A Dilemma in the Courtroom


What do you do when you are challenged?

Is it professional of an interpreter to request a break?

Dilemma in the courtroom! What would you have done?

The following is an experience I had in a Superior Court in Georgia over the course of a proceeding a few years ago. I reported to my assignment as usual and went through the customary procedures: check in, sign the interpreter log, ask for the defendant, go through introductions with the attorney. But things didn’t go as they usually did for me that day. I had to interpret for a man in dire straits.

If you are a court or legal interpreter, I’m sure you have interpreted plea agreements before. This was a domestic-violence case, and when I met with the attorney for the pre-session, he mentioned that the defendant spoke some English. But since this was a serious case, the judge wanted to make sure the defendant understood everything in order to make an informed decision. That’s why a French interpreter was requested. It was explained to the defendant that he would receive assistance in sorting out his plea deal and the best possible options for him. He took the offer that was made him. Thus far, the pre-session.

Court in session: as the judge called the calendar, I, the interpreter, answered for the defendant.

“How do you plead?” the judge asked.

“Guilty,” said the defendant.

“Your attorney, through the interpreter, will explain to you how the process works.”

During the pre-trial, the attorney told the defendant: “If you’re not a U.S. citizen, pleading guilty can affect your immigration status.” So, I interpreted that. Suddenly the defendant, a native of a country not far from my own, addressed me directly: “Are you trying to get me deported, sister?” At this, the lawyer (having assessed the defendant’s frantic demeanor and having more or less understood what he had asked) intervened and said: “The interpreter merely interpreted what I just said. Do you want us to continue?”

“Yes,” replied the defendant.

So, we went back before the judge, who asked: “Did you understand everything? Did the interpreter interpret everything for you?”

NO,” replied the defendant;the interpreter went to the bathroom!”

The courtroom burst into laughter. I kept my calm. The judge looked the defendant in the face and said to him: “Are you serious? The interpreter took a break because we all took a break. I called recess. If that is what you are referring to… do you still want to continue with the plea deal?”

“No,” answered the defendant, “I want a trial now!”

“Okay then,” replied the judge. “We’ll have your trial this afternoon after lunch break.”

I went to have my lunch on another floor, to avoid any further contact with the defendant!

Before the afternoon session began, the attorney was looking for me, and when I came down, he said to the defendant: “I don’t know if the interpreter still wants to work for you. If she says ‘no,’ I don’t blame her.” He then asked me, “Do you want to continue interpreting for him?”

“Yes,” I replied.

To our great surprise, suddenly the defendant started weeping and confessed that he was overwhelmed. He said that he had worked third shift and had subsequently come straight to court without having slept a wink or eaten anything.

“I’m hungry and I’m overwhelmed,” he sobbed. “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

Stricken with compassion, I gave him some snacks before we went back for his hearing to give him a bit of strength and lift his spirits.

Turns out the story had a happy ending: the charges against him were dropped, and he could go home to his family.

My question, then, is for the reader: is it wrong, in this case, for the interpreter to give food to the defendant? What would you have done in this scenario?

Adjo (a.k.a. Mireille) Agbossoumonde dreamed of becoming a journalist thanks to her admiration of an Ewe journalist growing up in her native Togo. Because of her love of languages, she went on to study at the Université de Lomé, Togo, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and Linguistics and a master’s degree in English-French Translation. She became a sworn (certified) translator and interpreter in 2000. She also obtained a Certificate in Pedagogy from the National Institute of Education Sciences (INSE) and a Professional Development Certificate/Badge for Simultaneous Interpreting from New York University in 2016. Before moving to the U.S., she was a high-school teacher and taught English as a second language for six years. Here in the U.S., she taught French as a second language in the Atlanta Public School system for four years. She is an experienced French conference/RSI interpreter (French, Ewe, and Mina) and has been a full-time interpreter since 2009, specializing in medical, legal, and immigration court interpreting (EOIR). She is also a federal language consultant as a member of the NLSC (National Language Service Corps). She served as Contract Interpreter Monitor for USCIS (2010-2017).

Adjo likes singing, dancing, and cooking for her family and friends (now, for friends affected by COVID-19) when she is not translating, interpreting, or running her company, Le Pont Translations LLC, of which she is the founder and CEO. The company is based in Atlanta, Georgia, where she resides. Contact: mireille@leponttranslations.net

Images (main and body) provided courtesy of the author.

20 thoughts on “A Dilemma in the Courtroom”

  1. Yedda Araujo says:

    I would have felt compassion, too. However, I guess I would have informed the attorney so he could have provided the snacks, just to avoid any questions regarding impropriety.

  2. Vicente J. de la Vega says:

    Thank you for sharing your story.
    You acted as any good Christian and good human being should act.
    I am sure you continued to interpret impartially during the afternoon trial without letting your act of kindness affect your sworn duty as a court interpreter.
    Kudos to you.

  3. Konnie Garrido says:

    Ideally, upon learning of the man’s condition, the attorney would’ve provided his client with a needed snack , but if the interpreter is in the better position time wise to do so and as long as the attorney is asked and okays your supplying the client with the needed food, I see the action as defensible.

  4. Rosemary Rodriguez says:

    Absolutely it is wrong for the interpreter to give food, gum or anything other than facilitate communication to the defendant. Read you court interpreter code of ethics.

    1. Phyllis Hillery says:

      I agree with Rosemary. The interpreter in facilitating communication to and from the defendant can convey to the defendant’s attorney what the defendant said about being hungry etc and let his attorney get him some food.

  5. Ada Lien says:

    It is a very kind action but it is not the correct thing to do because we as interpreters can’t give or receive anything from any of the parties. The correct thing to do was to inform the judge of the situation and take it from there. Let the judge decide how to handle the situation. What if the defendant would have gotten sick from the food? Allergies? As an interpreter, you always have to cover your back because we are the easiest target to be blamed if anything goes wrong.

  6. Mieko Braun says:

    I think your conduct was right in the light of the circumstance. The defendant was not in the capacity to make a solid decision at that time, he didn’t sleep well nor eat and was overwhelmed. THE Judge wanted to make sure the defendant made the right decision for himself. You help the defendant to recover from the overwhelming state so that he could make such a decision.

  7. Helen Eby says:

    Would you have shared a snack bar with someone else who bumped into you with the same need? In this case, my take is that you were simply being a Good Samaritan. The other person really didn’t have a lot of options to get food in that place at that time.

  8. Noel Abraham says:

    Although I understand & admire your sense of empathy & kindness towards a defendant
    in dire straits – it was wrong, in my opinion, to provide food or anything of value that can be misconstrued as affecting interpreter’s impartiality.

  9. Javier La Rosa says:

    I think that you acted as a concerned and caring human being. Providing snacks to the defendant had nothing to do with your interpreter duties. I applaud you

  10. Tzerong Chiou says:

    There’s nothing “wrong” to give food to a hungry person. But I would not give the food to the defendant directly. I might give the food to the attorney and let the attorney decide what to do with my donation : )

  11. Lyna says:

    Thanks for sharing!

    That was very kind of you to give him some snacks. A little kindness always goes a long way. When you’re compassionate and emphatic, you do unto others as you would for yourself. You were the interpreter for the defendant, it was also necessary to make him feel confident. Court can be scary place for the first time. I would have done the same.

  12. Wonderful questions raised, many of which strike at the heart of a pointed dilemma in our professiosn: How active, or how passive should interpreters be when providing ‘access to justice’. To respond to your first question, many codes of ethics absolutely forbid sharing gifts, food, or services like rides between interpreters and clients, since they can, arguably, erode ‘impartiality’. As interpreters, though ,I would mention the obvious and salient reality that our impartiality depends completely and ultimately on our individual integrity as interpreters. In moments when interpreters are the true and only conduit of messages bridging the LEP and the English-language justice system everyone simply has to trust our integrity as individuals. This necessarily individual locus of vital integrity weighs upon the shoulders of doctors issuing professional opinions, probation officers issuing recommendations, lawyers composing precise briefs, court reporters producing an accurate record, witnesses testifying with integrity, and juddges applying the law with the most sincere attempt at even-handedness. In short, while I don’t think an interpreter will suddenly become unable to do her or his job with integrity because carrots changed hands or a kind ear was lent to a stressed person needing to vent, these sorts of interactions can be misunderstood by those who might not understand our profession, or might be critical of something they perceive in our general role. I have, sadly, heard of instances where communities felt ‘forced’ to provide access to justice through interpretation, and showed a preference to punish LEPs by taking pleasure in any opportunity to see a non english-speaker punished as severly as possible for his or her lack of English proficiency.

    This means, to me at least, that it is important to do my job in a way that allows me to both help those I am happy and duty-bound to serve (to wit the LEP and all of the aforementioned stakeholders in the justice system who affect the life of the LEP) , but also avoids any public or private perception of impartiality. I tend to use my behavior and body language to make it clear to an LEP that I will absolutely do my best to be their avatar in Ameican English every time they say something in a situation where I’m required to interpret (on record, in a client interview etc) by interpreting everything said, as it is said, and (with the help of audio equipment) simultaneously, as it is said. This not only saves time, but removes my artifical agency as an arbitror or ‘explainer’ of any facts, processes, opinions, systems, possibilities, dangers, options, or other elements with which the other stakeholders in the justice system are called and duty-bound to deal with. I do believe that most of these stakeholders act with integrity, and should be trusted.

    I also know that not all stakeholders act with integrity and can be trusted. If, as an officer of the court, we interpreters notice a lack of integrity by any other stakeholder in a situation damaging access to justice, impartiality, and due process, almost all codes of ethics do leave some room for interpreters to at least alert ranking court officers (judges, for example) of these miscarriages of justice. As citizens and neutral observers, interpreters also do, arguably, have access to all of the levers of public comment, complaint, censure, and whistle-blowing that any other subject of the law would under normal circumstances.

    The social reality of the US courts, however, sadly show a track record of those higher in the heirarchy (judges, lawyers, etc.) enjoy a certain degree of immunity or even impunity in the face of squarely substantial and well-founded complaints filed against them. For example, a 2016 review of the Lawyers’ professional board of responsibility for the state of Minnesota showed no action taken in over 95% of well-substantiated complaints filed against lawyers. The outlying cases where sanctions or disbarring did result were cases where vast amounts of money were stolen by the lawyer. Anecdotal reports and cursory, first-blush readings of data on censure of judges across the country similarly shows little action taken in most cases. Judge censure seems to correlate directly with media involvement: the courts do seem to care more when the public is watching. In sum, the higher you are on the totem pole in coursts, the less likely it would seem that you will face the consequences ostensibly set out in disciplinary mechanisms designed to keep you honest. On the other hand, though, this might have reasonable explanation grounded in the adversarial nature of our justice system; in a system where, though most all stakeholders do strive to act with integrity in my observation and experience over the past decade, the system does tend to pit individuals against one another. This arrangement can often lead to a clash of egoes, or other sources of conflict. When people trained in the use of governmental levers of force are motivated to vanquish an enemy, it is conceivable that retaliatory or strategic complaints can be filed which may lack… yes.. integrity. This may be a reason that boards and other authorities tasked with meting out punishment may simply have a very high threshold for action.

    This all does not explain, however, the precarious situation of an interpreter facing the potential effects of these same disciplinary organisms and structures. Anecdotal data I collected by talking to roughly 150 interpreters on the telephone (again in Minnesota in 2016) showed many instances of interpreters facing sanctions (removal from lists, suspensions, blacklisting, stark reduction in freelance work, etc) in situations where their transgressions ranged from nonexistent to mild in comparison with the unpunished misdeeds of aforementioned stakeholders in positions of relative authority and prvivilege.

    In sum, I do opine that the US courts operate as a microchasm of most societies in their affording many more rights to privileged members than lesser privileged ones. It is this reality that the spirity of equality is pitted in the codifiaiton of our judiciary’s most noble norms. These norms of equality have become the object of Janis de Palma’s very helpuful and ongoing research into access to justice issues in the US courts, and how we interpreters intersect with these issues in our role and work. Indeed, a great case can be made for real access to justice requiring so much more than a message-for-message, and high-register to high-register pairing of utterances rendered between source and target languages. We all owe Janis and researchers like her a debt of professional gratitude. Frankly, justice does as well.

    Mireille, you also bring up another very key point, which relates to the previous paragraph: should interprters ‘explain’? With reference to the codified norms underpinning the work of all stakeholders in our justice system, I would again appeal to the need for integrity among all stakeholders in the judicial system. I personally believe that interpreters should be called upon to remove any potential penalty caused by a person’s lack of English proficiency, or understanding of or access to legalese or American culture that a person born in the court’s jurisdiciton would normally have..

    Yet, herein lies another conundrum: what is ‘normal?’. Courts see a wide range of familiarity with the law, legalese, and a wide range of cognitive abilities among English speakers livinng in the US. Gernerally speaking, however, a person born into the culture of a given court’s jursiction will fall within a gereral range of comfort when the need to ask for clarificaiton or express ignorance of important words or mechanisms arise. The important variants between individuals born into this jurisdiction (race, disability, education, personality, class, etc.) notwithstnading, it is important and fair to recognized that they all do share a relative comfort and familiarity with the court of jurisdition that our LEP community does not.

    It is the inherent advantage of natives and disadvantage of LEPs that makes our job important. It is also discussions like this, as well as the vital, tireless and selfless work of colleagues like Janis de Palma that will helpfully define and refine the precision we interpreters can lend to the scope of our job.

    I do hold reasonable hope that inviting community members currently critical of our role in levelling the playing field to help us to define and refine our role will be helpful to all in creating common ground for understanding. I think the exchange of experiences, ontologies, opinions, and knowledge among all stakeholders (court officers and the communities we serve) would be a great way to move forward. It would inject the letter of our codified norms with a helpful and refreshed spirit. Indeed, if stakeholders, like interpreters, who currently suffer from a relative lack of protection from the potential administrative wrath of relatively privileged stakeholders in the court system could also make these inequities public enough for them to be addressed by the very community members whose wounded sense of justice, a sense borne of ignorance of the importance of our work as intepreters, could rightly address an unhelpful totem pole hierarchy which these disgruntled community members may also helpfully decide to address with their demonstrated tenacity and alacrity.

    I guess, Mireille, I think the perfect way to end this long overdue meeting of all of the stakeholders involved in the justice system would probably be a nice, big picnic. I’ll bring the carrots.

  13. Bashier Doss says:

    I had a similar situation, but the defendant was diabetic. I understand the code of ethics for interpreters ;but .how about the humanitarian aspect? If this defendant fall down and faint next to you while interpreting (which also happened with me), would you hold the falling person to the ground, or at least reduce the effect of the fall a bit?

  14. Sylvia J. Andrade says:

    I am a human being first of all. I have not been in a position of needing to give food, but would do so, probably with the permission of the attorney, if possible. I would help the person irregardless. I have had another type of situation: The person was in too much pain due to a medical emergency to be able to continue with the deposition. I did inform the attorneys involved, and they agreed. Provisions were made for the deponent to be taken to the emergency room of a nearby hospital. He was there for 2 weeks and had surgery. If the attorneys don’t know the language and its nuances, how are they going to know what is really going on? You did the right thing.

  15. I believe that most code of ethics prohibit actions that might sway YOUR impartiality, in fact and in appearance.
    Doing a kindness that you would do to other people in need (see Helen’s comment, above) does not affect your integrity, but it might be, or appear to be, the result of your integrity already been compromised by the situation.

    Essentially, such communications are not an uncommon situation. Moreover, It does not matter whether the defendant was really overwhelmed and overworked, or just said he was.

    On a human level, the defendant tried to get your sympathy and got it. That’s not a bad thing at all, and I think you acted right.

    On a professional level, you now have the duty to inform the court at the beginning of the session that during the break the defendant approached you and alleged fact X; that in response you undertook action Y; that you do not believe that your professional integrity is compromised; and that you are willing to withdraw from the case if the court should so order. The judge will typically ask the attorneys if they have a problem with you staying, and they probably will have no objection.

    Always remember that being fully human and fully professional is not a contradiction, and we should act in a way that does not prioritize one over the other, but in a way that combines them both.

    Thank you for your story!

  16. Further to my previous comment:
    Sharing food is not a problem per se, a long as you inform the court and submit to the court’s decision.
    Not informing the court IS an ethical violation, in my understanding.
    It is your responsibility (1) not to develop a bias, (2) not to appear to have a bias, (3) not to withhold from the court and from all parties any the information that they need to decide if you have a bias, and (4) to accept the court’s ruling on that matter.
    Your story does not mention what you did, so we don’t know if you acted ethically.
    Furthermore: the fact that you call the dropping of the charges a “happy ending” may be a problem. It is unethical to express a preference for a certain outcome during a case, and doing so after a case is closed may still compromise your appearance of impartiality.

    1. Jorge Salazar García says:

      I agree with Daniel and won’t deny some parts of the story were cringe worthy for me. I do understand when we switch from legal to medical and even immigration, we can confuse the interpreter role and ethics, in medical, there’s room to be an advocate, even in immigration sometimes, in legal not to much. We are there to provide equal footing before the law and the LEP is not our client, the Court is, considering most Judges and counsel do not speak other languages. I don’t see any gray area, so I would only refer to a refresher of our canons.

      NOW, the most concerning part for me as an interpreter, even overlooking the “good Samaritan” side is to “lift the spirits” of a defendant, victim or whoever in a hearing or trial… Considering any outcome a “Happy ending” (only in the legal setting, I remember amazing happy endings in NICU, PICU and cancer wards), makes me uncomfortable. I have interpreted in rape and homicide cases and to this day, I won’t comment on any happy ending either way, it’s not our place. We all learn form our experiences and I do commend the human side.

  17. Dena Millman says:

    There are so many humanitarian situations that arise in court interpreting. However, if we intervene on that level we are no longer
    interpreting… we are “helping”. Interpreters have fought for 40 years to be treated as professionals and I fear that this kind of
    intervention will lower the courts’ view of our role. I completely sympathize with the defendant’s problem. In this case all the interpreter had to do was interpret what the defendant said to his attorney. If he/she chose not to do anything, the interpreter must continue her role.
    In my first trial in the SDNY, in 1975, where there were no rules yet established… I took out a roll of lifesavers and when the defendant asked me for one I gave it to him. A Marshall stood up and grabbed me! I thought, “end of career on first day”. It was solved by the attorney taking me into the Judge’s chambers and explaining that I had no idea this was prohibited. A very kind Judge, thank God. Lesson learned. 5 years later there was an Interpreters’ Office and standards established which we could all read and this type of mistake was avoidable.

  18. AJ Elterman says:

    I would have fully interpreted the defendant’s dire straights condition and his message to his attorney and waited to see if the attorney acted to help his client — for all the reasons Daniel, Jorge, and Dena have mentioned. If there was no other alternative or way out (the judge being out to lunch and inaccessible and no court officer there to talk with either), then I would have acted like Mireille and our other colleagues, who, while being technically in error, would be acting as a compassionate human being in an urgent situation.
    Later, before the trial begins, I would clearly state to the judge what I had done for a lack of alternative and that this action on my part would not affect my interpreting accuracy and impartiality in any way, etc. I think this is an acceptable solution, being both compassionate, professional, and transparent,
    If we act with the strength of our conscience and with calm confidence, doing what we firmly believe is the right thing to do (as long as we do not harm anyone), generally no one gets burned and things end up win-win for all parties and individuals involved — and even if someone overreacts and gives a scolding, I can move on in tranquillity, knowing I did the right thing. After all, we cannot control anyone except ourselves.

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