July 6, 2021 § 2 Comments
Several weeks ago, federally certified Spanish court interpreters in the United States received a questionnaire from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts asking for opinions and suggestions for a new version of the certification exam. This was a welcomed move for two reasons: The government is thinking of updating the exam so it reflects the present condition of our society, and they thought about asking those who work in that environment: the Spanish interpreters.
I liked the idea of modernizing the test as a positive step by the USAOC, especially during these uncertain days of an almost post-pandemic America, and the confusion among exam candidates about the oral exam dates with an official version on the AOC website indicating December as the month of the exam, and rumors, and perhaps emails, circulating around stating the exam will be early next year. Now back to the exam:
The new version of the exam needs to continue the same proportions and format of the current versions, including two sight translation exercises: one from English into Spanish involving a quasi-legal document, and one from Spanish into English involving a legal document; two simultaneous interpreting exercises: a monologue in English at a normal speed of 140 words per minute in average, and a bi-directional dialogue of a legal or scientific direct examination of an expert witness at a speed of 160 words per minute in average. Finally, the exam should have one 15-minute-long bi-directional consecutive interpretation exercise with at least two somewhat long segments, at least one “laundry list” of items, and some idiomatic expressions and obscenities.
This means leaving the exam as it is in format, but updating its content to reflect the world where we now live. The exercises must mention technology, update situations and circumstances to reflect concepts like internet, computers, globalization. If the old version of the exam included situations involving a telephone or a typewriter, the new version should replace them with a cellular phone and a computer for example.
The exam needs to test beyond criminal law and procedure, exercises must include civil law and procedure, and some international law that falls under the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary, like extradition proceedings and international child abductions.
More important, the exam needs to mirror social changes, reflect gender equality, and include diversity of speech and culture. English dialogues should not be limited to the English spoken by white Americans; it must include the English spoken by African Americans and Hispanic Americans. It needs to expand its Spanish dialogues and idiomatic expressions beyond Mexico, and encompass not only expressions and cultural references to other Latin American countries, but it also needs to incorporate the Spanish spoken in Spain, and the unique Spanish spoken in the United States.
There are certain things the AOC questionnaire included that, although important, must stay out of this exam.
Legal translation is an important subject, but other than sight translation exercises, a court interpreter certification exam must stay away from testing candidates on translation. Translation is a different profession and it requires different skills, experience, and knowledge. A good number of court interpreters translate, but the government needs to develop a separate translation exam if it wants to certify translation skills. Translation needs writing, it needs an exhausting, extensive, comprehensive exam at the same level as the interpretation exam now offered. You cannot certify a translator through a section of an interpreting exam, and you should not expect interpreters to translate. These are two professions and they need two exams. Those of you who have taken translation exams in college or certification exams such as the one offered by the American Translators Association, know it is impossible to test translation skills by adding a section to a different discipline’s exam. This would not be appropriate as it would misguide on the actual skill level of the candidate, and it would not be fair to the interpreters, who have studied and trained as such, not as translators.
Including a section to test interpreters’ transcription skills was also floated around. Even though transcription may not be considered a different profession the way translation is, it also goes beyond the skills that need to be tested to become a certified court interpreter. It is a reality that federal courts require of transcription services, and some interpreters transcribe wiretaps, telephone calls, police interviews, and other voice and video recorded interactions, but most interpreters do not transcribe; they find it boring, time-consuming, poorly remunerated for the work involved, or they simply dislike it. Unlike consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, it is not part of what makes an individual a court interpreter.
Transcription is a specialized service and should be treated as such. If the Administrative Office of the United States Courts wants to certify transcribers, it should develop a separate test to be offered as an additional exam to those already certified as court interpreters who want to specialize. It cannot be part of an interpreter certification exam, and by the way, it should be remunerated in terms of time spent for a recorded minute, nut lumped with the full or half a day pay interpreters receive from interpreting in court.
Updating the certification exam is an excellent idea. Considering a certification for court translators and court transcribers is also a good point, but commingling these other disciplines with court interpreting is a mistake. There is plenty to be tested in a traditional interpreter certification exam; things could be added and improved without expanding to other professions. Let’s fix the exam, but from the beginning, let’s get it right.
I now invite you to share your ideas about the modernization of the court interpreter exam, and those interpreting modalities you believe must be included.
February 22, 2017 § 1 Comment
For years, and especially during the past few months, there has been a lot of talk about the communities of foreign-born individuals who are physically present in the United States. All aspects of their lives have been debated and scrutinized: from their immigration status to their religion, from their ethnic origin, to the language they speak at home. Many articles have been written, and many discussions have been held about their right to stay in the country, the impact they have on the economy, and the actions of the federal government regarding their admission to the United States and the exclusion proceedings instituted against them. The policy the federal government has adopted towards foreign-born individuals in the United States has been rightfully questioned, criticized and denounced.
As interpreters, we deal with foreign-born people on a daily basis. We see what happens at the immigration courts (EOIR), the United States Immigration and Citizen Services’ (USCIS) interviews, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hearings, and the federal judicial system. The news are not always good, but at least they are on the spotlight. Scandals such as SOSi’s abhorrent practices towards immigration court interpreters, the White House’s six-country travel ban, and the talk about the wall between Mexico and the U.S. are forcing the issue, and eventually things will have to change.
Unfortunately, foreign-born individuals physically present in the United States as immigrants, non-immigrants, and undocumented, face another terrible injustice that is turning into a reality, and eventually it could become an everyday threat: I am referring to a practice followed by state courts in many places that is gaining popularity and acceptance by the establishment, sometimes due to ignorance or indifference, and many times because of incompetence and greed.
This modern form of potential discrimination by state-level Administrative Offices of the Courts against people whose first language is not English has to do with access to justice: It is evident to me that state governments could be systematically discriminating against people who lack fluency, or do not speak English, by denying them the services of certified court interpreters in languages with a certification program, just because state government officials want to save money.
It is undeniable that those states where the language access program is not managed by a professional interpreter are at a tremendous disadvantage because there is a person with neither knowledge nor interpreting background at the helm; but the problem is even worse. Some states where the head of the program is an interpreter, and many state-level courthouses with full and part-time staff interpreters are just passively allowing for this to happen without moving a finger for fear to lose their jobs.
The potentially discriminatory practice goes like this:
During the Obama administration, state-level courts were made aware of the fact that the federal government was going finally to enforce, after almost forty years, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which allows the withholding of federal funds dedicated to the states when the latter do not provide universal access to all the services offered, even if some accommodations need to be made in order to avoid discrimination based on many categories, among them not being able to speak, or fluently speak English. This included all state-level courts.
Before this development many states were running court interpreter certification programs. California had its own program, and in July 1995 Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington State founded a consortium. Other states joined the consortium, and many states began to offer the services of certified court interpreters for criminal cases. A handful of states even provided certified court interpreters for certain litigants in civil cases. Unfortunately, lack of vision by the Administrative Offices of State Courts and by State Legislatures made the profession’s growth difficult because they refused to pay certified court interpreters a professional fee commensurate to the difficult, and sometimes dangerous, services provided.
This reality, coupled with judges’ ignorance that permitted non-certified court interpreters to appear in court, even though the needed language pair has a certification program, and certified interpreters were available, created an exodus of many of the best interpreters who migrated to more profitable interpreting fields, and made the profession less than attractive to new generations.
When the notice of enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act arrived, the states were faced with the possibility of losing huge amounts of money from the federal government. They knew that to save “their” money, they would need to provide access to justice to all individuals who did not speak English.
They finally realized what they had done (although they did not recognized it, or refused to acknowledge their fault). There were not enough interpreters to fulfill the federal mandate, and they did not want to lose their subsidies!
The best thoughtful solution to this problem would have been to boost the popularity of court interpreting as a profession by actively promoting the career and by making it more appealing. Responsible States would have developed a plan to encourage teaching of court interpreting at universities, colleges and community colleges. They needed to launch a campaign among high school students informing them of the potential opportunities as certified court interpreters. They needed to increase the times they offered their certification examinations, and they needed to pay an attractive professional fee, with cost of living adjustments, to all certified court interpreters. They needed to do this by lobbying State Legislatures for more funds, and if unsuccessful, by cutting or reducing other non-essential services and devoting those resources to the certified interpreter program. It was a matter of priorities and doing the right thing.
This did not happen. Instead of doing these things, state officials got together to see how they could keep the federal money coming their way. This is how the states came up with the Language Access Services Section (LASS), the Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC). A system designed to protect their federal funds while giving the appearance of granting language access to all foreign-language speakers in State-court systems.
As a result of these developments, states opted for the easiest and cheapest solution, which basically follows three major principles: (1) Use video remote interpreting (VRI) as much as possible to reduce costs of an in-person interpreting service, and pay less to the interpreter as they would get paid by the minute, or in more “generous” states by the hour at a much reduced fee; (2) Use all those who demonstrated that they are not fit to become certified court interpreters, by creating a “new classification” of “credentialed interpreters” (Nevada) or “Justice System interpreters” (New Mexico) so that individuals who failed the court interpreter certification exam can work interpreting court proceedings; and (3) Use certified court interpreters as little as possible, while giving the appearance that these questionable new classifications had to be retained because no certified court interpreter was “reasonably available” to do the job.
This is happening in many states, and I ask you to please include in the comment section a report of what is going on in your own states. Because what is currently taking place in Nevada and New Mexico has come to my attention, I will share the main points with all of you.
The Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts is considering implementing this new category of paraprofessionals by rewarding those who fail the court interpreter certification test with access to work in court as interpreters. These decisions are being considered by the Nevada Court Interpreter Advisory Committee which is integrated by judges and administrators, and no independent certified court interpreter is part of the committee. Interpreters do not get notice of the Committee meetings, and so far, the person in charge of the interpreter program at the Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts apparently has shown no desire to inform interpreters ahead of time so they can at least attend the meetings.
Nevada courts use the services of way cheaper paraprofessional non-certified court interpreters even when certified ones are available, and currently, this state’s certified court interpreters are among the lowest paid interpreters in the country, despite the fact that judges and administrators make six figure salaries in Nevada. It is clear that there is a problem with the state judiciary’s priorities.
The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts is already rewarding those who fail the court interpreter exam by using the services of these much cheaper paraprofessional “justice System interpreters” (JSI) even when certified court interpreters are available. Under the excuse of unsuccessfully attempting to find a certified court interpreter, they are retaining the services of these individuals even when certified court interpreters were ready and willing to do the job. The State is also resorting to the way cheaper video remote interpreting (VRI) even when interpreters appear from other states and are not familiar with New Mexico law and procedure. It is very concerning that they are using this system and these interpreters for hearings of such importance as sentencing hearings.
The New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee does include a disproportionate minority of independent interpreters; however, it is said that its meetings are sometimes hostile towards independent interpreters who raise objections to the dismantling of the certified court interpreter program, and that some interpreters have been refused work in the state court system even after all possible grounds for denial have been dissipated and proved unfounded.
Despite the fact that judges and the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts make six figure salaries, New Mexico certified court interpreters have not seen a fee adjustment in a number of years, their expense reimbursements have been significantly reduced, and instead of having a professional relationship with a judiciary that makes an effort to prioritize access to justice and find funds to do it, they have been warned by the AOC that there is no money. They face an administration with an attitude that could be interpreted as contempt towards foreign language litigants, moved by a philosophy at the top that apparently believes that the AOC only has a legal obligation to provide “an interpreter”, not a certified court interpreter. To me, this is the pull the rabbit out of the hat principle where you create an “interpreter” category in order to get federal money. It is not about having a warm body next to the non-English litigant. It is about quality. The federal law requirement had in mind a professional service.
I do not believe that this is the time for interpreters to take it on the chin. There is a lot of turmoil in the country at this time, but the rights of foreigners are center-stage. Let’s seize the moment to protect the profession and make sure that states do not get away with this plan which could potentially discriminate against speakers of a foreign language by treating them as second-class litigants.
I suggest you educate your communities, talk to your state legislators, and speak to your local media. All of it is necessary, but I also propose you do two additional things that could make the difference:
First, I wonder how many litigants are aware of the fact that the individual provided by the court to “interpret” for them is not a certified court interpreter; that in fact, they will be dealing with somebody who has already demonstrated that he or she is not fit to be a certified court interpreter because he or she failed the exam. I would approach people in the courthouse and make them aware of this circumstance; I would even print a flyer explaining to them that this “interpreter” categories are as good as a three dollar bill, regardless of what the government tells them. Ask them how they would feel if instead of a licensed physician, their outpatient surgery was going to be done by somebody who failed to become a licensed doctor. Ask the foreign language speaker’s attorney what she or he would do if the court were to appoint a person who failed the state bar as the litigant in a divorce proceeding because there were no children to the marriage. You will see how fast they demand a real certified court interpreter for their case.
Second, organize yourselves either through your local professional interpreter association, or independently, and volunteer to attend court hearings where this paraprofessionals are “interpreting” (after all court is open to the public) and keep score. Write down every time one of these individuals is late for court, acts unethically, does something unprofessional, and makes an interpreting mistake. Write down how they enter their appearance in court, see if they claim to be certified court interpreters. After a few months, or during election time, send this information to the State Bar, to the publishers of voters’ guides, to the political parties, to non-for-profit organizations with tremendous weight in court elections such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and to the local media. This way people will know who are the judges who care about access to justice, and who are the judges who only care about getting federal money.
I do not believe that these actions will solve all problems, but they will help to expose these programs for what they really are. If you do not do it, nobody will; not because they do not care, but because they do not know. I now invite you to share with the rest of us the current situation in your own state administrative office of the courts.
October 18, 2016 § 4 Comments
About two months ago the California immigration court interpreters started a movement to force the hand of SOSi and the EOIR with the goal of achieving better work conditions, a professional pay for the services rendered, and to keep the authorities from hiring new interpreters and interpretation students for a lower fee. This entry will not deal with the merits or the outcome of such movement. We will talk about the elephant in the room: the big obstacle to the professionalization of the interpreting services in American immigration courts that can be changed by the interpreters themselves.
I know that this blog entry will make some uncomfortable, and I do not like to do that. Unfortunately, my life-long effort to fight for the professionalization of interpreting does not allow me to keep silent. To me, that would be equivalent to betraying my own professional standards. I write this piece with respect and with no desire to offend, knowing that by the time some of you finish reading this article, you will feel offended. I only ask you to reflect on what bothered you, and honestly acknowledge, at least to yourself, that you are not really up to save the profession (as a true profession, not as a laborer’s occupation) in the immigration court arena.
For several years now, there has been a tendency to credentialize interpreters who provide services to the public, who perform a fiduciary function. Because of the wide variety of languages regularly spoken in the United States, and due to the millions of people who do not speak English at all, or at least good enough to go through a legal or medical process, most efforts have been applied to the certification of Spanish interpreters, by far the most popular foreign language nationwide, and finding other solutions for the other languages.
Court interpreters had an early start and developed the federal Spanish court interpreter certification exam. Many States followed and the States’ Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification was born, later taking us to the current Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC).
Healthcare interpreters followed suit and developed two different interpreter certification programs (the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters: CCHI, and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters’ CMI program) both of them widely spread and recognized throughout the United States. Granted, the term “medical interpreter” to describe the functions of these professionals is less accurate that “healthcare interpreter”, and compared to the court interpreter certification federal and state-level exams, both healthcare certifications are way behind in content and degree of difficulty; but unlike court interpreter certification programs, healthcare interpreters have achieved something extremely valuable that court interpreters can only dream of: an examination administered by an independent entity, just like lawyers and physicians, instead of the uncomfortable government-run court interpreter programs that always raise the issue of the real conflict of interests when the entity certifying interpreters is the same one who hires them.
At any rate, healthcare interpreters in the United States now have a way to prove that they are minimally qualified to do their job, that they adhere to a code of ethics, and that they comply with continuing education requirements that will keep them current in language, interpreting, terminology, and medical issues. In other words, healthcare interpreters sitting at the table with court interpreters can now bring up their credential and feel at the same professional level than their legal colleagues, instead of having to give a speech about how certifications do not mean a thing, that it is working in the trenches that makes you a good interpreter, and that your field is so unique that no existing certification exam could test what is needed to work in that field.
Well, dear friends and colleagues, this takes me straight to a very real, and somewhat uncomfortable problem, faced everyday by immigration court interpreters in the United Stets: They have no certification program requirement to work in court, and for that reason, there is no way to prove a certain minimum level, thus allowing bad interpreters to work in the immigration court system for years.
Court interpreting is a highly skilled occupation that requires of a professional provider. By its nature, it is also a fiduciary function where a judge, attorneys, respondents and witnesses must trust the knowledge and skill of the interpreter who will speak throughout the proceedings while at least half of those present will not understand a word of what was said. It is an awesome responsibility that cannot be left to the paraprofessional or the untested.
Presently, all Article Three courts in the United States, at all levels (federal and state) have a Spanish language court interpreter certification program that includes minimum requirements to take the exam, passing a comprehensive and difficult test (at least at the federal level), observing a code of ethics, and (with the exception of the federal program) complying with continuing education in the legal, interpreting, and language fields to be able to keep the certification. These courts are part of the Judiciary Branch of government.
Immigration Courts are not a part of the Judiciary. They are in the Executive Branch of government and are referred to as Article One courts because of their legal basis in the U.S. Constitution. The thing is, my colleagues, these courts deal with societal, family, and personal values and interests as important as those heard by Article Three judges. They are courts of law that abide by a set of substantive and adjective laws. For practical reasons, they operate just like any judicial court: there is a judge, there are parties (one of them will be the government just like in criminal law), there are witnesses, and there are attorneys. Although the controversies are different, immigration proceedings also include a first appearance, motions hearings, a court trial, and a verdict. There is a burden of proof, rules of evidence and procedure, and the possibility of an appeal to a higher court (Board of Immigration Appeals). The fact that the terminology calls these hearings “master calendar”, “bond redetermination”, “credible fear”, or “individual hearing” does not make much difference. The cases are as different from those interpreted in an Article Three courtroom, as a criminal case differs from a civil or a family law proceeding.
The skills required to interpret are the same as in any other type of court proceeding: There is a need for simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, as well as sight translation. Interpreters use equipment just the same (in fact, in many cases even the same brand), and the expected ethical and professional conduct of the interpreter is the same.
It is a fact that immigration court interpreters are disrespected by their client: the EOIR on a daily basis. There is no denial that they make little money, work long hours, and they do it solo, regardless of the complexity or duration of a hearing. It is also well-known that they are treated in humiliating fashion by being forced to jump through many administrative hoops that no other court interpreter will ever face, in part because they are subcontracted by a multinational agency that tries to keep control over the interpreters without physically being at the courthouse, but also in part because interpreters are not considered professionals, they are not acknowledged as officers of the court.
I firmly believe that the only way to earn the credibility they need so much, Spanish language (for now, and ideally all widely used language combinations later) immigration court interpreters in the United States must demand a court interpreter certification requirement to be able to work. They need it for their credibility among their peers and with the public opinion. Once they have a credential, together with a code of ethics and continuing education requirements, they will be in a much better position to negotiate with anybody.
Because immigration court is a federal matter, and the services provided by the interpreter are the same as the ones in all federal courts, I think that the certification they need to have is the already existing FCICE. It would be very simple, all they need to do is convince the EOIR of this need. The exam already exists, all these interpreters would need to do is register and take the test. Then, if both, EOIR and the immigration interpreter community think it is appropriate, there could be a short immigration terminology exam (although I don’t think it necessary just like current certified court interpreters do not need to test every time they interpret a different kind of hearing. Part of an interpreter’s duty is to get ready for an assignment and that professional obligation should be enough). This would be the best way to demonstrate that their simultaneous, consecutive, and sight skills are at a minimum level to deserve that trust we discussed above. In fact, by getting EOIR to agree, immigration interpreters would have until the Summer of 2018 to take and pass the written portion of the federal exam, and then until the Summer of 2019 to take and pass the oral test. In the meantime, it could be agreed that those currently working would continue to do so until the Summer of 2018.
This solution would immediate put immigration court interpreters at the same negotiating level as their Article Three federal counterparts; In fact, it would benefit everyone: Currently federally certified Spanish court interpreters would consider working in immigration court as the pay would be the same (or almost), and newly federally certified immigration court interpreters would have the opportunity to broaden their professional horizons and work in federal courts.
Of course, this means that two things must happen: First, the certification exam cannot be a “Mickey Mouse test” like the ones offered to immigration court interpreters by multinational agency contractors; they have no scientific value and a very poor reputation. And second, immigration court interpreters need to understand that those who do not pass the exam must go, regardless of the time they have been a fixture at the immigration courthouse. Any other “solution” would defeat the purpose and discredit the credential. This, my friends, is the “other” enemy of the U.S. immigration interpreter: the bad interpreter who has never been able to pass a court certification exam, knows that they never will, and spend all their time and energy trying to convince others that certifications are worthless, exams are rigged, and that the only way to learn the profession in in the courtroom. These people have to go away. They are like a cancer that is slowing down the progress of the rest of their colleagues.
To argue “unity” to protect and keep these individuals is misleading. Professional unity can only happen among professionals, and the individuals I just described above may be paraprofessionals but they are definitely not professional material. Imagine for one moment going to the hospital for emergency surgery and being told that the person who will operate on you has never taken or passed the Board, but has a lot of experience. Would you let this non-doctor cut you open?
I understand it is very hard to set aside our emotions and empathy for these individuals, but it is time to think of yourselves, your families and your peers. Unless you want to continue to struggle as an immigration court interpreter, you have to get certified. A decision to dodge the certification issue, or to settle for a lower standard of certification, because someone who cannot pass the test convinced you to support other options, will be a vote for the status quo, sacrificing the good ones to protect those who do not deserve to be there.
August 16, 2016 § 9 Comments
As I was having dinner with a colleague several weeks ago in New York City, the conversation turned to the deplorable state of court interpreting at the State level in many parts of the United States and even at some federal district courts. She shared some frustrating stories about court staff choosing less qualified and even non-certified interpreters over solid and skilled certified colleagues just to save money by paying less for court interpreting services.
Her story was not different from the many tales I have learned from interpreters around the country complaining about poorly-run Administrative Offices of the Courts in several States, courthouses led by unreasonable interpreter coordinators, and ignorant government officials who have never bothered to learn anything about interpreting but are too willing to issue directives diminishing the quality of interpreting services and undercutting the fees and contractual guarantees that court interpreters fought so hard to get.
Time and again, there seems to be a common denominator to all this nonsense: These government officials, court administrators, and even short-sighted staff interpreters turned court policy backers, simply ignore interpreters’ arguments and explanations of all the reasons why justice would be better served, Constitutional requirements would actually be met, and interpreters would move the courts to the top of their client lists, if the State courts, and some federal districts, were to treat the profession and those who practice it with the dignity they deserve.
I often wonder how many times interpreters will meet with judges, staff interpreters, and court administrators, to explain that a professional fee, a fair cancellation policy, and appropriate interpreting conditions are needed, before we all realize that we are just wasting our time and energy.
I believe that the moment has arrived. In the past, whenever I felt that I was getting nowhere with a stubborn judge or an incompetent court administrator, I took my case to the officer of the court who will truly understand and appreciate our services: The private attorney.
I have found it very productive to talk to civil litigants and private defense attorneys one on one. I have seen the impact of a good presentation by an interpreter at a State Bar conference, in front of hundreds of lawyers. I believe that it is the attorneys who need to hear about the profession. They are the ones who need to know how interpreters are really treated by state officials, and they need to hear some of the horror stories that unfortunately have occurred all over the country when a bad interpretation has been part of a court proceeding.
Court interpreters need to address these lawyers for two reasons: First, since they are not under the authority and policy of court administrators because they are financially independent, they will be able to fight for quality interpreters. They will see it our way because they are also in the business of delivering results to their clients. In other words: no result equals no clients. Moreover, many of their clients are financially capable of paying the interpreter’s professional fees and expenses, and like everything else in the private sector, they know that good things are not cheap.
The second reason for approaching these attorneys is evident: Our work will speak louder than our words. The attorneys and their clients will see how professional interpreters work, they will see the benefits of having a great interpreter at all stages of a case: from the time the client retains the attorney to the end of a case, including strategy meetings, witness preparation sessions, jailhouse visits, and having an interpreter at the plaintiff’s or defense’s table during the trial. They will see the difference and their client will tell them how the work of the privately retained professional interpreter is infinitely better than the rendition the client will hear from the less expensive interpreters provided by the court at the hearings. You see, instead of wasting your time talking to the wall, you will invest your time at cultivating professional relationships with these private attorneys who will appreciate your work, treat you like the professional you are, and pay you a much better fee. You will be able to make more money and work less. Who knows? Maybe after all good interpreters leave the courts and cases are overturned on appeal the people who have ignored us will decide to approach us in our terms.
I decided to work with the private bar and I do not regret it at all. In fact, I enjoy being a part of a case from beginning to end instead of just being thrown in there in the middle of a trial without knowing what the case is about. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago one of my attorney clients commented to me that she was so glad to have me as her interpreter because she felt that because I was not in court working with the same judges and attorneys all the time, she could trust me more than “those interpreters who are at the courthouse all the time”.
I suggest that if you are sick and tired of being mistreated and ignored by the courts, you switch gears and give the private bar a try. All you will need is four or five good cases a year to live and feel like the true professional you are. I now ask you to tell us what you think about the way that so many courts treat professional interpreters and what you plan to do about it.
June 23, 2015 § 15 Comments
It seems like every time I open my mailbox, see a tweet, or read a professional publication, I see new advertisement for all these interpreter courses, interpreter certifications, interpreter great opportunities, and so on. There are many government entities, multinational agencies, professional associations, and “professional trainers” who have discovered a new business: create interpreters from nothing!
Let’s see: Just a few years ago Spanish language court interpreters in the United States could only be certified by the United States Administrative Office of the Courts (federal) or by the Administrative Office of the Courts of a state member of what was called the consortium. These credentials were widely known and recognized. Everybody knew what was behind them: a federal certification was more than a state-level certification, and then… there were the non-certified individuals who were precluded from working in the court system, and in those cases when they were used by the government, they were ushered in through the back door because they all knew that they were doing something that should be kept “confidential”.
Well, the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act became a reality for all state courts so the Consortium was no more, it has now been replaced by the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC) and now, in order to keep those federal funds coming, the states have devised a clever plan to circumvent the court certification requirement which would be the thing to do according to law, but very expensive, so they have created this new “category” of people who cannot pass the certification test, but are allowed to work in court, entering through the front door, called “qualified”, “conditionally qualified” and other versions of the same thing: an unqualified individual doing a job that is federally mandated and requires of certification. Yes, it is easier, and cheaper, to mass produce these individuals who, in my opinion, are trained to do a job that does not exist, and pays lower than a professional certified interpreter would work for. These individuals are now produced in “programs” developed by some states with the help of opportunist community colleges and “professional trainers” who see fit to create a program and go through the motions in order to deliver these paraprofessionals.
But this was not enough. The developments above showed the way to another lucrative business: the development of another category of interpreter who would be called “community interpreter” but would provide services in legal arenas where the court proceedings are of Article One of the U.S. Constitution: Administrative Courts. The reason for this new category, according to those who are now benefiting from its implementation: To fill in the gap in the legal system that was not been serviced by certified court interpreters. The real motivation: That these courts and their proceedings are not covered by the court interpreter legislation, so there was a great opportunity for agencies to jump in, “certify” their people, and cover the hearings while paying these para-interpreters very little money. Again, the “certification” programs (sometimes called “diploma” programs) have been developed by individuals who saw the opportunity to make money. There is no official oversight nor legal authority for the existence of these “community interpreters”. The only thing that is clear is that court proceedings in administrative courts are as important and complex as the ones heard in Article 3 courts. This is why, to be able to appear before administrative law judges, attorneys have to pass the same bar exam and be members in good standing of their state bar. No lesser requirements for attorneys, but non-existent requirements for interpreters. Obviously, there is a lot of money to be made in a service where the interpreter pay is so bad that no real self-respecting interpreter would get involved.
Then we have the professional associations and multinational agencies that offer their own “certifications” “qualifications” or whatever they chose to call them, to those left-overs who cannot work anywhere else and have to settle for a quick course online, a 15-minute exam online, and a dismal pay in exchange for telephonic or live interpreting at medical offices, school classrooms, community meetings, and the likes. I do not blame those who are providing what in my opinion are questionable services, they are taking advantage of a void in the legal system and a weak group of interpreters who do not fight for their profession, reputation, betterment, and income. The blame is on the authorities who chose not to fix the situation and foster the spread of these “interpreter factories” all over; on the ignorant clients who buy the Brooklyn Bridge every time the agency sells it to them, and on the self-respect and ambition lacking so-called interpreters who enable the system to continue, instead of studying to better themselves as real conference, court, healthcare, or community interpreters.
We as professional interpreters need to protect our profession, we need to watch over our future, and we need to stop this do-nothing attitude and stand up, educate our clients, better ourselves, join real professional associations that work for the interpreters and not against them, and embracing the new technology, explain to the client that, compared to those I mentioned above, we represent quality, and many times savings, as we work without the middle man, the only actor who is not necessary in this play. There are some good agencies, trainers, and professional associations out there, unfortunately, most of them become known to the interpreters once they reach certain level within the profession. It is our job, and responsibility, to point the new colleagues in the right direction. Please feel free to share your comments with the rest of us, but please abstain from coming here to defend the entities I wrote about. They have plenty of forums where to make their case.
October 16, 2014 § 17 Comments
A couple of weeks ago I received an email that concerns me enormously. I am sure that many of you who are based in the United States have received similar emails from state-level judicial agencies. In my case, I got an electronic communication from the Administrative Office of the Courts of one of the fifty states in the U.S. (not the federal government) this was one of those global emails that are sent out to everybody on a master list. Basically, the message was that the National Center for State Courts in the United States (NCSC), apparently in coordination with (at least) some states, is planning to offer remote telephonic interpreting across state lines, and for that purpose, the states (and I assume the NCSC as well) are compiling lists of state-level certified court interpreters who may want to be part of the interpreter pool that will be used to interpret court hearings from a different state. Although I hope the message’s meaning was different, this is what I understood. The email is written in such a way that, to the reader, this idea looks good and beneficial for everyone: the interpreters, because they will have more work (although I would guess that the fees offered by the state governments will not be anything to brag about) the states with underserved populations due to the lack of interpreters, because they will get somebody who has been certified somewhere by a state-level judiciary, and the foreign language speaker, as they will have the services of a professional interpreter instead of a family member or a paraprofessional.
Does it sound good to you? Well, if I understood the email as a communication asking permission to include interpreters’ names on a master list to indiscriminately interpret by phone, regardless of the state, it did not sound even half decent to me. Let me explain:
It is true that state-level certified interpreters are better equipped than paraprofessionals, and therefore the service provided should be of better quality. It is true that all state-level certified interpreters have attended a basic orientation and they have passed a court certification test (now administered by the NCSC or CLAC) and in many cases they have also taken an ethics and professional responsibility test. This obviously puts them ahead of those unscrupulous people that are roaming through the hallways of many courthouses in the United States. Unfortunately, and this is the real and very big problem: these interpreters, who have been certified by one of the fifty states, would now interpret cases from other states where both substantive and adjective law are different. That is the problem. The interpreter will interpret legal proceedings based on legislation that he does not know. Unlike U.S. federally certified court interpreters who work nationwide because they interpret the same federal legislation all across the country, these state-level individuals will have to deal with fifty, sometimes very different, legal systems.
Just like the age to get married and gun control laws vary from state to state, the catalog of crimes and civil law contracts are different. Think of one single situation: battery and assault; or is it assault and menacing? Well, the answer is: it depends on the state, and the differences are radical. Penalties and procedures also change depending on the state. This is why attorneys can only practice in those jurisdictions where they have passed the Bar Exam. It is a very delicate matter.
If this is indeed what the NCSC and the states want to do (and I hope I am wrong) then I am extremely concerned as an interpreter, because this will be another attempt to de-professionalize our jobs and make them look more like the legal secretary who can work anywhere, and less like the attorneys who can only practice in the state (or states) where they are members of the state bar. Sure, I understand that state-level agencies will praise the “benefits” of this solution, which in reality will solve their own problem (not the interpreters’ or the foreign language speakers’): Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This is a state-level priority because states that do not comply will lose federal money.
I am also worried as an attorney for several reasons: First, states will allow interpreting services across state lines using telecommunications. This could be an interstate commerce issue where the federal government has to participate (at least); but the second reason is the one that motivated me to write this post: interpreters who do not know the legal system of a particular state will practice in that jurisdiction. They may physically be in the state where they are certified, but their services will affect a court system, and litigants in another state where they have never demonstrated their capacity to practice. I believe attorneys who represent foreign speakers need to be aware of this potential “solution” so that from the beginning they know that perhaps the case could later be appealed for ineffective assistance of the interpreter. Attorneys need to know that when they are advising their client on an assault charge in their home state, they may be using the services of an interpreter from a state where assault really means battery. Lawyers will need to assess the potential procedural complications in case they sue the interpreter. Jurisdiction will have to be determined, and these lawsuits could end up in federal court.
If this “program” has also been planned for civil cases, then the problem is worse. Remember, there are at least three different civil legal systems in the United States, the one followed by those states who have a system based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition, those whose system comes in part from the days where these territories were part of the Spanish Crown (just think divorce and community property division) and then Louisiana and the Napoleonic written system. As an attorney, or a foreign language speaker, I would not want to have an interpreter from another state, much less one from a state where the system is different.
I sure hope that this “solution” (if conceived as I understood it) is discarded and the states look for better options such as a higher fee for those interpreting in state courts. There are very good and capable interpreters everywhere in the United States, it is just that they will not work for the fees currently offered. A more attractive fee would also encourage others who would like to join the profession but are reluctant because of the lack of money to even make a decent living.
By the way, these problems apply to those languages where there is no certification and the interpreters are registered or qualified to work in court by a particular state.
I really wish I am mistaken and this is not happening in the United States, but if it is, I will continue to watch the developments of this program, and if needed, I will speak up in legal forums to bring awareness of the potential risks generated by using state-level certified interpreters in places where they have never been certified. I now ask you to share your thoughts, and concerns, about this potential change that would end up rendering a state-level court interpreter certification useless.
June 3, 2014 § 4 Comments
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.
True story: Authorities of a state that does not offer court interpreter certification wanted proof that the interpreter was certified by the state.
August 22, 2012 § 7 Comments
This is a true story. It just happened to me a few months ago. One day I was interpreting at the Federal District Courthouse in Chicago when a private attorney approached me and asked me if I would go to the county jail with him to see a client. Although I had never been to Cook County jail, I said yes as this attorney works in Federal Court all the time. We set a date and time for the visit, he gave me the address to the jail, I googled the directions, and off I went to my assignment. After this public transportation city interpreter looked for a place to park for quite some time and finally found one, I met the attorney outside the facility. We entered the jail just to find out that our client was housed in another division that was about four city-blocks away. We took advantage of the long walk to catch up on the case, and to get work for the shoe-shine man as our shoes got really dirty from walking on these dirt roads.
We finally arrived at the right building, we were frisked, and then we were told that I could not enter the meeting room because I had not been authorized by the court to be there. The custody officers told the attorney (my client) that unless we had a letter from the judge or from the Department of Corrections Legal Department authorizing my presence in the jail, we could not do the interview. Of course, by now the defendant had been brought downstairs and she was witnessing everything from the other side of the glass, not knowing what the delay was for. The jail authorities explained to us that only certified interpreters were allowed inside the facility. The attorney told them that I was certified by the United States Administrative Office of the Courts, but their response was that they needed to see proof that I was certified by the State of Illinois. I explained to them that Illinois is one of the few states that do not have a certification program; I mentioned how the Illinois State Courts work with non-certified interpreters every day, and how I worked within the federal court system where they have a certification policy in place. I even explained to them that I am certified by two states that are members of the consortium of states that offer court interpreter certification. It did not matter at all. They needed proof that I was certified by the State of Illinois.
Once we realized that we were in an impossible situation, and after the officers did not allowed us to use the phone to call the jail legal department to explain our case, we turned around and left. Of course, I still got paid by the attorney. Of course, the attorney billed the client for the time he spent there; but as I was leaving the facility I could not keep myself from laughing. At the end of the day the jail officers were right, at least partially, there should only be certified interpreters working that jail. The problem is that the State does not have a certification program, and nobody has told these officers that to ask for an Illinois Court Interpreter Certification is as useless as to ask for the interpreter’s death certificate before he can enter the jail. I decided to post this experience in the blog because it seems so unreal. I would love to read your comments about this very unique experience.