Quality control or hidden systemic barrier?

I know several interpreters who are terrible with computers yet exceptional with their interpreting skills, and I am sure that there are many more out there. Are some of the rules that we have discriminating against talented interpreters with marginal computer skills?

Like many interpreters working in a limited-diffusion, non-certifiable language, any means to earn extra qualifications or stamps of approval is always appreciated. At least for me. While it does not carry the same effects as the privileges earned by our esteemed colleagues who have been through the long hours of studying for the certification test, having it still gives me a boost of confidence that I am “up there” with all the hard work that I put into my profession.

So, you can imagine how happy I was when my home state came out with the CEU policy requiring continuing education in order to keep a spot on the roster. I thought to myself, here we go, now we have some safeguard against agency interpreters who can just walk in and get a piece of that hard-earned pie. But now, more than half a decade down the road from that policy’s implementation, I am starting to see things from another angle.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a CE junkie, and I love attending classes that help broaden my horizons or sharpen my skills. Never have I missed a year that I did not complete my CEU requirements.

However, sometimes this ‘online’ procedure can leave out some of our seasoned colleagues, those who may be in their older tenure. Some may not be internet savvy, while others may fall through the information gap from not keeping up with the rule that usually comes via electronic communications—again, all of which require a certain level of online literacy. To be honest, for a lot of these colleagues, it’s not something that’s in their generational interest. Some of us who did not grow up in the USA did not have access to computers until 1996!

Furthermore, there may simply be a low perceived ROI or a lack of incentives offered by the courts to motivate quality interpreters. These courses are not cheap, and the number of credits required can make it costly. If your language pair is not requested regularly, can you afford to spend money on this investment?

Given that my language pair is not mainstream and has a very small pool of interpreters in the system, I work with these colleagues regularly and can proudly say that they are all my mentors. They may not attend the online classes, but they are all active interpreters who are competent in both state and federal courts. They have a solid skillset and years of experience that is valuable in the courtroom. But should they be penalized just because they are older and cannot keep up with all the changes in the system?

Of course, I am not saying that every older interpreter should be exempted. This wonderful policy was created with the good intention of keeping our skills high as court interpreters. But I feel strongly that more factors should be taken into consideration before the court decides that they will reach out to agency interpreters before utilizing this group of interpreters who may not be active in the state court roster (but who still may be working with the federal court or DoS) solely because of their local CEU status. Can we afford to lose this talent because of a systemic barrier? These interpreters went through all the tests and requirements to be on the roster to begin with.  Shouldn’t skill assessment after a certain period be implemented rather than just relying on online CEU courses? Let us not forget that you can sometimes get a certificate of attendance just by paying the fee. Can it really be the deal breaker that decides on the destiny of an interpreter’s status?

None of this is intended as a personal attack on agency interpreters. However, if the court is relying on the CE-credit rule to decide which interpreter can be active on the court roster, how are agency interpreters qualified to work in court cases? They have not passed the test administered by the court to qualify as a court interpreter nor do they have any CEU requirements of any kind. Not to mention the ethics and procedural knowledge that court interpreters need to know and adhere to.

In my humble opinion, this will lead to more and more interpreters opting to just take ‘the easy route’ and remain on the agency roster rather than work hard to be on the court roster. Why should one bother when you just end up getting the job anyway? In this case, it appears to me that the QC policy is backfiring on us.

As for the courts, are you ready to lose this talent pool of those who “fell through the systemic cracks?”

When my dad turned 74, he mentioned how he felt like he was falling behind and could not catch up with the world. I was in my 30s at the time and thought, how can you feel that way? While I have not personally crossed that threshold yet, I now see the essence of his comment. Taking online courses and uploading certificates into your online platform may be a piece of cake for Millennials and all the subsequent generations, but it’s surely not for everyone.

Ann (Jiraporn) Heath-Huynh grew up in a bilingual Thai-English household, using both languages in day-to-day life. Having lived on four continents, she now calls the U.S. home. Following the birth of her daughter in 2010, the chance to work in the language field afforded her an opportunity to change career directions; what began as a part-time job became a career that she is passionate about. After being added to the Maryland Judiciary’s roster of interpreters in 2015, many opportunities opened up to her, eventually leading to Department of State Conference Interpretation for Thai and English. Although she works mostly as a conference interpreter, she has always considered Maryland courts to be her home. Whenever an assignment is offered, she is always pleased to accept it and proudly wear her first-ever interpreter’s badge as a Maryland Judiciary Court Interpreter. Contact: ann.h.huynh@gmail.com

Featured photo: “Technology old and new” by user Brenda at flickr, under a CC BY 2.0 license. Text-body photo from “A Touch of the Universe” (“About” page) by University of Valencia Astronomical Observatory, under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

8 thoughts on “Quality control or hidden systemic barrier?”

  1. Rosemary L King says:

    I love this article! You are talking about me!! After 24+ years of interpreting, I have missed so much of the technology training needed in today’s interpreting world even though I attended as many training and educational opportunities as possible before Covid. Zoom and Web Ex are very difficult for me, and I usually turn down assignments that involve this method for interpreting. I feel proficient in the courtroom, but helpless in front of a computer trying to Zoom. And I hate signing up for online CEUs because I am always afraid that there will be a computer problem in the middle of the presentation, and I will be stuck!
    At the age of 71, I have chosen the road to slow it down, give up Superior Court assignments, focus on less stressful situations and be grateful for all of the OJT that I exposed myself to with this career. As a former high school teacher for 15 years prior to becoming an interpreter, once again I missed out on the computerized world as the foreign language department along with the art department were the last groups to receive computers in the classrooms and be trained on how to use them.
    There is no such thing as just being an interpreter without having so many other expectations attached. As much as I have loved this career, I am looking forward to mentoring younger interpreters and helping them get a start to a rewarding new career.

    1. Jiraporn Ann Huynh says:

      Rosemary, thank you for sharing with me your personal experience regarding this issue. At first, I was quite reluctant to submit this article for fear of offending anyone. However, I feel that it’s the elephant in the room that needs to be address. Given that the new era is putting so much focus on the notion of ‘leaving no one behind’, I feel that this group of interpreters is no exception. Enjoy the work that you choose to do now,
      let it be base or complicated but be reminded that you are not forgotten just because you have chosen to not work online!

  2. Janis Palma says:

    I love how you bring up an issue we seldom talk or even think about. I am going to be 70 later this year and I have struggled to keep up with all the technology that comes so easy for my younger colleagues. Yes, there should be some alternatives for the baby boomers in languages that have a lower demand. Thank you for making all of us think about this issue!

    1. Jiraporn Ann H. Huynh says:

      Thanks Janis! It’s always hard to be the messenger sometimes. Like I said, I am not saying that being older should give one a golden ticket to cruise through the system, but if the credentials are there, credit should be given where it is due!. Two of my colleagues are working in Federal Court but is not listed as active in the state court roster just because of the CEU policy. In this case, I feel like they should have an exception for it.

  3. Patti Firth says:

    I really appreciate your comments. I am a State of New Jersey Spanish staff interpreter with nearly 30 years of interpreting experience. I turned 70 last year, so technology has never been natural to me. It was hard to learn to do simultaneous via ZOOM, but after a lot of effort (and mistakes!) I got the hang of it. Then our work-issued cell phones were switched out, to phones with no place to connect headphones. They finally came up with a work-around for that.
    I tried to practice simultaneous recently with another state interpreter, who told me I can’t use headphones unless they have an attached microphone (even though I never used a microphone before.) Now I am completely confused and don’t know where to go from here.
    The worst problem has been the attitude of some judges. One was on the screen rolling her eyes as I tried to connect. Another asked me to do simultaneous in a break-out room (which I didn’t know was not possible.) When I got back to the judge, he said, “Well, THAT was a big waste of time!” Sometimes it just makes you not want to try any more. Yet as an experienced interpreter, proud of my years of learning and knowledge, it makes me feel very sad that I am not as appreciated as I was before.

    1. Jiraporn Ann H. Huynh says:

      Patti-Virtual hearings leave so much loophole for errors as there are no uniform training that every state court can adhere to. It is true that there are many trainings out there but it seems to be a ‘one size fits all solution’ without consideration of the learner’s level of IT literacy. I commend you for your efforts to walk with the modern world and understand the frustration that you may have in certain situations-as if interpreters are not already used as collateral damages in some instances! Keep up the good work and know your worth!

  4. Gina says:

    The oral federal exam is now solely computerized. The interpreter multitasks as proctor and interpreter. Scrolling and prompting buttons to record and stop recording during your interpretation and note taking and keeping track of time.
    I wonder how this made sense to anyone to be a good idea. Yet, an exam with a proctor is not an option.

  5. Ganna says:

    Kuddos to you guys! My dad (71 y.o.) doesn’t use computer, period. My mom (75 y.o.) doesn’t know how to use Zoom. So, I bow to computer literate people in your age.

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