Janis Palma

by on Friday, June 26, 2015

Borrowing Other Bloggers’ Ideas

         I just read a blog by my dear friend (yes, even if we haven’t seen each other in years!) David Mintz, former NAJIT Chair and webmaster extraordinaire. I so enjoyed reading his irreverent takes on all kinds of different topics that I felt definitely motivated to pick up on at least one of his ideas for this blog, since I can’t seem to be able to convince him to become a regular contributor here. He was talking about books, which led to what you are about to read… with a twist.

            I have always thought that people who talk about their favorite books are really smart people. Talking about books —or paintings, or music— is, in my opinion, a way of letting others know, without saying so, that one has a certain level of intelligence and sophistication.

The truth is I never remember the titles of the books I have read or the names of their authors any more. Oh, I used to… way back when I was in college and my favorite authors were Cortázar, Borges, Neruda, Benedetti, García Márques, Vargas Llosa, and all those wonderful 20th Century Latin American writers. But more recently I have started to read those paperbacks in English that keep me entertained while I sunbathe at the beach or wait in court for a proceeding to start.

I know I owe much of my vocabulary in Spanish to those novels, short stories and poems rich in both highly cultured and popular vernaculars. Now I learn police and street talk from the likes of fictional character P.I. Spenser (no first name) and Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, behind-the-scenes legal strategies from fictional attorneys like Paul Madriani, Dismas Hardy, Stone Barrington, urban girl talk from Stephanie Plum, and many others I honestly can’t remember; these are just a few I was able to look up in my Kindle as I was writing this blog.

Now, let’s not forget what we can learn from television! If you have (or know) a Spanish-speaking child who watches television you may have noticed that child has a greater breadth of vocabulary and uses more verb tenses than most adults around you. That is because they learn it from the shows that are either produced in different Spanish-speaking countries or dubbed into Spanish using a fairly high register.

In my case, I want to learn the lower registers of the English language that I do not have the luxury of learning from live users or informants because I live in a Spanish-speaking country. My favorite shows are Castle (of course!), NCIS (DC and LA), and Law & Order for all the contemporary police talk and street slang. Criminal Minds is a great source of terminology in forensic psychology and criminology but it can get a little gory for my taste sometimes, so if you have never seen this show and want to sample an episode, beware of the bloody scenes.

I used to like CSI  when it first started but I can’t deal with all the Andy Warhol coloring in the Miami and New York versions so I don’t watch it any more. Plus, Nick Stokes is out, so… I have lost another incentive. However, it is still a good show to learn a lot of forensic science terminology. I still have Bones, however, with the exquisite forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan and the fictitious Jeffersonian Institute’s team of scientists, plus I have the quintessential combination of police talk, legalese, and forensic science with Rizzoli & Isles. And just for the heck of it, I also watch Major Crimes every once in a while. Not a lot of terminology there, but I enjoy the way they really push the envelope with their plots and characters.

There may be other good shows out there, but I really don’t have too much time to go exploring so maybe some of you can provide suggestions. I heard someone say that they watched telenovelas (Spanish soap operas) for the regionalisms. If I could get past the clichés I would too. The Brazilian ones seem to be particularly educational when set in a certain historical period, but I have only seen these dubbed into Spanish so maybe our Brazilian friends can share with us their opinions about these.

And, of course, there may be other books that you have found to be a great source of vocabulary or terminology and may want to share with the rest of our blog readers. No need for strictly high-brow culture here. Popular culture is just as important for us judiciary interpreters and legal translators. So share your sources: “enquiring” minds want to know!

Janis Palma

by on Friday, June 12, 2015

On Protocols and Professional Standards

“Respect yourself and others will respect you.”
― Confucius

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines protocol as “a system of rules that explain the correct conduct and procedures to be followed in formal situations.” There were no such rules, standard procedures, or protocols for interpreters in courts of law within the United States prior to the Court Interpreters Act and the federal certification program. During those early stages we were very fortunate to have had interpreters like Sofia Zahler directing the Court Interpreter Services program in the Los Angeles U.S. District Court, with colleagues such as Frank Almeida (USDC Los Angeles), Alexander Raïnof (UCLA), Linda Haughton (USDC El Paso), and Alicia Betsy Edwards (UC Berkeley), to name just a few, whose vast knowledge about interpreting, languages and the law gave us a solid foundation on which to build our professional standards. Their handbooks, glossaries, and other educational materials were received with great enthusiasm by the small community of judiciary interpreters at a time when all of us were so very eager to learn. But perhaps the most important thing back then for those of us getting started in this field was learning to do things right: learning the proper techniques, the correct terminology, the ethical principles that should guide our conduct, as all of us shaped a profession in which we could take pride, and that would command the same level of respect as all the others involved in the highly structured domain of civil and criminal litigation.

The input of many experienced and knowledgeable academicians and practitioners—too many to name them all—over the course of the last three and a half decades provided our profession with the building blocks to arrive at the high levels of competency and skills displayed by professional interpreters in the legal field nowadays. Our current standards and protocols were not arbitrarily designed; they were fashioned with the actual role of the judiciary interpreter in mind.

As our role was defined in more and more detail, so were the performance standards and protocols we should or should not follow. Taking an oath to render everything faithfully in the two languages interpreted, for example, was one of those protocols incorporated at very early stage. Also during those first years a group of interpreters from different U.S. District Courts tried to put together a set of guidelines to be promulgated by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, with the expectation of having a uniform set of criteria that would be applicable to judiciary interpreters all over the United States as to the manner in which they would render their services. It took more than 20 years for this project to bear fruit as the Federal Court Interpreter Orientation Manual and Glossary. (See page 6 for the list of Members of Manual Writing Committee appointed in 1988.)

Soon thereafter, in 1991, the Carolina Academic Press published a book that propelled the entire profession to a completely new level of credibility and respect in academic circles: Fundamentals of Court Interpretation, by Roseann Dueñas-González,   Victoria F. Vázquez, and Holly Mikkelson. The book addressed theoretical and pragmatic aspects of the profession and became a standard reference that further contributed to the establishment of uniform protocols clearly linked to the function of the judiciary interpreter.

There are currently many states that recognize the important role interpreters play within their respective systems of justice, and that have developed standards oftentimes modeled after the NAJIT Professional Code of Ethics, promulgating the best practices for judiciary interpreters. This achievement is the direct result of all the hard work and dedication of those who came before us, making sure all along we had a solid foundation on which to build this profession.

Every single rule and protocol that has been developed to standardize an interpreter’s performance in a judiciary setting is grounded on the constitutional rights of non-English speakers facing criminal prosecution in the U.S. system of justice, be it in a state or a federal court. Every single requirement, as well as every single prohibition, exists to protect the rights of those who cannot speak the language of the courts, so as to afford them equal protection and due process.

Our current standards and protocols, these rules we must all follow, are necessary to maintain a uniform delivery of this highly specialized service. Furthermore, this consistency makes it easier for end-users to know exactly what to expect, and have some objective indicators of a judiciary interpreter’s professionalism. Upholding these standards should be a matter of pride for all members of this profession.

Only to the extent that we respect ourselves as professionals, that we uphold and defend the highest standards for our profession, will we earn the respect of those around us and our rightful place in the community of professionals where we render our services day after day.

Janis Palma

by on Friday, May 29, 2015

Lessons from Atlanta

The NAJIT conference in Atlanta was intellectually stimulating and for some of us—or maybe all—it was also very good for the soul. We laughed, we sang, we danced, we ran into old friends and made new ones. In short, a lot of those present thought it was one of the best NAJIT conferences in a long time. The energy was great and I, for one, came back with a long list of “things-to-do” that will help interpreters everywhere.

The first item on my list is sharing the notes I took during a great panel discussion moderated by Ernest Niño-Murcia (Iowa), with panelists Heidi Cazes (Puerto Rico), Melinda González-Hibner (Texas), Alí Salcedo (Arizona), and Cristina Helmerichs (Texas): Tough Crowd: Interpreting for Bilingual Attorneys and Judges. As life experiences and lessons were being shared, I tried to “distill” the essence of their good advice.

1. Be willing to listen. You may have missed something, and a bilingual judge or attorney could have caught it and be right about it when he or she brings it to your attention. Correct yourself and keep going.

2. Be humble. It goes with #1, but it also goes a bit beyond that. If you make a mistake and get corrected, acknowledge it and learn from it. We do NOT know everything and never will.

3. Be non-confrontational. Many times you will get “corrected” when you are actually right and the person correcting you is wrong. State your position calmly and move on. Do not pick a fight because the one correcting you could be your client and you don’t want to burn that bridge.

4. Do your research (and share it.) There is no better way to state a position that goes against a “correction” made by a bilingual judge or attorney, and to stand by it, than to have done your research so you can quote the source on which you base your position. However, a word of caution about your research: make sure your source is reliable and authoritative. (Saying “I saw it in Facebook” won’t cut it!)

5. Pick your battles. Not every correction made by a bilingual attorney or judge is worth a reply. Consider the venue, the “mistake” that is being pointed out, and all the variables that your experience and common sense tell you to weigh in before you decide your audience needs to be educated… or not.

6. Don’t let your adrenaline take over. Being wrongfully corrected can certainly get anyone’s adrenaline going. After all, you are sitting there feeling insulted because someone who is NOT a language expert is trying to correct you, and fearing somewhere in the back of your mind that your reputation might get tarnished by this person who has no business telling you how to do your job. If you stay calm you will be able to make a wiser decision and apply all the pointers in #1 through #5.

7. Don’t take corrections personally. This probably goes well with #6 (and, well… all of the above.) If you know you are right, simply hold your ground.

8. Remain ethical. Whichever route you choose to follow, always act within the boundaries of a judiciary interpreter’s Code of Ethics. In fact, there may be times when the decision to speak up or not will have to be made strictly on ethical grounds, particularly when you are walking a fine between being someone else’s voice and becoming someone else’s advocate.

9. Be respectful. Sometimes you will be the one correcting another interpreter because you were brought in as a “check interpreter,” meaning one who is hired to listen to another’s performance and make sure no mistakes are being made. If you have to play that role, avoid embarrassing or humiliating a fellow interpreter. Rather than stating your corrections out loud and publicly, be discreet and approach those colleagues in private, giving them an opportunity to make the correction themselves.

10. Educate. This was the final call to action from the panel. Every time you, as an interpreter, go to work—whether in court or out of court—you have an opportunity to educate everyone around you.

I will end with Melinda González-Hibner’s words: if things aren’t working like they should and you’re not happy, go do something!

Janis Palma

by on Friday, May 15, 2015


There is something about “being” a translator that is very different from “being” an interpreter.  It’s not just about sitting in front of a desk by yourself versus being surrounded by people when you do your work. Translators want to take their time finding that perfect word that will make them feel as though the Earth’s axis just shifted… just a tiny bit. Interpreters, on the the hand, want to just spit it out and move on. When you are interpreting there is no time to dance around sentence constructions and play with different collocations until you hit upon just the right combination of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that truly sings to you. And by the same token, when you translate there is no need to rush to the finish line —unless, of course, you have a certain deadline looming over your head and it’s a matter of finishing the job on time or losing the client.

When translators want to transition into the world of interpreters, they face a horrific reality: renditions are not perfect. They do have to be accurate, and in the judiciary setting they must also be complete. In legal settings an interpreter cannot edit to make the source speaker sound more eloquent or elegant. The interpreter cannot leave out those things the translator would consider superfluous under any other circumstance. So it seems that translators must overcome certain work habits that I’m sure were carefully cultivated to arrive at the desired quality in their final translations. But in the world of simultaneous and consecutive renditions, where all you have are nanoseconds to make all sorts of linguistic decisions, quality is demarcated by somewhat different standards.

First and foremost, you cannot spend precious seconds, or even fragments of a second, searching your mind for all the possible renditions a given term or phrase may have, trying to decide which one is actually the most exact equivalent. You must make those decisions beforehand, identifying what terms and phrases you will use as the best target-language equivalents, keeping them stored in your long-term memory for instant retrieval when needed. For interpreters, short- and long-term memory are critical, because everything they need to perform competently must already be stored there when they take to the stage to perform —figuratively and literally. Dictionaries are reserved for the post-mortem of an interpreting event, when you are no longer interpreting and can take the time to look up terms and consult with colleagues. That is the time to make changes if you decide there is a better translation for this or that term. But when the interpreter is next to a witness or interpreting for a defendant in court, second-guessing lexical or grammatical choices is the kiss of death. Doubting yourself, thinking and re-thinking whether you made the right choice, will make you lose track of the source language discourse, and it will also make you sound incoherent when you finally manage to catch up. In the end you will be very unhappy because instead of doing the excellent job you set out to do, you ended up with a mediocre performance at best.

If you are an excellent translator and think that is enough to become a certified interpreter… think again! You will have to reprogram your brain to act quickly, to trust your own instincts, and to give yourself a pass when you can’t find the perfect word but you can find a pretty darn good alternative. You will have to break the habit of questioning every translation decision you make, and learn to be assertive once you do make a choice. An informed and educated choice, that is.

Of course, translators and interpreters actually do have a lot in common, and research is a cornerstone for both undertakings. Interpreters learn to build on that research, knowing there can always be a better word or phrase out there, but not letting that knowledge paralyze them, and certainly not falling prey to the second-guessing curse. Interpreters who start to second-guess themselves out loud sound like they do not know what they are doing. Giving one word as an equivalent from source to target language and then changing it because you think you found a better one right away only makes you look incompetent. In the world of interpreters, you make a decision and you stick to it. You move on, or you eat dust because no one is stopping to wait for you.

Janis Palma

by on Friday, February 27, 2015

Exam-taking time

It’s that time again, when certification candidates start looking for practice buddies, dig up practice materials from workshops taken long-ago, or sign up for new courses, all in the hopes of passing the oral portion of a certification exam. The truth is that what you need to pass that oral exam should have become second nature to you by now, because good habits in your every-day work are what will get you through any exam successfully.

Habit #1: Verify, verify, verify…

Interpreters cannot rely on their own instincts, other people’s opinions, or other unorthodox sources of information to make decisions about the meaning of the words they choose to include or exclude from their active vocabulary. That’s what dictionaries are for. Always go to authoritative sources (that means “NOT GOOGLE”!) Authoritative sources are dictionaries published in hard copy, authored by reputable scholars, which may or may not be available in digital format. Verify your sources first, then verify that the word you are using actually means what you think it means. And then verify again if the word has more than one meaning, to make sure you know which ones apply in which contexts. For example, the word “scheme” can mean “a systematic plan for a course of action”, “a secret plot”, or “a chart, diagram or outline” among other things. When choosing the equivalent in your target language, you may need three different words, one for each of these different contexts. Verify that you are choosing the right one. 

Habit #2: Keep your target language standardized

If you normally use regionalisms, borrowed words (e.g., Anglicisms), slang, and other dialectical variations of what would be considered the standard in your target language because you think your listener will understand you better: stop! Your role is to render the source language message exactly as it was conveyed by the speaker. If the speaker used slang, then of course you will use an equivalent slang term in your target language. Otherwise, stay within the register of the source language speaker. Changing registers during an exam is one sure way to fail it.

Habit #3: Choose one solution and stick to it

Offering synonyms in the hopes that one of them will be “the right one” is not a sign of a good interpreter. What an examiner hears is someone who is not competent enough to ascertain the exact meaning of a word in the source language, or perhaps to find the most accurate equivalent in the target language. If you are in the habit of offering more than one “choice”, break it! Pick one, and only one equivalent, then stick with it all throughout. If in doubt, see Habit #1.

Habit #4:  Own it

Interpreters cannot be shy. You need to project your voice, but you also need to project confidence in yourself. When you walk into a courtroom or a conference room for a deposition, own it! Be courteous but professionally detached. Have your pad, pen, dictionaries or electronic devices in a briefcase (no backpacks, please!), and lay them out in front of you as soon as you take your seat. This says to everyone there, “I know what I’m doing and I’m ready to do it.” While you will not be able to bring any outside materials into a testing room, you will nonetheless project this self-confidence if you cultivate a professional demeanor in your day-to-day practice. And please wear business attire. First impressions matter, especially where you may be a borderline certification candidate and what will get you across that threshold is the subjective scoring by the examiners. Your appearance and demeanor should reflect how you see yourself in the context of judiciary interpreting. Get in the habit of dressing the part. You are a highly-skilled and very well-remunerated professional. Own it!

Habit #5: Never stop learning

Incredible as it may seem, there are interpreters who think they have nothing new to learn. They usually stand out, because they are the ones who make the most mistakes. In our world, where our main tool-of-the-trade is language and as such, by its very nature, is constantly evolving and changing, arrogance is the kiss-of-death. To be a truly competent interpreter you must always be open to new information, and even to constructive criticism that will help you along this continuum of self-improvement. And that is all a certification exam is looking for: truly competent interpreters.

So if you are one of those who will be taking the oral portion of a certification exam this year, work on being excellent every day in everything you do. Because “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Aristotle)

Janis Palma

by on Friday, October 17, 2014

The Fixer

          In my home I am “the fixer”. This is not a role that I chose knowingly and intentionally; it just came with the territory. I own a home, so if anything breaks I am the one in charge of fixing it or finding someone who does. It is usually the latter, since my skills as a plumber, electrician, and mason are woefully lacking. Otherwise, if one of our dogs or cats gets sick, it is my job to run to the vet and fix it. If we run out of bread or eggs, it is my job to go to the grocery store and fix it. If a light bulb burns out, I change it and… well, you get the idea.

          At work, I am also “the fixer”. In that territory, however, I feel a lot more confident about the likelihood of my being able to fix whatever needs fixing. I am the one in charge of finding interpreters for the judges, among other things. If you compare our district to other district courts, it may not seem so big: seven district judges, four magistrate judges, and two senior judges who keep a full calendar; plus two separate buildings about 30 minutes away one from the other in city traffic. It should be easy enough to look at the calendars for the coming week and know how many interpreters will be needed each day, since 98% of our criminal matters require a Spanish interpreter. If it’s on the calendar, there will be an interpreter assigned to cover it.

          That is, of course, barring any last-minute changes.

Juggling calendar changes

          Court assignments in our district are finalized near the end of the day, just because changes will inevitably take place up until the very last minute. We have 7 staff interpreters, and whatever staff interpreters cannot cover gets covered by contract interpreters. Unfortunately, I often have to wait until the end of the day to make those calls: “are you available tomorrow?” I have tried contracting in advance, like for a whole week, and it just doesn’t work. Events tend to disappear, leaving me with too many interpreters I simply cannot justify. Notwithstanding all my diligence, once I have assigned staff and contractors to every judge with a criminal matter on his or her calendar I can still be caught off guard. Sometimes a judge may decide to “move” something for the afternoon when there was an interpreter assigned only for the morning. Other times a proceeding that was supposed to last one hour, tops, ends up taking the whole day. As “the fixer”, I need to scramble to find those extra interpreters. I usually end up begging someone to come in and —thank goodness— the contract interpreters in my district take pity on me and oblige.

Juggling interpreters

          Court setting can be like Jell-O: wiggly and slippery. On any given day a jury selection that was supposed to take two days may end up taking half a day because the defendant decided to plead guilty. Or I may have one interpreter running from one court to another with little time to spare because I did not have enough interpreters to cover every judge, when suddenly everything gets cancelled. Then again, a contract interpreter may call 15 minutes before court to let me know her car won’t start, or a staff interpreter can get sick in the middle of the night and I’m texting away at one in the morning to find a replacement. These things happen. I try to take deep breaths and not get upset. My job is to fix it.

          I have called interpreters I know are on their way home because they just got cancelled by someone else, begging them to run back to cover something in court. I have also called them five minutes after contracting them to say, “never mind! I just got two trials cancelled.” I sometimes have to move staff interpreters around like chess pieces to accommodate calendar changes, but perhaps most important to everyone is that I also move people around to accommodate the interpreters’ needs and sudden emergencies.

          All this, of course, is just for Spanish interpreters. We only have a couple of qualified interpreters in our District for languages other than Spanish. And yet, Border Patrol can call on their way in to let us know they are bringing in a group of Chinese nationals that need an interpreter (but they don’t know if it’s Mandarin, Cantonese or some other dialect.) The FBI can come in with a bunch of rowdy passengers they have just arrested on an airplane who speak only Russian. When these same-day requests come up, I have found that staff interpreters in other Districts are an amazing asset when it comes to finding last-minute resources in every imaginable language.

Help for the fixer

          I do not expect the dynamics of court settings and calendar changes to take my own needs and concerns into account. If I cannot provide an interpreter for every judge who needs one, then I am not doing my job. What I think makes me a better “fixer” at the office than at home is that I have a great team at the office and very good lines of communication with non-staff interpreters. Staff interpreters are always ready, willing and able to help put out fires. Everyone is a bright shining star, but not a diva (big difference!)

          Freelancers let me know when they are available and when they are not, when they are travelling out of the jurisdiction and when they will be back, when they have something that got cancelled and their availability has opened up. On the other side of the coin, they also know that if I contract them, they will work. This is a fine line I walk, which means I cannot make long-term commitments. But whatever commitment I make, I keep. It is a two-way street, in which we have built mutual trust and collaboration. I know they will get me out of a bind, and they know I will not leave them hanging in the wind.

          The same goes for the staff interpreters. They’ve got my back and I’ve got theirs. But since no one is perfect, if I mess up… they know I will own it and fix that, too!

          The bottom line is that I would not be able to “fix” anything without the staff and contract interpreters. And my “ace up my sleeve” is the fantastic group of colleagues in other districts. It is a totally symbiotic relationship. And it’s a great feeling when it all works out and everything gets fixed!

Janis Palma

by on Friday, August 22, 2014

The Richness of Rituals

          As I was putting on my make-up this morning getting ready for work, the thought crossed my mind in a flash: “I am putting on my war paint.” I realized it was a ritual, perhaps not too dissimilar from the rituals of our indigenous ancestors as they prepared to go to the battlefield. Indeed, there is a certain ceremony involved in painting my face to go to war… I mean, work.


Individual and Collective Rituals

          Rituals can be shared by a group of people, either because they all believe in the power of the common actions, or because they have rules that involve penalties if the rituals are not followed. For example, when we go to court, we all stand when the judge walks into the courtroom, lawyers must ask permission to cross the well before they can get close to a witness who is testifying, and people in the audience can listen but not speak. These rituals impose a certain order that is reassuring; in contrast with the uncertainties we all face in a world in which “modern society” tends to shun formalities and tradition.

          We can also create our own rituals, like making our morning coffee a certain way, or indulging in a warm bubble-filled bathtub with a glass of chilled wine and sweet aromatic candles after a crazy-busy day at work. Of course, while we are at work we can have all sorts of rituals in addition to the formalities of the court, like how we set up our equipment, or what kinds of shoes or tie we wear to a deposition versus a trial. We infuse symbolic meaning into our rituals that in turn “enhances [our] feelings of safety, confidence, and well-being.” [http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-power-of-ritual/#ixzz3ANaCzrBH]

Rituals are good for you

          As I was looking for more information about rituals, I learned that some psychologists have found through their research “that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.” [http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-rituals-work/] By going through my morning face-painting and power-dressing rituals, I aim to look and feel “ferocious”. When judges and lawyers see me walk into a courtroom, I want them to see a very strong, very self-assured interpreter. I have just realized that with my rituals I am strengthening my own sense of identity and connecting with the power within me to be exactly who I want to be.

          In that same article, (Why Rituals Work, Scientific American, May 14, 2013) the authors, Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton, explain that “[w]hile some rituals are unlikely to be effective – knocking on wood will not bring rain – many everyday rituals make a lot of sense and are surprisingly effective.” For some interpreters, the ritual could be the repetition out loud of new words and phrases until they are permanently etched in their long-term memory. For others it could be taking notes even when they are not interpreting. Whatever ritual we perform, even if it’s a personal ritual, “[we are] still participating in something that extends beyond our own experience.” (Mark Sisson, marksdailyapple.com) And for interpreters, particularly freelance interpreters who often work in isolation from their peers, this connection is essential to maintain a healthy balance in life.

My belief system

          The Britannica Online Encyclopedia Academic Edition tells us that “All rituals are dependent upon some belief system for their complete meaning.” [http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/504688/ritual] As a judiciary interpreter, I participate in many rituals that include other court personnel (like standing, sitting, addressing the judge as Your Honor, asking to be excused before leaving a courtroom, and so forth), a few that involve fellow interpreters only (like the rituals of team interpreting, sharing glossaries or words lists, etc.), and even fewer that are very personal and involve only me (e.g., the “war paint”, the business suit and the high heels… well, medium height, since I am way past that stage in life where you can actually walk in the 4-inch heels!) I do believe in the “magic” of projecting professionalism in the way I look as well as the way I perform. I firmly believe that walking into a courtroom (or conference room for a deposition) with a healthy load of self-assurance will make the people around me trust that I know what I’m doing, and that I am doing it correctly. It also keeps the bad juju away!

Janis Palma

by on Friday, July 25, 2014

The “Invisible” Interpreter


My master’s thesis was on the “invisible” women who cut sugar cane for a living in Puerto Rico during the 19th and 20th centuries. They were there, but no one saw them because they blended into the general landscape. Something similar happens with interpreters, or should happen, if you’re really good. Of course, the women who cut sugar cane were invisible for many other cultural and sociological reasons, and were not invisible by choice. An interpreter, however, should be invisible by choice. No one should notice you’re there. No one should be paying attention to you at all.

In Puerto Rico, where I have been working for the past 24 years or so, people are very friendly. While we are in court waiting for the judge to come out, attorneys will come up to say hello to everyone who is already there. And I mean everyone: the court security officer, the courtroom deputy clerk, the court reporter, the defense attorneys and the prosecutors. Sometimes they include the interpreter. But if they don’t, I do a small victory dance inside: “I am invisible!”

The best compliment an interpreter can get is, “I didn’t even realize you were interpreting.”

Staying off the record is a good rule-of-thumb to start. What I mean by that is the requests interpreters often direct to the judge: “Your Honor, may the interpreter ask for a repetition?” “Your Honor, could you please instruct counsel to slow down?” “Your Honor, the interpreter needs to inquire about the meaning of a word the witness is using.” Those little and seemingly innocuous interruptions go on the record as the voice of the INTERPRETER, so the more you interrupt to ask for clarification or repetitions, the more visible you are, both on the record and in the eyes of everyone present in court.

Furthermore, judges in particular and attorneys in general are never happy about disruptions during proceedings, whether in court or out of court. So, asking one time for a clarification or repetition can certainly be justified and reasonable, but more than once? Perhaps you should be asking yourself if there is some other issue that needs to be addressed. One of those issues could be simply a lack of familiarity with the particular subject matter. For example, if you have a car mechanic as a cooperating witness giving details about the parts of a car that got stripped down in a chop-shop as part of a stolen cars scheme, and you have to keep looking up words in a dictionary or electronic glossary, that is going to shift everyone’s attention to you rather than the witness.

Or the issue could be a matter of regional variations in language use.  Staying off the record is advisable on many levels, and recusing yourself from a case in which you are not familiar with the terminology, or with a particular speaker’s accent and possibly regional variations in language use, is always an honorable and highly ethical alternative.


Our “cloak of invisibility” in the simultaneous mode is our volume. If you have a hard time keeping your voice down so no one except your client can hear you, then you need to practice, practice, practice. Few things are as annoying as a constant “rumble” coming from somewhere in the courtroom (i.e., the interpreter) all throughout a proceeding. Trust me, everyone will be aggravated and even if they cannot pinpoint the source of their aggravation, in the back of their minds they are building up this generic animosity that will eventually spill over onto you and every other interpreter they encounter from that point forward. So being invisible includes not being heard by anyone except your LEP client while interpreting in the simultaneous mode.

Some courtrooms—I have heard through the grapevine—are experimenting with interpreter booths. This may or may not contribute to the interpreter’s invisibility, because it is something new and everyone will want to know why it’s there, what it’s used for, why now and not before, and so on and so forth. So maybe when everyone gets used to an interpreter’s booth in the courtroom, it will help to keep us “invisible”. Until then, it may have the total opposite effect, I suspect.

In the consecutive mode invisibility is a bit more challenging. It means being seamless in your rendition. You establish a certain rhythm with both the attorney asking the questions and the witness answering them. Even if you do not engage in the practice of long consecutive, the points at which the source language speaker stops for you to interpret are natural pauses that do not break up a thought into awkward or even ungrammatical segments. It also means that your lag is minimal between that moment when the speaker stops talking and the moment when you start to render your interpretation. When everyone has to hold their breath while the interpreter finishes her notes, for example, and then tries to figure out what she wrote before starting her rendition, you have a sure way of drawing attention to the interpreter.

And, of course, your delivery has to be flawless. When all these elements come together, the interpreter becomes invisible and everyone stands in awe of your skills. A true conceptual oxymoron!

What makes you “invisible”?


by on Friday, May 16, 2014

The Mexican Deli Debacle: How Attorneys can Sabotage Themselves, Their Clients and You

We’ve all worked with attorneys who just don’t get it. There are those who simply refuse to learn how to work with interpreters, who fail to conduct a thorough preparation of their LEP clients for deposition or trial, who make no attempt to phrase questions simply and clearly, or who ignore cultural nuances. They are not doing their clients any favors, and the results usually reflect badly on the attorneys themselves in court.

This is the story of one such attorney and two of his clients. I’ll call him Mr. Green. He was young and relatively inexperienced, but arrogant and opinionated. He had moved from “the big city” in the north, where he had been working at a large civil law firm, in order to set up his own practice in the southern part of the state. One of his goals, he told me, was to take advantage of the concentration of Spanish-speaking people in this area, and establish a clientele partially consisting of members of this community. To that end he had hired a young local “bilingual” assistant who would supposedly reach out to the community for clients and also do the in-office interpreting.

Part 1: A Civil Matter

My contact with the entrepreneurial Mr. Green began like this. A few months ago, I was called by the local small claims court to interpret for a landlord/tenant trial to last two hours. They told me that they were not allowed to give me any information about the case, and that I would have to contact the attorney, which I did. It was Mr. Green.

Mr. Green informed me that his clients were two Mexican brothers who had rented a small commercial building to set up a deli/taco business. After operating the deli for six years, they had been given notice to vacate the premises for various reasons. The case centered on the security deposit, purported damages to the property and sundry items of a culinary nature which the owner had retained after the brothers had left.

The suit had initially been brought by the owner to recover monies for destruction he alleged the brothers had caused, including structural and plumbing damage. The brothers had countersued, requesting return of the security deposit and the restaurant equipment ,

Part 2: Before the Trial

From the moment I contacted him, the attorney was reluctant to help me prepare for the trial. I explained to him that it would be to his clients’ advantage if I were familiar with the facts of the case and any terminology that might come into play. Finally, after some persuasion on my part, he allowed me to go to his office and peruse the case file. This I had to do on my own time, since he felt that I really should not need the information if I was a “good” interpreter. As I sat there going through the file, I jotted down various terms relating to restaurant equipment and building construction. There were such culinary-related items as a meat slicer, tortilla maker, cheese melter, and deli case, but also structural terms such as plywood, drywall, floor tiles and door jamb.

When I was finished, I mentioned to the attorney that it would be a good idea for me to have a meeting with him and his clients to be sure that we were all on the same page as to the vocabulary to be used at the trial. He almost laughed out loud. “I hardly think that’s necessary, Ms. Shelly. This is a very simple case, really, and the words you seem to think might cause problems are just everyday things, after all. I’m sure my clients will recognize them in Spanish. And even if they don’t, they know enough English to understand my questions anyway.” Then he gestured toward the bilingual assistant. “At any rate, that’s why I hired Stephanie. She’s fully bilingual. Why, she doesn’t even need to use a dictionary!”  Stephanie grinned and gave a little wave. I groaned inwardly.  

I thought of giving the attorney some materials on best practices for attorneys working with interpreters, but I had to wonder if it would make any difference. I decided against it, and to just let him learn the hard way.

Part 3: Sabotage and Strategy

What Mr. Green refused to understand was that he was setting himself and his clients up for possible failure. If the trial was constantly interrupted by linguistic questions and lack of communication, not only would his clients and he himself appear to be ignorant and unprepared, but also the judge would soon lose patience and interest in the proceedings. 

He was also placing the interpreter in a very difficult position. Because of his complete and willful lack of knowledge of language and of interpreting, he was creating a situation rife with opportunities for confusion and misunderstandings for which the interpreter might be deemed partially responsible.

By not allowing me to interpret or speak with his clients beforehand, I had no way of determining a number of factors that would help me render a smooth and seamless interpretation of the procedure with accuracy and clarity. First of all, I would lack the advantage of acquainting myself with the particular accents, mannerisms, and speech patterns of the witnesses. I also had no way of knowing if indeed the brothers would understand both the English question and the standard Spanish translation, of which the attorney seemed so certain.

My main problem, however, was that I couldn’t possibly foretell which words the brothers would understand in standard Spanish. While they might know some of the terms they heard in Spanish, a lot of them referred to items they probably had never seen or used in their own country. Take the word “plywood,” for example. The word in standard Spanish is “contrachapado,” but I have never heard any Spanish-speaking person refer to it as anything but “plywood” because they have only come across the product in the United States. So when interpreting a question about plywood, should I use the English/Spanglish “plywood” or the standard “contrachapado?” I could be fairly sure the brothers would know the word “plywood” in English, and that they had never heard the word “contrachapado,” but how could I be sure? And what about the other fifty-odd contested items? How could I possibly know the words the witnesses would use or understand?

I finally decided to interpret everything into standard Spanish. This posed certain risks for myself as an interpreter. If the witness did not understand the questions, there existed the possibility that my interpretation could be perceived as faulty and unprofessional, when in fact it was the opposite. I had to think of a way to protect myself and make sure the judge understood that the attorney had not taken the trouble to prepare his clients adequately.

Part 4: During the Trial

On the day of the trial everyone showed up early, and I was allowed a few minutes to speak with the two brothers. We understood each other quite well; I had lived near their area of Mexico for about a year, and their way of speaking was very familiar. Then we were called into the courtroom. Present were the judge, the original plaintiff with his attorney, the two brothers with their attorney, Stephanie, the assistant, and I, the interpreter.

The original plaintiff went first, of course, and I interpreted his testimony simultaneously to the two brothers. I was counting on the fact that both of the attorneys and also the plaintiff would introduce at least some of the words for the items in dispute, and such was the case. I had my glossary in front of me and made sure to enunciate the standard Spanish translations as carefully as possible so that the two witnesses would get at least somewhat familiar with the terms I would use when it was their turn.

The younger brother then left the courtroom, and the older brother took the stand. Things actually went very well for a while. The witness seemed like an intelligent guy and, whether by the context or his knowledge of English, he had little trouble with the either the direct or the cross examinations. Inevitably, however, there was a language snag, and I immediately took the opportunity to state to the judge that “the interpreter” was using standard Spanish, and indicated the possibility that the witness might not be familiar with the Spanish term and why. This was important because there would probably be more misunderstandings down the line, and I was darned if I was going to be made to look like an idiot.

And sure enough, when the younger brother testified, everything fell apart. Apparently, he did not work at the deli as much as his brother, and also knew less English. It was awful. I once again let the judge know what the trouble was, and she became more and more annoyed, not with me, though, but with the attorney.

I’ll never forget one amusing moment during the testimony. The younger brother was asked a question about a walk-in refrigerator the two brothers had installed. I used the standard Spanish expression “cámara frigorífica,” Great puzzlement ensued on the part of the witness. The question was repeated, and, after further clarification, he finally burst out with: “¡OH, EL WAHL-KEEN!”

Part 4: After the Trial

Well, the trial lasted a good deal more than two hours, of course, and I was exhausted at the end of it. At one point I took a peek at Stephanie, who, to my satisfaction, looked rather red-faced and disconcerted.

The attorney? I’d like to say I observed a huge change in him when the trial was over, but he seemed just as bumptious as before. As we parted, though, he shook my hand, bowed (a little mockingly) and said: “Thank you, Madam Interpreter.”


“Translation for Lawyers.” All Language Alliance. http://www.translationforlawyers.com/2008/05/deposition_interpreters_and_pr.html

Mark S. Shipow, Esq. “Using Interpreters in Litigation.”http://ils-ipp.blogspot.com/2009/09/using-interpreters-in-litigation.html

See NAJIT Advocacy Committee publications at http://www.najit.org/advocacy/bandb.php


by on Friday, August 30, 2013

Boredom in the Court

Unavoidable Delays

It’s a funny thing. From everything written and spoken about court interpretation, one would think that we are constantly working away—interpreting for trials, hearings, attorney/client interviews and the like, all day long, with a nice break for lunch. I think we all agree that this would be the ideal environment for interpreters, but we work on the court’s schedule—not the other way around.

What people may not realize is that our work does not always involve interpreting at trial. There are many relatively brief court proceedings that can last as little as five minutes. Most of the judges I work with make it a point to give priority to these brief appearances involving interpreters. They are aware of the costs involved, and do their very best to “let the interpreter go” as soon as possible. The problem is that it is not always possible. So many things can happen in the course of a court calendar that can result in delays—failed plea negotiations, attorneys busy elsewhere, preceding matters that take longer than anticipated, etc.  I even have a judge who  insists on going through the calendar in alphabetical order. Woe is me if my LEP’s last name is Zúñiga!

The awful thing is that those moments of boredom waiting to interpret for a plea, case review or probation hearing can be far more draining than an afternoon of good, hard, intensive consecutive interpreting. I wonder why this is. You would think that doing nothing would be far more restful than subjecting oneself to those exciting, focused, adrenaline-inducing moments typical of actual interpreting, but it is not so. So how do we cope with boredom in the court?

What Not To Do in Court

As usual, I am reminded of a story. About a year ago, I was sitting in a courtroom with a colleague waiting for a trial to begin. It was a case of a misdemeanor assault committed by one woman against another during a barroom brawl. The victim was unwilling to allow the prosecutor to offer a plea bargain to a reduced charge, and the defense attorney was unable to convince the defendant to plead to anything at all.

And so back and forth it went. Finally, it was decided that the case would go to trial, and we two interpreters were all ready to go into team interpreting mode. But first, the court had other business to conduct, other matters to resolve, and the trial would have to wait until the calendar was clear. There was no way for us to know when the case would go before the judge. We could leave the courtroom, and wait for a bailiff to call us back in, but there were no chairs or benches in the hallway. We had no choice but to stay in the courtroom and sit…and sit…and sit. After a while, and many exasperated sighs, my colleague, an interpreter rather new to the field, could stand it no longer, and whipped out her cell phone to check messages. Then she took out a tablet and started to read an article.

I was aghast. Yes, I was bored too, but it never would occur to me to use an electronic device (except for the purpose of legitimate research connected with a case in progress), with the judge on the bench! And for crying out loud, we were in the first row of the gallery in plain view of the judge, the bailiffs and everybody! I gave her what I hoped was a quelling glance, but she just shrugged her shoulders and went on reading.

How to Combat Boredom

Now, I admit, I myself have a very low tolerance for boredom, but I have never as much as opened a book in a courtroom while waiting for a case to come before a judge on the bench. I have always taken my cue from the attorneys—I have never seen one use a cell phone in the presence of the judge. Never. So neither do I. If I need to use my cell, I leave the courtroom briefly and then come back in. I have found other ways to cope with those times when there is absolutely nothing to do but wait.

You might notice that some attorneys who are waiting to go before the judge don’t just sit there. They might do a little paperwork; they might open a legal tome to consult some point of law; they might even speak very quietly to another attorney. Most just follow what is going on in the courtroom. Their attitude seems to be: “Heck, I might learn something!”—although then again, they might just be trying to impress the judge with their rapt attention to the pearls of wisdom falling from his lips.

What’s wrong with just paying attention? It beats the heck out of being bored out of your gourd. Okay, sometimes I do sit and make grocery or to-do lists, or discreetly remove the contents of my ever-messy briefcase and do a little organization. Sometimes I study the pictures of long-gone judges that festoon the walls of some of the older courtrooms. Once in a while, I even do some work on my blog post! But there are times when the wait is a little longer than usual, and these endeavors can occupy just so much of the time spent waiting. I’ve got to do something. If I just sit and let my mind drift, I find that I start falling asleep! It has happened, although I usually manage to catch myself before I actually fall off the bench. Embarrassing.

So I usually try to observe what goes on in court. I try to make the best of the situation and perhaps learn something to become a better interpreter. I jot down phrases I have never before encountered. I listen to the idiosyncrasies of this particular judge’s plea colloquy or that one’s bond review and figure out how to untangle sometimes clumsy syntax to form a comprehensible equivalent. After all, I may be interpreting those very words in a short while. (I hope!) If I am not too tired, I practice simultaneous interpreting silently in my head.

And then there is always the fascinating study of human nature, of which there is always plenty on display in any given courtroom situation. People sometimes say to me, “You must have seen just about everything by now.” Very true. Such observation both occupies the mind and teaches us about our fellow human beings.

So don’t get bored! Get busy! Use your time to advantage. You will serve the court better by using it as an educational resource. In addition, you will feel that you have actually accomplished something rather than suffered  through might have been a tiresome (and tiring) morning.


Susan Berk-Seligson. (2002) The Bilingual Courtroom: Court Interpreters in the  Judicial Process. Language and Legal Discourse Series. Chicago, Illinois: University
of Chicago Press

Courtroom Etiquette. www.nynb.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/courtroometiquette.pdf

Clarke, Catherine Thérèse. (1991). Missed Manners in Courtroom Decorum.  Maryland Law Review. Volume 50-945,  Number 4. Pages 945-1026.  digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu