Not everybody else’s needs; the interpreter’s interests.

June 18, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I attended a professional conference not long ago, and during one of my presentations, I asked the audience what was their opinion regarding the fairly new requirement that state-level civil courts in the United States, that get federal funding, must provide free interpreter services in all civil cases or lose that federal assistance. I was shocked by the answer given by several colleagues: They thought it was a great idea and it was good for the profession. I can understand the principle of making sure that all litigants be guaranteed equal access to justice by eliminating the uneven situation encountered by those who do not speak English during a non-criminal court procedure. I applaud the existence of the Civil Rights Act.

This does not mean that the way to accomplish such a high goal is by eliminating a work source for an entire segment of the professional population. The right thing to do was to provide court interpreting services for free in all civil matters to those who could not afford to pay for the services when provided by a private interpreter. In other words, there should be a system that mirrors that of the attorneys in criminal matters where individuals have a choice to retain the attorney of their choosing and if they cannot afford one the state provides a public defender for free.

The current situation, which has been supported and celebrated by many interpreters and professional associations, is flawed. Courts at the state level are covering civil hearings with interpreters that they label as “certified” although in reality these colleagues have only been certified as criminal court interpreters. To my knowledge there is no court interpreter certification exam in the United States that tests the interpreter’s knowledge in Civil Law, civil procedure, or terminology. In fact, many certified court interpreters who had never worked in Civil Law hearings are now providing the service; some of them reluctantly and out of fear of not being hired by the particular state court system if they refuse to do civil cases. This specialty work, that until now was provided by a group of very capable Civil Law court interpreters, is now being performed by a mix of good interpreters, good interpreters who do not know civil law and procedure, and mediocre individuals who are hired by the state level courts in order to comply with the federal mandate even if it is by just having a warm body next to the non-English speaker litigant.

Unfortunately, the current system is causing that all cases be covered by court interpreters provided by, and paid for, by the states. Some of us are fortunate enough to have a portfolio of attorney clients who are used to our professional services, and will continue to use the services of private interpreters, at least in out-of-court settings such as law offices and boardrooms; The problem is that it is now more difficult to convince prospective new attorney clients, who do not fully understand the value of retaining your own competent professional court interpreter, and pay for the service, instead of using the court appointed interpreter. Ant it gets worse, some of my colleagues who are good interpreters and used to have a decent amount of work through private Civil Law attorneys have bought into the system and are now providing their same upper-end quality services for a very low fee paid by the states. As you all know, criminal court interpreting is not a very well remunerated practice in the United States, and when it comes to the state level it is frankly appalling in some states. Historically, the best way to make a decent living working as a court interpreter in the United States has been to work as a civil court interpreter. Now we are at risk of losing this important part of our practice. At the state level it is disappearing as far as in-court work, leaving civil court interpreters with only two options (for now): out-of-court work at the state level such as office interviews, depositions, and witness preparation, and federal court practice where private interpreters can still provide their services.

To me it is crystal clear that it is impossible to celebrate anything as a victory when the outcome of that change results on a direct elimination of the source of income of another innocent group, in this case the court interpreters. The sad part is that, as I explained, the same universal access to civil courts could have been accomplished by inserting a provision indicating that free court interpreter services would only be provided to those who could not afford to pay for the services of an interpreter according to a certain income level and cost of living criteria.

As bad as this is, it is more frustrating and even discouraging to see how so many of our colleagues just go about their lives accepting all of these changes and even applauding them without ever thinking of the consequences to our practice in general and to them as individuals. I cannot find a good explanation as to why professional interpreter associations have voiced their opinion in favor of this policy without even thinking of the harm to the profession, to their fellow colleagues. Dear colleagues: Nobody spoke for the court interpreters when these changes happened! I know I will continue to educate my clients so they continue to retain my services regardless of policy changes; I know I will continue to talk to all those colleagues who ask for my opinion when these type of unfair situations happen, whether it is state-sponsored civil court interpreters, agencies who want to force court interpreters to work depositions alone totally disregarding universal principles about quality of interpreting, systems that want to unilaterally impose low cost, and lower quality, interpreting services by using new technology even when the quality of the service suffers, or any other issue that could impact our work as professionals. I will also look for professional associations that may share this same philosophy and are willing to raise their voice to bring the attention of the professional community to unprofessional practices and policies that hurt the profession or those who practice it. I now ask you to please voice your opinion on this issue, especially on civil court interpreting and how state-sponsored civil court interpreting brings down our professional income.

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