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)

Jennifer De La Cruz

by on Thursday, October 31, 2013

If Not You, Then Who?

Experience alone cannot be the deciding factor when one weighs the decision of volunteering. I think it is important that we encourage everyone who is passionate about our professions and who wants to see them advance, to become more involved. It was one of the themes for me as I spoke with individuals at the conference in May. Not to belabor a point for those of you who heard firsthand, but I think that the people who are passionate and really have a vision for what our professions should be, too often think that they lack sufficient experience or “clout” to be able to take a leadership role. It is worth noting that before any of us stepped into positions of leadership for the first time, we were newcomers. I think that there are different types of leaders with varying traits that are natural to some, acquired for others, but I believe that everyone has the ability to lead, since the best leadership comes from example. At the very least, we each have it within our control to be a good example. As for more overt leadership roles, there has to be a first time, not a “best” time, for there to be a next time. If you would like to see our professions go in a certain direction, if you are passionate about it, there is a role for you. If not you, then who? –Rob Cruz, Message from the Chair (NAJIT.org)

This poignant reflection in Rob Cruz’s most recent message as our top leader at NAJIT struck a chord with me, and I couldn’t agree more.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer for a variety of roles in our profession. Sometimes, the tasks have been new to me; other times, the duties I take on are a natural progression of something I’m already doing. As Rob says, there have been many first times, and they were usually not the best times. There have been countless people along the way who have had the patience to show me the ropes and to guide me down the right path when I was lost or about to make a mistake. The journey has led me to understand more about who we are, what we do, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. Even so, sometimes I feel like a beginner. But I stay involved, nonetheless.

My a-ha moment

Today, I had the opportunity to visit with a dear friend who I worked with as a medical interpreter many years ago. Our conversation naturally led to me describing what I do in court on a daily basis, and all that goes with it. Because of the affection I have for my friend, I felt like I wanted to help her see things just as I see them, and my description started getting very extensive. It came to a point where I realized I know so much more than I can possibly describe over lunch. Could it be that I’ve grown and changed more than I sometimes realize?

Then I saw a tweet from NAJIT to check out Rob’s message. There’s my answer! The difficulty I had at lunchtime in describing all I know was because of a long journey that included my nine-to-five routine PLUS getting involved outside the courtroom.


So, why do I feel like such a newbie sometimes, even after over 16 years in the biz? Could it be that the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know? If that’s true, then Rob is right: there’s never a perfect time to step up to the plate, but our turn does eventually come if we’re truly participating on the team. What is all too common is that if we’re too new, we don’t volunteer because we’re new; then, once we have the experience, we realize that there’s so much more to know, and so we continue to feel unworthy. How silly of us!

The time to give to our profession is always. We’re growing and changing. Technology is taking us to new places. We’re more connected than ever. The possibilities are endless, right?

Too few, really

I’ve been shocked at times to discover how few people make themselves available to participate in group efforts. Even when I was raising small children, I started getting involved by merely having a membership in a couple of interpreter organizations, which allowed me to understand so much more than simply putting in my time at work. The more we are involved, even from afar, the more we discover where to position ourselves to eventually feel pulled in to take on roles that we never asked for or expected – they just happen.

Perhaps this is a pretty natural phenomenon for all professions, but I think we carry an even bigger responsibility to stay involved. It is not uncommon for interpreters and translators to struggle to be understood by the world and to be treated as the professionals we are. So it follows that a huge group of brilliant and talented individuals who are not involved would continue feeling misunderstood. How much more powerful would we be if all of us lost the fear of becoming involved, of volunteering, of participating, and simply of being willing to put in our two cents?

Rob has it right, and I think we’ve got a lot of great leaders out there who need our help. Please, consider finding your niche and becoming involved in the organizations of our profession. Whether it’s sharing helpful information with your officemates, attending a conference, or starting a movement, the time is now, and if not you, then who?


by on Friday, October 11, 2013

The Importance of Training for the Community Interpreter

There is quite a bit of talk lately among those of us in the interpreting profession about the professionalization of community interpreting. In Great Britain and Canada, community interpreting, also referred to as “public service interpreting” is an umbrella term encompassing any kind of interpreting for the public sector, and includes judiciary and medical interpreting. In the United States, we separate legal and medical interpreting, and use the term “community interpreting” to refer to any other kind of interpreting among LEP or deaf individuals and representatives of the institutions associated with health, housing, education, family, welfare and general social services. Currently, the field of community interpreting is developing rapidly, and there are various movements underway to train and certify community interpreters.

Such training is becoming indispensable. The professionalization of community interpreting is an idea whose time has come.

Training for Community Interpreters

I must say, I am all for it! I live in an area that is mainly served by a small handful of certified interpreters and a larger group consisting of either untrained self-employed or ad hoc interpreters, or equally untrained bilingual social services personnel. I have found that the lack of the most basic knowledge of proper interpreting techniques is profound, and I take advantage of each and every opportunity for teaching interpreters and clients how it’s done. All the skills we use in court or in medical interpreting—use of first person consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting for the LEP who is not being being addressed directly—must also be mastered for use in community interpreting. Just because the assignment does not take place in a courtroom or doctor’s office doesn’t give one permission to use “he says/she says,” or allow an LEP person to just wait in silence while an English conversation of importance to the LEP is going on.

Taking advantage of those really good teaching moments

An excellent opportunity to do some education on correct community interpreting presented itself to me two months ago.  Although, I work mostly in the courtroom, I always welcome the chance to work in other venues. So when XYZ agency called, desperate for an interpreter for a mental health counseling session scheduled for the next day, I accepted. I was told that all of their “regular” local interpreters were busy with other assignments. Grudgingly, they accepted my terms, which they informed me were much higher than they were used to paying. I would be interpreting for the Spanish-speaking mother of a teen-age girl who had tried to commit suicide.

I arrived 15 minutes before the time of the appointment, and was somewhat taken aback to find that the mother and daughter had already arrived and that the counselor was talking to them, using the daughter as interpreter for the mother. It was not a good sign.

As I usually do, I asked Mrs. Jones, the counselor, if she had worked with interpreters before. “Of course; XYZ always sends us excellent interpreters,” she replied airily.

I knew we were in trouble when the first words out of Mrs. Jones’ mouth were: “Ask Mom how Janet’s doing at home.” As nicely as I possibly could, I asked her to address the mother directly. “Just pretend I’m not here.” Surprised, the counselor complied. We reached another snag when I interpreted the mother’s answers in the first person. Mrs. Jones, very confused, asked me: “Is it you who are answering, or is it her?” Again, I explained that I would be interpreting the mother’s words exactly as she said them. “Just look at her,” I told her, “and pretend that it’s her answering you.” Before long, things started to go very nicely indeed, and both the counselor and the mother began to get into a back-and-forth rhythm most conducive to good communication.

Then it was the daughter’s turn. Mrs. Jones began to address the girl in English. I, of course, commenced a running simultaneous interpretation of their conversation, but after a few minutes, the counselor turned to me and said: “I’m not used to this. Why are you interpreting to Mom? I’m not talking to her right now.” I explained to her that “Mom” needed to be fully present for this interview of her daughter and that what I was doing was making that possible. Looking very dubious, the counselor went on and after a while seemed to forget I was even there.

At some point, there was a slight pause in the conversation, and Mrs. Jones said something like: “Well, then,” which I duly interpreted. She was utterly amazed. “Do you even interpret my filler words?” “Everything,” I told her. “Look,” I said, “this is how it’s done. I have been a professional trained interpreter for 15 years, and I can assure you that this is the correct way for an interpreter to facilitate communication.” Of course, I also let the mother know what these exchanges between myself and the counselor were all about.

The remainder of the session went great. Since the mother could hear and understand everything, she was able to fully participate in the session, providing information that could be vital for her daughter’s treatment, and listening to her daughter tell the counselor things she had been uncomfortable to tell her mother directly. There were tears and hugs.

What Was Learned

At the end of the session, Mrs. Jones said: “You have to understand. I have actually had interpreters fall asleep during these sessions; they don’t interpret anything to the parent. I have never had an interpreter do what you’re doing. I really appreciate this, and I understand now how important it is.” I told her as simply as I could that she should insist that any interpreter use first person in consecutive interpreting and that the parent or guardian must not be forgotten in the process.

I felt great about having been able to educate at least two persons—the counselor and the mother—about how proper interpreting must be used for genuine communication. I am hoping that the next time Mrs. Jones requests an interpreter from the XYZ agency, she will insist that the interpreter have some training, and that when the interpreter arrives, Mrs. Jones will request that correct interpreting procedures be followed. I also hope that Janet’s mother will understand that she has the right to know what is being said in all interviews with her daughter at which she is present.

I would love to be able to reach out to the XYZ agency and to others like it, but as they say, “Good luck with that.” They’re looking for the fastest and the cheapest; quality or even correct interpreting technique is really of no concern. If their clients don’t know the difference, who cares? This attitude must change, but I think it will be a long process.

Educating the Untrained Community Interpreter

We may not be able to reform the agencies that employ untrained interpreters for community work just yet, but there is something that I think I can do to reach out to the interpreters in my area who work for these agencies or for themselves. I am thinking very seriously about providing a free basic educational orientation for interpreters who don’t really have a grasp on the skills they need to truly serve in this capacity.

This would be only a first step toward improving the situation. I don’t know exactly how to get the word out, but I am considering various ways and means. I don’t even know how many would come, since a lot of longtime interpreters in my area don’t think they need any instruction, but even if just a few show up, I will have made some impact.

If anyone reading this post has any ideas or experience as to how to reach out in this way, please contact me!


Bowen, Margareta. (2003)  Community Interpreting. In Mary Snell-Hornby, Hans Hönig, Paul Kußmaul,  Peter A. Schmitt (Eds.) Handbuch Translation. Tübingen:
Stauffenburg-Verlag. Retrieved from http://aiic.net/page/234

Mikkelson, Holly. (1999)  Interpreting Is Interpreting — Or Is It. Originally presented at the Graduate School of Transaltion and Interpretation, 30th Anniversary Conference,  Monterey Institute of International Studies, January 1999. Retrieved from http://www.acebo.com/papers/INTERP1.HTM
Be sure and check out the extensive bibliography.

Mikkelson, Holly. (1996)  The Professionalization of Community Interpreting. Global Vision: Proceedings of the 37th Annual Conference of the American Translators
Association. Monterey Institute of International Studies. Retrieved from http://www.acebo.com/papers/profslzn.htm
Again, the references are invaluable.

Mikkelson, Holly. (1996)  Community Interpreting: An Emerging Profession. Interpreting: International Journal of Research and Practice in Interpreting (1.1),
125-129. Preview at http://books.google.com/books?id=VwZDjqa9s4wC&pg=PA9&lpg=PA9&dq=the+professionalization+of+community+interpreting&source=bl&ots=bo2G82s93y&sig=DFo_awdbF5Cce0erlTbG1zXJSOU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=_zMmUabUFsmx0AHQ_IHgDw&ved=0CEQQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false

Pöchhacker, Franz. (1999) Getting Organized’: The Evolution of Community Interpreting. Interpreting Vol. 4(1), pp. 125–140. Retrieved from  http://www.scribd.com/doc/97416324/Pochhacker-Getting-Organized-in-Community-Interpreting

Valero Garcés, Carmen and Martin, Anne (Eds.). (2008) Crossing Borders in Community Interpreting: Definitions and Dilemmas. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Co. Preview at http://books.google.com/books/about/Crossing_Borders_in_Community_Interpreti.html?id=VwZDjqa9s4wC





by on Friday, August 30, 2013

Boredom in the Court

Unavoidable Delays

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

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

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

What Not To Do in Court

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

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

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

How to Combat Boredom

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


by on Friday, June 14, 2013

Fresh Air at the 2013 NAJIT Conference

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.

 Reaching out

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

New blood

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/


Maria Cristina de la Vega

by on Friday, May 10, 2013

There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat; a Personal Story

What do a Brazilian Butt-Lift and a Kindle book have in common?

They are two examples of our society’s penchant for instant gratification. Language proficiency  and by extension interpreting, nonetheless, are not abilities you acquire overnight. They improve exponentially as you practice, and reflect consciously or not, the experiences of a lifetime.

I came to the U.S., as a Cuban exile with my family, at the age of nine, speaking almost no English.  We arrived to a completely new environment, and to what my four brothers and I naively classified as Davie Crockett country from our limited exposure to American folklore. Life in a wooded enclave where we largely fended for ourselves after school and learned to adapt to the Spartan life of New England.  While my brothers were out trapping and hunting for fun, I devoted myself to self development through reading, favoring fairy tales as a form of escapism from the inevitable household chores there was no one else to do. One of my fondest memories as a kid, is of creating a tepee in bed with my covers, after “lights out”, when I would read, flashlight in hand, so as not to wake my siblings. Above all else, I wanted to speak English well to fit in, get good grades and make my parents proud of me.  Imagine my discouragement when learned that the “F” grades I was so proud of did not stand for “Fine.”

After initially cutting my ties to Spanish, as many first generation exiles do, I went back to my native language by reading an eclectic mix of periodicals. They included magazines my parent’s Cuban friends would give us when they were finished reading them, some of which contained what were for me,  riveting excepts of unbridled sexual passion.  These came via the  stories of Corín Tellado,  a prolific writer of romantic novels that were very popular in Spanish-speaking countries and were definitely not permissible reading for an eleven year old at my house. Fortunately, my parents had no time to read magazines so they were unaware of this content. I remember that “tepee-time” required a dictionary to figure out what she was even writing about. That input was thankfully balanced by  my mother’s classical texts from the M.A. in Spanish Literature that she went on to get in this country, which she would eagerly share with me. Another favorite, secret childhood activity that fed my avid love for reading in English, was one that I could not share with my parents either because  they would have never allowed it.    There was  a semi-abandoned paper mill a few blocks from my house. It consisted of a warehouse dotted with mysterious, boiling, gurgling vats filled with chemicals, where printed materials were dumped and melted for recycling. Looking back, the place was an accident waiting to happen, without any type of security, but that was the least of my worries.  The allure it had for me was is that it was a clandestine, eerie, half lit treasure trove of all kinds of books with adult content I would never have access to  otherwise, and comic books, which became a great source of information on American pop culture for me. I would sneak in after school when the workers had left and have a field day going through the musty piles of publications messily stacked in the aisles, beckoning half-heartedly to see if I would spring them from death row.

Ka-ching in more ways than one

While in college, studying plastic arts, I had a revelation. The puritanical work ethic I had eased into in New England had a silver lining, work could be fun!  My husband-to-be was writing the dissertation for his PhD. In French Lit, and to supplement his income as an Assistant Professor, he used to do conference interpreting. To me as a twenty-year-old, that simply meant he was paid to talk and seemed infinitely easier to accomplish than my career path at the time.

Fast forward thirty years. Unfortunately it was not as simple as I thought then. However, if you are able to consciously align your values, activities that you enjoy and output that is of worth to a paying segment of society, you will usually end up in the right place. I am fortunate that over the years I was able to harness my desire to work “speaking” in another language (which had never occurred to me), my interest in studying and the discipline to work hard. The universe opened the right doors for me. I audited what conferences I could, signed up for whatever workshops were available and trained hard with generous professionals who shared their time with me.  As many before and after me, I  did not have the option to go away to school, nor where there many programs offered back then, but I made it a point to secure the mentors and the practice needed to pursue my dream of becoming a professional interpreter.

If interpreting/translating is a field that interests you, rest assured that “where there is a will, there is a way” and opportunities have expanded nowadays that will make this career choice not be as daunting as it may have been in the past because of a lack of standardized resources. Today, we even have our own section in the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Media-and-Communication/Interpreters-and-translators.htm.

Al Navas

by on Friday, January 11, 2013

When to say NO

Sometimes my first answer is NO if I know I am not qualified to perform a task. However, if the authorities persist due to the nature of an incident, that incident is likely to be documented. It comes down to personal ethics; more precisely, it comes down to ethical behavior on your part as an interpreter. Take, for example, my involvement in a police case a few years ago.

The call from the dispatcher

The call came at 1:45am on a cold morning, the day after Christmas. The police dispatcher asked (always politely!) if I would be available to assist officers on-location with a traffic injury case. I was warned that the  driver was injured, and might have to be taken to the nearest hospital for examination.

As I fumbled to put on my trousers, the warning stopped me dead in  my tracks. I sat on the edge of the bed as I tried to put on the shoes while talking on the phone. I explained to the dispatcher that I  did not feel  I was qualified as a medical interpreter; my first answer was “no” to her request to be at the hospital. She said she understood, but that it was urgent that an interpreter be present at the site of the accident, which had taken place on the highway only a few miles from my home. As the police usually call me when they need someone on-site, I agreed to go to the accident site. Meanwhile, she would try to find someone qualified to interpret for the victim at the hospital. I started the drive to the site.

Note: According to the Office of State Courts Administrator, certified court interpreters in Missouri are not automatically qualified as medical interpreters. At the time I was a community interpreter – no training of any kind. Several years after this incident I got interested in becoming certified as a court interpreter. I continue preparations to be certified by the state, as there is a shortage of certified interpreters in Missouri.

Two miles from home I received another call from the dispatcher. Could I please join the officers at the local hospital emergency room? The victim was already in an ambulance; it was a bad case. I turned around, and explained once again that I was not a qualified medical interpreter. But she was prepared; she explained I would not have to interpret medical procedures. This job would require only that I interpret instructions from medical personnel to the victim as they placed him in new positions to allow an MRI examination.

The dispatcher wanted desperately to confirm that I would be present at the hospital, as there was no time to waste. I again explained my position, knowing the conversation was being recorded. I stopped for a few seconds to record the time on my notebook, and to write down the dispatcher’s name. I was buying a few seconds. I eventually said “…Yes. I will be at the hospital in a few minutes”.

Officers and medical personnel were waiting for me at the entrance to the emergency room. We rushed to the MRI waiting room, while I explained my function. No one in the group knew how to use the services of an interpreter. It took me two minutes to explain; just as I finished explaining, we arrived at the victim’s side. Blood and bandages…IV tubes coming and going…injury…must put these images aside…(not really  — that is another post, at a later time)…

At the MRI room I started jotting down notes as I interpreted back and forth between the victim and the medical personnel.

The doctors want to do some tests on you; they require your approval.
Can you sign your name? The interpreter will read this form to you in Spanish, because it is in English.
Do you have family members we can call?
What is your name?…Please inhale and remain still for a little while; I will let you know when to exhale…
Do you speak English?…They will move your legs a bit…
How old are you?…Sorry about causing you pain…We are preparing to move you a little, again…

Organized mayhem ensued. Following the MRI, doctors requested I stay, to provide additional help as they performed additional procedures, readying the victim for admission. I did.

What did I learn that night?

My Interpreter Notebook has been a constant companion for several years. I have no idea how many I have used. I  must count them some day. I have learned that going back over my notes is reassuring, as I remember details that were only fuzzy the night before. I have learned that I concentrate so hard on the victim (the patient, in this case), that I am oblivious to all details of the procedures being performed (not really — sometimes I live through these again, in my dreams and thoughts). Interpreting instructions from the emergency medical personnel, and the reply from the patient, become paramount for the duration of an emergency case.

In a nutshell, I learned:

I interpreted in a hospital environment. In the end I felt it was OK to do so, as there was no alternative that night. Could the procedures have been performed as efficiently without me? They would have found a way, I believe; but I felt good for assisting to expedite the examination.

Did I help even a little, by simply being there? I believe (hope!) I did. The victim/patient pulled through, recovered, as is now living a normal life.

Sometimes, priorities can change. Those priorities can even make you change a “no” into a “yes”.

How have YOU handled it?

— Have YOU ever been in a similar situation and said “No”?
— Did YOU ever change that No into a Yes?
— Would you be willing to consider changing your answer again, knowing it could be a life or death situation?

I look forward to your comments!

— Al Navas

Image credit:
Image in the article is courtesy
of olovedog at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Maria Cristina de la Vega

by on Friday, December 28, 2012

No Longer Just a Voice in the Wilderness

Roseann Dueñas González


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 courts in 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.