Janis Palma

by on Friday, January 29, 2016

The Lightness of Not-Being

I recently became a regular Staff Interpreter… as opposed to a Supervisory Interpreter. I changed my profile description in one of those networking pages that is always sending e-mails asking you to “congratulate so-and-so on this-and-that”, so I suddenly had all these messages congratulating me on my new post. I thought, “How nice”, and started thanking everyone individually until I noticed every message said exactly the same thing. I then realized it was a “boilerplate message” and that no one had read what I wrote about my “new position.” Only one person asked, “Did you move to a different district?”

Well, no, I did not move. I have been planning my retirement for the past five years, and I simply decided (for the sake of my own mental and physical health) that I really did not have to wait for my retirement to stop being a supervisor. So I am now a regular staff interpreter and someone else has taken on the responsibilities I relinquished.

Being a supervisory interpreter is not just about contracting freelancers when needed, and making sure every judge has an interpreter in his or her courtroom when one is needed. In fact, that’s probably the easiest part of the job.

The way I see it, being a supervisory interpreter means that you are somewhat of a “linebacker” for those interpreters you supervise, because many of us still work in settings where a lot of people do not really understand what we do and how difficult it is to do it well. Oftentimes there are demands or limitations put on court interpreters that are not reasonable or even realistic. It is up to the supervisory interpreter to handle those before they have a negative impact on the interpreters he or she supervises.

I may not have the perfect football metaphor here, but in my mind a supervisory interpreter is there to defend and protect the professional interests of staff and contract interpreters so they can all do the work they are called upon to do, under the best conditions possible.

Conversely, when management has an issue with any or all the interpreters, the supervisor is there to be their voice and “give face”, find solutions to any problems that may arise, convey all the information everyone needs to have so as to implement those solutions, and develop action plans to prevent such issues from coming up again in the future.

When anything goes wrong, the Supervisory Interpreter is the one who gets blamed and has to bear the brunt of whatever consequences such wrongdoing may have. But when everything goes right, no one is there to give you a pat on the back and say “good job.” The only satisfaction comes from knowing you have done your best each and every day. But the bottom line is that this is (for the most part) a thankless job.

So, yeah, after a number of years (enough, I’d say) of trying to do my best while fielding complaints left and right for things that should never have been a problem (there are some people in every workplace, I am told, who just like to complain about everything); after years of being on call day and night (because contract interpreters do get sick all of a sudden and you have to scramble to find a replacement at eleven o’clock at night for a nine o’clock hearing the next day); after seeing how little things really do change even though as a profession we have come a long way, I realized one day, “I don’t really have to do this any longer!”

I expect to retire this year, so it seemed like the perfect time to let someone else step up to the plate (sorry about my mixed sports metaphors here), while I start to “wind down” and simply enjoy what I really love doing: interpreting in court.

I feel rejuvenated! I even walk with a little spring in my step.

Ah… the lightness of not being (a supervisory interpreter)!

Janis Palma

by on Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Militant Interpreter

The phrase itself should set off an alarm. Or perhaps “militant” is too strong a word. How about “the advocate interpreter”?

Merriam-Webster defines militant as “having or showing a desire or willingness to use strong, extreme, and sometimes forceful methods to achieve something,” or, in short, “aggressively active (as in a cause).”

An advocate, on the other hand, is “ a person who argues for or supports a cause or policy.”

Is the difference between an advocate and a militant a matter of degrees? Either way, by definition a militant or an advocate cannot be an impartial or neutral person, whereas an interpreter, particularly in a judiciary setting, cannot be anything but impartial and neutral. Does that mean a judiciary interpreter can never support a cause that he or she believes in?

Hardly. Interpreters are people with all sorts of causes near and dear to their hearts. Mine is saving abandoned and abused animals. Others may want to save the planet from wasteful plastics. Perhaps a favorite cause for some is a literacy programs for inner city teenagers, or taking art appreciation outside of the museums through urban murals. We can even be militant vegans, or corporate take-your-kid-to-work advocates. But the litmus test must be: does this in any way affect my impartiality and neutrality when I have to interpret in a legal proceeding?

If it does, then you have to either recuse yourself from the case, or abandon your cause. Since most, if not all, causes are based on personal convictions and principles, chances are that in the face of such a choice, an ethical interpreter will recuse him or herself from the case, and simply move on to the next one where there will be no conflict because the required neutrality will not be lacerated.

Of course, there is no “ethics tribunal” for interpreters. It is up to each one of the members of this profession to uphold the Code of Ethics that has been promulgated through NAJIT, and to simply know which lines can be crossed and which ones cannot.

Staying ethical when you have a cause also means knowing yourself.

I know I could never be an interpreter in an animal cruelty case because I would certainly want the perpetrator to go to prison for a long, long time! It’s what is known as a “no-brainer”. If someone has polluted the rivers with illegal toxins, I can keep my opinions under wraps and interpret with no trace of bias whatsoever, even if I think the defendant is scum. I can vent later on, with my colleagues, behind closed doors, if need be.

If you have a cause in your life and are also a judiciary interpreter, take a moment to ask yourself: does my cause make me biased in a way that could affect my performance? Will I try to influence the outcome of a case through my choice of words while interpreting because of my personal beliefs? Are my opinions so strong that I am no longer perceived as a disinterested person in a case for which I have been called to interpret?

Bear in mind also that if you are a judiciary employee, there are liberties other citizens have that you don’t. Employees of the federal judicial branch, for example, cannot openly campaign for any political candidate. We cannot speak to the press without authorization from higher-ups, and we cannot post on any social media images that depict our place of employment. No selfies at your desk!

So if you contract for the state or federal judiciary, find out what the rules are regarding your “freedom of speech”, and make sure to follow them. If you don’t like the rules, it is your choice not to accept engagements in those venues. As long as we each remain within the boundaries of our Professional Code of Conduct, we can be faithful to both, our individual principles and our collective ethical responsibilities.

Janis Palma

by on Friday, October 9, 2015

Let me introduce you

How many of you are familiar with SSTI? Well, let me introduce you.

SSTI stands for the Society for the Study of Translation and Interpretation. It is the non-profit charity component of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT).

NAJIT was created in 1978 to promote the highest ethical and performance standards in the profession. Part of that was the development of educational activities to further these standards among judiciary interpreters and translators whose field experience ranged from completely inexperienced novices to fully-vetted professionals. Also part of the mission was creating an instrument designed by active members of the profession and validated by competency assessment experts to measure and certify the performance of judiciary interpreters and translators.

SSTI, created in 1997, was already conducting educational activities for NAJIT when the association’s certification exam development process began in 1999. Keeping these two activities separate—educating and testing—was one of the requirements to maintain the validity of NAJIT’s credentialing process, pursuant to the Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs from the National Organization for Competency Assurance (NOCA), now the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE). And so, while SSTI focused on this credential, NAJIT took over the educational program. Since then, and throughout the years, both of these programs have undergone many transformations in response to shifting priorities for both NAJIT and SSTI Board members.

Fast forward to 2015 and we now have a NAJIT Board of Directors with a renewed interest in the original mission for which SSTI was created: to promote scholarly research and undertake projects intended to advance the profession. But first, a little technical information. Under SSTI’s Bylaws, “The SSTI Board of Directors (hereinafter, the Board) shall be appointed by the Board of Directors of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, Inc. (NAJIT), and shall consist of no less than five and no more than seven members, four of whom shall also serve as officers of the Corporation until the appointment of their successors.” (Art. V) Accordingly, a new SSTI Board of Directors was appointed in May 2015: Vice President, Aída Martínez-Gómez , Secretary, Susan Berk-Seligson, Treasurer, Holly Mikkelson, and the more recently appointed Member At Large, Melissa Wallace. I have the honor of being the President of that Board.

SSTI is embarking on brand new projects intended to benefit NAJIT’s members and make noteworthy contributions to the professions of judiciary interpreting and legal translation. One of them is a comprehensive review of the current scholarly literature on legal and judiciary interpreting. In the near future we expect to have a call for proposals to identify English-speaking end-users of judiciary interpreting services and the methods they use for making the most effective and efficient use of these services.

Our main goals at this time are:

  • - To be a source of research funding to support best practices in legal translation and interpretation.


  • - To promote authoritative research on judiciary interpreting and legal translation.


  • - To collaborate in the development of research-based training guidelines for English-speaking end-users of interpreter services, guidelines that will ensure the highest efficiency and effectiveness of those services.


  • - To be a nationally recognized source of information, statistics, and research on judiciary interpreting and legal translation issues.

The SSTI Board members want to hear from you. We want to know what research projects you think SSTI should be sponsoring. We also welcome volunteers with social media skills, grant proposal writing skills, and funded research experience who can help us match the right funding sources with the projects we sponsor. And, of course, we want you to continue to support SSTI with your generous donations when you renew your NAJIT membership.

Be on the lookout for our SSTI tab soon on the NAJIT page, where you will also be able to contact us directly. We want to hear from you!



Jennifer De La Cruz

by on Thursday, July 2, 2015

Not in My Home, You Don’t

**Flashback First Friday continues with a piece on honesty in the profession from 3 years back**

     Recently, I had some work done at the house. It was a simple installation of a security system, done by a pretty reputable company with a clean-cut salesman at the helm. Even the installer seemed to be nice enough: big smile, joked around, worked efficiently and kept his mess to a minimum.

     At some point in the process, this installer asked me to take a look at something he’d done to the system. No problem. What I was surprised (shocked!) to hear him tell me was that he could sell me an upgrade on the side that takes advantage of products removed from other clients’ homes. My mind immediately flashed to a suburban version of a guy in a dark alley asking if I wanted to buy a watch!  My heart was saddened as I respectfully declined the offer, yet I couldn’t help but feel offended at such dishonesty in my own home. The positive image I had of the installer was actually ruined.

     When I got to thinking about my experience, I saw a clear parallel to the ethical principles of our profession that deal with accurate representation of our qualifications. By extension, when we’re asked to work as interpreters and translators in any setting, we’re being entrusted first and foremost with a specific task required for somebody else’s “home”—be it their court, their clinic, their conference or their document. They’re trusting that we’ll be honest about what we do, from stating our credentials and experience to the specific words or techniques we use in practice.

     We’ve all heard stories about interpreters who call themselves “certified” when the reality is that they can only claim to have a certificate from a program; or the translators out there who rely exclusively on machine translation and charge as if they actually put some thought into their work. Happily, we don’t necessarily fit into either of those extreme categories if we’re conscientious professionals who do, indeed, possess the proper skills, training and experience to practice our craft. But does that mean that we’re not susceptible to falling into a “misrepresentation” trap too?

     Consider the times when, perhaps, you’ve been called upon to defend a particular term or phrase you used in a translation or an interpreting session. Can you truly say you were always open to the possibility that your choice was inadequate, inaccurate, and well-deserving of the challenge? Have you ever felt tempted to save face by stretching the truth so that your choice is made out to be a good synonym when it was, at best, only a related term? Food for thought, at the very least.

     I hope we can all answer the above by saying we’d never lead our client into thinking we’re right when, in fact, we’re wrong. With this hope in mind, I would call upon myself, and my professional colleagues, to continue to respect others’ “homes” and be completely honest about what we’re doing. It’s not always guaranteed to be the easy path, but it is widely held that it’s the mark of the true professional to know where limitations lie, and where it may be necessary to stand corrected or even decline an attractive offer of work.

     It may not be so easy to take a long, hard look at ourselves and seek to identify where we can apply the honesty principle. It may even take a friend telling us where our flaws lie, and our comparing them to our own perceptions. One thing to consider is that the criticism we often find easy to express about others could be said about us, as well. If the heart knows that we’ll always be susceptible to making mistakes, we’ll always need to polish our skills, and we’ll always seek whatever is the right thing to do, it’s a good start, for sure. Knowing we’re tasked with being qualified to do what we do, and essentially proving it with every word, can admittedly be a daunting challenge at times—but it’s what our clients and the profession require of us.

     There’s a writer I’ve followed for several years now who talks about issues of character–often posing very difficult questions about what true honesty is, and is not, and where we can stand to improve our attitudes about the value of truth. While he’s always quick to acknowledge how difficult it can be to consistently speak the truth, that doesn’t negate my professional responsibility to do my darndest to avoid being perceived like that installer who dared to offer me goods obtained in a not-so-honest manner. Maybe everyone has a personal line to draw, but for sure there’s a line, and if we apply our ethics, that line can be quite clear, indeed.

Further reading:

NAJIT Code of Ethics: Canon 7. Accurate Representation of Credentials: Court interpreters and translators shall accurately represent their certifications, accreditations, training and pertinent experience. http://www.najit.org/about/NAJITCodeofEthicsFINAL.pdf

Professional Standards and Ethics for California Court Interpreters “Representation of Qualifications: An interpreter must accurately and completely represent his or her certifications, training, and relevant experience. ―California Rules of Court, rule 2.890(a)  […] Never misrepresent your qualifications and credentials in order to obtain work. Your reputation and the reputation of the entire profession are at stake.” http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/Ethics_Manual_4th_Ed_Master.pdf

American Translators Association Code of Ethics and Professional Practice “We the members of the American Translators Association accept as our ethical and professional duty […] 3. to represent our qualifications, capabilities, and responsibilities honestly and to work always within them […]” http://www.atanet.org/membership/code_of_ethics.php

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.

Jennifer De La Cruz

by on Friday, April 3, 2015

Challenges from Outside the Profession: Friend or Foe?

**Flashback First Friday**

This was originally posted on the NAJIT Blog back in 2012. Leave a comment about being challenged!

A good, healthy session of constructive criticism by a senior colleague about our performance or skills as interpreters is something I venture to say we would all embrace at some level, right? Whether meant as gentle guidance or a harsh reality check, at the end of the day we’ve grown just a little if we heed these words of advice. But what if we’re being challenged by someone who hasn’t been where we’ve been? How do we position ourselves to best respond?

What is it that places interpreters in a position where outsiders would think to challenge us? Well, I know a lot about my car, and when I take it to a mechanic for something I have an inkling about, I’d probably speak up if I had an idea. Same thing goes when I take my child to the doctor because, after all, I usually have information to complement his medical opinion.

How we handle ourselves in any given interpreting situation happens in the open, and seemingly, a lot of the people around us have some level of understanding about what we do. So, yes, there is often a critical eye observing us, and feeling empowered to give opinions. The courts in California have attempted to address part of the issue of challenges by bilingual jurors who believe they hear an interpreter error on the witness stand. To a certain degree, the jury instruction[1] typically given does acknowledge the interpreter’s skills and abilities by saying that the jury must rely on the interpreter’s version. Although it goes on to allow for the challenge, the deference to the professional is understood.

We know that we are subject to both challenges and criticism, but so are other professions. A couple of factors that make it more difficult for us when we are targeted may be how our training is perceived, in general, and specifically, how we present ourselves.

We’ve heard that outside the US, linguist careers are already requiring university degrees, whereas so many training programs here are more similar to trade school certificates. Although I think there are valid arguments on both sides of the issue of “to be or not to be” university trained in the profession (often, great linguists come from other industries before joining our ranks), we have to acknowledge that kids here aren’t born into a culture that holds interpreting among the most highly regarded professions. I hope this will someday change, but in the meantime, although the knowledge we can gain over the span of a career can rival that of doctors and lawyers and scientists (we speak their words— so much of it sticks!!), when we do our jobs correctly, we simply work in their shadows.

How much of this perception can we personally chip away at in our daily dealings? If it’s all about perception, then it’s no longer a matter of only great performances and consistently upholding ethics; what we have to do is “represent” our profession in all we do. A courteous reaction to somebody who has no business challenging how I do things would be to educate, to calmly explain myself—even when my blood is boiling. But even before we are in a position to explain ourselves, if we are perceived by others as someone who has their act together, rather than some “second-class professional,” our reaction is better supported and more credible. This is probably quite individual, but we can all agree that the more we take our responsibility to the profession to heart, the fewer words we’ll need for explaining ourselves, and the more likely we’ll see those around us defer to our expertise.

On a side note, challenges from clients can be handled in a variety of ways, up to and including our decision to terminate the business relationship. When the challenge comes from an employer, however, this can be a stickier situation. Hopefully, we’ll have the backing of national organizations such as NAJIT and ATA (American Translators Association), state organizations and professional unions if, for example, an employer considers that professional ethics and the mechanics of how we complete our task must take a backseat to internal policy. In any case, holding steadfast to what we know is correct is sometimes easier said than done.

So, is the challenge from outside the profession friend or foe? Likely, it is all in how we react. A calm, reasoned answer will hopefully turn even an outrageous perception on how we do things into mutual understanding. At the end of the day, the challenges that we are facing should definitely not go on in silence. Personally, I find it very valuable when colleagues from afar share what they are going through, because all of us become more aware and prepared if similar things happen to us. Unless and until the interpretation and translation hold a place in the hierarchy that is widely recognized and understood as the highly specialized professions they are, we should embrace all challenges as “friend”, and know we will only become stronger as a result.

[1] CALIFORNIA JURY INSTRUCTIONS: CRIMINAL. 121. Duty to Abide by Translation Provided in Court. Some testimony may be given in <insert name or description of language other than English>. An interpreter will provide a translation for you at the time that the testimony is given. You must rely on the translation provided by the interpreter, even if you understand the language spoken by the witness. Do not retranslate any testimony for other jurors. If you believe the court interpreter translated testimony incorrectly, let me know immediately by writing a note and giving it to the  (clerk/bailiff).”   (emphasis added)(http://www.courts.ca.gov/partners/documents/calcrim_juryins.pdf)

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!

Bethany Korp-Edwards

by on Friday, October 3, 2014

Why You (Yes, *You*) Should Present at the 2015 NAJIT Conference

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Harry S Truman (attributed)

I have no earthly idea whether Mr. Truman actually said that, but it’s a good sentiment, isn’t it? Stop right now and think of three things you wish you knew. Me, I wish I knew how to play an instrument, how my car runs, and what my toddler means when he grins at me and exclaims, “Deeesssssssh!” (Seriously, folks, he’s been doing it for a month. Anyone?)  Done! Three things in ten seconds.

Unfortunately, when I talk to people about interpreter conferences—both ones they’ve attended and ones they decide not to—I frequently hear the same complaints. “There’s nothing for me there.” “I don’t need to know any of that.” “I’ve heard that all before.” And in fact, they may be right: maybe if you’ve been going to interpreter conferences for decades, there’s nothing being presented at most of them that you haven’t already heard.

This year, NAJIT wants to change that. Our wonderful Conference Committee is putting together a special program for the 2015 conference in Atlanta. During each session, one presentation will be earmarked as relevant for interpreters who work primarily in education, and at least one will be earmarked as an “advanced” session.  “But Bethany,” you say, “Who is going to teach these advanced sessions?” Read the rest of this entry »

Maria Cristina de la Vega

by on Friday, April 11, 2014

Interpreting Depositions: A Fact Sheet


María Cristina de la Vega is sponsoring this article by Veronica Perez Guarnieri, an AIIC colleague, because of its relevance to the legal interpreting profession.

VERÓNICA PÉREZ GUARNIERI was born in Argentina. She graduated with a Master of Arts in Translation and Interpretation from Universidad del Salvador in 1989.  She is also a certified translator and has a postgraduate degree in English Translation from City University in London, a Master’s Degree in Specialized Translation from Universidad de Córdoba, Spain, and is currently pursuing her doctoral studies. Since 1990, she has worked as a free-lance interpreter and translator Verónica is a member of AIIC and ADICA.  She is involved in the development of standards on interpreting at home and abroad, as Convener of the ISO group of experts working on the subject.


Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are ever contacted to interpret at a   deposition:

1.   Prepare very thoroughly: learn not only the facts of the case and points of law, but also the names of the law firms, the companies and/or individuals, exhibit numbers, and amounts involved. Figure out in advance which symbol you’ll use for each name.

Lawyers tend to speak very fast during depositions, perhaps to buy time or to obfuscate, and those names and numbers need to be ready to roll off your tongue.

        2.    Rehearse the situation using YouTube and other online sources.

There is plenty of material about preparing for depositions. Although it is mostly meant for lawyers, it will help you too. There are even lots of videos of actual depositions.

        3.    Hone your consecutive skills. Remember to rely on your memory above all.

This is the toughest, most demanding consecutive interpreting assignment I can think of. You’ll be tempted to regress to early training days, when notes were more of a crutch than a signpost – don’t.

        4.   Be as literal as possible: reformulate only if there is no alternative.

This is in aid of your memory: try too hard to understand in great depth and you’ll lose track.

         5.   Only interpret. Never try to answer a question made to you by the witness or talk aside with them during the hearing itself or breaks.

If this happens, immediately translate what the witness is saying, e.g., “The witness is asking me whether I know a good place to buy leather around here” or “The witness is telling me his wife is also a translator.” It is very important for both parties to trust you and be sure that you would never take sides, no matter which party actually retained your services.

         6.   Ask speakers to repeat names as many times as necessary.

Never hesitate to do this; better to appear “dense” once than to call Obama “Osama” and remain forever on tape to be heard over and over again.

         7.   Expect scapegoating. Don’t take it too personally if someone claims you have mistranslated something.

Once, a witness with excellent English claimed he would be more comfortable testifying in his own language, but then proceeded to correct my every word – with less-than-perfect results. He also kept asking me to repeat, so I was forced to explain to the lawyers that the witness wanted me to repeat my translation, then restate what I had said to the best of my memory, and finally accept the criticism and the correction. It was hard to keep a poker face, but I soon realized it was merely a tactic to wear out the other side: I was just collateral damage.

          8.  Be prepared for abrupt changes in register; don’t get caught off-guard. Highly educated language may be followed by colorful street slang.

Harvard-graduate lawyer: “Sir, I need to ascertain the genuineness of the exhibit I am about to present to you. For the record, this is Exhibit A453. Can you unequivocally attest to the fact that this letter was written by your Uncle Tom?”
Deponent:  “Listen, man, you’ll have to give me a full ear here. I’m no hobnocker[1]. I told ya’ already, I ain’t gonna pretend I recognize the letter if I wasn’t with Uncle when he wrote it.

[1]          A hobnocker is someone who does something illegal and gross.


This article first appeared in Communicate!/The AIIC Webzine (Issue 54, Summer 2010)