Losing the Cloak of Invisibility

I like being tucked away in some nondescript area of a courtroom, where I can see and hear everyone but no one is paying attention to me, where I can have complete anonymity as my voice flows from a wireless microphone to a receiver in the defendant’s ears, and only when the defendant answers out loud is there any need for my true voice to break through the cloak of invisibility so the court reporter may take down a reply in English, because the defendant has spoken in a language that is not the language of the Court.

I am the official court interpreter. The one who makes sure the non-English speakers understand everything that is happening in court when their cases come before a judge. I am not an actor in the drama that unfolds with every criminal case, no matter how small or how serious the crime. I am like a “voice over” for the defendants, and an “echo” for the English speakers. But I am never “me”. Except that now, with virtual court hearings, I have suddenly acquired a different face. Well, let’s just say I am no longer invisible. Yes, that’s my face, front and center. Like every other actor in the courtroom drama: the judge, the attorneys, the probation officer, the defendant… and now the interpreter. We are all inescapably present. I don’t like it.

Old and New Habits

No longer do I have my little space where no one notices me. There is something else I no longer have: old habits. I used to keep my focus in the simultaneous mode by doodling on my steno pad. In the consecutive mode, I always took notes, whether or not I needed them. I wrote down numbers because otherwise I can’t visualize and translate them. Whenever I had a document to use as a visual reference, I would write on it or make notes to myself as I interpreted. I can’t do any of that anymore.

Now I have to use my right hand to move a mouse that will switch the language I am interpreting into if I am on a platform that allows for multiple-language interpreting. So while in the simultaneous mode I am constantly switching back and forth as I interpret for the English speakers and the non-English speakers. So much for note-taking, or even doodling. It’s also an additional load on my short-term memory—and an added cognitive function—that I don’t particularly appreciate. Plus, it makes mental fatigue set on much sooner than it normally would if I were able to take notes. In practical terms, it means I will be making dumb mistakes I normally would not make, and I probably won’t even notice that I made them, much less be able to correct them. Yes, remote interpreting can make even the most experienced interpreter feel like a novice while getting all this new technology under control.

A friend and colleague just recently posted on social media that you can program a foot pedal to handle the back-and-forth switching between languages, which for me was like a stream of clear fresh water in these otherwise murky seas. But I have not been able to set it up yet, so I cannot report on how well this solution works. Stay tuned.

Fatigue and Managing Interaction Flow

In any event, I do prefer the consecutive mode, where I can stay on a single channel and not have to be clicking on any icons. At least I can take notes and mental fatigue does take a bit longer to set in. The downside? When I do make a mistake, it’s out there for everyone to hear. Exponentially embarrassing, if you ask me.

Plus, there are other considerations in the way we do our jobs now. It is up to us to monitor the flow of verbal interactions, direct traffic in a way, between judges and attorneys who are not used to controlling the length or speed of their discourse. It is up to us to interrupt when there is noise in the background or the sounds gets cut off, when someone forgets to pause or even to breath between one thought and the next. Whether it’s the judge, the attorneys, the defendant, maybe a probation officer, or someone else, we have to be ready to stop a proceeding as soon as anything prevents us from doing our job and say, “the interpreter could not hear”, “the interpreter needs a repetition”, always in the third person, and always addressing Your Honor first so the judge is the one who corrects whatever needs to be corrected. And for that one instant all eyes will be one you.

Talk about no longer being invisible!

Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in federal, state and immigration courts around the U.S. before taking a full-time job. Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a staff interpreter in April 2002 and retired in 2017. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, embracing the joys of being a grandmother. She also enjoys volunteering for her professional associations, has been on the SSTI and TAJIT Boards, and is currently on the NAJIT Board of Directors.
Contact: jpalma@najit.org

Read other posts by Janis Palma.

28 thoughts on “Losing the Cloak of Invisibility”

  1. Excellent post.

    I wish there was a way for interpreters to advocate to the platform providers about the special needs of court interpreters. Every platform that has an interpreter feature seems to be set up for conference interpreters. They need to realize our need for mode switching (not just channel switching within the same mode) as well as our need to have our hand available for taking notes.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Hi Michelle: I believe there are interpreters already addressing platform providers about judiciary interpreters’ needs. I do recall reading something about that, but I can’t be sure where, so maybe we will hear from those brave pioneers in one of the comments to this blog. Thanks for your comments.

  2. Excellent article! Thank you, Janis.
    The increased cognitive load we face when interpreting remotely must not be ignored.
    And the added challenges brought on by RI must also be reflected in our fees.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Thank you, Hélène. I agree with you 100%, but even if fees do not reflect the added challenges, they should definitely not go in the other direction just because those challenges are not known to some of our clients.

  3. Hal Sillers says:

    Great observation, Janis. Thank you.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Thanks, Hal!

  4. Laura cahue says:

    I was assigned to a hearing – Juvenile’s mom, and two victims need interpretation – for someone decided they needed three interpreters and resisted setting up a simultaneous interpretation line because: how will we know what the interpreter is saying? I answered, unless you speak Spanish, you will never know. Video remote or in person, you don’t know. That is why we are sworn in. In the end, they continued it, and luckily, I am not available for the date it was set to.

    About invisibility, not only am I no longer invisible, I am now having multiple communications with attorneys, clerks and judges secretaries to make a plan for every hearing. A lot of education ahead of a hearing. Seven months in and each conversations is like the first one back in March; each hearing a consecutive interpretation marathon.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Sounds like a very difficult situation Laura. I am so sorry you are having to deal with such marathons. Please write to me at my NAJIT Board email address — jpalma@najit.org — if there is anything you think I can do to help.

  5. Carlos Benemann says:

    The additional fatigue issue is only too real because there are even more issues these days..
    What is happening in the few courts I cover is that they are prioritizing heavy duty felony cases, while putting the normal brief misdemeanors and such on the back burner. They are hoping for eventual “normalization”. So that lightweight stuff is just endlessly kicked down the dark alley of some future time.
    The consequence is that these days interpreters are increasingly requested to work on endless lengthy preliminary hearings and jury trials for mostly felonies, especially time sensitive homicides, multiple codefendants and such.
    But administrators are clueless that with the new technology they need to provide even more interpreter relief. They seem to think that interpreting on Zoom, Webex or some such technology is easier, So the coordinators provide even LESS relief interpreters. Of course the sole interpreter just can and has to interrupt and ask for even more breaks.
    You are quite right Janis, that issue alone is making the Interpreter quite visible as the center of attention now.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      What you say is very true, Carlos. We are once more “alone in the trenches” and need to start educating our clients all over again. Team interpreting is a must for any proceeding that will extend beyond an hour (and I am being generous, because my brain starts the meltdown process after about 30 minutes of simultaneous or about 40-45 in consecutive.) It is up to each one of us to set the stage now for the way remote interpreting should be done, before everyone gets trapped in substandard working conditions from which it will be much harder to break away once they become “the norm.”

  6. Andrew Carreras says:

    Thank you for this very honest post. I’ve felt all of these things in the last six months or so of this pandemic. It’s good to know that I’m not alone.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      You are definitely not alone, Andrew.

  7. Kathleen M. Morris says:

    Loved your comment, Alfedo. The reason that the interpreter always speaks in the third person, on the record, is so the court reporter or transcriber can designate us as speakers in the court transcript (as differentiated from other speakers on the record).

    Annoying? Yes, a little. But you get used to it, and the “third person discourse mode” also tends to make judges and attorneys take OUR needs more seriously, to do our job properly. It also has the effect of, over time, promoting professional respect for the skilled service we provide.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Very true, Kathleen. Plus, attorneys also refer to themselves in the third person (the Government, counsel, etc.) so by referring to ourselves in the third person we also show we are knowledgeable of courtroom protocol and therefore professionals who are very much “at home” in a courtroom.

  8. JANIS PALMA says:

    Does the interpreter mean to say he does not feel like royalty when speaking of himself in the third person? LOL

    There is a method to the madness, Alfredo. It’s just so the court reporter knows that the words he or she is taking down are not being spoken by the person for whom we are interpreting at that moment.

  9. Kathleen M. Morris says:

    Random personal observations on using Zoom Basic and Zoom Pro for court hearings:

    ** Most of our County courtrooms are set up for Zoom hearings. Some (a few) actually know how to use Zoom Pro (for simo, Eng/Other language channels), but most are sticking with Zoom Basic (consec enabled only).

    ** I actually like both versions of Zoom, for different reasons. For long hearings and trials, Zoom Pro is a great time saver, assuming the judge host actually knows how to use it correctly. It eliminates the need to take so many notes or constantly interrupt to request repetitions or speaker pauses. In contrast, Zoom Basic seems more adaptable to short Q&A proceedings with standardized procedures. In these types of hearings, judges get used to interpreters periodically reminding speakers to pause (in the third person), and will often remind attorneys themselves to follow this rule! Just like us, judges are learning how to more efficiently use Zoom features. With a judge who knows you and is used to working with you, you easily fall into a “rhythm” of Q&A question-pause-interpretation-response. In many ways, I have found Zoom Basic to be better for short, routine appearances,. This is also because the time consumed by having to wait for interpretation actually tends to make judges and attorneys phrase their next question or statement more coherently than happens when we work on-site. Just my own observations.

    As to being more “visible” during Zoom hearings, I guess I don’t mind that! I’m pretty definite in asking for repetitions and pauses, when appropriate and necessary. I have found that seeing our faces on-screen actually promotes more respect for us as professionals, in the minds of court personnel. And I love the full frontal view, complete facial expressions, and easily observable lip movement that Zoom provides, unlike (often) in “real life” hearings. Even interrupted audio feeds and occasional video freezes do not dampen my enthusiasm. I would love to hear others’ experiences and suggestions.

  10. Thanks for your post Janis,
    If appearing on camera is an obstacle you can turn off your video and use any icon you choose to represent you–any photo of your choice, or the default which would be your initials.
    I also found the following video to be a comprehensive refresher on Using Zoom for Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI): https://vimeo.com/421683825?ref=fb-share&1, which makes suggestions for resolving many of the other problems you and our other colleagues have mentioned as stumbling block.
    Could you please reply with a post indicating the source for the foot-pedal program you mentioned? By the way in the video a method for setting up toggles on your mouse for muting and switching languages is also described.
    Thanks to everyone who replied and stay safe, Nick

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      So good to hear from you, Nick! I will give that suggestion of yours a try, and see if that makes me feel a bit less “center stage”. As to the foot pedal, it is my understanding that it’s the same as the ones used for transcriptions, such as the AltoEdge or the Infinity normally used with the Express Scribe software [https://www.nch.com.au/scribe/pedals.html], for example. Once you connect the USB to your computer it will start a setup process but I have not done that yet so I cannot report on the results.

  11. Gio Lester says:

    So spot-on, Janis! that is something I had been curious about. I did a lawyer/client interview and I asked to be off-camera, and it was in the consecutive, so everything went smoothly. I can only imagine what it would be like to have them looking at me… Abraços!

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Well now you have my version of how it feels! Abrazos, Gio.

  12. Maribel PINTADO ESPIET says:

    Microsoft TEAMS is the platform of choice in my jurisdiction. No multiple language channel. No clicking back and forth. Justices direct traffic in terms of what the mode will be. Usually consecutive and people being good about pacing themselves. Advantage? I take my notes. Present only by voice since I choose to turn off the video. Participants in Family Court hearings have been as many as 14. I have water, cough drops, patience. I have had hearings in which I have provided simultaneous over the phone, using my own landline. I have placed calls to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. That takes some clicking of the mouse since I have to disable-enable the microphone so the Spanish on simultaneous does not get recorded. When testimony happens, I place the witness on speaker mode and the Spanish is recorded as questions are posed and answered. No clicking involved. Open mike time. I, like Janice, have new habits. No more doodling, for sure. But now I am able to have more resources at my fingertips. Having a large monitor helps (34 inches). I can split the screen in thirds and have video, search engine, PDF documents, all in front of me. I can look up terms as I hear them and have them instantly available. I can follow Bench Book templates for questioning. I can keep my dictionaries open. Yes, the invisibility cloak has been removed but I think it that after piercing that veil, we are seen in a very different light. Contrary to what I just said, I do leave the camera on most of the time. Headphones and all. Being this visible showcases the work we do. Just this morning a judge’s comment to me was, I don’t know how you do your work but, you definitely have two brains… For what is worth, I have judges who anticipate my need for slowing down or getting a break before I even think about it. We are creatures who multi task. Most actors around us are not. I find that most of them get more stressed and more exhausted than we do. Why? They are not used to this undivided focusing. And that, my friend, is our modus operandi/vivendi. As to the pedal…good luck with that. I don’t care to add yet another satellite to my operations cocoon.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Color me impressed, Maribel. You really have a lot going on at the same time, and a 34-inch monitor sounds like a great addition to the arsenal of helpful equipment to deal with our new work environment. Thank you for sharing your experience! It’s always good to know there is something positive coming out of all this.

  13. Russell J. Santana says:

    Fantastic little article. Very interesting. Since the onset of the current pandemic, I have ceased to interpret both in federal and state courts, just to be safe. And, unfortunately, I am not in a position to interpret remotely – yet. I can see, though, how difficult it would be to have to attend to those pesky little things such as having to click on whatever correct icon is needed. I suppose IN TIME, it could become second nature, but at least at first, that little slice of brainpower needed to attended to that would cause an intrusion into the normal pathways one uses when interpreting.

    Another point of interest mentioned in your article, somewhat unrelated, was your mention of taking note of numbers when simultaneous interpreting, as you have trouble interpreting numbers as fluidly as other data entering your brain. I had always had to resort to this same tactic when simultaneous interpreting, which always seemed strange to me. I haven’t been able to find anything dealing with this, maybe someone could direct me to information dealing with this. Why is it that the brain (at least, SOME brains) have trouble visualizing, “interpreting,” and THEN interpreting the number into the target language? It’s an interesting matter to me and I’d love to see some literature on that.

    In any case, very nice article. Thanks for sharing.

    Stay safe,


    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      When remote interpreting started I felt exactly the same way you do, Russ. It does get a bit easier with time, like any other new skill, so if you do decide to try it, rest assured it will get easier. As to the numbers issue, I found this article by a conference interpreter, Cristina Mazza, “Numbers in Simultaneous Interpretation”: https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= Enjoy!


    Thank you Janis!

  15. JANIS PALMA says:

    My pleasure, Laura Elena.

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