The myth of federally certified Spanish court interpreter fees in the United States.

August 9, 2021 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

There has been some misleading information on line about the income Spanish court interpreters can make in the United States once they are certified at the federal level. This is motivated by the apparent dates for the next certification exam; and I refer to these dates as “apparent” because, not surprisingly, there is no official information, notice, or update on the website of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). This is not unexpected as lack of accountability kept in office the same people behind the last fiasco.  

As a marketing strategy, some exam preparation vendors have said, or at least implied, that federally certified court interpreters make $418.00 U.S. dollars per day, which multiplied by 5 days a week gives you $2,090.00 U.S. dollars per week; and this amount, times 52 weeks in a year is $108,680.00

The daily fee for a federally certified court interpreter is correct. Federal District Courts must pay freelancers said amount when retained for a full-day of work in court. “Unfortunately,” this is the daily fee for freelancers, and independent contractors are not staff interpreters, they do not work for the courthouse 40 hours a week; they are only asked to work when needed, perhaps several times in a month in a “good month,” and usually they are retained for half a day, at the official fee of $226.00 U.S. dollars, not $418.00

Frequency depends on the caseload, but it also depends on other factors such as the place where the interpreter is physically located, the number of certified interpreters in the area, and other criteria developed by each one of the federal districts. A good portion of this interpreter requests are not to work in court, but to assist attorneys from an existing panel, appointed to represent indigent defendants in federal criminal cases, in terms of the Criminal Justice Act, commonly referred to “CJA attorneys.” These interpretation services are paid at the same federal fees approved for court services above, most of these assignments are for half a day, and to be paid, interpreters must do some paperwork, ask the panel attorney to approve and file the invoice, wait until the lawyer gets around to do it, and then wait for the court to pay. In some districts the wait could be substantial.

Unlike state courts, there are few trials in federal court, even fewer that require interpreters, and most scheduled trials end up cancelled because the defendant enters into a plea agreement. In these cases, interpreters often get no money because of the advanced notice of cancellation, and in others, when there is a last-minute cancellation, interpreters get paid for just a few days, even had they set aside weeks for a lengthy trial that is no more.

Lengthy trials are paid as full days, and sometimes interpreters make an important amount of money, but traveling to another city for a federal trial can be tricky. The district court will reimburse all travel and lodging expenses incurred by the interpreter; the key word is “reimburse.” Interpreters have to buy fully-refundable plane tickets, paying for expensive tickets since “airline specials” are not fully refundable and carry many restrictions unacceptable to the federal government. Interpreters also pay for their hotel rooms (here they catch a break because they must get the hotel’s federal employee rate considerably lower that a regular fare) their ground transportation, and all of their meals. The courthouse will reimburse all the expenses after reviewing all invoices submitted by the interpreter, but reimbursement could take several weeks and even months (usually longer that a credit card payment cycle). Many interpreters turn down this out-of-town trial assignments. They cannot afford to advance such amount of money.

Some of you may be thinking: Why should I get certified then? The answer is, because interpreting in federal court pays better than most state courts, and it definitely pays better than most abusive agencies. The important thing is to understand what the federal certification is good for.

If your expectations are to make a high income by working for the federal court system as a freelancer, then you have to reconsider your options and think about applying for a staff court interpreter position in a federal courthouse. But if you value your freedom as an independent contractor, and you have professional plans beyond interpreting the same subjects for the same judges for the rest of your career, then you have to understand the federal certification credential is helpful when you know how to use it.

First, as a newly certified interpreter, you will gain a lot of experience. This is extremely valuable when you start as an interpreter and recognize when it is time to move on.  By going to interpret at the federal courthouse, you will meet attorneys (not federal public defenders or CJA panelists) from big law firms who will hire you as your direct clients. Most of the law firms I am referring to practice civil litigation and corporate law. Working for these clients will eliminate most of your competitors, as most interpreters stay with criminal courthouse work. It will also challenge you to be a better interpreter as cases are varied and usually more complicated than criminal trials. You will also meet the attorneys’ clients, many multinational businesses and Fortune 500 companies, and they will become your clients for non-legal matters where they may need interpreting services.

If you stay in criminal law because of personal reasons, you can also target the big criminal law firms that handle private clients, among them businesspeople and celebrities that could end up as your clients. If you cannot gain access to these law firms and their clients at this time because of your lack of professional experience or due to your physical location, the federal certification will let you work with the United States Attorney where you can negotiate your fee and work conditions without being limited to the official federal fees (as with the court, CJA attorneys, and federal public defenders).   

Working as a freelance certified interpreter in federal court is a great back-up income strategy. Sometimes, direct clients will be scarce. When this happens, contact your federal courthouse and offer your services. They may ask you to work on a day you have nothing scheduled. Under those circumstances, it is better to work for the federal full-day or half-day fee than state court fees, or abusive agencies. Just make sure when you work in federal court you act as a consummate professional, do your best work, and be courteous to all. Courthouse interpreter coordinators will appreciate the work you do, and will understand you are not always available because you are constantly looking for ways to be a better interpreter and move up in the profession.

I hope you now understand better what to expect from a federal court interpreter certification, its potential income and possibilities; and how, when done wisely, it can help you grow as a professional interpreter. You must get certified. Please feel free to share your comments with the rest of us.

Interpreters’ rights under siege in California and other places.

March 21, 2019 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Quite a few colleagues from California and other states, even foreign countries, have contacted me to complain about certain practices, and even legislation, that directly deprives them from their right to make a living by practicing as freelance court interpreters.

In California, the full implementation of the so-called “Language Access Plan” (LAP) goes into effect full blast by 2020. This is a strategy adopted by the State to meet the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and keep California as beneficiary of federal funds attached to this legislation (http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/LAP-Fact-Sheet.pdf).

The State had already partially complied with the federal mandate when it was sued by a non-for-profit organization, now a member of the State’s Advisory Committee on this Plan. As a result, California decided to provide, free, interpreting services to anyone who requests an interpreter in Civil matters. This is a universal rule, not limited by income-based eligibility requirements, and it applies to both: low income litigants with no ability to pay for an interpreter, who benefit greatly from this service, and Fortune 500 corporations that appear in court represented by high-price attorneys and rely on the expert testimony of expensive witnesses.

This decision by the State has nothing to do with the preposterous practice, followed by many States, to dodge Title VI of the Civil Rights Act’s mandate by creating de dubious “Justice System Interpreters” program (it goes by different names in various States) and save money, instead of fostering the development of real certified court interpreters and paying them a professional fee for their expert services. This mandatory policy California will fully implement by 2020 (unless the rule of law prevails and it is amended) impacts professional certified and registered (depending on the language combination) court interpreters.

California adopted a sweeping, populist demagogic policy that mandates free interpreting services for anybody in any court proceeding. At first, this looks like a fair and wise decision by a progressive State that wants to level the legal field for all its citizens, but if you just peel off the top layer, you discover the policy is wrong, expensive, incoherent, and illegal.

It is wrong because it treats all litigants the same way in non-criminal matters, going beyond Federal and State constitutional protections limited to criminal proceedings, and creating an even greater uneven field by rightly providing free interpreters to those civil litigants who cannot afford a private interpreter, and wrongly gifting the same option to those individuals and corporations with the means to pay for these services. A well-intentioned solution resulted in a policy that makes no sense.

It is expensive because the interpreters providing this service will be paid by the State of California through a judicial fund, wasting valuable taxpayer money in interpreter fees that should be paid by those civil matters’ litigants who can afford them. Court interpreter programs need more financial resources in California and elsewhere, and a State willing to invest money in language access programs should allocate those funds to professional development and better pay for those freelance interpreters serving criminal courts and interpreting civil matters for indigent litigants, not big business and wealthy individuals.

It is incoherent because Congress’ intent, in advancing these constitutional protections, was to give all individuals, regardless of their financial situation, the same access to the administration of justice even where they speak a language other than English. The legislator never envisioned a situation where taxpayers’ money would cover expenses derived of civil litigation, where life and liberty are not at stake, to favor those who do not need financial assistance. Under a rational basis criterion, taxpayers’ interest to judiciously spend their money substantially outweighs the needs of Fortune 500 businesses and millionaires to get an interpreter free of charge in civil matters.

It is illegal, because implementing this policy mandates all court administrators, managing interpreters, chief judges, and others in charge of court interpreting services at the courthouse level, to provide free interpreters in all civil cases, and, as it has been (almost) unanimously interpreted by these government agents, this means that freelance court interpreters should be banned and excluded from all civil court proceedings when their services are not paid by the judiciary, even when litigants prefer the services of independent court interpreters and they will pay for their services. California legislation establishes the requirements to practice court interpreting in the State as a certified or registered court interpreter (depending on the language combination). Perhaps these certification and registration requirements are meant to qualify as a court interpreter contracted by the court, but for the sake of argument, and because having certified and registered interpreters serve courts and litigants better, let’s assume however, requirements are necessary to practice as a court interpreter. Conclusion: As long interpreters meet the requirements, and until these credentials are suspended or revoked, they should be admitted to practice in any proceeding when the parties retain their services.

The other professional in a civil proceeding is the attorney. All parties may retain the attorney of their choice to represent them in any court matters; those who cannot pay for legal representation can seek assistance by non-for-profit organizations that provide attorneys for free or on a sliding scale. Attorneys are not excluded from a proceeding when paid by one party. I understand that, if you only see this situation from the litigants’ perspective, the issue is not exactly the same. Indigent litigants can appear in court pro-se if they cannot afford a lawyer, but non-English speakers cannot represent themselves, and their access to the administration of justice must be guaranteed by providing a court interpreter; however, in civil cases, said right should be tempered by the individuals ability to pay for an interpreter, so indigent litigants enjoy an even field with English speakers, taxpayers money is not wasted on paying for the services of an interpreter they can easily afford on their own, and freelance civil court interpreters can exercise their right to practice in the courts of California when their client will pay for their services.

Please remember that I am referring to those cases where litigants can pick their interpreters, just as wealthy people choose their doctors, lawyers, and accountants. I am not including in this category services provided by freelance court interpreters to indigent plaintiffs and defendants who cannot pay such fees but retain the interpreting services because they ignore a program would furnish an interpreter at no cost if they financially qualify for it.

The cases that concern my colleagues, and worry me as a member of the profession, are those controversies so complex, they need expert attorneys, witnesses and interpreters. These require of months of preparation, where interpreters are a crucial part of the legal team and often travel overseas with lawyers and investigators for interviews, inspections, and depositions. I am also talking about civil trials dealing with topics so sophisticated that attorneys, sometimes by agreement of the parties, hire freelance interpreters, not to be part of the plaintiff’s or defense’s team, but to interpret all court proceedings for the judge and jury. These interpreters are selected because of their experience on a particular subject, or because of their known skill and diligence, needed to prepare for a difficult, long trial, where branding, reputation, and a lot of money are at stake.

Some of our colleagues have told me that interpreters’ professional associations, interpreters’ labor unions (where they exist) and even staff interpreters oppose an amendment that will allow independent contractor civil court interpreters back in the courtroom.

This should not be the case. Staff interpreters should be glad to have one less issue to worry about. Civil Law and proceedings are very complex. Inexperienced civil court interpreters, even when they may have many years of criminal court practice, which encompasses most of those working as independent contractors with the courts, are prone to make mistakes when dealing with unfamiliar subjects and little time to prepare for a case. Professional associations, labor unions, and interpreters’ guilds are about advancing and protecting the profession. Excluding civil court interpreters from State courtrooms benefits no one. Even when the excluded professional is a non-unionized independent contractor, or these colleagues are not members of the professional association or guild, any policy that irrationally limits the livelihood of a group of interpreters eligible to perform a service hurts the profession and damages all, unionized, independent, and staffers. All agencies devoted to the advancement and protection of the profession must understand that independents, staffers, or members of a different association are not the enemy, we all play for the same team. We must channel our energy and resources to change legislation, regulations, and government policy like this one. We must remember: Those driving professional fees down, lowering professional standards, and destroying decent working conditions are the greedy agencies, not our fellow interpreters. In places like California where a professional association specifically deals with the interests of independent contractor court interpreters, such as AIJIC (http://www.aijic.org/), ask them to lead the campaign and support them in these efforts. States where there is not a professional association of independent or in general judiciary interpreters, local and State-wide professional associations must protect the profession by assuming leadership in this and other matters that affect professional interpreters in their State or region.

I have heard that government officials are unwilling to rectify because they do not want to lose face; that they worry about not getting federal funds if found noncompliant with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act; that they problem is stubbornness or ignorance of the interpreter profession or disregard for what interpreters do in a court proceeding.

Government officials must put constituents first and sometimes this means that a law, regulations, or public policy need to be amended. Can you imagine our country without the Twenty-first Constitutional Amendment repealing prohibition because legislators wanted to save face? Federal authorities over at the Justice Department would never retain federal funds from a State unless there was a violation of the Civil Rights Act. As long as there is equal access to the administration of justice, and the access is guaranteed to those who speak a language other than English by providing a free interpreter to those who cannot afford to hire one on their own.

The situation may be more difficult when dealing with stubborn or ignorant public servants. Here, after reasoning and dialogue takes you nowhere, and there is no other option, interpreters’ professional associations, such as AIJIC, supported by other national and local associations, including interpreter labor unions and guilds,  should stop wasting their time with government officials who do not want to listen, and take their concerns to the interested parties: Attorney State Bars, local Bars, ethnic and gender-based Bars, Law Schools, Judicial Colleges and Associations, carefully targeted judges and legislators (not bureaucratic committees ruled by the same rigid individuals they could not convince before), and social media. Make the case that quality suffers when unprepared interpreters work in a case; clarify that certified and registered court interpreters cannot be denied access to the place where they find their livelihood. Help them see this situation your way; they have an interest on this policy, but it does not impact the way they make a living if left unchanged.

Civil court interpreting is a niche. Most certified and registered court interpreters are not familiar with civil law and procedure; court interpreter certification exams cover criminal law and procedure, not civil law. Since the implementation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act nationwide during the Obama years, I have talked to many court interpreters scheduled by the courts to interpret civil matters who feel apprehensive and not-prepared. Even though the purpose of this post, and all my posts really, is to protect our profession and show all issues from the often-ignored interpreter’s perspective, often, the quality of the rendition and the administration of justice, would greatly improve if freelance civil court interpreters are welcomed back to the courtrooms in California and elsewhere. I now invite you share with the rest of us the situation of these civil court interpreters in your State, given the implementation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. I would also like to hear from those colleagues in other countries who may be facing a similar situation. Finally, please share your ideas to right this wrong.

The biggest danger to the interpreting profession.

June 15, 2015 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreters face many challenges every day; some are professional, some are technical, and some are market-related.  Today we are going to talk about this last category, and we will particularly devote some time to what I consider to be one of the greatest dangers to our profession.

Many times, you have read, heard and complained about the huge bad agencies and the backwards government offices you have encountered during your career. We all know they are there and we should be extremely careful when dealing with them so that our best interests as freelance professionals are protected.

There are other entities in our environment that could be more dangerous because they seemed harmless and deal with many interpreters more often than any other client. I am talking about the small interpreting agencies that exist all over the world in huge numbers. I am referring to those agencies that are individually owned and operate in small markets where so many of our colleagues live and work.

We all heard of the big interpreting agencies, but the truth is that most interpreters do not live in New York City, London, or Chicago. They live in smaller cities and communities where the big agencies rarely take over the market; and they don’t do it because, by their standards, there is not enough money to be made. There are no big conferences, there are no international organizations, and there are no Fortune 500 corporate headquarters.  The void left by these big players is occupied by “mom and pop’s agencies” that find these smaller markets attractive, and free of competition against the big language business organizations.

Although there are some honest businesses owned by people who know and care about the profession, many small interpreting agencies are individually or family owned, often times the company owner knows nothing about interpreting or translating, and is monolingual.  These individuals come from other professional backgrounds such as sales, computer design, or public relations, and they just happened to stumble upon our profession due to marriage or a change of residence to a more linguistically diverse community.  Because of their personal characteristics, and often (but not always) because they are native speakers, they can produce an adequate sales pitch for their not very sophisticated market, and the next thing you know, and without any real knowledge of what we do, they start offering interpreting and translation services and booking interpreters for assignments such as administrative law hearings, medical office visits, and “second-tier” conferences in their own region.  So far it sounds bad, but not horrendous. Allow me to continue.

The reason why the get government offices, medical doctors, and small event planners to hire them is twofold: They have enough knowledge of their market to access the places where these clients look for language services (internet search positioning, chambers of commerce, local fairs, etc.) and they offer translators and interpreters for a lower fee.  This is the sale!

Remember, when they first started their business they knew nothing about our profession. By now they have learned one thing, the only one they ever cared to learn: You can get translators from poor countries, and local interpreting talent (mediocre at best) for rock-bottom prices. Because of their “sales skills” they are able to convince their client, who is eager to find the cheapest service provider ever, that their professional services are provided by “adequate”, “qualified” native-speaker interpreters. The bureaucrat, doctor, or businessperson who is hiring the small interpreting agency, does not know anything about interpreting experience, certifications, degrees, licensing, patents, or any other interpreter credentials, and they are so thrilled to get the interpreter so cheap, that they will believe anything this ignorant will tell them.

Of course, due to the rickety pay, the agency owner will have these (mediocre at best) interpreters working under deplorable conditions such as obsolete equipment, bad interpreter location inside the room, no interpreting booth, and no team interpreting.  Sometimes they will brag to their interpreters that they got them a table-top booth to do their job, and every once in a blue moon they will provide a real technician to be by the interpreter’s side throughout the event.

After the interpreting services are rendered, these agencies will take their sweet long time to pay. Many times a “standard” payment policy will be 90 days, and even then, some of these raiders of our profession will tell the interpreter that “their client has not paid them yet” and will use this as an excuse not to pay the interpreter, who erroneously, will feel sorry for the abusive agency owner, and will gladly agree to wait until the agency gets paid. Never mind the house mortgage payment, the kids’ school tuition, and the family medical expenses. The interpreter will now wait for the “poor agency owner” who will console himself in the meantime with a trip to Hawaii, tickets to an expensive sports event, or at least a fancy dinner.

Dear friends, interpreters will take these terrible assignments, wait forever to get a tiny paycheck, and go back to the same abusive agency owner mainly for two reasons: (1) Because the interpreter is so incompetent, that he knows deep inside that no one else will ever hire him to work, and (2) Because they are so afraid of never working again for this same individual.  Not because they are bad interpreters (although each day they will be worse if they stay with the agency and continue to work under those unprofessional conditions) but because they do not know how to get their own clients; because they believe that the clients belong to the abusive small agency owner, and they cannot take them away.

The thing is, dear colleagues, that it is precisely because of the second reason above that these dangerous agencies exist. They are in business because interpreters are too afraid to go directly to the client and explain that the agency is run by a person who knows very little about interpreting, that the service they have been providing through the agency is second-class because they have been asked to work without any technical and human resources, not because they are second-tier professionals. Many times when these interpreters offer their professional services directly to the client, they find out that the agency was keeping more of the paycheck than they thought, and sometimes the government agency, doctor office, and event organizer will realize that they could even save money when they pay the interpreter his full regular fee.

I know that some of you are thinking: (1) What about interpreter services in other languages different from yours? The agency finds and provides all these “exotic” language interpreters on a regular basis. The answer to that is very simple. Although it is not of your concern because you are an interpreter, you can teach the client how to get other language interpreters. If you have been around for some time, chances are that you will be able to provide a name list to the client, and this will satisfy most of his needs. For the others, you can suggest professional associations’ membership directories such as ATA, IAPTI, AIIC, NAJIT, IMIA, etc. and perhaps for those occasions, the client can reach out to one of the big international language agencies. I see no problem because this would help your client without harming anyone. After all, there is nobody in town who could do the job. (2) What about that contract we signed that states that we cannot even look in the direction of the small agency’s client? Many of these agency owners included this provision to discourage interpreters from talking to clients. The best thing to do is to take the contract to an attorney and ask if the provision is enforceable (not legal). If it is not, you know what to do, and if it is, then you just have to wait for the provision to expire, after all none of them is forever.

I know that my colleagues in the big world capitals have little to do with these “family businesses”, but they have appeared here and there from time to time, so please be very careful, avoid them, and remember, in the big city there is always another way to get work.  The solution is, my friends and colleagues, to reject work from these entities, fight over the market so they cannot keep it or take it away from you, and observing the law, act like a business. You have an advantage: you know your profession.  As you can see, in my opinion we have to separate the big multinational language service providers from these “mom and pop’s” agencies. The big ones meet a market need that we cannot meet individually. Although we have to be firm and careful when negotiating with them, we need them for the big events and conferences.  These small ones, these apparently harmless local business are a real danger to the profession. The good news is that in this case you do not need them. You can fulfill the needs of your market.  I now ask you, the interpreters, to please share with the rest of us your opinion about these small and dangerous agencies that are all over the place.  Please do not reply if you are one of the rare exceptions among this business entities. I already mentioned you as some of the few good guys at the top of the post. And please do not bother to comment if you represent one of these agencies and you want to defend what you do. You have your own forums where you “make your case” all the time.

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