Podcast Interview With Osvaldo Aviles


Narrator:             Hello and thank you for listening to Subject to Interpretation, hosted by Augustin de la mora. My name is Claudia, and my name’s Kayla, and we are the producers of this program. Before we get into today’s interview with special guest Osvaldo Aviles, who is the administrator of the interpreter program at the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, we wanted to bring you the latest announcements from DE LA MORA Interpreter Training. If you found us on Facebook, we’d like to remind you that you may download us to your phone wherever podcasts are available. Now onto some more exciting news. Join us Friday, November 9th for our Finding the Parallels welcome reception. This is free to the public and open to anyone interested or curious about becoming an interpreter, as well as all certified and registered interpreters, are welcome to come. Beginning at 6 pm, the reception will feature a panel of federal and medical interpreters, followed by a networking event, drinks, and free giveaways. Don’t miss on this rewarding opportunity.

Narrator:             And do you want to keep up to date with your CEUs and DE LA MORA’s webinars and podcasts? Join our membership program for legal interpreters, where you will find a library of educational resources and courses required for CEUs. Also where you can view all past and upcoming webinars. Our next webinar takes place tomorrow, October 27th, presented by our one and only Agustin de la Mora. With our student membership, you will have access to all of these for only $19 a month, and as always, all the links will be in the description bar below.

Narrator:             Now, stay tuned for next week’s podcast featuring Patricia Mikkelson King, federally certified interpreter and Spanish professor who assisted in developing the state test, as well as the federal, oral, and written exams. Should be interesting.

Narrator:             And last week we asked you once again to send in your questions for us to answer on air, and here are the top three questions. Number one being, how many CIE’s will I earn by attending the Finding the Parallels summit? You’ll be able to earn sixteen CIE credits for the state of Florida, as well as 10.5 IMIA credits for all of you medical interpreters. And do you offer FCICE exam prep? Yes, we do. In fact, we have the very last one this year, starting on December third, and then we will have a few additional offerings next year, both for the written and oral prep. And do you offer conference interpreting courses? Yes. If we haven’t yet, we’re happy to announce that we will be offering conference interpreting classes in 2019. So stay tuned. We appreciate you all for listening in. We pride ourselves in being one of the very few podcasts for professional interpreters out there. So please share us with all of your colleagues. We would love to hear more of your feedback and questions, and we will continue to answer the frequently asked questions here on the podcast. So please feel free to contact our office and you will most likely hear from one of us until next week. Now enjoy the interview with Osvaldo Aviles. Goodbye!

AD:                         So hello and welcome to another edition of Subject to Interpretation. My name is Agustin de la Mora and I’m your host today, and I’m very happy today because a good friend of mine that has been working in this field for many, many years. Mr Osvaldo, is with us today. He has agreed to share with us, his experience both as the director of the language access program for Pennsylvania, he’ll tell us what the exact title is, and uh, the first person that we are doing in this series that is actually involved with testing and hiring interpreters for the state. So we’re very pleased to have him here. And without further ado, welcome Osvaldo. How you doing?

OA:                        Good. How are you Agustin? Thank you for having me.

AD:                         Well, thank you for agreeing. And, and as I was saying, why don’t you tell us exactly what your title is and what is it that you do for the state of Pennsylvania?

OA:                        Well, my actual title is interpreter program administrator. Uh, so we do have a second person on staff that is the actual language access coordinator. So I didn’t want to rob her spot by assuming her title as well. So I’m, I’m just in charge of managing our, um, interpreter certification process.

AD:                         Right. And you say just, but it’s a pretty big endeavor, isn’t it?

OA:                        Oh yeah. It’s a pretty big task, especially here in Pennsylvania, you know, we’re one of the largest states and uh, we have, uh, quite a number of courts to, um, serve. We have 60 judicial districts.

AD:                         Sixty? Six, zero? That’s plenty. Yes. And all of them, uh, one way or another are going to have to deal with you or call you when they’re needing the services of an interpreter. Is that correct?

OA:                        Correct. We publish our roster of certified and otherwise qualified interpreters, and it’s available on our website and whenever, uh, the, uh, language that a particular a district needs is not listed in our roster, then they contact us and we, uh, make resources available to them that we, uh, gather and collect through means like the National Center’s database and National Association of Judiciary Interpreters’ roster, and ATA roster.

AD:                         Good. Now let me back up a little bit because you have been in this business for a while, ever since you were a teenager, I understand. And, uh, and before becoming the director of the program for court interpretation, you were an actual interpreter in Pennsylvania, is that true?

OA:                        Yes. Before I was in my present position, I worked for 14 years as a staff interpreter in the common pleas court in Philadelphia. Common pleas court is what we call our court of first instance. And even before that, before I took my job with the court, I was interpreting already for about five or six years. I started doing some teaching with Berlitz and eventually became engaged in interpreting for them. Then after that I went to work for Community Legal Services, which is an agency that provides services here in the Philadelphia area to low income people that cannot afford to pay their own attorneys. And there I also was working not only as an interpreter, but as a community organizer as well as the representative or the paralegal, they called it, for workers comp cases. So I was doing workers’ comp cases and, and representing people in those as well. And that was all before coming to the court.

AD:                         Right. And then you became an interpreter. Like probably many of us, you mentioned that you were a Berlitz teacher, you know, and made me, some people might know that I was a teacher too, and I’m starting to find out that Patricia Mikkelson King was a Berlitz teacher, and I’d be writing letters to Berlitz to say, hey, guess what, your alumni is now working in the field of interpretation. So, but you, when you were a kid, did you say, Oh, I’m going to be an interpreter when I grow up?

OA:                        No, I did not. Uh, growing up, uh, my grandmother always had designs that I was going to be a lawyer. And uh, when I actually went to college, I decided I didn’t like the law as a profession. So I turned to the other major profession in the family, which was teaching. My mother is a retired college professor, and I have several aunts and cousins were also college professors. So I, uh, went on and thinking that I was going to become a college professor or professor in political science. That’s what I liked.

AD:                         And then how did you kind of fall into interpreting?

OA:                        Well, I went to college in Puerto Rico, which is where I’m from. And then, uh, when I finished my BA, I decided to come to the states for a master’s degree and uh, when I came to the states, uh, while I was working in my master’s degree, I started looking for opportunities to, uh, you know, have some additional income, uh, aside from the scholarship that I received to attend. I was going to Princeton at that time. I started doing some looking around and I found that Berlitz was looking for teachers, so since I presumed that I was bilingual enough, I went and applied for a job and they took me in as a teacher, you know, originally. Then later on, you know, an interpreting opportunity came up and I said yes. And I launched into that without, like you said, without any training, you know, just walking up, showing up one day and saying, hey, I’m the interpreter assigned to work with you.

AD:                         And surprise, surprise, it wasn’t as easy as you thought it was gonna be.

OA:                        Surprise, surprise, it wasn’t as easy, yes.

AD:                         Now, since you went to Princeton, I have a very important question to ask. Did you go to school with Brooke Shields and did you know her?

OA:                        Not at that time. I asked her that when I found out that she’s a Princeton alumni, I asked her that, but unfortunately I think that the age difference had something to do with that. I was there way before she did I think.

AD:                         Got You. Got You. Well I was hoping that you could tell some stories about Brooke Shields, but alright (laughs). So then you become an interpreter with Berlitz, and if I remember correctly, Berlitz didn’t have that much training for the interpreters, right? They would just send you because you were their teacher.

OA:                        That’s right, because I was a teacher and because I was bilingual, and they had determined that, you know, I was good enough to be a teacher so I should probably know the language well enough. So here you go.

AD:                         There you go. And so, when you started as an interpreter, what, what did you think? Did you think that you were going to stay with it or was it just, as you said, just kind of to gather some extra cash?

OA:                        Well, when I first started, my idea was, you know, this is extra cash, extra money. I wasn’t taking it very seriously. Uh, but then eventually I started liking it. And, uh, when I finished my masters at Princeton, I went back to Puerto Rico for a year and then I came back to the states. I actually went and did some teaching at the university, uh, in Puerto Rico and uh, decided to come back to work on my PhD. And then when I came back I rehooked up with Berlitz and um, that’s when they started sending me to some interpretation assignments, uh, and I started liking it, and more importantly, I found that I had some facility for it. So I had most of the vocabulary, uh, and I had the facility to speak and listen at the same time, uh, and the retention skills and memory skills. So I said, hey, maybe this can lead to something. And at the same time when, when I was there, I was studying in the states, I wasn’t teaching, so I was still needing that extra income.

AD:                         So fast forward a few years and you’re still liking it. How do you make the leap to go to start going to the courts? Was it that Berlitz sent you to court?

OA:                        No, at that time I was already working for Community Legal Services that other agency I mentioned to you earlier, and while at Community Legal Services, I was doing court stuff, obviously, I said I was working as a paralegal and going to workers comp hearings and unemployment compensation hearings. So I started to familiarize myself a little bit with the legal process. And then remember my, my grandmother always wanted me to be an attorney. So I started reconnecting with the legal aspect and I was enjoying it. You know, I, I was winning, you know, my fair number of, uh, of cases at the workers’ comp and unemployment compensation hearings. But while working at Community Legal Services with a bunch of other attorneys, or I’m not an attorney, but with a bunch of attorneys, one of them one day said, ‘you know, the court of common pleas is looking for a staff interpreter. They already had staff interpreters, but they were looking for an additional interpreter. They had a position open. So I went and applied and I got the job. So lo and behold, I left community legal services and I went to work for the courts, still without having had any kind of certification or anything like that. Um, and then later after I had been working for the courts for awhile, there was a change of leadership in the courts and someone from the National Center for State Courts came to help redesign the court employment system. Uh, and then he decided that because there were staff interpreters, that they needed to be tested, because at that time, the National Center had started the consortium with New Jersey, Minnesota, Washington, and Oregon. And uh, they already had developed some testing. So they knew about testing, so they brought that idea and then they told us that we had to test, you know, if we wanted to continue to be employed at staff interpreters.

AD:                         Do you remember who was that person from National Center?

OA:                        The person from National Center that came in as a consultant was Bill Hewitt. And then he brought in Robert Joe Lee, who was involved in the beginnings of the consortium and was nearby in New Jersey. So it was Robert Joe that organized the testing.

AD:                         That’s cool. We actually had Robert Joe as one of our guests for this podcast. Uh, so he told us, because I knew that he kind of owned the history of the consortium and the testing in the United States, you know, unfortunately by then Bill Hewitt had passed, and we didn’t have the opportunity to talk to him, but Robert Joe certainly gave us a very good history lesson on how this developed. So did you have to test with the New Jersey exam then? Was that your first?

OA:                        Yes, they used the New Jersey exam, and it was live. The raters were sitting there across from you at the table. They had three raters. Um, two of them were reading the script and the other one was taking notes, and the test was recorded. And the test was given to us and here in city hall in Philadelphia,

AD:                         Nervewracking. I remember those days when I took it, and actually the state exam was modeled so much after the federal exam that it had the same structure, because when I took the federal exam, that was exactly the structure. Three very serious looking people, one of them Holly Mikkelson that made me even more nervous, and then they would read to you and they would take notes and supposedly every time they wrote down something it was not bad. But I am sure all of us thought that every time they put pen to paper, we had made a mistake.

OA:                        That’s right, there you go. That you got one of the scoring units wrong.

AD:                         That’s right. Exactly. So yeah. So you’ve got this test and then how has it changed from that time to now as far as Pennsylvania? How are things going over there? Are you still testing now? What is, what is the story now?

OA:                        Well, yes. I mean, when we took that test, there was no state wide program for certification of interpreters, and the Philadelphia courts were at the vanguard of the testing process. Uh, but so we became certified and my certification was officially like a certification from New Jersey, not Pennsylvania. So the letter I got said, you know, you’re being certified in the state of New Jersey, but that was good enough for Philadelphia. So at that time there was no formal testing. It wasn’t until much later in 2001– we took the test in 1997, and it wasn’t until 2001 that, uh, because of a commission that was put together by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to look at issues of racial and gender bias in the court system, then the issue of qualification of interpreters came up. The, uh, issue of qualification of interpreters wasn’t originally in the mandate of that commission, but as they went around the state holding public hearings and interviewing people, uh, the issue of the quality and availability of interpreters came up. So it took up such a big role in the commission’s work, that it ended up being the very first chapter in the commission’s report to the court. And there was a recommendation to create a program to, uh, qualify interpreters for the court system statewide. Um, and, uh, the commission made two recommendations: one that they look towards the National Center, an already established consortium for language access in the courts, um, which had started in 1995. Um, and then the second was to, um, create a program within the office of the Pennsylvania courts to manage that process of certification and qualification. And the court reacted in a very positive way to that recommendation and immediately went to work, and in 2003, um, started putting together a program, and then I was hired in 2004 to be the administrator of the program, and that’s when we really started. And, um, you asked me how has it changed. Well, the way that the exams are administered has definitely changed. You know, we no longer have that model where, you know, you sit in front of a panel of people, scary people, the three proctors to have the test delivered to you live. The National Center has gone through a process of streamlining the delivery of the testing instruments, and now the tests are recorded and you can deliver the test either via CD or via audio recording directly from a laptop or any other electronic device. The national center has also continued to develop tests in additional languages. When we first started, the tests were only for Spanish, and now we have, thanks to, um, the National Center’s program, 22 languages that we can test in.

AD:                         Have you had people test in all 22 of those languages?

OA:                        No, we haven’t. Uh, we have about 10, 12 languages that we test most of the time. Uh, we have had, for example, we’ve never had a Somali test, and we’ve never the other languages, Turkish, we’ve never had a test in Turkish. We do have plenty of candidates that take tests in Korean, and Vietnamese, and Arabic, and Chinese, and Portuguese, which are languages that are in high demand for our court system.

AD:                         So now, those changes have been evolving while you have been the director of the program. As the director of the program, how do you see the candidates? First of all, if I wanted to be an interpreter, what would you tell me? What is it that I need to do? Because hey I’m bilingual. You started with no training, can I do the same?

OA:                        Well, whenever we have people that show interest in, in the program and becoming, certified with us, we start there and we tell them, you know, you have to be bilingual, and being bilingual means that not only can you speak the language, but you also have to be able to read and write the language at the level of a native speaker. Uh, a lot of the problems that we have with candidates these days, um, results from the fact that many of the candidates that want to become certified are second and third generation speakers of their foreign language. So English is their first language, so they are not as fully bilingual. So I think you have to have a solid background in, in both languages. That’s number one. And number two, we tried to make clear to them that you need certain interpreting skills, like being able to have a good memory, being able to take notes effectively, um, be able to follow a conversation, and speak simultaneously as the other person is speaking. And augment all of those skills, with some basic cognitive skills that you can develop if you practice hard enough. So, when candidates, you know, don’t have the necessary language skills, we recommend that they take some courses, uh, at the community college level, or some other college or university to augment those, uh, language skills. And we think that most candidates, uh, as long as they have the cognitive ability, can learn the, uh, interpreting skills. Um, you can improve your note taking. You can improve your memory, retention, you know, we can give them exercises to learn to do that. Uh, but the language skills are something that if they don’t come with, that’s something that we’re not prepared to give to them. We cannot run a course in learning Farsi or learning Catalan, or something like that.

AD:                         And I understand since you brought up, and we’ve talked about this exam many times, we know it’s, a lot of people talk about this in the field of interpretation, that is, how difficult it is to pass this test. How, how tough it is, how low the percentage is. So I wanted to ask you a couple of things from different points of view. So first of all, what is the average of people that pass the oral examination, nationwide, do you happen to know, or in your state?

OA:                        Nationwide is between eight and 10 percent. Uh, that’s what we hear from the National Center and from my conversations with other program managers throughout the country, that’s the average. Our passing rate is slightly higher than the national average. We have a 12 percent passing rate.

AD:                         Okay. And why do you think that is? People in Pennsylvania are smarter?

OA:                        (Laughs) Actually, I think it has to do with two things. First of all, we really emphasize the training and the practice before you step up to take the test for the first time. And also maybe because we bifurcate the test. Uh, we uh, administer in the oral exam in two phases. We give the simultaneous first, in phase one, and we do that because 90 percent of the time, interpreting the simultaneous mode is what interpreters are going to do in court, and in court proceedings. So then as phase two, we administer the sight and the consecutive test. Uh, so we allow the candidate to concentrate on trying to pass the simultaneous tests first, and developing their skills on that, and practicing for that. Uh, and then once they are over that hurdle, they can come in and take the sight and the consecutive. In our experience, candidates that are able to do well in the simultaneous have a better chance of passing the sight and the consecutive on their first try. It doesn’t happen always like that. But, um, but that’s, that’s been our experience. So I think that’s, you know, those are two things, why I think our passing rates slightly higher. Uh, and it also helps that at some point, you have to say your pool of candidates, um, you’re selecting from a pool of candidate that has the most important qualification, which is, you know, they have a solid background in languages,

AD:                         Yeah. I think that we, as I traveled through the country teaching, uh, interpreters, I have noticed that some people do not understand that important difference between being bilingual enough to go order a cup of coffee or travel and communicate with somebody with a lot of grammatical mistakes that people will forgive in, in normal conversation, and assume that, that level of sophistication in their language is gonna function or work the same in a court environment, and it obviously does not. So I have seen that. So there’s two, there’s the end users from the point of view of attorneys, judges, etc, and then the interpreter. So from the point of view of the attorneys and the judges, what do you hear about this low passing rate?

OA:                        Well, the probably most common complaint that we have from the, uh, legal field, as well as from our judges and court administrators, is, you know, why is it so hard to pass the test? It must be something wrong with the test, because, you know, uh, people refer friends and acquaintances that they know, that are bilingual to our program all the time. And we’ve had people that are attorneys, you know, people that have advanced degrees in various fields coming and taking the test, as well as people that just have a GED or did not finish high school at all. But, uh, some of them, you know, have the necessary makeup and they pass the test even if they haven’t gone through high school, and then you have attorneys and other professionals that take the test and can’t pass it. So the issue is, you know, why, you know, what’s wrong with the test, that all these, you know, intelligent, bright people that we’re referring to the program can’t pass? There must be something wrong with the test. So we’re constantly trying to explain to them that it’s not the test. There is something that the candidate is not bringing to the testing process, that’s lacking. Um, and you know, we emphasize the point that these candidates, we don’t, we don’t ask them to get every single scoring unit right. You know, they only have to get 70 percent. So we’re letting them onto the roster as a certified interpreter when they can still get 30 percent of their interpretation wrong and still be called a certified interpreter. Um, so the other thing is people don’t realize, they don’t have an idea of what interpreting is all about. They don’t understand the role of the interpreter. They say well, you know, you’re just repeating what the other person said. How hard can that be? So a lot of, a lot of our work here, uh, since the program began, has gone into the area of education. Education not only of interpreters and training them to, uh, to try and pass the test, but also education of the legal community — judges, attorneys, uh, administrators within the court system, uh, and others that, that use interpreters on a regular basis to help them understand what the role and qualifications are, and why is it that people pass and don’t pass the test. So I would say, you know, when I, when we do an orientation program and I have to describe the program, our program has three main goals. Number one is to create the roster of interpreters, so that means we’re testing and qualifying interpreters. Number two is to assist the judicial districts in obtaining interpreter services. And, you know, I’m constantly answering questions from judicial districts about how, how do I manage this and that, how do I pay the interpreter, complaints about invoicing, stuff like that. And then number three, probably, I would say the second most important aspect of our program is the education, alas. I want to say that when I started this program, or when the court started this program, in 2004, actually when we started testing, there was actually no, um, services for training interpreters in the state of Pennsylvania. Since our program started, we have been able to develop a number of relationships with community colleges, and universities, and professional organizations to start offering training opportunities, uh, to the point where we now have, on a regular basis, different types of trainings going on throughout the state. Not only put together or presented by us, as a program, but also by professional organizations in the state, and a couple of colleges and universities that have developed training programs for interpreters.

AD:                         And that probably also is contributing to the higher passing rate of your candidates, possibly. And I wanted to get to that point because I think obviously we have to all understand, and the people who are listening to us that want to become interpreters, is that definitely, being bilingual and having the correct level is important. But training, educating yourself, you know, it’s really the key to success, and that just jumping in with two feet and, and passing even if you were able to do it, that’s not something that happens very often. That’s why most interpreters are not successful when they take the test because they assume, hey, I’m bilingual. And as you know, I like to say, well I have, you know, a driver’s license, but that doesn’t make me Dale Earnhardt Jr., that even though I know how to drive and I’ve been driving for 30 years, I don’t know how to drive a race car. So what else? What advice that you would give to anybody who is starting in this business? Is good business to be in? Bad business to be in? You like it. Why do you like it?

OA:                        I think it’s an excellent field to be in. Ever since I started in this field myself, the opportunities for interpreting, not only as legal interpreter, but in many other fields of interpreting like medical interpreting, community interpreting, even conference interpreting, have skyrocketed. I think you probably know that the interpreting profession is among the top 10 professions, identified by the Department of Labor in the United States, uh, with, you know, as having one of the best growing potentials. So it’s definitely a good field to be in. Um, it’s growing because the diversity in the country continues to grow, and gradually, we’re making inroads into the different areas where interpreting is being used, and making people understand that, you know, people have to be prepared, that this is like any other profession. So in that in that sense, you know, I think the field is wide open for advancement and anyone that has the necessary qualifications, and is willing to put the time to do the proper training and be qualified in one of the areas of interpreting, is gonna have a good career path ahead of them.

AD:                         Yeah. And look at you, you’re now in your 15th year as the director of the program?

OA:                        Well, actually 14th. I’m now at a point where I’m, you know, I was an interpreter for 14 years, and now I’ve been a court administrator for 14 years, so I’m exactly 50/50.

AD:                         So you’re a teenager in the field. well, Osvaldo, it’s been a little over a half an hour and I know we had committed half an hour. So I really wanted to thank you for your generosity with your time and, and, uh, you giving us a little bit of an insight into Pennsylvania, and I know that if people have more questions they can go to your website. And where do they go? Pennsylvania courts?

OA:                        They go to PACourts.us and then look for interpreter certification in the bar, right under the header.

AD:                         Okay. Well thank you very much again for your time. We hope to see you soon in the future, and maybe we’ll have another conversation with you and you will continue to share with us what’s going on with Pennsylvania, so thanks again.

OA:                        Sure, no problem, Agustin. Thank you for having me.

AD:                         Okay, bye. Bye.


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