Are professional associations still relevant?
March 20, 2023 § 6 Comments
The internet, and in particular social media, are making many professionals in all fields wonder if these 21st. century resources can replace professional associations as the place for professionals to meet their peers, support each other, and continue learning about all subjects relevant to their profession.
We must start by distinguishing between mandatory and voluntary professional associations. Mandatory professional associations are public entities, created by legislation, that group individuals who practice the same profession. Its main purpose is to regulate the practice of a profession, to establish the requirements to be admitted to the practice of such activity, and to aide on the enforcement of such professional obligations together with government authorities. Every person who wishes to practice that profession must meet these requirements and belong to the association. These associations represent and protect the interests of their members and the profession. Because mandatory professional associations are created by legislation, they can only exist within a jurisdiction, which means they cannot exist beyond their borders. A clear example of this associations in the United States and all common law system countries are the attorney bars.
Voluntary professional associations are private entities; they are not created by legislation, but by a group of private individuals in the same profession. Their main purpose is to establish professional and ethical cannons to be observed by their membership, to oversee the compliance with the rules, and to offer continuing professional development opportunities to its members. Unlike the first group, participation in these associations is voluntary, and membership is unnecessary to practice a profession. Sometimes, they participate in development of academic standards for the profession, and actively protect the profession by issuing opinions, position papers, and lobbying. Some are reminiscent of the guilds and unions of the past, and on occasion help negotiate fair contracts for their members (and non-members). Unlike mandatory associations, voluntary professional associations are not exclusive associations in a profession, which means there could be several associations in the same jurisdiction or country. Good examples of these entities are the American Bar Association (ABA) and the American Medical Association (AMA).
Voluntary professional associations can recommend a college degree to work in their professional field, but they cannot demand a professional college degree to practice a profession; Mandatory associations can.
Sometimes it is easier to tell these two entities apart in other legal systems and languages. In Spanish, voluntary professional associations are usually (not exclusively because there are many countries and systems in the Spanish-speaking world) called “asociaciones profesionales” and mandatory professional associations are called “colegios”.
Because interpreting is an unregulated profession in most countries, voluntary professional associations outnumber mandatory entities. This is an important (not exclusive) reason for the abundance of interpreters with an education below a college degree; and because membership is not needed to practice, many interpreters ignore them.
Many interpreters erroneously believe that the non-mandatory nature of these associations justify their decision not to belong to one of them. Unfortunately, the fact that our profession lacks regulation in many places, and it has been left to the market, where non- interpreters influence commercial and professional practices, to decide what goes. This “wild west” scenario makes it even more important to have a body of our peers setting professional and ethical standards for the practice of the profession, providing a space for interpreters to network, and offering continuing education to all who ethically practice the profession. Since these associations are not mandatory, or created by any government, they can easily turn international, thus guaranteeing the same ethical standards and quality control across the planet.
For all these reasons, the answer to the question at the beginning of this post is a resounding yes! To elevate their practice, and protect the quality of the profession, interpreters need to belong to local or national associations where their immediate needs will be met and resources will be provided; to international associations, because in the age of globalization and high technology, we are constantly working, collaborating, and competing with clients and colleagues everywhere on earth; and associations that specialize in that interpreter’s field so they can keep up with the latest developments and get continuing education in their discipline. I will mention no organizations because I do not want to leave anyone out, but I am convinced we have such associations throughout the world, I belong to some wonderful associations, and I encourage you to join them now that a new year is beginning.
Court interpreters’ priorities: Their health and to interpret.
August 12, 2020 § 16 Comments
Although we are still in the middle of a world-wide pandemic, I have heard from several colleagues that some courts in the United States, and elsewhere, are back in session and they are asking court interpreters to attend in-person hearings. Courts may have their reasons to reopen, but I think is a bad idea for interpreters to answer the call at this time. Covid-19 is very contagious and continues to spread all over the United States and many other countries. This is not the time to risk our health, and perhaps our future, to make the not-so-good court interpreter fees. Technology is such that courthouses can hold virtual hearings, or distance interpreting if they want to have in-person sessions. There are solutions for all judicial district budgets, from fancy distance interpreting platforms, to Zoom, to a simple over-the-phone interpretation with 3-way calling and a speaker phone. Federal courts have provided over the phone interpretation in certain court appearances for many years. Most hearings are short appearances that do not justify risking the interpreter. As for more complex evidentiary hearings and trials, just as conferences have temporarily migrated to this modality, distance interpreting can happen with a few adjustments. If in-person court interpreting is a bad idea right now, in-person interpreting at a detention center, jail or prison, is out of the question. At least in the United States, detention facilities are at the top of places where more Covid-19 cases have been detected.
Court interpreters provide services in accordance to the law and a code of ethics. Neither of them compels interpreters to put their lives at risk just to interpret for a hearing that could happen virtually. I urge you all to refuse in-person interpreting at courthouses and detention centers at this time. Advise judges, attorneys, and court administrators on the available options during the emergency. If after your explanation they insist on having interpreters appearing in person during the Covid-19 pandemic, please decline the assignment. It is obvious your life and health are not a priority for that organization; why should you put them at the top of your clients’ list?
Do not worry about the parties needing interpreting services. That is the attorney’s responsibility. Not yours.
Unfortunately, some of you will sadly agree to physically appear in court to interpret for defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, and victims. If so, at least demand the following from the courts:
All in-person interpreting must be done with portable cordless equipment. Many courthouses already use it, and for those who do not, explain to judges and administrators this is the same equipment tour guides use. Courts should provide personal transmitters to all staff and regular independent contractor interpreters, and interpreters should take care of the transmitter and take it with them at the end of the day. If this is impossible (although these devises are very affordable) then ask the courthouse to keep them clean and safe, and separate from the receivers the parties will use. Interpreters should always have their own personal microphone (whether it is provided by the court or they purchase it on their own). Ask the receivers be kept in individual plastic baggies, and have the individual using the receiver open the bag and put the devise back in the baggie after the hearing. Never handle the receiver. Ask the court to notify all parties needing interpreting services to bring their own earphones (they can use their mobile phone’s if they are wired). The courthouse should have disposable earphones in stock for those who forgot to bring their own. Earphones are inexpensive and can be thrown away after each hearing.
Finally, interpreters should never disinfect the portable equipment. This is a dangerous chore, you do not get paid to do it, and it is not your job. Disinfecting the equipment goes against all federal and state court interpreter rules of ethics:
“Canon 7: Scope of Practice. An interpreter for a LEP participant in any legal proceeding, or for an LEP party in a court-ordered program, must provide only interpreting or translating services. The interpreter must not give legal advice, express personal opinions to individuals for whom interpreting services are being provided, or engage in other activities that may be construed to constitute a service other than interpreting or translating.” All states include this canon in their code of ethics (sometimes the number is different). Interpreting equipment should be cleaned and disinfected by the same people who clean and disinfect everything else in the courtroom.
If you are interpreting in person for an agency or for a direct private client, you must follow the same practices. The agency should assume the courthouse duties. As for your preferred direct clients who you could not talk out of an in-person appearance, use your own personal equipment. If you don’t have it, buy it. Do not borrow the courthouse’s. You do not know how clean it is. I would also add the following when dealing with direct clients using my own equipment: Have disposable latex gloves available for you and the person using the equipment. That way you may assist your direct client with the receiver unit if needed. Have spare disposable earphones available if your clients forgot to bring their own. I suggest you use the earphones you get on the plane for free and you never use because you have your own. The protocol for jail visits is: No jail visits under any circumstance. Period.
Even with equipment, maintain a safe distance between you and the person you are interpreting for. No sitting next to the client. Always use and demand others use facemasks. The sound quality is not the best, but removing the mask to interpret is too dangerous. I suggest you wear a mask that ties or has an elastic that goes around your head instead of the ones you wear on your ears. They are more comfortable and stay in place even if you are speaking,
Most judges are rational people of good moral character, but I have heard of some cases when a judge has ordered the interpreter to remove the mask, get closer to the person who needs an interpreter, and other dangerous actions. If so, try to persuade the judge, if that fails, ask for a recess and try to get the court administrator to see the situation from your viewpoint. If this does not work, or if the judge does not let you speak, or you cannot access the administrator, excuse yourself.
State you cannot fulfill your duty as a court interpreter to interpret the totality of what is being said in court because you cannot concentrate on the hearing when you know the judge is putting you in a dangerous situation. Put it on the record, and leave. If the judge does not allow you to leave the courtroom, or threatens you with a contempt order, then clearly put on the record for a second time the same explanation you already gave, and clearly state you are being ordered to interpret even though the rendition will be incomplete, that you are being held against your will, and that you are respectfully giving notice to the judge that if because of his order you get infected, you will bring legal action against the court and personally against the judge. Do not be afraid. You are not doing anything wrong.
On top of all that, I would never interpret in that Judge’s court again.
There are other things we can do as interpreters to protect ourselves in the rare case we end up in front of a judge that forces you to interpret and do things that risk your health and maybe your life.
You can file a complaint with the circuit court (if a federal case) or the court of appeals with jurisdiction over the judge. In federal cases, this is done according to the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980 (28 USC §351-364) and the Rules for Judicial Conduct and Judicial Disability Proceedings.
If federal, you can send a letter describing the judge’s conduct to the Federal Judges Association (FJA) (https://www.federaljudgesassoc.org) or to the State’s judges association in local matters.
Send a letter for publication on the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal Magazine, or to the State Bar Bulletin so attorneys and others learn of the incident and apply pressure on this individual.
Contact your local non-English radio and TV stations (for Spanish speakers Telemundo, Univision and Azteca America) and suggest an investigative report on how this judge is putting those who appear before him or her, and need interpreting services, at risk during the pandemic.
You can also talk to an attorney and explore the possibility of a lawsuit against the judge and courthouse for negligence.
Finally, write a letter to that courthouse’s chief judge and court administrator informing them that, regardless of the outcome, you will never work in that courtroom again. The letter should detail everything the judge said and did, including past episodes witnessed by you. A person with such a bad attitude did other bad things before.
Court interpreters perform an essential job for the administration of justice, everyone who needs an interpreter should get one, but certain things are above the job; one of them that should always come first is our health. I now ask you to share with us your in-person court experiences, in the United States or elsewhere, during the pandemic.
The interpreting profession could be worthless here.
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.
Moving the profession backwards in these critical times.
February 8, 2016 § 11 Comments
I am not breaking any news when I tell you that our profession is under attack from many more fronts than ever before. We have the tremendous struggle that many of our American immigration court interpreters are battling with SOSi; we have the constant reduction of fees, reimbursements, and work opportunities by the court systems in several European countries and all over the Americas; let us not forget some ambitious entities who for no reason other than their own benefit, have decided to create a hybrid aberration of a community, court, and healthcare interpreter by patching up together pieces of all three in a way that would make doctor Frankenstein proud; and of course, the so-called “interpreting agencies” who cloud their real mediocre services with smoke and mirrors of technology, while offering the rendition of the cheapest, desperate, bottom-feeder “interpreter” they could find. We now have a newcomer to the pantheon of the interpreter profession serial killers: the government agencies who want to pay less and burden the professional even more with nonsense bureaucratic paperwork that only finds a reasonable justification to exist when viewed through the distorted mentality of a government official.
These are some of the many calamities that we have to face every day worldwide to protect, preserve, and advance our profession and its perception by the real world, despite of the constant efforts by the above mentioned entities to convince the public that we are not professionals, but mere laborers in an “industry” where we should be treated and paid as skilled labor, never as professionals.
It is in the middle of this environment that some colleagues, giving up the professional interpreter banner, or at best misunderstanding the true nature of what we do for living, and enveloped in the blanket of resignation and submission, have opted for listening to these groups above, not for beneficial purposes such as learning what they really want, where they plan to take us to as service providers, and what their weaknesses and needs are, so we have a way to negotiate with them, but to seek compliance and adhesion to their unilaterally created and developed policies, rules, and requirements, in order to please them and keep them happy, or at least not upset, and this way continue to be retained to provide services in exchange for mediocre to offensive fees and working conditions.
Dear friends and colleagues, some of our peers have misunderstood our role in the language services profession, and out of fear, ignorance, misguided good intentions, and yes, in some cases due to ulterior motives, have decided to accept these unilaterally imposed conditions and provide their services in a way that pleases their “client” turned master by the terms sometimes imposed on the interpreter, without questioning, disagreeing, or rejecting these pre-industrial revolution work conditions.
Professional service providers have organized in professional associations for a long time, so they can defend, preserve, and advance their profession without interference of exterior forces who, by the nature of their legitimate mission and purpose, have opposing and conflicting interests to the ones of the professionals. This is honorable, widely respected, universally expected, and practiced by all professions. Professional associations such as the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and many others worldwide, were born for these reasons. They all have one goal: the best interest of the individual who is a member of the profession.
We as interpreters and translators have some organizations and associations that operate and exist for the same goals than the rest of the professional associations, but every day we see more and more cross-contamination and distortion of the true mission of a professional association when we witness how some of these professional associations are molded after the needs and desires of these other entities that have opposing or conflicting interests with us, just for political and financial reasons.
As a result, instead of having organizations that foster dialogue among interpreters to discuss how to negotiate with, and defend from government and other entities, as all professional associations should, there is now a division in one of the professional associations where, in the opinion of many of us, government officials, including their staff interpreters and translators (regardless of their personal integrity as they participate as someone else’s agent) now have a forum to indoctrinate interpreters and translators on what they need to do in order to “please the government agency” and fulfill all “requirements” regardless of how bizarre they are; (and they are always one-sided in favor of the government) so the interpreter and translator, like a good soldier, or serf, accepts all conditions, including rock bottom fees, horrendous cancellation and travel policies, and non-sense procedural paperwork requirements, in exchange of the opportunity to be exploited by these agencies.
Some colleagues think that it is great to have these people in the same division with the interpreters and translators, as if we were a job agency, instead of doing what professional associations do: provide a platform for interpreters and translators to debate an issue among themselves BEFORE sitting across the table from the government agency, who is the counterpart of the interpreter and translator, as they have opposing interests. It is the equivalent of having the pharmaceutical companies and health insurance organizations as members of the American Medical Association.
It is true that not all government agencies exploit and humiliate the interpreter; some, regretfully very few and far in between, offer good working conditions and a decent fee at the high end of the spectrum for a government (in the understanding that they will never be able to pay at the same level as the private sector), but even these “good guys” should not be allowed to create their own forums where to influence interpreters and translators from inside the organization; there is a clear conflict of interests, unless the goal is to please the government, language agencies, etc. instead of looking after the interests of the profession and its professionals: the individual interpreters and translators.
Many of us are of the opinion that if you want to have communication and exchanges among interpreter and translator members of an association who primarily provide their services to a government entity, you should be able to do it, but never creating or facilitating a situation where the government agency, through its agents and representatives (even when these individuals are interpreters or translators) has an opportunity to participate, opine, and vote along with individual members. Their role is important, but it comes later in the process, once the members of the association have debated, analyzed and discussed the government agency’s policies, and are ready to negotiate, together or individually.
There is no reason why the government agents need to be present when a member is informing his peers of something that happened to him, or when strategy is being discussed. I invite you to share your comments on this topic, and when participating, please keep in mind that these entities have opposing interests to yours and mine. They answer to a superior within their organizational chart and they are legally and contractually obligated to defend their official position.
A professional interpreters’ association or an employment agency?
November 17, 2015 § 11 Comments
A few weeks ago I started a controversial debate among interpreters and translators that made me think of one of the bigger challenges that we will ever face on our quest for professionalization: To think, act, and react as individual professionals who are trying to advance recognition, remuneration, and understanding of what we do for living.
When a colleague who works for the government suggested that the American Translators’ Association (ATA) should start a “government division” for interpreter and translator members to have a place to communicate, and learn from government agencies what they want from us in order to get work, I immediately got this extremely uncomfortable feeling that we were about to sell ourselves cheap once again; that the hated premise that we are under the client (turned employer, turned master) was going to be the basis of a debate where individual colleagues would decide not if they were going to jump or not, but just how high.
As fast as I could, I went on social media to point out this enormous danger, and from all my concerns, the only thing that most people picked up was the matter of the name that the new division would get: Instead of debating (and rejecting) the notion of having a government division, our colleagues discussed a name for a division that apparently was instantaneously accepted as a reality. Agreeing with my rationale, those participating in the discussion saw the absurdity of vanishing all interpreters and translators from the name-description of the group by naming this entity “government division” and seemed more inclined to go with a “more inclusive” name. (I learned later that ATA bylaws will not even allow for a vote against the creation of such a monstrosity: To reject the idea we would need to amend the bylaws).
Unfortunately, the fundamental principle that makes such a division an absurdity went undetected. Let me explain:
ATA, like all interpreter and translator associations, are professional groups for the benefit of individual members to protect, disseminate, and advance the profession and the individuals providing the service. As such, a professional association must clearly define who is one of us (a member), and who is not (clients, third parties, government officials). Once this has been established, the organization can do its work looking after the quality of the professional service, promoting educational opportunities, and defending the interests of its members.
The process above puts the professional association, and its members, in an advantageous position to sit down, individually or collectively depending on each situation, to negotiate professional services’ conditions with the counterpart: clients, agencies, government officials, and others. All of these actors are active participants in the process, but none of them share the same interests or perspective of the professional interpreter or translator. This is the purpose of a professional association. This is the only way that interpreters and translators can be considered, viewed, and treated as professionals instead of laborers. An association with an organizational model where interpreters and translators commingle with the people who sit across the table can be many things, but it will never be a professional association.
For years I have defended our services as the type that only professionals can provide. I have fought for recognition at the level of an attorney, a physician and an engineer. All of these professions have professional associations that follow the model I described above. None of them would even dream of having a format which included their counterpart in their organization. Medical doctors deal with pharmaceuticals, government officials, and insurance companies every day; yet, none of these entities are part of the American Medical Association (http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/about-ama.page?) Attorneys work with court systems everywhere, they deal with government agencies and police departments, credit institutions, and many others. Nobody, unless that person is an attorney, can be part of the American Bar Association (http://www.americanbar.org/about_the_aba.html) Our very own AIIC groups professional conference interpreters worldwide and it does not include agencies, government officials, or international organizations as members (http://aiic.net/page/6757/about-aiic/lang/1) By the way, none of them allows “corporate memberships” either. A corporation cannot be a professional, it does not go to college or pass a certification exam. By definition, only human beings can be professionals. Other membership categories can be explained away by associations, but never justified. A professional association cannot become a place where young professionals go to be indoctrinated on the principles of being a good “language service provider to the industry”. We are a profession, not an industry. Professional organizations work to protect their members, profession, working conditions, ethics and quality of the service. They are never job fairs where people play a dating game with multinational agencies who want your services in exchange for rock-bottom fees and humiliating conditions far from the minimum standards acceptable for a profession.
The “government (or whatever the final name may be) division” is a serious blow to the professional recognition of interpreters and translators by clients and intermediaries because it perpetuates the idea that we are subservient to a specific entity; that we do not view the government as a client. That we are willing, and eager, to fulfill all of their conditions so they can give us some work, regardless of the shameful terms and awful fees. I fully reject this mindset. Dealing from weakness devaluates us as individuals and diminishes the profession. If we want to be government contractors, let’s have a special group of interpreters and translators where we can brainstorm and exchange experiences. This would be a place where professionals get stronger before going out there to negotiate with government officials. The time and place to deal with government agencies is across the table as counterparts, not within the organization as fellow members. We do not need them to tell us what is acceptable and what is not. We must let them know what are the minimum conditions we are willing to negotiate from, and let’s treat them as clients, respectfully but firmly. Always as equals. Until we are ready to adopt this attitude, we will stay where we are, and we will quickly move to the place where the counterpart wants us to be: a hole full of blind obedience and compliance. Some of us will never walk down that pathway, but many will. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this crucial subject that could impact the rest of your careers.
Is this practice demeaning to certified court interpreters?
February 26, 2015 § 10 Comments
In the United States and other jurisdictions interpreters are officers of the court. From the moment interpreters begin to work in court, they hear the term thrown around all the time. They are told that much is expected from them as officers of the court, and at the same time they see how annoyed some court employees get when an interpreter is part of a hearing.
One of the least pleasurable things about court interpreting is the need to endure uncomfortable attitudes, and absurd policies, by many clerks, support staff, attorneys, court administrators, and even judges. This environment has turned off many excellent interpreters, and deprived non-native speakers of the benefit of some of the most capable and professional individuals.
Court interpreting presents many unavoidable challenges to the professional interpreter, and they have to be dealt with in order to reach the goal of equal access to justice: lay and legal terminology, evasive speakers who at best reluctantly tell the truth, poor acoustics, obsolete interpreting equipment or the lack of it, long hours, and low pay, are some of the realities that court interpreters face every day at work. Most of them cannot be fixed by a bigger budget or more competent court administrators; they are part of the “nature of the beast.” Let’s face it: many people do not go to court voluntarily, some appear before a judge or jury when they are angry, scared, embarrassed, and a good number of them have trouble with telling the truth. Court interpreting is very hard; but not all of its difficulties are due to bad acoustics, a whispering attorney, or a fast-speaking witness. Some of them are generated artificially, they do not belong in the courthouse; they are the result of ignorance and lack of understanding.
When the spirit of justice and the passion for the law are no longer there, many of the top interpreters abandon the field. Being ignored by the clerk, patronized by the judge, criticized by the attorney, and to constantly walk into an environment where the interpreter often feels like he is more of an obstacle to the process than an essential part of the administration of justice, seems to outweigh the low and rarely timely pay. We all know, and have accepted or rejected these circumstances; many are trying to change them through education or negotiating their labor conditions, and many freelance interpreters have relocated their court work from the top of their priority list to the middle and even to the bottom.
The question is my friends: Are we really officers of the court? The legislation says we are, but, what does it mean to be an officer of the court? According to Black’s: an officer of the court is “a person who is charged with upholding the law and administering the judicial system. Typically, officer of the court refers to a judge, clerk, bailiff, sheriff, or the like…” it adds that an officer of the court “…is obliged to obey court rules and… owes a duty of candor to the court…” Interpreters fall into this category as one of “the like”. This has been widely recognized by most state legislations, and it is explained by the United States’ National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) position paper on the interpreter’s scope of practice: “…By virtue of the role we play in the administration of justice, many courts have stated outright that the interpreter is an officer of the court…” To put it in lay terms: court interpreters are officers of the court because they are part of the judicial system to administer justice, and as such, they are subject to strict professional and ethical rules, and to specific legislation. There is no doubt that especially, certified court interpreters are strictly regulated as professionals: they need to go through a certification or licensing process that culminates with passing a rigorous exam, in most cases (sadly, not the federal program) they must meet continuing education requirements to keep said certification or license, and they have to abide by a code of ethics and professional responsibility. It could be argued that noncertified court interpreters may not fit the description as they do not have to meet all the requirements above. However, even noncertified court interpreters must observe the rules of ethics when working in a court-related case.
So, where is the demeaning practice I mentioned at the top of this post? It is at the time that certified court interpreters are placed under oath over and over again, every day, all over the United States.
To practice their profession, all officers of the court are subject to eligibility requirements: judges, attorneys, and certified court interpreters have to meet them to work in the system. All officers of the court have the duty to obey the law, and the responsibility to act ethically and professionally. For this reason, all of them are required to take an oath: judges take the oath when they are appointed or elected to the bench, attorneys are administered an oath after they pass the bar exam, court clerks take an oath when they are hired by the judiciary. They all take the oath once!
In some states, and in some United States judicial districts, certified court interpreters are only required to take their oath once (for that jurisdiction) and a record is kept in file for future reference. This is a great practice not only because it saves taxpayers money by shortening the hearings, and the savings can be a significant in cases when the same certified court interpreter is administered the oath, in the same courtroom, over ten times in one day. Equally important, from the certified court interpreters’ perspective, is the recognition of their status as officers of the court, and the very important message by the system that certified court interpreters are going to be treated as the professionals that they are.
Unfortunately, to eradicate this demeaning practice that places certified court interpreters as second class officers of the court, we will need more than just educating judges and attorneys, convincing court administrators, and pushing interpreter coordinators who work for the courts so they stand up and support the freelance certified court interpreters on this one. It will require a legislative change in many cases. Believe it or not, there is legislation in some states requiring that interpreters be placed under oath before each court proceeding.
A 2012 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (U.S. v. Solorio) held interpreters who translate the testimony of witnesses on the stand are covered by Federal Rule of Evidence 604 and that they are subject to “…the administration of an oath or affirmation to make a true translation…” However, the Appeals Court ruled that “…Rule 604 does not…indicate whether such an oath must be administered in any particular manner or at any specified time, including whether the oath must be administered for each trial. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) has published guidelines on the administration of oath to interpreters, observing that policies in regard to the oath of interpreters vary from district to district and from judge to judge [Guide to Judiciary Policy §350(b)] Although some courts administer oaths to interpreters each day, or once for an entire case, others administer the oath to staff and contract interpreters once, and keep it on file…”
The legal argument above can be used by certified court interpreters to advance their efforts to get rid of this “second-class treatment” by some courts, but the road will not be easy, and in some cases, the biggest obstacle will be bilingual judges in positions of authority who do not quite understand the role of the interpreter as that of an officer of the court. Judge Ruben Castillo, as co-chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Litigation’s Trial Practice Committee, and presently the Chief Judge for the United States Northern District of Illinois, favors administering the oath for each case, stating that: “…I happen to be a Spanish speaker, and I’ve seen misrepresentations occur…under the pressure of instantaneous interpretation, especially in cases involving a lot of slang…mistakes can occur. When under oath, most people take the job more seriously…” As you can see, devaluating the certified court interpreter’s professionalism is also used to continue this demeaning practice. It is obvious that judges need to be educated to the professional status of the certified court interpreter. The oath does nothing to improve an interpreter’s skills, but it does a lot to show us that there is a long way to go before we can sit at the table as equals in many jurisdictions. I can see a need to place under oath noncertified or occasional interpreters (not all languages have enough demand to generate a professional practice) but certified court interpreters should be treated as all other officers of the court whose professional scope of practice goes beyond that of a witness.
I now invite you to share your thoughts on this matter.
Something is going on in social media that may be detrimental to the profession.
May 4, 2016 § 11 Comments
Interpreters benefit from the use of the internet in many ways. We can study, do research, market our services, and communicate with each other anywhere in the world by using our telephone. Technology helps us to stay competitive in difficult markets and saves us time. Gone are the days when we had to go to a library to research a topic. We can now access the best libraries worldwide from the booth where we are working.
Social media also gave us the very popular and numerous forums, list serves, and chat rooms that all of us visit regularly. I must confess that, even though I am very active in many social media outlets, I visit very few interpreter forums, and none of the list serves. For me, the main reason to visit these forums is to keep up with the most recent news that impact the profession, so I can widen my knowledge and understanding of everything that is happening out there . For the same reason, I am sometimes turned off by some of our colleagues who visit these virtual sites. I have nothing against learning more about our language combinations, but sometimes it gets to me to see how some interpreters post basic vocabulary questions to the forum members without even bothering to do some research on their own first. I know this is popular with many, and we have discussed it in the past, so I will not dwell on this issue. Like I said, it turns me off, but it does not disgust me.
On the other hand, there is a relatively new trend going around several of the forums that I visit. A practice that has the potential to harm the profession, and end the career of those who participate or advocate this practice.
I am talking about those colleagues who post confidential, and sometimes what can be considered privileged information in the case of court interpreters. I am also referring to those who ridicule and make fun of their own clients.
Interpreting is a profession, and as such, it is governed by a series of legal, moral and ethical principles expected from all those who practice as professionals anywhere in the world. Legal, moral, and ethical rules and principles such as diligence, honesty, and confidentiality are an essential part of an interpreter’s job description. We cannot go around divulging the knowledge acquired in confidence. We are a fiduciary profession. It is not ethical for an interpreter to reveal secrete or confidential information. It is not ethical to share the client’s personal information and private life in public either.
These duties of privacy and confidentiality are even stricter in the case of a court interpreter. Let’s take the case of the United States where court interpreters are legally and ethically bound to keep their mouth shot by Articles 5 and 6 of the Federal Court Interpreter Code of Ethics:
“5: Confidentiality. Interpreters shall protect the confidentiality of all privileged and other confidential information.”
“6: Restriction of Public Comment. Interpreters shall not publicly discuss, report, or offer an opinion concerning a matter in which they are or have been engaged, even when that information is not privileged or required by law to be confidential.”
Moreover, when working as agents of an attorney, interpreters are also covered and bound by the stricter client-attorney privilege; a privilege held by the attorney’s client that gives him the right to refuse to disclose, and to prevent any other person from disclosing confidential communications between the client and the attorney (Black’s Law Dictionary).
Rule 1.6 of the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct, reads:
“Rule 1.6 Confidentiality of Information. (a) A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent…”
These communications cannot be shared with the public, even with a court order, unless the client waives the privilege (there are some exceptions to the rule that do not apply to our subject matter) and the privilege extends to the attorney’s agents who are considered as action as an “extension” of the lawyer. These agents include legal secretaries, paralegals, investigators, and interpreters, among others (“United States v. Kovel,” 296 F.2d 918, 921 2nd. Cir. 1961)
In the past weeks I have read posts and comments in at least two different forums by individuals who present themselves as court interpreters (I do not know them by name or in person) revealing information and details of private conversations between an attorney and his client. Moreover, several people have opined about the issues presented by this individual, without the slightest concern about a conduct that is definitely violating all codes of ethics, and may be illegal. I should mention that a few colleagues warned this person and asked this individual not to do this anymore, but for the most part, the person who was doing the posting, and those commenting on the post, continued their debate like noting had happened. I was so bothered by this use of the forum that I left and never went back, so I do not know how long this debate lasted; and even though I do not know the person who posted this, apparently privileged, information, I got the impression that the privileged information was not posted with the intention to breach a legal duty, but out of ignorance and a lack of desire to learn. I should mention that this person did not give names and other details that could easily identify the holder of the privilege, but there was enough privileged information for anyone interested on learning more about the case to find out who were the parties involved.
The second post that I saw was less likely to pierce the client-attorney privilege, but in my opinion it violated the rules of ethics and professional conduct in a truly disgusting way. This was a post by another person who called himself a court interpreter, and went on to argue that his “job as a court interpreter” was not boring because he saw different and new situations every day. Nothing wrong to this point, but next, he gave some examples of the “variety” of cases he is routinely exposed to, by sharing details of some of these cases, and giving his opinion about the parties involved, in a very offensive and demeaning way. These are some of this individual’s comments: “…The… family was lying through their teeth, but… (the) officials were gullible enough to grant them asylum…” and how about this one: “…hours of telephonic interpreting for illegal immigrants… (I) had to hear and interpret a lot of BS…” or this more troubling one: “…defendant asked why he doesn’t qualify for (a legal benefit) the answer was… he had to rat about the people who paid… for his defense…” Unlike the first case I mentioned above, this individual received many warnings and criticisms for doing what he did, and I believe that for this reason, within a week, this person went back to the same forum and now alleged that the cases were real, but that he had “…added imaginary twists, actions or actors…” that although most (not all) of the cases were not real, “…for the purpose of initiating an intelligent debate, (he) presented them as actual, real cases…” and claimed to be a victim of attacks by those who did not want any “personal opinions”. Finally, to make things even worse, this person defended his posts by indicating that he was justified to do so, because they had been posted in a closed forum… on the internet!
I did not write this blog to attack anybody or to end the career of any colleagues or alleged colleagues. That is why I did not revealed any names of individuals or forums, and I tried to show just enough of the published posts to convey the idea of what is troubling me. I wrote this piece because I see what is going on in these social media outlets and it concerns me. I believe that the rules of ethics and professional conduct must be observed because we are professionals, and more importantly, because they affect others who confided on us as providers of this fiduciary service. It is not the same to betray your clients’ confidence and air private matters the way these people did, or to present the facts of a case to your colleagues in a professional forum, observing all professional and ethical rules, in order to get an opinion or to dissipate a doubt. This is done by all professionals: physicians, attorneys. accountants, and interpreters on a daily basis.
I think that the majority of those who have violated these rules did not know what they were doing, and I believe that social media forums, when used appropriately, are a valuable tool. Perhaps we need to educate those who do not know the rules, and maybe we need to assess the moderators and the guidelines of some of these forums. What we cannot allow is a situation that will leave us all in a bad place as a profession, and in an ugly position as individual practitioners; and I am not even mentioning the tremendous liability that those who violate these canons (and in some cases the law) are exposing themselves to. I ask you to share your comments on this topic, and to do so without any personal attacks.