Will greed win over quality medical interpreting in the middle of a pandemic?

September 9, 2021 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

On May 15, 2021 the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) released a study suggesting that an English-to-English exam might solve the shortage of healthcare interpreters in what they call “languages of lesser diffusion,” meaning languages other than Spanish, Arabic or Mandarin. The reason for this “sui-generis” affirmation is very simple: developing actual interpretation exams to test candidates on simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, and sight translation in both: source and target languages would be too expensive and therefore not profitable. Interesting solution: examine candidates’ English language skills (reading comprehension, medical concepts, fill-in the blanks, and what they consider can show the candidate’s “potential correlation with overall interpreting ability”: “listening comprehension.”) An English only exam will catapult an individual into an E.R. to perform as an interpreter without ever testing on interpretation!

What about native English speakers, who in the study scored an average of 87.9% compared to non-native speakers, who scored an average of 76.6%? No problem, says CCHI; passing score is 60% and Spanish language interpreters will continue to take the interpretation exam already in existence. I suppose the expectation might be that people who speak other “languages of lesser diffusion” in the United States have a higher academic background and their English proficiency is higher. Another point that makes this “solution” attractive is that most interpreter encounters in hospitals, offices and emergency rooms involve Spanish speakers, which brings the possibility of lawsuits for interpreter malpractice to a low, manageable incidence. I would add that many people needing interpreting services will not even consider a lawsuit because of ignorance, fear or immigration status. The good news: CCHI concluded that although this English-to-English exam option “is a promising measure…(it)…requires additional revision and piloting prior to use for high-stakes testing.” (https://slator.com/can-a-monolingual-oral-exam-level-the-playing-field-for-certifying-us-interpreters/)

Reading of this report and the article on Slator got me thinking about the current status of healthcare interpreting in the Covid-19 pandemic. How long will the American healthcare system ignore that the country is everyday more diverse and in need of professional, well-prepared healthcare interpreters in all languages? The answer is difficult and easy at the same time.

A difficult answer.

It is difficult because we live in a reality where every day, American patients face a system with very few capable healthcare interpreters, most in a handful of language combinations, and practically all of them in large and middle-sized cities. The two healthcare certification programs have poor exams. One of them does not even test simultaneous interpreting, and the other tests a candidates’ simultaneous skills with two 2-minute-long vignettes (one in English and the other in the second language). Consecutive skills are also tested at a very basic level with four vignettes of twenty-four 35 or fewer-words “utterances” each. It is impossible to assess somebody interpreting skills with such an exam after just 40 hours of interpreter training. (https://cchicertification.org/uploads/CHI_Exam_Structure-Interface-2020.pdf).

Except for those interpreters with an academic background or prepared on their own because they care about the service they provide, the current system provides a warm body, or a face on a screen, not a healthcare interpreter. Because the motivation is a robust profit, it is conceived and designed to protect the interests of insurance companies, hospital shareholders, and language services agencies. It has been structured to project the false impression these entities are complying with the spirit of the law; It is not designed to protect the physician or the patient.  

In 1974 the United States Supreme Court ruled that failing to provide language support for someone with limited English proficiency is a form of discrimination on the basis of national origin (https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2000/08/30/00-22140/title-vi-of-the-civil-rights-act-of-1964-policy-guidance-on-the-prohibition-against-national-origin).  The ruling was later broadened and implemented by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (https://www.ada.gov/effective-comm.htm) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) commonly known as “Obamacare.” (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/1557-fs-lep-508.pdf) This legislation specify that healthcare organizations must offer qualified medical interpreters for patients of limited English proficiency and those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

An easy answer.

Despite the reality we face, the answer to the question above is easily attainable because the healthcare industry has immense financial resources and a system that lets them capture money at a scale no other industry can.

The healthcare sector deals with the lives and quality of living of all individuals present in the United States. Their reason to exist is to save lives, not to produce ever-growing dividends to its shareholders every year. This is an industry that spends unimaginable amounts of money in medical equipment, state-of-the-art technology, physicians, surgeons, nurses, therapists, researchers, attorneys, and managerial staff salaries. New expensive hospitals, medical office buildings, clinics, laboratories, and rehab centers are built all the time. This industry can spend top money in those sectors because it is good for business. It is an investment that produces a profit. I am not even scratching the surface of these expenses, but even if we ignore the money spent in food, gear, vehicles (land and air), utilities, clerical staff, janitorial staff, and medical aide positions, we can safely conclude this is an industry that knows how to spend money when an expense is viewed as an investment that will produce a financial benefit.

Designing good medical interpreter exams in many languages is expensive, paying professional-level fees to healthcare interpreters will cost money, managing a continuing education program will not be cheap, but the healthcare sector cannot cry poverty. They have the funds to do it. It is incomprehensible how a business that bankrupts its patients after one surgery or a chronic disease can argue with a straight face, they can only pay 30 to 50 dollars an hour to a medical interpreter. This is an industry that charges you fifty dollars for a plastic pitcher of water or twenty dollars for a box of tissue they replace every day.

Quality interpreting, and living up to the spirit of the law, cannot happen when an organization spends money to look for shortcuts such as testing English-to-English in an interpreting program. Only the promise of a professional income will attract the best minds to healthcare interpreting. Current conditions, including low pay, an agency-run system, and searching for shortcuts to go around the law will never produce quality interpreters.

If those deciding understand good professional healthcare interpreters are an investment as valuable as good physicians, surgeons and nurses, the solution can begin immediately. Designing and administering a quality interpretation exam will take time, getting colleges and universities to start interpreting programs that include medical interpreting will not be easy, but there are steps that can improve the level of interpreting services right away.   

A higher pay, comparable to that of conference interpreters will immediately attract top interpreters in all languages, at least temporarily or part-time to the field. Many top interpreters see the need for quality services during the pandemic, and they feel a need to help, but they have to make a living and healthcare interpreter fees do not meet the mark.

Instead of thinking of English-to-English exams to create an illusion they are forming interpreters, stakeholders should recruit native speakers of languages where interpreters are hard to find, but they must stop looking for “ad-hoc” interpreters in restaurant kitchens and hotel cleaning crews, and start talking to college students and professors, to scientists and physicians from those countries who now practice in the United States. With current technology, hospitals should look for their interpreters among the interpreter community in the country where a language is spoken and retain their services to interpret remotely, instead of opening massive call centers in developing countries, using the technology to generate a higher profit instead of better quality.  

Hospital Boards must find the money and allocate it to interpreting services. In these cases, such as Medicaid and others, the cost of interpreter services should be considered an operating expense. Insurers do not reimburse for nursing and ancillary staff. Hospitals and practices pay their salaries.

Payers may also benefit by covering interpreter services. Although data are limited according to the Journal of the American Medical Association Forum, studies suggest that when physicians struggle to communicate with patients, they are more likely to order unnecessary tests and treatments. This not only puts patients at increased risk, but also directly increases payer spending. Limited English proficiency patients may need care more frequently or seek treatment in more expensive settings, such as the emergency room, when they cannot communicate with primary care providers. Similar to insurers in fee-for-service arrangements, risk-bearing provider groups in alternative payment models face a similar incentive to curtail unnecessary or wasteful utilization. Poor interpreting services will also result in malpractice lawsuits against hospitals, language service providers, insurance companies and medical staff. In the long run, by far, this makes investing in quality interpreter services and interpreting education/certification programs a smaller expense. “Paying for interpreter services, from cost-based reimbursement, to their inclusion in prospective payment models, to insurer-led contracting of remote interpreters, would not only address the disparities exposed by the pandemic, but also help support practices facing financial peril due to the pandemic.” (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama-health-forum/fullarticle/2771859) It is time to grow up and stand up to the stakeholders in the healthcare sector; it is time to unmask the real intentions of language service providers who take advantage of often-poorly prepared interpreters to get a profit. It is time to have a serious healthcare interpreter certification exam that really tests the candidate’s interpreting skills. We need university and college programs, and a different recruitment system led by hospitals and insurance companies not multinational interpreting agencies, or ill-prepared small local players. Interpreters cannot be made in 40 hours and we can’t have newly trained interpreters learning at the cost of real patients’ safety. The pandemic showed us the importance of healthcare interpreting, let’s seize the opportunity to professionalize it.

Federal court interpreter exam candidates’ emotional distress continues.

July 10, 2018 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

On June 30 those who took the federal court interpreter exam in the United States last year, and have not received their test results to this date, found an email from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (FCICE@ao.uscourts.gov) in their inbox.

Once again, and after all this time, the email was to “provide an update” on the status of the scores. The email explained how all exams have either been scored and equated, or invalidated. The email then goes into a very detailed explanation of the scoring and review of the exams, but it only addresses the news that candidates care about towards the end of the communication by stating that “…no dates have yet been set for the 2018 re-administration of the oral phase of the… examination…” and it then drops the bomb when it indicates that “…dates will most likely not be determined until after November 2018…” and it gives an “assurance” to those who have been victimized by the credibility of the AO since they took the exam last year, that regardless of when the exam is re-administered, “…it will be administered in time… to qualify for the 2019 administration of the oral phase…”

Once again, the email tells nothing to the candidates, and once again it lacks an apology, by now long due to all of our colleagues who have endured this nightmare for so long. The email does nothing to comfort the candidates. Instead of informing them of their scores, it gives them an unusual explanation about the way these scores will be delivered. First, they will receive an email informing them that their score has been snail-mailed through the U.S. Mail. Can you imagine how much longer those candidates who live outside the United States must wait for the letter to get to their mailbox?

The email speaks of the “re-administration” of the test, but it says nothing about the entity in charge of the task. At this point is not known if there will be a new contractor or if the AO itself will administer the exam.

It concerns me to see how the government does not get it. Once again, they distract the candidates from the fact that nothing relevant has changed since the last time they received a letter from the AO, with a lengthy explanation on how the exams have been scored, equated, and reviewed.

The validity of the exam and the integrity and skill of the raters are the only things never questioned by anybody, yet, they continue to dominate the communication to the candidates. What everybody questions is not the exam nor the examiner; the answers everybody is waiting for concern the decision-making process that resulted in contracting paradigm and the accountability of those who made such decision; the readiness of Paradigm to administer an exam like the federal court interpreter certification test, when there was nothing in their background to suggest they could perform the task; and finally, the way the AO has handled the situation after the exam, from its secrecy and lack of transparency, to the delays, to a full report on what they are now doing to hire a capable contractor and to make sure that another fiasco of this enormity never happens again.

The candidates got another email, and from that, they got:

No apology from the AO for all damages caused to the candidates who took the exam.

NO admission of any wrongdoing or even responsibility for retaining Paradigm and for acting the way they have after the exam was administered.

No word on who will be the new retained contractor, or what they will do to re-administer the test. It is very important to know who the new contractor is because candidates will want to know that the selected corporation can handle the administration of both: written and oral tests in 2019.

No date for the retake, just a hint it will probably be after November. This assures all candidates an awful holiday season full of pain and suffering.

Not a word on reimbursement of the fees paid for the exam “administered” by Paradigm, and nothing on covering travel and other expenses for those who had to travel from far away to take the Paradigm exam.

Another development in this shameful saga happened on the written federal court interpreter certification exam: Even though Paradigm’s website still links to the FCICE webpage; the link has been disabled by the AO, and their website now indicates that at this time there is no date for the “summer” written examination, but from a careful reading on the website you can conclude it will be next year.

To mend the biggest fiasco in court interpreting history, people will take both, written and oral tests on the same year, altering the spirit of the exam as originally conceived, and ending a tradition.

Dear friends and colleagues, candidates who took the exam last year and those studying this year for the written test: it looks like you will continue to suffer emotional distress and enormous tension as you are likely to spend your 2018 holiday season studying for a test you had the right to take this year.

I now invite all candidates who took the oral exam, those studying to take the written test, and those certified interpreters who feel for these colleagues, to share their stories of struggle and frustration during this very dark time for court interpreting in America.

What ever happened to the written federal court interpreter exam?

May 21, 2018 § 16 Comments

Dear colleagues:

With all the noise and frustration surrounding the oral federal court interpreter examination fiasco, we have overlooked a group of colleagues left out in the cold with no updates and plenty of confusion: The candidates studying to take the written federal court interpreter certification exam scheduled for the summer or 2018. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) has been silent for many months and interpreters are concerned, puzzled, and they do not know what to do.

The AO’s official website redirects you to Paradigm’s webpage which shows this message: “Written examination registration dates will be announced in the spring of 2018, test locations will be announced at that time.”

This message has remained intact for months; no updates, no explanations, no changes.

In the weeks since my last widely read post on the oral exam, and despite all the comments by those who took the test in 2017, many federally certified court interpreters, and colleagues in general, raising serious concerns everywhere in social media about the judgment of those AO officials who hired Paradigm, and the lack of transparency and accountability after the administration of the test, the authorities who oversee the administration of the exam have done nothing to keep those who plan to take the written test during the summer of 2018 informed.

Apparently, silence continues to be the only policy coming from the federal judiciary. Our colleagues who plan to take the written exam do not know what to do. They do not even know if they should stop studying. Because from the lack of information they cannot even tell if there will be a written exam this year.

We do not even know for sure if the AO has severed its ties with Paradigm. There has been no official notice, and their own website continues to redirect all users who want information on the written exam to Paradigm’s website which shows outdated information where it claims that registration dates “…will be announced in the spring of 2018…” If this information is valid as of today, they better hurry up and publish the information before spring is no more.

I cannot help it but feel sorry for those whose lives have been on hold for several weeks while they wait to find out the exam dates and locations in order to make personal and professional arrangements to travel to the test sites.

If the exam has been postponed until further notice, please tell the interpreting community; if Paradigm is no longer the contractor for the written exam, please tell the interpreter community; if no details can be shared at this time because of pending litigation, please tell the interpreter community; If the negligent administration of the oral exam in 2017, and the decision to retest so many people will push the written exam into 2019, and if this will disrupt the regular 2-year cycles of  both oral and written exams, please tell the interpreter community.

This will make you look better and it will be a way to begin the road to recover credibility and trust. Remember, it is about transparency and accountability. Those at the AO must never forget they are the government. Those with the misfortune to take the oral test last year, and the ones suffering the uncertainty of the written test right now are the taxpayers.

We cannot lose sight of this unquestionable reality; dear friends and colleagues, we are protecting the profession, but we are also exercising our rights. To the handful of colleagues who feel intimidated by those who argue that the certification is not an entitlement and try to mask ineptitude and negligence when hiring Paradigm as a “technical difficulty”: Perhaps when you work within the government system for a long time you think that the federal government is some kind of a magnanimous god who favors court interpreters, also U.S. citizens, by granting them a certification. Do not be distracted by comments like the ones above. The real issue is transparency and accountability. The AO should come clean and explain why they hired Paradigm, admit fault, apologize, and communicate the way they plan to remedy this chaos, not only by telling those who took the exam they will now have a chance to retest. They must talk to those who want to take the written exam, and to the professional community.

Threats about pulling the exam are awful, distasteful, and baseless. The government cannot force the professional community into silence by threatening cancellation of the Spanish federal court interpreter certification program. They have not, and will not. These comments never came from an official source and should confuse no one. Navajo and Haitian-Creole certification programs were scratched because of docket and financial reasons. Spanish is used in all U.S. courts more than all other foreign languages combined. There is no rational justification to do something like that, so please ignore these rumors.

It is also important to remember that almost nobody who takes the federal court interpreter exam wants a guarantee to work in court. Sometimes staff court interpreters must be reminded that a federal certification is a means to prove skill and knowledge to many clients. The majority of the high-income earner interpreters I know make the bulk of their fees outside of court and work with a district court, making far less money, when they have no other assignment, or for personal reasons. A candidate who pays a fee to take a test has a right to demand performance in exchange for the fee. It is a service based on contractual obligations.

It is also of concern that people who are involved with voicing NAJIT’s policy or opinions have stated that this association with many members who took the oral test, who are waiting to take the written test, and who are voicing their anger with the way the AO has performed during this crisis, can claim that the Association has “no dog in that fight”. To be fair, this unfortunate comment came not from NAJIT’s Board and it has not been endorsed by the Association either.

Dear friends and colleagues, those of us who did not take the exam because we are already certified, or because our working languages do not include Spanish, or even those who practice our profession in other fields with nothing to do with the court system have a duty to defend and protect the profession, and a right to support our colleagues who were, and continue to be, affected by this negligent and careless actions. Resorting to smoke and mirrors like injecting Seltzer v. Foley is just a diversion tactic that will not work. That case questioned the rating criteria of the written exam; here the question is the ineptitude and negligence of those who hired Paradigm as the contractor in charge of administering the test, and the actions taken after the fact. Nobody has questioned the validity of the exam, nor the integrity of the raters. I have even said that I do not believe there was bad faith or the deliberate intent to cause harm by AO officials. All we are arguing is apparent negligence and ineptitude, and for that we are demanding transparency and accountability.

Implying that I have questioned the validity of the exam or the integrity of the raters only shows those who claim such things, and argue that people are angry because they did not pass the exam (even though no test results were out when these claims circulated in social media) have spread rumors without reading my posts.

Just like in other cases before: accreditation vs. certification of healthcare interpreters, exploitation of immigration court interpreters by a new language contractor, the court interpreter fiasco in the United Kingdom, the contractual and managing problems of the court interpreter program in New Mexico, abandoning the interpreters in conflict zones by Western Nations, the exploitation of telephonic interpreters by unscrupulous VRI service providers, and many others, I have no vested personal interest in these cases; it is nothing personal against government officials, language services agency owners, or professional associations; I just stand up, and will continue to stand up for the profession. I now ask you to share your comments on the written federal court interpreter exam of 2018. Please remember, personal attacks, disqualifications, foul language and surrogate defense of Paradigm, NAJIT, or the AO will not be posted.

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

February 20, 2018 § 73 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.

An interpreter exam for a certification… or for a job.

February 29, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A controversial issue that has been around for years has become quite popular in the past few months.  The controversy surrounding the United States federal government’s contract award to Department of Defense’s contractor SOSi has put this corporation under the microscope of many individual interpreters and interpreter associations. This scrutiny has touched on the training and “blessing” (call it certification, accreditation or anything you want) provided to the individual interpreters contracted by SOSi to work in the immigration court system for the first time.  After reading some of the posts in social media and the numerous letters, emails, and phone calls that I received from many friends and colleagues on this particular issue, I thought about it, and arrived to some personal conclusions that I think put in perspective what is happening in the American immigration court system and what many friends and colleagues would like to see implemented.

The first thing we need to do is define what an interpreter certification program and examination really are.  A process that ends in a generally accepted and scientifically proven method of testing designs, after exhaustive detailed research and practice testing, a comprehensive exam that tests individual performance in all basic properties of the activity, in this case profession, that the applicant aspires to practice in exchange for a professional fee in the real world.  Those passing this examination have demonstrated that they meet the minimum requirements acceptable to be a part of a profession subject to professional and ethical rules, legal statutes, and subject to liability in the event of malpractice.

This exam has to be designed in a way that it is objective, measures all candidates the same way, includes all elements relevant to the rating of a person’s performance, and for security and equity reasons has multiple versions in case somebody tries to circumvent the certification process, or fails to pass on the first, and often limited subsequent, attempts.  For all of these reasons the exam has to be developed by a combination of peer professionals, in this case interpreters and interpreter educators, in addition to scientists that will apply a scientific method, including the application of a grading curve, to be able to offer a comprehensive and fair assessment tool which plays a key role in the issuance of a certification.  This process takes a long time and is very, very expensive.  Moreover, the administration of the examination to the candidates also requires a big financial investment for both, the actual testing and the rating of the completed exam.   This is the main reason why there are so few real certification programs that can deliver unquestioned professionals.  Law school graduates in the United States take the bar exam to be able to practice as attorneys, and despite the fact that each state has its own version of a portion of the exam, they all share a common universal test that is part of the final assessment of that student: the MBE or Multistate Bar Examination that has been developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners to be universally applied in all fifty states and territories (with the exception of Puerto Rico). The purpose of the test is to assess the extent to which an examinee can apply fundamental legal principles and reasoning to analyze given fact patterns.  The individual states decided to go to the NCBE to develop the test because it was extremely costly for any single state to come up with its own examination.

The same scenario applies in the court interpreting arena where the states looked for a similar solution when they went to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).  The result was the same as in the lawyers’ case. Each state can add any requirements to the certification process if considered necessary in that jurisdiction (written tests, ethics exams, background checks, good moral character, etc.) but they all administer the same examination in Spanish and other languages where a test is available.  There are many languages without any certification exam due to the huge expense this represents and the lack of volume that could justify such an investment (not enough speakers of a given foreign language).  Only the United States government has a different examination and process because it has the deep pockets to do it, but even the Administrative Office of the United States Courts tests candidates through the NCSC. In all scenarios the individual interpreters who rate the candidate’s exams are independent contractors or staff members of the judiciary.  At different levels, all applicants who successfully pass this interpreter certification test, currently being offered only in Spanish, are considered qualified to render their professional services in a court of law within the jurisdiction where they took the exam, or nationwide in the case of the U.S. federal court system.  Clients, agencies, government entities and businesses use this certification as an assurance of a certain minimum level of quality. These new certified interpreters have demonstrated that they can work assignments that may include sight translations, and simultaneous or short consecutive interpretations (when I speak of short consecutive I am referring to the very difficult consecutive interpreting that is used in court which requires short quick renditions, unlike consecutive interpreting in a conference or diplomatic setting where the consecutive rendition could take thirty minutes or longer).  This is the only credential in the United States that tests interpreters in such a scientific way and in all modes.

There are other certifications in the U.S., but they either vanished because of its prohibitive cost and lack of demand, as it happened with the very good testing program offered in the past by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) or their testing method and results are in my opinion questionable as is the case of the “medical” and healthcare certifications offered in the United States, not by a governmental entity but by the private sector. These exams do not test in all modes of interpreting or the content of the exam is of lesser level than the one desired for a widely-recognized credential outside of the scope of a patient-physician interview at a hospital or medical office.  This is not to put these certifications down, but to illustrate the fact that a universal scientific test is a complex and expensive matter. I know how difficult and time consuming this process is because I had the opportunity to participate as one of many individuals involved in the development and field testing of an interpreter test for military and conflict zone interpreters a few years ago.

Because the process is so long, difficult, and costly, most organizations resort to another solution: they develop a program to assess individual interpreters in the field that will be relevant for that organization, and sometimes, if the target applicants require it, the program also includes some training or at least basic orientation.  These quicker and less expensive solutions can assist in determining the level of an interpreter in all modes, and sometimes are way more difficult than a certification program like the ones described above, but for the most part they are confined to the assurance of a certain minimum quality of service in the specific field or area where they operate.

The first example that comes to mind are the exams by the international organizations, or the United States Department of State conference level exam to assess the skill, knowledge and ability of the candidate. These are difficult tests that are rated by top interpreters who guard the quality of the service provided, and for this reason to pass these examinations, even though they do not confer a certification strictly speaking, means to the professional community that the candidate who just passed the assessment has a quality level that clients can rely on.

There are other exams of this type by both, government entities and the private sector that are nowhere as prestigious or difficult as the ones I mention above, but exist for commercial and legal reasons. Commercially because it is the way to get big contracts and important clients; legally because it is a certain protection against civil liability lawsuits that the entity offering the service, and the exam, might face down the road.  Most of the multinational interpreting agencies administer a training, orientation or test (call it evaluation, exam, or anything else) to their prospective interpreters to be able to market themselves as providers of “certified” interpreters and to defend from potential malpractice or negligence lawsuits as discussed above.  This practice is expensive (nowhere near a real certification program of course) but necessary to remain in business, and to a person not familiar with the profession it can create a sense of professionalism that could be the factor needed to get awarded a big contract. Although many of these entities ask their in-house interpreters to put together a quick assessment of those applying for interpreter assignments, some retain reputable institutions or renowned interpreters or educators to develop a training and evaluation program.  Needless to say, the individuals passing this evaluation may be ready for the limited work they will have to do, but they will never be considered or treated as a certified interpreter or an individual who passed an exam with the U.S. Department of State or an international organization.

This brings me back to the communications I have been getting about the immigration court interpreters in the United States and the training that defense contractor turned language service provider SOSi is offering to those new individuals who want to work under this new contract awarded last year by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).

The first thing to say is that SOSi has a temporary contract at this time, and even if extended to the maximum agreed to in the original contract, it will be for just a few years.  Moreover, to win the bidding process, SOSi had to bid really low and that ties their hands as far as the size of the financial investment they can justify to their board.  As precedent, you should know that all contractors have opted for the same type of solution in the past. There is no logic in investing the time and money developing a certification program that if they are lucky, might be ready by the time their EOIR contract expires.

I now want to talk about the program they are offering to their new interpreters, and I say new interpreters because I assume that those veteran colleagues who decided to go back despite all the problems with the contract terms and SOSi’s conduct during these months do not need to undergo the training and evaluation.

SOSi contracted out the development of this training and assessment of their candidates to an affiliate of an Interpreter training school. The program is offered on line and it includes 27 hours of on-demand training, 40 hours of on line interpreting practice, live sessions and random monitoring by an instructor, a mentoring service, and two assessments, with the second one being the final exam that according to SOSi and the trainer follows the U.S. Department of Justice and Executive Office for Immigration Review testing requirements. The program is supervised, and I assume developed in a significant part, by the director of the interpreter training school who happens to be a very well-known and recognized instructor. I have personally attended some of his talks when we have coincided at a conference and I must say that his presentations are of a very high quality. Moreover, this institution has been preparing interpreters to take court and healthcare interpreter certification tests for many years and with very good results.  I do not know how the trainer got the contract from SOSi, but whether it was through a bidding process or by negotiation, I see no wrongdoing.  If anything, I would say that the reputation of the interpreter training school is taking a big risk (calculated by their front office, I am sure) by working with such an entity as SOSi.

Some colleagues have also raised the fact that the exams will be rated by the training entity’s instructors as a potential conflict of interest.  I do not see it that way.  The National Center for State Courts also outsources the rating of their certification exams to independent contractor interpreters and court staff.  Most law students who are preparing for the Bar (including myself a long time ago) enroll in the Bar Bri courses to get ready for the exam. Bar Bri is no different from the trainer in this case.  As to the argument that interpreter trainers will “pass” those attending the training to keep SOSi happy, I do not believe that a reputable institution like this one would play that game. In fact, as an interpreter trainer and certification exam rater myself, I have to tell you that it is in your best interest to stop those who are not qualified from entering the professional ring.  Others have raised as a problem the fact that some of the raters may have never worked in immigration court. I do not see any validity to this argument either. Interpreting skills are the same for any court. The terminology and procedure may be different, but that can be learned by the student.  This happens every day with conference interpreters who have to research and study multiple subject matters throughout their career.

In conclusion, I do not believe that it is practical nor feasible that a government contractor such as SOSi invest the time and money required to develop a certification program when all they have been awarded is a temporary (renewable at best) service contract.  I think that, regardless of all the problems faced by the immigration court interpreters and the lack of competency shown by SOSi until now, they did what any contractor, capable or not, would do regarding its interpreters.  I think that the interpreter trainers in this case did what they had to do to get the contract and now that it has been awarded to them, they will act as the professional institution we all know they are.  Therefore, dear friends and colleagues, I do not believe that there are grounds to be concerned for this reason as long as we view this evaluation for what it is: an assessment of limited skills learned for the sole purpose of meeting a client’s needs, in this case SOSi and the EOIR, who apparently set the guidelines as to what needed to be tested.

This does not mean that we should give SOSi a pass. Our colleagues are still waiting for their services to be paid, people are still wasting time trying to get answers from an organization that does not respect its interpreters, and we cannot abandon them, but the “certification exam”, regardless of the skills it may evaluate, is not, in my opinion, something we can criticize.   The only way to change the immigration court interpreter exam is to get the United States Department of Justice and the Executive Office for Immigration Review to follow the same path that their counterparts in the judicial branch of government are following, and implement a real interpreter certification program, or join the federal court interpreter certification program that already exists; but in order to do this, you will have to convince them of three things associated with this change:  (1) That they need to go to Congress and ask for the resources, a tall order in our current political season, (2) That a real certification program will attract interpreters that will be better prepared, who will, after passing the examination, demand a higher pay and more professional conditions than the current interpreters,  and (3) That a real certification program will mean that many of their current interpreters will not pass and they could face a real interpreter shortage never seen before.   I now ask you to share with the rest of us your opinion about this issue.

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