Court interpreters’ priorities: Their health and to interpret.

August 12, 2020 § 16 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Although we are still in the middle of a world-wide pandemic, I have heard from several colleagues that some courts in the United States, and elsewhere, are back in session and they are asking court interpreters to attend in-person hearings. Courts may have their reasons to reopen, but I think is a bad idea for interpreters to answer the call at this time. Covid-19 is very contagious and continues to spread all over the United States and many other countries. This is not the time to risk our health, and perhaps our future, to make the not-so-good court interpreter fees. Technology is such that courthouses can hold virtual hearings, or distance interpreting if they want to have in-person sessions. There are solutions for all judicial district budgets, from fancy distance interpreting platforms, to Zoom, to a simple over-the-phone interpretation with 3-way calling and a speaker phone. Federal courts have provided over the phone interpretation in certain court appearances for many years.  Most hearings are short appearances that do not justify risking the interpreter. As for more complex evidentiary hearings and trials, just as conferences have temporarily migrated to this modality, distance interpreting can happen with a few adjustments. If in-person court interpreting is a bad idea right now, in-person interpreting at a detention center, jail or prison, is out of the question. At least in the United States, detention facilities are at the top of places where more Covid-19 cases have been detected.

Court interpreters provide services in accordance to the law and a code of ethics. Neither of them compels interpreters to put their lives at risk just to interpret for a hearing that could happen virtually. I urge you all to refuse in-person interpreting at courthouses and detention centers at this time. Advise judges, attorneys, and court administrators on the available options during the emergency. If after your explanation they insist on having interpreters appearing in person during the Covid-19 pandemic, please decline the assignment. It is obvious your life and health are not a priority for that organization; why should you put them at the top of your clients’ list?

Do not worry about the parties needing interpreting services. That is the attorney’s responsibility. Not yours.

Unfortunately, some of you will sadly agree to physically appear in court to interpret for defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, and victims. If so, at least demand the following from the courts:

All in-person interpreting must be done with portable cordless equipment. Many courthouses already use it, and for those who do not, explain to judges and administrators this is the same equipment tour guides use. Courts should provide personal transmitters to all staff and regular independent contractor interpreters, and interpreters should take care of the transmitter and take it with them at the end of the day. If this is impossible (although these devises are very affordable) then ask the courthouse to keep them clean and safe, and separate from the receivers the parties will use. Interpreters should always have their own personal microphone (whether it is provided by the court or they purchase it on their own). Ask the receivers be kept in individual plastic baggies, and have the individual using the receiver open the bag and put the devise back in the baggie after the hearing. Never handle the receiver. Ask the court to notify all parties needing interpreting services to bring their own earphones (they can use their mobile phone’s if they are wired). The courthouse should have disposable earphones in stock for those who forgot to bring their own. Earphones are inexpensive and can be thrown away after each hearing.

Finally, interpreters should never disinfect the portable equipment. This is a dangerous chore, you do not get paid to do it, and it is not your job. Disinfecting the equipment goes against all federal and state court interpreter rules of ethics:

“Canon 7: Scope of Practice. An interpreter for a LEP participant in any legal proceeding, or for an LEP party in a court-ordered program, must provide only interpreting or translating services. The interpreter must not give legal advice, express personal opinions to individuals for whom interpreting services are being provided, or engage in other activities that may be construed to constitute a service other than interpreting or translating.”  All states include this canon in their code of ethics (sometimes the number is different). Interpreting equipment should be cleaned and disinfected by the same people who clean and disinfect everything else in the courtroom.

If you are interpreting in person for an agency or for a direct private client, you must follow the same practices. The agency should assume the courthouse duties. As for your preferred direct clients who you could not talk out of an in-person appearance, use your own personal equipment. If you don’t have it, buy it. Do not borrow the courthouse’s. You do not know how clean it is. I would also add the following when dealing with direct clients using my own equipment: Have disposable latex gloves available for you and the person using the equipment. That way you may assist your direct client with the receiver unit if needed. Have spare disposable earphones available if your clients forgot to bring their own. I suggest you use the earphones you get on the plane for free and you never use because you have your own. The protocol for jail visits is: No jail visits under any circumstance. Period.

Even with equipment, maintain a safe distance between you and the person you are interpreting for. No sitting next to the client. Always use and demand others use facemasks. The sound quality is not the best, but removing the mask to interpret is too dangerous. I suggest you wear a mask that ties or has an elastic that goes around your head instead of the ones you wear on your ears. They are more comfortable and stay in place even if you are speaking,

Most judges are rational people of good moral character, but I have heard of some cases when a judge has ordered the interpreter to remove the mask, get closer to the person who needs an interpreter, and other dangerous actions. If so, try to persuade the judge, if that fails, ask for a recess and try to get the court administrator to see the situation from your viewpoint. If this does not work, or if the judge does not let you speak, or you cannot access the administrator, excuse yourself.

State you cannot fulfill your duty as a court interpreter to interpret the totality of what is being said in court because you cannot concentrate on the hearing when you know the judge is putting you in a dangerous situation. Put it on the record, and leave. If the judge does not allow you to leave the courtroom, or threatens you with a contempt order, then clearly put on the record for a second time the same explanation you already gave, and clearly state you are being ordered to interpret even though the rendition will be incomplete, that you are being held against your will, and that you are respectfully giving notice to the judge that if because of his order you get infected, you will bring legal action against the court and personally against the judge. Do not be afraid. You are not doing anything wrong.

On top of all that, I would never interpret in that Judge’s court again.

There are other things we can do as interpreters to protect ourselves in the rare case we end up in front of a judge that forces you to interpret and do things that risk your health and maybe your life.

You can file a complaint with the circuit court (if a federal case) or the court of appeals with jurisdiction over the judge. In federal cases, this is done according to the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980 (28 USC §351-364) and the Rules for Judicial Conduct and Judicial Disability Proceedings.

If federal, you can send a letter describing the judge’s conduct to the Federal Judges Association (FJA) (https://www.federaljudgesassoc.org) or to the State’s judges association in local matters.

Send a letter for publication on the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal Magazine, or to the State Bar Bulletin so attorneys and others learn of the incident and apply pressure on this individual.

Contact your local non-English radio and TV stations (for Spanish speakers Telemundo, Univision and Azteca America) and suggest an investigative report on how this judge is putting those who appear before him or her, and need interpreting services, at risk during the pandemic.

You can also talk to an attorney and explore the possibility of a lawsuit against the judge and courthouse for negligence.

Finally, write a letter to that courthouse’s chief judge and court administrator informing them that, regardless of the outcome, you will never work in that courtroom again. The letter should detail everything the judge said and did, including past episodes witnessed by you. A person with such a bad attitude did other bad things before.

Court interpreters perform an essential job for the administration of justice, everyone who needs an interpreter should get one, but certain things are above the job; one of them that should always come first is our health. I now ask you to share with us your in-person court experiences, in the United States or elsewhere, during the pandemic.

Languages in times of crisis. (The Mexican earthquakes)

September 21, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The natural disasters that hit the western hemisphere in the last few weeks, and that I was unfortunate enough to experience one of them first hand, made think of the importance of all languages to achieve effective communication when human lives are at stake.

Natural disasters are not new, they are with us throughout the year during our entire lives, but unless they directly affect us, we ignore them beyond barely learning the superficial facts. This month, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and several Caribbean nations were hit by strong hurricanes. Mexico was struck by two devastating earthquakes. Because these events happened in my backyard, where I have many colleagues, friends, and relatives, I was interested on the details. I wanted to learn about damages, loss of lives, and I wanted to know if the people I care for were safe.

Mexico had two earthquakes: first an 8.2 earth tremor, followed by a devastating 7.1 seismic activity two weeks later (on the anniversary of the earthquake that destroyed Mexico City 32 years earlier). I was working in Mexico City for the first of these tremors, the strongest one in the country’s history, so I got to see first-hand what was done, and what did not happen communication wise.  I was in the United States for the second one. This allowed me to see the language and cultural deficiencies from the perspective of the individual not physically at the scene, who needs to learn as much as possible about the tragedy.

Although I will use Mexico as an example for the things that must enable effective communication during a crisis, I believe that my comments are valid for the terrible hurricanes that hit the United States and many Caribbean countries, and apply to all natural disasters, terrorist acts, and other calamities anywhere in the world.

The first earthquake was on September 7, almost at midnight. It was a terrifying 8.2 on the Richter scale. The earth moved back and forth on a circular motion that lasted for about 90 seconds that seemed like an eternity. I was there. This gave me the perspective of the eyewitness. The second one took place on September 19 shortly after 1 pm. It was a devastating 7.1 on the Richter scale. First, the earth shook up and down followed by an oscillatory movement.  The first earthquake was the strongest (8.2 equals over 20 billion kilograms of dynamite; 7.1 is about 20 billion) but the September 19 tremor caused more damages because unlike the first one, its epicenter was close to Mexico City.

I am sure there are many stories and there will be many official reports on earthquake readiness, construction safety codes, search and rescue operations; the work of the thousands of volunteers who saved so many lives, and government actions in general. No doubt some will be positive and some will be critical of the authorities, but I am not convinced anybody will have the will nor the interest to do an analysis from the language access perspective.

Let me start by sharing my observations as an individual physically present at the scene of the disaster. I acquired this experience during the first of the two earthquakes.  The first thing I noticed was the lack of emergency, evacuation, and similar signs in a language other than Spanish.  There were no signs, in English at least, as lingua franca of this globalized society we live in.  Nothing on Braille either. At the moment of evacuation, based on my conversations with several friends and colleagues staying at different Mexico City hotels, all recorded public announcement messages were in Spanish (I guess this was good news for blind Spanish speakers). Nothing in any foreign or indigenous language.

Once on the street, non-Spanish speakers were given no direction. Nobody approached them to inform them or tell them in their language what they needed to do to be safe.  There were no Sign Language interpreters of any language to communicate this vital information to the deaf and hard of hearing. People were at the mercy of other bilingual tourists who jumped in to brief these foreign visitors on security protocol and the status of the disaster (at least to tell them where to get a blanket. Remember, this was almost midnight in September and many were asleep when the alarm woke them up).  There were no indigenous languages interpreters or bilingual personnel either. Once again, indigenous Mexicans were treated as always: the invisible people no politician dares to talk about.

What needed to happen and must be common practice the next time an earthquake hits Mexico City? Basically, the solution is not cheap, but it is not outrageously expensive either. They must start by translating all signs, and emergency and evacuation instructions into the most popular languages in the world. I would say at least the main Arabic, Asian and African languages, English, Russian, and those of the European Union. They must have translations into all Mexican indigenous languages, and a video with the translation into Mexican Sign Language, American Sign Language, and International Sign Language at a minimum. When a guest checks in, or when a person is hired as an employee, they should get this information in their own language. Once the information is translated, the hotel needs only to print a page, retrieve a Braille version from the filing cabinet, or issue a USB flash drive with the Sign Language translation.  They can ask guests and employees to return the memory sticks when they check out of the hotel or leave the employment.

They also must have evacuation recordings for their P.A. system in at least Spanish, English, and other commonly used languages in their business (if applicable) and train their staff so they can provide basic orientation in many of these foreign, sign, and indigenous languages to the people during evacuation, at least to the point of steering them towards a rescue camp or to a video or telephonic interpreting emergency service where they can talk to real interpreters providing their services remotely.  I am not suggesting that all staff learn how to assist all non-Spanish speakers. Staffers will be assigned one or two languages to memorize these basic instructions. After what I saw in Mexico City, this would be a major improvement, and it can easily be applied to hospitals, airports, train stations, etcetera.

Finally, I think that too many of my interpreter and translator friends and colleagues wasted valuable time addressing concerns of well-intentioned, caring people from abroad who were constantly contacting them to see if they knew if this and that individual were safe.  Most people they were asked about lived in Mexico, but not in the disaster area.  I believe that it is legitimate and humane to care for others and to want to know, but I also think it would be much better if people abroad were to check on a map where the earthquake happened and where their friends live. Understanding that Mexico is a very big country, they would immediately see that people living somewhere else in Mexico would be as susceptible to the earthquake as a Spaniard from Madrid would be had the earth tremor happened in Warsaw. Simple research would save so much time and energy. We can all contribute during a crisis, even from abroad.

My perspective during the second earthquake was very different. This time I learned about the tremor while working in Chicago. I have many relatives, friends, colleagues and clients in Mexico City and I wanted to know what happened: if they were safe, and if there was anything I could do to help.  With a Mexican population in the United States in the tens of millions, this put me in a category shared by a significant segment of the American population right away.

My first reaction was to check on line. I went to Twitter and the internet news organizations to see what they were saying, next, I opened Facebook and WhatsApp to see if there were any concrete updates on the people I care for. Mexicans use Facebook as Americans use Twitter, so this was a good choice. I also remembered how many people communicated by WhatsApp when the telephone lines were down during the first earthquake two weeks earlier.

While I was doing this, I headed to a T.V. set to see what they were showing. I had only access to American TV in English and in Spanish.  Over the air U.S. English TV carried nothing. The cable news networks were showing some images of the devastation, and stayed with the coverage for about thirty minutes before they went back to their usual Trump bashing by the left-wing networks and Trump worshipping by the right-wing networks. Nothing relevant, nothing new, just the same stuff they repeat ad-nausea day in and day out. I was surprised they covered “that much”. That is usually not the case, but with so many Mexicans in the United States I guess they decided this was a sound business decision.

It was time to watch American TV in Spanish. CNN en español, Telemundo, and Univision. All three networks were carrying live coverage. Unfortunately, their coverage was flawed. Let me explain: First, their anchors and most of their on-site reporters were not Mexicans nor knew enough about Mexico to cover such an event. They were saying things that made no sense, not because they are bad journalists, but because they do not know the subject, in this case, Mexico and Mexico City. Mexicans wanted to know the extent of the damage, the neighborhoods affected, and the buildings that collapsed. Unfortunately, because of lack of knowledge, this crucial information was left out or reported wrongly. A CNN anchor woman repeated a thousand times that “children were trapped inside the Enrique Rebsamen School”. This may sound irrelevant to a non-Mexican or to somebody not familiar with the city, but all Mexicans, particularly those from Mexico City know who Enrique Rébsamen (did you notice the accent?) was and have always pronounced the name correctly. This diminishes the credibility of the reporter and creates a lack of trust by the viewer. If you add to this lack of knowledge the accent from Spanish-speaking countries other than Mexico, it becomes very difficult to understand the names of places and individuals. Viewers interested in Mexico who rarely watch American Spanish TV had to deal with unknown regional expressions, an ocean of false cognates, and some very scary Spanglish. Things regular viewers understand because they are used to this deterioration of the language, but incomprehensible for a casual viewer who may forgive the horrendous expression during a soccer match or a telenovela, but not when trying to find out what happened during an earthquake. In just a few hours I heard enough “colapsado” (word that exists in Spanish, rarely used in Mexico, but a favorite of this TV crowd because it is so similar to “collapsed”) to last me a lifetime. I constantly wondered what ever happened to “desplomado” o “derrumbado” more commonly used outside of the United States, but missing in action from the American Spanish language TV networks’ dictionaries. I have nothing against diversity of Spanish accents or good journalists covering a country different from the one they come from, but for a critical situation like this one, Mexicans abroad needed a reporter and an anchor they could understand and could explain where the damages happened, giving the name of the streets, avenues and neighborhoods.

Because my hunger for accurate information was not yet satisfied, I made it home where I can access live Mexican TV. This time I watched Milenio, Azteca and Televisa.

Throughout the entire wall to wall coverage (September 19-20) Milenio had the most objective coverage. Azteca started fine, but then they brought in Patty Chapoy who may be very important in the network, but has nothing to do during a tragedy of this proportions, so I had to leave Azteca to never come back again for fear to run into this nefarious “Ventaneando goddess”.

The worst coverage was that of Televisa. On a moment of national tragedy, they brought back one of the most hated and corrupt “journalists” in Mexican history: Joaquín López Dóriga, who made sure that the official agenda was covered to the last detail. Instead of covering the human drama and giving the facts to the viewer, he spent the entire day praising the government of President Peña Nieto and minimizing the damages and the mistakes of the government. Another “jewel” of Televisa: Paola Rojas, harassed an earthquake victim and obstructed the search and rescue operation so she could quench her thirst for fame and glory. Unfortunately, this was not the worst part of Televisa’s or Azteca’s coverage: They ignored the needs of the deaf community by actively discriminating against thousands of Mexican citizens by not including a Sign Language interpreter during their coverage; in Televisa, arguing that having a square on the screen with a Sign Language interpreter would be “too distracting”, and in TV Azteca because there were already “too many squares on the screen”.

Finally, I could find nothing in any indigenous language, not even government or college TV channels. The only highlight: the Intercultural Indigenous Languages Interpreters Organization (OTIGLI) offered interpreting services to the members of the Indigenous community in hospitals and shelters. I believe that in a crisis like this one, those deciding and developing protocols to save lives and assets must understand the importance of communication. If they do, then they will try to provide the best and most accessible information to everybody, regardless of the language they speak or sign. There are very capable interpreters and translators in Mexico; there are also honest people in the government. I know this because I have met many in the last two years and I am convinced of their commitment and dedication to a more accessible, inclusive Mexican society.  The solutions are not outrageously complex nor they require an obscene amount of resources, but they are not cheap either, they need of honest capable people and a generous amount of resources. Remember that there is not such a thing as the “government’s money”, it is the people’s money. It came from the millions of taxpayers. When viewed this way, suddenly, it is not such an irrational request to ask that more lives be saved by making everything accessible to all. If there was ever a justified expenditure of the taxpayers’ money, this is it. A society cannot be safe, and a government cannot be compassionate or civilized unless it takes care of all of its people. Inclusive, accurate, accessible communication is a good start.

I wish the best to all our fellow humans affected by these earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters anywhere in the world, and I invite you to leave your comments and ideas to improve how a society deals with all languages in a time of crisis.

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