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.