Quality interpreting will be tougher and less profitable.

September 3, 2019 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Government officials are entrusted with taxpayer’s money and they should be good stewards when allocating said resources. Good governments are charged with guaranteeing equality and quality services to those who elected them, and they must wisely decide where to invest and where to cut expenses. Sometimes well-intentioned authorities get it wrong, and unless they rectify, consequences can be ugly.

There are two instances where the United States federal government has adopted policies, and is considering even more steps, that will negatively affect our profession: One of such actions, already in place, impacts those interpreters practicing before the immigration courts; the other one will make accurate interpreting extremely difficult in the healthcare sector.

Even though we have read and heard many voices protesting these government decisions, and that is very good, they all argue the negative effects from the perspective of the beneficiary of the professional service: the millions of individuals living in the United States who do not speak English, but nobody has argued why these changes must be opposed from the interpreters’ perspective. My following comments result from conversations I had with fellow interpreters, immigration attorneys, and my own experience and observations as an interpreter, and from my days when I saw the immigration court system up close as part of an immigration law firm. This should complement what others have said.

Interpreting immigration proceedings.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) which runs the immigration courts, a branch of the Executive Branch of the federal government, not part of an independent judiciary, and run by officials appointed by the current administration, to lower its operational costs, replaced in-person interpreting services during an individual’s first court appearance with “pre-recorded, subtitled orientation videos, or telephone calls…”

These initial appearance hearings, called “Master Calendar Hearings” are the procedural moment when a person sees the immigration judge for the first time, after receiving a “Notice to Appear” (NTA) in court because of a removal proceeding the U.S. government, through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has instituted against him or her. The notice informs the individual of the charges, gives the time and place of the hearing, and it informs immigrants of their right to have an attorney to represent them at no cost to the government (remember, immigration court is Civil Law. Only criminal cases are covered by the constitutional right to have a defense attorney free of charge).

Master Calendar Hearings are very important. During this appearance, a person, technically called the “respondent,” who apparently is not an American citizen, learns of the charges against him, the facts of his case, is informed of his legal rights, and is given the chance to retain an attorney at his own expense or appear without legal representation (pro-se) during the proceedings. The person could request bond or ask for a bond redetermination hearing before the immigration court.

Respondents are told of their rights as a group. In some courts between 80 to 100 people at a time. During the hearing, the judge briefly addresses each individually, asking them their name, date of birth, address, and whether or not they plan to retain an attorney. Judges also ask them if they have questions, if they understand English, and when needed, an interpreter is appointed at no charge. This is very important because respondents need to know that failure to appear to any subsequent hearings will be held without them been there (in absentia) and the result will be a final order of removal and a 10-year bar to any future immigration benefits in the United States. Occasionally, people ask for voluntary departure or concede removability at this hearing.

Before the pre-recorded policy was implemented, judges listened to respondents’ answers to their questions, and conveyed information through an interpreter in close to 90 percent of the cases, this is immigration court where English speakers are the exception. If respondent’s language rarely was spoken in the area, and there were no staff or contract interpreters readily available, judges would use a telephone interpreting service, and for those cases where interpreters were not found, immigration courts would continue the hearing to a future date when an interpreter would be available.

I cannot imagine, and it shows a lack of knowledge on the way immigration courts work, how could a judge ask questions, provide information, and communicate with a non-English speaker. I can even see how a judge can even know that the individual understood the recordings. Some will not understand the spoken language in the video; others cannot read the subtitles in their own language because they may be functionally illiterate. Some may not pay attention to the video. I know how important is to know what to do if an emergency occurs when on an airplane, but I rarely pay attention to the video airlines show teaching me how to buckle my seatbelt. The most logical outcome will be: The judge continues the Master Calendar Hearing until there is an interpreter for the respondent. The consequence of this outcome: a second Master Calendar Hearing, easily avoidable when interpreters are available the first time. Taxpayers’ savings: gone.

Unfortunately, many respondents will be embarrassed to admit they did not understand the video, others may choose a hearing they do not understand instead of sitting in detention for a few weeks waiting a rescheduled hearing with an interpreter; others may concede removability when they had relief because nobody told them so.

Under this new policy, interpreters will encounter the respondent at the hearing on the merits, called “individual hearing”, for the first time. From the interpreter’s perspective, these hearings are similar to a traditional trial, there are legal arguments by the parties, direct and cross-examination of witnesses, references to caselaw, and quotations of official documents on the situation of countries, regions, and other relevant information. When an interpreter is involved from the Master Calendar Hearing, she has time to prepare for the assignment, research country conditions reports, get acquainted with the relief the client is seeking, and develop a glossary of terms relevant to the case and to the respondent’s speech.

Accurate interpreting during individual hearings is difficult because of the wide variety of issues that can be discussed. This is complicated even more due to the cultural differences and level of education of many respondents.  Interpreting during an individual hearing when a pro-se respondent went through a Master Calendar Hearing with a pre-recorded video will be a very difficult task. It is almost impossible to interpret without context, and the Executive Office for Immigration Review expects accurate quality interpreting services under these deplorable circumstances.

In an environment where the federal government wants to slash down all language resources needed in immigration proceedings, therefore compromising the quality of the interpreting services in immigration court, it is very telling that SOSi, the sole agency providing interpreting services in immigration courts nationwide, under a public contract reviewable every year until 2021, has remain silent on this issue. They already showed how willing they were to win that contract a few years ago when their lowest bid ousted long-time provider LionBridge. We all remember how the first thing SOSi did was to reduce interpreter fees from $60 to $35 dollars per hour (they later lost to the interpreters before the National Labor Relations Board NLRB). We must not forget SOSi is a well-established, powerful contractor with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) with a vested interest and a priority to keep its client: The United States federal government happy.

Dear colleagues, all immigration interpreters: staff or contractors, will face a terrible environment where they must do more, much more, with a high probability of a less than perfect rendition, because of the erroneous, and in the long-run more expensive policy enacted by the EOIR. Independent contractors will also have a less profitable immigration practice because all Master Calendar Hearings will be gone. How do you like this: tougher work, less income, providing interpreting services for an agency focused on keeping a federal contract, that cares nothing about interpreters or quality service, all to comply with an absurd government policy that brings nothing favorable to the interpreter to the table?

Healthcare interpreting.

In compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin, including language proficiency, and President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order 13166 (2000) during President Barack Obama’s administration the U.S. Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare” in 2010.  Section 1557 of the Act prohibits discrimination in federally-funded or administered healthcare programs on basis of national origin, including language proficiency.

Once the law came to full force, healthcare providers had to provide “qualified” interpreters to those who are not English proficient. Since then, we have come a long way; there are now healthcare interpreter certification programs in several languages, criteria to resort to other qualified individuals in those languages lacking certification programs, and explicitly banning interpreting services by children and relatives of the patient. Interpreting services for languages of lesser diffusion, and for remote areas of the country where in-person certified interpreters were not physically available, a video remote interpreting (VRI) option was developed. I want to make it clear: I dislike VRI for many reasons, but I understand that it was better than the alternative: having a child doing the rendition or no interpreter.

On May of this year, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Health and Human Services Department (HHS) issued a proposed change to Section 1557 which affects many segments of the population, including the elimination of written translated notices informing non-English speakers of their right to have an interpreter, and the option to get interpreting services by video in regions where no interpreters were physically available. Citing savings of $3.2 billion dollars over a 5-year period, the 204-page amendment proposes telephone interpreting instead of the more expensive video remote interpreting.

The patient-physician relationship is very private, often it happens during difficult times, and it could include communicating the worse possible news. Medicine is an imperfect science and it depends on accurate diagnosis, precise instruction, and strict compliance by the patient. Unless a patient is English proficient, none are possible without an interpreter.

VRI is a horrible solution, interpreters who provide this service are at the mercy of the weather, the speed of the internet service, the reliability of the electric company, and the quality of sound, among other things that have nothing to do with interpreting. Telephonic interpreting, maybe good for a 9-11 emergency call, or to make an appointment to the hairdresser, when used for healthcare interpreting is borderline criminal.

Those who think interpreting is all about hearing what a person says and translating it into a different language show their ignorance. Interpreting is much more than that. Communication includes facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and many other factors that need to be picked by the interpreter to do a good job. Interpreting for a medical examination, laboratory work, therapy session, need this visual component more than many other human interactions.

How can an interpreter be satisfied and confident of a telephonic interpretation where the doctor asks the patient: “Is the pain sharper here… or here?”  How can a physician diagnose correctly if the patient reveals his injury by pointing to a body part and nothing else?

Many of the non-English proficient patients come from cultures when it is difficult to take about the human body, even to mention human parts by their name. They solve this uncomfortable situation by pointing to their intimate body parts instead. Hated VRI at least allows the distance interpreter to see what the patient is doing and render an accurate interpretation. Same is true for those patients, many farmers and construction workers from Spanish-speaking countries, wrongly name a body part, or refer to their own body by the name generally applied to animal parts. Hearing “my foot hurts” when they hold their thigh, or “my gizzard is swollen” can be accurately interpreted when the interpreter sees on the screen how the patient holds his thigh or points at his stomach. With telephonic interpreting this would take a lot of time and many questions to the patient. Sometimes it is impossible.

Medical insurance paperwork without a translated notice informing non-English speakers they can request an interpreter for their medical appointment, and long, often uncomfortable telephonically interpreted doctor visits will cause many discouraged patients, who are not proficient in English, staying home, skipping medical appointments, and waiting until it is too late, and more expensive, to provide medical treatments. To say that healthcare services, arguably the most profitable activity in the United States, needs to cut expenses by amending Section 1557 is difficult to buy. This is the business that charges you $75 for the plastic pitcher of water you used during your hospital stay.

To the interpreter, it will mean a more difficult task, a professional practice that goes beyond interpreting and into the world of having to divine what a patient said. More difficult work, same pay, and a diminished rentability. When patients stop going to the doctor because of telephonic interpreting, when people stay away from hospitals because nobody ever told them they could have an interpreter during the medical examination, the need for interpreters will plummet. If implemented, on top of the thousands of deaths it will cause, HHS decision to eliminate right to an interpreter translated written notices, and to replace VRI with a telephone line will be remembered as the decision that killed healthcare interpreting as a profitable practice.

If you are a practicing immigration court or healthcare interpreter, and you want to continue in your filed, working in a fulfilling profession that makes you a nice profit, join the activists working on behalf of immigrants, patients, immigration attorneys associations, the immigration judges union, and healthcare rights activists, and share with them your perspective, make them understand that the quality of your service will suffer because of reasons with nothing to do with the way you practice your craft; explain to them that less profitability will be the easiest way to show the door to the best interpreters practicing immigration and healthcare, leaving only (with a few exceptions) those of a lesser quality and professionalism. Share stories like the ones I have included here. I now ask you to tell us what are you doing as a contingency strategy if profitability leaves immigration court and healthcare interpreting.

Be professional at work, or don’t do it!

April 30, 2018 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a profession with so many complexities we often overlook a very important factor: Professionalism no matter what. Let me explain.

Interpreting takes us to wonderful places both physically and figuratively, but sometimes it can take us to the very dark corners of the universe. As interpreters we let people borrow our voice and knowledge of a foreign culture and language to convey a message. Sometimes the venue is not the place we would spend our vacation at; the borrower is not somebody we would invite to dinner, or the message is not something we would cherish. These are the times when we must be professionals.

Fortunately for all of us, there are two ways to be professional as an interpreter: The first one is to evaluate the assignment, do a self-examination of our impartiality, level of tolerance, and physical endurance, and either take the job or turn it down if the auto-evaluation tells us that is the best way to go. Interpreters are human and humans have different reactions to specific situations. Some colleagues may feel that a venue, speaker or subject matter will keep them from doing a good job; others may feel uncomfortable, but will render a top-quality service regardless of the place where they work, the people they interpret for, or the issues discussed in the speech. The important thing is to be honest with ourselves and make the right decision.

For example, I know colleagues who will not interpret in court for a pedophile, a murderer or a rapist; some of my peers will not enter the booth in a venue where they will advocate for or against something they believe in, like gun rights, globalization, pro-life actions, pro-choice groups, and so on. Finally, some people, like myself, will professionally interpret for all of the above, but would never interpret in a hospital with all that smell of Clorox and other disinfectants. The key is to reject those assignments we cannot do without feeling incompetent or unprofessional.

The real problem is when interpreters take the assignment and then perform unprofessionally. The world is a complicated place and we live in it. Sometimes external circumstances physically put us in a place where there are now more things we disagree with than before. It is under these circumstances that we must be honest and turn down what we cannot do at the top of our game, or make the determination to do an assignment we do not like as if we loved it. We will be uncomfortable, but we must perform just like the emergency room physician who saves the like of a mass murderer, or the lawyer who defends the most despicable war criminal. That is professionalism.

For this reason I am disturbed when I hear how some colleagues step out of their interpreter role and do things we are not supposed to do. I am talking about those in the booth who change the register of what the speaker said to either favor or harm the message because they disagree with what was said from the podium; I am also talking about the unfortunate cases when court interpreters in immigration and federal court tone down legal terminology or try to assist the defendant or respondent just because they sympathize with his situation or disagree with the government’s policy or legislation.

Those appearing in immigration court or before a federal judge under an immigration charge have allegedly violated the law of the land. This should never impact our court interpreter’s work. If they were arrested (in federal court) or detained (in immigration court) it was under a legal precept violation or a lawfully issued order. It is irrelevant that we like it or not. Refusing to interpret once you already took the assignment, giving information to the respondent, telling them not to go to court, warning them of the presence of immigration agents, and even refusing to use the legal term “alien”[INA Section 101(3) The term “alien” means any person not a citizen or national of the United States…] choosing the more accepted, but legally incorrect term “immigrant”, are unprofessional acts. We should not take these assignments if we believe we cannot act professionally. As officers of the court, we must act as expected by the law even if we feel uncomfortable doing it.

As a court interpreter I have interpreted for murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and drug lords; as a conference interpreter I have interpreted for conservative and liberal groups; as a media interpreter I have interpreted both: Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Obviously, I do not agree with everything I interpret and I do not like everybody I have interpreted for, but I have always been professional conveying the message as intended by the speaker and with total loyalty to legal terminology and procedure when working in court. I know my limitations, I understand the circumstances that would keep me from being professional all the time, and you will never see me interpreting in a hospital setting. I now invite you to share your thoughts about those events we should turn down when we question our professionalism.

Do some state courts treat foreigners as second-class litigants?

February 22, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

For years, and especially during the past few months, there has been a lot of talk about the communities of foreign-born individuals who are physically present in the United States.  All aspects of their lives have been debated and scrutinized: from their immigration status to their religion, from their ethnic origin, to the language they speak at home. Many articles have been written, and many discussions have been held about their right to stay in the country, the impact they have on the economy, and the actions of the federal government regarding their admission to the United States and the exclusion proceedings instituted against them. The policy the federal government has adopted towards foreign-born individuals in the United States has been rightfully questioned, criticized and denounced.

As interpreters, we deal with foreign-born people on a daily basis. We see what happens at the immigration courts (EOIR), the United States Immigration and Citizen Services’ (USCIS) interviews, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hearings, and the federal judicial system.  The news are not always good, but at least they are on the spotlight.  Scandals such as SOSi’s abhorrent practices towards immigration court interpreters, the White House’s six-country travel ban, and the talk about the wall between Mexico and the U.S. are forcing the issue, and eventually things will have to change.

Unfortunately, foreign-born individuals physically present in the United States as immigrants, non-immigrants, and undocumented, face another terrible injustice that is turning into a reality, and eventually it could become an everyday threat: I am referring to a practice followed by state courts in many places that is gaining popularity and acceptance by the establishment, sometimes due to ignorance or indifference, and many times because of incompetence and greed.

This modern form of potential discrimination by state-level Administrative Offices of the Courts against people whose first language is not English has to do with access to justice: It is evident to me that state governments could be systematically discriminating against people who lack fluency, or do not speak English, by denying them the services of certified court interpreters in languages with a certification program, just because state government officials want to save money.

It is undeniable that those states where the language access program is not managed by a professional interpreter are at a tremendous disadvantage because there is a person with neither knowledge nor interpreting background at the helm; but the problem is even worse. Some states where the head of the program is an interpreter, and many state-level courthouses with full and part-time staff interpreters are just passively allowing for this to happen without moving a finger for fear to lose their jobs.

The potentially discriminatory practice goes like this:

During the Obama administration, state-level courts were made aware of the fact that the federal government was going finally to enforce, after almost forty years, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which allows the withholding of federal funds dedicated to the states when the latter do not provide universal access to all the services offered, even if some accommodations need to be made in order to avoid discrimination based on many categories, among them not being able to speak, or fluently speak English. This included all state-level courts.

Before this development many states were running court interpreter certification programs. California had its own program, and in July 1995 Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington State founded a consortium. Other states joined the consortium, and many states began to offer the services of certified court interpreters for criminal cases. A handful of states even provided certified court interpreters for certain litigants in civil cases.  Unfortunately, lack of vision by the Administrative Offices of State Courts and by State Legislatures made the profession’s growth difficult because they refused to pay certified court interpreters a professional fee commensurate to the difficult, and sometimes dangerous, services provided.

This reality, coupled with judges’ ignorance that permitted non-certified court interpreters to appear in court, even though the needed language pair has a certification program, and certified interpreters were available, created an exodus of many of the best interpreters who migrated to more profitable interpreting fields, and made the profession less than attractive to new generations.

When the notice of enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act arrived, the states were faced with the possibility of losing huge amounts of money from the federal government. They knew that to save “their” money, they would need to provide access to justice to all individuals who did not speak English.

They finally realized what they had done (although they did not recognized it, or refused to acknowledge their fault). There were not enough interpreters to fulfill the federal mandate, and they did not want to lose their subsidies!

The best thoughtful solution to this problem would have been to boost the popularity of court interpreting as a profession by actively promoting the career and by making it more appealing. Responsible States would have developed a plan to encourage teaching of court interpreting at universities, colleges and community colleges. They needed to launch a campaign among high school students informing them of the potential opportunities as certified court interpreters. They needed to increase the times they offered their certification examinations, and they needed to pay an attractive professional fee, with cost of living adjustments, to all certified court interpreters. They needed to do this by lobbying State Legislatures for more funds, and if unsuccessful, by cutting or reducing other non-essential services and devoting those resources to the certified interpreter program. It was a matter of priorities and doing the right thing.

This did not happen. Instead of doing these things, state officials got together to see how they could keep the federal money coming their way. This is how the states came up with the Language Access Services Section (LASS), the Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC). A system designed to protect their federal funds while giving the appearance of granting language access to all foreign-language speakers in State-court systems.

As a result of these developments, states opted for the easiest and cheapest solution, which basically follows three major principles: (1) Use video remote interpreting (VRI) as much as possible to reduce costs of an in-person interpreting service, and pay less to the interpreter as they would get paid by the minute, or in more “generous” states by the hour at a much reduced fee; (2) Use all those who demonstrated that they are not fit to become certified court interpreters, by creating a “new classification” of “credentialed interpreters” (Nevada) or “Justice System interpreters” (New Mexico) so that individuals who failed the court interpreter certification exam can work interpreting court proceedings; and (3) Use certified court interpreters as little as possible, while giving the appearance that these questionable new classifications had to be retained because no certified court interpreter was “reasonably available” to do the job.

This is happening in many states, and I ask you to please include in the comment section a report of what is going on in your own states. Because what is currently taking place in Nevada and New Mexico has come to my attention, I will share the main points with all of you.

The Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts is considering implementing this new category of paraprofessionals by rewarding those who fail the court interpreter certification test with access to work in court as interpreters. These decisions are being considered by the Nevada Court Interpreter Advisory Committee which is integrated by judges and administrators, and no independent certified court interpreter is part of the committee. Interpreters do not get notice of the Committee meetings, and so far, the person in charge of the interpreter program at the Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts apparently has shown no desire to inform interpreters ahead of time so they can at least attend the meetings.

Nevada courts use the services of way cheaper paraprofessional non-certified court interpreters even when certified ones are available, and currently, this state’s certified court interpreters are among the lowest paid interpreters in the country, despite the fact that judges and administrators make six figure salaries in Nevada.  It is clear that there is a problem with the state judiciary’s priorities.

The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts is already rewarding those who fail the court interpreter exam by using the services of these much cheaper paraprofessional “justice System interpreters” (JSI) even when certified court interpreters are available.  Under the excuse of unsuccessfully attempting to find a certified court interpreter, they are retaining the services of these individuals even when certified court interpreters were ready and willing to do the job. The State is also resorting to the way cheaper video remote interpreting (VRI) even when interpreters appear from other states and are not familiar with New Mexico law and procedure. It is very concerning that they are using this system and these interpreters for hearings of such importance as sentencing hearings.

The New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee does include a disproportionate minority of independent interpreters; however, it is said that its meetings are sometimes hostile towards independent interpreters who raise objections to the dismantling of the certified court interpreter program, and that some interpreters have been refused work in the state court system even after all possible grounds for denial have been dissipated and proved unfounded.

Despite the fact that judges and the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts make six figure salaries, New Mexico certified court interpreters have not seen a fee adjustment in a number of years, their expense reimbursements have been significantly reduced, and instead of having a professional relationship with a judiciary that makes an effort to prioritize access to justice and find funds to do it, they have been warned by the AOC that there is no money. They face an administration with an attitude that could be interpreted as contempt towards foreign language litigants, moved by a philosophy at the top that apparently believes that the AOC only has a legal obligation to provide “an interpreter”, not a certified court interpreter. To me, this is the pull the rabbit out of the hat principle where you create an “interpreter” category in order to get federal money. It is not about having a warm body next to the non-English litigant. It is about quality.  The federal law requirement had in mind a professional service.

I do not believe that this is the time for interpreters to take it on the chin. There is a lot of turmoil in the country at this time, but the rights of foreigners are center-stage. Let’s seize the moment to protect the profession and make sure that states do not get away with this plan which could potentially discriminate against speakers of a foreign language by treating them as second-class litigants.

I suggest you educate your communities, talk to your state legislators, and speak to your local media. All of it is necessary, but I also propose you do two additional things that could make the difference:

First, I wonder how many litigants are aware of the fact that the individual provided by the court to “interpret” for them is not a certified court interpreter; that in fact, they will be dealing with somebody who has already demonstrated that he or she is not fit to be a certified court interpreter because he or she failed the exam. I would approach people in the courthouse and make them aware of this circumstance; I would even print a flyer explaining to them that this “interpreter” categories are as good as a three dollar bill, regardless of what the government tells them. Ask them how they would feel if instead of a licensed physician, their outpatient surgery was going to be done by somebody who failed to become a licensed doctor.  Ask the foreign language speaker’s attorney what she or he would do if the court were to appoint a person who failed the state bar as the litigant in a divorce proceeding because there were no children to the marriage. You will see how fast they demand a real certified court interpreter for their case.

Second, organize yourselves either through your local professional interpreter association, or independently, and volunteer to attend court hearings where this paraprofessionals are “interpreting” (after all court is open to the public) and keep score. Write down every time one of these individuals is late for court, acts unethically, does something unprofessional, and makes an interpreting mistake. Write down how they enter their appearance in court, see if they claim to be certified court interpreters. After a few months, or during election time, send this information to the State Bar, to the publishers of voters’ guides, to the political parties, to non-for-profit organizations with tremendous weight in court elections such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and to the local media. This way people will know who are the judges who care about access to justice, and who are the judges who only care about getting federal money.

I do not believe that these actions will solve all problems, but they will help to expose these programs for what they really are. If you do not do it, nobody will; not because they do not care, but because they do not know. I now invite you to share with the rest of us the current situation in your own state administrative office of the courts.

The biggest interpreting mistakes in history.

January 9, 2015 § 42 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a very difficult profession. It deals with the widest variety of themes and subject matters, and it completely depends on the human brain. All professional interpreters have made mistakes at one time or another, and we will make some more before our careers are over. Fortunately, good interpreters know how to recognize a mistake, and have the professional honesty needed to own their mistakes and correct them. We all know how to correct a blooper from the booth, with a physician, or on the record in court cases. This is enough in most cases, and we have professional liability insurance for those bigger errors we can make while practicing our profession. Most goof-ups do not go beyond a correction, an apology, and a good dose of embarrassment. Unfortunately, every once in a while an interpreter makes a mistake that can literally impact the entire world. I know that there are many more examples of these catastrophic interpreting mistakes, and I am even aware of many more than the ones I have included in this post. To decide what to include, and to drive home the point that none of us are safe from making an error of this magnitude (and that for that reason we must be alert at all times) I considered the relevance of the mistake, and the variety of interpreters who made them. These are the biggest interpreting mistakes in history that made my list:

In 2006, according to the interpreter’s rendition, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”. It was learned later that what he actually said was “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”. Regardless of your opinion about this statement, it is clear that its reach was different from what the interpreter understood. In a region of the world as delicate as the Middle East a mistake of this magnitude can have huge implications.

To continue with more presidents, in 1976 U.S. president Jimmy Carter spoke to a Polish-speaking audience and opened his remarks by saying: “I left the United States this morning”. The interpreter’s rendition was: “When I abandoned the United States”. Those present laughed at the obvious mistake, but things got more complicated later during the speech when the president said that: “…I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future…” The rendition by the same interpreter was: “I desire the Poles carnally…” and then the interpreter went on to criticize the Polish constitution. Of course these mistakes should never happen at that level, but sometimes they do.

This reminds us of the famous blooper during Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the Polish Embassy in Moscow when he was interpreted as saying, in reference to the United States and the Western World at the highest point of the Cold War: “We will bury you”. Now we all know that what he really said was: “We will outlast you”, and we all know of the consequences that this poor rendition generated during such a tense time in history.

In July 1945 after the United States issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding the surrender of Japan in World War 2, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki called a press conference and in a statement he said: “No comment. We are still thinking about it”. Unfortunately, the interpreter’s rendition was: “We are ignoring it in contempt”. We all know what happened next.

In 1980 Willie Ramírez, an 18-year old, was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. At the time of admission, an interpreter made a mistake and translated the Spanish term “intoxicado” which means poisoned or having an allergic reaction as: “intoxicated”. Willie, who was suffering from an intercerebral hemorrhage was only treated for an intentional drug overdose. As a result, he was left quadriplegic.

St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, studied Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament into Latin. His translation contained a famous mistake, When Moses comes back from Mount Sinai his head has “radiance”, in Hebrew: “karan”; but because Hebrew is written without vowels, St. Jerome read: “keren” which means “horned”. Because of this mistake we have many paintings and sculptures of Moses with horns.

Finally, we all remember Thamsanqa Jantjie, the Sign Language interpreter at the Nelson Mandela funeral. He made meaningless Sign Language motions during the ceremony for unknown reasons. He has since been committed to a psychiatric hospital for schizophrenia.

The lesson is clear. As professional interpreters we have to protect our profession from paraprofessionals, “wanna-be interpreters”, ignorant clients, and unscrupulous agencies, but we also have to watch what we do and say. Nobody is above error, so our only choice is to continue to practice and study, to honestly decline those assignments that we are not ready for, and to look after our colleagues in the booth, the courtroom, the negotiations table, or any other venue where we may be providing our services. I now invite you to share with the rest of us other interpreting mistakes, big or small, yours or a colleague’s, in the spirit of helping our colleagues so that we all learn from each other’s mistakes.

Is it medical interpreter, or healthcare interpreter?

June 26, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I have struggled with the issue of how to refer to a growing number of our colleagues whose work mainly takes place in hospitals, clinics, or medical and dental offices. Their primary function is to enable communication between a person who does not speak the language of the land and a healthcare provider: physician, dentist, nurse, psychologist, paramedic, and other support staff. As you all know, this area of interpretation has been around for some time, but it has just become formally regulated in the recent past. Because of globalization and its migration consequences, now many countries experience the need to have somebody to bridge the gap of communication that has developed between native speakers and immigrant communities. These developments have augmented the need for court interpreters, legal translators, school interpreters and many others; the healthcare field has not been an exception; in fact, this is the area where we can appreciate the most dramatic changes to the old “business as usual” format. Unlike other interpreting specialties, like conference, military and court interpreting, which have been around for a long time, these new service providers just organized a few years ago. Great efforts and devotion on the part of some individuals have produced important results like the creation of professional associations, the adoption of ethical and professional responsibility canons, and the development of certification programs and examinations. This is truly admirable.

There are two organizations in the United States that have emerged as standard-bearers of this profession: The International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA) which endorses the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters exam, and the Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI).

Keeping in mind the services provided by these professionals (based on the organizations’ websites, several hospitals’ information, and conversations with many of my esteemed colleagues) I reviewed all information I could find on the two certification exams that test English, professional conduct and ethics. To a lesser degree they test some medical-related vocabulary that a true bilingual individual should know, without any medical or pharmacological terminology studies, and they include very short paragraphs, or vignettes as one of the test refers to them, where patient and healthcare provider communicate regarding the symptoms that the non-native speaker is experiencing. The dialogue is an everyday conversation at a moderate to low register. Finally, I also noticed that the main part of the score overwhelmingly goes to the consecutive interpretation, leaving simultaneous and sight translation at about 10 to 15 percent each.

I am convinced that the work these colleagues do is essential to the healthcare industry and well-being of those individuals who otherwise would see their chances of receiving appropriate services diminished by reason of the language they speak. Nobody is disputing this. I also applaud the conditions under which they constantly work in hospitals, emergency rooms, and urgent care facilities where people perform under great stress. The writing of this post was simply motivated by my need to find a term I can feel comfortable with when referring to my colleagues, but before I am ready to form an opinion I should also consider what the rest of the world is doing and saying on this issue.

In Europe the services performed by our medical interpreters are part of what is known as public service interpreting or community interpreting in some countries. This public service interpreting also covers legal interpreting but not court interpreting as I will explain in a moment.

Public service interpreting refers to those services provided by an interpreter to help two individuals who speak different languages so they can communicate regarding everyday affairs, personal issues, including important topics, in cases when individuals who speak the same language would usually speak for themselves, but in this particular situation, because of the language difference, and cultural considerations, an interpreter is needed.

My dear friends and colleagues, conference interpreters provide their services to make it possible for individuals who do not speak the same language to communicate, by interpreting almost exclusively on the simultaneous mode, complex information at a high register. Their audience is usually formally educated. Court interpreters provide their services in cases when one or more individuals do not speak the language employed in court, to make it possible for officers of the court, litigants, jurors, and others, to communicate on the simultaneous, consecutive, whispered, and sight translation modes, everyday information, complex legal concepts and terminology, and expert witness testimony, at a variety of register levels.

Now I ask you to contrast these job descriptions with the job that public service interpreters such as school interpreters, welfare services interpreters, church interpreters, and community organization interpreters do. These professionals (and sometimes paraprofessionals that may include a family member) provide their services so that individuals who do not share the same language can communicate about important everyday matters such as parent-teacher conferences, services provided by religious organizations, and dealings with government agencies at the customer service window or over the phone. This work is almost exclusively performed on the consecutive mode, unlike court interpreting, and there are no formal rules to keep the interpreter from asking questions and give explanations to facilitate the communication. The main objective is to bridge the language gap without any consideration for rules of evidence or procedure. These interpreters can interrupt the parties and ask them to speak slower or in shorter sentences. While conference and court interpreters work with complicated and sometimes rarely used words as part of their everyday job, public service interpreters work with common vocabulary; not simple words, but words that anyone with a certain level of formal education, regardless of any interpreting training, should know.

This explains why we occasionally see conference interpreters in the courtroom and court interpreters in the booth. It also explains why conference interpreters, and not medical interpreters, interpret medical and pharmaceutical conferences; and why court interpreters, not medical interpreters, interpret the expert testimony of a pathologist or other medical professional during a trial.

I mentioned earlier that there was a difference between court and legal interpreters in many countries, and why the latter are considered public sector interpreters: A court interpreter provides her services in a formal court setting and during out of court events that are related to a current or future court or legal proceeding. A legal interpreter assists an individual who needs help with his dealings with the authority, such as getting a driver’s license, applying for government benefits, or requesting government documents. These interpreters are clearly outside the scope of the very strict canons of ethics and professional responsibility that govern the activity of court interpreters. Just as we may encounter a conference interpreter in court or a court interpreter in the booth, we may find a school interpreter or a medical interpreter in a government agency assisting a foreign language speaker with some excruciating government administrative process. I hope the example clarifies the issue, but I also ask you to look at this very carefully, because there are some who would like to assimilate the services provided by a court interpreter outside a courtroom to those of a public service or community interpreter; they would argue that these services are “legal” and not court services. They are wrong.

They are wrong because the terminology of legal versus court interpreter that was valid in the past does not apply to our globalized world. When most countries had a written legal system there was very little work for a court interpreter. In those days legal translators did most of the court work because everything was done in writing. Legal interpreters were then relegated to in-office interviews and customer service windows. If you consider that migration was less popular than it is now, then you would have a very low demand for court or even legal interpreters. Lack of migration did not impact legal translators who had to translate official documents, contracts, deeds, and many other written statements that originated within the other country. At the time the legal interpreter was really a community or public service interpreter. That reality is so different from ours. Presently, an interpreter who works before an administrative law judge, such as an immigration court, workers’ compensation court, or social security court, is subject to the same ethical and professional rules as the court interpreter who appears before a traditional court. The fact that some jurisdictions allow for non-certified or licensed interpreters to provide their services in administrative law courts does not mean that community interpreters should do the job. These courts still abide by rules of evidence and procedure, the interpreter has to act as if working before the traditional judiciary, the job must be done at a higher register, with specialized complex legal terminology, and on a simultaneous interpreting mode that does not allow to stop the procedure so the interpreter can request the litigants to slow down, or a consecutive rendition where the interpreter cannot ask the parties to speak in shorter sentences. The same can be said for civil depositions, jailhouse visits, and the transcription of wiretaps. On the other hand, those individuals who are appearing before the motor vehicle office are better off employing the services of a community interpreter because this professional knows more about handling situations where the interpreter has the freedom to step outside the box to achieve communication between the parties.

After considering all of these concepts and possible scenarios, and after reviewing the materials I have mentioned before, I understand that there are arguments to be made for the term medical interpreter, but I just do not believe that in my book that would be accurate. I think that the appropriate and accurate way to describe this very important segment of our profession is the one adopted by the Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). For this reason, I believe that we should call our colleagues Healthcare Interpreters instead of Medical Interpreters. Please let us all know your comments on this issue that to some may seem irrelevant, but is actually very important.

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