This time your vote is crucial for the future of ATA. Please read.

September 30, 2019 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Another year went by and several fellow interpreters and translators are getting ready to go to Palm Springs, California, for the annual conference of the American Translators Association (do not let the name misguide you, it includes many interpreters even though for political reasons it was decided not to include us in the name of the organization). Besides the main reasons many attend the conference: seeing old friends and attending some presentations with the never-ending hope to learn something, the yearly gathering is also the opportunity active members have to vote on the future of the association by electing board members and passing or rejecting proposed amendments to the bylaws.

Many of you skip the general meeting because you find it boring, too long, and always the same. I know many more active members who will not go to Palm Springs and have decided not to vote by proxy because they are discouraged with performing board members. I understand your reasons and I have always respected your decision to abstain. Unfortunately, this time is different and I encourage you; actually, please, please vote.

I usually give the reasons I voted for or against a candidate or amendment, and I will do it right now.

Voting is very important because democracy is our legitimate way to have a saying on the direction a country, business or association is going at a particular time. Democracy and ATA are not usually two terms we put together, after all, until we change it, we continue to be an organization where all members pay the same membership, but many do not get to enjoy the same rights, including the right to vote. That must change before the 2020 conference.

There is something else we can change with our votes this year: it is time to let members from outside the board be elected. The way our current board operates resembles more the system of the Soviet Politburo than a Greek democracy. Board members go through a “promotion system” where they are groomed to take over the position, assuring the continuity of the same policies and protecting the special interests that pull the strings. Interpreters and translators are well-read, sophisticated individuals who know there has never been a true democracy in history without opposing points of view alternating in the highest decision-making positions. Let’s get back to the election:

To be worthy of my vote, a candidate has to acknowledge we are a group of professionals, not a gathering of agencies or merchants. I believe it is inexcusable to elect people who continuously advance the interests of agencies, multinational or small, over those of individual members; who refuse to observe basic ethics by voting where they have a personal or business conflict instead of recusing themselves; who support sharing a lobbyist with the Association of Language Companies; and I do not want to elect people who will destroy a professional translator certification by opening it to non-members.

Our road to professionalization must include adopting what other, well-established professions do. Let’s take attorneys: To practice law, an applicant must pass the professional (Bar) exam, AND be a member in good standing of the lawyers’ association in that jurisdiction. Practicing law is more that passing the bar exam; a fiduciary profession, like attorney, or translator, requires that the individual practicing observes ethical and professional rules. It is the State Bar that sanctions lawyers who acted unethically, it is the State Bar that makes sure and keeps track that attorneys comply with continuing legal education requirements to assure clients that a lawyer who passed the Bar thirty years ago is up-to-date on legislation and procedure.

By offering a certification program exclusively to qualified members, and requiring adherence to a code of ethics and continuing education credits, ATA is currently treating translators, and the public, as a professional association. Only true professions self-regulate their practice. Decoupling certification would be equivalent of giving up this status and opening the door to other overseers such as government agencies, creating that way a world of confusing national policies and regulations, as ATA certified translators work from every corner of the planet servicing clients all over the world. Some current Board members want us to believe they will control ethics and continuing education compliance after decoupling. It seems unlikely. They will have no link to the nonmember certified translators. Under those circumstances, unless members want to continue attending the overpriced annual conference, many could consider leaving ATA and just keeping the certification. As an interpreter, this is something I have always admired and keep on my wish list. Interpreters are certified and therefore regulated by a myriad of bodies all over the world.

Another important aspect is that of the cost of the exam. It is widely known that exams such as these ones are more expensive than the fee charged to the examinee. That is fine when done for members, this is one of their benefits. On the other hand, how many of you would be willing to subsidize the certification of non-members with your membership fees? If the answer is to charge more to non-members, then the obvious reaction is: Why not require membership first, and then be eligible to take the test? If the cost is similar, the only reason to choose certification without membership is the desire of the examinee to dodge continuing education requirements, or to ignore the cannons of ethics.

I can think of a scenario where decoupling would be good: Agencies can pay for their translators’ certification one time, and then, with no need for continuing education, sell them to their clients as “ATA certified” until the cows come home. Big profits for the agencies. Bad news for the profession. Once again, this is another example of special interests at work.

Who to vote for?

I will never vote to any board position an individual who is not even a certified translator or interpreter, unless their language combination includes a language without a certification available. Professional credibility comes from your credentials, and the bylaws’ exception for those who achieve professional status through membership review, should only be respected by the voters when the candidate works in a rare or “exotic” language of lesser diffusion. I think it is a shame for people to consider voting for individuals who got to the board by peer review, instead of certification, when your work languages are Spanish or Portuguese. We all know that as soon as a person becomes a translator or an interpreter, they start thinking of certification. We are all out there. We all know that credentials are essential in the real world.

The fact that an interpreter or translator is not certified (or with conference interpreters does not possess a legitimate credential such as AIIC membership, Conference-level by the U.S. Department of State, or membership in a renowned association or government agency in the country where they practice) denotes one of three things: The individual failed to certify because lack of skill, in reality this person does has not worked as a translator or interpreter, but rather as a business manager in an agency (in which case the individual should be running among their peers at the Association of Language Companies, not the American Translators Association) or the person just cares so little for the value of a certification and the professional aspect of our craft, that they disregard the need to study to pass a certification exam.

For president, I will write in Robert Sette, because on top of his experience as a board member, he is the only one running for this position defending the profession by opposing decoupling. I have talked to Robert about interpreters’ issues and our situation within ATA due to the current policy at the top. He has convinced me he will be a president elect who will fight for the professional interests of interpreters and translators. I found Robert an honest and dedicated colleague, an experienced ATA certified translator, with no other motivation than our advancement as a profession.

In ATA’s classic fashion, Secretary and Treasurer are running unopposed. I know them both and they are good professionals. I will vote for them unless they support decoupling. There, I will have nothing detrimental to say about them, They are both nice, decent people, but even if I feel bad about it, I will not give them my vote because of a difference of opinion on this important issue.

For the director position I will vote for Cristina Helmerichs because she is a professional of great moral character who has always protected the profession and her colleagues instead of taking the side of the corporate member agencies.

I will also write in Jill Sommer for the director position because she is an experienced professional, a certified translator who will work with Robert Sette, and because she opposes decoupling of the ATA certification.

For the third director vacancy, I will not vote for a non-certified interpreter or translator, I will never vote for someone who in the past has stated his opposition to recusal as a board member, even in case of a conflict of interest, and I will not vote for someone who supports decoupling of the certification, or continues to sit on the fence without making a commitment. That leaves four possibilities. If more than one opposes decoupling, I will study their platforms and how they answer the questions in Palm Springs, but I also have another choice: Just as I did last year: I can just vote for two directors instead of three. We should all consider that as an option. It is better not to vote for someone than to vote for an individual we believe is not right for the job.

You see, dear friends and colleagues, fellow ATA active members, this year is very important we all vote. If you are attending the conference, please go to the general meeting and vote. If you are not going to Palm Springs, even if you think your vote does not matter, if you believe nothing ever changes with the way ATA operates; even if you have noticed that the election system is less than democratic, please vote by proxy. Open your email and vote. Write down the names of the write in candidates, and contact ATA if you are a voting member and did not receive a ballot. Please repost this blog anywhere you feel appropriate, and contact your fellow voting members, interpreters and translators, and ask them to vote to protect the profession. This is the year when we can drive the change. I am posting this article in many professional groups and ATA social media. It will not be posted in any other professional association’s wall or chat group, unless I first get permission to do so.

Interpreters’ rights under siege in California and other places.

March 21, 2019 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Quite a few colleagues from California and other states, even foreign countries, have contacted me to complain about certain practices, and even legislation, that directly deprives them from their right to make a living by practicing as freelance court interpreters.

In California, the full implementation of the so-called “Language Access Plan” (LAP) goes into effect full blast by 2020. This is a strategy adopted by the State to meet the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and keep California as beneficiary of federal funds attached to this legislation (http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/LAP-Fact-Sheet.pdf).

The State had already partially complied with the federal mandate when it was sued by a non-for-profit organization, now a member of the State’s Advisory Committee on this Plan. As a result, California decided to provide, free, interpreting services to anyone who requests an interpreter in Civil matters. This is a universal rule, not limited by income-based eligibility requirements, and it applies to both: low income litigants with no ability to pay for an interpreter, who benefit greatly from this service, and Fortune 500 corporations that appear in court represented by high-price attorneys and rely on the expert testimony of expensive witnesses.

This decision by the State has nothing to do with the preposterous practice, followed by many States, to dodge Title VI of the Civil Rights Act’s mandate by creating de dubious “Justice System Interpreters” program (it goes by different names in various States) and save money, instead of fostering the development of real certified court interpreters and paying them a professional fee for their expert services. This mandatory policy California will fully implement by 2020 (unless the rule of law prevails and it is amended) impacts professional certified and registered (depending on the language combination) court interpreters.

California adopted a sweeping, populist demagogic policy that mandates free interpreting services for anybody in any court proceeding. At first, this looks like a fair and wise decision by a progressive State that wants to level the legal field for all its citizens, but if you just peel off the top layer, you discover the policy is wrong, expensive, incoherent, and illegal.

It is wrong because it treats all litigants the same way in non-criminal matters, going beyond Federal and State constitutional protections limited to criminal proceedings, and creating an even greater uneven field by rightly providing free interpreters to those civil litigants who cannot afford a private interpreter, and wrongly gifting the same option to those individuals and corporations with the means to pay for these services. A well-intentioned solution resulted in a policy that makes no sense.

It is expensive because the interpreters providing this service will be paid by the State of California through a judicial fund, wasting valuable taxpayer money in interpreter fees that should be paid by those civil matters’ litigants who can afford them. Court interpreter programs need more financial resources in California and elsewhere, and a State willing to invest money in language access programs should allocate those funds to professional development and better pay for those freelance interpreters serving criminal courts and interpreting civil matters for indigent litigants, not big business and wealthy individuals.

It is incoherent because Congress’ intent, in advancing these constitutional protections, was to give all individuals, regardless of their financial situation, the same access to the administration of justice even where they speak a language other than English. The legislator never envisioned a situation where taxpayers’ money would cover expenses derived of civil litigation, where life and liberty are not at stake, to favor those who do not need financial assistance. Under a rational basis criterion, taxpayers’ interest to judiciously spend their money substantially outweighs the needs of Fortune 500 businesses and millionaires to get an interpreter free of charge in civil matters.

It is illegal, because implementing this policy mandates all court administrators, managing interpreters, chief judges, and others in charge of court interpreting services at the courthouse level, to provide free interpreters in all civil cases, and, as it has been (almost) unanimously interpreted by these government agents, this means that freelance court interpreters should be banned and excluded from all civil court proceedings when their services are not paid by the judiciary, even when litigants prefer the services of independent court interpreters and they will pay for their services. California legislation establishes the requirements to practice court interpreting in the State as a certified or registered court interpreter (depending on the language combination). Perhaps these certification and registration requirements are meant to qualify as a court interpreter contracted by the court, but for the sake of argument, and because having certified and registered interpreters serve courts and litigants better, let’s assume however, requirements are necessary to practice as a court interpreter. Conclusion: As long interpreters meet the requirements, and until these credentials are suspended or revoked, they should be admitted to practice in any proceeding when the parties retain their services.

The other professional in a civil proceeding is the attorney. All parties may retain the attorney of their choice to represent them in any court matters; those who cannot pay for legal representation can seek assistance by non-for-profit organizations that provide attorneys for free or on a sliding scale. Attorneys are not excluded from a proceeding when paid by one party. I understand that, if you only see this situation from the litigants’ perspective, the issue is not exactly the same. Indigent litigants can appear in court pro-se if they cannot afford a lawyer, but non-English speakers cannot represent themselves, and their access to the administration of justice must be guaranteed by providing a court interpreter; however, in civil cases, said right should be tempered by the individuals ability to pay for an interpreter, so indigent litigants enjoy an even field with English speakers, taxpayers money is not wasted on paying for the services of an interpreter they can easily afford on their own, and freelance civil court interpreters can exercise their right to practice in the courts of California when their client will pay for their services.

Please remember that I am referring to those cases where litigants can pick their interpreters, just as wealthy people choose their doctors, lawyers, and accountants. I am not including in this category services provided by freelance court interpreters to indigent plaintiffs and defendants who cannot pay such fees but retain the interpreting services because they ignore a program would furnish an interpreter at no cost if they financially qualify for it.

The cases that concern my colleagues, and worry me as a member of the profession, are those controversies so complex, they need expert attorneys, witnesses and interpreters. These require of months of preparation, where interpreters are a crucial part of the legal team and often travel overseas with lawyers and investigators for interviews, inspections, and depositions. I am also talking about civil trials dealing with topics so sophisticated that attorneys, sometimes by agreement of the parties, hire freelance interpreters, not to be part of the plaintiff’s or defense’s team, but to interpret all court proceedings for the judge and jury. These interpreters are selected because of their experience on a particular subject, or because of their known skill and diligence, needed to prepare for a difficult, long trial, where branding, reputation, and a lot of money are at stake.

Some of our colleagues have told me that interpreters’ professional associations, interpreters’ labor unions (where they exist) and even staff interpreters oppose an amendment that will allow independent contractor civil court interpreters back in the courtroom.

This should not be the case. Staff interpreters should be glad to have one less issue to worry about. Civil Law and proceedings are very complex. Inexperienced civil court interpreters, even when they may have many years of criminal court practice, which encompasses most of those working as independent contractors with the courts, are prone to make mistakes when dealing with unfamiliar subjects and little time to prepare for a case. Professional associations, labor unions, and interpreters’ guilds are about advancing and protecting the profession. Excluding civil court interpreters from State courtrooms benefits no one. Even when the excluded professional is a non-unionized independent contractor, or these colleagues are not members of the professional association or guild, any policy that irrationally limits the livelihood of a group of interpreters eligible to perform a service hurts the profession and damages all, unionized, independent, and staffers. All agencies devoted to the advancement and protection of the profession must understand that independents, staffers, or members of a different association are not the enemy, we all play for the same team. We must channel our energy and resources to change legislation, regulations, and government policy like this one. We must remember: Those driving professional fees down, lowering professional standards, and destroying decent working conditions are the greedy agencies, not our fellow interpreters. In places like California where a professional association specifically deals with the interests of independent contractor court interpreters, such as AIJIC (http://www.aijic.org/), ask them to lead the campaign and support them in these efforts. States where there is not a professional association of independent or in general judiciary interpreters, local and State-wide professional associations must protect the profession by assuming leadership in this and other matters that affect professional interpreters in their State or region.

I have heard that government officials are unwilling to rectify because they do not want to lose face; that they worry about not getting federal funds if found noncompliant with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act; that they problem is stubbornness or ignorance of the interpreter profession or disregard for what interpreters do in a court proceeding.

Government officials must put constituents first and sometimes this means that a law, regulations, or public policy need to be amended. Can you imagine our country without the Twenty-first Constitutional Amendment repealing prohibition because legislators wanted to save face? Federal authorities over at the Justice Department would never retain federal funds from a State unless there was a violation of the Civil Rights Act. As long as there is equal access to the administration of justice, and the access is guaranteed to those who speak a language other than English by providing a free interpreter to those who cannot afford to hire one on their own.

The situation may be more difficult when dealing with stubborn or ignorant public servants. Here, after reasoning and dialogue takes you nowhere, and there is no other option, interpreters’ professional associations, such as AIJIC, supported by other national and local associations, including interpreter labor unions and guilds,  should stop wasting their time with government officials who do not want to listen, and take their concerns to the interested parties: Attorney State Bars, local Bars, ethnic and gender-based Bars, Law Schools, Judicial Colleges and Associations, carefully targeted judges and legislators (not bureaucratic committees ruled by the same rigid individuals they could not convince before), and social media. Make the case that quality suffers when unprepared interpreters work in a case; clarify that certified and registered court interpreters cannot be denied access to the place where they find their livelihood. Help them see this situation your way; they have an interest on this policy, but it does not impact the way they make a living if left unchanged.

Civil court interpreting is a niche. Most certified and registered court interpreters are not familiar with civil law and procedure; court interpreter certification exams cover criminal law and procedure, not civil law. Since the implementation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act nationwide during the Obama years, I have talked to many court interpreters scheduled by the courts to interpret civil matters who feel apprehensive and not-prepared. Even though the purpose of this post, and all my posts really, is to protect our profession and show all issues from the often-ignored interpreter’s perspective, often, the quality of the rendition and the administration of justice, would greatly improve if freelance civil court interpreters are welcomed back to the courtrooms in California and elsewhere. I now invite you share with the rest of us the situation of these civil court interpreters in your State, given the implementation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. I would also like to hear from those colleagues in other countries who may be facing a similar situation. Finally, please share your ideas to right this wrong.

Interpreter certification: A fight against the establishment.

May 1, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Many of us have devoted years to the struggle to achieve recognition towards the professionalization of what we do. In most countries, interpreters need not have a college degree, the occupation is highly unregulated, and society lacks the knowledge to demand a high-quality professional service. An important number of countries have exercised to a degree some control over who can interpret in certain fields: legal and healthcare interpreting now requires of a certification in several countries. Whether it is called certification, patent, license, or anything else, this is an important step towards professionalization. It is a way to compensate the lack of formal education by giving individuals a chance to demonstrate that they have the minimum skills to practice as interpreters. It reminds me of the beginnings of other now well-established professions. Two centuries ago, people in the United States could become lawyers by passing the State Bar without having to attend Law School.

Although certification does not guarantee the quality of a rendition, it allows the user to decide if an individual is at least minimally qualified to provide the service. This quality-control becomes very valuable to society, but we must be very careful as it is not always what it should.

All professions certify, admit to practice, or something to that effect, their members in one of two legitimate ways: By an administrative act sanctioned by a government because of passing a knowledge and skills test, or, by an administrative act sanctioned by the individual’s peers through a professional association because of passing a knowledge and skills test.

In the United States, and other countries, court interpreters acquire their certification through the former system, while healthcare interpreters get their credential through the latter.

Both systems work fine because they meet the requirements that guarantee an unbiased decision solely based on merit, not self-serving reasons. Besides meeting certain moral and legal requirements, this is achieved by passing a scientifically developed exam rated by an impartial qualified jury. Certifications can only be universally accepted and recognized when they come from such a process. For this reason court and healthcare certifications have become the standard of the profession in many countries.

Unfortunately, because of the lack of legislation, the high demand for inexpensive interpreter services, lack of knowledge by the potential client, and the existence of paraprofessional interpreters willing to work for next to nothing for their quality-absent services, have created a perfect storm for worthless so-called “certifications” that currently inhabit the market in the darker corners of the ugly face of interpreting, feeding themselves on the ignorance, fear, and cowardice of the pariahs of this profession.

Many language agencies advertise their interpreters as “certified” because they have been tested online or by phone and passed an unscientific exam not developed to learn if an applicant is prepared with the minimum professional skills to do the job. Instead, the motivation behind these “exams” has to do with marketing the service, and protecting the agency if a lawsuit occurs caused by the incompetence of their so-called “certified interpreters”. No data is available on the science behind their exams, and there is no information on the quality and impartiality of those rating the examinees.

It gets even worse: many community interpreting, telephonic interpreting, and supposedly healthcare and legal interpreting agencies advertise as “certified” interpreters individuals who attended a workshop, took a class online, read a manual, or went to a class without even taking an exam! The website of one agency brags about the “training” of their “certified” interpreters taught “national ethics and standards of practice for interpreters” in the United States. The problem is there is not such a thing. Each field has its own code of ethics. It also claims that their “certified” interpreters, who apparently work in legal situations, get “…basic skills pre-session preparation…” and they also get skills on “…closing the session…” These are no doubt important issues in healthcare interpreting, but not even the terminology exists in legal interpreting. I wonder how this knowledge, or learning “information on community systems (K-12 schools…)” will show that an interpreter is ready to work in a courtroom, detention center, or law office. Some brag about the number of training hours they offer to their interpreters, but they do not require that they pass an exam; much less a real scientific exam like the ones real certified interpreters must pass. Most of the training hours are devoted to practices to protect the agency from liability, to make the business plan more profitable. Whether they require an online test or just a bunch of classroom hours on a curriculum they created, they have as their main goal to create this impression that their interpreters are certified. They never disclose that their certifications are not officially recognized, that their exams were not scientifically developed, or that they have a vested interest: to offer the paraprofessional services of these “certified” interpreters at a lower cost so they can profit more.

This is not the only problem, dear friends and colleagues, official government policy can also be the main obstacle faced by interpreter certification. I was contacted some time ago by the government of a country outside the United States.  Mexico’s legal reforms took the country from a written court system to an adversarial oral system similar to the one in the U.S.

I was asked to participate in a training program for the new court interpreters for the oral proceedings. I was told this curriculum was necessary for these interpreters to get ready to pass a (certification) test and get what Mexico’s legislation calls a court interpreter patent (same as the certification in the United States, or the licensing in Texas). I was asked to provide may documents and information, even to develop a prospective curriculum and bibliography for my portion of the training (8 hours a day, Monday through Friday for three weeks). The full program was supposed to have a duration of three months at the same pace, and it was to be taught on the campus of the largest college in that Mexican State (Mexico is divided in States just like the United States of America).

After months of negotiations, where I made many concessions regarding the money I would be paid, and my expense account during the three weeks I would be living in that city, and after agreeing to cover my own airfare, to get these young prospective court interpreters what they needed to have a successful and meaningful career, the government officials continued to ask for more documents and concessions, until I gave them an ultimatum. At the end the answer was the one I feared all along: They would not retain me for the program because I was too expensive, but also, because I was a foreigner. They decided that only locals could teach the program. I have no problem with the local talent, and I know some of the other instructors and I vouch for their skill and expertise. The thing that puzzled me was that out of all the instructors, I was the only one who was both: interpreter and attorney, and I was the only one with experience working as an interpreter in court. The decision from above, taken by people who know little, or nothing, about court interpreters, left the certification program for that Mexican State with no court experienced instructors.

In the present world where a college education for interpreters is still years away in many countries, interpreter certification programs play a huge role in advancing the career and protecting the user of the interpreting services. Society must know of these malicious self-serving “certification programs” that are roaming out there with no supervision or regulation. It is imperative that more colleagues get certified as court and healthcare interpreters in the countries, and languages, that the credential is offered. On June 1, of this year, my colleague Javier Castillo Jr. and I have prepared a four-day workshop to prepare those who will be taking the oral portion of the court interpreter federal exam in the United States at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte this summer. The workshop will also help those taking court interpreter oral exams at the State-level, as we will dissect the test, explain what matters to get a passing score, and will practice with tailor-made exercises designed for these workshops you will find nowhere else, so that when the four-day program ends, those who took the course can get a personalized evaluation and know exactly what to do to pass the test. (You can get more information by going to www.fciceprep.com)

As you can see, the road to professionalization is full of obstacles, and some need to be eliminated to get the needed recognition to those legitimate certifications. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments on this issue.

Are court interpreters talking to the wrong client?

August 16, 2016 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

As I was having dinner with a colleague several weeks ago in New York City, the conversation turned to the deplorable state of court interpreting at the State level in many parts of the United States and even at some federal district courts. She shared some frustrating stories about court staff choosing less qualified and even non-certified interpreters over solid and skilled certified colleagues just to save money by paying less for court interpreting services.

Her story was not different from the many tales I have learned from interpreters around the country complaining about poorly-run Administrative Offices of the Courts in several States, courthouses led by unreasonable interpreter coordinators, and ignorant government officials who have never bothered to learn anything about interpreting but are too willing to issue directives diminishing the quality of interpreting services and undercutting the fees and contractual guarantees that court interpreters fought so hard to get.

Time and again, there seems to be a common denominator to all this nonsense: These government officials, court administrators, and even short-sighted staff interpreters turned court policy backers, simply ignore interpreters’ arguments and explanations of all the reasons why justice would be better served, Constitutional requirements would actually be met, and interpreters would move the courts to the top of their client lists, if the State courts, and some federal districts, were to treat the profession and those who practice it with the dignity they deserve.

I often wonder how many times interpreters will meet with judges, staff interpreters, and court administrators, to explain that a professional fee, a fair cancellation policy, and appropriate interpreting conditions are needed, before we all realize that we are just wasting our time and energy.

I believe that the moment has arrived.  In the past, whenever I felt that I was getting nowhere with a stubborn judge or an incompetent court administrator, I took my case to the officer of the court who will truly understand and appreciate our services: The private attorney.

I have found it very productive to talk to civil litigants and private defense attorneys one on one. I have seen the impact of a good presentation by an interpreter at a State Bar conference, in front of hundreds of lawyers.  I believe that it is the attorneys who need to hear about the profession. They are the ones who need to know how interpreters are really treated by state officials, and they need to hear some of the horror stories that unfortunately have occurred all over the country when a bad interpretation has been part of a court proceeding.

Court interpreters need to address these lawyers for two reasons: First, since they are not under the authority and policy of court administrators because they are financially independent, they will be able to fight for quality interpreters. They will see it our way because they are also in the business of delivering results to their clients. In other words: no result equals no clients. Moreover, many of their clients are financially capable of paying the interpreter’s professional fees and expenses, and like everything else in the private sector, they know that good things are not cheap.

The second reason for approaching these attorneys is evident: Our work will speak louder than our words. The attorneys and their clients will see how professional interpreters work, they will see the benefits of having a great interpreter at all stages of a case: from the time the client retains the attorney to the end of a case, including strategy meetings, witness preparation sessions, jailhouse visits, and having an interpreter at the plaintiff’s or defense’s table during the trial.  They will see the difference and their client will tell them how the work of the privately retained professional interpreter is infinitely better than the rendition the client will hear from the less expensive interpreters provided by the court at the hearings.  You see, instead of wasting your time talking to the wall, you will invest your time at cultivating professional relationships with these private attorneys who will appreciate your work, treat you like the professional you are, and pay you a much better fee. You will be able to make more money and work less. Who knows? Maybe after all good interpreters leave the courts and cases are overturned on appeal the people who have ignored us will decide to approach us in our terms.

I decided to work with the private bar and I do not regret it at all. In fact, I enjoy being a part of a case from beginning to end instead of just being thrown in there in the middle of a trial without knowing what the case is about. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago one of my attorney clients commented to me that she was so glad to have me as her interpreter because she felt that because I was not in court working with the same judges and attorneys all the time, she could trust me more than “those interpreters who are at the courthouse all the time”.

I suggest that if you are sick and tired of being mistreated and ignored by the courts, you switch gears and give the private bar a try. All you will need is four or five good cases a year to live and feel like the true professional you are. I now ask you to tell us what you think about the way that so many courts treat professional interpreters and what you plan to do about it.

An interpreter exam for a certification… or for a job.

February 29, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A controversial issue that has been around for years has become quite popular in the past few months.  The controversy surrounding the United States federal government’s contract award to Department of Defense’s contractor SOSi has put this corporation under the microscope of many individual interpreters and interpreter associations. This scrutiny has touched on the training and “blessing” (call it certification, accreditation or anything you want) provided to the individual interpreters contracted by SOSi to work in the immigration court system for the first time.  After reading some of the posts in social media and the numerous letters, emails, and phone calls that I received from many friends and colleagues on this particular issue, I thought about it, and arrived to some personal conclusions that I think put in perspective what is happening in the American immigration court system and what many friends and colleagues would like to see implemented.

The first thing we need to do is define what an interpreter certification program and examination really are.  A process that ends in a generally accepted and scientifically proven method of testing designs, after exhaustive detailed research and practice testing, a comprehensive exam that tests individual performance in all basic properties of the activity, in this case profession, that the applicant aspires to practice in exchange for a professional fee in the real world.  Those passing this examination have demonstrated that they meet the minimum requirements acceptable to be a part of a profession subject to professional and ethical rules, legal statutes, and subject to liability in the event of malpractice.

This exam has to be designed in a way that it is objective, measures all candidates the same way, includes all elements relevant to the rating of a person’s performance, and for security and equity reasons has multiple versions in case somebody tries to circumvent the certification process, or fails to pass on the first, and often limited subsequent, attempts.  For all of these reasons the exam has to be developed by a combination of peer professionals, in this case interpreters and interpreter educators, in addition to scientists that will apply a scientific method, including the application of a grading curve, to be able to offer a comprehensive and fair assessment tool which plays a key role in the issuance of a certification.  This process takes a long time and is very, very expensive.  Moreover, the administration of the examination to the candidates also requires a big financial investment for both, the actual testing and the rating of the completed exam.   This is the main reason why there are so few real certification programs that can deliver unquestioned professionals.  Law school graduates in the United States take the bar exam to be able to practice as attorneys, and despite the fact that each state has its own version of a portion of the exam, they all share a common universal test that is part of the final assessment of that student: the MBE or Multistate Bar Examination that has been developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners to be universally applied in all fifty states and territories (with the exception of Puerto Rico). The purpose of the test is to assess the extent to which an examinee can apply fundamental legal principles and reasoning to analyze given fact patterns.  The individual states decided to go to the NCBE to develop the test because it was extremely costly for any single state to come up with its own examination.

The same scenario applies in the court interpreting arena where the states looked for a similar solution when they went to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).  The result was the same as in the lawyers’ case. Each state can add any requirements to the certification process if considered necessary in that jurisdiction (written tests, ethics exams, background checks, good moral character, etc.) but they all administer the same examination in Spanish and other languages where a test is available.  There are many languages without any certification exam due to the huge expense this represents and the lack of volume that could justify such an investment (not enough speakers of a given foreign language).  Only the United States government has a different examination and process because it has the deep pockets to do it, but even the Administrative Office of the United States Courts tests candidates through the NCSC. In all scenarios the individual interpreters who rate the candidate’s exams are independent contractors or staff members of the judiciary.  At different levels, all applicants who successfully pass this interpreter certification test, currently being offered only in Spanish, are considered qualified to render their professional services in a court of law within the jurisdiction where they took the exam, or nationwide in the case of the U.S. federal court system.  Clients, agencies, government entities and businesses use this certification as an assurance of a certain minimum level of quality. These new certified interpreters have demonstrated that they can work assignments that may include sight translations, and simultaneous or short consecutive interpretations (when I speak of short consecutive I am referring to the very difficult consecutive interpreting that is used in court which requires short quick renditions, unlike consecutive interpreting in a conference or diplomatic setting where the consecutive rendition could take thirty minutes or longer).  This is the only credential in the United States that tests interpreters in such a scientific way and in all modes.

There are other certifications in the U.S., but they either vanished because of its prohibitive cost and lack of demand, as it happened with the very good testing program offered in the past by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) or their testing method and results are in my opinion questionable as is the case of the “medical” and healthcare certifications offered in the United States, not by a governmental entity but by the private sector. These exams do not test in all modes of interpreting or the content of the exam is of lesser level than the one desired for a widely-recognized credential outside of the scope of a patient-physician interview at a hospital or medical office.  This is not to put these certifications down, but to illustrate the fact that a universal scientific test is a complex and expensive matter. I know how difficult and time consuming this process is because I had the opportunity to participate as one of many individuals involved in the development and field testing of an interpreter test for military and conflict zone interpreters a few years ago.

Because the process is so long, difficult, and costly, most organizations resort to another solution: they develop a program to assess individual interpreters in the field that will be relevant for that organization, and sometimes, if the target applicants require it, the program also includes some training or at least basic orientation.  These quicker and less expensive solutions can assist in determining the level of an interpreter in all modes, and sometimes are way more difficult than a certification program like the ones described above, but for the most part they are confined to the assurance of a certain minimum quality of service in the specific field or area where they operate.

The first example that comes to mind are the exams by the international organizations, or the United States Department of State conference level exam to assess the skill, knowledge and ability of the candidate. These are difficult tests that are rated by top interpreters who guard the quality of the service provided, and for this reason to pass these examinations, even though they do not confer a certification strictly speaking, means to the professional community that the candidate who just passed the assessment has a quality level that clients can rely on.

There are other exams of this type by both, government entities and the private sector that are nowhere as prestigious or difficult as the ones I mention above, but exist for commercial and legal reasons. Commercially because it is the way to get big contracts and important clients; legally because it is a certain protection against civil liability lawsuits that the entity offering the service, and the exam, might face down the road.  Most of the multinational interpreting agencies administer a training, orientation or test (call it evaluation, exam, or anything else) to their prospective interpreters to be able to market themselves as providers of “certified” interpreters and to defend from potential malpractice or negligence lawsuits as discussed above.  This practice is expensive (nowhere near a real certification program of course) but necessary to remain in business, and to a person not familiar with the profession it can create a sense of professionalism that could be the factor needed to get awarded a big contract. Although many of these entities ask their in-house interpreters to put together a quick assessment of those applying for interpreter assignments, some retain reputable institutions or renowned interpreters or educators to develop a training and evaluation program.  Needless to say, the individuals passing this evaluation may be ready for the limited work they will have to do, but they will never be considered or treated as a certified interpreter or an individual who passed an exam with the U.S. Department of State or an international organization.

This brings me back to the communications I have been getting about the immigration court interpreters in the United States and the training that defense contractor turned language service provider SOSi is offering to those new individuals who want to work under this new contract awarded last year by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).

The first thing to say is that SOSi has a temporary contract at this time, and even if extended to the maximum agreed to in the original contract, it will be for just a few years.  Moreover, to win the bidding process, SOSi had to bid really low and that ties their hands as far as the size of the financial investment they can justify to their board.  As precedent, you should know that all contractors have opted for the same type of solution in the past. There is no logic in investing the time and money developing a certification program that if they are lucky, might be ready by the time their EOIR contract expires.

I now want to talk about the program they are offering to their new interpreters, and I say new interpreters because I assume that those veteran colleagues who decided to go back despite all the problems with the contract terms and SOSi’s conduct during these months do not need to undergo the training and evaluation.

SOSi contracted out the development of this training and assessment of their candidates to an affiliate of an Interpreter training school. The program is offered on line and it includes 27 hours of on-demand training, 40 hours of on line interpreting practice, live sessions and random monitoring by an instructor, a mentoring service, and two assessments, with the second one being the final exam that according to SOSi and the trainer follows the U.S. Department of Justice and Executive Office for Immigration Review testing requirements. The program is supervised, and I assume developed in a significant part, by the director of the interpreter training school who happens to be a very well-known and recognized instructor. I have personally attended some of his talks when we have coincided at a conference and I must say that his presentations are of a very high quality. Moreover, this institution has been preparing interpreters to take court and healthcare interpreter certification tests for many years and with very good results.  I do not know how the trainer got the contract from SOSi, but whether it was through a bidding process or by negotiation, I see no wrongdoing.  If anything, I would say that the reputation of the interpreter training school is taking a big risk (calculated by their front office, I am sure) by working with such an entity as SOSi.

Some colleagues have also raised the fact that the exams will be rated by the training entity’s instructors as a potential conflict of interest.  I do not see it that way.  The National Center for State Courts also outsources the rating of their certification exams to independent contractor interpreters and court staff.  Most law students who are preparing for the Bar (including myself a long time ago) enroll in the Bar Bri courses to get ready for the exam. Bar Bri is no different from the trainer in this case.  As to the argument that interpreter trainers will “pass” those attending the training to keep SOSi happy, I do not believe that a reputable institution like this one would play that game. In fact, as an interpreter trainer and certification exam rater myself, I have to tell you that it is in your best interest to stop those who are not qualified from entering the professional ring.  Others have raised as a problem the fact that some of the raters may have never worked in immigration court. I do not see any validity to this argument either. Interpreting skills are the same for any court. The terminology and procedure may be different, but that can be learned by the student.  This happens every day with conference interpreters who have to research and study multiple subject matters throughout their career.

In conclusion, I do not believe that it is practical nor feasible that a government contractor such as SOSi invest the time and money required to develop a certification program when all they have been awarded is a temporary (renewable at best) service contract.  I think that, regardless of all the problems faced by the immigration court interpreters and the lack of competency shown by SOSi until now, they did what any contractor, capable or not, would do regarding its interpreters.  I think that the interpreter trainers in this case did what they had to do to get the contract and now that it has been awarded to them, they will act as the professional institution we all know they are.  Therefore, dear friends and colleagues, I do not believe that there are grounds to be concerned for this reason as long as we view this evaluation for what it is: an assessment of limited skills learned for the sole purpose of meeting a client’s needs, in this case SOSi and the EOIR, who apparently set the guidelines as to what needed to be tested.

This does not mean that we should give SOSi a pass. Our colleagues are still waiting for their services to be paid, people are still wasting time trying to get answers from an organization that does not respect its interpreters, and we cannot abandon them, but the “certification exam”, regardless of the skills it may evaluate, is not, in my opinion, something we can criticize.   The only way to change the immigration court interpreter exam is to get the United States Department of Justice and the Executive Office for Immigration Review to follow the same path that their counterparts in the judicial branch of government are following, and implement a real interpreter certification program, or join the federal court interpreter certification program that already exists; but in order to do this, you will have to convince them of three things associated with this change:  (1) That they need to go to Congress and ask for the resources, a tall order in our current political season, (2) That a real certification program will attract interpreters that will be better prepared, who will, after passing the examination, demand a higher pay and more professional conditions than the current interpreters,  and (3) That a real certification program will mean that many of their current interpreters will not pass and they could face a real interpreter shortage never seen before.   I now ask you to share with the rest of us your opinion about this issue.

State court interpreter certifications could turn meaningless.

October 16, 2014 § 17 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A couple of weeks ago I received an email that concerns me enormously. I am sure that many of you who are based in the United States have received similar emails from state-level judicial agencies. In my case, I got an electronic communication from the Administrative Office of the Courts of one of the fifty states in the U.S. (not the federal government) this was one of those global emails that are sent out to everybody on a master list. Basically, the message was that the National Center for State Courts in the United States (NCSC), apparently in coordination with (at least) some states, is planning to offer remote telephonic interpreting across state lines, and for that purpose, the states (and I assume the NCSC as well) are compiling lists of state-level certified court interpreters who may want to be part of the interpreter pool that will be used to interpret court hearings from a different state. Although I hope the message’s meaning was different, this is what I understood. The email is written in such a way that, to the reader, this idea looks good and beneficial for everyone: the interpreters, because they will have more work (although I would guess that the fees offered by the state governments will not be anything to brag about) the states with underserved populations due to the lack of interpreters, because they will get somebody who has been certified somewhere by a state-level judiciary, and the foreign language speaker, as they will have the services of a professional interpreter instead of a family member or a paraprofessional.

Does it sound good to you? Well, if I understood the email as a communication asking permission to include interpreters’ names on a master list to indiscriminately interpret by phone, regardless of the state, it did not sound even half decent to me. Let me explain:

It is true that state-level certified interpreters are better equipped than paraprofessionals, and therefore the service provided should be of better quality. It is true that all state-level certified interpreters have attended a basic orientation and they have passed a court certification test (now administered by the NCSC or CLAC) and in many cases they have also taken an ethics and professional responsibility test. This obviously puts them ahead of those unscrupulous people that are roaming through the hallways of many courthouses in the United States. Unfortunately, and this is the real and very big problem: these interpreters, who have been certified by one of the fifty states, would now interpret cases from other states where both substantive and adjective law are different. That is the problem. The interpreter will interpret legal proceedings based on legislation that he does not know. Unlike U.S. federally certified court interpreters who work nationwide because they interpret the same federal legislation all across the country, these state-level individuals will have to deal with fifty, sometimes very different, legal systems.

Just like the age to get married and gun control laws vary from state to state, the catalog of crimes and civil law contracts are different. Think of one single situation: battery and assault; or is it assault and menacing? Well, the answer is: it depends on the state, and the differences are radical. Penalties and procedures also change depending on the state. This is why attorneys can only practice in those jurisdictions where they have passed the Bar Exam. It is a very delicate matter.

If this is indeed what the NCSC and the states want to do (and I hope I am wrong) then I am extremely concerned as an interpreter, because this will be another attempt to de-professionalize our jobs and make them look more like the legal secretary who can work anywhere, and less like the attorneys who can only practice in the state (or states) where they are members of the state bar. Sure, I understand that state-level agencies will praise the “benefits” of this solution, which in reality will solve their own problem (not the interpreters’ or the foreign language speakers’): Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This is a state-level priority because states that do not comply will lose federal money.

I am also worried as an attorney for several reasons: First, states will allow interpreting services across state lines using telecommunications. This could be an interstate commerce issue where the federal government has to participate (at least); but the second reason is the one that motivated me to write this post: interpreters who do not know the legal system of a particular state will practice in that jurisdiction. They may physically be in the state where they are certified, but their services will affect a court system, and litigants in another state where they have never demonstrated their capacity to practice. I believe attorneys who represent foreign speakers need to be aware of this potential “solution” so that from the beginning they know that perhaps the case could later be appealed for ineffective assistance of the interpreter. Attorneys need to know that when they are advising their client on an assault charge in their home state, they may be using the services of an interpreter from a state where assault really means battery. Lawyers will need to assess the potential procedural complications in case they sue the interpreter. Jurisdiction will have to be determined, and these lawsuits could end up in federal court.

If this “program” has also been planned for civil cases, then the problem is worse. Remember, there are at least three different civil legal systems in the United States, the one followed by those states who have a system based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition, those whose system comes in part from the days where these territories were part of the Spanish Crown (just think divorce and community property division) and then Louisiana and the Napoleonic written system. As an attorney, or a foreign language speaker, I would not want to have an interpreter from another state, much less one from a state where the system is different.

I sure hope that this “solution” (if conceived as I understood it) is discarded and the states look for better options such as a higher fee for those interpreting in state courts. There are very good and capable interpreters everywhere in the United States, it is just that they will not work for the fees currently offered. A more attractive fee would also encourage others who would like to join the profession but are reluctant because of the lack of money to even make a decent living.

By the way, these problems apply to those languages where there is no certification and the interpreters are registered or qualified to work in court by a particular state.

I really wish I am mistaken and this is not happening in the United States, but if it is, I will continue to watch the developments of this program, and if needed, I will speak up in legal forums to bring awareness of the potential risks generated by using state-level certified interpreters in places where they have never been certified. I now ask you to share your thoughts, and concerns, about this potential change that would end up rendering a state-level court interpreter certification useless.

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