Are court interpreters at risk of committing a crime?

March 5, 2013 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Some of you may have noticed that for about a couple of years there has been a tendency to redefine the court interpreter profession.  Some are now saying that we should not even call ourselves court interpreters; that we should instead refer to those who interpret in court as “cultural brokers,” “language specialists,” “language facilitators,” and many other similar titles.  The basic idea behind this new movement is that many times court interpreters interpret correctly and accurately what has being said in court, but the person they are interpreting for, usually a defendant, victim, or witness, does not understand what happened during the court proceeding.  Some claim that because of cultural differences, lack of formal education, economic factors, and others, these people who do not speak English need more than just interpretation. They need explanations, descriptions, maybe even a lower registry in order to understand what is happening in court.

It has been suggested that court interpretation rules and practices are outdated and therefore ineffective; it has been said that these ethical and professional considerations and expectations cripple the process as they contribute to increase the barrier of misunderstanding instead of eliminating it. The proposal is to approach judges and attorneys and inform them that court interpreters need to change their ethical and professional rules, and that as language professionals, they need to be the ones amending them, not other professionals who are not entirely familiar with the interpreter profession.

It has been suggested that nothing changes in a case when the interpreter tells the defendant that his charges have been “dropped” even though the judge said that they had been “dismissed.”  That this allows the defendant to understand better.

I agree that our job is to make sure that two people who do not speak the same language can communicate.  I agree that the law is technical, complicated, and full of big words and obscure terms. I am aware of the speed at which hearings are conducted in most courthouses, and I do not dispute that it is very difficult to follow a proceeding that took 90 seconds.  The problem is that I am also aware of a crime named: “Unauthorized Practice of the Law.”

Black’s Law Dictionary defines it as “The practice of law by a person, typically a non-lawyer, who has not been licensed or admitted to practice law in a given jurisdiction.” (Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th. Ed. St. Paul, MN: West. Pp 1191-1192) Even licensed attorneys are barred from practicing in jurisdictions (states) where they have not passed the bar exam and being sworn in as attorneys according to Rule 5.5 of the Multijurisdictional Practice of Law Rules of the American Bar Association (ABA) Moreover, unlawful practice of the law is illegal in the federal and state judicial systems, and it  constitutes a crime. Some states treat it as a misdemeanor like Arizona and New Mexico, and in some states a behavior of falsely claiming to be a lawyer is a felony  (TX Penal Code Ch. 38 Section 38.122 & 38.123) Misdemeanors can carry up to one year in jail, and felonies can land a person in prison for even longer.

Asking an interpreter to interpret accurately and completely is appropriate and expected. Asking an interpreter to “edit” and decide what to say and how to say it, even with an amended set of rules of ethics and professionalism, creates a situation where that interpreter has to navigate the very treacherous waters of the law, and act as a cultural and linguistic broker without breaking the law, and with the constant possibility of being deprived of his or her freedom.   In my opinion the risk is too high and many interpreters are not prepared or willing to make a distinction between those illegal activities that constitute unlawful practice of law, and those others that would help the defendant, victim, or witness understand what just happed in a court hearing.

The solution has to be somewhere in the middle:  A good and honest interpreter must be aware of the cultural differences between client and attorney, parties and judge.  If the interpreter determines that there is a problem in the communication, he or she must tell the English speaker attorney that his client may be having difficulties understanding some of the concepts that were debated, the interpreter must help the attorney by explaining the possibility of a cultural, economic, emotional wall between her and her client.  That ends the interpreter’s obligation. Now it is up to the attorney (or judge) who needs to explain and maybe rephrase some of what has been mentioned to her client: the defendant.  It is the attorney who should be giving legal advice, not the interpreter. The attorney needs to determine what is said and explained to the client. The interpreter must interpret all explanations the attorney gives to her client.  In other words, there is nothing wrong in telling the attorney that his client is not understanding what is being said in court.  This way the interpreter stays within his field, and the attorney practices law.  Please share with us your thoughts on this new trend, and tell us your opinion on what needs to be done.

An interpreter ethics class that is useful and fun?

October 23, 2012 § 3 Comments

 Dear colleagues:

This Friday I will be presenting during the ATA Annual Conference in San Diego. This is nothing new of course. Many of you have attended my presentations in the past; however, this time I will be covering ethics for interpreters.

That’s right, I will be delivering a presentation on that arid subject that most of us need in order to (at least) keep our licenses, certifications, or registrations current.  The title of the presentation is: “The Client-Attorney Privilege and the Interpreter’s Duty to Maintain Confidentiality.”  As you can see, it is a legal interpretation topic that up until now has been little explored by our colleagues, by the Judiciary and by the Bar.  When I decided to tackle the “ethics presentation” one-ton gorilla in the room, I set some goals: First, the presentation had to be useful. I had to find a topic that interests interpreters, but more importantly, I had to look for something that would help them with their career; something that they could use time and again for the rest of their professional lives. Then, I decided to find a way to do it fun. Of course, we will not have stand-up comedy (Darn. I guess I thought of it too late to incorporate it) but we will have fun by making this session an interactive exchange where we all explore concrete situations that we face in our profession, and try to find a solution that is legal, ethical, and good for our practice (meaning: our business!)  How many of us know when we are legally bound to do or abstain from doing something because of the person we are working for? How do we know when we are covered by the client-attorney privilege and when we are not? How do we stand up to a Judge when we are ordered to do something we are legally barred from doing? These are some of the everyday scenarios legal interpreters face all the time at courthouses, law offices, jails, board meetings, hospitals, and many other settings.  The goal is that by the end of the session we will all understand the client-attorney privilege, when it affects the work of an interpreter, how it influences what we do, and what are the differences between this privilege and our ethical duty to uphold confidentiality.  I believe that the practical cases I have selected will teach us how to correct some behaviors, how to detect a potential problem, and how to look for a solution.   While we do this, I will also try to dissipate some myths about so-called privileges like the medical, religious, and others. My opinion is that this session represents a great way to get those ethics credits that you may still need, and at the same time you will learn something that will benefit your interpretation practice and business.  The session will be presented in English. I invite you to join me this Friday, October 26 in the sapphire H room at 2:00 PM, and then, after the session is over, I invite you to join me and our good friend Freek Lankhof at the InTrans Book Service stand (6 & 7 of the Exhibition Hall) from 3:30-4:00 PM for a book signing of my new court interpreter manual: “The New Professional Court Interpreter.”  I am sure you will like the book.

Please join me for a fun and useful interpreter ethics session in San Diego!

An Ethical Myth: As Interpreters and Translators “We Are Not Allowed to Talk Fees”.

September 10, 2012 § 25 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

For many years I have heard colleagues say that we cannot talk about what we charge. I have seen how a simple question about price can turn the sweetest colleagues into the meanest medieval executioners. The reason for this behavior? Someone told somebody a long time ago that it was illegal to talk about what we charge as professionals.  I must confess that this “ethical principle” (not compiled anywhere by the way) has always bother me, but after seeing how a simple question about fees turns interpreters into the Incredible Hulk, for a long time I kept my mouth shut, I looked the other way.

The thing is, I cannot do it anymore!  The more I teach about interpreter ethics, the more I see how this myth has done a disservice to the profession.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right to free speech to all individuals in this country. It has no limitations except for the ones set by the Court (You cannot scream “Fire!” inside a movie theater) and by the law: civil and criminal liability in cases of libel or slander.  Out of these exceptions, free speech is probably the most cherished human right in the world.

According to the United States Constitution,  Can I go around talking about my interpretation and translation fees with everybody? Yes I can! But, Why did they tell me that it was against the law and that I could lose my court certification if I did?  Because of a misunderstanding.  The law prohibits monopolies, it is illegal to fix prices for goods and services. The market should decide how much my services are worth.  In other words, I can talk about my fees with all my colleagues, clients, relatives, etc., I can even advertise them on line, over the phone, on TV, and the list goes on.  The thing we cannot do is get together and decide on a universal price for a service. Fixing prices is against the law. But, if you just talk about fees, even if more than one interpreter or translator ends up charging exactly the same,  there is nothing to worry about.

Think of it this way: Gas stations sell the same product, they advertise their prices on the road for everybody to see, they are often next to each other, and may times they charge the same price. It is perfectly legal because they have not fixed the price. That is why the guy down the street sells gas for less and maybe for that reason he makes more money.

Next time a colleague asks you how much you charge for a day of conference, per translated word, or I ask you your hourly rate for a deposition, engage in the conversation, there is nothing wrong. You will learn from this experience and so will your colleagues.  We need to know the law to obey it and to exercise our rights.  My question to all of you is: Even if you know that discussing fees is not illegal, Do you feel comfortable doing it?  If you do not, I am curious to read your reasons for not talking price with other colleagues.

Continuing Education that Improves the Interpreter as a Professional.

June 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As an interpreter who also teaches continuing education I am especially receptive to comments and criticisms by colleagues who attend continuing education workshops. I pay attention to what they have to say, good or bad, about a class they took, whether it is a college-sponsored seminar or a privately organized presentation.  Many times I hear good things about the subject matter or the presenter, but it seems to me that the most popular complaint is that the classes are boring and they do not give anything to the interpreter that he or she can use to improve performance, access to the professional market, or plain and simple have a better income.

When I decided to teach continuing education for interpreters, transcribers, and translators many years ago, I made the decision to teach interesting topics that could aid the professional linguist in his or her career.  This is what I have done all over the United States.  Many of my students and workshop attendees have told me how they learned something that made a difference in their careers.  I have always believed that a good interpreter must know his craft, and must provide ethical service.  With this belief in mind, I have presented ethics and practical subject matters in different formats: One-hour to all-day presentations at national and regional conferences, multi-day workshops at colleges or privately sponsored events, and one-on-one tutorials.  By taking my seminars, colleagues have passed court interpreter certification exams, they have been hired as staff interpreters, and they have secured professional contracts with governments and corporations.

This Friday I will be teaching a court interpreter ethics class in Columbus Ohio at the invitation of the Ohio Supreme Court. The day-long seminar will cover many relevant aspects of ethical interpreting in the court system, will analyze the code of ethics at the federal and state levels, and will give local interpreters an opportunity to test their knowledge and comprehension of interpreter ethics while participating in useful and fun practical exercises.  The seminar, presented in English, will meet continuing education requirements for the Ohio court certification program and others.

On Saturday I will give a half-day presentation on Mexican legal terminology at the Texas Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (TAJIT) IN San Antonio. The presentation will focus on Mexican Spanish legal terminology in Criminal, Civil, Family and Administrative Law. Those attending will get a better idea of the Mexican legal system, its similarities, and its differences with the American system, but more importantly, will teach them the methodology to research the meaning and significance of legal figures, terms, and principles.  The idea is that at the end of this presentation the interpreters will be able to better understand what they do, and will feel comfortable about taking Mexican attorneys and businesses as their clients.  Those attending this presentation in Spanish will receive continuing education credits in Texas, New Mexico, and other states.

I invite you to attend these classes and I encourage you to tell me what you would like to see as continuing education topics that I may teach in the future.

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