Are federally certified court interpreters any good? Maybe the NAJIT conference had the answer.

May 20, 2013 § 17 Comments

Dear colleagues:

When you go to the doctor, retain an attorney, get on an airplane, or hire a plumber, you want them to be honest, good, and competent. So do I; So does society. That is why there are laws and regulations that require they go to school, get a professional license, and comply with continuing training and education.  Even when a person reaches a certain age, he has to go back periodically to the Motor Vehicle Division to be retested in order to continue to drive. Interpreters are no exception. Almost everywhere in the United States where a State offers a certification program, its interpreters must comply with continuing education requirements to keep their certification. Translators need to do the same to maintain their certification with the American Translators Association.  It sounds logical right? It makes sense.

Over the weekend the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) held its annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri. This is a yearly event and it is the only one of its kind. NAJIT is the only national professional association for judiciary interpreters in the United States. There are many state, regional, and local organizations that meet regularly and offer training and educational opportunities to their members, but no other one offers this service at the national level.  Every year the conference takes place at a different location and offers a variety of workshops and presentations so that all judiciary interpreters and translators can better themselves and meet their continuing education requirements with their respective states.

As the main gathering of judiciary interpreters, NAJIT attracts some of the key players in the industry, including the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. This is the federal agency that runs the federal court interpreter certification program.  Every year this presentation brings federally certified interpreters up to speed on everything that is happening in the federal interpreter program through a presentation and an open question and answer session with the government officials who know the subject. The presentation was held as scheduled and Mr. Javier Soler and Ms. Julie Meeks were there sharing statistics and information; answering questions, dissipating doubts. Unfortunately, and in my opinion very sadly, only a handful of federally certified court interpreters were there.  There are almost one thousand federally certified court interpreters in the United States and there were less than twenty in attendance! Other sessions held simultaneously in the other conference rooms were full of state-certified court interpreters who were attending the St. Louis conference because they wanted to improve their skills but also because they needed the continuing education credits for their respective State Administrative Office of the Courts.  Of course, there room was not that empty, there were many people without a federal certification who were attending Mr. Soler’s and Ms. Meeks’presentation because they wanted to learn.  And they did learn something that was discussed for the next two days in the hallways of the hotel where the conference took place: Federally certified court interpreters do not need continuing education credits to keep their certification current.  Those non-certified interpreters in attendance learned something they didn’t expect, tweets on this issue were the conference’s most re-tweeted throughout Europe where 2 other conferences were held on the same weekend. I knew this information. I have always known this information, but as I looked around a room with just a few colleagues, many non-certified attendees, and a tweet practically going viral, I understood why the federally certified court interpreters weren’t there, listening to the representative of the government agency that regulates what they do and travels half a continent every year to come to see them: No motivation. No need. The only court interpreters who were not attending the conference, and particularly this session were the federal interpreters. The only ones who do not need to comply with continuing education.

Let me explain: Unless an interpreter complies with the State of Colorado’s continuing education requirements, he cannot interpret for a defendant who has been accused of driving without a license and proof of car insurance in Pueblo Colorado. Unless an interpreter complies with the State of New Mexico’s continuing education requirements, she cannot interpret for a defendant who has been accused of duck-hunting without a permit in Estancia New Mexico.  A federally certified court interpreter who has never attended a class of ethics or a legal terminology presentation in his lifetime can interpret for a defendant who has been charged with running the biggest organized crime operation in the history of the United States.  The first two examples are misdemeanor charges that carry a fine, and under some circumstances a brief stay behind bars. The individual in the last example could be facing life in prison.

The judicial branch of the United States government is facing tough times; these are difficult days and they have to watch a smaller budget. So do the individual states.  It is very true that continuing education is expensive. It is expensive to provide the education and training. It is expensive to verify compliance and to keep a record… but there are ways…

There are surely other options, but these are my 2 cents:

Some states honor the continuing education provided by already well-established organizations and associations at the national, regional, state, and local levels. ATA does the same.  The cost to the federal government would be zero if they decided to honor credits obtained at a NAJIT, ATA, or other well-recognized conference in the United States, including some state conferences such as California’s Nebraska’s, New Mexico, and others. They could also honor credits from attending well-known prestigious international and foreign professional organizations such as FIT, FIL/OMT in Mexico, ASETRAD in Spain, and others; and they could also consider the classes taught at institutions like MIIS, University of Arizona, University of Maryland, and others.  All of the conferences and organizations above offer training and presentations on ethics, skills-building, terminology, practices, technology, and many more.

The reporting of the courses attended could be on an honor basis as many states do at this time. After all, federally certified court interpreters are professionals with moral solvency who periodically undergo criminal background checks. They are officers of the court!  These credits could be reported by answering and signing a form at the same time contractors renew their contract every year and staffers undergo their evaluation.  And to keep a central record, all interpreters would have to input this information into the system once a year by accessing and updating their personal information on the national court interpreter database system (NCID) that already exists and we access every time we change our address or modify our resume.

Federal interpreters are honest, professional and capable individuals who love their trade and take pride on their work. They would happily embrace this change and comply. After all, many are already doing it for their state and ATA certifications.  Please let me know your opinion and ideas on this crucial topic.

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§ 17 Responses to Are federally certified court interpreters any good? Maybe the NAJIT conference had the answer.

  • P Diane Schneider says:

    Good points indeed. Many. Interpreters who are federally certified also maintain certification locally in their states and thus obtain continuing education.

    Taking off my interpreter hat and replacing it with my MPA hat I must beg to differ with the assertion that requiring federally certified interpreters to participate in continuing education would have zero cost to the government. It would cost something to devise the requirement and to publish it. It would cost something to maintain a record of compliance even if reports were submitted by the interpreters. It would cost something to rewrite and publish the materials provided to persons seeking to become certified. It is likely there would be other, unanticipated costs.

  • Tony, sadly enough, we still don’t have any continuing education requirements in MN.

  • Lionel says:

    Once again Tony I commend you for touching upon topics of tremendous relevance to our profession. The issue of non-existing continuing education requirements for interpreters is a negligence that not only affects federal court interpreters. Perhaps not surprisingly to some, but New York State and a hand full of other states do not have a continuing education requirement for their court interpreters. A continuing education requirement validates a profession and also ensures the quality of the service rendered by the practitioner. Bar and professional interpreters associations should take a position on this issue.

  • Heidi C. says:

    I agree with the points you make in today’s blog; but I do not agree with the title you have chosen, which some could understand is implying that federally certified court interpreters are not any good.

    I agree that there should be some method to assure that Federally Certified Interpreters continue updating their skills. And, definitely, requiring Continuous Education Units would be a way to force this accountability.

    Continuous education is the only way to assure that the people who have already been qualified and certified continue improving and maintain their high level of competency. And this IS important, considering that the certification exam is testing for the minimum requirements to be able to start working in Federal Courts.

    BUT, this does not mean that Federally Certified interpreters are not any good. Some might be mediocre, some good, some better, some the best. Becoming certified is an extensive, complicated and exacting process, that requires a high level of competency. And it is a tool to differentiate between the quality of this proven group of professionals and others.

    Yes, Federally Certified interpreters, like any professional, need to attend conferences, courses, workshops and belong to professional associations; they need to hone their skills and not become complaisant; they need to remain up to date regarding what is happening in their profession. And many (I know, it should be ALL) do so voluntarily and on their own dime: they belong to professional associations, such as NAJIT or ATA; they attend conferences, courses, workshops and talks; they actively hone their skills and, furthermore, share their skills by organizing or teaching courses and workshops.

    The requirement for CEU’s is definitely necessary. But still, this credential is an important one in a working world where professionalization, accreditation and qualifications are something that must be stressed and not allowed to be dismissed…

    My answer here: Yes, federally certified court interpreters are good. They can,and should, be better. Still, they have a credential that is necessary in order to provide quality in interpretation and allow for due process in the judicial system. The credential might be a starting point, but at least there IS a standard for this starting point.

    In today’s world, where so many people are claiming to be qualified, where so many self proclaimed certifications and qualifications are popping up, we must be careful and not dismiss the good proven credentials that already exist.

  • arnaldo b says:

    I respectfully disagree. I think every time interpreters open their mouth to ply their skill they are engaging in continuing education. Especially if the interpreter tries to branch out as much as possible out of the legal “cocoon” and into conference work, for instance. Besides helping attract more people—and funds — to events hosted by organizations such as the ones you cite, I’m not sure how much useful knowledge is actually absorbed when we attend these “conferences, courses, workshops and talks” you mention. At least in my experience. The organization I work for sponsors yearly training sessions for its staff interpreters. We do get a day away from the courthouse. Other than that, these are usually pointless exercises in some obviousness a sharp interpreter should be able to figure out without help. As well as a good opportunity for a well-paid consultant to command a nice fee on taxpayer’s money, of course. Who is compulsory continuing education better for: the class as a whole or the colleague on the podium, and to what extent? At least until we’re ready to allow heterodox practices such as meditation retreats and brain exercises to count as continuing education credits, I’m afraid I’ll remain a bit skeptical. A good professional is always trying to improve their trade. We don’t need prompting. And we definitely don’t need a legal mandate to spend money in order to keep our ability to earn it.

  • Margaret Wolfe-Roberts says:

    Personally I have a hard time believing that a Federally certified interpreter might be mediocre or even merely “good” as Heidi says, at least in terms of interpreting skills. Based on my exposure to the testing materials the Federal exam is a good bit more challenging than the exams required for State certification. Whether they have gained the requisite knowledge of ethical constraints and a broad-enough vocabulary is another question and Mr. Rosado I think is quite right to wonder about the busy professional whose knowledge was adequate for passing the test yet who remains less than fully prepared for every possible job, and who might be inclined to let such things slide under the mantle of partial “invisibility” as long as he or she can continue to bring in the dollars.

    One question at issue is whether any test is capable of accurately assessing the breadth and depth of the test-taker’s actual knowledge. I think the nature of the Federal exam itself makes it unlikely that anyone without an excellent depth and grasp of two languages and excellent interpreting skills would “get lucky” and accidentally be approved. Still, there is always more to know, and there are always things the test didn’t ask, and we hope that test-takers do not rest on their laurels so to speak. Which point leads us to another question, that is, the way our skills and knowledge can and should evolve over time depending on our work load and experiences, conference attendance, our dedication to self-study, willingness to learn from experience, age and stress levels, etc. A test-taking scenario only gives a snapshot in time. We can place our faith in the implicit quality of the professionals in question, and in their motivation and opportunity to maintain and improve their skills and knowledge, but I think possibly we don’t really know much about how these may evolve naturally over time in various individuals based on various factors.

    Clearly conferences are not the only way to foster improvement but they can be one way. Some conferences may be of lackluster quality as Arnaldo states, but to my mind that doesn’t dismiss the value of any and all such events. In my experience the energized interactions and exchange of ideas with other conference attendees create value beyond that of the presentations themselves. Of course we want the presentations to be of high quality too and if we are going to invest our resources in such things, or require others to do so, we want to know the experience is going to be truly worthwhile and not merely an annoyance, or worse, a significant financial barrier that might discourage high-quality, self-employed professionals who may be just starting out or going through a lean period.

    One more note on a regional level about implementation: In North Carolina where I work the interpreter testing and certification program is about 12-14 years old and still evolving. It is my understanding that a continuing ed requirement is anticipated at some point as part of a step-by-step approach to raising the bar, but it has not yet been instituted. Just this year non-certified interpreters were barred from working in court (or actually there is still a “provisionally” certified category eligible to work in District Court, but two lower levels of qualification were completely dropped). Because this reduced the pool of available interpreters the counties have been scrambling to get their needs met. Furthermore North Carolina recently was ordered by the federal Department of Justice to expand its coverage of interpreting services to types of cases not previously covered. My best guess is that the requirement for continuing education here is still a few years off.

  • There is a saying that says “If you stop learning, you’ll stop teaching”. I think this is true for all professions. As a new interpreter, I think it is important to keep your skills sharp and stay on top of new advances in our profession. You can do this by taking courses in continuing education, new college courses, seminars given by the ATA, NAJIT or other accredited organizations. I’m not sure how New York State implement this but it I’ll check.

  • Michelle Kusuda says:

    The title of your article is misleading. I personally think that instead of asking Federally Certified Interpreters to earn mandatory ECUs (since most of them already do), both ATA and NAJIT should focus on discouraging the use of non-certified interpreters in Federal Courts cases for attorney visits. What is the point of getting certified if in some courts it will mean less work once you are certified?

  • Henry Rugeles, FCCI says:

    Although, I understand your point, I have to agree with the others that the title perhaps could be construed as misleading and a bit negative. To be fair, I would like to mention that, in my experience, most FCCI colleagues that I have encountered seem to have a natural inclination towards constant intellectual and professional improvement. Many hold advanced college degrees, possess prior significant professional experience as well as native/near native proficiency in at least two languages.

    The point of the Federal Certification is precisely to ensure that candidates possess at least the minimum qualifications to interpret in complex federal proceedings from the start.

    Thank you for your comment.

  • I was going to mention some points, but I see a few beat me to the punch line. I won’t belabor the point, but most federally certified interpreters work in state court where Continuing Education is required. It’s redundant and unnecessary when combined with other CE.

    I agree with Arnaldo b. on each and every one of his points. The Judicial Council of CA, not only requires 30 CIMCE credits every two years. In addition, you must show that you have worked on 40 assignments during the same period. That is one way to make sure the interpreter is actually working in the field. Federal cases are accepted as such.

    Michelle Kusuda accurately mentions that associations should concentrate on promoting the use of certified interpreters. There should be a major effort on behalf of all interpreter associations to promote the used of certified interpreters and/or to market the skills of its membership. We are encountering the use of non-certified interpreters in the private sector hired by some of the same corporate members who sponsor association events.

    The way I see it, interpreter instructors and others (you’ll see non-interpreter instructors lineup soon, if not already) see the continuing education as another niche in which to make money. Associations see it as a way to keep its members and entice new ones. Why target federally certified interpreters? We passed a very rigorous test that many cannot pass even after working in the interpreting field for years. It requires study and discipline. Our knowledge was not acquired by just anyone giving CE credits, but by our own hard work. Who will be qualified to teach us what we already know? I’m willing to learn from those who are not only federally certified, but who actually work in Federal Court. I’m very selective on the courses and classes I take. I believe that not many are suited for experienced interpreters. I’m always looking into interesting classes where I can improve my skills. Some don’t even offer CE credits; nonetheless, I will take those classes if they are going to make me a better interpreter.

  • Athena Matilsky says:

    I am a state “approved” interpreter because here in New Jersey we have approval rather than certification (we still have to pass the same test however). We also don’t have continuing education requirements. On the one hand I’m actually relieved; I often feel like requirements such as this end up becoming yet another hoop to jump through rather than an educational process. On the other hand, I have met many state certified/approved interpreters who are sorely in need of a refresher.

    I personally think that the federally certified interpreters I have encountered are very very skilled. Frankly the CE requirement frustrates me at the state level and I would rather not see it extended to the federal level. But if one were to argue over who needs the continued education more, I have to say that I think it would be those who are not federally certified. Not that we aren’t educated and good at what we do, but our tests are certainly not as stringent as the federal exam.

    Finally, I am also an aspiring federal interpreter, but whether or not I pass the test this summer I hope to attend the NAJIT conference next year. I think that all of us interpreters should constantly strive to maintain our skills and our understanding of the profession, but I’d rather not have somebody else dictate to me how to do that.

    That’s my two cents!

  • Kristina says:

    So what do u think of a person that has the skill already and has a full family of hearing impaired members and thinks its unnessasary to go to school because of previous experience and shouldn’t there be a easier way? Someone to test this person?

  • NAJIT Blog says:

    […] Tony Rosado. “Are Federally Certified Court Interpreters Any Good? Maybe the NAJIT Conference Had the Answer.” The Professional Interpreter. May 20, 2013.… […]

  • Sara says:

    This book is not to help for those who want take test, this book may be good if you are already certified

  • Fantastic commentary . I was fascinated by the information – Does someone know where my company could get access to a sample Acord 25 form to fill out ?

  • […] Tony Rosado. “Are Federally Certified Court Interpreters Any Good? Maybe the NAJIT Conference Had the Answer.” The Professional Interpreter. May 20, 2013.… […]

  • […] Tony Rosado. “Are Federally Certified Court Interpreters Any Good? Maybe the NAJIT Conference Had the Answer.” The Professional Interpreter. May 20, 2013.… […]

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