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Protocol When Dealing with Objectionable Behavior by Colleagues in Interpreting

By Armando Ezquerra Hasbun ©2017

It is bound to happen.

You spend most of your professional career trying to get where your ambitions lie. And then you spend most of your time trying to improve, to catch up, to seek elusive perfection in your craft. And in fact, you enjoy it, which is why the profession chose you in the first place. You have learned how to learn, you have become your biggest -hopefully constructive- critic due to your observation skills and quick analysis after the fact. And with experience, you have a set of tools and a way to use them consistently.

Which is why perceiving unorthodox (to you) behavior by other colleagues can be a catalyst to action. What to do if you perceive gross offenses to protocol? Ethical lapses? Improper demeanor? The list of sins can extend to those of omission as well as to those due to inexperience, lack of credentials and simply put, insufficient language proficiency in the colleague’s language pair. What to do if anything at all, indeed?

Some basic principles listed below serve as guideposts that can help deal with such situations:

    1. Before letting your brain get ahead of itself, ask yourself if the perceived behavior is indeed taking place. Is it only a matter of preference? Is it repeated? Can it be documented, should you need to bring it to someone’s attention? Is it an error or a willful violation? Does it impact the proceedings? Will it affect the integrity of the record? Will it affect your own performance?
    2.  Once you determine the nature and severity of the perceived infraction, the fact that your observation can be backed up, you need to bring back the decision-making process associated with ethical scenarios: ask yourself, “What will happen if I intervene? What will happen if I don’t?” You may decide that the best course of action is to do nothing but if you must act, then…

    Before letting your brain get ahead of itself, ask yourself if the perceived behavior is indeed taking place.

    1. Approach the colleague you believe to be at fault with the same compassion you’d want to be shown to you and without interrupting proceedings. One must consider that they may not know they’re at fault and must believe that with a pinch of necessary humility, they will be glad to correct their performance. It will depend on what you say and how you say it to them.
    2. Out of professional courtesy and reciprocal respect, I would first bring up these deficits to the attention of the person acting as an interpreter. Working in tandem gives you the perfect rationale for telling someone their manner is lacking. Introduce your request offering viable alternatives for solutions and also extending a face-saving opportunity if you get a receptive response: “I noticed you weren’t taking notes for the long consecutive; I have an extra pad with me, would you like it to take with you when you go to the stand?” “I was trained to have the passive interpreter help the active interpreter during the simultaneous. Can I count on you to do it too?” “I heard your rendition of “X;” I normally use “Y” for that.  Can we research and agree on a more accurate term?” “Though you’re correctly limiting your spoken interaction with the defendant, he’s engaging you with gestures and looks so that the perception of your impartiality may be affected. Should we ask his attorney to remind him of our roles as impartial officers of the court?”
    3. Be firm, but also be an active listener. There may be a valid explanation for faults this time. Unless your observation is confirmed as improper and worthy of correction, your colleague and you may have to agree to disagree for the time being. Sometimes the dynamics of power and communication can obscure goals and motivations. A good interpreter will always want to improve and will welcome constructive criticism because every rendition you’re not killing (the bad way) does make you stronger. A suggestion is always better than a complaint and much better than an order or an ultimatum. Negotiation and emotional intelligence are key.
    4. So far, the assumption deals with colleagues who earnestly wish to do right by our codes of professional practice and may be affected by laziness, a bad day, or a lack of skills. An important component of professional ethics is to know one’s limitations and the need to recuse oneself if not qualified and capable to do the task at hand. Most colleagues will not want to have their shortcomings exposed and future careers damaged before they start.
    5.  If the demeanor, behavior or performance of the colleague is so egregious that the matter becomes an unmissable stain, you may find yourself pitted against an unqualified rogue, a true obstacle to interpreting, both to the event and to the profession. If they interpret in the third person, misstate their credentials, miss chunks of speech then, most likely, they already know they shouldn’t be there, but they are. Your telling them may not achieve anything other than to warn them that you’re onto them and then you’ll have another problem to deal with: team interpreting with an enemy, a saboteur or someone waiting to catch you in error.
    6. Even if their underperformance is not linked to and doesn’t affect your own performance, I suggest you politely call the attention of the end user to call for an off the record discussion as to what you have observed. This is called reporting of impediments to interpreting. I feel that even after the failures have been brought to the attention of the wayward colleague, it is necessary to bring it up to the attention of the controlling authority, be it a judge, attorney, doctor, or any other end user client, PLUS the agency if they are involved, so this situation does not happen again.
    7. Getting respect and recognition for the profession also requires pruning out offshoots that are still green or those that are rotting in order to sustain the structure. Too many avenues for training, education, and certification are available now for us to accept substandard performance that diminishes us, the profession and the perception others have of our work.


    The list of sins can extend to those of omission as well as to those due to inexperience, lack of credentials and simply put, insufficient language proficiency in the colleague’s language pair.

    1.  So, depending on the severity of the behaviors (loudly chewing gum at rest, tapping a pen while rendering, wearing too much perfume, consistently getting details wrong, omitting, embellishing or changing register,) DO speak up I say, but do it politely, armed with specific written observations of the behaviors, demeanor and failures of this interpreter. And if you’re on the receiving end, be open to getting feedback — good and bad; act humbly and then reflect, assess and welcome change when justified. Think of this as an unrecognized gift, a second chance to make a better first impression on your next assignment.


    The Chinese pictograph for “Crisis” is made up by “Danger” and “Opportunity.” When you are in danger of making a fool of yourself in public, take the criticism as an opportunity to grow better than you were yesterday. Remember that learning happens from trial and error; you’ll be glad you did.

    Armando is a federally-certified court interpreter, a certified trainer for the nationally recognized Bridging the Gap medical interpreter training program, an adjunct professor of interpretation at La Salle University, conference interpreter, grader, lecturer, and consultant in the industry as a Subject Matter Expert. He has spoken at many industry associations to present on the topic of medical interpreting, including the Society for Healthcare Consumer Advocacy (SHCA), the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), and the Texas Association of Healthcare Interpreters and Translators (TAHIT). Armando holds degrees in Psychology, International Studies and Spanish Language and Literature. He has been published on various topics of interest to the language services profession and, as a recognized thought leader in the industry, is often engaged as a speaker. He currently sits in the NAJIT Board of Directors.

11 thoughts on “Protocol When Dealing with Objectionable Behavior by Colleagues in Interpreting”

  1. Leslie Tabarez says:

    Absolutely awesome post! Recently, I have run into a few issues with interpreters in a medical setting, not a legal one. In our area, pay for medical interpreting is abysmal and that has caused many unqualified people to enter the field. I have not always been sure how to handle some of the problems I’ve seen without being perceived as a troublemaker or someone who thinks she’s “all that.” The behavior of one of those interpreters (showing pornography on his cell phone to the male patients) caused us to ALL lose the privilege of keeping our phones at work, and could have put our future as interpreters at that facility (all through the same agency) in jeopardy. I constantly debate with myself as to how to proceed to ensure that we all do our most professional work and help each other grow as interpreters without making too many waves.

  2. What a well-written article and a balanced approach to this dilemma. I will be referring back to this piece in the future. Thank you.

  3. Alfredo Babler says:

    TGIF! Have a nice weekend, everybody! When I bring something up about objectionable behavior by one colleague, I like to bring a couple of other colleagues to jump into the fray and obliterate the perpetrator, kind of like this:
    That’s right! You’d better not wear too much Paco Rabanne next time I’m there.
    LOL, I’m so fried. This week was brutal. Gio’s probably gonna carve me a new one for this irreverence. Live – Laugh – Love

  4. Marcella Alohalani Boido, M.A. Hawaii Judiciary Certified Spanish Court Interpreter says:

    I am numbering my points, not responding to specific points by the author.
    1. We need to distinguish carefully between our roles as a team member, as a monitor or check interpreter, or as as an interpreter who is present in a courtroom or other setting when “objectionable behavior” is observed on the part of another interpreter or a bilingual.
    2. A team member can and sometimes should speak to their other team member, depending on the personal and professional history and one’s perception of how receptive (or otherwise) the other person may be.
    3. A monitor or check interpreter has an obligation to report to the person or agency which contracted them to monitor other interpreters.
    4. However, if one is simply present in a setting in which one observes “objectionable behavior” the situation is more complex.
    5. The setting is also important. Codes of ethics and procedure differ according to whether one is working in a legal, medical , or other setting. Different settings are governed by different codes of ethics and procedure.
    6. The other thing to consider is whether or not behavior is simply objectionable (team member is wearing perfume or aftershave that is too strong, engages in distracting behaviors such as tapping a pen or pencil) or whether there is a violation of codes of ethics and procedure. Is the person incompetent and/or unethical? In a medical setting, are they putting the health of the patient(s) at risk?
    7. Did the contracting organization or party have good reason to know in advance that a given bilingual is incompetent or unethical, or both? Are they ignoring a person’s lack of the appropriate certification or other credential, even when a person or persons are available who do have an appropriate credential?
    8. Are there other observers present who can easily see that there is problematic behavior with regard to the delivery of competent, ethical services?
    9. Being present in a setting such as a courtroom where I observe a lack of competence and ethics on the part of a bilingual or bilinguals who should probably never have been contracted in the first place, is *not* an impediment to my delivery of interpreter services. This is an overly broad understanding or interpretation, if one will (no pun intended) of “impediment to interpreting.”
    10. To a certain extent, the author, Mr. Armando Ezquerra Hasbun, is conflating these diverse situations. I believe that each of these situations may call for a different response.

  5. Marcella Alohalani Boido, M.A., Hawaii Judiciary Certified Spanish Court Interpreter says:

    When an interpreter observes “objectionable behavior,” on the part of a bilingual, especially when what what is being observed is a lack of competence and ethics, then my question is this: Should one focus on the person, or on the system that contracted that person? In other words, is the problem one of persons, or of the policies and practices of the contracting agency? If the latter, then what is the appropriate remedy? As I have written before on the NAJIT forum, I believe in attempting to resolve systemic problems through one’s professional association.

  6. This is a great post and very illuminating. Thanks for sharing these tips with us.

  7. SUSAN DIX says:

    Ola, I loved your article. It is good to know that you and others experience the same issues that I have encountered on many occasions, especially the misrepresentation of credentials. Here in the State of Florida, there are only three Certified Court Interpreters, thus far. However many folks go to court and represent themselves as ‘Certified Court Portuguese Interpreters’. It is very interesting to have your feedback and your analysis regarding all of these issues. I especially like that extra step… to step back and see if the violation and/or obstruction will truly harm the proceeding, the profession, the defendant’s due rights, or not.
    You also provided helpful insight and how to humbly approach the situation, without causing hard feelings, resistant, or additional obstructions. Thank you again.

    1. Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

      I think we have a total of twelve (12) certified spoken language interpreters in Hawaii. During the two-day Basic Orientation Workshop (BOW), those who attend are told that completing the four-step process to be on the Interpreter Registry will make them Tier 1, Registered interpreters–not certified. Then, the Judiciary muddles the waters…by issuing a certificate to those who make it into Tier 1.

      The steps are: 1. Apply. 2. Attend a BOW. 3. Pass an extremely simple test of Written English with at least 70% correct. (The official recommendation and assumption of what used to be called “the Consortium” is that a candidate should score at least 80% correct.) “In order to pass the test, 80 percent of the items must be answered correctly.” [See p. 4, “Court Interpreter Written Examination Overview”: https://www.ncsc.org/~/media/Files/PDF/Services%20and%20Experts/Areas%20of%20expertise/Language%20Access/Written%20and%20Oral/2014%20January_Written%20Exam%20Overview%201%2029%2014.ashx%5D%5D 4. Pass a written test on ethics. *Note*: there is absolutely no test of interpreting ability.

      Repeatedly, I have advocated for simply sending a letter advising people of their Tier 1, Registered status. Sending a certificate is misleading. The counterargument has been that people who have gone through the entire four-step process should be rewarded. My response to that is that we need people who are emotionally mature and can face reality. (Furthermore, this is not my idea of an arduous process!)

      No one should be surprised that some Tier 1, Registered people think they are certified, and they say so. To add to the confusion, some attorneys and others think that anyone who is on the Registry is certified.

      Every time we are sent to work, we are issued a set of documents which clearly state our tier status. So, court staff who handle those documents can see the reality, if they take a look. However, most of the time they simply sign us in and out.

      The interpreters can also see their tier status on their payment documents, and they know how much per hour they are being paid.

      Just the same, some of these bilinguals will say that they are certified. I think I have spoken to one of these people once, when she proudly showed me her…certificate. I pointed at the certificate and read out, “Tier 1, Registered.” She was hurt.

      I do not see any reason any longer to speak to anyone who misrepresents their tier status. Most of the time, I don’t see any good reason to correct any of the attorneys, either.

      What about judges? In May 2018 I was present in an immigration court proceeding where the judge repeatedly said that the over-the-telephone interpreter was “certified.” No one had to speak Spanish to know that she was not certified. She began every sentence with hedges, “Uh, ah, yes,oh, well, OK…” and so on. So, certified by whom or what?

      My guess is that like the attorneys who think that everyone on the Interpreter Registry is certified, this judge thought that because the Language Services Provider (LSP) agency had somehow “certified” or verified this person’s credentials or abilities, she was “certified.”

      We need to collectively work to correct these misconceptions. Court systems and LSPs need to be clear to all about the credentials of those who work for them. Judges and attorneys need to be more informed. We can best create these changes through our professional associations.

      One of the important steps that a state court system can take is to swear in everyone who has passed their professional exams, and to provide publicity for this event. The legal profession will notice that. In Hawaii, we have been asking for this since 2007. To date, this has not been done.

      –Marcella Alohalani Boido, M. A.
      Tier 4, Hawaii Judiciary Certified Spanish Court Interpreter
      August 12, 2019. Honolulu, Hawaii

  8. Kathleen Shelly says:

    But what do you do when your colleague refuses your correction? I was at a long family court hearing teamed with a newly certified but relatively inexperienced interpreter who had no real training in the basics. To my amazement, she conducted an entire long consecutive exchange using the informal “tú” form throughout, even when the attorney addressed the witness as Mrs. Cruz. After the hearing, I mentioned it to my colleague in a very nice way, telling her that the formal “usted” is the appropriate form to use in a judicial setting. She looked at me like I was nuts, and told me that that’s the way she always interpreted. Fortunately, our interpreter program coordinator is a certified SpanishEnglish interpreter herself, and I was able to voice my concerns to her. If not, this young lady would probably go on doing just the same..

    1. Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

      1. You did the right thing, in two steps: a) speak to junior colleague; b) speak to interpreter program coordinator.
      2. Were you working as a team? If so, perhaps one could say, “I am the senior interpreter here, and I’d like to call your attention to the following.” Still not getting anywhere? Back to your step b, above.
      3. I do not see any point in alienating your newly certified colleague. However, perhaps the interpreter program coordinator could provide the newbie with some written guidance on this point. Note: by “written guidance” I mean sharing a copy of a published article or other published document that addresses this point. Emphasis: *published.*
      4. The coordinator could also copy out some relevant pages from “Fundamentals of Court Interpretation,” together with a copy of the title page. This alerts newbie to this basic resource. Ahem.

      Best of luck!

      –Marcella Alohalani Boido, M.A.
      Hawaii State Judiciary Certified Spanish Court Interpreter, Tier 4
      14 August 2019. Honolulu, Hawaii

    2. Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

      Kathleen, it’s good to see something from you!
      The first time answered you, I forgot something else a person can do.
      Stand up. Ask for a bench conference, together with the newbie. Of course, the attorneys will also be present. State your perception of error on newbie’s part.
      This procedure applies whether or not the other interpreter is a newbie.
      The more serious the error, the more important it is to bring it to the court’s attention on the spot.
      You said “consecutive,” but did not indicate if this was at the witness stand, or a judge-party exchange. In either case, it is a serious matter. Using “tu” is disrespectful. It could result in intimidating the witness or party. That is something that both the judge and the attorneys should want to know about.
      They are being careful to be respectful to the Limited-English participant. It is unlikely that they want their respectful behavior to be undermined by the interpreter.
      Each jurisdiction has a different code of ethics for judges and attorneys. However, I am going to guess that being respectful to everyone is a pretty common canon in most codes of ethics.
      Again, I am going to refer to “The Fundamentals of Court Interpretation.” Every courthouse and law school should have a copy in their library. The same goes for any law office whose client base includes a lot of Limited-English Proficient people.
      If these organizations and people do not have a copy, that’s on them. It is a potentially crippling lack of crucial information.
      I own both editions.
      –Marcella Alohalani Boido, M.A.
      Hawaii State Judiciary Certified Spanish Court Interpreter, Tier 4
      Honolulu, Hawaii

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