Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Menace of Machine Translation. Is it Really?

 The translation and interpreting professions are no doubt in a transition process; a transition stirred mostly by technology.   We all know it.  It is equally important,  however, that we all know and acknowledge the limitations of technological advances and the boundaries for the use of technology-based tools.
I recently learned about an initiative put forth by the Canadian government to provide all its employees with Portage –an automatic translation software similar to Google Translate – developed by the National Research Council of Canada. Of course, for translators in Canada, this may represent job losses and a decline of the quality of government communication.
 The Translation Bureau – " the federal organization responsible for supporting the Government of Canada in its efforts to communicate with and provide services for Canadians in the official language of their choice"– is  known as a provider of high quality services for which considerable resources have been invested to develop an impressive array of language-related services. This includes writing guidelines, articles, quizzes, linguistics tools such as terminology standardization, glossaries in an array of fields, and terminology databases –namely Termium, which I consider to be one of the most reliable sources for terminological research in English, French, and Spanish (although Spanish is not as exhaustive as in English and French).
The Translation Bureau, however, has reportedly not been hiring new translators and is counting on attrition to decrease the size of its staff. The initiative of providing all federal employees with  automatic translation software adds to the concerns of current staff translators.  A recent newspaper article reports that a pilot with 200 federal employees will assess the effectiveness of the translation software before it is launched government-wide by 2016.  
The development of technological applications for our profession bears witness to the demand for translation –as well as interpretation– services. We all are interacting globally more and more.  I, for one, use machine translation for casual communication (i.e. Facebook) with persons around the world with whom I share common interests but do not share a common language. In this context, machine translation comes in handy but remains a better-than-nothing solution.  There are times when I wonder what I my German friends, for example, really meant. I get the gist of it, and it is of no serious consequence if I don’t understand everything.  However, in settings where quality communication is key, it is an aberration to even think of using machine translation. 
In a fast-paced world,  translators face tight deadlines and turnaround times. It is my hope that if the Canadian government pilot yields positive outcomes, installing translation software on the desktops of federal employees will mean that translators will be able to focus more on the production of quality key documents that will translate –no pun intended– into higher quality government communication. Automatically generated translation has its place in the large scheme of things, but the intricacy and beauty of language still outsmarts any statistical probability matching device.  It remains, however, a story to be continued.  In the meantime, let’s reserve machine translation for settings such as social media and for other times where getting the gist of a message suffices.  But let’s continue to educate and prepare the best qualified translators and interpreters.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Importance of Staff Interpreters in the Courts

A recent survey by the Interpreting Division of the American Translators Association  included two questions on concerns about the interpreting profession. One question was whether non-qualified interpreters are taking jobs from qualified interpreters and the other was whether remote interpreting technologies are causing face-to-face interpreting to vanish.

Interpreting service users in government and community organizations are more and more aware of the importance of counting on the services of a qualified interpreter.  Untrained or unqualified interpreters are likewise feeling the pressure to gain a valid credential.  As for remote interpreting technologies, it is important to realize that they have a place in the provision of interpreting services. For example, I recently provided interpreting services for federal defenders who needed to communicate with their clients incarcerated hundreds of miles away.  While there is no substitute to face-to-face communication, video remote interpreting technology allowed these defenders to reach their clients and provide them with extremely important information on their case and defense strategy.  As an interpreter, the experience was terrific because the technology cooperated: the connection was flawless and the sound was clear.

I, for one, am not concerned so much about unqualified interpreters taking jobs from professional interpreters as court systems completely handing over the provision of interpreting services to an external provider without any quality control mechanisms. This happened recently in an important county of my home state. So far, reports from the interpreters providing services for this court system are positive both in terms of revenue and steadiness of work. The issues here are two-fold. First, under this new scheme it is the previous contract interpreters who are currently providing interpreting services. Since they know these courts very well, they are already familiar with where the various courtrooms are located, the local procedures, and most of the legal professionals. New interpreters will most likely be inducted and mentored by the current interpreters. However, there is room to ask about whom will provide guidance and supervision on-site? Who is there to provide support to those interpreters during crunch time?  Also, how can these interpreters seek support from the courts when they have outsourced interpreting services? In court systems with staff interpreters, interpreters have an office to leave their personal belonging, to hold impromptu meetings, and to connect during breaks and lunch. When the courts here outsourced their interpreting services, this went away. This may sound like a small thing, but it’s not – without space, interpreters lose much of the chance to network, support each other, and talk over issues and problems.

This video, produced by the United States Courts, testifies to the importance of having staff interpreters.  As pointed out by one of the interpreters in the video, staff interpreters provide not only interpreting services during legal proceedings; they also translate documents and assist the public on the phone. Language access should be about providing those who do not speak the language of the court with services that would give a true meaning to the expression justice for all – the central tenet of the Pledge of Allegiance.


Friday, March 13, 2015

Peer assessment: What is it all about in the end?

Peer and self-assessment have become terms of art in a great many fields; the underlying concept for ongoing professional development and improvement at the institutional and personal level.  In academia, for example, self-assessment and peer program review are steps for seeking and maintaining program accreditation by local or national accrediting bodies. Accreditation suggests the establishment of quality standards, and to some extent, predictability of the competencies graduates would have upon completion of their program of studies.  Peer and self-assessment are also key strategies for the improvement of individual performance. To be a valid and productive exercise, however; i.e. one that leads to improvement, peer and self-assessment require the acquisition and application of a specific set of skills.

Recently,  in my teaching of court interpreters in both language-neutral and language-specific approaches at the graduate level, self and peer assessment have acquired a new meaning to me.  In the information era, instructors are guides of the student’s learning process. Although instructors possess the professional  experience that most students have yet to acquire, they no longer are the only source students can draw from.  Also, when working with a group of adults at the graduate level, the likelihood of students having a strong body of knowledge in related fields is quite high. Some of them may even have experience in the field. Let’s face it; in such a context, the  bulk of instruction comes from the students themselves. That is why we have made it a point to teach our students how to self-assess and, very importantly, to assess their peers’ performance. 
More recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about peer assessment; especially the conditions under which it works well to help students improve. One essential component of effective peer assessment is being neutral, especially freeing oneself from any personal like – and especially dislike – towards the person on the receiving end. It is also essential to be encouraging yet objective.  This translates into identifying areas of excellence, but also areas that need attention, and providing specific examples of both. Of course, improvement will not ensue if no solutions are proposed. Solutions should be such that the person on the receiving end does not feel overwhelmed by them. In some cases, the issue in question may be a deep-rooted problem. However, suggesting to tackle the problem at the root might be a source of frustration. Bite-sized solutions are likely to yield smaller but more realistic results. 
For both the person providing the assessment and the person being assessed, it is paramount to have the humility to acknowledge that there might be times when a proposed solution might not be the best or may, in fact, be flat out wrong.  On the receiving end, there must, of course, be the willingness or disposition to receive feedback dispassionately.  Do not take it personally, do not apologize. One can defend a viewpoint, but should also be open to a different perspective.
So, in essence, what is peer assessment really all about?  Essentially, it is about communication and diplomatic skills. It is about the acquisition and development of character. After all, isn’t character one of the elements a person is judged by in all settings and especially in court proceedings? It is about essential professional skills that would allow a person to navigate the dicey waters of human organizations without alienating others.  This is particularly true for people in formal leadership roles. Of course, there are several styles of leadership  some of which are frequently linked to personality and some leaders may not be aware of their style. Peer assessment is about awareness of human interaction and approaches to generate positive change .


Friday, January 9, 2015

Database on Compensation for Interpreters in the Courts of the United States

Keeping up with my blog has proven a more demanding task than I imagined what I first created it because I try to generate original or unpublished information and this requires a great investment of time.  Alas, my time often goes to other undertakings, namely teaching and trying to conclude a monograph for publication at some point this fall.  However, I came across a new information resource that is so exciting and timely that I wanted to make sure to let you know about it. 

This resource is Court Interpreter Research, a new website which provides information on compensation for interpreters in courts throughout the United States.  Created in October 2013 by Robert Joe Lee, whose work focused on language access for linguistic minorities over 23 years, this website provides raw data on how staff, contract, and temporary interpreters in spoken languages – as opposed to sign language – are compensated in the various levels of the U.S. court system: Federal, state, county, and city and municipal courts.  By publishing raw compensation data, court managers, interpreters, and anyone else who has an interest in the subject can gain immediate access to important information that can be used to conduct research or for informational purposes.

The stated objective of the database is to create the most complete information possible on job titles, salary ranges, hours of work, fringe benefits, and reimbursement of expenses for both staff and contract interpreters. The database provides very useful information on job categories of staff (full-time or part-time), contract, and temporary interpreters. One thing this data shows is that patterns of interpreter employment vary from state to state, as do job categories.  For example, in Delaware the categories of contract interpreters include Registered Interpreter, Conditionally Approved Interpreter, Journeyman Interpreter, Certified Interpreter, and Certified-Master Level Interpreter (Chapter 3, page 2). It would be interesting to learn about the skills and training required for each category.  

The compensation database is made up of seven chapters and a supplement section. Chapter one describes the content of the database and how to use it. Chapter two includes data on the Administrative Office of the United States Courts –the support agency of the U.S. Judicial Branch – and the United States District Courts. Chapter three deals with the State Administrative Offices of the Courts; that is, the administrative agency of the Supreme Court in the various states. Chapter four covers the Superior Court of California in various regions of this state, with the authors providing a rationale for treating the Superior court in the state of California separately from state and county courts.  Chapter five describes compensation in county courts; and chapter six addresses city and municipal courts. Chapter seven address the court system of Florida.  While chapters one through seven are based on compensation practices for the July-December 2013 time period, the Supplement section of the database provides compensation updates reported after January 1st, 2014.  Each chapter consists of a pdf file, which once downloaded can be accessed directly from one’s computer.

It is worth noting that the database is incomplete regarding county and municipal court data, and as a result, some staff interpreters are not included in this database. For example, the database does not include county-level data on Indiana, but in Marion County (Indianapolis) there is one full-time staff interpreter who serves both as an interpreter and interpreting services coordinator for all county courts. It is likely that the fact that many states do not have unified court systems greatly complicates the task of collecting data. These omissions should not, however, minimize the importance or utility of the extensive data that the author has collected.   

f these data are useful to court managers and other parties interested in this topic, they are even more important to interpreters themselves who oftentimes do not feel comfortable talking about their own compensation, let alone asking fellow interpreters from a different state, city or court how much they make.  It is understandable that some interpreters may feel that their hourly rate is low – I certainly thought our hourly rate here in Indianapolis was low! For those interpreters who are truly underpaid, this website provides them with the evidence they need to advocate for fairer and competitive compensation. However, to my astonishment I found from the database that the rate in Indianapolis is actually higher than cities such as Denver, for example. This does not mean that we should content ourselves with our compensation; it means that not having information on interpreter compensation may cause us to have an inaccurate perception of our situation.

While this database does not include information on all jurisdictions, it does provide a good snapshot on compensation practices for interpreters. Of great value are links to sources used to compile these data.  They include links to state policies regarding policies and rates of payment for interpreting and travel for independent contract interpreters (for example, Chapter 3, page 7, provides a link to the Office of the State Court Administrator in Colorado); job descriptions, which provide incredibly valuable information on requirements and responsibilities for interpreter and interpreting services managers/coordinator in various jurisdictions; and contact information for court interpreter managers, directors of interpreter certification programs, and other key players.

It would be interesting to add to this database information on the particular settings in which interpreters work and the type of cases interpreters they are called upon to provide their services. The most common settings are the courts, naturally, but interpreters also work in and for jails, federal and state agencies such as public defenders, probation services. As for case types, interpreters are called most commonly for criminal cases, but it is not clear in which courts the services of an interpreter are provided in civil cases.  To relieve courts of their case load, many are turning to mediation; however, it is not clear if interpreting services are provided and to what extent.

The database is also evidence of the reality that there is a national market for judicial interpreters, something I know from personal experience of teaching aspiring interpreters at the graduate level.  Like our profession, this database is in a nascent stage. I hope they will support each other for the betterment of the profession and language access to justice for limited English-proficient individuals.

Key words:  Court interpreter salary,  Court interpreter categories, United States court interpreters