Court interpreters’ priorities: Their health and to interpret.

August 12, 2020 § 16 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Although we are still in the middle of a world-wide pandemic, I have heard from several colleagues that some courts in the United States, and elsewhere, are back in session and they are asking court interpreters to attend in-person hearings. Courts may have their reasons to reopen, but I think is a bad idea for interpreters to answer the call at this time. Covid-19 is very contagious and continues to spread all over the United States and many other countries. This is not the time to risk our health, and perhaps our future, to make the not-so-good court interpreter fees. Technology is such that courthouses can hold virtual hearings, or distance interpreting if they want to have in-person sessions. There are solutions for all judicial district budgets, from fancy distance interpreting platforms, to Zoom, to a simple over-the-phone interpretation with 3-way calling and a speaker phone. Federal courts have provided over the phone interpretation in certain court appearances for many years.  Most hearings are short appearances that do not justify risking the interpreter. As for more complex evidentiary hearings and trials, just as conferences have temporarily migrated to this modality, distance interpreting can happen with a few adjustments. If in-person court interpreting is a bad idea right now, in-person interpreting at a detention center, jail or prison, is out of the question. At least in the United States, detention facilities are at the top of places where more Covid-19 cases have been detected.

Court interpreters provide services in accordance to the law and a code of ethics. Neither of them compels interpreters to put their lives at risk just to interpret for a hearing that could happen virtually. I urge you all to refuse in-person interpreting at courthouses and detention centers at this time. Advise judges, attorneys, and court administrators on the available options during the emergency. If after your explanation they insist on having interpreters appearing in person during the Covid-19 pandemic, please decline the assignment. It is obvious your life and health are not a priority for that organization; why should you put them at the top of your clients’ list?

Do not worry about the parties needing interpreting services. That is the attorney’s responsibility. Not yours.

Unfortunately, some of you will sadly agree to physically appear in court to interpret for defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, and victims. If so, at least demand the following from the courts:

All in-person interpreting must be done with portable cordless equipment. Many courthouses already use it, and for those who do not, explain to judges and administrators this is the same equipment tour guides use. Courts should provide personal transmitters to all staff and regular independent contractor interpreters, and interpreters should take care of the transmitter and take it with them at the end of the day. If this is impossible (although these devises are very affordable) then ask the courthouse to keep them clean and safe, and separate from the receivers the parties will use. Interpreters should always have their own personal microphone (whether it is provided by the court or they purchase it on their own). Ask the receivers be kept in individual plastic baggies, and have the individual using the receiver open the bag and put the devise back in the baggie after the hearing. Never handle the receiver. Ask the court to notify all parties needing interpreting services to bring their own earphones (they can use their mobile phone’s if they are wired). The courthouse should have disposable earphones in stock for those who forgot to bring their own. Earphones are inexpensive and can be thrown away after each hearing.

Finally, interpreters should never disinfect the portable equipment. This is a dangerous chore, you do not get paid to do it, and it is not your job. Disinfecting the equipment goes against all federal and state court interpreter rules of ethics:

“Canon 7: Scope of Practice. An interpreter for a LEP participant in any legal proceeding, or for an LEP party in a court-ordered program, must provide only interpreting or translating services. The interpreter must not give legal advice, express personal opinions to individuals for whom interpreting services are being provided, or engage in other activities that may be construed to constitute a service other than interpreting or translating.”  All states include this canon in their code of ethics (sometimes the number is different). Interpreting equipment should be cleaned and disinfected by the same people who clean and disinfect everything else in the courtroom.

If you are interpreting in person for an agency or for a direct private client, you must follow the same practices. The agency should assume the courthouse duties. As for your preferred direct clients who you could not talk out of an in-person appearance, use your own personal equipment. If you don’t have it, buy it. Do not borrow the courthouse’s. You do not know how clean it is. I would also add the following when dealing with direct clients using my own equipment: Have disposable latex gloves available for you and the person using the equipment. That way you may assist your direct client with the receiver unit if needed. Have spare disposable earphones available if your clients forgot to bring their own. I suggest you use the earphones you get on the plane for free and you never use because you have your own. The protocol for jail visits is: No jail visits under any circumstance. Period.

Even with equipment, maintain a safe distance between you and the person you are interpreting for. No sitting next to the client. Always use and demand others use facemasks. The sound quality is not the best, but removing the mask to interpret is too dangerous. I suggest you wear a mask that ties or has an elastic that goes around your head instead of the ones you wear on your ears. They are more comfortable and stay in place even if you are speaking,

Most judges are rational people of good moral character, but I have heard of some cases when a judge has ordered the interpreter to remove the mask, get closer to the person who needs an interpreter, and other dangerous actions. If so, try to persuade the judge, if that fails, ask for a recess and try to get the court administrator to see the situation from your viewpoint. If this does not work, or if the judge does not let you speak, or you cannot access the administrator, excuse yourself.

State you cannot fulfill your duty as a court interpreter to interpret the totality of what is being said in court because you cannot concentrate on the hearing when you know the judge is putting you in a dangerous situation. Put it on the record, and leave. If the judge does not allow you to leave the courtroom, or threatens you with a contempt order, then clearly put on the record for a second time the same explanation you already gave, and clearly state you are being ordered to interpret even though the rendition will be incomplete, that you are being held against your will, and that you are respectfully giving notice to the judge that if because of his order you get infected, you will bring legal action against the court and personally against the judge. Do not be afraid. You are not doing anything wrong.

On top of all that, I would never interpret in that Judge’s court again.

There are other things we can do as interpreters to protect ourselves in the rare case we end up in front of a judge that forces you to interpret and do things that risk your health and maybe your life.

You can file a complaint with the circuit court (if a federal case) or the court of appeals with jurisdiction over the judge. In federal cases, this is done according to the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980 (28 USC §351-364) and the Rules for Judicial Conduct and Judicial Disability Proceedings.

If federal, you can send a letter describing the judge’s conduct to the Federal Judges Association (FJA) (https://www.federaljudgesassoc.org) or to the State’s judges association in local matters.

Send a letter for publication on the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal Magazine, or to the State Bar Bulletin so attorneys and others learn of the incident and apply pressure on this individual.

Contact your local non-English radio and TV stations (for Spanish speakers Telemundo, Univision and Azteca America) and suggest an investigative report on how this judge is putting those who appear before him or her, and need interpreting services, at risk during the pandemic.

You can also talk to an attorney and explore the possibility of a lawsuit against the judge and courthouse for negligence.

Finally, write a letter to that courthouse’s chief judge and court administrator informing them that, regardless of the outcome, you will never work in that courtroom again. The letter should detail everything the judge said and did, including past episodes witnessed by you. A person with such a bad attitude did other bad things before.

Court interpreters perform an essential job for the administration of justice, everyone who needs an interpreter should get one, but certain things are above the job; one of them that should always come first is our health. I now ask you to share with us your in-person court experiences, in the United States or elsewhere, during the pandemic.

How to survive COVID-19 and get ready for what is next.

April 7, 2020 § 8 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

During these weeks of confinement, we have been bombarded with phone calls and emails directed to us as professionals. Most of us are constantly getting emails asking us to reduce our professional fees (“rates” as they are referred to by agencies), to charge our interpreting services by the minute, to register for a webinar, to enroll in a program, to buy software, hardware, or a remote interpreting platform. We get emails and read articles basically telling us that in-person work is gone forever. We get communications from somebody assuring us that, despite these changes, the horrible economy that awaits us at the end of this crisis, they can save us! Add this to the pandemic news broadcasted on TV around the clock, couple it with your (some justified) concerns about your professional future and the uncertainty of the duration, and sooner or later you will be depressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, or scared.

Faced with this reality, I decided I better save my sanity and keep me apt to go back to a more competitive than-ever market awaiting right behind the light at the end of the tunnel. My first thought was: What should I do? and that is how I came up with the three-step strategy I would like to share with all of you.

First step: Eliminate your worries.

I realized that in this new, but temporary world, I needed to feel like I was in charge of my life. I know I am not enjoying full freedom of action because my life, and that of everyone else, depend on my complying with stay at home, social distancing, and other public health rules. I thought, however, that I may control certain things that can improve the quality of my life during these tough times.

I realized that to improve my quality of life in quarantine, I had to settle my financial issues as much as I could. It came to me right away: I had to get paid by all clients who owed me money for work performed before the coronavirus restrictions. Fortunately, there were few in my case. I contacted them all, asked them how they were doing in the middle of this crisis; I wished them well, assured them they could count on me for any interpreting needs now, explained that I was facing the exact same problems they had in front, and I asked them very nicely to please pay me what they owed. In my case, they all paid, but I was ready to negotiate payment terms if needed. I was prepared to accept payment for fifty percent of the amount owed now, and the rest in sixty days. I figured this was a better solution than a total loss, or a threat of litigation that would take even longer to run its course through the system and be very costly. I also have two more clients where the payment is not due yet.

Next, I contacted my clients who cancelled or postponed events to the end of this year or next year and after following the same good bedside manners strategy above, I asked for money. Where I had an Act of God, Force Majeure clause in the contract, I made the clients aware of the fact I knew I had a right to collect from them, and asked them to honor the agreement. I had two of these and they both promptly paid. One of them told me the check was already in the mail (and it was true) and the other thanked me for reminding them of the clause. The legal situation was different with the other seven postponements or cancellations I have had so far, my contract did not cover force majeure. Fortunately, and mainly because my clients are direct clients who value me, not agencies that see me as a commodity, I negotiated with them and got them to reimburse me 100 percent of the expenses I had made (minimal as I will explain later) and they were comfortable with my proposal of paying me fifty percent of my fee.  As I explained, this was the most decent and ethical way to care for each other because we would all absorb one half of the loss. Six of these clients have paid, and I need to test my strategy with the last one who just cancelled yesterday.

Continuing with my income recovery, my next target were airlines and hotels. Most of my work requires traveling, so cancellation of assignments meant cancelling flights and hotel reservations. If you are like me, I treat air travel in two ways: When the client is willing to pay a fully refundable fee for the seat I want, I purchase the ticket and get reimbursed by the client when I bill them after the assignment. When the client cannot, or will not agree to the above, because it is very important to travel business so I can work rested, I purchase the business class seat at the lower non-refundable fee and then get reimbursed by the client as I explained before. You need not worry about this if your client directly buys your ticket. For many reasons, mainly, because it allows me to be in charge of my professional and personal agenda, and if natural disasters occur (hurricanes, snow storms, tornadoes, etc.) and now pandemics, I generally fly on the same airline (or its partners when I have no choice). This makes the refund process much easier. I only needed one phone call to cancel all my flights. Fully-refundable and non-refundable tickets were treated the same during COVID-19. This means there is no cancellation fee or extra charge to change the tickets to a future date. In my case, tickets for those flights to countries where travel is currently banned were fully reimbursed, and tickets for other destinations were refunded by applying the full amount (no deductions) to future flights to the same destinations or to others of similar value, paying the difference for a more expensive destination, or getting a credit for less expensive ones. So far, the deadline to purchase, not to travel, on those tickets is December 31 of this year or earlier if the tickets were purchased before March 1, 2020. All this took me about 5 minutes because traveling on the same airline gives you certain privileges over the rest. This is a reason I constantly encourage my colleagues to travel on the same airline. Delta, United and even Amtrak have announced they will lower requirements to keep status next year. American Airlines should follow soon. Regarding hotel reservations is the same thing. Cancelling a reservation will have no cost to you as long as you do it ahead of time. Even rooms paid in full at the time of reservation are being refunded when cancelled due to COVID-19 if the cancellation is due to a travel ban or quarantine order.

Once I did this, I saw I needed to adjust my budget. I carefully looked at my expenses and saw where I could cut expenses without altering my lifestyle even more. The first thing was the big savings associated with eating at home every day. For years, I had all my meals at restaurants and bars. I can now cover a week of food expenses with the money I used to spend in about 2 days of eating out. Next, I got rid of some expensive cable TV channels I do not need now. I cannot have satellite dish TV because I live in a high rise that does not permit it, but I noticed there were very expensive channels I do not need. I kept my news channels plan and my foreign TV plan because I need the news to see what is going on outside, and I need to keep my window to the rest of the world by watching TV stations from Europe, Asia and Latin America. But I decided I could cancel the very expensive sports package. I can survive without some 40 channels that cannot show me anything new because there are no sports been played at this time anywhere in the world. I will subscribe to this package again once things go back to normal. The same goes for all the pay movie channels. Cancel HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, The Movie Channel, etc. Instead, pay for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu or a similar service. You will save tons of money.

A very important way to save money is to cancel any plans to attend a translation/interpreting conference this year. Many of the good ones have been canceled or postponed until next year already, and others will follow soon. Even if the pandemic is under control later during the year, and air travel and distancing rules are relaxed, events that inexplicably do not cancel this year will have poor attendance and fewer presentations. Even after all restrictions are lifted, people will be afraid to get on a plane or attend a workshop in a room with another 50 individuals. Conferences are a great investment in our continuing education, but understand they are expensive (some of them outrageously expensive). Do not spend your money going to a conference this year.

Do your research. Most governments are offering assistance to independent contractors. Credits, loans, direct payments, unemployment insurance, free medical services, are some benefits our colleagues can get. Do your individual research by country, and sometimes region, province or state, to see what you are eligible for.

Finally, accept that doing a quarantine is fine. Embrace this provisional reality. Reduce your stress. Watch the news once a day. Do not look at the screen every hour to see how many new cases and deaths in the last hour. It is not a sporting event. Read a book, watch a movie, a Broadway musical, or an opera on your smart TV; spend time doing a hobby that relaxes you, whether it is crossword puzzles, stamps, knitting, or playing video games. Just relax, eliminate your worries, be at peace.

Second step: Eliminate the noise.

Once you are relaxed, you need to stay relaxed. The only way to do it is eliminating everything that stresses you out, especially when this uneasiness is caused by others trying to stay afloat (nothing wrong with that) by making you believe you need a service or product they are selling, and you need it now (nothing good with that).

The first thing we need to do is to ignore most of what comes into your home via internet. Guard yourself against scammers who want to tap into your credit cards and bank accounts. Ignore any correspondence from banks or stores asking you to confirm or update your personal information. If your bank wants to contact you, they will send you a secure message to your bank application account. Also ignore a sales pitch from an agency or platform. As of now, we are getting invitations to webinars and online workshops by people we did not even know existed or even if we did, we never knew them as teachers or trainers. Everybody is trying to make money in these tough times, but keep your priorities straight. There are some legitimate webinars offered online at this time (too many in my opinion) but even here, look at your finances and decide if you can afford the webinar now, and also remember that even a class with a great instructor may not be a good choice. Ask yourself how much will you learn from a presentation while wrestling with your kids at the same time. And then you have the free webinars and workshops. They entice you to do it, to give in to peer pressure, and to make you feel guilty for bypassing a free event. Once again, look at your priorities, guard your peace of mind. Understand that many of these free seminars are not free. They are sales events similar to the ones you see late at night on TV. They will not charge you for the seminar, but will encourage to buy their products and services, and will get your information for ulterior purposes. Don’t forget these are people you may know, but they are acting like salesmen. Noting illegal with that, but do not believe everything they tell you. The world is not going to remote interpreting forever. If you are a court interpreter or a community interpreter, you will go back to the jails and courthouses, you will be working at community centers and school classrooms once this is all over. Do not spend the money you don’t have, with no reliable source of income, because of the promise of a future when you will work from home. Remember, if it sounds too good…

If you are conference interpreters, assess if you truly work conferences most of the time. If they call you for two conferences a year, and one of them is at your local community center where you work with your court interpreter friend with a table top booth, think long and hard before buying an expensive computer, microphone, headset and internet service. You probably will get none of the work they spoke about during the free online event.  Even if you are a full time conference interpreter in the United States or Western Europe considering a big investment in times of coronavirus: Have you thought these same agencies now trying to sell you a service or a product, will generally retain the services of interpreters from developing countries where they get paid for a full week of work what you make in one day back in your country? Again, there is nothing illegal here, but think long and hard before building a studio in your home. There will be more events held remotely than before, but big conferences, important business and diplomatic negotiations will continue to be in-person. These have cancelled for now. They have not migrated to remote. Have you heard of the meeting after the meeting? The most important in-person events are going nowhere.

Some chats offered and organized for free by some individuals or professional associations are fine; I recommend them. If you live alone, they allow you to talk to someone besides the cat, and you will know they are not trying to sell you anything.

Please stay away from well-intentioned friends who know diddly about medicine, public health, and the economy, but constantly guide you through how to protect yourself. Do not listen to those calling you to tell you to exercise every day. Right now, you are in quarantine with your life upside down. You are not training for the 2021 Olympics. It is OK to spend the day watching Netflix; do not feel bad because you did not run a marathon around your kitchen table today; you are not a bad professional interpreter if you ignored “the” webinar because you felt like playing videogames. It is OK. No one knows you better than you. I have nothing against the cable company, those who advertise online, or those promoting their webinars. I am only focusing everything from the perspective of the professional interpreter stuck at home with an uncertain future ahead. These are tough times. Eliminate the noise. Have that ice cream.

Third step: Prepare for life after COVID-19

Once you are relaxed and the noise is gone, you can focus on the future by doing certain things you control and will help you fill in your days at home with valuable things.

At the top of this list you must write down: “Keep in touch with my direct clients.” Maintain that relationship by reminding them you are here to help them. Communicate periodically, you know your clients and you know what works better for each case. Do not call them every day; an email every two weeks should be enough. When you email them, do not start by expressing your worries or by asking for work. Show them empathy, ask them about their families, employees, and business. Make them see you understand what they are going through because you are experiencing the same. Be ready to assist them with small things during the crisis by offering, as an exception, remote services while educating them about the pros and cons of a remote solution. Explain to them what they should expect from a remote service with you working from an apartment with 3 children in the room next door so they lower their expectations. Acknowledge they have to make difficult decision, and reassure them of your presence in their back-to-work plans, stressing that you will be ready the day they open their doors again. You must be ready to hit the ground running from day one, even if day one is postponed repeatedly. You do not want them to catch you unprepared. You cannot give them a chance to think of looking for another interpreter because you were not ready.

Never agree to lower fees or poor working conditions during the quarantine of after. Doing so will cause you permanent damage. You will never work for a better fee, and you will be known by other interpreters as the individual who works for peanuts. No colleague will ever ask you to work with them, and people will hate it when forced by a client to share the booth with you. I understand not everybody is prepared to face a crisis that includes total loss of income. If this is your case, think of what I say in this paragraph before you accept the “job” offer. If you must make money to put food on the table, you should look for alternate sources of income. If you interpret you are at least bilingual. Perhaps you can do tutoring on line, lead advanced virtual conversation groups for people learning a foreign language. Many interpreters have a professional degree in other disciplines and others are well-read and traveled. They can tutor on history, literature, English, chemistry, biology, math, etc., I am not asking you to replace professional school teachers, just to tutor kids and adults so they can do their homework, learn and practice something they like, and have something to do while locked up at home. Remember: many parents would love this option and rest from their kids for two hours a day. This way you will make ends meet without permanently tarnishing your professional reputation.

A big part of getting ready for what is coming next is to keep in touch with your trusted colleagues. Make sure that during COVID-19 you talk to those interpreters you regularly share the booth with, and the ones with a different language combination in the booth next door. Email and chat with them regularly. Be all ready as a group so you can tackle a project right away. These are the colleagues you can share direct clients with because you know they will not steal away from you any of them. The key is to be ready to work from day one, before somebody gives your client the idea of contacting an agency. Just as I suggest you stay in touch with your trusted professional group, I tell you not to contact the agencies during COVID-19. Unlike your trusted colleagues and direct clients, this would be a waste of time. Agencies will call you (if you want to work with them) regardless. They look at a list and select you from there. Remember all those bulk mails where they ask you to recommend somebody if you cannot accept the job? They want a warm, inexpensive body. They do not want you. Set your priorities.

Finally, spend quality time with yourself. Do things for you that you never had time to do before. Spend quality time with your roommates: spouse, partner, children, extended family and house guest. Compromise and try to keep the peace. Remember you are all confined to a small space.

Dear colleagues, this post was written for you, the individual professional interpreter, and it offers a perspective that benefits you over anyone else. Please share with the rest of us your comments about the things you are doing to stay sane, safe, and ready to work from day one, and more important: stay healthy and stay safe (physically, mentally, and emotionally).

Lack of understanding, common sense = constitutional conflict in court?

November 12, 2018 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

I recently learned that some federal district courts got involved in the way federal prosecutors pick their interpreters for hearings. I have practiced in federal court for many years, and the decision on who will interpret for the office of the United States Attorney has always been left to the prosecutors who know the case better than anybody else. This means they, and their prosecutorial team of paralegals, investigators, detectives, and law enforcement agents, know the language complexities of a particular case, and therefore, better equipped to decide who they need for that interpreting assignment.

I do not dispute that some districts, because of a lack of federally certified court interpreters, or out of plain ignorance, have never tried a case where the assistant U.S. attorneys (AUSA) have their own interpreters for a trial. Some districts are so small, the AUSA office does not even have a staff interpreter. Some districts are so remote, that even the court tries cases with unqualified court interpreters (usually certified or accredited at the state level) because it is next to impossible to get somebody to the courthouse. Evidentiary hearings and trials require that an interpreter be physically present at the hearing. Remote interpreting is not a viable option for these proceedings.

That some have always followed this practice does not make it right, and courts in districts in urban centers where federally certified court interpreters are available have no reason to inject themselves in what should be an internal process of the Department of Justice. Let me elaborate:

The American legal system, and all legitimate legal systems in the world, are based on an independent judiciary free to decide with no pressures or fear of retaliation. The United States Constitution recognizes and enshrines this principle through the separation of powers. The Executive Branch of the federal government originates from Article 2. The Judicial Branch stems from Article 3.

With administration of justice in a criminal case, all individuals in the United States have the rights and protections established by the Constitution and secondary legislation; mainly, the right to a public and fair trial by their peers, starting with a presumption of innocence, charging the Executive Branch of government, through the United States Department of Justice, with the burden of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, in an orderly regulated process, presided by and controlled by the Judicial Branch of government. To put it simply: Because the government cannot be judge and party, it is an agency from outside the Judicial Branch, in this case the Justice Department, who prosecutes the case on behalf of the U.S. government, including the citizens that the government must protect from the bad guys.

We can see that having the burden of proof is no small task. Federal prosecutors must investigate de facts, test and evaluate the evidence found, and prepare a case that will persuade the jury and judge of an individuals’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt. If successful, the Justice Department will meet its duty to protect society. This is no easy task; it also means that individuals will lose their assets, their freedom, and even their life.  A prosecutorial team must have the best team available to fulfill its function, and that is extremely difficult.

Federal prosecutors must call witnesses to testify in the trial. When these witnesses do not speak English, their testimony must be interpreted into English to benefit the defendant, the defense attorneys, the judge, and the jury. It is only then, after the rendition of the interpretation, that the defendant will have exercised his constitutional right to confront the witness or accuser. It only after the rendition that a judge or jury can assess the credibility of the witness. It is this time they will decide if they believe all, part, or nothing of the witness’ statement.

But most of the work is done before the witness steps in the courtroom and takes the stand. Prosecutors and their teams test, evaluate, and prepare their witnesses before a trial. Questions are asked many times, in many ways; adjustments are made. Not to influence testimony, but to present the truth clearly to the trier of fact (judge or jury). Usually the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution is very complex, specialized, scientific. Dense concepts and sophisticated terminology must be interpreted into English during the trial; cultural concepts must be clarified before the final rendition (many expert witnesses come from abroad just for the trial); legal systems compared so the accurate term in the target language is rendered by the interpreter. Leaving loose ends is not an option: The prosecution must prove, and the standard could not be any higher: beyond reasonable doubt. Prosecutors and their teams, assisted by the interpreters, go over the testimony with every witness as many times as needed. These interpreters must research, study, practice, develop a common glossary for each testimony. The witness gets used to that team of interpreters and the interpreters get used to the witness.

The interpreters for the prosecution know the case, they are familiar with names, dates, places, and other key information that must be interpreted with accuracy. From gang slang, to amounts of drugs, to family relationships. It all needs to be well-understood so the interpretation heard in trial is accurate, pristine, and truthful.

Confidentiality is essential to our justice system. It lets the parties tell the truth to their attorneys so they can represent, in a criminal case, a defendant or society with full knowledge of the facts. Confidentiality is also very important when it comes to the lawyers’ strategy. Prosecutors and defense attorneys develop a strategy to win a case. The interpreters for the prosecution know the strategy and facts, and they are covered by the veil of secrecy. Using a court appointed interpreter to interpret for the prosecution generates a conflict of interest. You cannot be judge and party simultaneously. Even the most professional, trustworthy interpreters should never be placed in such situation. The sole appearance of conflict is enough to cast a shadow on the proceedings. Client-attorney privilege only exists when there is an expectation of privacy. How could this be argued when the same interpreter hears all confidential details?

The independence of the prosecutorial interpreters is so important, that even their payment differs from that court appointed, public defender, and Criminal Justice Act (CJA) attorney interpreters receive.  I am not referring to staff interpreters, I am talking about independent contractors retained to work in a case. While interpreters for the court, public defender, and CJA attorneys are paid through the judicial system (Judicial Branch of government) interpreters for the prosecution are paid by the United States Department of Justice (Executive Branch). The funds come from different budgets to assure independence, absence of conflict of interests, and separation of powers. The Office of the United States Attorney pays better that the courts, and unlike the latter, fees are negotiable between the parties (interpreters and AUSAs). This can also be relevant if you think that most more experienced, better trained interpreters would rather work for the prosecution, leaving a smaller pool of top-level interpreters to work for the courts, and increasing the risk of an inaccurate rendition of a prosecutorial witness’ complex testimony during the trial.

The widely, and constitutionally backed, practice of having a separate interpreter team for the prosecution in federal cases must continue as long as we have separation of powers, and a system where one party has the burden of proof. There is no rational justification for this practice by the executive branch of government, to be changed by court staff, from a different branch. Such decisions are being made in courthouses where none of the issues above were given any thought, where prosecutors did not reflect on the implications of such changes, and a decision was unilaterally made, perhaps due to a lack of understanding that lead to this policy deprived of common sense. If the decision at these district courts was made unilaterally, we have a separation of powers issue; if it was decided for monetary reasons, remember that interpreter fees are paid from two budgets (executive and judiciary); if it was decided to avoid comparisons between experienced prosecutorial interpreters, and perhaps less qualified court appointed ones, it was motivated by unethical reasons and it shows a disappointing level of professionalism; and if this was a joint decision by the courts and AUSAs in some districts, they must address the conflict of interest and at the least the appearance of conflict.

Our legal system has been around for 250 years. It has organically adjusted its parts to observe the fundamental democratic principles, starting with an independent judiciary, a separation of powers, and the rights and protections to the individual and society. In today’s world where many things that were, are no longer, let’s hope this is not changed by the capricious decision of a few. I invite you to share your thoughts on this issue.

“Your fee is well over the budget for this assignment”.

August 15, 2018 § 9 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Have you noticed mediocre agencies always say: “unfortunately, your fee is way over the budget this client has for the event”? This seems to be the answer I get most of the time, even from the big multinational interpreting services agencies, and it is the main reason I reject an assignment offered.

It makes me wonder how those huge multinational agencies, worshipped by their colleagues in the “industry”, who claim to be service providers to the biggest corporations and organizations in the world, can be as big and profitable as their financial statements show, (and believe me, thanks to public litigation records from lawsuits involving some, market share values, and their own bragging about their success, we know they are turning profits never seen before) when according to their conversations with interpreters, our fees are almost always above their clients’ budgets for their main, once-a-year conference, launching of a new product presentations, multi-million dollar fundraisers, or award ceremonies.  I find it difficult to believe these agencies would only work with “starving” clients.

The main issue is how these agencies’ clients decide on a budget for their events. I would think that corporations have little knowledge about interpreting services, and for that reason they go to language service agencies to find out about interpreting costs, just as they go to the caterer for information on the cost of food, or to the hotel to see how much it costs to rent a ballroom for the weekend. The agency informs the client or event organizer how much interpreters will charge, and what else they need to factor in (equipment, booths, technical support) before determining the amount needed for interpreting services. The agency tells the client what interpreters will cost. Then, armed with all necessary information, the corporation of association sets a budget. It is not the other way around.

The problem is that agencies want to pay interpreters very little so they can have great margins, and they tell their clients they can get interpreters for very low fees; even when the agency knows they will never get the best human talent for such a tiny paycheck. They have offered lower quality interpreters willing to work for below market non-professional fees.

If an ignorant client contacts the agency and tells them they want an interpreter for no more than a certain amount, and the amount is below prevailing professional interpreter fees, that is the time for an agency to educate the client and tell them: “…sorry, but a team of interpreters would cost you such and such professional fee per interpreter per day…” and then explain that interpreters charge by the day, that every time they are retained to work four hours or less, they must be paid for half a day, unless the four-hour (or less) assignment encompasses both morning and afternoon hours, because in that case interpreters need to be paid for a full day since they cannot generate any other income on that day.  During this conversation, an agency interested in quality interpretation would add: “…by the way, half days are handled this way…”

Then, if the event requires interpreters from out of town, the agency must make it very clear to the client these interpreters will charge at least half of the full-day fee for each travel day. Finally, the agency should clarify that, separate from their fees, these out-of-town professional interpreters will need for the client to cover their travel costs: travel, lodging, in-town transportation, and Per Diem.

At the beginning, these agencies may have to sacrifice part of their margin, but in the long run they will turn more profitable than those who turn their backs on the interpreting profession and embrace the low-quality ranks of the so-called “industry”, because their clients will notice the difference in the quality of the service and will go back to the same agency time and again. These are the agencies interpreters look for. These are the real interpreting services agencies. I would like to hear your ideas on this issue, and please share any relevant experiences you had.

Interpreter fees and costs. Avoid misunderstandings.

March 1, 2017 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Many interpreters complain that clients do not want to cover their expenses; that they do not understand why we charge for costs separately when we are already asking for a well-deserved hefty fee.  The complaining seems to include agencies and direct clients alike, and it makes many of our colleagues uncomfortable.

Interpreters dislike the subject because they do not how to charge fees and costs, or because they do not really understand why we must be paid for both of these items.  As for the client, many agencies just do not want to pay because their business plan is to profit as much as they can get away with, and to keep the interpreter from the money for as long as possible, or for as long as the interpreter allows it. Direct clients have different reasons, but they can all be summarized in one: lack of knowledge. They do not know what the interpreter does.

As we just saw, they may have different reasons to dislike, and frankly avoid, paying for interpreter fees and costs, but most of their hesitation and reluctance to pay can be eliminated with some clarity and a simple system.

In the past, I have discussed the items we must consider when calculating our professional fee and what costs we need to pass on to our client. You can read these blog entries somewhere else in my blog.  Today we will explore a system that will help you educate the ignorant client and will protect you from the Draconian one-sided “job opportunities” that some agencies put on your table.

The first thing I do when I am contacted by a serious client who wants to retain my professional services, is to find out as much about the assignment as possible: type of interpretation that will be required, subject matter, name of the individuals giving the speeches or presentations, dates when my work will be needed, duration of the project, place where the services will be provided, work conditions, equipment to be used, languages provided, name of the other interpreters already retained or prospective interpreters who are being considered for the assignment, and I always want to know what it I exactly that the client expects to be covered by my professional services.

After a good chat, and sometimes more than one when the project is big and the client needs to get the answers to some of my questions, I inform them that they will hear from me within 24 hours. I explain that they will receive an email with an estimate for the professional fees and costs I would charge for the assignment as presented to me. Then I get to work.

I already have a format that matches my professional style and personality. This gives me the organization and coherence needed to be able to explain what I do and how much I charge.

I suggest you develop your own format for your estimates, and as always, everything that I suggest in this entry, and anywhere else in the blog, is not intended as legal or financial advice; these are just mere suggestions that in no way guarantee you any result. If you need to know financial, legal, or other consequences, please retain a professional.

Whether you prepare your estimate form on your own, or with professional help, I strongly encourage you to at least include the following:

On a nice document, formatted to your taste as far as font size and style, letterhead and logo, and color of both, background and font, start with your document’s personalized title: Something like “Estimate of Professional Interpreter Fees and Costs Submitted to XX Corporation for the XX Conference in XX City from X date to X date”.

Next, inset an introductory section where you go into more detail about the service you would provide to the client. Something like this: “This estimate is submitted at the request of XX Corporation, with its address at XX Avenue in XX City, regarding professional interpreting services XX language<>YY language in XX City, on the following dates: from X date to Y date, during the XX Conference of XYZ Topic”.

On the next section of your estimate, you need to talk about your professional fees, so start by including a section title such as: “Professional Fees”, or “Professional Interpreter Fees”, or something similar. I would always include the term “professional” to underline the fact that, if you are hired, they would be retaining the services of a professional just like a physician or an accountant, not an unskilled laborer. Then, I would describe my work with words like: “My professional daily (or hourly) fees for simultaneous interpreting, consecutive interpreting, and sight translation (depending on the service you are about to provide) is $XX (per day or hour) for a total of XX days (or hours). The total amount would be: $XX (unless there are other interpreting fees for additional hours (days) as described below. The professional fee for hours of service in excess of 8 per day would be $XX per hour in XX amount of minute increments.” After that paragraph, you can add:

“This professional service includes (telephonic) (in person) interpreting at the convention center (hotel, plant, law office, etc.) Other than the professional tasks above, I will not provide any other services such as (answering phones, making tea, hussle for customers, technical support), or any other service that goes beyond interpreting services and the cultural adviser function implicit in conference interpreting. Under no circumstance I will drive a vehicle for you or any of your clients, customers, associates, etc.”

At this point you will be ready to move on to your “expenses section” of the document. Start with the most expensive ones that the client has to advance you or reimburse you for. I always start with transportation expenses: Airfare or train tickets. Maybe something similar to this: Payment in advance for the flight from XX City to YY City and back”. If possible, do your research so you can include the total cost, including taxes and incidentals such as luggage, priority boarding, and similar services unless your frequent flyer status allows all those things for free. Always get suggestions based on the Airlines you want to fly, the airports you prefer, and the time of the day when flying is more convenient to your Schedule. Make sure to include something in case airfare or train ticket prices change because the client takes too long to approve the estimate and sign a contract. Saying something like this may come in Handy: “The ticket prices above are not guaranteed until purchased. For that reason, prices could increase. If this happens, it is your responsibility to advance the correct amount according to the price on the day the ticket is purchased”.  You can also include your arrival time and your departure time from the city where the assignment will take place. This way the client does not get any ideas about putting you to work before you get there, or up to 10 minutes before your flight leaves. You know your clients, and everybody is different, but for long trips I would require a business or first class seat in order to get to work fresh instead of tired from the trip.

I would then insert my ground transportation expenses. Many interpreters do not include these expenses. They should. Your client needs to pay for your ground transportation back at home from your office to the airport, and back; for your transportation from the airport to the hotel, and back, at your destination, and from all trips to and from the hotel to the venue where you will be interpreting. I do not believe that you have to charge for a stretch limo, but do not use the airport shuttle or the subway either.  Travel by Taxi, Uber, or something similar. Based on prior experience, include an estimated total amount for ground transportation, but explain to the client that this is an expense they will have to reimburse because at this time you have no way to know the exact amount of the expenses; unless you both agree to set a fixed amount ahead of time and that lump sum would be all you get. You may lose some money, you may end up with a little more than the expenditure, but at least you would include ground transportation in the same check with your fees and all other expenses.

Once you covered transportation, the next big expense is lodging. I would demand a room in the same hotel where the event is to take place, and I would never accept sharing the room with another person. No roommates, no motels of dubious reputation, not cheaper hotels outside the county an hour away from the venue. Besides the hotel room, I always ask for the internet service. As you know, must budget hotels include internet service (and breakfast) in the price of the room, but most top hotels (where you will be staying during the assignment) have an extra charge. The client must pay for it, as you will need access to the internet for professional reasons. I would insert something like this under “lodging expenses” on my estimate form: “Payment of hotel room for the following nights: XX, YY, and ZZ at ‘XX Hotel’ in XX City, plus any charges for internet access. As of today, the hotel rate for a single one bed room is $XX (plus taxes and internet service charges) but said amount is subject to change. If so, you must cover the hotel fare applicable at the time of the reservation”.  You can also agree with your client that they will directly take care of the hotel and internet service. This is common in big events because the client already has a hotel group rate and they will just add you to the same package.

An estimate can include many other things, but there is at least one more expense that is usually forgotten and should be included in all estimates. I am talking about your Per Diem.

Meals during professional trips are expensive.  Most venues offer costly restaurants, and many times interpreters have to eat at airports or order room service late at night when they finally finish work. These meals have to be paid by the client. In the United States, and in many other countries, the federal government has pre-set fixed Per Diem rates based on the particular city or town’s cost of living. In the United States, the IRS has a list on line for all towns and cities in the country, and the U.S. Department of State has the same thing for all destinations overseas. I usually inform the client that I have calculated my Per Diem based on said rates. It would be very hard for the client to argue against a Per Diem already established that is continuously adjusted and universally accepted.  I would put the following under “Per Diem”: “I will receive as Per Diem, the daily amount established by the IRS for XX City. This amount for the year of XX is $XX per day, for a total of $XX for XX days.”

The next section of my estimate would deal with cancellation charges, and I would spell it out in detail, even if it turns repetitive, and ugly for a language lover. I would cover different possibilities because the more advanced the notice of cancellation, the better chances I will have to get my income on another assignment somewhere else; the closer to the date of the event, the more money I need to get as compensation from the cancelling client.

Expenses are different. Regardless of the advanced notice, a client would always be obligated to reimburse me for all expenses already made up to that time, including cancellation fees in those cases where an expense allows cancellation, but this will generate a penalty or fee. For this reason, it is always better to get part of the fee and expenses in advance. It is better to prepare a statement explaining the client how much money you will return (if applicable) than turning into a detective and chase the morose, and now uninterested client half way around the world to get paid and reimbursed.

I would include something along these lines:

“Cancellation Policy:

Notice of cancellation XXX or more weeks before the event: No professional fees, but the client must reimburse me for all expenses already made, and for all expenses generated for returning the rest of the advanced payment to the client (because some banks charge for this service).  Said amount will be deducted from the amount to be returned to the client if there are enough funds available. Otherwise, the client must provide payment for the amount in excess of the advanced payment.

Notice of cancellation XX or more weeks before the event: XX Percentage of the total professional fee, and all expenses already made, and for all expenses generated for returning the rest of the advanced payment to the client (because some banks charge for this service).  Said amount will be deducted from the amount to be returned to the client if there are enough funds available. Otherwise, the client must provide payment for the amount in excess of the advanced payment…” And so on.

The next thing I include on my estimates is a table or a graphic with a summary of my fees and expenses, including totals. This makes it clear for the client. Besides the table, I would add the following so the estimate is crystal clear:  “The client must pay the total amount indicated, unless there are any changes due to an increase on interpretation hours (days) or changes to any of the transportation or lodging prices. Please keep in mind that some taxes and additional charges are yet to be included, and they must be reimbursed to me as soon as I inform you of their existence”.

Then comes the terms of payment. This is crucial and when you spell it out for the client to see from day one, you are saving yourself some headaches and extra expenses due to late payments or disputed amounts. Payment should be prompt and non-compliance should carry consequences. How about something that brings up important points like these ones:

“The client must pay all professional fees and expenses as follows:

Advanced payment: Once this estimate is approved, the client will have 48 hours to make the advance payment, which will include XX percentage of the total professional fees, airfare (according to the applicable rate) hotel charges at the applicable rate (including taxes and internet service) unless the client directly pays for the hotel and related charges, including internet access. The advance payment must be in cashier’s check or by electronic transfer to my account. The remaining professional fees and expenses must be paid in full no later than XXX date. Any delays on this payment will generate a XX percent late payment interest”.

Finally, I would include the date and a place on the document for me and the client to sign as proof of agreement to the terms of this estimate. Like this: “Delivered to the client for review and acceptance on this date XX”, followed by both of our signatures.

Dear friends and colleagues, I believe that there is much to be done. We have to educate the direct client and identify and exclude corrupt greedy agencies, but we can also make our lives a little less complicated by adding some clarity to our charges. I have found that it is easier to explain my fees, expenses, and the scope of my professional services to those clients who have seen my estimate on paper. It allows them to understand and ask questions, and it gives us a road map to organize all those items that perhaps we have been paying for when in reality it is the client who has to cover them.

I hope that you find this explanation useful, and it motivates you to be more organized, assertive, and (because the contents of this blog post are not legal advice) to visit your attorney or accountant if you need professional help to develop your unique, tailor-made estimate of professional fees and costs. I now ask you to please share with the rest of you any tips you may have to make this process smoother and faster.

An interpreter exam for a certification… or for a job.

February 29, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A controversial issue that has been around for years has become quite popular in the past few months.  The controversy surrounding the United States federal government’s contract award to Department of Defense’s contractor SOSi has put this corporation under the microscope of many individual interpreters and interpreter associations. This scrutiny has touched on the training and “blessing” (call it certification, accreditation or anything you want) provided to the individual interpreters contracted by SOSi to work in the immigration court system for the first time.  After reading some of the posts in social media and the numerous letters, emails, and phone calls that I received from many friends and colleagues on this particular issue, I thought about it, and arrived to some personal conclusions that I think put in perspective what is happening in the American immigration court system and what many friends and colleagues would like to see implemented.

The first thing we need to do is define what an interpreter certification program and examination really are.  A process that ends in a generally accepted and scientifically proven method of testing designs, after exhaustive detailed research and practice testing, a comprehensive exam that tests individual performance in all basic properties of the activity, in this case profession, that the applicant aspires to practice in exchange for a professional fee in the real world.  Those passing this examination have demonstrated that they meet the minimum requirements acceptable to be a part of a profession subject to professional and ethical rules, legal statutes, and subject to liability in the event of malpractice.

This exam has to be designed in a way that it is objective, measures all candidates the same way, includes all elements relevant to the rating of a person’s performance, and for security and equity reasons has multiple versions in case somebody tries to circumvent the certification process, or fails to pass on the first, and often limited subsequent, attempts.  For all of these reasons the exam has to be developed by a combination of peer professionals, in this case interpreters and interpreter educators, in addition to scientists that will apply a scientific method, including the application of a grading curve, to be able to offer a comprehensive and fair assessment tool which plays a key role in the issuance of a certification.  This process takes a long time and is very, very expensive.  Moreover, the administration of the examination to the candidates also requires a big financial investment for both, the actual testing and the rating of the completed exam.   This is the main reason why there are so few real certification programs that can deliver unquestioned professionals.  Law school graduates in the United States take the bar exam to be able to practice as attorneys, and despite the fact that each state has its own version of a portion of the exam, they all share a common universal test that is part of the final assessment of that student: the MBE or Multistate Bar Examination that has been developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners to be universally applied in all fifty states and territories (with the exception of Puerto Rico). The purpose of the test is to assess the extent to which an examinee can apply fundamental legal principles and reasoning to analyze given fact patterns.  The individual states decided to go to the NCBE to develop the test because it was extremely costly for any single state to come up with its own examination.

The same scenario applies in the court interpreting arena where the states looked for a similar solution when they went to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).  The result was the same as in the lawyers’ case. Each state can add any requirements to the certification process if considered necessary in that jurisdiction (written tests, ethics exams, background checks, good moral character, etc.) but they all administer the same examination in Spanish and other languages where a test is available.  There are many languages without any certification exam due to the huge expense this represents and the lack of volume that could justify such an investment (not enough speakers of a given foreign language).  Only the United States government has a different examination and process because it has the deep pockets to do it, but even the Administrative Office of the United States Courts tests candidates through the NCSC. In all scenarios the individual interpreters who rate the candidate’s exams are independent contractors or staff members of the judiciary.  At different levels, all applicants who successfully pass this interpreter certification test, currently being offered only in Spanish, are considered qualified to render their professional services in a court of law within the jurisdiction where they took the exam, or nationwide in the case of the U.S. federal court system.  Clients, agencies, government entities and businesses use this certification as an assurance of a certain minimum level of quality. These new certified interpreters have demonstrated that they can work assignments that may include sight translations, and simultaneous or short consecutive interpretations (when I speak of short consecutive I am referring to the very difficult consecutive interpreting that is used in court which requires short quick renditions, unlike consecutive interpreting in a conference or diplomatic setting where the consecutive rendition could take thirty minutes or longer).  This is the only credential in the United States that tests interpreters in such a scientific way and in all modes.

There are other certifications in the U.S., but they either vanished because of its prohibitive cost and lack of demand, as it happened with the very good testing program offered in the past by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) or their testing method and results are in my opinion questionable as is the case of the “medical” and healthcare certifications offered in the United States, not by a governmental entity but by the private sector. These exams do not test in all modes of interpreting or the content of the exam is of lesser level than the one desired for a widely-recognized credential outside of the scope of a patient-physician interview at a hospital or medical office.  This is not to put these certifications down, but to illustrate the fact that a universal scientific test is a complex and expensive matter. I know how difficult and time consuming this process is because I had the opportunity to participate as one of many individuals involved in the development and field testing of an interpreter test for military and conflict zone interpreters a few years ago.

Because the process is so long, difficult, and costly, most organizations resort to another solution: they develop a program to assess individual interpreters in the field that will be relevant for that organization, and sometimes, if the target applicants require it, the program also includes some training or at least basic orientation.  These quicker and less expensive solutions can assist in determining the level of an interpreter in all modes, and sometimes are way more difficult than a certification program like the ones described above, but for the most part they are confined to the assurance of a certain minimum quality of service in the specific field or area where they operate.

The first example that comes to mind are the exams by the international organizations, or the United States Department of State conference level exam to assess the skill, knowledge and ability of the candidate. These are difficult tests that are rated by top interpreters who guard the quality of the service provided, and for this reason to pass these examinations, even though they do not confer a certification strictly speaking, means to the professional community that the candidate who just passed the assessment has a quality level that clients can rely on.

There are other exams of this type by both, government entities and the private sector that are nowhere as prestigious or difficult as the ones I mention above, but exist for commercial and legal reasons. Commercially because it is the way to get big contracts and important clients; legally because it is a certain protection against civil liability lawsuits that the entity offering the service, and the exam, might face down the road.  Most of the multinational interpreting agencies administer a training, orientation or test (call it evaluation, exam, or anything else) to their prospective interpreters to be able to market themselves as providers of “certified” interpreters and to defend from potential malpractice or negligence lawsuits as discussed above.  This practice is expensive (nowhere near a real certification program of course) but necessary to remain in business, and to a person not familiar with the profession it can create a sense of professionalism that could be the factor needed to get awarded a big contract. Although many of these entities ask their in-house interpreters to put together a quick assessment of those applying for interpreter assignments, some retain reputable institutions or renowned interpreters or educators to develop a training and evaluation program.  Needless to say, the individuals passing this evaluation may be ready for the limited work they will have to do, but they will never be considered or treated as a certified interpreter or an individual who passed an exam with the U.S. Department of State or an international organization.

This brings me back to the communications I have been getting about the immigration court interpreters in the United States and the training that defense contractor turned language service provider SOSi is offering to those new individuals who want to work under this new contract awarded last year by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).

The first thing to say is that SOSi has a temporary contract at this time, and even if extended to the maximum agreed to in the original contract, it will be for just a few years.  Moreover, to win the bidding process, SOSi had to bid really low and that ties their hands as far as the size of the financial investment they can justify to their board.  As precedent, you should know that all contractors have opted for the same type of solution in the past. There is no logic in investing the time and money developing a certification program that if they are lucky, might be ready by the time their EOIR contract expires.

I now want to talk about the program they are offering to their new interpreters, and I say new interpreters because I assume that those veteran colleagues who decided to go back despite all the problems with the contract terms and SOSi’s conduct during these months do not need to undergo the training and evaluation.

SOSi contracted out the development of this training and assessment of their candidates to an affiliate of an Interpreter training school. The program is offered on line and it includes 27 hours of on-demand training, 40 hours of on line interpreting practice, live sessions and random monitoring by an instructor, a mentoring service, and two assessments, with the second one being the final exam that according to SOSi and the trainer follows the U.S. Department of Justice and Executive Office for Immigration Review testing requirements. The program is supervised, and I assume developed in a significant part, by the director of the interpreter training school who happens to be a very well-known and recognized instructor. I have personally attended some of his talks when we have coincided at a conference and I must say that his presentations are of a very high quality. Moreover, this institution has been preparing interpreters to take court and healthcare interpreter certification tests for many years and with very good results.  I do not know how the trainer got the contract from SOSi, but whether it was through a bidding process or by negotiation, I see no wrongdoing.  If anything, I would say that the reputation of the interpreter training school is taking a big risk (calculated by their front office, I am sure) by working with such an entity as SOSi.

Some colleagues have also raised the fact that the exams will be rated by the training entity’s instructors as a potential conflict of interest.  I do not see it that way.  The National Center for State Courts also outsources the rating of their certification exams to independent contractor interpreters and court staff.  Most law students who are preparing for the Bar (including myself a long time ago) enroll in the Bar Bri courses to get ready for the exam. Bar Bri is no different from the trainer in this case.  As to the argument that interpreter trainers will “pass” those attending the training to keep SOSi happy, I do not believe that a reputable institution like this one would play that game. In fact, as an interpreter trainer and certification exam rater myself, I have to tell you that it is in your best interest to stop those who are not qualified from entering the professional ring.  Others have raised as a problem the fact that some of the raters may have never worked in immigration court. I do not see any validity to this argument either. Interpreting skills are the same for any court. The terminology and procedure may be different, but that can be learned by the student.  This happens every day with conference interpreters who have to research and study multiple subject matters throughout their career.

In conclusion, I do not believe that it is practical nor feasible that a government contractor such as SOSi invest the time and money required to develop a certification program when all they have been awarded is a temporary (renewable at best) service contract.  I think that, regardless of all the problems faced by the immigration court interpreters and the lack of competency shown by SOSi until now, they did what any contractor, capable or not, would do regarding its interpreters.  I think that the interpreter trainers in this case did what they had to do to get the contract and now that it has been awarded to them, they will act as the professional institution we all know they are.  Therefore, dear friends and colleagues, I do not believe that there are grounds to be concerned for this reason as long as we view this evaluation for what it is: an assessment of limited skills learned for the sole purpose of meeting a client’s needs, in this case SOSi and the EOIR, who apparently set the guidelines as to what needed to be tested.

This does not mean that we should give SOSi a pass. Our colleagues are still waiting for their services to be paid, people are still wasting time trying to get answers from an organization that does not respect its interpreters, and we cannot abandon them, but the “certification exam”, regardless of the skills it may evaluate, is not, in my opinion, something we can criticize.   The only way to change the immigration court interpreter exam is to get the United States Department of Justice and the Executive Office for Immigration Review to follow the same path that their counterparts in the judicial branch of government are following, and implement a real interpreter certification program, or join the federal court interpreter certification program that already exists; but in order to do this, you will have to convince them of three things associated with this change:  (1) That they need to go to Congress and ask for the resources, a tall order in our current political season, (2) That a real certification program will attract interpreters that will be better prepared, who will, after passing the examination, demand a higher pay and more professional conditions than the current interpreters,  and (3) That a real certification program will mean that many of their current interpreters will not pass and they could face a real interpreter shortage never seen before.   I now ask you to share with the rest of us your opinion about this issue.

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

May 20, 2013 § 17 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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