How I handled it: You’re Not the Attorney

By Kathleen Shelly

I must admit that when I first started out as an interpreter, I didn’t really understand the ethics canon regarding scope of practice. The wording may vary from state to state, but in my state it says the following:

Interpreter shall limit him or herself to interpreting or sight translating, and shall not give legal advice, express personal opinions to individuals for whom he or she is interpreting, or engage in any other activities which may be construed to constitute a service other than interpreting or translating while serving as an interpreter.

Pretty clear, isn’t it? Well, for a time at the beginning of my twenty-year career, I thought I knew better. In my misguided zeal to help the my fellow man and woman, I would take the defendant or witness aside after the lawyer had finished explaining matters, and repeat, rephrase and rehash that explanation until I was sure that the poor soul had understood everything perfectly. It was not my job, and I very quickly learned to just stop it. What I considered compassion was actually far outside the scope of my duties.

Here I was, a short, middle-aged woman, about to address a tall, well-dressed, well-educated, gentleman from a paternalistic society that I knew held women in no great esteem, to let him know that he was behaving in an unprofessional and unethical manner.

I tremble now to think of the harm I might have done in so many ways, not just to the defendant or witness, but to the profession as a whole. After twenty years interpreting in my state, I know plenty about the law, but I am no attorney, and I am forbidden by my code of ethics to act as one.

Recently I had an experience with another interpreter that served to confirm my commitment to the limitations of our scope of practice, but it was hard to deal with at the time.

On the day in question, I was working in another state. This particular court had some space limitations, and instead of keeping incarcerated defendants in a holding area to await their attorneys, the court would instead bring them, handcuffed and shackled, into the courtroom itself to sit and wait on a bench to the side before being taken to another part of the courthouse for their attorney/client interview.

As I was waiting for my case to be called, the guards brought in a prisoner and had him sit down on the bench. A well-dressed gentleman seated behind me, just opposite to where the defendant was sitting, immediately started to converse with him in his own language, which was totally unintelligible to me. I turned to look, thinking, “Wow, an attorney who can speak to his client in his own language!” Upon closer consideration, however, I realized that I had seen the gentleman before at a court in my own state—he was an interpreter of a language of lesser diffusion.

At first, I thought the interpreter was just introducing himself, as we are allowed to do, but no, the conversation continued. The interpreter did most of the talking, the defendant nodding his head from time to time. Finally, the attorney, a public defendant with whom I had worked quite often, came up to lead the defendant and the interpreter to a conference room for the interview.

When they returned, the attorney left them to attend to other clients. I was not surprised to observe the interpreter again speaking to the defendant seated on the bench. It went on and on.

To a person not familiar with interpreter ethics this might seem normal, even laudable on the part of the interpreter. He is kind enough to explain things thoroughly to the poor benighted foreigner to make sure he understands. How does it look, though? First of all, doesn’t it appear that the interpreter is on the defendant’s side—that he is not impartial? Isn’t an interpreter just supposed to interpret? Also, how does the interpreter know that what he is telling the defendant is correct? He is not the attorney!

I debated with myself. Although obviously unethical, this was a colleague, a fellow interpreter, a comrade in arms! I had no wish to jeopardize his career or livelihood. I rejected the idea of letting the judge know. I felt that it would seem presumptuous and inappropriate to go and tattle on a colleague and, again, I really didn’t want to get the interpreter into trouble. I decided to take the attorney aside to tell her that the interpreter was talking to her client. She just looked at me, rolled her eyes, gave an exasperated sigh and said, “I know!” She told me that it had been very difficult to obtain the services of an interpreter in this particular language combination, that he was familiar with the case and that she really didn’t want to rock the boat. I kind of understood.

I decided then that all I could do was to have a little talk with the interpreter, although I really did not want to. Here I was, a short, middle-aged woman, about to address a tall, well-dressed, well-educated, gentleman from a paternalistic society that I knew held women in no great esteem, to let him know that he was behaving in an unprofessional and unethical manner. I knew, however, that if I did not speak with him, I would never feel that I had done the right thing.

So after my case was done, I waited for the interpreter in the lobby. When he emerged, I introduced myself, and explained in detail why his behavior was unprofessional and unethical. He looked at me and with a charming smile and said “But he is so stupid! I had to explain to him!”

Here it was— that same wish to be compassionate and helpful that I had felt at the start of my interpreting career, that same urge to make sure that everything had been understood. I looked him in the eye and said quietly: “That’s not your job,” and then I left. I hoped that my words had convinced the interpreter of the error of his ways, but I had no way of knowing. I had done my best, though, and I felt better.

I do know, however, that I will probably see this interpreter again sometime. It is inevitable since his language combination, although somewhat rare, is needed with a certain frequency in the many courts at which I interpret. I will have my eye on him.

[Kathleen Shelly is on the editorial staff of Proteus. See her full bio here.]

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