Attention certified court interpreters: You could be losing part of your profession!

January 27, 2014 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In my opinion the title of this posting is not an exaggeration of what is happening to the court interpreting profession in the United States and some other places.  Let me explain:  There are groups of community activists, profit-hungry interpreter training entities, and interpretation agencies (that do not represent the best interests of court interpreters) who are advancing the idea that court interpreters should only be required in the courtroom, and that out of court legal interpreting should be left to “other” type of interpreter who would provide a service that would be a mix of community and legal interpreting. They argue that court interpreters are required in court because of the impartiality that is needed and due to the formalities that must be observed. On the other hand, they claim that an out of court legal setting (that they refer to as “quasi-legal”) should be left to other interpreters without court interpreter certification who would (after they get trained by this special interest groups) be able to provide a service that, according to them, has a lot of community interpreting and some legal terminology that could be easily acquired by these “interpreters.”

This approach concerns me very much because as an attorney I do know that there are very delicate and extremely difficult legal issues that take place out of court.  These individuals have suggested that family law mediations, preparation of wills, and other legal services, be provided with the assistance of a non-certified court interpreter.  I dare to say that the best attorneys, the more difficult issues, and the ones that affect more people’s lives, are found outside the courthouse.  You only need to visit a corporate attorney or a corporation’s legal department to see it.

All legal interpreting should be done by certified court interpreters because they are the ones that know the law, are familiar with the terminology, and are backed up by a certification system run by the state or federal government.

There was a similar movement in the United States a few years ago.  That one proposed that to abate costs such as paying for the services of an ophthalmologist, optometrists should be allowed to perform certain types of surgery.  Let me clarify: an ophthalmologist is a physician, an optometrist is not.  You go to the optometrist when you need a new pair of eyeglasses. You go to the ophthalmologist when you need cataracts surgery.  Dear colleagues: We are the ophthalmologists in this example.  These special interest groups are trying to take away part of our field and give it to these new “optometrists.”  To do it, they are arguing that these individuals would do a job that nobody is doing and that does not need certification as a court interpreter.  What they are not telling you is that they will profit immensely from this scheme.  The trainers will make money by “training” these people, the agencies will make money by paying a lower interpretation fee to these individuals who will not be court certified, some state governments will continue to receive federal funds because they would be “guaranteeing access” to non-English speakers who go to court and do not need to appear before a judge, and the community activists will be happy because in their mind court interpreters charge too much for their services and their clients cannot afford it.

But wait a minute, let’s stop right there and talk about the losers under this scheme:

Many court interpreters make over half of their income from legal interpreting outside the courtroom: mediations, depositions, jail visits, witness preparation, sight translation of documents, arbitrations, administrative court hearings, and many other legal scenarios.

Attorneys have a legal duty to vigorously represent their client in order to achieve what is best under the specific circumstances.  It is hard to see how this can be accomplished by using lesser-interpreters, and in many cases paying the agency the very same fee they would pay for a competent professional. Attorneys do not know that the agency pays a lower fee to these non-certified individuals and therefore they get to keep more money.

The parties to a controversy or those seeking legal advice are paying for the best possible service, even those who approach non-for-profit organizations have to pay for filing fees and other administrative expenses.  It is only fair that when you go to see an attorney, the attorney’s advice be interpreted by the lawyer’s equivalent in the interpretation field: a certified court interpreter.

Our system, our government, the taxpayers… they all lose under this scheme. A poor interpretation will have consequences. I have seen many criminal cases being dismissed because of the police interview of the defendant. Those who advocate this change are proposing that non-certified court interpreters do police interviews. A poorly sight translated contract, an incomplete will due to a bad interpretation, an unfair parenting time schedule because of lack of understanding of the law on the part of the interpreter, they all lead to litigation and litigation costs money.  Surgery by an optometrist…  I would love to see the reaction of an administrative court judge when he is told that because his courtroom is not a real one he will have the services of a non-certified court interpreter.

It is true that in many places some of these services are currently performed by non-certified individuals.  It is true that the special interest groups will defend themselves by saying that with their “home-grown certification” the people who interpret in those settings will be doing a better job than the one that is provided right now.  The excuse that there is a great need for interpreters in many languages that have no court certification program is not valid either.  There are interpreters in these languages that have been evaluated by the court system and allowed to work in court. Until there is a court certification program by the state, these are the interpreters who should be doing all of the legal work. The “solution” proposed by the special interest groups does not improve the quality of the service.

Instead of rushing towards mediocrity and spending time and effort justifying why it is a good option, these special interest groups should join forces with the professional community (certified court interpreters, attorneys and government) and strive to attract more quality individuals to the profession, to demand first that everybody be certified as a court interpreter and that there be continuing education for those who may want to specialize in family law mediation, corporate planning, international arbitration, immigration law, etc.

Instead of marching in lockstep with the interpretation agencies, all community organizations and true trainers, who are concerned about the quality of the interpretation and the fulfillment of the existing demand, should join forces with the professional certified court interpreter community to demand from these agencies a better pay to the real quality-proven interpreters.

Dear colleagues, I don’t know if this will happen and I would not be surprised if these special interest groups and individuals attack and criticize what has been said in this posting.  Learn from our colleagues who are already fighting a battle to keep or recover their profession in other countries like the U.K.  We have to defend our profession. Paralegals are not opening shop all over to offer their legal services out of court. Do you know why? Because the lawyers would not let them. They would be charged with practicing law without a license. We need to do the same. We need to defend and protect our profession.

For that reason I ring this wake up call.  Be alert!  Educate your colleagues and clients; do not let them take this huge piece of you professional field away.  You will lose and everybody will lose.

The interpreter’s frustration of not being understood.

June 4, 2013 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I decided to write about something we all feel, or at least have felt at some point during our career.  I am fortunate to have clients who hire me for assignments that are interesting, relevant, and professionally challenging. I get the topic, prepare, and execute my job to the best of my ability, and  often during an event, I get stopped on a hallway by a person who recognizes me as the interpreter and congratulates me for the rendition or thanks me for my work. Interesting work, good working conditions, and excellent pay are key to a successful career, but that type of appreciation by those you just interpreted for (not by your peers or the agency programmer) is what keeps me going.  That is my motivation to better myself every time I turn on the microphone in that booth.  It is a pleasure to interpret for an audience and see how they are assimilating every word I interpret, how my job is making it worth for them to attend the conference, to listen to the presentation. When I am working I know that people are listening and understanding what I say. That is very rewarding.

Just like many of you, I have also worked in court for many years, and when I do, most of the time the experience is the opposite. When I am retained for a court proceeding I also prepare for my work, develop glossaries, learn the details of the case, and research the relevant legal aspects; however, as I begin to interpret a trial or a hearing, I soon realize that in most cases the defendant or whomever I am interpreting for does not understand what is happening. The purpose of this posting is not to underline the differences between these two kinds of clients; we all know that is a factor, I am not writing this article to talk about attorneys who do not explain the proceedings to their clients either. I am writing this posting to talk about the frustration that comes to you as an interpreter when you realize that after all the preparation and all the hard work, at the end of a two-hour hearing the defendant turns to you and asks you: “what did the judge say?”  Once a colleague told me that the difference between conference and court interpreting was that in conference interpreting you prepare so that your audience understands your interpretation, and in court interpretation you prepare so that the other interpreter who is working the trial with you understands your interpretation, because she is the only one in the courtroom who will.  That may be true.

My question to all of you is a complex one: How do you deal with the frustration that comes from knowing that those you are interpreting for do not, and will not, understand what you are saying, not because of a poor rendition, but because of their level of education?  I am not looking for the legal answer that it is because of the constitutional principle of equal access to the law. I do not want the philosophical argument that it is the fair thing to do to serve justice.  I don’t even want to hear that it is because we are interpreting for the record and not the defendant and our rendition is provided in case there is an appeal, and please do not take the easy way out by telling me that you are never frustrated when this happens.  What I would like to read is your personal way to deal with this very human feeling of frustration of knowing that all your work will not be appreciated, that many times you could be there reciting a nursery rhyme instead of interpreting the hearing and the person you are interpreting for wouldn’t even notice.  In my particular case, I do the best job I can because of me.  I owe it to myself. It is my commitment to my own professional and moral standards to prepare and provide the best interpretation I am capable of.  The owner of the ears that will hear me is irrelevant to my motivation to be the best.  Of course I enjoy the praising that goes on when I interpret at a conference or diplomatic event, but I don’t let that be my motivation to excel. If I do, I would have a difficult time interpreting for those who I know will not understand and I cannot let that happen. Please tell us how you deal with this frustration.

How to Defend Your Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter.

May 7, 2013 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Good professional interpreters are usually consumed with taking care of their clients, improving their skills, managing their agenda, and marketing to new clients.  This takes a lot of time and energy, and it is essential to succeed in this career.  Unfortunately, sometimes during their career some interpreters may experience other aspects of the profession that are less pleasant, more time-consuming, and very stressful.

Our professional tools are our brain, mouth, and a language combination. We can make mistakes, we are susceptible to questioning and second-guessing by others, and in out litigious society we are exposed to lawsuits that can leave us with no career, no resources, and a tainted reputation.

There are many circumstances that can affect our career as professional interpreters, but at this time I would like to focus on two of them:

When our work is subject to criticism and questioning by our peers or by a counterpart in a legal setting. We all have faced situations when in the middle of a court hearing a judge, attorney, witness, litigant, and even a juror, have interrupted our rendition to correct what we just said. Most of the time we were right and they were wrong. On occasion, because we are not machines, and because nobody can possibly know all regional expressions, these voices do us a favor as they correct our mistake and allow justice to be served. These are the scenarios we usually face when doing our job.  It sounds simple and straight to the point:  Either we are right and we say so in order to keep the process moving along, or we are wrong, and in that case we correct our error.  Unfortunately this is not how it happens in the real world.  Out there we have to deal with attorneys who are not happy because their non-English speaking client or witness is not saying what they wanted them to say, so the first thing they do is to cast a doubt over the rendition of the interpreter; there are those cases when the non-English speaker passionately defends his “translation” of a term even though we know for sure that he is mistaken. Sometimes the problem may be the judge who does not speak the foreign language, but out of fear of offending the non-English speaker decides to question the interpreter and sometimes even to adopt this person’s rendition of a word or term that you know is clearly wrong.

The second situation I want to mention to you is when a case does not end the way that one of the parties wanted it to conclude and the blame is totally or partly placed on the interpretation. The court decision is appealed on grounds of inadequate interpretation, or even worse, the interpreter is sued for damages by this losing party.  How can we defend our work when our rendition is questioned and the case goes on appeal? What can we do to protect ourselves in case somebody takes us to court for damages? There are preventive measures that we can take as interpreters to diminish the possibility of having to defend our work, our assets, and our reputation.  There are also steps we must follow in case our professional work is questioned or attacked in court.

These complex issues have to be addressed, and as true professionals we must be prepared in case this happens to us. For this reason, I will present: How to Defend Your Interpretation and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter in and out of Court” during the NAJIT annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri on May 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm. I invite you to go to the conference and I encourage you to attend this presentation where we will discuss these sad but possible scenarios and we will explore the different preventive measures that we should always take in order to avoid an adverse outcome, as well as the path to follow once our rendition or our skill has been formally questioned in a court of law.  I hope to see you in St. Louis.

Interpreting near the border: Not necessarily a pleasant experience.

October 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As a veteran interpreter I have seen many things, faced numerous obstacles, and solved hundreds of situations such as bad equipment, poor booth location and lack of research materials, noisy courtrooms, difficult accents, and rotten clients.  I am sure you had your fair share as well.  However, I came to a realization a few weeks ago when I was teaching a seminar in the great State of Texas.  I lived in a border state for many years and I had to face the bilingualism problem on a daily basis, but nothing I ever went through compares to the story I am about to tell you:

There is a judge in Houston Criminal Court who has very little regard for her interpreters, this combined with her colossal ignorance of the interpreter profession, of who the officers of the court are , and her self-centered goal of only caring for the next election (because state judges are elected by the voters in Texas) have resulted in a very uncomfortable work environment for our good colleagues.

I lived in New Mexico for many years and I experienced first-hand the constant struggle of interpreting from and into Spanish in a place where most people have an idea of the language and many of them speak it at an average level.  It is very difficult to work under these circumstances, especially as a court interpreter because in an environment where the judge, attorneys, clerks, police officers, witnesses, and jurors understand, or think they understand, at least some of what was said in Spanish, puts the interpreter in a place where he or she is constantly on the spot, been “corrected”, receiving unwanted “suggestions”, and sometimes being challenged by one of this so-called Spanish speakers.

There was a case in another state some years ago where a member of the jury, who supposedly spoke Spanish, disapproved of the official interpretation of a witness during a trial and during deliberations informed the other jurors that she spoke Spanish, that she understood what the witness said in Spanish, and that the interpretation had been incorrect. She then told them what in her opinion the witness really said, and that swayed the jury.  Because of that comment by the bilingual juror there was a conviction that otherwise would have never existed.  Once the circumstances during deliberation were known by the judge and attorneys, the defense filed an appeal that made it all the way up to the State Supreme Court where the conviction was overturned.  The reality was that the interpreter had been right all along. The juror did not have the necessary knowledge of the Spanish language to really comprehend what was said and then interpret it into English accordingly (like the interpreter did)  In their decision, the Justices clearly indicated that the court, including the jury, has to abide by the official interpretation into English provided by the certified professional court interpreter. That is the record in the case, it is not there to be doubted or debated by other bilingual speakers.  As a result of that case judges in that state now read an instruction to the members of the jury clearly telling them to rely on the interpretation and not in what they may believe was said as they are not professionally trained to interpret.

The absolute opposite of what this court decision stated happens every day in this Houston Texas Criminal courtroom.  Whenever there is a trial before this judge that requires Spanish interpretation, from the beginning of the proceedings the judge asks the Spanish-speaking jurors to “…let (her) know if something that the interpreter said was wrong… Because (in that case) we’ll try to figure it out, and if we can’t come to an agreement (of what was said) then we’ll get an expert…”

This is what she says with the licensed interpreter (in Texas there are no certified interpreters, they are licensed) present and interpreting to the defendant!  Of course, most freelancers now refuse to work for this ignorant “judge”, but the staff interpreters are stuck with her, at least until the next election.  Once I heard the story I concluded that no matter how bad we think we have it when doing our job, there is always somebody who has it worse.  I would like to see what you think about this situation, and I would love to hear any suggestions you may have for the Houston interpreters who deal with this individual on a daily basis.

When law enforcement agencies do everything they can to avoid hiring a real interpreter.

August 17, 2012 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The other day one of my colleagues asked my opinion about the quality of the Spanish a police officer was using during a recorded interview.  This colleague had been retained by the defense to analyze and transcribe the video of a police interview by a police woman in a very small town in the Midwest. As I sat there and listened to the nonsensical utterances that were emanating from this officer’s mouth, I went down memory lane and lived through them all again. I will never forget the police department that used a monolingual (in English) Hispanic woman as an interpreter for all of their investigations because “she grew up 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border…(and that)…was enough to assume she spoke enough Spanish to communicate with the suspects…”  and how could I forget the police station that hired as interpreters all those who had failed the court interpreter certification test because “…they were cheaper and knew about the same…”  Never mind the disastrous results like the time when a little girl who had been the alleged victim of sexual abuse was considered to be a liar because the police interpreter did not know how to say “Christmas tree” in Spanish.  And the time when the “interpreter” referred to the pedestrian charges as the “pedophile charges”.  And yes! There was the man who interpreted the polygraph tests into Spanish and explained how to wear the wires by lifting, holding, bending, and stretching the suspects.  Hulk Hogan would have been proud of his technique.

During all my years as an interpreter, and specifically through my work as a court interpreter, I have learned that the common denominator among most police forces in the country seems to be their desire to save money on interpretation.  Apparently the fact that the investigation is jeopardized by using the services of unqualified or under-qualified linguists is not a concern.  Even in those towns where cases are systematically dismissed by the prosecution, or dismissed by the judges, because of violations to the rights of the defendant, or where indictments are based on faulty testimony, all due to a lack of communication between the English speaking authority and the non-English speaker defendant, victim, or witness,  because of poor interpretation, chiefs of police,  budget analysts, and city administrators are choosing the cheaper service provider over the sound and accurate legal investigation.

We all know that a dollar saved on a bad interpreter will translate on thousands of dollars spent on a new trial, an appeal process, or a brand new investigation.  Every time I have a chance, I talk to law enforcement administrators and try to explain how a real interpreter costs more, but at the same time she saves you money.  A $100.00 per hour interpreter will do her job correctly in two hours, while a mediocre $40.00 per hour individual will take longer, as he struggles to understand the language, comprehend the process, and communicate the concepts to both, police officer and non-English speaker.  After 8 long hours with a bad “interpreter”, the investigation moved very little, the legal process was violated several times, the cheap interpreter cost $320.00, and he has to come back the next day to finish the interview.  There were no savings.

So, as I sat there watching this video, looking at my colleague working so hard, writing down the mistakes of the interpreter doing the interview, making footnotes of her omissions, charting the additions she volunteered into the interview, and listening to my interpreter friend telling me how this police woman, part-time “interpreter” had already caused the dismissal of many cases because of her lack of skill and knowledge, I came to a strange realization:  The good interpreters are losing these police assignments to the bad ones, but because of this policy by the police departments, these good interpreters are now working as expert witnesses and linguistic advisors to the parties.  Therefore, at the end, the good interpreter wins because it is more lucrative to be the expert witness or advisor. But wait; what about the defendant, the victim, and society at large?  They may all get their justice in the long run after a lengthy legal process of appeals and re-tried cases, but in the meantime the victim will not feel safe, the innocent defendant will sit in a cell, and society will pay a hefty legal bill. All because the police department wants to save by hiring the bad interpreter.  I would like to read your comments and experiences about this topic.

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