What assignments should interpreters take?

October 12, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Sometimes, after turning down a job offer from an individual who had contacted me by email or phone, I wonder if my life would be easier if I turned into a “yes man” and accepted many offers that come my way. It would save me the time I spend explaining why I cannot work under the circumstances proposed, or avoiding all those baseless arguments and laughable excuses from ignorant prospective clients and greedy multinational agencies. No doubt it would be good for my health.  I would have more clients, interpret every day, and turn into the darling of all agencies and professional associations. I would probably be “Tony the Yes Man”, “the one who does not make any waves.” “Mr. Takes it in the chin”.

Unfortunately, I immediately remember that I am a professional; that acquiring my set of skills and knowledge has been difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. At this point I always decide not to be the “lovable loser”.

I understand there are many interpreters; government agencies are looking for ways to save money, and private corporations want to be profitable. This only means it is harder to get an assignment; that we must put a bigger effort into finding good clients and well-paid assignments. Professional interpreting is not a hobby; it is a business, and in that world worthwhile things are not free. We must behave like businesspeople; we cannot make everybody happy by accepting any assignment that comes across our table, and we cannot make the agency recruiter’s life easier by giving in to unspeakable working conditions.

We must never forget who we are and what we do. We must protect our profession even when facing a human tragedy. I saw how some of my colleagues, well-intentioned, gave in to the indiscriminate use of bilinguals instead of interpreters during the Mexican earthquakes and Caribbean hurricanes. Some considered that demanding interpreters was inappropriate because of the urgent need for interpreting services. I think they wasted an opportunity to showcase the interpreters’ work to many people who had never heard of interpreting in their lives. I applaud those colleagues who held their ground and defended the use of professional interpreter services.

Recently, I turned down a job offer to interpret for some Spanish speakers, members of another country’s armed forces, because the assignment did not pay for the days off between sessions when interpreting was not required, and because I got no assurance that during the flying lessons there would be a flight instructor on board with direct access to the aircraft instruments if a mistake by the student occurs.  The agency recruiter could not understand why I was not willing to risk my life for an assignment that cared so little for the interpreter they had not even bother to check and see if there would be a licensed pilot on board.

I also declined an offer from a small agency to interpret simultaneously non-stop for three hours by myself. The agency rep thought I was a prima donna, and even offered me more money to take the job. I did not.  Another agency’s “project manager” got mad because after she booked me (and a colleague) for a conference, two weeks went by and we got no materials from her. When asked on the status of the assignment, she replied that the event organizer had selected a different agency, and for that reason she had not contacted the interpreters. She even said that it was the interpreters’ duty to call the agency to see if an event had been cancelled or not!

When you add these incidents to the many times when the agency coordinator argues with you because you want too much money and the agency is offering an “…amount that many would love to make at work…” ; when they reply with sarcastic emails insinuating that you must be out of your mind to ask for the money you quoted for your services; or those occasions when after they explain the assignment for hours, you finally get to say a word, and let them know your fee and they reply with a simple: “oh, thank you” and hang up.

I am sure that I just described another day at the office for many of you, so the question is: What assignments should I take?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to such a complex question. Part of the answer must do with experience, language combination, the type of interpreting you do, and the part of the world where you live. I will let you figure out that part of the question by yourself or jointly with colleagues in similar circumstances as yours.

The part I can answer, because it has universal application is straight forward: Develop a portfolio of direct clients and take very good care of them. It is difficult to find these clients but they exist. I know because I am fortunate enough to work with many. The important thing is to know where to look for them and how to spot them from a mile away.

The best clients come from referrals from other satisfied clients, colleagues, and technicians. A good story starts like this: “I am contacting you because I was referred to you by…” or “…I want to retain your services because I attended an event you interpreted in the past…”

These people looked for you because of your skills and the quality of your service. They value what you do and want YOU to interpret.

A bad story generally begins with: “…I got your name from the ATA (or any other association) directory and I was wondering if you are still a translator…”

Screen these individuals for only sixty seconds and politely end the conversation if they do not look promising.  These prospective clients do not understand who you are. To them, you are just another name on a directory under the language they need and from the location they want. They do not know what you do, and they value your profession so little they even wonder if you are still “translating” because, since you are bilingual, this must be a thing you were doing “in between jobs”.  I know some people think that you can get some good clients this way, but it depends on what you consider a good client. So far, I have never found one top client this way.

The other thing to consider, because of its universal application, is the place where you are in the world.  Unlike translation, good interpreting assignments do not happen in small towns or mid-size cities. They are in the big cities and not in all of them.  If you live in a rural area or a small city, and you want to take the best assignments, you must consider moving to a bigger city. You may need to decide between a certain lifestyle, including few professional competitors and life in the big city where you will be swimming with the sharks. Do your research, and when you do it, make sure there is a market for your language combination in the big market you are targeting. Nothing is worse than moving to another place to find out that your languages are not in demand.

Finally, think of what you want to do. People find certain things very important, even if there is not a lot of money in that field. Do not fool yourself, you will never make a lot of money working as a community interpreter or practicing in a small city, but maybe that is not a crucial factor to you. Some colleagues find working in the community assisting people with little or no money more rewarding than a high-profile wealthy client in the big city.  Some interpreters prefer less money and not so famous clients over constant traveling and spending most of the time away from home.

In conclusion, we should all seek clients that will appreciate our work, who select us for who we are as individuals, offer us professional working conditions (treat us with respect, provide materials, understands the need for team interpreting and good technology in a comfortable booth, etc.) and pay professional fees. We should protect the profession and reject prospective clients looking for anybody on a list, disrespect us, want to pay us as laborers, and do not offer the appropriate working conditions mentioned above. The rest are personal judgments we all need to make depending on the lifestyle we want to have and the service we want to provide. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments on this topic.

A lesson to all interpreters.

October 12, 2015 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We have seen over the past few weeks how a grassroots movement by some of our colleagues has produced results that until recently would have been considered unrealistic.  I am referring to the freelance United States immigration court interpreters who, so far, have refused to accept the contractual conditions offered by a new federal government contractor that does not deal with them as language professionals but as unqualified laborers.

For many years, federal government contractors did their bidding and earned contracts from the immigration courts (EOIR) based on a widely accepted assumption that immigration court interpreters would take any fee offered to them, regardless of how low it was. This is how the bidding process worked and produced the abhorrent working conditions that LionBridge imposed on the interpreters, including extremely low fees, absurd cancellation policies, unprofessional treatment where the interpreters’ word had no credibility when their word conflicted with court staff, and even a penalty for those who wanted to be paid on time.  For these reason many interpreters left, or never entered, the immigration court interpreting field. It was just unattractive to those who wanted to make a higher income and expected to be treated like professionals.  Even now, the testimony of several attorneys reflects this reality when they comment that, many times, the quality of the interpretation in immigration court was lower than at those courts managed by the Administrative Offices of the Courts.

This is the environment that SOSi, the new bidder, encountered when they came into the picture. No wonder they pushed interpreter working conditions to a low never seen before.  They assumed that this time would be like the others and interpreters would take the offer, no matter how unfair and insulting.  They were wrong.

You see, friends and colleagues, a few things have changed since the last time the contract was awarded to LionBridge. By the time SOSi bids for the EOIR contract, there were more interpreters with a formal education than before; these colleagues had entered to the world of immigration court interpreting for many reasons: to gain some professional experience, to put their name out there, to have some income to begin to repay their student loans…

They worked as immigration court interpreters, but they were not there to stay; their time working over there would be a step towards a more fulfilling and better paid career. They did not plan to stay, but while they were there, they shared their ideas about professionalism and their personal dreams with the other interpreters who were already there. They inspired many of them to study to better themselves as interpreters, to go to a community college and study interpretation, to take a state or federal court interpreter certification exam, to become certified as healthcare interpreters, and so on.  The crowd that SOSi encountered did not look much like the one its predecessor found some twenty years earlier. The result: They would not put up with worse working conditions than the horrendous ones they had suffered from the previous contractor, so they refused to sign the contracts, and the deadline for SOSi to take over interpreting services came and went without fulfilling their obligation because of their lack of the most precious and indispensable asset to provide interpreting services: the professional immigration court interpreter.

These colleagues took advantage of things that were not there the last time the contract was up for bids: social media, communication and peer support, information about the working conditions of other court interpreters working somewhere else, and the experience of our colleagues in the United Kingdom with another agency devoted to the degradation of the professional interpreter: Capita.

The refusal to sign these individual contracts happened all over the United States, the voice got louder, blogs spread the word and informed some not-so-well known facts about the contractor (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/disrespecting-the-immigration-interpreter/) virtual forums were created, professional associations intervened, the media wrote about this issue in English (http://www.buzzfeed.com/davidnoriega/immigration-courts-could-lose-a-third-of-their-interpreters#.sopPZ5w26) in Spanish (http://www.eldiariony.com/2015/10/07/disputa-laboral-de-interpretes-amenaza-con-agravar-demoras-en-tribunales-de-inmigracion/) and discussed it on the radio (http://www.scpr.org/programs/take-two/2015/10/09/44770/backlog-at-immigration-courts-could-grow-with-a-pa/)

The contractor, probably frustrated by this “unexpected occurrence”, apparently decided to get help from local language services agencies all over the country to see if, by buffering this link between them and the professional immigration court interpreter, some colleagues would agree to sign the individual contracts, and, unless there is some legal figure no interpreter is aware of, as a result of their signature, they would become contractors of a sub-contractor (the local agency), putting them one more step away from the entity that won the contract: SOSi. In fact, I have heard from several interpreters in different cities who have contacted me with their concerns about the contents of this contract that has been offered to them.

Although the following is in no way legal advice, nor is intended in the slightest to be such a thing, I have decided to give my opinion about some of the portions of the contract as they were presented to me by my colleagues. Remember, this is just my opinion, based on my many years of professional experience as a professional interpreter, and my years in law school.  Your opinion may be different and I will not dispute such a thing.  Let’s see:

The most common concern about our colleagues can be summarized by this colleague’s observations: In general, I have my doubts that my previously negotiated  half/day and  full/day rates would really be respected, in light of SOSi’s option to pay these “…unless EOIR determines that using a different CLIN would result in less cost to the government.”  What does this mean in plain English?

There is a legal principle in civil law (and contracts are civil law) called the parol evidence rule. This principle states that all negotiations between the parties to a contract that took place before or simultaneously to the signing of a contract, that are not clearly spelled out on the document, are non-existent and therefore, non-binding and unenforceable. This means that all “negotiated rates” that are not in writing are irrelevant. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parol_evidence_rule) (http://thelawdictionary.org/parol-evidence-rule/)

A follow up question to the last comment was this one: what is a CLIN?”

Although I do not know for sure, I believe that “CLIN” in this context refers to “Contract Line Item Number” This would mean that if EOIR finds a legal way to pay less than the “previously negotiated rate” or If other interpreters are willing to work for less, the pay could be impacted.

Some interpreters are concerned about the travel expenses when they are asked to go out of town to interpret a hearing.  Apparently, the section of this contract that addresses this issue does not mention the English<>Spanish interpreters.  As far as travel expenses, keeping in mind that English<>Spanish interpreters cover the immense majority of the immigration cases, my feeling is that they could be leaving the English<>Spanish interpreters out of the equation because they feel they can meet these needs with Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) and with local folks if needed.

It is also worrisome that said contract seems to emphasize “telephonic interpreting”, indicating that this service will be paid at an hourly fee. As we all know, like all professional services providers, interpreters sell their time.  Getting paid for the time interpreted based on an hourly pay would result in a detrimental situation for the interpreter, because nobody is paying for the time it takes to this professional services provider to get ready to do the rendition (travel to the courthouse or detention center, setting aside big chunks of time to do the assignment, etc.)

According to some colleagues, SOSi appears very firm on its insistence that interpreters compete for offered work assignments on a generally accessible “available assignments” website.  In other words, interpreters would no longer be contacted individually, as with Lionbridge, to accept or reject offered assignments.  Apparently, SOSi’s recruiters have explained the validity of this policy as a way to avoid having to hire assignment coordinators.

In my opinion, Immigration court interpreters must keep in mind that SOSi’s contractor history and system is based on bidding subcontractors. That is how most Department of Defense contracts work (and remember, they are primarily a defense contractor) so I don’t see them changing strategy. All interpreters could be considered subcontractors bidding for a job every time there is a need for an interpreter.

This is the most critical hour for our immigration court colleagues because this is when experienced agencies and contractors put in practice their well-rehearsed tactics.  Some interpreters may decide to sign a contract even though the “promised, negotiated fee” is different from what the contract states, or it is hidden in an appendix or table. Immigration court interpreters will only achieve the dignified treatment they deserve, and has been denied for so many years, if they continue to speak with one voice, and it will get more difficult unless those with more experience and formal academic education step in and help their colleagues.  We must remember that fear can derail any project, and the immigration court interpreters are not a homogeneous group. Unlike conference interpreters, many of them interpret at a questionable quality level, others may think, deeply inside, that the ridiculous fees offered by the contractor are not so bad, some may live from paycheck to paycheck, and may decide to sign the draconian contract; and some of them may not really be freelancers, but employees with no steady job.

The truth is, that to get to a professional fee, the interpreters have to be willing to stay away from the immigration courts for as long as it takes, and during that time, if they are truly freelance interpreters, they will find their income doing so many other interpreting assignments. If they are really independent professionals, they will have to come to terms with the realization that well-paid immigration court interpreting will not be an everyday thing; it will be one of many other interpreting assignments that the true freelancer will have to cover. EOIR is a client. It is not an employer.

The contractor, SOSi, LionBridge, or any other has a responsibility to their shareholders, and that is fine. The federal government has budgetary limitations, and that is fine.  It is because of these undisputed facts that the independent immigration court interpreter needs to understand that to get the financial resources to cover his professional fee, the service will have to be more efficient. Less hours of work at the EOIR, but better pay.  That is how the freelancing world works, and all interpreters will need to understand it; otherwise, the lesson learned will not be the one this entry begins with, but instead, the lesson will be that once again, because of the interpreters’ lack of determination and unity, things will stay the same.  I ask my dear friends and colleagues not to waste this unique opportunity in their careers.

Although these lines merely contain my personal opinion, and in no way this pretends to be any legal advice for anybody, if I were facing the situation these immigration court interpreters in the United States have in front of them, I would hold on to signing anything until it is clear who stays and who does not. If SOSi stays, to become attractive to the interpreter community, they will probably make some changes to their contractual policy towards the interpreters. If there is a new different language services agency, I would wait to see what they have to say first. Also, for my peace of mind and for the safety of my professional future, I would never sign a contract after talking to the HR people. I would ask for the legal department because I would need to understand, and know, the contractual terms, and the likelihood that they will be honored by the language service provider. I now invite you to share your opinion with the rest of us, and for the benefit of as many interpreters as possible.

Disrespecting the (immigration) interpreter

August 31, 2015 § 34 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

For several weeks I have been contacted by many of our interpreter friends and colleagues. They have talked to me in person, over the phone, by text, by email, and through social media. The message was the same: interpreting services at the immigration courts of the United States are under siege.  They explained how the contractor who will provide interpreting services at all U.S. immigration courthouses had contacted them to offer unprecedented low fees and horrifying working conditions to those who wanted to continue to interpret in these settings. I know that many of you are not in the U.S. and most of you do not work as immigration court interpreters; however, what is happening there impacts us all as a profession, and could have an effect on the way you work in your respective fields or countries.

Basically, the contract to provide interpreting services at all immigration courts in the United States was awarded to a different company than the one that provided these services for the past two decades.  In the United States, these government contracts are awarded pursuant to a public bidding process, and after reviewing all bids, the government selects the bidder that better fits the criteria sought by the particular government agency. Although the required elements may differ here and there, the main factors to decide who wins usually include abatement of costs. In other words, the government looks for an entity that can deliver the required service at the minimum cost.  In this case, interpreting services at the immigration courts are contracted out to the best bidder by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR)

American immigration courts are not part of the judicial branch of the federal government; they do not fall under the jurisdiction and hierarchy of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (USAOC) (Article 3 of the U.S. constitution) Instead, the immigration courts are administrative courts created by Congress. They are part of the executive branch of the federal government; in other words, they fall under the authority of the president of the United States through the Department of Justice (DOJ) and specifically under the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) (Article 1 of the U.S. constitution)

For full disclosure purposes, I must say that I do not interpret at the immigration court because I thought that the fees and working conditions offered by LionBridge, the interpreting service provider that will no longer have a contract with DOJ-EOIR in the new fiscal year (October 1) were about the most draconian, one-sided conditions I have ever seen in my professional life.  I have to say that I did interpret for them in the past pursuant to an individually negotiated contract that paid me a fee higher than their average, but because of the fee I had to be paid, that in my opinion was still quite modest, I have not been asked to interpret in immigration court for years.

Going back to the “offer” extended to those colleagues who were working in immigration court under contract with LionBridge and, for what I have learned, to some interpreters whose names were found on certified interpreters’ lists elsewhere, it is clear that SOS International (SOSi) (the new contractor) has offered between $30 and $35 dollars per hour, in some cases with a two hour minimum, or $118.75 for a half-day assignment (must work 4 hours) and $188.91 for a full-day assignment (must work 8 hours) Notice that if you work 8 hours you will be making “more money” because you will be working more hours, but in reality, your hourly fee will drop to $23.61

According to those colleagues I have talked to, these fee structure has been presented to them as non-negotiable (for now).

There are many non-professional jobs that pay way better than these fees that frankly speaking, are offensive for a professional service such as that provided by the immigration court interpreters.

SOSi is currently compiling a list of interpreter names and resumes to be submitted to DOJ-EOIR for security background checks and to show that they have enough interpreters to meet the immigration courts needs. That is why so many of you have been contacted and asked to provide your information.  On July 22, 2015 it was announced that SOSi had been awarded a prime contract by DOJ-EOIR for language interpreter services for a base period and four option periods extending through August 2020, with a maximum amount of $80 million dollars. In exchange, SOSi is to provide all management and supervision, labor, and supplies necessary to perform these services in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all territories (including Puerto Rico) in 59 immigration courthouses. (SOSi press release 7/22/15 Reston, VA) In my opinion, before providing our information and resume in a hurry, we should first learn who is SOSi.

SOS Interpreting, LTD is a family owned, New York-based business contractor founded in 1989 that works mainly in the defense and intelligence sectors.  The total obligation amount of Sos International, LTD a 465 employee company incorporated in New York in 1992, from 2000 to the present is $217 million dollars, and its total federal contract contracts from 2000 to the present are 56 (not clear if this total includes the new DOJ-EOIR contract) mainly with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. According to USASpending.gov, just last year, they won 5 contracts worth $9.83 million dollars. (Source: www.InsideGov.com)

An audit of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) language services contract with SOS International, LTD (contract number DJDEA-05-C-0020 Dallas Field Division) in February 2012 states that: “…Therefore, we are questioning $934,144 for hours billed for linguists who worked without current language certification…” (https://oig.justice.gov/grants/2012/g6012004.pdf)

On August 2, 2015 The Daily Beast reported in their article entitled: “The Company Getting Rich Off The Isis War” that: “…SOS International, a family-owned business whose corporate headquarters are in New York City, is one of the biggest players on the ground in Iraq, employing the most Americans in the country after the U.S. Embassy. On the company’s board of advisors: former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (considered to be one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq) and Paul Butler, a former special assistant to Pentagon Chief Donald Rumsfeld…” It goes on to say that: “…the contracts (SOSi) has been awarded for work in Iraq in 2015 have a total value of more than $400 million (dollars)…”  (http://www,thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/02/the-company-getting-rich-off-the-isis-war.html)

My point is, dear friends and colleagues, that even though LionBridge paid miserably low fees and offered demeaning working conditions (such as checking and fighting for the last minute of services, not covering per diem when traveling, and others) many interpreters have provided their services at the immigration courts of the United States in the past.  The interpreting community at large has always considered that for the above-mentioned reasons, working as an immigration interpreter has been a second-tier occupation. It is also known that, with some exceptions all over the country, (because there are some very good interpreters working this assignments) there are many mediocre individuals attempting to provide interpreting services at the immigration courts of the United States because they met one of LionBridge’s fundamental requirements: They were willing to work for very little compensation.

It is sad that, compared to what immigration court interpreters face today, those were the “good old days”. I think that interpreters as professionals should always strive to improve their skills and service. To me, this is a unique opportunity that the market is giving to those who have been, for way too long, imprisoned in the world of complacency that working for the immigration courts has created around them. It is time to reflect and look for another horizons in the interpreting world. I can assure you that, if you provide a top service, you will find clients and assignments that you never dreamed of. You will finally make the kind of income that a professional interpreter should make, and you will never look back to the dark days.

For those who want to stay in the immigration field because of vocational reasons or because a better income is not necessarily a top priority, I would suggest that you unite and focus on the fee and working conditions issue. Do not get sidetracked with other consequences such as protecting the rights of the respondent. That is not your job, duty or battle. Let the immigration attorneys and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) (www.aila.org) fight that battle. That is their job and duty.

I invite you to communicate with each other and focus on how you are being treated. Concentrate your efforts on developing a common front and sharing what is happening with the attorneys, AILA, and those non-for-profit organizations that constantly fight for the rights of immigrants.  I know that many of you are already meeting at your state or local levels, that many of you are chatting on line and creating forums and discussion groups. I hope you continue and fight with the same spirit of our friends and colleagues in the United Kingdom who walked out of the courthouses after their government awarded the interpreting services contract to an incompetent agency that decided to cut their fees, just like they are trying to do to you. Several years have passed and they have not surrendered, they have not gone back to the courts; instead, they have raised awareness about this issue among all interested parties.

I do not know what the new immigration court contractor would do if they do not have enough names and resumes by October 1, 2015 when they are due to start providing interpreting services all over the United States, but I know that it will give you an option to try to get a decent fee for your services.   At this time there is much said about Donald Trump’s immigration policy and how concerning that is to many in the United States.  It is a very important issue, but we should also pay attention to what the current government is doing; after all it is the Obama administration that awarded the contract to SOSi promoting by its actions this terrible situation that all immigration court interpreters are enduring right now.  As for the rest of us, I believe that we should follow the developments on this issue, and help our friends and colleagues by making public everything that transpires. Do not lose sight of the fact that the contractor is getting a huge amount of money from our government, they are not poor.

Remember, this government contractor seems to be determined to take advantage of the immigration court interpreters, but in the process, they have disrespected all interpreters and our profession.  I now ask you to please share this article everywhere you can, and please tell us what you think about this very serious issue.

Some interpreters in the U.S. may not have an even playing field anymore.

December 11, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The issues discussed in this post apply to situations lived by many interpreters all over the world. Our profession is growing and fighting for recognition and prestige. For this reason, I think all interpreters should read this story, regardless of the country where they provide their services.

Every interpreter who has worked with the judicial system in the United States knows that court interpreting at the state-level is very different from providing our services at the federal judiciary. We also know that there are sharp differences on how each state procures court interpreters to meet their legal needs. Although most of them pay very little to the certified court interpreter, some pay “better” than others; some treat interpreters better, and some remain ignorant as of the role of the interpreter and its high relevance to the judicial process. This is all widely known; some court systems are infamous for treating the interpreter as an inconvenience rather than a constitutionally-mandated component of the judicial process (in criminal matters). This is not the issue that I want to discuss with you today. I want to talk about something else.

I would like to discuss with you the new scenario that our state-level independent court interpreters in the United States are facing with the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (not a moment too soon) and the financial difficulties and budgetary cuts that many states are dealing with at this time. As many of you know, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is a federal law that requires all government agencies, regardless of their level, to give access to all services to everyone (including those who do not speak English) if they want to continue to receive financial assistance from the federal government of the United States. This includes courthouses. Until a few years ago, only criminal cases had to meet this requirement because, unlike civil law cases, it was a constitutional mandate. This means that now state-level courts in the United States have to provide interpreting services for all civil and family law cases with essentially the same budget they had for criminal cases only. Many states have struggled with this change and most of them are trying to find the correct strategy to meet their legal mandate while at the same time living within their budget. Of course, there are some obvious solutions that state courts have chosen to ignore even though they would greatly relieve their interpreting case load. I have talked about this issue before and, undoubtedly, I will discuss it again in the future.

The facts show that many states are now more cautious as to where and how they will spend their money (or I should say, their constituents’ monies) This has generated a more “creative” approach in many places where the goal seems to be to comply with the federal mandate by simply providing a “warm body” next to the foreign language speaker at the lowest possible cost. As a result, there are now more qualified top-notch court interpreters with less work than ever before, while there is an unprecedented number of underqualified, mediocre interpreters working the states’ systems for a lower pay and more advantageous conditions for the state’s judiciary. There is plenty to talk about, but my motivation to write this post came from something I learned from a colleague who works as an independent court interpreter with the court system of one of the states in the U.S.

Apparently, just before the beginning of the state’s budget cycle, known in the United States as the fiscal year, this state sent out to all court-certified independent interpreters within the state, a professional services contract that had to be executed and returned before the first day of said fiscal year. The contract was a multi-page document that spelled out in great detail the interpreter’s responsibilities to the courts. It also contained a clause on fee payments that indicated the state’s official fee and some other conditions. Among them, there was a minimum fee guaranteed to all interpreters who accepted an assignment with the state courts. The contract showed two different scenarios. Under the first one, and interpreter could be called in to work at the courthouse for two hours, and if the case or cases were resolved before the time was up, the interpreter would be paid for the guaranteed time. The second scenario operated identically, with the exception that it referred to more complex cases and for that reason the minimum guaranteed fee was of four hours. This seemed to be a fair provision that in fact incorporated into this contract a widely accepted practice followed in that state for many years. The problem was on the next sentence of the same paragraph. The contract established that if the cases the interpreter was called for were to end before the minimum guaranteed period was up, the interpreter had to remain at the courthouse in case something else would happen and interpreting services were required. Up to here everything was fine, but immediately after, the contract indicated that said interpreter could be sent to another courthouse in the state to work off the rest of the minimum guaranteed fee. The interpreter had the right to refuse the second assignment, but in that case he would be penalized with a pay cut as he would only be paid for the actual interpreting time, not for the guaranteed time. In other words, the “guaranteed fee” did not guarantee anything, as the interpreter would be at the mercy of the court who would become, for all practical purposes, the employer, because only employers can dispose of their employees time that way. A client cannot control the time of an independent contractor.

I immediately thought of two scary scenarios: Just imagine for a moment that an interpreter with a sick child agrees to work for two hours at her neighborhood courthouse. She needs the income, so she figures out her schedule, gets a babysitter for a little over two hours, and goes to work from 9 to 11 in the morning. All of a sudden, the cases she was called in for do not go to a hearing because the cases are continued to a future date (this happens every day in all courthouses of the United States) It is only 10 in the morning, so she reports back to the interpreter coordinator; she tells her what happened, and sits down waiting for possible cases between 10 and 11 o’clock when she is going home to her sick child. Unfortunately, the interpreter coordinator has other things in mind and asks her to go to a different courthouse 40 miles away. The interpreter objects and claims that going to that other location will take about 30 minutes one-way. The coordinator states that the 2-hour minimum is not over yet. The interpreter explains that she was counting on working until 11 in the morning, and going to the second location would result in an additional 60 to 90 minutes. The coordinator explains that the interpreter would be compensated for her travel time at the reimbursement rate. The interpreter declines the assignment and the coordinator explains that due to the refusal, she will be paid for one hour of services, not two. This could also happen to another interpreter who has other professional engagements (not with the court) immediately after the time she was hired for. You see? The “guaranteed fee” is not such a thing. The court does not understand that interpreters sell their time and from the moment they commit to an assignment they cannot accept anything else during that period of time.

The same contract indicates that the state shall pay the interpreter for the services rendered within 30 days from the time of filing of the invoice; unfortunately, it also states that the interpreter cannot add any late payment interest or penalties when the courts don’t pay on time. Obviously this turns this contract into a one-sided document with no contractual value but for one of the parties: the courthouse. Interpreters are barred from protecting themselves as they cannot pursue compensation for the damages caused by late or non-payment.

Apparently, this contract was exclusively crafted by the courts, and the interpreters did not have an opportunity to seek legal advice and representation before signing the document. Moreover, there is an advisory body for interpreting matters in this state where independent interpreters are a huge minority since all court players are represented separately: judges, administrators and staff interpreters. In other words, the interests of the state will always have a majority of votes in this advisory body. Obviously, something is wrong with this picture. I am not saying that it is exclusively the courts’ fault, because the interpreters needed to be more assertive. And this takes me to the real root of the problem: A silent careless interpreting community dealing with a court administration that wants to protect its interests (as it should) and will take everything it can as long as the interpreters do nothing about it.

Those of you who have met me in person or regularly read my blog know that I am not in favor of protectionism in any way, shape, or form; you have probably read my opinion regarding “equal assignments for all interpreters” and protection to those who are not up to speed with new technologies. I am totally against these ideas. I do believe that it is up to the individual interpreter to do whatever it takes in order to secure more work with the courts or with any other client. You also know that I am not a big fan of working for the court systems, especially at the state level, because they pay very little and often do not treat interpreters like professionals. The best and permanent solution to this problem, from the interpreter’s point of view, would be to leave the court work and do some other interpretation (including out of court jobs where interpreters can negotiate their professional fee with the attorneys) but for those who do not want to quit the courts, my suggestion would be to seek legal advice and negotiate before signing a contract, to use their professional associations to educate the interpreters and perhaps collectively retain the services of an attorney to look over their interests, not the courts’. I am not saying that professional associations should turn into labor unions, nothing like that; all I am suggesting is that besides continuing education, a member directory, and social events, these organizations should look into these issues not to improve working conditions, but to improve the level and quality of the professional service provided by its members. By doing this, interpreters’ working conditions would be indirectly improved as this is a needed requirement to raise the quality of the professional service. Finally, independent court interpreters must consider the court as a client, not an employer. Dear friends and colleagues, the courts are our clients, and they are not even our best clients; even if you get most of your work from them, they are not the best-paying client; therefore they are not your best client. To consider a client as the best because of how much work they send your way instead of because of how well they pay would be like saying that Wal-Mart is a great clothes store because of its volume, when you have many other businesses that sell better products of higher quality. I invite you to post your comments on this issue, and to share your experiences of what you have perceived as an abusive behavior by a state court; and remember, no names or specifics on the courts or people please.

Are the interpreters working conditions in danger?

April 21, 2014 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

A few days ago a colleague contacted me to ask if I had seen the updated United States Federal Court Interpreter Orientation Manual and Glossary. Although I do not exactly know how long ago this version came to be, my answer was that I had not. She asked me to take a look and then tell her my opinion. I read the publication from beginning to end. The first thing I noticed was that some extremely qualified colleagues had been involved in this updating process. Then I read the publication. Most of the manual seemed to be well written and it looked like it covered most of the relevant points and situations that happen in federal cases. That is, until I got to Chapter 3(VII)(C) For your benefit as readers, I transcribe the applicable portion of the manual next:

“Federal Court Interpreter Orientation Manual and Glossary.

Chapter 3: Overview of Court Interpreting.

VII Interpreters in the Courtroom…

C. Number of Interpreters per Proceeding: Team/Tandem Interpreting.

       The number of interpreters may vary according to the type of proceeding and the number of defendants that require interpreter services. To mitigate the effects of interpreter fatigue, proceedings estimated to exceed four hours are often covered by two interpreters through team, or tandem interpreting. The passive interpreter should remain seated in close proximity to the active interpreter and refrain from leaving the courtroom for any significant length of time without good reason…”

Yes dear colleagues, it reads four hours.

For the past eighteen months or so, I have devoted a good part of my time to help and assist in the development of interpreting rules and policy for interpreters in different parts of the world. I have held talks, workshops, presentations and one-on-ones with many interested parties that are developing or restructuring interpreter working conditions and rules of professional performance; and I have done it driven by two priorities: (1) To provide an excellent service and (2) To protect interpreters so they are able to fulfill priority number one.

I have sat in meetings and presentations where I heard of countries where government offices and private agencies require interpreters to work alone when interpreting consecutively regardless of the duration of the assignment; I have heard how individuals in decision-making positions question the need for team interpreting in small conferences or in legal settings. I heard it all and I heard it over and over again. You must know then, that one of the things that kept me going, and gave me the moral authority to dispute the rules or policy with real scientific arguments and data, was the knowledge that in the United States all reputable conferences, the federal judicial system, and many state-level courthouses, were honoring and following the principles of team interpreting and interpreters switching roles from active to support (passive) every 30 minutes or so. Now you can imagine my reaction when I read Chapter 3(VII)(C) above.

Dear friends and colleagues, as many of you know, scientific studies have demonstrated that mental fatigue sets in after approximately 30 minutes of interpreting. These studies show how the quality of the rendition is compromised when an interpreter, regardless of his capacity and skill, continues to interpret beyond this 30 minute marker. Even when the interpreter who has been working for a long period of time thinks that his rendition is accurate, it is not, according to a study by the University of Geneva’s Translation and Interpretation School (“Prolonged turns in interpreting: Effects on quality, physiological and psychological stress.” Moser-Mercer, B. Kunzli, B. & Korac, M. University of Geneva, École de Traduction et d’Interprétation. Interpreting Volume 3(1) p. 47-63. John Benjamins Publishing Co.) Jesús Baigorri Jalón tells us that “…an average of 30 minutes of consecutive work was the maximum time during which a satisfactory (interpretation) could be done; after this time, one runs the risk of deteriorating results due to fatigue…” (“La Interpretación de conferencias: el nacimiento de una profesión. De París a Nuremberg”. Editorial Comares, Granada. P.188)

Recognizing this well-documented issue, and as part of its tradition of excellence and professionalism, the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) clearly indicates in article six of its Professional Standards:

“Article 6…

  • *An interpreter shall not, as a general rule, work alone in a simultaneous interpretation booth, without the availability of a colleague to relieve her or him should the need arise.
  • **One of whom must be able to relieve each of the other two. In certain circumstances this number may be reduced to two (particularly for short meetings or meetings of a general nature, provided that each of the two interpreters can work into both languages)…”

This is also contemplated within the Sign Language interpreter community. The ASL Team Interpreting Guidelines state the following:

“…Interpreting assignments one hour or longer in length with continuous interpreting, will require the use of a team of two interpreters. The teaming allows the interpreters to switch roles every 15-20 minutes. Teaming will reduce physical strain, prevent repetitive strain injury, and prevent mental fatigue which can cause the quality of the interpreting to deteriorate…”

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) issued a position paper on this particular issue, and their study concludes that:

“…Due process rights are best preserved with faithful simultaneous interpretation of legal proceedings… In a controlled study it was shown that interpreters’ work quality decreases after 30 minutes. In the challenging courtroom environment, team interpreting ensures that the comprehension effort required to provide accurate interpretation is not compromised. To deliver unassailably accurate language service, court interpreters work in teams…” (NAJIT Position Paper. Team Interpreting in the Courtroom. March 1, 2007)

Even Wikipedia is aware of the complexities of interpreting and the need for team interpreting when it says:

“…Because of the intense concentration needed by interpreters to hear every word spoken and provide an accurate rendition in the target language, professional interpreters work in pairs or in teams of three, so that after interpreting for twenty minutes, the interpreters switch…” (Wikipedia)

As we can clearly see, the fact that team interpreting is required to do this job, and that those in the team need to switch roles every 30 minutes or so is undisputed. This is why several countries that due to globalization are just starting to use interpreting services more often than before, are adopting the team interpreting principle; most of them agreeing to a 20-30 minute policy for interpreters to switch roles. It cannot be possible that the United States federal judiciary got it wrong. There is no way that these updated rules are telling the professional community (interpreters, judges and attorneys) and society at large (litigants, victims, experts, etc.) that the policy will take us backwards. I just do not believe that is what our government wanted to do.

This all leaves us with two possibilities then: Either the rules are poorly written, and that is why we got this confusion, of the rules committee made a mistake. If it was a mistake, it should be corrected immediately. If the rule refers to something else, it should be re-written to make it clear. As part of my research for this article, I heard that the rules were updated because of the arrival of telephonic interpreting. If that is the case, the language must be amended to show that this rule is meant to apply to telephonic hearings. Then, after they do that, we will have to argue that telephonic hearing also needs team interpreting, but that would be another battle for another day.

Dear colleagues, I know that each judicial district sets its own rules, in fact, I am privileged to work in districts where the team interpreter rule is honored and enforced. I am aware of the fact that these rules will probably not change the way most districts operate; however, they are there, and someone can use them in the future to damage the service and hurt the profession. The rule needs to be amended immediately. Many of us will never work alone. Many of us will demand a team, but there could be new colleagues, greedy ignorant language service agencies, and inept court administrators who may be tempted to use them as an excuse to try to change policy. They would fail. They would lose. They would disappear, but I ask you: Why do we have to fight that battle (again) when all that needs to be done is to amend the manual. Please share your thoughts on this issue with the rest of us.

At last interpreters and translators meet to talk about the state of the profession.

November 19, 2013 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

As interpreters and translators we have been gathering for decades in workshops, conferences, and professional associations.  We are lucky to have so many places where we can improve our skills, enhance our knowledge, and do networking with others. We have the fortune to have excellent organizations that are international and very big like ATA and FIT; others that are regional and smaller, some that are specific to a particular field like NAJIT and IMIA, and we even have separate organizations exclusively for interpreters or translators.   All these professional groups are very important and useful to our profession. They all serve different purposes, and we need them all.  A few years ago we witnessed the birth of InterpretAmerica, another forum for all interpreters to talk to each other as professionals, and to directly address the other players in our industry: equipment providers, government contractors, the big language agencies, academic institutions, international organisms, and others.

We had all these resources to thrive in our profession but something was missing:  We had no outlet to talk to each other as individual professional interpreters and translators; a place where we could talk about the business side of our work.  A forum where we could address the recent changes brought to our work by the globalization movement; the disparity and often times ruthless competition that we face as freelancers in a world where new technology and gigantic language service providers are driving the professional fees down; and in some cases the quality of the service even lower.

We all know of the court interpreting crisis that has developed in the United Kingdom.  Many of you know that, unlike the U.S. federal court system where you find the best court interpreters because it pays the highest fees, American immigration courts pay very little under less than ideal working conditions, and for the most part do not use the services of top tier interpreters.  Of course, it is common knowledge that big language service providers are paying incredibly low fees to good translators based in developing countries, and it is no secret that every day more businesses turn to machine translation to solve their most common communication problems.

What most interpreters and translators do not know, is that there are other countries in the world who want to emulate the United Kingdom’s model; that there are government agencies who outsource the authority to “certify” or “qualify” individuals as interpreters or translators in order to comply with legal mandates and to meet the demand for these services, at least on paper.

A few weeks ago I attended in London the first congress of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) an event where hundreds of well-known veteran interpreters and translators from all over the world met with the most talented new generation of professional interpreters and translators I have ever seen in my life.  The reason for this event: to discuss all these developments and issues that we currently face in our profession, in order to be better prepared and armed with skill and knowledge to embrace technology and face globalization as freelancers.  The organization and the conference are for individual translators and interpreters. No corporate memberships. No big language service providers.  It was refreshing to attend presentations that dealt with issues such as how to protect your market, defend the quality of your work, and honor the real value of your work so you never give in to those who want you to work for less than a fair fee.    It was wonderful to see so many colleagues taking note of the business side of the profession so they can do better when competing for the good client in the real world.  I salute the brains, heart and soul of this much needed type of professional association: Aurora Humarán and Lorena Andrea Vicente, President and Vice-president of IAPTI respectively.

Dear colleagues, in this new global economy, where we are all competing in the same world market, we need all the professional associations we have. They are all useful.

I invite all of my freelance interpreter and translator friends and colleagues who want to thrive in this new economy to acquire the necessary tools and resources to win. IAPTI is an essential resource.  I encourage you all to submit a membership application and to attend next year’s conference. I can assure you that you will be inspired by the talent and energy of this new group of young interpreters and translators.  As a member of IAPTI you will be in a better position to flourish in our industry. You will love the atmosphere of a IAPTI conference where everybody is like you: an individual translator or interpreter trying to deliver an excellent product in exchange for an excellent pay.  I invite our friends and colleagues who are part of IAPTI, and those who were in London for the conference, to share their comments with the rest of us.

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