The Cat is Out of the Bag

This cat got out of the bag in June 2018. We want to take a trip down memory lane, to when we used to go out…


Planning is fun. Then, life happens

I had planned on writing about my experience in the Southern District of Texas, McAllen Division, interpreting for the “tsunami” of misdemeanor illegal entry cases, maybe comparing it to my experience in the District of Puerto Rico interpreting for the huge multi-defendant felony cases we normally handle there. But then CNN came along and blew this baby completely out of the water. The general focus is now on the children being torn away from their parents. For us, the focus is on the parents who don’t know where their children are, and what it means to be their voice in a courtroom where no one can do anything to help them.

During the 2018 NAJIT, conference someone asked me if NAJIT should be somehow addressing the vicarious trauma issue for judiciary interpreters. At that time, I said, “No. Why should we? We are not in a war zone!” Well, I take that back. It looks like we are in a war zone after all.

Details can be overwhelming

But let me go back to the staggering numbers before I get into the human (or inhuman) aspect of this “Zero Tolerance” policy and the unusual demands it is placing on interpreters and interpreter coordinators or supervisors. As a former supervisory interpreter, I know firsthand how challenging it is to cover all proceedings needing an interpreter since individual judges’ calendars tend to be in constant flux. Now, when you have all the regular calendar events, plus seventy-something misdemeanor illegal entry proceedings in the morning and maybe sixty-something in the afternoon, at the same time mind you, in the same courtroom before the same judge, it’s a whole new ball game! Equipment alone is a nightmare. Having enough headsets for everyone and making sure they get cleaned and recharged after each session is stressor number one. Having enough interpreters to cover all your court proceedings is stressor number two (or maybe it’s the other way around.) And that’s just for the supervisor or coordinator. My hat’s off to them, especially the supervisory interpreter in McAllen, Cynthia de Peña!

Now, for the interpreters in the courtroom, the first order of business is getting your calendar with all the case numbers and names of defendants, checking to see who speaks Spanish and who speaks some other language—most likely indigenous languages from Central America—and alerting the proper court officer—which could be the supervisory interpreter, the courtroom deputy or case manager, the Federal Public Defender, or the U.S. Attorney—if there is someone in the group who does NOT understand either English or Spanish. Having done all that, checked to make sure the equipment is working properly, and established the times when you will be switching with your interpreting partner(s)—because this is not something one interpreter can or should do alone—, the actual interpreting begins.

Everyone is pressured for time because these cases have to get processed TODAY! So, the judge and the attorneys all speak at what must surely be upwards of 500-words-a-minute. If you are not familiar with the “script”, you’ll stumble more than once over your own words, no matter how good an interpreter you are. It does get better as you become familiar with the individual judge’s pace and style. But it is still a huge cognitive overload and, by the end of the day, you feel you are ready to collapse (which is why no interpreter can or should do this alone!).

The real crux of the matter

Of course, the cognitive load is not the only source of mental and physical fatigue. You cannot help but look at the faces of the people sitting in the courtroom, all of them wondering why they are being labeled “criminals” when all they wanted to do was to find some work to help their families. Many of them have spouses, parents, or children with serious medical conditions, others are fleeing from civil wars waged by “real criminals” against their own people. Then the judge gets to the sentencing part and asks if anyone wants to say anything. One by one they get up to ask about their children, mothers and fathers alike crying, evidently devastated grown men and women telling the judge they don’t know where their children have been taken and all they want is to get them and go back home. One by one the judge tries to be as compassionate as possible, yet there is nothing he (or she) can do because he (or she) is not an immigration judge. He (or she) can only take care of their “criminal” case so they can go take care of their immigration case.

And there you are, the interpreter, the language mediator, the neutral conveyor of messages, closing the door to your heart as you watch this tragic parade of “criminals” getting processed, then taken away to who knows where. You make a superhuman effort to keep all your feelings stowed somewhere where the sight before you cannot reach them. You try to convey compassion with your voice, with your eyes, but never cross the fine line of ethical restraint. Then you go home and avoid the news because if you don’t, you will hear about the part of this story we never get to hear in court. Your heart will break, and you may even cry in silence as you feel utterly helpless and impotent. I have been told, “well, at least you are helping.” I am not. I am not really “helping” any of these people by accurately and fully conveying the words of the judge and the attorneys. As a matter of fact, I don’t know if I am actually contributing to their misery. I pride myself on being very professional and you will never see me flinch in court, even when faced with the most horrendous accounts of the damage one human being can do to another.

But I also have to wonder, are we going to need someone at some point to teach judiciary interpreters how to deal with “vicarious trauma,” after all?


Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.
Contact: janis.palma@gmail.com

Read other posts by Janis Palma.

6 Comments
  • Sandra Dejeux
    Posted at 14:52h, 17 April Reply

    I loved your article, Janis. Having interpreted for immigration courts for several years, I can identify with the feelings and emotions that you describe in this article. I believe judicial interpreters should be taught how to deal with their feelings of impotence and sadness when they remain faithful to their code of ethics, at the price of betraying what they stand for as individuals.

  • Kathleen M Morris
    Posted at 16:13h, 17 April Reply

    I have been chatting, off and on over the last few years, with a friend who is a social worker and therapist, on this topic.

    In her opinion. court interpreters can legitimately be considered to suffer the vicarious trauma that first responders like police officers, firefighters. and paramedics do. In the courtroom, we are present at crisis-filled moments in defendants’ and respondents’ lives.

    She mentioned a very effective type of short-term therapy that has shown promise for first responders seeking it, who suffer from vicarious trauma. Maybe a future NAJIT Conference can offer a workshop on this topic, given by a therapist specializing in vicarious trauma. Such a presentation could include a list of therapy resources for affected interpreters. Personally, I believe that many of us (myself included) suffer from vicarious trauma and don’t consciously realize it.

    There is a tendency among some of us not to believe or think that we can be affected by VT. Often, this concept becomes conflated with a “lack of impartiality” or “overstepping our role” if we feel we may be affected by VT. VT implies neither of these things. I am a completely neutral party, and am always very conscious of the limitations of my role. I am still affected by vicarious trauma every day,especially in immigration court.

  • Dee Shields
    Posted at 21:20h, 17 April Reply

    Thank you for sharing this. I have never done interpreting in immigration cases here in the US, only in Denmark. Your description makes it even clearer that what is happening to immigration in this country is an abomination, and I’m so sorry you have to be on the front lines of (even just some of) the horrible treatment these fellow human beings are receiving. Please get whatever treatment you think will help you if you find it necessary: you can’t help anyone else if you don’t take good care of yourself.

  • Henry Rugeles, MA T & I, FCCI.
    Posted at 01:01h, 19 April Reply

    Thank you for shedding a light on this issue. We cannot lose sight of a more humane treatment and the emotional/psychological/social consequences of just focusing on enforcing immigration laws. On another note, thankfully the District where I work always secures two interpreters per court docket. I have worked in the past with courts in which only one interpreter was scheduled for the entire day due to the lack of understanding of our profession. Needless to say, interpreters were unrealistically expected to stay on top of their game from the beginning to end of the day.

  • Andreea Boscor
    Posted at 19:12h, 20 April Reply

    Great article!

  • ArnB
    Posted at 15:05h, 21 April Reply

    This is a serious, and seriously overlooked, problem in our profession. As a former freelancer, I too used to scoff at the idea of vicarious trauma for interpreters. But then I became a staff interpreter for a certain court, and after 8 years and 2 months of daily criminal, family and civil drama I can definitely say it is real and takes its toll on an interpreter’s mental and physical health, and can (and does) lead to possibly severe complications. This is an issue that needs more attention from our community, and yet, for what I have seen and heard, something that court administrators don’t really like discussed, due to potential implications on sick leave and other benefits. If anybody has any links to any relevant studies or other resources related to vicarious trauma and court interpreting that they can share I would really appreciate it, as I am overdue to start compiling a list following advice from a colleague and union shop steward. I have witnessed more than one colleague lose their job or get sick from circumstances that could be blamed at least partially on this type of trauma. Thank you.

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