Interpreting CJA cases is a bad business decision.

March 26, 2018 § 25 Comments

Dear colleagues:

A recurring theme among my court interpreter colleagues in the United States is the extreme difficulties they must endure when working under the Criminal Justice Act program (CJA). There are complaints about absurd paperwork procedures and unimaginable payment delays. Some colleagues’ invoices for professional services rendered under this program have been outstanding for over a year!

I worked with attorneys under the CJA program, but when the system changed about 18 months ago, and interpreters’ invoices had to go through the defense attorneys to get paid, and I heard some of the delayed payment stories from colleagues nationwide, I decided not to take CJA cases anymore.

For those of you who do not do federal court interpreting work in the United States, in 1964 the United States Congress enacted the Criminal Justice Act (18 U.S.C. § 3006A) to provide a system for appointing and compensating lawyers to represent defendants financially unable to retain counsel; and providing for payment of experts, investigators, or other needed defense services in federal criminal proceedings, including interpreters. Today, the Office of the Federal Public Defender, with the over 10,000 private “panel attorneys” who accept CJA assignments annually, represent the vast majority of individuals prosecuted in U.S. federal courts.

CJA panel attorneys are paid an hourly rate of $132 in non-capital cases, and, in capital cases, a maximum hourly rate of $185. These rates include both attorney compensation and office overhead. In addition, there are case maximums that limit total panel attorney compensation for categories of representation (for example, $10,000 for felonies, $2,900 for misdemeanors, and $7,200 for appeals). These maximums may be exceeded when higher amounts are certified by the district judge, or circuit judge if the representation is at the court of appeals, as necessary to provide fair compensation and the chief judge of the circuit approves.  CJA attorney appointments are made by the Court on a rotating basis among members of the panel. Freelance federal court interpreters are paid with the same system, but with an additional step: Before their invoice goes to the judiciary, it must be reviewed and approved by the CJA panel attorney who requested the interpreter’s services. I guess interpreters are officers of the court of a lower tier, so they must be policed by the CJA panel attorney, apparently an officer of the court of a tier higher than the interpreter.

This process, not required when interpreters work directly for the federal courts interpreting court hearings or out-of-court interviews for public defenders or probation officers, created a burden on freelance interpreters who now devote a considerable, uncompensated time to the paperwork and its unavoidable eternal follow up process, that often takes many months and even years. Interpreters are billing for the time they worked as interpreters in a case, but that time represents but a fraction of the hours interpreters spend on paperwork, and follow up telephone calls, emails, and in-person visits to the courthouse, trying to discover the status of a payment for a service provided long before. This time goes uncompensated, and interpreters cannot work somewhere else, and generate income, while they are tied up in bureaucratic nonsense and begging for payment of rightfully earned professional fees.  For all these reasons, and to keep my health, sanity, and dignity, as soon as the system started I decided not to take any CJA panel cases, and I have taken none.

I suggest you do the same. Once you do it, you will be surprised at the money you will save just by rejecting these cases. Those of you who know me, or have read this blog for years, know that I am always suggesting diversification in the profession among freelancers so you can keep steady income, and a stream of interesting assignments instead of a boring monotonous routine. Dear colleagues, there are plenty of options even if court and legal interpreting is your thing and you do not want to step outside your field.

The most desirable practice would be civil cases with well-established high-profile law firms. They generally handle interesting cases, have clients who understand and appreciate your work as interpreter, and pay excellent, professional fees when you negotiate correctly. Smaller civil law firms and solo practitioners are also a good alternative.

Next, you have the criminal defense private attorneys. They have time to handle their cases and they usually retain you for the entire case. Here your interpreting services are well paid, and you are exposed to challenging, but interesting cases. It is rare to work in a case involving white collar crimes when you spend your time providing services to public defenders and CJA panel attorneys.

Foreign law firms are also a very good choice. Globalization has generated a big multinational litigation practice, and those top-notch attorneys coming from countries where they do not speak English may need the services of a local court interpreter team. Fascinating topics, including intellectual property, foreign trade, mining, hazardous materials, are common with these clients. Family Law practitioners from these countries are also looking for interpreting services in cases of divorce, child support, international child abduction, and others.

If you want to fill in the rest of your agenda with more court/legal work, you can also provide interpreting services to the Office of the United States Attorney in your jurisdiction. Witness preparation, proffers, transcriptions, and other services are required by the AUSA. An added benefit: They are not bound by the (every-day lower) federal fees, so you can negotiate a much better compensation for your professional services.

If you like working with the federal prosecutors, then you must offer your services to the United States Trustee Program (USTP) for their exams and interviews in federal bankruptcy court cases. This is another source of legal/court interpreter income that pays well when you negotiate your fee correctly.

Finally, you can still work with the federal public defender and, if you want to interpret hearings instead of interviews, negotiations, and depositions, you can interpret for the federal courts. You will only make the set half –a-day or full-day fee, and you will usually get the same type of cases, but you will stay away from the long, demeaning, and never-ending invoice procedures associated with CJA panel attorney cases. As a less desirable option, but in many ways better than dealing with the CJA system, you could always work at the state-court level.

Dear friends and colleagues, there are plenty of alternatives to CJA assignments, even within the court/legal field. I believe that if you all were to do what I did from the beginning, the CJA system would have no choice but to change and become more interpreter-friendly. I do not believe on “fantasyland solutions” such as talking to chief judges and court clerks; it was tried in some districts and they accomplished nothing. We cannot continue to lose income, health, and dignity backing up a system that proved ineffective. I now ask you to share your comments with the rest of us.

“Excuse me, interpreter, we will record your rendition”.

January 22, 2018 § 15 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A few months ago I came back to the booth after a break during an event I was interpreting and I found my boothmate talking to one of the conference attendees. He was asking for her permission to bring a digital recorder inside the booth because he wanted to record the interpretation of the conference. Before my colleague responded, I explained to the gentleman that recording an interpreter rendition is more complex than simply asking the interpreter.  I told him that it would not be possible to record us, and I asked him to talk to the event organizers who would work on all clearances and legal documents needed before anything could be recorded to be played back at a later time.  He understood my polite negative, picked up his microphone and recording devise, and exited the booth.

Once we were alone, my boothmate told me she did not know that anything other than our consent was needed. She told me that often, other organizers and agencies had recorded her rendition without even asking for her permission. I was very surprised.

The United States and many other countries have enacted legislation that protect intellectual property. There are also international conventions to protect patents, trademarks, and copyrights covering tangible and intangible products discovered, invented, or created by the human mind. The use and exploitation of this intellectual property without the authorization of the author violates law and perpetrators are subject to both criminal and civil liability.

Only after the author, or legal holder, of an intellectual property right has consented to its use or exploitation this can be manufactured, sold, printed, reproduced, or used. Because the protected intellectual property is the work product of an individual, this inventor, creator, or author must be compensated. Such compensation is called royalties.

American legislation defines royalties as “…a percentage of gross or net profit, or a fixed amount per sale to which a creator of a work is entitled which is agreed upon in a contract between the creator and the manufacturer, publisher, agent, and/or distributor. “ Inventors, authors, movie makers, music composers, scriptwriters, musicians, interpreters, translators, and other creators of an intellectual product , contract with manufacturers, publishers, movie production companies, producers, event organizers, agents, and distributors to be paid royalties in exchange for a license or authorization to manufacture or sell the product. Royalties are payments made by one entity (the licensee) to another entity (the licensor) in exchange for the right to use intellectual property or physical assets owned by the licensor.

In a situation like the one I describe above, the speaker at the podium is the author of the knowledge and information he is disseminating among the attendees to the conference. He owns that intellectual property. The interpreters in the booth are the authors of the content in the target language of the knowledge and information the speaker at the podium disseminated in the source language. Both, the speaker (in the source language) and the interpreters (in the target language) would be licensors to the attendee who requested the recording when he went to the booth. This individual would be the licensee to the speaker as far as the knowledge and information disseminated by the speaker during the speech, and for the elocution of the contents in the source language. He would also be the licensee to the interpreters for the rendition of the speech into the foreign (signed, or indigenous) target language.

The attendee would need, at least, the authorization of the speaker to record the presentation in the source language, and the consent of both, speaker and interpreters to record the presentation in the target language. Attendee would need to negotiate the payment of royalties with speaker and interpreters, and all licensors would need to be compensated for the use of their intellectual property.

It could be more complicated; the speaker may have partners who coauthored the paper he is presenting; a university, government, or other entity may be the legal holder to the intellectual property rights because of a contractual agreement between the speaker and his sponsors.  The interpreters could have negotiated the sale of their intellectual property (the rendition into the target language) to the agency that retained them, the main speaker, the university, government or other entity who sponsored the research, or any other party legally entitled to said intellectual property.  It is never as simple as letting the attendee record your rendition.

Years ago, interpreters would get to the booth, and whenever there were no speakers of the target language they were there to interpret, they would just sit in the booth doing very little. There were no “customers” for their intellectual product.  This has changed. Now often interpreters must interpret into their target language even if there are no speakers in the room, because there may be others virtually attending the presentation from a remote location, or because the speech, and its interpretation into several target languages, will be sold to others who could not attend the live event.

For this reason interpreters must know of the event organizer’s plans. If there will be a video or audio recording of the presentation, we must negotiate royalties. Those fees belong to us, not to the speaker or the event organizer; and they do not belong in the pockets of the agency that hired us to do the conference. As interpreters we must be very careful of what we sign. Speaker and event organizer may be paying royalties to the agency for the recording, and the interpreting agency may not be passing these payments on to you, the rightful owner.

Interpreters can negotiate this intellectual property rights. They can sell them to a third party if they wish to do so. They can even transfer them for free. It is up to the skill and business mind of the interpreter to decide what to do, but we must know that we can negotiate; that we are in the driver’s seat. I would allow no type of recording of my work unless I get paid royalties. How I negotiate payment, how to calculate them, and whether or not I will settle for a lump payment or a recurring payment every time the recording is sold, will depend on the content, and my long term relationship with that client.

Please do not ignore your intellectual property rights. The United States Code, Code of Federal Regulations, and other legislation will protect us in the U.S., but when working abroad, and even when the work product (recorded rendition) will be sold abroad, or the licensee entity is a foreign national, check local legislation and look for any international treaty. Finally, regardless of the location of the job, always include an intellectual property/payment of royalties clause in your interpreting services contract. At the minimum you should prohibit any recording of your rendition without your written consent.

I now invite you to leave your comments and to share your experiences with this issue that will be more pervasive every day.

It is the mediocre who disrespect the interpreter.

May 22, 2017 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

A few weeks ago I read a comment by a colleague who had just finished a very important high-profile interpreting assignment. He stated that when the event ended the main speaker thanked the interpreters for their job in the booth. Rightly so, my colleague was very happy and appreciative of the kind gesture.

His comment brought back many personal experiences of instances when speakers and organizers recognized the interpreter team by either praising a job well done, or by thanking us for our dedication and professionalism. At this moment it hit me: With some exceptions, the most important, famous, admired speakers are always kind and appreciative. It is common to be recognized at the end of a hard session. Many commend us for our rendition, others ask for a round of applause for the interpreters. I have been to some events where we have been asked to come out of the booth to be seen and recognized by the audience. It is all about respect, but it is also about education and awareness of the importance of a good interpretation.

These movers and shakers know that without proper interpretation their words would lose their thunder in a foreign language. They know that communication is essential, and our work is key to reach everyone in every culture and language.

For this reason high-profile conference interpreters are always welcome at the auditorium, conference room, and international organization where their services will be needed. From the moment we arrive we are treated with deference and respect, not because of who we are, but because of what we do. Everybody is on board, they all know that we provide a relevant professional service.

Speakers and organizers know and understand the complexity of what we do, so it is just natural we get a breakroom to relax every now and then, that they expect us to work in teams of two and three; that we get paid for travel days, and that we get a compensation appropriate to the service we provide.

As I was thinking of these circumstances, my mind drifted to the way healthcare and court interpreters are treated most of the time.  Despite being an essential component to the healthcare system, or a key element to an administration of justice equal for all, doctors, nurses, judges, attorneys and support staff often view interpreters as an inconvenience instead of an asset. They are perceived by many in these areas as outsiders instead of as part of the team. Many resent them and believe that we are overpaid, after all, all we do is talk.

Although some may be motivated by who knows what reason, I think that most of their attitude and policies come from ignorance. Unlike so many people we deal with in conference interpreting, many are not well traveled and lack a sense of international community. A medical diploma or law degree guarantee no worldly view of affairs. To put it simply, they just cannot understand why people do not speak their language, and they attribute their lack of native language skills to being intellectually inferior. They believe that everybody should learn their language and consider translation and interpreting services as a waste of resources and losing the national identity. It is for these reasons, and not necessarily because they dislike the interpreter, after all interpreters speak their language, that they consider our presence annoying and our service a threat to the status quo.

I do not like this, but I can understand why these individuals do not want to treat us with the dignity and respect we are treated at the conference level. The lack of respect and demeaning practices towards interpreters I cannot justify or understand, are those perpetrated by the people in the multinational language agencies who hire unqualified people, pay disgustingly low professional fees, and treat interpreters as laborers instead of professionals.

It is the way interpreters are treated by these entities that greatly contrasts with the dignified treatment we experience in a conference they were not involved.  It is these transnational entities, who are on a crusade to destroy our profession and turn it into an “industry” that wants to get us to work the booth, courtroom and hospital like an assembly line.

They know of the complexity and professional nature of our work, they understand how exhausting our craft is, they know of the fact that we sell our time. Yet, they want to pay the lowest fees, who want to take up to three months before they pay us, the ones who do not want to a second interpreter, refuse to pay for travel days, and rarely share the assignment relevant materials. These are the people who demand you call when you get to the assignment and let them know when you leave.

These are the “experts” who distrust us so much they double-check with their client to make sure we really worked for as long as we told them, and treat us like little children by telling us what to wear, where to sit, what to eat, and who to talk to. They know you, they have worked with you in the past, and at the least they researched you before they contacted you for a job. It is not about you, it is about their perception of the profession. To them, in their mythical theory of the “interpreting industry” we are laborers on an assembly line. This serves them better. Once they dehumanize us by turning us into their “industry’s” pawns, they can disrespect us, insult us, and abuse us as interpreters. This or course, only if we let them.

I now ask you to share with the rest of us your thoughts about this important issue.

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