Low-cost interpreter factories.
June 23, 2015 § 15 Comments
It seems like every time I open my mailbox, see a tweet, or read a professional publication, I see new advertisement for all these interpreter courses, interpreter certifications, interpreter great opportunities, and so on. There are many government entities, multinational agencies, professional associations, and “professional trainers” who have discovered a new business: create interpreters from nothing!
Let’s see: Just a few years ago Spanish language court interpreters in the United States could only be certified by the United States Administrative Office of the Courts (federal) or by the Administrative Office of the Courts of a state member of what was called the consortium. These credentials were widely known and recognized. Everybody knew what was behind them: a federal certification was more than a state-level certification, and then… there were the non-certified individuals who were precluded from working in the court system, and in those cases when they were used by the government, they were ushered in through the back door because they all knew that they were doing something that should be kept “confidential”.
Well, the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act became a reality for all state courts so the Consortium was no more, it has now been replaced by the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC) and now, in order to keep those federal funds coming, the states have devised a clever plan to circumvent the court certification requirement which would be the thing to do according to law, but very expensive, so they have created this new “category” of people who cannot pass the certification test, but are allowed to work in court, entering through the front door, called “qualified”, “conditionally qualified” and other versions of the same thing: an unqualified individual doing a job that is federally mandated and requires of certification. Yes, it is easier, and cheaper, to mass produce these individuals who, in my opinion, are trained to do a job that does not exist, and pays lower than a professional certified interpreter would work for. These individuals are now produced in “programs” developed by some states with the help of opportunist community colleges and “professional trainers” who see fit to create a program and go through the motions in order to deliver these paraprofessionals.
But this was not enough. The developments above showed the way to another lucrative business: the development of another category of interpreter who would be called “community interpreter” but would provide services in legal arenas where the court proceedings are of Article One of the U.S. Constitution: Administrative Courts. The reason for this new category, according to those who are now benefiting from its implementation: To fill in the gap in the legal system that was not been serviced by certified court interpreters. The real motivation: That these courts and their proceedings are not covered by the court interpreter legislation, so there was a great opportunity for agencies to jump in, “certify” their people, and cover the hearings while paying these para-interpreters very little money. Again, the “certification” programs (sometimes called “diploma” programs) have been developed by individuals who saw the opportunity to make money. There is no official oversight nor legal authority for the existence of these “community interpreters”. The only thing that is clear is that court proceedings in administrative courts are as important and complex as the ones heard in Article 3 courts. This is why, to be able to appear before administrative law judges, attorneys have to pass the same bar exam and be members in good standing of their state bar. No lesser requirements for attorneys, but non-existent requirements for interpreters. Obviously, there is a lot of money to be made in a service where the interpreter pay is so bad that no real self-respecting interpreter would get involved.
Then we have the professional associations and multinational agencies that offer their own “certifications” “qualifications” or whatever they chose to call them, to those left-overs who cannot work anywhere else and have to settle for a quick course online, a 15-minute exam online, and a dismal pay in exchange for telephonic or live interpreting at medical offices, school classrooms, community meetings, and the likes. I do not blame those who are providing what in my opinion are questionable services, they are taking advantage of a void in the legal system and a weak group of interpreters who do not fight for their profession, reputation, betterment, and income. The blame is on the authorities who chose not to fix the situation and foster the spread of these “interpreter factories” all over; on the ignorant clients who buy the Brooklyn Bridge every time the agency sells it to them, and on the self-respect and ambition lacking so-called interpreters who enable the system to continue, instead of studying to better themselves as real conference, court, healthcare, or community interpreters.
We as professional interpreters need to protect our profession, we need to watch over our future, and we need to stop this do-nothing attitude and stand up, educate our clients, better ourselves, join real professional associations that work for the interpreters and not against them, and embracing the new technology, explain to the client that, compared to those I mentioned above, we represent quality, and many times savings, as we work without the middle man, the only actor who is not necessary in this play. There are some good agencies, trainers, and professional associations out there, unfortunately, most of them become known to the interpreters once they reach certain level within the profession. It is our job, and responsibility, to point the new colleagues in the right direction. Please feel free to share your comments with the rest of us, but please abstain from coming here to defend the entities I wrote about. They have plenty of forums where to make their case.
This time of the year could be very dangerous for some court interpreters.
April 27, 2015 § 6 Comments
I just read a contract that one of the States in the U.S. is asking all court interpreters to sign if they want to continue to work in their system. The document is 38 pages long and it is full of legal terminology, rules, and sanctions that only an attorney can understand. This is not an isolated case. Because of political pressure and budgetary prioritization, court interpreter programs are getting less money from their administrative offices at the state level. In other words: There is hardly any money to pay for interpreting services at the state level in many states.
Although the Civil Rights Act is over fifty years old, it was only a few years ago that the federal government decided to enforce its compliance at the state level in the case of equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language spoken by the user of the service. When the federal government came knocking on the door of each of the fifty states, and told their state judiciary to comply with the law or lose the funds they had been getting from the feds, states started to look for a solution to this problem. In reality, up to that moment, the states were complying with the constitutional requirement to provide court interpreters in criminal cases, but in many states there were no court-funded court interpreters available for civil cases and other additional services offered by the courts to the English-speaking population. The message from Washington, D.C. was loud and clear: In order to continue to receive (much needed) federal funds, the states had to provide interpreters for all services they offered, not just criminal cases.
In some parts of the country the first problem was as simple as this: There were not enough certified court interpreters to meet the legal requirements; in other regions the problem was slightly different: There were plenty of certified interpreters, but the courts were not willing to pay the professional fees commanded by these (for the most part) top-notch interpreters in that state. These professionals had been there for years, but due to the low fees paid by the state court system, they were not even considering the state judiciary as a prospective client.
When faced with this dilemma, a logical and ethical option should have been to develop a program to encourage more young people to become certified court interpreters, train them, and then test them to see if they could meet the state-level certification requirements, set years before and universally accepted as the minimum requirements to do a decent court interpreting job. Some states’ needs could be met this way, but not all of them. For that reason, a second logical step would have been to raise the professional fees paid to court interpreters in order to entice those top-notch interpreters, who were not working for the courts, by making the assignment profitable and attractive. Finally, for those places where this was not enough, state courts could have used modern technology and provide interpreting services by video or teleconference. Administrative offices had to develop a plan, categorize the services offered and decide which ones required of an experienced certified court interpreter, find the ones that a brand new certified court interpreter could provide, and select those instances that, because of their nature and relevance, could be covered remotely by a certified court interpreter elsewhere in the state or even somewhere else. This process also needed that state court judges and officials acted within the constitutional system and asked their respective legislatures for the funds to comply with the federal mandate. It is doubtful that legislatures would risk losing federal funds by not approving such monies; and in those cases where the local legislators would not grant more funds, state court administrators and chief judges needed to do their job, and truly provide equal access to justice to all by reorganizing priorities, and perhaps sacrificing some programs, even those that were near and dear to a judge’s heart, in order to find the funds needed to meet this priority that is above most others, not just because of the federal funds that the state would lose in the event of non-compliance, but because those in charge of the judiciary should consider equal access to justice a top priority, and I really mean at the very top.
Unfortunately, my dear friends and colleagues, most states chose an easier way, even though it did not deliver what the Civil Rights Act intended. They decided not to rock the boat with the legislature and play it safe, they decided not to make true equal access to justice a priority by recruiting and training quality certified court interpreters, instead, they opted for ignoring the excellent professionals in their area by not raising interpreter fees, thus making the assignments profitable to professional interpreters. They decided to come up with a “plan” to keep the federal money in their accounts by making believe that they were complying with the federal mandate of equal access to justice. This is what many of the states decided to do:
Instead of recruiting and training new certified court interpreters, they decided to create a group of paraprofessionals who would “deliver” interpreting services. These individuals were drafted from the ranks of those who had always failed the certification exams, and by recruiting bilingual individuals with no interpreting knowledge whatsoever. States justified their decision by arguing that these individuals would receive the necessary “training” to interpret in certain scenarios of lesser importance, where people who had partially passed the certification test would be considered as professionally qualified (semantics vary from state to state but it is basically the same) even though in the real world they should be deemed as unfit to do the job. Moreover, bilinguals would be trained to “assist” non-English speakers with some administrative matters in the courthouse. Of course, this brilliant decision would set the profession back to the good old days when prevailing judicial culture was that knowing two languages was all you needed to interpret in court; but that was of little importance when balanced against the possibility of cancelling a court program that was politically useful to a judge or an administrator. This is how the “warm body next to the court services user so we don’t lose federal funds” theory was born. The spirit of the law was ignored.
There is as much quality and true access to the administration of justice when a person who failed the court interpreter certification test, or a bilingual court staffer, interprets for a non-English speaker individual as there is medical knowledge when the guy who failed the medical board sees a hospital patient, even if the appointment is to take care of an ingrowing toenail.
Of course, the process above taught court administrators a valuable lesson: court interpreting services was a good place to save money, a wonderful way to channel budget resources somewhere else, and a great way to avoid antagonizing the state legislature, because there would be no need to ask for more money to fund the program. This was the origin of the next step backwards: Fee reduction.
Court administrators did not stop here. They now knew that they could get away with more, so they decided to lower interpreter fees. In most cases the reduction did not come as a lowering of the fee itself; it was accomplished by cutting guaranteed hours, reducing mileage and travel reimbursement, changing cancellation policy, and by creating a new bureaucratic machinery designed to oversee what interpreters do minute-by-minute. Maybe it should be referred to as “to spy” instead of to “oversee”.
Fast forward to today, and you will find these huge interpreting services contracts in many states. The reason for them is not that court interpreters all of a sudden went bad and stopped doing the good work that they did for decades; these contracts are motivated by more reductions to the interpreters’ fees and by developing this super-protection for the state, leaving the freelancer with little or no defense before potential abuse by the court administrators. What other justification can these state contracts have when the federal court interpreter contract is a very short agreement, which usually does not change from one fiscal year to the next, and is drafted and developed individually by every federal judicial district?
These state contracts that court interpreters are expected to sign without the slightest objection, have been drafted by the administrative office of the courts’ legal departments; they have been amended to include any possible ways to reduce the interpreters’ real fee that the states missed when drafting last year’s contract, they include sanctions to interpreters who do not comply with sometimes ridiculous duties, without setting any process of notice and hearing; they are written in a complex style full of legal terms and ambiguity that only an attorney can understand.
I am very fortunate that I do not need to sign one of these contracts, as state courts have not been my clients for several years; but it concerns me, as a defender of our profession, that my colleagues may sign these documents out of fear or hopelessness. I invite all those court interpreters who have been, or will be asked to sign one of these agreements in the next few months, before the new fiscal year starts in July, to seek legal representation. It is your professional career, it is your future. I believe that state (and national) level professional associations should negotiate a deal with a labor relations or civil law attorney, where services would be provided at a lower fee, and offer it as a benefit to their members. In fact, I would like to see all interpreters who are members of a state or regional professional association present a common front and negotiate these contracts with the state administrator. As state court interpreters we need protection, because if we do not act, we will continue to move backwards. They already told many of us that there is no money and they blamed it on the state legislature, now we know that perhaps they did not try to protect the interpreter program no matter what.
They are paying you less, making your work conditions very uncomfortable, they already took some of our work away and gave it to mediocre cheaper paraprofessionals. All professionals negotiate the terms of a contract, and before they reach an agreement, they have the benefit of legal representation. The administrative office of the courts is represented by their attorneys; interpreters, like all professionals, should at least be represented by an attorney before they sign a new agreement. I now ask you to comment on this situation and the ways to recover what we had already achieved in the past, so we can move forward, and for the first time fully comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
“Get an interpreter for that hearing, and try to spend as little as possible”.
March 13, 2015 § 6 Comments
Every time I read an article about court interpreting, look at your social media posts, or have a face to face conversation with a court interpreter, I cannot help but notice how the working conditions constantly deteriorate. For some time we have witnessed how the court interpreting system of the United Kingdom was completely destroyed and our colleagues had to courageously fight back so the rest of the world knew what had happened in their country. Time continues to run, and nothing has been done to improve that system now run by an entity whose greatest achievement was to sink the quality of interpreting services to an unimaginable low. We have witnessed the difficult times that our colleagues who want to do court interpreting face in Spain. We have heard many stories of court interpreters around the world having to fight for a professional fee, a professional work environment, and respect to the profession.
The situation in the United States is also very sad. It is true that the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act has left little choice to the states. Now, state-level courts that want to continue to receive federal funds must provide interpreting services to all non-English speakers who need to have access to the justice system. The new demand for court interpreters beyond criminal cases has “inspired” many court administrators and chief judges to act in new and more creative ways to satisfy the requirement of having an interpreter next to the non-English speaker, even when the quality of this professional service is at best doubtful. To this day, there are jurisdictions where the question is: Does a warm body fulfill the legal requirement of providing interpreter services? Sadly, in some cases the answer seems to be “maybe”.
But the state courts want to comply with the federal mandate, and it seems that some of them will stop at nothing in order to achieve their goal. A popular formula was born: “Get an interpreter for that hearing and try to spend as little as possible”. The origin of this strategy is not clear, but it is obvious that this solution was not conceived by an interpreter. This is not even the brainchild of an administrator who at least has a basic knowledge of the interpreting profession; moreover, this doctrine has been embraced by some federal level courts as well. Let me explain.
Some court administrators have implemented a fee reduction. Today, some interpreters get paid less for their travel time to and from the place where they will render professional services; they get a lower fee, less compensation per traveled mile (kilometer elsewhere in the world) no reimbursement for tolls and bridges, and other very crafty ways that some courts have devised to pay less for interpreting services.
Other courts have increased the level of “scrutiny” and now watch over the court interpreters’ shoulder while they are doing their job; not the way a client observes the work of a doctor, a lawyer, or any professional individual, but the way a person watches over the performance of the guys who dry your car when you take it to the car wash. Many times this breathing on your neck type of scrutiny is enforced by adding paperwork and bureaucratic requirements to the fee payment process. To the interpreters, this means more time spent in the payment process, while making the same money than before the new requirements were in place. They are effectively making less money than before.
Of course there are also courts that now pay a lower fee during the contracted time if the interpreter’s lips are not moving: They pay a partial fee for the break time and travel time, even though the interpreters, who sell their time, have allocated those hours, or minutes, to that court as a client. Now some courts are tossing high fives at each other because they paid the interpreter a full fee for 45 minutes of work and a reduced fee for the 15 minutes in between cases when the interpreter did not interpret because the judge had to go to the bathroom.
And there is more: some jurisdictions have removed themselves from the payment process in those cases when, due to a possible conflict of interest, the court assigns a particular case to a private independent defense attorney, who is a member of a panel of lawyers, who can be appointed to these cases in exchange for a fee that is paid by the judiciary. This jurisdictions do not accept the interpreters’ invoices anymore; they now require the panel attorney to process the interpreter’s invoice and payment, generating two very sad effects: (1) Sometimes, the interpreter will have to wait a long time to get paid because their payment processing is not a top priority to the lawyer, and (2) It will help to keep alive the idea that interpreters are second-class officers of the court who do not deserve the court’s trust, because it is clear that these jurisdictions opted for a system where the attorney will need to access the court’s computer system to process interpreters’ payments, which is “preferable” over a system where interpreters would have to be granted that same access to the system. Why? Because it is too much of a risk to take? You can arrive to your own conclusions, but the fact is that this policy is very demeaning.
My friends, when you see and hear about all these policy changes you have to wonder: As these new strategies were discussed and adopted, where were the court staff interpreters, and the judges, and the administrators who know what interpreting is about? And once they were implemented, why did the freelancers continue to work under these terrible conditions? I now invite you to comment on this policy changes, other rules you may have noticed somewhere else, and the reason why these changes are being implemented with so little opposition.
State court interpreter certifications could turn meaningless.
October 16, 2014 § 17 Comments
A couple of weeks ago I received an email that concerns me enormously. I am sure that many of you who are based in the United States have received similar emails from state-level judicial agencies. In my case, I got an electronic communication from the Administrative Office of the Courts of one of the fifty states in the U.S. (not the federal government) this was one of those global emails that are sent out to everybody on a master list. Basically, the message was that the National Center for State Courts in the United States (NCSC), apparently in coordination with (at least) some states, is planning to offer remote telephonic interpreting across state lines, and for that purpose, the states (and I assume the NCSC as well) are compiling lists of state-level certified court interpreters who may want to be part of the interpreter pool that will be used to interpret court hearings from a different state. Although I hope the message’s meaning was different, this is what I understood. The email is written in such a way that, to the reader, this idea looks good and beneficial for everyone: the interpreters, because they will have more work (although I would guess that the fees offered by the state governments will not be anything to brag about) the states with underserved populations due to the lack of interpreters, because they will get somebody who has been certified somewhere by a state-level judiciary, and the foreign language speaker, as they will have the services of a professional interpreter instead of a family member or a paraprofessional.
Does it sound good to you? Well, if I understood the email as a communication asking permission to include interpreters’ names on a master list to indiscriminately interpret by phone, regardless of the state, it did not sound even half decent to me. Let me explain:
It is true that state-level certified interpreters are better equipped than paraprofessionals, and therefore the service provided should be of better quality. It is true that all state-level certified interpreters have attended a basic orientation and they have passed a court certification test (now administered by the NCSC or CLAC) and in many cases they have also taken an ethics and professional responsibility test. This obviously puts them ahead of those unscrupulous people that are roaming through the hallways of many courthouses in the United States. Unfortunately, and this is the real and very big problem: these interpreters, who have been certified by one of the fifty states, would now interpret cases from other states where both substantive and adjective law are different. That is the problem. The interpreter will interpret legal proceedings based on legislation that he does not know. Unlike U.S. federally certified court interpreters who work nationwide because they interpret the same federal legislation all across the country, these state-level individuals will have to deal with fifty, sometimes very different, legal systems.
Just like the age to get married and gun control laws vary from state to state, the catalog of crimes and civil law contracts are different. Think of one single situation: battery and assault; or is it assault and menacing? Well, the answer is: it depends on the state, and the differences are radical. Penalties and procedures also change depending on the state. This is why attorneys can only practice in those jurisdictions where they have passed the Bar Exam. It is a very delicate matter.
If this is indeed what the NCSC and the states want to do (and I hope I am wrong) then I am extremely concerned as an interpreter, because this will be another attempt to de-professionalize our jobs and make them look more like the legal secretary who can work anywhere, and less like the attorneys who can only practice in the state (or states) where they are members of the state bar. Sure, I understand that state-level agencies will praise the “benefits” of this solution, which in reality will solve their own problem (not the interpreters’ or the foreign language speakers’): Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This is a state-level priority because states that do not comply will lose federal money.
I am also worried as an attorney for several reasons: First, states will allow interpreting services across state lines using telecommunications. This could be an interstate commerce issue where the federal government has to participate (at least); but the second reason is the one that motivated me to write this post: interpreters who do not know the legal system of a particular state will practice in that jurisdiction. They may physically be in the state where they are certified, but their services will affect a court system, and litigants in another state where they have never demonstrated their capacity to practice. I believe attorneys who represent foreign speakers need to be aware of this potential “solution” so that from the beginning they know that perhaps the case could later be appealed for ineffective assistance of the interpreter. Attorneys need to know that when they are advising their client on an assault charge in their home state, they may be using the services of an interpreter from a state where assault really means battery. Lawyers will need to assess the potential procedural complications in case they sue the interpreter. Jurisdiction will have to be determined, and these lawsuits could end up in federal court.
If this “program” has also been planned for civil cases, then the problem is worse. Remember, there are at least three different civil legal systems in the United States, the one followed by those states who have a system based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition, those whose system comes in part from the days where these territories were part of the Spanish Crown (just think divorce and community property division) and then Louisiana and the Napoleonic written system. As an attorney, or a foreign language speaker, I would not want to have an interpreter from another state, much less one from a state where the system is different.
I sure hope that this “solution” (if conceived as I understood it) is discarded and the states look for better options such as a higher fee for those interpreting in state courts. There are very good and capable interpreters everywhere in the United States, it is just that they will not work for the fees currently offered. A more attractive fee would also encourage others who would like to join the profession but are reluctant because of the lack of money to even make a decent living.
By the way, these problems apply to those languages where there is no certification and the interpreters are registered or qualified to work in court by a particular state.
I really wish I am mistaken and this is not happening in the United States, but if it is, I will continue to watch the developments of this program, and if needed, I will speak up in legal forums to bring awareness of the potential risks generated by using state-level certified interpreters in places where they have never been certified. I now ask you to share your thoughts, and concerns, about this potential change that would end up rendering a state-level court interpreter certification useless.
Who should interpreters target as their clients in a world where many want to pay lower fees? Part 1.
July 28, 2014 § 15 Comments
I consider myself very lucky because my job takes me all over the world; this allows me to see many of my friends and colleagues as I visit their towns and countries, and also gives me the opportunity to keep up with the local interpreting and translation issues that are impacting that particular area. It gives me great joy to hear about the personal and professional accomplishments of so many talented friends; and unfortunately, I also get to see the sadness, anger and frustration of so many who are working under conditions that no professional should suffer or tolerate. I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to these horror stories where the main characters are permeated by mediocrity, ignorance and lack of ambition. It was after one of these episodes, not long ago, that I decided to write about this topic in order to identify the problems and propose some solutions that have worked for me and for other colleagues in the past. This topic is broad and will require of several posts. I will address separately on three different posts the situation of court interpreters, community interpreters, including health care interpreters, and conference interpreters.
First I will talk about the court interpreters because they are a large part of the interpreting community in the United States (only second to military interpreters) and they are a growing segment of the profession in many countries around the world. When I think of many of the freelance court interpreters I know, one thing that puzzles me is: how can they be happy and fulfilled working under such conditions? In certain administrative courts they are paid very little money, sometimes they do not get Per Diem when traveling to another location, and on top of that, they are not treated like professionals. They are required to get paperwork stamped and signed by others, sending the message that because they are not trustworthy, somebody else needs to watch what they do; And by the way, if they want to get paid on time they have to be willing to accept a smaller paycheck (there is a pay cut policy in exchange for faster pay). Of course this is an extreme case, and I would have called it the worst if this article had been written before the United Kingdom court interpreter fiasco that insulted capable professional interpreters in their professionalism and in their pockets. Of course you all know what happened over there and we are all familiar with the ever-bigger problems in the British justice system. Enough for now, but I will return to the United Kingdom court interpreter saga later on this post.
If you think that things get better for those interpreters who freelance in the state-level court system of the United States because these are not administrative courts, you have not worked there for at least a decade. At this level, in most states, interpreters make a little more money than those working the immigration court system, but they are still getting a laughable fee for their professional services. This low pay does not feel any better when you combine it with rules and policies designed for laborers and not for a professional service provider. I am talking about agency-controlled state court markets, incomprehensible policies that are keeping good interpreters from making a decent income in civil cases, the “annual payment limit” contained in some states’ independent interpreter contracts, the “even distribution” of work policy of other states where good and mediocre interpreters basically get the same amount of work from the state as long as they are state-certified, or the backwards legislation that gives certification and oversight of court interpreters to the state judiciary in a state where this was not the case, and now will pull interpreters down to the same level of the other states where the same party that hires certifies. A move unheard in other professions like lawyers and physicians, but even celebrated by many interpreters in this state. Add to this landscape all the endless and ever-changing micro-management requirements by local courthouses, many other rules that I will just skip for the sake of brevity; and finally, throw in there the agencies that are run by people with no formal education, experience, or practical knowledge of interpreting (as the ones who procure interpreting services for most administrative courts) and pay their interpreters even less money, and you will have the big picture; the same picture I see every time I hear a new story, learn of a new travesty, or witness a horrendous performance.
Dear friends and colleagues, I cannot help it, but it is at about this time that I always wonder why my friend or colleague is still working as a court interpreter under those circumstances! The answer is simple and complex at the same time. Simple because as a freelancer all it takes is a moment of courage when the interpreter decides: Enough! No more. Complex because not everybody is willing or capable of making this decision. Different people, different priorities, different ideas, different set of values, and different goals in life. Although I have belonged to the former group all my life, I understand those who belong in the latter. The thing I cannot understand is why they do not take action and change things for themselves, and maybe for their profession at the local level.
It is possible that many people living under the circumstances described above will not be able, for different reasons, to move on to another type of interpreting assignments, but they can always pick their clients wisely. Let me explain:
One thing I have never understood is why on earth so many of my freelancer colleagues see themselves as court employees. I have heard hundreds of times how they introduce themselves as interpreters for the courts; I have heard them refer to court administrators, court clerks, judges, and staff interpreters as their “boss”! Obviously this immediately tells me that if they see the court, the interpreting agency, or the state judiciary as their employer, they cannot see them for what they really are: their client.
Once the interpreter comes to terms with this issue, and understands that she does not work for anyone but herself, she can focus on picking her clients. She will soon realize that mediocre interpreting agencies, state judiciaries, and even the federal court system are nothing but clients, and clients that pay very little (some of them rarely on time) in exchange for what they expect from the interpreter. They pay low fees for the interpreting service, but many of them want you to do so many other things for the same token fee: these interpreters must prepare endless paperwork, learn (sometimes absurd) court or agency policies that are only applicable to that particular courthouse, translate documents in between hearings, attend (often self-serving) unpaid meetings scheduled by the agency or court administration; and many times they demand, without saying it, exclusivity and they “punish” an interpreter who cancels the assignment for a better paying professional opportunity. Once the interpreter sees them as another client, she will realize that, because of their practices and philosophy, they are not at the top of her client wish list, and she will understand the need to find better clients.
Now the question is: If all interpreting agencies that control the administrative courts, and all state-level court systems are not to be considered as top clients, what else is there? The answer is: The good clients!
All interpreters who want to make a decent living in the legal field need to provide their services to the private bar. It is true that in the United States the states are now observing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and in many cases the states are keeping independent interpreters from working any civil cases unless paid through the courts; but even under these circumstances, there is plenty to do. First, those of you who live in states where independent freelancers coexist with state contractors, and are allowed to provide their services in civil court to those who turn down the court-appointed interpreter and prefer to hire their own, you should enter this field full-blast. The federal system does not provide court appointed interpreters in civil cases, and for those who are federally certified this is another option, in fact, it is a much better option than working criminal cases for the federal court system because the pay is much better.
The main option available to all of those who have a valid certification at some level (state or federal. Private language agency certifications are not considered valid) is to become a legal or “out-of-court” interpreter instead of a court interpreter. Legal interpreters provide their professional services to Law Firms and attorneys for depositions, office interviews, witness preparation, jail visits, expert opinions, expert testimony, transcription and translation services, and even in court at the plaintiff’s or defense’s table. Interpreters negotiate their fee with these attorneys; there are no pre-set limits, no endless meetings, and for the most part, the cases are interesting: there is more variety in civil court; and the cases that you should go after involve enormous amounts of money in damages. These are the type of clients I try to have, and I spoil them, pamper them, and protect them with the best service you can find anywhere. The point is, my court interpreter friends and colleagues, if you don’t want to move to a bigger city, if you don’t want to travel, or to learn a new field, the next time you get angry because of an absurd new rule, because you are not getting paid on time, or because you got tired of being treated like a laborer instead of a professional, stop working for the system, get out there and look for the big clients: the large law firms, the corporate legal departments, and talk to them; sell them your services, and start enjoying your career once again. Who knows? If enough good interpreters leave the system, the system will have to hire mediocre individuals, and sooner or later the government will have to sit down with you and talk fees and other work conditions. This is what is happening in the United Kingdom where a group of courageous, determined, and brave interpreters walked out and never went back. They made history, inspired us all, and showed us that although difficult at the beginning, there is life after the courthouse. I invite you to share with us your opinions and comments, and I ask you to avoid name-calling, specific cases, and arguments defending agencies or the court interpreter wages.
Not everybody else’s needs; the interpreter’s interests.
June 18, 2014 § 4 Comments
I attended a professional conference not long ago, and during one of my presentations, I asked the audience what was their opinion regarding the fairly new requirement that state-level civil courts in the United States, that get federal funding, must provide free interpreter services in all civil cases or lose that federal assistance. I was shocked by the answer given by several colleagues: They thought it was a great idea and it was good for the profession. I can understand the principle of making sure that all litigants be guaranteed equal access to justice by eliminating the uneven situation encountered by those who do not speak English during a non-criminal court procedure. I applaud the existence of the Civil Rights Act.
This does not mean that the way to accomplish such a high goal is by eliminating a work source for an entire segment of the professional population. The right thing to do was to provide court interpreting services for free in all civil matters to those who could not afford to pay for the services when provided by a private interpreter. In other words, there should be a system that mirrors that of the attorneys in criminal matters where individuals have a choice to retain the attorney of their choosing and if they cannot afford one the state provides a public defender for free.
The current situation, which has been supported and celebrated by many interpreters and professional associations, is flawed. Courts at the state level are covering civil hearings with interpreters that they label as “certified” although in reality these colleagues have only been certified as criminal court interpreters. To my knowledge there is no court interpreter certification exam in the United States that tests the interpreter’s knowledge in Civil Law, civil procedure, or terminology. In fact, many certified court interpreters who had never worked in Civil Law hearings are now providing the service; some of them reluctantly and out of fear of not being hired by the particular state court system if they refuse to do civil cases. This specialty work, that until now was provided by a group of very capable Civil Law court interpreters, is now being performed by a mix of good interpreters, good interpreters who do not know civil law and procedure, and mediocre individuals who are hired by the state level courts in order to comply with the federal mandate even if it is by just having a warm body next to the non-English speaker litigant.
Unfortunately, the current system is causing that all cases be covered by court interpreters provided by, and paid for, by the states. Some of us are fortunate enough to have a portfolio of attorney clients who are used to our professional services, and will continue to use the services of private interpreters, at least in out-of-court settings such as law offices and boardrooms; The problem is that it is now more difficult to convince prospective new attorney clients, who do not fully understand the value of retaining your own competent professional court interpreter, and pay for the service, instead of using the court appointed interpreter. Ant it gets worse, some of my colleagues who are good interpreters and used to have a decent amount of work through private Civil Law attorneys have bought into the system and are now providing their same upper-end quality services for a very low fee paid by the states. As you all know, criminal court interpreting is not a very well remunerated practice in the United States, and when it comes to the state level it is frankly appalling in some states. Historically, the best way to make a decent living working as a court interpreter in the United States has been to work as a civil court interpreter. Now we are at risk of losing this important part of our practice. At the state level it is disappearing as far as in-court work, leaving civil court interpreters with only two options (for now): out-of-court work at the state level such as office interviews, depositions, and witness preparation, and federal court practice where private interpreters can still provide their services.
To me it is crystal clear that it is impossible to celebrate anything as a victory when the outcome of that change results on a direct elimination of the source of income of another innocent group, in this case the court interpreters. The sad part is that, as I explained, the same universal access to civil courts could have been accomplished by inserting a provision indicating that free court interpreter services would only be provided to those who could not afford to pay for the services of an interpreter according to a certain income level and cost of living criteria.
As bad as this is, it is more frustrating and even discouraging to see how so many of our colleagues just go about their lives accepting all of these changes and even applauding them without ever thinking of the consequences to our practice in general and to them as individuals. I cannot find a good explanation as to why professional interpreter associations have voiced their opinion in favor of this policy without even thinking of the harm to the profession, to their fellow colleagues. Dear colleagues: Nobody spoke for the court interpreters when these changes happened! I know I will continue to educate my clients so they continue to retain my services regardless of policy changes; I know I will continue to talk to all those colleagues who ask for my opinion when these type of unfair situations happen, whether it is state-sponsored civil court interpreters, agencies who want to force court interpreters to work depositions alone totally disregarding universal principles about quality of interpreting, systems that want to unilaterally impose low cost, and lower quality, interpreting services by using new technology even when the quality of the service suffers, or any other issue that could impact our work as professionals. I will also look for professional associations that may share this same philosophy and are willing to raise their voice to bring the attention of the professional community to unprofessional practices and policies that hurt the profession or those who practice it. I now ask you to please voice your opinion on this issue, especially on civil court interpreting and how state-sponsored civil court interpreting brings down our professional income.
Questions of a court interpreting student. Part 2.
June 3, 2014 § 4 Comments
I received a message from one of my students of court interpreting in Mexico City. With the new oral trial system that is now being implemented in Mexico there will be many opportunities for interpreters to find assignments in court settings, so she is considering becoming a court interpreter when she graduates from college. She researched the matter, and as she was getting deeper into the world of court interpreting she decided to contact me with some of her doubts. Her questions were very good, so I thought about responding through the blog so that others, in Mexico and elsewhere, with the same or similar concerns could learn a little more about this area of the profession. I asked her if this was an acceptable way to answer her questions, she said yes, so I wrote down my answers. As I was responding to the questions I realized that this would be a lengthy post so I decided to divide it in two parts. Part 1 was posted two weeks ago. I now invite you to read the rest of my answers to her questions.
- What do you do as a court interpreter when a legal concept in the target language is similar, but not equivalent, to a legal concept in the source language or vice versa? Do you explain it? How do you get the knowledge to identify equivalences or similarities if you studied law?
There are many times when the interpreter faces a situation where there are similar legal concepts but the exact legal term or figure does not exist in the other language. This happens more often between languages from countries that have different legal systems: written Roman Law versus oral Common Law. The general rule for the interpreter is that she does not have to explain or define anything. It is the attorneys’ job and duty to explain the law not only to their client, but if needed, to the court interpreter so she can do her job. In a situation where a competent interpreter who has done her homework runs into a legal concept that she does not understand, she must research it and study it as part of her preparation for the case, and if there is no time for that, she has to inform it to the judge or attorney, depending on the interpreters function in the particular proceeding, so the legal term can be explained to her. Many times the explanation will allow the interpreter to find the correct term in the target language. Interpreters, who have studied Law as your question says, have the advantage of knowing and understanding legal figures and terms without any explanation. If this is the case, and the interpreter is ambitious, she can study the legal figure from the country where she did not study law and this way find a better solution to her problem. This is one of the reasons why most legal systems require interpreters to comply with continuing education requirements. Fortunately for you, with the new legal system being implemented nationwide, Mexican court interpreters will not find this situation very often anymore.
- What happens when someone, the judge, prosecutor, or defense, realize that the interpretation is wrong or misleading? Is the interpreter penalized, and if so, what sanctions does he face?
Interpreters are human and they perform one of the most difficult tasks in the world. Court interpreting is so complex, that most court systems in the world are now requiring team interpreting for all hearings lasting over an hour. Any interpreter can unintentionally make a mistake and we all do at some point. It is what the interpreter does after the mistake that makes the situation irrelevant or serious. In most countries, mistakes due to bad acoustics, poor delivery by the speaker, interpreter fatigue, etc., can be easily corrected by an observation on the record amending the mistake. Other more serious mistakes due to a complex legal concept or a lack of context may be more relevant but they can also be cured by a correction as previously stated or by an admonition by the judge. Mistakes due to the interpreter’s ignorance can be corrected by the other member of the team who will discuss the discrepancy with the interpreter who made the mistake, and then together the team informs the court, outside the presence of the jury, that there was a mistake, the circumstances are explained, and if necessary, the judge will admonish the jury, and the attorneys will draft a special instruction for the jury that the judge will read at the end of the trial. On rare occasion the error could be so serious that there needs to be a mistrial. I can only recall one case but that particular case was really a judge’s error and not an interpreter’s. The interpreter who made the mistake can be sanctioned depending on the seriousness of the mistake and the applicable law. In general, sanctions could range from an informal reprimand to a temporary suspension followed by a probation period, to permanent revocation of the certification, patent or license. There is usually a formal procedure that includes notice and hearing, and the interpreter is allowed to retain the services of an attorney. Depending on the magnitude of the mistake there could be civil responsibility and the interpreter may be required to pay a fine and damages. This can only happen when ordered by a judge or jury after a civil lawsuit where the interpreter will be allowed to present witnesses and legal arguments through an attorney if he wishes to do so. Like all professionals, interpreters are encouraged to carry civil liability insurance (errors and omissions). If covered, the interpreter will be represented by the insurance attorneys and in most cases all he needs to do is to pay his deductible.
When the mistake is really an intentional act by the interpreter to defraud or mislead another individual, he could face criminal charges, and if convicted, he could go to prison.
- Are there laws or regulations that state the requirements that need to be met to perform as a court interpreter, and are there any written duties and rights?
All countries that employ the services of court interpreters as part of their judicial process have legislation that sets the minimum requirements to qualify as a court interpreter and to maintain that status. There are also authorities that regulate the profession setting procedures, protocols, responsibilities and rights. There are also ethical canons, and professional responsibility norms that control the way the services are provided. Some countries, like Mexico, are currently in the process of developing these legislation and regulations where all of the interpreter’s duties, responsibilities, work conditions and rights will be included. In the United States there are two levels of legislation and regulatory agencies: the federal level with the United States Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and the Federal Court Interpreter Act as the legal basis, and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) as the implementing federal agency. All states either have or are in the process of developing court interpreter legislation, and they all have a state-level Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) as their implementing agency. In Europe the legal foundation is twofold: it comes from the Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Rights to Interpretation and to Translation in Criminal Proceedings, and from the county-by-country legislation. Court interpreters in Europe have joined forces to ensure access to justice by the founding of the European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association (EULITA). In Canada it is the provincial regulatory bodies that grant the certifications and the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council (CTTIC) applies uniform standards across Canada. Most regulations and rules set minimum fees for court interpreters and basic work conditions.
- Some government court interpreting websites talk about working with certified and non-certified interpreters; why is that, and what advantages and disadvantages does that bring to the defense, prosecution/plaintiff, or judges?
The only acceptable option is that of a certified interpreter who has studied, tested, and proven to be able to provide the service. This however, is easier to do in smaller countries where there is not a wide variety of languages as there are in a country the size of the United States. In other words, the reason why you see non-certified interpreters even mentioned in these websites is because of the lack of interpreters. It is important to separate non-certified interpreters who work in languages where there is a certification program from those interpreters who work with languages with no certification program. For example, the United States has certification exams for three languages: Spanish, Haitian-Creole, and Navajo; at this time it only offers federal certification for Spanish interpreters, so it is understandable why a very good Russian interpreter is not federally certified. You cannot call them federally certified, but you cannot group them with the Spanish interpreters who failed the federal certification test and by that fact have demonstrated a lack of the minimum requirements to work in federal court in the United States. Depending on their own realities, some states offer certification in certain language combinations and other states do not. There are also administrative law courts in the United States, and remote courthouses in very little towns where there are no certified Spanish interpreters but there are many Spanish speaking litigants because it may be an agricultural center where many immigrants live. The dilemma appears when the system is confronted by a Constitutional mandate to provide interpreter services and a reality that says there aren’t any. It is for these cases that non-certified interpreters are used. In the United States this is happening less at the federal level in Spanish language cases because of new technology that allows a certified interpreter to provide her services remotely from a big city. Certified court interpreters are physically transported to the small towns if the case goes to trial or a long complex hearing is held. Speaking of Spanish court interpreters, the advantage this “compromise” brings to the parties, and in my opinion it is a very questionable one, is that they have an interpreter, they will at least have the best that was found, and the court can always stop the proceeding and demand a certified interpreter be provided either remotely or in person. The disadvantages are obvious: The court and parties will not have an interpreter that at least meets the basic requirements to work in federal court (a certification) The situation worsens when you see courts and attorneys hiring these marginal para-professionals when real certified court interpreters are available solely to save money as these individuals will usually (although not always) be cheaper than a certified court interpreter. There is also another problem in the United States and other countries that will hopefully be avoided in Mexico through legislation: Because the U.S. is a free society, there are plenty of language agencies, language “academies”, and “professional” associations who offer their own self-serving certification so that their lower-level “interpreters” can present themselves as “certified” or “licensed” and make the client believe that they are hiring somebody with professional credentials. There are those who justify this practice for what they call “lesser court cases” such as administrative court proceedings. I completely oppose this practice and I have written and spoken extensively against it.
- There are some suggested self-study techniques to become a good court interpreter, such as expanding your vocabulary, developing your own glossaries, developing your own interpreter techniques, and others. Do you have any tips or advice on how to do it?
I already addressed part of this question in Part 1 of this post when I discussed some of the things that a student can do to become a better court interpreter. I would add that you can expand your vocabulary by picking ten new words from the dictionary every weekday. At the end of a week you will know fifty new words; you will probably remember 15 to 20 and that will be a net increase of 20 words per week. Not bad. I would do the same with legal terminology. Pick a topic and learn the terms. By week’s end you will remember about twenty percent of what you studied and you will have a much better understanding of that legal figure: a contract, court proceeding, corporate document, etc. You can also develop your thematic glossaries; I would do a different one every month and I would use an application for that. I personally use Interplex because I have been using it for many years so I am used to it; I also like the fact that it is compatible with your telephone and tablet so you can have the glossaries with you anywhere you go. Finally, I suggest that when you watch a real court proceeding or when you go to a courthouse to watch a trial in person, you practice your rendition (in court under your breath of course) and when you do so, pay attention to those things that work for you, and develop them; this could be the way you come up with your own personalized note-taking system. When doing this, many years ago, I realized that it was easier for me to remember numbers and figures if I could associate them to the numbers of the jerseys of professional athletes. I am a big sports fan and I have always naturally remembered the players’ numbers, so for me it is very easy to remember an address let’s say on 3272 Main Street, if all I have to do is to remember Franco Harris (32) Mickey Mantle (7) Derek Jeter (2) Main Street. I know this system only works for me, but it works very well, and I came up with it by developing my own personalized technique.
I hope these answers helped you on your quest to become a court interpreter, and I hope they helped others in Mexico and elsewhere, including the United States, who are considering this profession. I also invite all of you to share with the rest of us any other suggestions or input you may have on any of the ten questions. I would love to hear from students, new interpreters, veterans of the profession; anybody who may be interested in helping the next generation to get there.
A travesty of justice, and hope to non-English speakers, come to the Illinois judicial system at the same time.
January 20, 2014 § 4 Comments
By now many of you heard of the Luis Pantoja case from my postings on Twitter and Facebook or from the media attention it received from printed press and TV. This is the case of the individual charged with sexual assault on a Spanish speaker woman in Cook County Illinois (Chicago). On cross-examination during the preliminary hearing the victim contradicted herself and it became evident to the defense attorney that she did not understand his questions. He asked her if she wanted an interpreter and she answered: “…yes. Please…” Unfortunately, Cook County Illinois Judge Laura M. Sullivan decided against the request and simply asked the defense attorney to rephrase the question. Because of the contradictions in the testimony, obviously due to the language barrier, on September 17, 2013 this judge dismissed the charges as she found no probable cause; she also set Pantoja free. It is puzzling that Pantoja, who is hearing-impaired, had the services of a Sign Language interpreter during the hearing. Pantoja was arrested again on the first week of January 2014 and this time he was charged with the sexual assault of a 15-year old girl. This time he has been held in custody on a $2.5 million bail. This judge has been characterized in the past as “minority hater” by some publications. At the least, her decision in this case shows a lack of judicial judgment. Besides the public outcry against this travesty of justice, and the criticism to the judge and judicial system by Second City Cop, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Salon Magazine, and others, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) issued a very strong opinion condemning the decisions taken by the judge, and the flawed state legislation that does not provide for an interpreter in cases when the victim or a witness speak a foreign language. They are right. Unfortunately, nobody mentioned the other crucial aspect of the problem: There is no court interpreter certification in the state of Illinois.
Dear friends and colleagues, the state of Illinois is home to more foreign speakers than the U.S. average, and the city of Chicago is one of the most diverse cities in the world with people from all corners of the planet, and with a huge Polish and Hispanic population. There are many more foreign language speaker cases in Cook County Illinois, the county where the city of Chicago is located, than most other judicial systems in the United States where they have implemented a court interpreter certification program. In other words, the program does not exist where it is needed the most. This lack of quality control has allowed that people with untested knowledge and skill work as language interpreters in this busy judicial system. If you add to this lack of certification the extremely low pay and shocking working conditions that exist for those who provide interpretation services in Illinois, you can easily conclude that even with legislation that required interpretation services for victims and witnesses, and even with a more considerate judge presiding over this case, the chances of this victim getting accurate and professional interpretation services were very slim.
Although I live in Chicago, I do not know the state of Illinois court interpreters because in Chicago, just like in other big cities, state-level court interpreters and federally certified court interpreters do not work in the same places. Chicago is a very international city with a great need for good capable interpreters who work its many conferences, countless professional and corporate training sessions, and the federal courts where only interpreters certified by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts can work. I still remember when I first moved to Chicago and tried to meet the Cook County Illinois court interpreters. All I wanted to do was to let them know that I was their new neighbor. I took the telephone and called the main interpreter office. A person answered the phone and before I could even tell him who I was, he told me that: “…well, you are an interpreter…we are not hiring anybody. We have all the people we need. Goodbye…” and he hung up on me. I could not even tell him my name. Frankly, after such a rude greeting I lost all desire to contact that office ever again. Since these interpreters get paid between $15.00 and $25.00 per hour there was not even an economic incentive to try again. Now the “hope” part of the posting.
Despite all the problems and irregularities above, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts is currently developing a plan to provide access to the courts to those who do not speak English as their first language. After all these years the U.S. Justice Department decided to enforce the requirement that all individuals have access to the administration of justice. Basically, unless the states comply with the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and provide language access to all people, the federal government will stop all monies it presently gives to the states. All states that were not in full compliance, and all others who did not even have a court interpreter certification program like in the case of Illinois, had to start planning and implementing these changes. Last week I attended a Language Access to the Courts meeting sponsored by the Illinois Judicial Branch in Chicago.
The meeting was well organized and the attendance was very good. The State government officials in charge of developing the plan seemed capable and enthusiastic. Of course, there were different motivations among those in attendance: There were those state administrators who want to keep the federal funds and see this as another hoop to jump through; the interpretation agencies were there to watch over their interests and make sure they are not left out of the game. Some educational organizations were present in hopes of being awarded an interpreter certification training contract; some others were there for no other reason than a real commitment to equal justice; and of course some interpreters were there: non-certified interpreters who went to see what is coming to them, and certified court interpreters (I include myself in this group) to make sure that our profession is not diminished by the desire to get this implemented somehow in order to keep the federal funds coming.
There were valid and important points made during the meeting. This was good. Unfortunately, there were also remarks that frankly worried me. It is clear, and fortunately the people from the State in charge of this program know it, that these changes from now until the day when we only see certified court interpreters in the Illinois courts is far away. It was of concern to learn how court administrators do not know where in the world some important languages are spoken, or how they refer to certain languages as “dialects,” and it is really incredible to hear a judge say that as a bilingual person, he has no problem doing the entire hearing in the foreign language instead of waiting for an interpreter to get to the courtroom; but it also lets us comprehend the magnitude of the task ahead. I selected the term “hope” for this posting because I really hope that this change happens. I want to trust those involved in the planning and implementation of this Language Access Plan.
It is important to remember that as professional certified interpreters we have to remain vigilant so that the certification requirements are not watered down, and more importantly, that the exceptions to the certification process do not happen. At least we have to make sure that they do not happen in those languages, like Spanish, where there are plenty of capable certified interpreters who hold a federal certification or a credential from another state. It is essential that we make sure that to continue working, those already employed by the state courts as interpreters take the certification exam and pass it. It is necessary that we educate the public and private bar so these attorneys know the difference between a certified court interpreter and an old-timer who cannot pass the test. We have to make sure that the interpreter fee issue is discussed as part of this program. In a state like Illinois, particularly in a metropolitan area like Chicago’s, the courts will never get the top-tier interpreters unless they pay them accordingly. There are just too many other places where interpreters get a professional fee that takes into account the big city lifestyle with all of its expenses. As I said, I have hope; let’s make sure that it becomes reality so that we never again have to deal with a travesty of justice like the one perpetrated in Cook County Court last September. I invite you to share your ideas and comments on both issues: The Cook County Court horror story, or the possibility of having a real court interpreter certification program in Illinois.
Some judges foster the use of non-certified interpreters.
December 9, 2013 § 6 Comments
Unfortunately this topic is not new to anyone. It seems like we have been listening to the same complaint for many years, but during the past few months I have heard and read enough disturbing stories to decide that it was my time to contribute my two cents to the defense of our colleagues: the real professional court interpreters. Before I continue, I must clarify that this posting refers to Spanish language court interpreters. I recognize that interpreters in other languages are in a different situation as they do not have a federal certification program in the United States. That is an issue for a separate blog post.
I learned that there are federal district courts in the Southern and Midwestern States where the federal court interpreter certification is not “required” to interpret a hearing or even a trial. I was told that there may be other federal courts elsewhere in the United States where they also follow this practice. I have to confess that I have been very lucky to live and work in places where this has never been an issue. In fact, I live in a city where I have never even met non-certified court interpreters. The Federal Court for the Northern District of Illinois provides federally certified court interpreters for all of its cases.
The most common complaints that I have heard from certified interpreters is that these courthouses have clerks, administrators, and judges who don’t see the need to hire federally certified interpreters because they think they are too expensive, it is too difficult to get them, or because they are happy with the services provided by non-certified individuals who have been providing their “services” to these judges. There is a federal district courthouse in the Midwest that hires one certified and one non-certified interpreter to work their trials. Fortunately, most certified interpreters refuse to work under these circumstances. Unfortunately, this courthouse then hires two non-certified individuals. Their argument is that it is cheaper and the non-certified individual has a state court interpreter certification. Another courthouse in the South routinely hires non-certified interpreters under the explanation that their judges like these non-certified individuals who have been doing “a good job” for many years. There is a federal district court judge who states on the record at the beginning of a hearing that the Spanish speaker is being assisted by a certified interpreter, without giving opportunity to the federally certified court interpreter to enter her appearance on the record by clearly stating that she is federally certified. This way the judge, intentionally or unintentionally (we don’t know) makes it impossible for the certified interpreter to separate herself from the non-certified individual. In fact, because of this maneuver, I heard that some attorneys that have appeared before this judge for many years are shocked when they learn out of court that the “other” individuals appearing in court are non-certified.
I would like to think that most of these situations arise from the lack of knowledge among judges and court staff. Many of them do not know the difference between a federally certified court interpreter (the ones who can appear in court) a state certified court interpreter, and non-certified individuals who just happen to accept assignments knowing that they are not supposed to.
For the benefit of some of you who might be reading this article, and with the hope that some of my colleagues may share the following information with judges, clerks, attorneys and others, I will touch upon some of the basic differences between a federally certified court interpreter and a state certified interpreter.
According to the Court Interpreter Act, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts shall establish a program to facilitate the use of certified interpreters in judicial proceedings instituted by the United States (28 USC § 1827) To fulfill this mandate, the United States AOC has developed a certification program that all Spanish interpreter candidates must pass to be certified. The certification program is administered in two parts: a written exam to test the true bilingualism of the applicant who has to pass (with a minimum score of 80) each of the two sections: English and Spanish. Those who pass this first stage must wait for a full year and then take the oral exam that consists of difficult exercises to test the examinee’s interpretation skills, legal terminology and comprehension, and language proficiency. To pass this test a candidate must score a minimum of 80 on each of its 5 sections: sight translations from English into Spanish and Spanish into English, two simultaneous interpretations at very high speeds: one a monologue and one a dialog, and a lengthy and complicated consecutive interpretation. Passing rates for this very difficult exam are among the lowest in any professional field.
A person can become state certified after meeting the requirements of that particular state. The format and minimum scores vary depending on the state. Some require a written test, others do not. Some offer a written test on the basics of the legal process, others require prove of bilingualism. The oral test can be the same in different states as they all use the services of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) but the way the test is administered and graded is different from state to state. Some states let the applicant take the oral exam by parts (first the simultaneous exam and maybe months later the consecutive and sight)
Of the many differences between the federal certification program and the states’ programs, perhaps the most important are the content of the exam and the minimum scores required to pass it. State exams have fewer sections than the federal test. They do not have a simultaneous interpretation dialogue, the simultaneous interpretation exercise is offered at a lower speed, the sight translation documents are not legal, but paralegal documents, and the subject matter of the exercises is based on topics that are under the jurisdiction of a state court. The minimum score to pass a state certification exam is 70. Some states allow that examinees retest only on those sections where they got a failing score. The passing rate for the state court interpreter examination is far higher than the federal rate. In fact, there are many state certified court interpreters who have repeatedly failed the written and oral federal certification examination. As you can see, there is a significant difference between these certifications. It is important to mention that for federal court purposes a state certified interpreter is a non-certified interpreter.
The federal court interpreter program exists because of a constitutional mandate. The VI Amendment of the United States Constitution states that: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to… be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him… and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense…” (Amendment VI. 1791)
The Court Interpreter Act clearly states that: “…Only in a case in which no certified interpreter is reasonably available as provided in subsection (d) of this section, including a case in which certification of interpreters is not provided under paragraph (1) in a particular language, may the services of otherwise qualified interpreters be used…” [28 USC § 1827(b)(2)]
Looking at the statute you can easily conclude that the courts are obligated to seek the services of federally certified interpreters. There were certified interpreters ready and able to work in all the cases I have mentioned in this article. It was the clerk or the judge who preferred to use the non-certified individuals.
Even smaller federal district courts now have access to federally certified court interpreters through the federal judiciary’s Telephone Interpreting Program (TIP) The TIP, available nationwide, allows an interpreter at a remote location to deliver simultaneous interpretation of court proceedings for defendants and consecutive interpreting for the court record by means of a two-line telephone connection. This program has been very successful and has kept the highest quality of interpretation in the courtroom.
It seems to me that after reading this posting, all federally certified court interpreters who are ignored or passed over by a courthouse, and later find out that a non-certified individual has been hired to “interpret,” should be able to explain the legal reasons not to do so. Unfortunately, sometimes this may not be enough. All federal judicial districts are independent. They make their own decisions. All federal district court judges are appointed for life. When an explanation is not enough to change a bad habit, there are other means to achieve the desired results.
When faced with the situation above, the interpreter should talk to the defense attorney and express his concerns about the defendant’s constitutional rights being violated. The V amendment indicates that: “No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…” (Amendment V. 1791) For a person to have due process there has to be legal representation. A defendant cannot participate in his defense unless he understands the charges against him and confronts his accusers. This is impossible if he cannot communicate with his attorney (See Amendment VI 1791 above) It is important to make it clear to the defense attorney that because of this violation of the defendant’s constitutional right to a due process, there are grounds for a dismissal, or at the least for an appeal, even before the trial takes place.
As far as the non-certified individual who is working at the courthouse, even with the blessing of a judge, there are several things that can be done: When the individual states that he is certified, or when the judge states on the record that this person is certified and the “interpreter” does not correct the record, there can be consequences if this person has a state certification. This should be brought to the attention of the state agency that oversees the performance of state certified interpreters. This lack of moral character could be grounds for a suspension or even a revocation of the state certification. Remember, state certified court interpreters are (state level) officers of the court.
There are also certain things to be done when the individual does not have a state certification. If at the beginning of the hearing, or at any time during the process, this person was placed under oath or affirmation and indicated that he was certified, or even if he remained silent when the judge or the clerk put him under oath as a certified interpreter, he may have committed perjury or at least misrepresentation and therefore he could be prosecuted for this crime. This individual could also be subject to other sanctions depending on the state where the act was perpetrated. Practicing a profession without a license or certification could be a misdemeanor in some states. The person may be subject to jail time or at the least to a fine.
Finally, the non-English speaker defendant or his dependants may be able to sue the “interpreter” for damages caused by him as an individual who provided a service without having the certification to do so, and perhaps committing fraud or inducing the error at the time of celebration of the professional services contract. If the non-English speaker thought that this individual was certified, there was no “meeting of the minds” and therefore the contract wasn’t valid; this means that he can sue the “interpreter” for damages and he may not have to pay him for what he did. This is a good remedy for those who appear in court pro-se.
There are many resources to right a wrong. The first step should be to try to educate the bench and bar. I encourage you to speak before the defense bar and the assistant U.S. attorneys. Make sure the court knows that all these resources exist; that they can use TIP. Always remember: you need to make sure they are aware that you know what is required, and that they know that you are willing to campaign for the use of certified interpreters in your district. Please share with the rest of us your experiences with non-certified interpreters and what you did to fix the situation in your federal district court.