How safe are we as interpreters?

April 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

The horrible things that are happening all over the world made me think about the risks that we face as interpreters just by doing our job. It is very true that nobody can claim to be completely safe in today’s violent and fanatical world, but one thing is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and another when your profession takes you to dangerous, or potentially dangerous situations.

Those of us who constantly travel, and are at airports or train stations four or five times a week, live with security checkpoints as part of our daily routine; we are very aware of the potential risks of traveling, and I am not talking about airplane or train accidents.  I cannot say that I have never looked at somebody as a suspicious character, or that I have not considered the possibility of something awful happening while I travel or during the events.

Conference and diplomatic interpreters live with this constant danger every time they do their job; and it is not just the times when we interpret for heads of state or religious leaders and we have to remain by their side, it is also when we are working in a booth during a top-executives’ conference, a summit of high-level government officials, or an international organization session.  The fact that we have to go through security checkpoints several times a day should tell us something about the risks we take just by doing our job. It is exciting to work with the president of a country, or with the Pope, but at the same time, you cannot avoid looking at your surroundings to see if there is something out of the ordinary going on.

Of course, the most obvious example of interpreters risking their lives and physical integrity is that of the interpreters in conflict zones or providing their services as part of a military mission. As we know, unfortunately, these brave friends and colleagues are at risk even after they are not working any longer, and even after the armed conflict has ended, as is evidenced by all the terrible stories of interpreters killed by the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan while they wait for the western governments to keep a promise to protect them, as they assured them a long time ago.

Not only terrorists and war enemies put interpreters’ lives and physical integrity in danger; court interpreters also face the rage of criminals, and perhaps even terrorists who are trying to make a twisted point through violence.  According to the National Center for State Courts in the United States, the number of threats and violent incidents targeting the judiciary has increased dramatically in recent years. At the federal level, the U.S. Marshals Service Center for Judicial Security reports the number of judicial threat investigations has increased from 592 cases in 2003 to 1,258 by the end of 2011. At the state and local levels, the most reliable data comes from studies by the Center for Judicial and Executive Security (CJES). They show that the number of violent incidents in state courthouses has gone up every decade since 1970. I used to do quite a bit of work in court, and there were many times when I had to do a “reality check” and pinch myself to stay aware of the fact that I was sitting next to an alleged murderer.  In fact, I was told once by a U.S. Marshal that I should never sit next to the defendant in court; that I should always sit around the corner of the table in case I needed to dock or run, and he told me to always be aware of what is left on top of the table: “… a stapler or a pencil in the hands of a criminal can turn into a murder weapon in a matter of seconds…”

And we are not even talking about dealing with angry family court litigants who had to stand in line for 30 minutes to go through the metal detector in order to gain access to the courtroom.

Then we have the jails and detention centers where incidents of violence are perhaps less common due to the tight security, but together with immigration courts and hospitals, they present another enormous risk to the interpreter: transmission of a contagious disease.

Unlike conference and diplomatic interpreters, healthcare and immigration court interpreters work with clients from all over the world, many of whom just arrived to the United States from countries where certain diseases, already eradicated from the U.S., are still common among the population. The risk of being exposed to TB and other serious health problems is not small in environments where people from everywhere congregate. Some of these “ideal” places are jails and detention centers where court interpreters work, immigration courts where immigration interpreters provide their services, and the clinics, hospitals, and urgent care facilities where healthcare interpreters work right next to people who could be the carriers of a serious health hazard.

So now the question to you all, my dear friends and colleagues is: What do we do then? Do we quit our work? Do we stop traveling? Should we avoid riskier assignments?

Of course, these questions should be individually answered, but so far, the evidence indicates that our collective answer is: No. We must continue doing the work we love and enjoy. We are providers of a professional service that is needed for most human activities. We cannot become the victims by choice.  The truth is that many of us do our work in dangerous, or potentially dangerous, situations, but we are not alone. There are great professionals who are trained to protect us. The Secret Service, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals, policemen and Sheriff Deputies, our heroic armed forces, other security guards, and our own common sense, will help us when the time comes to make a decision or take a stand. We just need to be alert.

I congratulate so many of you, friends and colleagues, for your courage and sense of responsibility. Continue doing your job; charge accordingly for your professional services, taking into account the risks you take every time you do your work. The client needs to know this, and has to understand it.  It is one of those intangibles that we must include in our fee, not as a separate item, but as part of what you quantify during the process of preparing an estimate. Just like you factor in your professional education and experience. You deserve it.  I now ask you to please share with the rest of us your thoughts about the dangers and risks of the profession, and please do me a favor: Do not take any chances, always use your common sense. Stay safe.

The ten worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Part 1.

March 26, 2013 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I know that many of you read and contributed to the first posting of this series that dealt with the bad things that judges do to court interpreters.  Well, it is now time for the lawyers to be on the spotlight.  Several years ago I was retained by an attorney (I had never met before) to interpret for a petitioner during the final hearing of a divorce proceeding (final orders, permanent orders, final decree hearing, depending on the place where you live) The attorney contacted me the day before and agreed to pay my urgent fee usually charged for events requested on short notice.  “…It will be really quick…” he said, “…the respondent isn’t even in the country.  We’ll be in and out…”  So we appeared in court the following morning, the judge took the bench and the hearing began.  After the attorney made his arguments to the bench, the judge asked the petitioner how long had he and his wife lived together in the United States.  The petitioner answered in Spanish that his wife had never been to the United States. After a few more questions, and while the attorney was sweating bullets because of this “unexpected” development, the judge dismissed the case stating that he lacked jurisdiction over the parties as they had never lived as a married couple within his county limits. Of course, I interpreted everything to the petitioner but it was clear that he did not understand.  During the judge’s oral decision that turned into a scolding to the lawyer, the attorney turned to his client and whispered in Spanish: “luego te explico” (I’ll explain later) Once the hearing ended and we were in the hallway inside the courthouse, the attorney approached me and asked for my invoice telling me: “…Give me your receipt so we can get the money from my client and you get paid. I don’t think that he will be willing to pay for anything once he understands what happened…” So the lawyer asked his client for my fee, I got paid cash right there inside the courthouse, and the attorney asked his client to go to this office with him so he could explain what had just happened and the reason why “this judge” had decided not to divorce him “yet.”  Well, under any standards this is a horror story that we as interpreters sometimes have to live through; however, this is not a posting about the worst ten things that attorneys do to their clients. This is about the ten worst things they do to us interpreters, so horror stories like the one I mentioned will have to wait for their day on center stage.

Once again keep in mind that I will focus on the attorney, intentionally leaving the clerk’s worst 10, witness’ worst 10, and so forth for future articles.  I am writing this with a therapeutic perspective, trying to add some possible solutions to these problems while at the same time creating empathy and inviting a good healthy laugh when relating to these horror stories. I also want to underline that most of the attorneys I work with are real professionals I have worked with for years. Those who fit this article are not on my list of regular clients. Unlike with the judges, we as interpreters get to chose the attorneys we work with, and that is a big difference.  Because of the length of this posting, I have decided to publish it in two parts. This is part one. Part two will be posted next week.

Here we go:

  1. “You are going to charge me all that money just for talking? Those lawyers who do not have the slightest idea of what we do and firmly believe that because we speak two (or more) languages we are pocketing easy money.  A quick solution would be to stay firm and tell him that we are not just talking, that we are interpreting, and simply say that this is what you charge, that you provide a professional service, and that you will not bargain with them.  Long term solution: Talk to the attorney and explain your services in depth. Make him see the advantages of having a real professional interpreter and run by him the potential problems and complications when the service is poorly provided.  With certain clients you can even adjust your fee because of the work volume they represent.  If all these efforts fail, just fire the client; do not accept any work from him.  Remember, a cheap client will be a bad client in all other aspects of the professional relationship. Move on.
  2. Here, take these papers and explain them to my client.”  There are attorneys that think of us as their servants, paralegals, co-counselors, and many other things.  They seem to think that it is a waste of time for them to be around when you are going to be doing “all the talking.” A good short term solution is to ask them with great emphasis if what they mean is that they want you to sight-translate the documents and to tell their client that they will answer any questions after you finish translating. Repeat the last part to the defendant before you start translating, and refuse to answer any questions.  For a long term solution you can explain what your legal and ethical boundaries and obligations are, what is exactly a sight translation, and suggest that these documents be read in advance at the detention facility or the law office (depending on each case) If hired by the court, you should ask the coordinator/supervisor to talk to the attorneys in order to avoid these situations in the future.
  3. “Your Honor, that is not what my client said”. It is common for the Attorney to speak the native language of the defendant. This is usually one of the main reasons a non-English speaker goes to a certain attorney.  You and I know that there are many lawyers who think they speak the foreign language even when their level is way below fluency .Any attorney will tell you that it is impossible to know what a client will tell the judge, and they often say something that will hurt them, especially those who come from a different culture.  Because of the attorney’s knowledge of the foreign language, he will usually learn the disastrous answer given by his client before the words are interpreted to the judge, and many times they will try to blame the poor answer on the interpretation by saying that their client didn’t say what the interpreter said, or by arguing that the question was not interpreted correctly.  One time a lawyer interrupted me in open court arguing that his client had not said what I interpreted, that she was Cuban and therefore I was not qualified to understand and interpret her answers. What I did next is a good short term solution:  Simply state on the record that you stand by your interpretation or rendition, and if necessary state your credentials.  A more durable solution would be to make sure judges and attorneys know and understand that we are the language experts in the courtroom, that when we make a mistake we admit it and promptly correct it, and that our preparation and credentials go beyond speaking two languages.  We should always interpret what the client says, even when the attorney wanted them to say something else. 
  4. “I know I had to pay you long ago, but I cannot pay you because my client hasn’t paid me yet.” It is common for the lawyer to think that “we are in this together” and assume that it is perfectly fine to delay our payment when their client hasn’t paid them.  Unfortunately for those attorneys, we have no client-provider relationship with their client. Our legal relationship was established by a written (ideally) or an oral agreement to interpret during a certain specific event at a certain rate.  This legally binding agreement is not conditioned to a foreign event such as the attorney being paid by his client who happens to be a third party in this interpretation contract. To solve the problem as expeditiously as possible when you have no written agreement, talk to the attorney (he knows that his payment has nothing to do with you) and negotiate payment; maybe if you give him two weeks to pay; you can also take partial payments if you trust the lawyer, but never wait until he gets paid. Many clients never pay their attorneys when they did not get everything they thought they would get from the case. If you have a written contract, stick to it. Send it to a collections agency or take the lawyer to court if necessary. Remember, this is how you make a living and you earned the money. The long-term solution for all services in the future, especially when you do not know the Law Firm very well, has to be a written contract detailing payment, default of payment, and collection costs. In my experience all attorneys sign it when asked to do so. We have to be smart and take advantage of the legal protections that exist.
  5. “Sorry Judge, but we are late because the Interpreter took forever reading the plea agreement.”   Some attorneys want to save themselves a trip to a detention center by informing their clients about a potential plea agreement when they see their clients in court. I have had many lawyers ask me to read a plea agreement or a presentence investigation report just minutes before a scheduled hearing.  I cannot count the times that I have read these documents in holding cells and jury boxes. Then, after reading the always long and exhausting documents, most attorneys answer their client’s questions.  Of course, reading these documents really means sight translating them because they are written in English.  As you know, this is a difficult task and it takes time to do it right; add to that the time the attorney has to spend answering questions from the defendant and sometimes convincing his client to take the offer because that is the best possible outcome of the case.  When done properly, we are talking of hours of work, and I haven’t even mentioned the time it takes for the jail to bring the defendant to the holding cell.  Of course it is true that while we are working our tail off doing this sight translation, most attorneys are just sitting there doing nothing. I am sure it is extremely boring and frustrating to see how the time goes by and the time for the hearing approaches, but it does not justify blaming the delay on the interpreter who has been working hard all this time.  It is the attorney’s obligation and responsibility to defend and advise his client, they know how long it takes to go over those documents, and they know that it should be done on an earlier date. Such a situation can be avoided by talking to the lawyer as soon as he requests the sight translation and telling him that the process will take time and most likely will not be over by the time the judge calls the case. Now it is the attorney who has to decide what to do: request a continuance, be pushed to the end of the docket, change the hearing to the afternoon, etc., and if he ignores the suggestion, as an officer of the court you can always answer the attorney’s complaint by stating on the record what just happened. This will cover you in case of a formal complaint or investigation by the court.  The better long-term solution would be to always agree with the private attorney to do these sight translations days before a hearing, and for the court appointed attorneys and public defenders you should talk to the courthouse’s chief interpreter or administrator and ask them to require these documents to be read to the defendant ahead of the hearing date.

These are my first five. Next week I will post the other five. In the meantime, I invite you to share your stories, anecdotes and opinions regarding this frustrating but essential part of a court interpreter’s professional practice.

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