A New Challenge: Sight Translating Texts and Social Media

This is a new aspect of what we do in court interpreting. When Facebook and Instagram and even text messaging were new around here, not many of the folks I interpreted for on a daily basis were fans. In fact, it wasn’t until recently that I started to notice a surge of non-English social media messages and texts being presented as evidence in court, especially as part of informal hearings. The challenge of personal messages is taken to the next level with abbreviated text, quick quips, rapid-fire exchanges, and selfies to boot.

Dealing with this can be difficult, depending on who presents the evidence and under what circumstances. When I work on a case where the party introducing the evidence is represented, there is at least some hope that the message in question will have its proper translation all neatly prepared ahead of time. This is the more formal hearing type. In less formal hearings where parties appear without representation, the offending Facebook post or text message is often brought up last minute on somebody’s cellphone. I’m then expected to quickly understand the abbreviations, undertones, and context since informal hearings are often about immediate issues of safety and potential loss of freedoms. Surely I’m not the only one who has noticed how difficult it can be to accurately render such language and meaning into everyday English.

What do our ethics say about sight translation in general? We are told to take the time to read and understand, and to ask for a break or recess if we need to look things up. Such a request is probably expected with documents that have some degree of length or formality, but even a short series of messages interspersed with sarcasm, insults, disguised threats, and the lot, often reach far beyond our ability to meet the perceived expectation to quickly begin sight translating.

I have never seen an entry in a training manual that deals with how to handle double meanings, misspellings, shorthand, and sarcasm in a text message or as part of a status update. I’m sure our judicial officers would appreciate the time savings if we could jump right in without missing a beat when a teeny-tiny text message needs to be rendered into English, but in order to truly capture meaning we may need to go back a few messages just to get the context. 

This new trend raises a lot of questions that are truly worth taking pause to ponder: If we are asked to just sight translate just one message out of many in a thread, is there a nice, succinct way to explain our need for more context? How should we stop between messages to note the change in speaker? Is it considered proper to hold the phone ourselves? How to best call attention to the informal nature of abbreviations or common misspellings, if at all? Are there suggestions we could make to a judicial officer about better conditions for an accurate performance? How flexible should we be and where do we draw the line to prevent ourselves from becoming advocates?

Now that’s something worth discussing. What say you? 

8 thoughts on “A New Challenge: Sight Translating Texts and Social Media”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    The first time I was asked to sight translate a Whats app printout I almost panicked. It was not for the faint-hearted. Best of all, it was in a mix of Portuguese, English and Spanish. Since it was a deposition, I had more time to gather my wits, check things out before rendering the text into comprehensible – not intelligible – English. I had to repeat myself and make the necessary arrangements for the “message” to become intelligible without adding or altering the “text.”

    I felt like a trapeze artist and not at all comfortable. Yeah. I know what you are talking about. And there is more to come.

    As for your questions, some answers will change with time, for sure. I am collecting text messages abbreviations, talking to my daughter, in essence, taking an informal course in this new language that has become so widespread.

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, Gio!

      The fact that you had Portuguese mixed in makes me think of how this type of casual communication can include not only recognized vernacular such as Spanglish but also terms that only the speakers understand like inside jokes. Thanks for the resource, by the way!

  2. Rosemary Dann says:

    At a hearing for a restraining order, one party claimed that the other had harassed her via voice messages and offered to play the messages on the phone. I asked to approach, and (respectfully) told the judge that professional standards warned against on-the-spot interpretations of audio files, and cited the NAJIT position paper on the subject. ( He told me to “do my best”. Fortunately for me, when the party tried to play the messages, she was unable to retrieve them. ) For those of us who are a bit “challenged”, text messages in English, much less another language, can prove daunting. Perhaps it’s time for a position paper on translating text messages. Anyone interested in collaborating?

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, Rosemary!

      Thank you for the reminder of the position paper. I’m not surprised you were asked to “do the best you can,” because that has happened to me and several colleagues many times. I’ve found that it usually works out just fine. I’m always glad I spoke up because when difficult situations happen again, the folks involved do think twice before expecting something that may be out of our reach. If it is our common practice to follow ethics and reveal any limitations to our performance, then it seems to me we have done our part. This definitely merits more discussion!

  3. Gio Lester says:

    Just came across this: How to Speak Gen Z – http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/speak-gen-z/

    I’d say very timely.

  4. Monica Cejudo says:

    The last job I had consisted on 280 pages of private Facebook chat messages, after reading it all and visiting with the attorney I suggested to use only the first 100 as the whole intension of the communication was already more than clear. I made several annotations in brackets to explain why I would not be correcting grammar errors bur conveying as close meaning as possible. Also when I am delivering this work I make sure to go through the translators notes so they don’t go unnoticed.
    Asking for original format is very helpful, I keep it, leave the original language and add in italics everything that is translated in English.

    Yes Rosemary I agree and am in.

  5. Janis Palma says:

    Great topic, Jennifer! I have yet to come across this type of request in our courts, but it certainly seems like a trend that needs to be addressed. A position paper is a great idea, Rosemary. A workshop is also something for which I would sign up in a heartbeat. Maybe at the next NAJIT conference?

  6. Rachel Albin says:

    Hello! I would love to know more about the best way to approach this issue. I was vexed by a case with many WhatsApp messages. This TED talk is interesting and may be a starting point for us as we think through an approach we can recommend in a position paper.


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