The Real Story on Court Interpreter Pay

After 17 years without a raise, the per-diem court interpreters in Massachusetts got an inflation adjustment of 50% but not a raise.  It sounds great, but it isn’t. In fact, the implementation of this long-delayed inflation adjustment has been accompanied by a significant change in staffing, reducing the role of per-diem interpreters in favor of a dramatic increase in the number of staff interpreters. With these fast-track policy changes, the courts appear to be pushing back against the current per-diem interpreters’ demanding a living wage.

The Massachusetts Association of Court Interpreters (MACI) tried everything short of a walkout, but it took a walkout to bring the Trial Court to the negotiating table with an offer that interpreters could accept.  Nevertheless, it was a hollow victory.

In February, per-diem court interpreters staged a walkout for not having received an increase in pay for 17 years, while the value of the 2006 dollar declined to $0.50. The walkout was not cancelled after all, even though the Trial Court offered a cost-of-living adjustment, bringing the current pay to the same value as the 2006 dollar. But this was no actual increase. At the same time, the Trial Court began to reduce the number of days of work for certified and screened per diem court interpreters, particularly for Spanish and Portuguese, the two most frequently requested languages in the courts, while at the same time advertising openings for new per-diem Spanish and Portuguese court interpreters and having recourse to telephonic services.

The real victims of the most recent measures taken by the court administrators are not the professional interpreters but the LEP individuals who come seeking justice from the court system.  In 2022, there were 159,953 requests for interpreter services in the Commonwealth, 66% of which were for the Spanish language and 16% for Portuguese.

Per-diem interpreters used to work a full day for five days a week before the “negotiated” pay adjustment; now, some are contracted for half-days only two times a week, on average. Some of the best and most experienced certified interpreters are leaving the field because there is not enough work for them to make a decent living.

The vast majority of per diem interpreters have been working for the Trial Court for well over 15 years. The approximately 120 Massachusetts per-diem court interpreters are vetted, highly skilled, experienced, and specialized. They work all over the Commonwealth in more than 100 languages.  Quality language access for court users is necessary to ensure equal and meaningful access to justice. The work of per-diem interpreters extends beyond the walls of the courtroom, to public defenders’, court investigators’, court clinicians’, and district attorneys´ offices.

The Trial Court’s Office of Language Access included a request for 50 additional full-time staff interpreters in its FY 2024 budget proposal. There are currently about 65 full-time staff court interpreters. Adding 50 more will increase the expenditure on benefits (medical/dental insurance, personal/medical leave, pension, disability, among others). Per diem interpreters render the same services to the courts without getting any of those benefits. Whether the Legislature and the Governor will approve this funding is not known at this time. In the meantime, experienced per-diem interpreters are working fewer hours while demand for their services keeps growing. To fill the gap, the Office of Language Access (OLA) at the Trial Court has started contracting agencies from other states and out-of-state interpreters to replace the per-diem court interpreters who reside and work in Massachusetts.

We would suggest that the Trial Court focus on improving the certification monitoring system, mentorships for new interpreters, and overall working conditions, particularly for remote interpretation.

From the vantage point of per-diem interpreters in Massachusetts, the Trial Court’s offer to adjust for inflation over the last 17 years falls short of the per-diem interpreters’ request to improve their take-home pay and working conditions. Per-diem interpreters deserve better.

Anahit Flanagan has two native languages, Armenian and Russian. She is a Massachusetts Trial Court per-diem interpreter and a medical interpreter certified by the National Board (NBCMI) and the Commission (CCHI). She has 49 years of experience in teaching and has long been a language coach for medical and legal/immigration interpreting courses for students from the U.S. and other countries. She has developed the curriculum for language-learning programs for all levels of language proficiency and is a trained Oral Proficiency Interview (ACTFL OPI) tester. Volunteer work includes being a NAJIT Board Member (Director), an active member and contributor to the Massachusetts Association of Court interpreters (MACI), a member of the New England Translators Association (NETA), and a past member of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and Eastern European Languages (AATSEEL). Contact:

Main photo taken from “You Have Already Won!” by Olivian Breda from, under the CC BY 4.0 license. Body photo taken from “Modern IT Management: How to negotiate better” from Langerman Panta Rhei: All about modern IT Management for large enterprises, under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

9 thoughts on “The Real Story on Court Interpreter Pay”

  1. Janice Ng says:

    Great article. May I know which state has the most demand for Mandarin interpreters?

    1. Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

      My guess is that this information is not readily available. State court systems may not necessarily publish data on interpreter usage by language. They’ may not publish data on interpreter *demand* if they are not able to staff all court events that need an interpreter.
      My suggestion is to look for this information indirectly. I would look for Census data on the number of Mandarin speakers in a state who report not speaking English well. It’s easy for me to give this advice, because I have worked as a researcher using Census data. I have also attended a number of workshops on the subject.
      Nevertheless, that is one way to go about it.
      You could look at state data books as well.
      I would also consult with a research librarian.
      Of course, consult with state professional interpreter associations.
      Best of luck~

    2. Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

      Janice, you did not state your credentials. The Bay Area in California *might* need more Mandarin interpreters. Keep in mind that CA courts usually require a CA certification. I would check in with their professional associations. You might also consider healthcare interpreting. There are certifications available in Mandarin for healthcare. Best of luck!

  2. Gema Aparicio says:

    Thanks for the great article.

  3. Jason Knapp says:

    Great contribution Anahit. Thank you for your clear reporting, informative statistics, and constructive recommendations. We can only hope that some in the MA judiciary is listening.

  4. Montserrat ZUCKERMAN says:

    Thank you for the great follow up on the Massachusetts courts. As Jason says, hope the MA judiciary is listening and all the effort brings better and more consistent pay AND working conditions for all interpreters and the people who depend on us.

    1. Patricia Bluestein says:

      Well stated by both Jason Knapp and yourself. Hope the right people will listen!

  5. Thank you for the clear update on what has happened in Massachusetts. It appears that instead of negotiating with the contractors, the courts have decided to hire new staff. While the staff position may seem appealing to some interpreters, it’s possible that the pay may not be competitive relative to their level of experience.

    Although I really enjoyed working in the courts, I stopped working for the state courts in CA 14 years ago when I realized I could make more money in the private sector. While it’s true that LSPs suffer when they can’t access the services of experienced interpreters, we are not a charity. We are professionals who have families to support and bills to pay. When the courts, like any of our other clients, refuse to pay our fees, it is time to cut ties and consider them unreliable payers.

    It’s important to remember that independent contractors are essentially running their own businesses as self-employed individuals. As such, we must be mindful of our finances and take proactive steps to ensure our financial stability. If the numbers just don’t add up, it may be necessary to consider other potential sources of income to supplement our earnings.

  6. Jesse Leonor says:

    It seems to me that something that the courts overlook when switching to staff interpreters exclusively is that in addition to the immediate-access benefit of having one or a few staff interpreter(s), utilizing interpreters that are also able to work outside of the court (as contractors can) will ultimately provide LEPs and the court with the best interpreting service of all. As an independent contractor, an interpreter is free to work with private attorneys (both criminal and civil) and get the unique exposure to terminology and contexts those assignments bring. They can assist during the at-length private conversations between attorney and clients (at their office, home, jail or anywhere). Then, they are also able to work with the prosecution, translating and/or transcribing evidence, interpreting during witness interviews, etc. [BTW, I am referring to across multiple cases, not doing all these things for the same one 🙂 ] An interpreter hired by the court is typically not allowed to work in these other scenarios and while I would never say an experienced staff interpreter would necessarily be deficient because of this, working in different aspects of the judicial process absolutely brings growth that the contractor can then share with the staff interpreter when the common opportunity to work together arises. Conversely, the staff interpreter, can bring the contractor up to speed as to a particular judge’s or clerk’s preferences or peeves since they have daily access to those facets of our work. At the end of the day, having only staff interpreters, aside from being more costly, can hinder the exchange of knowledge and experience that makes us (staff or contractor) the very best we can be at our craft.

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