Big change to the way the federal court interpreter exam is rated in the U.S.

July 22, 2013 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As I write this posting many of my friends, colleagues, and students are taking the toughest court interpreter exam in the United States: The federal court interpreter certification test. There are other court or legal exams given by government agencies at the federal and state level, and even the private sector has designed some interpreter exams, but no test is as demanding as the federal certification exam.  This week, just like one summer week every two years since the test has been in place, hundreds of Spanish-English interpreters: veterans, newly graduated, newcomers to the United States, and many others who previously passed the written test (at least one year earlier) are culminating months on study, practice and psychological preparation as they leave their hometown and travel to some of the largest cities in the country to have their skills  tested for some forty five minutes. During that period of time they will attempt to demonstrate that they are ready to interpret simultaneously, consecutively, and to sight-translate in the United States federal courts.

Within the profession it is very well known that this is not an easy exam; in fact, the passing rate of the attorney bar exam is substantially higher than the federal court interpreter certification test.  As someone who has gone through both exams I can even say that it is harder to get certified as an interpreter.  Traditionally there have been two systems to rate the examinee’s rendition: For many years the test was administered orally before a live jury of three certified interpreters who would rate the applicant’s performance.  Years later the system changed to a recorded test where the examinee would sit in a room with a proctor and record the rendition. Afterwards, the recording was reviewed by a team of three certified interpreters that would rate the performance based on the recorded material.  This year, for the first time ever, the renditions will be rated not by a jury of three certified interpreters, but by teams of two.

This change is as radical as the switch from a live oral test to a recorded one.  Generally in life we encounter all kinds of panels, juries, and other deliberation groups that consist of an odd number of members, and there is a reason for that configuration: You eliminate the possibility of a tie, you discard the scenarios where an even number of people can agree to one thing and at the same time another even number of people agree to another making a majority decision very difficult.  The odd number gives you unanimity or a tie breaker. In other words, it assures you that there will be a final decision. In the case of the federal court examination a final vote of 3-0 or 2-1.

The new system will no doubt result in many unanimous decisions of pass or fail, but there will be ties, and when the two raters cannot reach a consensus the exam will be sent to another panel who will rate it and decide.  The system seems fair, I am not so sure that it will be as quick and efficient as the 3-rater panel, but it seems like a reasonable solution to a tie.  I know many of the raters and as far as I can tell, an overwhelming majority have rated exams in the past; many of these interpreter-raters have scored tests under the two previous systems and most of them have demonstrated to be fair and capable.  I do not believe that this will make the exam easier or more difficult, I don’t know if this will make it more efficient, and I don’t know yet if this will make it as fair as it has always been in the past. Everything indicates that it will be fine, but to know for sure we have to wait and see. I will be carefully watching the outcome as I am interested to see not only if more people fail under this new system, but also if more people pass. Big changes one way or the other could be a symptom that something is not as it was before.  I give them the benefit of the doubt and today I assume that everything will be fine; it is just that a jury of two looks a bit strange.  Please share your thoughts on the test and this new rating system.

What we learned as Interpreters in 2012.

January 1, 2013 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2012 is history and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2013, we can look back and assess what we learned during the past 12 months.  As interpreters our career is a constant learning experience, and from talking with many of my colleagues 2012 was no exception. I personally grew up professionally and got a new appreciation for our profession. This year that ended gave me once again the opportunity to work with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

2012 put me in direct contact with interpreters from many countries and diverse fields of expertise. I was able to share my knowledge and experience with many colleagues dear to me and with some new interpreters and translators.  This past year gave me the opportunity to learn many things at the professional conferences I attended, from the interpretation and translation books first published in 2012 that I read, and of course working in the booth, at the courthouse, the formal dinners, and even in open space, literally on the fields, during some livestock, oil, and agriculture events that I interpreted for in 2012.

During my year 2012 I experienced the satisfaction of publishing my first book, to see how several of my students became federally certified court interpreters in the United States, and I had the fortune to present before conferences in different counties.  During this year that ends I traveled to the Mexican Translators’ Organization (OMT) conference in Guadalajara Mexico where I was ecstatic over the magnificent International Book Fair. This year was filled with professional experiences acquired all over the world as I constantly traveled throughout the year, meeting and observing new colleagues and catching up with good friends. Now, as I sit before my computer reminiscing and re-living all of these life-enriching experiences, I ask you to share some of your most significant professional moments during this past year.

Something bad is happening with the federal courts in some states.

July 17, 2012 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Not long ago I had dinner with some colleagues that work in the federal court system.  As it always happens with interpreters, we ended up talking shop.  Of course, as you all know, this is pretty standard in our profession; however, I was shocked by some of the comments I heard. I learned that despite the fact that the state has over 20 court certified interpreters, the federal courts in Colorado are now hiring non-certified interpreters for all services with the exception of court hearings; and that is not all, I also heard that the CJA attorneys are only approving vouchers for the time “actually worked” by the interpreter. Forget about the full day and half a day rates.  I also found out that, ignoring the fact that Chicago has around 15 certified court interpreters, the state of Indiana is hiring non-certified interpreters for hearings, and they are even pairing them with certified interpreters.  We all know that each district is its own world, and they set their own policy, but somebody told me that this is happening with the blessing of higher authorities.  This is worrisome.  I support the idea that if you want to like our profession for a long time, and if you want to make a good living, you need to diversify and interpret conferences, legal, medical, and everything else you can think of.

I oppose the position of some independent contractor colleagues who only see themselves as court interpreters and refuse to step outside the box; however, I am very fortunate to live in a place where the court only allows certified court interpreters,  but if what I heard is true, I am saddened and frustrated by this information because the certification exam is not easy, because there is a huge quality gap between the interpretation level of certified and non-certified court interpreters, and because the attorneys and judges are going along with the budget guys, giving up the quality of a certified court interpreter in order to save a few bucks.  I ask you to tell me if this is what is happening in your area, and if so, what in your opinion can be done to educate the defense bar, the federal bench, and the U.S. Department of Justice so they stop calling all these non-certified interpreters, and let me be very clear that when I say non-certified I am including the consortium certified interpreters because there is no distinction between them and those with another certification or without any certification, they are not certified to work in the federal system.  It is that simple.

The personal benefit of being a certified court interpreter in a State that is not a member of the Consortium. You better read!

May 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

You probably think the title of this article is wrong, but it is not.  During my career, I have worked and lived in States of this country, the United States, where there is no consortium interpreter court certification, and in States that are members of the consortium.   Of course, at first sight, the comment by most colleagues is:  You are better-off working in a State where they have and enforce court certification, and that is true as far as continuing education, certain quality-control of the services provided by those interpreters hired by the courts, and the fact that most, not all, of these consortium certified court interpreters are better than those who are not certified.

You would say, at least they approved the certification exam that the other interpreter failed, and you would be right. The thing is, I am not writing about that type of benefit. The benefit I am referring to is the benefit that you, as an individual, professional federally certified court interpreter have when you work with clients, in and out of the judicial system, who cannot tell apart those court interpreters that they see working at the courthouses every day.  In a State where there is no consortium certification you can go to the client and point out that the other interpreter has no certification whatsoever, that your federal certification is not easy to obtain, and that from the start, that puts you in a better position to provide a better-quality interpretation service.  It also gives you an argument to negotiate a higher fee.  In Consortium States we often run into the problem of having to explain the difference between the two certifications, and even when we succeed, some clients may be tempted to retain the services of somebody less qualified because after all, a certification is a certification, and “how much different can it be?”  Of course the problem is greater when you factor in the “grandfathered” interpreters who did not have to pass the consortium certification exam.

Of course, you are now going to tell me that once the client sees you in action she will fall in love with your work and will hire you again; surely, you will now say that some State certified interpreters are good, and some federally certified are not that great, no doubt some of you could mention that the quality level of those State interpreters in non-consortium States is even worse… I agree with all those observations, all I am saying is that if you are a federally certified court interpreter living in a non-consortium State, look for this added benefit and exploit it. It has worked for me.   Please tell me what you think of this perspective, and please do not write about how State certified interpreters are good, or bad, that is not the topic of this piece.

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