How we handled a complex hearing

This article was originally posted on December 6, 2013. Juggling languages is only part of our job. There are other dimensions most other humans are not aware of. Jennifer is our guide as we explore some of them. Enjoy.


Recently, a colleague and I were asked to interpret in a logistically complex hearing that ended up working out pretty well in the end. I’d like to share it with the readership, and point out some things we learned from this particular experience.

It was the family law domestic violence calendar, and we were to interpret for not one, not two, but six matters—all at the same time! All parties were in pro per, and we knew that at least a few of them were expected to need interpreter assistance.

The six-matter scenario was essentially a family in which some issues had arisen causing two members to each file for restraining orders against various combinations of another four family members. Because the facts of the case stemmed from the same event, the judge was interested in holding a single hearing.

We were aware that the hearing was coming, but nobody involved knew for sure how it would work out until the morning of. Many factors were unknown:  How many witnesses would be called and need an interpreter? Were all of the parties going to go forward with the hearing? What kind of time would they need from the judge? Despite knowing about the case in advance, these logistically-important issues were still a mystery.

Everybody in the courtroom got involved in the informal planning discussions held with the parties on the morning of the hearing. There would be no additional witnesses, so we only had to deal with the six parties, and we had plenty of space. The deputy chimed in about seating given the purported history of tension among the parties. The court reporter had a few words to say about ensuring that each party was identified when speaking. The clerk clarified how the interpreters would be sharing the duties. We interpreters offered ideas that would support our need to hear and concentrate. All of us brainstormed with the judge.

Simultaneous equipment was decision one because it turned out that all six parties needed interpreter assistance. Each party would hear the proceedings in Spanish through wireless receivers. Only one interpreter was needed for that task. The second interpreter would be used to go into English for any testimony given by the parties. Because the judge would be keeping all of the parties at the spacious counsel table—nobody would be separated from the group to take the witness stand—we soon realized that we could divide the tasks even more.

The petitioner side (two individuals) sat at one end of the table, near the interpreter using the transmitter to interpret the proceedings into Spanish for everybody. The respondent side (four individuals) sat at the other end of the table, near the second interpreter. If the proceedings got too extensive, our plan was to switch back and forth every so often on the simultaneous task. For testimony, each interpreter was to be the voice into English for each of the individuals seated near us, that is, one interpreter for all petitioners, and one for all respondents. Logistically, it seemed to make sense.

One thing we tried to predict was how much testimony each side would be giving. Because the respondents had not yet filed their responses, we suspected that they would be the ones with more to explain during the hearing. The petitioners had already explained their story in their petitions, so we guessed that they could have less information to tell the judge. By predicting this, we thought that the interpreter with the extra task of simultaneous duty should be the one with the petitioners, since maybe they would be talking less. In the end, our prediction was wrong; the petitioners spoke quite a lot more than the respondents. However, because we took the time to plan and felt in control, being wrong about that made no difference to how we performed.

The key factor in making this hearing work came right from the bench. The judge gave clear instructions to all parties about how to conduct themselves so that everybody could be heard. Throughout the entire process he stayed in control, addressing the parties by name and allowing each to speak in turn. The parties themselves were cooperative even through moments of emotional testimony.

In retrospect, coordination and control were crucial to a smooth experience. When we’re thrust into situations of chaos, it’s not only difficult to do our jobs well; it’s also frustrating and exhausting for all involved. The fact that the interpreters were taken into account in the planning was both beneficial and gratifying. After the hearing was over, we stayed behind and debriefed with all involved, and everybody agreed that it was a complete success.

Other circumstances could have changed how we did things for this case, such as the number of individuals needing interpreters, any lack of self-control by the parties, attorney involvement, non-party witnesses, no equipment, and lengthy proceedings. As with so many professional experiences, what we did was one of many ways we could have done things.

I’m curious as to whether our colleagues out there have experienced a similar setup and how they handled it. Leave us your comments, and let’s share some experiences!

4 Comments
  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 11:54h, 06 December Reply

    This will serve as a reference on how to prepare for complex situations. Thank yu so much for sharing, Jennifer.

    – Gio

  • James Nolan
    Posted at 10:38h, 03 June Reply

    Thank you for a detailed description of a complex interpreting challenge that was very well handled! May I mention it in a book I am writing?

  • Carmen L. Saenz
    Posted at 21:37h, 03 June Reply

    Great article, Jennifer! I had not seen it before. All interpreters can certainly learn from your experience. Very well handled! Thank you for sharing.

  • Helen
    Posted at 05:53h, 06 June Reply

    Thanks for sharing! Speaking from experience- being an interpreter is not an easy job. I’ve actually had similar experience. Glad, that other interpreters share similar views, espeacially about the logistics and dividing the tasks.
    Great post, Jennifer!

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