Toward a more perfect Interpreter Bill: on AB 2370

The California Federation of Interpreters (CFI) is sponsoring AB 2370, a.k.a. the Interpreter Bill. It addresses a fundamental issue in California courts that use an interpreter: the basic lack of a simple and clear protocol to uniformly and adequately state on the record what the credentials are of an interpreter used in court proceedings. In plain English, it’s not clear that court interpreters in California who claim to have the proper credentials actually have them. However… In my opinion there are some critical gaps in that bill that urgently need mending. The fix isn’t really a fix. Here’s why, and how to fix the fix.

The California Federation of Interpreters (CFI) is sponsoring AB 2370, a.k.a. the Interpreter Bill. A copy of its text is here, as amended on May 13, 2014; a legislative analysis of the bill is here. It addresses a fundamental issue in California courts that use an interpreter: the basic lack of a simple and clear protocol to uniformly and adequately state on the record what the credentials are of an interpreter used in court proceedings. In plain English, it’s not clear that court interpreters in California who claim to have the proper credentials actually have them. However… In my opinion there are some critical gaps in that bill that urgently need mending. The fix isn’t really a fix. Here’s why, and how to fix the fix.

The Interpreter Bill AB 2370

To a layperson, the issue may seem obscure. There is already a system in place for interpreters to demonstrate their competence, through a process with formal exams and other criteria they must meet. Upon meeting or exceeding those, every newly accredited court interpreter receives a photo ID type badge that shows his or her specific language pair(s), a unique identifying number, an expiration (renewal) date for their credential showing up to which date their accreditation is current, and last but not least: a passport type color photo with the name. So how then can there be a problem with inadequately established interpreter credentials?

The interpreter badge: evidence of accreditation or a fashion statement?

For starters, there’s no uniform obligation for credentialed court interpreters in California to wear that badge in a clearly visible manner whenever working in court. Which explains why many interpreters simply don’t wear their badge. Others wear it (often deliberately) in a hardly visible way. Some explain their choice with unease over the privacy of their name being shown “out there”. Others have a point of vanity, especially when their picture is taken many years ago.

There are also a few who really don’t like to wear such an awkward badge because it doesn’t accessorize with their peculiar clothing style or preference. Be that as it may, simply because court interpreters don’t have a uniformly mandated visible display of their badge drilled into their professional conscience, the value of that same badge is collectively compromised and downgraded, from a functional credential to a near-cosmetic and optional accessory.

Amazingly, the text of the bill in question makes no mention whatsoever of any obligation in court to visibly wear the official court interpreter badge. Not somewhere stuck in a wallet or purse, not dangling on a lanyard or other long chain that leads to twisting and flipping badges, no: just clip it on and show that you’re an official and professional court interpreter. And also that you’re in full compliance with continuing education requirements.

As an aside: here in California, renewal of your court interpreter badge means receiving a new adhesive tag you must stick onto the badge, showing the new expiration date, just like tags on license plates of a car. That sticker offers instant verification of current accreditation status, right there. So to me it hardly makes sense to not have any text in this bill to mandate a clearly visible worn interpreter badge in the courthouse.

I believe it’s in fact very counterproductive to not have it because instead of improving simply verifiable accountability it adds to the already imposing bureaucracy surrounding court interpreters. Trust me, such fairly inert bloating of bureaucracy is not greeted with enthusiasm in courts, and it’s certainly not because of the intent of making credentials not only easily verified but part of the case records for every case requiring language assistance.

There’s already a public registry of credentialed interpreters: use it!

Perhaps even more baffling is the realization that it’s very easy to find out if someone is a currently credentialed court interpreter in California, or not: just go to the website of the Judicial Council of California and look up that interpreter’s name and language. If that interpreter’s name shows up, then that interpreter has a professional accreditation that is in current good standing. Did you know that?

So, you just need to verify who you’re dealing with: establish the identity of that interpreter (that’s where that badge that serves as a judicial photo ID comes in so handy again!) and whether that interpreter is listed on the Judicial Council’s site. If so, you’re good to go. If not, you’re dealing with a non-credentialed person. It’s that simple, really.

I don’t quite understand why in this day and age of information technology, precisely in California that is home to Silicon Valley and a good chunk of the internet’s pillar institutions, such a publicly accessible and permanently up-to-date registry isn’t referenced as not just a central repository but a mandatory reference for verification of a currently valid accreditation status. I’d add a line to that effect in that bill. It only takes a quick search on the internet to comply with it…

Oath: beyond accurate translation, oblige to the Code of Ethics

Both the current legislation and the currently proposed text of AB 2370 refer to “an oath” to be administered to aspiring court interpreters when they aren’t credentialed. That interpreter oath or affirmation, which essentially addresses translation accuracy, is normally administered by the Clerk of Record with a text that generally goes like this:

“Do you solemnly swear or affirm that you shall well and truly, and to the best of your knowledge, skills and abilities, translate from English into [the other language], and from [the other language] into English, in all cases now pending before this court?”

It seems pretty obvious that this oath focuses on the essence of interpreting: making sure that the interpreter does his or her honest best while translating. The truth is, that isn’t actually very obvious to us, professional court interpreters. Because a court interpreter does a lot more than “just” rendering speech accurately and completely, without additions, omissions or alterations in another language.

Let me illustrate that with an overview of the nine key points of the Code of Ethics (a.k.a. Code of Professional Responsibilities or CoPR, pronounced as “copper”) for court interpreters here. It’s not “just” the core of the CoPR in California, it’s actually enshrined in Rule 2.890 of the California Rules of Court. A court interpreter in California shall:

  1. Give a proper representation of qualifications;
  2. Deliver a complete and accurate interpretation;
  3. Maintain impartiality and avoid conflicts of interest;
  4. Maintain confidentiality;
  5. Not give legal advice;
  6. Maintain professional relationships;
  7. Pursue continuing education and a duty to the profession;
  8. Assess and report impediments to performance;
  9. Report ethical violations.

Necessarily, this list of professional commandments goes beyond merely linguistic competence. If you’re curious about the context of and the reasoning behind those nine rules or canons of professional conduct, here’s the manual. It’s the edition that is current at the time of this writing, where those rules are fleshed out, well-explained and illustrated, in this great professional guide that is eighty-seven (!) pages long.

I always recommend aspiring court interpreters to start by reading that, even before considering what training is available. Because it gives a very decent impression of the profession, the mindset that it takes.

Interpreter’s Oath for all core duties, not linguistic performance alone

That CoPR manual is our professional guide here in California. So, wouldn’t it make much more sense to have an Interpreter Oath that both reflects that professional scope of us court interpreters and binds us to those necessary standards of excellence? I think it does.

That archetypal oath, which I summarized above and is currently widely used as “the interpreter oath” is not only falling quite short of its intended purpose, because it merely seeks a solemn promise of the interpreter-to-be to render his/her best translation; it improperly simplifies. And that, when taken at face value, can cause serious problems, for example when impartiality or confidence (or both) are breached.

An oath that binds the interpreter to instead observe all those nine canons gives at the very least an appropriate impression of what is expected of the interpreter-to-be, more than just translating words well. But there’s another argument to be made here in favor of extending the scope of the interpreters oath, to tie it directly to our CoPR.

That oath is supposed to apply to not only so-called provisionally qualified interpreters, i.e. interpreters without the established formal credentials. It is also used generally here in courts in California whenever duly credentialed court interpreters perform for the first time in a given court.

Frankly, I don’t see much of a point in asking someone who already is bound to all nine canons – by virtue of every interpreter accepting the credential of certification or registration with its badge – to promise to the Court to, essentially, do one’s best when translating in either direction.

A comparison: the Attorney’s Oath in California

That’s a bit like asking a lawyer who appears for the first time before a given court to swear an oath specifically to properly argue the case: obviously, there’s a whole lot more to being a lawyer than “just” that.

I suspect any serious suggestion to implement such an oath will be met with heaping scorn among attorneys, and quite rightly so, for the somewhat insulting suggestion that their oath be reduced to just one aspect – as important as that one is – ignoring the important rest of what they actually do. Just for comparison, the following is the text of the Attorney’s Oath in California – see the text at the bottom of that PDF document:

I solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of an attorney and counselor at law to the best of my knowledge and ability.

This formulation of the Attorney’s Oath conveniently and succinctly refers to an obligation to faithfully discharge the duties of an attorney. Those duties of an attorney – there’s essentially fifteen of them, they’re quite the mouthful – are conveniently laid out in the California Business and Professions Code Section 6068.

Analogously, I recommend to change that archetypal Interpreter’s Oath to refer to all nine canons of professional responsibility; not just one partial and oversimplified core activity.

Mandate for keeping the Interpreter’s Oath on file

The practice of each court in California keeping the Interpreter’s Oath on file for each regularly employed and duly accredited court interpreter is mandated by California Evidence Code Section 751 (d) as follows:

An interpreter regularly employed by the court and certified or registered in accordance with Article 4 (commencing with Section 68560) of Chapter 2 of Title 8 of the Government Code, or a translator regularly employed by the court, may file an oath as prescribed by this section with the clerk of the court. The filed oath shall serve for all subsequent court proceedings until the appointment is revoked by the court.

And to be sure, the phrase “as prescribed by this section” refers to the preceding California Evidence Code Section 751 (a) as follows:

An interpreter shall take an oath that he or she will make a true interpretation to the witness in a language that the witness understands and that he or she will make a true interpretation of the witness’ answers to questions to counsel, court, or jury, in the English language, with his or her best skill and judgment.

On a side note, I’m unsure what the wisdom is of loosely referring to “best judgment” without further specifying a more objectively useful framework to operate within. Again, this is why I believe that referencing the CoPR in the Interpreter’s Oath is a necessity to reduce the scope of “best skill and judgment” to a set of verifiable, validated and therefor professionally admissible guidelines.

I have now repeatedly expressed my doubt about the practical usefulness of the current Interpreter’s Oath. So what if someone honestly promises to do his/her best and indeed faithfully and truly translates on the record but also gives advice prior to the hearing to the defendant on how to plead, without a specific instruction from the attorney or Judge to do so?

I don’t think it’s proper to cling indirectly and passively to Rule 2.890 of the Rules of Court (where the nine canons of the CoPR are laid out) instead of more directly reminding the court interpreter of what is expected of every court interpreter, “even” the non-credentialed ones (i.e. without registration or certification).

An aside: the Code of Professional Responsibilities needs enforcement

This brings me to a cardinal issue that isn’t addressed at all in the currently drafted interpreter bill: enforcement. It’s not too hard to come up with scenarios where, assuming a court interpreter were to willfully ignore or violate the Code of Professional Responsibilities, dire consequences can materialize.

Honestly, looking at the currently available instruments, I can’t see much of a remedy beyond barring that hypothetical “bad interpreter” from working in that court again. I’ll rephrase that: There is to my knowledge no practical way to challenge the credentials after willful misconduct is established. I submit that that isn’t good enough.

However, I also admit that the topic of creating a review and disciplinary body is a very large one, and that it’s arguably better to first build the framework of expectations of professional performance, and that is in essence what the interpreter bill is intended for.

Once a strengthened version of the proposed measure is enacted as law – whether from AB 2370 including my above recommendations, or in another incarnation – we can look into enforcement and, where necessary, disciplinary action.

Looking again at the case of attorneys: the institution of the State Bar Court of California comes to mind with its intricate procedures (and serious sanctions!) that are available when an attorney is alleged to have breached his/her duties, and the vacuum in which any consideration of alleged ethical misconduct by a court interpreter would operate.

So, I think that there’s lots of additional room for professional improvement among us court interpreters, as well. But meanwhile, let’s get back to the essence of AB 2370 and necessary, elementary corrections.

Conclusions and recommendations for the Interpreter Bill, AB 2370

  • Court interpreters should be identifiable via their official interpreter badge, which should be visibly worn at all times when discharging their duties in court.
  • Court interpreters should be verifiable in their credentials, by way of cross-referencing the information through the central and publicly available accreditation database.
  • Court interpreters should be accountable to the faithful execution of their professional obligations as articulated through a perfected Interpreter’s Oath.

Wouldn’t it make much more sense to keep an Interpreter’s Oath on file that more broadly states a commitment to the Code of Professional Responsibilities? And should that record not also contain a reference to the verifiable credentials of that interpreter so as to be able to look up the current standing of that interpreter for future hearings, like the certification or registration number, the language pair in question, and the (future) expiration / renewal date of that credential? That is exactly why…

I propose to keep a photocopy of the interpreter’s badge on file, with an indication of the renewal date, together with a duly executed Interpreter’s Oath to uphold the Code of Professional Responsibilities.

An Interpreter’s Oath that, in my opinion, should also be administered to non-credentialed interpreters. Of course, only after being given an explicit and reasonable opportunity to peruse the CoPR’s manual, so as to be in a reasonable disposition to understand what the commitment is.

Should the intended interpreter not be able to grasp the meaning and extent of the guidelines laid out in the CoPR, then that should essentially be ring a loud alarm, and create a bar to using that interpreter ab initio. I think that is what a better focused Interpreter Bill should pursue: an identifiable, verifiable, and accountable profession at the service of the judicial branch. Working for the benefit of We, the People.

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