Subject To Interpretation: Robert Joe Lee Interview

Hello Interpreters,

Today’s Subject to Interpretation podcast is between Agustin De La Mora and Robert Joe Lee, who helped form the Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification.

Here is the transcription of the podcast, we hope you enjoy.




AD:         Well welcome everyone, welcome to Subject to Interpretation, our podcast from de la Mora Interpreter Training. We are super honored; every time we seem to out-do ourselves with our guests. Today we are honored and have the pleasure to have with us, my very good friend Robert Joe Lee, who I consider to be one of the pillars of Court Interpretation in the country and has been around for a long time. I know that some people call him the “Grandfather” of this project; I don’t because he is very young. But I will let Robert Joe tell us about himself. Tell us, Robert Joe, welcome first of all, and good morning.

RJL:        Good morning, good to be here.

AD:         So, Robert Joe, tell us a little bit about how did you get involved in this crazy business of interpretation in the courts or interpretation in general.

RJL:        Well when I was a sophomore in high school my parents made me take Spanish. I didn’t want to do it, but it’s the best thing they ever did for me, and that was way back in 1964. And after that, I found myself on a mission trip to Central America, and so my disdain for having to learn a language turned into a love affair that has lasted the rest of my life. By the time I was in graduate school, in fact, my first job out of college was working as a bilingual secretary, which I did for about a year and a half, and that involved not so much translating itself but coordinating a variety of activities for radio ministry in Mexico. But that gave me an introduction to the languages, and to cultures, and to interpretation and translation, even though I never did interpret. But then I went to a seminary in New Jersey, and while there I worked as a prison Chaplin with Spanish speaking inmates, helping lead services in state prisons in New Jersey, which I did for three years and while I got to know the inmates better and better, and actually accompany a few of them on visits to their homes and families. After all those years of working with them, it came clear to me that one of the main concerns that they have articulated time and time again, when they went to court, they didn’t understand what was going on. Either there was no interpreter or they had to bring their own interpreter which was a relative, or the employee of the court that was “interpreting”, loosely defined. And as a seminary student in 1974 or so, I went to the administrative office of the courts and met with a representative of the judiciary and told them that they had an issue that they might not be aware of, and which was needing to improve the quality of court interpreting in the courts. And they sort of patted me on the back, ‘the little nice seminary boy, you’re a good liberal person, we got it taken care of, don’t worry about it’. Well, that was about 1974, and then I was so engaged with what was happening with Hispanic inmates that I decided to do a master’s degree in Criminal Specialist. So, after I finished that, I knew I wanted to work in some aspect of criminal rights for Latinos. And I landed a job as a research associate with the judiciary. And a couple years after that, an opportunity fell in my lap, which was pretty remarkable. The administrative director of the courts and the chief justice of the supreme court, had received a letter from a person alleging widespread efficiencies in the delivery of interpreting services in the states’ courts. That letter was from a PHD in Spanish, who is also a lawyer, who is also head of the legal services program at Makler State College and had been involved in some sort of bilingual paralegal. So, they asked me what I would recommend and I said “Oh, there should be a certification tests for interpreters,” and his next words were “Well how about you be the staff person for that.” So, in a period of less than 10 years, I went from being an outsider trying to advocate to the judiciary that they needed to make some changes, to being an insider and being asked to manage a program designed to do a major research project to find out what the needs and issues were and submit recommendations to the New Jersey Supreme Court. The rest is history.

AD:         Sorry to interrupt you, but I think this is very crucial. So, you basically started a program that officially had to do with court interpretation, whereas opposed, because there were services for court interpretation, there was just not an organized program, did I understand you correctly?

RJL:        Well there was no program per say. The administrative office of the courts had no programs or policies whatsoever. At that time the New Jersey judiciary was decentralized and what we call the state level courts were all county funded and county operations. So, there were 21 counties doing things however they wanted to do with some supervision and coordination from Cranton. But there was nothing in that area in respect to interpreting.

AD:         Once you started this program, didn’t you then have a lot to do with the creation or laying the foundation for what became the consortium for state court interpreters?

RJL:        Yes, what actually happened in terms of the history is that our unit was found in December of 1986 and consisted of myself, a sign language interpreter, and a bilingual support person. The first task I was trying to do to get policy in place, because I found that if you don’t have a policy about anything, you have no leg to stand on when you go talk to judges who manage the county courts. And so, we wanted to get a code of conduct in place, we also wanted to establish testing, which there was none of at the time. Other than the department of civil service, which had a wrinky dink bilingual test.  So, it took a couple years because there was legislation that had been introduced to create a court interpreter act, but it never passed. And I kept going to the administrative director of the courts to tell them “Well we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to have quality control.” So finally, on October of 1987, a directive was issued by the administrative director, requiring people who wanted to be staff interpreters, to be approved by the ALC. So that gave birth to our testing program when there were very few other jurisdictions that had any other type of testing at the time. And we basically tried to model our feeble efforts after the federal exam to some degree, but when that directive was issued and punctuated in 1987. In 1986 we were tinkering with some testing models but obviously learning the hard way.

AD:         Did you guys have access to the federal exam?

RJL:        Well I communicated with Jack Lee who was the manager of the program at the time, and he recommended that we use the federal certification test (FCICE) as our state test, but for a number of reasons we decided that just wasn’t feasible. He was willing to work with us, but for lots of reasons that didn’t work out. So, we wrote our own tests. And we actually involved Rosanne Gonzalez and three other people who had been involved in the design of the federal test, to do a validation study of our model, and that led to a few minor changes in the test. And in 1987, that’s when that directive was, I apologize, not 86’ but 87’, we started testing people who were applying to be court interpreters. And after that part on, we had a standard. What happened was someone staged one to do some testing, word got out that New Jersey had a test and I tried to be a very collaborative type of guy. So, when someone asked me if they could use my – New Jersey’s – test, I would say sure, but before you do that, we’re going to require you to go to a seminar so you know what you’re getting into. And that included one or two counties from Florida. That actually included a federal district court, and I think another jurisdiction in Colorado. And some others inquired but never followed through. So, when Bill Hewitt got the grant, they asked him for a nationwide study of access to courts from English to minorities when he was at the national center for state courts. I wound up being on the advisory board on that project. And that project, as Bill worked on it for three years, resulted in the idea of the birth of consortium where resources of test development and test administration would be shared. And so, New Jersey was part of the original core of states that helped form the consortium in 1995.

AD:         Wow, that has been a long time, but to this day I think this model, through the years and modifications, stands as the states’ sharing resources for testing and certifications of interpreters across the nation. Which is really amazing because if it was 1995, that would be 23 years since the inception of that idea.

RJL: And we started in 1987, and what we came up with and contributed to the field was, we started with Spanish, but not long after that we had Haitian-Creole and Portuguese. And before the consortium was even formed, we also added three varieties of Arabic, French, Polish, Russian, Mandarin, and six other languages as well. So, we were involved in expanding that model before the consortium was formed.

AD:         That’s amazing, and let me ask you, Robert Joe, did you find a lot of resistance because of misconceptions to what an interpreter is versus being bilingual. What do you think was your biggest challenge to sell this idea?

RJL:     (Laughs) Where do I start? Well, there’s several different pieces of resistance, one of them is from the courts themselves. Any big bureaucracy is hard to change. People who are in a bureaucracy for a long time develop habits. Things become easier because doing they’re things a habitual way. When you introduce something new, regardless of whether it’s the courts or some other entity, there’s always resistance to change per say. So that’s just a general comment. The second one is that there was even resistance from groups that you would think to be your ally. I’ll never forget testifying before the state legislature on behalf of the ALC in support of a court interpreter act, and a senator from North Jersey asked me “let me get this right, have the judges complained about this?” I said “A few but not very much.” She said “What about the BAR? Is there a groundswell of anxiety and complaints from the bar about inadequate interpreting services?” I said “Not very much.” She said “What about the community? Is the Hispanic community rising up in arms to clamor for change in court interpreting services?” I said “Not much, a little bit but not a lot.” She said “So let me get this straight, the judges don’t think there’s a problem, the BAR doesn’t think there’s a problem, and the Hispanics don’t think there’s a problem? So, the people who think there’s a problem are the administrative officers of the courts, and all they want to do is cost the taxpayers’ more money.” So, at that same hearing, the Hispanic BAR Association took a position opposed to the Court Interpreter Act.

AD:         No kidding, I did not know that. And what was their reasoning? Do you remember?

RJL:         (Chuckles) I’d rather not get into that. I’ll tell you off the record sometime.

AD:         Okay, well it seems to be a misconception all around that if there’s not a complaint, there’s nothing bad happening around. I know our friend Patricia Mikkelson always says that’s unheard-of injustice because who’s there to complain if people are not understanding of what’s going on.

RJL:        Correct, absolutely. And I think the last piece resistance is that no one seemed to argue or resist in the criminal court. Everybody knew that there were constitutional rights for criminal defendants, and when you have a witness that needs to testify, you want to make sure you have an accurate interpretation on the record. But the biggest resistance in the courts was in the civil courts, because the argument was that these people don’t have the same constitutional rights as criminal defendants, and these are people who choose to go to court. And there’s always a monetary award that ‘Why should we pay for people who are making money off the legal process?’ So that was the resistance, and it took a long time for the concept of equal access to permeate and overcome that.

AD:         And I think you hit the nail on the head when you said access, because I think there’s a lot of people who think this is some kind of language right, you know, ‘Why do they have more rights because they don’t speak the language’, and I don’t think that it’s clear to many people outside of what we do, that what we, interpreters provide is access, not a privilege or advantage for not speaking the language.

RJL:        Yeah, and I think the flipside of that is just a widespread ignorance about language per say, and languages and what interpreting and translating entail, because when I started, the perception was, if you speak Spanish, therefore you’re an interpreter or a translator. I know people who are secondary for judges, who became staff interpreters because they were Hispanic. And they did not meet any professional standards, and the judges don’t know. I mean they weren’t malicious, they were just ignorant.

AD:         Right, and do you think that there’s a misconception also on the part of the bilingual people that they themselves think ‘Oh I’m bilingual, I can do this job.’?

RJL:        Well I think what might have been the Hispanic BAR’s problem was, they might have been bilingual but they didn’t really understand what an interpreter does in court and what the technical skills are that are involved. And some of the worst resistance we’ve gotten is from bilingual attorneys who are themselves Latinos.

AD:         Right, and I remember a situation in one state that a bilingual attorney said ‘Well I didn’t pass the test, and I’m an attorney so if I can’t pass it then nobody can.’

RJL:        Well we’ve had tons of people who passed the test who thought they would pass it the first time. That’s just PhDs’ and Spanish people who have negotiated multimillion dollar contracts all over Latin America, and of course the Hispanic attorney.

AD:         Right, and it’s interesting because the director of the program at that time told him “Well I have the roster here and I have 196 people who have in fact passed the test. So, this story about if I can’t pass it, nobody can, it’s… and again I think you’re right, its not malicious, it’s just lack of information. And that’s why we want to share, so first of all, two things that I’m really interested in asking you because you are really the expert in the field of testing. You know there’s a lot of rumors out there about the test being very difficult or impossible to pass. In your opinion, and being that you’ve done this for a long time, is the test A: fair, and B: does it really test what it should in order to ascertain that the person is possibly an interpreter that could be working in courts?

RJL:        Well I’m so glad you asked that question. I go to Rutgers University to speak to their T and I students every year, and I ask them when I start my presentation “What have you heard about the test?” and they say “Well its hard, almost impossible to pass.” And I said “Well, in your experience, you’re now in college and you’ve taken lots of tests, when you’ve done poorly on a test, what was usually the reason for that?” and they said “Uhhh, we didn’t study or we weren’t prepared.” I said “Exactly.” So, to ask the question whether the test is hard or not is the wrong question. The question is whether it’s fair and reliable and measures what it’s supposed to measure. So, I said anyone who is properly prepared for court interpretation will think the test is insultingly easy. Anyone who doesn’t is not adequately prepared for the test. So, I know that there’s this widespread belief and perception that the test is impossible, unfair, out to get people, that there’s a Mexican person rating the test taken by a Puerto Rican person and it’s not fair because they don’t speak the same Spanish, et cetera. But we have been working since the federal test, it was formed and started in 1980, to make sure that any test that we administer is fair and valid and measures what it tends to measure. And we have done a lot of things to kind of explore that, some people have done psychometric analyses which is the sub field of psychology that measures testing properties. I haven’t done that myself, but I’ve had a lot of anecdotal evidence from people. For example, a person who has been doing training for interpreters, we in New Jersey used to give candidates who show promise details and statistical feedback about their strengths and weaknesses. And then the trainer would take that statistical feedback and pinpoint what the people needed to work on. And then when they took the test, they would do much better. So, the real issue is whether people are prepared to take the test. And the problem is that historically, there has been an inadequate supply of resources for training interpreters. One of the original debates we had in the birth of the consortium was which was more important: Training or testing? Its two sides of the same issue. One without the other is inadequate. But I will confess, I always took the testing side of that question. Because if you don’t have a standard then people don’t know what they’re having to strive for.

AD:         Of course, and through the years that you’ve been involved, and I always say that you’re theoretically retired, but I think you’re busier than before you were retired, or about as busy. So, you go around, you talk to people, where do you think interpretation is going? Because I’m going to invite you; if you remember any stories. But I have to tell you that I had someone tell me about 10 years ago that “You better start looking for a job, because in 2 or 3 years, machines will be doing your job. What do you think where we are going with this? Are we moving forwards, backwards? And are robots taking over?

RJL:        Well I don’t see any sign that robots are taking over, but I’ve learned not to underestimate the power of human creativity. So, who knows what all the folks who are in machine translation are moving toward? And I still don’t trust it myself. And I know that there’s a lot of modules coming out for interpreting software and the likes. The problem is the work of the court interpreter operates in so many environments at so many levels, that I don’t see human beings being replaced by machines anytime in the near future. Down the road? Who knows? But I don’t see it happening in the new future.

AD:         Yeah, I think I share your feeling there. I think maybe one of these days- because just like you, I tend not to underestimate because many years ago when I was in engineering school, we tried to develop a program for a chess playing machine. It was so cumbersome because of the very weak computing power that they had 30 years ago. And today as we know, it’s been a while now that Big Blue beat Kasparov in a chess match. And I remember 30 years ago when I was studying computers, I thought there’s no way a computer will ever do this. So obviously one of these days, but not any time soon. So, do you think people should continue to get prepared and study and strive to be court interpreters?

RJL:        Absolutely, but I think the two challenges to the profession right now are first, a nationwide struggle for a public sector to remain funded and functional. I mean government in general, not just the courts, but the courts are affected dramatically. And for courts to implement better programs for court interpreting or sustain the existing good programs, is becoming an increasingly challenging endeavor. And the writing on the wall is the tax base for the public sector is eroding, and that poses enormous obstacles even for a well-intentioned court system that wants to do well when the resources are just not there. The second thing is it just seems to me that there’s a huge, very ugly resurgence of nativism in this country that is going to present another type of obstacle for moving forward in this field. These are both independent of what court interpreting is. But they’re at the heart, money, and xenophobia. From within the profession, I think the challenge is that yeah, we’ve come a long way, it’s nice to see a section of ATA healthy, and nice to see NAJIT doing very well. It pains me to see a lot of the conversations that happen on the list serve, people mentioning things they don’t know anything about. And so, I think one of the things that’s a huge challenge for the field is the lack of evidence-based info that helps guide people’s attitudes and thinking. As you know one of my goals as a manager has always been to do research and development because we just don’t know a lot about the profession of court interpreting from a professional academic point of view. And for any profession to mature, it needs a research literature to back it up and to nudge it forward.

AD:         Right, and I really appreciate you saying that and I hope in the future we have a second conversation about this subject because I think what you said is also so important. I hear around the country when I travel in conferences for interpreters, all this misinformation and completely non-evidence based as you said of people pining about the profession, what’s needed, what exams really measure, and what they can do for the profession or not. So, we really need more people like you that can back it up with research and studies and not just say “Oh well ‘chuchito’, told me that Billy told him, that it’s a bad test.”

RJL:        Absolutely.

AD:         I want to thank you very much, Robert Joe, for your time and for participating with us, I really appreciate it. It was a pleasure as always to talk to you and I really want to know if you would be interested because I think this merits more conversations about this topic.

RJL:        Standing invitation, this is a lot of fun for me, you know where my heart is.

AD:         Okay well thank you very much for your time, Robert Joe, and we hope to see you soon in one of these conferences where we happen to meet.

RJL:        Sounds good.

AD:         Okay thanks a lot.

RJL:        Thank you.


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