Interpreters advocating for equal access to healthcare and justice? I say: No.

June 26, 2017 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Lately, I have been traveling extensively both, domestically and abroad. This has exposed me to many problems and challenges our profession faces all over: An interpreters’ union as the answer to our problems; individuals in decision-making positions constantly advancing the interests of those who seek to eliminate interpreting and translating as professions and turn them into assembly lines at the service of a bizarre “industry”; government agencies charging for interpreting services in settings where it may be legal but it is an unfortunate decision; agencies unilaterally changing contractual terms and interpreters who “celebrate it”; hospitals bragging about their use of non-certified healthcare interpreters…

I will address them all in due time. I will also launch a weekly comment on my You Tube Channel: ”The Professional Interpreter’s Opinion”.  First. I would like to bring to your attention a situation I have encountered everywhere, particularly in the United States, that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Everywhere I go: professional conferences, interpreting assignments, interpreters’ social gatherings; and in everything I read: blog posts, newsletters, professional publications, internet forums and groups, and professional emails, a significant group of colleagues are actively advocating for equal access to healthcare services, state-sponsored assistance programs, and administration of justice, to all individuals who do not speak the local official or customary language. With the United States: English.

I have nothing against equal treatment for all people. I think it is needed and deserved. It actually makes me happy to encounter programs or systems designed and executed in a way inclusive of every individual, regardless of the language they speak or sign.  The thing is: I do not believe that we as interpreters or our professional associations as entities, should be advocating these changes or the delivery of the services. It is for government authorities and individuals involved in social activism to push for, and implement the policy and legislation that will protect us all and guarantee that equality.

Our role as interpreters should be to make sure those interpreting services that will guarantee equal access to all members of society are delivered correctly, by real professionals who meet all education, certification and licensing requirements, observing the highest professional and ethical standards. This must be our priority, to educate others about the profession, and to denounce those who take shortcuts either by allowing unprepared people to deliver the service, or by ignoring policy and legislation to save a buck.

Some of you may ask: Is this not the same as advocating for equal access for all?  The answer is not. Let me explain.

When the Obama administration decided to finally observe Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as it applies to those members of society who do not speak English and request a public service funded by federal money, individual states were told to provide, free of charge, language interpreters in all civil court cases where a non-English speaker requested access to a government program or service funded with money from the federal government. Until then, many state governments were furnishing court interpreters for criminal cases free of charge. Litigants in civil matters had to retain their own interpreters and pay them as all professionals get paid in society: according to the terms of a professional services contract between client and interpreter. Since these fees charged for these services were regulated by the free market, when compared to interpreters’ pay for criminal matters where the state would pay directly to the interpreter based on a preset fee schedule, interpreters would receive a better fee for services provided in state civil court. In a free market this meant that interpreting services were better in civil court. Better interpreters could compete for better pay while other interpreters had to settle for the state-set fee universally paid to all interpreters with no distinction based on their experience or quality of service.

Implementing Title VI ended the system described above as from that moment, state civil court interpreters would be provided at no cost to the litigant, and interpreters’ fees would be paid by the state at the same rate as criminal court cases’. This change killed the practice of many of the better certified court interpreters, in some states because they were banned from court unless working through the state, and in others, because once attorneys and litigants learned of the availability of free interpreters they seldom chose the most-expensive privately retained interpreter (even where they were better than those interpreters offered by the court).

To my dismay, many interpreters celebrated this change and even pushed for its implementation where it had not been adopted by the local courts. I was happy that interpreting services were provided to all, but I was confused on why those making a living as court interpreters would be happy about losing a good source of income.

It is very difficult to understand why so many interpreters actively defend the rights of those who do not speak the official language of a country, and constantly push for an increase on certified interpreters.  I believe that our profession would be better served if we, the professional interpreters, were to spend our time, money and efforts promoting renditions of a better quality, the use more capable interpreters, higher professional fees to attract better people to the profession.

Instead of demanding that a civil court furnish an interpreter, or a hospital provide an interpreter to a patient, we should be demanding an end to despicable practices such as allowing those who failed a certification exam to practice the profession as “accredited” “qualified” or whatever. Instead of advocating for more interpreters in a school district, we should be demanding that agencies who unilaterally change the terms of a professional services contract be expelled from the interpreting agencies’ roster.  Instead of worrying about how poorly doctors, nurses, attorneys, and judges treat non-English speakers, we should be worrying about state agencies refusing to pay travel expenses and Per Diem to interpreters who travel to provide a service.

I do not say that all those other things are not important. I am not saying those other things are fine. All I am saying is that it is not up to us to advocate for them. There are others whose job is to protect these individuals. Nobody else will protect interpreters but ourselves.

Some may say that part of a community interpreters’ duties include advocating for the client. My answer is that they are right. However, the advocating that community interpreters must do is none of the above. A medical interpreter must advocate for a patient when there is a defective communication due to a cultural barrier. A court interpreter must advocate for the client when the defendant, victim, or witness cannot be understood because of lack of cultural knowledge by the English-speaking parties. That is expected. Being an activist for the rights of the non-English speaking population is not one of the interpreters’ duties.

If interpreters want to participate in activism for these populations they should do it, but not as part of the profession.  Involvement in equal- access campaigns as professional interpreters, or as a profession, should be limited to those cases where by promoting the addition of interpreter services to a certain program or service will benefit us as a profession because it will be generating more work opportunities for certified, true professionals who will be making professional fees, while , closing the door to paraprofessionals, those who have failed a certification exam, and all agencies who unilaterally change contractual conditions in detriment of the interests of the interpreter.

This, my friends, is how we should channel our energy when we want to advocate for a cause that touches on the profession . I now ask you to please provide your comments on this issue.

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§ 11 Responses to Interpreters advocating for equal access to healthcare and justice? I say: No.

  • Alina Salvat says:

    Good morning Tony. I understand where you are coming from but I would also like to present the following. There are some states who use qualified and/or conditionally approved Interpreters because all their Certified Interpreters were already committed.

    Years ago in Delaware, I was a conditionally approved court Interpreter until I could again take the oral test and pass it. However, at that time a conditionally approved court Interpreter had to have successfully done the following: attended the 2 day court Interpreter orientation workshop; successfully taken and passed the written test; taken the oral test and scored in the mid 60’s (passing is 70%) in all 3 sections. I was never allowed to work on capital cases or on cases in Superior Court as a Conditionally approved Interpreter but since I did met the criteria I worked. Obviously because I met the then criteria. I went on to take the oral proficiency test in PA, passed it and became a Certified Court Interpreter. Meanwhile, I was able to work in the court system and, though I was paid less because I wasn’t certified, I was able to make some money while I was getting good experience. The court system on their end had an Interpreter so there was coverage even when all the certified Interpreters were not available.

    Thus, in my case it was a “win-win” for everyone — and I include the defendants/litigants I interpreted for. Some of us actually do the work that is necessary not only to become certified but to become better Interpreters. I know you are very experienced and definitely have seen a lot of Interpreters in your travels but I did just want to point out my experience. I also have colleagues from DE who had the same and or similar experience in either working in the courts or on private attorney cases while they were Conditionally approved before passing the Oral Proficiency test. Do I believe that using a Certified Interpreter is best? Absolutely but in my experience this scenario I just explained can be a reasonable one, even if it is not optimal.

  • crikkie says:

    Thank you for your post. I agree 100 %. I am an in-house, full-time medical interpreter for HealthPoint, with medical, dental and teen clinics in the King County area of Seattle. We, as professional interpreters, should not be in the position of advocating out in the community for our patients; taking our time to search our social workers, green card testing facilities, child care, or similar. There are plenty of professionals in our area who can, and do, serve as advocates for our non-English speaking patients and who liase with our medical and behavioral health providers. I am often asked to “help” such and such a patient to find this or that facility, organization, bus route, you name it. While I often wish I had more time to give to our patients in this capacity, I do not. Nor do I think it is my job to do so.If I can provide a phone number, a brochure, an idea…well and good. My nature is that of a helper and “fixer”, but I have found that once begun, it never ends and indeed, escalates until patients were calling my cell at all hours, asking for help with various problems of their own or of their children –  totally unrelated to their medical situations.  When asked by our CEO to sign a letter to my Congresspeople to advocate for the current unravelling healthcare plan, I do it. That IS part of my job ,and it may actually help me continue to HAVE a job!  Sincerely, Christine t Soltero DSHS Certified medical Interpreter.

  • Very interesting. Thank you.

  • giolester says:

    Well, I do advocate for our profession. I believe we should have a say on how our jobs are performed, what parameters should be used, defining those parameters, etc. If we, the professionals, don’t get involved, then vendors of our services who are not practitioners and only understand the language of the dollar sign will be the ones determining how we will perform our jobs.

    I would love for courts and hospitals to use only certified professionals. Reality dictates otherwise: there aren’t enough professionals to meet the demand of the number of professionals required or the variety of languages required. If we do not get involved, we end up having vendors of interpreting services dictating rates, working conditions, defining qualifications, etc.

    As Alina stated very clearly, there are safeguards in place to define where non-certified court interpreters can be used. The abuse is what we need to concern ourselves use, and we can only be effective if we advocate for our profession.

    I believe wholeheartedly in that.

    Giovanna Lester, CT

  • Hi Tony, thank you for the useful and interesting post. Simply put, I agree! While I absolutely support the use of state-paid interpreters in criminal and certain family court cases, I think that providing interpreter services free of charge for all cases is an act of government overreach at taxpayer expense. If public defenders do not represent clients on multimillion dollar personal injury or construction lawsuits, or on divorce cases, etc., it strikes me as strange for there to be a state-paid interpreter available. I still get calls from attorneys requesting my services in court, even though the State of Colorado has covered interpreter services for civil cases since 2011. On several occasions, attorneys have expressed dismay at this policy, and one was furious over not being able to hire his interpreter of choice. Personally, I lost an important revenue stream when this change went into effect and it took me a while to re-invent my private market client base to cover the loss. I also think that individual LEP litigants lose an important opportunity to choose their interpreter and pay for the benefit of working with professional interpreters they feel comfortable with and trust in. After having seen plenty of LEP litigants drive away from the courthouse in oversized SUVs and use the latest and greatest smartphones, it never seemed to me that my fee for these hearings caused anyone to miss any meals.

  • Jackie says:

    Thank you for a great article!
    In our court it’s “ignoring policy and legislation to save TIME”. Since we are shorthanded family judges use family members, attorneys, clerks, judicial assistants to interpret when they can’t get a staff interpreter because we’re busy with with criminal cases.

  • While I agree that professional standards are of the essence and it is our joint task to maintain them, I strongly disagree with the premise that professional organizations should only work on those specific issues and not advocate policy, legislation, human rights or any cause beyond the limited scope of our own professional realm.
    All professional organizations are part of the Civil Society, and as such, they have the responsibility and the duty to be a positive influence on the state and the market.

    The lack of quality language access in both Medical and Legal institutions affects not only the people we serve but also our ability to earn a decent living and work in a fair market that promotes good working conditions.

    Government creates business, trade, health and environmental conditions that affect us all, and it is our individual AND collective responsibility to address them, even when not limited to our own narrow portfolio of activities.
    Large national professional organizations understand this: recent position statements by the AMA , the AmerAcadPed and others against the current healthcare bill show their commitment to these ideas.
    Incidentally, as most translators and interpreters are freelancers, this is an issue that affects all of us. We need to remain vigilant and vocal and make sure our voices are heard.

  • Gertrude says:

    I totally agree with this

  • Maria Galetta says:

    Dear Tony,
    I tend to agree with you, although my view is not completely set yet.

    I just would like to add that when the interpreters hired by the court in a civil matter are not capable of interpreting correctly, and the parties involved have the capability of understanding the difference between a job well done and a job not done, they hire professionals capable of doing an excellent job and are able to convince the judge that it is in the interest of the court too.
    That is what has been happening to me.

    The problem is not so much the fact that the courts may hire people who are not capable of doing the job of an interpreter, but rather that the clients and courts must be able to tell when a job is done correctly.

    I believe the bottom line is client education and education of judges, lawyers, clerks etc. since they start their studies in law school, on the issues connected to interpretation.
    I believe it would prove far more fruitful if all of us and our organizations worked consistently in that direction.

    Also, let’s be aware that the fact that government organizations set fees which are valid for all languages hurt less-often-used-languages much more, as they tend to have a higher value on the free market.

    I also would like to point out that for interpreters of languages other than Spanish being “qualified” in federal court is the highest level reachable, simply because there is no federal exam for most languages, and such level is reached only by a few of us who have passed other very demanding evaluations.

    So when colleagues refer to people who haven’t taken/passed the federal exam and are therefore “qualified”, please do make sure you mention you are referring to Spanish. Thank you.

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