Combatting Interpreter Fraud

At the memorial for deceased South African leader Nelson Mandela on December 10, 2013, the world-wide interpreting community was stunned and dismayed when a fake sign language interpreter was shown on television and the internet pretending to interpret the words of heads of state and diplomats on the world stage. After the initial hue and cry, much was written about the negligence displayed by the South African government and the host organizing committee, security concerns and the identity of the fraudulent signer, but I don’t feel that enough has been said about the impact on the interpreter community itself. 

In an odd way, the fake interpreter incident has had a salutary effect on public perception of the importance of competent interpreters. People all over the world have now seen what can happen when not enough care is taken to secure a trained professional interpreter whose credentials have been carefully verified. As the scandal played out, I found myself feeling alternately appalled and vindicated. “There, you see?” said I. “That’s what you get when you just take someone’s word for it that they know what they’re doing!”

To me, the fact that the fraud could have been perpetrated in such a prominent venue points to the fact that there must be fraud on various levels and in many countries both in the field of sign language interpreting and spoken language interpreting, although I personally believe that it is more prevalent in spoken-language interpreting. In this country, sign language interpreters are generally highly qualified professionals who must pass an examination and be registered with the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Requirements for spoken-language interpreters are not so stringent, unfortunately.

My First Experience with Interpreter Fraud

Before I ever studied to become an interpreter and long before I became certified, I worked for some years at a legal firm with a large Spanish-speaking client base. Of course, I also served as their interpreter. Like most inexperienced and untrained interpreters, I would throw in the usual “he says” or “the lawyer wants to know” and have side conversations when I thought I could get more information that way. I’d dumb the language way down to make sure the client got it. One thing I never did, though, was claim that I was a professional interpreter. Although I was unaware of what interpreting actually entailed, I knew that what I was doing was not the real thing. I enjoyed it, though, and it was then when I began to think seriously about what it would take to really interpret well as a professional.

Ten years later I found myself before a judge in felony court. I had just gotten my certification and I was ready to start work as a professional interpreter. The court had not called me in for a job that day, though; they just wanted to find out if the interpreter contracted by the public defender for a guilty plea was capable of interpreting, given the fact that she was not a certified interpreter. I listened for a few minutes and then had to intervene. “Your honor, the interpreter of record is not interpreting what your honor is saying, but is rather attempting to explain the plea to the defendant in simple language. She is also inventing words that do not exist in the Spanish language.” (She had interpreted the word “statement” as “estatamento,” Hispanicizing the English word since she had no idea of the correct translation.) With anguished pleading written clearly on her face the “interpreter” turned to the judge and said: “It’s the only way they understand.” The judge, a very wise man before whom I have had the honor to appear many times since, said to her: “It’s not your job to explain. You are supposed to interpret exactly what I say—no more, no less.” I never saw her again in that or any other court. (I did run into her once in the grocery store a few years later. We both averted our eyes.)

I must say that if I had found myself in the same situation before I got some proper training, I might have done the same thing in my ignorance, but at least I would be sure and let the judge know that I had no qualifications. This lady, however, had been the interpreter of choice for the public defender’s office for many years. They thought the world of her, and were not at all pleased when she was banished from the courts (especially since I charged a good deal more!)

One of the public defenders went so far as to tell me to my face: “Certification for interpreters is a crock.” Both he and his colleagues had failed to realize the fact that this lady had been engaging in what amounted to fraud both of the public defender’s office and its clients.

 Fraud Is Harmful to the Profession

And fraud it is, make no mistake about it.

Any kind of misrepresentation of one’s qualifications as an interpreter is harmful to the profession as a whole. I’m not referring to the obvious harm caused to LEP persons themselves or even to the entity that is contracting for the interpretation services, but to each and every one of us who work hard to provide true and accurate interpretation from one language to another.

How we Are Beating Interpreter Fraud

But we have come so very far. When we consider the state of our profession 30 or 40 years ago, it is clear that we have made extraordinary progress over the years.

Yes, there are still agencies that send unqualified people to interpret in situations far too sensitive for any but the best trained professional. There still exists a sort of cronyism in some courts that makes it possible for long-time, unqualified interpreters to maintain their prerogatives. There are still people like Thamsanqa Jantjie who are only too ready to hold themselves up as qualified interpreters, depending on people’s general ignorance of the profession to attempt to pull it off.

But we are beginning to prevail. There is so much more training available now. New interpreter groups are proliferating, making a place where experienced interpreters can share their hard-won experience with eager new colleagues, along with older well-established organizations like the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). There are fantastic conferences at which one can meet interpreters from all over the country and take advantage of educational workshops taught by qualified and experienced professionals.

The more we educate ourselves and others, the more united be become, the more often we react to cases of improper interpreter use, the closer we will get toward achieving our goals.

Most important, people in general are beginning to understand what it is to be a qualified professional interpreter when they contrast the work that is done by the majority of committed professionals with the farce that was played out in South Africa.

We must and will keep fighting until interpreter fraud no longer has any place in our profession.

6 Comments
  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 12:01h, 31 January Reply

    “We must and will keep fighting until interpreter fraud no longer has any place in our profession.”

    That effort is already taking place in a number of fronts: end users of interpreting services (lawyer/client, doctor/patient, teacher/student, judges, etc.), vendors of interpreting services (LSP), and interpreters themselves.

    Organizations such as NAJIT, AIIC and all the other professional groups out there that give interpreters a voice empower us to go on fighting. We also need to define “victory” so we do not stop fighting short of our goals or go on too far.

    Thank you, Kathleen!

    • Kathleen
      Posted at 06:48h, 21 February Reply

      You are so right, Gio. Thanks for your comments!

  • Maria Cristina de la Vega
    Posted at 12:07h, 20 February Reply

    Very good and timely article Kathleen. Pieces such as yours are what serve to bolster the drive to standardize interpreting services through accreditation by pointing out the tangible results of not doing so. As you mention, it is a process, but we are definitely gaining ground.

  • Kathleen
    Posted at 06:53h, 21 February Reply

    Thanks, Maria Christina!

  • Josefina Font
    Posted at 00:28h, 24 February Reply

    Sad to say but there are so many other types of interpreter fraud.
    There is a person in El Paso, TX, who claims to be an interpreter. Not only is she NOT licensed in Texas, but portrays herself to be a federally certified interpreter. She works for Lionbridge and somehow feels that entitles her to represent herself as such.
    This person is also falsely portraying herself to be a member of our organization, El Paso Interpreters and Translators Association, better known as EPITA. Her linkedin page is replete with affiliations and credentials, including NAJIT’s logo.

    Aside from requesting that she stop representing herself as a member of our organization, any suggestions about what can be done about this?

  • Robert Yost
    Posted at 20:18h, 12 October Reply

    Is there a state law (I think there is one in Texas) that fines and/or jails someone who pretends to be a certified interpreter for the deaf? Thank you for your help.

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