03 Sep 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:
- 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.
- Many courtrooms have started livestreaming on YouTube (https://slate.com/technology/2020/08/zoom-courts-livestream-youtube.html), 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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:
- Being able to read body language from all participants.
- 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.
- Being exposed to how others handle ethical issues through personal experience in a courtroom.
- Participating in the many enlightening conversations that ensue during down time in the interpreters office.
- Gleaning terminology from the day-to-day discussions amongst colleagues.
- Unburdening yourself of a certain experience that only another interpreter can understand.
- 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: email@example.com