question marks in various colors and sizes overlap


I have been doing this for over 36 years. It is the one thing I have been able to do consistently for such a long time. I am a judiciary interpreter, and the bulk of my work throughout my entire career has been with the federal courts. In my lifetime, and as I was growing up, the federal government was considered the best place to get a job: good pay, good benefits, job security. But not anymore!

It is not always rosy

I could have been a university professor. I could have been an entrepreneur and own my own business. I could have done so many other things, and yet… I chose to be a judiciary interpreter working for the federal government. Yes, there were times when I considered changing careers. I felt burned out and thought about all my other alternatives. And yet, somehow, I always came back to interpreting… and translating. Never could get away for too long. I suppose you could say black exclamation point against a blue background casting a shadow in the form of a question markthis is my “calling”.

I am sure there are many of you reading this who feel the same way. This is your calling, this is what you want to do the rest of your life. This is what you enjoy, and you thrive with every new challenge encountered in the course of your day to day work. And right now, you also feel betrayed.

The plan has changed

All of a sudden, we have been pushed over a precipice and left there to dangle while some stranger or group of strangers—people who’ve never met us and know nothing about our individual struggles and are, therefore, lacking in any degree of empathy—decides whether or not to come to our rescue. Staff and freelancers alike, we all face the same peril right now: no income until the federal government “shutdown” ends. This was not our choosing. This was not part of “the plan” when we made the choice to be judiciary interpreters working for the federal government.

It is daunting. The way our reality is changing, the uncertainty of what used to be the most stable government with the most stable jobs.  It is very scary, indeed. And now, after 36 years, it is too late for me to change my choices. As a contract federal government interpreter and translator, all I can say right now is: thank God for Über!

Survival rules, so now what?

By the time this blog is published, the shutdown may have ended, or we may be in an even deeper crisis. If we are, how are you coping? What survival strategies are you using to stay afloat while the powers-that-be decide our fate? What will you do differently after this is over to avoid any future hardships caused by federal government shutdowns?

Thank you for sharing your insights and wisdom. We are all still an extended family and when one of us hurts, we all hurt, so even if you were not directly affected by recent events, please feel free to share your thoughts.

Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.

Read other posts by Janis Palma.

11 thoughts on “Choices”

  1. Maria de Villiers says:

    Dear Janis,
    A very daunting situation, nonetheless, but our nation has gone through worse in its young life and we, the people, have always come ahead, repaired, and moved on as our history can prove it. We are a great nation because we are great, resilient people and you are one of them as we all are. This is not a precipice we’ve been pushed into because we are still standing, and we are resourceful, and we are creative, and we will all survive this. Being a federal court interpreter is a lucrative and very coveted position and you as well as our dear federal colleagues will go back to it sooner than later. Never doubt yourself for the choices you’ve made. There is nothing, absolutely nothing we can do right now to open our government to business again; not until our next elections, when with savvy political knowledge we will be able to choose leaders who represent our interests and not theirs, leaders and who actually lead so that we can follow. I keep all our colleagues in my thoughts and especially you, dear Janis. Carpe diem!

    1. David Mintz says:

      Respectfully, I think Marie de Villiers comment is well-intentioned but naive. Patriotic bromides about our resilient national character will do us no good because they miss the point. Likewise, the pessimistic insistence that there is “absolutely nothing we can do,” combined with the delusional belief that with the next election cycle, leaders who genuinely represent the interests of workers will suddenly materialize and have more than a theoretical chance of winning, given the current system. The “us” versus “them” is workers versus the ruling class — the topmost layers of wealth and power, who control government, media and the military. And the scope of the problem is not national, but global. What we are actually witnessing — and experiencing — is the death agony of the entire capitalist system, and the accompanying terminal putrefaction of American democracy. At this stage our rulers are compelled to resort to ever more extreme measures — austerity, militarization, censorship — as they try to contain the imminent (indeed, incipient) social explosion.

      Of course, part and parcel of this is the breakdown of what remains of the social contract, also known as social counterrevolution, as the ruling class rolls back the concessions working people have struggled to extract over the past 100 years..

      To my mind, — not to put words in her mouth — this is what Janis’ piece is getting at, albeit not so explicitly. We federal workers once believed in good faith that we had a deal, and a fair one at that. Now we’re finding out that we do not: the contract has been breached. We are casualties in the internecine conflict between opposing factions of the ruling class..

  2. Kathleen M Morris says:

    Very wise and thoughtful article.

    I would like to encourage staff and contractor colleagues alike to continue to work, or to accept some assignments, as you are able, if you can do so without undue economic sacrifice.

    Doing so will accomplish two things: (1) Continued equal language access for LEP parties, by certified interpreters, and (2) ensure that our experience and skills continue to be valued, post- shutdown.

    I mention (2) in particular, as “temporary” solutions such as courts’ possible (?) use of more ‘cost-effective’ solutions, such as agencies that may agree to delayed commission payments from the courts [while paying non-certified interpreters themselves], volunteer interpreters, language students, bilingual personnel, and the like, tend to sometimes become the “permanent” way of providing needed language services. No indication that any of this is being contemplated, just a word to the wise.

  3. Kathleen M Morris says:

    I would like to propose the setting up of a “Go Fund Me” site, for the assistance of FCCI colleagues who may soon experience difficulties paying mortgages or rent, have uncovered major medical expenses, high college tuition costs for themselves or a child, and the like, once most courts run out of funds to pay them with.

    In some districts, it appears that contracts are being modified to retroactively compensate contractors for services. Nevertheless, continuing to work will be a definite sacrifice for many, in the medium to long term anticipated shutdown.

    I’m certain that a couple of FCCI colleagues, smarter than me (!) can easily set up such a funding page on the “Los Federales” FB page. I feel that many of us would be more than happy to contribute whatever amounts we can, for emergency living expenses.


  4. Sylvia J. Andrade says:

    There is other work available in the State sector, as well as for private attorneys. If you are contract, as opposed to an employee, you might investigate that. I have a lot of translation work right now, as well as the interpretation work. I primarily work for private attorneys, Workers Comp, the State courts, individuals, agencies, a non-profit with classes, and meetings, etc. There are jobs where they are unable to find anyone who is available. I do very little work that is directly Federal. However, I do translations for a tax attorney, and he is affected. He is still sending me a lot of work, and is managing to do something to get around this situation.
    My heart goes out to all of you. I would say to investigate some independent contractor work outside of the Federal Courts if they are either not paying or not using interpreters. It probably beats Uber.

  5. Chris Verduin says:

    Regarding “continuing to work”, the federal courts of all types are basically closed, so for those of us who do federal courts, there are no assignments to accept. An interesting footnote: Asylum interviews are still happening, which as far as I can see are not an essential service.

  6. JPalma says:

    Establishing a “private practice” takes time. If you have “cultivated” the federal government sector, you can’t suddenly jump to another sector, like state court, Worker’s Comp, , private civil depositions, etc., simply because the federal government is “closed”. Of course there is other work out there. It’s all about what you choose to do or not do. Some interpreters will never do criminal work because they cannot handle the gory details. Others prefer to avoid private attorneys because they don’t always provide the best working conditions (e.g., team interpreting during long depositions), or pay in a timely manner. Then again, I believe David is on the right track regarding our democratic system of government. There is a “let them eat cake” attitude at the highest levels of government that is having a real–and very negative–impact on this country’s social and economic fabric.

  7. Janis,

    This may come as a surprise, but I went through a similar upset 3 years ago when the college where I have invested 26 years of my life decided in a “program reprioritization” that languages were no longer necessary (albeit while “globalization was a #1 priority… seriously!). I have kept my job, but we no longer have language majors. We teach lower level language courses, and have only managed to keep offering Spanish at upper levels by adding a Translation Certificate program. 23 colleagues with tenure or on the tenure track were fired, against all procedures in the Faculty Manual.

    I continue to get paid, but I now question the path I chose so long ago. I look at translators and interpreters with envy, and I am planning my move into the industry, seeing it as more stable than college teaching anymore. Court interpreting is especially appealing, were I younger. I encourage my students to pursue it, and have them observe a court-interpreter colleague in the area whenever possible.

    I do hope you and your colleagues are able to weather this political storm. While I am not as pessimistic as David Mintz above, some of what he says is at the core of these multiple crises we are facing. In order for a democracy to work, the people have to be active citizens. Many of us, myself included, have allowed others to bear the brunt of the work. Maybe it’s time to get out for some protest marches!

    Hoping a paycheck is imminent and that this is just an anomaly.

    1. David Mintz says:

      I suppose my comments might have sounded pessimistic from a certain perspective. When I speak of the collapse of capitalism, I don’t mean to say that like it’s a bad thing. 🙂

  8. David Mintz says:

    I think it’s an error to emphasize the subjective and the personal. Nobody made a bad decision in choosing a career as a federal court interpreter or a college instructor. We need to understand the objective forces in play. It’s delusional to think we have a genuine participatory democracy and that the Republican-Democrat duopoly is seriously concerned with the interests of the great masses of people. It’s true that politicians running for office care about votes, but that’s fundamentally because they are competing with each other for political power.

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