Monday, February 13, 2017


One of my long-standing clients used to employ an International Director stationed here in the U.S.  That gentleman has since been relocated back to France, but I remember distinctly his passionate first reflections on his ex-pat experience.  He was so inspired that he sought me out, as the interpreter to his company, to propose a potential co-authorship of a book on French – American cultural differences.


I’m sure he was thinking we were going to break new ground.  I quickly lent him a few of the books from my shelf:  Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik;  French or Foe? by Polly Platt.  One of my favorites is Français & Américains, L’autre rive by Pascal Baudry.  And then there is the long-time standard, that has been around so long (1988) that it is now somewhat outdated [See Chapter Six:  The Telephone]:  Cultural Misunderstandings, The French-American Experience, by Raymonde Carroll.  I so love the title of this work in its original French:  Évidences invisibles.  The obvious that is imperceptible.


My intention was not to discourage my French friend, but operate instead on the idea that we had to build on what was already published.  Unfortunately, our project never materialized.


However, I live that same inspiration through my work, in tiny, perhaps insignificant moments of finding the right word in an interpretation, and watching the light of comprehension spark in the eyes of the two parties for whom I serve as a linguist bridge.


Any explanation of the joy and adrenaline rush from finding the ideal translation of an expression, in the blink of any eye during simultaneous interpretation, is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t interpreted.  The brain is firing away on all synapses.  The heart is beating faster.  But if the job is done right, the audience doesn’t even know that small works of art are happening.  Because, if the interpretation is elegant and correct, the interpreter appropriately fades into the background of the ideas being exchanged.  


This afternoon, I took a break from my computer to watch the press conference with Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau.  I watched as the press and government officials filed in to the room and I saw the familiar interpretation equipment on each chair:  a receiver and a head set.  My heart immediately went out to the professional in the interpretation booth.  This was a big meeting.  Two heads of government sharing a common border yet politically opposed on so many fronts.


Mr. Trudeau gave his speech and answered questions from the press in both French and English. 


Mr. Trump only attempted to listen to the interpretation through his earpiece.  He raised it to his ear, lowered it, and eventually gave up.


Some interpreters were denied entry to the U.S. following the Trump administration’s executive order on travel from several countries.  It was interesting to me that the press chose to focus on some of them as notable victims of the order.  I’m sure there were doctors or other professionals who were blocked from entry into the U.S., but I watched a report on an Afghan interpreter whose life was in danger in the homeland he was fleeing, for having assisted our military.  In a time when cultural differences are tearing nations apart, it is encouraging to see interpreters recognized.


Interpreting is a difficult profession.  I haven’t had my life endangered by my job, but I do want to make a plea for the respect of the invaluable services my colleagues provide.


Here it is:  LISTEN to the interpreter!  The person across from you has a message.  If you are not bilingual, put on the headset or the earpiece. 


Respect for the person’s message begins with respect for the interpreter.  You might just learn something.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Translator defends the Affordable Care Act

As someone who has been self-employed for over twenty years, I have known the joy of achievements that I owe to no one but myself.  Self-employment is not for the faint of heart.  Each conquest is accompanied by hours of unpaid work in unrelated fields.  I have had to be my own bookkeeper, sales staff, and IT specialist. 

Translation and interpretation are not occupations that can be learned overnight either.  I am constantly trying to improve my game.  I have to keep up reading in two languages.  Watching the French news on the Internet is essential.  Before the Internet, I actually listened to Radio France.  When I started working in my first bilingual job, not only were there no computers, but things like “airbags”, Mad Cow disease (I heard it misinterpreted as vache enragée), acronyms like AIDS and HIV and GPA ( not "grade point average" but grossesse pour autrui or “surrogate motherhood”) were not a part of current vocabulary.  Minus efforts to make almost daily contact with both cultures, my bilingual skills would be outdated.

Another aspect of this profession is that not everyone will need a French translator or interpreter, so freelancers are constantly recruiting new opportunities, living from one assignment to the next.  Anyone who is self-employed has lived through the precarious days of anticipating the next assignment, or waiting for the difficult client to pay his bill.  We have to pay our taxes quarterly, since there is no withholding by an employer.  We pay self-employment tax to cover Social Security and Medicare without contributions of an employer. 

One of the biggest responsibilities the self-employed individual has to take on is providing his or her own health insurance.  If there is no life partner or spouse to help with that, health insurance becomes a huge concern.

So let’s look at some math:

According to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the median annual wage for a translator working in the U.S. was $44,190.  (Statistics from May of 2015. )

Under the ACA, a single individual’s Adjusted Gross Income has to fall under $47,520 to qualify for a plan.  To be clear on what the Adjusted Gross Income entails, a self-employed person can contribute $12,500 per year to a SIMPLE IRA account.  If a Health Savings Account is opened for that individual, (according to the insured person’s age), an additional $4350 can be deducted per year, to cover uninsured health costs.

            Translator’s median income                               $44 190
            Retirement account contribution                    -$12 500
            Health savings account                                        - $4350

            Adjusted gross income (estimated)                  $27 340

On that calculation, a translator is $20 000 under the minimum for coverage,  left with $2278 per month to live on, out of which the health insurance premium must be paid.

Even without the deductions for the retirement account and the health savings account, a translator earning the median income would still qualify for ACA insurance.

I have known quite a few translators and interpreters, and we don’t discuss our income, but I can imagine that pretty equally, there are some who earn more and some who earn less than the median.

We are part of one of the oldest professions in human history, and a very honorable one.  We can bring together human beings who would otherwise not be able to communicate with each other.  The job requires a good ear and the ability to catch delicate nuances of language, writing skills, speaking skills, a sense of humor, deep cross cultural understanding and a solid memory, both long term and short term. 

So, in view of all the personal investment in time and energy and good will required to stay alive as a freelancer, it is particularly abhorrent to me that we have a government that aims to take away the available subsidy to help self-employed persons pay for health insurance.

Subsidy is a word that carries all sorts of baggage with it.  I once had an argument with a gentleman I met in my parents’ Assisted Living facility.  He was not a resident, but a visitor, and had taken the occasion to spout about Obamacare to the beleaguered Receptionist who was obligated to stick to her post and keep smiling. 

“I don’t want my taxes to be paying someone’s subsidy for health insurance!” he complained.

I couldn’t help myself.  I asked him very politely “Sir, how old are you?”  He responded “67.” 

“Well, then, as a taxpayer, I’m helping pay for your Medicare.”

This did not make me very popular with the man, and he went out to the parking lot in a huff, climbed into his brand new car and drove off.

We are going to be governed by a President who reportedly, through tax loopholes, hasn’t paid taxes in 18 years, and yet he wants to kill the little subsidy, which is no more than a tax break that has to be justified on the 1040, and that keeps a lot of self-employed people insured.

With the example of France’s socialized medicine, wouldn’t it be great if Mr. Trump lived up to his recent statement that his Obamacare replacement plan will cover everybody?

At least, working as a translator and interpreter, studies have shown that I have greatly reduced any predisposition to Alzheimer’s by working in two languages.  That should make me less of a drain on the country’s health care costs.