Is this practice demeaning to certified court interpreters?

February 26, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the United States and other jurisdictions interpreters are officers of the court. From the moment interpreters begin to work in court, they hear the term thrown around all the time. They are told that much is expected from them as officers of the court, and at the same time they see how annoyed some court employees get when an interpreter is part of a hearing.

One of the least pleasurable things about court interpreting is the need to endure uncomfortable attitudes, and absurd policies, by many clerks, support staff, attorneys, court administrators, and even judges. This environment has turned off many excellent interpreters, and deprived non-native speakers of the benefit of some of the most capable and professional individuals.

Court interpreting presents many unavoidable challenges to the professional interpreter, and they have to be dealt with in order to reach the goal of equal access to justice: lay and legal terminology, evasive speakers who at best reluctantly tell the truth, poor acoustics, obsolete interpreting equipment or the lack of it, long hours, and low pay, are some of the realities that court interpreters face every day at work. Most of them cannot be fixed by a bigger budget or more competent court administrators; they are part of the “nature of the beast.” Let’s face it: many people do not go to court voluntarily, some appear before a judge or jury when they are angry, scared, embarrassed, and a good number of them have trouble with telling the truth. Court interpreting is very hard; but not all of its difficulties are due to bad acoustics, a whispering attorney, or a fast-speaking witness. Some of them are generated artificially, they do not belong in the courthouse; they are the result of ignorance and lack of understanding.

When the spirit of justice and the passion for the law are no longer there, many of the top interpreters abandon the field. Being ignored by the clerk, patronized by the judge, criticized by the attorney, and to constantly walk into an environment where the interpreter often feels like he is more of an obstacle to the process than an essential part of the administration of justice, seems to outweigh the low and rarely timely pay. We all know, and have accepted or rejected these circumstances; many are trying to change them through education or negotiating their labor conditions, and many freelance interpreters have relocated their court work from the top of their priority list to the middle and even to the bottom.

The question is my friends: Are we really officers of the court? The legislation says we are, but, what does it mean to be an officer of the court? According to Black’s: an officer of the court is “a person who is charged with upholding the law and administering the judicial system. Typically, officer of the court refers to a judge, clerk, bailiff, sheriff, or the like…” it adds that an officer of the court “…is obliged to obey court rules and… owes a duty of candor to the court…” Interpreters fall into this category as one of “the like”. This has been widely recognized by most state legislations, and it is explained by the United States’ National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) position paper on the interpreter’s scope of practice: “…By virtue of the role we play in the administration of justice, many courts have stated outright that the interpreter is an officer of the court…” To put it in lay terms: court interpreters are officers of the court because they are part of the judicial system to administer justice, and as such, they are subject to strict professional and ethical rules, and to specific legislation. There is no doubt that especially, certified court interpreters are strictly regulated as professionals: they need to go through a certification or licensing process that culminates with passing a rigorous exam, in most cases (sadly, not the federal program) they must meet continuing education requirements to keep said certification or license, and they have to abide by a code of ethics and professional responsibility. It could be argued that noncertified court interpreters may not fit the description as they do not have to meet all the requirements above. However, even noncertified court interpreters must observe the rules of ethics when working in a court-related case.

So, where is the demeaning practice I mentioned at the top of this post? It is at the time that certified court interpreters are placed under oath over and over again, every day, all over the United States.

To practice their profession, all officers of the court are subject to eligibility requirements: judges, attorneys, and certified court interpreters have to meet them to work in the system. All officers of the court have the duty to obey the law, and the responsibility to act ethically and professionally. For this reason, all of them are required to take an oath: judges take the oath when they are appointed or elected to the bench, attorneys are administered an oath after they pass the bar exam, court clerks take an oath when they are hired by the judiciary. They all take the oath once!

In some states, and in some United States judicial districts, certified court interpreters are only required to take their oath once (for that jurisdiction) and a record is kept in file for future reference. This is a great practice not only because it saves taxpayers money by shortening the hearings, and the savings can be a significant in cases when the same certified court interpreter is administered the oath, in the same courtroom, over ten times in one day. Equally important, from the certified court interpreters’ perspective, is the recognition of their status as officers of the court, and the very important message by the system that certified court interpreters are going to be treated as the professionals that they are.

Unfortunately, to eradicate this demeaning practice that places certified court interpreters as second class officers of the court, we will need more than just educating judges and attorneys, convincing court administrators, and pushing interpreter coordinators who work for the courts so they stand up and support the freelance certified court interpreters on this one. It will require a legislative change in many cases. Believe it or not, there is legislation in some states requiring that interpreters be placed under oath before each court proceeding.

A 2012 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (U.S. v. Solorio) held interpreters who translate the testimony of witnesses on the stand are covered by Federal Rule of Evidence 604 and that they are subject to “…the administration of an oath or affirmation to make a true translation…” However, the Appeals Court ruled that “…Rule 604 does not…indicate whether such an oath must be administered in any particular manner or at any specified time, including whether the oath must be administered for each trial. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) has published guidelines on the administration of oath to interpreters, observing that policies in regard to the oath of interpreters vary from district to district and from judge to judge [Guide to Judiciary Policy §350(b)] Although some courts administer oaths to interpreters each day, or once for an entire case, others administer the oath to staff and contract interpreters once, and keep it on file…”

The legal argument above can be used by certified court interpreters to advance their efforts to get rid of this “second-class treatment” by some courts, but the road will not be easy, and in some cases, the biggest obstacle will be bilingual judges in positions of authority who do not quite understand the role of the interpreter as that of an officer of the court. Judge Ruben Castillo, as co-chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Litigation’s Trial Practice Committee, and presently the Chief Judge for the United States Northern District of Illinois, favors administering the oath for each case, stating that: “…I happen to be a Spanish speaker, and I’ve seen misrepresentations occur…under the pressure of instantaneous interpretation, especially in cases involving a lot of slang…mistakes can occur. When under oath, most people take the job more seriously…” As you can see, devaluating the certified court interpreter’s professionalism is also used to continue this demeaning practice. It is obvious that judges need to be educated to the professional status of the certified court interpreter. The oath does nothing to improve an interpreter’s skills, but it does a lot to show us that there is a long way to go before we can sit at the table as equals in many jurisdictions. I can see a need to place under oath noncertified or occasional interpreters (not all languages have enough demand to generate a professional practice) but certified court interpreters should be treated as all other officers of the court whose professional scope of practice goes beyond that of a witness.

I now invite you to share your thoughts on this matter.

How should interpreters set their fees?

February 19, 2015 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Not long ago I heard a colleague ask another interpreter how she should set her fees as a freelancer in order to remain competitive and make a living. Basically, the answer was: “figure out your expenses (office, equipment, dictionaries, utilities, etc.) and then make sure you set a fee that covers all that plus an extra amount for you to make a decent living.” I heard that answer, and although at first it seemed to make a lot of sense, upon reflecting on the concept I knew it was wrong, or at best incomplete.

You see, when I decided to be an interpreter I was motivated by two equally important issues: My love for language of course, but also my indomitable desire to have a great and comfortable life. I never thought about making a “decent” living. I wanted to make as much money as I could, and I have devoted the rest of my life to better myself and broaden my horizons in order to make this happen.

It is true that when setting a fee, and please pay attention to the semantics: I always say fees and never rates, because we are professionals, just like a physician or a lawyer, and professionals charge a fee for their services, not a rate or a fare. As I was saying, when figuring out our fee schedule it is absolutely necessary to factor in all our fixed business expenses, and as interpreters this should include your personal appearance: clothing, grooming and so on, advertising expenses: conventional and social media, travel expenses, professional insurance, and other similar expenditures that we all know are necessary to get the good assignments, the important clients.

This however, is just the tip of the iceberg of what we need to consider when quoting a fee. We are in a profession where we provide professional services that are personal; in other words, unlike the engineer who can be working on two different projects at the same time, we can only do an assignment at a time. Once in the booth we cannot make any money somewhere else. This means that we have to consider a reality of our work: we sell our time one client at a time, and that time is precious; it includes not just the hours we spend in the booth or the meeting room doing a rendition, it also encompasses the time it takes us to get to the assignment, sometimes up to two days if the job is half way across the world.

Well then, after factoring in all these elements, we have to factor in the time and cost invested in formal education, and not just interpreting and other related disciplines; we also need to consider other professional education such as medical school, law school, engineering, chemistry, biology and so forth. Then, we must add the time we spend in preparation for the assignment, research study, glossary development, meeting with colleagues, speakers, agencies, technicians and others, and the time we devote to improve our skill by staying informed of what is going on in the world, learning history, technology, science, arts, and all other subjects that directly or indirectly contribute to the formation of that well-rounded individual that an interpreter needs to be to provide a first class service. I am not saying that you have to keep time records for every one of these things and then invoice them to the client. What I am saying is that you must allocate an economic value to that time and effort and include it as part of your fee. “My professional work for two days of interpreting costs “X” plus “0.1 percent for all the years of constant, and ongoing studying and learning”

Next, you need to decide what should be your compensation for the lifestyle that your profession requires you to have. This is particularly important for those interpreters who already are at the top of the profession and for the ones who are devoting their entire life to get there. This may not be that relevant for some interpreters, but I know that most elite interpreters in the world did not get there by accident. They had to work (and still do) very hard to reach that status, and very often it means that they need to have a lifestyle that most people would not want to have. I am talking of all those evening events, those assignments on a holiday, the ones that keep us away from home for weeks and even months at a time, the jobs that represent a danger to our lives and physical integrity like conflict zones, epidemics, and others where the interpreter rushes into the bad situation to do his job at the same time that most regular people are leaving the place. It is no coincidence that so many interpreters at this level have no family, they are single or divorced, they have no children, and the majority of their friends are other interpreters who have embraced the same life. Of course those who devote most of their lives to their profession do it because they love it, because that is the life they chose for themselves, but regardless of this motivation, the fact that you are doing things most people would not, has to be factored in when setting a fee.

Now that you have taken into account all of these fixed expenses and personal conditions as part of the fee, you must move on to the next phase: You must consider the market where you will be providing these services. Most experienced interpreters who work in many countries know that they cannot expect the same pay everywhere. There are economic realities that will set limits to a particular region. We need to be aware of this factor. Our goal needs to be to command the highest possible fee that a particular market can pay us. If you get this fee you cannot complain, even if it is lower that the fee for the same service somewhere else in the planet. You are making top money for that part of the world. Of course, we cannot forget the original goal: to have an income that will let us live a comfortable life. For this reason, we need to plan our assignments very carefully. You will not afford the Ferrari if you do all your work in a lower-fee region of the world, but you can mix the events so that at the end it evens up. For those colleagues who do not practice this kind of interpreting, the ones who do all of their work in the same location, they will have to make a choice at some point during their careers and stay where they are, or move to another region where fees are higher.

Finally, you need to address the needs of your “regular” “preferred” “top of the list” clients who give you a lot of work. In that case I would suggest offering “extras” as part of the service, but never lowering the fees. There are many other ways you can save money to your client without impacting the interpreters’ fees. They are untouchable. We will probably discuss those other “cuts” on a different post at a later time.

My friends, there are many ways to set your professional fees and we are all unique. I expect that most of you will do it differently. I am aware that not all elements mentioned above need to be considered by every interpreter; I also know that there could be many that I left out. All I am doing is bringing to your attention all the things you need to consider when setting your fee schedule, so that by going beyond office rent, utilities, computers and dictionaries, you consider other elements you bring to the table and are essential to provide this professional service that we call interpreting. I now invite you to share with all of us your ideas about the elements that you believe need to be factored in when setting your fee schedule.

The U.S. Presidents and First Ladies who spoke a foreign language.

February 12, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In a few days Americans will observe Presidents Day, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about those American Presidents, and their spouses, who spoke more than one language. It is common knowledge around the world that many Americans do not speak a foreign language, yet, almost half of the forty four men who have been President of the United States spoke, or at least had some knowledge of a language other than English.

Much of what we know about Presidents’ and First Ladies’ fluency in foreign languages came to us through testimonials and documents, and not all of it is undisputed. There is no doubt that Thomas Jefferson spoke fluent French, but his claim that he could speak Spanish seems unlikely. According to a documented conversation he had with John Quincy Adams, Jefferson said that he had learned Spanish in 19 days while sailing from the United States. He probably understood and read some Spanish (He used to say that he had read Don Quixote in Spanish) but that did not make him fluent.

At the beginning of the United States the White House was occupied by many intelligent men who enjoyed reading and learning. In those days many intellectuals learned to read in foreign languages in order to have access to certain scientific and literary works. This probably was the level of expertise that many of the Presidents had. Thomas Jefferson spoke French, and he could read and perhaps write and speak some Greek, Latin, Italian and Spanish.

President John Adams lived in France and became fluent in French. He could also read and write some Latin. His son, President John Quincy Adams spoke French very well, and had a decent Dutch as he went to school in The Netherlands and his wife spoke it. As an adult he learned some German when he was Ambassador to Prussia, and he also read and wrote some Greek and Latin. President James Madison also wrote and read in Greek and Latin, and his Hebrew was fairly decent.

President James Monroe and his entire family spoke excellent French, and it was common to hear the entire family having their conversations in French. President Van Buren was born in New York, but his first language was Dutch. He learned English later in life as part of his education. He also learned some Latin when he was studying English. Presidents Tyler, Harrison, Polk, Buchanan, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur knew how to read and write Latin, Greek, or both.

Despite having a “German-like” accent, President Theodore Roosevelt had an almost fluent French (He confessed that verb conjugation and gender were not his strong points) and he spoke some German. President Woodrow Wilson learned German in college but was never fluent. On the other hand, President and Mrs. Hoover were fluent in Mandarin Chinese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German and French. He also studied some Latin.

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton speak some Spanish and German respectively, but neither one of them can be considered as fluent. President George W. Bush speaks some Spanish and because of his years in Texas, next to the Mexican border, he understands even more. As far as President Obama, it has been said that he has a little understanding of Bahasa Indonesia.

There are a few First Ladies who could speak a foreign language. The first one that comes to mind is Elizabeth Monroe, spouse of James Monroe who spoke French with fluency. John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa, was the only First Lady born in a foreign country (England). She spoke good Dutch.   Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, worked as a teacher of deaf students, and was the first lady who knew American Sign Language).

Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Hoover, was the first woman to graduate from Stanford University with a geology degree. She also spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently. Jacqueline Kennedy lived in France and spoke very good French. She also knew some Spanish. Finally, Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s wife, spoke some functional Spanish.

Now you know, or perhaps confirmed or debunked a prior understanding about the foreign languages spoken by America’s First Families. I understand that this post is probably too generous about the proficiency level of some of our Presidents and First Ladies, and when we compare them to the extensive knowledge of foreign languages that other Presidents and Heads of State have, we are probably far from the top of the list; however, some of our First Families were really fluent and we should acknowledge them here. I now invite you to post your comments about the foreign language knowledge of our American Presidents and First Ladies, and I ask you to share the names and languages fluently spoken by Presidents and Heads of State from other countries.

The secrets of the business world are now available to all interpreters.

February 6, 2015 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

Most interpreters are (or were) freelancers in the past. Even many of my colleagues who work as staff interpreters for the government or the private sector do some freelancing on the side: After hours and weekend assignments come to mind.

Although most of us do freelance work, it is also common to run into a colleague who is terrified about the business aspect of the profession. There are so many times when I have listened to my interpreter friends describe themselves as “good interpreters, but bad businesspeople”. I know colleagues who have turned down an assignment because the negotiations with the client were too intense or because the paperwork was so demanding. I understand. I have been lucky and I enjoy the business aspect of the profession, but I recognize that sometimes even the most experienced professionals face scenarios where some specialized knowledge comes in handy. Fortunately, I am going to share some good news with all my interpreter friends and colleagues: Help has arrived!

Today I want to talk about Marta Stelmaszak’s new book: “The Business Guide for Translators”. Despite the title, this is a book that speaks directly to all interpreters, as it covers all of our problems, addresses all of our concerns, and lives up to our expectations.

As most of you know, Marta is a professional interpreter and translator, accomplished author, teacher, scholar, and an entrepreneur. She has been a superstar of the profession for quite some time, a popular blogger, and her online “Business School for Translators” is one of the most popular educational tools for interpreters and translators. I should also disclose that Marta is a friend, that I admire her immensely, and that I got the book as a present.

“The Business Guide for Translators” is a 158-page book that reads easily, it is well-written and throughout the book you get the feeling that Marta is having a conversation with you. It is remarkable how so many complex concepts are explained in plain language so that lay interpreters can relate to the issue, and to the proposed strategy to avoid or solve a problem.

Marta divided the book in four chapters: On the first one: Economics, she deals with the basic concepts that all businessperson should know and understand. After reading the chapter, even the most business-challenged individual will be able to grasp the essentials of capital, supply, demand, investment, inflation and competition. The second chapter is entitled: Strategy. Here, the author explains the ideas of core competence, competitive advantage, value curve and chain, as well as customer segmentation; next, she shows the reader how these principles act in the language industry world, and she presents some well-known strategies while at the same time she encourages the readers to take action in their own lives. The third chapter is called: Business Management. In this part of the book, Marta assumes that the reader has become acquainted with all the basic concepts and strategies, and she is ready to take the language professional by the hand from the beginning. The chapter addresses everything from market research and a business plan, to the delivery of a service that represents an outstanding value, and the growth of the business. The last chapter: Business Practice, is a practically-oriented chapter full of advice, suggestions, and examples on how to contact the new client, how to negotiate the terms of the professional relationship, and how to provide the service, including the follow-up phase.

This book applies to what we do. As an interpreter herself, Marta writes from the start that the book is addressed to all language professionals. You can order the book from http://www.wantwords.co.uk/school/business-checklist-book-translators/ I read the book in one day and I recommend it. I also invite you to order it, read it, and keep it handy for future reference. Marta has given to all interpreters and translators a “Rosetta Stone” for language-related business. I now invite all of you to share your interpreting business-related experiences and how you solved them, and I especially would like to hear from those of you who already read the book.

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