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.

References

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

No Comments
  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 15:41h, 30 August Reply

    I have found myself in this situation. That was my first time in immigration court. I decided I might as well take my pad out and start writing down terminology – known and unknown – and remain “present”- I was ready to fall asleep .

    I have since decided that is the best approach – unless I have research or reading to do.

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