Interpreters Everywhere

By Emily Ortiz Alfonso

To be accurate, the title is misleading.  After all, I was certified by the state of South Carolina, and the state of North Carolina has granted me reciprocity.  Most court interpreters have entered this time-honored profession simply by happenstance.  Indeed, a good number may have made glaring errors which hopefully have been left in the past.  During NAJIT conferences, we gather and celebrate the victories made within the judicial system and lament the remaining inadequacies that progress at a sloth’s pace.  This article highlights the refreshing experience and knowledge gained by this interpreter in the Tar Heel State.

At the behest of another certified colleague, I requested and was granted reciprocity.  Although my former career was that of a legal secretary, the courtroom was a rare trip for me.  Filing motions and other petitions were done at the courthouse.  Only three or four times did I venture into summary or criminal court.  I was always uncomfortable.  My naivety had me interpret a three-hour trial without a teammate.  NAJIT was not in my vocabulary in those days.  Without ever taking any interpreting courses, classes, or workshops, I took the oral exam in August of 2012 and passed.  The title of certified court Interpreter was conferred upon me, and with great pride and confidence, the year 2013 marked the beginning of my journey into the North Carolina court system.

I learned a lot of things there.  Here is a list of them:

  • Check-in with clerk, assistant district attorney (ADA), and judge
  • Where interpreter sits while waiting
  • Location of dockets
  • Where is the ideal placement of interpreter for LEP person and counsel
  • Where interpreter stands while consecutively interpreting at the witness stand
  • How to identify all the actors (the judge and bailiff are in uniform, but all bets are off for everyone else)

However, when I accepted my first assignment, I didn’t know who the clerk was, let alone where he sat.   We did meet, and he was very helpful.  He spoke warmly of my colleague who recommended I seek reciprocity.  Lesson learned:  when you enter a new courthouse, go to the clerk’s office, introduce yourself, and find out who the deputy clerks are.  They will be sending you assignments; it’s in your best interest to know them.  Let’s be fair:  we all want to work with people we like.  Earn the respect and admiration of the clerks by being diplomatic and cheerful and do your best to solve problems proactive.  Demonstrate in word and deed that you are an officer of the court.  No one wants to give jobs to sourpusses, even if they can interpret 180 words per minute.

The ADA is not a supreme deity (assistant solicitor or whatever your region calls the prosecuting lawyer).  Many times the docket is long and everyone wants a piece of her; it is likely she will not have even noticed you arrive.  Introduce yourself to the ADA (good morning counsel, my name is Juana Fulana, certified court interpreter number 12345, and I am covering court today/this morning/this afternoon).  If you need to leave by a certain time, make sure you inform not only the clerk but also the ADA.  However, a few ADAs can be crotchety if you speak with them during calendar call. Lesson learned:  arrive 15 minutes before calendar call to speak with the ADA.

Some interpreters feel nervous speaking to the judge, no matter how often they appear .  When I began my legal secretary career, my supervisor recounted a story about her husband, who was an active duty police officer at the time.  He had to appear before the judge and was very nervous. My supervisor told him that the judge is human like everyone else, and he has to sit on the throne and make just like everyone else.  That anecdote almost backfired, because her husband traded nervousness for giddiness.  Neither emotional state is good in a courtroom.  The best time to speak to the judge is before calendar call.  If you see the judge in the hallway, seize the opportunity.  If not, after the bailiff informs the courtroom to take a seat, walk close to the clerk’s chair and audibly state, “Your honor, may the interpreter approach?”  If the answer is no, remain wherever you are.  There is no need to change into a Clemson uniform and visit county jail as an inmate.  At least that’s what Judge Mims calls those dreadful orange jumpsuits.  When you have the judge’s attention and/or permission, state, “Good morning your honor, my name is Juana Fulana, certified court interpreter number 12345, at your service today.  Madam interpreter must inform your honor that she must leave by X o’clock this morning/afternoon.  Thank you.”  The justice system has many moving parts, none of which you can control.  Nevertheless, by taking the initiative, the other courtroom actors may move it along for you.

Although interpreters are not necessarily court officials, they most definitely are officers of the court.  Why do I point this out?  Some of us do not realize that we are officers of the court.  In a courtroom, there is a division.  The front of the courtroom, divided by a small wall, is where the officers sit.  Behind the division is the audience a.k.a. the defendants, the victims, even the media.  Under no circumstance should you sit with the audience.  It leaves you vulnerable to LEP individuals who want your help for other things.  Your impartiality can be at stake.  The newscaster may want you to comment.  Your cell phone, which may double as your electronic dictionary, could be confiscated on that side of the barrier.  Where to go?  If the jury box does not have jurors, that is a great place to sit.  Jurors sitting there?  Sit in a chair or on the bench in front of the wall. Standing room only?  Wear comfortable footwear.  But ensure you have copies of the dockets.

If you practice interpreting in North Carolina, you’re lucky, since  extra printed copies of the dockets are usually available and you can snap up a copy for yourself.  Dockets are useful for a variety of reasons:

  • Sometimes the judge’s name is on it
  • You can find the case numbers for your matters
  • While you wait, you can quiz yourself on all those offenses

No copies for you?  No worries!  Be kind and polite and ask someone (an attorney, a paralegal, a victim advocate, or probation officer) to lend you one so you can jot the information down on your steno or electronic note pad.  Does the clerk refuse to give you copies of dockets?  Nonsense, not in North Carolina.  However, if you practice where this nonsense does occur, be assured it is online somewhere.  You’ll need your super sleuth Sherlock Holmes skills to locate them.

This may seem a no-brainer, but before you begin interpreting, ascertain WHO needs the interpreter.  If both parties need the interpreter (especially in domestic violence cases), equipment will be helpful both to maintain distance and avoid voice strain.  I inadvertently sat at the wrong table my first time in North Carolina.  Needless to say, I was embarrassed.  Lesson learned:  always ask beforehand.  If the LEP person has a lawyer, then best practices dictate that the interpreter sit/stand in between them but a row behind them.  Not all seasoned interpreters do this, and I’m not here to spank them for it.  At other times, the courtroom is tiny and 11 people cannot fit.  Use your best judgment when in those predicaments.  No one likes it; remind yourself it is temporary.

Many of us have seen a play or a musical on Broadway or in school.  It’s possible we even had an acting part or participated behind the scene.  The theater is a familiar venue, and we become familiar with the actors.  The courtroom is our theater, and we are but one of many stage actors.  If we respect the roles of others and perform our own, we contribute to success.  When testimony is presented, the interpreter must not interfere with the line of sight of either the judge or the jury.  Although testimony is heard in the first person through the voice of the interpreter, the witness’ complete expressions must be viewed and heard without obstruction.  Even when we don’t understand someone’s language, we usually can identify anger or sorrow.  Words alone do not make a credible witness, at least in perception (which sadly can be more important than reality).  Be true to the speaker and to the judicial process.

As far as your fellow actors, two are visibly distinguishable.  The judge is easily recognized, compliments of the black robe and the tallest bench.  The bailiff is usually a police officer or deputy sheriff.  Sometimes the bailiff may wear a different uniform.  Follow their orders, as they have the right to dictate what happens in the courtroom.  Thinking about defense counsel, public defender, court counselor, CASA, probation officer, ADA, social worker, and victim advocate, who is who?  Look for badges, write down the information, ask for their names, repeat their names in conversation.  Remember I mentioned the stage?  The prosecution usually sits at the desk next to the jury box.  Sometimes that box is on the right side.  Where is the defense?  At the table where the prosecution is not.  Where is the clerk positioned?  Close to the judge, either on the left, the right, or just below the judge.  As a freelance interpreter, you should realize that all the actors in the courtroom are just like you, officers of the court.  We cannot rid ourselves of them.  It is far more productive to ingratiate yourself with them rather than draw their ire.  Without sucking up, you want them to be happy to see you.  If they are muttering “you again,” that makes for an awkward day.

My friends and colleagues, the above is a brief review of six key factors I learned while working within the North Carolina court system.  Knowledge is power.  When we are diligent in our professional duty, we not only educate our fellow officers of the court, but we also add our grain of salt in upholding Title VI and the Court Interpreters Act.  Due process is a right guaranteed to all people residing (legal or not) in the United States of America.  It is our privilege to serve as the bridge of communication.

[Emily Ortiz Alfonso is a state court-certified Spanish interpreter and Spanish<>English translator. She has an AA in legal secretarial studies. She has over 10 years of experience specializing in legal and medical interpreting and translation. She is the co-founder and co-owner of Alfonso Interpreting, a language services provider. She has presented at previous conferences of the Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters (CATI) and at the 2014 conferences of the National Association of Judicial Interpreters & Translators (NAJIT) and the American Translators Association (ATA).  She is a member of ATA and NAJIT, and serves on the CATI board of directors.]

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NAJIT.

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