Do we understand what a U.S. federal court interpreter certification really is?

March 12, 2018 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The irregularities on the administration of the United States federal court interpreter certification exam of 2017 prompted a debate among many colleagues, seasoned court interpreters, those who took the test and are still living in the uncertainty this first appearance by Paradigm unexpectedly brought to their lives, and everybody in between. There are many unanswered questions about the way testing was handled, and there will be plenty of them once the results are announced one day. It is unlikely that once the candidates who feel the “sui-generis” administration of the test significantly impacted their performance are told they failed the exam, they will just accept it and move on. Some colleagues in such situation may be lawyering up just in case. Even those who will be told they passed will face situations never faced by any other federally certified court interpreters before. Maybe the results of their exam will be questioned in some spheres. Sure, the federal judiciary will tell them that their certification is as valid as anybody else’s.

That will be true because the certification will be issued by the same Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and they will be retained to interpret in court just like everybody else. Unfortunately, assignments by others, such as law firms and their clients, could bring them some headaches. Everybody other than the federal judiciary is in the private free market where they can hire any interpreter they please. Some potential clients may show reservations, as unfair as it may look to many of us, about the reliability and skill of an interpreter certified on the year of the messy administration of the test.  There will be many potential clients who will not care, but sadly, some will, and a possibility is that some of those who will could be the biggest players, the ones who pay the higher fees and handle the high profile cases. This ugly situation, out of the interpreters’ hands, could punish excellent interpreters able to pass the exam, whose skills would never be questioned but for the careless administration of the exam. I hope this does not happen, but it could.

During this, the darkest hour of the federal court interpreter certification exam’s history, I noticed certain things that led me to believe that besides the exam, there are misconceptions about the U.S. federal court interpreter certification.

Setting the current situation aside, the federal court interpreter certification exam is a prestigious exam that measures, to a high degree of reliability, the knowledge and skill of a candidate by testing them on all modalities of court interpretation, criminal legal proceedings, specialized terminology, and language fluency. The exam shows if a candidate meets the minimum standards to provide interpreting services in federal court. Passing the exam is just the beginning, not the end. It does not take us to the finish line, it is just the first step on the track. It troubles me to read comments by colleagues who claim they have not picked a book since they took the test 5 months ago; it concerns me to see how some believe they already forgot so much they think they would fail the exam if they had to take it again.

I worry when I read we have colleagues waiting for the test results to decide where to move permanently to apply for a job in a federal courthouse.  I also hear how many candidates believe that, because there is a need for court interpreting services at the federal level, they will be getting tons of work as freelancers in the federal system.  First, there are few openings to work full time as a staff court interpreter; to get the job they would have to beat many other more experienced and better known applicants, plus government budgetary concerns which favor a hiring freeze.

They will get work at the federal courthouse, but not as much as they expect. They will soon realize there is a huge difference between the caseload of a federal and a state or county courthouse, next, they will learn that very few cases go to trial in the federal system, that many hearings requiring interpreting services are covered through TIP (Telephone Interpreting Program) with the interpreter working from a courthouse far away. The newly certified court interpreters will be exposed to the strict (compared to most states’) guidelines and policy requiring that the courthouse hire the services of all certified interpreters in the area in a fair and even manner. There is a rotation in several courthouses to meet this policy. Finally, they will come to understand that most assignments given by a courthouse are for half days.

I also get the feeling that some candidates, and even some certified court interpreters, believe the federal court interpreter certification is the panacea. They assume that their certification will get them conference work, electronic media interpreting assignments, and so on. This is false.

A United States federal court interpreter certification in Spanish is proof that the interpreter passed the toughest court interpreter exam in the United States, that she or he has demonstrated to have the minimum qualifications to work in the federal criminal court system, those with the certification can be responsible professionals and reliable individuals who value professional self-improvement to the point they put themselves through the arduous certification process.  That’s it.

It does not mean that the certified interpreter has the knowledge and skill to interpret a criminal trial; that is acquired through practice, experience, and constant study. It does not even mean that the interpreter has the minimum skills and knowledge to interpret a civil proceeding. The exam tests no knowledge of Civil Law.

As cherished as a U.S. federal court interpreter certification is, it means little in the world of conference interpreting, or in any other interpreting field. There are excellent conference interpreters who started (and continue to work) in the courts, but their success outside the court setting does not come from the court interpreter certification, it comes from their individual effort and determination to study and prepare as conference interpreters, understanding that the two disciplines are different. I get scared when an agency offers me a conference assignment and tells me they only hire conference interpreters who are federally certified court interpreters. This tells me they are an agency that provides community interpreting services (including legal and healthcare) and that the assignment offered is probably not very good. I have never known of any reputable agency that works with conference interpreters say such a thing. It is the same for healthcare interpreting, that is why there is a different certification to work in hospitals and physicians’ offices.

I sincerely encourage all those waiting for the conclusion of this 2017 federal court interpreter certification exam soap opera, to look closely at their expectations as interpreters certified to work in federal court, and once they understand what they got, and what they did not, to study, practice, and plan their work as a professional interpreter with an eye on the future and both feet on reality, and make the choices right for each one in order to succeed not only as federally certified, but as professional interpreters. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this subject.

This time of the year could be very dangerous for some court interpreters.

April 27, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I just read a contract that one of the States in the U.S. is asking all court interpreters to sign if they want to continue to work in their system. The document is 38 pages long and it is full of legal terminology, rules, and sanctions that only an attorney can understand.  This is not an isolated case. Because of political pressure and budgetary prioritization, court interpreter programs are getting less money from their administrative offices at the state level. In other words: There is hardly any money to pay for interpreting services at the state level in many states.

Although the Civil Rights Act is over fifty years old, it was only a few years ago that the federal government decided to enforce its compliance at the state level in the case of equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language spoken by the user of the service.  When the federal government came knocking on the door of each of the fifty states, and told their state judiciary to comply with the law or lose the funds they had been getting from the feds, states started to look for a solution to this problem. In reality, up to that moment, the states were complying with the constitutional requirement to provide court interpreters in criminal cases, but in many states there were no court-funded court interpreters available for civil cases and other additional services offered by the courts to the English-speaking population.  The message from Washington, D.C. was loud and clear: In order to continue to receive (much needed) federal funds, the states had to provide interpreters for all services they offered, not just criminal cases.

In some parts of the country the first problem was as simple as this: There were not enough certified court interpreters to meet the legal requirements; in other regions the problem was slightly different: There were plenty of certified interpreters, but the courts were not willing to pay the professional fees commanded by these (for the most part) top-notch interpreters in that state.  These professionals had been there for years, but due to the low fees paid by the state court system, they were not even considering the state judiciary as a prospective client.

When faced with this dilemma, a logical and ethical option should have been to develop a program to encourage more young people to become certified court interpreters, train them, and then test them to see if they could meet the state-level certification requirements, set years before and universally accepted as the minimum requirements to do a decent court interpreting job.  Some states’ needs could be met this way, but not all of them. For that reason, a second logical step would have been to raise the professional fees paid to court interpreters in order to entice those top-notch interpreters, who were not working for the courts, by making the assignment profitable and attractive. Finally, for those places where this was not enough, state courts could have used modern technology and provide interpreting services by video or teleconference. Administrative offices had to develop a plan, categorize the services offered and decide which ones required of an experienced certified court interpreter, find the ones that a brand new certified court interpreter could provide, and select those instances that, because of their nature and relevance, could be covered remotely by a certified court interpreter elsewhere in the state or even somewhere else.  This process also needed that state court judges and officials acted within the constitutional system and asked their respective legislatures for the funds to comply with the federal mandate.  It is doubtful that legislatures would risk losing federal funds by not approving such monies; and in those cases where the local legislators would not grant more funds, state court administrators and chief judges needed to do their job, and truly provide equal access to justice to all by reorganizing priorities, and perhaps sacrificing some programs, even those that were near and dear to a judge’s heart, in order to find the funds needed to meet this priority that is above most others, not just because of the federal funds that the state would lose in the event of non-compliance, but because those in charge of the judiciary should consider equal access to justice a top priority, and I really mean at the very top.

Unfortunately, my dear friends and colleagues, most states chose an easier way, even though it did not deliver what the Civil Rights Act intended.  They decided not to rock the boat with the legislature and play it safe, they decided not to make true equal access to justice a priority by recruiting and training quality certified court interpreters, instead, they opted for ignoring the excellent professionals in their area by not raising interpreter fees, thus making the assignments profitable to professional interpreters. They decided to come up with a “plan” to keep the federal money in their accounts by making believe that they were complying with the federal mandate of equal access to justice. This is what many of the states decided to do:

Instead of recruiting and training new certified court interpreters, they decided to create a group of paraprofessionals who would “deliver” interpreting services. These individuals were drafted from the ranks of those who had always failed the certification exams, and by recruiting bilingual individuals with no interpreting knowledge whatsoever. States justified their decision by arguing that these individuals would receive the necessary “training” to interpret in certain scenarios of lesser importance, where people who had partially passed the certification test would be considered as professionally qualified (semantics vary from state to state but it is basically the same) even though in the real world they should be deemed as unfit to do the job. Moreover, bilinguals would be trained to “assist” non-English speakers with some administrative matters in the courthouse. Of course, this brilliant decision would set the profession back to the good old days when prevailing judicial culture was that knowing two languages was all you needed to interpret in court; but that was of little importance when balanced against the possibility of cancelling a court program that was politically useful to a judge or an administrator.  This is how the “warm body next to the court services user so we don’t lose federal funds” theory was born.  The spirit of the law was ignored.

There is as much quality and true access to the administration of justice when a person who failed the court interpreter certification test, or a bilingual court staffer, interprets for a non-English speaker individual as there is medical knowledge when the guy who failed the medical board sees a hospital patient, even if the appointment is to take care of an ingrowing toenail.

Of course, the process above taught court administrators a valuable lesson: court interpreting services was a good place to save money, a wonderful way to channel budget resources somewhere else, and a great way to avoid antagonizing the state legislature, because there would be no need to ask for more money to fund the program.  This was the origin of the next step backwards: Fee reduction.

Court administrators did not stop here. They now knew that they could get away with more, so they decided to lower interpreter fees. In most cases the reduction did not come as a lowering of the fee itself; it was accomplished by cutting guaranteed hours, reducing mileage and travel reimbursement, changing cancellation policy, and by creating a new bureaucratic machinery designed to oversee what interpreters do minute-by-minute. Maybe it should be referred to as “to spy” instead of to “oversee”.

Fast forward to today, and you will find these huge interpreting services contracts in many states. The reason for them is not that court interpreters all of a sudden went bad and stopped doing the good work that they did for decades; these contracts are motivated by more reductions to the interpreters’ fees and by developing this super-protection for the state, leaving the freelancer with little or no defense before potential abuse by the court administrators.  What other justification can these state contracts have when the federal court interpreter contract is a very short agreement, which usually does not change from one fiscal year to the next, and is drafted and developed individually by every federal judicial district?

These state contracts that court interpreters are expected to sign without the slightest objection, have been drafted by the administrative office of the courts’ legal departments; they have been amended to include any possible ways to reduce the interpreters’ real fee that the states missed when drafting last year’s contract, they include sanctions to interpreters who do not comply with sometimes ridiculous duties, without setting any process of notice and hearing; they are written in a complex style full of legal terms and ambiguity that only an attorney can understand.

I am very fortunate that I do not need to sign one of these contracts, as state courts have not been my clients for several years; but it concerns me, as a defender of our profession, that my colleagues may sign these documents out of fear or hopelessness.  I invite all those court interpreters who have been, or will be asked to sign one of these agreements in the next few months, before the new fiscal year starts in July, to seek legal representation. It is your professional career, it is your future. I believe that state (and national) level professional associations should negotiate a deal with a labor relations or civil law attorney, where services would be provided at a lower fee, and offer it as a benefit to their members. In fact, I would like to see all interpreters who are members of a state or regional professional association present a common front and negotiate these contracts with the state administrator.  As state court interpreters we need protection, because if we do not act, we will continue to move backwards. They already told many of us that there is no money and they blamed it on the state legislature, now we know that perhaps they did not try to protect the interpreter program no matter what.

They are paying you less, making your work conditions very uncomfortable, they already took some of our work away and gave it to mediocre cheaper paraprofessionals.  All professionals negotiate the terms of a contract, and before they reach an agreement, they have the benefit of legal representation. The administrative office of the courts is represented by their attorneys; interpreters, like all professionals, should at least be represented by an attorney before they sign a new agreement. I now ask you to comment on this situation and the ways to recover what we had already achieved in the past, so we can move forward, and for the first time fully comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Interpreting at the Immigration Court: Is it really headed for disaster?

February 4, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last year a colleague contacted me asking for advice.  She works as an independent contractor interpreter with the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) in the United States. This government agency is better known as the immigration court.  Before I get into the subject matter of this article, let me say a few things that we need to consider as the background of the situation I will describe on the next paragraph: (1) The immigration court is an administrative court. It is not part of the federal judiciary like district court or the court of appeals. It has no link to the U.S. Supreme Court. Its link is to the President of the United States through the Department of Justice. Its judges are administrative law judges appointed by the executive branch. They do not have life tenure nor need to be approved by the Senate as judicial branch judges do. (2) Immigration courts do not hear criminal cases. All cases are civil. Any criminal violation of the immigration laws (illegal reentry, alien smuggling, etc.) are heard by federal district court judges, not immigration judges. (3) There is no constitutional right to an attorney in immigration proceedings because immigration violations are not criminal in nature. For this reason the person accused of the violation is called the respondent and not the defendant. (4) All interpretation services in immigration court are provided by in-house staff interpreters who work for the EOIR, or by an interpretation agency that has a nationwide exclusive contract with the EOIR. This agency’s schedulers assign cases to the independent contractors on their lists, the independent interpreters submit their invoices to this agency, and the agency pays them, not the EOIR. (5) I know many interpreters and agency schedulers who work and have worked in immigration court.  Some of these interpreters, staff, agency supervisors are my friends, and every now and then I have interpreted in immigration court in many parts of the United States as an independent contractor.

It turns out that according to my colleague, by October 1 of last year, the beginning of the federal fiscal year, all immigration proceedings were supposed to be interpreted simultaneously using interpretation equipment. Until now most immigration hearings have been interpreted consecutively without equipment, and the interpretation has been done selectively, meaning that not everything has been interpreted to the respondent. Basically, the only parts of the hearing that are interpreted to the respondent are those when the judge and attorneys address him directly.  I know that by now you are thinking that simultaneous interpretation of the full proceeding is how court interpretation is done every day not just at the federal level, but at the state and local level as well. So, what is the big deal? The difference is that in immigration court, until now, they have been hiring many people who have never interpreted simultaneously.  Moreover, my colleague told me that this simultaneous interpretation was going to be conducted by a single interpreter regardless of the duration of the hearing. No team interpreting under any circumstances.  She also told me that they had contacted the agency but nothing good had come from that communication, except that they were told that they could learn simultaneous interpretation from an on-line tutorial the agency had posted on its “contractors-only” website and that if they ever needed a break they could ask the judge for a recess.  Once she explained their predicament, I thought of a possible solution to the problem.

I must say that between the time I spoke with my colleague and now, and (I believe) mainly because of the pressure applied by most reputable interpreter organizations in the United States, lead by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) The EOIR and the translation agency that hires the independent contractor interpreters have decided not to implement simultaneous interpretation at this time.

I have nothing against the agency that has the contract to provide interpretation services for the EOIR. In fact, I respect what they do: As a business, they are doing exactly what they have to do to profit for their shareholders while at the same time fulfilling the terms of their contract. Also, like I said, I know many interpreters who work in immigration court and some of them are good interpreters, and many more are dedicated and hard-working people; However, the reality is that when many interpreters think of immigration court the first thing that comes to mind is that it is in the hands of an agency that pays very little, demands minimum quality from its interpreters, takes a long time to pay, cancels assignments, and hires many of those interpreters who were not able to work anywhere else.

I have worked in immigration court in different parts of the country and unfortunately, in some ways, this idea is not far from the truth. The agency got this contract, by far the largest interpretation contract with the federal government, bidding a low-cost interpretation service and guaranteeing coverage in all required languages, even the most exotic ones. To fulfill this obligation they developed a program that encompasses a very good business model where they recruit people locally, subject them to a very basic interpretation test, run a security and work-eligibility background check, and provide some entry-level materials on-line. They also hire hard-working administrative staff that rounds up the interpreters at the local level as they are needed and schedules them. The agency has a group of independent contractors, most of them drawn from the same interpreter recruitment system, who have separated themselves from the rest and, after a basic training by the agency, have been willing to become quality-control supervisors of their peers at the local level. Finally, the program includes an interpreter payment system that is lower and less flexible than everything else in the market: No cancelation fees, no parking reimbursement, for many interpreters there is no minimum or a negligible minimum guarantee, a punch-clock system to pay the interpreter, penalties for not having the payment form stamped at the time required (even if the interpreter was already in the facility) and others.  Of course, the EOIR loved the system as a warm body is always standing next to the respondent, the contractor interpreter conveys the basic information to the alien, and the budgetary cost is very low (although I could not find out how much the EOIR pays the agency for each case interpreted.)

It is very difficult to hire so many interpreters, particularly in some of the less common languages. It would definitely be very expensive for the EOIR to attempt to hire all of these interpreters at the local level using a staff interpreter or a clerk. It would also be extremely hard to provide interpretation services at a minimum quality level in some of these languages or areas of the United States.  Maybe the agency system is not the only solution but it is the best. To raise the quality of the interpretation the agency must get these interpreters to do simultaneous interpretation and has to provide the service with two interpreters working together even if it is very hard to find two interpreters to work as a team, particularly in some languages.

As I was arriving to these conclusions it hit me: The federal court system (USAOC) is fulfilling the same needs with higher quality interpretation services, it is doing it at the local level, and it is doing it without an agency as an intermediary. This means that it can be done in immigration court! Then I thought, the federal court system requires of many interpreters every day, but not as many as immigration court where practically all cases require an interpreter. How would the small town get their interpreters for those respondents who speak less common languages? The answer came to me: There are NO immigration courts in any small towns in America. They are all in the largest urban areas and the border towns. It would not be difficult to get interpreters after all. I believe that immigration courts should follow the same procedure as the federal judiciary (and for that matter almost all of the state and local court systems in the country) For the most common languages where there are plenty of interpreters, they should implement and enforce a certification system like the federal court interpreter certification examination where the potential interpreter has to take and pass a very difficult exam before he or she can work in court.  For the other languages they could follow the same criteria used by the federal judiciary to determine who is qualified to work and who is not.  By simply implementing this change, if they pay the same as the judiciary using a half a day and full day fee system, the EOIR would have all federally certified and qualified court interpreters ready to work at a level never seen before in these courts before. This would also include the team interpreting system widely known, accepted, and used at the federal level.  Those presently working through the agency would need to get certified or qualified (depending on the language pair) which means that the good ones would have a higher income and by becoming certified or qualified interpreters, they would also have access to other markets such as the federal and state court systems. Other than waiting for the contract with the interpretation agency to expire, or finding a cost-effective way for an early termination, I see no reason to continue with the intermediary system anymore, unless the agency renegotiates its contract with the EOIR and changes its protocol demanding interpreters meet the same minimum requirements needed to work in the federal court system and pays accordingly. This would probably satisfy everybody without having to get rid of any of the current players.

In the meantime, I suggest these dedicated and hard-working individuals who are presently working in immigration court, and are not certified, start working on improving their skills, getting certified, and while the problem is permanently solved, I invite them to talk directly to the EOIR, and if necessary, to take their case to the media before they have a situation similar to what happened in Great Britain when another agency took over the interpreting services. I also suggest that until the team interpreter standard is adopted, they should take as many breaks as needed when working a long hearing alone, explaining to the judge that they are requesting the break because that type of hearing should be interpreted as a team. If you work as an immigration court interpreter, carry NAJIT position papers with you and give them to judges and attorneys, become members of NAJIT, ATA, and other local professional organizations, go to the annual conferences and present your case to the rest of the interpreter community, the agency does it all the time by getting their staff to present at these conferences. By doing so, you will begin to change the interpreters’ community perception that almost nobody wants to work where you are working. I invite the rest of you to brainstorm, and avoiding postings that contain nothing but complaints, to write down your suggestions so that our immigration interpreter friends and colleagues get what they need and deserve.

Update: on February 11, 2013 EOIR Chief Judge Brian M. O’Leary issued a memo ordering the implementation of simultaneous complete interpretation of all court proceedings without team interpreting. This order will be effective on May 1, 2013.

True story: Authorities of a state that does not offer court interpreter certification wanted proof that the interpreter was certified by the state.

August 22, 2012 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

This is a true story. It just happened to me a few months ago.  One day I was interpreting at the Federal District Courthouse in Chicago when a private attorney approached me and asked me if I would go to the county jail with him to see a client. Although I had never been to Cook County jail, I said yes as this attorney works in Federal Court all the time.  We set a date and time for the visit, he gave me the address to the jail, I googled the directions, and off I went to my assignment.  After this public transportation city interpreter looked for a place to park for quite some time and finally found one, I met the attorney outside the facility. We entered the jail just to find out that our client was housed in another division that was about four city-blocks away. We took advantage of the long walk to catch up on the case, and to get work for the shoe-shine man as our shoes got really dirty from walking on these dirt roads.

We finally arrived at the right building, we were frisked, and then we were told that I could not enter the meeting room because I had not been authorized by the court to be there. The custody officers told the attorney (my client) that unless we had a letter from the judge or from the Department of Corrections Legal Department authorizing my presence in the jail, we could not do the interview. Of course, by now the defendant had been brought downstairs and she was witnessing everything from the other side of the glass, not knowing what the delay was for.  The jail authorities explained to us that only certified interpreters were allowed inside the facility.  The attorney told them that I was certified by the United States Administrative Office of the Courts, but their response was that they needed to see proof that I was certified by the State of Illinois. I explained to them that Illinois is one of the few states that do not have a certification program; I mentioned how the Illinois State Courts work with non-certified interpreters every day, and how I worked within the federal court system where they have a certification policy in place.  I even explained to them that I am certified by two states that are members of the consortium of states that offer court interpreter certification.  It did not matter at all. They needed proof that I was certified by the State of Illinois.

Once we realized that we were in an impossible situation, and after the officers did not allowed us to use the phone to call the jail legal department to explain our case, we turned around and left.  Of course, I still got paid by the attorney. Of course, the attorney billed the client for the time he spent there; but as I was leaving the facility I could not keep myself from laughing. At the end of the day the jail officers were right, at least partially, there should only be certified interpreters working that jail. The problem is that the State does not have a certification program, and nobody has told these officers that to ask for an Illinois Court Interpreter Certification is as useless as to ask for the interpreter’s death certificate before he can enter the jail.  I decided to post this experience in the blog because it seems so unreal.  I would love to read your comments about this very unique experience.

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