Everyday Quandaries of the Court Interpreter

Just another day in court: trapped in the middle of a contentious divorce trial between two pro se parties full of rage and completely unversed in the rules of law and trial proceeding. After hours of arguing, Mrs. Divorcee calls her first witness: her 92-year-old mother. The tiny, sedate lady approaches the stand, takes her oath, and refuses to raise her voice above a (very faint) whisper. Furthermore, she doesn’t really want to answer her daughter’s questions (and to be fair, her daughter’s “direct examination” consists wholly of questions such as: “Is it true that I told you he was a bad person?”) She merely wishes to issue a monologue under her breath about how much she dislikes the soon-to-be ex-son-in-law. She explains indignantly after the fifth request that she raise her voice, “but then they all [indicating the judge and court clerk] will be able to hear me!”

Finally the excruciatingly painful direct examination ends, and the cross-examination begins. In an attempt to demonstrate his soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law’s lack of credibility, Mr. Divorcee begins asking her what she can and can’t remember, including today’s date. This is when things go from hairy to hairier.  In Spanish, the witness says, again under her breath, “the date…what day is it. What day is it? No, what day is it?” I begin to interpret this into English and she looks straight at me, raises her voice for the first time and snaps in Spanish, “SHUT UP!”

Let’s be real here. This is an amusing anecdote. But it also illustrates some of the every-day quandaries that we interpreters face. We are under an obligation to facilitate communication so that court proceedings with people who don’t speak English are equivalent to those of people who do; no more, no less. We are supposed to try to be invisible. But our mere presence in the room and our proximity to the litigants changes that courtroom experience. The 92-year-old witness was most likely looking to me to provide an answer to her out-loud ponderings. If I had not been there (i.e., if she had spoken English), the incident most likely would not have played out the way it did.

Likewise, what of those litigants trying to get the court’s attention? If they say, “permiso puedo preguntar algo?” even if they ask very quietly, I have no problem saying in English, “I’m sorry, can I ask a question?” But sometimes they simply try to catch my eye, raising their hand a fraction of an inch, trying to get not the judge’s attention, but mine. It turns out I’m not invisible. But they are not saying anything, so what can I interpret?

Then there are the litigants who try to show you evidence. They have photos they try to shove under your nose, receipts they forgot to hand to the sheriff’s officer and again, there is nothing to interpret.

I find that a little bit of education goes a long way; explaining that I am there only to interpret, that they should speak clearly and slowly and direct all testimony to the judge. Many judges will include that in their instructions, and perceptive judges will notice when the litigant is trying to show the interpreter something and redirect the parties’ attention. If all else fails, I can say, “your honor, the interpreter is being given documents.” But this always feels a bit sticky. Am I overstepping my boundary? If I were not there, the litigant might be trying to show this directly to the judge, but they might not.

English-speaking litigants don’t have someone whose sole job in the courtroom is to make sure they understand the proceeding. No, we interpreters are not there to simplify the language or help with the proceeding in any way other than providing linguistic equivalence, but their interaction with the interpreter is most likely more comfortable and less intimidating than their relationship with the judge.

In the end, it seems that our task is impossible. There is no exact equivalent to the non-interpreter proceedings; you either speak English and there is no interpreter, or you do not speak English and there is one. When there is one, the dynamics of the room change. Is our job then not to create equivalence but to minimize differences? I am curious to know your thoughts. In the meantime, I will cross my fingers that today’s divorce proceeding does not end with a tongue lashing directed at yours truly!

9 thoughts on “Everyday Quandaries of the Court Interpreter”

  1. Sonja says:

    Thank you Athena for this entertaining illustration of what court interpreters in the US deal with every day.

    More often than not, the interpreter does change the dynamic, regardless of how good or professional he or she is. The current set up is obtrusive, no matter what- defendants and witnesses interacting with the interpreter during questioning, attempts at engaging the interpreter in conversation or asking for clarification/advice, the interpreter having to run all over the courtroom in order to hear, portable equipment that sometimes fails or runs out of battery at the worst possible moment (to say nothing of situations where an interpreter just can’t hear a mumbling judge or attorney, or when the interpreter’s voice interferes with recording equipment).

    It’s probably asking too much, but I would love to see courts adopt booths, where the interpreters could just do simultaneous into English and the other language while receiving a feed from the judges’ and attorneys’ mikes. This is what is done at the international courts, and it seems to work just fine, while allowing the differences to be minimized, and the interpreter to actually be invisible. LEPs and their families would not be able to interact with the interpreters. The bar for interpreter quality would also be raised and those who weren’t performing would be weeded out.

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, Sonja!
      You bring up a good point. When you talk about international courts, what comes to mind is the fact that (in name at least) they could almost be “expected” to need to consider language access. It seems like it would be such a huge paradigm shift here that despite how amazing it would be to set courtrooms up like that, it’s just not at the top of the list of priorities. Sigh… in the meantime triers of fact are expected to pay no attention to the man (in front of) the curtain and yet consider how it affects a witness. I guess this is where witness prep comes in… 🙂
      Thanks for bringing it up!

  2. AMatilsky says:

    Thanks for the comment Sonja. Your examples of the current interpreter obtrusiveness are totally on-point. It’s interesting to think about the booth idea. I do wonder if it would be as simple as that, though. I think simultaneous works well when one person is speaking loudly and clearly. But in a family court situation, for example, with people talking over each other and many different parties involved, it seems to me like there would be similar difficulties as those that arise when trying to remote interpret proceedings by video and telephone. Then again, I suppose the usage of the booth would necessitate the implementation of good audio/acoustics. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that, and how it differs from remote interpreting, which I certainly find challenging. As you pointed out, actually implementing something like this in the state courts would be a tremendous undertaking!

  3. Hal sillers says:

    Every courtroom in the country is obligated by ADA to have equipment to assist hard of hearing litigants and jurors. The equipment is often an infraded trransmitter mounted somewhere on the wall above and either behind or to one side of the judges bench so that the line-of -sight transmission covers the entire courtroom. An infrared receiver is provided to the person who is hard of hearing, so that they can hear the sound/speach transmitted directly from any of the amplifying microphones in the courtroom, without the interference of ambient sound/noise. We have found this to be a very effective tool for interpreters as well. When used in conjunction with portable electronic interpreting equipment, the interpreter does not have to be near any of the parties, and can hear clearly and interpret from nearly anywhere in the courtroom, especially in situations in which simultaneous mode is appropriate.

    Many courts are not aware that the equipment exists, because it is seldom used for its designated purpose, but if requested, it is available. The interpreter may also have to put up with some questioning stares from court staff when first requesting this equipment, and may have to explain how it is to be used, because, after all, “..you mean you are an interpreter and you are hard of hearing?”

    Some might be laboring under the mistaken perception that this equipment is only available in more sophisticated courthouses. That is not true. We have interpreted in some very rural courthouses. The hearing assist equipment is there and will be provided if requested. Be firm but courteous and pleasant in your request and you will be able to use it. It makes life so much easier. In addition, it allows the interpreter to fulfill the ethical obligation of complete and accurate interpretation, while the court and the LEP parites receive a much better interpretation than is possible if the interpreter must sort out from all the rest of the noise in the courtroom what is being said by all parties .



    1. Sonja says:

      You are right, Hal. I had been working in state courts for a while and had no idea the equipment existed, either, until one day when I did a jury selection, and we had headphones to provide sim for a defendant of what the attorneys were saying to each other while the rest of the courtroom had to listen to the white noise machine. We wound up just leaving our headphones on, and I’d never had such an easy time doing simultaneous in a courtroom setting! Unfortunately most court staff have to be begged to even look for the equipment, and I think a lot of freelance interpreters are afraid of being seen as “difficult” or inefficient so they wouldn’t ask for the equipment, even if they knew it was an option.

  4. Leonor Sillers says:

    Both the federal and state courts in Minnesota and North Dakota have the equipment to assist hard of hearing litigants and jurors. I have been using this equipment for court interpreting for several years, and I require the interpreters who go to court through my agency to request and to use the equipment. To avoid the “Hard of hearing” question, I refer to it as “the amplifier equipment.” The courts are accustomed to me using the equipment, to the point that I no longer have to ask for it. As soon as I arrive in the courtroom the clerk or the bailiff has the equipment ready for me. I have demonstrated the equipment for court staff in various courts explaining the benefit of both the portable interpreting equipment and the “amplifier equipment.” I emphasize especially how the use of this equipment makes the interpreter unobtrusive and enhances the impartiality as well as the perception of impartiality of the interpreter’s role by allowing the interpreter to be separated from all parties and still provide quality interpretation for the court and the LEP parties. In addition, the interpreter can sit at a table separated from the parties and have space for a notebook, iPad or laptop or a dictionary. It is true that at the beginning it was difficult to convince the court and staff of the advantages of providing interpretation in this manner. After the first few times the doubters were convince and now it is part of common practice in the courts where we work. Other considerations are interpreter health and safety.

  5. Montserrat Gorina-Ysern says:

    Thank you for raising the question of “invisibility” of the interpreter in the court or other setting through this story, that I have also encountered.

    Though I know what the rules say, I have come to ponder why among all the other professionals in the courtroom (legal, administrative, law enforcement, judicial, and miscellaneous) the interpreter would be the “only” one that is supposed to be invisible…. what does this distinguishing requirement say about our perceived role?


  6. P Diane Schneider says:

    Another wrinkle with the booth issue s whether a second interpreter would then be needed to allow the client to consult privately with his/her attorney during the proceedings.

  7. Athena Matilsky says:

    Good points, one and all! First of all, I have found the “amplifier” equipment to be extremely helpful in certain circumstances and we are beginning to use it more in our courts. However, it is not always easy to set up, and I have found that it does pick up ambient noise, so if there is any background chatter at all it tends to make everything louder which doesn’t really help. It can be really useful though.

    To the point about why we are the only ones who are supposed to be invisible: I suppose we are the variable between proceedings with LEP individuals and proceedings without them. To acknowledge that our presence makes a difference is to acknowledge that LEP proceedings are different, and the whole point of our job is to eliminate differences, right? On the other hand though, every proceeding varies slightly; certain people may be in the room who were not the day before, moods can be different, the setting can be different…It would be interesting to speak to court officials and LEP individuals about the whole “invisibility” question. I imagine most of them don’t even realize we are supposed to be invisible; that is what causes many of our challenges in the first place! (ie if that lady had really thought I was invisible she wouldn’t have told me to shut up!!)

    There is a small movement in mental health interpreting, where they analyze the whole patient environment as part of their job, that says clearly the interpreter is not invisible and he/she has an influence on the patient/provider interaction (for better or for worse). The conclusion is that the interpreter’s presence should be acknowledged and a plan should be made for how to most productively include the interpreter rather than pretend he/she isn’t there. I daresay that could be applicable in the court setting, and possibly it would be more realistic than trying to hide the interpreter in a booth.

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