Protecting Interpreters and Their Clients: An Introduction to the Interpreters Guild of America
By Johanna Valle Sobalvarro
The Interpreters Guild of America (IGA) is a unit of the NewsGuild-CWA, a union representing journalists, interpreters and translators, social justice workers, and nonprofit and public-sector professionals. Its main purpose is to protect the rights of interpreters, who bear tremendous responsibilities and are vulnerable to a number of professional challenges.
IGA assists freelancers in educating themselves about the business of interpreting through continuing education and helps them to understand the steps needed to improve working conditions. These aspects of interpreting practice are very important, because in many interpreter-training programs, the focus is mainly on techniques and vocabulary. That leaves new interpreters unaware of what is necessary to protect themselves against exploitation and fraud.
Ongoing training is available to IGA members free of charge. Topics include reading and enforcing contracts as well as proper billing, collection, marketing, and accounting practices. As the only professional interpreters’ organization that tracks the reputation of language agencies that hire freelancers, we accomplish this by querying members about their interactions with agencies. In this way, colleagues keep each other informed about unscrupulous agencies that don’t pay for services provided.
IGA encourages certification to promote professionalism and simultaneously protect limited English proficient (LEP) clients by ensuring that they are being assisted by a trained professional. An untrained bilingual might not be familiar with interpreting techniques or understand the importance of the protocols and the code of ethics that bind interpreters.
In addition to offering educational opportunities, IGA also lobbies Sacramento for better work conditions for freelancers working in state courts and in the workers’ compensation system. In 2014, IGA helped pass Assembly Bill (AB) 2370, which requires that during court proceedings, the court interpreter’s certification number be read aloud and thereby become part of the proceedings. This has helped discourage uncertified and untrained interpreters from trying to work on legal cases for which they do not have proper credentials. This not only protects the work of certified interpreters but also helps protect the person using the interpreter by ensuring that a competent professional is presenting their case.
Currently, AB 2370 applies only to court interpreters, but the IGA is working to amend it to require certification for medical interpreters involved in workers’ compensation cases. In the present law (California Evidence Code section 755.5), there is a loophole that allows insurance company adjusters to “provisionally qualify and use” an uncertified interpreter when a certified interpreter is not available. Agencies use this loophole to avoid paying professional rates for certified medical interpreters and instead hire untrained persons for a third of the rate. These ad-hoc interpreters have no training in vocabulary, diagnosis, or protocols and can put injured workers at risk by misinterpreting their diagnosis, treatment, or legal case. This is especially true in medical-legal evaluations, which are the only opportunities for the injured worker to be heard and evaluated by an independent doctor. We argue that allowing “provisional qualification” of untrained medical interpreters disregards the well-being of the injured worker.
As a member of the California Commission on Access to Justice and Chair of the Language Access Committee, I focus attention on certification issues in the California Division of Workers’ Compensation. This involves advocating actively with the Commission to ensure that the problems in the workers’ compensation system are recognized as a major violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. I am encouraging the Commission to support IGA’s efforts to amend AB 2370 to make medical certification of interpreters for injured workers mandatory.
I’m also working to direct more attention to the issue of the legal aid agencies across the state that are relying on untrained volunteers to act as interpreters, putting the legal cases of low-income Californians in jeopardy. Legal aid agencies rely heavily on funding from the State of California to help people in need: having access to credentialed interpreters is imperative to protect low-income persons, and in fact protects all Californians seeking legal aid
For more information about the Interpreters Guild of America, please visit www.interpretersguild.org.