The Discrepancies Between Professional Standards and Everyday Interpreting Practice

Imagine that you’re a patient going in for a surgical procedure. This is a procedure that isn’t done at the state-run hospital you normally go to.  Instead, you’ll have to go to a private specialist. Everything seems above board. The hospital administration assures you that you’ll be receiving first-rate care from a qualified surgeon. You figure that, because over at the public, state-subsidized hospital, the surgeon is provided a surgical support team, the same protocol will be followed at the private hospital. On the day of the surgery, you arrive, are admitted, and are finally rolled into the operating room.

But something seems off. Instead of the busy noises of a surgical staff — nurses, techs, the anesthesiologist — prepping for procedure, only the surgeon present. He informs you that, at this hospital, he is not permitted a surgical staff. This hospital believes that one surgeon alone should be able to handle all aspects procedure. The surgeon won’t just be focusing on performing the surgery. He’ll be fulfilling the roles of surgeon, anesthesiologist, nurses, and techs at the same time. Who cares if that compromises medical ethics and standards of practice? At the end of the day, this is done to save you, the patient, money and widen the hospital’s profit margin by bending ethics rules.

Now, imagine you’re a defendant being accused of a heinous crime. You and your family decide that it’s worth spending the money on an expensive, experienced, top private attorney to build your defense. Your attorney enters a notice of appearance, and at the next pretrial hearing asks the judge for a continuance so that he can get familiar with the case and uphold his duty as your defense attorney and your constitutional right to a fair trial and competent representation. The judge, however, says that the attorney’s law degree and license are all that he needs to defend a case. There’s no use wasting time with trial prep work. He’s got to keep his docket going, so he denies your attorney his motion and sets the trial to start for the following day.

All of these scenarios seem completely absurd. However, the compromise in professional ethics and standards of practice reflected in the above scenarios are par for the course in the private market sphere of legal interpreting. The sad part is that this harm is coming from within the profession as much as it’s coming from outside of it. I can guarantee that almost every working interpreter, including colleagues whom I admire and respect, are guilty of bending our ethics and standards of practice because we’ve been led to believe that we have no other choice to be marketable.

If you’re still reluctant to believe that you may have broken our standards of practice, answer the following:

  • Have you ever accepted a legal interpreting assignment (deposition, immigration interview, court hearing, trial, etc.) lasting more than 30 minutes as a solo interpreter?
  • Have you ever gone into a private legal assignment without doing prep work and familiarizing yourself with the subject matter of the case?
  • If you’re a translator, have you ever worked on a project without an editor?

My guess is that the majority have answered “yes” to at least one of these questions. I am not trying to shame my colleagues, but I am inviting them to sit with themselves and with the discomfort of knowing that we’ve all done these things even though we know that our standards of practice tell us we shouldn’t. The first important step is accepting that we have all committed these transgressions. It’s time to address the giant elephant in the room, because ignoring it and pretending that everything is fine isn’t going to make things any better for us or those who rely on our services.

While I’m writing from the perspective of a legal interpreter, I believe there are takeaways here for those working in medical and conference interpreting, as well as our translator colleagues. I don’t think there’s a single sphere of interpreting or translating where we have not felt the pressure to bend or break the standards of practice to be “marketable”. I hope that what I write will make my colleagues pause and reflect on how and why we as a profession have allowed the eschewing of the very standards we and our predecessors worked so hard to set.

My post today is not just for my independent contractor colleagues. Today, I’m also reaching out to the parties who hire us in the hopes of helping them understand just how their assignment terms and conditions and search for the cheapest provider are harming the profession and the parties soliciting professional language services.

The Importance of Judiciary Interpreting Standards

Prepare for the assignment. Interpret everything accurately. Don’t omit or change anything. Work in teams of two or more. Correct errors on the record. Decline assignments whose working conditions don’t allow you to uphold the Code of Ethics.

When I first began my coursework in translation and interpretation, it was drilled into me over and over again just how important ethics and standards of practice are to the profession. Following them not only protects the interpreter or translator, it also protects the non-English speaker and the courts. They ensure that everyone’s constitutional rights and professional duties are upheld. As a newbie interpreter, I was constantly referring back to these rules whenever a questionable situation popped up, until I knew them like the back of my hand.

Back then, I was more afraid of putting myself in hot water by accidentally breaking the rules. Now, however, I’m more aware of how these standards are put in place to protect everyone relying on the interpreter. I no longer use them to only justify protecting myself from liability, but to protect the client, attorney, judge, and courts from being harmed. Going back to the surgeon and attorney examples: why are there codes of ethics, practice, and professional responsibility that these professional swear to uphold? Yes, it’s to protect themselves, if they’re ever asked to do something unethical, but they’re also there to protect the patient and the client. The same goes for interpreters and translators. These codes aren’t there so that interpreters and translators can make things difficult for everyone, to be lofty aspirations, or mere suggestions. They are mandatory requirements for us to be able to do our job correctly.

This can be harder to see with foreign language interpreters and translators, because of the assumption that a good language service provider is a walking translation machine. In the eyes of many, we are individuals that work with words, not linguistical concepts and communication, and are just there to serve as a living Google Translate. This is far from the truth. We are human professionals, who are quite skilled at our jobs, but need the proper working conditions in order to perform well. Like the surgeon without a support staff or the attorney without trial prep work, the quality of our services will suffer if we’re not allowed to comply with standards of practice.

Why are they being ignored?

When I look at the current state of legal interpreting on the private market, I see three misconceptions outside of the profession that have contributed to our situation. First, there is the belief that not being able to communicate in English because you speak a foreign language is not a significant barrier. Second, that anyone who speaks a foreign language is a fluent bilingual and that any bilingual can interpret or translate. And lastly, that Limited English Proficiency communities are not as organized or influential as other communities, and don’t have as much power to assert their rights. All three factors contribute to a language service market where bad faith actors can make a profit by contracting professional interpreters without providing the appropriate working conditions. They can always threaten to replace a credentialed interpreter with an untrained individual and present them to their clients as a qualified interpreter. After all, unless you live in a state where mandatory court certification has been codified, what’s to stop language providers from doing just that? And if it’s illegal for them to hire uncredentialled individuals, they can always prey on newly certified individuals just entering the profession. It leaves little room for professionally trained, credential interpreters to assert and protect themselves in the marketplace.

Further aggravating the situation is the sense of isolation and lack of camaraderie surrounding the interpreter from the moment they begin to train in this field. There is not one single pathway to court interpreting, and unless you’ve come out of a more traditional higher education program, chances are you’ve obtained your certification more or less on your own. That was my experience. Although I attended a great written translation program at Georgia State University, I had no idea who the professional interpreters were in my area. I studied on my own for the certification exam, with some guidance from a former professor who was certified in another state. Before I found my network, providers were calling me, so even if I knew an assignment needed to be done as a team or that I needed access to the direct client to do prep work, I felt like I had no ground to ask for these things. I remember an instance where I tried asking the referral agency to find me a teammate and they tried to assure me that working in teams wasn’t “the norm” in private legal interpreting.

This isolation leaves the professional interpreter vulnerable. She could easily be gaslighted into believing that the only way to be competitive on the market is by disregarding the standards of practice. I see this all the time on our social media message boards. Colleagues will post about the struggles of finding a referral agency or client willing to allow team interpreting. They’ll try to rationalize taking on an assignment solo and convince themselves that the norms aren’t really needed outside of the courtroom, or accept a client/referral agency’s incorrect rationale that a deposition or meeting is somehow easier than an in-court proceeding. Other colleagues will try and lift them up and assure them they should hold their ground. But where is the incentive if you’ve never been given the opportunity by the hiring party to actually put these measures into practice?

The same goes for preparing for a deposition or civil trial. One of the reasons I stopped working for third party providers that contract in my state is that not a single one that solicited my business allowed me to contact the party seeking services beforehand so that I could do the studying needed to do the best job possible. I even tried asking the referral agencies to get the information to no avail. If you’re a veteran interpreter serving the upper echelons of the legal community, the big firms with renowned clients, you have more ground to actually implement this practice. These clients either have experience working with professional interpreters or want to avoid any risk to their clients at all costs. But as we trickle down into the everyday legal needs of our local LEP communities and begin to work with more regional and local firms, it’s much harder to get the client to work with us, even though these cases are just as important and impactful on the lives of these LEPs.

Of course, exceptions must be made for emergency cases. Sometimes, an assigned interpreter has to cancel at the last minute and they need to find someone to avoid canceling an important hearing or deposition. Other times, there’s an unplanned emergency hearing that needs an interpreter. Like ER doctors, professional interpreters at every level make sure that they’re ready to handle this type of situation. But for the majority of private market work, there’s no real reason not to work with the interpreter to prepare for the assignment and put the proper working conditions in place.

When an interpreter tries to ask for these conditions, he or she is labeled as “difficult”. They’ll be passed over for someone who will agree to any condition the client or agencies impose. This contributes to a cycle of professional colleagues feeling like they have to give in to these working conditions, which then makes it even harder for the rest of the profession, let alone newcomers, to ask that these standards be met. Even worse, this allows market forces to pit us against one another. Instead of encouraging team work from day one, we’re tricked into believing that we have to compromise our standards of practice in order to protect our sources of income from other interpreters.

We end up in a professional environment where it’s difficult to turn our collective grievances into concrete efforts to protect the professional independent interpreter.

How can I reclaim my power as a professional?

Colleagues who are finally ready to shake off the shackles placed on them may be asking themselves how to reclaim control over their work. First, it’s important for you to find professional interpreting spaces where you are surrounded by colleagues who not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. For me, it was important to see that interpreters and translators with similar credentials could, in fact, find success in the field without having to compromise our standards of practice. This will help to deprogram you from the rhetoric you’ve been fed in the past about it being “the industry standard” to disregard conditions like working in teams and preparing ahead of time for an assignment. This argument is never going to go away from parties seeking your services. It’s important to have a space where you’ll be reminded that we, the professionals, are the ones who know how to do our job best. Join the message boards and organizations, like the Interpreters Guild of America, where independent working interpreters are having these conversations.

The next thing you’ll need to do is take initiative. It’s time to stop placing yourself in a passive role in your professional life. You’ll need that initiative to do take these next steps. First, get to know other professionals in your market. One of the biggest factors third parties use to their advantage is the relative isolation of an independent contractor. Break through that anonymity and get to know your colleagues. Meet with them and take the first step in fostering camaraderie. Let them know that you want colleagues that you can collaborate with on assignments. Many interpreters fear that they’ll encounter unscrupulous colleagues who will try to undermine them and steal clients. These individuals are out there, but they’re much easier to sniff out than you think, and there are more good colleagues than there are bad ones. Believe me when I say the risk is worth it, once you build a great, reliable network.

Second, start educating your current and potential clients. They don’t work in our profession and are probably not familiar with the education, training, and effort that it takes to provide professional interpreting services. You don’t need to lecture them, but you need to be prepared to explain why you’re asking for things like team interpreting, why it’s much better for them to find their interpreters ahead of time, and the importance of giving them the information and materials necessary to prepare for the assignment. Educate them about the mental gymnastics we go through to output that nice sounding interpretation that they hear. When you watch top actors perform after months of rehearsal as a company, you forget that they’re acting. Similarly, the best interpreters are the ones who are so well prepared and know how to work on a team, you’ll forget you’re listening to an interpretation. I promise you, once most clients learn about this, they’ll trust your judgement and work to get you everything you need to do the job.

Third, be firm with clients and referral agencies. I’m familiar with that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that starts when you don’t hear back from a prospective client after giving them a proposal for an assignment. Knowing that they probably went with someone else that gave into their demands is incredibly frustrating. It takes a while, several years in fact, to find and keep good clients, but once you begin to do so, you’ll have much more job satisfaction knowing you’re allowed to work within the standards of practice.

Lastly, as a profession, we need to work hard to make sure that our standards of practice are enforceable. Other professions have oversight bodies in place to make sure that professionals are complying with standards of practice and ethics. We must work together at the state and national level to get our professional standards on the books so that hiring unscrupulous and/or uncredentialled individuals is no longer an option. As a profession made up of mostly independent contractors, this is going to take more effort. But if we don’t do this, we’ll find ourselves facing the exact same issues time and again.

How can you, the client, be our ally?

The fight to close the gap between our standards of practice and real legal interpreting practice is going to be long and hard. Interpreters won’t be able to fix this overnight. This is where you, the client, have the biggest potential to be our allies in the profession.

Educate yourself on interpreting, translating, and the importance of language access. Our two largest professional organizations, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators and the American Translators Association have a wealth of articles and resources that explain how our profession works. Here are a few resources that I recommend you read over before hiring a court interpreter:

Check to see if there’s a local interpreter and translator’s association chapter in your state. Network with them about opportunities to promote education on interpreting and translating in your profession and community.

Many of our colleagues provide client educational resources on their websites and also run blogs where they talk about the current issues in our field from the perspective of a working professional. My personal favorites are run by Helen Eby, a veteran certified translator and interpreter, and Tony Rosado, one of the top conference and legal interpreters in the country.

Reach out to certified interpreters you’ve worked with in the past and ask them about what’s happening in the profession at the local level. Ask how you can support their work.

After educating yourself, the best way you can be our ally is by making some tweaks to how you approach finding a professional court certified interpreter to meet your needs. First, if your firm has a contract with a referral agency, that doesn’t mean you can’t help. Many of our best colleagues work through these agencies. You can take all of these steps, whether you’re contracting through agencies or directly.

When working on private civil matters, set the standard of practice early in the case. Ask that the court and opposing party follow the same standards of practice as they do in state-paid criminal cases: team interpreting, provide the materials for interpreters to prepare for the case, and only use interpreters with the right certification and experience.

Stop requesting interpreting services mere days (or even hours!) before the deposition, civil trial, etc. Make sure that you do so ahead of the event to allow the interpreters enough prep time. My advice: as soon as you have the date, book your interpreting team and start meeting with them to figure out prep and logistics. (Here’s an example of the intricacies of coordinating a complex remote deposition.)

Ask for a team of at least two up front, no matter how long you think the assignment may take. If working with an agency, set the terms for the assignment and the interpreters you want. Insist on using only state or federally certified interpreters (depending on the type of case) and that you won’t accept anyone without those credentials. Let the agency know that you’ll be asking the interpreter to state their credentials on the record. Tell the agency that, once assigned, you want to be able to contact the interpreters directly to arrange any pre-session meetings and delivery of prep materials. Make it a standard of your practice to always have the interpreter state their credentials on the record, even if it’s the interpreter being used by the opposing party. This will also help you protect your client.

Speaking of the opposing party, even in the most contentious cases, coordinating interpreting services is the one area where legal counsel on both sides can work together to make sure the right professionals are hired. This is done in criminal court all of the time. The judge, state, and defense will get together with the interpreters to organize the team and interpreting logistics for trial. That way, the interpreting portion is taken care of and it’s one less thing to worry about during the trial. You’ll feel much more at ease knowing who is coming in to interpret, their credentials, and that they are prepped on the subject matter of the case. The need for “check interpreters” will go out the window, because the latent interpreters on the team will be fulfilling the quality assurance role while the active interpreter colleague is working. It’s one more thing that can make an otherwise tense litigation less stressful.

Don’t go for the cheapest bottom line. Now is not the time to bargain hunt or haggle. You absolutely have every right to call around and get different quotes. But good, high quality legal interpreting services shouldn’t be inexpensive. Believe me when I say you’ll get what you pay for. If you have a strict budget, talk to the interpreters and see what arrangements can be made. If you see that not enough funds were set aside for interpreting services, be prepared to ask for more money.

If you’re already working with a professional, credentialed interpreter or translator, don’t be afraid to consult with him or her on services that you need. We love answering these questions, but are almost never given a seat at the table. A pro is an amazing resource that you shouldn’t let go to waste.

If you work at a larger firm and get a sense that your current language provider isn’t cutting it, talk to your bosses about this. You can explain the risks that come with contracting with a provider that doesn’t adhere to best practices. Take what you’ve learned and shop around for other options. There may be great independent providers sitting right under your nose.

If you end up finding a local professional, certified interpreter that you like working with through an agency, there aren’t any restrictions that keep us from providing you with our contact info. After all, as independent contractors, noncompete clauses don’t apply to us. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission explicitly prohibits customer allocation and agreements to restrict advertising. However, as a courtesy to the referral agency, most interpreters will avoid networking with you at that assignment. But keep in mind that most professionals have their own websites, LinkedIn profiles, and are listed on the state and federal registries of certified interpreters. You’re more than free to look up that interpreter’s contact info and network with them after the assignment. If you encounter us in the wild at professional networking events, you’re also free to approach us then.

Colleagues, I know we have a long and arduous struggle ahead of us, but I also know that we can pull together and get to the point where complying with our standards of practice no longer seems like a dream that’s out of reach. I’d love to hear your thoughts, as well as the perspectives of our medical, conference, and translation colleagues on this topic.

2 thoughts on “The Discrepancies Between Professional Standards and Everyday Interpreting Practice

  1. Great article for any level interpreter and/or translator! I liked the practical aspects and what we in the T&I field need to do or should be doing. The only thing that was unclear or ambiguous was what exact provisions are referring to when you mention “FTC violations.” Can you clear that up?

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    1. Hi Julie,

      Thank you so much for your comment! You’re right, I phrased that portion incorrectly, so I fixed it and will clear some things up here.

      The FTC is the Federal Trade Commission and they do have certain rules on independent contractor practice.

      When it comes to soliciting the business of an agency client, there are two rules we need to keep in mind. First, customer allocation is prohibited, meaning that parties can’t agree to divvy up clients (I’ll take X, you take Y and we’ll agree not to work for the other’s client directly. You’ll agree to just work for my client through me.). If a potential client we meet through an agency wants to hire us after that job is finished, then it’s fair game. Noncompete doesn’t apply to us, because we’re not employees.
      Second, there can’t be any agreements to restrict advertising placed on an independent contractor. Meaning, there’s nothing keeping us from providing our business cards or contact info to someone we meet through an agency assignment.

      However, as a courtesy, it’s always good to keep things kosher with the referral agency and not network at that assignment.

      Still, once that job is finished, if a client wants to contact the interpreter directly to discuss working together, they can. They are well within their right to look up our contact info and network with us, and we have the right to have them as a client, even if we provided services to that client through an agency in the past.

      Helen Eby briefly touched on this topic her “Business Planning for Interpreters and Translators” web presentation for ATA members. It’s a great presentation that I’d recommend to all of our colleagues.

      Thanks for catching that, and I hope this clears things up!

      Like

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