Lessons from the Pandemic: Give Freelance Interpreters a Seat at the Table

Some dear friends and colleagues of mine from Washington State dropped this article from Crosscut, a local publication, into our group chat:

COVID-19 delays justice for King County inmates who need interpreters: Non-English speakers are receiving substandard legal representation because interpreters won’t appear in person, attorney says

As I read the article, I began to feel my colleagues’ indignation over what can only be characterized as a scapegoating of Washington’s freelance court interpreters. This article is timely, as I was preparing my next post about the “Invisible Freelancer”. While this article made me and my colleagues fume, it serves as the perfect example of problems I see time and again when it comes to any state court providing their interpreters with the working conditions they need to practice professionally within a state judicial system.

The problem is rarely the interpreters themselves. Every interpreter worth his or her salt whom I know wants to provide professional grade services and will turn down work when they cannot do that. In state compensated cases, the culprit tends to be the court administration and their tendency to leave out interpreters from the conversation when setting up interpreting services. Those airing their grievances in the article may be surprised to learn that pandemic friendly solutions already exist and are in place across the country so court interpreters can provide a truthful, complete, and accurate rendition without having to risk getting COVID-19.

From the article, there seems to be a huge misunderstanding of how court interpreting works shaping the outside perception of the problem. The two main complaints in King County are: 1) a backlog is being created because interpreters do not want to accept in-person assignments, especially those in jails and prisons; and 2) the remote interpreting set up in King County is faulty, unorganized, and cumbersome to the point of affecting the quality of the legal representation Limited English Proficiency Defendants are receiving.

Those cited in the article are correct in stating that many court interpreters across Washington have assessed the risks and benefits and decided that they cannot risk getting sick by taking these assignments. This is not unique to Washington State and is happening nationally. Unfortunately, as the rising number of cases reflects, even with all the precautions in place you cannot eliminate the contagion factor. Thus, many professional freelancers have opted not to take in person work, knowing that their business will take a financial hit. Remember, most court interpreters are freelancers. Like any other independent professional, they have no safety net or employer to support us if they get sick, can no longer work, and as a result, no longer afford health insurance or our other living expenses. While freelancers can’t work in person, they still want to work and have taken the time to quickly get up to speed on the technologies and protocols we need to put in place on our end to provide professional grade services from home. It’s not ideal, but it works and it works well.

The individuals quoted are also correct in their assessment that Washington’s current ad hoc system for remote interpreting in client meetings is downright awful. Interpreters have also noted these factors and have decided to decline these remote assignments because under those conditions they cannot uphold their duty to provide faithful, complete, and accurate renditions. Again, interpreters aren’t refusing these conditions because they don’t want to work. It’s because we cannot comply with our professional responsibility; when this happens, we have to let you know that we can’t continue in the current conditions and decline the work.

Attorneys need to understand two things. First, there is absolutely no reason for remote interpreting to be this ineffective. As I read through the “make-shift solutions” a defense attorney cited, I asked myself why on earth is it being done this way when there are plenty of acceptable solutions already in existence? The jails and prisons in my home state of Alabama, which is not exactly known for being at the cutting edge of technology or social progress nor for having deep pockets, seem to have figured out how to get an appropriate set up. Between Zoom, WebEx, interpreter/attorney prep sessions, and good ole fashioned 3-way calls, I have had close to no problems providing interpreting services to inmates remotely. Sessions are a bit slower because we’re working remotely, but attorneys and their clients still manage to get in a full session and I feel satisfied with the level of service I provided. These sessions also include going over paperwork, like plea bargains or pre-sentencing reports. Sometimes, the attorney will share the document on their screen in a session. Other times, they’ll send me a copy of the document to be either returned or destroyed after the meeting. And some will go over the document with me in a pre-session so I can have terminology prepared ahead of time. Each jail and attorney’s office have their own system, but so far it seems that the jails have provided the resources needed in order to interpret successfully without risking the attorney or interpreter’s health. I will concede that quality still varies a little, but so far everyone is doing what they need to for me to be able to uphold my oath and professional responsibility as an interpreter.

Second, and most importantly, the freelance interpreter is just one side of the equation and has very limited power in shaping the system the state chooses to adopt for remote interpreting. All a freelancer can do is tell the state, “I have all of my equipment, am now familiar with the platforms, and am ready to go.” It is up to state and local governments to make sure that courthouses, prisons, jails, and any other court facility have the proper equipment and conditions in place to make remote interpreting successful. Believe me, if it were up to freelancers, we would always be included in the conversation. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Rarely are freelancers, as the professionals in the field, asked what they need in order to do their job even though we do have existing solutions. If freelancers were asked, we would immediately shut down holding up a cellphone to thick plexiglass in a room with poor acoustics.

I spoke to my friends and colleagues in Washington, and every single one of them is ready to work with the courts to get the proper set up in place. Washington State need only ask for this. But as is the case in other states, freelance interpreters are rarely given a seat at the table to shape policy and procedure. When we try, we’re usually shut down because, as the interpreter coordinator cited in the article stated, our profession is seen as a mere “side-gig”. As a whole, we are constantly trying to get recognition as working professionals, not gig economy workers. Contrary to the interpreter coordinator’s comments, we actually do this work full time; our respective state courts are just one of our clients. Right now, Washington appears to be acting like a bad client for their interpreters. The bottom line is that, as freelance professionals, all we can do is look at the working conditions any prospective client may offer us and weigh the risks. If they outweigh the benefits, then we have no other option than to decline the offer. As long as our client, the state courts, refuses to consult its interpreters and make the necessary changes, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we’ll keep turning down the work.

As an attorney who used to work on the other side of the equation, I sympathize with how the pandemic has upended defendants’ constitutional rights. It’s, quite frankly, disgusting and infuriating that the administrative office of courts in many states have really dropped the ball in terms of language access. I support any action to hold the courts accountable for their lack of consideration that has resulted in a violation of rights. However, suing to get judges to order freelance interpreters to take on work they’ve declined due to dangerous working conditions is not the answer. I’ll even go so far as to say that suing to get judges to order staff interpreters to work in jails also isn’t the solution. It’s not only disrespectful to our profession, it’s a completely baseless request. All this will do is infuriate court interpreters and make them even more reluctant to keep the courthouses as clients, even after the pandemic is over.

Mischaracterizing professionally interpreted legal proceedings as “lost or fragmented” communication based off of a “simulation” also doesn’t help. When done by a trained certified court interpreter, an interpretation is smooth, complete, and pleasant to hear. Yes, there are small aspects that do get lost in translation; that is just the nature of cross-lingual communication. And yes, remote interpreting does complicate things. In past posts I’ve even emphasized how once we’re out of the pandemic, we need to make sure interpreting in person goes back to being the norm. However, we are in an exceptional situation where being there in person is not possible.

Rest assured that certified court interpreters make sure that as little as possible is lost in translation. They cannot pass a certification test if they can’t do this. They work very hard to continue improving their renditions and make sure that they are using the best terminology so that the exact idea being expressed is communicated to the LEP. While I understand how relying on an interpreter in court proceedings can be scary for both the attorney and the LEP client, you must trust certified interpreters to do their job. I understand that this aspect is out of your control, but I promise you that we want to do the best professional quality job possible.

Court interpreters are not the enemy. As professionals, all we want to do is provide faithful and accurate interpretations so that any Limited English Proficiency Speaker going through our justice system can access it as equally as English speakers. We also want the justice system to move as efficiently as possible. Remember: when we can’t accept a state assignment, that also affects our livelihoods. Interpreting is not a “side gig”; it’s our career. However, we also do not want to get COVID-19, risking our lives and those of our loved ones.

Attorneys, the solution to your problems isn’t trying to force an interpreter to work in person against their will; nor is it lamenting perceived interpreters’ reluctance to risk their wellbeing. You have the power to demand that the state consult with its freelance professionals to make sure the proper set-up is in place so that interpreters can start taking these assignments.

Much like this article, the professional freelance court interpreter’s voice is nowhere to be found. The spokesperson of the King County Department of Adult & Juvenile Detention is quoted as saying, “Going forward, we’ll continue to work with public defenders, the courts, and other criminal justice partners to ensure that people in our temporary custody have their rightful access to legal counsel and interpreter services, given the considerable constraints and health concerns we face during the COVID 19 pandemic.” Demand that the state makes their freelance court interpreters a part of that conversation, as they will be your best ally for professional, competent remote interpreting solutions.

Note: Our staff interpreter colleagues in many states also face these problem and are often left out of the conversation when it comes to remote interpreting protocol during the pandemic. Courts everywhere will benefit from consulting both staff and freelance interpreters. They are the only experts that will understand what successful remote court interpreting entails.