What are court interpreters afraid of?

April 10, 2015 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During my many years of practice I have seen and heard a lot of things. As a staff interpreter and as a freelancer, I have attended meetings where court interpreter policy had been discussed.  I have many friends and acquaintances who were, and still are, court employees.  A good number of them do a good job, others do not. From the staff interpreter’s perspective, these policy meetings are permeated by two very strong forces:

The sense of duty to the profession that these colleagues experience as they hear the sometimes absurd proposals by their bosses. This makes them reflect on the reason why they were hired in the first place: Their knowledge of the profession, so they end up putting themselves in the shoes of the practicing freelance interpreter who is about to be victimized by the judicial system. They have to go through these emotions. No doubt. It happened to me when I worked for the courts.

The second, very powerful force in the meeting room is called the sense of loyalty, the corporate spirit. They are constantly reminded, directly and indirectly, that they are now one of “us”, the court administration; that they are no longer one of “them”, the freelancers.  They perfectly understand that loyalty is expected. These two forces clash inside the staffer’s head and heart, and the collision can produce two results:

The clear realization by the staff interpreter that he was hired to present the professional interpreters’ perspective, to make sure that no decision would be made without first considering and evaluating the effects of such changes on the delivery of the service and the quality of the performance. When this happens, the interpreter opposes all nonsense that is about to become institutional policy, and voices his objections out loud, perhaps suggesting a meeting with the freelancers before any decisions are made.

Unfortunately, the second result is the one that prevails most of the time: Staff interpreters, afraid of losing their jobs, or at least the favor of their supervisors, remain silent, and sometimes may even suggest the steps need to implement the new policy despite the freelancers’ opposition.  Of course, it is easier to act and react out of fear.  Some of these interpreters are more concerned about their retirement than about the interpreting services provided in their jurisdiction.  Others are terrified of the idea of losing their job and having to go out there to fight for every single dollar they would have to earn as freelance interpreters.  Fear means inaction. It means that harmful decisions, sometimes adopted in good faith by the administration, will become the new rules, and staffers will do nothing to stop it.

This is how bad policy comes to be. How it becomes a reality is up to the freelance interpreters, because once the wrong policy is implemented, independent contractor interpreters have two clear options: They can refuse to work under those circumstances and look for other clients, or they can renegotiate with the courts (sometimes they should even take legal action when the administration has clearly breached the terms of the independent contract they may have with the freelance interpreter).

Unfortunately, many interpreters prefer to submissively accept the new rules and comply, even if it means less income, even when it is demeaning to the profession.  They are acting and reacting out of fear.  The thought of waking up tomorrow and realizing they do not have to go to court because they were not asked to interpret scares them to death. To them, court work, even in exchange for a rock bottom fee is peace of mind.  They firmly believe that as long as they keep working, even when underpaid, they are doing the best they can.

This is the biggest problem that court interpreting faces as a profession in the United States, because, unlike our colleagues in the U.K., too many court interpreters in America are willing to roll with the punches and work more for less and under worst conditions.  Many interpreters forget that courts are a client, not an employer. The court administrator and the interpreter supervisor are not their boss, they are a client, and they are not even your best client, as courts pay far less than private clients in the legal field.  Interpreters must remember that as providers of a professional service, they are bound by a contract, and so are the courts. Both parties are equal. Nobody is less. Contracts are meant to be negotiated, not blindly accepted; and just like with everything else in life, when the terms of the contract are not what you want, walk away without signing on the dotted line. There are other clients.

When court interpreters start thinking of the courts as their client, not their boss, the free market will kick in, and interpreters, just as attorneys, will be able to get a professional fee. Until then, I am afraid that court interpreting will continue to go backwards.  I now invite you to share your ideas and proposed solutions regarding this crucial issue to the future of court interpreting, and please, do not answer by saying that there is no other work outside the courts, because there is.

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§ 18 Responses to What are court interpreters afraid of?

  • […] Source: What are court interpreters afraid of? […]

    • oxana says:

      This piece triggered an uncanny sense of deja vu. It couldn’t have given a more accurate depiction of what I have witnessed had I been followed around with a camera and microphone the last few years:

      1. The chief staff interpreter, who, in private conversation could be heard decrying the court administration’s new policy -one that runs roughshod over one of the longest established fundamental tenets of proper practice of our profession- and then in public i.e. in court, before the judge, attorneys and court personnel in a breathtaking Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde transformation, is heard supporting the new policy without a hint of an objection.

      2. A veteran freelancer,dedicates much time and effort to organizing and marshaling the consensus on this issue amongst fellow freelancers. This activity culminates in presenting the interpreters’ concerns to the court, to the professional language associations
      ( “established to advance the translation and interpreting professions©”) and the language services provider.

      What happened next?

      That veteran freelancer no longer works for that court. The reason for the interpreter’s termination was never given. In fact, the termination was not even announced – access to the interpreters’ work account was simply blocked from one day to the next.

      The court’s new policy is still in place. And, the professional language associations, “established to advance the translation and interpreting professions©, did not, advance the translation and interpreting professions.

      3.Another freelancer (as required by the interpreters’ code of professional conduct) brings to the attention of a court conditions which may threaten to compromise the quality and sustainability of interpreters’ performance. That freelancer has not been scheduled to return to that court since.

      The fear amongst interpreters that Mr. Rosado describes would appear to be justified. And it is as real as their consequent submissive acceptance of working conditions potentially detrimental to both their health and performance while making uncompensated demands on their availability.

  • Alina Salvat says:

    This is so true Tony. We Interpreters — ALL of us, must be our own best advocate. I understand not having anywhere to go the following morning but I also understand that we cannot allow ourselves to be treated as doormats. I believe we need to follow the example of the U.K. Interpreters. I also believe we need to join forces collectively, similar to a “cooperative” or trade organization. The last thing we can afford is when one of us rejects a job due to the ridiculous pay or working situation, is for another Interpreter/the next Interpreter they call/contact on their list to accept that same assignment. That’s just like throwing several dogs a bone. They are not going to share it. Anyway, I look forward to your thoughts about forming some type of cooperative or trade association/organization. And I’m not referring to the ATA or NAJIT, nr am I criticizing them. I just think we need an organization/association that, when push comes to shove has some teeth in it. I’m thinking something along the lines of the American Medical Association. I look forward to your and our other colleagues’ comments.

    • André Csihás, FCCI says:

      ¡Buenas noches, Alina!

      The insinuendos (thank you, Yogi Berra!) and potential issues I’m reading between the lines about establishing a union of interpreters, is that if those who choose to be members in said union decide on a major change collectively, they will surely be counteracted by other non-members who’ll jump at the chance of doing whatever the union members don’t want do to for whatever reasons they deem fit and with that simply jimmy the works for the rest.

      May I suggest that a more civilized and polite way of addressing and approaching this issue, would be to write a letter to the powers that be and inform them very sincerely and accurately of the problems that have arisen throughout a specific period of time, including details of actual experiences from those who have actually experienced them, so that they will be aware of the situation and perhaps suggest a change for the better. I have the feeling that the upper echelon is not fully aware of what’s happening in the industry.

      Hopefully, and with a renewed approach, all elements of forced submissiveness, bad policy acceptances and fear by inaction will be brought out into the open for all to fairly see and with that improve the overall outlook for those affected.

      Let’s be decent, polite and patient about this as it must reflect the values and ethics that we interpreters are beholden to.

      André Csihás, FCCI

      • oxana says:

        Civilized and polite discourse should of course always be the point of departure. However, experience has shown that such discourse can be ignored and a predictable trajectory of escalation naturally tends to ensue wherein “might” not “right” prevails

    • oxana says:

      This seemingly universal phenomenon amongst our colleagues of avoiding at all cost to be seen critical of the ATA and NAJIT is truly fascinating in its ubiquity and uniformity. We must wonder what’s behind it.

      Religions have to resort to a lot of coercion (some of it deadly) to achieve such compliant conformity amongst their followers.

      Do those who pay membership dues to these organizations not have the right, indeed the duty, to hold them to account if they are not fulfilling what their mission statement, e.g. “ advance the translation and interpreting professions and foster the professional development of individual translators and interpreters”. mandates?

      What can be learned from the AMA and Bar associations is the requirement to be licensed to practice the respective professions. This could go a long way in the language field toward draining the swamp of moonlighting paraprofessionals who exercise downward pressure on fee’s and quality through unfair competition with the serious dedicated professionals who invest time and money obtaining and maintaining their certification upholding the standards of the profession.

  • Michelle says:

    A. As a freelancer I ask, a contract with the court? What is that? (sarcasm)
    B. I’m not sure what sort of policies we are talking about here. Perhaps that is because where I am there are no staff interpreters, only freelancers. But I am curious to know what types of bad policies are affecting freelancers elsewhere. Or, maybe you are not at liberty to say.

  • […] Dear colleagues: During my many years of practice I have seen and heard a lot of things. As a staff interpreter and as a freelancer, I have attended meetings where court interpreter policy had been…  […]

  • legalspanish says:

    I think this piece would have been more effective citing a specific example of bad policymaking and the response thereto. Tony refers obliquely to low rates which is something that happened in Nevada a few years back and could have helped steer this discussion into a less abstract place.

    On another note, I think the forces Tony identifies, specifically loyalty to one´s employer on the part of staff interpreters, is a factor in the misuse of the TIP line in federal courts, very much to the detriment of freelancers. Staff interpreters are under the gun to produce stats that show they are working enough to justify their position and this creates a pressure to take telephonic appointments from courts who should be using live interpreters because of their proximity or the length of the proceeding to be interpreted.

    • ox9n9 says:

      As a longtime stalwart defender and advocate of the profession I think Mr. Rosado goes more than far enough out on a limb eloquently voicing his observations and providing us with this magnificent platform to voice ours.

      There’s no need to go into greater detail just to risk the fury of professional jealousies and arouse the ire and subsequent heavy hand of institutions, bureaucracies and, yes, corporations.

  • The court and their policies will always exist. Their bureaucracy will worsen as unions and administration negotiate contracts. The staff interpreters decided that they were tired of fighting Goliath and created a union with the help of independents. They still have the independent itch. They itch to have everything they once did and still try to defy a system that tells them they need to be there from 8-5. Their interpreting spirit still intact, they take days off to interpret at a conference or do a deposition because it pays more. They take on extra work by doing translation and transcription work to stay afloat. We cannot change what they have done. We can change our own idea of who we are and what we do.

    We can change our own independent attitude and the way you feel about what we do. All we ask is for the courts to contract with us to do what we do best: Interpret. We are told to go to a courtroom wait, work, and we’re done. That is all that is required of us. That is what we do for our private clients, too. We provide a needed service and get paid for it. We shouldn’t get involved in their politics and it has to be made very clear that we don’t buy into the union thing. When a strike is called upon, guess whom they ask for support? We’re in a coveted position. We have our autonomy. Our autonomy is what dictates how we treat and service our clients.

  • I’m afraid of wasting my time, which is why I pick my battles and make them few, but, I “fight” to win.

    I didn’t care to “fight” when a staff interpreter was installed in my district/region a few years ago. The first thing she did was send me an e-mail ORDERING me to give her a list of all the cases I had on the calendar, and then, once I gave her the list, she proceeding to tell me that she would be handling them herself or redistribute them to other interpreters. I let her boss, and that boss’s boss know what I thought. They never called me to work again! They are so incredibly corrupt. Interestingly, a lot of the courts I used to work for in that region were also “ordered” to call upon the area staff interpreter in that certain district or region for her to distribute the case loads among the independent contractors (except me), but those clerks and administrators tried her for a while, found out how inept she was, and refused to use her mandated services again; therefore, they call us directly once again, and they are very happy with us.

    This staff interpreter’s salary is a total waste of tax payer dollars, as there simply aren’t enough cases for her to justify the expense of her being a paper-pusher, etc., since the least she does is interpret! I moved out of the area, and I’m doing fantastic, making about triple her salary in revenues. It’s just a matter of time before she gets fired too. I win.

    However, I’ve recently met a different wonderful staff interpreter in another state. Wow! What a huge difference. Total professionalism. The chief judge in that major city where the staff interpreter I admire works, also told me personally in chambers that she (the chief judge) thinks the paperwork is ridiculous, the paperwork required for us to get paid, that is. She’s right, but I don’t mind, as I hold an MBA and my invoices and reports are always perfect and that sets me apart from others. The staff interpreter is delightful and fun to work with and very professional, as I said.

    As far as creating a union, I’m not sure. I’m extremely busy and doing very well. I don’t need a million assignments; I’m happy with around a thousand jobs a year or less, as long as they pay well and on time.

    We interpreters should verbally, and never in writing, share information about disrespectful judges, administrators, etc. and simply not work for them. Why would we want to work for them? For them to insult us?

    Also, when I can’t do a job, I recommend an excellent interpreter in my place. I don’t want that client/courthouse/law firm to end up hiring an unprofessional interpreter. That’s how we forge forward in cleaning up the market of the bottom dwellers. We should not become bitter, but just shake the dust off our feet, move on to where we are appreciated, and maybe silently say: “See ya — wouldn’t wanna be ya.” It is delightful when a lousy court/judge/administrator ends up with a bottom dweller interpretoid; a match maid in the toilette. All the while I’m interpreting for KINGS!

    • André Csihás, FCCI says:

      I’m sure you meant to write “…a match MADE in the toilette”, otherwise we’ll have female assistance where we don’t really need it.


      • I keep doing that! Yes, MADE not MAID, but then again, some interpreters do need a maid, since they are horrible at housekeeping. This is the only blog I participate in because Tony and the people are so awesome. Buenos nachos, I mean–, buenas noches.

    • ox9n9 says:

      Instead of creating a union we might want to start inquiring into the apparent inaction of the existing organizations ATA and NAJIT which have allowed these conditions to persist unaddressed.

      The notion of and your efforts in assembling an informal merit based Rolodex – a quality elite if you will- amongst whom to refer jobs are noble and a solid step in the right direction. As is the notion of sharing information on whom to avoid: those in decision making positions whose attitudes are detrimental to the profession – the proper exercise thereof and those who endeavor to exercise it with a dedication to excellence.

      The limitation of this approach, however, lies in its personal and individualistic nature, which doesn’t address the systemic aspect of the problem: The linguistic and administrative mediocrity and other entrenched issues you, Tony, others and I describe seem to be all too common to overcome piecemeal. And they are just as widespread if not more so in the private sector – amongst the language services agencies. The conditions of the interpreting market seem to allow for these people to keep getting hired!

      Perhaps a greater impact could be derived from pushing for licensing to become a prerequisite for practicing the profession in the legal arena as is required of lawyers. Doctors, even beauticians, require licensing!

      Are those professions guaranteed free of bottom feeders? No, but it raises the barrier to entry and provides a mechanism for their removal. So wherever the bottom would be after mandatory licensing is introduced, it will certainly not be as low as it is now.

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    Hello ox9n9!

    You wrote: “Perhaps a greater impact could be derived from pushing for licensing to become a prerequisite for practicing the profession in the legal arena as is required of lawyers…”

    Actually, there is licensing and there are requirements to become either a state-Licensed Court Interpreter or a Federally Certified Court Interpreter, as am I, and unless some extraordinary situation develops, most courts will not allow non-certified interpreters in criminal or civil trials.
    The problem in many instances is that either the attorney who directly hires the interpreter or the language service agencies don’t want to pay the going rate for either of those certifications and therefore allow the non-licensed to take over because they are cheaper.

    • ox9n9 says:

      Jó napot André!

      Thanks for your reply and giving me an opportunity to leaven my leaden prose for a better shot at clearing up the misunderstanding.

      I meant that the state should only allow certified interpreters to do all legal related interpreting work. Not just that which takes place before a judge in a courtroom but the whole kit and caboodle: ADR (arbitrations, mediations), depositions, IME’s, EUO’s, even interrogations carried out by law enforcement.

      See, that would finally put the kibosh on attorneys or language service agencies acting penny- wise and pound-foolish. Any testimony obtained through an uncertified interpreter would be deemed null and void, providing fine fodder for getting cases dismissed on appeal.

      Buh-bye bottom feeders.

  • Margaret Wolfe-Roberts says:

    Tony, thank you for speaking so eloquently about the real dilemmas we’ve all faced at times, working in our field. I find it sad that a staff interpreter would be so intimidated at the thought of being fired as to fail to even voice a serious concern affecting their colleagues in the field, when their role indeed requires it.

    Perhaps it bears mentioning that there is a difference between speaking up and insisting at all costs in order to get one’s way. Even if the interpreter’s concerns are ultimately overturned, having a voice at the table is a privilege that should be used regularly and conscientiously. Use it or lose it.

    We are not attorneys, highly trained in the skillful management of conflict, whom everyone expects to argue and disagree as a matter of course. And yet, those very skills are at times essential to our professional well-being and can be developed.

    Part of what good attorneys know is how/when/whom to approach, which battles to fight, and what arguments will hold the most water. A good attorney also knows how to back down and/or lose gracefully, in a relationship-saving way. Because nobody is going to get everything they ask for, and if we lose a relationship every time we are denied, that’s a shame.

    oxana, I am sorry to hear about your colleague. I would say the veteran interpreter did the right thing in gathering input and coming to a consensus, but when presenting the request he/she should have gone together WITH the other interpreters, and/or included ALL their names on the letter, in alphabetical order. That makes it harder to single out an individual for punishment.

    It is also my experience that things like hierarchy and sequencing matter a lot to good communication within the court system. If you have a problem you would like to to have addressed you should be very careful about to whom you direct your complaint first. Addressing three groups simultaneously as your colleague did was likely perceived as very threatening. The court is being called out very publicly and this creates a lot of stress, so a positive response is less likely.

    The best strategy is first to identify exactly whom it is that you want to do exactly what. What are you trying to change and who has the power to change it? Try not to escalate up the chain of command right away unless you are completely convinced of a negative response from those more immediately involved, and are prepared for the consequences in case it goes against you. Ask yourself, am I the right person to address this? Who could I get on my side? Perhaps the language service providers would have been the better folks to handle the complaint in this instance, and less vulnerable to “firing.”

    If the interpreters are determined that they themselves must speak up, then they should give the other side a good opportunity to be cooperative by presenting their concerns in a nonthreatening way. That means identifying and talking up your common interests, using clear but non-blaming language, showing how the problem negatively impacts the goals of the court or organization, and clearly presenting your solutions.

    One option, instead of a big request up front, is to make it easier for them to say Yes by requesting a meeting with them simply in order to explore the issue. Take a small group of interpreters to the meeting, speak clearly, solicit feedback and try to listen well. Be prepared for a range of possible solutions and some intermediate steps, and have some alternative requests ready. Who knows, there might be solutions acceptable to the other side that didn’t even occur to the interpreters.

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