Are incompetent bureaucrats scaring away good interpreters?
April 10, 2017 § 6 Comments
Today we will discuss a delicate subject that cannot be avoided as it impacts all freelance professional interpreters. I am talking about the cost of doing business versus the unreasonable cost of doing business. All professionals know that freedom and independence come with a price and we all know that we must pay it to enjoy the best things in life. It is called the cost of doing business.
The time an interpreter spends developing a client base talking to the best prospects in person, sitting in front of a computer answering their questions, or chatting with them over the phone takes part of our time, and for those who sell personal professional services time is money. Administrative chores such as printing glossaries, mailing documents and buying office supplies are also part of this cost of doing business. So is invoicing.
Getting paid for services already rendered could be a full-time job unless we are organized and develop a billing system that is accurate, user friendly, and does not take too much of our time. Morose payers, crooked client, and banking mistakes are unavoidable, they will always be there and we must factor them in as part of our business. We consider all these factors when bidding for a contract or providing an estimate. The thing we cannot factor in, and we must stay away from are never-ending bureaucratic proceedings filled with nonsensical steps and inspired by the most pure form of institutional chaos and individual incompetence. We can encounter this condition anywhere, but it is frequently found in government invoicing procedures.
We are all familiar with the long government invoice forms requesting absurd, and often repetitious, information. Nobody likes them, but sometimes the importance of the contract, or the monetary reward, for jumping through all the hoops justifies the sour moments. The unforgivable part is when interpreters go through this enormous waste of their time, answer dumbness award-winning questions from a bureaucrat, are disrespected, and what they collect is worth less than the time and energy spent navigating the bureaucratic maze of mediocrity. This is where we must draw the line.
All governments have obsolete, and often outdated, systems and procedures to pay interpreters. This is clear in the judiciary. You all know of puzzling methods followed by your respective states to pay you for work you did sometimes two or three months earlier. Once they realized they were losing money by working with a court system, some interpreters quit working with these clients, while others thought about it, but for different reasons: real financial need, fear, or ignorance, they remained as contractors for that court system. I stopped working federal cases with Criminal Justice Act appointed attorneys (CJA) two years ago when they changed to a system that injected the attorney as an intermediary between the service provider (interpreter) and client (courthouse) and never regretted the decision. I was losing more money doing paperwork and chasing after CJA attorneys and courthouses than the fee generated by my interpreting services.
I understand that to leave that work or stay and take it on the chin is a complex personal decision that only you can make. I also know of the fact that government agencies will always move slowly and have endless checks and balances because of their work volume. This makes it harder to decide what to do; unless there is a case so full of abuse and lack of respect for the interpreter as an individual, or our craft as a profession you have no choice but to get out of the zest pool before you are permanently harmed. This is what I am told has been happening for some time in a particular state.
If you are a regular reader of this blog you remember other occasions when I have written about irregularities in several court interpreter programs at the state-level, including this state, but this time the stories have a human aspect I could not keep to myself.
Sometime ago, this state adopted a billing system similar to the one used by other states (and non-judicial government agencies) that required certain information from the interpreter and some data about the work performed. In that state, interpreters are paid by the hour with a two-hour minimum guarantee (and a bunch of bizarre rules requiring the interpreter to travel to other cities and counties within the guaranteed period of time we will not discuss in this post). The billing system asks interpreters to enter their time, including the time when the “proceeding” ended. The billing system is confusing and it takes some skill and time to understand it and use it correctly. There is no technical help available on line from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts as far as I know.
As we all know, interpreters are busy interpreting, understanding the culture of the foreign client, and in a court setting they are also paying attention to their surroundings to protect their physical integrity. And to any regular human, the requirement of reporting the time of an assignment and writing down when the “proceeding” ended would be met by entering “3:30 pm”. In the dark dungeons of immeasurable insanity, an invoice can be rejected if I entered “3:30 pm” and the recording machine that keeps the record shows it ended at “3:24 pm”. The invoice will be sent back even when the times coincide because I entered “3:24 pm” instead of “15:24”. Dear friends and colleagues: They want military time!
You can see that the billing system is twin brother of the bizarre, and it could be intimidating for some colleagues. Depending on where in the world you come from, certain things can make you uncomfortable. Add to it the fact that, in the opinion of many, the staff in charge at the Administrative Office of the Courts (where there is not a single certified court interpreter) is not known for their warmth or devotion to the interests of the interpreters or the well-being of the profession, and you can get situations like the one of a very well-respected interpreter who I have known for many years, and strikes me as a professional and dedicated colleague.
This individual is an interpreter in a language combination common in some parts of the country, but rare in a small state like this one, although there are many speakers of the language all over the state. He felt confused, embarrassed, and intimidated to where, after having some invoices rejected for petty reasons like the one above, he did not invoice the state for about a year. A rare language interpreter, actually, the only certified interpreter with that language pair in the State, worked for a full year without getting paid. Finally, when he sent in all of his invoices to the Administrative Office of the Courts, he was met with a bunch of one-sentence communications (I saw 44) rejecting all of his filings because of some nonsensical excuse. To this day, even without pay and after being disrespected, the interpreter continues to work within the court system because he knows he is the only interpreter in that language combination in the state, and he feels bad for the people who go to the court system seeking justice.
This is not an isolated case. A year earlier, the same thing happened to another interpreter whose invoices were also rejected for petty reasons. This interpreter, also one of the most professional in the state, reacted differently, and after being retaliated against by the Judicial Branch administrative authorities, he decided he had had enough and quit. He is now interpreting for the courts in a different state. I was told by at least three interpreters that depending on the individual doing the filing, the same insignificant billing mistakes are often overlooked by the administration. If this was true, it could have something to do with who the person filing the invoice is. I will not get into that because it is a legal matter that interested parties will no doubt take to court. The issue we are discussing here is the collateral damage that irrational billing requirements by federal and state-level judicial authorities are creating.
These actions, presumably adopted to protect the quality of the services provided, and watch over the taxpayers’ money, are scaring away many good interpreters because of the undue burden and lack of flexibility by often well-intentioned, but not very knowledgeable, government workers who apply these policies with no discretion or awareness of the damage they cause, and the money they cost to the state. I for one stopped doing CJA attorney cases, one interpreter in the story moved to a different State, and the only certified interpreter in a rare language pair in the state may decide that he will not take it any longer and decline court assignments, forcing the authorities to hire out-of-state interpreters at a much higher cost to the citizens of the state. I now invite you to share your stories with the rest of us, and if you fear retaliation, I assure you that your name, place of residence, language combination, and any other information that could identify you, will not be included in your comments.
A big problem with continuing education.
September 6, 2016 § 9 Comments
Let me start this entry by saying that I am a strong supporter of continuing education for all interpreters. I know that the topic is somewhat controversial and some colleagues believe that it is unnecessary to have an organized practice of checking on colleagues who have already graduated from school or achieved certification or accreditation. I have been contacted by colleagues telling me that they consider continuing education a waste of time; that they are already certified or accredited and there is no other professional level above that; they have said that there is nobody out there who knows enough to teach anything to interpreters that are already at this level.
There is another group of colleagues who believe that continuing education is just a way for some interpreters to make money from teaching others what they can learn on their own; Some even claim that it creates a false sense of insecurity and need to take a seminar or a workshop, especially when these courses are sanctioned or even organized by government agencies or professional organizations.
Finally, there is the position of others who acknowledge the value of continuing education, but oppose it de facto when they state that as a policy or program, continuing education is too expensive to run and control. That there is not enough money to do it, and for this reason interpreters are not required to comply. This is the position adopted by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, the only court jurisdiction in the United States with an interpreter certification requirement that does not include continuing education as one of the elements to maintain a valid certification.
In my opinion, it is not possible to provide a truly professional service without preparation. Interpreting is a complex task that requires of sharp skills and huge amounts of knowledge.
The practice of any profession in a developed country requires that those individuals providing the service have a degree and a license, patent, certification or accreditation to show that they meet the minimum standards needed to work as a professional. Then, in order to keep said certification or whatever license is required, the professional individual must comply with continuing education requirements to guarantee society that they have kept up with the changes in their profession. Lawyers, physicians, accountants, engineers, teachers, and in many cases interpreters, must abide by these rules. Everyday more developing countries are following on these steps, and (in some cases with huge opposition from special interest groups) are beginning to require continuing education for their attorneys and doctors among many others.
Interpreters are aware of their reality: you need to study and prepare for a conference if you want to do a good job. Most colleagues would not disagree.
I believe that the need for continuing education becomes more apparent and crucial in the case of those interpreters whose work is linked to the life, health, freedom, and wellbeing of a person.
As interpreters, we all work with something that is constantly changing, permanently evolving: we work with languages. As interpreters who work in the real world, we are also impacted by science and technology. They have changed the way we work: from simultaneous interpreting equipment to note-taking on a tablet; from digital dictionaries to video remote interpreting. The language we spoke when we first started working and the means used to deliver our rendition do not look like the ones we presently use on a daily basis. There is a constant need to learn.
Moreover, healthcare, medical, court, and legal interpreters work with medicine and legislation. Sometimes these fields are less permanent than language and technology. Those agencies that certify or accredit these interpreters, whether they are run by a government or by a professional association, cannot put the client at risk. They have to assure the consumer of the professional service (a physician, attorney, patient, defendant, plaintiff, or victim) that the interpreters who have achieved certification or accreditation meet the standard requirements to practice the profession, and that they have been able to update their skills and knowledge by complying with continuing education requirements. Remember, we are dealing with human life, freedom, and assets.
Most court and healthcare interpreters in the U.S. acknowledge the importance of continuing education in ethics, interpreting, science, legal changes, and technology. There are also many colleges, professional associations, independent interpreter trainers, and government agencies that organize and offer quality continuing education at all levels. In the United States, continuing education is accessible all over the country at one time or another. The problem is not the willingness of the interpreter to attend the seminars, courses or workshops (even though sometimes the motivation to study may be the risk of losing the certification or accreditation for lack of credits); the real problem is the difficult and sometimes absurd requirements that some government agencies ask for in order to approve a workshop or a seminar for continuing education.
There are government agencies where an ethics workshop will never be approved for continuing education, even when the only subject matter of the class is ethics, unless the word “ethics” is included on the title of the workshop. Sometimes a workshop that deals with the business aspects of the profession, or a seminar on legislative changes are not approved for continuing education because the individual who makes the decision does not understand the subject matter or its relevance. There are also places where continuing education credits are only granted when the course or workshop is offered by the government.
There are some government agencies where the person deciding what does or does not constitute continuing education for an interpreter program has never interpreted, or has never been involved with interpreting or translating. Many times these are people who were transferred from another bureaucratic post because of their clerical skills, not their professional knowledge. Sometimes the people running a program decide to exercise their “power”, and only approve for continuing education credits those workshops that they contracted and organized; ignoring, and for all practical purposes running out of the state, all seminars and courses offered by reputable entities and instructors that, in the judgment of this government bureaucrat, “are too expensive”, even when the presenters are world-class.
I believe that certifications and accreditation at all levels and in all specialty fields are too important to leave them at the mercy of individuals who are only interested in covering their own behinds or favor their buddies. The granting of continuing education credits should be decided by government officials who are interpreters and know the profession, or even better, by a committee of local reputable interpreters who know what the profession needs because they know what it is all about. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your experiences in dealing with these unreasonable government officials, or your ideas as to how continuing education credits should be granted.