Attention certified court interpreters: You could be losing part of your profession!

January 27, 2014 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In my opinion the title of this posting is not an exaggeration of what is happening to the court interpreting profession in the United States and some other places.  Let me explain:  There are groups of community activists, profit-hungry interpreter training entities, and interpretation agencies (that do not represent the best interests of court interpreters) who are advancing the idea that court interpreters should only be required in the courtroom, and that out of court legal interpreting should be left to “other” type of interpreter who would provide a service that would be a mix of community and legal interpreting. They argue that court interpreters are required in court because of the impartiality that is needed and due to the formalities that must be observed. On the other hand, they claim that an out of court legal setting (that they refer to as “quasi-legal”) should be left to other interpreters without court interpreter certification who would (after they get trained by this special interest groups) be able to provide a service that, according to them, has a lot of community interpreting and some legal terminology that could be easily acquired by these “interpreters.”

This approach concerns me very much because as an attorney I do know that there are very delicate and extremely difficult legal issues that take place out of court.  These individuals have suggested that family law mediations, preparation of wills, and other legal services, be provided with the assistance of a non-certified court interpreter.  I dare to say that the best attorneys, the more difficult issues, and the ones that affect more people’s lives, are found outside the courthouse.  You only need to visit a corporate attorney or a corporation’s legal department to see it.

All legal interpreting should be done by certified court interpreters because they are the ones that know the law, are familiar with the terminology, and are backed up by a certification system run by the state or federal government.

There was a similar movement in the United States a few years ago.  That one proposed that to abate costs such as paying for the services of an ophthalmologist, optometrists should be allowed to perform certain types of surgery.  Let me clarify: an ophthalmologist is a physician, an optometrist is not.  You go to the optometrist when you need a new pair of eyeglasses. You go to the ophthalmologist when you need cataracts surgery.  Dear colleagues: We are the ophthalmologists in this example.  These special interest groups are trying to take away part of our field and give it to these new “optometrists.”  To do it, they are arguing that these individuals would do a job that nobody is doing and that does not need certification as a court interpreter.  What they are not telling you is that they will profit immensely from this scheme.  The trainers will make money by “training” these people, the agencies will make money by paying a lower interpretation fee to these individuals who will not be court certified, some state governments will continue to receive federal funds because they would be “guaranteeing access” to non-English speakers who go to court and do not need to appear before a judge, and the community activists will be happy because in their mind court interpreters charge too much for their services and their clients cannot afford it.

But wait a minute, let’s stop right there and talk about the losers under this scheme:

Many court interpreters make over half of their income from legal interpreting outside the courtroom: mediations, depositions, jail visits, witness preparation, sight translation of documents, arbitrations, administrative court hearings, and many other legal scenarios.

Attorneys have a legal duty to vigorously represent their client in order to achieve what is best under the specific circumstances.  It is hard to see how this can be accomplished by using lesser-interpreters, and in many cases paying the agency the very same fee they would pay for a competent professional. Attorneys do not know that the agency pays a lower fee to these non-certified individuals and therefore they get to keep more money.

The parties to a controversy or those seeking legal advice are paying for the best possible service, even those who approach non-for-profit organizations have to pay for filing fees and other administrative expenses.  It is only fair that when you go to see an attorney, the attorney’s advice be interpreted by the lawyer’s equivalent in the interpretation field: a certified court interpreter.

Our system, our government, the taxpayers… they all lose under this scheme. A poor interpretation will have consequences. I have seen many criminal cases being dismissed because of the police interview of the defendant. Those who advocate this change are proposing that non-certified court interpreters do police interviews. A poorly sight translated contract, an incomplete will due to a bad interpretation, an unfair parenting time schedule because of lack of understanding of the law on the part of the interpreter, they all lead to litigation and litigation costs money.  Surgery by an optometrist…  I would love to see the reaction of an administrative court judge when he is told that because his courtroom is not a real one he will have the services of a non-certified court interpreter.

It is true that in many places some of these services are currently performed by non-certified individuals.  It is true that the special interest groups will defend themselves by saying that with their “home-grown certification” the people who interpret in those settings will be doing a better job than the one that is provided right now.  The excuse that there is a great need for interpreters in many languages that have no court certification program is not valid either.  There are interpreters in these languages that have been evaluated by the court system and allowed to work in court. Until there is a court certification program by the state, these are the interpreters who should be doing all of the legal work. The “solution” proposed by the special interest groups does not improve the quality of the service.

Instead of rushing towards mediocrity and spending time and effort justifying why it is a good option, these special interest groups should join forces with the professional community (certified court interpreters, attorneys and government) and strive to attract more quality individuals to the profession, to demand first that everybody be certified as a court interpreter and that there be continuing education for those who may want to specialize in family law mediation, corporate planning, international arbitration, immigration law, etc.

Instead of marching in lockstep with the interpretation agencies, all community organizations and true trainers, who are concerned about the quality of the interpretation and the fulfillment of the existing demand, should join forces with the professional certified court interpreter community to demand from these agencies a better pay to the real quality-proven interpreters.

Dear colleagues, I don’t know if this will happen and I would not be surprised if these special interest groups and individuals attack and criticize what has been said in this posting.  Learn from our colleagues who are already fighting a battle to keep or recover their profession in other countries like the U.K.  We have to defend our profession. Paralegals are not opening shop all over to offer their legal services out of court. Do you know why? Because the lawyers would not let them. They would be charged with practicing law without a license. We need to do the same. We need to defend and protect our profession.

For that reason I ring this wake up call.  Be alert!  Educate your colleagues and clients; do not let them take this huge piece of you professional field away.  You will lose and everybody will lose.

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§ 7 Responses to Attention certified court interpreters: You could be losing part of your profession!

  • As I woke up this morning I picked up my cell to see if I had important emails I needed to read. I found your article and read it in bed. I quickly ran to my computer and reposted it on my Facebook group, Certified Spanish Interpreters, a closed group for certified court interpreters.

    Our group has discussions of how we see our profession changing. Yes, a professional community is the solution. I’ve created that group several years ago to show my colleagues working out there by themselves at the mercy of some agency that cares very little about them, that there are professionals out there who hold their profession in high regard, and they are not alone. They are not isolated.

    I’m also one of ten founding members of AIJIC, the Association of Independent Judicial Interpreters of California. This association was established for the sole purpose of supporting, guiding, training, and reaching out to new and seasoned court interpreters. AIJIC is also marketing the services of independent court interpreters. We are creating a place where independent court interpreters can come to get professional guidance. Now, more than ever, we need to remain vigilant to protect our profession, even from those who pretend to know what we do.

    Professional associations and online groups are essential for this purpose, but your articles are in the forefront, Tony. Thank you for making us feel that we’re not the only ones out there seeing a pattern. Interpreting is more in demand than ever, yet court interpreters are being left behind in favor of cheaper and less experience ‘interpreters’. Court interpreters are not only excellent in the legal field, but well versed in other areas of interpreting.

    Again, thank you!

    Esther M. Hermida
    Federal and CA Certified Court Interpreter

  • marzolian says:

    Tony, I am not a court or legal interpreter but I follow developments in
    the field, and I’m pleased to include your blog in my regular reading.

    In Texas, court interpreters are “licensed” by the state (“certified”
    interpreters are limited to sign language). Since the system began, there
    has been criticism that that the standards are too strict. The pass
    rate is very low, even among people who had been doing this work for a long time.

    In response, a couple of years ago the state changed the rules. Now, if a
    candidate receives a score of 70 or higher, they become a “Master
    Licensed Court Interpreter”. If they score over 60, they are given a “Basic” (before this they got no license at all). Basic interpreters cannot interpret for courts of record, but are limited to other types of work, such as justice courts and municipal courts.

    That seems to be a reasonable compromise. Licensed interpreters don’t really run the program, but at least these other levels of interpreters are part of the same system, and there is awareness that they all took the same test.

    Steven Marzuola


    Master Licensed Court Interpreter as of today, I was replaced by some Basic Court/Medical Interpreter through new technology called video and land line. It is unfair and unjust when the Court and the Hospital replacing us for the sake of saving money.
    Let’s hope that we will not spending all of our savings: in education, training, and in-training at the hospitals and courts and seminars to the extend that there will be unavailable job due to “greedy corporation” out there!
    I keep my finger cross for all of Master Licensed Court Interpreters and Hospital trained Medical Interpreters!


  • Anh Pearson Ghani, please note that being a court certified interpreter is not some basic thing. I don’t know where you are located, but I know that NJ has a Masters title for those that performed at a better level. California used to have a classification for those who did not performed well in the simultaneous component but did well in the other components, they were called administrative hearing interpreter. Those who passed all components received the court interpreter certification.

    Calling court interpreters Basic is not what I consider kind, and I take offense to that. The real culprit here is not the interpreter who wants to make a living, but as you said the “greedy corporations” who are willing to hire the less qualified interpreter who charge less money regardless of skills.

    Educating our own court interpreters about our standards, our payment practice and cancellation policies is the best way to stand firm. I am quoting Tony:
    Instead of marching in lockstep with the interpretation agencies, all community organizations and true trainers, who are concerned about the quality of the interpretation and the fulfillment of the existing demand, should join forces with the professional certified court interpreter community to demand from these agencies a better pay to the real quality-proven interpreters.

    By the way, California court certified interpreters are deemed medically certified interpreters.

    There’s talk about a national licensing for court interpreters and talk about the use of the word ‘interpreter’ to be limited to those who passed an exam to earn the right to call themselves interpreters; the rest should be called bilinguals. Until that time comes we have different titles depending on the state, however our intent is to remain relevant.

    Esther M. Hermida
    Federal and CA State Court
    Certified Spanish Interpreter

  • […] Dear colleagues: In my opinion the title of this posting is not an exaggeration of what is happening to the court interpreting profession in the United States and some other places. Let me explain: There are groups of community …  […]

  • Carrie says:

    how much do interpreters get for a depo in CA?

  • CalDep says:

    Technology will slowly get better at this but human interpreters are still valuable at the moment.

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