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.

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§ 7 Responses to Is there interpreter discrimination in some U.S. Federal Courts?

  • Arturo Schubert says:

    Mr Rosado
    Please note that a Default Judgement petition has been filed in a Delaware Court against the FCICE in response to their actions and inactions on the Oral Exam.
    It’s taking a long time, but the lawsuit is alive and kicking.
    I hope others join holding the FCICE legally and economically responsible for what we all know.
    Pa bachaco, Chivo (sabiduría llanera).
    Saludos

  • heleneby says:

    Most FCICE card holders have plenty of experience acquired as certified state court interpreters. In many cases, the FCICE score qualifies them not only for work in the federal courts, where they may or may not be welcomed with open arms, but for a promotion in the state courts where those who passed the federal exam OR the consortium exam with an 80 get priority.

    The state courts basically give them an opportunity for more work. In some cases, they pay better. Hiwever, state courts require continuing education to stay on the certified list, unlike the federal courts.

    Federal certification can be marketed for conference interpreting. There are not many other objective ways to prove competence in simo and consec. Many look for certified court interpreters when it us time to set up a conference.

    There are certainly options when the US courts give people the cold shoulder.

    As you said, people have options.

    • Dear Helen, thank you for your comments. You are right. Work in federal court should be one of many options federally certified freelance interpreters consider. Federal court is just one of many clients, and like you correctly state, there are other better paying clients and more challenging assignments that help us grow as professionals.

  • Susana Gee says:

    Tony, what an opportune article. Passing the FCICE in the last round has been bittersweet, more bitter than sweet.
    As soon as I received my certification, I personally introduced myself to the court coordinator who kindly reached out in writing to each court clerk informing them of my certification and my proximity to the court house. She also made them aware of the need to hire the closest certified available interpreter in the area. Since then, I’ve only had one 5-minute hearing in the Federal Court located a mere 11 miles from my house. I’ve tried other means to get through the door, but still nothing.
    This and the FCICE exam debaucle have made me wonder if it was worth the bother. Nevertheless, I appreciate this article and the fact that i’m not alone in this situation. I have to believe, that in my case, it’s not an issue of my performance but more an issue of the courts hiring a ‘known commodity’ regadless of certification.

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    I thought that by now, the majority of the legal profession and court personnel would’ve been elated to have those who’ve passed the exam apply to work in their courts, but it has not been so. I’ve heard attorneys say they thought the interpreter’s exam was tougher than the Bar exam.

    Seems to me, they are rejecting the “newbies” because they feel they pose a “danger” to their position. Let’s welcome everyone with open arms and let’s help them in every way we can. It’s OUR DUTY to do our best for them. I say this, because once I was the new one and I was greeted with open arms and I cannot describe the tremendous amount of opportunities that were suddenly displayed before me, making me a very grateful interpreter and translator, who could never have achieved what I have achieved today without the warmth and fostering of those great folks. Let’s all be part of the solution.

  • Dear Tony,

    First of all, many of us know that USDCs systematically use non-federally certified court interpreters, so I fail to understand why our newly-certified colleagues would be deemed lacking experience once they have earned their Federal Court credentials. I would argue they may have been “new” when they started working in State Courts but, weren’t we all new (if not to interpreting, to a field within our profession) at some point in time?

    Moreover, I second your support for our recently certified colleagues. I have had the pleasure to work with one of them, Ludmila Green, from KY, and can attest to her skills and professionalism.

    We all started somewhere, and I, for one, am very grateful, because many veteran colleagues have always offered their support and advice when I need it most. To this day, I continue learning from you (seasoned and new editions,) and firmly believe in paying it forward.

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