An interpreter exam for a certification… or for a job.
February 29, 2016 § 4 Comments
A controversial issue that has been around for years has become quite popular in the past few months. The controversy surrounding the United States federal government’s contract award to Department of Defense’s contractor SOSi has put this corporation under the microscope of many individual interpreters and interpreter associations. This scrutiny has touched on the training and “blessing” (call it certification, accreditation or anything you want) provided to the individual interpreters contracted by SOSi to work in the immigration court system for the first time. After reading some of the posts in social media and the numerous letters, emails, and phone calls that I received from many friends and colleagues on this particular issue, I thought about it, and arrived to some personal conclusions that I think put in perspective what is happening in the American immigration court system and what many friends and colleagues would like to see implemented.
The first thing we need to do is define what an interpreter certification program and examination really are. A process that ends in a generally accepted and scientifically proven method of testing designs, after exhaustive detailed research and practice testing, a comprehensive exam that tests individual performance in all basic properties of the activity, in this case profession, that the applicant aspires to practice in exchange for a professional fee in the real world. Those passing this examination have demonstrated that they meet the minimum requirements acceptable to be a part of a profession subject to professional and ethical rules, legal statutes, and subject to liability in the event of malpractice.
This exam has to be designed in a way that it is objective, measures all candidates the same way, includes all elements relevant to the rating of a person’s performance, and for security and equity reasons has multiple versions in case somebody tries to circumvent the certification process, or fails to pass on the first, and often limited subsequent, attempts. For all of these reasons the exam has to be developed by a combination of peer professionals, in this case interpreters and interpreter educators, in addition to scientists that will apply a scientific method, including the application of a grading curve, to be able to offer a comprehensive and fair assessment tool which plays a key role in the issuance of a certification. This process takes a long time and is very, very expensive. Moreover, the administration of the examination to the candidates also requires a big financial investment for both, the actual testing and the rating of the completed exam. This is the main reason why there are so few real certification programs that can deliver unquestioned professionals. Law school graduates in the United States take the bar exam to be able to practice as attorneys, and despite the fact that each state has its own version of a portion of the exam, they all share a common universal test that is part of the final assessment of that student: the MBE or Multistate Bar Examination that has been developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners to be universally applied in all fifty states and territories (with the exception of Puerto Rico). The purpose of the test is to assess the extent to which an examinee can apply fundamental legal principles and reasoning to analyze given fact patterns. The individual states decided to go to the NCBE to develop the test because it was extremely costly for any single state to come up with its own examination.
The same scenario applies in the court interpreting arena where the states looked for a similar solution when they went to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). The result was the same as in the lawyers’ case. Each state can add any requirements to the certification process if considered necessary in that jurisdiction (written tests, ethics exams, background checks, good moral character, etc.) but they all administer the same examination in Spanish and other languages where a test is available. There are many languages without any certification exam due to the huge expense this represents and the lack of volume that could justify such an investment (not enough speakers of a given foreign language). Only the United States government has a different examination and process because it has the deep pockets to do it, but even the Administrative Office of the United States Courts tests candidates through the NCSC. In all scenarios the individual interpreters who rate the candidate’s exams are independent contractors or staff members of the judiciary. At different levels, all applicants who successfully pass this interpreter certification test, currently being offered only in Spanish, are considered qualified to render their professional services in a court of law within the jurisdiction where they took the exam, or nationwide in the case of the U.S. federal court system. Clients, agencies, government entities and businesses use this certification as an assurance of a certain minimum level of quality. These new certified interpreters have demonstrated that they can work assignments that may include sight translations, and simultaneous or short consecutive interpretations (when I speak of short consecutive I am referring to the very difficult consecutive interpreting that is used in court which requires short quick renditions, unlike consecutive interpreting in a conference or diplomatic setting where the consecutive rendition could take thirty minutes or longer). This is the only credential in the United States that tests interpreters in such a scientific way and in all modes.
There are other certifications in the U.S., but they either vanished because of its prohibitive cost and lack of demand, as it happened with the very good testing program offered in the past by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) or their testing method and results are in my opinion questionable as is the case of the “medical” and healthcare certifications offered in the United States, not by a governmental entity but by the private sector. These exams do not test in all modes of interpreting or the content of the exam is of lesser level than the one desired for a widely-recognized credential outside of the scope of a patient-physician interview at a hospital or medical office. This is not to put these certifications down, but to illustrate the fact that a universal scientific test is a complex and expensive matter. I know how difficult and time consuming this process is because I had the opportunity to participate as one of many individuals involved in the development and field testing of an interpreter test for military and conflict zone interpreters a few years ago.
Because the process is so long, difficult, and costly, most organizations resort to another solution: they develop a program to assess individual interpreters in the field that will be relevant for that organization, and sometimes, if the target applicants require it, the program also includes some training or at least basic orientation. These quicker and less expensive solutions can assist in determining the level of an interpreter in all modes, and sometimes are way more difficult than a certification program like the ones described above, but for the most part they are confined to the assurance of a certain minimum quality of service in the specific field or area where they operate.
The first example that comes to mind are the exams by the international organizations, or the United States Department of State conference level exam to assess the skill, knowledge and ability of the candidate. These are difficult tests that are rated by top interpreters who guard the quality of the service provided, and for this reason to pass these examinations, even though they do not confer a certification strictly speaking, means to the professional community that the candidate who just passed the assessment has a quality level that clients can rely on.
There are other exams of this type by both, government entities and the private sector that are nowhere as prestigious or difficult as the ones I mention above, but exist for commercial and legal reasons. Commercially because it is the way to get big contracts and important clients; legally because it is a certain protection against civil liability lawsuits that the entity offering the service, and the exam, might face down the road. Most of the multinational interpreting agencies administer a training, orientation or test (call it evaluation, exam, or anything else) to their prospective interpreters to be able to market themselves as providers of “certified” interpreters and to defend from potential malpractice or negligence lawsuits as discussed above. This practice is expensive (nowhere near a real certification program of course) but necessary to remain in business, and to a person not familiar with the profession it can create a sense of professionalism that could be the factor needed to get awarded a big contract. Although many of these entities ask their in-house interpreters to put together a quick assessment of those applying for interpreter assignments, some retain reputable institutions or renowned interpreters or educators to develop a training and evaluation program. Needless to say, the individuals passing this evaluation may be ready for the limited work they will have to do, but they will never be considered or treated as a certified interpreter or an individual who passed an exam with the U.S. Department of State or an international organization.
This brings me back to the communications I have been getting about the immigration court interpreters in the United States and the training that defense contractor turned language service provider SOSi is offering to those new individuals who want to work under this new contract awarded last year by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).
The first thing to say is that SOSi has a temporary contract at this time, and even if extended to the maximum agreed to in the original contract, it will be for just a few years. Moreover, to win the bidding process, SOSi had to bid really low and that ties their hands as far as the size of the financial investment they can justify to their board. As precedent, you should know that all contractors have opted for the same type of solution in the past. There is no logic in investing the time and money developing a certification program that if they are lucky, might be ready by the time their EOIR contract expires.
I now want to talk about the program they are offering to their new interpreters, and I say new interpreters because I assume that those veteran colleagues who decided to go back despite all the problems with the contract terms and SOSi’s conduct during these months do not need to undergo the training and evaluation.
SOSi contracted out the development of this training and assessment of their candidates to an affiliate of an Interpreter training school. The program is offered on line and it includes 27 hours of on-demand training, 40 hours of on line interpreting practice, live sessions and random monitoring by an instructor, a mentoring service, and two assessments, with the second one being the final exam that according to SOSi and the trainer follows the U.S. Department of Justice and Executive Office for Immigration Review testing requirements. The program is supervised, and I assume developed in a significant part, by the director of the interpreter training school who happens to be a very well-known and recognized instructor. I have personally attended some of his talks when we have coincided at a conference and I must say that his presentations are of a very high quality. Moreover, this institution has been preparing interpreters to take court and healthcare interpreter certification tests for many years and with very good results. I do not know how the trainer got the contract from SOSi, but whether it was through a bidding process or by negotiation, I see no wrongdoing. If anything, I would say that the reputation of the interpreter training school is taking a big risk (calculated by their front office, I am sure) by working with such an entity as SOSi.
Some colleagues have also raised the fact that the exams will be rated by the training entity’s instructors as a potential conflict of interest. I do not see it that way. The National Center for State Courts also outsources the rating of their certification exams to independent contractor interpreters and court staff. Most law students who are preparing for the Bar (including myself a long time ago) enroll in the Bar Bri courses to get ready for the exam. Bar Bri is no different from the trainer in this case. As to the argument that interpreter trainers will “pass” those attending the training to keep SOSi happy, I do not believe that a reputable institution like this one would play that game. In fact, as an interpreter trainer and certification exam rater myself, I have to tell you that it is in your best interest to stop those who are not qualified from entering the professional ring. Others have raised as a problem the fact that some of the raters may have never worked in immigration court. I do not see any validity to this argument either. Interpreting skills are the same for any court. The terminology and procedure may be different, but that can be learned by the student. This happens every day with conference interpreters who have to research and study multiple subject matters throughout their career.
In conclusion, I do not believe that it is practical nor feasible that a government contractor such as SOSi invest the time and money required to develop a certification program when all they have been awarded is a temporary (renewable at best) service contract. I think that, regardless of all the problems faced by the immigration court interpreters and the lack of competency shown by SOSi until now, they did what any contractor, capable or not, would do regarding its interpreters. I think that the interpreter trainers in this case did what they had to do to get the contract and now that it has been awarded to them, they will act as the professional institution we all know they are. Therefore, dear friends and colleagues, I do not believe that there are grounds to be concerned for this reason as long as we view this evaluation for what it is: an assessment of limited skills learned for the sole purpose of meeting a client’s needs, in this case SOSi and the EOIR, who apparently set the guidelines as to what needed to be tested.
This does not mean that we should give SOSi a pass. Our colleagues are still waiting for their services to be paid, people are still wasting time trying to get answers from an organization that does not respect its interpreters, and we cannot abandon them, but the “certification exam”, regardless of the skills it may evaluate, is not, in my opinion, something we can criticize. The only way to change the immigration court interpreter exam is to get the United States Department of Justice and the Executive Office for Immigration Review to follow the same path that their counterparts in the judicial branch of government are following, and implement a real interpreter certification program, or join the federal court interpreter certification program that already exists; but in order to do this, you will have to convince them of three things associated with this change: (1) That they need to go to Congress and ask for the resources, a tall order in our current political season, (2) That a real certification program will attract interpreters that will be better prepared, who will, after passing the examination, demand a higher pay and more professional conditions than the current interpreters, and (3) That a real certification program will mean that many of their current interpreters will not pass and they could face a real interpreter shortage never seen before. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your opinion about this issue.