Are court interpreters talking to the wrong client?

August 16, 2016 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

As I was having dinner with a colleague several weeks ago in New York City, the conversation turned to the deplorable state of court interpreting at the State level in many parts of the United States and even at some federal district courts. She shared some frustrating stories about court staff choosing less qualified and even non-certified interpreters over solid and skilled certified colleagues just to save money by paying less for court interpreting services.

Her story was not different from the many tales I have learned from interpreters around the country complaining about poorly-run Administrative Offices of the Courts in several States, courthouses led by unreasonable interpreter coordinators, and ignorant government officials who have never bothered to learn anything about interpreting but are too willing to issue directives diminishing the quality of interpreting services and undercutting the fees and contractual guarantees that court interpreters fought so hard to get.

Time and again, there seems to be a common denominator to all this nonsense: These government officials, court administrators, and even short-sighted staff interpreters turned court policy backers, simply ignore interpreters’ arguments and explanations of all the reasons why justice would be better served, Constitutional requirements would actually be met, and interpreters would move the courts to the top of their client lists, if the State courts, and some federal districts, were to treat the profession and those who practice it with the dignity they deserve.

I often wonder how many times interpreters will meet with judges, staff interpreters, and court administrators, to explain that a professional fee, a fair cancellation policy, and appropriate interpreting conditions are needed, before we all realize that we are just wasting our time and energy.

I believe that the moment has arrived.  In the past, whenever I felt that I was getting nowhere with a stubborn judge or an incompetent court administrator, I took my case to the officer of the court who will truly understand and appreciate our services: The private attorney.

I have found it very productive to talk to civil litigants and private defense attorneys one on one. I have seen the impact of a good presentation by an interpreter at a State Bar conference, in front of hundreds of lawyers.  I believe that it is the attorneys who need to hear about the profession. They are the ones who need to know how interpreters are really treated by state officials, and they need to hear some of the horror stories that unfortunately have occurred all over the country when a bad interpretation has been part of a court proceeding.

Court interpreters need to address these lawyers for two reasons: First, since they are not under the authority and policy of court administrators because they are financially independent, they will be able to fight for quality interpreters. They will see it our way because they are also in the business of delivering results to their clients. In other words: no result equals no clients. Moreover, many of their clients are financially capable of paying the interpreter’s professional fees and expenses, and like everything else in the private sector, they know that good things are not cheap.

The second reason for approaching these attorneys is evident: Our work will speak louder than our words. The attorneys and their clients will see how professional interpreters work, they will see the benefits of having a great interpreter at all stages of a case: from the time the client retains the attorney to the end of a case, including strategy meetings, witness preparation sessions, jailhouse visits, and having an interpreter at the plaintiff’s or defense’s table during the trial.  They will see the difference and their client will tell them how the work of the privately retained professional interpreter is infinitely better than the rendition the client will hear from the less expensive interpreters provided by the court at the hearings.  You see, instead of wasting your time talking to the wall, you will invest your time at cultivating professional relationships with these private attorneys who will appreciate your work, treat you like the professional you are, and pay you a much better fee. You will be able to make more money and work less. Who knows? Maybe after all good interpreters leave the courts and cases are overturned on appeal the people who have ignored us will decide to approach us in our terms.

I decided to work with the private bar and I do not regret it at all. In fact, I enjoy being a part of a case from beginning to end instead of just being thrown in there in the middle of a trial without knowing what the case is about. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago one of my attorney clients commented to me that she was so glad to have me as her interpreter because she felt that because I was not in court working with the same judges and attorneys all the time, she could trust me more than “those interpreters who are at the courthouse all the time”.

I suggest that if you are sick and tired of being mistreated and ignored by the courts, you switch gears and give the private bar a try. All you will need is four or five good cases a year to live and feel like the true professional you are. I now ask you to tell us what you think about the way that so many courts treat professional interpreters and what you plan to do about it.

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§ 9 Responses to Are court interpreters talking to the wrong client?

  • Jeff Alfonso says:

    This is an issue we are dealing with right now. It would be an understatement to say that we are feeling a certain sense of frustration.

    My DW (Dear Wife) is state certified and has donated too many generous hours to a language access task force that has no intention to take any real action. They might end up doing a few tiny inexpensive Band-aid fixes, but that’s about it.

    I am interested in learning more about the “Private Bar”? We do have relationships with quite a attorneys that give us work, but I suspect you are referring to something else.

  • Rosemary Dann says:

    Absolutely, Tony. The attorneys have the most to lose if their clients file an “ineffective assistance of counsel” claim against them for not insisting on a credentialed interpreter. Presenting at Bar Association meetings (which cover both civil and criminal topics) Defender Associations or the local Public Defender’s Office is a great way to educate the Bar. Don’t forget that NAJIT has a power point designed to help interpreters do just that. The presentation is comprehensive, so the presenter can use all or part of it. It can be found on the official website: .

  • Alex Thomson says:

    I find this sound reasoning and thought-provoking. Many thanks for writing it!

  • Alina Salvat says:

    This is one of the most reasonable, intelligent and logical explanations for why it is essential to have certified court Interpreters who have extensive experience working with the different court and attorneys.

  • My problem has been more with state agencies than the courts as far as payment goes. Some agencies are not willing to pay enough, nor to pay mileage fees. The administrative bench officers in those agencies are also lacking in knowledge of how to use an interpreter in the majority of cases. They definitely need some instruction on that.

    As to the courts, I definitely can see the use of a privately retained interpreter for interviews, depositions, transcripts, etc. Here in California, a great deal of importance is given to having an impartial person interpret in court for criminal matters, although once you have interpreted for either the defendant or the prosecution you are not allowed to interpret for the other side. I doubt, if we were privately retained, that they would allow us to interpret in court. Civil is a different matter.
    One problem I have had with the criminal courts is that sometimes there are too many cases set together on the day they know I am supposed to be there. (A certain court I really like and where I work regularly.) On other occasions there may be no one who needs an interpreter. Sometimes I wish the times when there are so many cases that they would give me an additional day.
    I do intend to contact private attorneys and QME doctors and psychologists, as well as insurance defense attorneys to see if I can get additional work in court or with psych evals, QME medical examinations, etc.

  • David Lauman says:

    Tony, thank you for your post. I agree. I have also found many interesting and lucrative opportunities with the private bar.

    On a related note, I must say that many times I have been contacted by law offices (including established clients) with requests for interpreting at civil court hearings. Since state courts in Colorado have been providing interpreters for all such hearings since 2011, I often find myself in the unenviable position of having to explain this to the client. Many attorneys are shocked at this, and disappointed or even upset that they cannot choose their interpreter. One attorney even expressed surprise at this policy, considering all the constant talk about budget constraints.

    Personally, I can certainly see the need for the state appointing interpreters for civil cases involving, say, child custody disputes. But it does not seem logical for taxpayers to have to foot the bill for an interpreter on a multimillion-dollar personal injury case, when law firm and their clients are perfectly able to do so. If the state is going to appoint interpreters even in the latter types of cases, then why isn’t a public defender appointed as well for the defendant?

  • Jason Knapp says:

    I enjoyed your comments very much. Clear, logical, compelling – everything it should take convince a legal professional. I freelance in Kentucky where, believe it or not, there is a very progressive, informed and complimentary culture due in large part, if not exclusively, to the persistent efforts of the language access coordinator and supervisors at the AOC.

    Having said that, your advice to direct our efforts toward the private sector hit a chord with me. While it’s true you may have to do a bit more wrangling when it comes to working out details about compensation (and this may only be in KY where the AOC is actually very helpful by comparison), nothing beats a good relationship with a direct client.

    Thanks for sharing good advice.

  • Yoram Bar-Am says:

    Your frustrations reach far beyond the boundaries of your civil and criminal courts in US and Canada.
    We in Israel are facing the same when working out and debating details about remuneration and compensation for ur services.
    And I agree that nothing beats a direct relationship with a private or commercial client or a law office.

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