Is there interpreter discrimination in some U.S. Federal Courts?

February 21, 2019 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Despite the bottomless well of ineptitude also known as the current administration of the federal court interpreter examination (I do not want to group this crowd with the efficient teams in charge of this program before the 2017 fiasco) there were a few interpreters who, even under the sub-standard conditions of the exam, passed with flying colors and became the newest Spanish language court interpreters certified by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO).

The Federal Court Interpreter Act of 1978 provides that the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts shall prescribe, determine, and certify the qualifications of persons who may serve as certified interpreters (28 USC §1827)

In discharging said responsibilities, the AO classifies as Spanish language certified court interpreters those who have passed the two phases of the Administrative Office certification examination, have no criminal record, and meet the interpreter skills outlined in the AO’s website (https://www.uscourts.gov/services-forms/federal-court-interpreters/interpreter-skills):

  • High proficiency in both English and Spanish.
  • Impartiality
  • Ability to accurately and idiomatically turn the message from the source language into the receptor language with no additions, omissions or other misleading factors that alter the intended meaning of the message from the speaker.
  • Mastery of simultaneous interpretation, which is the most frequent form of interpretation used in the courtroom, and of consecutive interpretation and sight translation.
  • Ability to communicate orally including appropriate delivery and poise.
  • Demonstrate high professional standards for courtroom demeanor and professional conduct.

Individuals who meet all requirements may request a freelance interpreter contract from any federal district court. Court administrators, chief judges, clerks of the court, and staff managing interpreters should honor the request and offer work to these interpreters unless they have a legally valid reason not to do so.

When I devoted most of my practice to court interpreting, I witnessed, as I am sure you have, many conversations among veteran certified court interpreters concerned that those who recently became certified, or the ones who had just moved to town, would have a negative impact on the caseload assigned to them by the courthouse. I heard colleagues supporting the veteran interpreters arguing that newly certified colleagues, were a liability due to their lack of court experience.

I have learned of at least two instances, in different parts of the United States, where newly certified colleagues are systematically ignored by those who schedule court interpreter assignments. Even though these interpreters meet all eligibility requirements to work in federal court anywhere in the United States, apparently, they have been excluded for what seem inexcusable reasons such as lack of experience, or because they got certified in the most questionable certification exam cycle in history.

I hope the reasons above are not true, and the icing of the new interpreters ends soon. It is perplexing to hear that a recently certified court interpreter cannot interpret in court because of lack of experience. Where do these staffers want them to acquire said experience if they continue to slam the courthouse doors? To those schedulers who follow the “lack of experience” argument with a “they are not ready because they do not know our system, how we work” I say: If they passed an exam as difficult as the federal court interpreter’s, they will learn your “system” in a couple of hours because, despite of what you think, it is just a way to do things. It is not rocket science”.

I simply remind those who question the knowledge and skills of court interpreters certified last time that on top of passing such a difficult test, these colleagues had to do it in an environment reminiscent of the Dark Ages’ worst torture chamber, where they had to deal with an internet service as reliable as smoke signal messaging in the Wild West, where they had to take notes on their knees because there was no room on the table to do so, where they had less time for their consecutive rendition than we did because they had to manipulate the recording, listen, take notes, and interpret, all within the same time. And for the cherry on their cake: they had to wait many long months for their scores, enduring silence and negligent treatment from the AO and its chosen contractor. Please remember, these are not the interpreters who will retest (a sad group where some day many capable colleagues must go through this process again because of the ineptitude of others).

I ask all veteran certified court interpreters to welcome the class of 2017, and I appeal to the open minds of scheduling staffers, interpreters and others, to stop discriminating against certified interpreters just because they are new, and for that reason do not know your system or are not your friends, and include them in your rotations and assignments. Veteran interpreters: do not fear the newbies. We can all learn from each other, and if you get fewer assignments in court, remember: you are a freelancer, look for work somewhere else. You probably will find more variety and much better pay. I now invite my colleagues, veterans and rookies, to share their thoughts with the rest of us.

When court interpreting is done right.

January 15, 2018 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Most professional, dedicated, court interpreters in Europe and the United States are constantly fighting against the establishment: government authorities who want to dodge the responsibility of administering justice to all, regardless of the language they speak, by procuring a warm body next to the litigant in the courtroom regardless of the skill and knowledge of the individual; ignorant and egotistical judges who believe they know everything about language access and interpreting, and make absurd decisions, when they know less about our profession than anyone else in the room; bilingual lawyers who cannot tell the difference between being a professional interpreter and speaking a second language with limited proficiency; monolingual attorneys who believe interpreting is easy and interpreters are  only an intransigent bunch demanding nonsensical work conditions (like team interpreting) and get paid for what they do more than they deserve;  and of course, greedy unscrupulous agencies who spend most of their time trying to figure out two things: How to pay interpreters less, and how to sell a mediocre paraprofessional low fee foreign-language speaker to their clients.

There are exceptions everywhere and in some latitudes court interpreting can be performed at a high quality level (even though, in my opinion, most court interpreters are still getting paid very little compared to the other actors in a court proceeding such as attorneys, expert witnesses, and judges), but there are no places, that I know of, at least in the United States, where you can find the support, understanding, and respect I found in Mexico during their transition from written court proceedings to oral trials where interpreters play a more relevant role they ever did under the old system.

Cubi (editor) Me, Carreon, Maya

During the last two years I have attended many conferences, meetings, one-on-one interviews, where I have talked to the parties invested in the system about the work court interpreters do, the need for some quality control process such as an accreditation or certification of the professional court interpreter, the non-negotiable principle that interpreters must make a professional fee that will let them have the lifestyle they may choose and will retain them as practitioners of the interpreting profession, and the work conditions for the professional court interpreter to provide the expected service. I have had many memorable experiences, and I will share with you those that I consider essential turning points in the design of the court interpreting profession in Mexico.

For the past two years I have attended the “Taller de profesionalización de los servicios de interpretación de Lengua de Señas Mexicana en el ámbito jurídico” (Professionalization of Mexican Sign Language legal interpreting services workshop), the brain child of Mexico’s federal judge Honorable María del Carmen Carreón, who has done more for the court interpreting profession than any person I know who is not an interpreter. Judge Carreón and her team organized these workshops that bring together Mexican Sign Language interpreters from all over the Mexican Republic, the most influential Sign Language Interpreter professional associations in the country, legal and language scholars, attorneys from all fields, and judges from all levels and jurisdictions: from Federal Supreme Court Justices and State Supreme Court Justices, to federal and state criminal, civil, family, administrative, and electoral judges.

These participants meet for three days at different locations: courthouses and universities, to learn from each other, and exchange ideas on how to make it easier for court interpreters so they can fulfill their role in the administration of justice to all individuals, regardless of the language they speak. The new court interpreting manual I recently published results from this extraordinary professional relationship that has developed among my co-authors: Judge Carreón and Daniel Maya, president of the largest professional association of Sign Language interpreters in Mexico, and me (Manual del Intérprete Judicial en México, Carreón, Rosado, Maya. Editorial Tirant Lo Blanch).

Judge Hernandez

During these trips, I have witnessed the willingness of all parties to learn the new system together, I heard often about the commitment to a good professional fee for those interpreters who get a court interpreter patent as a “perito” (equivalent to a certification or accreditation in other countries), and I saw a system with a new culture of cooperation where interpreters getting materials and full access to a case will be the rule and not the exception. I saw how all actors understand the need for team interpreting without even questioning the reasons behind this universally accepted policy. I heard judges telling interpreters to come to them with their suggestions and requests, and lawyers who want to learn how to work with the interpreter. Our manual has been presented before many institutions, including courthouses and attorneys’ forums to standing room only.

It was at one workshop, and through Judge Carreón, that I met Mexico City Civil Court Judge Eliseo Juan Hernández Villaverde and Mexico City Family Court Judge Teófilo Abdo Kuri.  Both judges graciously invited me to their courtrooms so I could observe how the oral proceedings are being carried under the new legislation, and to have a dialogue on court interpreters’ best practices so our Mexican colleagues can provide their service under close to ideal conditions.

At their respective courtrooms I met their staff and I saw how everyone was treated with dignity and respect. After fruitful talks with both judges, I observed the proceedings, and afterwards met with the judges to physically suggest changes to the courtroom to make it more “interpreter-friendly” to both: sign and spoken language interpreters. To my surprise, these suggestions were welcomed immediately, and Judge Hernández Villaverde rearranged the courtroom right on the spot, in my presence, to make sure that everything was as suggested. Finally, it was agreed that court interpreters and those studying interpreting will have regular visits to their courtrooms where they will observe proceedings and after the hearing can ask questions to the judges.

Judge Abdo

A major factor in the success that Mexico is enjoying, is due to the absence of irresponsible interpreting agencies that hire a high school level “coordinator” to recruit paraprofessionals and convince them to work for a fee (they call rate) that will seem good to them (compared to their minimum wage job prior to becoming an “interpreter”) but would be insulting and disrespectful to any professional interpreter charging the professional fees that their service commands.

There are some in Mexico, judges, attorneys, and interpreters, who are not fully on board, but they are not stopping the new culture. They are not killing the excitement and willingness of all parties to grow professionally in the new legal system the country has adopted.  There are many things to do, but an environment fosters the achievement of those goals.

I hope that me sharing the situation of the court interpreting profession in Mexico can inspire many of us in other countries and legal systems, and teach us to keep fighting for what is right without ever giving up in our dealings with the judiciary, and to never give in to the insulting conditions offered by those who want to see us as an “industry” instead of a profession. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your goals and achievements within your courthouses or hospitals (for healthcare interpreters).

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