Suggested Guidelines for Coordinators

Aleé A. Alger-Robbins, Certified Interpreter and Consultant (with contributions from Ana Gloria Barnett, Interpreter Coordinator for San Diego Juvenile Court)

IDEAL INTERPRETER COORDINATORS STRIVE TO IDENTIFY AND HIRE IDEAL INTERPRETERS. This means identifying an interpreter who not only has superior language skills but who also has professional demeanor. Ideal interpreters are well-mannered, properly dressed, arrive on time, keep a low profile and complete the interpreting assignment in accordance with accepted interpreting standards. They work well under pressure, have an understanding of the legal system, honor the attorney/client privilege and remain impartial at all times. Professional interpreters know how to handle challenges to interpretation, value working in tandem with other interpreters and continue improving their vocabulary, diction and memory. They are reliable, detached and observe necessary courtroom decorum. Their services are in demand. 

How do courts find and keep such interpreters? The interpreter coordinator often holds the key. A survey of highly paid international conference interpreters in Europe found that the three main factors associated with motivation were: 1) feeling useful 2) being appreciated by colleagues and 3) being appreciated by the consumers. Note that financial remuneration was listed as number nine out of a total of eleven motivating factors. Although court interpreters generally feel that they are paid too little for their services, professional working conditions allowing them to do their best and to be appreciated by all players in the courtroom can provide important motivation. 

Independent contractors will give scheduling preference to courts with policies geared toward motivating and rewarding certified interpreters, by valuing their linguistic expertise and providing them with the necessary tools to do their work well. Such courts reap the rewards of working with reliable professionals: interpreters who will be available, flexible and willing to change their schedules to accommodate last minute emergencies. Ultimately, these courts will spend less time and resources in finding and keeping good interpreters. Most importantly, hiring quality interpreters will minimize incidents that provoke the ire of judges, the frustration of courtroom clerks and the indignation of attorneys who appeal cases because of interpreter error. 

To that end, the following guidelines may help you achieve an ideal working relationship with contract and staff interpreters:  Just as opening arguments in a trial provide a road map showing where the evidence is going, clear guidelines and orientation show a new interpreter what is expected of him. Develop an orientation handout that interpreters can take with them to read. It should contain a schematic of the courthouse, do's and don'ts for particular departments, local rules, a copy of the California interpreter code of ethics and instructions for submitting payment vouchers. Don't rely on your memory to orient each new interpreter- put it in writing. Written directives are particularly important for untrained or non-certified interpreters who generally need more guidance and direction than do certified interpreters. In fact, written directives can be more readily understood by non-native English speakers than hurried verbal instructions.  Observing and evaluating the interpreters you hire enables you to give and receive valuable information. Ask your experienced interpreters to design an evaluation form for observing and critiquing other interpreters. Most experienced interpreters can evaluate newcomers, even in languages other than their own, in matters of protocol, procedural knowledge and observance of the canons of ethics. The evaluation process should be non-threatening, non-judgmental and designed to give feedback and suggestions for improvement. Take advantage of "golden teaching moments" to fine-tuning the performance of an otherwise competent interpreter, and to identify those who need more training.  Because interpreters represent a variety of languages and cultures, their behavioral norms may be different. Get to know the differences, as well as the similarities. Spend a few minutes getting to know each interpreter so that you can value their individual qualities. Interpreters who feel that they are appreciated as individuals will accommodate the court for a last-minute emergency or late working hours, or are willing to tackle a difficult case. When you establish a rapport with your interpreters, they are more easily approached regarding problems that may arise. Don't hesitate to talk to them and explain what you need, and why. 

By the same token, take some time to teach the interpreters about your role, the difficulties you face and what you need from them to make your job easier. Coordinators may have difficulties with interpreters who underestimate the challenge of coordinating and assigning interpreters. Remind them of what is involved, and give them specific suggestions about how to understand your duties and to be supportive.  One of the biggest challenges facing both coordinators and interpreters is an equitable hiring system. Whether your court uses a strict rotation system, one based on seniority or on individual preference, it is important that interpreters desirous of working for your court know what your hiring and assignment criteria are. Because Spanish language interpreters comprise the largest pool available, they are the ones most directly affected by hiring decisions. A rotation system has two main advantages: it is fair, and all the interpreters become experienced in the particulars of your courthouse. Interpreters who are seldom or never hired should be informed of the reason. If there is a problem with their performance, let them know. 

It is also advisable to rotate court assignments among interpreters so that everyone becomes familiar with the different proceedings. If one interpreter is continually assigned the same duty court, his vocabulary tends to stagnate. An even more serious consequence of failing to rotate daily assignments is the mistaken perception by attorneys and the public that the interpreter is a member of the permanent courtroom staff. This blurs the impartial and neutral role that the courtroom interpreter must maintain, and can result in interpreters being asked to assume duties generally performed by attorneys and paralegals. Frequently rotating the staff and contract interpreters to all courtroom assignments is an excellent way of maintaining enthusiasm, skills and a clear delineation of the interpreter's role.  Although most interpreters have their own reference sources and frequently keep one or more dictionaries in their briefcase, it would be impossible to bring every possible reference source to the courthouse. Consider purchasing monolingual and bilingual dictionaries and glossaries for your interpreting staff. Specialty dictionaries containing accounting, architectural, scientific, legal, medical and engineering terminology are essential tools for interpreters preparing for the testimony of an expert witness. They also need glossaries containing slang, proverbs, obscenities and crime-specific vocabulary. Ask experienced interpreters for their recommendations to add to your reference materials. 

Also, the interpreter needs to know in advance the case caption, number and type of case to which he is assigned. Most importantly, prior to a trial or evidentiary hearing he needs a chance to review police reports, preliminary hearing transcripts or witness statements. Develop a system with court administration and the prosecutor's office so that interpreters have access to these documents before a trial or hearing.  In providing the link between the interpreter and the court the coordinator is in the best position to keep the judges, administrators and other courtroom players aware of the role and needs of interpreters. By advising the Court well in advance of the need for electronic equipment, good physical location for hearing and seeing, a glass of water, access to case information, the need for team interpreting and of the protocol that interpreters must follow, you are more likely to see the entire interpreting process proceed smoothly and without unnecessary delays. 

By the same token, the interpreter should be informed of any particular needs of that court, such as follow-up dates, orders to appear, paperwork to be given defendants, special security precautions, etc. Good communication between the court and the interpreter allows them to work together efficiently: frequently it is the interpreter coordinator who makes that happen.  For courts that hire multiple interpreters every day due to large volume Spanish or Southeast Asian case loads, it is advisable to hire sufficient interpreters to fill the inevitable last minute calendar additions and changes. It is much more expensive to have judges and attorneys waiting for one interpreter to be called in, than to have one interpreter available as as a "floater". This is the interpreter who will handle unscheduled matters such as a last-minute witness, a case that was to plead out but goes to trial or a large number of detainees in the holding cells who needing interviewing before their arraignments. Once you determine that all the courts are covered, the floating interpreter is free to do the Ten-Minute Manager duties, organize the interpreter's library, translate routine court documents, observe and evaluate other interpreters, update your interpreter lists and prepare materials for continuing education classes. Such interpreters are valuable resources worth tapping. Be prepared to utilize their down time to your advantage, and theirs. 

On the other hand, don't create "busy" work for interpreters who are independent contractors. Recognize that in lieu of job security and benefits, they have opted for flexibility and independence. They need to be available to other clients besides you. Treat them as independent professionals, giving them the same flexibility of scheduling that they give you when you require their services on short notice.  There may be times when an interpreter needs to consult with you regarding a potential conflict of interest on a case. As officers of the court they must be impartial and maintain attorney/client privilege at all times. If an interpreter advises you that he needs to recuse himself from a particular case for reasons based on the canons of interpreter ethics, you should assign a different interpreter to the case. Even general discussions about ethical dilemmas should be handled with the utmost confidence and delicacy. When in doubt, consult your superior or the presiding judge for a resolution to these sensitive matters.  Generally, interpreters are members of one of more professional organizations. They attend conferences and intensive courses to further their professional growth and to fulfill their continuing education requirements. Some of your interpreters may even be instructors for local universities, sharing their field of specialty with aspiring candidates for the interpreter's exam. Encourage these activities by posting announcements of upcoming workshops and classes, and in the case of staff interpreters, by reimbursing their professional fees for attending such conferences whenever possible. Ask those attending educational gatherings to report back to the other interpreters so that the information may be shared by all. 

Take advantage of your teaching interpreters to present small modules to the judges and attorneys in your courthouse. They are the best providers of "golden teaching moments" that can make a big difference in educating the bar and the bench about the interpreter's role. 

Above all, strive to hire certified interpreters in the eight designated languages. These interpreters have studied and trained assiduously to earn their certification, and the quality of their performance almost always reflects those efforts. By hiring certified interpreters you are fostering professional growth by giving them an incentive to improve and make sure that they attain the highest levels of their profession.  The interpreter coordinator has a daunting role in the criminal justice system. Providing the all-important link between the court and the interpreter requires a delicate balancing act. On the one hand you are dealing with demanding, overworked judges and attorneys who have an immediate need for an interpreter. You are seldom given the luxury of even a day to find someone to hire. On the other hand you are sometimes forced to hire interpreters who are neither trained nor certified, who come from a vast spectrum of languages, cultures and educational backgrounds. On very short notice you must introduce them to the legal system, get them ready to appear before a judge and jury and convince them to come back for another appearance when they are done. It is also not uncommon to deal with interpreters who do not behave professionally, and create problems for the coordinator. Moreover, you may be faced with a small budget, lack of interpreter equipment and reference materials, or you simply may not know where to begin! 

There is a good chance that some other interpreter coordinator has already experienced those same challenges. It is important to establish a network with other interpreter coordinators throughout the state. Your colleagues are the best source of problem solving. Look to them for help and suggestions. And when you come up with a particularly brilliant idea, share it. 

This binder is an excellent source of resources, information and guidelines which you can always refer to as new challenges arise. 

Good luck to each of you from an interpreter who appreciates and values the efforts made by IDEAL INTERPRETER COORDINATORS. You make a difference to us!