Quality Interpreting is disappearing, and it is all the hiring entity’s fault.
October 5, 2022 § 8 Comments
Court interpreting in the United States, and probably elsewhere, is facing its biggest crisis since the courts worked with professional, certified and accredited interpreters half a century ago. Ignorance and lack of empathy in the court system has created a group of professional, highly specialized interpreters expected to work for subpar fees in both, State and Federal Courts.
Interpreters have been ignored and disrespected in several State systems where court interpreter pay is close to an unskilled worker’s, and has remained unchanged at such levels for years. Answers such as lack of resources, having to wait several budget cycles for the issue to be considered, have no credibility when wages of other officers of the court such as judges, State attorneys, and court reporters are raised and adjusted to inflation.
Spanish language federal court interpreters, arguably the most qualified group of court interpreters in the United States, have not seen a raise for many years, and have been ignored by the Judiciary when two letters signed by most interpreters were answered by the courts sending new contracts to these independent contractors at the same pay as every year for some time; not a word on a raise, or even an inflation cost of living adjustment. Many interpreters did not return the signed contract, others, changed the fees before signing it, and some signed and sent it back with the idea of not accepting any work as long as the fees issue remains unattended. We have learned that Washington, D.C., instead of contacting the various States, took the easy way, and it has been contacting several interpreters to discover what States pay for interpretation, instead of researching what the private sector pays.
This is important because for years, many of the most qualified, sought after, certified court interpreters have been ignoring the call of the courts, choosing instead the more profitable practice of interpreting for private attorneys, arbitrations, and depositions where they can make twice as much as what Federal Court pays. Sometimes even more.
The judiciary expects top-tier interpreters to work under abusive conditions, such as the federal cancelation policy. A few weeks ago, a federal judicial district issued a communication looking for federally certified court interpreters for a trial, the pay would be the same one interpreters are refusing to work for already. The communication stated the following as the court’s cancellation policy: “Because of the nature of the proceedings, in the federal courts, early terminations may occur. An interpreter is not entitled to a cancellation fee or additional compensation if the court gives the interpreter 24-hour notice that a trial will end early…” No compensation if notified 24 hours ahead of time! The court expects interpreters in high demand to set aside one or more weeks for a trial, and then leave them out in the cold if the parties settle, there is a plea agreement, the trial is continued, or the defendant pleads guilty. What individual in their right mind would agree to such terms? Only those who have to take the offer because they can get no work elsewhere. These will be rarely the best interpreters around.
This tendency is growing nationwide, and it is leaving the court system with a limited number of certified interpreters, some who stayed and work for little money because of the service they believe needs to be provided to a vulnerable population nobody in the system seems to care about, and those who cannot get work in the more competitive private sector because of their skill or lack of flexibility to travel or work long hours.
Many hearings, especially the short ones, and other interpreter services usually provided by certified interpreters, will continue to go to untrained, unskilled non-certified interpreters and paraprofessional bilinguals who will put non-English speakers at a disadvantage in their court proceedings. Sometimes, some courts, especially at the State level, may even use interpreters from another State, or those living in a foreign country who provide their services remotely, without a certification, and who gladly accept the low fees because their home country’s economy differs from the United States’.
Some certified court interpreters are even entering the conference interpreting field with no preparation, under the wrong assumption that certified court interpreters can interpret a conference. This complicates the landscape as interpretations in these conferences is deficient, and gives unscrupulous platforms and agencies some resemblance of legitimacy when they advertise the quality of their interpreters.
The constitutional mandate to have court interpreters may be at increasing risk every time judicial authorities remain inactive when interpreters, with justice and equity on their side, demand long overdue work conditions commensurate to the specialized service they provide, including fees that reflect this, and cost of living adjustments every year. Unless something is done to remedy this embarrassing issue, the administration of justice will be unequal, and the victims will all be humans: the litigants and others who appear in court, and the long ignored, and disrespected court interpreters.
Your Honor, the interpreter cannot hear.
October 14, 2013 § 18 Comments
Court interpreting can be exciting, interesting, and well remunerated, at times it can be challenging and even frustrating. It is all part of the job and I accept it as it comes; however, the thing I cannot accept is the noise, poor sound system, bad manners of many attorneys who just won’t stop talking, and the lack of understanding, by many officers of the court, of our need to hear what is being said.
There is a very simple rule: you cannot interpret what you don’t understand and what you can’t hear. It is that simple. Yet, many courthouses have turned into some of the worst possible environments to work. Many times this happens because of ignorance and lack of will to help improve the court services (which include interpretation for those who do not speak the language used in the courtroom) and on other occasions the courts just turn a blind eye to the problem even though they perfectly know that it is essential for the interpreter to hear what the parties are saying during the hearing.
Among these nightmarish environments to work as an interpreter, we have the attorneys who never stop talking in the courtroom; it seems that they have never thought of taking their conversations to the hallway. I couldn’t tell you how many times I have overheard conversations about dates from hell, complaints about bosses, stories about spoiled children, and opinions about judges, all while I sat in a courtroom waiting for my case to be called.
Of course I couldn’t leave out of this piece the cheap, old, poorly-kept, and obsolete sound systems that are waiting for all of us at many courthouses. These artifacts have outlived their useful life and instead of an asset, they constitute an obstacle to our work. It is very frustrating to try to do your job while the receiver keeps skipping forty percent of your rendition, or when the batteries are so low that you are not sure they will last the entire hearing. I would like to meet the person who thought that changing batteries, plugging and unplugging equipment, and running around looking for a better transmitter was part of interpreting; and if we are on the “mood” for meeting some of these “pillars of the court interpreting profession,” I would love to meet those who first dared to ask the interpreter to CLEAN THE EQUIPMENT after using it! I have never done it and I sure hope you haven’t either.
We must include all those attorneys who move away from the microphones as they speak, and we couldn’t forget the lawyers who talk so low that nobody can hear them. Somehow they don’t understand that the interpreter sits behind them (or to the side) and this makes it very difficult to hear them because their voice is projecting the opposite way: towards the judge, witness or jury. This group’s main characteristic is that after being reminded to speak into the microphone or to speak louder, they do it for about two minutes and then they go back to the old ways. I guess some of them are just following the lead of that judge who turns away from the microphone when she speaks, or the one who talks so softly that it’s easier to hear when a pin drops in the courtroom even though she is speaking.
Finally, my “favorite”: In some lower courts there is no place for the interpreter to sit in the courtroom. Interpreters are supposed to sit “wherever” as long as they are not “bothering” anybody else with their work. Often times, the interpreter ends up in the back of a courtroom, behind an easel or a screen, or sitting among the audience. How can anybody expect you to hear anything under these circumstances?
Of course, it is important to educate the courts. It is necessary to explain that we have to be able to hear what is being said by the judge and the parties over our own voice. All of this is crucial. We have been “educating” the bench and bar for many years.
Unfortunately, after years of “educating” judges and lawyers, many colleagues and administrators still believe that the solution is to continue. To do the same over and over again until they all finally get it. I disagree.
I think somebody has to say out loud that we have been “educating” them for a long time and it is time for the courts to set the appropriate conditions for us to do our work. It is time to stop solely “educating” and to start demanding that court administrators and chief judges do their job. We are officers of the court and an essential part to the system. We are not an inconvenience; we are an important step in the administration of justice.
It is true that most federal courthouses now have appropriate equipment, a place for the interpreter, and a noise level adequate for us to do our job, but there is much to be done at the state and lower levels. It is time for the state judges to start controlling their courtrooms so that people who “need” to talk exit the courtroom, those who need to be heard use the microphones, and those who are in the courtroom to interpret have a place where they can sit, use their computers or tablets, and more importantly, listen to what is being said during a hearing. We are not mind-readers. We are court interpreters. Always remember: you can’t interpret what you can’t hear.
I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with this essential issue turned into a nightmare by many courts.