04 Jun Reducing Disruptive Behaviors: The Furniture Polish Solution for Trial Interpreting
**First Friday Flashback! Here’s a fave from early 2013. Comment below!**
Today, a judge compared trial interpreters to a piece of furniture. I couldn’t be more pleased!
Happily, this judge has had enough experience with good interpreters to know that our role is, indeed, much like an object you might see in the courtroom that serves an important function, and yet is not a party to the proceedings. As I wrapped my head around the concept of the judge’s comparison, I started thinking of how we can better achieve a goal of truly being unobtrusive while we interpret for a defendant during trial.
It’s probably most important to remain inconspicuous in the presence of jurors, so let’s place our focus there. As experienced court interpreters, we’re aware of how much care is taken to avoid influencing the jury. In fact, there are specific instructions, procedures and careful timing to prevent any tainting or the ultimate need to declare a mistrial. What’s more, court interpreter ethics and standards caution us to avoid being perceived as taking one side over another.
I’ve found that jurors are often highly curious about what’s going on around them. While they’re expected to watch the parties, and to be mindful of the judge to a certain extent, perhaps even noticing what the clerk is up to, the presence of the interpreter can be hard to ignore. So unless we’re behind some barrier, jurors are watching us, too. Our task, then, is to avoid distracting jurors.
How we can look while we’re in the zone
Obviously, there are actions, positioning and volume issues that the court interpreter learns to moderate pretty well, keeping any potential distraction to a minimum. But let’s think about these scenarios:
• You nod slightly while interpreting after realizing that your rendition was not only spot-on, but also a work of art.
• While discussing a difficult term with a teammate during a lull in testimony, you quietly express frustration. Your electronic dictionary just ran out of batteries and your smartphone dictionary app is frozen. Darned technology!
• You’re having a hard time seeing the mouth movements of a particularly quiet witness; squinting seems to help.
• You’re in your zone while interpreting routine final comments by the judge. Since the volume is great, and you’re familiar with what he’s telling the jury, you don’t need to look at him. In fact, you’ve found a focal point just slightly to the right of the jury box.
• While interpreting, you’re having a hard time coming up with a term, and as you think about how to render it, you look up and around, as if searching for the term in your mind’s eye.
Based on these few situations, we are reminded that although we’re not doing anything in particular to cause a distraction, we could be giving the wrong impression. Jurors could easily assume that we’re expressing frustration or disagreement about the testimony or the case. They could perceive that a particular piece of evidence or testimony is not to be believed. A juror could even think we’re staring at him rather than a spot on the wall. The list goes on and on, and the potential for unintended influence abounds.
What we already know
To see how this could look to an outsider, think of when you’ve seen attorneys start writing furiously during the examination by the other side, or during argument. Betcha it looks like they’re upset, or even about to come out swinging when it’s their chance to speak. What about those attorneys who sit back, arms crossed, sporting a slight grin… we just know they’re thinking that this case is in the bag, right?
So, what’s the difference between their actions and ours? Simple: they’re the advocates, and are expected to take a position. We, on the other hand, are neutral officers of the court. Court reporters, by the way, are also non-party participants who could be cause for distraction. Maybe they find it easier than we do to keep that neutral stance since they are not rendering anything verbally or having to perform many of the same mental tasks as we do. I’ve found they are very good at keeping expressions in check.
Looking at ourselves from a juror’s point of view and making small changes will surely serve to improve our poise and professional demeanor. That’s a win-win. Think about these tips:
• Take a lesson from the neutral body language and facial expressions of judges (and court reporters!); what a great model to follow.
• Remember, just to complicate things a bit more, we’re starting off at a disadvantage already because some jurors think we are on the side of the defense merely because we are interpreting for the defendant.
• Remember that trial jurors could be anywhere. Always be aware of what you say and do in all public areas, not just in front of courtrooms.
• Relax a bit more than usual and practice using your voice, exclusively, to express meaning. This helps prevent the use of body language and facial expressions.
• Try to avoid gestures that have specific meaning such as nodding or shaking your head.
Even as professional, poised, quiet and still as our behavior may be, the reality is that our presence will certainly be noted by all. And although a jury is capable of disregarding whatever distractions we may inadvertently cause, our duty is to keep disruptive behaviors in check. Yes, friends, it’s as simple as being a functional piece of furniture in the courtroom —and we hold the power to polish up our performance and thereby determine whether we’re perceived as pristine mahogany or worn plywood.