Quality Interpreting is disappearing, and it is all the hiring entity’s fault.
October 5, 2022 § 8 Comments
Court interpreting in the United States, and probably elsewhere, is facing its biggest crisis since the courts worked with professional, certified and accredited interpreters half a century ago. Ignorance and lack of empathy in the court system has created a group of professional, highly specialized interpreters expected to work for subpar fees in both, State and Federal Courts.
Interpreters have been ignored and disrespected in several State systems where court interpreter pay is close to an unskilled worker’s, and has remained unchanged at such levels for years. Answers such as lack of resources, having to wait several budget cycles for the issue to be considered, have no credibility when wages of other officers of the court such as judges, State attorneys, and court reporters are raised and adjusted to inflation.
Spanish language federal court interpreters, arguably the most qualified group of court interpreters in the United States, have not seen a raise for many years, and have been ignored by the Judiciary when two letters signed by most interpreters were answered by the courts sending new contracts to these independent contractors at the same pay as every year for some time; not a word on a raise, or even an inflation cost of living adjustment. Many interpreters did not return the signed contract, others, changed the fees before signing it, and some signed and sent it back with the idea of not accepting any work as long as the fees issue remains unattended. We have learned that Washington, D.C., instead of contacting the various States, took the easy way, and it has been contacting several interpreters to discover what States pay for interpretation, instead of researching what the private sector pays.
This is important because for years, many of the most qualified, sought after, certified court interpreters have been ignoring the call of the courts, choosing instead the more profitable practice of interpreting for private attorneys, arbitrations, and depositions where they can make twice as much as what Federal Court pays. Sometimes even more.
The judiciary expects top-tier interpreters to work under abusive conditions, such as the federal cancelation policy. A few weeks ago, a federal judicial district issued a communication looking for federally certified court interpreters for a trial, the pay would be the same one interpreters are refusing to work for already. The communication stated the following as the court’s cancellation policy: “Because of the nature of the proceedings, in the federal courts, early terminations may occur. An interpreter is not entitled to a cancellation fee or additional compensation if the court gives the interpreter 24-hour notice that a trial will end early…” No compensation if notified 24 hours ahead of time! The court expects interpreters in high demand to set aside one or more weeks for a trial, and then leave them out in the cold if the parties settle, there is a plea agreement, the trial is continued, or the defendant pleads guilty. What individual in their right mind would agree to such terms? Only those who have to take the offer because they can get no work elsewhere. These will be rarely the best interpreters around.
This tendency is growing nationwide, and it is leaving the court system with a limited number of certified interpreters, some who stayed and work for little money because of the service they believe needs to be provided to a vulnerable population nobody in the system seems to care about, and those who cannot get work in the more competitive private sector because of their skill or lack of flexibility to travel or work long hours.
Many hearings, especially the short ones, and other interpreter services usually provided by certified interpreters, will continue to go to untrained, unskilled non-certified interpreters and paraprofessional bilinguals who will put non-English speakers at a disadvantage in their court proceedings. Sometimes, some courts, especially at the State level, may even use interpreters from another State, or those living in a foreign country who provide their services remotely, without a certification, and who gladly accept the low fees because their home country’s economy differs from the United States’.
Some certified court interpreters are even entering the conference interpreting field with no preparation, under the wrong assumption that certified court interpreters can interpret a conference. This complicates the landscape as interpretations in these conferences is deficient, and gives unscrupulous platforms and agencies some resemblance of legitimacy when they advertise the quality of their interpreters.
The constitutional mandate to have court interpreters may be at increasing risk every time judicial authorities remain inactive when interpreters, with justice and equity on their side, demand long overdue work conditions commensurate to the specialized service they provide, including fees that reflect this, and cost of living adjustments every year. Unless something is done to remedy this embarrassing issue, the administration of justice will be unequal, and the victims will all be humans: the litigants and others who appear in court, and the long ignored, and disrespected court interpreters.