Taking the Hill: NAJIT’s Advocacy Day in Washington D.C.

By Zeng Zeng Yang

“We are our own worst enemies. I have been to so many conferences at which my colleagues complain about the low pay, the cutthroat competition, problems with the courts, and yet few take any concrete action to reach out to decision-makers,” said Dr. Liu, the president of the International Federation of Translators (FIT), who was the keynote speaker of the NAJIT 38th Annual Conference held near Washington, DC, on May 19-21, 2017.  FIT, which NAJIT has recently joined, is the voice of professional associations of translators, interpreters and terminologists around the world.

Going to the Capitol

Well, this time some NAJIT members took action. On May 22, 2017, the day after the conference, a small group went to the Capitol and lobbied their legislators to promote professionalism and professional standards, to advocate for a judicial system that functions for all and to campaign for a better future for our profession and its practitioners.

We came from different states—California, Indiana, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington—and represented several languages other than English: French, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Nepali, Russian, Spanish and Tibetan. Dr. Liu, from New Zealand, and Samantha Cayron, a researcher at the Centre for Legal and Institutional Translation Studies in Switzerland, came along to support NAJIT’s advocacy efforts.

Well, this time some NAJIT members took action.

“In Switzerland, the government has a very democratic way of dealing with issues and the citizenry is very involved in the defense of their rights. Having lived in Mexico and France, I think systems only work when people actually use and believe in them,” said Dr. Samantha Cayron.

From the conference hotel, we took the metro to the Capitol. Upon arrival, the team split into two groups. One group proceeded to attend pre-scheduled appointments with legislative staff, while the other visited different offices without appointments. In all cases, they succeeded in talking to legislators’ aides.

Use of credentialed interpreters and translators

NAJIT’s advocacy priority number one is to convince the government and the public at large to always use credentialed interpreters and translators. “We routinely provide language access services to the court, making sure that we send interpreters certified or registered by the court. Every year, however, there are always three or four new languages for which we need to find competent interpreters,” said Emma Garkavi, Seattle Municipal Court Language Access Coordinator. “There is a need for US federal courts to create court interpreter certification in many more languages than just Spanish.” The other alternative is to contract with state certified and registered court interpreters, which federal courts don’t always do.

Difference between registered and certified interpreters

The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) has developed written and oral exams for legal interpreting. State court interpreters have taken mandatory orientation and training, passed the NCSC written exam, gone through a criminal background check and have sworn an oath to abide by a legislated code of professional conduct. In addition, they are subject to disciplinary action and must comply with continuing education to maintain their credentials. Certified court interpreters have passed the NCSC oral exam, which tests their interpreting skills in the simultaneous, consecutive and sight translation modes. Registered court interpreters have had passed oral language proficiency exams in English and the other language, but have not yet passed the certification exam.

“In the private sector,” said Ms. Garkavi, “companies such as Microsoft or Starbucks specifically request state certified court interpreters. They know these interpreters have had their skills tested in all three modes of interpreting: simultaneous, consecutive and sight translation. In contrast, the Executive Office of Immigration Review has a contract with a nationwide vendor allowing non-certified or registered court interpreters with one year of experience to work in immigration courts. These unqualified interpreters can potentially cause immigrants to lose their rights or to allow potentially dangerous people to stay in the country.”

“In the ,” said Ms. Garkavi, “companies such as Microsoft or Starbucks specifically request state certified court interpreters. They know these interpreters have had their skills tested in all three modes of interpreting: simultaneous, consecutive and sight translation. In contrast, the Executive Office of Immigration Review has a contract with a nationwide vendor allowing non-certified or registered court interpreters with one year of experience to work in immigration courts. These unqualified interpreters can potentially cause immigrants to lose their rights or to allow potentially dangerous people to stay in the country.”

The use of non-credential interpreters in other fields

The same issue of using non-credentialed interpreters applies to many other fields. In public schools, for example, failing to use credentialed interpreters sometimes means that limited English proficient parents can misunderstand the details of the individual education plans designed to benefit their children, rendering them unable to help their children succeed in school. In healthcare, meaningful language access is frequently not provided meaningful to patients, which can result in uninformed consent. “In Ohio, trained and qualified Nepali interpreters have shared that dozens of babies from Nepali speaking parents were circumcised without their parents understanding what was happening because healthcare providers were using untrained and unqualified interpreters. Circumcision is not in their Hindu or Buddhist tradition. This creates mistrust in immigrant communities,” informed Adriana Fonseca, a state court certified interpreter and member of the group that visited the Ohio office.

“The working conditions and pay for medical interpreters needs to increase,” said Milena Calderari-Waldron. “Their services are so critical, yet they get paid so little.”

One way to make this happen is to streamline procurement and improve scheduling efficiencies. “For traffic violations, the court can schedule all infractions for a specific language on the same day. One court does it on Tuesday morning and another court on Tuesday afternoon. In this way, we can pay interpreters better and use the limited pool of certified and registered court interpreters more efficiently. In healthcare, staggering appointments every 45 minutes for the same language results in one single interpreter taking care of multiple patients in one location. Interpreters travel less and earn more,” explained Emma Garkavi.

Inadequacy of labor categories

The origin of some of these problems is the inadequate labor categories found in the SCA Directory of Occupations published by the US Department of Labor and used to make wage determinations. The Service Contract Act (SCA) applies to every contract entered into by the United States Government. It requires contractors and subcontractors performing services on prime contracts in excess of $2,500 to pay service employees no less than the wage rates and fringe benefits found prevailing in the locality (e.g. state, county or city) or in a predecessor contractor’s union contract.

“The US Department of Labor has commingled interpreters with translators. NAJIT spearheaded the creation of much more accurate descriptions of who we are, what we do, and how we do it,” said Milena Calderari-Waldron, a Spanish court interpreter who is also certified by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services Medical and Social Services and organizer of the trip to the capital.

Another problem is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is under the impression that interpreters and translators are for the most part employees. Its website states that 1 in 5 were self-employed in 2014. In contrast, the American Translators Association’s 2016 Translation and Interpreting Services Survey found that 76% of interpreters and translators are freelancers, which is corroborated by the Association of Language Companies’ 2015 Industry Survey, which found that 89% of language services are rendered by freelancers.

Additionally, and contrary to current laws and regulations, the US Government is ignoring voluntary consensus professional standards such as those created by the American Society for Testing and Materials and the International Standards Organization when it procures language services. “Government agencies are writing their requests for proposals based on inaccurate information. There is a complete disconnect between them and us, the professionals actually performing the service,” said Milena Calderari-Waldron echoing what Dr. Liu had said in his keynote speech. There is much to advocate for, indeed!

Our voices need to be heard. After all, when it comes to interpreting and translation we are the experts. “Legislators are always interested in hearing from their constituents,” said Helen Eby who has successfully lobbied Oregon’s legislature and executive branch agencies for years. She insists that members should take the action to their home states. “Speak out for your profession; talk to your senators and representatives in your state; and talk about the issues.”

As a student, that day I learned a lot about the current debate raging in our profession. It was such an eye-opening experience to walk through those Capitol buildings and see these colleagues voicing their concerns to their legislators with strong evidence and concrete solutions. In fact, I learned just as much about the current state of this profession during Advocacy Day as I did during the conference.

For more information:

To learn about what advocacy is, its importance, and how to advocate for our profession, please read “Advocacy 101 for Interpreters and Translators”, a resource prepared by the NAJIT Advocacy Committee.

Zeng Zeng Yang is a published author in China and the former co-editor of her high school newspaper. As a high schooler, she interned for her State Senator. She is an incoming junior at Moravian College, where she is pursuing a degree in mathematics with a minor in philosophy. She is currently working on becoming a certified court interpreter in English<>Mandarin for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NAJIT.

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