How I Handled It: One Little Syllable

By Kathleen Shelly

We all make mistakes. I don’t think I’ve ever met an interpreter who would lay claim to perfection

We all make mistakes. I don’t think I’ve ever met an interpreter who would lay claim to perfection in every effort to render an exact interpretation from source to target language. With this in mind, we must also be able to gauge when an error on our part warrants having to come forth and admit to the dreaded “interpreter error” in order to maintain the accuracy of the record.

A few weeks ago I was at a custody hearing at which the mother wished to withdraw her petition for sole custody, placement and only supervised visitation for the father. The reason for the petition was that the father had just been charged with his third DUI. The couple’s minor child had been in the vehicle when the father was stopped and arrested.

The judge couldn’t figure out why the mother would want to withdraw her petition. Here was a father who was obviously not trustworthy, and whose actions merited the limitations the mother’s original petition had outlined. He questioned each parent very thoroughly, particularly the mother, in an effort to understand the dynamics of the situation.

Now, the parties had been placed at opposite sides of the courtroom, so I found myself at some distance from the mother. I could hear her quite well since she spoke clearly into a microphone, but I had some difficulty keeping her in view. There was a podium between us, and she kept moving nervously from side to side, although this was no excuse for what happened. When she answered the judge’s question as to why she felt that the father should continue having unsupervised visitation with his son, I heard her say: “He is so sad and depressed not to be with his father,” and this was how I interpreted her words. Then, at some point later on in the hearing, the judge asked the mother how her son was doing and she answered him with a beaming smile, “He’s doing just great!” The judge, taken aback, shot back, “But, ma’am, you just said your son is sad and depressed!”

I saw what I had done. Instead of her saying “He is so sad and depressed” (Está tan triste y deprimido), I realized that what she had actually said was “He will be so sad and depressed” (Estará tan triste y deprimido). One little syllable had changed the meaning of what I thought she had said and might have affected the judge’s opinion of her veracity. Groaning inwardly, I knew what I had to do.

First I asked the judge for permission to request clarification from the mother. As I had suspected, she did indeed mean her words to indicate the future tense.

I then turned back to the judge and said: “Your Honor, the interpreter has made a mistake. Let the record reflect that this witness stated earlier ‘my son will be so sad and depressed’ and not ‘my son is so sad and depressed.’ Interpreter apologizes for the error.” I then asked permission to explain to the witness what had happened, which was granted.

I was prepared for some kind of admonishment from the judge. Maybe a little warning to be more careful in future. A shake of the head, a reproving glance, a sad “tsk-tsk.” The judge just looked at me and said “ok!” and we went forward.

It was one of those situations when you feel both bad and good about yourself. I felt stupid for having made the mistake in the first place, but rather proud that I had stepped up and admitted it. I had protected the record. I had done the right thing.

[Kathleen Shelly is an editor for Proteus.]

I had protected the record. I had done the right thing.
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