On Protocols and Professional Standards

“Respect yourself and others will respect you.”
― Confucius

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines protocol as “a system of rules that explain the correct conduct and procedures to be followed in formal situations.” There were no such rules, standard procedures, or protocols for interpreters in courts of law within the United States prior to the Court Interpreters Act and the federal certification program. During those early stages we were very fortunate to have had interpreters like Sofia Zahler directing the Court Interpreter Services program in the Los Angeles U.S. District Court, with colleagues such as Frank Almeida (USDC Los Angeles), Alexander Raïnof (UCLA), Linda Haughton (USDC El Paso), and Alicia Betsy Edwards (UC Berkeley), to name just a few, whose vast knowledge about interpreting, languages and the law gave us a solid foundation on which to build our professional standards. Their handbooks, glossaries, and other educational materials were received with great enthusiasm by the small community of judiciary interpreters at a time when all of us were so very eager to learn. But perhaps the most important thing back then for those of us getting started in this field was learning to do things right: learning the proper techniques, the correct terminology, the ethical principles that should guide our conduct, as all of us shaped a profession in which we could take pride, and that would command the same level of respect as all the others involved in the highly structured domain of civil and criminal litigation.

The input of many experienced and knowledgeable academicians and practitioners—too many to name them all—over the course of the last three and a half decades provided our profession with the building blocks to arrive at the high levels of competency and skills displayed by professional interpreters in the legal field nowadays. Our current standards and protocols were not arbitrarily designed; they were fashioned with the actual role of the judiciary interpreter in mind.

As our role was defined in more and more detail, so were the performance standards and protocols we should or should not follow. Taking an oath to render everything faithfully in the two languages interpreted, for example, was one of those protocols incorporated at very early stage. Also during those first years a group of interpreters from different U.S. District Courts tried to put together a set of guidelines to be promulgated by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, with the expectation of having a uniform set of criteria that would be applicable to judiciary interpreters all over the United States as to the manner in which they would render their services. It took more than 20 years for this project to bear fruit as the Federal Court Interpreter Orientation Manual and Glossary. (See page 6 for the list of Members of Manual Writing Committee appointed in 1988.)

Soon thereafter, in 1991, the Carolina Academic Press published a book that propelled the entire profession to a completely new level of credibility and respect in academic circles: Fundamentals of Court Interpretation, by Roseann Dueñas-González,   Victoria F. Vázquez, and Holly Mikkelson. The book addressed theoretical and pragmatic aspects of the profession and became a standard reference that further contributed to the establishment of uniform protocols clearly linked to the function of the judiciary interpreter.

There are currently many states that recognize the important role interpreters play within their respective systems of justice, and that have developed standards oftentimes modeled after the NAJIT Professional Code of Ethics, promulgating the best practices for judiciary interpreters. This achievement is the direct result of all the hard work and dedication of those who came before us, making sure all along we had a solid foundation on which to build this profession.

Every single rule and protocol that has been developed to standardize an interpreter’s performance in a judiciary setting is grounded on the constitutional rights of non-English speakers facing criminal prosecution in the U.S. system of justice, be it in a state or a federal court. Every single requirement, as well as every single prohibition, exists to protect the rights of those who cannot speak the language of the courts, so as to afford them equal protection and due process.

Our current standards and protocols, these rules we must all follow, are necessary to maintain a uniform delivery of this highly specialized service. Furthermore, this consistency makes it easier for end-users to know exactly what to expect, and have some objective indicators of a judiciary interpreter’s professionalism. Upholding these standards should be a matter of pride for all members of this profession.

Only to the extent that we respect ourselves as professionals, that we uphold and defend the highest standards for our profession, will we earn the respect of those around us and our rightful place in the community of professionals where we render our services day after day.

2 Comments
  • Heidi Cazes
    Posted at 14:54h, 12 June Reply

    Thank you, Janis, for a very insightful article!

    I think that we all need to delve a bit deeper and more in detail on the different existing professional protocols, which should also include the already established and accepted working conditions for interpreters.

    In these days of turmoil and “disruption”, there are so many colleagues who are entering the profession who might not have access to this information. From what I hear from our more experienced colleagues, this, together with the pressures many of us seem to be feeling from the market, is affecting our profession.

    I think it would behoove us as an association to continue sharing, discussing and promoting the already established and accepted best practices in interpreting, in order to maintain the high standards already accomplished by our profession!

    (Yes, here I go again, proposing yet another task force for our dear burdened NAJIT 😉 Any volunteers? )

    Heidi

  • Janis Palma
    Posted at 15:14h, 12 June Reply

    Thank you, Heidi. This is most definitely a subject to explore in greater detail, but even if no task force gets assigned to work on it, an ad hoc group of NAJIT members could always get together and propose a round table for our next conference in San Antonio. (Hint, hint!)

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