The myth of federally certified Spanish court interpreter fees in the United States.

August 9, 2021 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

There has been some misleading information on line about the income Spanish court interpreters can make in the United States once they are certified at the federal level. This is motivated by the apparent dates for the next certification exam; and I refer to these dates as “apparent” because, not surprisingly, there is no official information, notice, or update on the website of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). This is not unexpected as lack of accountability kept in office the same people behind the last fiasco.  

As a marketing strategy, some exam preparation vendors have said, or at least implied, that federally certified court interpreters make $418.00 U.S. dollars per day, which multiplied by 5 days a week gives you $2,090.00 U.S. dollars per week; and this amount, times 52 weeks in a year is $108,680.00

The daily fee for a federally certified court interpreter is correct. Federal District Courts must pay freelancers said amount when retained for a full-day of work in court. “Unfortunately,” this is the daily fee for freelancers, and independent contractors are not staff interpreters, they do not work for the courthouse 40 hours a week; they are only asked to work when needed, perhaps several times in a month in a “good month,” and usually they are retained for half a day, at the official fee of $226.00 U.S. dollars, not $418.00

Frequency depends on the caseload, but it also depends on other factors such as the place where the interpreter is physically located, the number of certified interpreters in the area, and other criteria developed by each one of the federal districts. A good portion of this interpreter requests are not to work in court, but to assist attorneys from an existing panel, appointed to represent indigent defendants in federal criminal cases, in terms of the Criminal Justice Act, commonly referred to “CJA attorneys.” These interpretation services are paid at the same federal fees approved for court services above, most of these assignments are for half a day, and to be paid, interpreters must do some paperwork, ask the panel attorney to approve and file the invoice, wait until the lawyer gets around to do it, and then wait for the court to pay. In some districts the wait could be substantial.

Unlike state courts, there are few trials in federal court, even fewer that require interpreters, and most scheduled trials end up cancelled because the defendant enters into a plea agreement. In these cases, interpreters often get no money because of the advanced notice of cancellation, and in others, when there is a last-minute cancellation, interpreters get paid for just a few days, even had they set aside weeks for a lengthy trial that is no more.

Lengthy trials are paid as full days, and sometimes interpreters make an important amount of money, but traveling to another city for a federal trial can be tricky. The district court will reimburse all travel and lodging expenses incurred by the interpreter; the key word is “reimburse.” Interpreters have to buy fully-refundable plane tickets, paying for expensive tickets since “airline specials” are not fully refundable and carry many restrictions unacceptable to the federal government. Interpreters also pay for their hotel rooms (here they catch a break because they must get the hotel’s federal employee rate considerably lower that a regular fare) their ground transportation, and all of their meals. The courthouse will reimburse all the expenses after reviewing all invoices submitted by the interpreter, but reimbursement could take several weeks and even months (usually longer that a credit card payment cycle). Many interpreters turn down this out-of-town trial assignments. They cannot afford to advance such amount of money.

Some of you may be thinking: Why should I get certified then? The answer is, because interpreting in federal court pays better than most state courts, and it definitely pays better than most abusive agencies. The important thing is to understand what the federal certification is good for.

If your expectations are to make a high income by working for the federal court system as a freelancer, then you have to reconsider your options and think about applying for a staff court interpreter position in a federal courthouse. But if you value your freedom as an independent contractor, and you have professional plans beyond interpreting the same subjects for the same judges for the rest of your career, then you have to understand the federal certification credential is helpful when you know how to use it.

First, as a newly certified interpreter, you will gain a lot of experience. This is extremely valuable when you start as an interpreter and recognize when it is time to move on.  By going to interpret at the federal courthouse, you will meet attorneys (not federal public defenders or CJA panelists) from big law firms who will hire you as your direct clients. Most of the law firms I am referring to practice civil litigation and corporate law. Working for these clients will eliminate most of your competitors, as most interpreters stay with criminal courthouse work. It will also challenge you to be a better interpreter as cases are varied and usually more complicated than criminal trials. You will also meet the attorneys’ clients, many multinational businesses and Fortune 500 companies, and they will become your clients for non-legal matters where they may need interpreting services.

If you stay in criminal law because of personal reasons, you can also target the big criminal law firms that handle private clients, among them businesspeople and celebrities that could end up as your clients. If you cannot gain access to these law firms and their clients at this time because of your lack of professional experience or due to your physical location, the federal certification will let you work with the United States Attorney where you can negotiate your fee and work conditions without being limited to the official federal fees (as with the court, CJA attorneys, and federal public defenders).   

Working as a freelance certified interpreter in federal court is a great back-up income strategy. Sometimes, direct clients will be scarce. When this happens, contact your federal courthouse and offer your services. They may ask you to work on a day you have nothing scheduled. Under those circumstances, it is better to work for the federal full-day or half-day fee than state court fees, or abusive agencies. Just make sure when you work in federal court you act as a consummate professional, do your best work, and be courteous to all. Courthouse interpreter coordinators will appreciate the work you do, and will understand you are not always available because you are constantly looking for ways to be a better interpreter and move up in the profession.

I hope you now understand better what to expect from a federal court interpreter certification, its potential income and possibilities; and how, when done wisely, it can help you grow as a professional interpreter. You must get certified. Please feel free to share your comments with the rest of us.

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§ 10 Responses to The myth of federally certified Spanish court interpreter fees in the United States.

  • Franco Gamero says:

    “Working as a freelance certified interpreter in federal court is a great back-up income strategy.”
    Best advice to be given to neophyte interpreters or persons considering interpreting.
    Interpreting/ Translating, in general.

  • Millie Macossay says:

    True Tony! Anyone have any idea when the Feds. will raise our rates??? It’s been about a decade, if memory serves. Current inflation rate justifies at least a COLA.

  • Gabriela says:

    Tony,

    Thank you for addressing this clarification. It’s so important that federal certification candidates, like myself, pursue this credential with a realistic idea of what their work will look like (and can look like) after passing the exam. Having unrealistic expectations will just set someone up for failure. Getting the certification is just one of many steps a professional court interpreter must take to have a successful (and lucrative) career.

  • LIVIU-LEE ROTH Roth says:

    Dear Tony,

    Thank you for specifying that the above applies mostly to Spanish certified interpreters. I am sure that interpreters in languages with a low distribution, although not being certified, state or federally, can command a higher fee.

    • Lee, thank you for your comments. That is correct; unfortunately, interpreters in languages other than Spanish are in low demand, and for that reason their income in the federal court system is lower, even in big cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

      • LIVIU-LEE ROTH Roth says:

        For 1/2 hr remote, I get paid the standard federal rate for 1/2 day. For a full day in court (it can be only 1 hr. plus 8 hrs. travelling I get paid more than the fed. rate. You are right, demand in our languages is lower, but if the interpreter is flexible, the yearly income can reach low six figures. Unfortunately, many are focused on money, not quality of their lives.

      • Lee, thanks again. I appreciate your comments. Court interpreters do not make top money. That is why many of us quit that type of work years ago.

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