Are you productive when working under demeaning circumstances?
May 15, 2017 § 1 Comment
Occasionally we all must work with difficult clients. These individuals make an already complex and delicate job more difficult because of their ignorance, rudeness, greed, and sometimes due to their tendency to micromanage everything. If they only knew that all they are achieving is to diminish interpreters’ productivity by distracting them from their task, and creating an uncomfortable environment that interpreters want to leave when they can. I cannot believe that people do not realize that interpreters do a much better job when they feel respected and may flourish in a place where they like to be.
It is a job we are talking about, not a social club, but respect is a must in all human relations and it should never leave the building. It is more puzzling, infuriating, and insulting when this horrendous environment is created by our peers.
We all have received from some agency emails, letters, work orders, contracts, and other documents where they impose dozens of rules, describe dozens of procedures, and include dozens of warnings and threats. We dislike them. They wake up a negative feeling that instantly predisposes us against that client. This is only worse when an interpreter micromanages our assignments and delivers these litany of requirements, warnings, rules, and so on, every time they retain our services.
Recently I got to see one of these monuments to totalitarian control. An obsessive-compulsive communication of 736 words containing nothing about the assignment. They were all rules conceived by this strange mind. The email covered topics such as when to report to the assignment, times for arriving and leaving, even when there was no assignment left to interpret; it had some prohibitions such as telephonic interpreting from this entity’s office, even if the job you were hired to do had been completed and there was absolutely not a chance that your services would be used again. If this is not enough for you, the document repeated many issues already covered between the parties and therefore already enforceable, such as payments and reimbursement of expenses. The long email talked about running late, dress code, and get this: “standards of performance and professional responsibility”!
After reading this 2-page long “small print” to the email where the assignment information took only 2 lines, I was furious, offended, and saddened. It was clear because of the client this was, that the email is sent to every interpreter they assign to a job. For the same reasons, it was also crystal clear that most interpreters getting this email every time they worked with this client, would receive the same despicable communication over and over again.
It is insulting and inexcusable that a client who knows you professionally, and knows the level of commitment and excellence of the interpreters they are hiring, may address us this way. After reading the email I felt more like a laborer and less like a professional. It was disheartening and very telling of the opinion this client has of the interpreters they hire (sometimes) daily.
I brought this up on the day I worked for the client. I got an apology from an individual different from the one who decided on the contents of the insulting email, and I was told that in the future all communications addressed to me would not include such demeaning rules. I was not told that the practice of micromanaging other interpreters and treating them as laborers who need the foreman looking over their shoulder would stop.
I understand there may be some new interpreters, or even some colleagues whose language combination does not allow them to be full time interpreters because of the lack of work. I know of the fact that some may need a refresher on the rules and policies. The problem is that, even in that case, the communication should be worded in a way it shows respect for the dignity of the interpreter as a professional and as a person. It should not include the repetitious recitation of the terms of the contract already signed and agreed to by the interpreter, and it should not be included in every single email. Whether an interpreter is a rookie or a veteran, regardless of how often they work for this client, they are not stupid, one communication reminding them of these matters should be enough.
It saddens me so many colleagues are too afraid to express their feelings about these communications, which are delivered by many clients every day all over the world. It frustrates me so many are so used to this mistreatment by the client, that they do not recognize the insult anymore. I am also convinced that interpreters cannot do their best when they must work for a client who appreciates their work so little, and thinks of them so low. Now that you know how I feel about this despicable practice, I would like to hear what you think and feel about these micromanaging personalities who run some organizations and institutions we often work with.
Immigration interpreters: Show courage, or prepare to die!
December 5, 2016 § 11 Comments
Last week many of our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States received written communication from SOSi, the government’s contractor, asking them to accept a new adhesion policy, which would require them to bid as low as possible in order to qualify for continuing sub-contractor status, as immigration court interpreters, after their current contract expires in a few weeks.
This notice, in the form of an ultimatum, required interpreters to provide their lowest possible hourly “rate” bid for the entire period of performance, and would become the sole basis for priority of case assignments in the future. Moreover, the agency set top possible fees according to language combinations, and indicated that those bidding above said amounts would not be considered.
The maximum fees to be used as point of departure for this dive to the bottom of the barrel are insulting at best. If you received the communication you saw the proposed maximum amounts, but for those of you who did not, it is important to be aware of the fact that these fees are way below the court interpreting fees set by the other federal courts (Article Three). The communication expressly mentions that SOSi will not honor the full-day or half-day rates policy that all other federal courts observe. They also decided that travel expenses will be standardized with no room for negotiation, ignoring variations in cost of living, weather impact on travel, and so on. Finally, for obvious corporate reasons such as lack of candidates to be exploited at this time, and keeping up with this “serf-landlord model”, the agency gives interpreters a chance to extend their present fee conditions for a period of 45 days or until the end of January 2017.
The current Article Three federal court interpreter fees are: for a full-day of work $418.00, for the first half of the day: $226.00, for the second half of the day: $192.00, and $59.00 per hour or part thereof when the interpretation goes past 8 hours.
If you consider that the above federal court fees are for interpreters working under better conditions, such as team interpreting, access to court files for preparation, sometimes one or two cases for the day, reimbursement of travel expenses according to cost of living of the place interpreters travel to; and then you compare it to the conditions historically endured by immigration court interpreters: working solo (with bathroom breaks if you are lucky) hostile treatment in many courts, dozens of cases when interpreting Master Hearings, etc., then you come to the natural conclusion that immigration court interpreters should make the same fees as other federal court interpreters, or perhaps even more if working conditions do not improve. We cannot forget the difference in time elapsed before payment either. As you probably guessed, immigration court interpreters have to wait longer to see their meager paychecks.
I am not going to go back to my conversations with many of you about a year ago when I warned you of future deplorable working conditions with this agency, and many of you assured me that everything was fine, that you had negotiated a better deal than ever before, and that SOSi had realized that interpreters should be treated as professionals. Well, it turns out that I was right, and that all those of you who refused to sign a contract and decided to look for other green pastures did the appropriate thing, broaden their professional horizons, and avoided having to deal with an agency that is so demeaning to all professional interpreters.
Obviously, as I said before, these posts are directed to those real professional court interpreters who are constantly improving their skills and pursuing certification (or qualification for those languages where no certification is available). I have nothing for those who refuse to pursue certification; that avoid continuing education, or argue that immigration court interpreting is so unique that no professional credential can benefit them.
But to those proud professional immigration court interpreters who view their occupation as a professional service and understand the importance of what they do, I invite you to consider this: Another year went by and SOSi continues its path to commoditization of immigration court interpreting; they moved ahead with their plan to transform you into language laborers who will blindly obey any order given without questioning. Their goal is to profit as much as possible (nothing wrong with that) by creating the illusion that they are providing a professional service while in reality delivering sub-standard interpretations without any regard for the consequences on the lives of those directly (respondents) and indirectly (American society at large) involved (this is wrong).
Dear colleagues, this is your last chance to act; by next year the monster will be too big for you. It is clear that the agency’s goal is to get the cheapest possible “interpreter” available, and to continue to look for a cheaper one. It is also clear that they do not have enough of these language laborers at this time. Thus the reason for them to extend your current contractual terms for another 45 days or so. They need this time to find your replacement, not based in quality, but in bargain price.
As of today, without you they have to close shop. They just cannot provide the service EOIR hired them to do. Understand that you have leverage, keep in mind that by next year, with a more aggressive prosecution of immigration cases under a new White House, EOIR will surely need more interpreters than ever before. It is simple demand and supply. Today you control your destiny.
For this reason, it is important that you act, seize the moment, and protect your dignity. I invite you all to send a message loud and clear to SOSi, EOIR, and the immigration attorneys. Send your bids for a fee not lower than the federal court interpreter fee, and send it for full-day, half-day, and overtime. Tell them that reimbursement of travel expenses will be negotiated on a case by case basis, and do not sign the contract extension. Moreover, send your bids to SOSi, but copy the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), your local immigration courthouse, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Let them all know that you are professionals providing a critical service to the administration of justice.
Explain that you cannot accept the proposed conditions because of the complexity of what you do. Tell judges and lawyers that a SOSi certification is not a court interpreter certification at all; let them know that Spanish interpreters can obtain a federal court certification, that other languages can get state-level certifications, and that for those languages with no certification program, there are other options to prove your professional qualifications such as college degrees, translator certifications by the American Translators Association (ATA) or a passing grade on the translator or seminary-level interpreter exams by the U.S. Department of State (DOS).
During the last twelve months I learned how many people at EOIR were under the impression that a certification by SOSi was the same as the federal court interpreter certification. I saw the faces of many immigration attorneys when they learned that so many of the interpreters they regularly use in immigration court are not court certified, and I heard many of them telling me that, knowing now of this lack of certification, they understood why they never saw them in any other courthouse.
It would be unfortunate to learn that some of you decided to lower your head and take the extension, or bid according to their unconscionable terms. It would also be a gigantic waste of the greatest opportunity you will ever have to finally professionalize immigration court interpreting. Giving in, or giving up at this time would be the first step to your professional death. Immigration court interpreters, it is time to show courage and determination, or to prepare to die.
I now invite you to share your comments on this important topic at this crucial time.
Things that can be easily avoided if you want to hire a good interpreter.
December 15, 2015 § 4 Comments
We all know that the client’s best ticket to a high quality professional interpreting service is a good fee, but it is not necessarily the only factor a top level interpreter weighs in when deciding to accept or reject an assignment. There are times when other considerations are more, or at least as important as the fee: an interesting subject matter, a well-known speaker, a prestigious conference, a long-term relationship with a client, and even a favor to a colleague, are all factors that can tip the balance in favor of accepting an offer that pays fine but below our usual fee (of course, because of the permanent damage it causes to our career, working for peanuts is always out of the question regardless of the event, speaker, colleague, or anything else). We have all provided our services at a lower fee to government agencies or private companies when we see that volume will compensate for the lesser pay; and invariably, once we accept an assignment, we provide the best possible service regardless of the conditions we agreed to with our client.
The truth is that we would take more of these jobs if we had fun performing our services. Dear friends and colleagues, I just gave potential clients the key to top-level interpreting services that they usually cannot afford due to their lack of funds: Call us with interesting or prestigious assignments and we will take them for a little less than our usual fee, as long as we enjoy the job.
Of course enjoying the job can be understood in many ways, we all have different tastes and interests, but the common denominator to all “happy assignments” is respect. If the direct client, event organizer, government entity, or agency treats us as professionals we will likely do the job, and perhaps repeat in the future. Moreover, even good paying clients should take note of this circumstance because a high fee can lose to lack of respect as well, in other words, even a client that pays good and pays on time can lose the good interpreter when there is no respect.
I know that there are many ways to show respect for the interpreter, and no doubt each one of you has a set of rules and principles that are a must for you to feel comfortable during an assignment. I hope you convey that to your client so they can keep you. I also know that many of us share some of the same basic ideas, and for that reason, I am going to share with you the things that I consider demeaning to the interpreter, and therefore will keep me from taking a job or will motivate me to drop a client as soon as I have a good replacement. Here we go:
- When the client treats you like a laborer, not a professional. There are few things I hate more in life than an ignorant bureaucrat or agency employee who retains you because of your credentials, skill, experience, and reputation, and after you reached an agreement, he sends you an email “instructing you” to arrive thirty minutes before the assignment, to call them “immediately” after the interpretation ends so they see how long you really worked, or a bureaucrat (often a former interpreter) who makes you go to their office for them to physically see you before you immediately leave their office to go to the place where you are going to work. To me this is insulting and inexcusable. How do they think you built a reputation? Because we are not construction workers (although I have nothing but respect for those who do such a physically demanding job) but professional service providers, I will not accept assignments from these individuals, and if the circumstances compel me to do it, be assured that I am only complying with these absurd rules while I find a replacement for that disrespectful client. I understand that some clients ask for such non-sense out of ignorance, in that case I try to educate them, and if successful, I continue to have a professional relationship with them, but if they do not change their policy… there are other decent clients out there in the world.
- When the client asks you not to talk to the end-client, or event organizer at the venue, or “forbids you” to have tea or coffee from the conference refreshments offered to the participants during the breaks. Once again, there are not too many things more insulting to a professional than “forbidding you” anything, concretely, to have a civil attitude towards the end-client because the agency thinks that, the crook you are, you will steal the client from them, or even worse: you may learn how much they are charging the end-client and wonder why they cried poverty and paid you so little. My friends, a true professional does not go around stealing clients from the agency! Show us some respect and let us be courteous with your clients and interact with them so we can get whatever necessary to make the event successful, because in case you do not know it, that will make you look good as an agency. As far as the “no-coffee, no-tea, no-pastries” rule, it only happened to me once years ago and I just ignored it and defied it. When the agency owner approached me and asked me why I was having coffee from the conference room, I simply answered: “because it is for the conference participants, and I am one of them. Do you have a problem with that?” I had all the coffee I wanted and never worked for those folks again nor referred anybody to their obtuse-minded business
- I avoid those clients who do not provide the basics for the interpreting job such as study materials, presentations, background information, speeches, or even water in the booth. It says a lot about an agency or a government officer when they tell you that no materials will be provided because “they are confidential” or because their client “does not like to share the presentation”. I wonder if they think that we work for some Chinese pirate and we are going to risk going to jail and losing our careers so that we can see a power point on a subject matter we couldn’t care less about. This tells me that the entity trying to retain me has no idea about our job, and when their answer to my request is “we have used other interpreters before and they never asked for any of that”, then I definitely know that it is time to turn down the job offer and move on to more useful things like perhaps watch the grass grow. The same can be said for those bureaucrats in courthouses all over the country who refuse to share the file with the interpreter because it is confidential. Who do they think they are hiring to interpret? Certainly not a professional. Their ignorance keeps them from thinking that the court interpreter is a professional trained to tell privileged and confidential information from public record, and to know what to do with it. Now, it is even worse when a former court interpreter is the one denying the information, because you know they are doing it out of convenience and fear to rub anybody the wrong way in the courthouse. In other words, they couldn’t care less about the interpretation, all the care about is to keep their job.
- To me, it is a tremendous sign of disrespect to ask the interpreter to do the agency’s job. All those entities who impose duties on the interpreter different from interpreting, such as endless paperwork, statistics, and so forth, without explaining these “extra chores” when offering the job, and demanding performance without paying for the interpreter’s time (because they only pay you for the time you interpreted, not the time you spend doing their paperwork) do not treat us like professionals, and since I do not have the vocation of a clerk’s assistant, or a Girl-Friday, I refuse the assignment, and if ambushed and cornered a posteriori with this free-work, I will never work for that entity again nor I will refer anyone to them.
- I believe that it is insulting that a client do not pay for travel time and travel expenses when the assignment is somewhere else. The interpreter is a professional, and unless the negotiated fee is high enough for the interpreter to include travel expenses as part of it, the client should absorb travel expenses as part of doing business. I have no room in my client file cabinet for agencies or government entities who refuse to pay for transportation (air, train, highway tolls, gas, and parking), lodging, meals, internet, and other basic services. There is no room either for those who pay them at some ridiculously rock-bottom amounts. No bureaucrat or agency clerk will force me to take five airplanes to fly 200 miles, sleep on a bedbug infested bed, or eat at a fast food place so they can save some money.
- The list could go on and on, but I will end with something that makes my blood boil because it is insulting, disrespectful, and hurts the interpretation: Those speakers who preface everything they say with: “I don’t know if this will be translated correctly” or “I hope the translator can get at least some of what I am saying because it is very technical” or the variation of this last one: “…because I speak really fast…” Again, I do not know if they know what happens in the booth, obviously they don’t, but they need to realize that on top of insulting, this makes the speaker, and the event organizer, look bad because thanks to that unfortunate remark, they now have an auditorium full of people who are second-guessing the ability of the interpreters. This is so silly that I just leave it out of my rendition.
As you can see, these are all simple things that a smart agency, organization, or government office, could easily avoid, and as a result create a better environment where interpreters would be happy and even willing to work for a little less money than usual when the event, the topic, or the speaker were so attractive that the fee would become, within certain limits, secondary at the time of deciding whether to accept or turn down an interpreting assignment. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some of your demeaning examples that, when easily fixed or avoided, would make you take an interpreting job for a little less money.
What are court interpreters afraid of?
April 10, 2015 § 18 Comments
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.
“Get an interpreter for that hearing, and try to spend as little as possible”.
March 13, 2015 § 6 Comments
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
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.