Giving Justice a Chance to be Fair

Gio Lester © 2014

After having interpreted at immigration court, the county jail and federal prison, I was called to interpret at the county’s psych ward. It was a long, long drive from my home; way past urban areas and the farm land to the south and west of that. I was in the boondocks.

The doctors had suspected that the inmate was not mentally capable of standing trial until they realized they had mistaken his native language. They had initially paired him with Spanish interpreters and were getting nowhere. That’s when they requested a Portuguese language interpreter.

According to the doctor assigned to the case, the inmate was non-responsive. It was as if he did not care about his future. The doctor’s concern stemmed from the fact that the charges against the inmate were grievous and he needed to be given every chance to make his voice heard.

Ten minutes into our first interview the inmate was smiling. The doctor was shocked. I relaxed.

After some exchanges the doctor was still having some difficulty comprehending the inmate’s indifference towards his own situation. There had been a breakdown in communication again. At that point, I felt I needed to fall into my cultural broker role.

I shared with the doctor the perception of legal dealings in the inmate’s country, the polar opposite of what happens here in the US. Though the concept of innocent until proven guilty exists there also, it is not practiced as the norm, and most dealings with the justice system are not favorable to suspects. To break through the inmate’s feeling of helplessness it was necessary to explain the basics of the legal process in the US, i.e. that he did not have to prove that he was innocent, instead the prosecution had to prove that he was guilty. After about 15 minutes of discussions on the subject, the inmate started asking questions that led the doctor to believe she had succeeded in breaking through one more barrier.

The assignment had turned into a multi-step project.

We managed to establish the inmate’s competence, give him hope of having his side of the story heard, and establish communication, thus reducing his sense of isolation. But still he had no access to or support from his own community. I asked the doctor if the Brazilian Consulate had been notified of the incarceration of one of its citizens and gave her the necessary contact information. She contacted them and found out that the consulate had been in touch with the inmate at the original holding point, but had lost track of him after his transfer. The consulate was happy to reestablish contact.

The next step was to get the inmate to recognize some English words in order to empower him in his day-to-day life at the ward, including interacting with other inmates.

Making use of my language teaching skills, I devised a game the doctor could use on her own with the inmate and the results were very positive. That meant the end of my three-week assignment. And what an assignment: it required the use of my interpreting skills, my cultural knowledge and my teaching skills. Mission accomplished.

Interpreters often get asked what it is that we do. The answer is complex and multi-dimensional. In the judicial context, I’d say we help justice prevail in the most complete way.  We are the ones who give meaning to the voices on all sides of the equation.

When words cannot be understood, they become just noise—or meaningless silence to hearing impaired individuals. Noise and meaningless silence alienate and disenfranchise through fear and the sense of powerlessness. By giving meaning to incomprehensible noise and meaningless silence, interpreters help level the playing field and give justice a chance to be fair.

10 thoughts on “Giving Justice a Chance to be Fair”

  1. Excellent post! Thanks for sharing your remarkable experience.

    1. Gio Lester says:

      Thank you, Mercedes. It was an enriching experience. It helped me grow in many different dimensions.

  2. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    Fantastic, Gio!

    This happened to me in a hospital setting. In fact, doctors were ready to commit a patient to the psych ward when they finally called in an interpreter, and not just a bilingual staff member. You see, none of the bilingual staff members were familiar enough with Spanish to realize that his accent in the little Spanish he was speaking was slightly off. I immediately noted it and realized and confirmed that he spoke an indigenous language from Mexico. We didn’t have access to an interpreter for that language, and he was about to be sent home. We decided to make due with my Spanish and his to explain that the hospital bus would be transporting him home. His Spanish was so poor that I had to resort to drawing a bus and doing a bit of charades. It never ceases to amaze me how our interpreter mentality can sometimes be what is needed, because my ability to communicate with him wasn’t necessarily better than the next person. I simply understood that he didn’t speak our language and used my “human” skills to get a point across.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Gio Lester says:

      That one-off point of view can save one’s sanity.

      A case I was involved in as an interpreter got dismissed once the difference between “pegar” in Spanish and the same word in Portuguese was explained. The barriers can be so easy to over come, but they always require the right tool – and it can be a simple difference in perspective.

      Thank you, Jen.

  3. Janis Palma says:

    Once more, your experience, Gio, goes to show that the range of skills for an interpreter in these face-to-face scenarios runs the full gamut from “tough” to “delicate”. It also exemplifies why we need to have all 5 senses –and then some– fully engaged. That client was so lucky he had you there!

  4. Gio Lester says:

    Thank you, Janis. I learned a lot too, about my responsibility, about perception, about service. I love my work!

  5. Athena Matilsky says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience and your human generosity Gio. And Jennifer, what an amazing story. It is funny how our work as interpreter grants us other skills too; I think we are just very used to self-monitoring and checking to see that someone understands (or doesn’t).

    1. Gio Lester says:

      You are so right, Athena.

  6. Glenda Obando says:

    Great post! However, where you there as a Community/Medical Interpreter or a Court Interpreter? You seemed to have taken the role of an advocate for the LEP client.

    1. Gio Lester says:

      Hello Glenda,

      I had multiple roles since my job was to make sure the doctor and the patient could communicate.

      The facility was a medical prison, therefore my experience in both fields (medical and legal) was what made the client offer me the job: they knew I would be able to go from one role to the other without losing sight of the main goal.

      Once the main medical and legal goals were secured, I was happy to assist the doctor in furthering her contact with the patient by devising a tool she could use on her own.

      As for bringing the patient’s consulate into the equation, shared that information with the right party (the doctor). After all, the US government is interested in making sure all who appear before a court of justice has a fair chance, and one’s psychological state weighs a lot.

      In short, you are right. And I was called in to serve in that case because of my ability to do just that. I felt honored that my client thought so highly of me.

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