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

Dear colleagues:

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.

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

May 20, 2013 § 17 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing Education that Improves the Interpreter as a Professional.

June 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As an interpreter who also teaches continuing education I am especially receptive to comments and criticisms by colleagues who attend continuing education workshops. I pay attention to what they have to say, good or bad, about a class they took, whether it is a college-sponsored seminar or a privately organized presentation.  Many times I hear good things about the subject matter or the presenter, but it seems to me that the most popular complaint is that the classes are boring and they do not give anything to the interpreter that he or she can use to improve performance, access to the professional market, or plain and simple have a better income.

When I decided to teach continuing education for interpreters, transcribers, and translators many years ago, I made the decision to teach interesting topics that could aid the professional linguist in his or her career.  This is what I have done all over the United States.  Many of my students and workshop attendees have told me how they learned something that made a difference in their careers.  I have always believed that a good interpreter must know his craft, and must provide ethical service.  With this belief in mind, I have presented ethics and practical subject matters in different formats: One-hour to all-day presentations at national and regional conferences, multi-day workshops at colleges or privately sponsored events, and one-on-one tutorials.  By taking my seminars, colleagues have passed court interpreter certification exams, they have been hired as staff interpreters, and they have secured professional contracts with governments and corporations.

This Friday I will be teaching a court interpreter ethics class in Columbus Ohio at the invitation of the Ohio Supreme Court. The day-long seminar will cover many relevant aspects of ethical interpreting in the court system, will analyze the code of ethics at the federal and state levels, and will give local interpreters an opportunity to test their knowledge and comprehension of interpreter ethics while participating in useful and fun practical exercises.  The seminar, presented in English, will meet continuing education requirements for the Ohio court certification program and others.

On Saturday I will give a half-day presentation on Mexican legal terminology at the Texas Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (TAJIT) IN San Antonio. The presentation will focus on Mexican Spanish legal terminology in Criminal, Civil, Family and Administrative Law. Those attending will get a better idea of the Mexican legal system, its similarities, and its differences with the American system, but more importantly, will teach them the methodology to research the meaning and significance of legal figures, terms, and principles.  The idea is that at the end of this presentation the interpreters will be able to better understand what they do, and will feel comfortable about taking Mexican attorneys and businesses as their clients.  Those attending this presentation in Spanish will receive continuing education credits in Texas, New Mexico, and other states.

I invite you to attend these classes and I encourage you to tell me what you would like to see as continuing education topics that I may teach in the future.

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