is desirable and compatible with the interpreter’s schedule, he or she can accept the job with the press of a button.

The session is then automatically synced with the interpreter’s calendar, eliminating the hassle of manual entry. The healthcare provider can even track the interpreter as he or she makes her way to the facility. With less time spent scheduling multiple job opportunities, interpreters can focus more energy on the challenging and rewarding aspects of their work such as culture, linguistics and continuing education.

Diversified Talents

Technology enables the interpreter to diversify talents and strengthen their pool of clientele – whether that be over-the-phone, video or on-site opportunities. By becoming an expert in all three modes of interpretation, medical interpreters learn about etiquette specific to each and become more tech savvy, particularly when well versed on the use of scheduling apps and video remote interpretation platforms.

They also reap the benefits of fine tuning skills unique to each platform:
● Video interpreters hone in on visual aspects of communication and subtle nonverbal cues that can be key in gauging patient understanding. Over-the-phone interpreters strengthen their listening skills, meticulously processing what is said in the source language then consecutively rendering it into the target language.

● On-site interpreters are frequently more exposed to sensitive situations such as mental health, informed consent and end-of-life discussions, where the complexities of the code of ethics become more acute and their commitment to impartiality and confidentiality needs to be managed more closely. When medical interpreters have the capacity to work in all three spheres of interpretation, they can extend their services to a wider range of clientele. On the other hand, they can also be more selective when it comes to accepting work opportunities, ensuring that jobs are best suited to their professional interests and needs.

Improved Work-Life Balance

Technology provides more flexibility for hospital interpreters, allowing them to work remotely, on-site or via a combination of the two. Medical interpreters working over-the-phone, over video and/or on-site can schedule their days in a way that complements life on both a personal and professional level.
A healthier work–life balance has been shown to result in better job satisfaction and performance. A recent Accenture study found that more than half of participants recognize work–life balance as a top factor in the success of their careers. Further investigation demonstrates the major role that technology plays in work–life balance. More than three fourths of employees surveyed agree that technology enables more schedule flexibility, which was linked to a healthy work–life balance by 80% of participants.

As the demand for language services in healthcare increases, technology has become an integral part of the medical interpreting profession. The impact of technology on medical interpretation not only benefits healthcare providers, but it also enables hospital interpreters to more easily manage their schedules, diversify talents and enjoy a healthier work–life balance.

David Fetterolf leads the overall strategic direction of Stratus Video’s Language Services division. David brings over 26 years of experience working for healthcare information technology and service companies. Prior to joining Stratus Video, he was president and founder of MDeverywhere, revenue cycle management software tailored to the healthcare industry. In 2011 MDeverywhere made the coveted Inc. 500/5000 fastest growing companies list. Prior to MDeverywhere, David was a division president for Datamedic, a leading provider of computer-based patient records and business management software and services for medical practices and clinics. As division president, he was responsible for strategy and financial performance, which included leading the marketing, sales, implementation, support, and manufacturing and development teams. David has a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University and a Master’s of Business Administration from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania

Scouting the territory

Reprinted with gracious permission from the author from his blog

Only days after my relocation to San Jose, CA, I received an email that read: “I found your name in the ATA Directory of Translators and Interpreters. Would you be available for an assignment tomorrow in Menlo Park, CA?” I checked the place of the assignment on Google, found directions, and I read that the Facebook campus was on my way. “Available” I wrote back. A few minutes later, I learned that I had got my first gig in Silicon Valley. It was far from my base but I was on an exploratory mode, and beginning to build a resume in Silicon Valley. The Facebook campus was crowded with truly, young looking employees and tourists making sure that their selfies would permanently memorialize their visit to this campus.

I repeated these explorations three or four times till I could make better sense of the maps and the “talking lady” on my GPS, till I had a better idea of the distances, the nature of the assignments, the real people I was going to help and their needs, the demand for and hence the value of my Spanish-English skills, and other important aspects of an interpreter’s freelance business here. Regarding budgeting, for instance, I had to quickly process that the gas price here was US$ 3.80 per gallon, and that housing was almost unaffordable. I heard on a local TV news segment the story of this well-paid engineer that slept in his SUV during weekdays and would drive off town during weekends to see his family. Stories like this are common, actually. However, the drive and the heart to make innovation happen is what still attracts people to come here. Silicon Valley was quite different from my previous homestay and I was beginning to like it..

II. Beyond selfies: networking, the players, the languages

Menlo Park was too far from my base, and there was the traffic fight element. And so, for the next offer I wrote back “Unavailable, Thanks”. Actually, having taken my selfie with the Facebook famous logo, I wanted to check other tech giants nearby: Apple in Cupertino, Google in Mountain View, YouTube in San Bruno , Yahoo in Sunnyvale, Netflix in Los Gatos, and so forth. Would I ever work with them? For them? The weather in California is rarely a nuisance and one can dream big and wait for a call that never comes. I learned that my target wasn’t going to be the big tech companies based in Silicon Valley; big translation and interpreting vendors would get the contracts from say, Apple, and they would call in freelancers. Soon then, the big tech companies became part of the landscape. As I came to understand, my work was to be with the people who live in Silicon Valley, the underserved and struggling families in the doctors’ office, the lawyer-led depositions, the IEP meetings at schools or the orthopedists’ offices working with injured workers. Consecutive interpreting was the most frequently required mode and I had to change my glossaries, learn or relearn legalese and special education extensive glossaries, acquire a good and fast phone to use it as a computer, and invest in a new car.

The famous California 101 freeway isn’t as pretty as the California I 280 and it is not unusual to use both in just one trip. The traffic is busy and the fonts in the traffic signs are hard to read from a distance; only after some good time on the road one gets confident on the wheel. Errors on the way to an assignment are costly and frustrating. On the way back, it is a different story. I’d use WAZE as a navigation tool if I have some free time to ride back home to learn new, alternative routes by avoiding freeways and to learn more about my neighborhood and about my community. In the next lines, is part of what I’ve observed.

The signage for food was diverse and a feast for linguistics students: Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, Hindi, Greek, Farsi and English. Only a little French, German, Russian and Italian. The street names and location names were chiefly Hispanic: San Bruno, San Felipe, and other saints. The most widely spoken variant of Spanish was then and still is Mexican Spanish. My Chilean-Venezuelan hybrid had to accommodate to Mexican Spanish and what started with words such as “aseguranza” (insurance), “troca” (bus), junta (meeting) became a process of partial dialect acquisition which is pretty on the go now. But just as there is acquisition, there is also loss. My argentinean coworker has lost (or hidden) her heavy bonaerense, partly tired of being the butt of jokes by speakers of other Spanish dialects spoken in Silicon Valley. In other instances, loss is the result of pressure from English use in schools. While English keeps going strong, the native language of many thousands of children is relegated to the home environment. Spanish or Chinese loss, for example, is evident but speakers are functional bilinguals. That English becomes the strongest language is good news for the parents with limited proficiency in English: Their kids will serve as “interpreters” for them in some environments, challenging present regulations. Putting the legality of this to rest for a moment, the little interpreters phenomenon is a fascinating linguistic issue to watch in Silicon Valley

III. Permanent education, networking and projects that never happened

With my resume showing some work done in the area, my networking also started to grow. I had met numerous colleagues on the road, with whom I would meet for coffee or lunch between assignments. I concurrently formalized my membership with Northern California Translators Association (NCTA), an ATA affiliate. As a result, my networking grew and I reconnected with my permanent education. And so I started taking workshops at NCTA on short term memory drills, budgeting, technological resources and use of social media, dialect variation, and so forth. Right there in those workshops, I had many opportunities to meet dozens of think-alike colleagues. Slowly, Silicon Valley became home and it feels like home even now.

The phone rings again: “What’s the assignment?” “Localization.” “Where?” “Cisco, Milpitas Campus.” “What time?” “Full day, two days from today. Beginning 8:00 am.” “No, Madam, I have not signed a NDA with you yet. But I will. And I am available.” So finally, a giant has called. This was a team designing a software for Latin American countries and they were starting with Chile. They wanted the exact and more frequent words for directions like “Go ahead” in Chilean Spanish. I was fascinated with the prospect but the fun wouldn’t last. There were so many layers of management in the project that I could not figure out who I was working with or working for. It was fun, though.

Another day, another call. It was a colleague. “Where?” “Intel. Santa Clara” “Assignment?” “Conference interpreting.” “Simultaneous?” “Nope, consecutive. “I am in.”, I said. I wasn’t going to miss that. Intel was co-founded in the 60’s by Robert Noyce, the inventor of the microprocessor, the tiny little device that makes our personal computers run. The meeting was cancelled, and the assignment was never fulfilled. It happens.
Then the chance to teach a course in a Spanish Translation and Interpreting Program came. I took it. Students and future interpreters were mostly Spanish heritage learners from Silicon Valley. Some of them reminded me of the kids described earlier. Now young adults, they will sacrifice evenings and one Saturday morning to get a diploma that will hopefully grant them a job in a hospital, school district or open the door for a court certification. Writing a syllabus, designing teaching and testing tasks for sight translation, consecutive and simultaneous interpreting in an audio laboratory are some of the instructors’ responsibilities in the program. It isn’t interpreting but mentoring or teaching future interpreters is a rewarding experience for an interpreter; and it is a source of income.


The title of this post is intentionally redundant: Interpreting Silicon Valley in its literal meaning is used here to indicate understanding the area, its economy, its geo-economics, business and technology players, its institutions, its character and the people who make Silicon Valley their home. Interpreting Silicon Valley can also mean from the linguistic viewpoint, the act of going around Silicon Valley and performing interpretations to solve people’s real language problems. In either sense, interpreting Silicon Valley is pretty much a work in progress, and will be so for years to come.
Dr. Juan Pino-Silva wears two hats. He is a second language educator and a translator and interpreter. He is the founder of L2slates Language Services, LLC in San Jose, CA. where he manages interpreting projects. He was the editor of e-Voice, the blog of the ATA Interpreters Division, from June to October 2018.

Is Reintegration of Translators in the Translation Process Still Possible Despite the Methods Used Now by the “Translation Industry?”

Reprinted with gracious permission of the author, Steve Vitek, from his blog

I recently read a blog post of a translator who parted ways with a translation agency that used to be one of her clients for many years. This happened after the translation agency she used to work for was acquired by a much bigger agency which started using practices that are very common in what is now called “translation industry,” practices that are intolerable to most self-respecting freelance translators.

For example, the new company introduced a translation portal through which translators had to interact with the agency to accept a job, submit invoices and keep updating their availability, so that project managers eventually stopped communicating in person with the translators working for them. The portal instead issued automated emails in which work is offered at any time of day or night to a hungry pack of an unknown number of translators who are expected to fight over available jobs as dogs would fight over bones with a few scraps of meat on them that are thrown to them.

Dogs are wonderful people, but most dogs have no self-respect when it comes to begging for food. As far as the “translation industry” is concerned, to treat translators as hungry dogs is simply an efficient method to match available warm bodies with available work.

This is the new, extremely efficient method of “placing” translation jobs with translators that the “translation industry” came up with at the beginning of this millennium. It happened to me as well many times over after about the year 2000, which is how I date the start of the era of the new “translation industry.” As a result, I gradually stopped working for most translation agencies, even though I may have been working for some of them for many years, first only for large ones, and then also for smaller agencies as they started adopting the efficient management model that treats translators as easily replaceable, virtually identical tiny cogs in a big and ruthless machinery.

From the viewpoint of the “translation industry”, the method works very well because it saves so much time to project managers, who then can take on many more projects than they would be otherwise able to do if they had to contact every translator individually, even if only by mail, rather than by telephone as used to be the case not so long ago.

But the side effect of this extremely efficient method is that most translators who consider themselves highly educated and highly experienced professionals will eventually sever all ties with translation agencies who treat them in this manner as I and the writer of the blog post mentioned above did, and the only people who will continue to jump through the ingenious hoops created by a faceless portal will be translators who for some reason can’t find work from other translation agencies (or from direct clients) who would not treat them in such a demeaning manner.

Generally speaking, the reason why people would probably not mind too much putting up with this kind of behavior is that these are translators who know that they have no other choice but working even for the worst agencies out there … because they themselves know that they are not very good.

The portals thus function as a software device that finds available translators very quickly and with the minimum effort on the part of the translation agency. But at the same time, the portal over time separates the best and most experienced translators from such an agency, while bringing in mostly new translators who lack experience, or old translators who lack self esteem, usually because they know that they are not very good.
In other words, the portal method, with numerous missives of emails launched at any time of day or night to many translators, also very efficiently destroys relationships that may have been built between translation agencies and the best translators over many years or decades.
Do the translation agencies realize that this is what is happening? I think that most of them probably do realize that, at least to some extent. But they simply don’t give a damn because efficiency is everything and the new methods are in fact very good at quickly pairing available cheap translators with available translation work.

And that is all that the “translation industry” cares about.

The methods used by modern “translation industry” clearly show that the industry does not value translators as experts providing a complicated and highly labor-intensive service that, depending on the field and the language, can be usually provided only by very few people. What the industry now values above all is the speed at which the transaction can occur, and of course, at what cost.
This why the resulting translations delivered to industry’s clients are now so often pure crap and the chances are that the resulting quality will be even much worse than it is now if the industry has its way and “post-processing of machine translation” by pitiful human beings who are no longer translators will become a new standard and a legitimate way for delivering the bulk of translations.

Is it possible for translators to regain the central role in the translation process that some of us have become accustomed to in the years and decades before the advent of the extremely efficient methods of the new “translation industry”, when translators were still used to interact on personal basis with knowledgeable and intelligent project managers in translation agencies, instead of having to try to satisfy a piece of managerial software written by people who know a lot about efficient management of easily replaceable cogs in a huge machinery, but nothing about translation, software that keeps coming at them with more demands and new requiremens designed to keep the little human cogs making the wonderful machinery of a translation agency working at maximum speed and minimum expense for greater and greater profits of the industry?

I for one believe that based on these new methods, it is not possible for translation agencies to even pick the best person for the job, or for the translators to function as specialized experts within the context of the system that has been relatively recently created by the “translation industry.”

I do think that reintegration of translators in the translation process is still possible, even in the age of disintegration of the role of translators brought to us by the management methods used by faceless “translation industry,” but only for translators who work outside of the automated system created by this industry.
And to me, working outside of the system means working mostly for direct clients, and partly also for translation agencies of the traditional type, namely those that are able to work with translators on a personal level, treat them with respect, and realize that the role played by an experienced translator is the most important element in the translation process.

The ruthless efficiency of translation portals is extremely harmful not only to the quality of translation, but ultimately also to the viability of the entire “translation industry.”

Clients are not idiots, and after a while they are likely to recognize the inferior quality resulting from these extremely efficient managerial methods and vote with their feet.

Which would then mean that these seemingly very efficient methods are in fact very inefficient because it is much harder to find new clients than to keep old ones, and clients will stay with a business only when they are happy with the results that they are paying for.