Is this practice demeaning to certified court interpreters?

February 26, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the United States and other jurisdictions interpreters are officers of the court. From the moment interpreters begin to work in court, they hear the term thrown around all the time. They are told that much is expected from them as officers of the court, and at the same time they see how annoyed some court employees get when an interpreter is part of a hearing.

One of the least pleasurable things about court interpreting is the need to endure uncomfortable attitudes, and absurd policies, by many clerks, support staff, attorneys, court administrators, and even judges. This environment has turned off many excellent interpreters, and deprived non-native speakers of the benefit of some of the most capable and professional individuals.

Court interpreting presents many unavoidable challenges to the professional interpreter, and they have to be dealt with in order to reach the goal of equal access to justice: lay and legal terminology, evasive speakers who at best reluctantly tell the truth, poor acoustics, obsolete interpreting equipment or the lack of it, long hours, and low pay, are some of the realities that court interpreters face every day at work. Most of them cannot be fixed by a bigger budget or more competent court administrators; they are part of the “nature of the beast.” Let’s face it: many people do not go to court voluntarily, some appear before a judge or jury when they are angry, scared, embarrassed, and a good number of them have trouble with telling the truth. Court interpreting is very hard; but not all of its difficulties are due to bad acoustics, a whispering attorney, or a fast-speaking witness. Some of them are generated artificially, they do not belong in the courthouse; they are the result of ignorance and lack of understanding.

When the spirit of justice and the passion for the law are no longer there, many of the top interpreters abandon the field. Being ignored by the clerk, patronized by the judge, criticized by the attorney, and to constantly walk into an environment where the interpreter often feels like he is more of an obstacle to the process than an essential part of the administration of justice, seems to outweigh the low and rarely timely pay. We all know, and have accepted or rejected these circumstances; many are trying to change them through education or negotiating their labor conditions, and many freelance interpreters have relocated their court work from the top of their priority list to the middle and even to the bottom.

The question is my friends: Are we really officers of the court? The legislation says we are, but, what does it mean to be an officer of the court? According to Black’s: an officer of the court is “a person who is charged with upholding the law and administering the judicial system. Typically, officer of the court refers to a judge, clerk, bailiff, sheriff, or the like…” it adds that an officer of the court “…is obliged to obey court rules and… owes a duty of candor to the court…” Interpreters fall into this category as one of “the like”. This has been widely recognized by most state legislations, and it is explained by the United States’ National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) position paper on the interpreter’s scope of practice: “…By virtue of the role we play in the administration of justice, many courts have stated outright that the interpreter is an officer of the court…” To put it in lay terms: court interpreters are officers of the court because they are part of the judicial system to administer justice, and as such, they are subject to strict professional and ethical rules, and to specific legislation. There is no doubt that especially, certified court interpreters are strictly regulated as professionals: they need to go through a certification or licensing process that culminates with passing a rigorous exam, in most cases (sadly, not the federal program) they must meet continuing education requirements to keep said certification or license, and they have to abide by a code of ethics and professional responsibility. It could be argued that noncertified court interpreters may not fit the description as they do not have to meet all the requirements above. However, even noncertified court interpreters must observe the rules of ethics when working in a court-related case.

So, where is the demeaning practice I mentioned at the top of this post? It is at the time that certified court interpreters are placed under oath over and over again, every day, all over the United States.

To practice their profession, all officers of the court are subject to eligibility requirements: judges, attorneys, and certified court interpreters have to meet them to work in the system. All officers of the court have the duty to obey the law, and the responsibility to act ethically and professionally. For this reason, all of them are required to take an oath: judges take the oath when they are appointed or elected to the bench, attorneys are administered an oath after they pass the bar exam, court clerks take an oath when they are hired by the judiciary. They all take the oath once!

In some states, and in some United States judicial districts, certified court interpreters are only required to take their oath once (for that jurisdiction) and a record is kept in file for future reference. This is a great practice not only because it saves taxpayers money by shortening the hearings, and the savings can be a significant in cases when the same certified court interpreter is administered the oath, in the same courtroom, over ten times in one day. Equally important, from the certified court interpreters’ perspective, is the recognition of their status as officers of the court, and the very important message by the system that certified court interpreters are going to be treated as the professionals that they are.

Unfortunately, to eradicate this demeaning practice that places certified court interpreters as second class officers of the court, we will need more than just educating judges and attorneys, convincing court administrators, and pushing interpreter coordinators who work for the courts so they stand up and support the freelance certified court interpreters on this one. It will require a legislative change in many cases. Believe it or not, there is legislation in some states requiring that interpreters be placed under oath before each court proceeding.

A 2012 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (U.S. v. Solorio) held interpreters who translate the testimony of witnesses on the stand are covered by Federal Rule of Evidence 604 and that they are subject to “…the administration of an oath or affirmation to make a true translation…” However, the Appeals Court ruled that “…Rule 604 does not…indicate whether such an oath must be administered in any particular manner or at any specified time, including whether the oath must be administered for each trial. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) has published guidelines on the administration of oath to interpreters, observing that policies in regard to the oath of interpreters vary from district to district and from judge to judge [Guide to Judiciary Policy §350(b)] Although some courts administer oaths to interpreters each day, or once for an entire case, others administer the oath to staff and contract interpreters once, and keep it on file…”

The legal argument above can be used by certified court interpreters to advance their efforts to get rid of this “second-class treatment” by some courts, but the road will not be easy, and in some cases, the biggest obstacle will be bilingual judges in positions of authority who do not quite understand the role of the interpreter as that of an officer of the court. Judge Ruben Castillo, as co-chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Litigation’s Trial Practice Committee, and presently the Chief Judge for the United States Northern District of Illinois, favors administering the oath for each case, stating that: “…I happen to be a Spanish speaker, and I’ve seen misrepresentations occur…under the pressure of instantaneous interpretation, especially in cases involving a lot of slang…mistakes can occur. When under oath, most people take the job more seriously…” As you can see, devaluating the certified court interpreter’s professionalism is also used to continue this demeaning practice. It is obvious that judges need to be educated to the professional status of the certified court interpreter. The oath does nothing to improve an interpreter’s skills, but it does a lot to show us that there is a long way to go before we can sit at the table as equals in many jurisdictions. I can see a need to place under oath noncertified or occasional interpreters (not all languages have enough demand to generate a professional practice) but certified court interpreters should be treated as all other officers of the court whose professional scope of practice goes beyond that of a witness.

I now invite you to share your thoughts on this matter.

The Language Services Agencies: Are they good for you?

July 29, 2013 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I wanted to write about language service providers for some time, but it wasn’t until this morning when a colleague shared his story with me that I finally decided to sit down and do it.  An interpreter was hired by an agency to provide his professional services for a 2-hour administrative court hearing.  Phone calls and e-mails were exchanged, a fee was agreed upon, and the interpreter received the necessary materials and information from the agency representative; there was even an automated confirmation telephone call three days prior to the event. Everything looked normal.  On the afternoon before the scheduled event, the interpreter received an automated e-mail informing him that the hearing had been cancelled.  Because the notice was received less than 24 hours before the scheduled start of the assignment, this interpreter prepared and sent an invoice to the agency for his 2-hour fee.  Of course, he had been offered another assignment that he turned down, because he was already booked, just the day before he received the cancellation notice. Sounds familiar right?  I think there may be an unwritten “universal law” that says that every time an interpreter gets a job he will get one or more offers for the same day afterwards. I know you all know what I am talking about.  Let’s get back to our story.  Of course, my colleague was not thrilled since he was only going to make the equivalent to a two-hour job and he couldn’t get any other assignment for that day, but that is the “price” of doing business. This is the risk we all take when we chose the freedom of working as a freelancer.   To his surprise, and mine when I heard the story, the agency representative contacted him right away to let him know that he was not going to be paid anything because the assignment had not taken place.  The “less than 24 hour notice” of cancellation didn’t mean anything to them.  Of course he will fight this battle and already started the process by going to a collections agency, but it made me remember another event that happened to me some months ago.

A colleague and I worked an event for an agency we had worked for before; they have had all of our information, including fee schedules, for years.  We did the event, our performance was great, the agency’s client was very satisfied, and everything went as expected by the agency.  I sent my invoice later on that same week, and life continued. About 2 or 3 weeks later I got an e-mail from a representative of the interpretation agency. I was a little surprised as I did not recognized her name, but the real surprise came when I read the text of the mail.  This is what she wrote:

“Dear Mr. Rosado: We received your invoice… for processing. Thank you.  After reviewing the invoice it came to our attention that you had made a mistake.  The total for your invoice is the equivalent to 16 hours of work. The event was 8 hours long (each day)… but you worked 4 hours each day and Mr. (my colleague’s name) worked the other 4.  …Therefore, I ask you to please file an amended invoice reflecting the hours you actually worked…”

After I recovered from an anger attack, I wrote her back, copying her boss, explaining her how we work and how we bill, and eventually I got an apology letter and a check for the right amount.  There had been no mistake in this case. She turned out to be a new employee and It was all due to her ignorance of the profession.

I have had these annoying experiences with agencies, but for the most I’ve had a good career as far as my dealings with interpretation and translation agencies.  Of course I know this is what many of you have experienced, so I will try to explain why these entities act this way, and I am going to share with you my solution to the “bad agency syndrome.”

(1)    First: Not all agencies are created equal.  There are agencies that you want to work for because they are good and professional. They are usually the ones with the best clients, the more relevant events. I am referring to the premier conference interpreting agencies that operate nationwide and worldwide. They offer the whole package to their client: the best equipment, the most comfortable booths, all-star technicians, and the best interpreters.  They work with you, pay on time, pay well, and treat you like a professional.

(2)    A different type of agency, also big (sometimes huge) and universal, is the one that provides telephonic services or in-person services at administrative federal courts.  They have a lot of work; some of them trade in the stock market, and offer an average to below-average interpretation service to their client.  They are popular and well liked by their clients because they provide the service at a moderate price, can offer the volume and variety of languages that nobody else can.  They usually have administrative support staff that deals with the interpreters, pay very little, and don’t pay as quickly as the industry’s average.  Their interpreters tend to be of a less-than average professional quality, very new to the profession, and in some cases they even work from outside the United States.

(3)    Then you have the mid-size agencies who work regional or local markets. These agencies handle many events, some of them are conferences, others are not but they still call them conferences.  These agencies also provide other services at the regional level such as medical interpreting, out-of-court legal interpreting, and in some markets even in-court interpreting services.  These agencies aren’t big corporations; they are often a small firm or even a family business. This is the group where you must be very careful because there are some excellent agencies that provide the same or almost the same services that the big ones offer, including equipment and the highest quality interpreters (because for many reasons, the good ones are not always busy working with the big corporate agencies) but you also have many mediocre agencies that are this size. The problem is that they offer poor equipment, no equipment, low-level technicians, no technicians, and, for the most part, interpreters that don’t belong in the “A” list.  They are usually staffed by poorly- paid employees with little experience, deal with clients that some times are not reliable, pay very low interpreter fees, don’t always pay on time, tend to ignore invoices for minimum guaranteed interpreter time or cancellation fees, and sometimes just don’t pay the interpreter.  They often work with interpreters with no academic or professional training, and are very defensive when asked about their practices.

(4)    Finally we have the small interpretation services provider. These are agencies that operate at the local level; many of them owned by an individual who sometimes is an interpreter, translator, or a relative of one of them. Many of them do business from their living rooms, have a mailing address at the UPS Store, and “train” their own interpreters because they cannot afford higher quality professionals due to the pay they offer or the type of assignments they hire their interpreters for.  Sometimes they offer equipment, usually portable, work “desk-top” community events they refer to as “conferences,”  contract with local medical facilities and administrative law attorneys, pay less than anybody else (with the exception of some of the telephonic agencies above) and treat their interpreters like journeymen instead of professionals.

I have heard many of my colleagues when they complain about these agencies.  My solution, not to eliminate all possible problems, because that can’t happen, but to prevent most of them and mitigate the nefarious effects is as follows:

Try to work for the first group I mentioned. There will be times when a mistake will occur, like in my story above, but they are few and can be promptly fixed.  Sometimes you may need to better yourself to get to those jobs; if that is the case, go do it!  This comparative essay should be your motivation to do it.  You should also work for the first ones I mentioned under number 3.  They are often as good as group one, only smaller. The main problem you will encounter in this group is that they will have less events and therefore you will have more competition among the top-quality interpreters who will try to get these assignments.  Stay away from the second group I mentioned under number 3. Do not let them sell you the “lemon car.” But…if for some reason you said “yes” to one of their assignments, put everything in writing, save all communications, and be ready to take them to the collections agency or before a judge if needed.

I would stay away from the agencies mentioned in number 2.  However, if you have to work for them, negotiate a better rate than the one they will offer, and I mean a BETTER rate, not another $20.00 per hour.  In all likelihood they will not hire you, but if for some reason they ever do, you will not be hurting yourself or the profession by accepting peanuts for professional work.

Avoid the ones in group 4 like the plague.  Conditions in this group of agencies will never get better and on top of giving away your work in exchange for almost nothing, you will be hurting your reputation every time you work for one of them.  Stop before your professional name is beyond repair.

Remember, there are excellent agencies out there but you need to do your homework and you need to learn how to say no. One of the most popular comments of many interpreters is: “They are too big, I hate them but I have to do what they want, even if I know it is little money, even if I know they don’t treat me right. I need the money. I can’t quit.” My answer to this dilemma is clear:  Don’t work for them. I don’t care how big and powerful they are.  You have a way to change what they pay you: stop returning their calls and emails. The moment you do this they are out of your life. No more suffering. No more humiliation. They are gone.  The best part: Now you will have no choice but to become a better interpreter or translator so you can be hired by better agencies, directly by your clients, or you will have the freedom to start your own business. Let your refusal to work for them be your motivation to improve.  You will face hard times for a short period of time, but it will not take you long to start making a better income because you will discover that when you are used to work for peanuts and you decide to stop, any decent interpretation job will provide you a better income.

The cure to the “bad agency syndrome” is very simple; it is like smoking: It is harmful, just quit!

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