April 29, 2019 § 6 Comments
Interpreters are constantly fighting to be recognized as a profession, to be respected by their clients, and to be treated and remunerated as providers of a specialized service that requires a strong academic background. Although most interpreters strive to be viewed as fellow professionals of physicians, engineers, attorneys and accountants, many colleagues, including freelance interpreters, behave more like a tradesperson than a professional.
Because of poor legislation, pervasive ignorance, and a myth that any bilingual can interpret, the idea that professional interpreting services can be provided by a commercial agency has been accepted, or at least tolerated, around the world. Professional services have been bought and sold like commodities by businesspeople foreign to interpreting, stingy government agencies, and unscrupulous interpreters willing to sell out their profession to make a quick buck.
A world where physicians provide their services through a commercial agency’s model is unimaginable. Attorneys’ Bars around the world would oppose, and destroy, any efforts to sell legal representation by agencies where a high school teenager, calling herself a project manager, were to assign lawyers to their clients on an availability basis, without considering quality or experience to decide on the attorney who gets the case. Interpreters see this happening every day and do nothing about it. Not even freelancers question this commercial model; they join these merchants and help to undermine their own profession.
I am not naïve. Multinational interpreting agencies are powerful, greedy organizations willing to fight for what they consider their “industry” to the end. They launch advertising campaigns, misinformation efforts to convince potential customers (they do not have clients) that hiring an interpreter is very difficult; that it can only be done through an agency. They spend time and money convincing freelance interpreters they are their allies; they procure them work, deal with the customer, and pay them a fare “rate” (they do not pay professional fees) after taking the portion of the paycheck they have morally earned. Interesting that agencies never disclose interpreters what they charge their customers, and force freelancers to remain silent when approached by one of the customers about their professional fees or availability.
We will not get rid of these agencies, but I know that interpreters will only be viewed as professionals when they act the part. I also know that some, few, are managed by good people.
There are many colleagues around the world who work as I do. We operate as a doctor’s office or a law office work. When contacted by a client about an assignment that will require the services of interpreters in five languages, I provide my client with the name and contact information of trusted colleagues with the experience and language combination needed for the assignment. If the potential project involves languages commonly used in my part of the world, or several interpreters in my own language combination, I even forward the inquiry to my trusted colleagues, my allies. My client takes it from there and individually negotiates the fee. I also suggest, and sometimes forward, the request to a trusted equipment/technical support provider. The client negotiates costs directly with them. It is like going to a building where many physicians have their offices, all independent, but all trusted colleagues; they suggest one of their colleagues depending on the field of specialization needed by the patient, but each doctor negotiates and sends a separate bill. These professional alliances, professional groups, are a network of professionals who know each other’s quality of work, ethical values, and language combinations. The client has to pay the professional interpreters individually, but he need not look for interpreters with the right experience, language pairs, or availability. That is all done by the interpreter who the client contacted first. That interpreter is the point of contact who suggests colleagues she will vouch for, and she is moved by no other interest but her client’s satisfaction. She will not subcontract the other interpreters, she will not charge them a commission or referral fee, she will only do what all physicians do when you go to their office and they suggest you see the dentist downstairs or the eye doctor next door.
There will be instances when you cannot help the client. There are languages you never work with. Sometimes doctors cannot recommend a colleague because they have no proctologist in the building. That does not mean that the professional network they offer to their patients has no value.
My good clients love this option. They understand it is difficult to get quality in all booths. They trust me and know that I would not jeopardize my reputation by referring them to a mediocre interpreter. They know I suggest nobody services because they are cheap. They also trust my judgement and experience a lot more than they trust a young monolingual person with no practical or theoretical knowledge of the profession, who calls himself “project manager” and has met none of the interpreters he will line up for a job. Clients know that project managers abide by company rules and guidelines which include: profit at all costs. They know their professional pool is limited because they can only provide interpreters willing to work with the agency in exchange for lower fees, inadequate working conditions, and disrespectful treatment. This professional network model operates as a virtual office where my trusted colleagues are all over the world. It has no time or space limitations.
Interpreters who want to grow and expand to a larger scale should do it, but they should do it as law firms do. Incorporate as a professional corporation or a limited liability corporation, not a commercial enterprise like agencies do. These solutions will let you work as formal partners or shareholders and protect from liability without giving up your professional identity. We need not look or operate like an agency. They are not us.
They want to commoditize our profession and turn it into an industry. They are outsiders with a different set and scale of values. We are professionals. We should act as such. I know many of you are already doing what I described. I also know many colleagues will dismiss these ideas and even defend the agency commercial model. I am aware professional associations are guided by board members who own agencies, and as we have seen, even board members refuse to recuse themselves from voting in association matters when there is a conflict of interest between interpreters and agencies. Finally, I know some interpreters are not ready to freelance, they fear they cannot get clients outside the agency world, or they are content with little money. There, stay with the agencies, that is what you like and deserve. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this critical issue for our recognition as professional service providers.
April 8, 2019 § 4 Comments
All professions must be on their toes to protect their members and guard themselves from outside forces that, from time to time, try to destroy them by lowering their ethical principles and standards, compromising the quality of their professional services, or eroding their public trust. This is one of the main reasons professionals organize in associations like the American Medical Association (AMA); attorney national and state bars like the American Bar Association (ABA); or institutes like the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
Unfortunately, in the United States and other countries, our profession does not have such a body to protect the services we provide and the minimum requirements to practice interpretation. With no compulsory membership of a professional association, and associations that only serve their members’ interests (and sometimes not even that when corporations are welcomed as members) or are of a culture so foreign to the United States it makes them unattractive to the American idiosyncrasy, all we have left are the individual efforts of some of our colleagues, labor unions or guilds where they exist, and some local professional associations willing to protect us all, even those who are not their members.
During the last twelve months we have been attacked at an unprecedented rate: The associations of agencies’ efforts to overturn California’s Supreme Court Dynamex decision that empowers independent contractor interpreters by giving them leverage to negotiate with multinational and unscrupulous agencies that abuse their position of power when hiring individual interpreters; The Oregon Judicial Department Court Language Access Services (CLAS) change to the Uniform Trial Court Rules (UTCR) stripping court interpreters working in that state of their right to sight translate documents in court; and the California so called “Language Access Plan” (LAP) providing free interpreting services to anyone who requests an interpreter in Civil matters, regardless of their income, and depriving court interpreters in that state from practicing their profession in civil courts.
All nefarious actions setting our profession back many decades, but none as alarming and devastating as an effort by some Texas State legislators to lower the requirements to practice court interpreting in that state to a historical low. Please read this post even if you are a reader from another country, or if you do not interpret in court. It is that important.
Texas never distinguished itself as a state where court interpreting certification was universally appreciated or desired. It was a late-comer to the sphere of states requiring certification to practice as interpreter in the state courts. After much back and forth, the State settled for a licensing system that resembled the state certification program adopted by most states. Despite the unfortunate grandfathering of some subpar “interpreters” who had “practiced” for a long time before licensing became the law of the land, Texas eventually offered the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) exam offered in other states. For reasons difficult to explain and defend, after some debate, it was decided that Texas would have a two-tier licensing system for court interpreters: Those passing an English monolingual written exam with a score of 80 percent, and all three sections of the oral test (sight translation, consecutive, and simultaneous interpreting) with a score of 70 percent on all three sections are granted a “master” license. Candidates who pass the English monolingual written exam with a score of 80 percent, and all three sections of the oral test (sight translation, consecutive, and simultaneous interpreting) with a score of 60 percent on all three sections are granted a “basic” license. These “basic” interpreters can only appear in minor cases decided in courts not of record. (http://ow.ly/OL9Y30olqdH)
These requirements fall short when compared to the federal minimum standards (on a more difficult exam) and to the minimum requirements in most states. The National Proficiency Designations for Court Interpreters of Spoken Languages classifies court interpreters in languages for which a NCSC -sanctioned oral exam is available in four categories. Tier one, the higher category, encompasses those interpreters certified by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (USAOC) commonly known as “federally certified court interpreters”, and state-certified court interpreters who obtained in one cycle (because some states allow certification in installments!) a minimum score of 80 percent in the simultaneous and consecutive portions of the exam, and a minimum passing score of 75 percent on each of the two sight translations (English into the foreign language, and from the foreign language into English) with a minimum combined score of 80 percent.
Candidates certified in at least one state who passed the NCSC exam within 12 months of the certification with a score of at least 70 percent in each of the simultaneous and consecutive interpreting sections of the oral test, and a minimum score of 65 percent on each of the two sight translations (see above) with a minimum combined score of 70 percent are classified as Tier 2 interpreters. This means that an individual can have a “master license” in Texas and be classified as a Tier 2 interpreter nationwide. Individuals getting, in one test cycle, a passing score of 60 percent in each of the simultaneous and consecutive parts of the exam, and a minimum score of 55 percent on each of the two sight translations (see above) with a minimum combined score of 60 percent are classified as Tier 3 interpreters. (https://www.ncsc.org/~/media/Files/PDF/Services%20and%20Experts/Areas%20of%20expertise/Language%20Access/VRI/1%20National%20Interpreter%20Database/National_Proficiency_Designations_for_Court%20Interpreters.ashx)
I know this looks bad, but that is not the problem that motivated me to write this piece. At this moment the Texas State Legislature is in session, and they are considering a bill that will eliminate the two-tiered licensing system and create a single state court interpreter license. Unfortunately, instead of amending the statute to raise the bar, these legislators are trying to lower it. This would open the door to anybody with no training or formal education, no skill or knowledge, to portray themselves as “licensed court interpreters”, destroying the profession in the Lone Star State. This very concerning bill was introduced by State Representative Ron Reynolds of Ft. Bend, Texas and it is being debated in the Texas House at the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee as HB 3627 (https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/86R/billtext/html/HB03627I.htm?fbclid=IwAR0Vqopuc7tzdm9laroZc3_UP-gr0e2ZZeCw47Zx9xH3xRp-jxZrRQK6KNc)
Its companion bill was just introduced in the Texas State Senate on March 21, 2019 by Democratic Senator Borris Miles of Harris and Ft. Bend Counties as SB 2176. It was immediately referred to the State Affairs Committee. The City of Houston is in Harris County, and Ft. Bend is the county next door. (https://legiscan.com/TX/text/SB2176/id/1952181?fbclid=IwAR3OseP5xQbVL_sPx4SpnRHs-uN1f-stA5fGymG5-eyN-IZZ8vEECWtR8nM)
All of us, especially our colleagues in Texas, need to contact these legislators, raise awareness within the legal community and interpreter associations, and educate the general public. You can reach Representative Reynolds at: (281) 208-3574, and (512) 463-0494. Senator Miles at: (512) 463-0113, (713) 665-8322, (281) 261-2360 and (713) 223-0387.
Can you imagine going to a surgeon with a record of losing 4 out of every 10 patients he operates on? Would you go to a lawyer who loses 4 out of every 10 trials? I do not know many people who would pay a dentist who pulls out the wrong tooth forty percent of the time, and I cannot think of anybody who would get on a plane knowing that the pilot knows only 60 percent of what you need to know at a minimum to safely fly to a destination. These may seem like exaggerations, but they are not. This is what the Texas Legislature is considering right now. Their answer to a shortage of professionals is not to promote the profession or legislate to make it more attractive. Their plan is to lower the bar so low anybody who can order a beer south of the border can interpret a death penalty case.
These are very serious consequences, but we should let activists and human rights advocates fight these issues with the State Legislature. We must focus on a different issue derived from the same bill; an issue nobody else will fight to defend: Our profession. We have to stand united against the destruction of our profession by a group of uninformed legislators who obviously lack basic understanding of what interpreters do. We have to fight against this bill or the profession will die in the Lone Star State. Our colleagues will lose a significant market share to those pseudo-interpreters who will flood the market and charge rock bottom fees, because they will look great when compared to the money they now earn flipping hamburgers at the fast food joint around the corner (noting against fast food workers, admired, honest individuals, but they are not interpreters). Our colleagues, those real professionals that call Texas home, will also share on the stigma of living in a state where everybody and their brother can interpret in state court. Their reputation will suffer, not with their trusted clients who appreciate their services, but in the public opinion. There is no justification for this legislation in a state that should be concerned with raising professional standards instead of eliminating them all. Please take action individually, in your professional circle with clients, family, and friends; it does not matter you are a conference interpreter, or that you work in the hospitals, or that you live in Illinois. You can even protect the profession from abroad. Talk to your local interpreter associations; contact NAJIT at the national level, and TAJIT, EPITA, HITA, MITA, AATIA, TAHIT and all other associations in Texas.
I now invite you to share with the rest of us any other ideas you may have to fight against this travesty in Texas.