Freelance court interpreters take action (updated)
In most cases, if a journalist makes an error, the consequences are little more than embarrassment and a correction. But court interpreters go to work knowing that their mistakes could send someone an innocent person to jail or set a guilty defendent free.
It’s a high-pressure role, and a group of freelance court interpreters in Ottawa say their specialized translation skills and hard work are not being properly compensated. And as of February 18, they stopped accepting new assignments, and are asking others to do the same, until the province agrees to raise their wage from $25 to $35 an hour. The Court Interpreters Association of Ontario has asked its members to take part in the action as well.
In their absense, some allege that underqualified interpreters are taking their place in the sytem. Ontario has only139 fully accredited and 226 conditionally accredited court interpreters, the latter of which reportedly do not possess the translation skills to handle more serious criminal trials. A couple years ago Ontario’s Attorney General developed a certification exam for interpreters. Of those who took it, 34% failed, 31% got conditional accreditation based on securing more training and education, 20% got full accreditation, and 15% failed to achieve accredited status. All this to say, the job of a court interpreter is not one many people can do well.
Though the roles of freelance journalists and freelance court interpreters differ in many ways, they face many of the same challenges. The demand for highly skilled freelancers in both fields is high: this post notes that Ontario judges are “pirating” translators from one another. The dearth of qualified interpreters extends into the GTA, as well as the Ottawa area. Still, the Ministry of the Attorney General, which hires the freelancers, will not negotiate, claiming that the current wage is fair when compared to what translators are paid by other bodies, such as the federal Immigration and Refugee Board.
Because in any given day a court translator will work only about four or five hours — though those hours can often be gruelling — it means freelancers won’t earn more than $100 or $125. And the number of hours is not guaranteed, either. Because it’s hard to predict how a court case with develop, a freelancer might spend all day at court, but only translate for an hour or two. They are offered something like a kill fee, a minumum of $75 for the day, but that’s not much compensation for a day that could have been spent earning money elsewhere.
Court interpreters belong to unions in some parts of the U.S. and Canada, such as B.C. (where interpreters ear $45 an hour). The Ottawa-area freelancers who have banded together currently do not — though CWA Canada has approached them with an offer to advocate on their behalf. Still, their fight shows a desire to effect change by organizing and taking collective action outside the traditional labour relations sphere, as well as a belief in the strength of solidarity. And that’s something we can get behind.
(Initially published on March 15)
Update, March 22: Metro Ottawa is now reporting that the effects of the interpreters’ work action is being felt in local courts. Lawyers are noting delays in court cases as a result of missing translators, and other are concerned about the quality of the work being done by the less-qualified interpreters who have stepped in. A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General said that they will begin looking for more out-of-area interpreters if necessary, but so far that step hasn’t been taken.