Bethany Korp-Edwards

by on Friday, August 26, 2016

So You Want to Be the Favorite Freelancer

I’ve been working as a staff interpreter for a long time in various jurisdictions, so I’ve hired freelance interpreters (of languages from Achi to Zuni) hundreds of times—probably thousands. And let’s face it: every court has its favorites. For any language for which a court has multiple options, certain freelancers (or agencies, but that’s another subject) will be the go-to when there’s a big assignment, or a last-minute one, or a vacation to be covered. Well-meaning administrative offices try to encourage or enforce a fair rotation, but there will always be someone who has an extra edge.

A question asked by prospective and working freelance interpreters alike is often: how can I get more work? Or the flip side: is there really enough work for me? So here’s the answer: There may not be enough work for everyone, but there will always be enough work for those who go the extra mile to make working with them a pleasure. So how do you become one of those people? Let’s see: Read the rest of this entry »


by on Friday, August 19, 2016

What Not to Wear–and Why

This article by Kathleen Shelly was first published on April 13, 2012. It remains relevant today. Please enjoy and send your comments to or post it to our Facebook page.

No matter how high-minded we are, or pretend to be, I think all of us have a guilty secret when it comes to popular TV shows. For some it might be the latest crazy reality show or the hottest telenovela. For me it’s a show called “What Not to Wear.” I get a real kick out of the way the gorgeous experts take some cluelessly frumpy or flashy female and turn her into a confident, professional-looking woman. Love it.

So how does this relate to you? You probably dress just fine for the courtroom. But why is it so important? You might say “I want to look professional” or “I want to be taken seriously.” Yes, there is that, but there are some other important reasons as well.

When the subject of dressing for court comes up, the advice I often hear is “dress like an attorney.” Well, yes and no. I know a number of attorneys whose style of dress I wouldn’t want to emulate in a thousand years. There’s the sloppy old public defender who’s been around for as long as anyone can remember with the frayed corduroy jacket, the wrinkled khakis and the stained tie. Then there’s the Allie McBeal lookalike with the tight suit complete with mini-skirt and stiletto heels. One thing the interpreter has to remember is that the attorney has no reason to be unobtrusive; on the contrary, many high-profile attorneys make it part of their business to be as noticeable as possible. The interpreter? Not so much.

Part of our job is to be unobtrusive, and that includes our attire. Does that mean we must wear the same old black jacket and pants or skirt every day? Well, not that either. During the course of my 14-odd years (sometimes very odd indeed) as a court interpreter, I have seen almost every possible version of interpreter attire in the courts, from blue jeans and flannel shirt at traffic arraignments to chiffon ruffles and oodles of jewelry at child custody hearings. These interpreters will say that they need to be comfortable, or that that’s their “look.” They have their own way of dressing and want to be seen as individuals. Unfortunately, the courtroom interpreter simply cannot afford the luxury of being seen as different or special in this particular way. Strangely enough, I have observed that the more noticeable the clothes are, the less competent the interpreter seems to be. Interpreters who insist on their own particular way of dressing just don’t seem to hang around very long.

As with anything that contributes to your success as a self-employed free-lancer, clothes are an investment, albeit not one you can deduct from your taxes. They must fit well and look good. They must be clean and neat. When you’re just starting out you may not have a decent professional wardrobe; it’s not something you acquire overnight. Watch for sales. Save up your money for that special confidence-boosting jacket. Find a really good tailor who understands your body type.

Now, I’m not a person who is very good at matching up tops and pants and skirts and jackets. Having grown up wearing school uniforms, I just never got the hang of it. So what I have done over the years is to look out for sales and buy very good quality women’s suits at half the original price or even less. I have over 20 pant and skirt suits which I rotate and match up with different tops. I feel confident in what I wear. I have put a good deal of time and effort into looking just right, and I find it empowering. I wear low heels, because the profession often calls for a lot of standing or walking quickly from place to place.  Heck, sometimes we even have to run! 

Guys, of course, have it a lot easier. The suit and tie are, of course, de rigueur. But the suit must fit, the tie must be tasteful, the pants must break just right above the dress shoe. No Hush Puppies or Doc Martens, please.

And speaking of shoes, make sure yours are in good repair. I’ll never forget the time the heel fell off one of the well-worn (alright, decrepit) dress sandals I had worn that day; a resourceful bailiff glued it back on seconds before the judge got on the bench. I won’t make that mistake again.

So, this is what it boils down to. It doesn’t matter if you’re interpreting in a tiny podunk court in the boonies for a case involving a farm truck and a bicycle or a federal case involving international drug trafficking. You’ve got to dress the part. As always, you are our representative, you are the face of the interpreter community. Here’s looking at you, kid.

More about courtroom attire:




by on Friday, August 12, 2016

What Would You Have Done?

Do you have an experience to share? Please write to the  Editor. Our work is confidential and all identifiable details are removed from the stories shared with us to maintain compliance with our Code of Ethics. This space is for us to help each other overcome or prepare for unexpected situations.

And we would like to thank our colleagues who have shared their experiences with us.

Editor’s Note: The comments section is not working. We are working to correct the issue. In the meantime, please comment on our Facebook page or Twitter or send your comment to the Editor.

Has this -or something similar- ever happened to you?

Our colleague arrives in the  court for her assignment just to discover that the deponent was a native English speaker and did not need her services. The request for a Spanish interpreter was made because of the deponent’s Hispanic last name. No fact checking took place.

Instead of releasing our colleague, the Interpreter Administrator decided to use her services in another capacity: assist the English speaking defendant fill out dozens of pages of forms – which happened to be in English, by the way.

The interpreter explained that it was unnecessary and not part of her job at which point the Interpreter Administrator called the hiring agency to complain. Instead of supporting our colleague, the agency threatened to withhold pay if she did not comply.

photo1 1- Assist the English speaker to make sure you get paid.
2- File a complaint with the proper office in the courthouse.
3- Tell the agency the problem is between them and the Interpreter Administrator, not you, and leave.
4- …


Jennifer De La Cruz

by on Friday, August 5, 2016

Got assumptions? Proceed with caution!

This post was originally published on August 2, 2013. It remains just as relevant. Enjoy.


We humans are biologically programmed to walk into a situation and immediately start to assess it, right? In fact, what we see around us will often dictate how we conduct ourselves – a true testament to our nature as social beings.

As interpreters, this pre-set mechanism can cause a reaction in us that can backfire and really be embarrassing, uncomfortable or even downright unprofessional. In my years as a court and a medical interpreter, I’ve learned to proceed with caution, and have a few anecdotes that I hope will serve as reminders in this battle against our instinctive urge to make assumptions.

Caution: The unexpected cometh!

I was once interpreting in a hospital clinic, and was called to assist an intern. We began with friendly greetings because we hadn’t worked together in a while, and it was a very pleasant moment right outside the exam room door. Our smiles, friendly tones and the skip in our step continued as we entered to see the patient.  Unbeknownst to me, the intern had been tasked with confirming this woman’s diagnosis of cancer and she was about to begin moaning and weeping uncontrollably at the most terrifying news of her life. It was an instant mood change just moments after walking in.

Caution: Lovebirds in a nosedive!

In family court, couples sitting together waiting for their cases to be called are often a soon-to-be-divorced spouse and his or her new love interest. There are also situations where a pair has started a divorce case, only to realize that they were still willing to drop the matter and give the marriage another go. Either way, people who sit together are seen as amicable, right? (you probably see this coming…) So, I remember having to read a particular “couple” some mediation reports prior to their hearing. They had been sitting together when I pulled them from the courtroom, and sat together when I read them the report.  They were very sweet, smiling a lot, and I thought, hmm, maybe this will be another surprise request for dismissal of the case. Quite the contrary happened, and the hearing ended up being unusually contentious – they argued over everything, and there was certainly not going to be any reconciliation that day! To this day, I don’t know how they could do such an about-face with each other, but I was sure glad that I didn’t make the small talk I was tempted to engage in about how love conquers all, etc. Beyond the ethical dilemma, it would have turned into such a messy pre-hearing conversation. Awkward!

Caution: Hidden heartbreak nearby!

One of the tasks I am charged with as a staff interpreter is getting the limited-English crowd organized in our misdemeanor courts before the doors open. This requires me to make announcements in a busy hallway. I’ve learned it’s best to make a little speech in English first so that the court customers don’t wonder why only a certain group is being addressed. I guess I’m a pretty cheerful person in the morning (thank you, Starbucks) and so on more than one occasion I’ve had to hold back the urge to be extra chatty as people greet me. You would think that this is not a big deal, right? I mean, gosh, what we deal with in misdemeanor court can be pretty run-of-the-mill and a little levity might be a nice way to start the day. (here it comes…) Unfortunately, not all members of these morning crowds are there for those average cases. I remember a particular family that came to court many times after a terrible tragedy –the death of the defendant’s own child after a child seat violation in an accident. Here again is reason to resist the temptation to be overly friendly. Just imagine being in the habit of trying to make everybody smile and feel relaxed – meaning well, of course – and then having to interpret in a very painful situation some of those same people. I’ve found it safer to have a demeanor that stays a bit more neutral, remembering that a routine morning for me could be somebody else’s worst morning ever.

Safety in abiding by our ethics

The ethical standards we practice give us guidance which, when followed, help prevent us from walking head-on into uncomfortable situations. After all, not only are we tasked with being the voice of another, it is imperative that those we serve are not distracted by our behavior. Notice that my anecdotes were all based on good faith, positive conduct, and yet the situation simply did not call for certain attitudes to be present – whether shown or not – in the interpreter.

Something I’ve noticed is that as professionals mature, both as a function of age and experience, it’s easier to be wise in our attitudes and conduct. However, because the nature of our role is helpful and can be seen as positive, the lines between neutral, safe conduct and entering into the danger zone can become blurred. As interpreters in the judiciary, we are expected to be ready to adjust and adapt to others, rather than make it our task to guide those we help to some happier place. Often, something just slightly more than a Mona Lisa smile has to suffice.

Something else to consider is the dual-role of staff member and interpreter. Might it be that keeping professional distance is easier for interpreters who work as contractors? After all, we may start getting so comfortable in our daily routines and locations that our guard is let down. Caution! We sometimes need that official reminder that we work in a solemn environment, and for the sake of those who may be the exception, and not the rule, we are wise to keep our conduct in check, and to review our ethical duties list every so often.

Oops, I tripped and knocked over the caution sign. Now what?

So, what if we goof up? What if we have opened our mouths and deftly inserted our foot, causing a situation to change direction unexpectedly? For sure, we have to acknowledge whatever we’ve done to those it affects. Once I thought a hearing was over when the judge repeatedly thanked a litigant in an effort to silence him. I started to get up from where we were seated, and the litigant followed suit. Because of me, the guy started getting scolded for attempting to leave the hearing! I immediately indicated to the judge that I had misunderstood that the hearing was over, and apologized that my movement (aka: my assumption) caused difficulty for somebody else. When we take mistakes in stride, and truly feel badly for any time our conduct makes a situation go sour, it makes us stronger as individuals, as interpreters, and as a representative of our profession.

Really, this is all about assumptions, and we all know what those do! We often associate assumptions with the negative, but remember that assumptions even about the positive can lead to situations we do not want to find ourselves in. We assume we know where a conversation is going, what others need to turn that frown upside down, what a contentious couple should look like… just remember the anecdotes: happiness can turn into instant sorrow; a cordial moment can turn into a boxing match; the sunny hello can be followed by talk of tragic regret. The safety zone: no assumptions, a neutral ‘tude, solid application of ethics. We’ve got this!


Additional reading:

The Art of No Assumptions

Distinguishing between Inferences and Assumptions



by on Friday, July 29, 2016

Intervening with the Proper Terminology: How to navigate situations while interpreting

- By Armando Ezquerra Hasbun © 2016

Professional interpreters are aware that the scope of their rendition starts and ends with the source message. Accuracy and completeness are the primary considerations. But what about the standards of practice for intervening?  Our ongoing efforts to elevate our profession and obtain the recognition we desire should also include an interest in adopting and consistently deploying the proper intervention techniques. A suitable set of ready-made phrases to help us carry out our professional duties constitute a key resource as we continue improving and expanding our professional tool box. Observing the protocol and using the proper phraseology for intervening are a mark of distinction and an indicator of accomplished interpreters.

Intervening, you say?  Yes, any time we have to ask for a repetition, we seek clarification or request a much needed break, we are intervening. Anytime we speak in the third person we are intervening. Anytime we say something that is not part of the source message we are interpreting, we are intervening, and we better do it in a manner that has a minimal impact on the exchange where we act as linguistic mediators. Intervening is not interpreting but it is also not interfering either.

What are then the key steps or components of intervening with the proper phraseology?

1) Make a quick and accurate assessment of the situation you believe justifies intervening: The interpreter is the one party who can perceive, anticipate and recognize barriers to interlanguage communication. As we convert messages into the target language, and especially when working as a team, we are also simultaneously carrying out our own quality control. When we detect an error, it’s our duty to assess its significance, the need for correction and the adequate timing for bringing it up.

When we encounter an impediment to interpreting, we should intervene in the hope that it can be eliminated and for future reference, that the record reflects that we were working under adverse conditions. An important skill at this stage, in addition to knowing how to say something, is to know when to remain silent. There are few more embarrassing experiences than attempting to correct something that was not incorrect in the first place.Intervening is not interfering

2) Speak up with the proper phraseology to the individuals with the authority to resolve the situation seeking their permission to engage the limited English subject (LES) in order to do it: 
The proper phraseology consists of a set of phrases that have been prepared in advance, memorized or used consistently enough, which amounts to the same thing, so that they can be easily deployed as needed. Directing them at a presiding judge, attorneys handling a deposition or probation officer during an interview shows that though we intervene, we don’t exercise control over the outcome of the situation. Addressing them in English to request, say, a simple repetition from the LES, instead of addressing her directly in our foreign language, recognizes their authority, since by getting their approval first, they know ahead what we will be asking the LES to do next. This is also a good practice as we reinforce our commitment to transparency.

What are then, the characteristics of proper phraseology?

3) There are three components in a phrase that expresses the desired outcome of our intervention:

A) It is brief: To paraphrase Billie Holliday, “Don’t explain” (too much): Novice interpreters often lose credibility when over explaining an impediment to interpreting, a request they may have, or when challenged, their rationale for having chosen one semantic option over another. A succinct, well-crafted phrase that expresses a need or a concern is better that a long explanation about why a matter is of concern.

B) It is directed to the parties with the power to permit you to implement a solution (if any): This is easily achieved by the use of the modal verb “May” in the final part of a phrase when a request is made “The interpreter requires clarification/repetition, may the interpreter proceed?” “May the interpreter ask the witness to speak up?”

C) It is used consistently across segments, time and settings when it refers to the same issue: An interpreter that comes up with different phrases at different times in response to the same issues comes across as less proficient than a colleague who reliably uses the same phrase for the same situation.

Here are some phrases that are for the most part self-explanatory—and that you may have been using for years—that exemplify some of these principles:

1) “The interpreter requests clarification, may the interpreter proceed?”
2) “The interpreter couldn’t hear the last part of the response; may the interpreter proceed? “
3) “The interpreter has been interpreting for one hour, may the interpreter take 5 minutes?”
4) “May the interpreter verify the meaning of a term in context.”
5) “The interpreter is unable to hear the witness; may the interpreter ask him to speak up?”
6) “The interpreter stands by his/her interpretation.”

What phrase do you find yourself using when you must intervene?


Janis Palma

by on Friday, July 22, 2016

The Robot Interpreter

I recently heard a fellow interpreter on the witness stand for the first time. Of course, I was curious, and as I heard the first rendition come out of her mouth, my reaction was “wow, she’s good!” In fact, for a moment I even thought she was using sim-consec, the technique by which you combine simultaneous and consecutive interpreting modes with the aid of a special pen and notepad. Basically, while you take your notes the pen acts as a recorder, and you can play back from any point in the recorded event, listening through earbuds connected to the pen. One of the manufacturers of this “smartpen” technology, describes it like this: Real ink on real paper is immediately digitized and transcribed in the Livescribe+ app where they can be stored, shared, tagged, and searched, making notes more useful than ever before. The app can also record audio and sync it to notes taken at that time in the form of a pencast.

Well, as it turned out, she was not using sim-consec. She just had a really good memory and was really good at taking notes. I am always happy when I see a good performance by a colleague. But then (of course there’s a “but”!) I started to notice something else. The interpreter was not putting in her rendition any of the intonation from the source speakers’ questions and answers. Everything came out like some sort of drone, in a single tone of voice, reminiscent of a robot in a sci-fi movie from the 50s. She was also sitting back in her chair, a bit lackadaisical, in complete contrast with her flawless renditions sans the intonation. I started to wonder if these two—her posture and her monotone rendition—didn’t go hand in hand, somehow.

The balance between detachment and involvement is a very difficult one. So is the balance between lexical accuracy and pragmatic accuracy. I suspect that if you can find the balance in one, you will find it in the other.

Judiciary interpreters have to be impartial, and detachment from whatever case we are assigned to cover is the best way to maintain that impartiality. On the other hand, I have found that “getting inside the head” of the people for whom I am interpreting is a great mnemonic strategy, because it helps me understand the source language message—not just the words—and recreate that same message in the target language the way that person would have said it, if that person could have communicated in the target language. Of course, I apply that process equally for defense attorneys, prosecutors, criminal defendants, and witnesses.

I do not get “involved” in the sense that I don’t have any interest in the outcome of a proceeding. My only interest is the accuracy of my rendition. However, my lexical accuracy—meaning, my choice of words—cannot be complete if I leave out the pragmatic aspects of an oral message. To put it in simple words: leaving out the intonation that differentiates a request from a demand, a promise from an informative statement, hesitation from self-assurance, and so forth, can change the meaning of the words you choose, even if those words are technically correct.

Emphasis on a single word can change the meaning of a complete utterance. Take, for example, the simple statement: “I went there.” If you place the emphasis on the “I”, it means “I as opposed to someone else.” If you emphasize “went”, it means you took that action (going), as opposed to not taking it (not going). If you emphasize “there”, it means you went to a specific place (which must have been mentioned before in the conversation, for this phrase to make sense) as opposed to any other place.

Leaving out intonation in consecutive interpreting can distort meaning as much as changing registers, or omitting part of the source language message. If your witness does not sound like a robot, neither should you. If your prosecutor is being hostile in his intonation, so should you. If your defense attorney is being kind and sweet during examination, so should you. A good consecutive will include all the words, but a great consecutive will include the words and their proper intonation in the target language.





Former Contributors

by on Friday, July 15, 2016

La Vie en Rose

Ewandro MagalhãesThis post was originally published on May 31, 2013 by Ewandro Magalhães. Besides being an exemplary interpreter, Ewandro is also a gifted writer. He is currently in Switzerland, serving as Head of Conference Management Services at the International Telecommunication Union.

I must have been five or six, but I still remember vividly the day I realized I could read. I was gingerly crossing an intersection in my hometown, my father towing me by the hand, when the hazy neon light in the distance suddenly collapsed into a meaningful string of letters: “c-i-n-e-m-a”.

The feeling was transcendent. A code had been broken. A veil had been lifted. It felt like I had awakened to another physical sense, one I didn’t know existed. All around me words started to come out, shyly and partially at first – RESTAURAN… – then strongly: ABERTO, SIGA, PARE. They seemed to smile in relief, like they had been impatiently waiting to regain their significance after a long, dark night of oblivion.

For a month or so I had sat by my father’s battered Remington, punching keys at random in growing frustration at not being able to stitch even one meaningful word together. I was disappointed that the many lines of letters, spaces and punctuation marks failed to communicate something when I finally whooshed the page out from under the rubbery roll. “Dad, what have I written?”, I would ask in hopeful anticipation. “Nothing, son. Nothing really”, he would reply, with a benevolent smile that made his eyes squint so hard you would wonder whether he’d gone blind for a moment.

My father would then sit by my side and briefly explain concepts like vowels, consonants and, ultimately, syllables. He would stay just as long as necessary to inspire me to try again. “Oh, I got it, I got it!”, I would say impatiently, pushing his hands out of the way to engage in another bout of typing, usually no more effective than the others and just as frustrating. Dad would then retreat until disappointment brought me back and the process could be repeated. My father knew I had to own the experience and so he would push the door ajar just enough to let some light in, never really swinging it open. Yet, through that crack, albeit narrow, there was no limit to what I could see if I ventured close enough. I guess he wanted me to understand that.

In time, letters stuck into syllables that grew into words and then sentences. And before I knew I was standing at that busy intersection in utter amazement. I had pushed the gates with my own hands and stepped into another dimension. It was all magical and exhilarating, of course, but I remember feeling frustrated, too, at being no longer able not to read the neon signs. Despite the sudden empowerment, the child in me resented being robbed of its innocence. Colors and shapes had grown into something else. I had grown too, and now had to make sense of the world and label my own experiences.

Fast forward ten years. I am now in my teens, trying to learn English. Dad and I are sitting on the floor in the living room with Nat King Cole playing softly in the background. The song talks of a monkey flying on the back of a buzzard. The images are fun. The language is slangy. Straighten up and fly right. Cool down, papa, don’t you blow your top. My curiosity is piqued as key words are translated. Another brave new world is slowly unlocked. Seen through the prism of language, reality gains a broader, richer perspective.

I am now on my daily commute to Geneva, many years later, listening to a French song on my iPod. The tune is one I have heard a thousand times. Against the backdrop of the snow-capped Alps, the train whizzes past well-trimmed vineyards on the banks of Lake Leman. The Mont Blanc looms into view and I let my mind wander. I indulge for a second and drift into silent appreciation of this precious moment. I tilt my head back, take a deep breath and soak it all in. As I lie there half-awake, marveling at the scenic ride, the lyrics take meaning for the first time. It strikes me hard.

What was once gibberish now resonates in perfectly meaningful French, in a beautiful love song. Another threshold has been crossed into a warm, welcoming universe of opulent mountains, placid waters and never-ending love. My newly acquired tongue takes me back to my instincts. Through the revolving doors of language I have come full circle. I am again the kid I once was, standing halfway on that pedestrian crossing. Colors morph back into feelings rather than words. I open my eyes with a jolt, look around and see everything anew.

Edith Piaf had been telling me all along: through the lenses of love and bliss, life takes on beautiful rosey hues. I can see clearly now. My innocence is restored. I smile wide and squint my eyes so hard you’d think me blind for a moment. Yet through that crack, albeit narrow, for the first time again in years…  je vois la vie en rose.

Caroline Alex, La Vie en Rose

 by Ewandro Magalhaes



by on Friday, July 8, 2016

Interpreters Are Worthless

-    By Ana Garza G’z © 2016

Ana Garza G’z has been working as a community interpreter and translator in Central California for the past fifteen years. She became court certified a couple of years ago, and like many other freelance language professionals, she divides her time between interpreting assignments and other jobs, mostly part-time teaching. Her love of language was what made her enter the field, but her curiosity about the relationship between language and situation is what keeps her happily at work.

This is her first contribution to The NAJIT Observer, and we look forward to many more.

Would you like to see your name, picture and your article published here? Please send us your contributions for our consideration. Thank you

Ana Garza G'z

It was one of those weeks when everyone hates the interpreter. Weather is bad. Call quality is awful. And tempers are slightly more miserable than the shift.

Of course, everything the interpreter does makes things worse. When she asks clients to speak up over the static, clients comply, after pausing long and sighing longer, the way teenagers do when they roll their eyes. When she says, “say that again slowly,” to LEP customer, who are speaking on the sort of single-bar cell-phone connection that transmits one out of three syllables, LEP customer also comply, bellowing the repetition in the tone most people reserve for the truly stupid. When clients get the wrong answer, they accuse the interpreter of mis-delivering the question, which she actually took great pains to translate with the same amount of ambiguity, and when LEP customer get an answer they don’t like, they accuse her of making up additional information that clouds the issue and confuses the situation, even though she’s only reading from her notes. Then every hour and a half or so, an LEP customer responds to her friendly greeting of “Your Spanish interpreter is on the line to help with the call” by saying, “I asked for someone who speaks Spanish. I don’t want an interpreter. Interpreters are worthless.” But that isn’t as bad as the LEP customer who agrees to work with the “damn interpreter” after all, only to grumble about her to whomever is in the car with him: “They’ll let me know as soon as the damn interpreter finishes talking.” “They must be paying the damn interpreter by the minute.” “Oh, I think the damn interpreter is talking to me. What was that?

The last call of the last shift of the week started in pretty much the same way:

Interpreter with mike

Your Spanish interpreter is on the line to help with the call. How may we help you?

I selected the Spanish option because I wanted to speak to someone in Spanish. I have had negative experiences with interpreters and would rather not work with one.

That’s fine, sir,” the client said pleasantly, “I’d be happy to take your name and number for someone to call you back next week. We have a limited number of Spanish speaking staff, and none are available this evening. I can have someone return you’re call in one to two business days, or I can try to help you now.

After a little more discussion and a few highly detailed reminiscences about incompetent interpreters, the caller went ahead with his question, a complicated matter involving medical insurance for his children.

Under the best of conditions, the call would have been hard work. It was very long, and it was full of service dates, claim numbers, diagnostic codes; proper nouns for providers, medical centers, streets, small towns whose pronunciations borrowed from both languages; and quasi-legal insurance terminology. But with a rough start, poor sound quality, and a week of stored-up interpreter bitterness, it was exhausting. What was especially hard to want to bother about were the little pleasantries that surround requests for repetition and the clever turns of phrase that suggest developing rapport between the caller and the insurance company rep. The only thing that made it tolerable was knowing my shift would probably be over when the call ended.

After about forty-five minutes (way past the end of my shift), the insurance company representative said he would need to transfer us to another department, where the caller would be able to enroll in a different type of coverage, which would give his children the same level of protection they previously enjoyed.

If I can put you on a brief hold, I can get the two of you right over.

So you’ll be transferring the interpreter too?

The question was sharp, and after I delivered it, the insurance company representative hesitated, no doubt remembering the caller’s initial resistance.

Would you like to continue working with the same interpreter,” he asked carefully, “or would you like me to request a new one?

This one.” The answer was equally sharp.

All right.” The insurance company representative went through his closing script before ending with, “I’ll transfer the two of you. Please hold.

The line clicked, and in the dead air between us, the caller mumbled, “At least this one can speak Spanish.

Ugh. RI_interpreter

It was one of the rudest, most grudging compliments I’ve ever gotten, but the week had been so long and so demoralizing that it felt like a pair of wings. Despite my lack of motivation and despite the caller’s unwillingness to work with me, we managed to get the job done. He was able to resolve his issue, relax enough to interact with the insurance company representative in the comfortable way of two people acting without an intermediary, and even trust the interpreter enough to willingly conduct the second part of his encounter with her help, and I was certain that he’d stopped being fully aware of me for much of the call, which was the true compliment for me.

I keep this incident in mind when I’m in the middle of a difficult encounter, tempted to blow through a proceeding or behave unprofessionally for the best or worst reasons. It reminds me that non-English speakers almost always meet me when they’re in a vulnerable position and that I represent a history of encounters I’m not aware of. For that reason, how I do my job—the parts that go beyond accurate rendition—matters. It can make an encounter easier or more difficult, whether the people (not just LEP customers) involved appreciate it or not. By focusing on the message and on my options as a language and cultural expert, I’m able to lose myself in the voices of the people I’m interpreting for, and they’re able to draw on whatever strength they need to get through their moment of crisis. Whether this is actually the case or not, I’ll never know—unless, of course, a mumbled compliment makes me feel I did something right.



by on Friday, July 1, 2016

What Would YOU Have Done?

This is the third installment of our new feature What Would YOU Have Done? in which we bring real situations for our readers to comment on. The idea is for us to help each other overcome or prepare for unexpected situations. Drop us a line.

And if you have an experience to share, please write to the Editor. Our work is confidential and all identifiable details are removed from the stories shared with us to maintain our compliance with our Code of Ethics.

Here is a very interesting conundrum.  Confidentiality is part of the Canon of Ethics, of course, and the following true situation illustrates how interpreters can find themselves in a very difficult and troubling position:

A State Attorney General walked over to the courthouse and into the Office of Court Interpreters.  There she presented a subpoena for one of the staff court interpreters.  She said the interpreter had to testify about a conversation he had interpreted between the victim and the person who later became the defendant.  The conversation took place in a courthouse hallwayNo lawyer was present.

The Office Coordinator informed the interpreter that he had to testify against the defendant before the jury, which he did, honestly telling what he recalled from the conversation.

Note that we did not mention languages. If it had been ASL, would the interpreter have to testify? Do the same parameters apply to spoken languages? Let us know what you think and…

     1. Refuse to testify based on the Code of Ethics and accept the risk of a contempt charge.
     2. Refuse to testify without first consulting your lawyer about your rights and responsibilities.
     3. Testify. A subpoena is a subpoena.
     4. Insist that the two people whose conversation will be revealed give their written consent before you can testify.
     5. …

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Janis Palma

by on Friday, June 24, 2016

A 21st Century Colony in America

I am often asked about Puerto Rico. Explaining our status has never been easy, but recent events have suddenly made everything crystal clear. Today’s blog is not about interpreting or translating per se, but it is about events taking place in Puerto Rico that could have a life-changing impact on interpreters and translators here on the Island.

Back in 1952 the powers that be in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. created a constitution for the Island that everyone thought had put an end to the colonial status derived from the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Estado Libre Asociado [Free Associated State], translated back then as Commonwealth for reasons yet to be explained, was defined by the first article of that constitution:

Section 1. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is hereby constituted. Its political power emanates from the people and shall be exercised in accordance with their will, within the terms of the compact agreed upon between the people of Puerto Rico and the United States of America.

Section 2. The government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico shall be republican in form and its legislative, judicial and executive branches as established by this Constitution shall be equally subordinate to the sovereignty of the people of Puerto Rico.

Notwithstanding, a Supreme Court decision from June 9 of this year tells a very different story. In the case of Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Sánchez Valle et al, (No. 15-108), in which the Court had to consider “whether two prosecuting authorities are different sovereigns for double jeopardy purposes,” Justice Kagan delivered the majority opinion, whereby the Court ruled that “Puerto Rico cannot benefit from the dual-sovereignty doctrine” because “Congress conferred the authority to create the Puerto Rico Constitution, which in turn confers the authority to bring criminal charges. That makes Congress the original source of power for Puerto Rico’s prosecutors— as it is for the Federal Government’s.” (Slip Opinion in 579 U.S. ____ (2016).)

That very same day, June 9, the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. voted to approve a bill known as PROMESA (H.R. 5278.) The acronym stands for Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. PROMESA intends to establish a Financial Oversight and Management Board under Congress’s “power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations for territories,” and

Neither the Governor nor the Legislature may—
(1) exercise any control, supervision, oversight, or review over the Oversight Board or its activities; or
(2) enact, implement, or enforce any statute, resolution, policy, or rule that would impair or defeat the purposes of this Act, as determined by the Oversight Board. (Sec. 108)

Just the day before, on June 8, President Obama had told Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner—a representative of the People of Puerto Rico in Congress with no voting powers—, “there is no Plan B” for H.R. 5278. So, all three branches of government seem to have come to a unified understanding: the Commonwealth is a work of fiction. Whatever happened in 1952 under the name of Estado Libre Asociado is a big mystery today. We, the people of Puerto Rico, are left to wonder what will happen now that we can no longer live in suspended disbelief.

Here are some other ugly truths. Over the course of these 64 years as a commonwealth, Puerto Rico—or rather, the citizens elected to govern the Island—somehow managed to amass a $70-billion debt that the Island’s government cannot pay. At this point, the current administration has already defaulted on its debt and is having to choose which public services to provide and which ones to cut back or cancel altogether. In desperate moves to raise funds by imposing more taxes, the government has managed to make the cost of living untenable, forcing 84,000 Puerto Ricans to leave for the mainland in 2014 alone. On May 2 of this year CNN reported that 230 people on the average leave the island every day. Those of us who cannot leave are being dragged into a downward spiraling economy where the cost of living is 11.6% higher than any other city in the U.S., the unemployment rate is 11.7%, and the murder rate is upwards of 24.4 murders for every 100,000 people.

It is not a pretty picture. I look around and I see a breathtaking tropical paradise and think to myself, “I am so privileged to live here. I should be truly happy.” At the same time I realize that I am living a crucial moment in history that will forever change the social, economic, and political fabric of this island.

The truth is there are only two choices left: statehood or independence. If Puerto Rico becomes an independent nation, there will be no more federal court and no more jobs for interpreters and translators in federal government agencies here on the Island. Conversely, if it becomes a state, work for us will grow exponentially, as the local courts—which conduct their official business in Spanish—will surely have to adopt the English language for everything they do, as will all state government agencies.

I hope with all my heart the future brings something better than what we have right now.