Are federally certified court interpreters any good? Maybe the NAJIT conference had the answer.

May 20, 2013 § 17 Comments

Dear colleagues:

When you go to the doctor, retain an attorney, get on an airplane, or hire a plumber, you want them to be honest, good, and competent. So do I; So does society. That is why there are laws and regulations that require they go to school, get a professional license, and comply with continuing training and education.  Even when a person reaches a certain age, he has to go back periodically to the Motor Vehicle Division to be retested in order to continue to drive. Interpreters are no exception. Almost everywhere in the United States where a State offers a certification program, its interpreters must comply with continuing education requirements to keep their certification. Translators need to do the same to maintain their certification with the American Translators Association.  It sounds logical right? It makes sense.

Over the weekend the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) held its annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri. This is a yearly event and it is the only one of its kind. NAJIT is the only national professional association for judiciary interpreters in the United States. There are many state, regional, and local organizations that meet regularly and offer training and educational opportunities to their members, but no other one offers this service at the national level.  Every year the conference takes place at a different location and offers a variety of workshops and presentations so that all judiciary interpreters and translators can better themselves and meet their continuing education requirements with their respective states.

As the main gathering of judiciary interpreters, NAJIT attracts some of the key players in the industry, including the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. This is the federal agency that runs the federal court interpreter certification program.  Every year this presentation brings federally certified interpreters up to speed on everything that is happening in the federal interpreter program through a presentation and an open question and answer session with the government officials who know the subject. The presentation was held as scheduled and Mr. Javier Soler and Ms. Julie Meeks were there sharing statistics and information; answering questions, dissipating doubts. Unfortunately, and in my opinion very sadly, only a handful of federally certified court interpreters were there.  There are almost one thousand federally certified court interpreters in the United States and there were less than twenty in attendance! Other sessions held simultaneously in the other conference rooms were full of state-certified court interpreters who were attending the St. Louis conference because they wanted to improve their skills but also because they needed the continuing education credits for their respective State Administrative Office of the Courts.  Of course, there room was not that empty, there were many people without a federal certification who were attending Mr. Soler’s and Ms. Meeks’presentation because they wanted to learn.  And they did learn something that was discussed for the next two days in the hallways of the hotel where the conference took place: Federally certified court interpreters do not need continuing education credits to keep their certification current.  Those non-certified interpreters in attendance learned something they didn’t expect, tweets on this issue were the conference’s most re-tweeted throughout Europe where 2 other conferences were held on the same weekend. I knew this information. I have always known this information, but as I looked around a room with just a few colleagues, many non-certified attendees, and a tweet practically going viral, I understood why the federally certified court interpreters weren’t there, listening to the representative of the government agency that regulates what they do and travels half a continent every year to come to see them: No motivation. No need. The only court interpreters who were not attending the conference, and particularly this session were the federal interpreters. The only ones who do not need to comply with continuing education.

Let me explain: Unless an interpreter complies with the State of Colorado’s continuing education requirements, he cannot interpret for a defendant who has been accused of driving without a license and proof of car insurance in Pueblo Colorado. Unless an interpreter complies with the State of New Mexico’s continuing education requirements, she cannot interpret for a defendant who has been accused of duck-hunting without a permit in Estancia New Mexico.  A federally certified court interpreter who has never attended a class of ethics or a legal terminology presentation in his lifetime can interpret for a defendant who has been charged with running the biggest organized crime operation in the history of the United States.  The first two examples are misdemeanor charges that carry a fine, and under some circumstances a brief stay behind bars. The individual in the last example could be facing life in prison.

The judicial branch of the United States government is facing tough times; these are difficult days and they have to watch a smaller budget. So do the individual states.  It is very true that continuing education is expensive. It is expensive to provide the education and training. It is expensive to verify compliance and to keep a record… but there are ways…

There are surely other options, but these are my 2 cents:

Some states honor the continuing education provided by already well-established organizations and associations at the national, regional, state, and local levels. ATA does the same.  The cost to the federal government would be zero if they decided to honor credits obtained at a NAJIT, ATA, or other well-recognized conference in the United States, including some state conferences such as California’s Nebraska’s, New Mexico, and others. They could also honor credits from attending well-known prestigious international and foreign professional organizations such as FIT, FIL/OMT in Mexico, ASETRAD in Spain, and others; and they could also consider the classes taught at institutions like MIIS, University of Arizona, University of Maryland, and others.  All of the conferences and organizations above offer training and presentations on ethics, skills-building, terminology, practices, technology, and many more.

The reporting of the courses attended could be on an honor basis as many states do at this time. After all, federally certified court interpreters are professionals with moral solvency who periodically undergo criminal background checks. They are officers of the court!  These credits could be reported by answering and signing a form at the same time contractors renew their contract every year and staffers undergo their evaluation.  And to keep a central record, all interpreters would have to input this information into the system once a year by accessing and updating their personal information on the national court interpreter database system (NCID) that already exists and we access every time we change our address or modify our resume.

Federal interpreters are honest, professional and capable individuals who love their trade and take pride on their work. They would happily embrace this change and comply. After all, many are already doing it for their state and ATA certifications.  Please let me know your opinion and ideas on this crucial topic.

No matter how well-prepared you are, be ready for the unexpected.

April 16, 2013 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Some months ago I interpreted in a high-profile federal criminal trial that involved very complex issues. Because of the difficult terminology, topic, and importance of the assignment, the colleague that worked as my teammate and I did copious research, studied the subject matter, and developed glossaries and a bibliography. It took months of professional preparation and I believe that we did a very good job. As we interpreted for witnesses during their preparation before trial and we bounced concepts and terms back and forth to develop uniformity and correct any mistakes, I grew pretty confident that we were ready for this assignment.

Once the trial started everything went smoothly for us as interpreters. As we were getting the job done as expected and beyond, it was time for the experts to testify. These expert witnesses were coming from another country, which added an extra layer of complexities to their testimony. It was not just a matter of specialized concepts and terminology; it was a matter of adjusting to a different culture and idiosyncrasy that the experts showed during their testimony preparation. We fully understood this added “curve ball.” Experts testify in the way they feel more comfortable with, and the interpreter should not even suggest that they modify that.  We just had to be on our toes as experts from other countries, for cultural and language reasons, tend to be more formal and solemn than their American counterparts.

I was feeling pretty confident that all preparations and hard work had me ready for the task, so the day when this expert had to testify finally arrives and the expert takes the stand. After some minutes of smooth sailing, he finally dropped the first “interpretation bomb” as he rendered his testimony ceremoniously using words and terms he had not used before. All our research and study did not cover this unexpected lingo.  What did I do from the witness stand at that moment when I heard the first of these words, realized that I had not studied it before, turned back to where my teammate was seating behind me just to see her furiously looking through all the materials we had at our station, and saw the face of the attorneys, judge and jury all waiting to hear my rendition of the answer? First I kept my cool, second, my brain went to work trying to find any coherent contextual meaning to what the witness had just said in Spanish, and third, I opened that “brain vault” where the Latin I studied ages ago had been stored away for decades. All of these brain functions and actions happened within a fraction of a second. All of a sudden, to my absolute surprise, and that of my colleague as well, the correct English version of the term just came out of my mouth! At that time I experienced the same thing that many interpreters and translators have during their careers: a word that I did not know I knew came to the front of my brain and got me off the hook.

These type of testimony continued for days until the expert finished testifying, but from that moment, my teammate and I realized that studying for the assignment is essential, but as important as that part of your preparation may be, you also need to bring other tools to the table: The interpreter needs to be calm, focused on the task, confident that his memory will click at the time it is needed and confident that the other member of the interpretation team will have his back. However, even after all of these elements, the interpreter has to be aware that there are other resources at hand: he can ask the witness for a clarification, or he can just leave the word in the original language (or in Latin if that is the case) As interpreters we just know when it feels right to leave a word in the source language. It is a gut feeling.  Keep in mind that if you did not understand a word or a term, even after all the research and preparation you did, it is likely that the judge, jury and attorneys do not know that term either. Finally, remember that the expert is that: an expert. He is used to people asking for clarification and explanations when he testifies. No matter how well-prepared you are the expert will always know more than you. Everybody knows that; the only things you do know that he does not are the two languages and how to interpret from one to the other.  Please post your comments and maybe your war stories about those instances when you faced a similar situation in the booth, the courtroom, or the hospital.

Continuing Education that Improves the Interpreter as a Professional.

June 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As an interpreter who also teaches continuing education I am especially receptive to comments and criticisms by colleagues who attend continuing education workshops. I pay attention to what they have to say, good or bad, about a class they took, whether it is a college-sponsored seminar or a privately organized presentation.  Many times I hear good things about the subject matter or the presenter, but it seems to me that the most popular complaint is that the classes are boring and they do not give anything to the interpreter that he or she can use to improve performance, access to the professional market, or plain and simple have a better income.

When I decided to teach continuing education for interpreters, transcribers, and translators many years ago, I made the decision to teach interesting topics that could aid the professional linguist in his or her career.  This is what I have done all over the United States.  Many of my students and workshop attendees have told me how they learned something that made a difference in their careers.  I have always believed that a good interpreter must know his craft, and must provide ethical service.  With this belief in mind, I have presented ethics and practical subject matters in different formats: One-hour to all-day presentations at national and regional conferences, multi-day workshops at colleges or privately sponsored events, and one-on-one tutorials.  By taking my seminars, colleagues have passed court interpreter certification exams, they have been hired as staff interpreters, and they have secured professional contracts with governments and corporations.

This Friday I will be teaching a court interpreter ethics class in Columbus Ohio at the invitation of the Ohio Supreme Court. The day-long seminar will cover many relevant aspects of ethical interpreting in the court system, will analyze the code of ethics at the federal and state levels, and will give local interpreters an opportunity to test their knowledge and comprehension of interpreter ethics while participating in useful and fun practical exercises.  The seminar, presented in English, will meet continuing education requirements for the Ohio court certification program and others.

On Saturday I will give a half-day presentation on Mexican legal terminology at the Texas Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (TAJIT) IN San Antonio. The presentation will focus on Mexican Spanish legal terminology in Criminal, Civil, Family and Administrative Law. Those attending will get a better idea of the Mexican legal system, its similarities, and its differences with the American system, but more importantly, will teach them the methodology to research the meaning and significance of legal figures, terms, and principles.  The idea is that at the end of this presentation the interpreters will be able to better understand what they do, and will feel comfortable about taking Mexican attorneys and businesses as their clients.  Those attending this presentation in Spanish will receive continuing education credits in Texas, New Mexico, and other states.

I invite you to attend these classes and I encourage you to tell me what you would like to see as continuing education topics that I may teach in the future.

When we are asked to translate useless materials.

April 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We all have clients who at one time or another have asked us to translate materials that we know, or learn after reviewing them, are useless or irrelevant for our client’s objective.

One time I was asked to translate a Mexican court file that was close to forty thousand words. The client needed the translation to avoid that a client be prosecuted for crimes not included in the extradition order issued by the requested party.  When I came on board to participate in the translation process, others had been involved for months (if not years) translating endless documents, international conventions, and case law. I must add that the American attorneys, although excellent and capable, were not very familiar with International Law.  Because of my background as an attorney, from the time I joined the team, I was able to notice the uselessness of translating a bunch of documents that were not going to help the case at all.  Instead of getting all frazzled with the legal terminology, I prepared a memo for the attorneys. It was in English, and had all the American legal terminology they would understand.

The result was amazing. The attorneys finally understood the case as it was processed in the requested country, realized what they had as far as documents, and were able to focus on the relevant materials.  They were very grateful as I saved them a lot of time and money in needless translations, and I made them realize the importance of retaining a translator who knows the subject matter.  Because of this experience, this law office is now my permanent and exclusive client, and my client agenda has exponentially increased.  I have shared this experience with many of my colleagues who have a formal education in relevant fields such as engineering, medicine, chemistry, etc. Although many of them have had similar experiences as translators or interpreters, a significant number  have expressed their frustration when they find themselves in situations like the one I just shared, stating that they do not dare to approach the client the way I did, or telling me that it is not our role as translators to tell the client what to translate. I would like to hear your opinion on this issue.

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