We should act more like professionals and less like merchants.

April 29, 2019 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Interpreters are constantly fighting to be recognized as a profession, to be respected by their clients, and to be treated and remunerated as providers of a specialized service that requires a strong academic background. Although most interpreters strive to be viewed as fellow professionals of physicians, engineers, attorneys and accountants, many colleagues, including freelance interpreters, behave more like a tradesperson than a professional.

Because of poor legislation, pervasive ignorance, and a myth that any bilingual can interpret, the idea that professional interpreting services can be provided by a commercial agency has been accepted, or at least tolerated, around the world. Professional services have been bought and sold like commodities by businesspeople foreign to interpreting, stingy government agencies, and unscrupulous interpreters willing to sell out their profession to make a quick buck.

A world where physicians provide their services through a commercial agency’s model is unimaginable. Attorneys’ Bars around the world would oppose, and destroy, any efforts to sell legal representation by agencies where a high school teenager, calling herself a project manager, were to assign lawyers to their clients on an availability basis, without considering quality or experience to decide on the attorney who gets the case. Interpreters see this happening every day and do nothing about it. Not even freelancers question this commercial model; they join these merchants and help to undermine their own profession.

I am not naïve. Multinational interpreting agencies are powerful, greedy organizations willing to fight for what they consider their “industry” to the end. They launch advertising campaigns, misinformation efforts to convince potential customers (they do not have clients) that hiring an interpreter is very difficult; that it can only be done through an agency. They spend time and money convincing freelance interpreters they are their allies; they procure them work, deal with the customer, and pay them a fare “rate” (they do not pay professional fees) after taking the portion of the paycheck they have morally earned. Interesting that agencies never disclose interpreters what they charge their customers, and force freelancers to remain silent when approached by one of the customers about their professional fees or availability.

We will not get rid of these agencies, but I know that interpreters will only be viewed as professionals when they act the part. I also know that some, few, are managed by good people.

There are many colleagues around the world who work as I do. We operate as a doctor’s office or a law office work. When contacted by a client about an assignment that will require the services of interpreters in five languages, I provide my client with the name and contact information of trusted colleagues with the experience and language combination needed for the assignment. If the potential project involves languages commonly used in my part of the world, or several interpreters in my own language combination, I even forward the inquiry to my trusted colleagues, my allies. My client takes it from there and individually negotiates the fee. I also suggest, and sometimes forward, the request to a trusted equipment/technical support provider. The client negotiates costs directly with them. It is like going to a building where many physicians have their offices, all independent, but all trusted colleagues; they suggest one of their colleagues depending on the field of specialization needed by the patient, but each doctor negotiates and sends a separate bill. These professional alliances, professional groups, are a network of professionals who know each other’s quality of work, ethical values, and language combinations. The client has to pay the professional interpreters individually, but he need not look for interpreters with the right experience, language pairs, or availability. That is all done by the interpreter who the client contacted first. That interpreter is the point of contact who suggests colleagues she will vouch for, and she is moved by no other interest but her client’s satisfaction. She will not subcontract the other interpreters, she will not charge them a commission or referral fee, she will only do what all physicians do when you go to their office and they suggest you see the dentist downstairs or the eye doctor next door.

There will be instances when you cannot help the client. There are languages you never work with. Sometimes doctors cannot recommend a colleague because they have no proctologist in the building. That does not mean that the professional network they offer to their patients has no value.

My good clients love this option. They understand it is difficult to get quality in all booths. They trust me and know that I would not jeopardize my reputation by referring them to a mediocre interpreter. They know I suggest nobody services because they are cheap. They also trust my judgement and experience a lot more than they trust a young monolingual person with no practical or theoretical knowledge of the profession, who calls himself “project manager” and has met none of the interpreters he will line up for a job. Clients know that project managers abide by company rules and guidelines which include: profit at all costs. They know their professional pool is limited because they can only provide interpreters willing to work with the agency in exchange for lower fees, inadequate working conditions, and disrespectful treatment.  This professional network model operates as a virtual office where my trusted colleagues are all over the world. It has no time or space limitations.

Interpreters who want to grow and expand to a larger scale should do it, but they should do it as law firms do. Incorporate as a professional corporation or a limited liability corporation, not a commercial enterprise like agencies do. These solutions will let you work as formal partners or shareholders and protect from liability without giving up your professional identity. We need not look or operate like an agency. They are not us.

They want to commoditize our profession and turn it into an industry. They are outsiders with a different set and scale of values. We are professionals. We should act as such. I know many of you are already doing what I described. I also know many colleagues will dismiss these ideas and even defend the agency commercial model. I am aware professional associations are guided by board members who own agencies, and as we have seen, even board members refuse to recuse themselves from voting in association matters when there is a conflict of interest between interpreters and agencies. Finally, I know some interpreters are not ready to freelance, they fear they cannot get clients outside the agency world, or they are content with little money. There, stay with the agencies, that is what you like and deserve.  I now invite you to share your thoughts on this critical issue for our recognition as professional service providers.

What we learned as interpreters in 2018.

December 27, 2018 § 16 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2018 is ending and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2019, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months. As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, this year was packed with learning opportunities. In 2018 I worked with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had positive developments this year: The Spanish Division of the American Translators Association held a very successful conference in Miami, Florida, where those of us in attendance could see many friends and colleagues doing great things for our professions. It was an eye-opener to experience first hand how a professional conference organized by one of the divisions of the American Translators Association, working together with the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Florida (ATIF) and Florida International University (FIU), put together a conference we can unequivocally call professional, full of content, at an excellent venue, and attended by true professional interpreters and translators who could freely exchange opinions, attend workshops and presentations, and enjoy an environment free of predatory agencies, product pushers, and colleagues chasing after newcomers to convince them to work for insultingly low fees. Unlike the better-known ATA conference, this event truly felt like a professional conference, not a trade show. In fact, I invite all those Spanish language interpreters and translators who are ATA members, and think that the Fall conference is way too expensive, to attend this conference instead. In my opinion, if you have to decide between the ATA conference and the Spanish Division conference, it is a no-brainer: pick the smaller, more professional Spanish Division event.

Once again, the interpreting profession continues to advance in Mexico, as evidenced by the Organización Mexicana de Traductores’ (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) very successful conference in Guadalajara, The Autonomous University of Hidalgo’s University Book Fair and content-packed conference in Pachuca; and the every-year bigger and more successful court interpreter workshop and conference for Mexican Sign Language (LSM) that took place in Mexico City once again. The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) took its world congress to Valencia, Spain for its best attended conference in history. Workshops and presentations were first-class, and as it is traditional with IAPTI, colleagues attending the conference had the opportunity to interact with their peers from around the world. The largest U.S. contingent attending a IAPTI conference to date, enjoyed the benefits of interacting with colleagues who literally live all over the world. They noticed the difference between attending a conference in the United States with interpreters and translators from many countries, all of them living in the U.S., and IAPTI where all of them live in their respective countries. The benefit you gain from talking to a Polish interpreter who lives in Poland enriches your personal knowledge of the profession more than speaking with a Polish interpreter who lives in New York City. Besides the characteristic IAPTI’s philosophy and agency-free conference, I was happy to see a well-balanced program full of Interpreting workshops and presentations. Finally, like every five years, the Asociación Española de Traductores, Intérpretes y Correctores (Spanish Association of Translators, Interpreters and Editors, ASETRAD) held its conference in Zaragoza, Spain. This congress was by far the best all-Spanish language conference of the year, and just as I do every five years, I invite all my Spanish speaking colleagues to save the time and money to attend the next gathering five years from now. I was involved in other professional conferences and seminars of tremendous level where I was honored to share experiences and exchange ideas with many professional colleagues. Thank you to all my colleagues who attended my presentations, workshops and seminars. It was a pleasure to spend time with all of you in 2018.

This past year saw big changes in healthcare interpreting in the United States with a major struggle between the two leading certification programs. Fortunately, what looked like the beginning of a big conflict, ultimately subsided, and better-informed interpreters are now deciding what to do with their professional future. The year brought positive developments to the largest court interpreter association in the United States. After a major set back at the end of 2017 when two pillars of the court interpreting profession resigned from the Board of Directors, NAJIT went back to capable, experienced professionals, electing a new Board that fits tradition and expectations. Unlike 12 months ago, the association goes into 2019 with a group of experienced and respected Board members and a promising future.

The year that ends in a few days saw the growth of our profession in the field of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI). I had the opportunity to work several assignments remotely, and both, technology and work conditions were as they should be. I also heard from many colleagues who continue to struggle and endure abuse from some agencies who push video remote interpreting (VRI) in less than favorable conditions.

Not everything was good. 2018 took from us some of our dear friends and colleagues. I cannot reflect on the year that ends without remembering three dear and admired colleagues who passed away: Juan José Peña, a pioneer in the American Southwest, mostly in New Mexico. For years, Juan José was a trainer and examiner for the New Mexico State Court Interpreter Certification program; he was the first staff interpreter at the federal court in Albuquerque, and he selflessly helped new interpreters in New Mexico and elsewhere. Carlos Wesley, a powerful and gentle presence in the Washington D.C. metro area for many years, and an examiner for the federal court interpreter certification exam. Esther Navarro-Hall, a kind, selfless, talented colleague who impacted our profession and the lives of many interpreters worldwide as a professor at MIIS, regular trainer all over the globe, habitual presenter at professional conferences, Chair of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) in the United States, and humanitarian, promoting help and assistance to those impacted by natural disasters everywhere. Our lives and profession are better because of them.

Unfortunately 2018 will forever be remembered as a low point in the history of the profession in the United States. It was its darkest hour. I am referring to the inexcusable fiasco that impacted hundreds of interpreters, and continues to do so, because of the ineptitude of government officials, their selected contractors, and the cover up, misinformation, and lack of response that followed for many months: The 2017 oral federal court interpreter certification examination. We go into the new year with many unanswered questions, with no accountability, and with uncertainty for many who took the test, and patiently await to this day for an examination date more than a year after taking the exam. 2018 will be known as the year when ineptitude destroyed the credibility and reputation of the until then most trusted interpreter exam in any discipline in the United States.

The biggest shift in American foreign policy in decades and its impact on our profession continued in 2018. Events held in the United States for many straight years left for other countries because of the uncertainty of American immigration and trade policy. It proved very difficult to plan a big conference and invest a lot of money, without the certainty that attendees from certain countries will be admitted to the United States for the event. International government programs that require of interpreting services were at an unprecedented low, and changes of personnel in the administration, at all levels, impacted the work available to interpreters in the diplomatic, international trade and private sectors.

If not for the federal court interpreter certification exam disaster, the biggest stain of 2018 would be the conspiracy by most multinational and domestic interpreting agencies to do whatever necessary to overturn a California Supreme Court decision that protects independent interpreters by giving them certain rights that greedy agencies oppose, as compliance with the court decision would diminish their ever-growing margins. These agencies are actively pursuing the overturn of the decision by lobbying for legislation against interpreters. Apparently these efforts are led by a lobbyist who, ignoring any conflict of interest, and with the blessing of the largest interpreter and translator association in the United States (either by action, omission, or both) is trying to get Congress to exclude interpreters from the groups protected by the California Supreme Court decision.

Said conspiracy took us trough a research path that showed us how some of the Board members of this “translators and interpreters” association actively support agencies’ efforts, including a Board member who stated he would not even excuse himself from a vote in cases of conflict of interest. Statement that we will surely revisit come election time.

Throughout the world, colleagues continue to fight against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and other problems. More European countries are now facing outsourcing of interpreting services for the first time.

Once again, interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards creating questionable certification programs, and offering pseudo-conferences and webinars to recruit interpreters for exploitation while hiding behind some big-name presenters, many of whom have agreed to participate in these events without knowledge of these ulterior motives.

Of course, no year can be one hundred percent pariah-safe, so we had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2018 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services.

As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, much changed and much stayed the same. I choose to focus on the good things while I guard against the bad ones. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your learned lessons (good and bad) of 2018.

I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!

2017: The biggest stain in U.S. court interpreting history.

May 7, 2018 § 29 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the United States we have recently spent many hours debating and researching about the validity and credibility of interpreter certifications in the healthcare sector. We have argued back and forth about accreditation, certification, and professional practice because we care about the profession. The debate left us all with a better understanding of our certification programs and the validity of both.

For many years the gold-standard of interpreter certifications in the United States was undoubtedly the federal court Spanish interpreter certification exam. It was known for its difficulty and low passing rate when compared to all other court and healthcare interpreter certification tests. During all those years we never thought that one day we would be forced to question this “queen of all American court interpreter exams”. Fortunately, we are not doubting the content of the exam. This has not changed. The unfortunate people who took the exam in 2017 was administered the same exam all federally certified Spanish court interpreters had to pass. The administration of the test, and handling its consequences after the fact was the fiasco.

Dear friends and colleagues, certification exams are of extraordinary importance in the United States; they are more relevant in our culture and value system than in other countries. While other systems put their credibility on the academic achievements of the new professional, traditionally, the United States has emphasized practice over theory and formal education. Some of our greatest lawyers never attended Law School, because in the United States it is passing the Attorney Bar Exam that matters. There are plenty of countries where people cannot practice a profession, or sit for a Bar or Board exam unless they first graduate from college.

This situation is even more important for professional interpreters practicing in the United States where most of our colleagues have no formal education, but they have demonstrated, by passing the certification test, that they are ready to practice as professionals. In Europe a university degree is essential; in America a certification is vital.

From all certifications, the federal court interpreter certification has been used to measure the competency level and skills of court interpreters in the United States. It is even used (erroneously in my opinion) by small and mid-size interpreting agencies to pick the interpreters they will hire to work in the booth.

We are all aware of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts’ historical failure in 2017 when they could not guarantee the integrity of the process and created a huge mess that impacts many.

After a deafening silence that went on for many long months, and the letter sent out in February which make the situation even worse, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts’ (AOUSC) sent out a carefully crafted, self-serving letter to those who took the exam in 2017 where they try to appease the interpreters by carefully telling a story on the best possible light for the AOUSC and informing them that, after all these months, they are fair and just, and will give those candidates whose exams were compromised to where no score could be determined, and to those who will be told they failed, a chance to retake the exam for free.

I was saddened by the reaction of some, fortunately a minority, of colleagues who celebrated this communication and praised the AOUSC as had they done something wonderful and worthy of recognition. I do not know how many of you have seen last week’s letter. I did, and I am not impressed:

The first paragraph of the April 27 letter refers to the mistakes on the way the exam was administered as “irregularities” softening the tone and making it more palatable. Then, they portray themselves as the ones who investigated for months what happened to finally conclude there were “irregularities”.

Next, the letter states: “…Over the past several months, the AO has worked with a team of trained raters who reviewed all candidate performances and psychometricians who analyzed the rater materials and examination administration data…” but it does not explain who those “trained raters” and “psychometricians “were. I am not doubting their credentials, and I am not feeling confident with their review of this mess because I just do not know who they were. Are we talking about the same colleagues who rated the exams originally, and if so, how many, who, what additional training they had to take to assess these incomplete exams? Were there independent contractors free to disagree with the findings of the AO, or were these staff interpreters who could be very capable, but could also have a conflict of interest when evaluating something that could affect the reputation and legitimacy of their employer. The letter says nothing about it. It looks like a letter prepared by a legal team, not a friendly communication to a professional group that has suffered the consequences of this poorly-run program for many months.

The self-serving tone of the letter continues when they affirm that based on their (mysteriously obtained) findings, 69 percent of the exams were validly administered and accurately scored (we still do not know how they arrived to the conclusion), and 31 percent suffered “irregularities”. My friends, 69 percent is an awful record. This clearly proves the ineptitude within the AO.

The next paragraph shows us the magnanimous nature of the AO: “…Candidates whose scores cannot be validly determined will be given the opportunity to re-take the oral examination free of charge. Moreover, given the findings of the investigation, the AO will also offer anyone who does not receive a passing score the opportunity to retake the oral examination free of charge…” This clearly tells us that the exam was a terrible mess and basically anybody who wants it, will have a second chance, this time without paying for the test, which is not the same as free of charge as we will discuss below. Do we have to believe that it took all these months to arrive to this decision? This should have been announced right after the multiple mistakes were known, not until now, unless there were other legal considerations we are not been told about, like litigation with Paradigm for example.

The letter ends with a blank apology and a reassurance they will preserve the high standards and fairness of the administration of the exam. Did I miss something? There is no admission of wrongdoing anywhere (typical in all letters prepared by a legal department) and there is a self-serving assurance that everything will be fine because they will preserve high standards and fairness. I would think that when your credibility is already in negative numbers (below zero) you would make a statement you will bring back the high standards and fair administration process that distinguished the exam. Right now nothing is good to preserve. Of course, they cannot say anything like this without admitting fault.

Finally, the 8-page attachment is a pseudo-scientific document with no details that plays down the mistakes that can be directly attributed to the AO, and basically throws Paradigm under the bus. Again, there is talk of irregularities, but there is no data on the scoring units, the specific criteria used to assess the exams, or anything that can reassure us this was a scientific work.

It is incredible how the letter and its attachment avoid naming Paradigm and stay away from words such as fault, responsibility, and negligence. This is because those are legal terms and the AO is getting ready for litigation.

Even though the AO has shared nothing on their relationship with Paradigm, there are strong rumors in social media and federal courthouses’ hallways that the relationship has been terminated. This would explain the delay on the “findings” contained on the April 27 letter, as the federal judiciary gets ready to sue their contractor and Paradigm fights for payment of their fees and other contractual terms.

The 2017 federal court interpreter examination saga leaves the federal judiciary stained, the profession wounded, and court interpreters in the worst situation they have faced in history. Unfortunately, there are others who are affected even more and will not benefit from the “Magnanimous letter of April 27”. We can divide them in three categories:

First, those colleagues who studied hard and will get a letter telling them they passed the test. These individuals have been agonizing for 7 months without knowing if they would have to retest. Many have continued to study for the test. All have been deprived from their earnings as federally certified court interpreters for months. They will never get back these months of their lives, and they will never perceive the professional fees they should have earned as federally certified court interpreters working for court districts, assistant US attorney’s offices, public defender’s offices, and private attorneys that retain federally certified court interpreters for many services from jail visits, to depositions, to witness preparation, to federal civil litigation.  They will never earn that income because of a government agency’s ineptitude and a bottom-feeder contractor’s gross negligence.

The second group includes those interpreters who took the test, and for no fault of their own, will now get the “magnanimous” opportunity to retest “free of charge”.  The problem is, my friends and colleagues, there is not such a thing as a “free exam”. The “luckiest” of this crowd will be able to retake the test in their hometown without paying for it, but they must turn down other assignments to take the test. This means they will lose income and that makes the exam far from “free of charge”. Next, you have the unfortunate unlucky ones whose sin was to leave in a town where the exam will not be offered. We all know colleagues who drove overnight, got on a plane, got a passport and then got on a plane, and then checked into a hotel to take the test. Nobody will reimburse them for those expenses, and many must cough up the money once again if they want to take the exam. Even if they AO expands the locations where the test will be administered, it is doubtful this will include those of our colleagues who traveled from abroad to take the test. Plane tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals, gas money, tolls, and lost income will make the retake of the exam a burden to these colleagues. To them, this will not be a “free of charge” exam.

The last group, often forgotten during this fiasco of epic proportions, are the freelance federally certified court interpreters retained by Paradigm, with the blessing of the AO, to rate the original exams. These distinguished colleagues put first the profession and agreed to rate the exams, even if the pay is little for such hard work, they were asked to purchase their plane tickets, book their hotel rooms, and cover their daily expenses while this rating was happening, with the promise of reimbursement when their raters’ fee was paid. It is only now that some of the raters are getting paid; others have not seen a penny yet; and nobody has been reimbursed for travel expenses disbursed 7 or 8 months ago.

Last week, Paradigm sent a letter to the raters explaining why some had not yet been paid, arguing some bureaucratic step that the raters needed to comply with: Sending an email to the individual in charge of this fiasco at Paradigm informing him of this payment.

Regarding reimbursement of expenses, this letter, dated May 4 states: “…Payment for travel and hotel expenses will be released after Paradigm receives verification of your receipt of payment for Rater hours. Meals and incidental expenses will follow…”  They are telling raters that they are not sending their checks quite yet.

Next, the letter includes a self-serving statement that should worry the raters: “…Paradigm is working to get Raters paid in-full within the next few weeks. This is contingent upon Raters providing confirmation of receipt of payments received and the AOC continuing to approve the invoiced items for payment…”

In other words, there is no hard date for these payments, and reimbursement is contingent to AOC’s approval. This would make me very nervous if there is litigation pending between the AO and Paradigm.

As you can see, the “magnanimous letter” is far from a happy ending to this fiasco. The future is uncertain. Nobody knows if the AO will ever share the real data behind what happened and a detailed scientific explanation of the exam assessment process, including those who did it.

The biggest problem and reason to be concerned is the lack of transparency. Interpreters must know who retained Paradigm to administer the test. How was the bidding process; who were the other bidders, how low was the winning bid; who decided in the AO that Paradigm was qualified to administer an exam like the federal court interpreter certification test for Spanish interpreters? Why the credentials of a testing entity like Paradigm, which mainly proctors high school tests to monolingual students were appropriate for this bilingual professional test? There was ineptitude and negligence during this decision making process, and there was gross incompetence when dealing with the aftermath.

Those responsible should pay the consequences. Only then trust will be restored and people will believe the AO once again. In sports, when a team is not performing the coach is fired.

It is doubtful that the AO will come clean and provide all these records to the public. They have no legal obligation to disclose everything, but their moral duty compels them to do so. Without good faith, trust will continue to erode, and interpreters will be left with fewer and more distasteful options such as a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) to see how the process happened; even though the process would be lengthy and the information released will be tittle more than the documents they already published. Those with standing can also sue the AO, but they must do it quickly, since the Federal Tort Act gives only 2 years to do so, and the process must start through an administrative channel. Also, the result of this legal action, even if successful, is limited by legislation and case law.

Perhaps a better option would be to sue Paradigm, its employees, and the AO’s officers as individuals (which is permitted) for damages under the contributory negligence by all defendants’ theory. This way, interpreters would learn more about the steps that lead to this fiasco from the discovery that the parties would have to turn over to the plaintiff. Also, damages awarded can include punitive damages.

I could not end this post without mentioning how the candidates who took the test, the raters who have not been paid, and the court interpreter profession were abandoned by their professional organizations during this struggle. It is sad to see how the current Board of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) abandoned its members by sitting on their hands and remain silent. It was until May 2, after the “Magnanimous letter” was made public, that the Board issued a self-serving harmless statement indicating that they were “…very much aware of the issue surrounding the federal exam…” and how they “are continuing to monitor the events as they unfold in June…” In other words, the national association with the most members directly affected, issues a communication after the fact even more sanitized than the AO’s. The latter called the fiasco “irregularities”; NAJIT could not even say that and called it an “issue”. Without any investigation, they have concluded that in their “opinion” “the AO is acting in good faith in what is an unfortunate set of circumstances”.  Again, this Board sided with the establishment instead of the profession and its own members. Nobody has suggested bad faith from anyone at the AO; the issue (correctly used in this context) is negligence. NAJIT is also telling those attending its annual conference that the AO will address court interpreters but not for a session “…geared toward the federal oral exam and its administration…” They want the AO there, but they will not pursue the federal exam fiasco as the topic to be discussed. That should not be because it could be uncomfortable to the AO, but because it will probably benefit the members more to talk about how many cases were interpreted last year, an interpreter directory, or other vital issues no doubt more important than the biggest stain in court interpreting history. We can only vote and hope to elect a NAJIT Board that will write position papers, hold round tables on the most pressing issues that impact the profession, as it had been the tradition before. It was just 2 years ago, under another Board, that we held a panel on immigration court interpreting that helped to change things to a better situation today. NAJIT is not a labor union and we do not expect it to act like one. We hope it goes back to its role representing the professional interests of its membership while defending the integrity of the profession.

It is time for all court interpreters to think and question those things that go wrong to change them. Treating interpreters as ignorant people, who should be grateful to the AO for letting everyone retest after 7 months of agony following a test that will go down in history as a monument to ineptitude and negligence, with no transparency and accountability is just unacceptable. I now invite you to comment, in the understanding that comments defending the AO or Paradigm will not be posted unless they come from an official source.

Are court interpreters talking to the wrong client?

August 16, 2016 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

As I was having dinner with a colleague several weeks ago in New York City, the conversation turned to the deplorable state of court interpreting at the State level in many parts of the United States and even at some federal district courts. She shared some frustrating stories about court staff choosing less qualified and even non-certified interpreters over solid and skilled certified colleagues just to save money by paying less for court interpreting services.

Her story was not different from the many tales I have learned from interpreters around the country complaining about poorly-run Administrative Offices of the Courts in several States, courthouses led by unreasonable interpreter coordinators, and ignorant government officials who have never bothered to learn anything about interpreting but are too willing to issue directives diminishing the quality of interpreting services and undercutting the fees and contractual guarantees that court interpreters fought so hard to get.

Time and again, there seems to be a common denominator to all this nonsense: These government officials, court administrators, and even short-sighted staff interpreters turned court policy backers, simply ignore interpreters’ arguments and explanations of all the reasons why justice would be better served, Constitutional requirements would actually be met, and interpreters would move the courts to the top of their client lists, if the State courts, and some federal districts, were to treat the profession and those who practice it with the dignity they deserve.

I often wonder how many times interpreters will meet with judges, staff interpreters, and court administrators, to explain that a professional fee, a fair cancellation policy, and appropriate interpreting conditions are needed, before we all realize that we are just wasting our time and energy.

I believe that the moment has arrived.  In the past, whenever I felt that I was getting nowhere with a stubborn judge or an incompetent court administrator, I took my case to the officer of the court who will truly understand and appreciate our services: The private attorney.

I have found it very productive to talk to civil litigants and private defense attorneys one on one. I have seen the impact of a good presentation by an interpreter at a State Bar conference, in front of hundreds of lawyers.  I believe that it is the attorneys who need to hear about the profession. They are the ones who need to know how interpreters are really treated by state officials, and they need to hear some of the horror stories that unfortunately have occurred all over the country when a bad interpretation has been part of a court proceeding.

Court interpreters need to address these lawyers for two reasons: First, since they are not under the authority and policy of court administrators because they are financially independent, they will be able to fight for quality interpreters. They will see it our way because they are also in the business of delivering results to their clients. In other words: no result equals no clients. Moreover, many of their clients are financially capable of paying the interpreter’s professional fees and expenses, and like everything else in the private sector, they know that good things are not cheap.

The second reason for approaching these attorneys is evident: Our work will speak louder than our words. The attorneys and their clients will see how professional interpreters work, they will see the benefits of having a great interpreter at all stages of a case: from the time the client retains the attorney to the end of a case, including strategy meetings, witness preparation sessions, jailhouse visits, and having an interpreter at the plaintiff’s or defense’s table during the trial.  They will see the difference and their client will tell them how the work of the privately retained professional interpreter is infinitely better than the rendition the client will hear from the less expensive interpreters provided by the court at the hearings.  You see, instead of wasting your time talking to the wall, you will invest your time at cultivating professional relationships with these private attorneys who will appreciate your work, treat you like the professional you are, and pay you a much better fee. You will be able to make more money and work less. Who knows? Maybe after all good interpreters leave the courts and cases are overturned on appeal the people who have ignored us will decide to approach us in our terms.

I decided to work with the private bar and I do not regret it at all. In fact, I enjoy being a part of a case from beginning to end instead of just being thrown in there in the middle of a trial without knowing what the case is about. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago one of my attorney clients commented to me that she was so glad to have me as her interpreter because she felt that because I was not in court working with the same judges and attorneys all the time, she could trust me more than “those interpreters who are at the courthouse all the time”.

I suggest that if you are sick and tired of being mistreated and ignored by the courts, you switch gears and give the private bar a try. All you will need is four or five good cases a year to live and feel like the true professional you are. I now ask you to tell us what you think about the way that so many courts treat professional interpreters and what you plan to do about it.

Our work requires trust and a little respect.

March 7, 2016 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

In this era of high speed communications and world trade the function of the interpreter is of unquestionable importance.  There cannot be a globalized society without mutual understanding, and all efforts to understand another culture begin with the transmission of a proposal or an idea by means of the language they speak.

The interpreter is defined as a person who converts a thought or expression in a source language into an expression with a comparable meaning in a target language, conveying all semantic elements as well as the tone and register, and every intention and feeling of the message that the source language speaker is directing to the target language recipients. Basically, it is the action of transmitting ideas between two groups of people who are physically (or virtually) present, but do not understand one half of what is being said in the room.

The question that immediately comes to mind is: Why do these individuals, who have something important to communicate to the other group, believe the conveyed information, and base their decisions in what this interpreter said in their native language? What on earth makes them believe what the interpreter uttered, especially in the many instances when they had never seen this person before? In fact, when interpreting from the booth, the recipients of the interpreting services never get to see the interpreter.  The answer is complex, but it is also very simple: Because they trust the interpreter.

During their life, most humans will have many experiences with providers of goods and services. They will make decisions, some big and others small, based on their expectations as to the quality of some of those goods and services.  In some cases, because of the nature of the service and the characteristics of those who deliver it, they will select the provider based on trust. This is what happens when a person hires a physician, a lawyer or an architect. We put our lives in the hands of surgeons and airplane pilots because we trust that they will perform as expected. We trust that a civil engineer will build us a house that is safe for our family. We trust that an accountant will take care of our fiscal obligations according to the law.  We trust these individuals and their services because they practice a profession. They are professionals who have studied and demonstrated that they can deliver the service, perform the task.

On the other hand, we pick individuals or businesses for other services, or to get some goods, based on an expected result.  That is why when we go to a restaurant we hope that the food is as good as we heard it was, or when we go to the store we hope that the clothes we are going to purchase will fit, last, be comfortable.  We select the providers of these goods and services expecting a desired result: a fast car, an honest housekeeper, and so on.  These goods and services are commercial, they do not fall in the category of professional occupations.  People can join these industries and with skill and perseverance, not necessarily with a formal education or a scientific skill, get to the top of their trade.  A very capable individual can become the best laborer in any giver industry.  Of course there has to be some trust for these businesses to succeed, but this is on the realm of “trust but verify”. That is why we are not shocked when we see a homeowner by the side of the technician throughout the time he is at the house fixing the refrigerator, but we would never even think of joining the surgeon by the operating table while he performs a liver transplant. The second activity is a professional service and it requires absolute trust.

Interpreters fall into the first category. We are professionals providing a sophisticated, complex, and unique professional service.  Like the airplane pilot, we are a trusted professionals and people trust us to the point of letting us be the source of all information and exchanges when dealing with someone who speaks a different language they do not understand.

I have always believed this to be one of the most important characteristics of our craft. Ours is one of very few fiduciary occupations. It is for this reason that I reacted the way I did when I recently faced a situation where they questioned these essential characteristics of our profession.

I consider myself very fortunate because after many years of hard work, I have developed a portfolio of very good clients who value my work and show it on the way they treat me and remunerate my services.  It is not very common to see me accepting an assignment from an unknown source, but sometimes, because the gig seems interesting, or because I have nothing better to do, (provided that my minimum requirements are met), I accept one of these assignments.

Not long ago, I was sitting at my desk working on the blog when I received an email for an assignment that looked interesting.  It got my attention, so I checked my schedule to see if I was open on the date of the event and I was. I must say that the email came from a well-known agency, but with the exception of a job here and there many years ago, I had never really collaborated with them on an assignment.

I responded to the email providing the information they requested: my willingness to take the assignment, my availability on that date, and my fee.  The person from the agency got back to me very quickly to let me know that it all looked great, but they would need me to go lower on my fee. I immediately answered with a resounding: No!

At that point, I thought that this was the end of the story; that just like so many other times in the past, they were going to apply me the silent treatment.

To my surprise, the agency contacted me again on the following morning; this time it was a different person, a supervisor I was told, who wrote to me and stated that she had googled me, that they had asked around, and that after their little research, they had agreed to my fee, and if I was interested, they would love to have me as part of their team for the assignment. I said that I would do it, but that I needed to discuss payment terms with them before going any further. I explained that I have an invoice system that I use, and that I needed them to honor my invoice like the rest of my clients.  It was explained to me that the company’s policy was to use their payment system and invoice forms. I again emphasized the fact that I would only take the job if they agreed to a simple invoice by email process with no other hurdles. I explained that I sell my time and the hours or minutes I was going to spend working on their forms would not be paid by anybody.  The agency representative answered that my conditions were agreeable, and all I had to do was to email them an invoice after the assignment. I agreed and that was the end of the negotiations, which by the way, I have in writing.

Several weeks went by until one day I received an email with the materials for the assignment. Everything was fine to that point, but as I kept on reading until the end of the message, I discovered that they had sent me some forms to fill out, indicating the time I started and finished interpreting. On top of that, they requested that I call the agency at the moment I arrive to the venue, and that their client’s representative sign the form “certifying” that the assignment had indeed started and ended at the times written by me on their form.

I had never been asked to do anything like this before. I felt insulted and got very upset.  They were checking on me, just like they would on the Maytag Man, to make sure I had worked, and my word was not good enough for this folks; they needed me to prove that I was at the event, so they told me to call them; and my credibility was so poor that they needed another individual to vouch for me.

I took a deep breath, actually, I took several, and afterwards I thought of the absurdity of this policy. It was clear to me that they had this rules in place because they did not trust me, and did not trust any of my colleagues. The thing I could not understand is: If they have their doubts about the time I show up for the assignment and about whether or not I actually rendered an interpretation, how is it possible that they let me interpret from a foreign language that nobody in the room understands but me and my booth mate.  They got it all backwards. I felt disrespected by this “interpreting” agency, and I felt that they had insulted my profession.

After a few minutes I wrote them back, indicating that I was not used to be under the surveillance of anybody, that I was a professional who sells his time, skill, and knowledge by providing a professional service, and that I have always expected to be treated with decency, respect, and as a professional. I added that I could not agree to their corporate policy, and for that reason, I was declining the assignment.  It was not long before the person from the agency wrote back, and her email was very telling. It read as follows: “…We regret that (you have) declined the assignment. We agreed to pay you above our usual rate, but unfortunately, we cannot waive the other requirements. This is our policy and it is very similar to that of many others in the industry…”

That is the problem, dear friends and colleagues, these agencies expect to deal with us as merchants, not professionals. Key terms such as “rates” (like a merchant) instead of “fees” (like a professional), give us an idea of who they are looking for in the “industry”. To take one of the words this agency used on their final email: “Unfortunately”, interpreting is not an industry, it is a profession. We cannot work under mistrust, nor for a client (who they would probably call “customer”) who comes to our environment with the same hopes and expectations that you have when you enter the drycleaners.  I deal with clients who trust me to do my work just like I trust the dentist who drills holes in my teeth.  We are a profession. Industries deal with their service providers as laborers, I will stick to those businesses who deal with me as a professional.  I now invite you to share your comments or similar experiences when an agency or a direct client has viewed you as a factory worker and not as a professional.

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