December 9, 2013 § 6 Comments
Unfortunately this topic is not new to anyone. It seems like we have been listening to the same complaint for many years, but during the past few months I have heard and read enough disturbing stories to decide that it was my time to contribute my two cents to the defense of our colleagues: the real professional court interpreters. Before I continue, I must clarify that this posting refers to Spanish language court interpreters. I recognize that interpreters in other languages are in a different situation as they do not have a federal certification program in the United States. That is an issue for a separate blog post.
I learned that there are federal district courts in the Southern and Midwestern States where the federal court interpreter certification is not “required” to interpret a hearing or even a trial. I was told that there may be other federal courts elsewhere in the United States where they also follow this practice. I have to confess that I have been very lucky to live and work in places where this has never been an issue. In fact, I live in a city where I have never even met non-certified court interpreters. The Federal Court for the Northern District of Illinois provides federally certified court interpreters for all of its cases.
The most common complaints that I have heard from certified interpreters is that these courthouses have clerks, administrators, and judges who don’t see the need to hire federally certified interpreters because they think they are too expensive, it is too difficult to get them, or because they are happy with the services provided by non-certified individuals who have been providing their “services” to these judges. There is a federal district courthouse in the Midwest that hires one certified and one non-certified interpreter to work their trials. Fortunately, most certified interpreters refuse to work under these circumstances. Unfortunately, this courthouse then hires two non-certified individuals. Their argument is that it is cheaper and the non-certified individual has a state court interpreter certification. Another courthouse in the South routinely hires non-certified interpreters under the explanation that their judges like these non-certified individuals who have been doing “a good job” for many years. There is a federal district court judge who states on the record at the beginning of a hearing that the Spanish speaker is being assisted by a certified interpreter, without giving opportunity to the federally certified court interpreter to enter her appearance on the record by clearly stating that she is federally certified. This way the judge, intentionally or unintentionally (we don’t know) makes it impossible for the certified interpreter to separate herself from the non-certified individual. In fact, because of this maneuver, I heard that some attorneys that have appeared before this judge for many years are shocked when they learn out of court that the “other” individuals appearing in court are non-certified.
I would like to think that most of these situations arise from the lack of knowledge among judges and court staff. Many of them do not know the difference between a federally certified court interpreter (the ones who can appear in court) a state certified court interpreter, and non-certified individuals who just happen to accept assignments knowing that they are not supposed to.
For the benefit of some of you who might be reading this article, and with the hope that some of my colleagues may share the following information with judges, clerks, attorneys and others, I will touch upon some of the basic differences between a federally certified court interpreter and a state certified interpreter.
According to the Court Interpreter Act, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts shall establish a program to facilitate the use of certified interpreters in judicial proceedings instituted by the United States (28 USC § 1827) To fulfill this mandate, the United States AOC has developed a certification program that all Spanish interpreter candidates must pass to be certified. The certification program is administered in two parts: a written exam to test the true bilingualism of the applicant who has to pass (with a minimum score of 80) each of the two sections: English and Spanish. Those who pass this first stage must wait for a full year and then take the oral exam that consists of difficult exercises to test the examinee’s interpretation skills, legal terminology and comprehension, and language proficiency. To pass this test a candidate must score a minimum of 80 on each of its 5 sections: sight translations from English into Spanish and Spanish into English, two simultaneous interpretations at very high speeds: one a monologue and one a dialog, and a lengthy and complicated consecutive interpretation. Passing rates for this very difficult exam are among the lowest in any professional field.
A person can become state certified after meeting the requirements of that particular state. The format and minimum scores vary depending on the state. Some require a written test, others do not. Some offer a written test on the basics of the legal process, others require prove of bilingualism. The oral test can be the same in different states as they all use the services of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) but the way the test is administered and graded is different from state to state. Some states let the applicant take the oral exam by parts (first the simultaneous exam and maybe months later the consecutive and sight)
Of the many differences between the federal certification program and the states’ programs, perhaps the most important are the content of the exam and the minimum scores required to pass it. State exams have fewer sections than the federal test. They do not have a simultaneous interpretation dialogue, the simultaneous interpretation exercise is offered at a lower speed, the sight translation documents are not legal, but paralegal documents, and the subject matter of the exercises is based on topics that are under the jurisdiction of a state court. The minimum score to pass a state certification exam is 70. Some states allow that examinees retest only on those sections where they got a failing score. The passing rate for the state court interpreter examination is far higher than the federal rate. In fact, there are many state certified court interpreters who have repeatedly failed the written and oral federal certification examination. As you can see, there is a significant difference between these certifications. It is important to mention that for federal court purposes a state certified interpreter is a non-certified interpreter.
The federal court interpreter program exists because of a constitutional mandate. The VI Amendment of the United States Constitution states that: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to… be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him… and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense…” (Amendment VI. 1791)
The Court Interpreter Act clearly states that: “…Only in a case in which no certified interpreter is reasonably available as provided in subsection (d) of this section, including a case in which certification of interpreters is not provided under paragraph (1) in a particular language, may the services of otherwise qualified interpreters be used…” [28 USC § 1827(b)(2)]
Looking at the statute you can easily conclude that the courts are obligated to seek the services of federally certified interpreters. There were certified interpreters ready and able to work in all the cases I have mentioned in this article. It was the clerk or the judge who preferred to use the non-certified individuals.
Even smaller federal district courts now have access to federally certified court interpreters through the federal judiciary’s Telephone Interpreting Program (TIP) The TIP, available nationwide, allows an interpreter at a remote location to deliver simultaneous interpretation of court proceedings for defendants and consecutive interpreting for the court record by means of a two-line telephone connection. This program has been very successful and has kept the highest quality of interpretation in the courtroom.
It seems to me that after reading this posting, all federally certified court interpreters who are ignored or passed over by a courthouse, and later find out that a non-certified individual has been hired to “interpret,” should be able to explain the legal reasons not to do so. Unfortunately, sometimes this may not be enough. All federal judicial districts are independent. They make their own decisions. All federal district court judges are appointed for life. When an explanation is not enough to change a bad habit, there are other means to achieve the desired results.
When faced with the situation above, the interpreter should talk to the defense attorney and express his concerns about the defendant’s constitutional rights being violated. The V amendment indicates that: “No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…” (Amendment V. 1791) For a person to have due process there has to be legal representation. A defendant cannot participate in his defense unless he understands the charges against him and confronts his accusers. This is impossible if he cannot communicate with his attorney (See Amendment VI 1791 above) It is important to make it clear to the defense attorney that because of this violation of the defendant’s constitutional right to a due process, there are grounds for a dismissal, or at the least for an appeal, even before the trial takes place.
As far as the non-certified individual who is working at the courthouse, even with the blessing of a judge, there are several things that can be done: When the individual states that he is certified, or when the judge states on the record that this person is certified and the “interpreter” does not correct the record, there can be consequences if this person has a state certification. This should be brought to the attention of the state agency that oversees the performance of state certified interpreters. This lack of moral character could be grounds for a suspension or even a revocation of the state certification. Remember, state certified court interpreters are (state level) officers of the court.
There are also certain things to be done when the individual does not have a state certification. If at the beginning of the hearing, or at any time during the process, this person was placed under oath or affirmation and indicated that he was certified, or even if he remained silent when the judge or the clerk put him under oath as a certified interpreter, he may have committed perjury or at least misrepresentation and therefore he could be prosecuted for this crime. This individual could also be subject to other sanctions depending on the state where the act was perpetrated. Practicing a profession without a license or certification could be a misdemeanor in some states. The person may be subject to jail time or at the least to a fine.
Finally, the non-English speaker defendant or his dependants may be able to sue the “interpreter” for damages caused by him as an individual who provided a service without having the certification to do so, and perhaps committing fraud or inducing the error at the time of celebration of the professional services contract. If the non-English speaker thought that this individual was certified, there was no “meeting of the minds” and therefore the contract wasn’t valid; this means that he can sue the “interpreter” for damages and he may not have to pay him for what he did. This is a good remedy for those who appear in court pro-se.
There are many resources to right a wrong. The first step should be to try to educate the bench and bar. I encourage you to speak before the defense bar and the assistant U.S. attorneys. Make sure the court knows that all these resources exist; that they can use TIP. Always remember: you need to make sure they are aware that you know what is required, and that they know that you are willing to campaign for the use of certified interpreters in your district. Please share with the rest of us your experiences with non-certified interpreters and what you did to fix the situation in your federal district court.
July 22, 2013 § 10 Comments
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.
July 17, 2012 § 6 Comments
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.