27 Nov A Judge’s Discretion
Early on in my interpreting career, I learned an important lesson: the Judge is the king or queen of the courtroom. What they say goes. This means that as interpreters, we should address the judge when we need anything. And we do need things, on occasion! Perhaps the prosecutor speaks so quickly that we cannot keep up, or we must seek clarification of a term. In that instance, rather than simply telling the prosecutor to slow down, we defer to the head honcho in the courtroom: the Judge.
“Your Honor, the interpreter is struggling to keep up with the pace of the prosecutor,” we might say. That on its own may be enough for the judge to take the reins and request that the prosecutor slow down. (Beware, though: that darn prosecutor will likely speed up ten seconds later. Habits are very hard to break, and we interpreters can practice dealing with tricky speakers at home so that we don’t have to rely on others changing their speech patterns.)
Here’s the issue with the courtroom hierarchy, though. Judges aren’t always aware of what interpreting involves. Judges are bogged down with a million things, and they don’t have the time necessary to understand the ins and outs of interpreting. They are often monolingual and may not even be aware of all the possible misinterpretations and challenges that can arise.
One day in a Pennsylvania courtroom, my teammate and I were interpreting for a witness. This was still early on in my career, and I was working with a more experienced senior interpreter. We interpreted the witness’s testimony, and I also interpreted courtroom commentary. There was a lot of commentary, because this was a divorce case between two pro se litigants. They were acting as their own attorneys but without any understanding of the law. The judge had his hands full with the angry soon-to-be ex husband and wife shooting accusations back and forth across the room.
Then came the moment that I will always remember: I had been interpreting all the commentary, going by the standard I often apply when deciding how to proceed in a given interpreting situation: what would be understood if the witness spoke only English? I was interpreting everything that was said, out loud so the witness could hear it, because an English-speaking witness would have heard everything, too. I continued interpreting… until my senior teammate said I didn’t need to, asked the judge, and the judge asked me to stop.
According to the judge, his conversation with the pro se litigants constituted a sidebar to which the witness should not be privy. By my ceasing to interpret, we would therefore shield the witness from hearing what should be kept private.
However, there were several things the judge was not taking into consideration. First and foremost: the witness likely did understand some English, as witnesses often do. So, if he wanted to keep things private, he should call an exclusive sidebar, just as you would in the presence of an English-speaking witness.
The judge was probably also unaware that he was asking my teammate and me to break our code of ethics, which says that we interpret everything that is said, exactly as it is said.
Unfortunately, my teammate was also unaware of the intricacies involved, and I was too new to stand my ground, even though I felt that being asked to stop interpreting was the wrong thing to do.
Ten years later, I would change my actions and speak up. I would state for the record what my code of ethics asks of me and why.
In all likelihood, the judge would have agreed once he had had the chance to understand all the elements involved. This has happened to me before; once, a judge actually thanked me for informing her of the need for an interpreting team. She had no idea that it went against best practices to have a single interpreter for a full-day criminal trial. Once I advised her of this, she thanked me profusely (not before I was driven to the brink though, interpreting by myself and completely exhausted).
A lot of my most challenging interpreting moments happened right at the beginning of my career. I had the training to know what the standards of practice should be, but I didn’t always know how to practically implement them, especially when working with other interpreters who did not seem to know our code of ethics and judges who didn’t know what our profession entails.
The important takeaway is that if we can state clearly what our best practices are and why, usually judges will understand, and you’ll have helped push interpreting proceedings onto firmer ground, not just today but for years to come.
Have you ever been asked to do something that was professionally inappropriate? If so, use the comments to tell us how you dealt with it. And if you need a refresher, check out the NAJIT Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibilities!
Athena Matilsky fell in love with languages the year she turned sixteen. She majored in Spanish interpreting/translation at Rutgers University and also studied French. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She later became a staff interpreter for the NJ judiciary. She has gone on to earn certifications as a healthcare interpreter and a federal court interpreter for Spanish and as a court interpreter for French. Most recently, she received her Master’s Degree in Conference Interpreting from Glendon at York University. She currently works as an interpreter and teacher, training students to acquire the skills necessary to pass state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website: www.athenaskyinterpreting.com
Featured photo: “Leipzig war crimes trials, first session” by Agence Rol, from the Gallica Digital Library, available under the digital ID btv1b53067692c; photo taken from the Wikimedia Commons; image in the public domain (Bibliothèque nationale de France, BnF). Text-body photos: “Vintage Hidden Hand Poster” by Dawn Hudson at PublicDomainPictures.net, photo in the public domain; “Cour martiale à Athènes, jugement du prince André de Grèce” by Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France, taken from the Wikimedia Commons, photo in the public domain.