June 14, 2016 § 5 Comments
Humans are reluctant to think that something that was very good in the past could end up as something very bad. It goes against our idea of making things better, contrary to our concept of progress. Unfortunately, it is too often that a bad situation manifests itself right in front of our eyes. Just think of Venezuela; once the best economy in Latin America with a bright future ahead, and now a sad story of poverty, government corruption, and hunger, where millions of bright good people suffer the consequences of incompetent decisions.
The interpreting world has had its share of cases where a good situation turns bad. Today I will share with you a tragic story that, without prompt and able action, could become the Venezuela of the interpreting world. First, a word of caution: The story I am about to share with all of you depicts an intolerable situation in a certain region of the United States, and it directly impacts a relatively small segment of our professional community; Nevertheless, the conditions that gave birth to this tragic scenario could easily happen again anywhere in the world, perhaps in your area, maybe in your professional field. In fact, I am sure that this is happening in other regions of the planet. It is for these reasons that I invite you to carefully read this story, so you can learn how to recognize the symptoms, and find a way to take action defending your profession before it is too late.
This story has to do with court interpreting in the United States. Many of you already know that court interpreting is the most common interpreting practice in the United States. It has the most interpreters, and it is the only specialization that has its own legislation at the state and federal levels.
For American standards, compared to other types of interpreting, court interpreting has a “long history” of regulations and professional standards in the United States. It goes back to 1978 when the American federal government passed the Federal Court Interpreters Act which required that Spanish language interpreters passed a certification exam in order to qualify for work in the federal court system. Soon after, several individual states followed the example of the federal government, and developed their own legislation to test and certify Spanish language interpreters who were going to provide professional services in that particular state system. The first state to set its own system was California in 1979, followed by New York, New Mexico, and New Jersey in the 1980s. These efforts culminated with the creation of the (now defunct) Consortium of States where a majority of the states came together, combined resources, and developed a test that served as the basis to certify those Spanish language interpreters who met the minimum requirements to work as professionals in a given state judicial system. After the creation of the Consortium, individual states developed certification tests in other languages to meet the needs of their specific areas. New York and California did not participate in the Consortium of States, but New Mexico and New Jersey became the “gold standard” for court interpreter certification at the state-level in the U.S.
Due to its history and traditions, New Mexico became a pioneer and a national leader in all court interpreter matters: A founding state of the Consortium, New Mexico was the first state to allow non-English speakers, who were American citizens, as jurors at the state court level, actively participating in the trial process and jury deliberations with the assistance of a court interpreter. It also developed a very important professional community of Navajo court interpreters, and considered all court interpreting services as one profession, for the first time bringing to the table, at the same time, all spoken foreign language, Native American language, and Sign Language court interpreters. Other major landmarks in the history of court interpreting in New Mexico include being one of the first states to require continuing education to keep the certification current, having a state supreme court justice as an active advocate of quality standards in court interpreting, and it became the sponsor of the largest annual court interpreter conference for a state of its size. In other words, New Mexico took some of the biggest names in the interpreting and translation conference world to its state so that the local professionals could benefit of these trainings at a very low cost. New Mexico was the “gold standard” for other states and the quality of its court interpreters was recognized throughout the country. It was at this time, when things were going the right way, that two events changed the course of this court interpreter program, and pushed it to the edge of the cliff where it started its current freefall: There was a change of the guard at the helm of the state program, and the federal government exercised its muscle to compel the states to comply with the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Among them: the state’s obligation to give universal access to all services provided with federal funds, including all non-English speakers. All of a sudden, furnishing certified court interpreters in all criminal law cases was not enough anymore. New Mexico needed to offer interpreting services to all non-English speaking individuals who walked into a state government office.
The landscape changed. Due to his age and other personal reasons, the State Supreme Court Justice who had served the interpreting community as an advocate and unconditional ally for so many years, took a back seat and slowed down his pace; the person in charge of the administration of the state court interpreter program left, and even her very capable assistant of many years transferred to another government position. They were replaced by a newcomer with academic credentials but without court interpreting experience, and lacking the knowledge necessary to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of such a complex population and professional interpreter community.
The changes started almost immediately. Some of them were noticeable right away, others did not show their head in plain sight until many months later. The state government officials’ attitude towards the interpreters changed radically. From the head of the Administrative Office of the New Mexico State Courts, to the language access services statewide manager, to the rookie judge (not a Supreme Court Justice anymore) who now actively participated in all interpreter issues that had to do with an entity created by the state called the New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee; policy, attitudes, and decisions began to change. There would be no annual conference anymore; the conditions that interpreters had been working under for many years would be reevaluated to cut as much as possible; the cordial and professional relationship, based on mutual respect, that had existed for decades between the interpreting community and the state would now be replaced by a tough attitude where the difference in size and power would be clearly exercised by the big guy in the contractual relationship, now very willing to show its muscle in the event of a minor dissidence or difference of opinion; and the Civil Rights Act’s Title VI requirements would be portrayed as fulfilled by creating a less expensive sub-par category of paraprofessional quasi-interpreters, instead of fostering and promoting the growth of the interpreter profession, thus meeting the minimum standards of the Civil Rights Act mandate, which of course, would require more funds and a greater effort on the part of the state, including, but not limited to, the Administrative Office of the Courts’ active participation in the preparation of a budget to be presented to the state legislature where fulfilling the true mandate of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act would be a top priority for the judiciary, whose only reason to exist as part of the government, is to guarantee an administration of justice inclusive of all citizens of the state. Of course, this would demand a different attitude by the state, with a judiciary willing to battle the legislature, and go to the United States Justice Department to denounce the State Legislature whenever it was not addressing the equal access to justice mandate. A very different attitude, especially when compared to… perhaps securing judges and bureaucrats’ salaries and then throwing everybody else under the bus.
I have been told by many interpreters in New Mexico that since the time this change of priorities took place, the state has switched interpreters’ minimum guaranteed periods of work, it has changed its travel policy to pay less to the interpreters, there have been attempts to include as part of the original contract, attachments that fundamentally change essential parts of the interpreters’ contracts after these agreements have been executed already; I have listened to stories of interpreters been disrespected at Language Access Advisory Committee meetings; the story of an interpreter whose certification was revoked for no reason, who later won a legal case to get the certification reinstated, but has been isolated by the state officials who have never let this person work in the court system again. I have seen the abysmal difference between the quality of a certified court interpreter’s rendition, and the mediocre paraprofessional services provided by the so called “justice system interpreters”, and I have listened to the American Sign Language Interpreters who share the same concerns as their spoken language counterparts regarding the quality of video remote interpreting, and more importantly, the level of interpreting skills of those who may provide the service from out of state, perhaps without a New Mexico or federal court interpreter certification. It is possible that the State of New Mexico has designed a strategy to justify its actions. Even though what they are doing is legal, and I am in no way suggesting that the state has violated any law; it is still wrong for the profession, wrong for the interpreters, and bad for the non-English speakers who need a professional certified court interpreter to protect their life, freedom, or assets
I know that many of our colleagues in New Mexico are fighting a very important battle to protect the profession and the true professional interpreter; many have retained an attorney to represent them before the everyday more aggressive attitude of the state officials, and many of them are refusing to sign a contract with the state, unless and until, the minimum professional work conditions that they are requesting, and constitute the minimum standards everywhere else in the civilized world, are met by New Mexico. Just like we did last year when we, as a professional community, backed up the efforts by our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States until SOSi agreed to better their fees and basic working conditions, let’s all be one once again and support our colleagues in New Mexico.
Finally, to our colleagues in New Mexico, I encourage you to talk to the State Bar and make all attorneys in New Mexico aware of the fact that the state is on the brink of destroying that tradition that made New Mexico the “gold standard” of court interpreting at the state-level in the United States. Submit articles to the New Mexico Bar Bulletin for publication, even this piece. I could almost assure you that many lawyers are not even aware of the abysmal difference between real certified court interpreters and the individuals the state is furnishing for so many of their court appearances. Make sure that your voice is loud all over the state. I now invite you all to share your comments about this situation and many other similar scenarios in the United States and many other countries.