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.

Our task

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.

Polishing up

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.

16 thoughts on “Reducing Disruptive Behaviors: The Furniture Polish Solution for Trial Interpreting”

  1. Kathleen says:

    This is so true! I love the furniture metaphor. That’s how I always try to see myself, but it can be difficult no to alllow small reactive gestures or facial expressions to escape. Focus on the task at hand is a great help!

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, Kathleen!
      Yes, indeed! Today I interpreted for a complicated hearing and was very aware of my gestures. It’s definitely a task!

  2. Gio Lester says:

    Okay. I take it. I can never be a court interpreter! Mix my Brazilian blood with my Italian heritage and it is impossible to make my body non-responsive :o)

    Great piece, Jennifer!

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      True! Today we were also reminded that ASL interpreters use gestures (facial included!) as part of their language… and I know that when I want to emphasize a point, my gestures are out of control! So when I pass through the portal of real world to legal world, a lot of my facial muscles have to stay at the door! 🙂

  3. Spot on (pardon the pun) as usual, Jennifer.

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Thank you, Rosemary– puns and all!

  4. Martha says:

    Great points!

    I am not an interpreter. I admire their work. But I am quite passionate about the issue of communicating as clearly as your audience needs it, anywhere. So, I do not agree with the general idea that ONLY voice should be used by interpreters to communicate during Court proceedings.
    Non verbal communication, eye contact, facial gestures and body clues are so needed for people with various levels of hearing impairment. A 10% of any audience has difficulty hearing what you say. They do not advertise it. A few request special help. Most of them do not know nor use sign language, so they use all kinds of clues to understand speech when live captioning is not available. So, attorneys, judges, court reporters, interpreters jurors, etc. must be aware of the hearing capabilities of the people involved and act accordingly 🙂 No doubt that live and open captioning supports visual cues and all will be able to understand what is going on, in any language 🙂 So the job is to be understood. using every single resource you have at hand.

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, Martha! Welcome to NAJIT Blog, as an admirer!
      So, yes; communication is key. Just to be clear, the situation described here might be better illustrated if I state that “interpreting for the defendant during trial” refers to when we’re repeating everything going on in the proceedings in “simultaneous” (think ‘simulcast’) mode. The defendant is usually listening with headphones. We’re often sitting in a place where the defendant cannot see our mouths move, and likely where our gestures would not be seen by the defendant either. The defendant is observing the gestures of everyone else, and hearing our voice.
      That said, when we’re interpreting for proceedings where juries are not present, we might use hand movements to signal who is talking (during a fast-paced motion, for example, it is helpful to signal the speaker so that defendant knows which side is saying which argument). Also, when we’re interpreting into English on the witness stand (with or without a jury), it’s more crucial than ever to use our voices exclusively. I had an instructor who always said we should “sit on our hands” if we’re hand talkers. 🙂
      Different world, for sure, huh? Thanks so much for chiming in!!

  5. Millie says:

    I sooo much agree with Martha. I’m a “gestures” person. I feel that my communication is not complete without some kind of facial expression. However, I do understand that there is a place and time for everything. I definitely need to work on “balancing that act.”

    Ps: this was a great article

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Thank you, Millie! Time and place for everything is the key phrase, for sure! See what I replied to Martha. We’re all about communication, yet the facial expressions are usually going to come from those we’re interpreting for. Thanks for chiming in, as well! (And thanks for your kind words)

  6. Vladimir K. says:

    I totally agree with the more neutral approach with regard to gestures/body language from the interpreter; he/she should be at least a notch or two below the interpreted in that aspect, because after all those who watch the interpreter can clearly see the interpreted and it is not the interpreter’s business to mimic the interpreted’s gestures.
    Yet there is another school of thought; when I was doing my community interpreter/family court training the instructors in that organization insisted on the interpreter fully mimicking the interpreted, even if the latter made obscene gestures. I even lost one full point at the exam because I gave the “wrong” answer to the related question.

    1. Alan Kobrin says:

      There is much to what Vladimir says. In spite of what is often deemed as “correct” behavior, a true “interpretation” of a speech must include expression and gesture if it is to carry full meaning. Actually the furniture polish analogy while keeping the interpreter “professional” and “neutral” and perhaps safe, by relying on pure, controlled vocalization, can potentially fail to deliver an accurate interpretation of what was said. If you wish to use a metaphor, an actor would be more appropriate.

    2. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, and this is both for Vladimir and Alan:

      Thank you for your comments! For clarification, this article was focused on the interpreter who is interpreting simultaneously off to the side so that the defendant can hear the proceedings. Here, the only person able to hear the interpreter is the defendant, and his “visual”, if you will, is what is happening with the parade of witnesses, evidence, voir dire, etc.

      What you both commented relates to interpretation when the person we are interpreting for is actually watching us, and is an issue can be looked at from various perspectives. When we think of community interpretation, for example, where an entire audience is focusing on the interpreter during a rendering in the consecutive mode, gestures and expressions are indeed important and expected. This is true in many venues.

      The strictest limitations I have dealt with in my career are in the courtroom when interpreting for a witness at the witness stand, and there are definitely gray areas that have to be handled with care.

      Point is, where we can avoid the unnecessary to avoid distracting the other people in the courtroom, I believe it is good practice to do so, as in the example this article attempts to illustrate. The place where we can be most invisible is behind the mic, as we call it.

      As far as being actors, I completely see where you’re coming from. That is a great metaphor that can be explored! 🙂

      Thank you for chiming in!

  7. Patricia says:

    Hi Jen,
    Excellent piece and responses. My husband is a court reporter and, putting SL aside, the facial expressions do not become part of the written transcript and can be distracting. The hope is the people are focused on the witness or in depositions, the deponent, (facial expressions and all) and not the interpreter.
    I understand not all situations are the same and I love reading the responses because everyone has something to teach.

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