Is there interpreter discrimination in some U.S. Federal Courts?

February 21, 2019 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Despite the bottomless well of ineptitude also known as the current administration of the federal court interpreter examination (I do not want to group this crowd with the efficient teams in charge of this program before the 2017 fiasco) there were a few interpreters who, even under the sub-standard conditions of the exam, passed with flying colors and became the newest Spanish language court interpreters certified by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO).

The Federal Court Interpreter Act of 1978 provides that the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts shall prescribe, determine, and certify the qualifications of persons who may serve as certified interpreters (28 USC §1827)

In discharging said responsibilities, the AO classifies as Spanish language certified court interpreters those who have passed the two phases of the Administrative Office certification examination, have no criminal record, and meet the interpreter skills outlined in the AO’s website (https://www.uscourts.gov/services-forms/federal-court-interpreters/interpreter-skills):

  • High proficiency in both English and Spanish.
  • Impartiality
  • Ability to accurately and idiomatically turn the message from the source language into the receptor language with no additions, omissions or other misleading factors that alter the intended meaning of the message from the speaker.
  • Mastery of simultaneous interpretation, which is the most frequent form of interpretation used in the courtroom, and of consecutive interpretation and sight translation.
  • Ability to communicate orally including appropriate delivery and poise.
  • Demonstrate high professional standards for courtroom demeanor and professional conduct.

Individuals who meet all requirements may request a freelance interpreter contract from any federal district court. Court administrators, chief judges, clerks of the court, and staff managing interpreters should honor the request and offer work to these interpreters unless they have a legally valid reason not to do so.

When I devoted most of my practice to court interpreting, I witnessed, as I am sure you have, many conversations among veteran certified court interpreters concerned that those who recently became certified, or the ones who had just moved to town, would have a negative impact on the caseload assigned to them by the courthouse. I heard colleagues supporting the veteran interpreters arguing that newly certified colleagues, were a liability due to their lack of court experience.

I have learned of at least two instances, in different parts of the United States, where newly certified colleagues are systematically ignored by those who schedule court interpreter assignments. Even though these interpreters meet all eligibility requirements to work in federal court anywhere in the United States, apparently, they have been excluded for what seem inexcusable reasons such as lack of experience, or because they got certified in the most questionable certification exam cycle in history.

I hope the reasons above are not true, and the icing of the new interpreters ends soon. It is perplexing to hear that a recently certified court interpreter cannot interpret in court because of lack of experience. Where do these staffers want them to acquire said experience if they continue to slam the courthouse doors? To those schedulers who follow the “lack of experience” argument with a “they are not ready because they do not know our system, how we work” I say: If they passed an exam as difficult as the federal court interpreter’s, they will learn your “system” in a couple of hours because, despite of what you think, it is just a way to do things. It is not rocket science”.

I simply remind those who question the knowledge and skills of court interpreters certified last time that on top of passing such a difficult test, these colleagues had to do it in an environment reminiscent of the Dark Ages’ worst torture chamber, where they had to deal with an internet service as reliable as smoke signal messaging in the Wild West, where they had to take notes on their knees because there was no room on the table to do so, where they had less time for their consecutive rendition than we did because they had to manipulate the recording, listen, take notes, and interpret, all within the same time. And for the cherry on their cake: they had to wait many long months for their scores, enduring silence and negligent treatment from the AO and its chosen contractor. Please remember, these are not the interpreters who will retest (a sad group where some day many capable colleagues must go through this process again because of the ineptitude of others).

I ask all veteran certified court interpreters to welcome the class of 2017, and I appeal to the open minds of scheduling staffers, interpreters and others, to stop discriminating against certified interpreters just because they are new, and for that reason do not know your system or are not your friends, and include them in your rotations and assignments. Veteran interpreters: do not fear the newbies. We can all learn from each other, and if you get fewer assignments in court, remember: you are a freelancer, look for work somewhere else. You probably will find more variety and much better pay. I now invite my colleagues, veterans and rookies, to share their thoughts with the rest of us.

Alert: They are interpreting illegally outside their country.

February 6, 2019 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

During my career I have experienced first-hand situations when people who live outside the United States interpret at the same convention center where I am working another event. I am not talking about diplomatic interpreters who travel with their national delegation to the United States, nor I am referring to the personal or company interpreters who travel to the States with a CEO to negotiate a deal. I am talking about foreign nationals brought to the United States to interpret a conference because their professional fees are lower than customarily fees charged by interpreters who live in the United States. One time I ran into some interpreters from a South American country at a convention center’s cafeteria. They were nice, experienced, and they did not live in the United States. After the usual small talk, I asked them how difficult was to get a visa to come to interpret in the United States, one of them dodged the question and the other one told me she didn’t know because she already had a visa she was granted when she took her children to Disneyworld. Just a few weeks after that episode, I got a phone call from a colleague who wanted to let me know that he was working at a venue in the mid-west where they were using other interpreters brought from abroad for the conference. He explained these foreign colleagues were having a hard time with the cultural references, and apparently had entered the country on tourist visas.

In this globalized economy, some agencies are hiring foreign interpreters, who live outside the United States, because they come from economic systems where a sub-par professional fee in the U.S. looks attractive to them. I have heard of interpreters brought to work in conferences and other events for extremely low fees and under conditions no American interpreter would go for: Two or even three interpreters in the same hotel room, no Per Diem or pay for travel days, often working solo, for very long hours without enough breaks, and without a booth.

The worst part of this scenario is that many of these foreign colleagues are very good interpreters who come to the United States to hurt the market by working for that pay and under those conditions, and they do not see how they impact the profession. Multinational and small-peanuts agencies love these interpreters because they just buy them the cheapest plane tickets, put them all in a budget hotel or motel, and pay them for a five-day conference a sum of money that would only cover the professional fees of local interpreters’ one or two days of work. Sometimes the agency’s client suggests interpreters be brought from abroad to abate costs; they even argue these colleagues’ renditions are even better because they “speak the same language the audience speaks, with all of its expressions, and dialects, unlike American resident interpreters who many times speak with a different accent because they do not come from the attendees’ country.” It is true that many of these foreign interpreters are very good and experienced; it is also true that, in my case, their Spanish accent and some regional expressions may be more familiar to their audience full of fellow countrymen; however, it is also likely that these interpreters may have a difficult time when interpreting references to local politics, sports, places, and general culture used by the speakers; what we call “Americana”. I would argue that professional interpreters, by living in the United States, are exposed to all language variations in their language combination because, unlike most foreign interpreters, they routinely work with multinational audiences. I also believe that it is more important to understand what the speaker is saying, after all that is why those in attendance traveled to the United States for. A rendition that puts the entire message in context, and is transmitted to the target language with all cultural equivalencies is a more desired outcome than listening to a rendition from someone who sounds like you, but does not get the cultural subtleities, not because she is a bad interpreter, but because she does not live in the country.

But there is a bigger problem: Most of these interpreters brought from abroad are in the country without a work visa.  Entering the United States on a visa waiver or a tourist visa does not give them legal authority to work in the U.S.

This is a serious matter: Whether they know it or not, the moment these interpreters step into the booth, or utter the first syllable of their rendition, they are out of status, and they are subject to removal from the United States. The moment the agency, event organizer, university, business or organization brings one interpreter to the country they are subject to a fine. Not to mention reactions to the illegal hiring of foreigners to the detriment of American professionals in the court of public opinion.

If these interpreters are really the best for the conference topic, agencies and organizers may hire them and bring them to the United States, but they would have to do it legally, through a work visa application; and depending on the visa needed, there are complex and lengthy legal steps to be followed before the Department of Labor (DOL), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Department of State (DOS) at the American embassy or consulate at the interpreter country of residence, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the port of entry. The process is lengthy and it requires of an immigration attorney. Dear colleagues, if the event requires the expertise and skill of the foreign interpreter, agencies and organizers will cover the costly process. If they were only retaining interpreters from outside the United States to save money, the visa process’ length and cost will make it more expensive than hiring top-notch interpreters living in the United States. (https://www.uscis.gov/working-united-states/temporary-nonimmigrant-workers)

These interpreters, even if they worked illegally in the United States, must pay U.S. federal income tax for the work performed within U.S. territory. An exception exists for certain amounts earned by foreign nationals not living in the U.S.; Under this exception, compensation for services performed in the U.S. is not considered U.S. source income if these conditions are satisfied: (a) The service must be performed by a nonresident taxpayer temporarily present in the U.S. for a period of 90 days or less; (b) The total compensation for these services does not exceed $3,000.00 USD; The services must be performed as an employee of or under contract (in the case of a self-employed contractor) with one of the following: A nonresident individual, foreign partnership or foreign corporation not engaged in a trade or business in the U.S., a foreign office or foreign branch of a U.S. resident, U.S. partnership, or U.S. corporation.

Always remember this, educate your clients, the agencies you work for, and if you are getting nowhere, when you see interpreters who do not live in the United States working an event, and believe me, you will know because of the cultural nuances, consider reporting the incident to the immigration authorities.

This is not an issue exclusively found in the United States, it happens all over the world, especially in first world countries of Asia and Western Europe. It also happens next door: Again, American agencies in their tireless quest to make money and destroy the profession, take American interpreters to work in Mexico, and if they are United States citizens, they take them with no visa. I have seen phone books, publications, and websites advertising interpreters from the United States for conferences, industrial plant visits, and depositions in Mexico. Among the most popular arguments to lure event organizers, businesses, or Law Offices in the U.S., they assure them that American interpreters are more familiar with their lifestyle, that they are certified by this or that U.S. government agency, and they even imply that somehow Mexican interpreters are less capable or professional than their U.S. counterparts.

This is total nonsense. Mexican interpreters are as good as Americans, interpreters living in Mexico possess American certifications, and there are probably more interpreters in Mexico with a college degree in translation or interpretation than those we have in the States. Let’s face it, the only reason these agencies want to promote American interpreters is because when a lawyer, company or event organizer hires the interpreting team in Mexico they do not need the agency; they make no money. Unless you travel as part of a diplomatic delegation, a business mission, international organization, or you are an employee of a firm that takes you to Mexico to exclusively interpret for the company you work for; If you are an interpreter living in the United States and you take an assignment to interpret for a deposition, industrial plant inspection, or other job, unless you are a Mexican citizen, or you have legal authority to work in Mexico, you will be breaking the law and are subject to deportation. It does not matter that you speak Spanish, you must be allowed to work in Mexico. (Art. 52 y sigs. Ley de Migración. D.O. 25/5/20111 https://cis.org/sites/cis.org/files/Ley-de-Migracion.pdf) There are fiscal obligations for those working as interpreters in Mexico, even if they had no authority to work.

Because often the agency’s client or the interpreters do not know they are breaking the law, you should educate them so they hire local talent. Please remember, this is a collective effort, we must try to bring up fees and working conditions in every country according to this economic reality and possibilities. This will never be achieved by killing foreign markets with illegally obtained, procured, or provided professional services at sub-par conditions. You probably noticed that I skirted around VRI services. Although it could be as harmful as in-person interpreting services when left in the hands of unscrupulous multinational agencies, that is an entirely different matter that requires more research and study of legal theories and legislation. I now invite your comments on this very important issue.

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