Much to learn from Mexican interpreter program.

August 30, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in the first legal interpreting workshop for Mexican Sign Language interpreters in Mexico City. It was a three-day event attended by sign language interpreters from all corners of Mexico.  With the arrival of the new oral trial proceedings to their country, now Mexican interpreters will play an essential role in the administration of justice. Until recently, the country followed a written proceedings system where interpreters were rarely needed, but now, with a system similar to the one in the United States, interpreters will participate at all stages of a court proceeding; moreover, because Mexico kept their traditional substantive law system, based on Roman, French, and Spanish Law, interpreters will also be needed in all proceedings before a Notary Public where a party does not speak Spanish.

Certainly, Mexico is not the first or the only country switching to this more agile and transparent legal system, but what I saw during the workshop showed me a different, and probably better way to incorporate interpreting into the legal system, and provide a professional service by good, quality interpreters.  What Mexican Sign Language interpreters are doing should be adopted as an example by many other interpreter organizations everywhere.  Sign language, foreign language, and indigenous language interpreter programs could benefit from a strategy like the one they are now implementing in Mexico.

Like many countries, including the United States, Mexico is facing problems familiar to all judicial systems: shortage of quality interpreters, ignorance by judges and administrators, lack of a professionalization system that eventually will only allow interpreters with a college degree.  Unlike most countries, and even foreign language and indigenous language interpreters in Mexico, sign language interpreters are trying to achieve all of those goals by partnering with the courts and academia.

The workshop was the brainchild of a judge from Mexico City’s Electoral Court who identified the need to provide deaf citizens a way to exercise their political rights.  The judge devoted her experience, reputation, time, and connections to the project, and after some effort, the Mexico City Electoral Court, Mexico’s Supreme Court, the Mexican National University (UNAM) and some district judges came on board, together with the sign language interpreter associations.

The workshop was held at three different venues in order to get all interested parties involved, and to send a message to Mexican society that the effort was real. On the first day, at the Mexico City Electoral Court, interpreters learned about the Mexican legal system and its recent changes. On the second day, interpreters attended an all-day session at the postgraduate degree school of the Mexican National University (UNAM) where more practical presentations dealing with interpreter problems and participation in a court hearing were discussed. It was refreshing to see how interpreters were able to convey their concerns to some of the highest authorities within the Mexican court system, accomplishing two things: that their voice be heard, and that judges be aware of how little they know and understand of the interpreters’ role in court.  During the second day of the workshop, a program to develop a curriculum for Mexican Sign Language interpreters to get formal education and obtain a diploma after a year of studies sponsored by the Mexican National University (UNAM) and perhaps Madrid’s Complutense University (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) got its kickoff. The idea is that eventually, this program will allow sign language interpreters to learn the law, court procedure, and court interpreting by attending a combination of virtual and classroom sessions for one year, so that at the end of the year they be ready to take a certification exam that will first test their bilingualism, so that only those who have demonstrated proficiency in both languages move on to the interpreting portion of the exam.  Once an interpreter passes the exam, their name will be added to the list of certified court interpreters they judiciary will have and use to determine who is fit to practice in court.  Eventually, the goal is to develop a degree in Mexican Sign Language Interpreting so that all interpreters working the courts have a college degree.

Finally, the third day of the workshop was held at the building of Mexico’s Supreme Court, where one of the Justices addressed the attendees who spent the time learning about the professional and business aspects of the profession. The day ended with a mock court trial where interpreters participated with the help of law students and professors.

I still believe on addressing the private bar directly bypassing court administrators, but in my opinion, the example set by Mexico’s sign language interpreters is a lesson that should be applied elsewhere. Having justices and judges of the highest level, together with college deans and professional interpreter associations generate a plan of realistic action that goes beyond the demagoguery so often practiced by government officials who never had the desire to help in the first place, would change the “balance of power” that court interpreters are suffering in many places, including many states in the U.S. where ignorant administrators pretend to run a court interpreter program with their eyes set on the budget and their backs to court interpreter needs and the administration of justice.  Having the highest authorities within the judiciary to listen, understand, and support interpreter initiatives (that are nothing but efforts to comply with a constitutional mandate) would go a long way, and having the most prestigious universities in the land to volunteer to sponsor a court interpreter education program with an eye on eventually turning it into a college degree, would solve many problems we see today in all languages.  The Mexican approach encourages the interpreter to professionalize by fostering the direct client relationship between courthouse and interpreter, eliminating once and for all the unscrupulous intermediary that charges for the service, keeps most of the money, pays interpreters rock-bottom fees, and provides appalling interpreting services.

I invite all of you, my colleagues, regardless of where you practice: The United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico and elsewhere, and regardless of your type of interpreting: sign languages, foreign languages, or indigenous languages, even those Mexican interpreters who practice as foreign or indigenous language court interpreters, to consider this Mexican strategy. I believe that it has a better chance to work than those other tactics interpreters have attempted to follow for such a long time.

I now ask you to opine on this very innovative strategy adopted by our colleagues in Mexico with the full support of their authorities and academia.

Questions of a court interpreting student. Part 1.

May 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

I received a message from one of my students of court interpreting in Mexico City. With the new oral trial system that is now being implemented in Mexico there will be many opportunities for interpreters to find assignments in court settings, so she is considering becoming a court interpreter when she finishes college.

She researched the matter, and as she was getting deeper into the world of court interpreting she decided to contact me with some of her doubts. Because her questions were very good, I thought about responding through the blog so that others, in Mexico and elsewhere, with the same or similar concerns could learn a little more about this area of the profession. I asked her if this was an acceptable way to answer her questions, and after she said yes, I wrote down my answers. As I was responding to the questions I realized that this would be a lengthy post so I decided to divide it in two parts. This is part 1; part 2 will be posted in two weeks. I now invite you to read the first half of my answers to her questions.

  •  How useful is it to have experience as a conference interpreter if you want to become a court interpreter? Isn’t it more advantageous to have a community interpreting background? Please mention the advantages and disadvantages or each.

All interpreting experience is useful to become a court interpreter, just like to become an interpreter in any other specialty; Specifically, having experience as conference interpreter helps you as a court interpreter because it teaches you how to get ready for an assignment: how to research, develop glossaries, study the subject matter, and organize your time. It also gives you the advantage of a broader vocabulary. Community interpreting helps the new court interpreter to get used to work under less-than-ideal conditions such as noise, bad acoustics and speakers who use a lower register. With that said, new court interpreters have to be careful as these other disciplines can also hurt the rendition if the interpreter is careless. Conference interpreters do not interpret the obvious or the repetitious; they also leave out utterances and noises by the speaker. They strive to deliver an understandable rendition at a pleasant pace and tone. Court interpreters must interpret everything, and in order to do this, it is often required to go at a considerably faster pace than a conference interpreter. Community interpreters tend to help the speaker in order to achieve better communication between the parties. Court interpreters cannot do this; they must limit their work to the interpretation of what has been said by the speaker without any help from the interpreter. Of course, these differences stem from the basic principle that unlike conference and community interpreting where the main goal is to achieve communication and understanding between two parties who do not share a common language, court interpreting main goal is also to assess the credibility of the foreign language speaker in order to assign legal responsibility for a certain action or omission.

  •  Precision versus Style. Which criteria should we follow when working in court?

Court interpreting is a unique discipline because it requires that the rendition by the interpreter include everything accurately. This does not mean that the court interpreter has to interpret word by word. That would be nonsensical in another language. He requirement is that no concept, no element, no piece of information can be excluded from the rendition. Accuracy is essential to court interpreting. When an interpreter working in a non-legal environment omits some information this can be corrected in different ways: through an explanation by the interpreter himself during a “silent moment” as soon as the opportunity arises; by a reference to the event’s program, and even with a public announcement during or after the session. Because court interpretation is done for the benefit of those judging a case: judge and jury, the interpreter must give them all the elements, all the evidence, all the information presented during the hearing. Another recipient of the court interpreter’s rendition is the defendant who has the constitutional right to actively participate in his/her defense. For these reasons the rendition must be accurate and complete. Court interpreting separates itself from other genres of interpretation when it includes style as part of that precision. In court interpreting style is understood as the way a statement is delivered by the speaker; it includes register and emotions. Therefore, as part of this complete and accurate rendition, an interpreter must select and use a manner of speech, vocabulary, and delivery style that matches that of the foreign language speaker. On a given day, the same interpreter will interpret for a gang member, a scientist, and an attorney; all three will use different terminology and vocabulary, they will all have a different delivery, and they will speak a language correlated to their level of education and personal background. Without turning the rendition into a mockery of the orator, the interpreter must convey the entire message, not just the spoken words, but also the way they are spoken. As we can see then, precision and style are paramount in court interpreting, but they are both understood and observed under the professional duty to produce a complete and accurate rendition.

  •  What would you recommend to those of us who don’t live in the United States and want to acquire a wide range of language terms that may be presented in courts, from specialized legal and technical terminology to street slang?

The first thing a person who lives abroad needs to do is to determine where she wants to work as a court interpreter, if you plan to work within your own country’s legal system then the focus of your content should be inside your country. On the other hand, if you plan to work in your country and in the United States, or if you want to take the federal court interpreter certification exam in the U.S. even if you are going to live somewhere else, then you have to manage two parallel tracks: For the United States legal terminology and slang you need to study. Read legal and paralegal books; I do not mean law school text books (although I do not discourage you from doing it if you want) study basic law like the one students of pre-law or paralegal studies use in the United States, read legal novels because they use enough legal terms to make it worth. Watch a few TV legal dramas, and watch and listen to plenty of real life court proceedings in the United States. You can watch True TV (formerly known as Court TV) and HLN (Headline News Network) from just about any country in the world. They carry real court hearings during the day. There are also several radio stations and online stations that broadcast the sound of court proceedings during the day. Many judiciaries at the state-level in the United States have transcripts and recordings (audio and video) available on their websites, and even the official website of the U.S. Supreme Court offers audio recordings that you can listen to. Of course I would also get a good legal dictionary like Black’s.

Within your country I would do the same; for Mexico specifically, I would watch the “Canal Judicial” go to the website of the Suprema Corte, and physically attend some trials and motions hearings at the courthouses that already hold oral proceedings (The State of Mexico is a possibility near Mexico City) I would also get a hold of a good legal dictionary like the Diccionario Jurídico de la UNAM.

Finally, for technical, scientific, and other terms I suggest you start your own library and study these topics first at the basic entry level, and then at a deeper stage depending on the assignments you get. There are dictionaries for slang and regional expressions in both English and Spanish, and there are novels, movies, TV shows and even soaps (narconovelas) that can help you enhance your word bank.

  • As translation/interpretation students attending college outside the United States can we be considered as full-time students for joining organizations such as NAJIT and paying student fees?

All professional organizations have their own rules and criteria for admission. Most of them include as one of their goals the fostering of new professionals and to do so they offer special status or benefits to those who at the time are not able to generate an income because of their studies. Specifically, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in the United States (NAJIT) has five membership categories: active, associate, organizational, corporate, and student. Their website indicates that a student member shall be any person engaged in full-time studies as defined by the Membership Committee. I do not know what the Committee’s definition is, but it seems to me that a full-time student of interpretation is the same anywhere in the world and therefore, perhaps on a case-by-case basis, the organization should be able to confirm what I just said. After all, the rationale behind having lower membership fees for the students is that they cannot afford the higher fee because they are studying all the time and therefore they are not making any money, and if like I mentioned, one of the objectives of a professional organization is the advancement of the newcomers to the profession, it should always include the fostering of new interpreters and translators. I suggest you contact the organization directly and express these factors that I brought up in this paragraph.

  •  In my opinion, being a court interpreter may be somehow dangerous because you could have access to confidential information and you deal with people convicted or at least charged with a crime. Are there any protection programs, like the witness protection program, available for interpreters?

It is true that court interpreters are privy to confidential information. It is true that they are subject to ethical and professional rules of confidentiality, and it is also true that when working for an attorney, they are covered by the client-attorney privilege. This means that while there is a lot of pressure for a court interpreter to divulge confidential or even privileged information, there are plenty of legal protections that make it easier for the interpreter to refuse to share this data. It is also true that most court interpreters could end up interpreting for a convicted felon: murderers, rapists, drug traffickers, gang members, and child molesters are some of the court interpreter clients, and there is a certain risk that goes with the profession; even civil cases and in particular family court cases can be dangerous; however, there are plenty of protections such as the security at the courthouses and detention centers, the marshals and deputies in the courtrooms, and the interpreter’s own common sense. The court interpreter is trained to deal with these individuals; they are taught not to socialize with the defendants, they are instructed to follow all directions by the detention center guards, and many other patterns of conduct. I personally make sure I remove any type of ID before interacting with a criminal defendant or their family members so they never know my full name, where I work or live, and any other personal information that badges or identification cards contain. It is dangerous but at least in the United States it does not get to the point of requiring a protection program. In the case of Mexico, the final legislation that will address court interpreting in detail is still pending, and some of the issues that are presently being considered are precisely those related to the identity and safety of the interpreters and translators.

I hope these answers helped you on your quest to become a court interpreter, and I hope they helped others in Mexico and elsewhere, including the United States, who are considering this profession. I also invite all of you to share with the rest of us any other suggestions or input you may have on any of the first five questions. I would love to hear from students, new interpreters, veterans of the profession; anybody who may be interested in helping the next generation to get there. Finally, I remind you that the rest of my student questions will be answered on part 2 of this posting two weeks from today.

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