by Janis Palma on Friday, July 25, 2014
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 Kathleen on Friday, May 16, 2014
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 Kathleen on Friday, August 30, 2013
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
by Kathleen on Friday, August 9, 2013
In the small county seat where I work several times a week there is a traffic circle. It is a small oasis in a not-very-attractive little town. In spring and summer there are shade trees and flowers. There is a central fountain, and a number of benches are formally positioned for the use of those wishing to eat lunch there, meet friends or just enjoy the scene. On the northern section of the circle there is a monument to a police officer who was killed in the line of duty some years back. When I see it, I am reminded of the trial of the man who shot and killed the officer, a trial during which I learned many lessons, the most important of which was that no outsider can really appreciate what it is the interpreter does, and that we err when we feel that we are due some recognition from general observers for a job well done.
One big difference between interpreting and other professions
Now, in some ways interpreting is an unusual field. The interpreter is often the only one in the room who understands what everyone else is saying, and the only person capable of communicating what is said so that all may understand. Unless another interpreter is present, only the interpreter knows how well or how poorly he has done his job. In other professions, it is usually quite apparent to the consumer when the doctor, the dentist, the plumber, the electrician, the hair stylist, etc., has really achieved excellence in his chosen field. Not so in the case of the interpreter.
Our own best critics
So we interpreters must be our own best critics. Sometimes we astonish ourselves with our own brilliance. The equivalent words come easily, the idiomatic expressions flow seamlessly from one language to the other, the thorny grammatical constructs of the source language are re-coded to form equally complex structures in the target language. Other times, we do very well indeed; not every expression is exactly on point, but we are satisfied with our performance. And then there are occasions, far fewer we hope, when we are only adequate. We convey the meaning, but without finding that mot juste, that perfect equivalent we seek.
We are never less than adequate.
Our ability to assess our own performance is particularly important in consecutive interpreting for witnesses in a judicial setting. In order to reflect as accurately as possible the words and the tone of the speaker, we must monitor our rendition constantly and improve it as much as possible as we go along while attempting to maintain some consistency. This is much easier when we have a colleague prepared to give us a little nudge in the right direction, to provide a word or phrase we are groping for. We don’t always have that luxury. (Just as an example, there was the time I needed to find an equivalent for an expression a witness was using. Literally, it would be translated as “I made myself dead.” At first, I rendered it as “I pretended I was dead.” Afterward, since she used the expression many times, I was able to change my rendition very quickly to “I played dead.” The first version was adequate, the second was much better; a literal translation would have been unacceptable.)
The trial and what I learned
And that brings me back to the trial I mentioned above. My task was to interpret the testimony of the man who had witnessed the crime and its aftermath. Since his testimony would be relatively brief, it had been decided to use only one interpreter. As it turned out, I interpreted for one full afternoon session and the following morning. Not too bad.
I had the advantage of being the interpreter for the witness prep. I knew generally what the man would say, I was very familiar with his way of expressing himself and I had interpreted the prosecutor’s instructions on how to answer questions put to him by the defense and the prosecution. There were going to be complex and difficult questions and answers dealing with time and space. “How far away were you from the defendant’s vehicle?” “Was the man with the gun seated in the driver’s seat, or in front passenger seat, or in the rear right passenger seat, or in the rear left passenger seat?” “How close was the defendants’ vehicle to the patrol car?” “How much time elapsed between the moment you heard the vehicles approach and the gunshot?”
Yes, the prosecutors had tried to cover all the bases. I was also well prepared, but I hadn’t reckoned with the sheer emotion surrounding this trial. This case concerned the murder of a man who was the beloved son, father, brother, cousin, friend or colleague of half the town. Most of them found a way to be present at the nine-day trial at some point. The gallery was always full.
At first the testimony was routine. I felt I was doing a really good job. Questions and answers were going smoothly. I was handling the registers well—maintaining in Spanish the more formal vocabulary and phrasing of the attorney’s English, and rendering the witness’ Spanish answers in colloquial English.
Then we got to the difficult part. You see, the officer had died in the arms of my witness before the emergency personnel arrived. As he struggled to find the words to describe the officer’s death and how he had tried to ease his passing, the witness had to pause often to compose himself. “Un momento, por favor.” “One moment, please.” The weeping in the courtroom was audible. I couldn’t bring myself to look at anyone, so I kept my eyes straight ahead and kept on going.
Expectations and realizations
It was a harrowing afternoon and morning. But I knew I had done my very best. Foolishly, I sort of expected someone, anyone, to thank me, to let me know they appreciated how well I had interpreted this difficult testimony. I had friends and acquaintances in the gallery. Not a word. The prosecutors didn’t even give me a glance. Nothing. Then I realized, “Hey, for crying out loud, this isn’t about you! These people are far too involved with their own feelings and reactions. If I want feedback, it will have to come from me alone.”
My assessment? Well, sometimes I was brilliant, but mostly I was just very good. Every once in a while I was merely adequate, but never less than adequate. I can live with that.
American Translators Association. A Self-Evaluation Questionnaire for Interpreters http://www.atanet.org/certification/online_interpreterquestionaire.php
WikiHelp. How to Appreciate Yourself More Than You Do. http://www.wikihow.com/Appreciate-Yourself-More-Than-You-Do
99U Insights on Making Ideas Happen. Why Your Inner Critic Is Your Best Friend http://99u.com/articles/6971/why-your-inner-critic-is-your-best-friend
by Kathleen on Friday, June 14, 2013
Maybe it was spring fever, but I don’t think so.
I definitely felt what I can only describe as a breath of fresh air during the 34th NAJIT Annual Conference May 17-19, 2013, in St. Louis, Missouri.
So often nowadays I hear interpreters talk about the “graying” of the profession, and that we need to encourage more young people to enter our ranks. I understand what they are talking about, and I quite agree, but at the NAJIT conference in St. Louis in May, there was a definite excitement, a youthful exuberance and enthusiasm about the future of the profession. Yes, there did seem to be more young people there, but, more important, I think that everyone felt the presence of new ideas and an expansion of the field.
Useful information, excellent organization
I could feel and see the excitement around me. People commented about how terrific the sessions were, and often expressed regret that a given hour-long session could not have been longer. Attendees asked intelligent questions and received informative and well-thought-out replies. The presenters made themselves available to future inquiries, always a plus.
The sessions themselves revealed the extraordinary breadth and depth of topics in the interpreting world to be taught and discussed—from new advances in technology to techniques for interpreting for child witnesses to recent updates of the Administrative Office of the United States Court.
As always, I had a terrible time deciding which sessions to attend. I was interested in everything, but I found that my choices were uniformly excellent. What impressed me the most, however, was how everything flowed so well. The organization of the conference, the responsibility of the Conference Committee and NAJIT’s Executive Director and Administrator, was flawless.
A Place to Meet and Greet
It seemed that everywhere I looked people were meeting up with old friends and making new ones, which, to me, is always the hallmark of a successful occasion of this sort. I myself must have met twenty-five to thirty people I had never met before, one of whom turned about to be the interpreter coordinator of the court located in the Pennsylvania town I was born in! Small world.
Now, I had met different types of interpreters at NAJIT conferences before—court interpreters, conference interpreters, medical interpreters, community interpreters, etc. This was my first opportunity to really have a conversation with American Sign Language interpreters, two friendly women who told me they thought the conference was wonderful. It was a very positive experience to be able to exchange views with interpreters engaging in a different type of language activity, but having exactly the same goals as spoken-language interpreters—ensuring that LEP persons have access to the services available to everyone else.
The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators was founded as an organization for interpreters in the legal field. The time has come for NAJIT to reach out to other interpreting organizations in an effort to present a more united front for all interpreters in today’s world. This was part of the message of NAJIT Chair Rob Cruz’ address to the membership at the Annual Meeting and Luncheon on Saturday, May 18. Mr. Cruz spoke about the importance of interpreters’ contributions towards formulating policies about video remote interpreting (VRI) and the “full and complete” interpretation now to be required by the Executive Office for Immigration Review for immigration hearings. As to the latter, Mr. Cruz illustrates how cooperation among various interpreting organizations can be a source of strength for all.
These two examples illustrate why the time we are living in may be a defining one. I am proud to say that NAJIT has never been in a better position to call attention to our plight and to influence both policy and perception. NAJIT wrote a letter to EOIR’s General Counsel in response to their policy shift. The letter was also signed by the other members of the National Interpreter Associations Coalition comprised of our partners the American Translators Association (ATA), the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), Mano a Mano, the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AAIC), the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and the American Association of Language Specialists (TAALS). Although not successful in changing the policy as of the time of this writing, NAJIT continues to address these very real concerns with the help of our members and our partners.
This was perhaps the most important thing that I took away from the conference. We recognize that change is inevitable, and we must step in and be a part of it
I also felt energized by the five young people who attended the conference as NAJIT scholars. I was fortunate to be able to speak with each one of them, and I can’t remember when I have been so impressed and also encouraged about the future of the profession. Here are some revealing observations from Brian K. Jones, one of the scholars.
Of all the professional organizations to which I have belonged, it was the camaraderie and collegiality among attendees at NAJIT’s conference that really made this experience exciting and beneficial to me as an up-and-coming interpreter and translator. From workshop participation to social mingling and networking, I immediately felt a sense of inclusion. Never once was I made to feel that I was at the bottom of a professional hierarchy. Likewise, what I found equally astonishing was the wealth of knowledge, experience, and expertise in the field of translation and interpreting there, all in one intimate setting.
Additionally, I enjoyed being a NAJIT Scholar. Members took a genuine interest in me, offering themselves as contacts for any questions I may have about the profession. They have been willing to share valuable materials and resources, as well as offering me information on potential job leads. All of this was completely unexpected based on conferences I had attended in the past in my other profession as a language instructor; however, the
setting that NAJIT created for its conference merits recognition for its
ability to promote such interaction among its members. All this leads me to
remember a statement made by Robert Cruz, NAJIT Chair, in which he pointed out, and I paraphrase, that everyone at the conference has something to offer NAJIT, regardless of experience and level of education because we are united by our profession, which speaks for itself.
Thank you, Brian. We are indeed united by our profession in all of its glorious diversity. That’s what I saw at the conference; it’s what NAJIT is all about.
For a copy of the NAJIT 34th Annual Conference Program. www.najit.org/Conferences/2013/Documents/NAJIT%20Conference%202013%20Program.pdf
For another viewpoint on the conference, see:
Tony Rosado. “Are Federally Certified Court Interpreters Any Good?
Maybe the NAJIT Conference Had the Answer.”
The Professional Interpreter. May
20, 2013. http://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/are-federally-certified-court-interpreters-any-good-maybe-the-najit-conference-had-the-answer/
by Katharine Allen on Friday, May 17, 2013
“We need more pay for the work we do.”
“Nobody respects us interpreters.”
“Can we please stop having intruders in this profession?”
“When will people understand that being bilingual doesn’t mean you can interpret?”
“We should boycott if they try to bring in video interpreting.”
“Maybe conference interpreters can demand a partner, but I won’t get hired if I ask for one.”
“Medical interpreter ethics just aren’t ethical compared to legal interpreting.”
“You can’t really call what military linguists do interpreting and translation. They are completely untrained.”
Five years ago, these sentiments were all too commonplace in our field. As was the marked fragmentation and division between interpreters and interpreting sectors.
And five years ago, I sat in the office of my then interpreting professor, Barry Slaughter Olsen, and listened in stunned disbelief as he pitched an idea for what would become the biggest professional risk of my career: what did I think about joining forces to create a new industry event, one which would endeavor to bring more unity, cohesion and recognition to our fragmented profession?
Despite the crazy risk it represented, we signed our names on one dotted line to book a venue and on a second to commission the first ever comprehensive market survey of the interpreting profession in North America. Then we started shopping the 1st North American Summit on Interpreting to vendors, professional associations, and every possible stakeholder we could reach.
In the end, we judged correctly that we were not alone among our peers in wanting more connection, collaboration, and visibility for our chosen profession of interpreting. Against all odds, the Summit was a resounding success. The most important outcome? The unexpectedly powerful collaborative momentum it created.
Five years ago, Web 2.0 was gaining ground, social media was just getting started, the smart phone was in its infancy, and the iPad was just a blip on the horizon. No one could imagine the lightning-fast advance of mobile everything and how it would penetrate all aspects of our lives.
Now we speak of Web 3.0, interpreting and translation apps, digital disruptors, creating social media platforms and social media overload. Google glass and wearable technology are “in beta” realities and the pace of change confronting us makes one thing certain: we cannot imagine five years from now.
Many of us are struggling with feelings of fear, displacement, disorientation, and anger as we watch long years of struggle to build quality and competency standards into our profession threatened. Our wage agreements are under fire. Full-time onsite interpreters are increasingly rare as video penetrates every interpreting sector.
Yet we celebrate these changes as well. We revel in increased communication, the vastly superior access to information and resources, and our newfound ability to work online and connect with colleagues from all over the world. The same technologies that threaten existing models are also opening up new markets and new opportunities. Indeed, ours is a growth field. “Employment of interpreters and translators is expected to grow 42 percent from 2010 to 2020, much faster than the average for all occupations.”
Five years ago, Barry and I founded InterpretAmerica to see if we could get our field talking to each other more, to share the strengths and resources hidden away in individual sectors with the fundamental conviction that a rising tide lifts all boats. We strive for the day when “I am an interpreter” carries as much automatic and esteemed meaning as “I am a doctor” or “I am a engineer.”
In other words, we believed in the potential of collaboration to successfully meet many of the challenges facing our field. So many dedicated professionals from all across our industry were working in isolation to meet those challenges. Many old challenges remain, and others are brand new, especially those created by new technologies.
But one thing has not changed: The power and importance of collaboration. Barry and I have been both honored and humbled to see the kinds of collaborative efforts that lead to real change that have come out of the simple act of gathering a diverse group of stakeholders in our profession together and introducing them to each other. The international discussion on interpreter certification, the founding of the National Interpreters Associations Coalition (of which NAJIT is an important member) and concrete changes in how some technology companies do businesses are just a few examples.
Clearly, our project is just one of many that is achieving the same result. Of all the changes technology is bringing, the ability to collaborate on much grander scales is perhaps the most important new resource to latch onto. [Collaboration] is “a fundamentally generative act. [It] isn’t just about achieving a goal or joining forces; it’s about creating something together that it would be impossible to create alone.”
Our field, once so separate, is now brimming with the possibilities created by such innovative efforts as Streetleverage.com, a collaborative blogging site for the sign language community, the soon-to-be revealed Voices Academy, the newly-minted combination online/onsite Masters in Conference Interpreting at the Glendon College of Translation, and Interpreting for Europe, which was originally maintained by both the European Commission and the European Parliament to address conference interpreter shortages and which grew into the largest social media site for interpreters anywhere in the world (more than 25K likes). Both entities have now launched separate campaigns to more specifically target their different social media objectives.
As my co-president Barry Olsen recently shared on Facebook:
“For all the possibilities that communication technologies represent, their use for good or ill depends solely on people. Forget all the talk about machines taking over. What happens in the future is up to us.”
All of these innovators and many more will be present at the 4th InterpretAmerica Summit on June 14-15 in Reston, Virginia. Come join us to help shape our profession’s future! Early bird rates good through Monday, May 20th!
 Question posted on the LinkedIn group Professional Interpreters, All Languages”, April 2013
 Occupation Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/interpreters-and-translators.htm
 McGonigal, Jane (2011-01-20). Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Kindle Locations 4367-4368). Penguin Books. Kindle Edition.
 Excerpt From: Eric Schmidt & Jared Cohen. “The New Digital Age.” Knopf, 2013-04-23. iBook.
by Al Navas on Friday, February 8, 2013
Our mental and physical wellness can affect our performance as interpreters. It is likely that the following affect our output: diet, exercise, family issues, finances, overall health, etc. All of these can significantly impact the daily fabric of our lives.
It is important that we listen to the signals we receive from our body. Listening to these signals is akin to the “listening” we do to deliver a competent interpretation in a court room. When we interpret we are also reading and processing gut feelings; for example, we instantly are aware when we do not understand a question, or when we are not sure what a question or a reply means, etc. On the other hand, we almost instinctively know when things are going well.
I remember being separated from my wife for 22 months several years ago, due to work requirements. Not a moment passed that I was not worried about things happening 9,000 miles away. This separation so affected and changed my daily routine that I eventually resigned from the position. After a few days at home, distance was no longer a concern; “normal” had replaced separation anxiety. In retrospect, had this assignment been in interpreting, I can safely predict how my poor performance might have compromised justice.
A recent back injury brought my overall health into perspective one more time. I share this experience hoping it will help others.
A recent personal experience
Mary: “Al, are you available for an afternoon assignment?”
Me: “I will not be able to attend, Mary. Just today I was put on total bed rest, due to a back injury.”
Mary: “Sorry to hear that, Al. I will find someone else. Take care of your injury, and let me know when you are well.”
Me: “Thanks! I hope it is nothing serious; I am scheduled for tests, to determine how bad the damage is”.
Do not ignore signals from your body. A few weeks ago I was in the middle of a bad cold; coughing and sneezing were severe and my body ached. A coughing spell started and, suddenly my lower back felt as though a small explosion had taken place around the belt line. I tried to stand, only to be stopped by terrible pain radiating from my back to my right leg and all the way to my ankle. Sciatica had struck.
The pain lasted only a few seconds. I sat down and waited for it to pass. Gingerly, I made it to bed; it seemed to take hours to get on my back. To make matters worse, my right leg felt numb; if I poked it with a finger, I could feel the pressure but nothing else.
This incident happened a little over four weeks ago; I visited the chiropractor three times per week for over three weeks. During that time period I was referred to a website that may be useful to us as interpreters because of the terminology.
The chiropractor’s treatment helped somewhat. He eventually recommended that I visit my general practitioner, which I did. My personal doctor referred me to a neurosurgeon and at the same time requested an MRI.
I came back from a visit to the neurosurgeon’s office four days ago. The MRI confirms severe herniation of one disc (see the attached copy of a portion of the MRI). Several options are available to correct this problem, including surgery. For the time being I selected an option that does not include surgery. Meanwhile, I have grounded myself until I feel I can function at near full capacity.
What would YOU do?
This was an easy decision for me. A long time ago I had knee surgery (an old Army injury); based on that experience, I do not recommend the pain and the stress of surgery. As each case is unique, every person afflicted with a back injury must make their own decision to return to wellness.
How would you handle this?
1. Immediately decide on having a well-known surgical procedure, or
2. Physical therapy, or
3. Do you sometimes endure pain simply “because you have to?”
Please share your experiences. I am interested in learning how others have handled severe and debilitating back pain, and if you have continued working as an interpreter during treatment.
— Al Navas
by Kathleen on Friday, January 25, 2013
I am interpreting consecutively. I am well-rested, fully focused, alert and engaged. Almost effortlessly, I allow the equivalent words,phrases and structures to flow through my brain and out my mouth. An interpreting instructor of mine once called this being “in the groove.” It doesn’t happen every time, but more and more often I find I get better at it as I gain ever more confidence and expertise. It is one of our common goals, an ideal we strive to achieve in our work.
My sister, a trained classical singer, once mentioned to me that watching anyone perform well in whatever endeavor always reminded her of an ice skater at her very best, an analogy that really intrigues me when I apply it to interpreting. When I am on my game, it does feel as if I am gliding seamlessly from one language to the other, my brain shifting back and forth, ready to address all the challenging mental gymnastics coming at me.
Oddly, though, I find I can only achieve this switching back and forth when I am actually interpreting. My brain seems incapable of mixing the two languages in everyday conversation, no matter whom I am speaking with.
Weird, isn’t it? Many of my bilingual friends think nothing of starting a sentence in English and finishing it in Spanish, or nonchalantly tossing foreign words willy-nilly into a monolingual communication. (I even have a friend who does this when she writes!)
It’s called code-switching.
Not only do I find it difficult to mix my languages, but when I hear it done, I can feel my brain suddenly grinding and shifting like a manual transmission manhandled by a novice driver. And when I am at a gathering with bilingual friends and we start to chatter away, my head is soon aching with the effort of listening to all the switching back and forth. My inner ice skater feels as though the ice is all bumpy, and I am no longer skimming along. Since I don’t know what language is coming next, my brain cannot prepare itself, and screams: “Hey, I was listening to that, don’t change the channel!”
When I speak Spanish, I speak only Spanish, and when I speak English, I speak only English, and the twain meet only in the courtroom, or the hospital or at the deposition table.
Code switching is a subject of a good deal of discussion, both pro and con. Conventional wisdom used to have it that people who mixed languages were either too lazy or too ignorant to express themselves properly in one language. Nowadays, on the contrary, code switching is often considered as proof that a person is truly bilingual, and chooses which language to use according to specific cultural and personal factors. New research seeks to show that it is an intrinsic part of being bilingual (Grosjean).
I must say that this conclusion makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I consider myself fully bilingual. I have lived and studied in various countries. As a graduate student in this country for many years, my main language for speaking and writing was Spanish. My colleagues and instructors were all extremely well-educated and well-informed scholars and intellectuals from many Spanish-speaking countries. I have read and studied works of literature in Spanish and other languages from all over the western world. My accent in Spanish is impeccable, my use of idioms and vocabulary on the educated native level. Why don’t I do code-switching?
I think perhaps the main reason is that I learned Spanish in another country, with absolutely no contact with the English language. For one year, I heard and spoke no English, and I firmly believe that the two languages somehow came to occupy different parts of my brain. I believe something similar happens with others who did not learn their two languages simultaneously. I have noticed that when I converse in Spanish with people who were born in other countries and learned English as a second language, we almost invariably stick to Spanish. With my friends who were born here and speak Spanish as a second language, we usually communicate solely in English (except when we need to say something we do not want overheard, of course!) It is only with my colleagues who grew up here learning both languages at the same time that code-switching comes into play.
I find myself wondering what impact, if any, code-switching has on interpreting. I am not referring here to the dreaded Spanglish used by some witnesses, which presents its own headaches for the interpreter, but whether the habit of mixing languages in social communication helps or hinders the interpreting process. I plan to investigate this more fully. Meanwhile, if anybody out there would like to share experiences, please comment below!
There are many websites, blogs and books on the subject of code-switching. Here are a few I have found of interest, but just google the term, and you will be amazed at the number of sources that address this phenomenon.
Websites and Blogs:
Lewis, Benny. How to Speak Multiple Languages Without Mixing Them Up. Retrieved from the website Fluent in 3 Months http://www.fluentin3months.com/not-mix-up/
Nortier, Jacominel (2011) “Code-switching Is Much More than Careless Mixing: Multilinguals Know the Rules!” Retrieved from the website Multilingual Living http://www.multilingualliving.com/2011/05/19/codeswitching-much-more-than-careless-mixing-multilingual-bilingual-know-rules/
Soto, Roxana A. (2010) “What is Code-Switching and Why Do Bilinguals Do it?” Reitrived from the website SpanglishBaby: Raising Bilingual Kids. http://spanglishbaby.com/2010/06/what-is-code-switching-and-why-do-bilinguals-do-it/
Scholarly papers and books
Grosjean, François. (2010) Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Mahootian S. (2006) Code Switching and Mixing. In: Keith Brown, (Editor-in-Chief) Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics, Second Edition, volume 2, pp. 511-527. Oxford: Elsevier. Retrieved from http://www.neiu.edu/~linguist/Codeswitching%20and%20Codemixing.pdf
Price, Tom. (2010) What is Spanglish? The phenomenon of code-switching and its impact amongst US Latinos”. Début: The Undergraduate Journal of Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Vol 1, No. 1. University of Southampton, Southampton, UK. Retrieved from: http://www.llas.ac.uk/resourcedownloads/3088/debut_vol_1_price.pdf
by Maria Cristina de la Vega on Friday, December 28, 2012
Dr. Roseann Dueñas Gonzalez is a 21st Century luminary in the field of language access in the U.S. She was the founder and long-standing Director of the University of Arizona National Center for Interpretation, Testing, Research and Policy. I took the opportunity of her stepping down to ask her to share her thoughts on the status of our industry.
MCV: To give those readers not acquainted with you an idea of the influence you have had on the legal interpreting profession is the U.S., give us a brief summary of the salient points in your career.
RDG: As a linguist, I specialized in language policy, registers of English, and language proficiency testing. I was hired by the courtsin AZ in 1976 to identify defendants who truly needed an interpreter. That led to my study of courtroom English, which became the basis of my 1977 doctoral dissertation, and a lifetime of work:
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts consulted my research for the implementation of the 1978 Court Interpreters Act.
I led the development of the model which became the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination (SPA<>ENG).
In 1983, I founded the Agnese Haury Institute at the University of Arizona to provide training for court interpretation and to meet standards set by the federal testing model.
From 2000-2012, I was the Principal Investigator for projects that resulted in the development in curricula for the major in translation and interpretation at the University of Arizona, and onsite and online education to improve the registers of Spanish teachers to teach translation and interpretation in high schools, funded by the Department of Education. That in turn brought about:
(a) The publication of Fundamentals of Court Interpretation: Theory, Policy and Practice in 1991, in collaboration with Victoria Vasquez, J.D. and Holly Mikkelson. It is the most often cited work in law review articles and other scholarly work on court interpretation. This text provided the foundation for the profession’s stabilization, growth, and emergence as a professional field. The 2012 revision offers further refinement of interpreter practice, protocol, and ethics.
(b) The expansion of the Agnese Haury Institute for the training of interpreters in healthcare.
(c) Nationwide short courses in test preparation, and introduction to court interpretation, or advanced court interpretation, hybrid online/onsite training and testing options that will provide opportunities for interpreters seeking to better their skills.
MCV: Why were you selected in 1976 by the Pima County Superior Court to assist in identifying defendants needing an interpreter, which led to your seminal doctorate dissertation?
RDG: The court called the English Department at the University of Arizona and asked for a testing specialist. Judge Ben Birdsall wanted a systematic way to determine whether or not a defendant needed an interpreter. I explained that the language of the courtroom constituted a particular variety that was different from ordinary English, and that for this reason, I would have to devise a language test particularly for this purpose. The judge provided me access to cases, some research support, and a pilot population. That was the beginning of the rest of my life.
MCV: What is the most significant change you have observed in the U.S. interpreting profession after the revolutionary implementation of the Federal Certification Program?
RDG: To see a profession grow out of out of the federal courts’ recognition of its duty to guarantee constitutional rights and to carry out the mandate of the Court Interpreters Act (1978)—that is the transformation of a lifetime. With federal certification came the introduction of a professional language intermediary who made the courts accessible to limited and non-English speakers Because federal certification testing was founded on a valid empirical analysis of courtroom language and the complex job of the court interpreter in this setting, it set the performance criteria and standards for the entire profession. This tool has identified a cadre of extremely talented persons, thus launching the birth of a profession.
MCV: What is the best measure of the growth the Agnese Haury Institute at the University of Arizona and the National Institute for Interpretation have experienced since their inception in 1983? Approximately how many interpreters have received training?
RDG: The Agnese Haury Institute can best be measured by its influence on the growth and development of the court interpreting profession. Its commitment to sharing knowledge and experience is foremost. The Institute was created out of a willingness of master court interpreters (of which there were few in 1983) to share their knowledge and to create a continuing platform where not only linguistic and interpreting skills could be honed, but where all of the content knowledge required of a court interpreters could be presented. Approximately 2,500 interpreters have taken courses there to date.
MCV: I see the short certificate courses offered by the NCI as a robust measure to fill the tremendous need for training that we are experiencing. Do you believe that as recognition for the profession increases, and remuneration merits it, that it will create more traditional educational opportunities through conventional degree programs that are so needed to support this goal?
RDG: As I stated in the 1991 Fundamentals of Court Interpretation and reiterated 20 years later in the 2012 edition, the quality of court interpretation, the growth of the profession, and the quality of language access depends upon the establishment of an academic national infrastructure of translation and interpretation undergraduate and graduate degree programs with an emphasis on interpretation, and a focus on judicial settings. However, consider the fact that it took me 25 years from the founding of the Agnese Haury Institute to the establishment of a T & I major concentration at the University of Arizona, despite my constant efforts. Higher education has been reluctant to embrace court interpretation as a viable field of study. Obstacles include the continuing lack of recognition of interpretation versus translation as a formal field of study; recognition of the need of higher education to fulfill the need for capable interpreters for judicial, medical and other critical settings; and the tremendous workforce demands for certified interpreters. As this need becomes better known through the enforcement of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services, professional interpreters, linguists, lawyers, judges, and other professional groups will have an increasingly stronger argument to begin creating academic programs.
However, a diversity of educational paths are still needed. the Agnese Haury Institute provides a professional experience unlike the experience gained in an undergraduate or graduate program. Persons who have completed our undergraduate major in translation and interpretation often take the Institute as a capstone experience. The intensive guided practice with feedback in the three modes of interpretation (consecutive, simultaneous, and sight translation) distinguishes this experience from all others. Short courses fulfill the need for test preparation, specialized instruction such as advanced simultaneous, consecutive, and forensic transcription/translation, etc. Short courses also offer persons considering interpretation the opportunity to self- diagnose and consider the practice of court or medical interpretation and contemplate their own linguistic, interpreting, and subject matter skills and knowledge, to find the educational pathway that meets their goal.
MCV: Have you compared the learning curve and the stage of our profession in the U.S. to that of other parts of the world?
RDG: Although other countries (such as Spain) are significantly ahead in terms of educational opportunities at state funded as well as private universities and colleges, the United States court interpreting profession as a whole is light years ahead of its European and other international counterparts in terms of status of the profession, remuneration and the place of certified professional court interpreters in the justice system. This fact emanates from the rigorous standards set by the federal courts and the enforcement of same through the federal certification examination program and the commensurate remuneration policy established by the federal courts for those who have this unique capability. Although there may be many court interpreters who are doing outstanding work in the field and are not certified at the federal level, the standards set by federal certification provide an exemplar for all state and local courts as well as for other high stakes settings, such as medical.
MCV: What can interested parties do to lobby governmental and private sources to yield support for programs such as those you have spearheaded to develop language access in the U.S.?
RDG: As private citizens, as members of the court interpreting profession, and of professional interpreting and translation groups such as NAJIT and ATA, interpreters need to consider every horizon in terms of language access. The question that should always be: How does this agency, court, system, etc. meet the language access needs of its LEP population. How can I assist them to understand their language access obligation? State interpreter associations need to plug in to local colleges and universities and make it known that access is a primary aspect of their agenda, working collaboratively with universities to make language access a true part of every facet of these institutions.
What are the next goals for our industry and how can language associations help to achieve them?
As we discuss in Fundamentals, the primary goal for the profession is to strengthen its associations and continue to work towards it broader goal of “language access,” which will in turn lead to greater professionalization. NAJIT’S new concentration on policy statements and collaboration with the American Bar Association and other agencies is an excellent beginning that should be expanded.
Professional associations and all court interpreters should concentrate on creating uniform standards of certification among the 50 states and lobby for the establishment of an office within a federal agency to oversee state and local certification of interpreters and ensure that national interpreting telephone and video relay agencies and other providers are employing persons who have passed a rigorous certification examination in legal, or any venue in which laws are applied or where life outcomes are affected. Until there are uniform standards among states and national or international agencies providing interpreting and translation services, the profession of court interpretation will never achieve its potential. Moreover, as it comes of age, the profession must begin to promulgate professional ethical standards that provide more specific guidance for interpreters to follow and some ways of policing itself, instead of being “policed” by an outside nonprofessional agency.
Dr. Dueñas González decided to leave her position in September for health reasons and to spend time with her growing family, after many years of distinguished service. I ask you to join with me to wish her our best. We look forward to her continuing advice as the fruits of her labor blossom.
by Kathleen on Friday, December 21, 2012
This is a cautionary tale about what can happen when you don’t have two interpreters for a trial. It’s also rather amusing in a macabre way, and I enjoy telling the story to people who ask me about the most unusual case I have ever worked on.
This all happened a very long time ago, when the profession was still developing standards and best practices. I was contracted by the Public Defender’s office to interpret at a trial for attempted murder. When I objected to being the only interpreter, they assured me it would be just a two-day trial at the very most, and that their client actually spoke pretty good English. He had lived quite a long time in the United States, they told me, and his common-law wife (the victim) was American. They said they just wanted me there for backup in case there was something the defendant did not understand. Ha! I really didn’t know any better.
Heck, I had been interpreting for almost a year, and had yet to get my teeth into a real trial. Most of my work was (and still is) interpreting attorney-client interviews and all kinds of pleas, from traffic cases to rape. I was dying to use my hard-won skills in simultaneous and consecutive interpreting in a courtroom setting. I jumped in with both feet.
I knew that things were not going to be easy at the first interview the attorney had with his client at the prison. The defendant, a Cuban gentleman (and I use the term “gentleman” loosely), had come to this country on the Mariel boatlift. I’ll call him Mr. Díaz. After many years living in the United States, he seemed to have forgotten most of his Spanish without acquiring very much English to replace it. Communications with his attorney were carried out by surly grunts, monosyllables, and a mixture of broken English and fractured Spanish. I interpreted everything the attorney said to him into Spanish, and did the best I could with his answers. To this day, I have no idea if he ever really understood anything that I interpreted to him, either then or at trial.
Here is a brief summary of the case. One late Saturday evening, Mr. Díaz ran out of beer, and asked his wife to go out and get him some more. Seeing that he was already in an advanced state of intoxication, the lady refused categorically. Then all hell broke loose. Mr. Díaz ran outside to grab his machete and proceeded to use it for purposes for which it was not actually intended. His goal, as he himself admitted at the police interrogation, was to take his wife’s head off. His first attempt ended with his severing an ornamental wooden pineapple from the bed post. The second resulted in his cutting off his wife’s right big toe at the large joint. Witnesses at the scene finally managed to subdue Mr. Díaz and called the police. For some reason, the toe ended up in the back yard, where the police finally found it some hours later, much too late to reattach it. Mercifully, it was not entered into evidence, although there were copious photographs. The pineapple, however, sat perkily at the prosecutor’s table throughout the trial.
You’d have thought this would have been a slam dunk. Why didn’t the guy just plead out? Why did he think he could win at trial? Well, in his opinion he had an ace in the hole. During one pre-trial conference, the attorney told him that his wife would be called to testify. An extraordinary expression came over his face, a kind of unholy glee. Amid his cackles (he was much given to cackling), he told the attorney that his wife would never testify against him, indeed that she would refuse to come to court at all. In fact, despite a no-contact order, she had been visiting him once a week at the prison, and had told him she wasn’t coming.
So we went to trial on a cold day in mid-December. It was an experience I hope never to repeat. It was grueling to interpret simultaneously hour after hour. I requested breaks from time to time, but I could see that the judge was not best pleased at these interruptions.
Every interpreter’s worst nightmare seemed to play out at that trial. The voir dire of the jury pool took almost an entire day. There was something wrong with the heating system and the place was freezing. The doctor who came to testify about the victim’s injuries had an extremely heavy accent in English, the kind you have to strain merely to understand, let alone interpret into another language. The prosecutor ran a video of the defendant’s police interview and the equipment kept breaking down. I wasn’t allowed to bring my own water, and I couldn’t seem to catch the bailiff’s eye to ask him to refill the pitcher.
The most frustrating thing of all, though, was that the defendant showed no sign of understanding anything at all in either language, but just glowered at everyone, from the judge to the jury members. The only time he reacted was when the police video showed him cackling away and saying (in broken English) that he was sorry he missed, and that he wished he had managed to cut his wife’s head off. Then he cracked a smile.
The only ordeal I was spared was having to interpret for Mr. Díaz on the stand. Wisely, defense counsel had convinced him to waive his right to testify. Hallelujah!
Well at the end of the first day, I was pretty tuckered out. After day two, I almost ran a red light on my way home. Then the third day rolled around.
As Mr. Díaz had predicted, his wife did not come to the trial, but at the end of the second day, the judge ordered her to be brought to court by force the following morning. Mr. Díaz’ lady love was led in, almost literally kicking and screaming. As she limped up the aisle, she insisted vociferously that she wasn’t goin’ to say nothin’ and nobody could make her. I admired her vocabulary and strove to match English expletive to its Spanish equivalent. When she finally reached the stand, the prosecutor asked her point blank if Mr. Díaz had cut off her toe. She lied blatantly, head high, swearing that he had not. The judge advised her as to the penalties of perjury, and she subsided momentarily, reiterating her intention not to say nothin’. I snuck a glance at the defendant and I was taken aback at the expression on his face. There was pride and admiration there. “What a woman!” he seemed to be thinking. As she left the stand she cast him a glance alight with triumph and, yes, love.
After defense and prosecution rested, the jury’s deliberations took about ten minutes. In spite of all the victim’s attempts to stand by her man, the verdict was guilty and the judge sentenced him to four years.
And what did I get out of it? The determination to never, never, never again be so foolish as to allow myself to be persuaded to interpret at a trial all by myself, and I never have. But I also learned something about pacing when interpreting simultaneously, about the need for adequate preparation, about keeping hydrated, about staying alert and ready for anything. And I also learned a little something that day about life and about human beings.
They were quite a pair those two.
Andrew Erickson. March, 2007. Team Interpreting In The Courtroom. National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators Position Paper. Eds. Nancy Festinger, Isabel Framer, Judith Kenigson Kristy. http://www.najit.org/publications/Team%20Interpreting_052007.pdf