What makes a good interpreter?

April 16, 2018 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Often when we attend a social event and start a conversation with people we do not know, but know about our profession, we are asked what makes a good interpreter. I know there are many answers to this question; all have value and are probably right. In my case, after being asked the same innumerable times throughout the years, in my personal and professional opinion, three things make a good interpreter.

First, the interpreter must be able to communicate concepts from a source language into a target language.  Webster tells us that an interpreter is one who translates orally for parties in different languages. The main goal is to make sure that a concept was conveyed in such a manner that the person receiving the information, who does not understand the language of the speaker, gets everything those who speak the main speaker’s language got.

To achieve this, the interpreter must understand what is being said in the source language, synthesize what was said, and orally convey it to the receiver with proper grammar and vocabulary in the target language, so it can be understood. Good interpreters “clean” the message so unnecessary words that may sound strange in the target language are eliminated. The good interpreter interprets the “meat” and gets rid of the “fat”. (I know this does not apply to some community interpreting, particularity to court interpreting where everything must be interpreted. This is a global answer, thinking of conference interpreting).  The good interpreter must understand, synthesize, and have command of grammar, culture, and vocabulary.

Second, a good interpreter must have a pleasant delivery that everybody understands. Good voice, décalage, volume, rhythm, pace. Listeners must be so comfortable they forget about the voice in their ear and concentrate in the speech. Voice modulation, clarity, enunciation, are a very important part of a rendition. Heavy breathing, coughing, slurping, rushing through the speech, and chasing speakers too close to what they just said make you look bad, even when you are a good interpreter.

Finally, my third attribute of the good interpreter is team work. The good interpreter lives in a conflict-free environment. They support their colleagues in the booth, are fair, and will go the extra mile to save a rendition. Often, a good interpreter who gets along with others is more desirable than a great interpreter who creates conflict everywhere. Do not misunderstand this attribute of a good interpreter. I never said that an interpreter willing to work more for less, or one who accepts deplorable work conditions, or a low fee are good interpreters. They are not. Easy going differs from easy to fool.

There you have it. To me a good interpreter then, is one who understands a concept, digests it, and conveys it to the client in a pleasant clear voice, so it can be understood by the foreign language speaker; and does it all while being a dedicated professional, good colleague, and decent human.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us your idea of a good interpreter.

Should healthcare interpreters in the U.S. be concerned?

April 9, 2018 § 29 Comments

Dear colleagues:

For several weeks I have been contacted by colleagues who provide their services as interpreters in the health sector of the United States. They have all expressed the same sense of confusion, anguish, anger, and uncertainty many of us have noticed in social media and professional forums on line.

This environment started after the decision by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) to not renew the accreditation of their Spanish language interpreter certification program by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) effective January 1, 2018, and it ballooned after the video of a speech during the California Healthcare Interpreters Association (CHIA) annual conference in Irvine, California in early March was uploaded to the web and watched by interpreters all over the world. Apparently, most interpreters were upset about four things: (1) The decision to terminate the NCCA accreditation; (2) That many learned of this decision by the NBCMI at this conference; (3) That the NBCMI authorities did not informed those candidates scheduled to take the certification exam that the exam they would be taking in 2018, although the same test taken by interpreters certified in the past, was being offered after the Board had quit their accreditation of their Spanish language interpreter certification program by the NCCA; and (4) That many did not like NBCMI’s decision to change the wording on their website portal to show in a casual way, hidden in the text, or at least not highlighted, that they had not renewed said accreditation, and the unofficial explanations and assurances by apparently some people associated with NBCMI that such change would not impact their certification.

I am a veteran of the profession, but like many of you, even though I have interpreted my share of medical events as a conference interpreter, I have never been a healthcare interpreter. Let me explain the healthcare interpreting scenario in the United States.

Healthcare interpreting is an essential part of the health sector in modern society, but despite this and the need to elevate this service to a professional level, healthcare interpreting had a later start than other community-based fields of interpreting like court interpreting.

The United States was no exception, until finally, a few years ago, two organizations took the lead towards the professionalization of the field. Embracing the basic principles and values of the certification program the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) had written about, the Certification Commission on Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters developed and implemented two interpreter certification programs. Both understood the overwhelming need to certify interpreters in the most widely spoken foreign languages in the United States, and they both developed a program for interpreter certification in Spanish (there are other languages now. Please visit their websites to learn about the languages covered by each program).

Unlike court interpreting, which developed certification programs sanctioned by the government at its different levels (federal, state, and initially sometimes local), the healthcare sector had no government authority sanctioning the validity of its certifications; and even though this brought healthcare interpreters a professional freedom enjoyed by other professionals like physicians and lawyers, and denied to court interpreters who have no control over the administration of their certification exams, it also created an uncertainty about the validity of their interpreter certification programs.

Because in a private sector-oriented society like the U.S., the situation healthcare interpreter certification programs were facing is not the exception, but the rule, there is a reputable trustworthy entity that solves this problem: The Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE).

The Institute for Credentialing Excellence, or ICE, is a professional membership association that provides education, networking, and other resources for organizations and individuals who work in and serve the credentialing industry. ICE is a leading developer of standards for certification and certificate programs and it is both, a provider of and a clearinghouse for information on trends in certification, test development and delivery, assessment-based certificate programs, and other information relevant to the credentialing community. ICE created the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) in 1987.

The NCAA’s Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs, which were created in the mid-1970s, were the first standards developed by the credentialing industry for professional certification programs. The NCCA Standards were developed to help ensure the health, welfare, and safety of the public. They highlight the essential elements of a high-quality program.

The NCCA standards follow The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999) and are applicable to all professions and industries. Certification organizations that submit their programs for accreditation are evaluated based on the process and products and not the content; therefore, the Standards are applicable to all professions and industries. Program content validity is demonstrated with a comprehensive job analysis conducted and analyzed by experts, with data gathered from stakeholders in the occupation or industry.

NCCA accredited programs certify individuals in a wide range of professions and occupations including nurses, automotive professionals, respiratory therapists, counselors, emergency technicians, crane operators and more. To date, NCCA has accredited approximately 330 programs from over 130 organizations.

Accreditation for professional or personnel certification programs provides impartial, third-party validation that your program has met recognized national and international credentialing industry standards for development, implementation, and maintenance of certification programs. This solved the problem for both programs and two certification programs were born:

The Certified Healthcare Interpreter credential (CHI) developed by the Certification Commission on Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) that offers a certification exam in Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin in 2 steps: First, a core exam consisting of 100 multiple-choice questions, to be answered in English, on medical terminology, healthcare scenarios and ethics; and to those who pass the core exam, an interpreting exam that tests the candidate’s skill on sight and written translation, and simultaneous and consecutive interpreting.

The Medical Interpreter credential (CMI) developed by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) that offers a certification exam in Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Vietnamese to those who pass (with a score of 70 percent, 80 percent in Mandarin) an interpreting exam that tests skills on sight translation and consecutive interpreting (no simultaneous interpreting or written translation).

Besides competing for interpreter candidates in the same market, both programs needed to convince healthcare providers, insurance companies, patients, and attorneys, that their credentials were reliable, trustworthy, and standard. They started an intensive and successful education campaign that used the NCCA accreditation as one of its most valuable resources.

Even today, CCHI’s website proclaims the validity of its program and skill of its certified healthcare interpreters:

“…Just as healthcare interpreters work hard to get credentialed as “certified healthcare interpreters,” certification programs can also “get certified!” The process is called “accreditation” and, today, it is administered by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), the accreditation arm of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE). Accreditation is the process by which a credentialing or educational program is evaluated against defined standards by a third party and is awarded recognition when found in compliance with these standards. It’s more than just a voluntary membership in an association. Accreditation (and renewal of accreditation) involves a rigorous process that ensures the quality of examinations and certification offered by organizations like CCHI. In fact, NCCA accredited programs certify individuals in a wide range of professions and occupations, including nurses, pharmacists, counselors, EMTs, HR professionals, defense security specialists, and more. CCHI is proud to represent the healthcare interpreter profession as equal among other allied health professions…today, CCHI is proud to offer the only nationally accredited certifications in the interpreting industry. NCCA’s accreditation validates all aspects of CCHI’s certification programs and CCHI as a certifying body…”

To this day NCCA accreditation continues to be a crucial element of the CCHI program.

Apparently, the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) disagrees with this principle, and even though their website lacks detailed explanations or reasons for the decision not to renew accreditation; some colleagues claim they have unofficially argued that continuing NCCA accreditation is unnecessary because their program is now well-established, the accreditation only covered the Spanish certification program, and their exams have not changed from the ones offered during the accreditation era. Several interpreters have indicated that NBCMI claims that a renewal was too expensive; that they had spent fifty thousand dollars on the initial accreditation, and that their Board had directed those financial resources to the development and administration of certification exams in other languages; activity that would be more profitable.

On its official website, NBCMI addresses its decision to end NCCA accreditation:

“…Prior to 2018, the Spanish CMI certificate was subjected to an additional level of NCCA accreditation, but while the National Board remains a member of the Institute of Credentialing Excellence (ICE), each of the National Board programs have been standardized to ensure the CMI certification in each offered language best meets or exceeds nationally accepted standards, including transparency, inclusion, and access…”

It mentions they continue to be members of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE), the parent entity of NCCA, and adds a self-serving statement where they praise their own CMI certification. They emphasize their continued ICE membership adding this statement to their official website:

“…As a proud member of ICE, we stay informed on best practices in developing and administering quality certification [certificate] programs so that we may better serve you…” 

This could be a simple statement of facts, but unfortunately, it could also be misunderstood by some who may think that continued ICE membership affects their CMI program after January 1, 2018.

ICE clearly tells us what membership means:

“…An organization may join ICE at any time whether or not it has any programs accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).  Membership in ICE does not mean that an organization or any of its credentialing programs have been accredited, approved, or otherwise endorsed by ICE…”

Membership in ICE does not mean that an organization or any of its credentialing programs have been accredited, approved, or otherwise endorsed by ICE. We can see this means more than no more accreditation. According to ICE itself, membership means no approval or any other endorsements.

As I write this post, my only goal is for NBCMI to published a written detailed explanation of the reasons they abandoned the NCCA accreditation, the potential consequences this decision can bring to certified medical interpreters, and why candidates scheduled to take the exam in 2018 were not informed of this important change so they could decide to either pursue the CMI certification or perhaps take the CHI exam instead. Spanish language CMI interpreters have a right to know why a certification exam after the NCCA accreditation ended has the same cost as the one offered when the accreditation was in place. How does a business decision to add more languages to the certification program benefit the Spanish language CMIs whose credentialing program lost NCCA accreditation? So far, NBCMI has limited its answer to a statement posted on their newsletter that repeats what they previously said about the validity of the exam and CMI certification, but the explanation of the reasons to discontinue the accreditation have not been disclosed. Dismissing social media as myths and misinformation does not answer the questions so many interpreters want answered.

Some changes have already been impacting those who hold a CMI certification: Some institutions stopped reimbursing the certification exam fee to certification candidates taking the exam in 2018. It has been reported that some clients are now preferring those interpreters holding a CHI certification over a CMI credential; and, a good possibility is that in the future, CMI credentials will be questioned and tested by attorneys who will cross-examine NBCMI certified medical interpreters in the presence of a jury during a medical malpractice trial.

NBCMI needs to explain why NCCA accreditation went from being something they were proud of a few years ago to something no longer needed:

“…The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) is pleased to announce that its Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI) program has been accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), thus joining an elite group of certifying bodies dedicated to public protection and excellence in certification… NCCA accreditation was one of the objectives the National Board set for itself at the very outset…” (NBCMI press release dated January 18, 2013 at Miami Beach Convention Center)

These are valid questions we hope NBCMI will officially address, and they are all legitimate reasons in a free market economy like the United States’ for any interpreter working on the healthcare sector to think very carefully about which one of the two certifications she or he should hold. Let’s hope that at the end of all the confusion and uncertainty the answer is either one of the certifications, but as of today, we do not know if that will be the case, even if both certifications were equally recognized, because one continues to have an accredited certification program and the other one does not. Many of our colleagues would like to know the reason for the changes that both, NBCMI and its parent organization IMIA experienced just now: a new president for NBCMI (we wish her well) and the resignation of IMIA’s president-elect before he officially took office. Interpreters want to know if these changes at this confusing times are related to the decision to end accreditation, or it is just a coincidence.

I now invite you to share your thoughts on this issue, and please, do not write personal attacks, and unless you are officially commenting on behalf of NBCMI, please abstain from sending surrogate comments defending the Board.

How a conference for interpreters and translators should be.

April 3, 2018 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interpreting CJA cases is a bad business decision.

March 26, 2018 § 19 Comments

Dear colleagues:

A recurring theme among my court interpreter colleagues in the United States is the extreme difficulties they must endure when working under the Criminal Justice Act program (CJA). There are complaints about absurd paperwork procedures and unimaginable payment delays. Some colleagues’ invoices for professional services rendered under this program have been outstanding for over a year!

I worked with attorneys under the CJA program, but when the system changed about 18 months ago, and interpreters’ invoices had to go through the defense attorneys to get paid, and I heard some of the delayed payment stories from colleagues nationwide, I decided not to take CJA cases anymore.

For those of you who do not do federal court interpreting work in the United States, in 1964 the United States Congress enacted the Criminal Justice Act (18 U.S.C. § 3006A) to provide a system for appointing and compensating lawyers to represent defendants financially unable to retain counsel; and providing for payment of experts, investigators, or other needed defense services in federal criminal proceedings, including interpreters. Today, the Office of the Federal Public Defender, with the over 10,000 private “panel attorneys” who accept CJA assignments annually, represent the vast majority of individuals prosecuted in U.S. federal courts.

CJA panel attorneys are paid an hourly rate of $132 in non-capital cases, and, in capital cases, a maximum hourly rate of $185. These rates include both attorney compensation and office overhead. In addition, there are case maximums that limit total panel attorney compensation for categories of representation (for example, $10,000 for felonies, $2,900 for misdemeanors, and $7,200 for appeals). These maximums may be exceeded when higher amounts are certified by the district judge, or circuit judge if the representation is at the court of appeals, as necessary to provide fair compensation and the chief judge of the circuit approves.  CJA attorney appointments are made by the Court on a rotating basis among members of the panel. Freelance federal court interpreters are paid with the same system, but with an additional step: Before their invoice goes to the judiciary, it must be reviewed and approved by the CJA panel attorney who requested the interpreter’s services. I guess interpreters are officers of the court of a lower tier, so they must be policed by the CJA panel attorney, apparently an officer of the court of a tier higher than the interpreter.

This process, not required when interpreters work directly for the federal courts interpreting court hearings or out-of-court interviews for public defenders or probation officers, created a burden on freelance interpreters who now devote a considerable, uncompensated time to the paperwork and its unavoidable eternal follow up process, that often takes many months and even years. Interpreters are billing for the time they worked as interpreters in a case, but that time represents but a fraction of the hours interpreters spend on paperwork, and follow up telephone calls, emails, and in-person visits to the courthouse, trying to discover the status of a payment for a service provided long before. This time goes uncompensated, and interpreters cannot work somewhere else, and generate income, while they are tied up in bureaucratic nonsense and begging for payment of rightfully earned professional fees.  For all these reasons, and to keep my health, sanity, and dignity, as soon as the system started I decided not to take any CJA panel cases, and I have taken none.

I suggest you do the same. Once you do it, you will be surprised at the money you will save just by rejecting these cases. Those of you who know me, or have read this blog for years, know that I am always suggesting diversification in the profession among freelancers so you can keep steady income, and a stream of interesting assignments instead of a boring monotonous routine. Dear colleagues, there are plenty of options even if court and legal interpreting is your thing and you do not want to step outside your field.

The most desirable practice would be civil cases with well-established high-profile law firms. They generally handle interesting cases, have clients who understand and appreciate your work as interpreter, and pay excellent, professional fees when you negotiate correctly. Smaller civil law firms and solo practitioners are also a good alternative.

Next, you have the criminal defense private attorneys. They have time to handle their cases and they usually retain you for the entire case. Here your interpreting services are well paid, and you are exposed to challenging, but interesting cases. It is rare to work in a case involving white collar crimes when you spend your time providing services to public defenders and CJA panel attorneys.

Foreign law firms are also a very good choice. Globalization has generated a big multinational litigation practice, and those top-notch attorneys coming from countries where they do not speak English may need the services of a local court interpreter team. Fascinating topics, including intellectual property, foreign trade, mining, hazardous materials, are common with these clients. Family Law practitioners from these countries are also looking for interpreting services in cases of divorce, child support, international child abduction, and others.

If you want to fill in the rest of your agenda with more court/legal work, you can also provide interpreting services to the Office of the United States Attorney in your jurisdiction. Witness preparation, proffers, transcriptions, and other services are required by the AUSA. An added benefit: They are not bound by the (every-day lower) federal fees, so you can negotiate a much better compensation for your professional services.

If you like working with the federal prosecutors, then you must offer your services to the United States Trustee Program (USTP) for their exams and interviews in federal bankruptcy court cases. This is another source of legal/court interpreter income that pays well when you negotiate your fee correctly.

Finally, you can still work with the federal public defender and, if you want to interpret hearings instead of interviews, negotiations, and depositions, you can interpret for the federal courts. You will only make the set half –a-day or full-day fee, and you will usually get the same type of cases, but you will stay away from the long, demeaning, and never-ending invoice procedures associated with CJA panel attorney cases. As a less desirable option, but in many ways better than dealing with the CJA system, you could always work at the state-court level.

Dear friends and colleagues, there are plenty of alternatives to CJA assignments, even within the court/legal field. I believe that if you all were to do what I did from the beginning, the CJA system would have no choice but to change and become more interpreter-friendly. I do not believe on “fantasyland solutions” such as talking to chief judges and court clerks; it was tried in some districts and they accomplished nothing. We cannot continue to lose income, health, and dignity backing up a system that proved ineffective. I now ask you to share your comments with the rest of us.

Hire an interpreter, not a linguist.

March 19, 2018 § 10 Comments

Dear friends and colleagues:

I have noticed there is confusion among clients, and some interpreters, about the meaning of the term “linguist”; this is due, in part, to its obscure definition in the English language dictionaries, but mainly because of a calculated campaign by some transnational agencies who found a way to profit from the confusion.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun “linguist” as: “(1) A person skilled in foreign languages. (2) A person who studies linguistics.” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Merriam-Webster defines it as: “(1) A person accomplished in languages; especially: one who speaks several languages. (2) A person who specializes in linguistics.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

According to Oxford, an “interpreter” is: “(1) A person who interprets, especially one who translates speech orally or into sign language.” The word comes from Old French “interpreteur”, this one from late Latin “interpretator”, which comes from Latin “interpretari.”  (Oxford English Dictionary).

Merriam-Webster tells us that “interpreter” is ” (1) One that interprets: such as (a): one who translates orally for parties conversing in different languages. (b) one who explains or expounds.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

Widely used and universally recognized Oxford gives us two scenarios where an individual can be referred to as a “linguist”: individuals who study linguistics (pretty clear), and someone skilled in foreign languages, such as trilinguals or multilinguals. Apparently the definition would not apply to a bilingual persons because they would be skilled in their mother language and only one foreign language (singular). We all know that speaking a foreign language is light years from being an interpreter or translator. A French, Russian, and Italian speaking individual may do many things, but interpreting or translating will not be among their skills unless they have actively studied and trained themselves in interpreting or translation.

The more Americanized Merriam-Webster Dictionary creates confusion in the United States because it calls linguist a person accomplished in languages; especially: one who speaks several languages. Many Americans equate speaking several languages with being an interpreter or translator. This mistake comes from the belief that “linguistics” means speaking several languages and therefore interpreting from one into another. “Linguistics” is a discipline to describe and explain phenomena such as morphology, phonetics, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, aiming for generalizations that hold across all languages (David Crystal. Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge University Press).

Many countries have legislation regulating interpreting services, limiting professional practice to those with a college degree or a license to practice the profession, to a requirement of holding a certification, accreditation, or qualification by a government agency or a professional association.

Depending on their language combination, to appear in court, interpreters in the United States must be certified, accredited or qualified. Black’s Law Dictionary gives us a legal definition of interpreter as: “a person sworn at a trial to interpret the evidence of a foreigner or a deaf person to the court”. Federal and State legislation set the requirements to perform this service, staring with a certification/accreditation program.

Most interpreters are not, and need not be, linguists. They must be interpreters. Unlike a mere bilingual individual, they have invested time, effort, and money in their education and training. While they command professional fees, those who speak a foreign language, but hold no degree, certification, or accreditation, cannot demand a professional income and sometimes they are not even aware of the professionals.

For this reason, and to attract customers by offering “interpreters” at very low cost, many transnational interpreting and translation agencies, usually in the legal, community, and healthcare interpreting fields, offer the services of their “linguists”, avoiding liability if their envoys do a poor job, and murking the waters of certification compliance requirements. Most people do not know what a linguist does, and they pay little attention because they trust the agency they just hired.

It is essential we make it very clear to our clients that we are professional interpreters, certified, accredited, licensed, qualified, or any other similar term used where you practice to separate you from the “paraprofessionals”.

Other languages, like Spanish, do not have this problem because the two terms are clearly different in the dictionary. I suggest you look into your other work language and see if the difference is clear, and if so, go to your non-English speaking clients and show them the definitions to back up your explanation. (Diccionario de la lengua Española, antes RAE. Diccionario de uso del español. Maria Moliner). I always demand a change in my contract when I notice I am “the linguist” instead of “the interpreter”.

We cannot allow these agencies to hijack our language, our professions, and our terminology so they can advance their destructive cause.

The English dictionary does not give us another definition of “linguist” but we can tell our colleagues and clients there is an unauthorized definition by the transnational agencies that goes like this:

<Linguist. An agency’s code name for non-certified interpreters and translators willing to work for insulting, rock-bottom fees the “industry” calls “rates”, to make the individual feel more like a laborer and less like a professional>.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments on this practice by the agencies.

Do we understand what a U.S. federal court interpreter certification really is?

March 12, 2018 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The irregularities on the administration of the United States federal court interpreter certification exam of 2017 prompted a debate among many colleagues, seasoned court interpreters, those who took the test and are still living in the uncertainty this first appearance by Paradigm unexpectedly brought to their lives, and everybody in between. There are many unanswered questions about the way testing was handled, and there will be plenty of them once the results are announced one day. It is unlikely that once the candidates who feel the “sui-generis” administration of the test significantly impacted their performance are told they failed the exam, they will just accept it and move on. Some colleagues in such situation may be lawyering up just in case. Even those who will be told they passed will face situations never faced by any other federally certified court interpreters before. Maybe the results of their exam will be questioned in some spheres. Sure, the federal judiciary will tell them that their certification is as valid as anybody else’s.

That will be true because the certification will be issued by the same Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and they will be retained to interpret in court just like everybody else. Unfortunately, assignments by others, such as law firms and their clients, could bring them some headaches. Everybody other than the federal judiciary is in the private free market where they can hire any interpreter they please. Some potential clients may show reservations, as unfair as it may look to many of us, about the reliability and skill of an interpreter certified on the year of the messy administration of the test.  There will be many potential clients who will not care, but sadly, some will, and a possibility is that some of those who will could be the biggest players, the ones who pay the higher fees and handle the high profile cases. This ugly situation, out of the interpreters’ hands, could punish excellent interpreters able to pass the exam, whose skills would never be questioned but for the careless administration of the exam. I hope this does not happen, but it could.

During this, the darkest hour of the federal court interpreter certification exam’s history, I noticed certain things that led me to believe that besides the exam, there are misconceptions about the U.S. federal court interpreter certification.

Setting the current situation aside, the federal court interpreter certification exam is a prestigious exam that measures, to a high degree of reliability, the knowledge and skill of a candidate by testing them on all modalities of court interpretation, criminal legal proceedings, specialized terminology, and language fluency. The exam shows if a candidate meets the minimum standards to provide interpreting services in federal court. Passing the exam is just the beginning, not the end. It does not take us to the finish line, it is just the first step on the track. It troubles me to read comments by colleagues who claim they have not picked a book since they took the test 5 months ago; it concerns me to see how some believe they already forgot so much they think they would fail the exam if they had to take it again.

I worry when I read we have colleagues waiting for the test results to decide where to move permanently to apply for a job in a federal courthouse.  I also hear how many candidates believe that, because there is a need for court interpreting services at the federal level, they will be getting tons of work as freelancers in the federal system.  First, there are few openings to work full time as a staff court interpreter; to get the job they would have to beat many other more experienced and better known applicants, plus government budgetary concerns which favor a hiring freeze.

They will get work at the federal courthouse, but not as much as they expect. They will soon realize there is a huge difference between the caseload of a federal and a state or county courthouse, next, they will learn that very few cases go to trial in the federal system, that many hearings requiring interpreting services are covered through TIP (Telephone Interpreting Program) with the interpreter working from a courthouse far away. The newly certified court interpreters will be exposed to the strict (compared to most states’) guidelines and policy requiring that the courthouse hire the services of all certified interpreters in the area in a fair and even manner. There is a rotation in several courthouses to meet this policy. Finally, they will come to understand that most assignments given by a courthouse are for half days.

I also get the feeling that some candidates, and even some certified court interpreters, believe the federal court interpreter certification is the panacea. They assume that their certification will get them conference work, electronic media interpreting assignments, and so on. This is false.

A United States federal court interpreter certification in Spanish is proof that the interpreter passed the toughest court interpreter exam in the United States, that she or he has demonstrated to have the minimum qualifications to work in the federal criminal court system, those with the certification can be responsible professionals and reliable individuals who value professional self-improvement to the point they put themselves through the arduous certification process.  That’s it.

It does not mean that the certified interpreter has the knowledge and skill to interpret a criminal trial; that is acquired through practice, experience, and constant study. It does not even mean that the interpreter has the minimum skills and knowledge to interpret a civil proceeding. The exam tests no knowledge of Civil Law.

As cherished as a U.S. federal court interpreter certification is, it means little in the world of conference interpreting, or in any other interpreting field. There are excellent conference interpreters who started (and continue to work) in the courts, but their success outside the court setting does not come from the court interpreter certification, it comes from their individual effort and determination to study and prepare as conference interpreters, understanding that the two disciplines are different. I get scared when an agency offers me a conference assignment and tells me they only hire conference interpreters who are federally certified court interpreters. This tells me they are an agency that provides community interpreting services (including legal and healthcare) and that the assignment offered is probably not very good. I have never known of any reputable agency that works with conference interpreters say such a thing. It is the same for healthcare interpreting, that is why there is a different certification to work in hospitals and physicians’ offices.

I sincerely encourage all those waiting for the conclusion of this 2017 federal court interpreter certification exam soap opera, to look closely at their expectations as interpreters certified to work in federal court, and once they understand what they got, and what they did not, to study, practice, and plan their work as a professional interpreter with an eye on the future and both feet on reality, and make the choices right for each one in order to succeed not only as federally certified, but as professional interpreters. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this subject.

What is going on with the federal court interpreter certification test results?

February 20, 2018 § 61 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The federal court interpreter certification is the highest credential a Spanish court interpreter can have in the United States.  Unfortunately, the exam is not available in other languages, but it has historically separated good court interpreters from mediocrity in the legal arena. Fortunately, the exam has been difficult and very demanding through the years, and the result has been a group of better prepared court interpreters who demonstrated they have the minimum knowledge and skill needed in a courtroom. A test this difficult will always have its detractors and there have been plenty of these disgruntled individuals who attribute their failure to pass the test to everything under the sun but their own lack of skills. This is acceptable, and it reinforces that the content of the exam is the right one.

Unfortunately, recent changes, not to the exam contents, but to the way it is administered and graded, have put into question the reliability of the results.

It started a few years ago when, undoubtedly for budgetary reasons, it was decided to reduce the number of exam graders from three to two. It is hard to understand why any deliberating group would ever go from an odd number of decision-makers to an even number, but that happened. Please notice I am not bringing up an earlier change on the administration of the exam when in-person examiners were substituted by a recording device because I believe that change was positive because all candidates listened to the same recordings, and it allow graders to rewind and listen an utterance as many times as needed. This change resulted in a fair exam.

The biggest irregularities happened last September when the exam was administered for the first time by Paradigm Testing, who presumably outbid the former test administrator. While this newcomer to the court interpreter testing arena brought changes and innovations designed to save money, it also imposed an undue burden on the examination candidates. We have all heard many complaints about practice/training exams arriving late, poorly given instructions on operating the testing equipment, proctors staying outside of the exam room making it impossible for candidates to ask questions or report problems on a time-sensitive examination. We all know about the faulty internet connections that took away precious time needed to complete the test; and we all know stories about the infamous click button during the consecutive rendition where examinees had to click a button twice in a small pop-up window for each utterance, and then quickly pick up the pen or pencil and sort papers to get ready for the next utterance. Even the ergonomics was a big concern since the candidates were forced to keep their writing materials to the side because the laptop was directly in front, sometimes taking over most of the space on the table. I always believe that proctors were not just there to police the examinee, but also to facilitate the process.

No doubt these irregularities resulted in some questionable test results for some, perhaps many, of the candidates. I wonder if this is the reason the results of a test taken in September have not been disclosed yet. The Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination for Spanish/English Examinee Handbook states: “…C. Score Reporting Procedures and Timelines… Oral Examination: Scores will be available approximately three months after the administration of the oral examination, and will be sent to the e-mail address provided during registration. The Director of the AO will confer certification on candidates who pass the oral examination, usually within four months following the examination…” (Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination for Spanish/English Examinee Handbook, updated June 1, 2017. Page 4)

Two very important deadlines were missed by Paradigm Testing: Results must be in the candidate’s e-mail box in approximately three months! The exam was in September 2017. It has been over five months. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts had to issue proof of certification to those who passed the test four months after the exam! The AO is in default also. This is very troubling as we all know that the exams were graded last year.

The grading of the exam is another issue that should concern us all. First the reduction from three to two graders, and now a tendency to bring in as graders more staff interpreters than freelancers. This is a matter to be considered as well.  Staff court interpreters are federally certified, and the ones invited to grade the test are very capable professionals. However, they bring to the table certain perspective and limited experience in many areas of the law when compared to freelancers. Most staff interpreters do a magnificent job interpreting those issues that involve federal legislation. Freelancers contribute a broader knowledge and a different perspective. Does this matter? Are they going to test the examinee on non-federal matters? Of course not, but unlike the staff interpreter, the freelancer may tell if a candidate did not know the subject, or just made the mistake of treating it like a local matter. The real issue is, freelancers are more expensive because they must be paid; staffers are getting the same paycheck they would get anyway. Reality shows that many interpreters are not finding grading the exam attractive anymore because they get paid little for the amount of work.

I hope that last September test results are published soon, and they better be free of controversy for the sake of those who took the exam, and for the future of the once very reliable federal certification program. I now invite you to share your stories and thoughts on this very serious matter.

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