A new Spanish Federal Court Interpreter Certification exam: Getting it right.

July 6, 2021 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Several weeks ago, federally certified Spanish court interpreters in the United States received a questionnaire from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts asking for opinions and suggestions for a new version of the certification exam. This was a welcomed move for two reasons: The government is thinking of updating the exam so it reflects the present condition of our society, and they thought about asking those who work in that environment: the Spanish interpreters.

I liked the idea of modernizing the test as a positive step by the USAOC, especially during these uncertain days of an almost post-pandemic America, and the confusion among exam candidates about the oral exam dates with an official version on the AOC website indicating December as the month of the exam, and rumors, and perhaps emails, circulating around stating the exam will be early next year. Now back to the exam:

The new version of the exam needs to continue the same proportions and format of the current versions, including two sight translation exercises: one from English into Spanish involving a quasi-legal document, and one from Spanish into English involving a legal document; two simultaneous interpreting exercises: a monologue in English at a normal speed of 140 words per minute in average, and a bi-directional dialogue of a legal or scientific direct examination of an expert witness at a speed of 160 words per minute in average. Finally, the exam should have one 15-minute-long bi-directional consecutive interpretation exercise with at least two somewhat long segments, at least one “laundry list” of items, and some idiomatic expressions and obscenities.

This means leaving the exam as it is in format, but updating its content to reflect the world where we now live. The exercises must mention technology, update situations and circumstances to reflect concepts like internet, computers, globalization. If the old version of the exam included situations involving a telephone or a typewriter, the new version should replace them with a cellular phone and a computer for example.

The exam needs to test beyond criminal law and procedure, exercises must include civil law and procedure, and some international law that falls under the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary, like extradition proceedings and international child abductions.

More important, the exam needs to mirror social changes, reflect gender equality, and include diversity of speech and culture. English dialogues should not be limited to the English spoken by white Americans; it must include the English spoken by African Americans and Hispanic Americans. It needs to expand its Spanish dialogues and idiomatic expressions beyond Mexico, and encompass not only expressions and cultural references to other Latin American countries, but it also needs to incorporate the Spanish spoken in Spain, and the unique Spanish spoken in the United States.

There are certain things the AOC questionnaire included that, although important, must stay out of this exam.

Legal translation is an important subject, but other than sight translation exercises, a court interpreter certification exam must stay away from testing candidates on translation. Translation is a different profession and it requires different skills, experience, and knowledge. A good number of court interpreters translate, but the government needs to develop a separate translation exam if it wants to certify translation skills. Translation needs writing, it needs an exhausting, extensive, comprehensive exam at the same level as the interpretation exam now offered. You cannot certify a translator through a section of an interpreting exam, and you should not expect interpreters to translate. These are two professions and they need two exams. Those of you who have taken translation exams in college or certification exams such as the one offered by the American Translators Association, know it is impossible to test translation skills by adding a section to a different discipline’s exam. This would not be appropriate as it would misguide on the actual skill level of the candidate, and it would not be fair to the interpreters, who have studied and trained as such, not as translators.

Including a section to test interpreters’ transcription skills was also floated around. Even though transcription may not be considered a different profession the way translation is, it also goes beyond the skills that need to be tested to become a certified court interpreter. It is a reality that federal courts require of transcription services, and some interpreters transcribe wiretaps, telephone calls, police interviews, and other voice and video recorded interactions, but most interpreters do not transcribe; they find it boring, time-consuming, poorly remunerated for the work involved, or they simply dislike it. Unlike consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, it is not part of what makes an individual a court interpreter.

Transcription is a specialized service and should be treated as such. If the Administrative Office of the United States Courts wants to certify transcribers, it should develop a separate test to be offered as an additional exam to those already certified as court interpreters who want to specialize. It cannot be part of an interpreter certification exam, and by the way, it should be remunerated in terms of time spent for a recorded minute, nut lumped with the full or half a day pay interpreters receive from interpreting in court.

Updating the certification exam is an excellent idea. Considering a certification for court translators and court transcribers is also a good point, but commingling these other disciplines with court interpreting is a mistake. There is plenty to be tested in a traditional interpreter certification exam; things could be added and improved without expanding to other professions. Let’s fix the exam, but from the beginning, let’s get it right.

I now invite you to share your ideas about the modernization of the court interpreter exam, and those interpreting modalities you believe must be included.

This road to hell is paved with good intentions.

March 7, 2019 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Those who want to help us sometimes hurt us the most.  Court interpreters in Oregon face a situation faced by many colleagues elsewhere in the United States and abroad.

Often, while interpreting in a trial or evidentiary hearing, Oregon court interpreters are asked to sight translate lengthy documents they never saw before, or even worse, they are expected to transcribe and translate audio or video recordings during court breaks. Because the judiciary only covers the cost of interpreting services in courthouses and detention centers, as in many other jurisdictions, attorneys trying to save money use the services of interpreters paid by the court to translate and transcribe evidence otherwise having to be translated before trial by interpreters and translators paid by attorneys and their clients.

A well-intentioned effort to correct this practice, led by the Oregon Judicial Department Court Language Access Services (CLAS) filed a proposed charge to the Uniform Trial Court Rules (UTCR) on November 7, 2017.  Motivated by the desire to protect court interpreters, the quality of a rendition, and no doubt its own budget, CLAS proposed a change to UTCR Rule 2.010(9)(e)

Unfortunately, the proposed change was drafted with budgetary considerations as a priority, and without real knowledge of the role of the interpreter in court. The result, if it goes into effect as written on August 1, will hurt court interpreters in Oregon, the profession, and equal access to justice in that state.

Reading the explanation of the proposed amendment correctly states the abusive, incorrect use of court-sponsored interpreter services by attorneys as described above; it also recognizes the complexity of transcription and translation, and how difficult it is to hear and understand poor quality recordings:

“…• Transcription often requires additional resources that are not available during a court proceeding due to lack of time, the prevalence of slang and abbreviations in offered documents, and the inability of the interpreter to ask for clarification from the maker of the document;

The explanation also addresses potential ethical issues:

“…When an interpreter is asked to provide a transcription for one party, the interpreter loses the appearance of neutrality, which conflicts with the interpreter’s ethical obligations and makes them a potential witness…”

Unfortunately, and most likely unwillingly, the explanation begins with a very dangerous statement: “…Interpreters are trained to interpret spoken word, not written word…”  By saying that, and inserting it as the main argument to amend the Rule, CLAS is not only contradicting the Oregon Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Courts, it is making an incorrect statement that erases one-third of the court interpreter practice, and negates our profession.

The Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Oregon Courts reads:

“1. Accuracy and Completeness. The interpreter shall render a complete and accurate interpretation, or sight translation, without altering, omitting anything from, or adding anything to what is stated or written, and without explanation…”  (https://www.courts.oregon.gov/programs/interpreters/i-am/Documents/codeofprofresponsibility.pdf)

The State of Oregon correctly recognizes that court interpreting includes not just simultaneous and consecutive interpretation, but sight translation. Stating that “…Interpreters are trained to interpret spoken word, not written word…” contradicts the Code and diminishes the profession. This is a serious matter because in a world where people are just beginning to recognize, understand, and appreciate our profession, we cannot sit on our hands while a State Agency redefines what interpreters are and do. Even when well-intentioned, these comments motivated by ignorance must be challenged and discredit. The last thing we need as a profession is a “savior” to protect us from sight interpreting. Interpreters, not translators, are the only professionals equipped to sight translate a document and render it as if it was written in the target language. We must educate our clients, and government officials, to distinguish from a document that can be sight translated in a court hearing from a lengthy document that must be translated by a translator, or a video or audio recording that needs to be transcribed and translated by an interpreter who specializes in transcriptions.

Because of this false assumption that interpreters cannot sight translate, and undoubtably motivated by the Judiciary’s desire to save interpreter fee money by banning the use of interpreters on the Court’s dime for sight translating lengthy documents that should go to a translator, or recordings that must go to a transcriber (services that must be paid by attorneys and litigants, not the Court), those proposing the amendment to the rule drafted a disastrous text:

“…{(e) A court interpreter shall not translate or interpret an exhibit during the course of a proceeding. An interpreter may interpret oral testimony regarding the content of an exhibit. A person submitting an exhibit, including a non-documentary exhibit or electronic recording, that is in a language other than English must submit at the same time an English translation and a declaration under penalty of perjury from the translator: (i) certifying that the translation is accurate and true; and (ii) describing the translator’s qualifications.}”  (https://www.courts.oregon.gov/programs/utcr/Documents/18eBCM029jm_Notice-Seeking-Public-Comment-2019-Proposed-UTCR-Changes.pdf)

By saying: “A court interpreter shall not translate or interpret an exhibit during the course of a proceeding” the rules are restricting the scope of an interpreter’s practice. It is making sight translation illegal in Oregon. But the proposed Rule is so poorly written, that it bans sight translation in hearings, but opens the door to more difficult and prone to error interpretations of “oral testimony regarding the content of an exhibit”. Instead of handing a lengthy document to the interpreter for a sight translation, under the proposed rule, an attorney can ask the interpreter to interpret the contents of a lengthy exhibit while the witness is reading it in the source language at the speed of light; without the benefit of first examining the document, if briefly, interpreters have during sight translation.

The proposed Rule will deny equal access to justice to those litigants who appear pro-se because they cannot afford the services of an attorney. Poor people benefit of court-sponsored interpreter services every day. These interpreters sight translate birth certificates in family court, bills of sale in small claims court, medical reports in worker’s compensation court, restraining orders in domestic relations court. These litigants do not have the means to pay for translation or transcription services of these documents; they will not comply with the rule because they will not even know or understand that they now need a certified written translation. Unless the Rule is modified before its adoption, in the words of my Oregon Court Interpreter friend and colleague Adrian Arias, many pro-se litigants in Oregon will face the following message: “As to sight translating your exhibit during the proceeding, due to an access to justice issue, you cannot have access to justice.”

The Rule must be amended to accurately reflect what is really needed for protecting the interpreter, accuracy of the rendition, curtailing abusive attorney practices, and equal access to justice. It should clearly state that lengthy complex documents must be translated and certified by a professional translator before a hearing; that all transcription and translation of recorded evidence shall be done by professional interpreters specializing in transcriptions prior to all hearings; and court interpreters will provide sight translation of documents in a hearing when, in the opinion of the interpreter in the hearing the length of the document is appropriate for a sight translation, and its complexity is so it can be sight translated with no more in depth research process needed for written translations. It should be the interpreter who examines and assesses the document to be sight translated. The Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Oregon Courts imposes a duty to assess at all times (their) ability to deliver interpretation services, indicating that when the interpreter has any reservation about his or her ability to satisfy an assignment competently, this should be immediately conveyed to the court. (See Rule 9. https://www.courts.oregon.gov/programs/interpreters/i-am/Documents/codeofprofresponsibility.pdf)

Dear friends and colleagues, we must remain vigilant, and see the final Rule due for recommendation by the Committee on March 8. This is a reminder we need to continue to defend our profession, because even when people propose changes meaning no harm, ignorance of the profession can create terrible consequences. I now invite you to comment on this issue in Oregon, or any other place where you live or practice.

When the client does not understand the complexity of what you need to do.

May 29, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The title above would probably apply to most of what you are dealing with at this precise moment. It usually applies to much of what we do as interpreters, but sometimes it really goes overboard. I was recently part of a big project that involved the transcription, translation, and review of hundreds of hours of recordings needed for a trial in the United States. In the past I did a respectable amount of work in this field, although I must confess that I have never been a fan of transcription and translation. To me, it is too passive and it requires of more patience than I can possibly have.

My idea of having a good time does not include sitting down for endless hours listening to poor quality soundtracks, endlessly rewinding some recordings, and trying to understand mumblings.  I don’t do it often because it is not my cup of tea, but I fully understand how difficult it is to produce a professional transcription and translation that can be used and defended in court.  I know how hard it is to work as a transcriber/translator, I am aware of the little money that many of them make, and I have seen how underappreciated they are.

As professional interpreters, sometimes we have to bite the bullet and do some work that is not our favorite. A good client, an interesting project, and especially a high paying assignment will put us in a situation where we cannot say no. This is what happened to me when I was asked to be a part of a very qualified team that tackled this huge transcription/translation project.  In my everyday practice I am constantly asked to do transcriptions, and I usually refer them to an elite group of colleagues who do an excellent job, charge what professionals should charge for their services, and make me look good in the eyes of my client who requested the service. It was precisely because of the colleagues that were part of the assignment that I decided to join the team for the assignment in question. I have to tell you that the transcriber/translator team for this job may have been the “dream team”, but the client was definitely not.

The first thing that became evident was that the client had no idea of what a transcription/translation was.  A real transcriber must have the skills of an interpreter and a translator. He needs to “listen” to an oral statement, write it down, and translate that written text into the target language.  A transcriber has to make a written record that accurately includes word by word what was said in the source language, and then, he must apply all of the target language grammar rules just as a professional translator does. This process requires time, a very long time.

The concept of one hour of work for one minute of recording was foreign to this client, and I think that at the beginning they did not believe us.  The assignment was on a tight schedule because of some court deadlines that had to be met, so we were asked to produce the transcriptions/translations in three weeks! Of course this was impossible, so the agreement was to provide part of the work by said date.

It was going to be difficult, but the transcription team was very good, so we decided that this was achievable. Unfortunately, two of the three weeks went by as the transcribers had to wrestle their client to the ground in order to get the correct materials needed to start the transcriptions. Some files were missing, others were misplaced, the recordings were in very different formats, and so were the transcriptions by the investigative agency. Audio and video files had a different name and number from their corresponding written files. Some files were compressed and no password was provided to the transcribers, others were missing, and a single disc would contain audio and text files in very different formats that required different software as well. We requested a meeting with the client but the request was denied. At that point I thought about jumping ship, buy my professionalism and loyalty to my colleagues made me stay.

The entire process was like this. I don’t want to bore you with details about expected problems such as poor sound, unintelligible words, and impossible slang, that all comes with the territory, and many transcribers/translators do this type of work because they like to solve problems.

Many of the obstacles we faced during the assignment were unnecessary, they had little to do with the complexities of transcribing wiretaps and phone calls; they all came from a lack of understanding and an unwillingness to learn about these aspects of a judicial process that are frequently present in those cases involving non-English speakers.  At the end, we as team managed to get a meeting with a different person who was high in the client’s organizational chart. This individual listened to our concerns and understood the complexity of the task.  We received new materials and were granted access to all files and persons we needed.  As a result of this change, and because of an epic effort, our professional transcribers/translators fulfilled their professional duty and contractual obligation and the job got done.

Unfortunately, the “victory” came at an extremely high cost (time and money) because of the ignorance of the client.  It is clear that experiences like this one can be used in the future to help us educate other clients so they can avoid unnecessary expenses and we can produce top-quality transcription/translation work for a truly professional fee. I now ask you to please share with us some of your war stories as a transcriber/translator, especially the ones that had to do with a bad client. Tell us what you did to educate the client, and to simply get them to provide what you needed to do your job.

When the interpreter thinks the attorney did something sleazy.

July 14, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I was contacted by a colleague who wanted my opinion about a professional situation that was making her life miserable. Her problem was that she had been part of a court assignment where an attorney did something she disliked. At the time she contacted me she was debating about letting it go, or reporting the situation to the judge of the case. I listened to the facts, and I immediately remembered other events where an attorney’s conduct had been questioned by other interpreters. This is her story:

An interpreter was hired to work during a deposition at a law office. While waiting for the assignment to start, she had a conversation with other individuals in the waiting room. One of the others was also a court interpreter. Finally, after a long wait, a secretary came to the waiting room and announced that the deposition had been cancelled. The interpreter went home, she got paid on time for this assignment, and she forgot about this incident.

Several months later, she was contacted by another agency that offered her a transcription/translation assignment. She agreed, and a few days later she received a CD with the audio recording. She began the transcription, and about an hour into the transcription, she concluded that she knew at least one of the voices in the recording; it was the voice of another interpreter, in fact, it was the voice of the interpreter she had been talking to, months earlier at the law office, while she waited for the deposition to start. She immediately knew that she had to stop the transcription and report this circumstance to the agency. A decision had to be made about her involvement in the transcription job. Before contacting the agency, the interpreter decided to see if the other interpreter’s voice was all over the recording or just at the beginning. She had just been working on the transcription for about an hour, so she wanted to find out. She fast-forwarded the recording, and to her surprise, she now recognized a second voice: It was her own voice! She was part of the recording the agency sent her, and the recorded conversation was the one they had at the attorney’s office on the day the deposition had been cancelled months earlier. This obviously changed everything, and the possibility of continuing on the job if the parties consented to it after a full disclosure was now gone. She knew she could not continue transcribing the recording. She immediately contacted the agency and told them what happened. The agency retrieved the recording and sent it to another transcriber. The interpreter was paid for the work done even though the agency knew that they would never use the transcription. The real problem for the interpreter was that she did not know that she had been recorded and she wondered why this had happened, what they were going to use the tape for, and what she should do about the whole situation. She did not even know if the recording was legal or not.

The recording was related to the case where she had been hired to do the cancelled deposition; she knew the attorneys involved, and she had heard that they both practice law very aggressively. She felt bad and she felt cheated. The interpreter thought that this strategy had been sleazy and perhaps illegal. Her first impulse was to contact the judge in the case and let him know that she had been recorded without her consent. Something had to be done.

Fortunately, she waited and thought it over. Without revealing any names or details of the case, she consulted an attorney and learned that in her state, as long as one of the parties to a conversation is aware of the recording, and she consents to it, the rest need not know or consent for the recording to be legal and even admissible in court. Based on this, the interpreter did not go to the judge or anybody else. She had no legal standing and no law had been broken by the attorney who ordered the recording. In fact, she realized that she could not even disclose any of these facts to anybody else because of the interpreter duty of confidentiality, which cannot be broken unless a crime was committed or may be committed unless the interpreter speaks. Going to the judge would have been the wrong thing to do because she really had nothing to report. She learned a valuable lesson after this case because she understood that in an adversarial legal system, the attorneys may do things that we dislike, but as long as they are legal, they are allowed to do them, and we should not get involved or judge the legal strategy.

On the second case I will now share with you, I was interpreting in a plea hearing many moons ago. The defendant was going to enter a plea of guilty to a federal offense. I was working for the court. I arrived to the courtroom about fifteen minutes before the hearing, which was customary at that courthouse, I let the clerk know that I was there, and I sat down to wait for my case. The defense attorney arrived about five minutes later and asked me to help him with his client. He told me that the defendant, who was in detention, was already in the holding cell, and that he needed to talk to him for a few minutes before the judge came out for the hearing. As many of you know, this happens all the time in federal court in the United States, so I agreed and off we went next door to the holding cell. The moment we arrived I realized that the defendant spoke some English and understood many things; however, he was far from being fluent, and definitely needed an interpreter for the most complex legal concepts. As soon as we greeted the defendant the attorney started this, in my opinion, self- serving speech telling his client (the defendant) how hard it was to get him the deal with the prosecution, and that this was his chance to bring the case to an end by just pleading guilty to the charge in the plea agreement. Then the attorney “asked him” but in reality told him “the agreement is almost identical to the version you already saw before when I went to see you with the other interpreter, remember?” and “…the judge is going to ask you if you were interpreted the new version by a certified interpreter and you are going to say yes because if you don’t, then the judge will continue your case for another day, maybe in a month or two, and you will have to sit in jail all that time waiting to come back in here. All of it for a document that practically says the same that the one that was interpreted to you before. Do you understand?” Of course I interpreted all of this to the defendant and he said yes. Next, the attorney told his client that “… when the judge asks you if you have any questions you need to say no, unless you have any questions, and if that is the case we will have to come back before the judge in the future, and he is going to ask you if everything was interpreted to you into Spanish and you will say yes because as you remember we went to the jail and the interpreter interpreted everything, including your questions, right?” The defendant said “yes.” The attorney continued: “…Well then, let me ask you right now: has the plea agreement been explained and interpreted to you in Spanish?” The defendant answered: “yes.” The lawyer continued: “…Has your attorney answered all of your questions with the assistance of an interpreter” The defendant: “yes.” Finally the attorney added: “…Do you have any questions at this time for the judge, for me, or for anybody else about your case, charges and plea you are about to enter?” Once again the defendant said “no.” “…Great” said the lawyer; and added: “… So you know why you are answering the way you are right?” The defendant: “Yes, so I can go to prison sooner.” Attorney: “…and, even though we didn’t interpret the latest version of the agreement, since we went over another version that was practically identical, you will tell the judge that we did right?” Defendant: “Yes, I will tell him that you explained everything to me through the interpreter, and in my mind you did, and I really believe so, and I have no more questions. I know what I am doing and I just want for all of this to be over.”

We went in front of the judge who asked the very same questions. Both, the attorney and his client answered almost with the same words as they had used in the holding cell. The judge entered the conviction and the defendant left very happy with the outcome of the hearing, on his way out he told his attorney: “…thank you very much. You are a great attorney. You know what you need to do for the benefit of your client. I will send you clients…”

Although the attorney and the defendant did not lie to the judge because they phrased everything very carefully, thus avoiding breaking the law, and despite the fact that the attorney had fought for, and vigorously defended his client’s best interest, which was to go to prison as soon as possible so he could start some treatment not offered by the jail, I left the courtroom feeling a little strange. I knew there was nothing for me to do since no laws were broken, and everything had been legal strategy between client and attorney discussed in confidence and under the protection of the client-attorney privilege, but it took me a couple of hours to get over it; you could even argue that I did not get over this case since I am still telling the story so many years later, but the truth is that yes I got over the case, and the reason why I am sharing the story with all of you now is because both the defendant and the attorney have since passed away, so there is no privilege anymore.

I would like to invite you to share similar stories or comments about things you have done or were tempted to do when in your opinion an attorney did something sleazy.

When law enforcement agencies do everything they can to avoid hiring a real interpreter.

August 17, 2012 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The other day one of my colleagues asked my opinion about the quality of the Spanish a police officer was using during a recorded interview.  This colleague had been retained by the defense to analyze and transcribe the video of a police interview by a police woman in a very small town in the Midwest. As I sat there and listened to the nonsensical utterances that were emanating from this officer’s mouth, I went down memory lane and lived through them all again. I will never forget the police department that used a monolingual (in English) Hispanic woman as an interpreter for all of their investigations because “she grew up 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border…(and that)…was enough to assume she spoke enough Spanish to communicate with the suspects…”  and how could I forget the police station that hired as interpreters all those who had failed the court interpreter certification test because “…they were cheaper and knew about the same…”  Never mind the disastrous results like the time when a little girl who had been the alleged victim of sexual abuse was considered to be a liar because the police interpreter did not know how to say “Christmas tree” in Spanish.  And the time when the “interpreter” referred to the pedestrian charges as the “pedophile charges”.  And yes! There was the man who interpreted the polygraph tests into Spanish and explained how to wear the wires by lifting, holding, bending, and stretching the suspects.  Hulk Hogan would have been proud of his technique.

During all my years as an interpreter, and specifically through my work as a court interpreter, I have learned that the common denominator among most police forces in the country seems to be their desire to save money on interpretation.  Apparently the fact that the investigation is jeopardized by using the services of unqualified or under-qualified linguists is not a concern.  Even in those towns where cases are systematically dismissed by the prosecution, or dismissed by the judges, because of violations to the rights of the defendant, or where indictments are based on faulty testimony, all due to a lack of communication between the English speaking authority and the non-English speaker defendant, victim, or witness,  because of poor interpretation, chiefs of police,  budget analysts, and city administrators are choosing the cheaper service provider over the sound and accurate legal investigation.

We all know that a dollar saved on a bad interpreter will translate on thousands of dollars spent on a new trial, an appeal process, or a brand new investigation.  Every time I have a chance, I talk to law enforcement administrators and try to explain how a real interpreter costs more, but at the same time she saves you money.  A $100.00 per hour interpreter will do her job correctly in two hours, while a mediocre $40.00 per hour individual will take longer, as he struggles to understand the language, comprehend the process, and communicate the concepts to both, police officer and non-English speaker.  After 8 long hours with a bad “interpreter”, the investigation moved very little, the legal process was violated several times, the cheap interpreter cost $320.00, and he has to come back the next day to finish the interview.  There were no savings.

So, as I sat there watching this video, looking at my colleague working so hard, writing down the mistakes of the interpreter doing the interview, making footnotes of her omissions, charting the additions she volunteered into the interview, and listening to my interpreter friend telling me how this police woman, part-time “interpreter” had already caused the dismissal of many cases because of her lack of skill and knowledge, I came to a strange realization:  The good interpreters are losing these police assignments to the bad ones, but because of this policy by the police departments, these good interpreters are now working as expert witnesses and linguistic advisors to the parties.  Therefore, at the end, the good interpreter wins because it is more lucrative to be the expert witness or advisor. But wait; what about the defendant, the victim, and society at large?  They may all get their justice in the long run after a lengthy legal process of appeals and re-tried cases, but in the meantime the victim will not feel safe, the innocent defendant will sit in a cell, and society will pay a hefty legal bill. All because the police department wants to save by hiring the bad interpreter.  I would like to read your comments and experiences about this topic.

When the client does not know how to use the interpreter as an expert witness.

August 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues,

I just heard the story of an interpreter who was hired to render her services as an expert witness in a trial that took place in a small town of the American Midwest.  This colleague, who I know has years of experience as an interpreter, translator, transcriber, and expert witness, was retained to examine a transcription and translation job by a transcriber/translator whose work accuracy was in question.  Following some fee negotiation, and after the interpreter’s client recovered from learning what a real expert witness charges for her services,   this colleague examined the transcription, reviewed the translation, and contacted her client to ask her when they should meet to discuss her report.  To her surprise, the attorney who hired her stated that a meeting was not necessary and that a simple oral report over the phone would suffice.  A few days later the interpreter received the subpoena to testify during the trial, and the client informed her that there would be no expert witness-attorney meeting before the trial.

Under these circumstances, this very experienced interpreter appeared in court ready to testify as an expert.  As my court interpreter colleagues know, the testimony of an expert has two parts: First, the party offering the witness has to qualify him as an expert by asking questions about his credentials, educational background, experience, and so on.  Then, once the expertise on the particular field has been established, the parties question the expert about his analysis, methodology, findings, and opinion.

In this particular case, the interpreter had just began introducing her qualifications and academic formation when the small town judge interrupted and asked the attorney doing the direct examination if “…this (was) going to take too long, because I have so many other things to take care of…” The attorney then rushed through the qualifications of this expert, and moved on to the questions about the findings.  Throughout the direct examination this witness had to sit on the stand, and literally sit on her hands as the attorney asked her many irrelevant questions leaving out many critical points and relevant aspects of the expert’s opinion.  It became obvious that this attorney had examined very few experts during her career, and it was apparent that this was the first time she questioned an expert in linguistics.

As the interpreter waited for the “right” questions to arrive, and as it became clear that they would not, she had to swallow her frustration and hide her impotence as she saw how the case was crumbling down before her eyes despite the fact that the attorney who retained her had an expert report clearly showing that the transcriptions/translation in question were dramatically wrong.

As I heard this story, I imagined the frustration that this expert witness went through, put myself in her shoes, and realized that the simple fact of retaining an expert is useless when the attorneys do not know what to do with the expert opinion.  It is obvious that attorneys need to know how to take advantage of having a very good expert as part of their team.  In this case, as in many others, it was apparent that the small town judge and attorneys did not know what to do with the expert testimony, and never understood the importance and relevance of presenting the results to the jury to advance their case.  Fortunately, seasoned experts have the privilege to work with capable lawyers and experienced judges most of the time; so the question is: What do newer experts or those interpreter experts working in outlined areas need to do to “educate” the local attorneys, judges, and system?   I would like to hear your opinion.

Los aspectos prácticos de la transcripción jurídica de idioma extranjero. Una buena razón para ir a la conferencia de NAJIT este mayo.

May 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Queridos colegas,

Hace unos días me senté a platicar con mi colega Rosemary Vázquez, una intérprete, traductora y transcripcionista con mucha experiencia profesional.  Yo he seguido su carrera durante años y he tenido la oportunidad de ver su trabajo de transcripción, así que cuando me comentó que iba a presentar sobre este tema durante la conferencia de NAJIT este mes, decidí publicar esta entrevista con The Professional Interpreter, ya que me parece que su enfoque práctico es algo novedoso y necesario.

TPI: ¿Qué se necesita para ser una transcripcionista de idioma extranjero?

RV: Un transcripcionista de idioma extranjero tiene que ser totalmente bilingüe con un dominio total de las dos lenguas: el idioma de origen y el idioma de destino. Necesita ser: disciplinado, bicultural, preciso, detallista, paciente, tener buen oído y ser profesional.

TPI: ¿A quién se parece más el transcripcionista de idioma extranjero, a un intérprete o a un traductor?

RV: El transcripcionista debe contar con las habilidades del intérprete y del traductor. Necesita “escuchar” la expresión oral, ponerla por escrito, y después debe traducir ese texto. El transcripcionista debe plasmar palabra por palabra en el idioma original con toda precisión y luego debe aplicar todas las reglas gramaticales del idioma de destino tal y como lo requiere una traducción profesional.

TPI: También tienes la certificación federal de interpretación. ¿Qué prefieres, interpretar un juicio de alto nivel, o transcribir y traducir una grabación de alto nivel?

RV: Me encanta transcribir ya que requiere una combinación de habilidades que no tiene todo el mundo. Para mí es como una película que se desarrolla gradualmente y mi función es mantener un registro de todo lo que se dice. Escucho información delicada, confidencial,  y casi siempre interesante. Después la plasmo por escrito con la mayor precisión, para que el lector no solo entienda lo que se dijo, sino también cómo se dijo. Pienso que esta disciplina es un arte que nos permite transformar una expresión oral en un texto escrito, conservando el mismo contenido con el mismo registro y en el contexto en que se pronunció en el idioma original.

También disfruto la emoción que produce la interpretación de un juicio. La adrenalina que sientes cuando interpretas de manera consecutiva el testimonio de un testigo ante el juez, las partes y el jurado es incomparable.

Cuando interpretas estás facilitando la comunicación entre las partes, pero tu trabajo no siempre afecta el resultado del juicio. Como transcripcionista, tu transcripción “puede” jugar un papel importante en el resultado. (Probar culpabilidad o inocencia, o comprobar que existieron irregularidades durante el procedimiento, lo que puede causar el sobreseimiento.)

TPI: ¿Existen oportunidades para los transcripcionistas de idioma extranjero?

RV: Como en toda profesión, siempre habrá oportunidades excelentes si eres bueno. En mi opinión, lo único que se necesita es la oportunidad para demostrar tu capacidad. A partir de ese momento se empieza a correr la voz.

Como transcripcionista de idioma extranjero puedes encontrar retos y oportunidades trabajando con:

  • La Procuraduría General de Justicia
  • La Defensoría Pública 
  • Bufetes de abogados
  • La Oficina Anti-Drogas (DEA)

TPI: ¿Cual ha sido tu transcripción más difícil y porqué?

RV: Yo diría que hasta la fecha es una que terminé recientemente. Se trataba de un agente que trabajaba encubierto que manejó un camión de carga a un sitio preestablecido donde se iba a llevar a cabo la transacción de narcotráfico. Este individuo llevaba un micrófono oculto y estaba celebrando este intercambio con narcotraficantes de alto rango en su organización. Las grabaciones eran de mala calidad, tenían estática, había mucho ruido, se escuchaban muchas voces masculinas que hablaban en una “clave” del narcotráfico  altamente especializada. Además, la conversación incluyó unidades de medidas, cifras y una de las voces tenía un acento muy pronunciado.

TPI: ¿Los jueces y abogados entienden tu trabajo?

RV: Yo diría que muchos entienden la importancia y el valor probatorio de las transcripciones y traducciones.  En mi carrera me he dado cuenta que algunos jueces y abogados en los poderes judiciales del fuero común, o sea a nivel estatal, no están plenamente convencidos de la importancia de que un profesional con años de experiencia y certificación como intérprete judicial prepare la transcripción. Ser bilingüe no te califica como transcripcionista. Es imperativo que continuemos estableciendo reglas y procedimientos. Pienso que debería existir una certificación de transcripcionista de idioma extranjero con el mismo grado de dificultad que existe en el examen federal de certificación como intérprete.

TPI: ¿Es difícil rendir testimonio pericial?

RV: Necesitas tener mucha confianza en tu trabajo. Se puede rendir testimonio pericial para establecer nuestras credenciales como transcripcionistas y traductores, para poner en tela de juicio la precisión y fidelidad de nuestra transcripción o traducción, para autenticar nuestro trabajo, y  para muchos otros fines según lo requiera el procedimiento judicial.

TPI: ¿Por qué decidiste concentrarte en los aspectos prácticos de tu disciplina para tu ponencia en la conferencia de NAJIT en Cambridge?

RV: Mi ponencia durante la conferencia de NAJIT en Cambridge, Massachusetts tiene dos objetivos: Me interesa compartir la metodología que yo empleo porque creo que ha arrojado buenos resultados. Al mismo tiempo, estoy muy contenta de poder interactuar con mis colegas que tal vez están interesados en aprender a transcribir y traducir. ¡Diseñé la ponencia de manera tal que va a ser informativa, interactiva y muy divertida!

TPI: ¿Quiénes deben acudir a tu ponencia el 20 de mayo?

RV: La ponencia está dirigida a principiantes, pero está pensada para que cualquier intérprete de español que tenga la curiosidad o el deseo de aprender en qué consiste “Transcribir y Traducir” adquiera un conocimiento práctico básico sobre lo que se necesita y como lograrlo. También se beneficiarán los veteranos de la profesión que acudan, ya que voy a incluir grabaciones de audio que he seleccionado cuidadosamente por su contenido. Quienes vayan a la sesión van a participar de manera activa.

TPI: ¿Qué le dirías a los nuevos transcripcionistas y a los intérpretes o traductores que están considerando el campo de la transcripción/traducción?

RV: Vayan a la ponencia. Tal vez encontrarán la profesión con la que siempre han soñado.

TPI: Gracias Rosemary.  Recuerden, domingo 20 de mayo a las 9:30 de la mañana en el salón “D” durante la conferencia de NAJIT en Cambridge.  Por favor no se confundan, el programa oficial de la conferencia lista a la ponente bajo el nombre de “Rosemary McCoy”  que ella usó anteriormente.  Se trata de la misma persona a quien aquí entrevisté bajo su nombre actual (y de nacimiento): Rosemary Vázquez.

Después de leer esta entrevista les invito a que compartan con todos nosotros sus experiencias como transcripcionistas y que nos expliquen por qué acuden a este tipo de conferencias profesionales.

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