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Official statement in reply to NZ Herald article

30 Apr 2021

Statement by the New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters in response to the article titled “Court interpreter costs soar amid threats to hobble thousands of cases” by Lane Nichols, published in the New Zealand on 27 April 2021: NZ Herald Article

Sent to the editor and the journalist.

In an article peppered with highly emotive terms like ‘gravy train’, ‘stunned’, ‘aghast’ and ‘creamed’, Lane Nichols attempts to suggest the fees that court interpreters in New Zealand receive are too high for the services they provide, supposedly costing tax payers too much money. Nichols mentions examples of interpreting bills: $1,700 for an interpreter for a one-day hearing in Kaikohe and $42,077 for four Mandarin/Cantonese interpreters at a three-week High Court criminal trial in Auckland in 2019, including $2,278 for mileage, parking and ferry expenses.

Let us take a closer look at these figures. Kaikohe: There may not have been interpreters available within driving distance to Kaikohe on that day. A flight from Wellington to Kerikeri costs about $224 one-way and the interpreter would not arrive in Kaikohe in time for the hearing on the same morning or be able to return to Wellington on the same day after the hearing so would require two nights’ accommodation, travel to and from Kerikeri and an allowance. This means that the actual interpreter’s fee is about half of the amount stated. And, the interpreter would not be able to take on other work on the two days that they are travelling which also needs to be taken into account.

The article cited $42,077 for four Mandarin/Cantonese interpreters for a three-week High Court criminal trial. This is a trial at the High Court for which only the best and most experienced interpreters should be used. Interpreting, especially simultaneous interpreting, is a cognitively highly demanding occupation and needs to be done in pairs as one interpreter should not interpret for more than 30 minutes in order to maintain the highest level of accuracy and quality. For this case, it means that the High Court needs two Mandarin and two Cantonese interpreters. $42,077 for 21 days of work means the total for the four interpreters was $2,004 per day, $501 each interpreter per day. A standard working day is 8 hours, so the hourly rate each interpreter received would have been $62.63. And if $2,278 of the total bill were for mileage, parking and ferry expenses, the hourly rate is even lower.

Furthermore, a three-week trial requires a lot of preparation for the interpreter, including researching terminology, learning vocabulary, familiarising themselves with the case, and more. Unlike lawyers, preparation time for interpreters is unpaid and can take several days, meaning the effective hourly rate for this assignment is even lower.

I am pleased to hear that quoted officials in the article ‘concede interpreter’s mandated pay rates haven’t been updated in 25 years and are “well out of market expectations”’. These mandated rates from the Witnesses and Interpreters Fees Regulations 1974 are ‘[…] $25 for each hour or part of an hour: provided that the fee in respect of any day shall be not less than $75 nor more than $175.’ These rates might have been sufficient in 1974, but they do not cover living costs in 2021.

The article also mentions that a fee increase for interpreters might ‘cause discontent among legal aid lawyers, who receive between $88 and $159 per hour’. Professional interpreters generally have a university degree (which, apart from rare exceptions, is a requirement for becoming an NZSTI member), have years of experience and are highly qualified professionals. To dispel a common myth, knowing two languages alone does not qualify a person to be either an interpreter or a translator. In addition, the vast majority of interpreters in New Zealand work as contractors. This means their hourly rate needs to cover sick days, holiday pay, work equipment, office space, etc. There is no reason why a highly trained, professional interpreter, who provides a quality service and without whom a trial where one of the participants either does not speak English or is deaf or hard of hearing could not go ahead, should not be paid fairly, as are the other professionals who work in a New Zealand court.

The article also touches on the role of Language Service Providers (LSPs), who have interpreters in their databases and act as intermediaries between the courts and the interpreters. These LSPs generally command higher rates than if an interpreter was contracted directly, but only a portion of those rates goes to the interpreter. Interpreters are not employed by LSPs but work for them as contractors. LSPs might have their place for less common languages and where courts do not want to organize interpreters themselves, but the resulting higher rates do not mean that the interpreters demand or receive a higher rate for their work.

Carl Crafar, Chief Operating Officer, Operations & Service Delivery, is quoted in the article as saying that ‘it is critical that the ministry provides interpreters where required’ and that ‘interpreters provided vital services for nearly 10,000 hearings a year in more than 150 languages. It is encouraging to hear that the Ministry of Justice, for which NZSTI has provided training in the past on how to work with interpreters, knows the value of skilled interpreters.

Court interpreters are trained and qualified professionals like all other highly skilled professionals working in a court setting. Without court interpreters, many legal proceedings in New Zealand could not take place, nor should they. Everyone in New Zealand has the right to be heard and understood. The rates for those enabling the communication in a court setting should not be based on rates set 25 years ago. Professional interpreters and translators are entitled to receive a fair rate for their services and should not be subject to the misinformation and disrepute spread by the above-mentioned article.

Isabelle Poff-Pencole
New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters (NZSTI)

30 April 2021


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