The interpreting profession could be worthless here.

April 8, 2019 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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.

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§ 4 Responses to The interpreting profession could be worthless here.

  • Kathleen M. Morris says:

    I, too, am frustrated at the ongoing erosion of verified qualifications and standards of practice, nationwide in even Federal courts, and state-by-state.

    Regarding Tony”s statement, “…we should let *activists* and *human rights advocates* fight these issues with the state legislature…[asterisks added by me]. Yes, it’s necessary and correct for anyone reading this blog who cares about professional standards to contact the Texas state legislators listed here. But much more is needed, state by state.

    Interpreters themselves are, in the end, the profession’s only real “advocates” who have the power (thru real professional associations, as Tony rightly states, not those acting in the interests of agencies), to lobby their state legislators to strengthen weak certification standards (by law, not optional, statewide in every state). No-one, not “activists”, “human rights advocates”, or anyone else, will do this for us. It is time for practicing professionals to recognize this reality, and to take the enforcement (not just the establishment) of state certification standards into our own hands. Absent such action, we will never be owners of our profession, and always subject to weak state legislators and to the profit-making motives of agencies.

  • Milena Calderari-Waldron says:

    We, the interpreters, should advocates for our profession in earnest. When it comes to advocacy, some professional associations are better than others. We must keep in mind that non profit voluntary associations are as good or as bad as we make them, Not volunteering, not voting in elections, not changing bylaws to better represent the interests of practitioners is a recipe for disaster. In that spirit, I want to share a guide to advocating https://najit.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Advocacy-101-for-Interpreters-and-Translators-NAJIT-4.2017.pdf

    When it comes to explaining what interpreters and translators do, here is a “legislator friendly” document.
    https://najit.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/TI-Descriptions.pdf

    Please consider sending a letter to the Texas’ legislature clearly stating your reasons why the proposed legislation is such a bad thing.

    I do take issue, Tony, with some of your personal positions. The Oregon sight translation conundrum could be approached a bit differently, In Washington State, we resolved it through the code of ethics staying clear from creating rules which are, by definition, rather inflexible.

    More problematic, though, is your position regarding the California Language Access Plan. The United States Department of Justice’s guidance and subsequent technical assistance letters from its Civil Rights Division explain that court systems receiving federal financial assistance, either directly or indirectly, must provide meaningful access to LEP persons. The August 16, 2010 letter to state courts from the Atty General specifically addressed the obligation to provide interpreting services to civil LEP litigatns free of charge.

    Despite this small disagreement, I do thank you for brining up the Texas advocacy issue. Let’s roll up our sleeves and send letters.

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    Here in Texas this has been a problem for eons, as at one time, janitors were being dragged in from their chores and asked by the court to “tell us what s/he’s saying” in Spanish, referring to the witness on the stand speaking his/her native language to the entire audience without anyone else understanding a single iota as to what was being said, and erroneously thinking that these janitors knew English well enough for all to know!. This was one of the reasons why the state court interpreter’s exam and professional standards were established.

    Unfortunately, the standards for court interpretation at the state level have been diluted so much, that virtually anyone who can utter a few words of kitchen Spanish, qualifies as “an interpreter”.

    This is a most offensive attack on those of us who studied for the exam and tried to become the best interpreters we can be. If you can’t pass these exams, perhaps you’re not cut-out to be an interpreter.

  • Susana Gee says:

    Tony,

    My son has worked for a certain senator in Texas. I have reached out to him to help this very important cause. Thank you for being on top of this.

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