The very real dangers of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting from our home.

October 17, 2019 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The idea to write this piece came almost a year ago when talking to some interpreters I noticed a growing tendency to quickly move the still very young remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) from the studio to the interpreters’ homes. I conversed with many of my colleagues throughout the world, attended conferences where the topic was discussed, spoke with clients, event organizers, and I also had long, detailed conversations with lawyers and people from insurance companies.

RSI is a true achievement of science and technology, combined with interpreting expertise by some prominent interpreters. Many of its more serious technological issues have been solved, and we are at a point where quality interpreting can be delivered remotely when done as many of my colleagues and I understood it was supposed to be done.

My personal experience, and that of other trusted interpreters, show Interprefy and Kudo (which I have not tried yet) as the most user -friendly platforms, and technology is not the only reason. These platforms were carefully developed with great input from experienced professional interpreters whose comments, suggestions, and opinions were essential to the final product. Unlike others, from the beginning, the people behind these platforms understood RSI was a different way to deliver professional interpreting services; they recognized that quality interpreting can only be delivered when interpreters interpret under the most favorable conditions. Their success depended on getting the best human talent, optimal working conditions, and the best support team. They presented a serious, viable alternative to in-person interpreting by creating RSI studios where interpreters could work in a booth, as a team, and with the required technical support. This was a great idea and positive results came in in both cases. Up to here, everything was on the right path, with perhaps a few wrinkles to be ironed out, and we will talk about them in a moment, but with some of the biggest issues already addressed.

Unfortunately, sometimes greed, overconfidence, or lack of knowledge can cloud even the most successful vision, and it is happening now with these and other platforms: For all, or some, of the reasons above, those in charge of recruiting talent, or organizing events, are encouraging RSI from home.  The idea of the studio where interpreters would work as a team sitting side by side in a virtual booth at a facility where technical support would be available has moved aside to leave a prominent place to remote simultaneous interpreting from the interpreters home or office.

I have attended conferences and other events where RSI platforms and agencies are actively recruiting interpreters from countries with emerging economies to provide remote simultaneous interpreting services from their homes. These colleagues are told of the professional and economic personal benefits of working big events, often otherwise inaccessible to them because of geography, by setting up a “studio” in their own house. They hear all they need is a highspeed internet connection, a professional quality microphone and headset, a computer, and two good screens. Sometimes they are told to condition a house room to be soundproof, which they are told, would be easy and inexpensive. These colleagues are offered fees well below those charged by interpreters in developed markets.

The above proposal is enticing and it sounds great to many interpreters all over the world. Some think of a little corner in their house that can be turned into their home studio; others believe that they are good at repairing things, or they know a lot about computers, so setting up their hardware would be a piece of cake. All that may be true, but it is like the worm on the fisherman’s hook, it looks good, but it also brings all kinds of hidden dangers to the individual interpreter. Let me explain:

The first thing interpreters considering RSI need to understand, and this also applies to those who only work at the RSI studio, is this is a new kind of interpretation. It is not conference interpreting, even though they both share many things as far as preparation and rendition. RSI interpreting requires interpreters do extra tasks they need not perform when interpreting a conference in a traditional booth. RSI interpreters must use a keyboard to communicate with each other, the tech support team, and sometimes the person directing the event. They read messages on their screens and hear things in their headsets traditional conference interpreters do not: “get closer to the microphone”, “do not move around that much because the microphone captures the noise and transmits it to the audience”, “we will run a sound test during the break”, are some instructions RSI interpreters will hear during an event while they are interpreting. They will also have to answer questions from technical support, the person directing/coordinating the event, and other interpreters from different booths, by typing messages while interpreting. RSI interpreting requires interpreters perform more tasks than those they perform when working a conference in a traditional booth. This is doable; interpreters can practice and accomplish these tasks, but the bottom line is that, compared to traditional conference interpreting, these interpreters are asked to do more work. We all would agree that more work = higher pay.

Contrary to interpreting agencies’ talking points, RSI interpreters should be paid more than their counterparts working in person. Agencies and organizers are getting their savings from avoiding travel expenses and setting up equipment at the venue. Interpreters should get paid according to the work they do.

Another issue of great concern to interpreters, not so much to agencies and event organizers, is the risk of acoustic shock. As many of you know, acoustic shock disorder (ASD) is an involuntary response to a sound perceived as traumatic (usually a sudden, unexpected loud sound heard near the ear), which causes a specific and consistent pattern of neurophysiological and psychological symptoms. These include aural pain/fullness, tinnitus, hyperacusis, muffled hearing, vertigo and other unusual symptoms such as numbness or burning sensations around the ear. Typically, people describe acoustic shock as feeling like they have been stabbed or electrocuted in the ear. If symptoms persist, a range of emotional reactions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression can develop. (http://www.hyperacusis.net/other-factors/acoustic-shock-disorder/)

We are talking about losing our hearing! This is a career-end risk that interpreters are not told when offered a job to deliver RSI from home. The dangers of this happening to any of us should not be taken lightly, but when working from an RSI studio, we can demand the best conditions to prevent an event that causes these incidents, and to minimize the impact of the event if it happens. All interpreters should discuss this risk with their clients, and demand the proper infrastructure and hardware to prevent a tragedy, including appropriate headsets for those colleagues without their own. This situation could happen when interpreting at the RSI studio, it could even happen during a traditional conference interpreting assignment, but the risk will be much smaller because the service would be provided in a controlled environment with the appropriate equipment. When working from home, interpreters have no control over these dangers: power supply fluctuations, solar flares, weather-related factors such as electric storms, satellite trouble, internet or telephone system failure, are all risk factors interpreters are exposed to when working at home. Remember: this can be a career-ending event, or at the least a very expensive medical treatment, coupled with loss of income due to a long period of interpreting inactivity due to poor hearing.   Interpreters need to make sure these issues are discussed with their clients and covered in the professional services contract.

There are many other concerns derived from RSI interpreting at home: Interpreters are professionals and they are expected to do their job: Interpreting, researching the subject of the conference, adapting their delivery to cultural considerations to make communication happen between those who do not share a common language. They are also expected to prevent and solve language-related problems that may come up during their rendition. They are neither equipped, nor expected, to deal with technical difficulties or problems derived from the installation or performance of the interpreting equipment, sound system, or any other non-linguistic or cultural issue.  Interpreters are not mechanics, electricians, sound engineers, telephone repairmen, software engineers, or IT experts. Even those who claim to be “amateur experts” do not have to be so. These services are needed to deliver interpreting services, but they are not provided by the interpreting team.

Because technology is so important in RSI, and because interpreters have limitations, the only way to guarantee (to a high degree) a successful event is by delivering the interpretation from an RSI studio where interpreters wit side by side and work as a team, and technical support is on site.

There are other considerations that are as important as the ones so far expressed in this section, that cannot be satisfied to professional quality when interpreting takes place in a house, office or apartment. Interpreters do not have all needed equipment, and even if they think they do, it will probably be outdated. Technology changes so quickly that it would be practically impossible and unrealistic to expect interpreters to keep up with the latest products, and then acquire them at their own expense, and properly install them to be used at the next home RSI event. At home, interpreters are alone, there is no technical support, other than a guy a the other end of the phone line, trying to explain to a lay person how to troubleshoot, diagnose and repair a technical issue while the event is in progress, and the other interpreter takes over the rendition for an uncertain period, with all its unwanted consequences due to mental fatigue and additional stress, until the problem is corrected or the event has to be cancelled.

When working from home, interpreters do not have a boothmate next to them. There is no support/passive interpreter assisting with research, writing down figures, and so on; in fact, to communicate with each other, they must type a message while interpreting, adding another layer to the very complex task of simultaneous interpreting. There is also the possibility of having technical difficulties that may keep an interpreter from taking over when their turn comes up, leaving the original interpreter on the mike for potentially hours. There are also the mental and biological considerations. Because RSI happens worldwide, one interpreter could be working from her home in Tijuana, Mexico while the other could be in Fukuoka, Japan; a difference of 18 hours. One interpreter could be fresh and energetic while the other could be tired and fatigued because she would be working during the night. This differs from traditional interpreting when we travel to the venue and get used to the time change before the rendition. With RSI from home, one interpreter could be sound asleep and then interpreting a complex scientific conference 30 minutes later. This is bad for the well-rested interpreter counting on the exhausted interpreter; it is unfair to the interpreter who just woke up because she is now working during the night after working all day the day before; and it is bad for the client as the rendition will suffer.

One danger from RSI at home concerns national infrastructure. I see agencies and promoters recruiting interpreters all over the world; I have seen them selling the job to colleagues who work with less common language combinations, a very desirable resource to these agencies, but live in countries where the technology and infrastructure may not be at the level needed for a successful RSI job. Power outages are an everyday event in many countries; this would kill an event, or at least, leave one interpreter working solo because the other one will have no way to continue. Outdated telephone systems, sub-pair internet speed, unreliable infrastructure such as poor satellite coverage or cellular phone towers will also kill the event, or at the least deliver a low-quality rendition for causes with nothing to do with the interpreters’ performance.

Living conditions can be a real problem. A dog barking, a neighbor mowing the lawn, kids playing next door, or ambulance sirens from a nearby hospital could diminish the quality of the service.  Unlike an RSI studio, a “sound-proof” home studio by an interpreter is not a professional studio.

Now let’s talk liability. Does the RSI home interpreter’s professional insurance policy cover RSI from home? Until today, I have seen no policy that covers such service; interpreter professional liability insurance policies do not even cover RSI at the studio. Period. The thing is, until there is clear coverage of this professional service, interpreters can argue that RSI at the studio can be equated to conference interpreting from the booth.  Also, just like at the convention center, interpreting from the RSI studio falls under the agency’s or organizer’s liability, not the interpreters’.

This is a real issue and we need to talk to the insurance companies to make sure there is a policy that covers these new modes of interpreting. The premium will be higher, and we need to be ready for that by factoring in the new cost into what we charge for providing our services.

A lawsuit could put you out of business for good, and losing in court because of a power outage , a poor telephone service, slow internet, or a noisy neighbor, while the agency/organizer who transferred this liability to you by getting you to work from home, stays in business would be an injustice.

This problem does not go away, even when interpreting from a different country, half world away from the event. Some countries’ legislation allows the injured party (client) to sue you regardless of where you are from, where you live, or where you provided the service from. The United States is one of these countries. It is a matter of jurisdiction.

The law allows for long arm jurisdiction, so a court, let’s say in the United States, can admit a lawsuit against individuals or corporations not physically within the United States, as long as there is a connection to the country, such as the client, the venue, the agent/organizer, equipment manufacturer, etc. (Becerra Javier. Dictionary of United States Legal Terminology. English-Spanish. Escuela Libre de Derecho 2008). All that is needed is the commission of a tortious act within the United States or affecting an individual, organization, or corporation from or doing business in the United States (International Shoe Co. v State of Washington. 326 U.S. 310, 316, 66 S.Ct. 154, 158, 90 L.Ed. 95) These are some reasons why the United States can create a trade embargo against foreign nations. In the past, even when the parties had no apparent link to the United States, American courts have taken jurisdiction because of certain nexus to the country. Even if you are at home in South America interpreting a conference in Africa for a European client, if you used Microsoft, Apple, Google, IBM, INTEL, an American telecommunications satellite, etc., a judge could admit a lawsuit against you for professional malpractice or negligence due to a defective internet connection or outdated hardware at your house.

The United States follows a contributory negligence system, so even if the agency/promoter is sued, you could be sued as well for contributing to the problem by such things as providing this service from home without knowing about computers, remote interpreting, sound, the condition of your home electrical outlets, the last time you backed up your system, etcetera. Having professional liability insurance coverage that works in the United States will help, because even if sued, the policy will protect you to your liability limit. These are issues that must be discussed with insurance companies, and I believe that until there is a policy that clearly covers these legal situations, I would close the home office and go back to RSI from the studio. I have talked to several tort, malpractice attorneys and insurance company lawyers and they are all catching up. As of now, insurers’ efforts are focusing on how to deny you coverage under current insurance policies.

I understand there is much to be said and researched, including how long is the arm of the law, but for now, and until we know what we professionally, medically, and legally face, I believe the success and full acceptance of RSI in our corporate, academic, diplomatic, and governmental worlds should be handled with caution. This includes going back to RSI at the studio as it was once welcomed and cheered by so many of us. I for one, as an experienced professional interpreter, and as a lawyer, will limit my RSI practice to the studio with a real partner next to me. I will also continue to educate my clients and colleagues on the dangers of working from home, and will talk to many more lawyers and insurance companies about the lack of coverage. That will give interpreters peace of mind. I hope the prestigious platforms follow and those greedy agencies/organizers understand the enormous risk they are taking by continuing to foster home-based RSI. Please let me know your thoughts on this so dangerous risk many of our colleagues are taking without even thinking about it.

What ever happened to the written federal court interpreter exam?

May 21, 2018 § 16 Comments

Dear colleagues:

With all the noise and frustration surrounding the oral federal court interpreter examination fiasco, we have overlooked a group of colleagues left out in the cold with no updates and plenty of confusion: The candidates studying to take the written federal court interpreter certification exam scheduled for the summer or 2018. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) has been silent for many months and interpreters are concerned, puzzled, and they do not know what to do.

The AO’s official website redirects you to Paradigm’s webpage which shows this message: “Written examination registration dates will be announced in the spring of 2018, test locations will be announced at that time.”

This message has remained intact for months; no updates, no explanations, no changes.

In the weeks since my last widely read post on the oral exam, and despite all the comments by those who took the test in 2017, many federally certified court interpreters, and colleagues in general, raising serious concerns everywhere in social media about the judgment of those AO officials who hired Paradigm, and the lack of transparency and accountability after the administration of the test, the authorities who oversee the administration of the exam have done nothing to keep those who plan to take the written test during the summer of 2018 informed.

Apparently, silence continues to be the only policy coming from the federal judiciary. Our colleagues who plan to take the written exam do not know what to do. They do not even know if they should stop studying. Because from the lack of information they cannot even tell if there will be a written exam this year.

We do not even know for sure if the AO has severed its ties with Paradigm. There has been no official notice, and their own website continues to redirect all users who want information on the written exam to Paradigm’s website which shows outdated information where it claims that registration dates “…will be announced in the spring of 2018…” If this information is valid as of today, they better hurry up and publish the information before spring is no more.

I cannot help it but feel sorry for those whose lives have been on hold for several weeks while they wait to find out the exam dates and locations in order to make personal and professional arrangements to travel to the test sites.

If the exam has been postponed until further notice, please tell the interpreting community; if Paradigm is no longer the contractor for the written exam, please tell the interpreter community; if no details can be shared at this time because of pending litigation, please tell the interpreter community; If the negligent administration of the oral exam in 2017, and the decision to retest so many people will push the written exam into 2019, and if this will disrupt the regular 2-year cycles of  both oral and written exams, please tell the interpreter community.

This will make you look better and it will be a way to begin the road to recover credibility and trust. Remember, it is about transparency and accountability. Those at the AO must never forget they are the government. Those with the misfortune to take the oral test last year, and the ones suffering the uncertainty of the written test right now are the taxpayers.

We cannot lose sight of this unquestionable reality; dear friends and colleagues, we are protecting the profession, but we are also exercising our rights. To the handful of colleagues who feel intimidated by those who argue that the certification is not an entitlement and try to mask ineptitude and negligence when hiring Paradigm as a “technical difficulty”: Perhaps when you work within the government system for a long time you think that the federal government is some kind of a magnanimous god who favors court interpreters, also U.S. citizens, by granting them a certification. Do not be distracted by comments like the ones above. The real issue is transparency and accountability. The AO should come clean and explain why they hired Paradigm, admit fault, apologize, and communicate the way they plan to remedy this chaos, not only by telling those who took the exam they will now have a chance to retest. They must talk to those who want to take the written exam, and to the professional community.

Threats about pulling the exam are awful, distasteful, and baseless. The government cannot force the professional community into silence by threatening cancellation of the Spanish federal court interpreter certification program. They have not, and will not. These comments never came from an official source and should confuse no one. Navajo and Haitian-Creole certification programs were scratched because of docket and financial reasons. Spanish is used in all U.S. courts more than all other foreign languages combined. There is no rational justification to do something like that, so please ignore these rumors.

It is also important to remember that almost nobody who takes the federal court interpreter exam wants a guarantee to work in court. Sometimes staff court interpreters must be reminded that a federal certification is a means to prove skill and knowledge to many clients. The majority of the high-income earner interpreters I know make the bulk of their fees outside of court and work with a district court, making far less money, when they have no other assignment, or for personal reasons. A candidate who pays a fee to take a test has a right to demand performance in exchange for the fee. It is a service based on contractual obligations.

It is also of concern that people who are involved with voicing NAJIT’s policy or opinions have stated that this association with many members who took the oral test, who are waiting to take the written test, and who are voicing their anger with the way the AO has performed during this crisis, can claim that the Association has “no dog in that fight”. To be fair, this unfortunate comment came not from NAJIT’s Board and it has not been endorsed by the Association either.

Dear friends and colleagues, those of us who did not take the exam because we are already certified, or because our working languages do not include Spanish, or even those who practice our profession in other fields with nothing to do with the court system have a duty to defend and protect the profession, and a right to support our colleagues who were, and continue to be, affected by this negligent and careless actions. Resorting to smoke and mirrors like injecting Seltzer v. Foley is just a diversion tactic that will not work. That case questioned the rating criteria of the written exam; here the question is the ineptitude and negligence of those who hired Paradigm as the contractor in charge of administering the test, and the actions taken after the fact. Nobody has questioned the validity of the exam, nor the integrity of the raters. I have even said that I do not believe there was bad faith or the deliberate intent to cause harm by AO officials. All we are arguing is apparent negligence and ineptitude, and for that we are demanding transparency and accountability.

Implying that I have questioned the validity of the exam or the integrity of the raters only shows those who claim such things, and argue that people are angry because they did not pass the exam (even though no test results were out when these claims circulated in social media) have spread rumors without reading my posts.

Just like in other cases before: accreditation vs. certification of healthcare interpreters, exploitation of immigration court interpreters by a new language contractor, the court interpreter fiasco in the United Kingdom, the contractual and managing problems of the court interpreter program in New Mexico, abandoning the interpreters in conflict zones by Western Nations, the exploitation of telephonic interpreters by unscrupulous VRI service providers, and many others, I have no vested personal interest in these cases; it is nothing personal against government officials, language services agency owners, or professional associations; I just stand up, and will continue to stand up for the profession. I now ask you to share your comments on the written federal court interpreter exam of 2018. Please remember, personal attacks, disqualifications, foul language and surrogate defense of Paradigm, NAJIT, or the AO will not be posted.

2017: The biggest stain in U.S. court interpreting history.

May 7, 2018 § 29 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the United States we have recently spent many hours debating and researching about the validity and credibility of interpreter certifications in the healthcare sector. We have argued back and forth about accreditation, certification, and professional practice because we care about the profession. The debate left us all with a better understanding of our certification programs and the validity of both.

For many years the gold-standard of interpreter certifications in the United States was undoubtedly the federal court Spanish interpreter certification exam. It was known for its difficulty and low passing rate when compared to all other court and healthcare interpreter certification tests. During all those years we never thought that one day we would be forced to question this “queen of all American court interpreter exams”. Fortunately, we are not doubting the content of the exam. This has not changed. The unfortunate people who took the exam in 2017 was administered the same exam all federally certified Spanish court interpreters had to pass. The administration of the test, and handling its consequences after the fact was the fiasco.

Dear friends and colleagues, certification exams are of extraordinary importance in the United States; they are more relevant in our culture and value system than in other countries. While other systems put their credibility on the academic achievements of the new professional, traditionally, the United States has emphasized practice over theory and formal education. Some of our greatest lawyers never attended Law School, because in the United States it is passing the Attorney Bar Exam that matters. There are plenty of countries where people cannot practice a profession, or sit for a Bar or Board exam unless they first graduate from college.

This situation is even more important for professional interpreters practicing in the United States where most of our colleagues have no formal education, but they have demonstrated, by passing the certification test, that they are ready to practice as professionals. In Europe a university degree is essential; in America a certification is vital.

From all certifications, the federal court interpreter certification has been used to measure the competency level and skills of court interpreters in the United States. It is even used (erroneously in my opinion) by small and mid-size interpreting agencies to pick the interpreters they will hire to work in the booth.

We are all aware of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts’ historical failure in 2017 when they could not guarantee the integrity of the process and created a huge mess that impacts many.

After a deafening silence that went on for many long months, and the letter sent out in February which make the situation even worse, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts’ (AOUSC) sent out a carefully crafted, self-serving letter to those who took the exam in 2017 where they try to appease the interpreters by carefully telling a story on the best possible light for the AOUSC and informing them that, after all these months, they are fair and just, and will give those candidates whose exams were compromised to where no score could be determined, and to those who will be told they failed, a chance to retake the exam for free.

I was saddened by the reaction of some, fortunately a minority, of colleagues who celebrated this communication and praised the AOUSC as had they done something wonderful and worthy of recognition. I do not know how many of you have seen last week’s letter. I did, and I am not impressed:

The first paragraph of the April 27 letter refers to the mistakes on the way the exam was administered as “irregularities” softening the tone and making it more palatable. Then, they portray themselves as the ones who investigated for months what happened to finally conclude there were “irregularities”.

Next, the letter states: “…Over the past several months, the AO has worked with a team of trained raters who reviewed all candidate performances and psychometricians who analyzed the rater materials and examination administration data…” but it does not explain who those “trained raters” and “psychometricians “were. I am not doubting their credentials, and I am not feeling confident with their review of this mess because I just do not know who they were. Are we talking about the same colleagues who rated the exams originally, and if so, how many, who, what additional training they had to take to assess these incomplete exams? Were there independent contractors free to disagree with the findings of the AO, or were these staff interpreters who could be very capable, but could also have a conflict of interest when evaluating something that could affect the reputation and legitimacy of their employer. The letter says nothing about it. It looks like a letter prepared by a legal team, not a friendly communication to a professional group that has suffered the consequences of this poorly-run program for many months.

The self-serving tone of the letter continues when they affirm that based on their (mysteriously obtained) findings, 69 percent of the exams were validly administered and accurately scored (we still do not know how they arrived to the conclusion), and 31 percent suffered “irregularities”. My friends, 69 percent is an awful record. This clearly proves the ineptitude within the AO.

The next paragraph shows us the magnanimous nature of the AO: “…Candidates whose scores cannot be validly determined will be given the opportunity to re-take the oral examination free of charge. Moreover, given the findings of the investigation, the AO will also offer anyone who does not receive a passing score the opportunity to retake the oral examination free of charge…” This clearly tells us that the exam was a terrible mess and basically anybody who wants it, will have a second chance, this time without paying for the test, which is not the same as free of charge as we will discuss below. Do we have to believe that it took all these months to arrive to this decision? This should have been announced right after the multiple mistakes were known, not until now, unless there were other legal considerations we are not been told about, like litigation with Paradigm for example.

The letter ends with a blank apology and a reassurance they will preserve the high standards and fairness of the administration of the exam. Did I miss something? There is no admission of wrongdoing anywhere (typical in all letters prepared by a legal department) and there is a self-serving assurance that everything will be fine because they will preserve high standards and fairness. I would think that when your credibility is already in negative numbers (below zero) you would make a statement you will bring back the high standards and fair administration process that distinguished the exam. Right now nothing is good to preserve. Of course, they cannot say anything like this without admitting fault.

Finally, the 8-page attachment is a pseudo-scientific document with no details that plays down the mistakes that can be directly attributed to the AO, and basically throws Paradigm under the bus. Again, there is talk of irregularities, but there is no data on the scoring units, the specific criteria used to assess the exams, or anything that can reassure us this was a scientific work.

It is incredible how the letter and its attachment avoid naming Paradigm and stay away from words such as fault, responsibility, and negligence. This is because those are legal terms and the AO is getting ready for litigation.

Even though the AO has shared nothing on their relationship with Paradigm, there are strong rumors in social media and federal courthouses’ hallways that the relationship has been terminated. This would explain the delay on the “findings” contained on the April 27 letter, as the federal judiciary gets ready to sue their contractor and Paradigm fights for payment of their fees and other contractual terms.

The 2017 federal court interpreter examination saga leaves the federal judiciary stained, the profession wounded, and court interpreters in the worst situation they have faced in history. Unfortunately, there are others who are affected even more and will not benefit from the “Magnanimous letter of April 27”. We can divide them in three categories:

First, those colleagues who studied hard and will get a letter telling them they passed the test. These individuals have been agonizing for 7 months without knowing if they would have to retest. Many have continued to study for the test. All have been deprived from their earnings as federally certified court interpreters for months. They will never get back these months of their lives, and they will never perceive the professional fees they should have earned as federally certified court interpreters working for court districts, assistant US attorney’s offices, public defender’s offices, and private attorneys that retain federally certified court interpreters for many services from jail visits, to depositions, to witness preparation, to federal civil litigation.  They will never earn that income because of a government agency’s ineptitude and a bottom-feeder contractor’s gross negligence.

The second group includes those interpreters who took the test, and for no fault of their own, will now get the “magnanimous” opportunity to retest “free of charge”.  The problem is, my friends and colleagues, there is not such a thing as a “free exam”. The “luckiest” of this crowd will be able to retake the test in their hometown without paying for it, but they must turn down other assignments to take the test. This means they will lose income and that makes the exam far from “free of charge”. Next, you have the unfortunate unlucky ones whose sin was to leave in a town where the exam will not be offered. We all know colleagues who drove overnight, got on a plane, got a passport and then got on a plane, and then checked into a hotel to take the test. Nobody will reimburse them for those expenses, and many must cough up the money once again if they want to take the exam. Even if they AO expands the locations where the test will be administered, it is doubtful this will include those of our colleagues who traveled from abroad to take the test. Plane tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals, gas money, tolls, and lost income will make the retake of the exam a burden to these colleagues. To them, this will not be a “free of charge” exam.

The last group, often forgotten during this fiasco of epic proportions, are the freelance federally certified court interpreters retained by Paradigm, with the blessing of the AO, to rate the original exams. These distinguished colleagues put first the profession and agreed to rate the exams, even if the pay is little for such hard work, they were asked to purchase their plane tickets, book their hotel rooms, and cover their daily expenses while this rating was happening, with the promise of reimbursement when their raters’ fee was paid. It is only now that some of the raters are getting paid; others have not seen a penny yet; and nobody has been reimbursed for travel expenses disbursed 7 or 8 months ago.

Last week, Paradigm sent a letter to the raters explaining why some had not yet been paid, arguing some bureaucratic step that the raters needed to comply with: Sending an email to the individual in charge of this fiasco at Paradigm informing him of this payment.

Regarding reimbursement of expenses, this letter, dated May 4 states: “…Payment for travel and hotel expenses will be released after Paradigm receives verification of your receipt of payment for Rater hours. Meals and incidental expenses will follow…”  They are telling raters that they are not sending their checks quite yet.

Next, the letter includes a self-serving statement that should worry the raters: “…Paradigm is working to get Raters paid in-full within the next few weeks. This is contingent upon Raters providing confirmation of receipt of payments received and the AOC continuing to approve the invoiced items for payment…”

In other words, there is no hard date for these payments, and reimbursement is contingent to AOC’s approval. This would make me very nervous if there is litigation pending between the AO and Paradigm.

As you can see, the “magnanimous letter” is far from a happy ending to this fiasco. The future is uncertain. Nobody knows if the AO will ever share the real data behind what happened and a detailed scientific explanation of the exam assessment process, including those who did it.

The biggest problem and reason to be concerned is the lack of transparency. Interpreters must know who retained Paradigm to administer the test. How was the bidding process; who were the other bidders, how low was the winning bid; who decided in the AO that Paradigm was qualified to administer an exam like the federal court interpreter certification test for Spanish interpreters? Why the credentials of a testing entity like Paradigm, which mainly proctors high school tests to monolingual students were appropriate for this bilingual professional test? There was ineptitude and negligence during this decision making process, and there was gross incompetence when dealing with the aftermath.

Those responsible should pay the consequences. Only then trust will be restored and people will believe the AO once again. In sports, when a team is not performing the coach is fired.

It is doubtful that the AO will come clean and provide all these records to the public. They have no legal obligation to disclose everything, but their moral duty compels them to do so. Without good faith, trust will continue to erode, and interpreters will be left with fewer and more distasteful options such as a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) to see how the process happened; even though the process would be lengthy and the information released will be tittle more than the documents they already published. Those with standing can also sue the AO, but they must do it quickly, since the Federal Tort Act gives only 2 years to do so, and the process must start through an administrative channel. Also, the result of this legal action, even if successful, is limited by legislation and case law.

Perhaps a better option would be to sue Paradigm, its employees, and the AO’s officers as individuals (which is permitted) for damages under the contributory negligence by all defendants’ theory. This way, interpreters would learn more about the steps that lead to this fiasco from the discovery that the parties would have to turn over to the plaintiff. Also, damages awarded can include punitive damages.

I could not end this post without mentioning how the candidates who took the test, the raters who have not been paid, and the court interpreter profession were abandoned by their professional organizations during this struggle. It is sad to see how the current Board of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) abandoned its members by sitting on their hands and remain silent. It was until May 2, after the “Magnanimous letter” was made public, that the Board issued a self-serving harmless statement indicating that they were “…very much aware of the issue surrounding the federal exam…” and how they “are continuing to monitor the events as they unfold in June…” In other words, the national association with the most members directly affected, issues a communication after the fact even more sanitized than the AO’s. The latter called the fiasco “irregularities”; NAJIT could not even say that and called it an “issue”. Without any investigation, they have concluded that in their “opinion” “the AO is acting in good faith in what is an unfortunate set of circumstances”.  Again, this Board sided with the establishment instead of the profession and its own members. Nobody has suggested bad faith from anyone at the AO; the issue (correctly used in this context) is negligence. NAJIT is also telling those attending its annual conference that the AO will address court interpreters but not for a session “…geared toward the federal oral exam and its administration…” They want the AO there, but they will not pursue the federal exam fiasco as the topic to be discussed. That should not be because it could be uncomfortable to the AO, but because it will probably benefit the members more to talk about how many cases were interpreted last year, an interpreter directory, or other vital issues no doubt more important than the biggest stain in court interpreting history. We can only vote and hope to elect a NAJIT Board that will write position papers, hold round tables on the most pressing issues that impact the profession, as it had been the tradition before. It was just 2 years ago, under another Board, that we held a panel on immigration court interpreting that helped to change things to a better situation today. NAJIT is not a labor union and we do not expect it to act like one. We hope it goes back to its role representing the professional interests of its membership while defending the integrity of the profession.

It is time for all court interpreters to think and question those things that go wrong to change them. Treating interpreters as ignorant people, who should be grateful to the AO for letting everyone retest after 7 months of agony following a test that will go down in history as a monument to ineptitude and negligence, with no transparency and accountability is just unacceptable. I now invite you to comment, in the understanding that comments defending the AO or Paradigm will not be posted unless they come from an official source.

Ignorance and negligence could kill a legendary interpreter program.

June 14, 2016 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Humans are reluctant to think that something that was very good in the past could end up as something very bad. It goes against our idea of making things better, contrary to our concept of progress. Unfortunately, it is too often that a bad situation manifests itself right in front of our eyes. Just think of Venezuela; once the best economy in Latin America with a bright future ahead, and now a sad story of poverty, government corruption, and hunger, where millions of bright good people suffer the consequences of incompetent decisions.

The interpreting world has had its share of cases where a good situation turns bad. Today I will share with you a tragic story that, without prompt and able action, could become the Venezuela of the interpreting world.  First, a word of caution:  The story I am about to share with all of you depicts an intolerable situation in a certain region of the United States, and it directly impacts a relatively small segment of our professional community; Nevertheless, the conditions that gave birth to this tragic scenario could easily happen again anywhere in the world, perhaps in your area, maybe in your professional field. In fact, I am sure that this is happening in other regions of the planet.  It is for these reasons that I invite you to carefully read this story, so you can learn how to recognize the symptoms, and find a way to take action defending your profession before it is too late.

This story has to do with court interpreting in the United States.  Many of you already know that court interpreting is the most common interpreting practice in the United States. It has the most interpreters, and it is the only specialization that has its own legislation at the state and federal levels.

For American standards, compared to other types of interpreting, court interpreting has a “long history” of regulations and professional standards in the United States. It goes back to 1978 when the American federal government passed the Federal Court Interpreters Act which required that Spanish language interpreters passed a certification exam in order to qualify for work in the federal court system. Soon after, several individual states followed the example of the federal government, and developed their own legislation to test and certify Spanish language interpreters who were going to provide professional services in that particular state system.  The first state to set its own system was California in 1979, followed by New York, New Mexico, and New Jersey in the 1980s. These efforts culminated with the creation of the (now defunct) Consortium of States where a majority of the states came together, combined resources, and developed a test that served as the basis to certify those Spanish language interpreters who met the minimum requirements to work as professionals in a given state judicial system. After the creation of the Consortium, individual states developed certification tests in other languages to meet the needs of their specific areas.  New York and California did not participate in the Consortium of States, but New Mexico and New Jersey became the “gold standard” for court interpreter certification at the state-level in the U.S.

Due to its history and traditions, New Mexico became a pioneer and a national leader in all court interpreter matters: A founding state of the Consortium, New Mexico was the first state to allow non-English speakers, who were American citizens, as jurors at the state court level, actively participating in the trial process and jury deliberations with the assistance of a court interpreter. It also developed a very important professional community of Navajo court interpreters, and considered all court interpreting services as one profession, for the first time bringing to the table, at the same time, all spoken foreign language, Native American language, and Sign Language court interpreters.  Other major landmarks in the history of court interpreting in New Mexico include being one of the first states to require continuing education to keep the certification current, having a state supreme court justice as an active advocate of quality standards in court interpreting, and it became the sponsor of the largest annual court interpreter conference for a state of its size.  In other words, New Mexico took some of the biggest names in the interpreting and translation conference world to its state so that the local professionals could benefit of these trainings at a very low cost.  New Mexico was the “gold standard” for other states and the quality of its court interpreters was recognized throughout the country.  It was at this time, when things were going the right way, that two events changed the course of this court interpreter program, and pushed it to the edge of the cliff where it started its current freefall: There was a change of the guard at the helm of the state program, and the federal government exercised its muscle to compel the states to comply with the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Among them: the state’s obligation to give universal access to all services provided with federal funds, including all non-English speakers. All of a sudden, furnishing certified court interpreters in all criminal law cases was not enough anymore. New Mexico needed to offer interpreting services to all non-English speaking individuals who walked into a state government office.

The landscape changed. Due to his age and other personal reasons, the State Supreme Court Justice who had served the interpreting community as an advocate and unconditional ally for so many years, took a back seat and slowed down his pace; the person in charge of the administration of the state court interpreter program left, and even her very capable assistant of many years transferred to another government position. They were replaced by a newcomer with academic credentials but without court interpreting experience, and lacking the knowledge necessary to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of such a complex population and professional interpreter community.

The changes started almost immediately. Some of them were noticeable right away, others did not show their head in plain sight until many months later. The state government officials’ attitude towards the interpreters changed radically.  From the head of the Administrative Office of the New Mexico State Courts, to the language access services statewide manager, to the rookie judge (not a Supreme Court Justice anymore) who now actively participated in all interpreter issues that had to do with an entity created by the state called the New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee; policy, attitudes, and decisions began to change.  There would be no annual conference anymore; the conditions that interpreters had been working under for many years would be reevaluated to cut as much as possible; the cordial and professional relationship, based on mutual respect, that had existed for decades between the interpreting community and the state would now be replaced by a tough attitude where the difference in size and power would be clearly exercised by the big guy in the contractual relationship, now very willing to show its muscle in the event of a minor dissidence or difference of opinion; and the Civil Rights Act’s Title VI requirements would be portrayed as fulfilled by creating a less expensive sub-par category of paraprofessional quasi-interpreters, instead of fostering and promoting the growth of the interpreter profession, thus meeting the minimum standards of the Civil Rights Act mandate, which of course, would require more funds and a greater effort on the part of the state, including, but not limited to, the Administrative Office of the Courts’ active participation in the preparation of a budget to be presented to the state legislature where fulfilling the true mandate of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act would be a top priority for the judiciary, whose only reason to exist as part of the government, is to guarantee an administration of justice inclusive of all citizens of the state.  Of course, this would demand a different attitude by the state, with a judiciary willing to battle the legislature, and go to the United States Justice Department to denounce the State Legislature whenever it was not addressing the equal access to justice mandate. A very different attitude, especially when compared to… perhaps securing judges and bureaucrats’ salaries and then throwing everybody else under the bus.

I have been told by many interpreters in New Mexico that since the time this change of priorities took place, the state has switched interpreters’ minimum guaranteed periods of work, it has changed its travel policy to pay less to the interpreters, there have been attempts to include as part of the original contract, attachments that fundamentally change essential parts of the interpreters’ contracts after these agreements have been executed already; I have listened to stories of interpreters been disrespected at Language Access Advisory Committee meetings; the story of an interpreter whose certification was revoked for no reason, who later won a legal case to get the certification reinstated, but has been isolated by the state officials who have never let this person work in the court system again.  I have seen the abysmal difference between the quality of a certified court interpreter’s rendition, and the mediocre paraprofessional services provided by the so called “justice system interpreters”, and I have listened to the American Sign Language Interpreters who share the same concerns as their spoken language counterparts regarding the quality of video remote interpreting, and more importantly, the level of interpreting skills of those who may provide the service from out of state, perhaps without a New Mexico or federal court interpreter certification.  It is possible that the State of New Mexico has designed a strategy to justify its actions. Even though what they are doing is legal, and I am in no way suggesting that the state has violated any law; it is still wrong for the profession, wrong for the interpreters, and bad for the non-English speakers who need a professional certified court interpreter to protect their life, freedom, or assets

I know that many of our colleagues in New Mexico are fighting a very important battle to protect the profession and the true professional interpreter; many have retained an attorney to represent them before the everyday more aggressive attitude of the state officials, and many of them are refusing to sign a contract with the state, unless and until, the minimum professional work conditions that they are requesting, and constitute the minimum standards everywhere else in the civilized world, are met by New Mexico. Just like we did last year when we, as a professional community, backed up the efforts by our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States until SOSi agreed to better their fees and basic working conditions, let’s all be one once again and support our colleagues in New Mexico.

Finally, to our colleagues in New Mexico, I encourage you to talk to the State Bar and make all attorneys in New Mexico aware of the fact that the state is on the brink of destroying that tradition that made New Mexico the “gold standard” of court interpreting at the state-level in the United States.  Submit articles to the New Mexico Bar Bulletin for publication, even this piece. I could almost assure you that many lawyers are not even aware of the abysmal difference between real certified court interpreters and the individuals the state is furnishing for so many of their court appearances.  Make sure that your voice is loud all over the state.  I now invite you all to share your comments about this situation and many other similar scenarios in the United States and many other countries.

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