Disrespecting the (immigration) interpreter

August 31, 2015 § 34 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

For several weeks I have been contacted by many of our interpreter friends and colleagues. They have talked to me in person, over the phone, by text, by email, and through social media. The message was the same: interpreting services at the immigration courts of the United States are under siege.  They explained how the contractor who will provide interpreting services at all U.S. immigration courthouses had contacted them to offer unprecedented low fees and horrifying working conditions to those who wanted to continue to interpret in these settings. I know that many of you are not in the U.S. and most of you do not work as immigration court interpreters; however, what is happening there impacts us all as a profession, and could have an effect on the way you work in your respective fields or countries.

Basically, the contract to provide interpreting services at all immigration courts in the United States was awarded to a different company than the one that provided these services for the past two decades.  In the United States, these government contracts are awarded pursuant to a public bidding process, and after reviewing all bids, the government selects the bidder that better fits the criteria sought by the particular government agency. Although the required elements may differ here and there, the main factors to decide who wins usually include abatement of costs. In other words, the government looks for an entity that can deliver the required service at the minimum cost.  In this case, interpreting services at the immigration courts are contracted out to the best bidder by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR)

American immigration courts are not part of the judicial branch of the federal government; they do not fall under the jurisdiction and hierarchy of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (USAOC) (Article 3 of the U.S. constitution) Instead, the immigration courts are administrative courts created by Congress. They are part of the executive branch of the federal government; in other words, they fall under the authority of the president of the United States through the Department of Justice (DOJ) and specifically under the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) (Article 1 of the U.S. constitution)

For full disclosure purposes, I must say that I do not interpret at the immigration court because I thought that the fees and working conditions offered by LionBridge, the interpreting service provider that will no longer have a contract with DOJ-EOIR in the new fiscal year (October 1) were about the most draconian, one-sided conditions I have ever seen in my professional life.  I have to say that I did interpret for them in the past pursuant to an individually negotiated contract that paid me a fee higher than their average, but because of the fee I had to be paid, that in my opinion was still quite modest, I have not been asked to interpret in immigration court for years.

Going back to the “offer” extended to those colleagues who were working in immigration court under contract with LionBridge and, for what I have learned, to some interpreters whose names were found on certified interpreters’ lists elsewhere, it is clear that SOS International (SOSi) (the new contractor) has offered between $30 and $35 dollars per hour, in some cases with a two hour minimum, or $118.75 for a half-day assignment (must work 4 hours) and $188.91 for a full-day assignment (must work 8 hours) Notice that if you work 8 hours you will be making “more money” because you will be working more hours, but in reality, your hourly fee will drop to $23.61

According to those colleagues I have talked to, these fee structure has been presented to them as non-negotiable (for now).

There are many non-professional jobs that pay way better than these fees that frankly speaking, are offensive for a professional service such as that provided by the immigration court interpreters.

SOSi is currently compiling a list of interpreter names and resumes to be submitted to DOJ-EOIR for security background checks and to show that they have enough interpreters to meet the immigration courts needs. That is why so many of you have been contacted and asked to provide your information.  On July 22, 2015 it was announced that SOSi had been awarded a prime contract by DOJ-EOIR for language interpreter services for a base period and four option periods extending through August 2020, with a maximum amount of $80 million dollars. In exchange, SOSi is to provide all management and supervision, labor, and supplies necessary to perform these services in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all territories (including Puerto Rico) in 59 immigration courthouses. (SOSi press release 7/22/15 Reston, VA) In my opinion, before providing our information and resume in a hurry, we should first learn who is SOSi.

SOS Interpreting, LTD is a family owned, New York-based business contractor founded in 1989 that works mainly in the defense and intelligence sectors.  The total obligation amount of Sos International, LTD a 465 employee company incorporated in New York in 1992, from 2000 to the present is $217 million dollars, and its total federal contract contracts from 2000 to the present are 56 (not clear if this total includes the new DOJ-EOIR contract) mainly with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. According to USASpending.gov, just last year, they won 5 contracts worth $9.83 million dollars. (Source: www.InsideGov.com)

An audit of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) language services contract with SOS International, LTD (contract number DJDEA-05-C-0020 Dallas Field Division) in February 2012 states that: “…Therefore, we are questioning $934,144 for hours billed for linguists who worked without current language certification…” (https://oig.justice.gov/grants/2012/g6012004.pdf)

On August 2, 2015 The Daily Beast reported in their article entitled: “The Company Getting Rich Off The Isis War” that: “…SOS International, a family-owned business whose corporate headquarters are in New York City, is one of the biggest players on the ground in Iraq, employing the most Americans in the country after the U.S. Embassy. On the company’s board of advisors: former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (considered to be one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq) and Paul Butler, a former special assistant to Pentagon Chief Donald Rumsfeld…” It goes on to say that: “…the contracts (SOSi) has been awarded for work in Iraq in 2015 have a total value of more than $400 million (dollars)…”  (http://www,thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/02/the-company-getting-rich-off-the-isis-war.html)

My point is, dear friends and colleagues, that even though LionBridge paid miserably low fees and offered demeaning working conditions (such as checking and fighting for the last minute of services, not covering per diem when traveling, and others) many interpreters have provided their services at the immigration courts of the United States in the past.  The interpreting community at large has always considered that for the above-mentioned reasons, working as an immigration interpreter has been a second-tier occupation. It is also known that, with some exceptions all over the country, (because there are some very good interpreters working this assignments) there are many mediocre individuals attempting to provide interpreting services at the immigration courts of the United States because they met one of LionBridge’s fundamental requirements: They were willing to work for very little compensation.

It is sad that, compared to what immigration court interpreters face today, those were the “good old days”. I think that interpreters as professionals should always strive to improve their skills and service. To me, this is a unique opportunity that the market is giving to those who have been, for way too long, imprisoned in the world of complacency that working for the immigration courts has created around them. It is time to reflect and look for another horizons in the interpreting world. I can assure you that, if you provide a top service, you will find clients and assignments that you never dreamed of. You will finally make the kind of income that a professional interpreter should make, and you will never look back to the dark days.

For those who want to stay in the immigration field because of vocational reasons or because a better income is not necessarily a top priority, I would suggest that you unite and focus on the fee and working conditions issue. Do not get sidetracked with other consequences such as protecting the rights of the respondent. That is not your job, duty or battle. Let the immigration attorneys and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) (www.aila.org) fight that battle. That is their job and duty.

I invite you to communicate with each other and focus on how you are being treated. Concentrate your efforts on developing a common front and sharing what is happening with the attorneys, AILA, and those non-for-profit organizations that constantly fight for the rights of immigrants.  I know that many of you are already meeting at your state or local levels, that many of you are chatting on line and creating forums and discussion groups. I hope you continue and fight with the same spirit of our friends and colleagues in the United Kingdom who walked out of the courthouses after their government awarded the interpreting services contract to an incompetent agency that decided to cut their fees, just like they are trying to do to you. Several years have passed and they have not surrendered, they have not gone back to the courts; instead, they have raised awareness about this issue among all interested parties.

I do not know what the new immigration court contractor would do if they do not have enough names and resumes by October 1, 2015 when they are due to start providing interpreting services all over the United States, but I know that it will give you an option to try to get a decent fee for your services.   At this time there is much said about Donald Trump’s immigration policy and how concerning that is to many in the United States.  It is a very important issue, but we should also pay attention to what the current government is doing; after all it is the Obama administration that awarded the contract to SOSi promoting by its actions this terrible situation that all immigration court interpreters are enduring right now.  As for the rest of us, I believe that we should follow the developments on this issue, and help our friends and colleagues by making public everything that transpires. Do not lose sight of the fact that the contractor is getting a huge amount of money from our government, they are not poor.

Remember, this government contractor seems to be determined to take advantage of the immigration court interpreters, but in the process, they have disrespected all interpreters and our profession.  I now ask you to please share this article everywhere you can, and please tell us what you think about this very serious issue.

When a professional and business interpreting decision is not popular.

July 15, 2015 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Being a freelancer has many benefits but it also puts us in situations where we have to exercise our judgement and make decisions that will not always be easy. During my many years as a professional interpreter sometimes I have faced choices that required of an exhaustive analytical process in order to decide if I take an assignment or not. To get to the point where I am comfortable with my decision, I usually look at the prospective job from a professional perspective, a business point of view, and a moral (therefore subjective) position.

I try to determine if I am professionally able to provide the service I am expected to deliver: Do I have the knowledge and skill necessary to do a good job? Do I have time to research and prepare in the event the subject matter is unique or different from what I normally do?

If the answer is yes, I assess the business pros and cons of taking the assignment: Will it hurt my business or will it enhance it?

Finally, I go through a self-reflection to determine if I will feel comfortable with the subject matter that needs my interpreting services.

I had to go through this process when a few days ago I decided to provide my interpreting services for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant in the United States.

I understand that many of my colleagues would have turned the assignment down because of the controversy associated with one of the owners of the pageant and the statements he recently made regarding Hispanics, in particular Mexicans, who come across the border without legal documents to do so. After a long and thorough reflection, I decided to go ahead and provide the service because I concluded that it was not contrary to the standards that I described above.

From the professional perspective I concluded that, despite the opinions expressed by Donald Trump about Mexicans and others who enter the United States illegally, this should not impact my ability to do a good job.  I know that many of my colleagues in the United States would have turned the assignment down, and some of you expressed your opinion against my taking on the assignment.  I respect the opinions of others, but I disagree with their posture because it goes against what we do as interpreters. When questioned by some of you, my answer was that most of those objecting to the assignment systematically provide interpreting services to individuals who are not exactly the pillars of our society. On a daily basis, court interpreters bridge the language barrier between the courts and the defendants charged with horrible crimes such as murder, rape, and child molestation.  They provide the service without hesitation because they know and understand that despite the crime, and the criminal, interpreting services are required to deliver justice in our system. The higher value of the job has very little to do with the charge or the perpetrator.  As for those colleagues who do not work in court, I cannot help but picture those assignments where the interpreter works in a conference or a business meeting where the subject matter has to do with issues that are distasteful, controversial, or opposed by a significant segment of the population, such as gun control, military operations, or unpopular business practices.  These interpreters go into the booth and do their best because they recognize that this is the essence of our profession, not because they endorse the philosophy of those they are interpreting for. We all know that these are not our ideas; that we do not have to like the message nor the messenger. We have a job to do, and we do it to the best of our ability.

As a freelancer, it is extremely important to make the right business decision when you agree to do an assignment. To assess the situation, we have to separate the pure business aspect of the situation from all other factors that could cloud our view.  I understand why so many business entities decided to distance themselves from the pageant. For them it was the right choice: they deal directly with the groups that were offended by Trump’s statements.  They are their consumers. The fact that Univision, NBC, and even Chef José Andrés broke up with the Trump emporium makes business sense. They could not risk losing so many consumers, or having people protesting outside their site of business. I agree with what they did.  On the other hand, as an interpreter, I do not deal with Spanish-speaking people as my direct clients. They are the recipients of a service that I provide at the request of my direct client: the agency, event organizer, law office, court system, or international organization.  For a decision to impact my business, it has to hurt my client. In this case, taking the job benefited my business. I acted professionally and did not abandon a client when I was needed the most. This will, no doubt, benefit me for a long time. My clients know that it takes a lot for me to go back on a contractual obligation to perform a service.  I guess that if part of my business depended on working directly with the Spanish speaking community or with organizations that decided to oppose Trump, I would have probably decided differently, but in my situation this was not the case.

Before I decided what to do, I considered the moral aspects of my decision. To do this, I carefully separated two things that should never be grouped as one: What Donald Trump, the politician running for president of the United States said, and what the pageant is and represents to many who had worked for months and years for the success of the event.  Although I disagree with Trump’s statements, and I believe that he should have never generalized his opinions, I also understand that, to a degree, they were taken out of context. It is false that all those who come to the United States are rapists and drug dealers, but it is also undeniable, as my court interpreter colleagues perfectly know, that a good number of those undocumented individuals commit crimes every day. Donald Trump’s remarks made me angry, but the reaction by the corrupt governments of Mexico and other Latin American countries also made me mad. They should be ashamed of themselves, because it is them who push their citizens across the border. They have no right to be offended. They are destroying their people. On the other hand, interpreting for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant does not mean interpreting for Donald Trump. Those of us who participated in the event interpreted for the presenters and contestants who had nothing to do with a statement by a politician who is only part-owner of the pageant and was quoted, at least partially, out of context. I could find no valid moral reason, for me, not to take the assignment and fulfill my contract.

I am only trying to point out that as interpreters, we provide our services to many people. Sometimes we are the “voice” of a revered and admired individual, on other occasions we give the sound of our voice to despicable vile characters.  Many times we interpret events that are in agreement with our way of thinking, many others we interpret topics that we dislike and even disagree with.

I am not saying that we should accept every single assignment that comes our way. All I am saying is that we should analyze the proposed event, and only reject it when professionally, from the business perspective, or morally (as a very personal thing) we conclude that it is the right thing to do.  I know that not all assignments are for all interpreters and I respect that. I know colleagues who will not interpret in court for child molesters; I have colleagues who will not interpret conferences that go against their political or religious beliefs (pro-choice, pro-life, gun control, free trade, etc.) There are gigs that I would surely turn down as well. I do not see myself interpreting for the Nation of Islam or for Nambla for example. However, I believe in assessing all aspects of an assignment before making a decision. We have to remember that this is part of our profession; that we are not the ones speaking and saying those awful things, and we cannot lose sight of the fact that this profession is also a business, and for that reason, we should decide like businesspeople.  I now invite you to share with the rest of us the elements that you consider before rejecting an assignment, and please, abstain from political comments and editorializing about Donald Trump. This post is not about what he said; we all agree that it was wrong. It is about what we have to do as professional businesspeople in the interpreting profession when faced with a controversial situation.

Low-cost interpreter factories.

June 23, 2015 § 15 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It seems like every time I open my mailbox, see a tweet, or read a professional publication, I see new advertisement for all these interpreter courses, interpreter certifications, interpreter great opportunities, and so on.  There are many government entities, multinational agencies, professional associations, and “professional trainers” who have discovered a new business: create interpreters from nothing!

Let’s see: Just a few years ago Spanish language court interpreters in the United States could only be certified by the United States Administrative Office of the Courts (federal) or by the Administrative Office of the Courts of a state member of what was called the consortium. These credentials were widely known and recognized. Everybody knew what was behind them: a federal certification was more than a state-level certification, and then… there were the non-certified individuals who were precluded from working in the court system, and in those cases when they were used by the government, they were ushered in through the back door because they all knew that they were doing something that should be kept “confidential”.

Well, the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act became a reality for all state courts so the Consortium was no more, it has now been replaced by the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC) and now, in order to keep those federal funds coming, the states have devised a clever plan to circumvent the court certification requirement which would be the thing to do according to law, but very expensive, so they have created this new “category” of people who  cannot pass the certification test, but are allowed to work in court, entering through the front door,  called “qualified”, “conditionally qualified” and other versions of the same thing: an unqualified individual doing a job that is federally mandated and requires of certification.  Yes, it is easier, and cheaper, to mass produce these individuals who, in my opinion, are trained to do a job that does not exist, and pays lower than a professional certified interpreter would work for.  These individuals are now produced in “programs” developed by some states with the help of opportunist community colleges and “professional trainers” who see fit to create a program and go through the motions in order to deliver these paraprofessionals.

But this was not enough. The developments above showed the way to another lucrative business: the development of another category of interpreter who would be called “community interpreter” but would provide services in legal arenas where the court proceedings are of Article One of the U.S. Constitution: Administrative Courts. The reason for this new category, according to those who are now benefiting from its implementation: To fill in the gap in the legal system that was not been serviced by certified court interpreters.  The real motivation: That these courts and their proceedings are not covered by the court interpreter legislation, so there was a great opportunity for agencies to jump in, “certify” their people, and cover the hearings while paying these para-interpreters very little money.  Again, the “certification” programs (sometimes called “diploma” programs) have been developed by individuals who saw the opportunity to make money. There is no official oversight nor legal authority for the existence of these “community interpreters”. The only thing that is clear is that court proceedings in administrative courts are as important and complex as the ones heard in Article 3 courts. This is why, to be able to appear before administrative law judges, attorneys have to pass the same bar exam and be members in good standing of their state bar. No lesser requirements for attorneys, but non-existent requirements for interpreters. Obviously, there is a lot of money to be made in a service where the interpreter pay is so bad that no real self-respecting interpreter would get involved.

Then we have the professional associations and multinational agencies that offer their own “certifications” “qualifications” or whatever they chose to call them, to those left-overs who cannot work anywhere else and have to settle for a quick course online, a 15-minute exam online, and a dismal pay in exchange for telephonic or live interpreting at medical offices, school classrooms, community meetings, and the likes.  I do not blame those who are providing what in my opinion are questionable services, they are taking advantage of a void in the legal system and a weak group of interpreters who do not fight for their profession, reputation, betterment, and income. The blame is on the authorities who chose not to fix the situation and foster the spread of these “interpreter factories” all over; on the ignorant clients who buy the Brooklyn Bridge every time the agency sells it to them, and on the self-respect and ambition lacking so-called interpreters who enable the system to continue, instead of studying to better themselves as real conference, court, healthcare, or community interpreters.

We as professional interpreters need to protect our profession, we need to watch over our future, and we need to stop this do-nothing attitude and stand up, educate our clients, better ourselves, join real professional associations that work for the interpreters and not against them, and embracing the new technology, explain to the client that, compared to those I mentioned above, we represent quality, and many times savings, as we work without the middle man, the only actor who is not necessary in this play.   There are some good agencies, trainers, and professional associations out there, unfortunately, most of them become known to the interpreters once they reach certain level within the profession. It is our job, and responsibility, to point the new colleagues in the right direction.  Please feel free to share your comments with the rest of us, but please abstain from coming here to defend the entities I wrote about. They have plenty of forums where to make their case.

How to study for the federal court interpreter exam.

June 5, 2015 § 14 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This is the time when every two years many court interpreters in the United States, and abroad, are getting ready to take the federal court interpreter certification exam. This test is only offered every two years to those candidates who have previously passed the written portion of the exam.  The test is relevant mainly for two reasons: (1) those who have this certification can work as interpreters in all federal courts in the United States (all fifty states and all territories) where work conditions are usually better and the pay is slightly higher compared to the state-level courts; and (2) For better or worse, this certification is by far the best-known and universally recognized interpreter credential in the United States, even for work that has nothing to do with court proceedings.  In other words, passing the exam improves the credibility of an interpreter and boosts his resume.

This blog is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of the certification being used as a reference for other non-legal interpreting assignments in the United States, it is just a statement of fact that it is a test widely known by agencies, promoters, and direct clients. It is also a fact that, unlike many other certification exams, the passing rate is very low because the test is really difficult.  Add this to the fact that many interpreters in the U.S. do not have an academic background, and the test turns into a useful tool to decide who to hire for a job. Finally, we must keep in mind that the exam only exists for Spanish, Navajo and Haitian-Creole.

My only goal in writing this post is to contribute to the success of those taking the test some six weeks from now.  I am not going to talk about what to study from the academic perspective. I will not discuss terminology either. Those things should be learned in school and attending workshops and seminars to improve the interpreting skills of the candidate, and to learn how to study for the test in order to pass.

Today, I will limit to those things that are important, and a candidate must do when the exam is a few weeks away. In this case: about six weeks from now.

The first thing that a candidate needs is honesty. Be honest about what you know and what you can do as a court interpreter.  This is the time to work on your weaknesses while at the same time taking care of your strengths as an interpreter. Do a self-examination of everything that will be tested and rank your strengths:  At least you need to know where you rank in:

  • Sight translation of a paralegal document from English into the target language;
  • Sight translation of a legal document from the foreign language into English;
  • Consecutive interpreting of a testimony under very strict time limitations;
  • Simultaneous interpreting of a monologue;
  • Simultaneous interpreting of a dialogue at a relatively fast rate of speech;
  • Legal terminology and procedure; and
  • General vocabulary in both languages.

You can add other categories if you feel they are needed, but you should at least consider the ones mentioned above.  Once you have ranked your skill and knowledge, you have to develop a study plan that will emphasize your weakest points without forgetting about your strengths. Let me explain:

Let’s say that you concluded that simultaneous interpreting is your strongest mode because you practice it daily in your state court or community interpreting assignments. This does not mean that you are going to ignore or neglect simultaneous interpreting for the next six weeks. All it means is that you will dedicate less time to simultaneous than consecutive and sight.  In the same example, you decided that sight translating a legal document from the foreign language into English is your weakest point, but consecutive interpreting, especially under the time constraints of the exam, is something you feel less confident about.  In those circumstances, your study plan for the first two weeks could look similar to this:

  • Sight translation 40% of study time (60 percent of this time for legal documents written in the foreign language)
  • Consecutive interpreting 30% of study time (working on concentration, visualization, memory, and very brief note taking with a rendition starting almost as soon as the speaker stops talking)
  • Simultaneous interpreting 10% (with special attention to expert witness testimony, opening and closing statements)
  • Legal terminology and procedure 10% (making sure to learn the federal jurisdiction terminology and procedure, not the state level vocabulary)
  • General vocabulary 10% (paying attention to “laundry lists”, regional expressions, bad words and slang)

Two weeks later, you self-assess your work and reorganize your study schedule to reflect the newest results. You may decide that you need more time for the consecutive and less for vocabulary and sight translation for example.  From this point on, I would do this self-evaluation every week and adjust my plan accordingly.  It is important to remember that you cannot ignore any of the sections of the test, even if you are very good at consecutive interpreting. It is like playing the piano: you must practice every day to keep your skills sharp.

Because you will be studying a lot, you have to make it fun and interesting. Variety is the key to success and consistency when you study. To increase my vocabulary, I would try to learn 10 new words every day, picking words from the same theme of course; let’s say that today I decided to learn 10 words for items found in a lawyer’s office: desk, chair, file, briefcase, computer, client, pleadings, paralegals, investigators, and telephone. The next day I pick things found in a courtroom, then things in a hospital emergency room, a crime lab, and so on. If I do this every day, by Friday I will have worked with 50 new words; Of course, I will probably remember about 20 of them. That is 20 words I did not know on Monday.

To practice my sight translation from English into the foreign language, I would look for documents that are about the same size as the test to be sight translated during the exam, that are of some quasi-legal content. Letters from your bank, utility company, mortgage creditor and other similar communications usually work pretty well.  For the legal sight translation from the foreign language into English I would look for documents on line or from attorney friends in the country of origin. In the case of Spanish, I know that many of the big law offices in Mexico carry “sample” documents in their websites. You can download and use leases, wills, powers of attorney, court orders and decisions, etc.   Just remember to divide large documents into several exercises so that you are always practicing with a document the size of the one that you will find when you take the test.  Remember to always practice with the same rules as the exam regarding time to review the document and time to provide the rendition. Finally, please record every single exercise you do so you can grade yourself afterwards. You will not be able to see any progress unless you do this.

To practice simultaneous interpreting, I suggest you do two things: First, go to your local federal courthouse and watch a trial or a motions hearing. It does not matter if there is an interpreter or not. You will be interpreting under your breath and you will be taking vocabulary notes for your glossaries.  Please avoid state courts because it is very difficult to hear what is actually happening due to the noise, and also, keep in mind that you need to practice with federal terminology, not state. In fact, if there are staff court interpreters in your courthouse, try to talk to them and see if they can tell you when the trials or long hearings are taking place between now and the test. Who knows? Some of them may be nice enough to let you use a receiver if a court interpreter is working a hearing.  Now, because interpreting under your breath is always carried without any mistakes, you also need to practice yourself. I suggest you access any of the online sources that exist and provide live coverage of trials. Unfortunately, the viewers’ appetite for live court on TV has declined in the United States, so there is no Court TV anymore. Fortunately, you can find hearings on line. A good place to start is http://cvn.com you can also visit: www.nbcnews.com which is showing the Aurora Colorado movie shooting trial live, www.supremecourt.gov/oral has the United States Supreme Court oral arguments for you to listen whenever you are ready to do it. Many state-level Supreme Court websites do the same. I suggest that you record your rendition, and please make sure that your exercises are similar in length to the ones you will have to render when taking the test.

To practice consecutive interpreting, you can use the same resources listed above for the simultaneous exercises, as long as you stop the recording after each question and answer in order to render your interpretation.  Please do no more than 2 repetitions per exercise, and please observe the exam’s time limit at all times. This is crucial for your rendition and note taking practice. Remember, you do not have a lot of time to review your notes and once the time is up, everything you did not get to cover will be considered wrong in the exam.  This is extremely important. Too many people fail because they run out of time taking great notes.  For the consecutive exercises I suggest you draft a family member or a friend who can help you by reading from a text that you can also download from some of the websites above. This will be a great change of pace and will let you concentrate in your rendition as your assistant will be in charge of timing and repetitions.

For legal terminology and procedure, I suggest you focus on federal matters. Remember: This is the federal test. Terms are very important and as you probably know, we are in the middle of a huge change for many Spanish-speaking countries. It is true that many of the terms we have used in the past will now be obsolete and you should learn the new legal terminology developed by these countries’ legislators, scholars, and judges; but for now, for purposes of passing the federal exam, please continue to use the terminology you feel more comfortable with. For the test all terms will be considered correct if they exist in a recognized publication or dictionary.  Obviously, for those terms you do not know yet, I suggest you learn the correct terminology from the start, and if your combination is EN<>ES I suggest the two volumes of Javier Becerra’s dictionary.

To keep your studying fresh and exciting, I suggest you vary the order of the various subject matters: sometimes start with sight, other with simultaneous, etc. Also, I strongly encourage you to have a study-buddy. Someone else who is taking the test and can benefit from the mutual help and encouragement when you are tired, frustrated, or things are just not going as well as planned. With current telecommunications, your study-buddy can be anywhere in the world.  Just remember: You are getting together to study.

Please never study when you are tired, angry or frustrated. You will learn nothing and you will waste your time and energy. Be wise and know when to quit. For that same reason, until the last 2 weeks, have a day off every week, and on that day do not study or even think of the exam. During the last 2 weeks you will need to study every single day. Sorry: No social engagements during those last 14 days.  You will need to end your study at least 24 hours before the test. In other words: please abstain from studying the day before the exam. By now you will know everything you could learn. Let your brain (and body) rest so you can be sharp on the day of the test. If you have to travel to a city to take the exam, try to get there at least one day earlier so you can find the venue ahead of time.

Finally, on the day of the test, wake up early, have a good nutritious breakfast, and do whatever you enjoy doing: listen to music, workout, read a book, watch TV, anything but interpreting. Do not talk to any interpreter friends, especially if they are also taking the test. We know they are showing their support, but this is not the time for you to talk. Get to the test site early, you need to plan for traffic, parking, and public transportation.  Once you arrive at the venue, avoid all others who are taking the test. Do not even acknowledge them. You will have plenty of time to explain why after the exam.  You do not need to think of any term, word, phrase, or anything at this point. Keep your brain rested and stress-free.

During the test, do not start any section of the exam unless you are ready to do it. Adjust the headphones, the volume, and the chair; make sure you have your favorite pens handy, remember to time yourself, especially during the consecutive rendition. Use your time wisely during the two sight translation exercises, make sure you use your repetitions during the consecutive only if you really need them, and please, do not stop any exercise because you will not be able to restart it. Do not stress out if you do not know one word, remember, nobody fails for missing one word, but many people flunk the test for losing concentration and missing many scoring units after losing concentration because of a single word.

Now go out there and start studying very hard. You have been working for this certification for at least one year since you took the written portion of the test. Believe in yourself and do your best to pass the exam.  In the meantime, keeping in mind that we cannot talk about the contents of the exam, I invite other colleagues who have passed the federal court certification test to share their study tips with the rest of us.

Atlanta hosts the largest gathering of U.S. court interpreters this weekend.

May 16, 2015 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

This weekend many of the top-notch court interpreters in the United States will meet in Atlanta for the annual conference of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). For this reason, when I was asked by the Atlanta Association of Interpreters and Translators (AAIT) to write a piece for the special conference issue of their publication “Bridges”, I agreed to first publish it there, and post it here later on the day.

Professional conferences are vital to any activity and we are no exception. As you all know, these are the places where we solidify and improve our knowledge, advance our skills, and refresh our ethics. That in itself makes them invaluable, but NAJIT’s annual conference is much more than that.

Those attending the conference will be pleasantly surprised to learn that many of the living legends of court interpreting will be there, and that they will be joined by some local and brand new talent in our industry.  You see, the conference will welcome more than court interpreters and legal translators. Conference, medical, community, military, and other types of professional interpreters will be in Atlanta adding value to the event, sharing their knowledge and experience, and developing professional networks across disciplines and places of residence.

I invite you to approach old and new colleagues and have a dialogue with them. I believe that these conferences give us an opportunity to do all the academic things I mentioned above; but they also provide a forum for interpreters to discuss those issues that are threatening our profession. Atlanta is giving us a unique opportunity to talk about strategy on issues as important as the development of technologies and the efforts by some of the big agencies to keep these new resources to themselves and use them to take the market to lows that are totally unacceptable to professionals. We can openly talk about strategy to defend our fees, working conditions, and professionalism, while at the same time initiating a direct dialogue with the technology companies who are developing all the new software and hardware that will soon become the standard in our profession.

Finally, the conference will also help you to get more exposure to other interpreters, and will provide situations where we will have a great time and create long-lasting memories and new friendships across the country and beyond. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your motivation to attend this and other professional conferences. I hope to see you this weekend!

This time of the year could be very dangerous for some court interpreters.

April 27, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I just read a contract that one of the States in the U.S. is asking all court interpreters to sign if they want to continue to work in their system. The document is 38 pages long and it is full of legal terminology, rules, and sanctions that only an attorney can understand.  This is not an isolated case. Because of political pressure and budgetary prioritization, court interpreter programs are getting less money from their administrative offices at the state level. In other words: There is hardly any money to pay for interpreting services at the state level in many states.

Although the Civil Rights Act is over fifty years old, it was only a few years ago that the federal government decided to enforce its compliance at the state level in the case of equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language spoken by the user of the service.  When the federal government came knocking on the door of each of the fifty states, and told their state judiciary to comply with the law or lose the funds they had been getting from the feds, states started to look for a solution to this problem. In reality, up to that moment, the states were complying with the constitutional requirement to provide court interpreters in criminal cases, but in many states there were no court-funded court interpreters available for civil cases and other additional services offered by the courts to the English-speaking population.  The message from Washington, D.C. was loud and clear: In order to continue to receive (much needed) federal funds, the states had to provide interpreters for all services they offered, not just criminal cases.

In some parts of the country the first problem was as simple as this: There were not enough certified court interpreters to meet the legal requirements; in other regions the problem was slightly different: There were plenty of certified interpreters, but the courts were not willing to pay the professional fees commanded by these (for the most part) top-notch interpreters in that state.  These professionals had been there for years, but due to the low fees paid by the state court system, they were not even considering the state judiciary as a prospective client.

When faced with this dilemma, a logical and ethical option should have been to develop a program to encourage more young people to become certified court interpreters, train them, and then test them to see if they could meet the state-level certification requirements, set years before and universally accepted as the minimum requirements to do a decent court interpreting job.  Some states’ needs could be met this way, but not all of them. For that reason, a second logical step would have been to raise the professional fees paid to court interpreters in order to entice those top-notch interpreters, who were not working for the courts, by making the assignment profitable and attractive. Finally, for those places where this was not enough, state courts could have used modern technology and provide interpreting services by video or teleconference. Administrative offices had to develop a plan, categorize the services offered and decide which ones required of an experienced certified court interpreter, find the ones that a brand new certified court interpreter could provide, and select those instances that, because of their nature and relevance, could be covered remotely by a certified court interpreter elsewhere in the state or even somewhere else.  This process also needed that state court judges and officials acted within the constitutional system and asked their respective legislatures for the funds to comply with the federal mandate.  It is doubtful that legislatures would risk losing federal funds by not approving such monies; and in those cases where the local legislators would not grant more funds, state court administrators and chief judges needed to do their job, and truly provide equal access to justice to all by reorganizing priorities, and perhaps sacrificing some programs, even those that were near and dear to a judge’s heart, in order to find the funds needed to meet this priority that is above most others, not just because of the federal funds that the state would lose in the event of non-compliance, but because those in charge of the judiciary should consider equal access to justice a top priority, and I really mean at the very top.

Unfortunately, my dear friends and colleagues, most states chose an easier way, even though it did not deliver what the Civil Rights Act intended.  They decided not to rock the boat with the legislature and play it safe, they decided not to make true equal access to justice a priority by recruiting and training quality certified court interpreters, instead, they opted for ignoring the excellent professionals in their area by not raising interpreter fees, thus making the assignments profitable to professional interpreters. They decided to come up with a “plan” to keep the federal money in their accounts by making believe that they were complying with the federal mandate of equal access to justice. This is what many of the states decided to do:

Instead of recruiting and training new certified court interpreters, they decided to create a group of paraprofessionals who would “deliver” interpreting services. These individuals were drafted from the ranks of those who had always failed the certification exams, and by recruiting bilingual individuals with no interpreting knowledge whatsoever. States justified their decision by arguing that these individuals would receive the necessary “training” to interpret in certain scenarios of lesser importance, where people who had partially passed the certification test would be considered as professionally qualified (semantics vary from state to state but it is basically the same) even though in the real world they should be deemed as unfit to do the job. Moreover, bilinguals would be trained to “assist” non-English speakers with some administrative matters in the courthouse. Of course, this brilliant decision would set the profession back to the good old days when prevailing judicial culture was that knowing two languages was all you needed to interpret in court; but that was of little importance when balanced against the possibility of cancelling a court program that was politically useful to a judge or an administrator.  This is how the “warm body next to the court services user so we don’t lose federal funds” theory was born.  The spirit of the law was ignored.

There is as much quality and true access to the administration of justice when a person who failed the court interpreter certification test, or a bilingual court staffer, interprets for a non-English speaker individual as there is medical knowledge when the guy who failed the medical board sees a hospital patient, even if the appointment is to take care of an ingrowing toenail.

Of course, the process above taught court administrators a valuable lesson: court interpreting services was a good place to save money, a wonderful way to channel budget resources somewhere else, and a great way to avoid antagonizing the state legislature, because there would be no need to ask for more money to fund the program.  This was the origin of the next step backwards: Fee reduction.

Court administrators did not stop here. They now knew that they could get away with more, so they decided to lower interpreter fees. In most cases the reduction did not come as a lowering of the fee itself; it was accomplished by cutting guaranteed hours, reducing mileage and travel reimbursement, changing cancellation policy, and by creating a new bureaucratic machinery designed to oversee what interpreters do minute-by-minute. Maybe it should be referred to as “to spy” instead of to “oversee”.

Fast forward to today, and you will find these huge interpreting services contracts in many states. The reason for them is not that court interpreters all of a sudden went bad and stopped doing the good work that they did for decades; these contracts are motivated by more reductions to the interpreters’ fees and by developing this super-protection for the state, leaving the freelancer with little or no defense before potential abuse by the court administrators.  What other justification can these state contracts have when the federal court interpreter contract is a very short agreement, which usually does not change from one fiscal year to the next, and is drafted and developed individually by every federal judicial district?

These state contracts that court interpreters are expected to sign without the slightest objection, have been drafted by the administrative office of the courts’ legal departments; they have been amended to include any possible ways to reduce the interpreters’ real fee that the states missed when drafting last year’s contract, they include sanctions to interpreters who do not comply with sometimes ridiculous duties, without setting any process of notice and hearing; they are written in a complex style full of legal terms and ambiguity that only an attorney can understand.

I am very fortunate that I do not need to sign one of these contracts, as state courts have not been my clients for several years; but it concerns me, as a defender of our profession, that my colleagues may sign these documents out of fear or hopelessness.  I invite all those court interpreters who have been, or will be asked to sign one of these agreements in the next few months, before the new fiscal year starts in July, to seek legal representation. It is your professional career, it is your future. I believe that state (and national) level professional associations should negotiate a deal with a labor relations or civil law attorney, where services would be provided at a lower fee, and offer it as a benefit to their members. In fact, I would like to see all interpreters who are members of a state or regional professional association present a common front and negotiate these contracts with the state administrator.  As state court interpreters we need protection, because if we do not act, we will continue to move backwards. They already told many of us that there is no money and they blamed it on the state legislature, now we know that perhaps they did not try to protect the interpreter program no matter what.

They are paying you less, making your work conditions very uncomfortable, they already took some of our work away and gave it to mediocre cheaper paraprofessionals.  All professionals negotiate the terms of a contract, and before they reach an agreement, they have the benefit of legal representation. The administrative office of the courts is represented by their attorneys; interpreters, like all professionals, should at least be represented by an attorney before they sign a new agreement. I now ask you to comment on this situation and the ways to recover what we had already achieved in the past, so we can move forward, and for the first time fully comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

What are court interpreters afraid of?

April 10, 2015 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During my many years of practice I have seen and heard a lot of things. As a staff interpreter and as a freelancer, I have attended meetings where court interpreter policy had been discussed.  I have many friends and acquaintances who were, and still are, court employees.  A good number of them do a good job, others do not. From the staff interpreter’s perspective, these policy meetings are permeated by two very strong forces:

The sense of duty to the profession that these colleagues experience as they hear the sometimes absurd proposals by their bosses. This makes them reflect on the reason why they were hired in the first place: Their knowledge of the profession, so they end up putting themselves in the shoes of the practicing freelance interpreter who is about to be victimized by the judicial system. They have to go through these emotions. No doubt. It happened to me when I worked for the courts.

The second, very powerful force in the meeting room is called the sense of loyalty, the corporate spirit. They are constantly reminded, directly and indirectly, that they are now one of “us”, the court administration; that they are no longer one of “them”, the freelancers.  They perfectly understand that loyalty is expected. These two forces clash inside the staffer’s head and heart, and the collision can produce two results:

The clear realization by the staff interpreter that he was hired to present the professional interpreters’ perspective, to make sure that no decision would be made without first considering and evaluating the effects of such changes on the delivery of the service and the quality of the performance. When this happens, the interpreter opposes all nonsense that is about to become institutional policy, and voices his objections out loud, perhaps suggesting a meeting with the freelancers before any decisions are made.

Unfortunately, the second result is the one that prevails most of the time: Staff interpreters, afraid of losing their jobs, or at least the favor of their supervisors, remain silent, and sometimes may even suggest the steps need to implement the new policy despite the freelancers’ opposition.  Of course, it is easier to act and react out of fear.  Some of these interpreters are more concerned about their retirement than about the interpreting services provided in their jurisdiction.  Others are terrified of the idea of losing their job and having to go out there to fight for every single dollar they would have to earn as freelance interpreters.  Fear means inaction. It means that harmful decisions, sometimes adopted in good faith by the administration, will become the new rules, and staffers will do nothing to stop it.

This is how bad policy comes to be. How it becomes a reality is up to the freelance interpreters, because once the wrong policy is implemented, independent contractor interpreters have two clear options: They can refuse to work under those circumstances and look for other clients, or they can renegotiate with the courts (sometimes they should even take legal action when the administration has clearly breached the terms of the independent contract they may have with the freelance interpreter).

Unfortunately, many interpreters prefer to submissively accept the new rules and comply, even if it means less income, even when it is demeaning to the profession.  They are acting and reacting out of fear.  The thought of waking up tomorrow and realizing they do not have to go to court because they were not asked to interpret scares them to death. To them, court work, even in exchange for a rock bottom fee is peace of mind.  They firmly believe that as long as they keep working, even when underpaid, they are doing the best they can.

This is the biggest problem that court interpreting faces as a profession in the United States, because, unlike our colleagues in the U.K., too many court interpreters in America are willing to roll with the punches and work more for less and under worst conditions.  Many interpreters forget that courts are a client, not an employer. The court administrator and the interpreter supervisor are not their boss, they are a client, and they are not even your best client, as courts pay far less than private clients in the legal field.  Interpreters must remember that as providers of a professional service, they are bound by a contract, and so are the courts. Both parties are equal. Nobody is less. Contracts are meant to be negotiated, not blindly accepted; and just like with everything else in life, when the terms of the contract are not what you want, walk away without signing on the dotted line. There are other clients.

When court interpreters start thinking of the courts as their client, not their boss, the free market will kick in, and interpreters, just as attorneys, will be able to get a professional fee. Until then, I am afraid that court interpreting will continue to go backwards.  I now invite you to share your ideas and proposed solutions regarding this crucial issue to the future of court interpreting, and please, do not answer by saying that there is no other work outside the courts, because there is.

Good interpreters must know many things, and the best interpreters even more.

April 3, 2015 § 29 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a difficult profession built on the principle that the interpreter is well equipped to handle anything in a conversation, negotiation, presentation, litigation, and many other situations. Interpreters are expected to possess the language skills, professional resources, knowledge, and understanding of the topic being addressed. That is the reality we live in.

Of course we all know that an interpreter cannot know everything about all topics under the sun, but we understand that we need to have the basic knowledge to figure out the subject matter and the sources to deepen our understanding of the topic at hand.  What is not always clear among interpreters is the realization that we must know enough about many subjects to take us over that bridge that leads to the source materials, and to have the general knowledge necessary to save the day when a topic just appears out of the blue, without notice.

Ours is a very demanding profession because it asks us to be fluent in at least two languages, to know all necessary interpreting techniques needed to provide a professional service, to keep pace with ever-changing technology, and to have a vast general knowledge that encompasses many topics: from the trivial to the transcendental, from the artistic to the scientific, from the widely accepted to the controversial.  My friends, a good interpreter needs to know enough about a subject to be able to understand what the speaker is saying, to know where to start a research project, and to continue with the rendition while his partner digs up more information on the topic right there in the booth.

I must admit that I am often puzzled at some of my colleagues’ answers when I ask them about a topic they are about to interpret, and they simply tell me that they do not know the subject.  The first thing that comes to mind is: what were you thinking when you agreed to do the assignment then? How did you decide that you were right for the interpretation? The fact is that many colleagues do not think of this as essential to their performance. I have had a long career and I have seen and heard many things throughout the years, but some of them stuck because of the absurdity, at least to me, of the answer given to one of my questions, or the actions taken by the interpreter faced with the situation. I will never forget when I asked a staff managing interpreter how many judges they had in their court and she told me that she did not know, dismissed the question, and moved on to another “more important” topic. To this day I recall a time when I was interpreting a conference on airplanes, and all of a sudden an individual asked a question about airplane carriers. My colleague in the booth, who was interpreting at the time, did not know basic concepts about a ship. She did not even know her port from her starboard or her bow from her stern. It was clear that this was not the subject matter we were supposed to prepare for, but these things happen all the time, and we must possess enough general knowledge to save the day.  A little knowledge is even necessary to decide where to start your research of an issue. On the other hand, good interpreters apply their general knowledge to the situation and get the job done.

Several years ago I was retained to interpret for a conference on Pre-Hispanic archaeological sites.  This was a large event and there were going to be many Spanish booths working in different rooms at the same time. I was retained to interpret the plenary, and also in one of these rooms. The organizers told me who my partner for the plenary was and I was thrilled. This was an excellent colleague with a lot of experience, and we had worked together many times in the past. When I agreed to do the assignment I was asked to recommend another interpreter to work in the booth with me. The event was quite large and it took place during the busy conference season, so it would be difficult to find a suitable experienced colleague.

I gave it some thought and I decided to invite a newcomer to the conference interpreting scene. She was not a rookie. I had worked with this interpreter in court many times, she was quite good at court interpreting, and I assumed that she would do a good job at the conference as well. She agreed to do the job and I provided all study and research materials for the conference. She studied them with dedication. I know because I saw her do it. Finally, on the day of the conference, we got ready in the booth, I gave her some pep talk and told her that everything was going to be fine. We decided that I would go first, so I started my rendition. My first shift went fine, and so did hers. It was during her second time around that the speaker switched gears and instead of talking about archaeological sites, he spoke about Pre-Hispanic religion and mythology in Mesoamerica. All of a sudden my colleague froze and did not utter a sound! I looked at her and I saw the face of despair and panic. She just could not interpret the topic. After a few seconds, that felt like an eternity, I took over the rendition and finished her shift. During the mid-morning break she seemed quite angry, I guess because of her realization that she was not prepared to do the interpretation, and she told me that she was not going back to the booth, that she had studied many hours and she knew the topic of the assignment, but she knew nothing about native Mesoamerican religion and mythology.  I talked to her, convinced her to go back to the booth to observe, and I did the second leg of the morning all by myself.

After the assignment was over, she indicated that she was very impressed that I had been able to save the event, and she said that she could not do this type of work because you were expected to know about everything.  Her last comment was right on target. Interpreters, in general, are expected to know about everything related to their line of work. Court interpreters should know about the law, procedure, ethics, and some of the fields that closely and often intersect with their work, such as forensics, criminology, chemistry, etc. Healthcare interpreters, even if they always interpret for patients with very little knowledge of medicine, should always be ready to interpret concepts of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, search and rescue, police protocol and practices, etc.

Interpreters who work in conference need to have a very broad base of knowledge and they need to be up to speed on current affairs. To me, this is one of the most attractive aspects of the profession, we are always studying, we are constantly learning. We need to be the person who always knows the answers to the questions they ask on the TV game shows, we need to be the individual who knows the latest news around the world; we have to be prepared to interpret at a moment’s notice, we need to have that desire to study, that curiosity to research, that need to know. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this issue that in my opinion is so important, that it separates the good interpreters from the best interpreters.

“Get an interpreter for that hearing, and try to spend as little as possible”.

March 13, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every time I read an article about court interpreting, look at your social media posts, or have a face to face conversation with a court interpreter, I cannot help but notice how the working conditions constantly deteriorate. For some time we have witnessed how the court interpreting system of the United Kingdom was completely destroyed and our colleagues had to courageously fight back so the rest of the world knew what had happened in their country. Time continues to run, and nothing has been done to improve that system now run by an entity whose greatest achievement was to sink the quality of interpreting services to an unimaginable low. We have witnessed the difficult times that our colleagues who want to do court interpreting face in Spain. We have heard many stories of court interpreters around the world having to fight for a professional fee, a professional work environment, and respect to the profession.

The situation in the United States is also very sad. It is true that the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act has left little choice to the states. Now, state-level courts that want to continue to receive federal funds must provide interpreting services to all non-English speakers who need to have access to the justice system. The new demand for court interpreters beyond criminal cases has “inspired” many court administrators and chief judges to act in new and more creative ways to satisfy the requirement of having an interpreter next to the non-English speaker, even when the quality of this professional service is at best doubtful. To this day, there are jurisdictions where the question is: Does a warm body fulfill the legal requirement of providing interpreter services? Sadly, in some cases the answer seems to be “maybe”.

But the state courts want to comply with the federal mandate, and it seems that some of them will stop at nothing in order to achieve their goal. A popular formula was born: “Get an interpreter for that hearing and try to spend as little as possible”. The origin of this strategy is not clear, but it is obvious that this solution was not conceived by an interpreter. This is not even the brainchild of an administrator who at least has a basic knowledge of the interpreting profession; moreover, this doctrine has been embraced by some federal level courts as well. Let me explain.

Some court administrators have implemented a fee reduction. Today, some interpreters get paid less for their travel time to and from the place where they will render professional services; they get a lower fee, less compensation per traveled mile (kilometer elsewhere in the world) no reimbursement for tolls and bridges, and other very crafty ways that some courts have devised to pay less for interpreting services.

Other courts have increased the level of “scrutiny” and now watch over the court interpreters’ shoulder while they are doing their job; not the way a client observes the work of a doctor, a lawyer, or any professional individual, but the way a person watches over the performance of the guys who dry your car when you take it to the car wash. Many times this breathing on your neck type of scrutiny is enforced by adding paperwork and bureaucratic requirements to the fee payment process. To the interpreters, this means more time spent in the payment process, while making the same money than before the new requirements were in place. They are effectively making less money than before.

Of course there are also courts that now pay a lower fee during the contracted time if the interpreter’s lips are not moving: They pay a partial fee for the break time and travel time, even though the interpreters, who sell their time, have allocated those hours, or minutes, to that court as a client. Now some courts are tossing high fives at each other because they paid the interpreter a full fee for 45 minutes of work and a reduced fee for the 15 minutes in between cases when the interpreter did not interpret because the judge had to go to the bathroom.

And there is more: some jurisdictions have removed themselves from the payment process in those cases when, due to a possible conflict of interest, the court assigns a particular case to a private independent defense attorney, who is a member of a panel of lawyers, who can be appointed to these cases in exchange for a fee that is paid by the judiciary. This jurisdictions do not accept the interpreters’ invoices anymore; they now require the panel attorney to process the interpreter’s invoice and payment, generating two very sad effects: (1) Sometimes, the interpreter will have to wait a long time to get paid because their payment processing is not a top priority to the lawyer, and (2) It will help to keep alive the idea that interpreters are second-class officers of the court who do not deserve the court’s trust, because it is clear that these jurisdictions opted for a system where the attorney will need to access the court’s computer system to process interpreters’ payments, which is “preferable” over a system where interpreters would have to be granted that same access to the system. Why? Because it is too much of a risk to take? You can arrive to your own conclusions, but the fact is that this policy is very demeaning.

My friends, when you see and hear about all these policy changes you have to wonder: As these new strategies were discussed and adopted, where were the court staff interpreters, and the judges, and the administrators who know what interpreting is about? And once they were implemented, why did the freelancers continue to work under these terrible conditions? I now invite you to comment on this policy changes, other rules you may have noticed somewhere else, and the reason why these changes are being implemented with so little opposition.

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.

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