Are the interpreters working conditions in danger?

April 21, 2014 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

A few days ago a colleague contacted me to ask if I had seen the updated United States Federal Court Interpreter Orientation Manual and Glossary. Although I do not exactly know how long ago this version came to be, my answer was that I had not. She asked me to take a look and then tell her my opinion. I read the publication from beginning to end. The first thing I noticed was that some extremely qualified colleagues had been involved in this updating process. Then I read the publication. Most of the manual seemed to be well written and it looked like it covered most of the relevant points and situations that happen in federal cases. That is, until I got to Chapter 3(VII)(C) For your benefit as readers, I transcribe the applicable portion of the manual next:

“Federal Court Interpreter Orientation Manual and Glossary.

Chapter 3: Overview of Court Interpreting.

VII Interpreters in the Courtroom…

C. Number of Interpreters per Proceeding: Team/Tandem Interpreting.

       The number of interpreters may vary according to the type of proceeding and the number of defendants that require interpreter services. To mitigate the effects of interpreter fatigue, proceedings estimated to exceed four hours are often covered by two interpreters through team, or tandem interpreting. The passive interpreter should remain seated in close proximity to the active interpreter and refrain from leaving the courtroom for any significant length of time without good reason…”

Yes dear colleagues, it reads four hours.

For the past eighteen months or so, I have devoted a good part of my time to help and assist in the development of interpreting rules and policy for interpreters in different parts of the world. I have held talks, workshops, presentations and one-on-ones with many interested parties that are developing or restructuring interpreter working conditions and rules of professional performance; and I have done it driven by two priorities: (1) To provide an excellent service and (2) To protect interpreters so they are able to fulfill priority number one.

I have sat in meetings and presentations where I heard of countries where government offices and private agencies require interpreters to work alone when interpreting consecutively regardless of the duration of the assignment; I have heard how individuals in decision-making positions question the need for team interpreting in small conferences or in legal settings. I heard it all and I heard it over and over again. You must know then, that one of the things that kept me going, and gave me the moral authority to dispute the rules or policy with real scientific arguments and data, was the knowledge that in the United States all reputable conferences, the federal judicial system, and many state-level courthouses, were honoring and following the principles of team interpreting and interpreters switching roles from active to support (passive) every 30 minutes or so. Now you can imagine my reaction when I read Chapter 3(VII)(C) above.

Dear friends and colleagues, as many of you know, scientific studies have demonstrated that mental fatigue sets in after approximately 30 minutes of interpreting. These studies show how the quality of the rendition is compromised when an interpreter, regardless of his capacity and skill, continues to interpret beyond this 30 minute marker. Even when the interpreter who has been working for a long period of time thinks that his rendition is accurate, it is not, according to a study by the University of Geneva’s Translation and Interpretation School (“Prolonged turns in interpreting: Effects on quality, physiological and psychological stress.” Moser-Mercer, B. Kunzli, B. & Korac, M. University of Geneva, École de Traduction et d’Interprétation. Interpreting Volume 3(1) p. 47-63. John Benjamins Publishing Co.) Jesús Baigorri Jalón tells us that “…an average of 30 minutes of consecutive work was the maximum time during which a satisfactory (interpretation) could be done; after this time, one runs the risk of deteriorating results due to fatigue…” (“La Interpretación de conferencias: el nacimiento de una profesión. De París a Nuremberg”. Editorial Comares, Granada. P.188)

Recognizing this well-documented issue, and as part of its tradition of excellence and professionalism, the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) clearly indicates in article six of its Professional Standards:

“Article 6…

  • *An interpreter shall not, as a general rule, work alone in a simultaneous interpretation booth, without the availability of a colleague to relieve her or him should the need arise.
  • **One of whom must be able to relieve each of the other two. In certain circumstances this number may be reduced to two (particularly for short meetings or meetings of a general nature, provided that each of the two interpreters can work into both languages)…”

This is also contemplated within the Sign Language interpreter community. The ASL Team Interpreting Guidelines state the following:

“…Interpreting assignments one hour or longer in length with continuous interpreting, will require the use of a team of two interpreters. The teaming allows the interpreters to switch roles every 15-20 minutes. Teaming will reduce physical strain, prevent repetitive strain injury, and prevent mental fatigue which can cause the quality of the interpreting to deteriorate…”

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) issued a position paper on this particular issue, and their study concludes that:

“…Due process rights are best preserved with faithful simultaneous interpretation of legal proceedings… In a controlled study it was shown that interpreters’ work quality decreases after 30 minutes. In the challenging courtroom environment, team interpreting ensures that the comprehension effort required to provide accurate interpretation is not compromised. To deliver unassailably accurate language service, court interpreters work in teams…” (NAJIT Position Paper. Team Interpreting in the Courtroom. March 1, 2007)

Even Wikipedia is aware of the complexities of interpreting and the need for team interpreting when it says:

“…Because of the intense concentration needed by interpreters to hear every word spoken and provide an accurate rendition in the target language, professional interpreters work in pairs or in teams of three, so that after interpreting for twenty minutes, the interpreters switch…” (Wikipedia)

As we can clearly see, the fact that team interpreting is required to do this job, and that those in the team need to switch roles every 30 minutes or so is undisputed. This is why several countries that due to globalization are just starting to use interpreting services more often than before, are adopting the team interpreting principle; most of them agreeing to a 20-30 minute policy for interpreters to switch roles. It cannot be possible that the United States federal judiciary got it wrong. There is no way that these updated rules are telling the professional community (interpreters, judges and attorneys) and society at large (litigants, victims, experts, etc.) that the policy will take us backwards. I just do not believe that is what our government wanted to do.

This all leaves us with two possibilities then: Either the rules are poorly written, and that is why we got this confusion, of the rules committee made a mistake. If it was a mistake, it should be corrected immediately. If the rule refers to something else, it should be re-written to make it clear. As part of my research for this article, I heard that the rules were updated because of the arrival of telephonic interpreting. If that is the case, the language must be amended to show that this rule is meant to apply to telephonic hearings. Then, after they do that, we will have to argue that telephonic hearing also needs team interpreting, but that would be another battle for another day.

Dear colleagues, I know that each judicial district sets its own rules, in fact, I am privileged to work in districts where the team interpreter rule is honored and enforced. I am aware of the fact that these rules will probably not change the way most districts operate; however, they are there, and someone can use them in the future to damage the service and hurt the profession. The rule needs to be amended immediately. Many of us will never work alone. Many of us will demand a team, but there could be new colleagues, greedy ignorant language service agencies, and inept court administrators who may be tempted to use them as an excuse to try to change policy. They would fail. They would lose. They would disappear, but I ask you: Why do we have to fight that battle (again) when all that needs to be done is to amend the manual. Please share your thoughts on this issue with the rest of us.

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