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.

Federal court interpreter exam candidates’ emotional distress continues.

July 10, 2018 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

On June 30 those who took the federal court interpreter exam in the United States last year, and have not received their test results to this date, found an email from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (FCICE@ao.uscourts.gov) in their inbox.

Once again, and after all this time, the email was to “provide an update” on the status of the scores. The email explained how all exams have either been scored and equated, or invalidated. The email then goes into a very detailed explanation of the scoring and review of the exams, but it only addresses the news that candidates care about towards the end of the communication by stating that “…no dates have yet been set for the 2018 re-administration of the oral phase of the… examination…” and it then drops the bomb when it indicates that “…dates will most likely not be determined until after November 2018…” and it gives an “assurance” to those who have been victimized by the credibility of the AO since they took the exam last year, that regardless of when the exam is re-administered, “…it will be administered in time… to qualify for the 2019 administration of the oral phase…”

Once again, the email tells nothing to the candidates, and once again it lacks an apology, by now long due to all of our colleagues who have endured this nightmare for so long. The email does nothing to comfort the candidates. Instead of informing them of their scores, it gives them an unusual explanation about the way these scores will be delivered. First, they will receive an email informing them that their score has been snail-mailed through the U.S. Mail. Can you imagine how much longer those candidates who live outside the United States must wait for the letter to get to their mailbox?

The email speaks of the “re-administration” of the test, but it says nothing about the entity in charge of the task. At this point is not known if there will be a new contractor or if the AO itself will administer the exam.

It concerns me to see how the government does not get it. Once again, they distract the candidates from the fact that nothing relevant has changed since the last time they received a letter from the AO, with a lengthy explanation on how the exams have been scored, equated, and reviewed.

The validity of the exam and the integrity and skill of the raters are the only things never questioned by anybody, yet, they continue to dominate the communication to the candidates. What everybody questions is not the exam nor the examiner; the answers everybody is waiting for concern the decision-making process that resulted in contracting paradigm and the accountability of those who made such decision; the readiness of Paradigm to administer an exam like the federal court interpreter certification test, when there was nothing in their background to suggest they could perform the task; and finally, the way the AO has handled the situation after the exam, from its secrecy and lack of transparency, to the delays, to a full report on what they are now doing to hire a capable contractor and to make sure that another fiasco of this enormity never happens again.

The candidates got another email, and from that, they got:

No apology from the AO for all damages caused to the candidates who took the exam.

NO admission of any wrongdoing or even responsibility for retaining Paradigm and for acting the way they have after the exam was administered.

No word on who will be the new retained contractor, or what they will do to re-administer the test. It is very important to know who the new contractor is because candidates will want to know that the selected corporation can handle the administration of both: written and oral tests in 2019.

No date for the retake, just a hint it will probably be after November. This assures all candidates an awful holiday season full of pain and suffering.

Not a word on reimbursement of the fees paid for the exam “administered” by Paradigm, and nothing on covering travel and other expenses for those who had to travel from far away to take the Paradigm exam.

Another development in this shameful saga happened on the written federal court interpreter certification exam: Even though Paradigm’s website still links to the FCICE webpage; the link has been disabled by the AO, and their website now indicates that at this time there is no date for the “summer” written examination, but from a careful reading on the website you can conclude it will be next year.

To mend the biggest fiasco in court interpreting history, people will take both, written and oral tests on the same year, altering the spirit of the exam as originally conceived, and ending a tradition.

Dear friends and colleagues, candidates who took the exam last year and those studying this year for the written test: it looks like you will continue to suffer emotional distress and enormous tension as you are likely to spend your 2018 holiday season studying for a test you had the right to take this year.

I now invite all candidates who took the oral exam, those studying to take the written test, and those certified interpreters who feel for these colleagues, to share their stories of struggle and frustration during this very dark time for court interpreting in America.

What ever happened to the written federal court interpreter exam?

May 21, 2018 § 16 Comments

Dear colleagues:

With all the noise and frustration surrounding the oral federal court interpreter examination fiasco, we have overlooked a group of colleagues left out in the cold with no updates and plenty of confusion: The candidates studying to take the written federal court interpreter certification exam scheduled for the summer or 2018. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) has been silent for many months and interpreters are concerned, puzzled, and they do not know what to do.

The AO’s official website redirects you to Paradigm’s webpage which shows this message: “Written examination registration dates will be announced in the spring of 2018, test locations will be announced at that time.”

This message has remained intact for months; no updates, no explanations, no changes.

In the weeks since my last widely read post on the oral exam, and despite all the comments by those who took the test in 2017, many federally certified court interpreters, and colleagues in general, raising serious concerns everywhere in social media about the judgment of those AO officials who hired Paradigm, and the lack of transparency and accountability after the administration of the test, the authorities who oversee the administration of the exam have done nothing to keep those who plan to take the written test during the summer of 2018 informed.

Apparently, silence continues to be the only policy coming from the federal judiciary. Our colleagues who plan to take the written exam do not know what to do. They do not even know if they should stop studying. Because from the lack of information they cannot even tell if there will be a written exam this year.

We do not even know for sure if the AO has severed its ties with Paradigm. There has been no official notice, and their own website continues to redirect all users who want information on the written exam to Paradigm’s website which shows outdated information where it claims that registration dates “…will be announced in the spring of 2018…” If this information is valid as of today, they better hurry up and publish the information before spring is no more.

I cannot help it but feel sorry for those whose lives have been on hold for several weeks while they wait to find out the exam dates and locations in order to make personal and professional arrangements to travel to the test sites.

If the exam has been postponed until further notice, please tell the interpreting community; if Paradigm is no longer the contractor for the written exam, please tell the interpreter community; if no details can be shared at this time because of pending litigation, please tell the interpreter community; If the negligent administration of the oral exam in 2017, and the decision to retest so many people will push the written exam into 2019, and if this will disrupt the regular 2-year cycles of  both oral and written exams, please tell the interpreter community.

This will make you look better and it will be a way to begin the road to recover credibility and trust. Remember, it is about transparency and accountability. Those at the AO must never forget they are the government. Those with the misfortune to take the oral test last year, and the ones suffering the uncertainty of the written test right now are the taxpayers.

We cannot lose sight of this unquestionable reality; dear friends and colleagues, we are protecting the profession, but we are also exercising our rights. To the handful of colleagues who feel intimidated by those who argue that the certification is not an entitlement and try to mask ineptitude and negligence when hiring Paradigm as a “technical difficulty”: Perhaps when you work within the government system for a long time you think that the federal government is some kind of a magnanimous god who favors court interpreters, also U.S. citizens, by granting them a certification. Do not be distracted by comments like the ones above. The real issue is transparency and accountability. The AO should come clean and explain why they hired Paradigm, admit fault, apologize, and communicate the way they plan to remedy this chaos, not only by telling those who took the exam they will now have a chance to retest. They must talk to those who want to take the written exam, and to the professional community.

Threats about pulling the exam are awful, distasteful, and baseless. The government cannot force the professional community into silence by threatening cancellation of the Spanish federal court interpreter certification program. They have not, and will not. These comments never came from an official source and should confuse no one. Navajo and Haitian-Creole certification programs were scratched because of docket and financial reasons. Spanish is used in all U.S. courts more than all other foreign languages combined. There is no rational justification to do something like that, so please ignore these rumors.

It is also important to remember that almost nobody who takes the federal court interpreter exam wants a guarantee to work in court. Sometimes staff court interpreters must be reminded that a federal certification is a means to prove skill and knowledge to many clients. The majority of the high-income earner interpreters I know make the bulk of their fees outside of court and work with a district court, making far less money, when they have no other assignment, or for personal reasons. A candidate who pays a fee to take a test has a right to demand performance in exchange for the fee. It is a service based on contractual obligations.

It is also of concern that people who are involved with voicing NAJIT’s policy or opinions have stated that this association with many members who took the oral test, who are waiting to take the written test, and who are voicing their anger with the way the AO has performed during this crisis, can claim that the Association has “no dog in that fight”. To be fair, this unfortunate comment came not from NAJIT’s Board and it has not been endorsed by the Association either.

Dear friends and colleagues, those of us who did not take the exam because we are already certified, or because our working languages do not include Spanish, or even those who practice our profession in other fields with nothing to do with the court system have a duty to defend and protect the profession, and a right to support our colleagues who were, and continue to be, affected by this negligent and careless actions. Resorting to smoke and mirrors like injecting Seltzer v. Foley is just a diversion tactic that will not work. That case questioned the rating criteria of the written exam; here the question is the ineptitude and negligence of those who hired Paradigm as the contractor in charge of administering the test, and the actions taken after the fact. Nobody has questioned the validity of the exam, nor the integrity of the raters. I have even said that I do not believe there was bad faith or the deliberate intent to cause harm by AO officials. All we are arguing is apparent negligence and ineptitude, and for that we are demanding transparency and accountability.

Implying that I have questioned the validity of the exam or the integrity of the raters only shows those who claim such things, and argue that people are angry because they did not pass the exam (even though no test results were out when these claims circulated in social media) have spread rumors without reading my posts.

Just like in other cases before: accreditation vs. certification of healthcare interpreters, exploitation of immigration court interpreters by a new language contractor, the court interpreter fiasco in the United Kingdom, the contractual and managing problems of the court interpreter program in New Mexico, abandoning the interpreters in conflict zones by Western Nations, the exploitation of telephonic interpreters by unscrupulous VRI service providers, and many others, I have no vested personal interest in these cases; it is nothing personal against government officials, language services agency owners, or professional associations; I just stand up, and will continue to stand up for the profession. I now ask you to share your comments on the written federal court interpreter exam of 2018. Please remember, personal attacks, disqualifications, foul language and surrogate defense of Paradigm, NAJIT, or the AO will not be posted.

2017: The biggest stain in U.S. court interpreting history.

May 7, 2018 § 29 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the United States we have recently spent many hours debating and researching about the validity and credibility of interpreter certifications in the healthcare sector. We have argued back and forth about accreditation, certification, and professional practice because we care about the profession. The debate left us all with a better understanding of our certification programs and the validity of both.

For many years the gold-standard of interpreter certifications in the United States was undoubtedly the federal court Spanish interpreter certification exam. It was known for its difficulty and low passing rate when compared to all other court and healthcare interpreter certification tests. During all those years we never thought that one day we would be forced to question this “queen of all American court interpreter exams”. Fortunately, we are not doubting the content of the exam. This has not changed. The unfortunate people who took the exam in 2017 was administered the same exam all federally certified Spanish court interpreters had to pass. The administration of the test, and handling its consequences after the fact was the fiasco.

Dear friends and colleagues, certification exams are of extraordinary importance in the United States; they are more relevant in our culture and value system than in other countries. While other systems put their credibility on the academic achievements of the new professional, traditionally, the United States has emphasized practice over theory and formal education. Some of our greatest lawyers never attended Law School, because in the United States it is passing the Attorney Bar Exam that matters. There are plenty of countries where people cannot practice a profession, or sit for a Bar or Board exam unless they first graduate from college.

This situation is even more important for professional interpreters practicing in the United States where most of our colleagues have no formal education, but they have demonstrated, by passing the certification test, that they are ready to practice as professionals. In Europe a university degree is essential; in America a certification is vital.

From all certifications, the federal court interpreter certification has been used to measure the competency level and skills of court interpreters in the United States. It is even used (erroneously in my opinion) by small and mid-size interpreting agencies to pick the interpreters they will hire to work in the booth.

We are all aware of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts’ historical failure in 2017 when they could not guarantee the integrity of the process and created a huge mess that impacts many.

After a deafening silence that went on for many long months, and the letter sent out in February which make the situation even worse, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts’ (AOUSC) sent out a carefully crafted, self-serving letter to those who took the exam in 2017 where they try to appease the interpreters by carefully telling a story on the best possible light for the AOUSC and informing them that, after all these months, they are fair and just, and will give those candidates whose exams were compromised to where no score could be determined, and to those who will be told they failed, a chance to retake the exam for free.

I was saddened by the reaction of some, fortunately a minority, of colleagues who celebrated this communication and praised the AOUSC as had they done something wonderful and worthy of recognition. I do not know how many of you have seen last week’s letter. I did, and I am not impressed:

The first paragraph of the April 27 letter refers to the mistakes on the way the exam was administered as “irregularities” softening the tone and making it more palatable. Then, they portray themselves as the ones who investigated for months what happened to finally conclude there were “irregularities”.

Next, the letter states: “…Over the past several months, the AO has worked with a team of trained raters who reviewed all candidate performances and psychometricians who analyzed the rater materials and examination administration data…” but it does not explain who those “trained raters” and “psychometricians “were. I am not doubting their credentials, and I am not feeling confident with their review of this mess because I just do not know who they were. Are we talking about the same colleagues who rated the exams originally, and if so, how many, who, what additional training they had to take to assess these incomplete exams? Were there independent contractors free to disagree with the findings of the AO, or were these staff interpreters who could be very capable, but could also have a conflict of interest when evaluating something that could affect the reputation and legitimacy of their employer. The letter says nothing about it. It looks like a letter prepared by a legal team, not a friendly communication to a professional group that has suffered the consequences of this poorly-run program for many months.

The self-serving tone of the letter continues when they affirm that based on their (mysteriously obtained) findings, 69 percent of the exams were validly administered and accurately scored (we still do not know how they arrived to the conclusion), and 31 percent suffered “irregularities”. My friends, 69 percent is an awful record. This clearly proves the ineptitude within the AO.

The next paragraph shows us the magnanimous nature of the AO: “…Candidates whose scores cannot be validly determined will be given the opportunity to re-take the oral examination free of charge. Moreover, given the findings of the investigation, the AO will also offer anyone who does not receive a passing score the opportunity to retake the oral examination free of charge…” This clearly tells us that the exam was a terrible mess and basically anybody who wants it, will have a second chance, this time without paying for the test, which is not the same as free of charge as we will discuss below. Do we have to believe that it took all these months to arrive to this decision? This should have been announced right after the multiple mistakes were known, not until now, unless there were other legal considerations we are not been told about, like litigation with Paradigm for example.

The letter ends with a blank apology and a reassurance they will preserve the high standards and fairness of the administration of the exam. Did I miss something? There is no admission of wrongdoing anywhere (typical in all letters prepared by a legal department) and there is a self-serving assurance that everything will be fine because they will preserve high standards and fairness. I would think that when your credibility is already in negative numbers (below zero) you would make a statement you will bring back the high standards and fair administration process that distinguished the exam. Right now nothing is good to preserve. Of course, they cannot say anything like this without admitting fault.

Finally, the 8-page attachment is a pseudo-scientific document with no details that plays down the mistakes that can be directly attributed to the AO, and basically throws Paradigm under the bus. Again, there is talk of irregularities, but there is no data on the scoring units, the specific criteria used to assess the exams, or anything that can reassure us this was a scientific work.

It is incredible how the letter and its attachment avoid naming Paradigm and stay away from words such as fault, responsibility, and negligence. This is because those are legal terms and the AO is getting ready for litigation.

Even though the AO has shared nothing on their relationship with Paradigm, there are strong rumors in social media and federal courthouses’ hallways that the relationship has been terminated. This would explain the delay on the “findings” contained on the April 27 letter, as the federal judiciary gets ready to sue their contractor and Paradigm fights for payment of their fees and other contractual terms.

The 2017 federal court interpreter examination saga leaves the federal judiciary stained, the profession wounded, and court interpreters in the worst situation they have faced in history. Unfortunately, there are others who are affected even more and will not benefit from the “Magnanimous letter of April 27”. We can divide them in three categories:

First, those colleagues who studied hard and will get a letter telling them they passed the test. These individuals have been agonizing for 7 months without knowing if they would have to retest. Many have continued to study for the test. All have been deprived from their earnings as federally certified court interpreters for months. They will never get back these months of their lives, and they will never perceive the professional fees they should have earned as federally certified court interpreters working for court districts, assistant US attorney’s offices, public defender’s offices, and private attorneys that retain federally certified court interpreters for many services from jail visits, to depositions, to witness preparation, to federal civil litigation.  They will never earn that income because of a government agency’s ineptitude and a bottom-feeder contractor’s gross negligence.

The second group includes those interpreters who took the test, and for no fault of their own, will now get the “magnanimous” opportunity to retest “free of charge”.  The problem is, my friends and colleagues, there is not such a thing as a “free exam”. The “luckiest” of this crowd will be able to retake the test in their hometown without paying for it, but they must turn down other assignments to take the test. This means they will lose income and that makes the exam far from “free of charge”. Next, you have the unfortunate unlucky ones whose sin was to leave in a town where the exam will not be offered. We all know colleagues who drove overnight, got on a plane, got a passport and then got on a plane, and then checked into a hotel to take the test. Nobody will reimburse them for those expenses, and many must cough up the money once again if they want to take the exam. Even if they AO expands the locations where the test will be administered, it is doubtful this will include those of our colleagues who traveled from abroad to take the test. Plane tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals, gas money, tolls, and lost income will make the retake of the exam a burden to these colleagues. To them, this will not be a “free of charge” exam.

The last group, often forgotten during this fiasco of epic proportions, are the freelance federally certified court interpreters retained by Paradigm, with the blessing of the AO, to rate the original exams. These distinguished colleagues put first the profession and agreed to rate the exams, even if the pay is little for such hard work, they were asked to purchase their plane tickets, book their hotel rooms, and cover their daily expenses while this rating was happening, with the promise of reimbursement when their raters’ fee was paid. It is only now that some of the raters are getting paid; others have not seen a penny yet; and nobody has been reimbursed for travel expenses disbursed 7 or 8 months ago.

Last week, Paradigm sent a letter to the raters explaining why some had not yet been paid, arguing some bureaucratic step that the raters needed to comply with: Sending an email to the individual in charge of this fiasco at Paradigm informing him of this payment.

Regarding reimbursement of expenses, this letter, dated May 4 states: “…Payment for travel and hotel expenses will be released after Paradigm receives verification of your receipt of payment for Rater hours. Meals and incidental expenses will follow…”  They are telling raters that they are not sending their checks quite yet.

Next, the letter includes a self-serving statement that should worry the raters: “…Paradigm is working to get Raters paid in-full within the next few weeks. This is contingent upon Raters providing confirmation of receipt of payments received and the AOC continuing to approve the invoiced items for payment…”

In other words, there is no hard date for these payments, and reimbursement is contingent to AOC’s approval. This would make me very nervous if there is litigation pending between the AO and Paradigm.

As you can see, the “magnanimous letter” is far from a happy ending to this fiasco. The future is uncertain. Nobody knows if the AO will ever share the real data behind what happened and a detailed scientific explanation of the exam assessment process, including those who did it.

The biggest problem and reason to be concerned is the lack of transparency. Interpreters must know who retained Paradigm to administer the test. How was the bidding process; who were the other bidders, how low was the winning bid; who decided in the AO that Paradigm was qualified to administer an exam like the federal court interpreter certification test for Spanish interpreters? Why the credentials of a testing entity like Paradigm, which mainly proctors high school tests to monolingual students were appropriate for this bilingual professional test? There was ineptitude and negligence during this decision making process, and there was gross incompetence when dealing with the aftermath.

Those responsible should pay the consequences. Only then trust will be restored and people will believe the AO once again. In sports, when a team is not performing the coach is fired.

It is doubtful that the AO will come clean and provide all these records to the public. They have no legal obligation to disclose everything, but their moral duty compels them to do so. Without good faith, trust will continue to erode, and interpreters will be left with fewer and more distasteful options such as a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) to see how the process happened; even though the process would be lengthy and the information released will be tittle more than the documents they already published. Those with standing can also sue the AO, but they must do it quickly, since the Federal Tort Act gives only 2 years to do so, and the process must start through an administrative channel. Also, the result of this legal action, even if successful, is limited by legislation and case law.

Perhaps a better option would be to sue Paradigm, its employees, and the AO’s officers as individuals (which is permitted) for damages under the contributory negligence by all defendants’ theory. This way, interpreters would learn more about the steps that lead to this fiasco from the discovery that the parties would have to turn over to the plaintiff. Also, damages awarded can include punitive damages.

I could not end this post without mentioning how the candidates who took the test, the raters who have not been paid, and the court interpreter profession were abandoned by their professional organizations during this struggle. It is sad to see how the current Board of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) abandoned its members by sitting on their hands and remain silent. It was until May 2, after the “Magnanimous letter” was made public, that the Board issued a self-serving harmless statement indicating that they were “…very much aware of the issue surrounding the federal exam…” and how they “are continuing to monitor the events as they unfold in June…” In other words, the national association with the most members directly affected, issues a communication after the fact even more sanitized than the AO’s. The latter called the fiasco “irregularities”; NAJIT could not even say that and called it an “issue”. Without any investigation, they have concluded that in their “opinion” “the AO is acting in good faith in what is an unfortunate set of circumstances”.  Again, this Board sided with the establishment instead of the profession and its own members. Nobody has suggested bad faith from anyone at the AO; the issue (correctly used in this context) is negligence. NAJIT is also telling those attending its annual conference that the AO will address court interpreters but not for a session “…geared toward the federal oral exam and its administration…” They want the AO there, but they will not pursue the federal exam fiasco as the topic to be discussed. That should not be because it could be uncomfortable to the AO, but because it will probably benefit the members more to talk about how many cases were interpreted last year, an interpreter directory, or other vital issues no doubt more important than the biggest stain in court interpreting history. We can only vote and hope to elect a NAJIT Board that will write position papers, hold round tables on the most pressing issues that impact the profession, as it had been the tradition before. It was just 2 years ago, under another Board, that we held a panel on immigration court interpreting that helped to change things to a better situation today. NAJIT is not a labor union and we do not expect it to act like one. We hope it goes back to its role representing the professional interests of its membership while defending the integrity of the profession.

It is time for all court interpreters to think and question those things that go wrong to change them. Treating interpreters as ignorant people, who should be grateful to the AO for letting everyone retest after 7 months of agony following a test that will go down in history as a monument to ineptitude and negligence, with no transparency and accountability is just unacceptable. I now invite you to comment, in the understanding that comments defending the AO or Paradigm will not be posted unless they come from an official source.

What is going on with the federal court interpreter certification test results?

February 20, 2018 § 73 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The federal court interpreter certification is the highest credential a Spanish court interpreter can have in the United States.  Unfortunately, the exam is not available in other languages, but it has historically separated good court interpreters from mediocrity in the legal arena. Fortunately, the exam has been difficult and very demanding through the years, and the result has been a group of better prepared court interpreters who demonstrated they have the minimum knowledge and skill needed in a courtroom. A test this difficult will always have its detractors and there have been plenty of these disgruntled individuals who attribute their failure to pass the test to everything under the sun but their own lack of skills. This is acceptable, and it reinforces that the content of the exam is the right one.

Unfortunately, recent changes, not to the exam contents, but to the way it is administered and graded, have put into question the reliability of the results.

It started a few years ago when, undoubtedly for budgetary reasons, it was decided to reduce the number of exam graders from three to two. It is hard to understand why any deliberating group would ever go from an odd number of decision-makers to an even number, but that happened. Please notice I am not bringing up an earlier change on the administration of the exam when in-person examiners were substituted by a recording device because I believe that change was positive because all candidates listened to the same recordings, and it allow graders to rewind and listen an utterance as many times as needed. This change resulted in a fair exam.

The biggest irregularities happened last September when the exam was administered for the first time by Paradigm Testing, who presumably outbid the former test administrator. While this newcomer to the court interpreter testing arena brought changes and innovations designed to save money, it also imposed an undue burden on the examination candidates. We have all heard many complaints about practice/training exams arriving late, poorly given instructions on operating the testing equipment, proctors staying outside of the exam room making it impossible for candidates to ask questions or report problems on a time-sensitive examination. We all know about the faulty internet connections that took away precious time needed to complete the test; and we all know stories about the infamous click button during the consecutive rendition where examinees had to click a button twice in a small pop-up window for each utterance, and then quickly pick up the pen or pencil and sort papers to get ready for the next utterance. Even the ergonomics was a big concern since the candidates were forced to keep their writing materials to the side because the laptop was directly in front, sometimes taking over most of the space on the table. I always believe that proctors were not just there to police the examinee, but also to facilitate the process.

No doubt these irregularities resulted in some questionable test results for some, perhaps many, of the candidates. I wonder if this is the reason the results of a test taken in September have not been disclosed yet. The Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination for Spanish/English Examinee Handbook states: “…C. Score Reporting Procedures and Timelines… Oral Examination: Scores will be available approximately three months after the administration of the oral examination, and will be sent to the e-mail address provided during registration. The Director of the AO will confer certification on candidates who pass the oral examination, usually within four months following the examination…” (Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination for Spanish/English Examinee Handbook, updated June 1, 2017. Page 4)

Two very important deadlines were missed by Paradigm Testing: Results must be in the candidate’s e-mail box in approximately three months! The exam was in September 2017. It has been over five months. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts had to issue proof of certification to those who passed the test four months after the exam! The AO is in default also. This is very troubling as we all know that the exams were graded last year.

The grading of the exam is another issue that should concern us all. First the reduction from three to two graders, and now a tendency to bring in as graders more staff interpreters than freelancers. This is a matter to be considered as well.  Staff court interpreters are federally certified, and the ones invited to grade the test are very capable professionals. However, they bring to the table certain perspective and limited experience in many areas of the law when compared to freelancers. Most staff interpreters do a magnificent job interpreting those issues that involve federal legislation. Freelancers contribute a broader knowledge and a different perspective. Does this matter? Are they going to test the examinee on non-federal matters? Of course not, but unlike the staff interpreter, the freelancer may tell if a candidate did not know the subject, or just made the mistake of treating it like a local matter. The real issue is, freelancers are more expensive because they must be paid; staffers are getting the same paycheck they would get anyway. Reality shows that many interpreters are not finding grading the exam attractive anymore because they get paid little for the amount of work.

I hope that last September test results are published soon, and they better be free of controversy for the sake of those who took the exam, and for the future of the once very reliable federal certification program. I now invite you to share your stories and thoughts on this very serious matter.

Questions of a court interpreting student. Part 2.

June 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I received a message from one of my students of court interpreting in Mexico City. With the new oral trial system that is now being implemented in Mexico there will be many opportunities for interpreters to find assignments in court settings, so she is considering becoming a court interpreter when she graduates from college. She researched the matter, and as she was getting deeper into the world of court interpreting she decided to contact me with some of her doubts. Her questions were very good, so I thought about responding through the blog so that others, in Mexico and elsewhere, with the same or similar concerns could learn a little more about this area of the profession. I asked her if this was an acceptable way to answer her questions, she said yes, so I wrote down my answers. As I was responding to the questions I realized that this would be a lengthy post so I decided to divide it in two parts. Part 1 was posted two weeks ago. I now invite you to read the rest of my answers to her questions.

  • What do you do as a court interpreter when a legal concept in the target language is similar, but not equivalent, to a legal concept in the source language or vice versa? Do you explain it? How do you get the knowledge to identify equivalences or similarities if you studied law?

There are many times when the interpreter faces a situation where there are similar legal concepts but the exact legal term or figure does not exist in the other language. This happens more often between languages from countries that have different legal systems: written Roman Law versus oral Common Law. The general rule for the interpreter is that she does not have to explain or define anything. It is the attorneys’ job and duty to explain the law not only to their client, but if needed, to the court interpreter so she can do her job. In a situation where a competent interpreter who has done her homework runs into a legal concept that she does not understand, she must research it and study it as part of her preparation for the case, and if there is no time for that, she has to inform it to the judge or attorney, depending on the interpreters function in the particular proceeding, so the legal term can be explained to her. Many times the explanation will allow the interpreter to find the correct term in the target language. Interpreters, who have studied Law as your question says, have the advantage of knowing and understanding legal figures and terms without any explanation. If this is the case, and the interpreter is ambitious, she can study the legal figure from the country where she did not study law and this way find a better solution to her problem. This is one of the reasons why most legal systems require interpreters to comply with continuing education requirements. Fortunately for you, with the new legal system being implemented nationwide, Mexican court interpreters will not find this situation very often anymore.

  • What happens when someone, the judge, prosecutor, or defense, realize that the interpretation is wrong or misleading? Is the interpreter penalized, and if so, what sanctions does he face?

Interpreters are human and they perform one of the most difficult tasks in the world. Court interpreting is so complex, that most court systems in the world are now requiring team interpreting for all hearings lasting over an hour. Any interpreter can unintentionally make a mistake and we all do at some point. It is what the interpreter does after the mistake that makes the situation irrelevant or serious. In most countries, mistakes due to bad acoustics, poor delivery by the speaker, interpreter fatigue, etc., can be easily corrected by an observation on the record amending the mistake. Other more serious mistakes due to a complex legal concept or a lack of context may be more relevant but they can also be cured by a correction as previously stated or by an admonition by the judge. Mistakes due to the interpreter’s ignorance can be corrected by the other member of the team who will discuss the discrepancy with the interpreter who made the mistake, and then together the team informs the court, outside the presence of the jury, that there was a mistake, the circumstances are explained, and if necessary, the judge will admonish the jury, and the attorneys will draft a special instruction for the jury that the judge will read at the end of the trial. On rare occasion the error could be so serious that there needs to be a mistrial. I can only recall one case but that particular case was really a judge’s error and not an interpreter’s. The interpreter who made the mistake can be sanctioned depending on the seriousness of the mistake and the applicable law. In general, sanctions could range from an informal reprimand to a temporary suspension followed by a probation period, to permanent revocation of the certification, patent or license. There is usually a formal procedure that includes notice and hearing, and the interpreter is allowed to retain the services of an attorney. Depending on the magnitude of the mistake there could be civil responsibility and the interpreter may be required to pay a fine and damages. This can only happen when ordered by a judge or jury after a civil lawsuit where the interpreter will be allowed to present witnesses and legal arguments through an attorney if he wishes to do so. Like all professionals, interpreters are encouraged to carry civil liability insurance (errors and omissions). If covered, the interpreter will be represented by the insurance attorneys and in most cases all he needs to do is to pay his deductible.

When the mistake is really an intentional act by the interpreter to defraud or mislead another individual, he could face criminal charges, and if convicted, he could go to prison.

  • Are there laws or regulations that state the requirements that need to be met to perform as a court interpreter, and are there any written duties and rights?

All countries that employ the services of court interpreters as part of their judicial process have legislation that sets the minimum requirements to qualify as a court interpreter and to maintain that status. There are also authorities that regulate the profession setting procedures, protocols, responsibilities and rights. There are also ethical canons, and professional responsibility norms that control the way the services are provided. Some countries, like Mexico, are currently in the process of developing these legislation and regulations where all of the interpreter’s duties, responsibilities, work conditions and rights will be included. In the United States there are two levels of legislation and regulatory agencies: the federal level with the United States Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and the Federal Court Interpreter Act as the legal basis, and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) as the implementing federal agency. All states either have or are in the process of developing court interpreter legislation, and they all have a state-level Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) as their implementing agency. In Europe the legal foundation is twofold: it comes from the Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Rights to Interpretation and to Translation in Criminal Proceedings, and from the county-by-country legislation. Court interpreters in Europe have joined forces to ensure access to justice by the founding of the European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association (EULITA). In Canada it is the provincial regulatory bodies that grant the certifications and the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council (CTTIC) applies uniform standards across Canada. Most regulations and rules set minimum fees for court interpreters and basic work conditions.

  • Some government court interpreting websites talk about working with certified and non-certified interpreters; why is that, and what advantages and disadvantages does that bring to the defense, prosecution/plaintiff, or judges?

The only acceptable option is that of a certified interpreter who has studied, tested, and proven to be able to provide the service. This however, is easier to do in smaller countries where there is not a wide variety of languages as there are in a country the size of the United States. In other words, the reason why you see non-certified interpreters even mentioned in these websites is because of the lack of interpreters. It is important to separate non-certified interpreters who work in languages where there is a certification program from those interpreters who work with languages with no certification program. For example, the United States has certification exams for three languages: Spanish, Haitian-Creole, and Navajo; at this time it only offers federal certification for Spanish interpreters, so it is understandable why a very good Russian interpreter is not federally certified. You cannot call them federally certified, but you cannot group them with the Spanish interpreters who failed the federal certification test and by that fact have demonstrated a lack of the minimum requirements to work in federal court in the United States. Depending on their own realities, some states offer certification in certain language combinations and other states do not. There are also administrative law courts in the United States, and remote courthouses in very little towns where there are no certified Spanish interpreters but there are many Spanish speaking litigants because it may be an agricultural center where many immigrants live. The dilemma appears when the system is confronted by a Constitutional mandate to provide interpreter services and a reality that says there aren’t any. It is for these cases that non-certified interpreters are used. In the United States this is happening less at the federal level in Spanish language cases because of new technology that allows a certified interpreter to provide her services remotely from a big city. Certified court interpreters are physically transported to the small towns if the case goes to trial or a long complex hearing is held. Speaking of Spanish court interpreters, the advantage this “compromise” brings to the parties, and in my opinion it is a very questionable one, is that they have an interpreter, they will at least have the best that was found, and the court can always stop the proceeding and demand a certified interpreter be provided either remotely or in person. The disadvantages are obvious: The court and parties will not have an interpreter that at least meets the basic requirements to work in federal court (a certification) The situation worsens when you see courts and attorneys hiring these marginal para-professionals when real certified court interpreters are available solely to save money as these individuals will usually (although not always) be cheaper than a certified court interpreter. There is also another problem in the United States and other countries that will hopefully be avoided in Mexico through legislation: Because the U.S. is a free society, there are plenty of language agencies, language “academies”, and “professional” associations who offer their own self-serving certification so that their lower-level “interpreters” can present themselves as “certified” or “licensed” and make the client believe that they are hiring somebody with professional credentials. There are those who justify this practice for what they call “lesser court cases” such as administrative court proceedings. I completely oppose this practice and I have written and spoken extensively against it.

  • There are some suggested self-study techniques to become a good court interpreter, such as expanding your vocabulary, developing your own glossaries, developing your own interpreter techniques, and others. Do you have any tips or advice on how to do it?

I already addressed part of this question in Part 1 of this post when I discussed some of the things that a student can do to become a better court interpreter. I would add that you can expand your vocabulary by picking ten new words from the dictionary every weekday. At the end of a week you will know fifty new words; you will probably remember 15 to 20 and that will be a net increase of 20 words per week. Not bad. I would do the same with legal terminology. Pick a topic and learn the terms. By week’s end you will remember about twenty percent of what you studied and you will have a much better understanding of that legal figure: a contract, court proceeding, corporate document, etc. You can also develop your thematic glossaries; I would do a different one every month and I would use an application for that. I personally use Interplex because I have been using it for many years so I am used to it; I also like the fact that it is compatible with your telephone and tablet so you can have the glossaries with you anywhere you go. Finally, I suggest that when you watch a real court proceeding or when you go to a courthouse to watch a trial in person, you practice your rendition (in court under your breath of course) and when you do so, pay attention to those things that work for you, and develop them; this could be the way you come up with your own personalized note-taking system. When doing this, many years ago, I realized that it was easier for me to remember numbers and figures if I could associate them to the numbers of the jerseys of professional athletes. I am a big sports fan and I have always naturally remembered the players’ numbers, so for me it is very easy to remember an address let’s say on 3272 Main Street, if all I have to do is to remember Franco Harris (32) Mickey Mantle (7) Derek Jeter (2) Main Street. I know this system only works for me, but it works very well, and I came up with it by developing my own personalized technique.

I hope these answers helped you on your quest to become a court interpreter, and I hope they helped others in Mexico and elsewhere, including the United States, who are considering this profession. I also invite all of you to share with the rest of us any other suggestions or input you may have on any of the ten questions. I would love to hear from students, new interpreters, veterans of the profession; anybody who may be interested in helping the next generation to get there.

Big change to the way the federal court interpreter exam is rated in the U.S.

July 22, 2013 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As I write this posting many of my friends, colleagues, and students are taking the toughest court interpreter exam in the United States: The federal court interpreter certification test. There are other court or legal exams given by government agencies at the federal and state level, and even the private sector has designed some interpreter exams, but no test is as demanding as the federal certification exam.  This week, just like one summer week every two years since the test has been in place, hundreds of Spanish-English interpreters: veterans, newly graduated, newcomers to the United States, and many others who previously passed the written test (at least one year earlier) are culminating months on study, practice and psychological preparation as they leave their hometown and travel to some of the largest cities in the country to have their skills  tested for some forty five minutes. During that period of time they will attempt to demonstrate that they are ready to interpret simultaneously, consecutively, and to sight-translate in the United States federal courts.

Within the profession it is very well known that this is not an easy exam; in fact, the passing rate of the attorney bar exam is substantially higher than the federal court interpreter certification test.  As someone who has gone through both exams I can even say that it is harder to get certified as an interpreter.  Traditionally there have been two systems to rate the examinee’s rendition: For many years the test was administered orally before a live jury of three certified interpreters who would rate the applicant’s performance.  Years later the system changed to a recorded test where the examinee would sit in a room with a proctor and record the rendition. Afterwards, the recording was reviewed by a team of three certified interpreters that would rate the performance based on the recorded material.  This year, for the first time ever, the renditions will be rated not by a jury of three certified interpreters, but by teams of two.

This change is as radical as the switch from a live oral test to a recorded one.  Generally in life we encounter all kinds of panels, juries, and other deliberation groups that consist of an odd number of members, and there is a reason for that configuration: You eliminate the possibility of a tie, you discard the scenarios where an even number of people can agree to one thing and at the same time another even number of people agree to another making a majority decision very difficult.  The odd number gives you unanimity or a tie breaker. In other words, it assures you that there will be a final decision. In the case of the federal court examination a final vote of 3-0 or 2-1.

The new system will no doubt result in many unanimous decisions of pass or fail, but there will be ties, and when the two raters cannot reach a consensus the exam will be sent to another panel who will rate it and decide.  The system seems fair, I am not so sure that it will be as quick and efficient as the 3-rater panel, but it seems like a reasonable solution to a tie.  I know many of the raters and as far as I can tell, an overwhelming majority have rated exams in the past; many of these interpreter-raters have scored tests under the two previous systems and most of them have demonstrated to be fair and capable.  I do not believe that this will make the exam easier or more difficult, I don’t know if this will make it more efficient, and I don’t know yet if this will make it as fair as it has always been in the past. Everything indicates that it will be fine, but to know for sure we have to wait and see. I will be carefully watching the outcome as I am interested to see not only if more people fail under this new system, but also if more people pass. Big changes one way or the other could be a symptom that something is not as it was before.  I give them the benefit of the doubt and today I assume that everything will be fine; it is just that a jury of two looks a bit strange.  Please share your thoughts on the test and this new rating system.

Are federally certified court interpreters any good? Maybe the NAJIT conference had the answer.

May 20, 2013 § 17 Comments

Dear colleagues:

When you go to the doctor, retain an attorney, get on an airplane, or hire a plumber, you want them to be honest, good, and competent. So do I; So does society. That is why there are laws and regulations that require they go to school, get a professional license, and comply with continuing training and education.  Even when a person reaches a certain age, he has to go back periodically to the Motor Vehicle Division to be retested in order to continue to drive. Interpreters are no exception. Almost everywhere in the United States where a State offers a certification program, its interpreters must comply with continuing education requirements to keep their certification. Translators need to do the same to maintain their certification with the American Translators Association.  It sounds logical right? It makes sense.

Over the weekend the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) held its annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri. This is a yearly event and it is the only one of its kind. NAJIT is the only national professional association for judiciary interpreters in the United States. There are many state, regional, and local organizations that meet regularly and offer training and educational opportunities to their members, but no other one offers this service at the national level.  Every year the conference takes place at a different location and offers a variety of workshops and presentations so that all judiciary interpreters and translators can better themselves and meet their continuing education requirements with their respective states.

As the main gathering of judiciary interpreters, NAJIT attracts some of the key players in the industry, including the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. This is the federal agency that runs the federal court interpreter certification program.  Every year this presentation brings federally certified interpreters up to speed on everything that is happening in the federal interpreter program through a presentation and an open question and answer session with the government officials who know the subject. The presentation was held as scheduled and Mr. Javier Soler and Ms. Julie Meeks were there sharing statistics and information; answering questions, dissipating doubts. Unfortunately, and in my opinion very sadly, only a handful of federally certified court interpreters were there.  There are almost one thousand federally certified court interpreters in the United States and there were less than twenty in attendance! Other sessions held simultaneously in the other conference rooms were full of state-certified court interpreters who were attending the St. Louis conference because they wanted to improve their skills but also because they needed the continuing education credits for their respective State Administrative Office of the Courts.  Of course, there room was not that empty, there were many people without a federal certification who were attending Mr. Soler’s and Ms. Meeks’presentation because they wanted to learn.  And they did learn something that was discussed for the next two days in the hallways of the hotel where the conference took place: Federally certified court interpreters do not need continuing education credits to keep their certification current.  Those non-certified interpreters in attendance learned something they didn’t expect, tweets on this issue were the conference’s most re-tweeted throughout Europe where 2 other conferences were held on the same weekend. I knew this information. I have always known this information, but as I looked around a room with just a few colleagues, many non-certified attendees, and a tweet practically going viral, I understood why the federally certified court interpreters weren’t there, listening to the representative of the government agency that regulates what they do and travels half a continent every year to come to see them: No motivation. No need. The only court interpreters who were not attending the conference, and particularly this session were the federal interpreters. The only ones who do not need to comply with continuing education.

Let me explain: Unless an interpreter complies with the State of Colorado’s continuing education requirements, he cannot interpret for a defendant who has been accused of driving without a license and proof of car insurance in Pueblo Colorado. Unless an interpreter complies with the State of New Mexico’s continuing education requirements, she cannot interpret for a defendant who has been accused of duck-hunting without a permit in Estancia New Mexico.  A federally certified court interpreter who has never attended a class of ethics or a legal terminology presentation in his lifetime can interpret for a defendant who has been charged with running the biggest organized crime operation in the history of the United States.  The first two examples are misdemeanor charges that carry a fine, and under some circumstances a brief stay behind bars. The individual in the last example could be facing life in prison.

The judicial branch of the United States government is facing tough times; these are difficult days and they have to watch a smaller budget. So do the individual states.  It is very true that continuing education is expensive. It is expensive to provide the education and training. It is expensive to verify compliance and to keep a record… but there are ways…

There are surely other options, but these are my 2 cents:

Some states honor the continuing education provided by already well-established organizations and associations at the national, regional, state, and local levels. ATA does the same.  The cost to the federal government would be zero if they decided to honor credits obtained at a NAJIT, ATA, or other well-recognized conference in the United States, including some state conferences such as California’s Nebraska’s, New Mexico, and others. They could also honor credits from attending well-known prestigious international and foreign professional organizations such as FIT, FIL/OMT in Mexico, ASETRAD in Spain, and others; and they could also consider the classes taught at institutions like MIIS, University of Arizona, University of Maryland, and others.  All of the conferences and organizations above offer training and presentations on ethics, skills-building, terminology, practices, technology, and many more.

The reporting of the courses attended could be on an honor basis as many states do at this time. After all, federally certified court interpreters are professionals with moral solvency who periodically undergo criminal background checks. They are officers of the court!  These credits could be reported by answering and signing a form at the same time contractors renew their contract every year and staffers undergo their evaluation.  And to keep a central record, all interpreters would have to input this information into the system once a year by accessing and updating their personal information on the national court interpreter database system (NCID) that already exists and we access every time we change our address or modify our resume.

Federal interpreters are honest, professional and capable individuals who love their trade and take pride on their work. They would happily embrace this change and comply. After all, many are already doing it for their state and ATA certifications.  Please let me know your opinion and ideas on this crucial topic.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with AO at The Professional Interpreter.