Attention interpreters: Butcher or Surgeon?

October 5, 2015 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

For many years I have devoted a considerable part of my time and efforts to promote, develop, and defend the professionalization of our interpreting services. There have been many times when I have been left with no other choice but to fight against the usual forces that tend to diminish, manipulate, and erode our profession:  Greedy agencies who want to hire anybody, regardless of skill, knowledge or qualification, if this move will translate into a greater profit; Ignorant clients who cannot see the difference between speaking a foreign language, and actually interpreting to and from it; Self-serving bureaucrats who care about nothing other than their petty jobs and the opinion of their superiors within their sad organization; and mediocre “wanna-be” interpreters who constantly try to lower standards and expectations in order to fit in the ocean of cynicism and falsehood where they swim portraying themselves as professional and apt individuals, disregarding the nefarious consequences that their devastating services will undoubtedly cause those for whom they “interpret”.

Interpreting is the oldest bilingual profession on earth, but its modern version is relatively new all over the world. Because of historical and empirical reasons, some fields of interpretation have developed faster than others, and for the same reasons they are better regulated, known, and respected by both individuals in the field of communication, and the population at large.  In some parts of the world interpreting services have been part of the legal process for centuries, and due to current tendencies, globalization and commercial relations among all nations, their services are among the better-known and more strictly regulated interpreting services.

In the United States, Europe, and many Latin American countries, oral adversarial legal proceedings and intense trade have produced the certified, licensed, qualified interpreter who has passed through some knowledge and skill assessment process, and complied with legal, ethical, and professional requirements. Many of them have the benefit of a formal professional education as interpreters, attorneys, or other law-related fields which allow them to learn and understand highly sophisticated concepts and the complexity of the legal process.  Because of the subject matter they have to work with, the magnitude of the consequences of those acts and proceedings they participate in as interpreters, and the legally established and sanctioned certification process to be able to work, these individuals are considered by the legislation not only professional service providers, but professionals of a specialized discipline: These interpreters practice legal interpreting.

It is important to keep in mind that not all legislation and systems are at the same developmental level, and even the most evolved ones are far from satisfactory; they do not cover all scenarios or proceedings yet, but they constitute a series of steps in the right direction, and reflect the efforts of hundreds of interpreters, legal experts, administrators, activists, and others who have fought very hard to get to the place where we find ourselves now.

In the United States, interpreting services in a legal proceeding are constitutionally required in all criminal cases, and thanks to the Civil Rights Act, they are mandated in all other proceedings where the federal government is financially involved. There are currently several states that have also incorporated this essential service into their own legislation.

The nature of the services rendered by the interpreter in a legal context are professional as they are linked to the practice of the law by attorneys, judges and other officers of the court. Attorneys cannot practice law without a license, patent, or certification that allows them to present themselves as lawyers, and provide legal services such as advice and representation to their clients.  Judges have to meet many requirements to be able to do their jobs as well.  There is no doubt that it is for this reason that legal interpreters are required to be certified. Just as the attorneys, in the United States an interpreter can be certified at the state or at the federal level.

Attorneys, judges, and their interpreters deal with matters that can impact the life, freedom, pocket, or reputation of an individual. This makes them a very special group: They are subject to rules and canons no other professionals have to observe. It is so important, that nobody can practice law without first been admitted to the bar, (http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/cpr/model-def/model_def_statutes.authcheckdam.pdf) and those who violate the law are subject to penalties that can go from a fine to the loss of freedom. It is a crime to practice law without a license (http://apps.americanbar.org/publicserv/immigration/notario/california.pdf). In the United States, with some exceptions that we are working to eliminate, court interpreters must have a certification or license to be able to provide their services in court when interpreting to or from a language that is part of that state’s certification program. Dear colleagues, this is extremely important, because it is an essential step in our road to full professionalization and recognition of the profession.

Court interpreter certification programs and legislation have a long, long way to go, but so far we have been moving in the right direction.

As an attorney, when I used to practice law, there were few things that bothered me more than to find out that a non-lawyer was practicing without a license and hurting people.  These individuals exist. They are out there, preying on the most vulnerable communities, among them, those who cannot speak the language of the country where they live. There have been many cases of “notarios” busted for practicing immigration law without a law license.  I applaud the efforts of the attorney bars and government agencies who are constantly looking for these predators.

I have not practiced law for a long time, and during all these years I have felt the same way every time I see someone who is not certified to interpret in a legal setting. Unfortunately, the response from professional associations and government authorities has not always been the same as in the case of “wanna-be attorneys”, but there has been progress.

That is why it really bothers me that some are trying to undermine this quest towards professionalization by diminishing the importance of the practice of legal interpreting and by proposing solutions that do not match the legal system philosophy nor satisfy the needs of the parties involved in a legal dispute.   Individuals moved by greed, ambition, or perhaps mere lack of knowledge of the practice of the law have suggested, and are trying to implement, the notion that “not all legal interpreting requires of a certified court interpreter”.  They have erroneously concluded that Article 1 courts do not need of the services of a certified court interpreter, and that many legal acts that involve attorneys and legal advice should be left to community interpreters who will have a different set of skills and a lack of knowledge of substantive and adjective law, including the rules of evidence.  In other words: instead of joining in our struggle to achieve excellency in all fields of legal interpreting by preparing, training, and certifying as many court interpreters as necessary, they have decided to set back our fight for professionalization by arguing that less-prepared interpreters will meet the requirements to practice in legal settings that are outside Article 3 courthouses.  They are playing a very dangerous game. Let me explain:

Currently in the United States only court proceedings before an Article 3 court are required to use the services of a certified court interpreter (if certification into that language is available) Article 3 courts are those that are part of the judicial branch or a government (federal or state). Unfortunately, as of today, Article 1 court proceedings do not require the services of a certified court interpreter (if certification into that language is available) at the federal level and in many states. Article 1 courts are those that are created not by the federal or state constitution, but by congress or a state legislature and are part of the executive branch of government (usually with a degree of independence). They are commonly known as “Administrative Courts”.  Some examples would include, at the federal level, Social Security Hearings and Immigration Courts (EOIR) and at the state level, the most common administrative courts are Worker’s Compensation Courts.  Articles 1 and 3 refer to the articles of the U.S. constitution.

Those in favor of de-professionalization of court interpreting by lowering the requirements needed to work in a legal setting argue that certification only exists for “court interpreting” and not for “legal interpreting” and that administrative courts are less formal than Article 3 courts. For this reason, certified court interpreters should not be necessary.  They also argue that many of the services provided by an attorney are more “community interpreter-related”, making community interpreters better equipped to assist the attorney’s client, as they are more apt to provide feedback to the attorney about cultural nuances than a court interpreter who is very rigid and strict due to the formal court setting training they receive. This is scary and far from the truth.

The first argument that administrative hearings are less formal than a hearing before an Article 3 judge are nonsense. It is true that the proceedings are more relaxed and not as rigorous in an administrative courtroom, but the rules of proceeding and evidence still apply. Attorneys and judges still argue the law, and legal theories are presented with pro and con arguments by the litigants.  Because of the complexity of all of this, and because of the importance of what is being decided, all those lawyers appearing before an administrative judge have to be admitted to practice law in the jurisdiction where they are providing their services.  A law student who does not pass the state bar is as barred from practicing law in an administrative court as he or she is in any court of the judicial branch of the government.  Administrative judges are also attorneys and receive special training to be judges.  Both, attorneys and judges are professionals; we are professionals too. Only certified court interpreters should be allowed to practice in administrative hearings. The complexity and sophistication of the issues before the court require of a professional specifically trained in the legal field to interpret. Nothing less in acceptable. How can somebody interpret something he or she does not understand?

The second most common argument is that current legislation does not require of a certified court interpreter for those legal services that happen outside the courthouse.  It is true that the current law is not clear in this regard, but that does not eliminate the need for a competent specialist who is familiar with the law and procedure.  The law clearly states that all services performed by an attorney that involve legal advice or practice must be provided by an individual authorized to practice law in the given jurisdiction.  Why is the law requiring a licensed attorney to discuss the case with a client, prepare a witness, or conduct a deposition? Because of the highly sophisticated concepts and terminology that will be used during the meeting. Only a certified court interpreter who knows and understands these topics can successfully and safely assist the attorney during these activities. Performing any of the above or similar acts by an individual not admitted to practice law in the jurisdiction is considered unauthorized practice of the law, and that is a crime. For the same reasons, a certified court interpreter should be used at all times.  To the argument that certified court interpreters are not prepared to be cultural brokers or advisors to the attorney in these settings because their training has been too formal and strict, all I can say is that, without putting anybody down, it is very likely that the certified court interpreter will do a better job at bridging this gap between the attorney and his client (not the interpreter’s) because they are usually more experienced and better interpreters than most community interpreters. Moreover, they will also detect cultural hurdles in the legal context that a community interpreter will not be able to notice because of his or her lack of legal knowledge and experience.  To affirm that certified court interpreters will not know how to act and assist the attorney they are working for is plain ignorance. Certified court interpreters know the difference between working as interpreters for the courts where they have to be impartial, and working for an attorney or law office where they are part of the defense, prosecutorial, or plaintiff’s team.  Add to that the fact that they will know the reach and exceptions to the client-attorney privilege in these settings, and the community interpreter will not, or at least will not understand well enough, even if they were just enounced during his training.

There are other paralegal situations and scenarios where a community interpreter can be used without jeopardizing a legal case.  Communications about logistics, social worker appointments, payment plans with the law office, and many others. The golden rule is that when the attorney’s professional service involves a court appearance (any court) an act with potential evidentiary effects (such as a police interview, a law office interview or preparation of a witness) or any occasion where the attorney will provide legal advice or practice law (such as a legal opinion in person or over the phone, or filling up a legal form) the attorney should always be assisted by a certified court interpreter (qualified or licensed depending on applicable legislation) The potential consequences and legal liability of ignoring this rule are enormous as they could impact the life, freedom, assets, or reputation of an individual or a company. When people retain an attorney they expect to see an attorney, they also expect to find a certified court interpreter by his or her side. When you are going to have an operation you want to see a surgeon, not a butcher.

Finally, the argument that the certification is only for “court” interpreting and not for “legal” interpreting, very popular among those who want to de-professionalize court interpreting, can easily be dealt with by remembering that our profession is a work in progress. There is much that we have accomplished in the legal interpreting arena, but there is more to be achieved, among other things, the expansion of certification programs to include testing of civil and administrative procedure. But even without these changes, certified court interpreters are constantly learning and training in all these fields through the continuing education requirements that are in place at the state level, and because of the professional market needs.  Attorneys do not graduate from law school knowing all fields of practice, they graduate knowing where to find what they need so they can learn and understand it applying the legal thinking process they learned in school. It is the same thing with certified court interpreters. As far as the words “court” and “legal” it is probably a better choice to refer to these professionals as certified legal interpreters, but that is just semantics.

Dear friends and colleagues, there is a long way to go, but much has been accomplished in the legal interpreting field. Our efforts should focus on elevating the quality of the profession, not diminishing it. There will always be those who oppose our professionalization, but let them be from outside the profession, not from within. We have to work together to increase the number of interpreters with academic background until it becomes the rule and not the exception; we should continue to encourage other professionals like lawyers, physicians, scientists, and others to join our profession when apt and qualified; we need to strengthen the quality of the certification programs, ideally taking them away from the government just like the attorneys’ bars; and we must demand more and better continuing education programs.

This is the only way to professionalization, full recognition and respect that will ultimately translate into a higher quality service for those in the justice system, and will produce a better income for our colleagues. I ask you to oppose the lowering of the standards and the de-professionalization of court interpreting by sharing this information with your colleagues, attorneys, attorney bars, judges, community activists, and anyone else who may help us defend our profession. I also think that professional associations such as the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) in the United States should prepare a position paper in this very important issue. Professional associations are there to protect their members and the profession. I now ask you to share your comments and opinions regarding this crucial issue that threatens our profession at this time.

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.

“Get an interpreter for that hearing, and try to spend as little as possible”.

March 13, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every time I read an article about court interpreting, look at your social media posts, or have a face to face conversation with a court interpreter, I cannot help but notice how the working conditions constantly deteriorate. For some time we have witnessed how the court interpreting system of the United Kingdom was completely destroyed and our colleagues had to courageously fight back so the rest of the world knew what had happened in their country. Time continues to run, and nothing has been done to improve that system now run by an entity whose greatest achievement was to sink the quality of interpreting services to an unimaginable low. We have witnessed the difficult times that our colleagues who want to do court interpreting face in Spain. We have heard many stories of court interpreters around the world having to fight for a professional fee, a professional work environment, and respect to the profession.

The situation in the United States is also very sad. It is true that the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act has left little choice to the states. Now, state-level courts that want to continue to receive federal funds must provide interpreting services to all non-English speakers who need to have access to the justice system. The new demand for court interpreters beyond criminal cases has “inspired” many court administrators and chief judges to act in new and more creative ways to satisfy the requirement of having an interpreter next to the non-English speaker, even when the quality of this professional service is at best doubtful. To this day, there are jurisdictions where the question is: Does a warm body fulfill the legal requirement of providing interpreter services? Sadly, in some cases the answer seems to be “maybe”.

But the state courts want to comply with the federal mandate, and it seems that some of them will stop at nothing in order to achieve their goal. A popular formula was born: “Get an interpreter for that hearing and try to spend as little as possible”. The origin of this strategy is not clear, but it is obvious that this solution was not conceived by an interpreter. This is not even the brainchild of an administrator who at least has a basic knowledge of the interpreting profession; moreover, this doctrine has been embraced by some federal level courts as well. Let me explain.

Some court administrators have implemented a fee reduction. Today, some interpreters get paid less for their travel time to and from the place where they will render professional services; they get a lower fee, less compensation per traveled mile (kilometer elsewhere in the world) no reimbursement for tolls and bridges, and other very crafty ways that some courts have devised to pay less for interpreting services.

Other courts have increased the level of “scrutiny” and now watch over the court interpreters’ shoulder while they are doing their job; not the way a client observes the work of a doctor, a lawyer, or any professional individual, but the way a person watches over the performance of the guys who dry your car when you take it to the car wash. Many times this breathing on your neck type of scrutiny is enforced by adding paperwork and bureaucratic requirements to the fee payment process. To the interpreters, this means more time spent in the payment process, while making the same money than before the new requirements were in place. They are effectively making less money than before.

Of course there are also courts that now pay a lower fee during the contracted time if the interpreter’s lips are not moving: They pay a partial fee for the break time and travel time, even though the interpreters, who sell their time, have allocated those hours, or minutes, to that court as a client. Now some courts are tossing high fives at each other because they paid the interpreter a full fee for 45 minutes of work and a reduced fee for the 15 minutes in between cases when the interpreter did not interpret because the judge had to go to the bathroom.

And there is more: some jurisdictions have removed themselves from the payment process in those cases when, due to a possible conflict of interest, the court assigns a particular case to a private independent defense attorney, who is a member of a panel of lawyers, who can be appointed to these cases in exchange for a fee that is paid by the judiciary. This jurisdictions do not accept the interpreters’ invoices anymore; they now require the panel attorney to process the interpreter’s invoice and payment, generating two very sad effects: (1) Sometimes, the interpreter will have to wait a long time to get paid because their payment processing is not a top priority to the lawyer, and (2) It will help to keep alive the idea that interpreters are second-class officers of the court who do not deserve the court’s trust, because it is clear that these jurisdictions opted for a system where the attorney will need to access the court’s computer system to process interpreters’ payments, which is “preferable” over a system where interpreters would have to be granted that same access to the system. Why? Because it is too much of a risk to take? You can arrive to your own conclusions, but the fact is that this policy is very demeaning.

My friends, when you see and hear about all these policy changes you have to wonder: As these new strategies were discussed and adopted, where were the court staff interpreters, and the judges, and the administrators who know what interpreting is about? And once they were implemented, why did the freelancers continue to work under these terrible conditions? I now invite you to comment on this policy changes, other rules you may have noticed somewhere else, and the reason why these changes are being implemented with so little opposition.

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.

Remote conference interpreting: The interpreter’s new best friend?

April 23, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I constantly read about all the changes that modernity is bringing to our profession. I read of the new technological developments and I hear the voices of anger and fear from many in our profession. I must tell you that I fully accept and embrace these changes because they make our work easier and better: Who wants to go back to the days before computers and on-line resources when we had to drag along a library to the job? Is there an individual who longs for the days of endless consecutive interpretation before simultaneous interpretation equipment was introduced and developed for the Nuremberg Trials and the United Nations?  We need to keep in mind that as interpreters we work with languages, and as all linguists know, a language doesn’t stand still. Language constantly evolves; it reflects our ever-changing human society. It is not like we didn’t know that languages change when we first decided to enter this career.  I think that those who complain that there is too much new technology in the world of interpretation, and the interpreters who get angry when a new scientific term is created or the legal terminology of a country changes, should pause and think that it is not only their professional world that is being altered; they should think of all the engineers who gladly embrace new technology for our collective benefit, all the physicians who hurry to learn about the new discoveries published on the most recent science publication, all the attorneys who hit the books to learn the newly enacted legal reforms.  I am glad that medical doctors don’t get mad when a new vaccine is announced. I am thankful that they embrace change and learn for the benefit of society.  Dear colleagues, our profession is no different, we should face technological changes with the same attitude all other professionals do.  And by the way, it is also the right business decision as modernization will not stop, it will not slow down, but it will surely leave us behind if we don’t adjust and embrace it.

Just like many of you, I have been doing more remote interpreting than ever before.  At the beginning of my career I had my share of telephonic interpretation for the big agencies as many others did. After I developed my own clientele and as I became better-known I didn’t do much of this work for many years. There were a few exceptions and now and then I did the occasional business negotiation with a foreign counterpart that was done over a speaker phone, the court arraignments by video that some State Courts in the U.S. have been doing for about a decade, and the depositions by video with an attorney asking questions from a different location.  Then we get the economic crisis and the need to rethink procedures to save money during difficult times. This is when a few years ago the immigration courts began to hold master hearings by video from the detention centers, and the federal court system decided to implement the Telephone Interpreting Program (TIP) now widely used to cover most of the outline areas of the United States.

Of course, I have done all of the above assignments and I am familiar with the technology employed, but we were still talking about events where the job was to interpret for one person, usually for a short period of time, generally in regard to a single topic well-known by the interpreter, and with the parties sitting down around a speaker phone or in front of a PC-type video camera.  It was when I started to get requests to do conference interpreting from a facility different from the site of the event that I understood that the trend was irreversible. If I wanted to stay relevant I had to adapt.

I went down career memory lane to my previous assignments and selected those elements that I had learned doing all the jobs mentioned above.  As I was doing it, I began to remember other experiences that would be helpful:  Broadcast interpretation of live TV events that I did in the past such as award ceremonies, presidential debates, and political conventions came to mind. These were assignments that I had worked aided by a TV monitor and oftentimes from a different studio and even a different location after all.

Remote conference interpreting has been around for some time and it continues to grow. I have been able to solve some of my concerns as I have worked more of these assignments. It is obvious that a good sound system and a great technician are key to a successful remote interpretation. I have also learned that the broadcast quality is as important as the sound equipment. Sometimes the equipment is fine, but if the broadcast is poor you will suffer in the booth (or studio) and sometimes it is up to the events going on in the Solar System. Once I had a hard time on an assignment in the United States where the presenter was appearing by video from Scotland. Due to some solar flares affecting earth the transatlantic broadcast was choppy and the image and sound were very poor.

It is important to mention that remote conference interpreting is very appealing for our clients because it will always be more cost-effective than flying a bunch of interpreters to an event, paying for their hotel, ground transportation, meals, and travel time. It also benefits the interpreter as it allows us to do more work without so many travel days, and it puts us on a global market since the interpreter’s physical location will matter less. You can go from one job to another and still sleep at home. You can even do two half-day events on the same day.

At the beginning one of my biggest reservations about remote conference interpreting was that I would not be able to see the speaker or the power point on the screen whenever I wanted, or even worse, that I would never see those asking questions from the audience.  Like many interpreters, sometimes I relay on facial expressions to determine meaning and to understand difficult accents.  I have learned that the solution to all of these concerns can be found on the camera director. This is the person who sits in the video truck or the video room and switches from one camera to another.  A good conversation with the director and his camera operators on the day before the conference starts can be extremely helpful. I have explained to them the importance of seeing the power point on the screen when the speaker changes slides, the advantage of seeing the speaker as he addresses the audience, and the absolute need of having on screen the person asking a question while he is speaking.  This has made my life so much easier!

Of course, not all directors are the same, some are better than others (as I recently learned during an event on the west coast when the director did not work one weekday and the interpreters noticed it immediately, even before we were told that we had a different director for one day) and there are certain things that we miss with remote interpreting (like a world-class chefs’ cooking event I did last year where there were constant references to the smell of food that we could not experience from a different location) but I am confident that as technology advances, we as interpreters prepare better for this new challenges, and the market leaves us no other work alternative, the wrinkles will be ironed and we will be praising remote conference interpreting just as we now do with simultaneous over consecutive. I would love to read your opinions and experiences regarding this very important professional issue.

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