Effective Intervention: When Our Fellow Interpreters Save the Day

“Your honor, the interpreter needs a repetition.” I am flustered, under attack and have not heard the final half of the defendant’s sentence.

“Really?” comes the sarcastic sneer from the opposing attorney. “What for? If you can’t translate, then tell the defendant to speak really slowly, stop after each sentence and use simple words,” he says, his tone and expression dripping contempt.

I turn to the judge for confirmation that I can ask for the repetition, and physically bite my tongue to avoid snapping back at the attorney, whose constant interruptions and refusal to let the plaintiff finish her thought is partly why I have not been able to hear what was said.

And so it goes, all morning. A much more experienced and certified court interpreter sits across the table from me, interpreting for the other party, adding a layer of self-conscious awareness that is not helping. I feel clumsy, awkward and anything but the picture of a smooth, competent professional interpreter.

Earlier that morning, I had walked into an evidentiary hearing for a child custody case rusty after several weeks away from the courtroom and without my full game skin on. And boy did I pay for that lack of attention.

One party has a lawyer; the party I am interpreting for does not. The plaintiff is self-representing and five minutes into the hearing it’s clear she is completely incapable of handling the evidentiary question and answer process. The lawyer for the other party starts out loud and aggressive and pretty soon resembles a pit bull held back only by a very inadequate leash and collar. The judge is easy going and mild and does little to calm things down.

By lunchtime I am wrung out and stressed out. The other interpreter, who has traveled 5 hours from Los Angeles to our small, backwater courtroom, invites me to lunch and that is when I finally get my feet back under me.

She kindly but directly evaluates my performance. “You know, your interpreting is fine. Your problem is that you are not managing your party. She is interrupting you; the lawyer is interrupting you. You need to be much more forceful and intervene to make sure you get to finish interpreting.”

As a medical and community interpreter working my way into the courtroom, intervention strategies are familiar territory. Their purpose and the nuance required to intervene effectively between doctors and patients, or services providers and clients, even angry customers or angry administrators, are ingrained and mostly automatic skills for me at this point.

However, how to use these same techniques in a court setting was proving more difficult than I expected. The formality of the setting takes some getting used to. I have a solid understanding of the parameters of when I should and should not intervene, in theory. But how to push back when an angry lawyer won’t let you get a word in edgewise in front of a judge with a court reporter taking down everything you say gets more complicated.

Our small-town environment leads to a lot more civility and calm during proceedings, especially when lawyers are involved. They all know each other and rarely get into a bullying, enraged, shouting match to get their points across. This was my first time facilitating communication for an angry, opinionated, forceful and contemptuous attorney and it took me by surprise.

By the time lunch was over, I was sitting up straight, my shoulders squared. I had my interpreter mojo back. The advice my fellow interpreter gave me was spot on and I applied it immediately for the afternoon session. I began using hand signals and body language more effectively to pause the speakers long enough for me to finish interpreting each utterance before the next speaker started. I made sure to make any request for clarification or repetition directly to the judge and to get it formally onto the record. I spoke briefly to both the plaintiff and the lawyer prior to the start and asked them to allow me to finish interpreting before they began speaking again.

My focus back, the afternoon went much better. It was still stressful. The lawyer still yelled at everyone, and relentlessly bullied the plaintiff, who needed increasing repetitions of questions as the day wore on and she became more upset. The judge was still kind and passive and shook his head periodically at the difficulty of it all. The lawyer and plaintiff still tried to interrupt the interpreting before I was finished. But I sat up, spoke up, and made sure I interpreted everything without getting verbally ping ponged back and forth between the lawyer and plaintiff. I once again felt like the experienced and professional interpreter that I am.

I walked out of the hearing having learned four important lessons:

1. Sometimes the only path to remaining both unobtrusive and accurate is by being obtrusive and insisting on a manageable conversational flow.

2. The support and instruction of more experienced colleagues is essential to less experienced interpreters learning the ropes.

3. No matter how long you have been working as an interpreter, a new setting can put you back to novice status until you master the requirements of that particulate environment.

4. A good interpreter is only as good as the intervention techniques she has mastered.

Just as a now dear friend and fellow Masters degree student had once kindly helped me past my fear of working in the booth, a current colleague took the time to get me back on track.

Her action represents the height of professionalism. She supported me, and in the process, the overall quality of language access and communication between the parties was elevated.

Have a similar story? Let me know how you handled similar situations!

by Katharine Allen




8 thoughts on “Effective Intervention: When Our Fellow Interpreters Save the Day”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    A refreshing story, Katharine. We only hear about back-stabbing and under-the-bus-throwing stories in most interpreting circles. It is always nice to hear that the truth is much broader. It is not the profession, it is only a few professionals that give it a bad name.

    I love my work, and have enjoyed the generosity of my colleagues plenty of times in the booth.

    We need to hear more about events like this.

  2. Great story. It is critical to control the witness. If it becomes an issue, I start out using body language, making a pause motion with my hand. If the person is too hyper to notice (or doesn’t care), I will ask the judge to instruct the witness that in order to properly interpret his answers, he must pause to give me time to do so.

    If the attorney is speaking non-stop or several attorneys are objecting simultaneously, I will either ask the court reporter to read the discourse back (assuming she was able to get it), or I will petition the judge to ask the attorneys to take turns speaking or to insert a brief pause, as necessary, in order for me to discharge my duty to interpret the whole proceeding to the parties, witnesses, etc. If this continues to happen, I will not try to interpret haphazardly, a word here and a word there because that leads to problems. I will at that point resort to the court reporter again, and if she doesn’t have a full record, I will ask the attorneys, through the court, to summarize their position so I may interpret them to the LEP individual(s). When the court reporter option has been used a couple of times, they realize that time is being wasted and they slow down.

  3. Hi Maria,
    Thanks for that great description – it’s one thing to have a solid understanding of what accuracy means, etc – and I’m finding it’s even one thing to have extensive mediation experience while interpreting outside of court settings – but bringing adapting those skills to be effective and professional is definitely a learning curve!

  4. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for that very well-written article. It is great to hear that another interpreter helped you out and I loved the way you talked about how you had your shoulders squared in the afternoon. Yes we can use body language, too. I have noticed that pro se litigants and defendants often pose big challenges for interpreters. They do not know they rules and the lingo. In small claims court I will sometimes tell them that cross examination comes before the defendant testimony, but almost without fail the defendants begin to testify when the judge asks them for their cross examination questions, earning the annoyance of the judge.

  5. Thanks Rebecca,
    Pro se is the majority of cases in the area I live – at least those requiring interpreting. And that is the biggest issue when it comes to “managing the client” – they do not understand the process they are participating in. If both parties are pro se, it’s better because the judge guides them both through it. But if one party has a lawyer and the other doesn’t, then it’s generally a mess.

  6. Shawna Stevenoski says:

    Well done! I can appreciate the 4 lessons you have learned. As an experienced certified court interpreter, I find that every time I am sworn in as the interpreter of record, I am grateful for the constant challenges that arise whether I am in a 3 branch or a 30 branch county courthouse. Awesome quote, “A good interpreter is only as good as the intervention techniques she has mastered.”

  7. The best thing about being an interpreter is that our job is never the same twice.
    The hardest thing about being an interpreter is that our job is never the same twice! I agree Shawna.

  8. Ingrid says:

    Thanks for this beautifully written post, Katharine! I am a medical interpreter and have not tried to venture into court interpreting (yet!) but as you mention, mastering intervention is important for community and healthcare interpreters as well. Thanks for sharing the lessons you learned that day! Also, I’m very happy to have stumbled upon your blog while searching for posts on this topic. Looking forward to reading other articles of yours!

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