Lessons from Atlanta

The NAJIT conference in Atlanta was intellectually stimulating and for some of us—or maybe all—it was also very good for the soul. We laughed, we sang, we danced, we ran into old friends and made new ones. In short, a lot of those present thought it was one of the best NAJIT conferences in a long time. The energy was great and I, for one, came back with a long list of “things-to-do” that will help interpreters everywhere.

The first item on my list is sharing the notes I took during a great panel discussion moderated by Ernest Niño-Murcia (Iowa), with panelists Heidi Cazes (Puerto Rico), Melinda González-Hibner (Texas), Alí Salcedo (Arizona), and Cristina Helmerichs (Texas): Tough Crowd: Interpreting for Bilingual Attorneys and Judges. As life experiences and lessons were being shared, I tried to “distill” the essence of their good advice.

1. Be willing to listen. You may have missed something, and a bilingual judge or attorney could have caught it and be right about it when he or she brings it to your attention. Correct yourself and keep going.

2. Be humble. It goes with #1, but it also goes a bit beyond that. If you make a mistake and get corrected, acknowledge it and learn from it. We do NOT know everything and never will.

3. Be non-confrontational. Many times you will get “corrected” when you are actually right and the person correcting you is wrong. State your position calmly and move on. Do not pick a fight because the one correcting you could be your client and you don’t want to burn that bridge.

4. Do your research (and share it.) There is no better way to state a position that goes against a “correction” made by a bilingual judge or attorney, and to stand by it, than to have done your research so you can quote the source on which you base your position. However, a word of caution about your research: make sure your source is reliable and authoritative. (Saying “I saw it in Facebook” won’t cut it!)

5. Pick your battles. Not every correction made by a bilingual attorney or judge is worth a reply. Consider the venue, the “mistake” that is being pointed out, and all the variables that your experience and common sense tell you to weigh in before you decide your audience needs to be educated… or not.

6. Don’t let your adrenaline take over. Being wrongfully corrected can certainly get anyone’s adrenaline going. After all, you are sitting there feeling insulted because someone who is NOT a language expert is trying to correct you, and fearing somewhere in the back of your mind that your reputation might get tarnished by this person who has no business telling you how to do your job. If you stay calm you will be able to make a wiser decision and apply all the pointers in #1 through #5.

7. Don’t take corrections personally. This probably goes well with #6 (and, well… all of the above.) If you know you are right, simply hold your ground.

8. Remain ethical. Whichever route you choose to follow, always act within the boundaries of a judiciary interpreter’s Code of Ethics. In fact, there may be times when the decision to speak up or not will have to be made strictly on ethical grounds, particularly when you are walking a fine between being someone else’s voice and becoming someone else’s advocate.

9. Be respectful. Sometimes you will be the one correcting another interpreter because you were brought in as a “check interpreter,” meaning one who is hired to listen to another’s performance and make sure no mistakes are being made. If you have to play that role, avoid embarrassing or humiliating a fellow interpreter. Rather than stating your corrections out loud and publicly, be discreet and approach those colleagues in private, giving them an opportunity to make the correction themselves.

10. Educate. This was the final call to action from the panel. Every time you, as an interpreter, go to work—whether in court or out of court—you have an opportunity to educate everyone around you.

I will end with Melinda González-Hibner’s words: if things aren’t working like they should and you’re not happy, go do something!

3 thoughts on “Lessons from Atlanta”

  1. Dear Janis,
    Thank you so much for sharing this helpful outline of the discussion points regarding appropriate protocol for responding to alleged error. It must have been a wonderful panel. I will pass it along to our Massachusetts interpreters right away.

    I love the fact that this involves colleagues speaking gently and kindly to colleagues, yet making it clear it’s our individual responsibility to handle such situations correctly and in the same way across the board. It’s important for the court to see all interpreters following a single, universal protocol: that in itself is a form of education! It breaks my heart when an attorney or judge tells me about a court interpreter engaging in conduct that clearly disregards ethics and protocol. If we ourselves don’t take control and represent ourselves as a unified profession, who will do it for us!!

    All best and congratulations to NAJIT, Leonor

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Leonor, I am really, really happy that you found this helpful and I really, really hope to see you at NAJIT’s next conference (2016) in San Antonio!!!

  2. Will plan on it, definitely, Janis.

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