Interpreting for Justice

The problem with court interpreting is that it’s messy. Heck, life is messy, and court interpreting is just a manifestation of our daily struggle with chaos.

Allow me to explain.

For months now I have been mentoring students to study for their tests; notably I’ve been coaching them for the federal exam, which is fast approaching. And tests, of course, are their own embodiment of the devil incarnate. But in a way, they are so simple. Tests are black and white. Points are awarded or not. A phrase is in the dictionary, or it isn’t. In other words, tests are clean.

Then there are the courts. Truly, the image of the courthouse is one both powerful and romantic, and I’m pretty sure it had been calling me for some time before I finally earned my way into those hallowed halls of justice. Growing up in a large family, I imagine I was attracted to the inherent and enforceable fairness of the courts. Within their structure, lawyers must abide by the same laws. Judges are trained to consider both sides before reaching a decision. Everyone has an opportunity to speak and all the parties involved have the obligation to play by the rules. So courts are neat and tidy, and we interpret that. Right? Not so fast.

Look. You don’t need me to tell you that people are fickle. The courts are designed to be fair but they can only be as fair as the people who govern them. And we are weak, us humans. We are weak and we are not all equal. Smarter lawyers may make more money. More money can therefore buy you a better defense. Judges and juries can be influenced, consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes, life isn’t fair.

Take first impressions, for example. Or tones of voice. The state of mind we are in when we present or hear a case. All that can determine how seriously we are taken as litigants. And we add another layer when we depend on another person—an interpreter—to be our voice. So, dare I say it? The impressions of an LEP are only as good as their interpreter is good.

There, I said it. But the truth is that court interpreting is complicated, and sometimes it’s hard to be good. We must navigate courtrooms with people who mumble, people with accents, people with regional linguistic differences. People who speak too fast, people who go on and on but don’t say anything at all. And we are supposed to process all of that while giving an accurate target language rendition, faithful not only to the words that are spoken but how they are said. Faithful to the underlying implications and tone. As interpreters we strive not to misrepresent, not to change register, not to interrupt. We don’t want to make people look argumentative or frustrated when it is really we, the interpreters, who are struggling.

And, ladies and gentlemen, you don’t need me to tell you that is insanely difficult. We make choices on a daily basis that have a huge impact on the lives of the people around us. We must truly interpret, determining in a split second whether a simple phrase like ¡Qué va! Is better off rendered as “Are you kidding?” or, “Of course.” Not to mention whether we should risk interrupting tearful testimony when we can’t understand the words through the sobs. The implications are subtle but significant.

So I know I’m a nerd. I’m proud of it, really. But I think that my affinity toward tests lies in their lack of ambiguity. It’s the fact that they can be broken down, examined, and reassembled. It’s about their finite number of variables. Tests may be scary, but court interpreting is messy. And call me a coward, but sometimes I prefer a pile of scoring units to the real, live thing.

Athena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website:

11 thoughts on “Interpreting for Justice”

  1. LIVIU-LEE ROTH says:

    Excellent article! Everything you wrote is so true!
    Thank you Athena.

  2. Christina F says:

    Great article Athena!

  3. Grace Borenstein says:

    Thanks Athena. You are absolutely right!

  4. Belinda Obi says:


    Very interesting and thought provoking article!

  5. Sandra Sanchez says:

    How true are all your observations! I wish more people were that candid but more importantly, that courts would allow interpreters at least 5 or 10 minutes to give a brief intro to what would be helpful to the interpreter and all involved in a court proceeding: judges, attorneys (usually the worse), the suspect/convicted person, and witnesses. And for them to not make faces when an interpreter has to use every so often “the interpreter…” to get the attention of our audience. Even if they were to allow a sign saying pause please in the target languages, would be awesome!

  6. Carmen L. Saenz says:

    Great article! Thank you.

  7. Phyllis Hillery says:

    Thanks Athena. Excellent article. So true what you say about the lack of tests. I would love your opinion on the aspect of the interpreter certification tests, whether Federal or State, with regards to consecutive interpreting as to the length of questions and answers which are several sentences long. How do tests and real life interpreting compare?

    1. You know, I think that often we can get away with shorter consecutive in real life, but I think it’s so important that we be prepared for long consecutive, and it’s something that a lot of people struggle with. Every now and then you find yourself in a real-life situation where a litigant is giving emotional and important testimony, and you don’t want to interrupt them.

      I do think that something extremely difficult to replicate in an exam (hence something that makes exams simpler than real life) is when people are not saying much of anything at all, or when a word simply cannot be rendered precisely without clarification.

  8. Gema Aparicio says:

    Well said!

  9. Martha Landeros says:

    Add to all you wisely and honestly stated: the dreaded technical fails (the listening devices when transmutters/receivers produce static), environmental noise(s), etc. Thank you for your sincere description of the “real world”!!!

  10. Elsa says:

    Athena thank you for always sharing your experience with us!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *