“Get an interpreter for that hearing, and try to spend as little as possible”.

March 13, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every time I read an article about court interpreting, look at your social media posts, or have a face to face conversation with a court interpreter, I cannot help but notice how the working conditions constantly deteriorate. For some time we have witnessed how the court interpreting system of the United Kingdom was completely destroyed and our colleagues had to courageously fight back so the rest of the world knew what had happened in their country. Time continues to run, and nothing has been done to improve that system now run by an entity whose greatest achievement was to sink the quality of interpreting services to an unimaginable low. We have witnessed the difficult times that our colleagues who want to do court interpreting face in Spain. We have heard many stories of court interpreters around the world having to fight for a professional fee, a professional work environment, and respect to the profession.

The situation in the United States is also very sad. It is true that the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act has left little choice to the states. Now, state-level courts that want to continue to receive federal funds must provide interpreting services to all non-English speakers who need to have access to the justice system. The new demand for court interpreters beyond criminal cases has “inspired” many court administrators and chief judges to act in new and more creative ways to satisfy the requirement of having an interpreter next to the non-English speaker, even when the quality of this professional service is at best doubtful. To this day, there are jurisdictions where the question is: Does a warm body fulfill the legal requirement of providing interpreter services? Sadly, in some cases the answer seems to be “maybe”.

But the state courts want to comply with the federal mandate, and it seems that some of them will stop at nothing in order to achieve their goal. A popular formula was born: “Get an interpreter for that hearing and try to spend as little as possible”. The origin of this strategy is not clear, but it is obvious that this solution was not conceived by an interpreter. This is not even the brainchild of an administrator who at least has a basic knowledge of the interpreting profession; moreover, this doctrine has been embraced by some federal level courts as well. Let me explain.

Some court administrators have implemented a fee reduction. Today, some interpreters get paid less for their travel time to and from the place where they will render professional services; they get a lower fee, less compensation per traveled mile (kilometer elsewhere in the world) no reimbursement for tolls and bridges, and other very crafty ways that some courts have devised to pay less for interpreting services.

Other courts have increased the level of “scrutiny” and now watch over the court interpreters’ shoulder while they are doing their job; not the way a client observes the work of a doctor, a lawyer, or any professional individual, but the way a person watches over the performance of the guys who dry your car when you take it to the car wash. Many times this breathing on your neck type of scrutiny is enforced by adding paperwork and bureaucratic requirements to the fee payment process. To the interpreters, this means more time spent in the payment process, while making the same money than before the new requirements were in place. They are effectively making less money than before.

Of course there are also courts that now pay a lower fee during the contracted time if the interpreter’s lips are not moving: They pay a partial fee for the break time and travel time, even though the interpreters, who sell their time, have allocated those hours, or minutes, to that court as a client. Now some courts are tossing high fives at each other because they paid the interpreter a full fee for 45 minutes of work and a reduced fee for the 15 minutes in between cases when the interpreter did not interpret because the judge had to go to the bathroom.

And there is more: some jurisdictions have removed themselves from the payment process in those cases when, due to a possible conflict of interest, the court assigns a particular case to a private independent defense attorney, who is a member of a panel of lawyers, who can be appointed to these cases in exchange for a fee that is paid by the judiciary. This jurisdictions do not accept the interpreters’ invoices anymore; they now require the panel attorney to process the interpreter’s invoice and payment, generating two very sad effects: (1) Sometimes, the interpreter will have to wait a long time to get paid because their payment processing is not a top priority to the lawyer, and (2) It will help to keep alive the idea that interpreters are second-class officers of the court who do not deserve the court’s trust, because it is clear that these jurisdictions opted for a system where the attorney will need to access the court’s computer system to process interpreters’ payments, which is “preferable” over a system where interpreters would have to be granted that same access to the system. Why? Because it is too much of a risk to take? You can arrive to your own conclusions, but the fact is that this policy is very demeaning.

My friends, when you see and hear about all these policy changes you have to wonder: As these new strategies were discussed and adopted, where were the court staff interpreters, and the judges, and the administrators who know what interpreting is about? And once they were implemented, why did the freelancers continue to work under these terrible conditions? I now invite you to comment on this policy changes, other rules you may have noticed somewhere else, and the reason why these changes are being implemented with so little opposition.

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§ 6 Responses to “Get an interpreter for that hearing, and try to spend as little as possible”.

  • André Csihas, FCCI says:

    Hi Tony!

    Sadly, the erroneous perception that interpreters are everywhere and therefore they’re cheap and easy to find lingers in many of the places you’ve mentioned. Somehow anyone who speaks two languages is thought of as a “translator” by those who only speak one language.

    Most are not aware of the amount of time and preparation it takes to become an interpreter and a translator —especially a certified or licensed court interpreter— and therefore don’t value the work because all they see them do is talk and they can’t understand why they “are getting paid for just talking”.

    Perhaps one of the requirements that ought to be established in law school, is that of teaching the up and coming attorneys a course in court interpreter’s procedures so that they may become familiar with the importance of the interpreter in court, and later if they want to become judges, they must go through it again as a requirement to sit on the bench. I’m sure that would create a new perspective on whether or not the interpreter is a justified expense.

    Also, this whole attitude seems to be counterproductive because the professional and certified interpreters were required in legal matters precisely to avoid having to use the janitors or minors they were initially recruited on the spot to act as interpreters.

    Unfortunately and ultimately, the crux of the matter hovers purely over economics rather than justice.

    Objection, your honor!

  • Stephen H. Franke (Arabic linguist and dialectologist) says:


    Most of the various court jurisdictions in southern California where I have provided services recognize the truth in an old and still-pertinent business motto: “Good, cheap and fast: you can only select any two.”

    Another factor is the willingness of sharp-minded defending attorneys to raise vociferous complaints about the accuracy and reliability — ergo, admissibility – of poor interpreting done by cheap talent. Much more cost-effective for all parties to pay premium and reasonable costs for a competent interpreter than undergoing a series of challenges, retrials or dismissals.

    Today is Friday, March 13, 2015,


    Stephen H. Franke
    Senior veteran Arabic linguist and
    Expert Witness (Middle Eastern ethnic minorities)
    San Pedro (Los Angeles Waterfront Area), California

  • I was also a court interpreter in southern California (Orange County) for four years, at a time when Orange County court interpreting was run by a monopoly company consisting of three full-time Spanish court interpreters, one of whom was married to a judge! I believe the monopoly has now ended but it took 20 years to break it. The way court interpreters are perceived worldwide is an absolute disgrace. As for “cheap” we were always cheap, even when we were properly paid. Compare what we earn to what attorneys earn! I only interpret in civil cases in the UK, I have never lowered myself to taking the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting for which the fee is almost $1500 (yes!) and for which one is automatically failed the first time, on the flimsiest of pretexts (such as poor handwriting) so they can charge you to take it again.

  • Jose Lopez says:

    The economy –and therefore the tax base– is in shambles. Many states, counties, cities, etc., are struggling like never before financially, cutting corners in every way that they can. Some of them are flat out broke. The Federal Government is using a LOT of non-certified interpreters in the Federal Courts too! They are using ultra-cheap non-certified interpreters who are not even state certified.

    In a deep south state, there is a county that uses jail trustees IN COURT as interpreters in order to avoid using the certified interpreters relatively nearby. This is supposedly to save money, but perhaps they are pocketing budget monies for interpreting in some southern-style corruption kind of way! The chief officer of the prison system in that state was getting kick-backs recently too, and now he is in trouble with the law. Oh well. This is public information in this state. Of course I have reported the jail trustees (inmates) being used to interpret in the courts to the AOC, but, there’s been zero answer. Do they care? Nobody thinks so. We are living in dark times, my friends, period.

    It is time, like many have already done so years ago, to find something else to do besides or in place of interpreting because making a decent living on interpreting is getting harder and harder, if not nearly impossible. I’ve also noticed that most of the job board posting companies are assigning the translation jobs to the $0.04-per-word “linguists” in the third world. There is also a huge influx into the profession of newly “trained” interpreters, who, although well meaning, have not the slightest clue of what is really going on and what they are getting into.

    Another anecdote I’d like to share along this topic is that I was interpreting just a couple of years ago in a southeastern city of Virginia, when, this landscaping guy in a T-shirt tried to usurp my assignment to interpret in a hearing before the chief judge. I stood my ground, and the judge ordered him to stand down, but on the way to the clerk’s office where the judge asked me to interpret for the defendant too, the landscaping guy said to his friend, the defendant, in Spanish: “Just because he (meaning, me) is wearing a fancy business suit, doesn’t make him better than me as an interpreter.” He also said that two of the judges there let him interpret because he charges the defendants directly and the court doesn’t have to pay him. I did report that to the chief judge, and she said that she would speak to the other judges and order them not to use that guy again. I suspect that problem was solved.

    I could easily write a 5,000 word essay on all the ridiculous and shameful things done in court by ignorant people. One time in a nearby city to the one mentioned above, the assistant public defender told me how the judge asked into the crowd: “Does anyone speak Spanish here?” and proceeded to assign a person who responded (a defendant too) to interpret for the first defendant the judge discovered did not speak English!

  • annaart4me says:

    ”why these changes are being implemented with so little opposition”
    the answer is disappointing and simple: Interpreting profession is divided, it’s based on freelancing/independent work
    We are highly trained professionals but divided and an easy target to be conquered.
    Professional organizations have no say, except ‘protest’ which is not even noticed much less paid attention to or acted on.
    the only effective cure would be…to stop interpreting altogether NOW, and let the fallout happen…maybe then some ‘genius’ would notice
    ooops…we messed up, we better recognize and reinstate interpreters for their invaluable work…on sustainable conditions.
    yes….nice dream…. I know….but I don’t see any other way out, when it is widely assumed that if someone knows 2 languages that makes them interpreter, or that any foreigner should learn fast or suffer the consequences…
    by the way…I work in UK courts and other institutions, same story, it’s going from bad to worse, my work is not enough anymore to sustain me financially (compared with last year I am £5000 behind, though working just as much)…I give it last shot, last year, and do complete professional overhaul, I’m done with this crap treatment that is aimed at making me an unnecessary evil…
    thank you, I respect myself enough to walk away from mockery before it will bring me to financial and emotional ruin.

    • I understand totally. I’ve been consistently about 25% behind in revenues as compared to 2011. It’s not because I’m doing something wrong, I price my services too high, or anything like that. I hold BS and MBA degrees, have been certified by the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts (MD, VA, NC, AL, MS), the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, and even by other prestigious diplomatic entities, and have served in about 7,000 assignments of almost every imaginable nature, but still, it is an everyday battle to thrive and not just survive. I have fired lots of disrespectful customers, but I constantly seek out quality customers too, relationships, etc. Some call me once a year, some once a month, once a week, once a day, twice a day, but also, I’ve had to diversify into translation, transcription, and teaching Spanish to high-paying professionals. You gotta do what you gotta do, but do not put up with mistreatment. YOU ARE A PROFESSIONAL WORTHY OF GOOD PAY AND RESPECT.

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