A Threat to Our Profession

A few decades ago, “language access” was not really a phrase. Litigants who did not speak English were frequently left in the dark as to their own judicial proceedings, and this carried severe consequences.

The evolution of court interpreting as a profession has relied on the dedication and persistence of various movers and shakers. Our profession is still young, and it is still far from perfect. However, thankfully in most places it is no longer common practice to simply drag a bilingual person off the street for the day and ask them to tell the hapless defendant what is happening in a broken version of whatever their language may be.

A defining characteristic of a profession is its code of ethics. Across the nation, we now have interpreting standards that bind us together in the work that we do. We have fought hard, first to have certification exams at all, and then to have those exams recognized. This has translated to a fairer judicial process for people who are Limited English Proficient (LEP) and an incentive and compensation for those of us who embark on this harrowing career in the first place.

In California, these standards are now under threat.  The Judicial Council is moving to broadly permit judiciaries to outsource interpreters’ work to out-of-state/country providers who are not vetted by a state body. This hurts everyone: the interpreters in California, LEPs, and everybody who works with them. It even hurts the people who are uncertified and may accept assignments beyond their skill level, exposing them to risky liability and ultimately lowering the possibility for everybody to earn a wage that incentivizes the broadening of a career to include certifications that take time and discipline to achieve.

Why is it that our field routinely faces this kind of quandary? Doctors and lawyers, whose professions are well-regulated and sealed tight from interference by unskilled, unverified providers, are never the target of such sweeping legislation. Is it that the work of us language professionals is considered to be easy? After all, everyone uses the spoken word without even thinking about it, and most people with a college education can write decently well; translators and interpreters just happen to be able to do both of these things in two or more languages. Nothing special, right?

Whatever the origin of such misconceptions may be, the Judicial Council’s proposal is the perfect recipe for undercutting the profession and, by extension, everyone who works with it – doctors, lawyers, judges, and defendants alike.

Cost is regularly cited as an excuse. But if the costs of using a certified professional are deemed too high, a simple argument ought to calm such fears. In the aviation world, the saying goes, “If you think hiring a good aircraft mechanic is expensive, try hiring a bad one.” Hiring a competent professional, whose skill level has been officially confirmed through rigorous testing, is a form of insurance. You could very well hire an unverified professional, and the outcome may be very good. But it may also be bad – very bad. And in a judicial setting, with so much at stake – a person’s personal freedom in a criminal case, or millions of dollars in a major lawsuit – it’s not enough to say: “Well, if the interpreter is no good, we’ll just hire another one.” The mistakes leading to such a decision may cause incalculable damage in the interim.

Moreover, this present concern is very much unlike when we all saw taxi drivers protesting in droves, faced with the onslaught of Uber (remember?). On the one hand, the taxi drivers had every right to be indignant: they had to pay sky-high fees and work around a bunch of red tape to be able to drive their cabs. Then, here came private individuals with a smartphone and a car, stealing all their customers. Their frustration was entirely justified. But at the same time, it was difficult to make a compelling case in the taxi drivers’ favor: the customer went with what was less expensive (the Uber driver), with very few consequences to his or her personal safety or ability to get from point A to point B. A taxi driver may need to pay hefty licensing fees and have to get through much red tape, but the end result for his customer is very little different from what the customer would get by going with an Uber instead. Not so for the certified or uncertified, unverified language professional. In this case, it’s more like the new cab drivers don’t have a driver’s license at all. Now, that’s a scary thought.

Earlier, I mentioned the importance of an ethical code in defining a profession. One more critical defining characteristic is education. Very few higher-education opportunities exist for judiciary interpreting, and none at all past the Bachelor level. We have more options now than we did a few decades ago, but the pickings are still slim. The fact that we don’t have advanced degree programs in judiciary interpreting makes our profession extremely vulnerable to these types of affronts.

We need to advocate for better educated interpreters (i.e., advanced degree holders) and laws that prohibit unlicensed individuals from practicing judiciary interpreting. Yes, this is a major undertaking and a long-term goal, but we must understand the big picture of the profession that we are painting as we speak. Certification is not enough, especially without a legislative framework to close loopholes that allow non-certified interpreters to be contracted.

This threat is real. The time to act is now. Some of our colleagues have already formed an organization to fight against this and other issues. The American Alliance of Professional Translators and Interpreters, AAPTI, is bringing together people from our own NAJIT, of course, as well as the ATA, CCHI, NBCMI, and regional organizations and unions. They hope to bring these problems to the public eye and help enforce the standards and corresponding compensation that some of us have come to take for granted.

But AAPTI needs your help. There is strength in numbers, and every voice counts. To find out more and get involved, email info@aapticonnect.org. And keep participating in NAJIT as well, making it your responsibility to embody the standards, ethics, and level of training required by such a rigorous line of work. Your profession thanks you.


Portrait of Athena MatilskyAthena Matilsky fell in love with languages the year she turned sixteen. She majored in Spanish interpreting/translation at Rutgers University and also studied French. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She later became a staff interpreter for the NJ judiciary. She has gone on to earn certifications as a healthcare interpreter and a federal court interpreter for Spanish and as a court interpreter for French. Most recently, she received her Master’s Degree in Conference Interpreting from Glendon at York University. She currently works as an interpreter and teacher, training students to acquire the skills necessary to pass state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website: www.athenaskyinterpreting.com

Main photo from “Bolivia’s Death Road: The Most Dangerous Road in the World,” under CC BY-SA 3.0, at CAPTAIN TAREK DREAM. Body photo from “Spain Taxi Drivers end Uber Strike after License Limits Agreed,” under CC BY-NC 4.0, at OMG! news.

20 Comments
  • G. Daniel Bugel-Shunra
    Posted at 14:23h, 16 May Reply

    Worth mentioning in this context is the panicky response by some California courts other legal clients who now insist on California-certified translators and interpreters. I work throughout the US and my WA accreditation is recognized nationwide – except, and only recently, in California: I keep getting hired by my old clients as well as new ones, but then told: sorry, but we actually need someone who is California-certified. This is a new phenomenon.
    If the Judicial Council should claim that their rationale for outsourcing to unqualified people is a shortage of qualified interpreters, it would stand to reason that they re-recognize other states’ credentials and work with the many professionals available. If the rationale is price, they should consider that the impact on quality is compounded, beyond what Athena says, by the need of agencies to compete with each other on price and by their need to finance this whole administrative layer of middlemen by reducing interpreting rates further. This really does not bode well for agencies’ ability to provide quality.
    FWIW, I too work for agencies, but only at full rate. I might give a small discount to an individual lawyer on a humanitarian case sometimes, but never to an intermediary agency.

    • Athena Matilsky
      Posted at 15:34h, 16 May Reply

      Thank you for your points!! It is strange that California is on the one hand going telescopic on their approach and on the other hand, trying to outsource. It seems that there could be a happy medium…

  • Anthony Eldredge
    Posted at 14:33h, 16 May Reply

    I think you’re spot on that Education is the key but I don’t think education of interpreters and translators is the issue. More certifications and higher level education won’t change the fact that those in power making these decisions about the interpretation and translation fields are UNEDUCATED in the ways of interpretation and translation. They don’t understand the level of professionalism, experience, and skill it takes to not only speak, listen, read, and write in two languages, but the level of training and experience to become a professional level interpreter or translator and what that affords to their agency, customer, or situation. Until we educate these decision makers I feel interpreters and translators will continue to be treated as a commodity and not receive the due respect they deserve let alone the compensation.

    • Athena Matilsky
      Posted at 15:33h, 16 May Reply

      Hi Anthony,

      I agree…I think there is a third point that needs to be emphasized here, which is education of the USERS of our services, as opposed to just us.

  • Arnaldo
    Posted at 14:39h, 16 May Reply

    Sorry but as an interpreter (NJ Master in PT and journey in SP) with almost 30 years experience but no degree, I kind of have to take issue with what you suggest. And I know many other colleagues in the same situation. There has to be a way to accommodate highly skilled, experienced professionals with or without what you call a ‘better education;—incidentally, something you don’t only get in school or even necessarily. This is a political and economic problem that has very little to do and goes way beyond a degree, imho. If society as a whole doesn’t wake up to how we are being scammed on a daily basis, being sold second rate goods and services with brand new, shiny high, tech packaging, we will (already are, actually) have a serious quality of life problem in our hands. I will do whatever I can to help protect our profession, but please don’t ask me to shoot myself in the foot.

    • Athena Matilsky
      Posted at 15:32h, 16 May Reply

      Hi Arnaldo,

      Thank you for your excellent comments. I see your point about “better educated” and would rephrase that…what I mean is that we need more educational opportunities. As you say, your certification and experience is extremely relevant. I’m not trying to say that everyone needs a doctorate in interpreting. My point is just that to be more respected as a profession, we should at least be afforded the possibility of permeating the different levels of higher education. But no, I don’t want you to shoot yourself in the foot!

  • Daniela Schmidt
    Posted at 17:17h, 16 May Reply

    What I see California doing is degrading the profession especially for highly qualified independent contractors, first by establishing impossibly low rates and compelling the courts to sign contracts with the new rates, some courts are using auction for acquisition of interpreter services in violation of the Interpreter Act Provisions in the Government Code and now the proposed outsourcing. It looks like California is bent on destroying the interpreting profession and abolishing the due process of LEPs as this is the end result of a failed interpretation by unqualified interpreters.

    • Athena Matilsky
      Posted at 09:24h, 17 May Reply

      You paint a dire picture with unfortunate truth behind your words. Of course, I don’t believe that California is doing this maliciously; however, they are certainly misguided in their actions.

  • Esther M. Hermida
    Posted at 18:07h, 16 May Reply

    Athena,

    Thank you for your post and hitting the hot-button areas. I live and work in CA. I’m California court certified, and US District Court certified and have been a certified Spanish interpreter for 30 years. I have a successful private sector business. I am also the current president of AAPTI.

    Thank you for mentioning our efforts. And yes, AAPTI is an alliance that welcomes all associations to create and maintain best practices for T& I and safeguarding our profession. Our focus is legislation. AAPTI has taken the steps to hire a full-time registered lobbyist, paid from our membership dues. We learned a lot of lessons from our struggles with AB5 and our final (partial) exemption in AB2257. Very few legislators knew of our existence, and how we were an integral part in helping their constituency. AAPTI aims to change that.

    What we’re doing as organizations is to pave the way for a better future. As we prepare to retire, and/or are comfortable in our respective roles, we should welcome all those who have taken the extra steps, those who have spent a lot of time and money on getting a T & I degree. We should welcome them with open arms and see them as the future of the profession. A degree is not yet a requirement to be court certified. Many working interpreters who don’t hold degrees, have work experience and enough knowledge equivalent to a degree.

    A degree may be necessary to make progress and be respected, maybe not in our generation, but it’s a natural progression. After all, in the old days doctors practiced medicine without degrees, they started out as apprentices in the 1800s. What we know today as U.S. modern medicine didn’t begin until 1910 when the Flexner Report was published, standardizing many aspects of medical education (in-house doc and Wikipedia helped here).

    It is time for us to be forward thinkers and move to the next level.

    *Disclaimer: these views are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of AAPTI.

    • Athena Matilsky
      Posted at 09:19h, 17 May Reply

      Hi Esther,
      Thank you for your kind words, your informative comments, and for all that you do!

  • Mariana Bension-Larkin
    Posted at 18:25h, 16 May Reply

    I’m a Spanish CA and Federally Certified Court Interpreter and the president of the Association of Independent Judicial Interpreters of California (AIJIC). Our organization has also been participating in conversations with CFI and AAPTI to discuss a realistic approach to how to deal with this matter.

    AIJIC has been around since 2013 and we also represent court interpreters who provide services for the California courts. We also lobbied for court interpreters to get an exemption from the ill-conceived AB5 and prevailed. You can read more about us on http://www.aijic.org.

    A couple of things that I’d like to point out about this article:

    1. AIJIC met with CFI and AAPTI reps on 5/12 to discuss this matter and we’ll be meeting again this Saturday 5/21. This issue will require multiple meetings to agree on a realistic joint approach to tackle this troubling Judicial Council call for bids.

    2. The law in California mandates the use of interpreters with Judicial Council certification for court proceedings, including depositions (Government Code of California, sections 68560.5 and 68561).

    3. You may want to rephrase what your article says about the work that we court interpreters do. By stating that the higher interpreting standards and certification exams have “translated to a fairer judicial process for people who are Limited English Proficient” or that the Judicial Council call for proposals “hurts the LEPs, and everybody who works with them,” you’re conveying the idea that our services are only for the benefit of the LEPs. They’re not. We interpret for the benefit of everybody involved in a case, LEPs and English speakers who don’t understand them alike. We bridge communication barriers in the court system, that’s all.

    Please support any interpreting organization you want so that we can fight for our profession. Talk without action is a waste of time.

    • Athena Matilsky
      Posted at 09:22h, 17 May Reply

      Hi Mariana,

      Thank you for all this information! It is very helpful to know what is going on with all our various organizations to see how we can work together. I appreciate everything you’re doing.

      As to who we serve in court, we are on the same page; interpreters are absolutely officers of the court who work for everybody involved in a case that includes an LEP person. Our services are for the benefit of all those involved.

  • Lionel Bajana
    Posted at 11:46h, 17 May Reply

    Hello Athena, greetings from NYC. My name is Lionel Bajana, retired staff interpreter from the New York State Courts. Non-degreed but state certified. .I read your article with much interest. I’d like to make a couple of observations. On the issue of outsourcing I think that this may be one of the unintended results of virtual proceedings stemming from the pandemic. The Admin. Offices found a quick cheap way to provide language access putting quality control to the side. On the topic of higher education, despite of being a non-degreed interpreter, I agree that some sort of T/I academic formation is essential for the overall credentialing of a professional interpreter. I am also cognizant that higher education institutions may be reluctant to offer advanced degrees in interpretation when in reality a degree may not lead to a job that will pay the student loan. Most states, including mine, do not require a college degree in order to practice as a language provider. Additionally, the colleges that offer any interpreter related curricula is limited to Spanish/English combination. I always thought a licensing program may be the way to go for language providers, but with continuing education conditions. Many state certifications and even at the federal level do not require any type of continuing education in order to keep the certification valid. Upon passing the exam, Interpreters are certified into perpetuity. A continuing education requirement for interpreters to be able to practice is essential. And there are so many language neutral topics to cover that it would serve interpreters of all languages.
    I believe its something to consider.

    • Athena
      Posted at 13:12h, 19 May Reply

      Very interesting points, Lionel. Thank you for sharing.

  • Chris Verduin
    Posted at 12:28h, 17 May Reply

    Also to the point, it may be easy to say we need “more certified interpreters” if you are talking about easily
    accessible languages. However, how do we “require” certified interpreters for languages that have very
    few interpreters, particularly languages that do not even have the education your are speaking about, and
    there are not even qualifying tests to measure their skill Many of these speakers could not make a living
    interpreting in their language. Also, as Arnaldo pointed out, there are many speakers of other languages who are very capable of meeting interpreter requirements – but under the new push for “education”, will probably be eliminated because they don’t possess “degrees”. So in some ways the new push for education may actually be an impediment to the system for some languages of lesser diffusion if appropriate training, even testing, is not available.

  • Alex Wieder
    Posted at 14:28h, 17 May Reply

    Hi Athena,

    The difference between doctors and lawyers, and interpreters is that the former are, to some extent, unionized professions that have managed to have certain professional protections written into laws, ensuring, most notably, that only a doctor treats a patient or only a lawyer represents a client.

    Had taxi drivers had a crystal ball when special licensing requirements were established for driving a cab, they would’ve ensured that pertinent legislation included language preventing private players from finding a loophole (and, as far as I know, in NYC uber/lift drivers are required to have a commercial driver’s license). Unlike them, we have the advantage of already having witnessed what our profession’s future might be like (e.g. institutionally-certified interpreter agencies providing non-certified interpreters to clients, etc.).

    So far, we’re only seeing isolated efforts to help secure our livelihoods (California and Pennsylvania) and several associations (najit, ata, and now aapti), but no clear indication of anything pointing in the direction of an actual, national interpreters’ union creating a unified front to combat the erosion of our profession.

    It is obvious, based on another article right here and its comments (https://najit.org/growing-pains/), that NAJIT and ATA will not go that distance, and it’s unclear whether that is AAPTI’s mission (Angie Birchfield, one of its founders, is or was the president of The Translators and Interpreters Guild, a unit of the CWA/TNG union, both of which were unknown to me until today).

    Going back to unions, as we all know, they’re usually geared towards benefiting individuals in employment relationships, but that doesn’t mean that an organization based on similar principles can’t work for a profession comprised mostly of independent contractors (e.g. medical and other similar boards).

    Based on what I’ve seen over the past few years, I believe it’s time to get the ball rolling in this direction and start, at least, with a series of zoom meetings between those at the helm of the various organizations that exist for interpreters (e.g. NAJIT, ATA, AAPTI, etc.). I contributed to the PA interpreters’ effort last year, and am happy to contribute to the one in CA right now, but don’t know what else to do, if anything, in the spirit of getting this going as mine is only one voice.

    Alex

    • Athena
      Posted at 13:13h, 19 May Reply

      You hit the nail on the head, Alex. A united front is certainly what we need. Thank you for being ready and willing to do the work that you do.

  • Sara Garcia-Rangel
    Posted at 16:52h, 17 May Reply

    Does anyone remember that UNITAS was proposed in 1987? It was probably ahead of its time, but where could we be now?

    • Athena
      Posted at 13:14h, 19 May Reply

      Now that sounds interesting…it was indeed before my time, though I think I’ve heard about it.

  • Sofolonia F Kaulukukui
    Posted at 15:39h, 21 May Reply

    ALLOW RECIPROCITY FOR “NON-DESIGNATED LANGUAGES” (REGISTERED INTERPRETERS)

    Maybe if the California Judicial were to ALLOW RECIPROCITY for NON-DESIGNATED LANGUAGES (REGISTERED INTERPRETERS) ,they’d have enough interpreter pool for their needs.

    Tongan is a NON-DESIGNATED Language & cannot be CERTIFIED. The highest status that I can achieve is REGISTERED Interpreter.

    California Judicial’s Rule hindered my plans for a future with the California Courts.

    “INTERPRETERS OF REGISTERED LANGUAGES ARE NOT ELIGIBLE FOR RECIPROCITY”

    This is despite the fact that I have passed all California Court’s Requirements. I am the highest rank Tongan Interpreter with Hawaii State Judiciary. 1st Circuit since 2011, Passed the Consortium Written Exam (in 1 sitting) with 85% (CA require 70%), Passed an Abbreviated Oral Exam (in 1 sitting) with 92% (CA doesn’t have an Abbreviated Oral Exam in Tongan), Passed a Billingual Oral Exam (1 sitting) with 85%. (CA doesn’t have a Billingual Exam in Tongan).

    I believe that if CA Judicial were less restrictive with their Reciprocity Rules, they’d have more QUALIFIED Registered Interpreters like myself for their needs.

    Malo

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