Jennifer De La Cruz



by on Friday, September 23, 2016




The Staff Interpreter: Finding Balance

This post by Jennifer De La Cruz was originally published on May 2, 2014. It remains relevant and we hope you agree.

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Without a doubt, a staffer can face precarious positions on an ethical level. We develop close relationships with those around us, and we become very knowledgeable about the processes in our courts. Such familiarity can lead us to become more likely to act outside our roles as neutral parties to the court process. Our relationships with the public, our employer and other actors in the justice system must be developed with a clear understanding of our dual task of representing the Court as an employee and being the voice of others without taking over their tasks. We must have a balanced approach if we want to be successful on both sides.

Dealing with court users: Interpreter or staff member? I’ve found it best to remember my role in the system at all times. There are certain things I think I can answer as a member of the court staff, but most of the time the answer is simply to guide the court user to another staff member or resource. For example, if somebody asks how they can get a copy of the minutes, my answer would be to tell them where the clerk’s office is; I wouldn’t venture to tell them information such as how much it costs per page or how fast the copies are available – even if I knew that information. If somebody asks what they need to do to talk to a public defender, I might tell them that there will be announcements shortly and to listen up. The truth is, I may know the process, but I recognize it’s not my place to provide such specific instructions. My reasoning is simple: I never want to be faced with, “The interpreter told me to xyz.” Over the years, I’ve found ways to delicately refuse to answer questions outside my role, and they have served me well.

I’m an employee: Does that mean I’m not the boss of me anymore? Well, this is an interesting question. As employees, we are probably expected to follow the same rules, procedures, and guidelines of other non-interpreter positions. This can be quite difficult! The typical scenario is that court interpreters know how to conduct themselves independently with little to no oversight, so having to conform any micro-management tendencies can be extremely frustrating. I believe there are certain aspects of independence I surrender to my employer, including my schedule, my assignment, and who I partner with. I do, however, retain full control over my professional discretion. I also do not lose my place as an expert and an officer of the court. I want to encourage new staff interpreters to remember why they were chosen for the job: expertise in the skill of interpreting. Having this clear helps us remember where we are indeed in control, and where we are not. The truth is, we’re working for a system where our role is unique. As such, we can continue to conduct ourselves with the poise and grace of a top expert; we simply exercise such expertise inside a strict structure.

Our buddies, the attorneys. I have very much enjoyed the relationships I’ve developed with the district attorneys, public defenders, and private attorneys at my court. It would be easy, however, to take these relationships beyond the casual and inadvertently affect how we are perceived. If we’re seen talking up a storm with the district attorney who is prosecuting the defendant we’re about to interpret for, we could be perceived as taking sides. Because our role is to be the neutral voice of those we serve, any perception of partiality on our part can hinder willingness to share information and how it is presented. Relationships with attorneys is to be handled with care and with an eye for how that relationship can change how one or both of us perform our duties.

These few ideas should be sufficient to get an internal dialogue going. Having a home court to go to on a daily basis has its benefits, and ensuring that our roles as employees and as interpreters have clear limits can help prevent misunderstandings and misperceptions at every turn. Our behavior and how we handle our relationships and roles is a continual process of growth within our roles and in how to relate to people. Striking the balance is both the journey and the goal.



Editor



by on Friday, September 16, 2016




When Truth Trumps Fiction

We have another Guest Blogger for you. This time we are graced by Leslie Tabarez who is a State Court Certified Interpreter in Pennsylvania. But we will let her introduce herself.

Leslie TabarezI’m a natural blonde, I have blue-eyes, and I’m a Spanish interpreter. Born in NYC, grew up in Oaxaca, Mexico, now living in PA, I’ve worked as an interpreter for a LONG time. Even at the ATA conference I attended a few years ago, people asked for my language combination and expressed surprise that it wasn’t Russian or some other language spoken by blondes. One night I shocked some Mexican janitors who felt they could freely comment about my anatomy in Spanish since I couldn’t possibly understand them. I wasn’t in the mood for that in the middle of the night, so I let them have it in VERY Mexican Spanish. The friend of the idiot who made the comments laughed so hard he almost wet his pants. People do NOT speak with their hair or eyes, so get with it, people!

Your contributions enrich The NAJIT Observer. Please do keep them coming. Send an email to tno_editor@najit.org and we will get back to you.


- By Leslie Tabarez © 2016

The phone rang. I picked it up. They needed me down at the courthouse to interpret at night court. I NEVER turn down work.

I get a little nervous about driving at night because of all of the deer on the roads, but I accepted the assignment. They asked me to get there as soon as possible and not to worry if I wasn’t dressed professionally, given the time of night.

I dashed off.

As I’m driving near my home, I start thinking that maybe I’m getting too old for all of this craziness and night driving and/or maybe it’s foggy, because I’m having trouble seeing the road clearly. I get to a busier road and the police are behind me. I assume they’re going somewhere, so I pull over, but he is stopping me.

The officer asked for my license, registration and insurance. I gave him my license and registration and told him I’d pull up my insurance on my phone while he went back to his car. He came back and saw my insurance info, then asked me where I was going. I explained that I was going to night court and he asked me why. I told him I’m a Spanish interpreter and got called in. He looked at my blonde hair and blue eyes and asked me if I even spoke Spanish. I assured him that I did. The officer then asked me how I could possibly be going to court dressed so casually. I patiently explained that I was called in, asked to get there as quickly as possible and was specifically told not to worry about what I was wearing.Police car at night

My eyes were irritated from removing my makeup, so he asked me if I was sure I wasn’t either drunk, on drugs, or had been awakened. I assured him I had just left home where I had been watching the Yankees get clobbered by the O’s. He asked me for the phone number of the office I was going to, but I didn’t have it.

He gave me my documents back and just gave me a warning. He said he didn’t believe a word of my story, but that it was the most creative one he had ever heard on duty.

They say truth is stranger than fiction. I told him the truth 100%. At least I don’t have to pay a ticket!

They got a good laugh at night court when I told them what had happened, and reminded me to be more careful when driving at night.



Editor



by on Friday, September 9, 2016




What Would You Have Done?

Do you have an experience to share? Please write to the  tno_editor@najit.org. 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. We would like to thank our colleagues who have shared their experiences with us.

NOTE: Please use the above link also to send your comments.


The Judge ordered the interpreter to go assist the Public Defender in presenting an offer to the Defendant. The offer included dropping one of the charges.

The three, Public Defender, interpreter and defendant were sitting in the interview room when the PD’s phone rang. He took the call, and walked a short distance. During that brief moment, the defendant says to the interpreter in a low tone, “Don’t tell anyone, not even my attorney…” and admitted to being one of the members of the gang that had committed the robberies and that he had some cash stashed away at home. By the time the interpreter finished saying “You shouldn’t be talking to me” the deed had been done. The attorney turns around and asks “What were you two talking about in [fill in the language]?” The interpreter found himself in a very uncomfortable spot.

photo1

1- Risk the Defendant’s wrath and spill the beans
2- Lie and invent something
3- Say nothing at the moment and inform the judge and PD at the same time
4- …



Bethany Korp-Edwards



by on Friday, September 2, 2016




How Not to Ask for Repetitions

Dear Readers, we are in the process of changing our platform and that has had an unexpected impact on our comments feature. We love to hear from you, therefore you are invited to make yourself heard via email to tno_editor@najit.org or NAJIT’s Facebook group.


After I wrote that, I realized that “how not to ask for repetitions” could be taken two ways, so I’d like to address both of them.

Part I: How Not to Need Repetitions.

  1. 1. Practice your active listening skills.
  2. 2. Train yourself to understand different accents (in both your working languages).
  3. 3. Buy sound-enhancing equipment for yourself, so you can hear better.
  4. 4. Understand the law, case law, and court processes so you can make a good educated guess at something you aren’t sure if you heard or not. (For example, memorizing possible sentences associated with certain crimes.)
  5. 5. Learn to talk faster. I suggest tongue twisters and shadowing the news.
  6. 6. Work on the Stare of Death you can give the chatterbox who’s standing behind you (not a party to the case).
  7. 7. Practice gestures and body language that will help you control the flow of witness testimony so you don’t forget long segments …
  8. 8. … but also strengthen your short-term memory and note-taking skills so you can remember longer segments. Read the rest of this entry »


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 »



Kathleen



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 tno_editor@najit.org 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:

http://www.law.ua.edu/pubs/jlp/files/issues_files/vol12/vol12art13.pdf

http://old.post-gazette.com/pg/09151/973982-455.stm

http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2010/04/12/so-what-exactly-should-female-attorneys-wear/

 

 



Editor



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

 



ArmandoEH



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.