The interpreting profession could be worthless here.

April 8, 2019 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

All professions must be on their toes to protect their members and guard themselves from outside forces that, from time to time, try to destroy them by lowering their ethical principles and standards, compromising the quality of their professional services, or eroding their public trust. This is one of the main reasons professionals organize in associations like the American Medical Association (AMA); attorney national and state bars like the American Bar Association (ABA); or institutes like the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Unfortunately, in the United States and other countries, our profession does not have such a body to protect the services we provide and the minimum requirements to practice interpretation. With no compulsory membership of a professional association, and associations that only serve their members’ interests (and sometimes not even that when corporations are welcomed as members) or are of a culture so foreign to the United States it makes them unattractive to the American idiosyncrasy, all we have left are the individual efforts of some of our colleagues, labor unions or guilds where they exist, and some local professional associations willing to protect us all, even those who are not their members.

During the last twelve months we have been attacked at an unprecedented rate: The associations of agencies’ efforts to overturn California’s Supreme Court Dynamex decision that empowers independent contractor interpreters by giving them leverage to negotiate with multinational and unscrupulous agencies that abuse their position of power when hiring individual interpreters;  The Oregon Judicial Department Court Language Access Services (CLAS) change to the Uniform Trial Court Rules (UTCR) stripping court interpreters working in that state of their right to sight translate documents in court; and the California so called “Language Access Plan” (LAP) providing free interpreting services to anyone who requests an interpreter in Civil matters, regardless of their income, and depriving court interpreters in that state from practicing their profession in civil courts.

All nefarious actions setting our profession back many decades, but none as alarming and devastating as an effort by some Texas State legislators to lower the requirements to practice court interpreting in that state to a historical low. Please read this post even if you are a reader from another country, or if you do not interpret in court. It is that important.

Texas never distinguished itself as a state where court interpreting certification was universally appreciated or desired. It was a late-comer to the sphere of states requiring certification to practice as interpreter in the state courts. After much back and forth, the State settled for a licensing system that resembled the state certification program adopted by most states. Despite the unfortunate grandfathering of some subpar “interpreters” who had “practiced” for a long time before licensing became the law of the land, Texas eventually offered the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) exam offered in other states. For reasons difficult to explain and defend, after some debate, it was decided that Texas would have a two-tier licensing system for court interpreters: Those passing an English monolingual written exam with a score of 80 percent, and all three sections of the oral test (sight translation, consecutive, and simultaneous interpreting) with a score of 70 percent on all three sections are granted a “master” license. Candidates who pass the English monolingual written exam with a score of 80 percent, and all three sections of the oral test (sight translation, consecutive, and simultaneous interpreting) with a score of 60 percent on all three sections are granted a “basic” license. These “basic” interpreters can only appear in minor cases decided in courts not of record. (http://ow.ly/OL9Y30olqdH)

These requirements fall short when compared to the federal minimum standards (on a more difficult exam) and to the minimum requirements in most states. The National Proficiency Designations for Court Interpreters of Spoken Languages classifies court interpreters in languages for which a NCSC -sanctioned oral exam is available in four categories. Tier one, the higher category, encompasses those interpreters certified by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (USAOC) commonly known as “federally certified court interpreters”, and state-certified court interpreters who obtained in one cycle (because some states allow certification in installments!) a minimum score of 80 percent in the simultaneous and consecutive portions of the exam, and a minimum passing score of 75 percent on each of the two sight translations (English into the foreign language, and from the foreign language into English) with a minimum combined score of 80 percent.

Candidates certified in at least one state who passed the NCSC exam within 12 months of the certification with a score of at least 70 percent in each of the simultaneous and consecutive interpreting sections of the oral test, and a minimum score of 65 percent on each of the two sight translations (see above) with a minimum combined score of 70 percent are classified as Tier 2 interpreters. This means that an individual can have a “master license” in Texas and be classified as a Tier 2 interpreter nationwide. Individuals getting, in one test cycle, a passing score of 60 percent in each of the simultaneous and consecutive parts of the exam, and a minimum score of 55 percent on each of the two sight translations (see above) with a minimum combined score of 60 percent are classified as Tier 3 interpreters. (https://www.ncsc.org/~/media/Files/PDF/Services%20and%20Experts/Areas%20of%20expertise/Language%20Access/VRI/1%20National%20Interpreter%20Database/National_Proficiency_Designations_for_Court%20Interpreters.ashx)

I know this looks bad, but that is not the problem that motivated me to write this piece. At this moment the Texas State Legislature is in session, and they are considering a bill that will eliminate the two-tiered licensing system and create a single state court interpreter license. Unfortunately, instead of amending the statute to raise the bar, these legislators are trying to lower it. This would open the door to anybody with no training or formal education, no skill or knowledge, to portray themselves as “licensed court interpreters”, destroying the profession in the Lone Star State. This very concerning bill was introduced by State Representative Ron Reynolds of Ft. Bend, Texas and it is being debated in the Texas House at the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee as HB 3627 (https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/86R/billtext/html/HB03627I.htm?fbclid=IwAR0Vqopuc7tzdm9laroZc3_UP-gr0e2ZZeCw47Zx9xH3xRp-jxZrRQK6KNc)

Its companion bill was just introduced in the Texas State Senate on March 21, 2019 by Democratic Senator Borris Miles of Harris and Ft. Bend Counties as SB 2176. It was immediately referred to the State Affairs Committee. The City of Houston is in Harris County, and Ft. Bend is the county next door. (https://legiscan.com/TX/text/SB2176/id/1952181?fbclid=IwAR3OseP5xQbVL_sPx4SpnRHs-uN1f-stA5fGymG5-eyN-IZZ8vEECWtR8nM)

All of us, especially our colleagues in Texas, need to contact these legislators, raise awareness within the legal community and interpreter associations, and educate the general public. You can reach Representative Reynolds at: (281) 208-3574, and (512) 463-0494. Senator Miles at: (512) 463-0113, (713) 665-8322, (281) 261-2360 and (713) 223-0387.

Can you imagine going to a surgeon with a record of losing 4 out of every 10 patients he operates on? Would you go to a lawyer who loses 4 out of every 10 trials? I do not know many people who would pay a dentist who pulls out the wrong tooth forty percent of the time, and I cannot think of anybody who would get on a plane knowing that the pilot knows only 60 percent of what you need to know at a minimum to safely fly to a destination. These may seem like exaggerations, but they are not. This is what the Texas Legislature is considering right now. Their answer to a shortage of professionals is not to promote the profession or legislate to make it more attractive. Their plan is to lower the bar so low anybody who can order a beer south of the border can interpret a death penalty case.

These are very serious consequences, but we should let activists and human rights advocates fight these issues with the State Legislature. We must focus on a different issue derived from the same bill; an issue nobody else will fight to defend: Our profession. We have to stand united against the destruction of our profession by a group of uninformed legislators who obviously lack basic understanding of what interpreters do. We have to fight against this bill or the profession will die in the Lone Star State. Our colleagues will lose a significant market share to those pseudo-interpreters who will flood the market and charge rock bottom fees, because they will look great when compared to the money they now earn flipping hamburgers at the fast food joint around the corner (noting against fast food workers, admired, honest individuals, but they are not interpreters). Our colleagues, those real professionals that call Texas home, will also share on the stigma of living in a state where everybody and their brother can interpret in state court. Their reputation will suffer, not with their trusted clients who appreciate their services, but in the public opinion. There is no justification for this legislation in a state that should be concerned with raising professional standards instead of eliminating them all. Please take action individually, in your professional circle with clients, family, and friends; it does not matter you are a conference interpreter, or that you work in the hospitals, or that you live in Illinois. You can even protect the profession from abroad. Talk to your local interpreter associations; contact NAJIT at the national level, and TAJIT, EPITA, HITA, MITA, AATIA, TAHIT and all other associations in Texas.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us any other ideas you may have to fight against this travesty in Texas.

Who should interpreters target as their clients in a world where many want to pay lower fees? Part 1.

July 28, 2014 § 15 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I consider myself very lucky because my job takes me all over the world; this allows me to see many of my friends and colleagues as I visit their towns and countries, and also gives me the opportunity to keep up with the local interpreting and translation issues that are impacting that particular area. It gives me great joy to hear about the personal and professional accomplishments of so many talented friends; and unfortunately, I also get to see the sadness, anger and frustration of so many who are working under conditions that no professional should suffer or tolerate. I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to these horror stories where the main characters are permeated by mediocrity, ignorance and lack of ambition. It was after one of these episodes, not long ago, that I decided to write about this topic in order to identify the problems and propose some solutions that have worked for me and for other colleagues in the past. This topic is broad and will require of several posts. I will address separately on three different posts the situation of court interpreters, community interpreters, including health care interpreters, and conference interpreters.

First I will talk about the court interpreters because they are a large part of the interpreting community in the United States (only second to military interpreters) and they are a growing segment of the profession in many countries around the world. When I think of many of the freelance court interpreters I know, one thing that puzzles me is: how can they be happy and fulfilled working under such conditions? In certain administrative courts they are paid very little money, sometimes they do not get Per Diem when traveling to another location, and on top of that, they are not treated like professionals. They are required to get paperwork stamped and signed by others, sending the message that because they are not trustworthy, somebody else needs to watch what they do; And by the way, if they want to get paid on time they have to be willing to accept a smaller paycheck (there is a pay cut policy in exchange for faster pay). Of course this is an extreme case, and I would have called it the worst if this article had been written before the United Kingdom court interpreter fiasco that insulted capable professional interpreters in their professionalism and in their pockets. Of course you all know what happened over there and we are all familiar with the ever-bigger problems in the British justice system. Enough for now, but I will return to the United Kingdom court interpreter saga later on this post.

If you think that things get better for those interpreters who freelance in the state-level court system of the United States because these are not administrative courts, you have not worked there for at least a decade. At this level, in most states, interpreters make a little more money than those working the immigration court system, but they are still getting a laughable fee for their professional services. This low pay does not feel any better when you combine it with rules and policies designed for laborers and not for a professional service provider. I am talking about agency-controlled state court markets, incomprehensible policies that are keeping good interpreters from making a decent income in civil cases, the “annual payment limit” contained in some states’ independent interpreter contracts, the “even distribution” of work policy of other states where good and mediocre interpreters basically get the same amount of work from the state as long as they are state-certified, or the backwards legislation that gives certification and oversight of court interpreters to the state judiciary in a state where this was not the case, and now will pull interpreters down to the same level of the other states where the same party that hires certifies. A move unheard in other professions like lawyers and physicians, but even celebrated by many interpreters in this state. Add to this landscape all the endless and ever-changing micro-management requirements by local courthouses, many other rules that I will just skip for the sake of brevity; and finally, throw in there the agencies that are run by people with no formal education, experience, or practical knowledge of interpreting (as the ones who procure interpreting services for most administrative courts) and pay their interpreters even less money, and you will have the big picture; the same picture I see every time I hear a new story, learn of a new travesty, or witness a horrendous performance.

Dear friends and colleagues, I cannot help it, but it is at about this time that I always wonder why my friend or colleague is still working as a court interpreter under those circumstances! The answer is simple and complex at the same time. Simple because as a freelancer all it takes is a moment of courage when the interpreter decides: Enough! No more. Complex because not everybody is willing or capable of making this decision. Different people, different priorities, different ideas, different set of values, and different goals in life. Although I have belonged to the former group all my life, I understand those who belong in the latter. The thing I cannot understand is why they do not take action and change things for themselves, and maybe for their profession at the local level.

It is possible that many people living under the circumstances described above will not be able, for different reasons, to move on to another type of interpreting assignments, but they can always pick their clients wisely. Let me explain:

One thing I have never understood is why on earth so many of my freelancer colleagues see themselves as court employees. I have heard hundreds of times how they introduce themselves as interpreters for the courts; I have heard them refer to court administrators, court clerks, judges, and staff interpreters as their “boss”! Obviously this immediately tells me that if they see the court, the interpreting agency, or the state judiciary as their employer, they cannot see them for what they really are: their client.

Once the interpreter comes to terms with this issue, and understands that she does not work for anyone but herself, she can focus on picking her clients. She will soon realize that mediocre interpreting agencies, state judiciaries, and even the federal court system are nothing but clients, and clients that pay very little (some of them rarely on time) in exchange for what they expect from the interpreter. They pay low fees for the interpreting service, but many of them want you to do so many other things for the same token fee: these interpreters must prepare endless paperwork, learn (sometimes absurd) court or agency policies that are only applicable to that particular courthouse, translate documents in between hearings, attend (often self-serving) unpaid meetings scheduled by the agency or court administration; and many times they demand, without saying it, exclusivity and they “punish” an interpreter who cancels the assignment for a better paying professional opportunity. Once the interpreter sees them as another client, she will realize that, because of their practices and philosophy, they are not at the top of her client wish list, and she will understand the need to find better clients.

Now the question is: If all interpreting agencies that control the administrative courts, and all state-level court systems are not to be considered as top clients, what else is there? The answer is: The good clients!

All interpreters who want to make a decent living in the legal field need to provide their services to the private bar. It is true that in the United States the states are now observing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and in many cases the states are keeping independent interpreters from working any civil cases unless paid through the courts; but even under these circumstances, there is plenty to do. First, those of you who live in states where independent freelancers coexist with state contractors, and are allowed to provide their services in civil court to those who turn down the court-appointed interpreter and prefer to hire their own, you should enter this field full-blast. The federal system does not provide court appointed interpreters in civil cases, and for those who are federally certified this is another option, in fact, it is a much better option than working criminal cases for the federal court system because the pay is much better.

The main option available to all of those who have a valid certification at some level (state or federal. Private language agency certifications are not considered valid) is to become a legal or “out-of-court” interpreter instead of a court interpreter. Legal interpreters provide their professional services to Law Firms and attorneys for depositions, office interviews, witness preparation, jail visits, expert opinions, expert testimony, transcription and translation services, and even in court at the plaintiff’s or defense’s table. Interpreters negotiate their fee with these attorneys; there are no pre-set limits, no endless meetings, and for the most part, the cases are interesting: there is more variety in civil court; and the cases that you should go after involve enormous amounts of money in damages. These are the type of clients I try to have, and I spoil them, pamper them, and protect them with the best service you can find anywhere. The point is, my court interpreter friends and colleagues, if you don’t want to move to a bigger city, if you don’t want to travel, or to learn a new field, the next time you get angry because of an absurd new rule, because you are not getting paid on time, or because you got tired of being treated like a laborer instead of a professional, stop working for the system, get out there and look for the big clients: the large law firms, the corporate legal departments, and talk to them; sell them your services, and start enjoying your career once again. Who knows? If enough good interpreters leave the system, the system will have to hire mediocre individuals, and sooner or later the government will have to sit down with you and talk fees and other work conditions. This is what is happening in the United Kingdom where a group of courageous, determined, and brave interpreters walked out and never went back. They made history, inspired us all, and showed us that although difficult at the beginning, there is life after the courthouse. I invite you to share with us your opinions and comments, and I ask you to avoid name-calling, specific cases, and arguments defending agencies or the court interpreter wages.

Some judges foster the use of non-certified interpreters.

December 9, 2013 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Unfortunately this topic is not new to anyone. It seems like we have been listening to the same complaint for many years, but during the past few months I have heard and read enough disturbing stories to decide that it was my time to contribute my two cents to the defense of our colleagues:  the real professional court interpreters. Before I continue, I must clarify that this posting refers to Spanish language court interpreters.  I recognize that interpreters in other languages are in a different situation as they do not have a federal certification program in the United States.  That is an issue for a separate blog post.

I learned that there are federal district courts in the Southern and Midwestern States where the federal court interpreter certification is not “required” to interpret a hearing or even a trial.  I was told that there may be other federal courts elsewhere in the United States where they also follow this practice.  I have to confess that I have been very lucky to live and work in places where this has never been an issue. In fact, I live in a city where I have never even met non-certified court interpreters.  The Federal Court for the Northern District of Illinois provides federally certified court interpreters for all of its cases.

The most common complaints that I have heard from certified interpreters is that these courthouses have clerks, administrators, and judges who don’t see the need to hire federally certified interpreters because they think they are too expensive, it is too difficult to get them, or because they are happy with the services provided by non-certified individuals who have been providing their “services” to these judges.    There is a federal district courthouse in the Midwest that hires one certified and one non-certified interpreter to work their trials.  Fortunately, most certified interpreters refuse to work under these circumstances. Unfortunately, this courthouse then hires two non-certified individuals. Their argument is that it is cheaper and the non-certified individual has a state court interpreter certification.  Another courthouse in the South routinely hires non-certified interpreters under the explanation that their judges like these non-certified individuals who have been doing “a good job” for many years.  There is a federal district court judge who states on the record at the beginning of a hearing that the Spanish speaker is being assisted by a certified interpreter, without giving opportunity to the federally certified court interpreter to enter her appearance on the record by clearly stating that she is federally certified.  This way the judge, intentionally or unintentionally (we don’t know) makes it impossible for the certified interpreter to separate herself from the non-certified individual.  In fact, because of this maneuver, I heard that some attorneys that have appeared before this judge for many years are shocked when they learn out of court that the “other” individuals appearing in court are non-certified.

I would like to think that most of these situations arise from the lack of knowledge among judges and court staff.  Many of them do not know the difference between a federally certified court interpreter (the ones who can appear in court) a state certified court interpreter, and non-certified individuals who just happen to accept assignments knowing that they are not supposed to.

For the benefit of some of you who might be reading this article, and with the hope that some of my colleagues may share the following information with judges, clerks, attorneys and others, I will touch upon some of the basic differences between a federally certified court interpreter and a state certified interpreter.

According to the Court Interpreter Act, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts shall establish a program to facilitate the use of certified interpreters in judicial proceedings instituted by the United States (28 USC § 1827) To fulfill this mandate, the United States AOC has developed a certification program that all Spanish interpreter candidates must pass to be certified. The certification program is administered in two parts: a written exam to test the true bilingualism of the applicant who has to pass (with a minimum score of 80) each of the two sections: English and Spanish. Those who pass this first stage must wait for a full year and then take the oral exam that consists of difficult exercises to test the examinee’s interpretation skills, legal terminology and comprehension, and language proficiency.  To pass this test a candidate must score a minimum of 80 on each of its 5 sections: sight translations from English into Spanish and Spanish into English, two simultaneous interpretations at very high speeds: one a monologue and one a dialog, and a lengthy and complicated consecutive interpretation.  Passing rates for this very difficult exam are among the lowest in any professional field.

A person can become state certified after meeting the requirements of that particular state. The format and minimum scores vary depending on the state. Some require a written test, others do not. Some offer a written test on the basics of the legal process, others require prove of bilingualism.  The oral test can be the same in different states as they all use the services of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) but the way the test is administered and graded is different from state to state. Some states let the applicant take the oral exam by parts (first the simultaneous exam and maybe months later the consecutive and sight)

Of the many differences between the federal certification program and the states’ programs, perhaps the most important are the content of the exam and the minimum scores required to pass it.  State exams have fewer sections than the federal test. They do not have a simultaneous interpretation dialogue, the simultaneous interpretation exercise is offered at a lower speed, the sight translation documents are not legal, but paralegal documents, and the subject matter of the exercises is based on topics that are under the jurisdiction of a state court.  The minimum score to pass a state certification exam is 70.  Some states allow that examinees retest only on those sections where they got a failing score.  The passing rate for the state court interpreter examination is far higher than the federal rate.  In fact, there are many state certified court interpreters who have repeatedly failed the written and oral federal certification examination.  As you can see, there is a significant difference between these certifications.  It is important to mention that for federal court purposes a state certified interpreter is a non-certified interpreter.

The federal court interpreter program exists because of a constitutional mandate. The VI Amendment of the United States Constitution states that: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to… be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him… and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense…”  (Amendment VI. 1791)

The Court Interpreter Act clearly states that: “…Only in a case in which no certified interpreter is reasonably available as provided in subsection (d) of this section, including a case in which certification of interpreters is not provided under paragraph (1) in a particular language, may the services of otherwise qualified interpreters be used…”  [28 USC § 1827(b)(2)]

Looking at the statute you can easily conclude that the courts are obligated to seek the services of federally certified interpreters.  There were certified interpreters ready and able to work in all the cases I have mentioned in this article.  It was the clerk or the judge who preferred to use the non-certified individuals.

Even smaller federal district courts now have access to federally certified court interpreters through the federal judiciary’s Telephone Interpreting Program (TIP)  The TIP, available nationwide, allows an interpreter at a remote location to deliver simultaneous interpretation of court proceedings for defendants and consecutive interpreting for the court record by means of a two-line telephone connection.  This program has been very successful and has kept the highest quality of interpretation in the courtroom.

It seems to me that after reading this posting, all federally certified court interpreters who are ignored or passed over by a courthouse, and later find out that a non-certified individual has been hired to “interpret,” should be able to explain the legal reasons not to do so.  Unfortunately, sometimes this may not be enough. All federal judicial districts are independent. They make their own decisions. All federal district court judges are appointed for life.    When an explanation is not enough to change a bad habit, there are other means to achieve the desired results.

When faced with the situation above, the interpreter should talk to the defense attorney and express his concerns about the defendant’s constitutional rights being violated. The V amendment indicates that: “No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…” (Amendment V. 1791) For a person to have due process there has to be legal representation. A defendant cannot participate in his defense unless he understands the charges against him and confronts his accusers. This is impossible if he cannot communicate with his attorney (See Amendment VI 1791 above)  It is important to make it clear to the defense attorney that because of this violation of the defendant’s constitutional right to a due process, there are grounds for a dismissal, or at the least for an appeal, even before the trial takes place.

As far as the non-certified individual who is working at the courthouse, even with the blessing of a judge, there are several things that can be done: When the individual states that he is certified, or when the judge states on the record that this person is certified and the “interpreter” does not correct the record, there can be consequences if this person has a state certification.  This should be brought to the attention of the state agency that oversees the performance of state certified interpreters. This lack of moral character could be grounds for a suspension or even a revocation of the state certification. Remember, state certified court interpreters are (state level) officers of the court.

There are also certain things to be done when the individual does not have a state certification. If at the beginning of the hearing, or at any time during the process, this person was placed under oath or affirmation and indicated that he was certified, or even if he remained silent when the judge or the clerk put him under oath as a certified interpreter, he may have committed perjury or at least misrepresentation and therefore he could be prosecuted for this crime.   This individual could also be subject to other sanctions depending on the state where the act was perpetrated.  Practicing a profession without a license or certification could be a misdemeanor in some states. The person may be subject to jail time or at the least to a fine.

Finally, the non-English speaker defendant or his dependants may be able to sue the “interpreter” for damages caused by him as an individual who provided a service without having the certification to do so, and perhaps committing fraud or inducing the error at the time of celebration of the professional services contract. If the non-English speaker thought that this individual was certified, there was no “meeting of the minds” and therefore the contract wasn’t valid; this means that he can sue the “interpreter” for damages and he may not have to pay him for what he did. This is a good remedy for those who appear in court pro-se.

There are many resources to right a wrong. The first step should be to try to educate the bench and bar. I encourage you to speak before the defense bar and the assistant U.S. attorneys. Make sure the court knows that all these resources exist; that they can use TIP.  Always remember: you need to make sure they are aware that you know what is required, and that they know that you are willing to campaign for the use of certified interpreters in your district.  Please share with the rest of us your experiences with non-certified interpreters and what you did to fix the situation in your federal district court.

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