2017: The biggest stain in U.S. court interpreting history.

May 7, 2018 § 29 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the United States we have recently spent many hours debating and researching about the validity and credibility of interpreter certifications in the healthcare sector. We have argued back and forth about accreditation, certification, and professional practice because we care about the profession. The debate left us all with a better understanding of our certification programs and the validity of both.

For many years the gold-standard of interpreter certifications in the United States was undoubtedly the federal court Spanish interpreter certification exam. It was known for its difficulty and low passing rate when compared to all other court and healthcare interpreter certification tests. During all those years we never thought that one day we would be forced to question this “queen of all American court interpreter exams”. Fortunately, we are not doubting the content of the exam. This has not changed. The unfortunate people who took the exam in 2017 was administered the same exam all federally certified Spanish court interpreters had to pass. The administration of the test, and handling its consequences after the fact was the fiasco.

Dear friends and colleagues, certification exams are of extraordinary importance in the United States; they are more relevant in our culture and value system than in other countries. While other systems put their credibility on the academic achievements of the new professional, traditionally, the United States has emphasized practice over theory and formal education. Some of our greatest lawyers never attended Law School, because in the United States it is passing the Attorney Bar Exam that matters. There are plenty of countries where people cannot practice a profession, or sit for a Bar or Board exam unless they first graduate from college.

This situation is even more important for professional interpreters practicing in the United States where most of our colleagues have no formal education, but they have demonstrated, by passing the certification test, that they are ready to practice as professionals. In Europe a university degree is essential; in America a certification is vital.

From all certifications, the federal court interpreter certification has been used to measure the competency level and skills of court interpreters in the United States. It is even used (erroneously in my opinion) by small and mid-size interpreting agencies to pick the interpreters they will hire to work in the booth.

We are all aware of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts’ historical failure in 2017 when they could not guarantee the integrity of the process and created a huge mess that impacts many.

After a deafening silence that went on for many long months, and the letter sent out in February which make the situation even worse, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts’ (AOUSC) sent out a carefully crafted, self-serving letter to those who took the exam in 2017 where they try to appease the interpreters by carefully telling a story on the best possible light for the AOUSC and informing them that, after all these months, they are fair and just, and will give those candidates whose exams were compromised to where no score could be determined, and to those who will be told they failed, a chance to retake the exam for free.

I was saddened by the reaction of some, fortunately a minority, of colleagues who celebrated this communication and praised the AOUSC as had they done something wonderful and worthy of recognition. I do not know how many of you have seen last week’s letter. I did, and I am not impressed:

The first paragraph of the April 27 letter refers to the mistakes on the way the exam was administered as “irregularities” softening the tone and making it more palatable. Then, they portray themselves as the ones who investigated for months what happened to finally conclude there were “irregularities”.

Next, the letter states: “…Over the past several months, the AO has worked with a team of trained raters who reviewed all candidate performances and psychometricians who analyzed the rater materials and examination administration data…” but it does not explain who those “trained raters” and “psychometricians “were. I am not doubting their credentials, and I am not feeling confident with their review of this mess because I just do not know who they were. Are we talking about the same colleagues who rated the exams originally, and if so, how many, who, what additional training they had to take to assess these incomplete exams? Were there independent contractors free to disagree with the findings of the AO, or were these staff interpreters who could be very capable, but could also have a conflict of interest when evaluating something that could affect the reputation and legitimacy of their employer. The letter says nothing about it. It looks like a letter prepared by a legal team, not a friendly communication to a professional group that has suffered the consequences of this poorly-run program for many months.

The self-serving tone of the letter continues when they affirm that based on their (mysteriously obtained) findings, 69 percent of the exams were validly administered and accurately scored (we still do not know how they arrived to the conclusion), and 31 percent suffered “irregularities”. My friends, 69 percent is an awful record. This clearly proves the ineptitude within the AO.

The next paragraph shows us the magnanimous nature of the AO: “…Candidates whose scores cannot be validly determined will be given the opportunity to re-take the oral examination free of charge. Moreover, given the findings of the investigation, the AO will also offer anyone who does not receive a passing score the opportunity to retake the oral examination free of charge…” This clearly tells us that the exam was a terrible mess and basically anybody who wants it, will have a second chance, this time without paying for the test, which is not the same as free of charge as we will discuss below. Do we have to believe that it took all these months to arrive to this decision? This should have been announced right after the multiple mistakes were known, not until now, unless there were other legal considerations we are not been told about, like litigation with Paradigm for example.

The letter ends with a blank apology and a reassurance they will preserve the high standards and fairness of the administration of the exam. Did I miss something? There is no admission of wrongdoing anywhere (typical in all letters prepared by a legal department) and there is a self-serving assurance that everything will be fine because they will preserve high standards and fairness. I would think that when your credibility is already in negative numbers (below zero) you would make a statement you will bring back the high standards and fair administration process that distinguished the exam. Right now nothing is good to preserve. Of course, they cannot say anything like this without admitting fault.

Finally, the 8-page attachment is a pseudo-scientific document with no details that plays down the mistakes that can be directly attributed to the AO, and basically throws Paradigm under the bus. Again, there is talk of irregularities, but there is no data on the scoring units, the specific criteria used to assess the exams, or anything that can reassure us this was a scientific work.

It is incredible how the letter and its attachment avoid naming Paradigm and stay away from words such as fault, responsibility, and negligence. This is because those are legal terms and the AO is getting ready for litigation.

Even though the AO has shared nothing on their relationship with Paradigm, there are strong rumors in social media and federal courthouses’ hallways that the relationship has been terminated. This would explain the delay on the “findings” contained on the April 27 letter, as the federal judiciary gets ready to sue their contractor and Paradigm fights for payment of their fees and other contractual terms.

The 2017 federal court interpreter examination saga leaves the federal judiciary stained, the profession wounded, and court interpreters in the worst situation they have faced in history. Unfortunately, there are others who are affected even more and will not benefit from the “Magnanimous letter of April 27”. We can divide them in three categories:

First, those colleagues who studied hard and will get a letter telling them they passed the test. These individuals have been agonizing for 7 months without knowing if they would have to retest. Many have continued to study for the test. All have been deprived from their earnings as federally certified court interpreters for months. They will never get back these months of their lives, and they will never perceive the professional fees they should have earned as federally certified court interpreters working for court districts, assistant US attorney’s offices, public defender’s offices, and private attorneys that retain federally certified court interpreters for many services from jail visits, to depositions, to witness preparation, to federal civil litigation.  They will never earn that income because of a government agency’s ineptitude and a bottom-feeder contractor’s gross negligence.

The second group includes those interpreters who took the test, and for no fault of their own, will now get the “magnanimous” opportunity to retest “free of charge”.  The problem is, my friends and colleagues, there is not such a thing as a “free exam”. The “luckiest” of this crowd will be able to retake the test in their hometown without paying for it, but they must turn down other assignments to take the test. This means they will lose income and that makes the exam far from “free of charge”. Next, you have the unfortunate unlucky ones whose sin was to leave in a town where the exam will not be offered. We all know colleagues who drove overnight, got on a plane, got a passport and then got on a plane, and then checked into a hotel to take the test. Nobody will reimburse them for those expenses, and many must cough up the money once again if they want to take the exam. Even if they AO expands the locations where the test will be administered, it is doubtful this will include those of our colleagues who traveled from abroad to take the test. Plane tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals, gas money, tolls, and lost income will make the retake of the exam a burden to these colleagues. To them, this will not be a “free of charge” exam.

The last group, often forgotten during this fiasco of epic proportions, are the freelance federally certified court interpreters retained by Paradigm, with the blessing of the AO, to rate the original exams. These distinguished colleagues put first the profession and agreed to rate the exams, even if the pay is little for such hard work, they were asked to purchase their plane tickets, book their hotel rooms, and cover their daily expenses while this rating was happening, with the promise of reimbursement when their raters’ fee was paid. It is only now that some of the raters are getting paid; others have not seen a penny yet; and nobody has been reimbursed for travel expenses disbursed 7 or 8 months ago.

Last week, Paradigm sent a letter to the raters explaining why some had not yet been paid, arguing some bureaucratic step that the raters needed to comply with: Sending an email to the individual in charge of this fiasco at Paradigm informing him of this payment.

Regarding reimbursement of expenses, this letter, dated May 4 states: “…Payment for travel and hotel expenses will be released after Paradigm receives verification of your receipt of payment for Rater hours. Meals and incidental expenses will follow…”  They are telling raters that they are not sending their checks quite yet.

Next, the letter includes a self-serving statement that should worry the raters: “…Paradigm is working to get Raters paid in-full within the next few weeks. This is contingent upon Raters providing confirmation of receipt of payments received and the AOC continuing to approve the invoiced items for payment…”

In other words, there is no hard date for these payments, and reimbursement is contingent to AOC’s approval. This would make me very nervous if there is litigation pending between the AO and Paradigm.

As you can see, the “magnanimous letter” is far from a happy ending to this fiasco. The future is uncertain. Nobody knows if the AO will ever share the real data behind what happened and a detailed scientific explanation of the exam assessment process, including those who did it.

The biggest problem and reason to be concerned is the lack of transparency. Interpreters must know who retained Paradigm to administer the test. How was the bidding process; who were the other bidders, how low was the winning bid; who decided in the AO that Paradigm was qualified to administer an exam like the federal court interpreter certification test for Spanish interpreters? Why the credentials of a testing entity like Paradigm, which mainly proctors high school tests to monolingual students were appropriate for this bilingual professional test? There was ineptitude and negligence during this decision making process, and there was gross incompetence when dealing with the aftermath.

Those responsible should pay the consequences. Only then trust will be restored and people will believe the AO once again. In sports, when a team is not performing the coach is fired.

It is doubtful that the AO will come clean and provide all these records to the public. They have no legal obligation to disclose everything, but their moral duty compels them to do so. Without good faith, trust will continue to erode, and interpreters will be left with fewer and more distasteful options such as a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) to see how the process happened; even though the process would be lengthy and the information released will be tittle more than the documents they already published. Those with standing can also sue the AO, but they must do it quickly, since the Federal Tort Act gives only 2 years to do so, and the process must start through an administrative channel. Also, the result of this legal action, even if successful, is limited by legislation and case law.

Perhaps a better option would be to sue Paradigm, its employees, and the AO’s officers as individuals (which is permitted) for damages under the contributory negligence by all defendants’ theory. This way, interpreters would learn more about the steps that lead to this fiasco from the discovery that the parties would have to turn over to the plaintiff. Also, damages awarded can include punitive damages.

I could not end this post without mentioning how the candidates who took the test, the raters who have not been paid, and the court interpreter profession were abandoned by their professional organizations during this struggle. It is sad to see how the current Board of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) abandoned its members by sitting on their hands and remain silent. It was until May 2, after the “Magnanimous letter” was made public, that the Board issued a self-serving harmless statement indicating that they were “…very much aware of the issue surrounding the federal exam…” and how they “are continuing to monitor the events as they unfold in June…” In other words, the national association with the most members directly affected, issues a communication after the fact even more sanitized than the AO’s. The latter called the fiasco “irregularities”; NAJIT could not even say that and called it an “issue”. Without any investigation, they have concluded that in their “opinion” “the AO is acting in good faith in what is an unfortunate set of circumstances”.  Again, this Board sided with the establishment instead of the profession and its own members. Nobody has suggested bad faith from anyone at the AO; the issue (correctly used in this context) is negligence. NAJIT is also telling those attending its annual conference that the AO will address court interpreters but not for a session “…geared toward the federal oral exam and its administration…” They want the AO there, but they will not pursue the federal exam fiasco as the topic to be discussed. That should not be because it could be uncomfortable to the AO, but because it will probably benefit the members more to talk about how many cases were interpreted last year, an interpreter directory, or other vital issues no doubt more important than the biggest stain in court interpreting history. We can only vote and hope to elect a NAJIT Board that will write position papers, hold round tables on the most pressing issues that impact the profession, as it had been the tradition before. It was just 2 years ago, under another Board, that we held a panel on immigration court interpreting that helped to change things to a better situation today. NAJIT is not a labor union and we do not expect it to act like one. We hope it goes back to its role representing the professional interests of its membership while defending the integrity of the profession.

It is time for all court interpreters to think and question those things that go wrong to change them. Treating interpreters as ignorant people, who should be grateful to the AO for letting everyone retest after 7 months of agony following a test that will go down in history as a monument to ineptitude and negligence, with no transparency and accountability is just unacceptable. I now invite you to comment, in the understanding that comments defending the AO or Paradigm will not be posted unless they come from an official source.

How a conference for interpreters and translators should be.

April 3, 2018 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

On March 16-18 I attended the “Spring into Action” conference, a joint venture of the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Florida (ATIF), the Spanish Language Division (SPD) of the American Translators Association (ATA), and Florida International University (FIU).

ATA’s Spanish Language Division had been involved in other high-quality conferences: A “Spring into Action” joint venture with the Delaware Valley Translators Association (DVTA) in Philadelphia in 2015, and a collaboration with the Portuguese Language Division of ATA in Las Vegas many years earlier. Because of such good memories and references, when the administration of the SPD approached me with presenting in Miami I said yes immediately, I enjoyed the conference tremendously, and I learned very important lessons that motivated me to write this post.

For those of you who do not have Spanish as one of your working languages, please read the post until the end. The lessons learned at this conference apply to all languages and fields of interpreting and translation, and will benefit all colleagues who put them into action.

First, the event was held at a conveniently located college campus: Florida International University in the Miami metropolitan area. This made it possible to have a professional activity in a learning environment, with a college infrastructure (smart units, college classrooms, university environment) instead of a hotel ballroom with banquet chairs where those attending a lecture must master note-taking on their knees and must settle for a partial view of the presenter and a panoramic view of the bald head of some colleague who got there earlier and took the front row seat. Miami’s location is perfect for a gathering of Spanish language interpreters and translators because it has two major airports (Miami International and Ft. Lauderdale) and it is accessible to colleagues from all over the Americas, Europe, and the United States. The weather was another plus; I left Chicago in a snow storm and landed in balmy and sunny Miami.

The organization was great, and I applaud all those involved in organizing the conference. I have been in their position and I know how difficult and time-consuming it is. Congratulations to all organizers, administrators and volunteers.

The conference program was impeccable. It was a perfect balance of interpreting and translation workshops and presentations with something of quality for everyone, regardless of their specialty field or experience level. Unlike many conferences where you find a mix of good workshops and many fillers that make you question your decision of paying for the event, all presentations were top quality. We had universally known names who shared their knowledge with the rest: Antonio Martín and his Dr. Macro; Alberto Gómez Font and his lecture on toponomy; Xosé Castro’s talk on communicators and translators productivity; Jorge de Buen and the signs and symbols we should translate; Daniel Tamayo’s sight translation workshop; Karen Borgenheimer and her consecutive interpreting advanced skill building workshop.

We also could see how some already renowned colleagues and presenters elsewhere were officially introduced to the international Spanish interpreter and translator community. We had the pleasure to hear from Darinka Mangino who shared with us the use of an ethnographic analysis of communicative setting as a preparation tool for an assignment; and most of the country learned what I already knew: Javier Castillo is an excellent presenter and interpreter trainer who showed the audience how to improve their memory to improve their outcomes.  I could not attend all the other presentations and workshops, but I talked to many colleagues and I heard only praise for all presenters and presentations.

Everything I have shared with you should convince you of the success of this conference, but the most important factor, and what sets it apart from most of what we see in the United States was that there were no corporate sponsors pushing sales of their products until an exhausted translator agrees to buy something she may not even need, and there were no unscrupulous agencies chasing interpreters to convince them that working for rock bottom fees is fine if you are “learning and practicing” while you work, or as long as they offer you consistent volume (so you can work more consistently for a laughable pay). That there were no “presentations” where agencies could convince interpreters of the benefits of telephone interpreting from home (conveniently leaving out of the sales pitch they will be paid by the minute of work to where by the end of the month the interpreter cannot pay the rent of her place or the food of her kids) made us all feel more comfortable as we knew we were among our peers and nobody else.

This model can be copied by interpreters and translators elsewhere. Some countries or languages may not have enough colleagues to put together an event like this. That is fine. You can always hold a joint event with other professional interpreters and translators from your region, from other languages, and helped by a local institution of higher education.  You will soon see the results: more quality presentations, more attendance because the conference will not cost your colleagues an arm and a leg like some of the huge conferences, and you can talk to your peers without being harassed by salespeople or agency representatives. In my opinion, this is the right formula as far as size, content, format, and organization.

For those of you who may argue that big conferences offer certain things smaller ones do not, I give you this Miami conference as an example you need nothing else. Some people have argued that you would be missing networking when the conference is smaller or restricted to a few languages. I would argue this is not true. When I need a colleague from a specific language combination, for some specialized field, or from a particular region of the world, I always bring on board people who I know, colleagues who I have seen working in the booth during other assignments, or interpreters recommended by a trusted colleague. I would not recruit somebody I know nothing about just because he gave me a business card during a big conference. Finally, to those who may argue that unlike Spanish language interpreters and translators, their language combination would not allow them to experience a truly international event if all they attend is a smaller conference, I suggest they attend the annual conference of the International Association of Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI). This association holds conferences once a year in different parts of the world (not the U.S.) attended by interpreters and translators from all continents. The conference is top-quality, the size is not too big and not too small, the cost is very affordable, and there are no corporate sponsors or agencies keeping you from enjoying the event. I am not saying you should never attend a big conference, they also include some great presentations as part of their extensive programs, these humongous events must be experienced by everybody at least once in a lifetime; all I am saying is that you will find more value on a smaller event like “Spring into Action”, and you will not have to break the bank to attend. I now ask you to please share with us your opinions and your experiences at the Miami conference or at any other translators and interpreters conference.

Questions of a court interpreting student. Part 1.

May 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

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 finishes 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. Because her questions were very good, 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, and after she said yes, 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. This is part 1; part 2 will be posted in two weeks. I now invite you to read the first half of my answers to her questions.

  •  How useful is it to have experience as a conference interpreter if you want to become a court interpreter? Isn’t it more advantageous to have a community interpreting background? Please mention the advantages and disadvantages or each.

All interpreting experience is useful to become a court interpreter, just like to become an interpreter in any other specialty; Specifically, having experience as conference interpreter helps you as a court interpreter because it teaches you how to get ready for an assignment: how to research, develop glossaries, study the subject matter, and organize your time. It also gives you the advantage of a broader vocabulary. Community interpreting helps the new court interpreter to get used to work under less-than-ideal conditions such as noise, bad acoustics and speakers who use a lower register. With that said, new court interpreters have to be careful as these other disciplines can also hurt the rendition if the interpreter is careless. Conference interpreters do not interpret the obvious or the repetitious; they also leave out utterances and noises by the speaker. They strive to deliver an understandable rendition at a pleasant pace and tone. Court interpreters must interpret everything, and in order to do this, it is often required to go at a considerably faster pace than a conference interpreter. Community interpreters tend to help the speaker in order to achieve better communication between the parties. Court interpreters cannot do this; they must limit their work to the interpretation of what has been said by the speaker without any help from the interpreter. Of course, these differences stem from the basic principle that unlike conference and community interpreting where the main goal is to achieve communication and understanding between two parties who do not share a common language, court interpreting main goal is also to assess the credibility of the foreign language speaker in order to assign legal responsibility for a certain action or omission.

  •  Precision versus Style. Which criteria should we follow when working in court?

Court interpreting is a unique discipline because it requires that the rendition by the interpreter include everything accurately. This does not mean that the court interpreter has to interpret word by word. That would be nonsensical in another language. He requirement is that no concept, no element, no piece of information can be excluded from the rendition. Accuracy is essential to court interpreting. When an interpreter working in a non-legal environment omits some information this can be corrected in different ways: through an explanation by the interpreter himself during a “silent moment” as soon as the opportunity arises; by a reference to the event’s program, and even with a public announcement during or after the session. Because court interpretation is done for the benefit of those judging a case: judge and jury, the interpreter must give them all the elements, all the evidence, all the information presented during the hearing. Another recipient of the court interpreter’s rendition is the defendant who has the constitutional right to actively participate in his/her defense. For these reasons the rendition must be accurate and complete. Court interpreting separates itself from other genres of interpretation when it includes style as part of that precision. In court interpreting style is understood as the way a statement is delivered by the speaker; it includes register and emotions. Therefore, as part of this complete and accurate rendition, an interpreter must select and use a manner of speech, vocabulary, and delivery style that matches that of the foreign language speaker. On a given day, the same interpreter will interpret for a gang member, a scientist, and an attorney; all three will use different terminology and vocabulary, they will all have a different delivery, and they will speak a language correlated to their level of education and personal background. Without turning the rendition into a mockery of the orator, the interpreter must convey the entire message, not just the spoken words, but also the way they are spoken. As we can see then, precision and style are paramount in court interpreting, but they are both understood and observed under the professional duty to produce a complete and accurate rendition.

  •  What would you recommend to those of us who don’t live in the United States and want to acquire a wide range of language terms that may be presented in courts, from specialized legal and technical terminology to street slang?

The first thing a person who lives abroad needs to do is to determine where she wants to work as a court interpreter, if you plan to work within your own country’s legal system then the focus of your content should be inside your country. On the other hand, if you plan to work in your country and in the United States, or if you want to take the federal court interpreter certification exam in the U.S. even if you are going to live somewhere else, then you have to manage two parallel tracks: For the United States legal terminology and slang you need to study. Read legal and paralegal books; I do not mean law school text books (although I do not discourage you from doing it if you want) study basic law like the one students of pre-law or paralegal studies use in the United States, read legal novels because they use enough legal terms to make it worth. Watch a few TV legal dramas, and watch and listen to plenty of real life court proceedings in the United States. You can watch True TV (formerly known as Court TV) and HLN (Headline News Network) from just about any country in the world. They carry real court hearings during the day. There are also several radio stations and online stations that broadcast the sound of court proceedings during the day. Many judiciaries at the state-level in the United States have transcripts and recordings (audio and video) available on their websites, and even the official website of the U.S. Supreme Court offers audio recordings that you can listen to. Of course I would also get a good legal dictionary like Black’s.

Within your country I would do the same; for Mexico specifically, I would watch the “Canal Judicial” go to the website of the Suprema Corte, and physically attend some trials and motions hearings at the courthouses that already hold oral proceedings (The State of Mexico is a possibility near Mexico City) I would also get a hold of a good legal dictionary like the Diccionario Jurídico de la UNAM.

Finally, for technical, scientific, and other terms I suggest you start your own library and study these topics first at the basic entry level, and then at a deeper stage depending on the assignments you get. There are dictionaries for slang and regional expressions in both English and Spanish, and there are novels, movies, TV shows and even soaps (narconovelas) that can help you enhance your word bank.

  • As translation/interpretation students attending college outside the United States can we be considered as full-time students for joining organizations such as NAJIT and paying student fees?

All professional organizations have their own rules and criteria for admission. Most of them include as one of their goals the fostering of new professionals and to do so they offer special status or benefits to those who at the time are not able to generate an income because of their studies. Specifically, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in the United States (NAJIT) has five membership categories: active, associate, organizational, corporate, and student. Their website indicates that a student member shall be any person engaged in full-time studies as defined by the Membership Committee. I do not know what the Committee’s definition is, but it seems to me that a full-time student of interpretation is the same anywhere in the world and therefore, perhaps on a case-by-case basis, the organization should be able to confirm what I just said. After all, the rationale behind having lower membership fees for the students is that they cannot afford the higher fee because they are studying all the time and therefore they are not making any money, and if like I mentioned, one of the objectives of a professional organization is the advancement of the newcomers to the profession, it should always include the fostering of new interpreters and translators. I suggest you contact the organization directly and express these factors that I brought up in this paragraph.

  •  In my opinion, being a court interpreter may be somehow dangerous because you could have access to confidential information and you deal with people convicted or at least charged with a crime. Are there any protection programs, like the witness protection program, available for interpreters?

It is true that court interpreters are privy to confidential information. It is true that they are subject to ethical and professional rules of confidentiality, and it is also true that when working for an attorney, they are covered by the client-attorney privilege. This means that while there is a lot of pressure for a court interpreter to divulge confidential or even privileged information, there are plenty of legal protections that make it easier for the interpreter to refuse to share this data. It is also true that most court interpreters could end up interpreting for a convicted felon: murderers, rapists, drug traffickers, gang members, and child molesters are some of the court interpreter clients, and there is a certain risk that goes with the profession; even civil cases and in particular family court cases can be dangerous; however, there are plenty of protections such as the security at the courthouses and detention centers, the marshals and deputies in the courtrooms, and the interpreter’s own common sense. The court interpreter is trained to deal with these individuals; they are taught not to socialize with the defendants, they are instructed to follow all directions by the detention center guards, and many other patterns of conduct. I personally make sure I remove any type of ID before interacting with a criminal defendant or their family members so they never know my full name, where I work or live, and any other personal information that badges or identification cards contain. It is dangerous but at least in the United States it does not get to the point of requiring a protection program. In the case of Mexico, the final legislation that will address court interpreting in detail is still pending, and some of the issues that are presently being considered are precisely those related to the identity and safety of the interpreters and translators.

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 first five 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. Finally, I remind you that the rest of my student questions will be answered on part 2 of this posting two weeks from today.

The Electoral College in the United States.

October 16, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During my career I have noticed that every four years during the Presidential election season in the United States many interpreters are faced with the Electoral College topic even when their assignments are non-political.  Because of its American uniqueness, this topic presents a challenge to many colleagues who usually work outside the United States and to others who live in the country but grew up somewhere else.  In fact, the Electoral College is one of those issues that many Americans do not fully understand, even if they vote every four years.  Interpreters cannot interpret what they do not understand, and in a professional world ruled by the market this topic will continue to appear on the radar screen. Therefore, a basic knowledge of this legal-political process should come in handy every four years.

Because we are once again approaching the final days of the presidential campaign and election day is three weeks away, I decided to put my legal background and my passion for history to work (I have a Law Degree)

Every four years when an American citizen goes to the polls on a Tuesday in November to elect the new president of the United States, that individual does not vote for any of the presidential candidates. We Americans vote for a preference (Republican, Democratic and occasionally other) and for electors who will go to Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, in the month of December to cast all electoral votes from that state, in favor of the candidate who represents the preference of the majority of the state voters as expressed on that Tuesday in November.  In other words, we vote for the people who will go to Washington D.C., to vote on our behalf for the presidential candidate who received the most direct votes from the citizens of that state during the general election.  After the November election, those electors are pledged to the candidate who received the most votes in that state.  The result: We have direct vote elections in each state, and then we have the final election in December when the states vote as instructed by the majority of its citizens. It is like a United Nations vote. Think of it like this: Each state elects its presidential favorite; that person has won the presidential election in that state. Now, after the November election is over, in December the states get together in an Electoral College and each of them votes. This is the way we determine a winner. The states will each vote as instructed, honoring the will of its citizenry.  We do not have proportional representation in the United States.

Historically and culturally this country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit: Those who risk everything want everything, and when they succeed, all benefits should go their way. We are an “all or nothing” society. That is even reflected on our sports. All popular sports invented and played in the United States have a winner and a loser by the end of the game: We do not like ties because we associate a tie with mediocrity. A baseball game can go on forever until a team wins.  We do the same in politics. Once the citizens have voted, the winner gets all the benefits, in this case all the electoral votes; it does not matter if he or she won by a million votes or by a handful. You may remember how President George W. Bush was elected to his first term; he won the state of Florida by a very small margin, but winner takes it all, therefore all of Florida’s electoral votes went to him and he became the 43rd. President of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams got to the White House with a smaller margin than George W. Bush.

I mentioned earlier that we like the principle of winner takes it all. Although that is true, we are a country of fairness and justice with such diversity that the only way to achieve this goal is through a balance of the rights of the people on one side, and those of the states on the other. (For those who have a difficult time understanding why the states have rights separate from the people, please imagine the United States as a mini-world where each state is an independent country. Then think of your own country and answer this question: Would you like a bigger or more populated foreign country to impose its will over your country, or would you like for all countries to be treated as equals?) In December when the electors or delegates from each state meet as an electoral college in Washington D.C. to cast their state’s electoral votes, all states have a voice, they are all treated as equal.  This is the only way that smaller states are not overlooked; their vote counts.

We find the final step to achieve this electoral justice to the states of the United States of America (all fifty states and territories that make this country) and to the citizens of the country, in the number of electoral votes that a state has; in other words, how many electors can a state send to Washington D.C. in November.  The answer is as follows:  The constitution of the United States establishes that there will be a House of Representatives (to represent the people of the United States) integrated by 435 members elected by the people of the district where they live. These districts change with the shifts in population but additional seats are never added to the House.  When the population changes, the new total population are divided by 435 and that gives you the new congressional district. The only limitations: An electoral district cannot cross state lines (state borders) therefore, occasionally we will have a district slightly larger or slightly smaller, and every state must have at least one electoral district (one house member) regardless of its population.    The American constitution establishes that there will be a Senate (to represent the 50 states) integrated by 2 representatives or members from each state, for a total of 100 senators elected by all the citizens of that particular state. When new states have been admitted to the Union (the last time was 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii became states number 49 and 50 respectively) the senate grows by two new members.

As you can see, all states have the same representation in the Senate (2 senators each) regardless of the state’s size or population. The House of Representatives on the other hand, has more members from the states with larger population, but all states have at least one representative in the house. This way the American system makes sure that the will of the majority of the people is heard in Congress (House of Representatives) and it assures the 50 states that all of them, even the smaller ones, will be heard as equals in the Senate. You need both houses of Congress to legislate.

Going back to the Electoral College, the number of electoral votes each state has is the same as its number of Senators and Representatives. The total number of Senators and Representatives is 535 (425 Representatives and 100 Senators) Washington D.C. is not a state, therefore it has no Representatives or Senators, but it has 3 electoral votes to put it on equal footing with the smaller states for presidential elections. Therefore, the total number of electoral votes is 538.  Because of this totals, and because of the American principle of winner takes it all that applies to the candidate who wins the election in a state, to win a presidential election, a candidate must reach 270 electoral votes.  This is the reason why California, our most populated state, has 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives and 2 Senators) and all smaller states have 3 (remember, they have 2 Senators and at least one Representative in the House)

The next time you have to interpret something about the Electoral College in the United States remember how it is integrated, and think of our country as 50 separate countries who have an internal election first, and then vote as states, equal to all other states, on the second electoral round in December.  Because on November 6 of this year we will know who won each state, we will be celebrating the election or reelection of a new president, even though the Electoral College will not cast its votes for another month. It is like knowing how the movie ends before you see it.

Electoral votes by state Total: 538; majority needed to elect president and vice president: 270

state number of votes state number of votes state number of votes
Alabama 9 Kentucky 8 North Dakota 3
Alaska 3 Louisiana 9 Ohio 20
Arizona 10 Maine 4 Oklahoma 7
Arkansas 6 Maryland 10 Oregon 7
California 55 Massachusetts 12 Pennsylvania 21
Colorado 9 Michigan 17 Rhode Island 4
Connecticut 7 Minnesota 10 South Carolina 8
Delaware 3 Mississippi 6 South Dakota 3
District of Columbia 3 Missouri 11 Tennessee 11
Florida 27 Montana 3 Texas 34
Georgia 15 Nebraska 5 Utah 5
Hawaii 4 Nevada 5 Vermont 3
Idaho 4 New Hampshire 4 Virginia 13
Illinois 21 New Jersey 15 Washington 11
Indiana 11 New Mexico 5 West Virginia 5
Iowa 7 New York 31 Wisconsin 10
Kansas 6 North Carolina 15 Wyoming 3

School and Grade System in Mexico. For all Interpreters who struggle with this issue.

July 23, 2012 § 29 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

During my years as an interpreter I have been asked many things about Mexican Spanish, culture, way of living, etcetera; but by far, the most popular questions have consistently been about the Mexican educational system and its equivalency with the American system.  I have seen very capable colleagues from countries other than Mexico struggle with the interpretation of a simple phrase like: “Solo terminé la secundaria,” so today, I decided to put in writing, once and for all, the Mexican educational system.

The educational system in Mexico starts at the age of two, however, education is not compulsory before the child turns 6.  Also, the educational system ends with the 12th. Grade, but compulsory education ends after the 9th. Grade.

These are the equivalencies between Mexico and the United States:

School System:

Preschool = Kinder o Jardín de Niños, sometimes: Educación Preescolar   (2 to 4 years of age)

Kindergarten (last year before elementary school) = Pre-primaria.

Elementary School = Primaria (1st. to 6th. Grade. Children from 6 to 12 years old) Compulsory.

Middle School or Junior High = Secundaria (7th. to 9th. Grade. Children from 12 to 15) Compulsory.

High School = Preparatoria (10th. To 12th. Grade. Children from 15 to 18).

Community College =  Carrera Corta (2 years degree)

College = Universidad (4 to 6 years depending on the degree)

Master’s = Maestría

Doctorate – Doctorado


Diplomas or Degrees:

Elementary School Certificate = Certificado de Primaria (Compulsory)

Junior High or Middle School Diploma = Certificado de Secundaria (Compulsory)

High School Diploma = Certificado de Preparatoria (Also called “Prepa”)

A student who finished High School completed the Bachillerato and is called Bachiller.

A student who has an Associate’s Degree completed a Carrera Corta and he gets a Diploma.

A student who gets a Bachelors Degree completed the Universidad and has a Licenciatura

A student who gets a Master’s Degree finished a Maestría and is a Maestro.

A student who gets a Ph.D. finished a Doctorado and is a Doctor, or a Doctor en Filosofía.

A Colegio is not a college. It is a private school even if it is an elementary school. (a public school is a escuela)

A College where they do not offer Master’s and Ph.D. programs is called a Escuela. Escuela de Arquitectura (School of Architecture)

A College where they offer post-graduate education is called a Facultad. Facultad de Medicina (Medical School)

In Mexico, schools grade their students with the following scale (Some schools use different systems but this is the prevailing scale):

MB or Muy Bien = A

B or Bien = B

S or Suficiente = C, D

NA o No Apto = F

A student’s grade average is calculated on a scale from 1-10

A Promedio de 10 would be the equivalent to a 4.0 GPA

On the other hand, to refer to a 10 as a 4.0 in Spanish would be disastrous. Be careful!

I hope this will help the next time a Mexican client says: “Solo terminé la secundaria,”  and you interpret it as: “I just finished middle school.”

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