This road to hell is paved with good intentions.

March 7, 2019 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Those who want to help us sometimes hurt us the most.  Court interpreters in Oregon face a situation faced by many colleagues elsewhere in the United States and abroad.

Often, while interpreting in a trial or evidentiary hearing, Oregon court interpreters are asked to sight translate lengthy documents they never saw before, or even worse, they are expected to transcribe and translate audio or video recordings during court breaks. Because the judiciary only covers the cost of interpreting services in courthouses and detention centers, as in many other jurisdictions, attorneys trying to save money use the services of interpreters paid by the court to translate and transcribe evidence otherwise having to be translated before trial by interpreters and translators paid by attorneys and their clients.

A well-intentioned effort to correct this practice, led by the Oregon Judicial Department Court Language Access Services (CLAS) filed a proposed charge to the Uniform Trial Court Rules (UTCR) on November 7, 2017.  Motivated by the desire to protect court interpreters, the quality of a rendition, and no doubt its own budget, CLAS proposed a change to UTCR Rule 2.010(9)(e)

Unfortunately, the proposed change was drafted with budgetary considerations as a priority, and without real knowledge of the role of the interpreter in court. The result, if it goes into effect as written on August 1, will hurt court interpreters in Oregon, the profession, and equal access to justice in that state.

Reading the explanation of the proposed amendment correctly states the abusive, incorrect use of court-sponsored interpreter services by attorneys as described above; it also recognizes the complexity of transcription and translation, and how difficult it is to hear and understand poor quality recordings:

“…• Transcription often requires additional resources that are not available during a court proceeding due to lack of time, the prevalence of slang and abbreviations in offered documents, and the inability of the interpreter to ask for clarification from the maker of the document;

The explanation also addresses potential ethical issues:

“…When an interpreter is asked to provide a transcription for one party, the interpreter loses the appearance of neutrality, which conflicts with the interpreter’s ethical obligations and makes them a potential witness…”

Unfortunately, and most likely unwillingly, the explanation begins with a very dangerous statement: “…Interpreters are trained to interpret spoken word, not written word…”  By saying that, and inserting it as the main argument to amend the Rule, CLAS is not only contradicting the Oregon Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Courts, it is making an incorrect statement that erases one-third of the court interpreter practice, and negates our profession.

The Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Oregon Courts reads:

“1. Accuracy and Completeness. The interpreter shall render a complete and accurate interpretation, or sight translation, without altering, omitting anything from, or adding anything to what is stated or written, and without explanation…”  (https://www.courts.oregon.gov/programs/interpreters/i-am/Documents/codeofprofresponsibility.pdf)

The State of Oregon correctly recognizes that court interpreting includes not just simultaneous and consecutive interpretation, but sight translation. Stating that “…Interpreters are trained to interpret spoken word, not written word…” contradicts the Code and diminishes the profession. This is a serious matter because in a world where people are just beginning to recognize, understand, and appreciate our profession, we cannot sit on our hands while a State Agency redefines what interpreters are and do. Even when well-intentioned, these comments motivated by ignorance must be challenged and discredit. The last thing we need as a profession is a “savior” to protect us from sight interpreting. Interpreters, not translators, are the only professionals equipped to sight translate a document and render it as if it was written in the target language. We must educate our clients, and government officials, to distinguish from a document that can be sight translated in a court hearing from a lengthy document that must be translated by a translator, or a video or audio recording that needs to be transcribed and translated by an interpreter who specializes in transcriptions.

Because of this false assumption that interpreters cannot sight translate, and undoubtably motivated by the Judiciary’s desire to save interpreter fee money by banning the use of interpreters on the Court’s dime for sight translating lengthy documents that should go to a translator, or recordings that must go to a transcriber (services that must be paid by attorneys and litigants, not the Court), those proposing the amendment to the rule drafted a disastrous text:

“…{(e) A court interpreter shall not translate or interpret an exhibit during the course of a proceeding. An interpreter may interpret oral testimony regarding the content of an exhibit. A person submitting an exhibit, including a non-documentary exhibit or electronic recording, that is in a language other than English must submit at the same time an English translation and a declaration under penalty of perjury from the translator: (i) certifying that the translation is accurate and true; and (ii) describing the translator’s qualifications.}”  (https://www.courts.oregon.gov/programs/utcr/Documents/18eBCM029jm_Notice-Seeking-Public-Comment-2019-Proposed-UTCR-Changes.pdf)

By saying: “A court interpreter shall not translate or interpret an exhibit during the course of a proceeding” the rules are restricting the scope of an interpreter’s practice. It is making sight translation illegal in Oregon. But the proposed Rule is so poorly written, that it bans sight translation in hearings, but opens the door to more difficult and prone to error interpretations of “oral testimony regarding the content of an exhibit”. Instead of handing a lengthy document to the interpreter for a sight translation, under the proposed rule, an attorney can ask the interpreter to interpret the contents of a lengthy exhibit while the witness is reading it in the source language at the speed of light; without the benefit of first examining the document, if briefly, interpreters have during sight translation.

The proposed Rule will deny equal access to justice to those litigants who appear pro-se because they cannot afford the services of an attorney. Poor people benefit of court-sponsored interpreter services every day. These interpreters sight translate birth certificates in family court, bills of sale in small claims court, medical reports in worker’s compensation court, restraining orders in domestic relations court. These litigants do not have the means to pay for translation or transcription services of these documents; they will not comply with the rule because they will not even know or understand that they now need a certified written translation. Unless the Rule is modified before its adoption, in the words of my Oregon Court Interpreter friend and colleague Adrian Arias, many pro-se litigants in Oregon will face the following message: “As to sight translating your exhibit during the proceeding, due to an access to justice issue, you cannot have access to justice.”

The Rule must be amended to accurately reflect what is really needed for protecting the interpreter, accuracy of the rendition, curtailing abusive attorney practices, and equal access to justice. It should clearly state that lengthy complex documents must be translated and certified by a professional translator before a hearing; that all transcription and translation of recorded evidence shall be done by professional interpreters specializing in transcriptions prior to all hearings; and court interpreters will provide sight translation of documents in a hearing when, in the opinion of the interpreter in the hearing the length of the document is appropriate for a sight translation, and its complexity is so it can be sight translated with no more in depth research process needed for written translations. It should be the interpreter who examines and assesses the document to be sight translated. The Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Oregon Courts imposes a duty to assess at all times (their) ability to deliver interpretation services, indicating that when the interpreter has any reservation about his or her ability to satisfy an assignment competently, this should be immediately conveyed to the court. (See Rule 9. https://www.courts.oregon.gov/programs/interpreters/i-am/Documents/codeofprofresponsibility.pdf)

Dear friends and colleagues, we must remain vigilant, and see the final Rule due for recommendation by the Committee on March 8. This is a reminder we need to continue to defend our profession, because even when people propose changes meaning no harm, ignorance of the profession can create terrible consequences. I now invite you to comment on this issue in Oregon, or any other place where you live or practice.

Not everybody else’s needs; the interpreter’s interests.

June 18, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I attended a professional conference not long ago, and during one of my presentations, I asked the audience what was their opinion regarding the fairly new requirement that state-level civil courts in the United States, that get federal funding, must provide free interpreter services in all civil cases or lose that federal assistance. I was shocked by the answer given by several colleagues: They thought it was a great idea and it was good for the profession. I can understand the principle of making sure that all litigants be guaranteed equal access to justice by eliminating the uneven situation encountered by those who do not speak English during a non-criminal court procedure. I applaud the existence of the Civil Rights Act.

This does not mean that the way to accomplish such a high goal is by eliminating a work source for an entire segment of the professional population. The right thing to do was to provide court interpreting services for free in all civil matters to those who could not afford to pay for the services when provided by a private interpreter. In other words, there should be a system that mirrors that of the attorneys in criminal matters where individuals have a choice to retain the attorney of their choosing and if they cannot afford one the state provides a public defender for free.

The current situation, which has been supported and celebrated by many interpreters and professional associations, is flawed. Courts at the state level are covering civil hearings with interpreters that they label as “certified” although in reality these colleagues have only been certified as criminal court interpreters. To my knowledge there is no court interpreter certification exam in the United States that tests the interpreter’s knowledge in Civil Law, civil procedure, or terminology. In fact, many certified court interpreters who had never worked in Civil Law hearings are now providing the service; some of them reluctantly and out of fear of not being hired by the particular state court system if they refuse to do civil cases. This specialty work, that until now was provided by a group of very capable Civil Law court interpreters, is now being performed by a mix of good interpreters, good interpreters who do not know civil law and procedure, and mediocre individuals who are hired by the state level courts in order to comply with the federal mandate even if it is by just having a warm body next to the non-English speaker litigant.

Unfortunately, the current system is causing that all cases be covered by court interpreters provided by, and paid for, by the states. Some of us are fortunate enough to have a portfolio of attorney clients who are used to our professional services, and will continue to use the services of private interpreters, at least in out-of-court settings such as law offices and boardrooms; The problem is that it is now more difficult to convince prospective new attorney clients, who do not fully understand the value of retaining your own competent professional court interpreter, and pay for the service, instead of using the court appointed interpreter. Ant it gets worse, some of my colleagues who are good interpreters and used to have a decent amount of work through private Civil Law attorneys have bought into the system and are now providing their same upper-end quality services for a very low fee paid by the states. As you all know, criminal court interpreting is not a very well remunerated practice in the United States, and when it comes to the state level it is frankly appalling in some states. Historically, the best way to make a decent living working as a court interpreter in the United States has been to work as a civil court interpreter. Now we are at risk of losing this important part of our practice. At the state level it is disappearing as far as in-court work, leaving civil court interpreters with only two options (for now): out-of-court work at the state level such as office interviews, depositions, and witness preparation, and federal court practice where private interpreters can still provide their services.

To me it is crystal clear that it is impossible to celebrate anything as a victory when the outcome of that change results on a direct elimination of the source of income of another innocent group, in this case the court interpreters. The sad part is that, as I explained, the same universal access to civil courts could have been accomplished by inserting a provision indicating that free court interpreter services would only be provided to those who could not afford to pay for the services of an interpreter according to a certain income level and cost of living criteria.

As bad as this is, it is more frustrating and even discouraging to see how so many of our colleagues just go about their lives accepting all of these changes and even applauding them without ever thinking of the consequences to our practice in general and to them as individuals. I cannot find a good explanation as to why professional interpreter associations have voiced their opinion in favor of this policy without even thinking of the harm to the profession, to their fellow colleagues. Dear colleagues: Nobody spoke for the court interpreters when these changes happened! I know I will continue to educate my clients so they continue to retain my services regardless of policy changes; I know I will continue to talk to all those colleagues who ask for my opinion when these type of unfair situations happen, whether it is state-sponsored civil court interpreters, agencies who want to force court interpreters to work depositions alone totally disregarding universal principles about quality of interpreting, systems that want to unilaterally impose low cost, and lower quality, interpreting services by using new technology even when the quality of the service suffers, or any other issue that could impact our work as professionals. I will also look for professional associations that may share this same philosophy and are willing to raise their voice to bring the attention of the professional community to unprofessional practices and policies that hurt the profession or those who practice it. I now ask you to please voice your opinion on this issue, especially on civil court interpreting and how state-sponsored civil court interpreting brings down our professional income.

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