The Cat is Out of the Bag

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.

Read other posts by Janis Palma.

26 thoughts on “The Cat is Out of the Bag”

  1. You are helping Janis, without interpreters like you LEP’s would be even more frightened as they would not even be able to understand what is happening to them, and they would certainly not have the luxury of asking questions to the judge.
    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you are doing for these parents.

  2. Maria Mateos-Caldwell says:

    Is there a way to share your insightful article on Facebook, Janis? I’don’t love to share it to educate the public..

  3. Constance Marina says:

    Wonderful post, Janice. What these people are facing is beyond horrific. I can’t imagine having to interpret these court proceedings.

  4. Maribel Pintado-Espiet says:

    Thank you, Janis.
    We need to be on high-alert here as emotions may run very high.. Please bear in mind that language communication happens because of empathy. We are not machines. A team interpreting approach may be necessary for this circumstance.
    If you are overwhelmed, take a break.
    Here is an article,

  5. Even if you think you aren’t helping, it is worse for them to be left in the dark completely. It is better that they hear and know what is going on so they can at least frame a strategy in their minds about what they may need to do next. If I were in their shoes, I would want someone to help me understand and know what is going on so I can figure out how to deal and cope with it. Even if all I could do was call out to my God in Heaven to give me peace of mind and hope. Believe me, I believe God is watching and everyone will render an accounting to him.

  6. Cristina Sanchez says:

    Very well-written article! My heart goest out to all my colleagues dealing with this type of work on a daily basis.

  7. Susana Gee says:

    A most excellent article. Thank you!

  8. Dear Janis! Yes! We are indeed helping these individuals, since it is through our interpreting they are able to have a “meaningful presence” in their proceeding, allowing “due process” to take a front seat in the courtroom as their cases are heard. Yes, we are helping these individuals as we become their voice and their ears, allowing dialogue and communication to take place. No! We are not “actually contributing to their misery,” since we have neither a vested interest in their cases nor are participants in their proceedings, and this mere thought undermines the unbiased, neutral, impartial and competent role of any interpreter dealing with such proceedings. I do know you are “very professional and will never see you flinch in court.” Please do not let me “flinch” with your words as you tell me in a doubtful tone, “I am actually contributing to their misery,” and as I know for a fact vicarious trauma is real and present in all of us, whether we want to admit it or not. Let us, then, reach out to each other with words of encouragement that strengthen our standing in the judicial system, and words born from a true and solid belief that what we do is relevant to all those that happen to encounter the wonder and force of language access through us. Because access to language is, simply put, access to justice! Thank you for your essay.

  9. Marjory says:

    This topic is dear to my heart: vicarious trauma hugely affects court and community int: interpreters across the country. See chapter 2 of the free training manual, Breaking Silence: Interpreting for Victim Services, which you can download here:
    (There is also a free workbook you can download.)

    A digest of some of the work and concepts in the manual overall can be found in this ATA article I wrote

  10. Nano Mardones says:

    Another angle in this regrettable situation is that we, as permanent residents or naturalized citizens, have also become ICE’s fair game.

  11. Kathleen Morris says:

    Compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma were already serious issues for many EOIR interpreters, long before Trump took office. This situation is not helped by the fact that interpreters are never assigned a partner during long asylum hearings.

    As to the separation of children from parents, recent news articles seem to indicate that the existence of a child or children as part of the “accompanying family unit” is “irrelevant” in the “Illegal entry misdemeanor” cases, and cannot even be mentioned on the record. I hope that I misunderstood this!

    Many EOIR judges and even government attorneys are compassionate human beings. They are, however, limited as to options to resolve illegal entry and asylum cases, given the current strictures of immigration law.

  12. Rosemary Dann says:

    Janis, thanks for this post. NAJIT has had sessions on vicarious trauma in the past, often dealing with situations like interpreting to rape or murder cases, but you’re right: it’s time to bring them back. Perhaps a webinar from the NAJIT Academy?

  13. Loie Feuerle says:

    Vicarious trauma is a recognized reality for interpreters who interpret for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault & human trafficking and is generally included in curricula for training interpreters who work in those fields — or at least the ones that I have been involved with.

  14. Yolanda Castro says:

    I think that being a first hand witness, a compassionate and conscious witness, of present events, as horrendous as they are, has such a huge value, because you are able to humanize these otherwise faceless stories, as you are doing with this piece. Thank you Janice for reminding us that every tiny piece each of us do help to tell the story, one that must be heard and remembered.

  15. Terri Shaw says:

    very good post describing an almost indescribable situation. My hat is off to all the interpreters working in these hearings.

  16. Mercy Martin-Crouse says:

    Thanks Janis, for this wonderful post…!!!! a true example of an interpreter and the feelings…!!!!!

  17. Carlos Benemann says:

    I was just watching the news. The reporters and politicians said they talked with children that had been separated from their parents. They reported the children cried and said this and that. Other reporters claimed they talked to the parents, who cried and also said this and that. Not once did anyone from the news media mention the fact that they themselves did not speak Spanish, that they had no interpreters and that the only information they got was provided through the sanitary filter of government staff “bilinguoids” that are actually in charge of committing the crime of kidnapping and forceful separation and assemblyline bogus prosecutions. At this point, even certified bonafide interpreters are doing nothing more than aiding and abetting a crime. Cudos to the airline personnel for example that refused to “do their job” and help transport the children to their far away cages. If we interpreters stop assisting, this criminal system will implode. This situation truly calls for a huelga de brazos cruzados.

  18. Janis Palma says:

    Thank you all for your kind comments. It is always good to hear other perspectives when you can be too deep inside your own. Maria Mateos, you can share any NAJIT blog post freely (post a link?) We just like to see NAJIT get the proper credit.

  19. Maria Teresa Perez says:

    Could we volunteer our time to help our fellow interpreters with their overload?

  20. Judith Drachman says:

    What is going on is a real tragedy, and you, being there, are big help because you speak the language that they understand. It is not enough, but it is what you can do. Much more of what the rest of us are doing. Thank you Maribel also for that article.

  21. Erik Camayd-Freixas says:

    Thank you, Janis. I’ve been living with vicarious trauma for the past 10 years, since the 2008 Postville Raid case.

    Here is my recent reflection on the 10th anniversary and a new report you should read on the abuse of immigrant children:


  22. Yes, as always Janis has portrayed the real life situation, which I too had the op´portunity to witness and participate in last week in Miami, absolutely heart-wrenching! Thanks Janis for making this situation come alive for the colleagues who haven’t had first-hand experience, for better or for worse!

  23. Georgina Barvie says:

    Are you still interpreting in the court system?

  24. Janis Palma says:

    I am truly overwhelmed by all your responses to this blog post, your heartfelt solidarity and very helpful advice, articles, and other resources.
    Georgina, yes, I am still interpreting in the court system.
    Georganne, so that’s where you were! Thank you for the work you are doing to connect indigenous language interpreters with the enormous need here in the U.S. right now.
    Erik, I am familiar with the work you have been doing. These are things that would make God himself (herself?) cry!
    Judith, Maria Teresa, and anyone else who wants to help, I have been posting on the NAJIT Facebook page whatever information I get from groups asking for help.
    Loie, Rosemary, Kathleen and Marjorie, I think I am about to learn a whole lot about vicarious trauma and how to deal with it.
    Carlos, we cannot STOP interpreting for these people! The universe hates a vacuum and if we stop, what will happen? Incompetent people will step in and make this whole mess even worse. But I agree about the airlines; I was very glad to see them take a stand!
    Nano, I am really sorry to hear about problems with ICE for permanent residents or naturalized citizens.
    To ALL of you, once more, THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart for your kind words of support and solidarity!!!

  25. Erik Camayd-Freixas says:

    As for me, not only am I still interpreting, but I just got home today from helping my friends at the US Attorney’s Office put some real criminals in jail. It was another proud day. If it were moms and dads and kinds, not so much. However, I do not participate in immigration cases, or in fast-track Operation Streamline prosecutions near the border, and I am lucky to have that choice. But my heart goes out to those colleagues who do not have that choice. They need trauma interpreting support, as much as those who interpret for refugees, ER patients, victims of violence, or in theaters of war. Because vicarious trauma is real.

    It helps not to be a passive victim. Become an advocate for human, civil, and constitutional rights. Gather your strength and volunteer to help the needy. This can help you feel a bit more like a caretaker than a victim. I belong to this groups (with chapters in 40 states) of citizens who visit immigrants in detention centers and advocate for the end of non-criminal immigrant incarceration:: . I have found many colleagues across the country who keep their sanity by being advocates or volunteers for various causes when they are off duty.

    Where do you draw the ethical line in your work? (Remember that doing nothing is also an ethical decision.) I can only speak for myself. I do not allow anyone to use me as an instrument of coercion. For example, I do interviews in jail and prosecutorial interrogations. The moment I feel that the interrogation becomes coercive or bullying, I intervene by informing the officers, professionally but with displeasure, how they are coming across; and I don’t continue interpreting until they comport themselves.

    In court, this does not happen, because the judge will not allow it. When no judge is present, even in legal depositions, I don’t accept any behavior that a judge would not accept in court. It is good to watch and learn from judges the true meaning of impartiality. In court, with very few exceptions, things are conducted with justice and dignity. The interpreter needs to hold on to this idea that (s)he is aiding in the administration of justice. This professional distance helps. But when rights and dignity are violated, the interpreter should not look the other way. The interpreter is always a facilitator. We are responsible for what we facilitate.

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