With rates under increasing pressure from globalization and other trends, many translators are turning to specialization. But the leap is not always easy.


This article was inspired by recent postings from several NCTA members inquiring about transitioning into certain fields, and the respective pay rates that one might expect. In today’s general translation marketplace, with more competition and lower pay, translators are looking to focus their content expertise, and specifically in the specialized fields of medical and legal interpreting.

Many translators and interpreters are what I would call generalists. A random peek into their profiles shows the ability to work in a variety of fields, ranging from finance, engineering, and education to telecommunications, law, medicine, and science. These professionals tend to work on a few projects in each area, allowing them to (justifiably) tout the range of their capabilities.

Other translators and interpreters, however, specialize in one or two fields at the most. A specialist can be a generalist, but not vice versa: even the slightest interpreting errors in fields such as medicine and law can have grave consequences for the limited English-proficient (LEP) client. As an interpreter in these two highly specialized disciplines, I know that success requires significant dedication, study, and training. It can take anywhere from four to six years to be a proficient interpreter in either of these fields.

The best medicine

Working as a medical interpreter, I am of course well-versed in medical terminology but am also familiar with many medical procedures as well. When a doctor gives an NOP order, I know exactly what that is (no oral products). When a patient requests a DNR order, I also know that he does not want to be resuscitated in a life-threatening circumstance. It’s not reasonable to expect a translator who doesn’t have such training—a generalist—to walk into a medical interpreting setting and be able to know what these terms refer to.

Other times, the medical translator specialist will be required to work in emotional and stressful conditions such as emergencies or life-and-death situations. There was an occasion where I interpreted a religious prayer conducted by a hospital chaplain for a terminally ill patient. This event had nothing to do with medical interpreting, yet of course it was an important part of the job.

Rules of law

In the field of legal interpreting, many will find the compensation fairly good. Legal interpreting is one of the most comprehensive interpreting fields in that it requires broad knowledge of numerous other subfields. For example, family and probate law will require knowledge of financial terms. Criminal cases will require knowledge of science and medicine pertaining to forensic evidence. Civil suits involving worker’s compensation or personal injury will require knowledge of medical, vehicle, and insurance terms. Immigration, small claims, juvenile, and other specialized areas all have their own terminology. And, needless to say, courtroom interpreting can be challenging and intensive when opposing lawyers, witnesses, and judge are all talking at once.

When generalists take on the work of specialists without the proper training, few of them will be able to render acceptable translations or interpretations. Once, a medical glossary translated by a generalist provided me with incredulous comic relief. The term athlete’s foot was literally translated as “the foot of an athlete”; hives was translated as “disease of beehives”; and speed (methamphetamine) was translated as “velocity.”

The client comes first

A generalist may go into a medical or legal interpreting setting believing that he can render an interpretation without the adequate training, and thinking that no one will know if he makes an interpretation error, but this may not be the case. I have known of some interpreters being sent away in the middle of a job for poor performance.

On one occasion, I provided interpretation for a couple whose child was hospitalized. At the end of the session, the father posed several questions to the doctor in perfectly good English. I inquired afterwards why they needed my services if the father was proficient in English. The father answered that my services were for the benefit of the mother, who did not understand English; that even though the father’s English was good, it did not mean that he could accurately interpret for his wife. They were more comfortable employing an interpreter. Another time, while interpreting in a deposition, the client, client’s attorney, and I all spoke the same native language. If an interpreting error was made, the client’s attorney would definitely have noticed.

Some generalists will accept assignments that they are not qualified to do for financial reasons. I view being a translator or interpreter as a noble profession that is rewarding in so many ways. We are the conduits that enable LEP clients to have fair access to a number of services that might not have been possible because of language barriers. Without them, we wouldn’t be working. Therefore, we owe it to them to be properly trained and qualified so that we can deliver the exceptional service that they deserve.

Legally Speaking: The December General Meeting

By Raffaella Buschiazzo

The December 1st NCTA General Meeting had a bit of everything, from a celebration of our most active volunteers to a presentation on how to become a California Certified Court Interpreter to a lively and pleasant hour of stuffing envelopes, sticking stamps, and general all-around schmoozing as we discussed our plans for the imminent holidays.

NCTA Vice President Yves Avérous opened the General meeting at 1:40 p.m. with a few announcements of upcoming events, and a call for volunteers to replace Alison Dent as manager of the online extension of our magazine Translorial (www.translorial.com). The site will include the full archives of Translorial from its first issue 30 years ago; Alison did a tremendous job putting content online and managing it, and we will all be very sorry to see her move back to Europe. Yves continued his introduction by drawing attention to the fact that 2008 will be a special year for our Association. We will celebrate NCTA’s 30th anniversary with a major event. Suggestions are welcome!


NCTA gave free one-year memberships to four members who distinguished themselves in 2007 by their contributions to the Association’s activities. Karen Tkaczyk played an instrumental role during the ATA Conference in San Francisco by working at the NCTA table and providing a storage place in her hotel room for all the association’s collateral materials. Patricia Ramos, who served as a board director from 2000 to 2002 and hosted the board retreats at her house several times, made the trip to San Francisco to attend the ATA Conference from Spain, where she currently lives, and helped at the NCTA hospitality table every morning. Tatyana Neronova has managed all the Translorial mail meticulously for a long time. And last but not least, Paula Dieli was presented with the Volunteer of the Year Award for her involvement in the ATA Conference and for setting up and maintaining the NCTA wiki page on the Conference.
Interpreting in the Courts

The NCTA board wanted to have a presentation giving an overview of the role that court interpreters play in the court system, and what is required to become a certified or registered court interpreter in California. The goal was to offer specific information to those translators interested in expanding their careers and to interpreters who are thinking about adding this specialization to their resume.

The two speakers selected for our presentation by the San Francisco Judicial Council of California complemented each other thanks to their different profiles. Cannon Han is a Court Services Analyst with the Court Interpreters Program. Prior to joining the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), he was an attorney in the non-profit sector and in private practice. As an attorney, Mr. Han addressed language interpretation and quality of care issues in the mental health system and assisted low-income clients on a wide range of legal issues, ranging from public benefits to patients’ rights violations. Dr. Patricia Kilroe is a Linguistics Analyst for the Court Interpreters Program. Prior to this position she taught linguistics, French, English expository writing, and ESL for many years. Her degrees are a B.A. in French, an M.S. in linguistics, and a Ph.D. in Romance-language linguistics.

Mr. Han opened the presentation by quoting from the California Constitution’s mandate that “[a] person unable to understand English who is charged with a crime has a right to an interpreter throughout the proceedings.” For this reason courts must provide specially trained language interpreters whenever a party involved in a proceeding understands little or no English. The Judicial Council is the organ responsible for certifying and registering court interpreters. Currently, court interpreters can be certified in 12 languages: Arabic, Armenian (Eastern and Western), Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. Only interpreters who pass the Court Interpreter Certification Examination and register with the Judicial Council are considered as “certified court interpreters.”


Part of the examination tests writing skills in English and in the target language for vocabulary, reading comprehension, and grammar. The written examination consists of 155 multiple-choice questions to be answered in four hours and 20 minutes. If the candidate passes, he or she goes on to the oral component to test skills in simultaneous and consecutive interpreting and in sight translation. Interpreters of spoken languages for which there is no state certifying examination are called “registered interpreters of non-designated languages.” They must pass an English proficiency examination which consists of oral and written tests. In both cases, after passing the examination, the interpreter must submit an application to register with the Judicial Council and pay an annual fee. To maintain the certification, the interpreter must attend a Code of Ethics workshop in the first two-year compliance period, and submit proof of 30 hours of continuing education and 40 recent court interpreting assignments for every two-year period.

Dr. Kilroe explained what kind of knowledge, skills, and abilities are needed in court interpreting. She distributed a very long list of linguistic, speaking, listening, reading comprehension, interpreting, and behavioral skills required for this profession. These include language fluency and interpreting skills, such as the ability to concentrate and focus, to process linguistic information and choose terminology quickly, to think analytically, to conserve intent, tone, style, and utterances of all messages, to reflect register, and to self-monitor and self-correct. There are several colleges that provide training, but Dr. Kilroe offered some tips on how to prepare the for the exam with self-study techniques: expand your vocabulary, develop your own glossaries, develop interpreting techniques for consecutive and simultaneous interpretation and sight translation, develop memorization techniques and practice effective listening. She suggested the exercise of “shadowing” to improve one’s interpreting techniques. This consists of having somebody record passages from magazines and newspapers on tape and repeating everything the speaker says including writing out any numerals from ten to 100. We tried this exercise in groups of two people. For more information on becoming a court interpreter or on official workshops, you can visit http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/programs/courtinterpreters/becoming.htm

Thank you to Mr. Han and Dr. Kilroe for their very comprehensive presentations and for staying with us until the end of the general meeting to answer our multiple questions. They certainly provided a lot of information and good suggestions for those courageous enough to follow their path!

The Case for Interpreters

By Luba Chernov

The California Federation of Interpreters met this year in San Francisco to discuss vital issues in interpreting.

Court interpreters are a special breed. They live and work in real time, just like hardcore financial investors. And like those professionals, they have to keep their unique, essential skills honed at all times.

To help court interpreters do that, CFI has made it a San Francisco tradition to host a series of annual Continued Education Conferences. This year’s conference was held October 5th through 7th at the newly renovated Cathedral Hill Hotel.

The conference started on a somewhat heroic note, as it ran concurrently with the strike of our comrades-in-arms: the court interpreters in Region 1 (Los Angeles and Santa Barbara). Mary Lou Aranguren, chief spokesperson for the union, was our “embedded reporter,” sending her passionate email dispatches twice a day from the LA trenches to the Bay Area court interpreters’ community. Her general message was, “even the staunchest among us are no more driven than striking interpreters.”

I attended the conference on Friday, October 5. The soundtrack for it was provided by the roaring Blue Angels practicing their deft maneuvers in the blue expanse of the San Francisco skies. The conference started at 6:30 p.m. sharp. The agenda of that day included two hands-on expert-led presentations by a former public defender and a supervising attorney of the family violence law center.

Public defense

James McWilliams, former public defender of the Alameda County, was the first presenter. He kept the audience under a continuous spell reminiscing in a lively manner and drawing on his vast, eventful experience. Early in his presentation Mr. McWilliams pointed out that the role of a court interpreter has substantially evolved. When he started his career in the early 1970s, there was only one Spanish interpreter in Alameda County. Nowadays, of course, you cannot get by with one Spanish-language interpreter; you need many, and in many languages. Indeed, as Mr. McWilliams pointed out, the public defender’s office strives to secure competent and vigorous representation for its clients.

Further, technical innovation in the form of PDAs, Blackberries, laptops, cell phones, and listening devices has reached the realm of courtrooms and law offices, allowing interpreters, lawyers, judges, and support staff to have their business offices on the go, without missing a beat.

Mr. McWilliams also spoke about the evolution of the trial system, including jury trials. Unlike in the early 1970s, when a jury was likely to be composed of only white males, a jury in the courtroom of the 21st century is represented by speakers of Chinese, Singh, Russian—in a word, by every ethnic group of in diverse, present-day society.

Domestic violence

After a short break, Tara Flanigan, a veteran in domestic violence and civil litigation and a supervising attorney in the Family Violence Law Center in Berkeley, took the rostrum as the second presenter.

She shared her knowledge and expertise of such ubiquitous topics as civil domestic violence restraining orders, domestic violence court, child custody and visitation, and legal options for survivors. “Without you, stoical court interpreters,” she emphasized a number of times, “my job would be impossible!”

Ms. Flanagan gave a broad definition of domestic violence, which included physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological attacks, as well as economic coercion used against intimate partners for the purpose of obtaining power and control.

Both presentations were followed by lively Q&A sessions. The three hours of the Friday evening seemed to fly like a nanosecond. Saturday and Sunday promised to be even more enticing. After the conference, walking to the BART station with my colleague, I thought to myself, “Like a prudent money manager, I invested wisely: I saw the CFI community at its finest, its best.”

An Interpreting Dilemma

By Jonathan Goldberg

Given the choice of offering a literal, by-the-book interpretation that you are certain the recipient won’t understand and offering a less-than-exact equivalent of the original that you are confident he will understand, what would you do? It’s tempting to speculate that most of us would opt for the latter. But are there consequences to doing this? Especially when the setting is a legal one? Jonathan Goldberg dives in.

The verb “to interpret” has two common meanings, which in a sense are somewhat contradictory. The first relates to the act of interpreting written documents or oral statements, in the sense of giving one’s “take” on them. The use of the word in this sense suggests circumstances in which a fair degree of subjectivity is permitted.

The second sense, with which NCTA members are likely to make an association, relates to the art of oral translation, whose practitioners are expected to eschew subjectivity and to render the target language with an almost scientific precision.

Translations are often chiseled out of rough source language and fashioned in their final form with the aid of dictionaries, by consulting colleagues and, as a last resort, by asking the client for a clarification of the intended meaning. Interpretion assignments, such as the cross-examination of witnesses, allow no such luxury. Rather, the thrust and parry of these verbal brawls sometimes makes one yearn for the days when one knew only a single language and life seemed simpler on that account.

While driving back from one such assignment, a Hebrew-language deposition, I was mulling over one or two of the trickier terms that the deposing attorney had been pitching across the table at his victim. The deponent for whom I had been interpreting was a flower seller. The deposing lawyer, confident that he was about to establish a case of forgery, dramatically flourished the document he held and asked the deponent: “So does this purport to be your signature?” As the word “purport” comes up fairly often in legal settings (and being myself a retired lawyer), I knew the Hebrew equivalent. But I anticipated a familiar trap.

While I had no doubt that the flower vendor could, if called upon to do so, expound at length on the subtle differences between various types of chrysanthemums, I was equally confident that he had never heard the Hebrew equivalent of “purport.” If, therefore, I rendered a translation of that word so precise as to qualify me for a top grade in any Hebrew-language test, I knew that the deponent was highly likely to reply “I didn’t understand the question.”

This kind of situation is pregnant with danger for the interpreter. At best, furtive glances are likely to be thrown in the interpreter’s direction, with all present assuming that the correct rendition of the lawyer’s question had proven beyond the interpreter’s language skills. At worst, the deponent’s counsel, looking up from his newspaper, is likely to see in the deponent’s state of bamboozlement a golden opportunity to come to his client’s defense (which he may well not have done in any juridical sense), by stating for the record “We seem to be having a problem with the interpreter,” or some such gratuitous comment.

Determined not to become a victim of the blame game, I decided, on the spur of that fateful moment, to break all the rules of professional interpreting, and to take a little professional license, by lowering the register of the question. I therefore rendered, in Hebrew, the equivalent of “So are you claiming that this is your signature?” I held my breath as I waited to see whether my self-protective, unprofessional sleight-of-tongue would have the desired effect. Would it, I wondered, elicit an answer that would demonstrate that the deponent had understood the question and if he had not, would it be he or I who would take the rap? His reply, in Hebrew, was: “Not only do I claim that this is my signature, but it is in fact my signature.” I took one more small step, if not for humanity, then at least for the interpreting profession, and rendered the answer back into English as “Not only does it purport to be my signature, but it is in fact my signature.”

My gamble had paid off. The pair of distortions had cancelled each other out. I had demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that the deponent’s powers of comprehension extended far beyond the realm of chrysanthemums. I had allowed the deponent’s counsel to continue reading his newspaper without the need to sort out any bothersome misunderstandings. I had in fact performed a valuable service to all parties.

I am hoping that the parties who paid me to interpret for the flower vendor are not regular readers of Translorial, because they may not fully appreciate the interpreting resourcefulness that I displayed while on contract to them. But if this frank discovery of mine (in the legal sense of that word) should elicit a complaint, or a demand to stick to the straight and narrow
path of interpreting when carrying out future assignments, I intend to plead argumentum ab inconvenienti.

And Justice for All?

By Michael Schubert

Launched in 1997, the State Commission on Access to Justice is chartered with exploring ways to improve access to civil justice for low- and moderate-income Californians. The Commission’s new policy paper, “Language Barriers to Justice in California,” documents the need for increased court-interpreter resources in the Golden State.

In our profession and with our various backgrounds, NCTA members know first-hand that California is home to one of the most ethnically, racially, and linguistically diverse populations on the planet. According to data from the 2000 census, roughly 26% of California’s 34 million residents are foreign-born, representing over 220 languages! This extraordinary diversity can be a great asset to the artistic landscape and to the general marketplace of ideas and perspectives, but it also poses huge cultural and linguistic challenges for providers of government services.

These challenges become clearer when one delves further into the census data: a full 10% of California’s 2000 population arrived during the 1990s, and rates of immigration continue to rise. More importantly, 20% of Californians speak English less than “very well,” meaning that they require an interpreter when appearing in court as a defendant, litigant, or witness.

While criminal defendants, witnesses, parties in small claims cases, and parties in a narrow class of civil cases have the right to an interpreter, no such right has been recognized for parties in most civil cases, including evictions, repossessions, creditor/debtor cases, wage garnishments, and family law matters. The judge may assign an interpreter at his or her discretion, but, not surprisingly, there is usually a lack of state funds available to pay the costs when the affected parties are unable to. The issue touches on the need for written translation services as well, since most court forms are available only in English. Even where such forms exist in another language, by law they still must be submitted and filed in English.

Aggravating the growing need for court interpreter services has been a concurrent shrinking of California’s pool of qualified interpreters. Court records show that between 1995 and 2005, the number of certified court interpreters for Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Arabic, Japanese, Tagalog, and Portuguese fell from 1,665 to 1,238—a 25% drop! The decline in Spanish interpreters, who make up 88% of this pool, has been nearly 30%. In desperation, the courts have been forced to rely on unqualified interpreters, including relatives and children, with the predictably dubious results for the administration of justice that hardly needs emphasizing among Translorial readers.

Court administrators have stepped up their efforts to attract and retain qualified interpreters, including the launching of a pilot program incorporating specialized telephone equipment, workshops, recruitment campaigns, collaboration with UC Berkeley and UCLA, better cooperation with local courts, and a redesign of the court interpreter program website. The single greatest problem hampering all of these efforts, however, is the lack of adequate funding. Compensation for California’s certified and registered court interpreters currently stands at $265 per day and $147 per half day, significantly lower than rates at the federal level and far below private-sector prices.

The Commission on Access to Justice outlines five principal recommendations:

  • Adopt a comprehensive language access policy for courts.
  • Develop specific recommendations to implement language access policy.
  • Compile existing data and conduct additional research.
  • Reevaluate system for recruitment, training, compensation, and certification of court interpreters.
  • Evaluate role of lawyers and bar associations, legal services programs, law schools, and law libraries.

The Commission’s full 68-page report is posted at http://www.calbar.ca.gov/ under “Reports” in the left-hand column. The Commission explicitly welcomes the feedback, suggestions, or contributions of NCTA members!


Arguing for the rights of California Court Interpreters

By Marianne Pripps

On June 30th, I received a call late at night informing me of what I had been dreading for some time. As a Court Interpreter Pro Tem (CIPT), I was going on strike the next morning for four days. I knew then that something had gone wrong during the last negotiation session our union conducted, and my heart sank in dismay. The next morning, I scrambled to get ready and report to the chosen venue but was not able to make it for logistical reasons. I then spent the rest of the morning contacting colleagues in sister organizations such as NCTA and ATA to ask for their support and solidarity. Why did this have to happen?

I have been a full-time court interpreter since 1993, when I first gained my state certification. For most of those years I was classified as an independent contractor with no rights or protections at work. I worked on a day-to-day basis with no benefits of any kind and no pay increases for a decade. Although such circumstances can certainly come with the territory of being an independent contractor, the difference was that I had no control over what I did; the courts did. Without my input and expertise, this was a situation that was simply unacceptable to me. Then in 2003 California legislation made interpreters employees of the court (in effect, the state) and granted us collective bargaining rights.

Contract negotiations started in earnest over a year ago. California was divided into four negotiating regions for purposes of simplicity and leverage. Region 1 (Los Angeles) was the first and remains the region that consistently makes the most progress. The other regions, in contrast—including Northern California—have suffered from a lack of seriousness and desire on the part of the courts’ representatives as to the basic fundamentals of interpreters’ rights.

From the beginning, these representatives of the courts have sought to undermine the law, subsequently refusing to concede anything beyond the most basic of employee benefits. As a union, we were faced with the animosity of some members of the court administrations who have never liked having interpreters in their midst, for reasons that are entirely unclear to me.

But we are fighting back. We feel that team interpreting and a raise in pay, as well as seniority and other job perks, are absolutely necessary to retain, recruit, and motivate skilled professionals to perform a job that is, at best, very challenging and at worst, extremely stressful. Our expertise, after all, plays an important part in ensuring a person’s due process under the law.

During the strike, we as interpreters were able to realize several things. For the past two years, we had been somewhat demoralized by the lack of incentives we had to remain employees. This changed when we saw how hard our union and colleagues had been working, united for the common good of our profession. The strike brought us together in a kind of solidarity never before achieved, and demonstrated to the court administrations the importance of our profession.

It is also true that the strike was effective only as an informational tool; it did not bring the courts to a complete halt. We were disappointed that many of our OTS (Other Than Spanish) colleagues crossed the picket lines, and even some interpreter employees did so as well. However, our spirits were lifted by the support that the legal community gave us, where court bilingual staff members refused to interpret—imperiling their own bilingual pay—and attorneys refused to use the services of non-certified interpreters.

As I write, Region 1 has ratified a contract and we are elated for our Southern California colleagues. Our strike may have had clear resonance in that area because the agreement came within a week after the end of our action. In the Northern California and San Diego regions, the situation is quite different, as both regions will enter mediation. In our own area, we may yet have to resort to further action. We hope that this does not come to pass but we are ready and willing to do so. We will need the help and support of all of our colleagues, sister organizations, and corporate members because, in the end, fair and respectful treatment and working conditions for all interpreters benefit everyone.

In my view, people should have the right to choose to be an independent contractor, along with its attendant risks; I did it for many years. But people should also have the right to be a full or part-time employee, with all its ensuing benefits, rights, and privileges. Ultimately, how interpreters stick together and fight for what is fair and just is what will decide the advancement of a noble profession.