What We Call Ourselves Matters

(The following was originally published on the blog of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, https://najit.org/#blog.)

Every profession has certain requirements that allow a person to enjoy the benefits and respect of their respective titles. I’ve been wondering lately about all the people who call themselves “interpreters” and whether they all deserve to attribute that title to themselves.

I know we’re still too far from a uniform credential in our profession, particularly in the judiciary field. That means we’re also far from being able to protect who can and cannot call themselves an interpreter. Notwithstanding what may happen in the near or distant future, I want to share these thoughts and maybe get others to think about it for a bit.

“Where” Does Not Matter

I believe we all agree there are certain guiding principles that apply across the board to everyone providing language services in a legal setting. Whether state or federal, in court or out of court, interpreters in legal settings have the exact same ethical duties to be accurate and impartial. The responsibility of conveying fully what a speaker has said in one language into another language, while retaining the same meaning and discursive register, doesn’t change because the interpreter’s physical environment has changed.

The idea that some judiciary interpreters don’t need the same set of skills as others, that it’s okay for some judiciary interpreters to perform at a lower level of competency than others, is simply ridiculous. A criminal defendant in a state court has the same constitutional rights as a criminal defendant in federal court. It has been established for more than four decades now that the reason non-English speakers are provided with an interpreter is that it would be a gross miscarriage of justice to do otherwise.

We Make the Voiceless Heard

We exist because otherwise those non-English-speaking criminal defendants would be unable to assist in their own defense or confront the evidence against them. Also, witnesses who don’t speak or understand English would be unable to provide testimonial evidence without us. The rigorous demands of our profession are no less stringent because someone needs assistance to communicate and understand what is happening in an administrative hearing versus a criminal trial, or a police interrogation versus a deposition under oath.

Yes, there are still those who think “anyone can do this” and that we are “grossly overpaid.” That’s what happens when anyone can walk into a courtroom and call themselves an “interpreter.” It’s up to us, however, to uphold the highest standards for ourselves and demand the same standards of those who claim to be members of our profession within the legal arena. It’s up to each one of us to educate ourselves so we are better and better every time we walk into an interpreting assignment. We each represent our profession and we’re each an ambassador for what we want our profession to be. No one else can do this for us.

The Minimum Is Not Enough

We cannot tolerate mediocrity in ourselves or others. While it may be easy to delude ourselves into thinking that we have “made it” once we obtain a credential, and to become complacent, the truth is that a credential—be it state or federal certification—is not the end game. A credential identifies those who have met the minimum skills required to provide language services in a system of justice that intends to protect the Constitutional rights of those who don’t speak or understand the language of the court.

Why should those minimum skills be any different in one system of justice from the other? Why have we accepted the fallacy of a “more competent” or “less competent” interpreter depending on which judicial or quasi-judicial setting requires their services?

“Where” Should Have No Bearing on Quality

Are attorneys expected to be “less competent” if they practice in state court, whereas those who practice in federal court are expected to be “more competent” because they passed the federal bar exam? No. What is expected of them is to be familiar with the rules and processes that apply in one venue versus the other. In our case, we should be expected to be familiar with the terminology inherent to either state or federal proceedings, and perhaps the protocols to be followed in each. The same principle applies if we’re engaged in administrative or quasi-judicial proceedings. But the idea that lesser accuracy can be tolerated in an “interpreter” who is engaged in quasi-judicial, out-of-court, or smaller local courts’ proceedings, undermines all our efforts to be recognized as a bona fide profession within the judiciary.

In the U.S., someone who finishes law school but doesn’t pass the bar cannot be called an attorney. They can be law clerks or legal assistants, but they cannot stand in court and represent themselves to be attorneys-at-law.

Titles Matter

So, here’s some food for thought: how about calling someone who has yet to obtain a criterion-referenced credential a language assistant, or an interpreter’s assistant? Of course, there are language combinations for which no criterion-referenced examination exists, but we can deal with those exceptions. For instance, the interpreters in the Southern District of New York, under Nancy Festinger’s leadership as that district’s chief interpreter, developed many instruments to measure an interpreter’s competence in those language combinations for which there were no other tests. There is no reason why we cannot fill in these voids ourselves. As a matter of fact, there is no reason why we cannot be in charge of our own credentialing process.

We certainly cannot continue for much longer having it both ways. Either we’re all professionals and hold the title of interpreter because we have earned it through training, experience, and credentialing, or we’re not. Either it’s easy to join our ranks and therefore anyone can do this, with the consequential low pay and lack of respect, or it’s difficult and demanding, so those who get to call themselves interpreters enjoy an appropriate prestige and remuneration.

Who Is an Interpreter?

This may not be the right moment to be taking up the nomenclature cause, but I do believe that with so many people who still don’t know the difference between a court reporter and a court interpreter, or an interpreter and a translator, what we call ourselves matters. Who we allow to use the title of “interpreter” matters.

I do look forward to that day when we all take such pride in our profession that there will be no stratification of skills among those holding a professional credential. There will also be no pay discrimination because of those differences. I look forward to the day when our status as language experts will be immediately recognized when we say “I am a judiciary interpreter.”


Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. Department of State. She joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. Contact: janis.palma@gmail.com.

Interpreters are a vital part of ATA. This column is designed to offer insights and perspectives from professional interpreters.

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