Neutral to the matter, impartial to the parties

These are a series of tweets on neutrality and impartiality of interpreters. Sparked by an episode of Troublesome Terps.

Latest @troubleterps episode was indeed troublesome. Fascinating, but I have to stand up for neutrality & impartiality. I often hear @Colombias’ views from students or colleagues. Yet, it’s a serious misunderstanding of professional ethics. Let me explain in this thread. #1nt

A popular stance is neutrality & impartiality in #1nt is passé since interpreters are human beings and thus cannot be neutral. Well, exactly because we are human beings, we need to keep neutrality and impartiality. How would we otherwise like our interpreters? Partial and biased?

Neutrality & impartiality are concepts of professional ethics. We need professional ethics as personal ethics may vary. Professional ethics are common agreements on how to behave in varied contexts, e.g. even a murder suspect caught red handed gets a defense lawyer. #1nt

Neutrality is your handling of the case. When interpreting, your professional evaluation of the situation must not be colored by personal convictions. One is allowed personal convictions, but not to express them or let them influence while interpreting. Down to word level. #1nt

If you know that your personal convictions overshadow your professional evaluation you have all rights NOT to take, or withdraw, from an assignment. You will not be paid of course, but no one will force you to interpret. I have turned assignments down for that reason. #1nt

In fact, if I, as dependent on an interpreter, was going to discuss an abortion with my gynecologist, I think I would prefer having an interpreter showing no strong convictions to either side. It’s difficult enough. #1nt

Neutrality does not mean void of empathy. Empathy is a good personal trait of an interpreter, a socio- or psychopath interpreter personality sounds like a really bad idea. #1nt

Being empathic does not mean advocating. @NaomiSheneman’s tale of four interpreters is a wonderful description about how an interpreter can make a user feel (I note that #1 does not advocate, but show empathy and attentiveness) <blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>I was in the ER from 3 pm til 145 am. I had four different interpreters. Interesting to see how they were all different bringing up thoughts of characteristics of an ideal healthcare interpreter. Bedside manners and clear masks are a must. See my comments for a profile of each /1</p>&mdash; Naomi Sheneman (@NaomiSheneman) <a href=”https://twitter.com/NaomiSheneman/status/1313469819820404737?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>October 6, 2020</a></blockquote> https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

You can hand your client a handkerchief and still be neutral. You can show with your voice that there is sadness or anger in the account you’re interpreting. It does not serve your client well if you are overcome by the situation and cry or hit a desk in anger while #1nt.

What if you witness misconduct by a civil servant, or overhear that the person you are interpreting is planning a crime? In the countries where I interpret, there are legislation about this, and boards where you can report authorities’ abuse. #1nt

Neutrality does not mean you are a machine only that you are dealing with matters at hand in a non-biased way. Every situation is individual, yet there is a predetermined format that you adapt to, just like any civil servant. #1nt

Sometimes, deciding whether someone is or can be neutral is hard (just look at the discussions about the nominations to the US supreme court). Imagine a political activist in a local community for a political party with very immigrant restrictive policies. #1nt

The name and face are all over town because there is an election for an office in that community. Can that person work as a neutral interpreter in an immigration hearing? #1nt

Well presumably they can, as we have concluded that one is are to believe whatever one likes as long as you can be neutral to the case at hand. The question is perhaps whether the individual in the immigrant hearing will trust you, and trust is another crux of the matter. #1nt

So visibility may be an issue, but who on earth came up with the idea that neutral and invisible were linked together? Take the example of a judge: I would expect a judge in a court case to be neutral, but absolutely not invisible. #1nt

Users of interpreting can say, “that interpreter was so good, as if they were not there”. That’s not invisibility, that’s an #1nt who neither renounced the task nor took over the event event. Interpreters cannot be invisible, although though sometimes not seen. #1nt

I certainly want my kids’ football referee to be neutral, but an invisible referee would be completely useless. I don’t expect the football referee not to have opinions on football, but I would be very upset if it looked like he was partial towards one of the teams. #1nt

So, what about impartiality? Can an #1nt really be impartial? As individuals we belong to different groups, different nationalities, different organisations. We have different ethical backgrounds, different faith and different convictions. Isn’t impartiality only an illusion?

Well, the demand and the challenge here are to not take sides in the case at hand. And, to be aware of your own ideas and convictions so as not let them influence you. You are loyal to both sides (be bi-partial), (unless you’re a military interpreter, I’ll come to that). #1nt

If you very strongly believe that a person is guilty and decide to “help” the court by twisting the defendants statement a little, well then you are not the right person for the job. When taking sides one advocates and that is another profession. #1nt

Remember you only see the side of the story presented in that meeting, you have no idea of the mechanisms behind, are you sure that your understanding of the situation is the best one for all parties. See illustration from Skaaden 2019. #1nt

On advocacy: if I wore a hijab, I would prefer an interpreter who let me explain when I’m comfortable taking off my hijab rather than having an interpreter “helping me” by telling the other people in my meeting when I can take it off or not. #1nt

About hijab btw. Can you wear it and be neutral? In France (so I’m told), it would be absolutely impossible for an interpreter to wear a hijab (or a cross for that matter). In Sweden, I have many #1nt colleagues wearing a hijab, nobody bats a lash.

More on advocacy: When I lecture for MDs and show them this photo (Skaaden 2019), they say this interpreter did not do a good job “helping to get an answer”. Their reactions are: I wouldn’t know a thing about that lady’s pain! #1nt

There are #1nt we expect to be partial. A military interpreter would not be trusted, it they do not belong to our side. This is often a big issue in military interpreting and also put interpreters at high risk.

A president often brings their personal interpreter to different meetings, I assume it has to do with trust and expecting the interpreter to be loyal to one side. This also often goes for business #1nt

Impartiality, pay and trust is a final issue. A court interpreter is paid by the court, so is that person impartial? I’d argue that this is exactly where the professional ethics and regulations comes into play. #1nt

For more on neutrality, impartiality, bi-partiality, professional ethics and the interpreters’ discretionary power read this book. Valid for all types of #1nt despite the title.

Why do I train interpreters?

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I live in a tiny conference interpreting market. The number of Swedish members of AIIC is under 30, the number of Swedish A-language conference interpreters in total, worldwide, is under 100. Our biggest client are the European institutions and any change in meeting or language policy has immediate and dramatic impact on the market. On top of this Swedish people also have a long and strong tradition of learning and using foreign languages so interpreters are often deemed unnecessary.

I would like to stress that this is not a list of complaints, only a realistic description of the market. Not very surprisingly I often get feedback from conference interpreting colleagues on why I train new interpreting colleagues when they see their job threatened. These colleagues argue that interpreting training should only run when there is a need for new colleagues, and, from their point of view, there’s no need now. I don’t agree. Continue reading

SCIC – universities 2015: Lessons learned

Every year in March the European Commission’s interpreting directorate (nowadays DG Interpretation, but for must of us still DG SCIC) gather representatives from the universities they collaborate with. This year was my second time, but with some 200 participants and a programme filled to the brim it is still a quite overwhelming experience. The webcast is online and you can watch it here. Continue reading

How to be a teacher’s pet – what all my interpreting students need to know

Äpple Stefan Svensson Flickr

Äpple Stefan Svensson Flickr

 

On Monday, our spring term starts and I will teach public service interpreting. Here are some tips for my students to dwell on over the week-end and which go beyond be on time, be polite and give your teacher an apple. Some tips are general for all students, other more specific for interpreting. Continue reading

Let me introduce myself – the interpreter’s introduction

Vector handshake

Vector handshake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

When you arrive at a meeting where you will interpret, you will have to introduce yourself. Well, maybe not if you’re part of the staff at an international institution, then you’ll just slip into your booth and do your job. But in all other contexts you will have to tell somebody who you are and what you’re doing there. So how do you go about it?

 

When I arrive at a more conference-like meeting I will just see the person responsible for the interpreters and a short: “I’m Elisabet Tiselius, Swedish booth”, will do. The only thing they’re interested in is that we are there and ready to start working. If there’s a particular tricky terminology or concept you may go and see your delegate and ask for clarification or explanation, but otherwise you sit tight and wait for the meeting to start. Continue reading

Interpret America, here I come!

Plaza at Lake Anne in Reston Virginia

Plaza at Lake Anne in Reston Virginia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m extremely excited! My proposal for Interpret America was accepted. I’ve been wanting and aiming to attend InterpretAmerica since it started in 2010, but other things have gotten in the way. I admit I don’t work on the American continent, but their program is always very interesting and this year is no exception.

But there are two reasons in particular that makes this extra special. First I’m one of five speakers in their new Interpret-ED format, so I had to submit a video proposal, and the talk will be recorded and broadcasted – cool! Second, I get to talk about things I found in my research about interpreting and practice. I will not spill the beans already, but I’m very much looking forward to hear your reactions on my findings. I was very surprised myself and have spent a lot of time thinking about it.

I’m also very much looking forward to meet other colleagues in Reston, both new faces and old friends. There are also a few tweeps I hope to meet in person. And, as I have called for a discussion between inventors of new technologies and interpreters I’ll be in the front row for the plenary on new technologies (don’t worry I neither bark nor bite).

This year’s program follows up on previous years discussions of creating a professional identity and how to form the profession. There’s also a key-not on creating presence in social media and a whole panel on social media with Nataly Kelly (our own Interprenaut and of course Found in Translation, CSA and now Smartling), Brandon Arthur (from Street Leverage)  and Ian Andersen (who is behind the European Commission’s interpreting unit’s popular Facebook page  among other things). I’ll be in the front row there too 🙂

And then, there’s the book talk and book signing – Saima Wahab, Pashto interpreter, will talk about and sign her book “In my Father’s country”, and Nataly Kelly will sign her book “Found in translation”. I’ve already read Nataly’s and Jost’s book (maybe I should bring it and get it signed or will that seem too eager?), but I’m very much looking forward to read Saima’s.

So, on the 14 and 15 of June I’ll be spending 48 intensive hours in Reston, Virginia. Come join me there or be sure to watch the video afterwards and tell me if you agree or not.

Day 19 Something I regret

English: Hemulen in Muumimaailma, Naantali.

English: Hemulen (the reseracher in the Moomin world) in Muumimaailma, Naantali. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, I don’t regret much actually. I have a positive mind and I don’t like to dwell too much on “if only”. My basic philosophy is that everything that happens adds experience (good or bad) to your backpack, and that experience makes up the person you are. I don’t consider myself fatalistic, but believe things that happen shape who you are which in turn shapes your future.

But if I try hard I can probably come up with a few things I regret. Not staying in Finland where I was an Au Pair girl a thousand years ago. I left after only three months because of a boy, and my knowledge of Finnish is still non-existent. How great it would have been to have Finnish in my combination. Not too late you may argue, true, it’s never too late, but I don’t think I’ll take up Finnish now.

A few assignments when I did not prepare enough. Rule number one, you can never prepare too much! But yes, I too went into the trap and thought that I knew enough, which ended up in some rather embarrassing situations. There’s actually a difference between not knowing because you didn’t prepare, and not knowing because something completely unknown came up that you could not have prepared for.

That time when I, for some incredible reason, did not ask for my colleague’s name. Needless, to say there was a reason that I did not get it. I ended up working with somebody who was not an interpreter. Never again! It was such an utterly unpleasant situation. The person was so sweet, but completely incompetent and it was just awkward.

No, I don’t have too many regrets, luckily. How about you?

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. The whole list is here.

Babel precarity?

Member at the State of the Union address

Member at the State of the Union address (Photo credit: Talk Radio News Service)

 

 

This is a blog post I have been reluctant to write. I have reflected about the topic for a long time and I have not been sure it’s necessarily a good idea to be strongly for or against, actually I would prefer to silence it. But the more I see it and the more I hear about it I have decided that I must take a stance. Thank you Lionel, for helping me make up my mind.

 

I like technology, love technology really. I’m an early adopter of most things. My friends laugh at me, calling me a tech freak. I was an early adopter on social media, at least for ladies my age. I have new gadgets all the time. If something just has a remote practical application, I’ll be the first in line to get it. I also really like things that can make my job easier, computer in the booth (check), Facebook group for students (check), mp3 memory (check), dictionaries on computer and on the net (check). Well you get the picture…

 

There’s one thing I don’t like with new technology though, when or if technology  comes with deterioration of working conditions. I believe technology should help, not hamper. Screen interpreting should not mean appalling sound, non-synchronized picture and sound, or only one fixed camera showing half of the room and the rest of the speakers are only heard, not seen. Machine translation should not mean that I spend more time correcting work, than the time it would have taken translating it manually in the first place. Machine interpreting can develop into a great tool but should not replace real interpreters in complex or crucial meetings (off the cuff I can think of medical interpreting, court interpreting and legislative meetings for instance). Web streaming or web cast of my interpreting should not be taken for an original, and so forth.

 

One of the most worrying tendencies right now consists of the Babelverse project. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s a project that aims to connect interpreters in real-time with potential clients via the Internet. When I first read about it, it sounded like a great idea – imagine how much easier it would have been to instantly get hold of say Haitian Creole interpreters in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. But such great technology should not go hand in hand with creating interpreter precarity or exclusion, right?

 

These guys do not want to help just out of their good heart, and I wouldn’t expect them to either. Of course you should earn money on new inventions. But when the service they sell is based on paying interpreters per minute, I get worried. Personally, I like to both plan my day, and prepare my work. This is not about being spoiled. I chose free lancing because I like the freedom and I’m used to having a long-term planning that can be anything between a year and a day. The length of my assignments range from one hour to one week usually. It does not give the same safety as being on a payroll, and I don’t expect it to, but being able to plan ahead, just a little, means that it allows me to plan things as baby sitter or picking up after school, and on the professional level I have the time to prepare.

 

One of the occasions when this new project was going to be demonstrated was the US President’s State of the Union speech. Now, there’s quite a difference between ad hoc relief or language brokering, and advanced conference interpreting. If I am to interpret the President’s State of the Union speech, I prepare days before. I listen to other speeches the President made, earlier State of the Union speeches, read up on different political analysts’ predictions, and also hopefully at one point I would get some sort of background notes. This is a really difficult interpreting context. A prepared speech where every word has been weighed to convey exactly the right nuance, not promise too much, not too little. It is also prepared and therefore much faster in its enunciation. American English can be extremely fast and information dense, a prepared speech is even denser and faster.

 

So knowing all this, would I be happy to sit at home in front of my computer (3 am in the morning my time) to wait for a possible client who would like to hear the speech translated into my language and then be paid per minute for my performance and preparation? No, I would not! I think that such a business plan is outright disrespectful of people. It takes a life time to master a foreign language far from every bi- or multilingual person makes a good interpreter. On top of that, most professional interpreters have spent years at university, and spend countless hours every year on professional development, preparation and other performance enhancing activities. Such a business plan is p-ing on these professionals.

 

So Babelverse guys, if this business plan is going to deliver viable, high quality interpreting you need to rethink how you hire your interpreters. I’m amazed that none of the risk capital investors have pointed this out to you. Who do they think interpreters are? Babelfish or C3POwho runs on electricity and can be turned off when not needed? Well, not just yet.

 

Booth confessions

Interpretation Booths

Interpretation Booths (Photo credit: TEDxMonterey)

As I just finished a week in Strasbourg, I also finished several hours of booth time. The confined space of a booth is a very interesting microcosm. How the interpreters arrange themselves in the booth, who sits where and who sits next to whom, and so forth. Most booths on the private market only have two consoles, so your choice is basically just left or right. But do you prefer to sit near the door or in the corner? Which of the places have the best view? And where are you close to a socket? And do you have a colleague with an extremely strong preference (you really don’t want to spoil someone’s day). At the European institutions there are three pulpits (and interpreters) which means that someone has to be in the middle. I know that I share the aversion of the middle seat with many colleagues, make sure to be on time if you want to avoid it. If I’m first in the booth and have the privilege to choose I look at three things: socket, view, side. I don’t have any colleague I dislike or have had an argument with, but it has happened that I decided to sit in the middle because I knew the two colleagues I was about to worked with were not best of friends, to put it mildly.

How much and what you spread is also important. The booth is our work place so obviously we bring stuff to the booth, but that does not mean that your colleagues would like to share your lip-stick smeared, half-drunken, cold coffee, or that they appreciate having half of the Guardian rustle over their console (actually, the client may not appreciate that either). I had one colleague who was absolutely obsessed about eating in the booth. “This is a booth” she used to say, “not a train compartment”. And I don’t believe she’s entirely wrong either (although I admit to eating, discretely, in the booth), I don’t think your listeners will appreciate slurping over the microphone, neither from you nor your colleague.

I have another bad, although silent, habit in the booth – I put my lipstick on. I’m not really sure the listener really likes sharing my make-up routine. I try to combat this more tic-like behavior.

But it wasn’t really booth manners I wanted to share, but rather booth talk. When we’re on air there’s not much conversation going on between colleagues, and admittedly during some meetings there is not one spoken word exchanged between the interpreters, the meeting is just too dense. But when we’re not interpreting a lot is going on. I have touched upon the topic already here, but I wanted to reiterate it, because, this week,  I really felt how important it is. First and foremost there’s background and terminology check of course. But when working with colleagues you like, it’s amazing how quickly the conversation gets deep and intimate. It is as if the very intense work, the secluded space, and the short moment of time spark important discussions. I don’t mean that every time I meet somebody new I give or get long revealing confidences. But over the years I’ve heard all types of life stories, been part of important decisions, shared deep sorrow, great joy and much more. I’m amazed how many interesting jobs, travels, families and hobbies interpreters have. Provided you like other people and take an interest in others’ life this is really an upside of the job. And interestingly this does hardly ever happen outside the booth, it’s as if the booth is a perfect mix of space and time.

Oh, and a final word. Don’t forget to take your trash with you when you leave the booth. Leaving trash is disrespect for colleagues and technicians.

The comfort zone dilemma in interpreter training – my view

The 16th conference DG Interpretation – Universités was held on March 15 and 16. Unfortunately, I could not follow the proceedings, but there has been a lot going on via Twitter, thanks to @GlendonTranslate both days have been archived here and here. And Matt Haldimann wrote two blog posts on it over at 2interpreters. In one of the posts he discussed Brian Fox’s presentation where one of the issues was that stress is an important factor behind candidates not passing the EU accreditation test.

I’d like to follow up on Matt’s post and my own experience of the comfort zone in interpreting training. But, first of all, the European institution’s problem that students graduating from interpreting school do not pass the accreditation tests is not a new one. I’m not sure that you actually CAN pass an EU accreditation test immediately after interpreting school. I’m not saying that to discourage anyone, but just compare any graduate from any training. You don’t graduate from a Political Science program and start as a senior ministry official, ministries usually have internships, training programs and so forth. You don’t graduate from law school and become a lawyer immediately. Medical doctors are required to be interns before they practice. The institutions have started running training programs for prospective interpreters which is great, but of course schools should prepare interpreting students as well.

Traditionally, interpreting training is very tough. I don’t remember much of comfort zone from my own interpreting training, and ask any interpreter and they will tell you horrible stories about austere teachers literally decomposing students. Students sometimes feel that they are thrown into the water and those who swim survive. Much of these feelings stem from the fact that you are trying to learn a very complex skill that is also closely linked to both your personality, your voice and your language so clearly it is hard.

As a teacher I would not describe the way I practice as throwing students into the water and see who comes up. In fact, I work very hard to be a coaching, positive teacher. Yet, I know that my students also seem to be struggling like I did.

Matt suggests to build on trust, and to work with other skills such as public speaking, he mentions his own experiences of improvisational theater, and last but not least – mock conferences. I think these are great ideas and it also points to something that we may need to refine even more – modular learning. I know that several schools work with modules. The most obvious module being of course that first you work with memory exercises, then with note taking, then with consecutive and so forth. But modules can also be broken down into for instance: interpreting figures, conveying sadness, interpreting names, conveying anger and so forth. And it can of course also be used to train: interpreting under stress, interpreting with text, interpreting at an exam and so forth. And everything does not have to be dealt with in interpreting class; managing stress, voice coaching, public speaking can, together with contemporary social and environmental studies, terminology, study technique and so forth, be done in separate lectures. The social side of interpreting is also often a sadly forgotten business – we should teach students how to deal with clients, how to behave in the booth, how to establish yourself on the market and so forth.

But – and here comes the big but – many interpreting schools have classes specializing on interpreting two or four hours per week. And classes can be huge. If you are the only interpreting teacher for 30 students 4 hours per week, it is very likely 90 % of your students will never make it to interpreters. Maybe 80 % of them just took the course because they heard it was not much reading required. So you teach them how to teach themselves how to master the skill and those who wants to and take it seriously hopefully benefits from that and use the time appropriately. So in order to be able to give our students all this support we need: more teaching hours, smaller groups (if groups are big), access to other teachers who can work with us for the interpreting students, and maybe even access to specialists who could work with the students on an individual basis (voice coaching, stress).

I have two good bets; teacher training and more money. How does that sound?