A Roundabout Way to do Remote Simultaneous Interpreting

It is hard to believe that it has been a year since I started working from home due to the pandemic. It feels so long ago, but I remember the uncertainty vividly. Something ominous hung heavily in the air, blinking question marks hovered in everyone’s thought bubbles. I remember my last night out without a mask on; I didn’t own one yet, unlike now, where masks hang on every door knob of my apartment. I was meeting a friend for dinner in lower Manhattan. Our plan was to find a place on the fly like we always did, but we quickly discovered most restaurants were dark and padlocked. We settled on a nearly empty Irish pub in the West Village. I didn’t fully comprehend the ghost town that was New York City on a warm Friday night in March. I walked home alone that night to a frighteningly quiet city, unaware of the magnitude of the coronavirus.

From then on out, to my cat Everdeen’s chagrin, I no longer left the apartment. Work from home (WFH) came piece by piece, the online courtrooms opening and fitting into their assigned slots on the calendar like a developing game of Tetris. For the court interpreters in Brooklyn Criminal Court, the cases started steadily increasing not long after the initial shutdown. We adapted as quickly as possible, especially considering arraignments were not able to stop functioning fully at any point.

In Kings County, we have been using Microsoft Teams as our working platform, which doesn’t have a built in RSI (Remote Simultaneous Interpretation) feature. In its absence, we were thrust into an environment where we would have to do consecutive interpretation at all stages of the proceedings.

The remote consecutive mode is arduous. Within the judiciary, consecutive interpretation is only meant for specific instances, predominantly the witness stand. Since we started with Microsoft Teams, though, we’ve been using remote consecutive exclusively. It’s unnatural for the court interpreter to be such a focal point in the courtroom – with simultaneous interpretation our role is unobtrusive. The choppy ‘stop-and-talk’ nature of remote consecutive has also doubled the duration of even simple cases.

While it’s great that this shift has allowed us to brush up on our less-used consecutive skills, the fact of the matter is that consecutive interpreting wasn’t meant to be used in this capacity.

Thinking outside the box

To circumvent the over-use of remote consecutive interpretation, I started to flirt with other ideas inspired by the many educational webinars I’d watched in my free time. I created a specific RSI protocol proposal for the NYC courts with the hopes of creating awareness of the court interpreter and improving our virtual role.

The protocol utilizes our personal cell phone at this point, but it’s open to upgrades in technology. If we were issued soft phones or tablets, this protocol would be updated. By and large, the parties to the cases are working from home, and this RSI method works best for the LEP (Limited English Proficient) court user who appears virtually from home as well.

The idea is simple at its core: the court interpreter uses their cell phone to call the LEP court user, while a second device (laptop, tablet, etc.) is connected to the virtual courtroom. The courtroom on the court interpreter’s second device is muted to not disrupt the courtroom proceedings, and the interpreter interprets simultaneously into their cell phone for the LEP court user. While we are working with our personal phone numbers, it’s important to remember to use *67 before dialing an LEP court user’s number so that our phone number remains private.

Can you imagine your desk set up like this? In my case, I have my laptop open with my camera on and in front of me. I use a headset to listen to the courtroom and I have the LEP court user on speaker phone next to me on my desk. If the Court addresses the LEP court user directly, I toggle between mute and unmute on my laptop to interpret their responses. This isn’t an easy feat because it adds additional cognitive stress to interpretation.

This protocol is still in the inchoate stages of implementation in my courthouse. I like to ask each judge individually before each case if they are open to this burgeoning experiment. So far, the vast majority are not only willing to try it but sing its praises too. It’s not extra work for any other staff member, it halves the time of the consecutive proceedings, and it’s unobtrusive.

I find myself enjoying promoting this roundabout way to do RSI – it feels rewarding spreading awareness for our profession. At the very least, having a conversation about the intricacies of our craft with other court staff can help foster empathy. No one can say what our world will look in another year, so these types of innovations are crucial to helping us stay current in a technologically evolving world. Adjustability has become a paramount trait; after all, even my cat adapted to my constant presence in her area.

“Interpreters will never be replaced by technology. They will be replaced by interpreters who use technology” – Bill Wood

 


 

Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd is a staff court interpreter in New York City. Before starting work in criminal court in Brooklyn, she worked as an independent contractor to kick-start her interpreting career. Her experience includes Spanish<>English interpretation in sundry work environments: medical appointments, disability hearings, social services, public school system meetings, and much more. Her enthusiasm for interpretation can be traced back to living in Spain, where she often served as the language conduit between her visiting Dad and her Spanish then-boyfriend. She was an English teacher abroad for several years and considers teaching a passion. In her free time, you can find her running along the Hudson River or fostering kittens.

 

29 Comments
  • Kimi Eastham
    Posted at 15:38h, 05 March Reply

    Hi, I was wondering if you use a headphone with a microphone attached equipment during interpreting. If you recommend any brands, please let me know. I put my email address below.

    Thanks for the interesting story!

    Kimi

    • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
      Posted at 02:32h, 06 March Reply

      Hi Kimi,

      Thanks for your reply! I actually don’t have a specific recommendation for you, but I’d like to refer you to a previous NAJIT Observer post by Sandro Tomasi from September 18, 2020. Check out the comments there-I hope this helps!

    • Susana Hendrickson
      Posted at 15:42h, 08 March Reply

      Hi Sara. I just retired from the court system. Kudos to you for thinking outside the box! How did the defendant manage during a virtual appearance outside the court w the audiovisual? Wouldn’t he/she need a laptop as well as a cell phone?

      • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
        Posted at 14:48h, 10 March Reply

        Hi Susana,

        Congratulations on your retirement! The defendant usually manages just fine because they only have to wield a cell phone and listen and respond to the proceedings for audio. If the judge were to ask for a defendant to appear on the camera as well, I can use the same method with a video call and hold the camera of my phone up to my laptop camera.

  • Gila Khabbaza
    Posted at 15:42h, 05 March Reply

    Very nice article. As a New Yorker currently living in the D.C. area, I do remember the days of working in the criminal court in Brooklyn. Since my languages were Arabic, Farsi, Dari, it was not a full time job but I do recall those days when I was called in during an arrest and had to take the subway into Brooklyn from Queens. I was wondering how New York is coping with this. As far as simultaneous interpreting is concerned, we have tried it all over zoom. The new feature where we go into different rooms to do simultaneous seems to be working well when it works. Immigration court seems to be resistant to zoom interpreting so now it’s either in person or telephonic. Certainly these challenges are helping me grow so there is a silver lining to all this. It is a good idea to be able to remotely interpret for all states not just the state we are living in. My cat is certainly thrilled about this! 😉

    – Gila

    • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
      Posted at 14:09h, 06 March Reply

      Gila,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment and sharing your experience. I myself was also curious how the immigration courts were working this as well. It’s interesting how varied the experience has been for each interpreter. I’m happy to hear you’ve felt there was a silver lining in all of this-I agree with you. I have used this time to go back to my consecutive skills and try to hone them.

  • Glenda Obando
    Posted at 15:50h, 05 March Reply

    Thanks for your post, but why didn’t you all (staff & freelancers) instead promote the usage of Zoom’s RSI option for LEPs. or any of the other platforms (Kudos) instead of burdening the court interpreters with more things to manage on top of the the mental tasks we already have to deal with and the virtual cognitive overload?

    I rather improve my note-taking/consecutive skills than have to deal with all that extra work and the usage of my personal cellular phone. with defendants. Are you all being giving a stipend for your cellular phones?

    • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
      Posted at 14:16h, 06 March Reply

      Hi Glenda,

      I appreciate your remarks. We are not given a stipend for our own electronic devices and it is indeed a less than perfect situation, I concur. That being said, Microsoft Teams is the card we were dealt, and it seems we have to work within these limited circumstances. I do wish the court interpreters had had more of a say in this, and I look forward to the day we can sit at the discussion table.

    • Michelle Gonzales
      Posted at 13:18h, 08 March Reply

      In the courts where I work, the court determines which platform (Webex) they will use and that’s it. The interpreter cannot ask that they change platforms. They aren’t going to use one platform for non-interpreted cases and switch to another for interpreted cases. I guess that would be too much work for the court. Anyway, I’ve been using the method that Ms. Dowd mentioned since last May and it works great. It really isn’t a lot of work. In Webex you can hold down the space bar to temporarily unmute yourself, so that makes it easier.

      • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
        Posted at 20:38h, 09 March Reply

        Michelle, I’m so glad to hear that! I didn’t know you could do the space bar trick, either. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Kathleen Morris
    Posted at 15:57h, 05 March Reply

    Sara, I am assuming that you, too, are on speakerphone, to keep your hands free, right?

    • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
      Posted at 14:20h, 06 March Reply

      Hi Kathleen,

      I plug my headphones into my laptop and have the cell phone on speaker phone in case the LEP court user speaks. This way, I can hear everything in the virtual courtroom and the volume is not so loud that I couldn’t hear an interjection from the LEP court user from my phone. My hands are free, which comes in handy (pun intended), as I may need to unmute/mute my laptop microphone, take notes of adjournments, doodle, etc. It sounds silly, but sometimes I find myself scribbling circles or designs on a paper nearby while I simultaneously interpret. It soothes me. Hope this helps!

  • arnaldo b
    Posted at 16:38h, 05 March Reply

    At a certain neighboring state’s superior court, although some hearings are conducted via Teams and others via phone, we mostly use Zoom. However, although a protocol was established for RSI and we were trained on it, it has never been applied—at least in my county. So we are left with long and exhaustive bouts of avoidable consecutive interpreting. I would like to congratulate you on your efforts and search for solutions., but my main objection is that I am strongly opposed to the use of personal devices to do official court work. It is one thing to require a freelancer to use their personal and tax-deductible equipment. It is a completely different issue to expect a government employee to use their own personal anything, whether gear, number, or anything else, to conduct official business. Unless said government is willing to compensate the employee for such use. We did make a request for Judiciary-issued cellphones when RSI was first mentioned, but it was denied by the county due to “lack of funds.” And although I have some experience using the protocol you mention in the private sector, i would like to point out that it’s clumsy, requiring the wearing of 2 different headsets (at least in most conferences I have done remotely), and yes, it does add cognitive stress to an already difficult job. It’s also not clear to me how the record would capture the LEP’s original words in their native language when addressing the court, unless they are also connected via 2 devices like the interpreter. But the issue of interpreter fatigue due to misuse of consecutive is very real, and a brand new occupational hazard if you ask me.

    • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
      Posted at 14:30h, 06 March Reply

      Arnaldo,

      I relate to the attending feelings of tiredness that come from those long bouts of remote consecutive. As far as your objections to personal devices for government work, I agree it’s an imperfect WFH situation. Ideally, we would’ve all been issued the appropriate technology and would never have to worry about keeping our phone number private. I have been trying to raise awareness of this whenever possible, but alas, like you, have encountered many hurdles on this track. Wish me luck in my continued efforts and I also wish you luck in yours. But rest assured, at this point, no interpreter in our courthouse is forced to use their own cell phone if they feel uncomfortable with that. This RSI method is an alternative so that we have an expanded arsenal in a time of need.

      I am a tad confused why you would use two headphones for the method I describe. Maybe you could elaborate on this so I understand what you mean.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments and experience, I am learning a lot.

      • Michelle Gonzales
        Posted at 13:24h, 08 March Reply

        I use two headphones to avoid using speaker phone. My internet headphone has two earpieces so I slide the left one back off my ear. My phone headset has only one earpiece so I put that on my left ear. So I also have two mic booms, one coming from the right and one coming from the left. It works very well for me.. And it doesn’t look as silly as you might think.

        • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
          Posted at 14:49h, 10 March Reply

          Michelle,
          I love your creativity and commitment! Thanks for that trick!

  • Kathleen Morris
    Posted at 16:49h, 05 March Reply

    Is Zoom RSI the same thing as Zoom Pro? If different, do interpreters have to purchase Zoom RSI system? Judges in Cook County, IL are usually not trained in use of Zoom Pro. That’s why I think Sara’s method may work better here, in conjunction with Zoom Basic (consec method for English interpretation into the court record, simo into phone for LEP person).

    Most attorneys and judges here have trouble focusing on Zoom Pro, since they are distracted by the Spanish interpretation in background (even if at 20% very low volume on English channel). They are not properly trained by I.T. department. Also, it’s very hard to properly instruct LEP’s on how to click on the Zoom Pro Spanish channel, turn on or mute their mike, etc, takes too long w/impatient judges.

    I have not tried this hybrid use of Zoom Basic with speakerphone, but may now be brave enough to suggest it to judges for longer hearings where the LEP is mainly just listening to court proceedings or to English witness testimony. I have an unlimited minutes phone plan with T-Mobile.

    Sara, do you use this method for LEPs’ testimony, too, or go back to full consec on RSI platform, without use of phones?

    • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
      Posted at 14:48h, 06 March Reply

      Kathleen,

      I am not sure about the distinction between the Zooms. I think from where I stand, it seems awesome on paper that you have the Zoom option in your county, though I absolutely see how the concerns you raise would make the job difficult. If you are brave enough to offer what you mentioned, I’d love to hear how it goes.

      For the LEP’s testimony, what I’ve done is the consecutive mode so far, as I’ve encountered that situation in a few preliminary hearings. That being said, I think you could try the RSI method and use the hybrid simul-consec mode (this is my preferred method in person). Considering so much of the WFH during the pandemic has been trial and error, case by case basis, I look forward to continued dialog on what works and what doesn’t.

      Thank you so much for commenting and sharing, and please keep me updated!

  • Clarence E. Williamson
    Posted at 19:06h, 05 March Reply

    It is good to read about interpreters being so innovative and contributing so much to justice. Meanwhile, those people working in other fields of work usually receive recognition by increased recompense for deeds done well. In today’s world of the court interpreter, so much is expected while so little is received in financial compensation. Meanwhile, the burgeoning interpreter on line education system coupled with administrators of court interpreters requiring continuous education is there to readily garner so much more from neophyte interpreters that are barely hanging on to receive assignments to interpret at court. In short, the availability of income to the average court interpreter (as opposed to a permanent staff interpreter employee) hardly suffices to pay for attending the rich availability of on line interpreter training webinars.

    • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
      Posted at 14:55h, 06 March Reply

      Clarence,

      Thank you for your comment. It is certainly a struggle out there. This is interesting to me as I am unaware of what continuing education is required by whom and when. Maybe you could elaborate on this so I can have a deeper understanding. Continuing education is something I’m very interested in.

  • Katty Kauffman
    Posted at 21:10h, 05 March Reply

    Those who know me are aware that I am a firm opponent of “MacGyver” solutions such as the one you describe. As you rightly point out, handling all those devices adds to the cognitive load, produces fatigue faster and thus is likely to lead to more frequent interpreter error. As other colleagues have said, it also requires interpreters to use their personal devices (computers and mobile phone), acquired and maintained at their own –rather considerable– expense. In a nutshell, the courts’ refusal to identify and implement effective solutions has put the onus on us. Is that right? IMHO, no, it is not.
    So, does it work? YES! Can you learn to do it well? YES! Have we all done it (me included)? Probably.
    The real question is: should we?
    More effective advocacy on behalf of the profession is needed to put the onus of ensuring smooth, effective, expedient proceedings back where it belongs: on the COURT.

    • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
      Posted at 15:02h, 06 March Reply

      Hi Katty,

      Thanks for your comment, I appreciate your input. I couldn’t agree more that advocacy is something crucial to our profession, in more ways than one. I see how all the factors you mention could lead to error, but I find it to be equally onerous in the remote consecutive mode, if not more. In the judiciary, short consecutive is the appropriate modality, not long, as we often find ourselves forced into with VRI.

      So…pick your poison?

      I’m a firm believer in that the medium-long consecutive and constant interruptions to courtroom participants in order to maintain a short consecutive is not the way consecutive in the judiciary is meant to be used, but you’re absolutely right that the residual cognitive processing from simultaneous is basically zero. Does practice make perfect?

      We’ll all find out together.

  • Carmen Mustile
    Posted at 21:26h, 05 March Reply

    Great post Elle, it makes me feel hopeful to read that my challenges regarding RSI are similar to many. I am spending money and time trying to improve my note taking skills for consecutive, I feel it is more challenging then simultaneous because it requires short memory abilities and strong note taking skill. I don’t quite like MT microsoft team, I tried Zoom interpreting and liked it better. Yes, it is an overload of tech stuff to learn. I suggest a head piece with the cord, not blue-toothed. It is unreliable. Thank you again for the the great post and comments

    • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
      Posted at 15:04h, 06 March Reply

      Carmen,

      Thank you for your kind words. I agree that the short term memory is a huge challenge, one I’m also working on. Great thought on the headphone usage too, I have heard the same piece of advice from other interpreters.

  • Lyna Badibanga
    Posted at 03:26h, 06 March Reply

    Truly inspirational! Keep it up with the good work.

  • Sara Elizabeth (Elle) Dowd
    Posted at 15:05h, 06 March Reply

    Lyna,

    Thank you so much!

  • Helen Eby
    Posted at 22:29h, 07 March Reply

    I am not doing remote court interpreting until a non-MacGyver solution is offered in my area.

  • Michelle Gonzales
    Posted at 13:30h, 08 March Reply

    I don’t understand the protests about using personal cellphones without reimbursement. Nobody reimbursed me for my simultaneous equipment that I use when we have in-person hearings. I wrote it off as an expense on my taxes. Can’t we figure out a way do the same with a pro-rated portion of our cell phone bill? Just curious.

  • Cecilia Golumbeanu
    Posted at 15:37h, 19 March Reply

    Sara, your description of remote interpreting experience is much appreciated, I am still, patiently, waiting for remote court interpreting for Romanian in my state, NY. Can I ask if you got invited by the county court to use Microsoft Teams initially, or by the Language Access Office? – I’m just wondering how to get this information, they are rather hard to get a hold of in NYC. Thank you so much. Stay safe! Cecilia

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