Is this practice demeaning to certified court interpreters?

February 26, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the United States and other jurisdictions interpreters are officers of the court. From the moment interpreters begin to work in court, they hear the term thrown around all the time. They are told that much is expected from them as officers of the court, and at the same time they see how annoyed some court employees get when an interpreter is part of a hearing.

One of the least pleasurable things about court interpreting is the need to endure uncomfortable attitudes, and absurd policies, by many clerks, support staff, attorneys, court administrators, and even judges. This environment has turned off many excellent interpreters, and deprived non-native speakers of the benefit of some of the most capable and professional individuals.

Court interpreting presents many unavoidable challenges to the professional interpreter, and they have to be dealt with in order to reach the goal of equal access to justice: lay and legal terminology, evasive speakers who at best reluctantly tell the truth, poor acoustics, obsolete interpreting equipment or the lack of it, long hours, and low pay, are some of the realities that court interpreters face every day at work. Most of them cannot be fixed by a bigger budget or more competent court administrators; they are part of the “nature of the beast.” Let’s face it: many people do not go to court voluntarily, some appear before a judge or jury when they are angry, scared, embarrassed, and a good number of them have trouble with telling the truth. Court interpreting is very hard; but not all of its difficulties are due to bad acoustics, a whispering attorney, or a fast-speaking witness. Some of them are generated artificially, they do not belong in the courthouse; they are the result of ignorance and lack of understanding.

When the spirit of justice and the passion for the law are no longer there, many of the top interpreters abandon the field. Being ignored by the clerk, patronized by the judge, criticized by the attorney, and to constantly walk into an environment where the interpreter often feels like he is more of an obstacle to the process than an essential part of the administration of justice, seems to outweigh the low and rarely timely pay. We all know, and have accepted or rejected these circumstances; many are trying to change them through education or negotiating their labor conditions, and many freelance interpreters have relocated their court work from the top of their priority list to the middle and even to the bottom.

The question is my friends: Are we really officers of the court? The legislation says we are, but, what does it mean to be an officer of the court? According to Black’s: an officer of the court is “a person who is charged with upholding the law and administering the judicial system. Typically, officer of the court refers to a judge, clerk, bailiff, sheriff, or the like…” it adds that an officer of the court “…is obliged to obey court rules and… owes a duty of candor to the court…” Interpreters fall into this category as one of “the like”. This has been widely recognized by most state legislations, and it is explained by the United States’ National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) position paper on the interpreter’s scope of practice: “…By virtue of the role we play in the administration of justice, many courts have stated outright that the interpreter is an officer of the court…” To put it in lay terms: court interpreters are officers of the court because they are part of the judicial system to administer justice, and as such, they are subject to strict professional and ethical rules, and to specific legislation. There is no doubt that especially, certified court interpreters are strictly regulated as professionals: they need to go through a certification or licensing process that culminates with passing a rigorous exam, in most cases (sadly, not the federal program) they must meet continuing education requirements to keep said certification or license, and they have to abide by a code of ethics and professional responsibility. It could be argued that noncertified court interpreters may not fit the description as they do not have to meet all the requirements above. However, even noncertified court interpreters must observe the rules of ethics when working in a court-related case.

So, where is the demeaning practice I mentioned at the top of this post? It is at the time that certified court interpreters are placed under oath over and over again, every day, all over the United States.

To practice their profession, all officers of the court are subject to eligibility requirements: judges, attorneys, and certified court interpreters have to meet them to work in the system. All officers of the court have the duty to obey the law, and the responsibility to act ethically and professionally. For this reason, all of them are required to take an oath: judges take the oath when they are appointed or elected to the bench, attorneys are administered an oath after they pass the bar exam, court clerks take an oath when they are hired by the judiciary. They all take the oath once!

In some states, and in some United States judicial districts, certified court interpreters are only required to take their oath once (for that jurisdiction) and a record is kept in file for future reference. This is a great practice not only because it saves taxpayers money by shortening the hearings, and the savings can be a significant in cases when the same certified court interpreter is administered the oath, in the same courtroom, over ten times in one day. Equally important, from the certified court interpreters’ perspective, is the recognition of their status as officers of the court, and the very important message by the system that certified court interpreters are going to be treated as the professionals that they are.

Unfortunately, to eradicate this demeaning practice that places certified court interpreters as second class officers of the court, we will need more than just educating judges and attorneys, convincing court administrators, and pushing interpreter coordinators who work for the courts so they stand up and support the freelance certified court interpreters on this one. It will require a legislative change in many cases. Believe it or not, there is legislation in some states requiring that interpreters be placed under oath before each court proceeding.

A 2012 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (U.S. v. Solorio) held interpreters who translate the testimony of witnesses on the stand are covered by Federal Rule of Evidence 604 and that they are subject to “…the administration of an oath or affirmation to make a true translation…” However, the Appeals Court ruled that “…Rule 604 does not…indicate whether such an oath must be administered in any particular manner or at any specified time, including whether the oath must be administered for each trial. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) has published guidelines on the administration of oath to interpreters, observing that policies in regard to the oath of interpreters vary from district to district and from judge to judge [Guide to Judiciary Policy §350(b)] Although some courts administer oaths to interpreters each day, or once for an entire case, others administer the oath to staff and contract interpreters once, and keep it on file…”

The legal argument above can be used by certified court interpreters to advance their efforts to get rid of this “second-class treatment” by some courts, but the road will not be easy, and in some cases, the biggest obstacle will be bilingual judges in positions of authority who do not quite understand the role of the interpreter as that of an officer of the court. Judge Ruben Castillo, as co-chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Litigation’s Trial Practice Committee, and presently the Chief Judge for the United States Northern District of Illinois, favors administering the oath for each case, stating that: “…I happen to be a Spanish speaker, and I’ve seen misrepresentations occur…under the pressure of instantaneous interpretation, especially in cases involving a lot of slang…mistakes can occur. When under oath, most people take the job more seriously…” As you can see, devaluating the certified court interpreter’s professionalism is also used to continue this demeaning practice. It is obvious that judges need to be educated to the professional status of the certified court interpreter. The oath does nothing to improve an interpreter’s skills, but it does a lot to show us that there is a long way to go before we can sit at the table as equals in many jurisdictions. I can see a need to place under oath noncertified or occasional interpreters (not all languages have enough demand to generate a professional practice) but certified court interpreters should be treated as all other officers of the court whose professional scope of practice goes beyond that of a witness.

I now invite you to share your thoughts on this matter.

Some judges foster the use of non-certified interpreters.

December 9, 2013 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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.

Is interpreting a lesser profession?

February 25, 2013 § 9 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I recently posted a story about a judge near the border who questions the interpreter’s ability to do his or her job. I described how this judge asks Spanish-speaking jurors to correct the interpreter’s rendition during the trial, and tells them that in cases when none of the Spanish-speaking members of the jury are sure about a certain word or term, she would ask for an expert to render an opinion.  As expected, many of you were outraged, some of you offered solutions to this problem, and others shared similar stories showing that this practice of not recognizing the interpreter as a professional expert, and putting him or her down, happens all over the world.

All these reactions were natural and expected; however, there were quite a few participants, many of them identifying themselves as court interpreters, who made statements that seemed to accept this practice and even endorse the system. Comments such as: “…Interpreters should be more professional and less sensitive…(they) should just interpret and get used to it…” “…It happens all the time…(and) we need to act more like interpreters and do the job they are paying us to do…” and even: “…I think (Asking the jurors) is a good idea. They may know how to say something we don’t…”

Dear friends; those of you who know me personally, and all regular blog readers, know that I have always fought to get our profession acknowledged as a real profession. We are professionals!  The work we do requires of knowledge, skill, preparation, formal education, cultural awareness, social skills, and many more… Our function is essential for the communication of people who don’t speak the same language.  As long as there are two languages in the universe there will be interpreters.  I understand that many colleagues, and with reason, argue that we are not a regular traditional “profession,” that we are stuck in between being a profession and being an art.

It is essential that all interpreters, regardless of their area of expertise and place of services, present themselves as professionals. My colleagues, in order to do this we need to believe it first, we need to feel it.  My court interpreter colleagues must enter a courthouse feeling, believing, knowing, and projecting that they are part of the professional service providers who work in the justice system. They need to group themselves in the same category with the judges, expert witnesses and attorneys; that is where they belong.  Sadly, many court interpreters see themselves more like a clerk, and identify themselves with support staff such as clerks, bailiffs and deputies; In fact, some of them act as if they can relate more to the parties: victims, witnesses, and even defendants.

What do you think an attorney would say if the judge were to ask those jurors who may be attorneys or paralegals to please correct the litigants during the trial if they are quoting the wrong case law?  We cannot even imagine that scenario. It is exactly the same with our profession.

Court interpreters in this case, and all interpreters in general, need to act as professionals and educate everybody they interact with about their profession. Go out there and explain judges, attorneys, agencies, hospital administrators, and clients who we really are. If you do, you will soon notice that they treat you differently, that you feel better about yourself, and you will notice that your income will increase because once you feel like a professional, you will act as one, and professionals charge accordingly for their professional services.  I would like to hear from you. Please share with all of us your thoughts and ideas about who we are as interpreters, and how we should act when providing our services.

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