Is there interpreter discrimination in some U.S. Federal Courts?

February 21, 2019 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Despite the bottomless well of ineptitude also known as the current administration of the federal court interpreter examination (I do not want to group this crowd with the efficient teams in charge of this program before the 2017 fiasco) there were a few interpreters who, even under the sub-standard conditions of the exam, passed with flying colors and became the newest Spanish language court interpreters certified by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO).

The Federal Court Interpreter Act of 1978 provides that the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts shall prescribe, determine, and certify the qualifications of persons who may serve as certified interpreters (28 USC §1827)

In discharging said responsibilities, the AO classifies as Spanish language certified court interpreters those who have passed the two phases of the Administrative Office certification examination, have no criminal record, and meet the interpreter skills outlined in the AO’s website (https://www.uscourts.gov/services-forms/federal-court-interpreters/interpreter-skills):

  • High proficiency in both English and Spanish.
  • Impartiality
  • Ability to accurately and idiomatically turn the message from the source language into the receptor language with no additions, omissions or other misleading factors that alter the intended meaning of the message from the speaker.
  • Mastery of simultaneous interpretation, which is the most frequent form of interpretation used in the courtroom, and of consecutive interpretation and sight translation.
  • Ability to communicate orally including appropriate delivery and poise.
  • Demonstrate high professional standards for courtroom demeanor and professional conduct.

Individuals who meet all requirements may request a freelance interpreter contract from any federal district court. Court administrators, chief judges, clerks of the court, and staff managing interpreters should honor the request and offer work to these interpreters unless they have a legally valid reason not to do so.

When I devoted most of my practice to court interpreting, I witnessed, as I am sure you have, many conversations among veteran certified court interpreters concerned that those who recently became certified, or the ones who had just moved to town, would have a negative impact on the caseload assigned to them by the courthouse. I heard colleagues supporting the veteran interpreters arguing that newly certified colleagues, were a liability due to their lack of court experience.

I have learned of at least two instances, in different parts of the United States, where newly certified colleagues are systematically ignored by those who schedule court interpreter assignments. Even though these interpreters meet all eligibility requirements to work in federal court anywhere in the United States, apparently, they have been excluded for what seem inexcusable reasons such as lack of experience, or because they got certified in the most questionable certification exam cycle in history.

I hope the reasons above are not true, and the icing of the new interpreters ends soon. It is perplexing to hear that a recently certified court interpreter cannot interpret in court because of lack of experience. Where do these staffers want them to acquire said experience if they continue to slam the courthouse doors? To those schedulers who follow the “lack of experience” argument with a “they are not ready because they do not know our system, how we work” I say: If they passed an exam as difficult as the federal court interpreter’s, they will learn your “system” in a couple of hours because, despite of what you think, it is just a way to do things. It is not rocket science”.

I simply remind those who question the knowledge and skills of court interpreters certified last time that on top of passing such a difficult test, these colleagues had to do it in an environment reminiscent of the Dark Ages’ worst torture chamber, where they had to deal with an internet service as reliable as smoke signal messaging in the Wild West, where they had to take notes on their knees because there was no room on the table to do so, where they had less time for their consecutive rendition than we did because they had to manipulate the recording, listen, take notes, and interpret, all within the same time. And for the cherry on their cake: they had to wait many long months for their scores, enduring silence and negligent treatment from the AO and its chosen contractor. Please remember, these are not the interpreters who will retest (a sad group where some day many capable colleagues must go through this process again because of the ineptitude of others).

I ask all veteran certified court interpreters to welcome the class of 2017, and I appeal to the open minds of scheduling staffers, interpreters and others, to stop discriminating against certified interpreters just because they are new, and for that reason do not know your system or are not your friends, and include them in your rotations and assignments. Veteran interpreters: do not fear the newbies. We can all learn from each other, and if you get fewer assignments in court, remember: you are a freelancer, look for work somewhere else. You probably will find more variety and much better pay. I now invite my colleagues, veterans and rookies, to share their thoughts with the rest of us.

Is being a capable, good individual enough to lead a professional association?

September 4, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I have written about the benefits of belonging to professional interpreter and translator associations in the past. Sometimes I have praised and criticized some, but I have never questioned the need to have them around, ready to defend and advance the profession through professional development of their members, advocacy, lobbying, education, forging alliances, and so on.

Today we need them more than ever before. In a globalized economy, where we are the constant target of greedy agencies, ignorant government officials, shrinking budgets and growing intolerance, solid professional associations are essential to our profession. Because we are not all equal nor we live in the same environment, in my opinion, interpreters and translators should belong to at least one international, one regional, one local, and one specialized association.

Unlike other posts, today I will not question the intentions of some associations’ disturbing agenda centered on corporate memberships, I will not talk about the good or bad practices of some others regarding public relations, advocacy, or the planning of a conference. My concern in such matters remains unchanged.

My motivation behind this post comes from deep concern and historically supported fear about the immediate future of one of the largest and most popular professional association in the United States. Even though this entry centers on issues that happened in America, many of this association’s members live in other countries, and this situation could easily happen somewhere else.   I encourage all readers to continue to the end, even if you live somewhere else.

After many years of struggle, and a long fight for its survival, this association reestablished itself. It grew and the quality of its membership improved. For the past two years it has grown tremendously and has held its two most successful conferences in history, not just because of the people attending the events, but due to the quality of its content.  As a veteran member of the association who experienced the good old days, the horrible years of decay, and this rebirth, I can confidently say this historical recovery happened because of the experience, prestige, knowledge, honesty and vision of two of its Board members, the hard work of all five people part of the Board, and the professionalism, skills, and work of the two individuals who have been in charge of the administration for the last couple of years.  Sadly, the members of the association learned last week these two Board members resigned to their positions.

By looking at the composition of the Board, anybody interested in joining the organization, learning about the profession, or denouncing a professional or ethical transgression, would see a well-respected professor from one of the more renowned interpreting and translation institutions worldwide, a pioneer and innovator on a note-taking technique for consecutive interpreting, a trainer and conference presenter in all continents, a United States Department of State interpreter, one of the most respected (beloved by the interpreters who worked with him) and capable managing interpreter for one of the busiest federal district courts in the United States, including courthouses in four cities, and perhaps the one of the few districts to have staff certified interpreters in a language other than Spanish, one very experienced federally certified court interpreter from the state with the largest non-English speaking population in the United States, one very experienced federally certified court interpreter from one of the busiest federal judicial districts in the country due to its proximity to Mexico, a well-known and widely respected authority on legal transcriptions and translations, a promising somewhat recently federally certified court interpreter from a small city in the Midwest, one of the newest trainers of interpreters and conference presenter, a State-level certified court interpreter for one local court in the New York City metropolitan area, and a PhD in Linguistics, experienced university professor who does not live in the United States.  These credentials explain the reason many of the most capable and better known court interpreters who left the association during the dark era came back. It also gave many of us an important tool to promote the association and encourage new interpreters to join.

Unfortunately, after last week’s resignations, anybody interested in joining the organization, learning about the profession, or denouncing a professional or ethical transgression, will see a promising somewhat recently federally certified court interpreter from a small city in the Midwest, one of the newest trainers of interpreters and conference presenter, a State-level certified court interpreter for one local court in the New York City metropolitan area, and a PhD in Linguistics, experienced university professor who does not live in the United States.

I have no intention to criticize, offend, or disrespect the colleagues who remain as Board members. I have no reason to doubt their skills and dedication; I am not questioning their honesty or integrity either. They appear to be capable, and many of you trusted them when you voted for them.

I think it is important for me to mention that the two Board members who resigned, and the two individuals in charge of the administration, are all good friends of mine whom I have known for many years. I have had very limited contact with the current directors. I have dealt with one of them more than the others because of the conference in the Washington, D.C. area, but we have no relationship beyond saying hi at the conferences or being Facebook friends.

This post is not about those directors who stayed, but about the ones who left; the missed opportunities due to their absence, the uncertain future of the organization, and my concerns about the reasons that pushed courageous, capable veterans of the profession, full of ideas and plans for the association’s future, to resign.  Every time that a non-quitter quits we must worry and find out what happened.

Dear friends and colleagues, for a professional association to thrive it must gain access to many places, many inaccessible to the common folk. Effectively arguing for the interests of the profession before government authorities, establishing professional practice positions before clients, and protecting our profession from the predators of the “industry”, are difficult. Many of those we must talk to will only listen when the voice addressing them has the credibility backed by name recognition, reputation, professional trajectory, and personal network that the now missing directors have.

Many of you reading this post, members of this association or not, are too new to remember the dark years.  They started with a Board lacking experienced federally certified court interpreters, world-renowned freelance practitioners admired and respected by other veterans who trusted them, and could be role models to the new interpreters.  The Board of those years had good intentions, I think they wanted to make the association better, but a Board of university professors and non-certified interpreters shrank the organization. For years our conferences were poorly attended, made no money, and could make no decisions because with so few members attending the conferences we did not have quorum to vote for or against anything.  On that occasion, just like today, capable, experienced, well-known and respected Board members left; some just came back in the last couple of years when they recognized a Board like the ones in the past. Many of our most valuable members never came back. Many of my colleagues and I do not want to go back to the dark years.

I understand that many of you are friends of the current members of the Board, I get that many of you voted for them. Nothing is wrong with that. What troubles me is the emotional part. There is no reason to be offended or angry when people question the credentials of the current Board compared to the ones of the Board we just lost last week. I have seen how some of you are wishing good luck to the remaining Board. I wish them a long and happy life, but I am not on the well-wisher column. I prefer to remain on the skeptical, scrutinizing every move and decision.  I want to know what caused the two resignations. Not the light version or the excuses. I know the ones who resign and they could not possibly resign over one decision. It had to include other issues, perhaps even the way the Board members interacted.

I have also read how many of you are demanding an audit of the performance by the company retained to manage the financial and day-to-day operations. I think that should not be necessary as I trust the professionalism of the two individuals who run said company (and as I said, they are my friends) but I welcome the suggestion as a needed step to erase the uneasiness of many members. I know the administrators will not like this, I know it will hurt their feelings, but I also know that they have nothing to hide and will understand the need for this audit which should be expanded to go beyond a mere examination of the books. Like I said, the real cause of the resignations came not from the accounting books, it came from some repeated interaction among Board members.

I also believe that to avoid going back to the failed years of the past, we must let people speak up. If the members want to vent their frustration with the way things turned starting last week, they should be allowed to post anything on the Facebook group (as far as I know there are no complains about censoring it so far) and also to use the List Serve. At this point it is irrelevant what the guidelines say about who or what can be expressed there. It is absurd to defend a decision splitting hairs because somebody was censored, banned, moderated of whatever. These are extraordinary times and they require of flexibility and total freedom of expression to all members. We all know that everybody will say what they must say, if not through the association’s official outlets, then through another social media vehicle.

This is a time to listen to the members, have an independent auditor and perhaps a committee to investigate what happened so we can have transparent and complete information we can trust. Self-serving statements by Board members, and providing some financial and corporate information on line will not be enough.

Finally, we all must understand that it will be difficult to fill the two vacancies on the Board with colleagues of similar caliber to the ones who left. Serving in any professional association is not an easy task, it takes a lot of time, requires of many personal and professional sacrifices, and it does not make you any money.  Getting anybody to serve is hard, I for one would not do it, but getting somebody with the same characteristics as the ones of our two dear colleagues who quit will be a titanic effort.  Hints by the current Board indicating that they will move fast worry me.  It will take some time to get people that can take the Board’s collective resume back to where it was last week. Other decisions can be postponed if needed, there are no contracts or deadlines that justify a rushed decision. Many of us are serious about it. We will be watching closely this nomination process, because this time it will be even more complicated to get the ideal people on the Board. These two new members must have another characteristic: They must be independent, they must be of a different persuasion from the one of the three members left. You may think this does not matter, that regardless of their ideology they will be in the minority 3-2. This is true, but having such diversity of ideas and opinions will assure us as members that even in losing a vote, they will let us know why the majority voted the way they did.  As you can clearly see, we will need two extraordinary professionals who can play the role of the extraordinary professionals who just left, people not close friends of the current Board members so we can be sure the Board is not marching in lockstep without anyone questioning their decisions.

As those of you who assiduously read my blog know, my only interest is the betterment of the profession and protecting my colleagues; I contribute to the profession as much as I can, and I do it all over the world. I have many ideas and projects in mind; I have recently discussed many with one colleague who left the Board. I am not a teenager anymore and I will not sit and wait to see how a Board that looks different from what I proposed above turns out. I will take my projects somewhere else, and work with others who think like me, perhaps even the Board members who quit. I want to be clear: I am not quitting the association at this time. I am going to be vigilant and question every move and decision by this and future Boards; I will continue to demand transparency and diversity of opinions in Boards that are not elected by the membership (like in this case) and I withhold judgement until I am satisfied one way or another. In the meantime I will behave just like I did during the dark years: I will not praise or attack the association and I will not encourage anybody to leave or join the organization until I see what the Board does.  I now ask you to please share your thoughts on the composition of the Board, be brief and concise, and please do not write emotional comments attacking or defending past or present Board members.

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