By Cristina McDowell
From the Ground Up
Interview of Diane E. Teichman by Cristina McDowell with the collaboration of Carol Velandia
Cristina McDowell (CM): Diane, for over eleven generations your family has served the United States judicial system as lawyers, judges, justices of the Supreme Court and records archivists and continues to do so today. The legal system is in your DNA. But why did you choose to become an interpreter?
Diane E. Teichman (DET): I have always been fascinated with the judicial process and I feel the US judicial branch is the best in the world. I grew up with debates at the dinner table about justice and honoring people’s rights. So to be able to participate and maybe assist in that progress is a great opportunity. As an interpreter, I know that I ensure the right of full access to due process. Plus, I love watching great minds work, filtering everyday life through the law.
CM: You were elected as the American Translators Association (ATA) Interpreters Division’s first administrator in 1999 and you served until 2001. It must have been a daunting task at first, but it is obvious that this did not deter you in the least. What motivated you to throw your hat in the ring and what were your goals?
DET: My motivation came from an event in the mid-1980s, long before I even joined ATA. I got a phone call from a person who had read one of the articles I had published about legal interpreting around the country. She was a bilingual clerk at a law firm in Oklahoma and she had been told she would be interpreting for her bosses at a huge trial in 2 days. She was panicky and almost in tears. I coached her over several phone calls and got her ready and proficient. She did well in the trial and her bosses even called to thank me. She wrote a heartfelt thank you and sent me flowers. To this day I can’t forget her panic.
Before the vote for the Interpreters Division (ID) administrator was taken, I told the handful of people in the room what my objectives and plans would be as administrator. Due to years of experience bringing two grassroots organizations to national standing, I knew we needed to a build a division that would last and continue to grow with the profession. I knew the work that lay ahead. I promised that our workplace issues could be addressed successfully once we had built a solid infrastructure that defined the quality and value of the profession, the range of potential employment and full market participation.
CM: To continue with this analogy to architecture, you were the architect, the client, the designer and the sales person, all rolled into one. Membership increased from 30 to 1000 members in just one year! How did you manage this at a time when there were no cell phones or social media? How did you reach out to those interpreters spread around the country and the world?
DET: I was elected and I dove into the task, focusing on outreach to fellow interpreters around the world. At the same time I was introducing the division to the service providers who were a source of employment for us. I made sure we would serve all fields of interpreting: legal, medical, conference and community, which made it a huge task. So I sent hundreds of letters of introduction, made countless phone calls, set up speaking engagements, and wrote articles for publications of industries that used interpreters. I did research to find any and all related language services institutes or associations. One tool I used was a business card I designed with contact information that read, ”You should know about the American Translator Association Interpreters Division. Join us.” I discovered I was introducing ATA to a lot of new markets and offering the very first career home for thousands of working interpreters. The personal work experience stories I heard propelled me even when attention to my own freelance work suffered. Besides the work of building the division, I had the same obligations to ATA as the long standing divisions did. I had to promote membership (ATA charged for division membership then) do the budget, report to the board of directors, and provide conference presentations and receptions, and write articles for The ATA Chronicle. Yes, I got carried away spoiling members with my receptions, renting an entire Riverboat for a night on the Mississippi and hot air ballooning over Orlando, just to name a few. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, because we deserve it.CM: Spoiling members sounds wonderful! I wish we had the same economic possibilities now! What steps did you take to make a clear difference between translators and interpreters in the mind of end-users?
DET: We had to introduce our profession and develop an identity within ATA, a well-respected and long established community of mostly translators. So it was a matter of educating people and constantly but gently correcting them every time our profession was mentioned, which was every time, we were referred to as translators. I immersed myself in that identity and actually limited my lectures and articles to the subject of Interpreting. I utilized a device I learned as an activist in the sixties: every time I wrote the word Interpreter, I capitalized it. It worked and the term has sunk in to even the hardest of heads. I still do it, as you can see.
CM: What was your biggest challenge as an administrator and how did you deal with conflict?
DET: My biggest challenge as administrator was to not deviate from the course of building a solid infrastructure when pressured by people with personal agendas. The division would only benefit from our rapid growth in membership and popularity if I said no to propositions that were confrontational or based on self-promotion. I was determined to ensure we interpreters were respected and mutually supportive. I was lucky enough to find a few people who would put in the time and effort this stage of development required. At that time I watched at least two other divisions start and fail in a short period of time, so I was cautious. I held on to the premise that any action we took had to be in the best interests of the full body membership of interpreters and be positive to the integrity of the division. This wasn’t always popular with some. But it is why we have a strong division today.
CM: What aspect of your managerial style brought you the most success when you were forming the division?
DET: I didn’t look at myself as a division manager. I was a freelancer , just one of many working interpreters facing the same challenges of finding good clients, while constantly perfecting my craft and improving my working conditions. I was given an opportunity to bring us all together and give us a home.
CM: You are a translator, judiciary interpreter, transcriptionist, trainer and lecturer, you have published more than twenty five articles, and edited three textbooks on interpreting; you have worked pro-bono for a number of organizations and you have your own company and blog. You have worked in over 7,000 legal proceedings, hearings, trials, depositions, mediations, and attorney-client interviews. Your experience is extensive and impressive. Are there any new goals for you?
DET: I want to revolutionize interpreter training. My respect for training is based on the lack of it when I started working in the 1970s. It is painful to learn in a bath of fire in the legal setting. I developed interpreter training for my own company based on legal research and learning from our legal support services colleagues, such as the court reporting profession. When I was offered the chance to edit the very first known series of textbooks on interpreting for the well-regarded publishing company Multilingual Matters, I felt a sense of dedication to all colleagues who wanted to provide peak performance, just like I did. I designed one of the books, The Interpreter’s Guide to the Vehicular Accident Lawsuit to reflect what I wished I had been taught when I started. Today I design courses and am an approved instructor of courses required by the State of Texas for licensed court interpreters and for people applying to take the exam. My courses are disciplined but respectful and supportive. I am simultaneously shocked and inspired by novice interpreters in my orientation courses. Sometimes I feel the same about ad hoc interpreters who are finally getting certified and taking courses for the first time in decades of working. My blog is where I can let my hair down with true experiences, myth busters and tips for colleagues and training for our market; again it all comes back to sharing what I’ve learned so that interpreters enjoy being the best they can be.
CM: Our new blog is called e-Voice, whose precursor was The Interpreter’s Voice, of which you were the editor from 2000-2002. What kind of content did you publish then?
DET: Membership increased quickly the first year and everyone wanted to stay connected. I developed the newsletter to meet the immediate need for a networking and communication resource specifically for interpreters. I relied on my experience editing newsletters for other organizations and I created The Interpreter’s Voice. I knew it had to be relevant to this whole group of very distinctive people who had work skills and challenges in common. I secured help from members for job listings, training opportunities and in-person networking opportunities around the country. I wrote a lot about the interpreter experience from all over the world and the growing trend of regulation, legislation, and certification. I heard from interpreters serving in the military, working in rural health clinics and interpreting in government conferences around the world. I wanted their stories to be heard and shared to provide support for the readers. Then I decided we needed a list-serve and a website – again all done with the help of a few hard working members. Once the division was solid, I knew the professional issues would flood in and they have. We have several ways for colleagues to network, discuss, express opinions and be proactive within the organization.
CM: What would you like the blog to be about now?
DET: I am happily entrenched in the life of a freelance court interpreter and translator and I face the same issues every freelancer does. So I would really like to see the new blog cover factual relevant details on fair pay, implementation, and adherence to relevant regulations by our markets, fair contract standards, and the agency-freelancer relationship. On the job I see working interpreters who don’t think they would benefit from joining ATA but then they also don’t think they need instruction or improvement. In my work as a trainer, I see that novice members of the profession have few options where they can learn the business correctly, other than ATA or NAJIT. So many unqualified bilinguals go out amongst us whether as interpreters or running start up translation and interpreting agencies and they make huge mistakes in performance and business practices and affect our reputation as a whole. We are in a great position to shine a light on that problem and insist on training and honest assessment for the profession.
CM: You have received numerous awards, Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities (1978), Outstanding Young Women of America (1984), Exemplary and Meritorious Service, Institute of Hispanic Culture 1992, Distinguished Speaker, Houston Bar Association, Houston Legal Assistants Association, National Court Reporters Association, Recognition for Dedication, Commitment and Service, American Translators Association.
DET: Those awards happen when I am doing what I love and it is usually volunteering. Right now I am Chair of the Historical Preservation Committee of my Daughters of the American Revolution chapter and we are preserving absolutely fascinating court evidence and documents that reveal our history, dating back to the 1700s. Yes, there are documents in several languages too! At the Harris County Courthouse, you can see an exhibit I put together of one hundred year old evidence in a car accident case (Model T and a horse driven wagon). You will see affidavits and petitions just like we sight translate in court today. So I spend hours as a volunteer preserving history right there in the Civil Courthouse and then I run upstairs to interpret in court, creating a record that will be history in one hundred years.
CM: How do you see our profession in the next five years?
DET: Let me express the hope that we and the services we provide are never defined by our end users or by anyone who is not a professional, dedicated interpreter. That is the path I turned us away from on the day I was elected administrator. We know our work best. We do need to learn to meet the needs of our clients, but we should never transform our ethical and intellectual performance providing true and accurate interpreting, in order to enhance our income or client roster. Let me express hope that we are all respected in the shadow of our respectable colleagues. And finally, although it may be too much to ask, I hope the world learns to stop calling us translators when we are interpreting.
CM: I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview you. You are an amazing source of knowledge, you have an impressive website linguisticworld.com. Is there anything else you would like to say?
DET: I’d like to see you market the ID blog heavily around the world. Announce it as the unique source of the real life interpreting experience that we live. Let’s show our support for members with productive content including how to resolve obstacles and not just complain about them. What I witnessed all those years ago is still true today: interpreters who are dedicated enough to join the ID will have great stories and wisdom to share.
CM: Thank you very much for your ideas and also for taking the time for this interview. I wish you well in your endeavors.