When the interpreter needs to see the speaker in person.

April 19, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Earlier this year I interpreted an event on victims’ rights and vulnerable populations, and part of the assignment took place in the town of Truckee, California, right at the state line with Nevada, in the area of Lake Tahoe.  Among many topics, the conference touched upon the temporary restraining order, and no-contact hearings held at the request of alleged victims by both, the California and Nevada state court systems. The presenters who dealt with this issue were an attorney and a social worker. They both discussed the many obstacles faced by the victims of these crimes, who are often re-victimized by the court proceedings, and the added difficulties when the alleged victim does not speak English. They explained that in these cases, they have to resort to a telephonic interpreting service that is far from ideal, as there are many things that cannot be interpreted or conveyed over the phone in domestic violence, or any type of violence hearings.  The social worker commented that the problems are the same when the alleged victims are taken to a medical facility for care or examination.

All of us have read and talked so much about telephonic and video remote interpreting during the last few years, that I did not think that another blog entry on this issue could be of any interest, but the description of the problems faced by these alleged victims, and a recent personal experience with video remote interpreting where the computer showed image, but the telephone lines did not work, and after almost an hour of fruitless efforts by the technicians, we had to do the remote meeting between Texas and Washington, D.C. using regular Skype, with all of its shortfalls and limitations, is what made me realize that there may be certain events that are not big, that may not be high profile, and that may only impact a handful of people, which necessarily require of in-person interpreting.

Those of you who have been following this blog for years know that I am all for technology and video remote interpreting (VRI), as long as it benefits those providing the service, there is not an intermediary taking advantage of the interpreters, and the quality of the event does not suffer.  My opinion about these technologies has not changed, but I have come to the conclusion that a blanket endorsement of VRI interpreting is as bad and damaging as total opposition to it.   After the California event I mentioned above, I contacted the speakers to hear more about the obstacles they have faced when doing telephone interpreting for these court hearings and medical appointments.

They explained that it is very difficult to convey the gravity of a violent act, or the seriousness of an injury, when the alleged victim points to a part of the body, or describes a symptom, and the interpreter is not there to see the action, to witness the physical motions, or to understand the body language and cultural nuances.  In other words, it is very hard to interpret: “your honor, it hurts here” when the interpreter has no idea of where “here” is.  Remote interpreting in these cases could easily result in the denial of a temporary restraining order (TRO) and the alleged victim could remain unprotected by the law, while the alleged perpetrator may become emboldened by the lack of action by the courts. It could also adversely affect the medical care that an alleged victim needs, simply because the interpreter could not see what was going on at the doctor’s office or the emergency room.

To me, it is clear that the nature of the interpreting assignment, and the ultimate goals of the event interpreted: to protect the life and physical integrity of another human being, or to assess a medical condition and provide the appropriate care and treatment, clearly justifies the expense of physically having the interpreter in the same room as the non-English speaker.  There are cases when a telephonic or VRI interpreter is better than nothing. Nobody is saying that these resources have no application in reality.   Of course, emergency rooms in rural areas, and 9-11 emergency operators are better off with the assistance of a telephonic or video remote interpreter, but the cases we are discussing today do not fall under this category. There is no moral excuse, and I would even say that in my opinion legal justification, for not providing in-person interpreting for these hearings or medical appointments.   Of course it will be more expensive than using a telephone line, but the goal justifies it.  This is an area where governments cannot be saving money.  There are no places in the United States that are so inaccessible that an interpreter cannot get there once he or she has been properly scheduled (and remunerated).  In the case I am referring to, the town in question is less than an hour away from Reno, Nevada. I know there are court and healthcare interpreters in Reno who would be willing to travel to these towns to provide their services in person. The only reason they do not go at this time is that nobody wants to pay them what they deserve as professionals. If the fee was appropriate, interpreters would be going to this town from places as far away as Las Vegas or Sacramento. The same can be said about every town in the country.

VRI and telephone interpreting should never be used in situations where the physical element is crucial for a proper rendition, even when the money savings make it so attractive that those responsible for the event look the other way in order to save money.  I have heard from several colleagues that in the state-level court system of one of the states, video and telephonic interpreting is currently used even when there is not appropriate equipment. Allegedly, even hand-held cellular phones have been used to interpret hearings.  Interpreters also complain that in the same state, complex hearings such as change of plea hearings, those court proceedings where an individual admits guilt in a criminal case that can potentially carry many years in prison, have been held telephonically; and apparently, said state does not have a policy or protocol to educate judges and other court officers as to what hearings should be off limits for telephone or VRI interpreting.  Obviously, a first appearance before court, or a status hearing where no testimony will be heard, and no change of plea will be allowed, are fine for telephonic and VRI interpreting services when the equipment is appropriate and the staff has been properly trained.

Interpreters do exist for many reasons, and sometimes, those reasons are so important that the only acceptable interpreting service is that rendered in person.  We need to make sure that it is now that correct policy is adopted and safeguards are in place. This is the right time as we are still at the beginning of this technological wave that will eventually influence everything we do as professional interpreters. If we do not act at this time, it will be more difficult in the future once systems are in place and money has been spent to do something that should have never been considered as feasible. I ask you to please share your thoughts and comments about this very important topic.

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§ 3 Responses to When the interpreter needs to see the speaker in person.

  • Berta Cevallos says:

    Excellent article and so much agree with you! During my career i have gotten first hand experience on the issues you mentioned. Detrimental for non-English speakers. Further, the lack of understanding of the legal and financial liability institutions are exposed to by inappropriate provision and compliance of mandates. Finally, interpreters do exist and are needed at all -specially during critical situations- and it is up to us and our colleagues to give ourselves the value of what we do… There is a VERY fine line between our professional-unique- skills and be a community advocate.

  • I have been trying to educate the judiciary on their OWN policies regarding telephonic interpretation in the federal courts, but they appear to NOT CARE ONE BIT. I’ve shared this with them in writing: “Guide to Judiciary Policy, Vol. 5, Ch. 5 Page 3, § 540.20 Proceedings Where TIP Is Appropriate:
    Courts should consider the use of TIP for the following short proceedings WHEN certified or qualified interpreters are NOT available locally, AND it is not feasible to have interpreters travel from outside the area:
    •pretrial hearings;
    •initial appearances;
    •arraignments; and
    •probation and pretrial services interviews.” [CAPITALIZATION mine]

    However, many of our colleagues out of “desperation” are actually making the problem worse, by lending their skills for telephonic interpretation, being paid “peanuts.” Actually, they get paid by the minute, and so little, that real peanuts would be an increase in pay sometimes. Some attorneys have complained about telephonic interpretation, and so some judges have listened, but very few.

    With frequency, defendants in plea hearings must talk to their attorneys in private through the use of the in-person certified interpreter, which is nearly impossible to do privately with a TIP interpreter. The lack of an in-person interpreter could put the attorney in the legal conundrum of an unintentional ineffective assistance of counsel situation, given the extreme difficulty to use a TIP interpreter privately and thus the attorney not properly advising his/her client during those critical moments when legal issues must be fully understood by the defendant so he/she can answer questions during a plea. Attorneys and defendants engage in last minute reiterations of understandings right before a plea hearing, and an in-person certified interpreter is important to facilitate the plea hearing colloquy to go well. I was recently replaced by a TIP interpreter for a plea! I let the clerk and judge know that I was being impeded to do my job. They never responded, and that whole courthouse has not been calling me anymore.

    I converse with many colleagues who are being destroyed financially by the misuse of telephonic interpreting equipment. One colleague is in her eighties, but with the mental agility of someone half her age. She has lost tens of thousands due to this fiasco every year. She was the personal interpreter for three U.S. presidents when she was younger!

    This country is bankrupt, financially, morally, etc. We interpreters work with truth, accuracy, facts, perfect spoken delivery, honesty, professionalism, punctuality, cordiality, responsibility, honor, knowledge, just for starters… concepts foreign to many public government workers who only care about the big salaries and not rocking the boat. I know a few who are excellent and kind, but I can count them with the fingers of my hands.

  • Paloma Cerdán says:

    Great reflection. I completely agree with everything you have discussed in this post.
    It has reminded me, in a way, to what happens today sometimes with the companies that choose machine translation over the services of a professional translator: in order to save some money, it is preferred to use poorer quality services which are more likely to make mistakes. It seems to be happening something similar with interpreting, as you described. However, as interpreters are still needed because they cannot be completely replaced by a machine, they are used through computer tools that cheapen their services, at the expense, sometimes, that they cannot carry out their work properly neither provide quality service to their customers.
    As you clearly put it, the ultimate goal of interpreting is “to protect the life and physical integrity of another human being, or to assess a medical condition and provide the appropriate care and treatment”. I agree with you that, in order to do that, no expense should ever be spared.

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