It’s Up in the Air

An open or shut case?

A couple of weeks ago, a woman I was interpreting for started chatting with me before an interview, and she asked me if I had heard about upcoming plans to reopen the courthouse. During this conversation, she shared her view that it was very easy for high-ranking court administrators to mandate in-person work while they watched from their individual offices, free from the fear of contagion.

We have probably all read the article below from The Atlantic that gives us pause to fully embrace virtual interpreting. I can see that many of the points made there are valid. However, we find ourselves wondering what the best course of action is. On the one hand, working from home is heaven sent for some of us, as we are able to juggle a number of things that we could not do working from courtrooms and offices. We can use our lunch hour to exercise, do laundry, wash dishes, you name it. More importantly, many colleagues can home-school or manage school schedules more effectively. Where I think we all agree is that human contact is irreplaceable and that in-person interpreting provides a better sense to truly read body language, nuances, idiosyncrasy, and therefore meaning.


Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, I have been working from home for the most part, but we have received a few announcements addressing the shift to post-pandemic operations such as resuming open court hearings, increasing on-site presence and in-person court events, as well as virtual work.

Early on, small groups of colleagues got organized in judiciaries all over the United States and gathered as much information as they could to keep court matters going through the use of technology as the pandemic spread full force, essentially becoming, in a very organic way, consultants for Court Administrations. In other courts, administrators rushed to summon their IT experts and tech-savvy interpreters to implement procedures for remote work, keeping the most urgent cases moving forward. Within a short time, we saw the emergence or advancement of VRI (Video Remote Interpreting) platforms, and Over the Phone Interpreting (OPI) became a must for short and brief interviews and customer-service calls.

This was meant to be an emergency and temporary solution, but as the pandemic continued taking its toll, it became evident that a more permanent plan was needed. At that point, we started hearing about the need for equipment such as upgraded computers, tablets, smartphones, pedals for switching modes, video-conference lighting, microphones, headphones, and cameras. Some of us had to buy a few implements for work, but soon, some judiciaries started issuing smartphones and computers to alleviate the technology needs of their employees.

As the ravages of COVID increased, so did the need for support and companionship to deal with the fear and isolation the pandemic was causing. Within weeks, webinars and support groups started springing up, as the need for connection became unbearable, and tech-savvy individuals joined forces to teach technology, make suggestions, and offer tips.

From the Witness Stand

The way I see it, our professional community and many courthouses have stepped up to the plate to ensure safety measures are in place and by implementing policies and standards for professional and effective VRI. They have also taken measures to help employees, colleagues, and friends to cope with the personal toll the virus has taken on us all. In spite of these accommodations, provided below is a list of some impediments to effective virtual communication I have encountered:

      1. Physical pain in my ears, as well as humming and buzzing. These symptoms become apparent minutes after starting any assignment that requires the use of a headset. A separate microphone is an alternative, but not when you are sharing living spaces with other working adults that need a quiet atmosphere as well.
      2. Many courtrooms have started livestreaming on YouTube (, and I feel exposed to an unlimited number of viewers without my consent. Court hearings are public, but only a limited number of people can be present, and the majority of them are not able nor interested in seeing every single pore on your face. On camera, however, there is nowhere else to look when a person is on screen or where to hide to make yourself invisible (to understand what I mean, read Janis Palma’s blog post of September 24, 2020: “Losing the Cloak of Invisibility”). This is mentally draining.
      3. Due to lack of practice in focusing cameras in on themselves, litigants usually direct the camera everywhere but their faces. Many times, I see the forehead, the chin and neck, the arms. There are other times where individuals are in their cars (in the driver’s seat, no less with a no DL charge) and I can’t see their hands to match body language with facial expression. There are also grainy screens that do not allow for proper viewing. And should I add that there are cases where litigants are laying in bed?
      4. Sound quality is another problem. There are times when LEPs, attorneys, and even judges do not have good internet connections, and the sound is choppy or muffled.
      5. The inability of some platforms to record simultaneous renditions, leading to alternative interpreting methods that can be confusing to LEPs, attorneys, judges, administrators, and interpreters alike, even after all the court administration’s training and support.


Here are some of the benefits of in-person interpreting from my perspective:


      1. Being able to read body language from all participants.
      2. Having the immediacy of help. Having to text is not the same as whispering a word in between a question and an answer to a colleague for a missing word or writing the elusive term on a piece of paper.
      3. Being exposed to how others handle ethical issues through personal experience in a courtroom.
      4. Participating in the many enlightening conversations that ensue during down time in the interpreters office.
      5. Gleaning terminology from the day-to-day discussions amongst colleagues.
      6. Unburdening yourself of a certain experience that only another interpreter can understand.
      7. Sharing challenges, solutions, and experiences with colleagues.

Ultimately, I believe that whatever ends up being the way of the future, it will happen gradually and organically as it did when courts migrated to the virtual world. After all this ambivalence, I can tell you that if you ask me what I prefer, I will have to take the Fifth!

Hilda Zavala is a state certified/approved Spanish court interpreter and translator with more than thirteen years of experience in legal, medical, corporate, and non-profit settings in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Wisconsin. She is a board member, treasurer, and Conference Committee chair of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators as well as former president of the New York Circle of Translators. She is an active and voting member of NAJIT, ATA, the NYCT and other professional groups. Hilda has two certificates of Legal Interpreting: Spanish/English, the latest one from NYU. Hilda has been a Staff Interpreter at Essex County Superior Court in New Jersey for over 5 years. Born in Chicago, Hilda lived for 20 years in Mexico and loves traveling. She continuously looks for opportunities to promote and advance the interpreting profession. Contact:

Main photo by Colin Lloyd from Pexels. Body photo by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

10 thoughts on “It’s Up in the Air”

  1. Helen Eby says:

    I strongly prefer in person!

    1. There are pros and cons for sure. I am torn! Professionally I believe in person is the way to go, but that would be in an ideal world.

  2. Daniela Schmidt says:

    Thank you for this article. Virtual interpreting had been on the California’s Judicial Council agenda for more than 10 years now, slowed down by the Interpreters unions and some legal provisions requiring certain proceedings to be in person. Beyond what the article said there are also confidentiality issues, better put, lack of confidentiality as well as putting the Interpreters health and privacy at risk, plus potentially creating a bad image of the interpreter in the case of you tube recording. Additionally, global hacking can subject the interpreter to terrible crimes. At the same time the government and private clients don’t want to pay the Interpreters for these serious risks. The only ones profiting from virtual interpretation are the government and big tech. In the name of the pandemic no one really cares about human rights, due process of the LEPs or anything else.

  3. Thank you, Daniela! Privacy and health issues need to be considered when deciding if virtual or in-person is the best option. These are not easy decisions but I agree with you that budgetary concerns are at stake and sadly important and deciding factors for judiciaries and LSP companies.

  4. Leonard says:

    I think you’re right, Hilda! It’s not clear cut if remote or onsite is best in any given situation. It’s more urgent than ever that interpreters have a voice about our working conditions because we’re by far the most informed about what goes into our jobs and how we can best serve the courts.

    1. The interpreters are almost never consulted in these matters. The staff interpreters that are unionized are “consulted” through their union reps. The independent contractors are never consulted. We are “disposable”, get assignments on “auction” and even the marginally educated interpreter agency representatives get to dictate whether we get an assignment or not based on the rate only. The staff interpreters usually get better pay and benefits. Now they are also stuck in this remote interpreting situation where they must interpret eight hours a day for all departments! The interpreters have become glorified call center staff! As for independent contractors doing remote work, wait and see how it is going to be outsourced in India and China- even the Romanian language – like the translation and attorney services. I believe we can stop this by having strong legal provisions in place about working conditions in remote interpreting, strong ethics, responsibility of the client if something happens to us even though we are independent contractors, as well as strong professional organizations capable to defend the interests of the profession and not only their language, locality or pet projects. We cannot just stand by and go with the flow without having a say in all this. Unfortunately, in a greedy society like ours, this is a tall order.

      1. The considerations that you bring up are very important. For that, reason it is crucial to add our participation and input through every possible channel. Remember that organizations such as NAJIT are the sum of its members and their participation.

        The phrase below is very indicative of how we see ourselves. It sounds just about right.

        “The interpreters have become glorified call center staff!”

        Daniela, I invite you and all of our colleagues to attend the Town Hall Meeting to share your concerns with the Board.

    2. Absolutely, Leo! We all have to do our part. Thanks for your work on behalf of the profession. See you around soon. 🙂

  5. AJ Elterman says:

    Thank you, Hilda, for sharing your experience and insights. I would also take the fifth if asked which platform I prefer working.
    Regarding getting headaches when using a headset, I would highly recommend interpreters (or anyone else for that matter) use wired equipment, including headset, computer, mouse, and any other equipment that can be used wired — instead of using bluetooth or wireless. The latter causes electromagnetic microwave radiation, which has been proven to have serious health effects for all life forms, especially if used for longer periods of time.
    Speaking of electromagnetic radiation, unfortunately, the widespread installation of 4G/5G small cell antennas has been ongoing without fanfare since the beginning of the corona crisis in schools, in hospitals, and now with the OTARD* rule right by people’s homes or on their roofftops, having been approved by the FCC (*that allows private home owners to put up small cell wireless base stations, i.e. cell towers that transmit (!) microwave radiation to their surrounding neighbors in return for a fee paid by the telecom company. But what we cannot see can be hazardous. On the positive side, the FCC has lost in the appeals case brought against it by Environmental Health Trust and Children’s Defense Fund in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, meaning that the FCC has had no standards so far to protect public health. So the FCC has to review the scientific evidence on the EMR impacts on health and environment and regulate the telecom industry accordingly, protecting people before profits. This issue is crucially important for the future of life on earth, as apparently no one will be spared being microwave radiated 24/7 — IF the smart grid, smart cities, and the Internet of Things and the Internet of Bodies were to become reality. Broadband can be wired to the premises using fiber optic, which is much safer, much faster, and has already been paid for by us consumers over decades. Responsible technology is available, it is up to us demand and use the safer choices.

    1. Thank you for all the information you shared, AJ. I had the opportunity to read on it and appreciate that you took the time to alert us about these news. Great observations and facts.

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