Lack of understanding, common sense = constitutional conflict in court?

November 12, 2018 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

I recently learned that some federal district courts got involved in the way federal prosecutors pick their interpreters for hearings. I have practiced in federal court for many years, and the decision on who will interpret for the office of the United States Attorney has always been left to the prosecutors who know the case better than anybody else. This means they, and their prosecutorial team of paralegals, investigators, detectives, and law enforcement agents, know the language complexities of a particular case, and therefore, better equipped to decide who they need for that interpreting assignment.

I do not dispute that some districts, because of a lack of federally certified court interpreters, or out of plain ignorance, have never tried a case where the assistant U.S. attorneys (AUSA) have their own interpreters for a trial. Some districts are so small, the AUSA office does not even have a staff interpreter. Some districts are so remote, that even the court tries cases with unqualified court interpreters (usually certified or accredited at the state level) because it is next to impossible to get somebody to the courthouse. Evidentiary hearings and trials require that an interpreter be physically present at the hearing. Remote interpreting is not a viable option for these proceedings.

That some have always followed this practice does not make it right, and courts in districts in urban centers where federally certified court interpreters are available have no reason to inject themselves in what should be an internal process of the Department of Justice. Let me elaborate:

The American legal system, and all legitimate legal systems in the world, are based on an independent judiciary free to decide with no pressures or fear of retaliation. The United States Constitution recognizes and enshrines this principle through the separation of powers. The Executive Branch of the federal government originates from Article 2. The Judicial Branch stems from Article 3.

With administration of justice in a criminal case, all individuals in the United States have the rights and protections established by the Constitution and secondary legislation; mainly, the right to a public and fair trial by their peers, starting with a presumption of innocence, charging the Executive Branch of government, through the United States Department of Justice, with the burden of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, in an orderly regulated process, presided by and controlled by the Judicial Branch of government. To put it simply: Because the government cannot be judge and party, it is an agency from outside the Judicial Branch, in this case the Justice Department, who prosecutes the case on behalf of the U.S. government, including the citizens that the government must protect from the bad guys.

We can see that having the burden of proof is no small task. Federal prosecutors must investigate de facts, test and evaluate the evidence found, and prepare a case that will persuade the jury and judge of an individuals’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt. If successful, the Justice Department will meet its duty to protect society. This is no easy task; it also means that individuals will lose their assets, their freedom, and even their life.  A prosecutorial team must have the best team available to fulfill its function, and that is extremely difficult.

Federal prosecutors must call witnesses to testify in the trial. When these witnesses do not speak English, their testimony must be interpreted into English to benefit the defendant, the defense attorneys, the judge, and the jury. It is only then, after the rendition of the interpretation, that the defendant will have exercised his constitutional right to confront the witness or accuser. It only after the rendition that a judge or jury can assess the credibility of the witness. It is this time they will decide if they believe all, part, or nothing of the witness’ statement.

But most of the work is done before the witness steps in the courtroom and takes the stand. Prosecutors and their teams test, evaluate, and prepare their witnesses before a trial. Questions are asked many times, in many ways; adjustments are made. Not to influence testimony, but to present the truth clearly to the trier of fact (judge or jury). Usually the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution is very complex, specialized, scientific. Dense concepts and sophisticated terminology must be interpreted into English during the trial; cultural concepts must be clarified before the final rendition (many expert witnesses come from abroad just for the trial); legal systems compared so the accurate term in the target language is rendered by the interpreter. Leaving loose ends is not an option: The prosecution must prove, and the standard could not be any higher: beyond reasonable doubt. Prosecutors and their teams, assisted by the interpreters, go over the testimony with every witness as many times as needed. These interpreters must research, study, practice, develop a common glossary for each testimony. The witness gets used to that team of interpreters and the interpreters get used to the witness.

The interpreters for the prosecution know the case, they are familiar with names, dates, places, and other key information that must be interpreted with accuracy. From gang slang, to amounts of drugs, to family relationships. It all needs to be well-understood so the interpretation heard in trial is accurate, pristine, and truthful.

Confidentiality is essential to our justice system. It lets the parties tell the truth to their attorneys so they can represent, in a criminal case, a defendant or society with full knowledge of the facts. Confidentiality is also very important when it comes to the lawyers’ strategy. Prosecutors and defense attorneys develop a strategy to win a case. The interpreters for the prosecution know the strategy and facts, and they are covered by the veil of secrecy. Using a court appointed interpreter to interpret for the prosecution generates a conflict of interest. You cannot be judge and party simultaneously. Even the most professional, trustworthy interpreters should never be placed in such situation. The sole appearance of conflict is enough to cast a shadow on the proceedings. Client-attorney privilege only exists when there is an expectation of privacy. How could this be argued when the same interpreter hears all confidential details?

The independence of the prosecutorial interpreters is so important, that even their payment differs from that court appointed, public defender, and Criminal Justice Act (CJA) attorney interpreters receive.  I am not referring to staff interpreters, I am talking about independent contractors retained to work in a case. While interpreters for the court, public defender, and CJA attorneys are paid through the judicial system (Judicial Branch of government) interpreters for the prosecution are paid by the United States Department of Justice (Executive Branch). The funds come from different budgets to assure independence, absence of conflict of interests, and separation of powers. The Office of the United States Attorney pays better that the courts, and unlike the latter, fees are negotiable between the parties (interpreters and AUSAs). This can also be relevant if you think that most more experienced, better trained interpreters would rather work for the prosecution, leaving a smaller pool of top-level interpreters to work for the courts, and increasing the risk of an inaccurate rendition of a prosecutorial witness’ complex testimony during the trial.

The widely, and constitutionally backed, practice of having a separate interpreter team for the prosecution in federal cases must continue as long as we have separation of powers, and a system where one party has the burden of proof. There is no rational justification for this practice by the executive branch of government, to be changed by court staff, from a different branch. Such decisions are being made in courthouses where none of the issues above were given any thought, where prosecutors did not reflect on the implications of such changes, and a decision was unilaterally made, perhaps due to a lack of understanding that lead to this policy deprived of common sense. If the decision at these district courts was made unilaterally, we have a separation of powers issue; if it was decided for monetary reasons, remember that interpreter fees are paid from two budgets (executive and judiciary); if it was decided to avoid comparisons between experienced prosecutorial interpreters, and perhaps less qualified court appointed ones, it was motivated by unethical reasons and it shows a disappointing level of professionalism; and if this was a joint decision by the courts and AUSAs in some districts, they must address the conflict of interest and at the least the appearance of conflict.

Our legal system has been around for 250 years. It has organically adjusted its parts to observe the fundamental democratic principles, starting with an independent judiciary, a separation of powers, and the rights and protections to the individual and society. In today’s world where many things that were, are no longer, let’s hope this is not changed by the capricious decision of a few. I invite you to share your thoughts on this issue.

Questions of a court interpreting student. Part 2.

June 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I received a message from one of my students of court interpreting in Mexico City. With the new oral trial system that is now being implemented in Mexico there will be many opportunities for interpreters to find assignments in court settings, so she is considering becoming a court interpreter when she graduates from college. She researched the matter, and as she was getting deeper into the world of court interpreting she decided to contact me with some of her doubts. Her questions were very good, so I thought about responding through the blog so that others, in Mexico and elsewhere, with the same or similar concerns could learn a little more about this area of the profession. I asked her if this was an acceptable way to answer her questions, she said yes, so I wrote down my answers. As I was responding to the questions I realized that this would be a lengthy post so I decided to divide it in two parts. Part 1 was posted two weeks ago. I now invite you to read the rest of my answers to her questions.

  • What do you do as a court interpreter when a legal concept in the target language is similar, but not equivalent, to a legal concept in the source language or vice versa? Do you explain it? How do you get the knowledge to identify equivalences or similarities if you studied law?

There are many times when the interpreter faces a situation where there are similar legal concepts but the exact legal term or figure does not exist in the other language. This happens more often between languages from countries that have different legal systems: written Roman Law versus oral Common Law. The general rule for the interpreter is that she does not have to explain or define anything. It is the attorneys’ job and duty to explain the law not only to their client, but if needed, to the court interpreter so she can do her job. In a situation where a competent interpreter who has done her homework runs into a legal concept that she does not understand, she must research it and study it as part of her preparation for the case, and if there is no time for that, she has to inform it to the judge or attorney, depending on the interpreters function in the particular proceeding, so the legal term can be explained to her. Many times the explanation will allow the interpreter to find the correct term in the target language. Interpreters, who have studied Law as your question says, have the advantage of knowing and understanding legal figures and terms without any explanation. If this is the case, and the interpreter is ambitious, she can study the legal figure from the country where she did not study law and this way find a better solution to her problem. This is one of the reasons why most legal systems require interpreters to comply with continuing education requirements. Fortunately for you, with the new legal system being implemented nationwide, Mexican court interpreters will not find this situation very often anymore.

  • What happens when someone, the judge, prosecutor, or defense, realize that the interpretation is wrong or misleading? Is the interpreter penalized, and if so, what sanctions does he face?

Interpreters are human and they perform one of the most difficult tasks in the world. Court interpreting is so complex, that most court systems in the world are now requiring team interpreting for all hearings lasting over an hour. Any interpreter can unintentionally make a mistake and we all do at some point. It is what the interpreter does after the mistake that makes the situation irrelevant or serious. In most countries, mistakes due to bad acoustics, poor delivery by the speaker, interpreter fatigue, etc., can be easily corrected by an observation on the record amending the mistake. Other more serious mistakes due to a complex legal concept or a lack of context may be more relevant but they can also be cured by a correction as previously stated or by an admonition by the judge. Mistakes due to the interpreter’s ignorance can be corrected by the other member of the team who will discuss the discrepancy with the interpreter who made the mistake, and then together the team informs the court, outside the presence of the jury, that there was a mistake, the circumstances are explained, and if necessary, the judge will admonish the jury, and the attorneys will draft a special instruction for the jury that the judge will read at the end of the trial. On rare occasion the error could be so serious that there needs to be a mistrial. I can only recall one case but that particular case was really a judge’s error and not an interpreter’s. The interpreter who made the mistake can be sanctioned depending on the seriousness of the mistake and the applicable law. In general, sanctions could range from an informal reprimand to a temporary suspension followed by a probation period, to permanent revocation of the certification, patent or license. There is usually a formal procedure that includes notice and hearing, and the interpreter is allowed to retain the services of an attorney. Depending on the magnitude of the mistake there could be civil responsibility and the interpreter may be required to pay a fine and damages. This can only happen when ordered by a judge or jury after a civil lawsuit where the interpreter will be allowed to present witnesses and legal arguments through an attorney if he wishes to do so. Like all professionals, interpreters are encouraged to carry civil liability insurance (errors and omissions). If covered, the interpreter will be represented by the insurance attorneys and in most cases all he needs to do is to pay his deductible.

When the mistake is really an intentional act by the interpreter to defraud or mislead another individual, he could face criminal charges, and if convicted, he could go to prison.

  • Are there laws or regulations that state the requirements that need to be met to perform as a court interpreter, and are there any written duties and rights?

All countries that employ the services of court interpreters as part of their judicial process have legislation that sets the minimum requirements to qualify as a court interpreter and to maintain that status. There are also authorities that regulate the profession setting procedures, protocols, responsibilities and rights. There are also ethical canons, and professional responsibility norms that control the way the services are provided. Some countries, like Mexico, are currently in the process of developing these legislation and regulations where all of the interpreter’s duties, responsibilities, work conditions and rights will be included. In the United States there are two levels of legislation and regulatory agencies: the federal level with the United States Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and the Federal Court Interpreter Act as the legal basis, and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) as the implementing federal agency. All states either have or are in the process of developing court interpreter legislation, and they all have a state-level Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) as their implementing agency. In Europe the legal foundation is twofold: it comes from the Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Rights to Interpretation and to Translation in Criminal Proceedings, and from the county-by-country legislation. Court interpreters in Europe have joined forces to ensure access to justice by the founding of the European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association (EULITA). In Canada it is the provincial regulatory bodies that grant the certifications and the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council (CTTIC) applies uniform standards across Canada. Most regulations and rules set minimum fees for court interpreters and basic work conditions.

  • Some government court interpreting websites talk about working with certified and non-certified interpreters; why is that, and what advantages and disadvantages does that bring to the defense, prosecution/plaintiff, or judges?

The only acceptable option is that of a certified interpreter who has studied, tested, and proven to be able to provide the service. This however, is easier to do in smaller countries where there is not a wide variety of languages as there are in a country the size of the United States. In other words, the reason why you see non-certified interpreters even mentioned in these websites is because of the lack of interpreters. It is important to separate non-certified interpreters who work in languages where there is a certification program from those interpreters who work with languages with no certification program. For example, the United States has certification exams for three languages: Spanish, Haitian-Creole, and Navajo; at this time it only offers federal certification for Spanish interpreters, so it is understandable why a very good Russian interpreter is not federally certified. You cannot call them federally certified, but you cannot group them with the Spanish interpreters who failed the federal certification test and by that fact have demonstrated a lack of the minimum requirements to work in federal court in the United States. Depending on their own realities, some states offer certification in certain language combinations and other states do not. There are also administrative law courts in the United States, and remote courthouses in very little towns where there are no certified Spanish interpreters but there are many Spanish speaking litigants because it may be an agricultural center where many immigrants live. The dilemma appears when the system is confronted by a Constitutional mandate to provide interpreter services and a reality that says there aren’t any. It is for these cases that non-certified interpreters are used. In the United States this is happening less at the federal level in Spanish language cases because of new technology that allows a certified interpreter to provide her services remotely from a big city. Certified court interpreters are physically transported to the small towns if the case goes to trial or a long complex hearing is held. Speaking of Spanish court interpreters, the advantage this “compromise” brings to the parties, and in my opinion it is a very questionable one, is that they have an interpreter, they will at least have the best that was found, and the court can always stop the proceeding and demand a certified interpreter be provided either remotely or in person. The disadvantages are obvious: The court and parties will not have an interpreter that at least meets the basic requirements to work in federal court (a certification) The situation worsens when you see courts and attorneys hiring these marginal para-professionals when real certified court interpreters are available solely to save money as these individuals will usually (although not always) be cheaper than a certified court interpreter. There is also another problem in the United States and other countries that will hopefully be avoided in Mexico through legislation: Because the U.S. is a free society, there are plenty of language agencies, language “academies”, and “professional” associations who offer their own self-serving certification so that their lower-level “interpreters” can present themselves as “certified” or “licensed” and make the client believe that they are hiring somebody with professional credentials. There are those who justify this practice for what they call “lesser court cases” such as administrative court proceedings. I completely oppose this practice and I have written and spoken extensively against it.

  • There are some suggested self-study techniques to become a good court interpreter, such as expanding your vocabulary, developing your own glossaries, developing your own interpreter techniques, and others. Do you have any tips or advice on how to do it?

I already addressed part of this question in Part 1 of this post when I discussed some of the things that a student can do to become a better court interpreter. I would add that you can expand your vocabulary by picking ten new words from the dictionary every weekday. At the end of a week you will know fifty new words; you will probably remember 15 to 20 and that will be a net increase of 20 words per week. Not bad. I would do the same with legal terminology. Pick a topic and learn the terms. By week’s end you will remember about twenty percent of what you studied and you will have a much better understanding of that legal figure: a contract, court proceeding, corporate document, etc. You can also develop your thematic glossaries; I would do a different one every month and I would use an application for that. I personally use Interplex because I have been using it for many years so I am used to it; I also like the fact that it is compatible with your telephone and tablet so you can have the glossaries with you anywhere you go. Finally, I suggest that when you watch a real court proceeding or when you go to a courthouse to watch a trial in person, you practice your rendition (in court under your breath of course) and when you do so, pay attention to those things that work for you, and develop them; this could be the way you come up with your own personalized note-taking system. When doing this, many years ago, I realized that it was easier for me to remember numbers and figures if I could associate them to the numbers of the jerseys of professional athletes. I am a big sports fan and I have always naturally remembered the players’ numbers, so for me it is very easy to remember an address let’s say on 3272 Main Street, if all I have to do is to remember Franco Harris (32) Mickey Mantle (7) Derek Jeter (2) Main Street. I know this system only works for me, but it works very well, and I came up with it by developing my own personalized technique.

I hope these answers helped you on your quest to become a court interpreter, and I hope they helped others in Mexico and elsewhere, including the United States, who are considering this profession. I also invite all of you to share with the rest of us any other suggestions or input you may have on any of the ten questions. I would love to hear from students, new interpreters, veterans of the profession; anybody who may be interested in helping the next generation to get there.

When the court interpreter asks for a sidebar.

February 11, 2014 § 42 Comments

Dear colleagues:

There are times when the court interpreter is already working in the courtroom and he comes across certain information, notices something in the courtroom, or faces a situation that makes his job unnecessarily difficult.  Usually the recourse is to let the judge know. This is an effective way to solve most problems and continue providing interpretation services during the judicial hearing.  Unfortunately, depending on the issue at stake, this is more difficult when working in the presence of a jury.

All court interpreters should know that, to avoid a mistrial, certain things cannot be said in front of an already impaneled jury.  What is left for the interpreter to do under these circumstances?  The same thing attorneys do: Ask for a sidebar.  Now I would like to share a story that happened to me several years ago while I was interpreting during a criminal trial in the United States.

A colleague and I were interpreting for a defendant charged with a crime that involved some horrible physical injuries.  It took the first two days of the trial to pick a jury, and it took the prosecution another three days to present their case to the jury.  The first defense witness took the stand on the sixth day.  It just happened that this witness did not speak English so we had to interpret for both: defendant and witness. We did a consecutive rendition of the testimony and we positioned ourselves next and right behind the witness stand.  We interpreted over the courtroom sound system so the defendant heard all the questions and answers in Spanish.  Direct examination by the defense began that morning. Nothing out of the ordinary to this point except for the fact that the prosecuting attorney spoke Spanish.

It was my turn to interpret so I started the afternoon session. After the first standard questions about the witness’ name and occupation, the defense attorney asked him questions about the facts of the case.  The witness started answering in Spanish and his testimony disputed what up until then the prosecution had advanced as their theory of the case.  It was clear to all Spanish speakers in that courtroom that this testimony was not favorable to the prosecution. As the witness was speaking, the prosecutor stood up and objected to the witness’ answer stating that the testimony was hearsay.  The judge sustained the objection.  It bothered me that this English speaking judge had granted the prosecutor’s objection even before I interpreted the witness’ answer into English. The defense attorney said nothing. Two or three questions later the same thing happened again.  At this time I was very concerned about the direction this was heading to, so when the prosecutor objected for the third time I got up, raised my hand and asked for a sidebar.  The judge and attorneys were a little confused but after hesitating for a fraction of a second the judge asked us to approach. While walking towards the bench I turned to the witness stand and signaled the other interpreter (who was then sitting behind me as she was the supporting interpreter at that time) to join us for the sidebar.

As soon as we were all in front of the judge I voiced my concern. I told the judge that I believed that in order to sustain or deny an objection there has to be something on the record for the objecting party to object to a statement by a witness, and that sustaining or denying an objection without having heard the objectionable statement probably was not the best way to act.  The judge asked me to clarify so I basically told her that my rendition into English reported on the record by the court reporter is the actual testimony, that an attorney who objects to an answer given by a witness in a foreign language is not objectionable unless it is first interpreted into English. Before this happens the answer given in Spanish is not part of the record and therefore, there is nothing to object. My second argument was that the counterpart, the defense in this case, had no way to argue against the objection because he does not speak Spanish and does not know what the witness said.  Finally, I told the judge that in my humble opinion, as a non-Spanish speaker, she would also need to wait for the interpretation of the answer given in Spanish before she could decide what to do with the objection.  There was silence after I spoke. A few moments later the judge said: “He is absolutely right. We have to wait for the interpretation.” We had no more problems with that or any other Spanish speaking witness for the rest of the trial.

About two weeks later I was contacted by the head prosecutor in that judicial district who invited me to give a talk to all of this prosecutors about this issue.  Dear colleagues, do not lose sight of the fact that as interpreters we are officers of the court, and as such, we must use all the tools that the system gives us in order to do our part to preserve the integrity of the judicial process.  During my career I have asked for a side bar in countless occasions when I have faced a situation similar to the one I mentioned above.  Now I invite you to tell us your sidebar experiences and to share with us some of the difficulties you have faced while on the job and how you have solved them.

When law enforcement agencies do everything they can to avoid hiring a real interpreter.

August 17, 2012 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The other day one of my colleagues asked my opinion about the quality of the Spanish a police officer was using during a recorded interview.  This colleague had been retained by the defense to analyze and transcribe the video of a police interview by a police woman in a very small town in the Midwest. As I sat there and listened to the nonsensical utterances that were emanating from this officer’s mouth, I went down memory lane and lived through them all again. I will never forget the police department that used a monolingual (in English) Hispanic woman as an interpreter for all of their investigations because “she grew up 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border…(and that)…was enough to assume she spoke enough Spanish to communicate with the suspects…”  and how could I forget the police station that hired as interpreters all those who had failed the court interpreter certification test because “…they were cheaper and knew about the same…”  Never mind the disastrous results like the time when a little girl who had been the alleged victim of sexual abuse was considered to be a liar because the police interpreter did not know how to say “Christmas tree” in Spanish.  And the time when the “interpreter” referred to the pedestrian charges as the “pedophile charges”.  And yes! There was the man who interpreted the polygraph tests into Spanish and explained how to wear the wires by lifting, holding, bending, and stretching the suspects.  Hulk Hogan would have been proud of his technique.

During all my years as an interpreter, and specifically through my work as a court interpreter, I have learned that the common denominator among most police forces in the country seems to be their desire to save money on interpretation.  Apparently the fact that the investigation is jeopardized by using the services of unqualified or under-qualified linguists is not a concern.  Even in those towns where cases are systematically dismissed by the prosecution, or dismissed by the judges, because of violations to the rights of the defendant, or where indictments are based on faulty testimony, all due to a lack of communication between the English speaking authority and the non-English speaker defendant, victim, or witness,  because of poor interpretation, chiefs of police,  budget analysts, and city administrators are choosing the cheaper service provider over the sound and accurate legal investigation.

We all know that a dollar saved on a bad interpreter will translate on thousands of dollars spent on a new trial, an appeal process, or a brand new investigation.  Every time I have a chance, I talk to law enforcement administrators and try to explain how a real interpreter costs more, but at the same time she saves you money.  A $100.00 per hour interpreter will do her job correctly in two hours, while a mediocre $40.00 per hour individual will take longer, as he struggles to understand the language, comprehend the process, and communicate the concepts to both, police officer and non-English speaker.  After 8 long hours with a bad “interpreter”, the investigation moved very little, the legal process was violated several times, the cheap interpreter cost $320.00, and he has to come back the next day to finish the interview.  There were no savings.

So, as I sat there watching this video, looking at my colleague working so hard, writing down the mistakes of the interpreter doing the interview, making footnotes of her omissions, charting the additions she volunteered into the interview, and listening to my interpreter friend telling me how this police woman, part-time “interpreter” had already caused the dismissal of many cases because of her lack of skill and knowledge, I came to a strange realization:  The good interpreters are losing these police assignments to the bad ones, but because of this policy by the police departments, these good interpreters are now working as expert witnesses and linguistic advisors to the parties.  Therefore, at the end, the good interpreter wins because it is more lucrative to be the expert witness or advisor. But wait; what about the defendant, the victim, and society at large?  They may all get their justice in the long run after a lengthy legal process of appeals and re-tried cases, but in the meantime the victim will not feel safe, the innocent defendant will sit in a cell, and society will pay a hefty legal bill. All because the police department wants to save by hiring the bad interpreter.  I would like to read your comments and experiences about this topic.

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