Right Between the Eyes

Even in the middle of a pandemic quarantine, none of us were spared. We all got hit right between the eyes. The racial prejudice. The senseless death. The social bias. The raw fear. The failure of the very foundations of our criminal justice system. A sliver of history our children and grandchildren will study in schoolbooks decades from now. We’re here. We lived through it. Maybe we still are.

As a matter of fact, every day, when we walk into a courtroom, a jailhouse, a police station, any one of those places where we are called upon to interpret for someone who is not quite white, someone who does not speak English well enough or not at all. Individuals who are,  therefore, looked down upon by the ones who have command of English. We, interpreters, get looked down upon as well. Once we become “identified” with the non-white non-English speaker, the bias—whether conscious or unconscious—spills over to the interpreter.

Last Saturday, Gladys Segal gave a wonderful webinar about team interpreting through the NAJIT Academy, and one of the questions she raised was, “why is it that sign language interpreters, or conference interpreters, have no problem walking into a work situation and demanding a team interpreting setting, whereas judiciary interpreters find it so difficult?

I think this may be part of the answer. The unconscious bias. Everyone has it. Even interpreters have it. That’s another thing Gladys mentioned. Beware of your own sympathies and prejudices when you are interpreting and how those can affect your performance.

But back to the spillover effects from the audience for whom you interpret. Conference interpreters usually render services for a highly respected audience so, in fact, when they are “identified” with their audience the result is a positive enhancement to their image and prestige. Sign language interpreters are associated with a community that is protected by law due to their special needs so, by extension, they are perceived as protectors themselves and enjoy a higher status and respect.

empty courtroomInterpreters in legal proceedings, on the other hand, are associated with criminal defendants, or people who have caused some damage to someone else, or people who came to the country without following the rules… for the most part. Presumption of innocence notwithstanding, the fact that those defendants are mostly non-white, and obviously do not speak English, will trigger the underlying racism and bigotry that has been growing by leaps and bounds among the average citizens in this country.

Legal and quasi-legal settings are not immune to these social maladies that are causing all the unrest we are witnessing on the streets these days. Judiciary interpreters have not been openly acknowledging the reality of the spillover bias, or how it affects many of the pivotal work issues that keep coming up over and over in every part of the country: low pay, a lack of recognition and respect for the work of the interpreter, poor and, at times, even untenable working conditions, etc.

Being seen as an “extension” of the criminal defendant and consequently being the target of a full array of unconscious biases may come as a shock if you have never considered it, but it is nonetheless a fact of life for many interpreters. Maybe not every day. Maybe not everywhere. Maybe not with everyone. But it will show its ugly little face when you least expect it. It’s out there, hiding or in plain sight. In every police interrogation room, every lawyer’s conference room, every courthouse’s holding cell, that prejudice will sneak up on you and hit you… right between the eyes.

We don’t like to think that the people we work with can be racist. We don’t want to think that the people in charge of administering justice can harbor any prejudice against a defendant or a litigant for being from another country, for having a different skin color, for speaking a different language. And we certainly don’t want to believe that such prejudice, should there be one, would extend to us as interpreters in any way just because we are the ones who level the playing field as far as language access is concerned. But think and believe we must, and be prepared.

And even worse… what if we are the ones with the bias? What if we are letting our own prejudices color the way in which we render our interpretation? Once more, this is where team interpreting can help you catch any such tainting in the way you choose to render what you have heard.

I have linked Gladys Segal’s webinar and recent events because of this one bias element but there are many more excellent points made during the team interpreting presentation and, fortunately, there is a new position paper Gladys authored and NAJIT just published that you can read here: Team Interpretation in the Courtroom


Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department.

Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.
Contact: janis.palma@gmail.com

Read other posts by Janis Palma.

20 Comments
  • RAMON M DEL VILLAR
    Posted at 17:50h, 05 June Reply

    Excellent article as always, Janis! Keep up the good work.

    • Janis Palma
      Posted at 22:25h, 05 June Reply

      Thank you, Ramon.

  • Sylvia J. Andrade
    Posted at 20:33h, 05 June Reply

    It’s not just that– We did have a family member– our son, who speaks English better than Spanish, but is very dark complexed — treated differently by a police officer, because he looks very Mexican. He was wrongly accused of something someone else had done, beaten and thrown down. His computer was broken. He was studying at a university at the time, had gone back to school to get an engineering degree. It has affected him psychologically and caused him to make some very bad decisions, which have affected the family. This happened several years ago, but the bad effects are still there.

    • Janis Palma
      Posted at 22:33h, 05 June Reply

      Sylvia, I am so sorry about what happened to your son. Believe it or not, when I first moved from Puerto Rico to the United States I was told more than once to “go back home”. When I was in college I was fired from a job for speaking Spanish to a client. I have been at the receiving end of many forms of discrimination as well as witnessed it, studied it, read about it in the news, seen it manifested in countless overt and covert ways. I felt deep in my heart that everything that’s been happening around us these past two weeks had to be acknowledged somehow in this week’s blog. Thank you for validating my decision.

    • Carmen Mustile
      Posted at 23:19h, 05 June Reply

      This is appalling! What is the justice system teaching our children and young people?!! That violence is allowed if the adversary has a uniform? It should be the other way around!! With these several crimes committed by the hands of police, paid by our taxes, we are doomed

  • AJ
    Posted at 21:51h, 05 June Reply

    Thank you, Janis. What a relevant, astute and timely article for court interpreters, added to Gladys’s very inspiring webinar. Thank you also for the link to Gladys‘s NAJIT position paper Team Interpretation In the Courtroom, which is a great reference to have in our smart phone.
    I am very grateful that team interpreting in federal courts, especially in New York District courts and the NY State courts, is generally taken seriously by the chief interpreters and coordinators, ensuring as ideal working conditions for interpreters as possible. The human biases you mention are very real, unfortunately, and very painful.

  • G. Daniel Bugel-Shunra
    Posted at 22:33h, 05 June Reply

    Thank you Janis. I had not thought about that aspect of the difference between court and conference interpreting before. And I can confirm that I am treated very differently by clients in the private sector and by court systems – I serve both markets.

    But now I wonder how this extends to interpreting for the healthcare system, where working conditions are even worse. If this reflects the respect our profession doesn’t get, does our society view patients as even less deserving than crime suspects?

  • Carmen Mustile
    Posted at 23:24h, 05 June Reply

    I just listen the Zoom webinar of Gladys Seagull and I really enjoyed and agree on team interpreting being essential to render and deliver accurate interpreting services. Thank you very much for the examples Gladys illustrated, using her direct experience. Being a freelance interpreter I don’t have access to other colleague’s experience for the purpose of exchanging notes. These webnair are evermore essential especially with the advent of remote/virtual interpreting. Thanks again.

  • Maria Enriqueta (Ketta) Foraker
    Posted at 01:27h, 06 June Reply

    Janis, thank you so much for your countless contributions to The Observer. You are always timely and spot on. I always look forward to reading your next article. Great job…and please, keep them coming!
    ¡Recibe un fuerte abrazo!

  • Siddhi Talati
    Posted at 16:07h, 06 June Reply

    I totally agree with Janis.

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 19:35h, 06 June Reply

    And if I were to tell you that what you are witnessing are Marxist revolutionaries using this “anger” to attack our economy by looting businesses and burning buildings in order to intimidate your government and subdue you, will I be a proverbial pariah?
    And I were to dare to tell you that these Marxist revolutionaries, if left to operate unstopped by your government, will begin to dictate terms that will always benefit the Marxist revolution and be against the government and, once that happens, the government will eventually be removed and the Marxist revolutionaries will be your government, can you prove me wrong?
    Think about it. Current demands are to empty the prisons and abolish/disband the police. Who gains from that? You? No. The revolutionaries then take complete control of your streets and they will form their own government, based on confiscating your property and killing you if you disagree.
    Sure, there are many of these “protesters” that are motivated by anti-racism and putting an end to police brutality. Of course. Systemic racism is a reality. Of course. However, under the veil of ideology, they’re simply pawns being sacrificed to the Marxist agenda in order to allow the revolutionary socialist-Marxist elements that orchestrate this “movement” to conduct their violent attacks against your government infrastructure and the very institutions that guarantee the rule of law.
    And if I were to tell you that behind it all there’s a foreign element, a foreign enemy that seeks to destroy your way of life, and that kneeling to these Marxist revolutionaries guiding these “protests” is tantamount to kneeling to an enemy that seeks to dominate and destroy you, will I be scolded with circular logic and unilateral hive-mind thinking? If I won’t kneel to foreign communists that have systematically taken over our schools and planted in our youth these seeds of race-baiting, reinforced by the politicians that they have also planted in our senate and congress, to implement a Marxist/communist political agenda, because I know some history and am aware that the people that kneel to that system were called by Vladimír Lening the “useful idiots” that, in order to fit in will go along with the communist lies, will I be a horrible, racist, white-privileged, white supremacist, right wing monster? For crying out loud, I am half Colombian! I was born in Venezuela. I have seen this plan work over and over again. What really surprises me, though, is that most of us in this industry have witnessed this formulaic approach to revolutionary socialist Marxism first-hand, or know many that have, and there are some that still buy into this psychotic indoctrination that spreads throughout the world like a cancer over and over gain. And to those that know I am at least a bit right and opt to be politically correct for fear of being ostracized or that due to whatever any other self-serving idea that trumps the reality of the present situation in this republic, the last bastion of basic human freedom in the world today, go along with kneeling on the altar of this newly made-up, yet old religion, all I can tell you is that a coward dies a thousand deaths.
    I sincerely believe everything I just wrote on this iPhone just now. It comes from a place of truth. I am a 55-year-old, 1st generation Hispanic-American man that served 8 years in the U.S. Army because I believe the ideals upon which this nation were founded are worth defending against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We are under a systematic attack by the Chinese communists and Russia. That’s not paranoia. They’re imploding the fabric of our society from within. Remember, this is what they want now: defund the police; release the criminals. That’s because of “systematic inequality and police brutality.” You agree to this and kneel to the revolutionary forces of Marxist ideology, and it is GAME OVER. Ask any non left-leaning Cuban or Venezuelan. It’s a FORMULA! I am also a Christian man, so I’ll leave you with this: HOSEA 4:6

    • David Mintz
      Posted at 22:49h, 07 June Reply

      As a practicing Marxist (yes, an advocate for the overthrow of the capitalist profit system and the re-organization of global society on a socialist basis) I only wish your fears had some basis in reality.

  • Kenneth Evan Barger
    Posted at 18:47h, 07 June Reply

    Excellent piece. It reminds me of when I was a bilingual consumer service representative working in a call center, many years ago, before becoming an interpreter. We had the French team and the Spanish team. And the two teams were clearly regarded and treated differently. The French team was admired and seen as sophisticated; the Spanish team, not so much. We were seen as unsophisticated troublemakers. An eye-opening experience for me as a white dude. It’s just so pervasive. Thanks for another insightful article.

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 16:20h, 08 June Reply

    You’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelette.
    https://www.neweurope.eu/article/solve-et-coagula/

  • Olivier Kempf
    Posted at 18:53h, 08 June Reply

    As a French interpreter, and in the defense of justice, I want to denounce the positive prejudice I am being given pretty much everywhere I go to work: I can no longer stand the positive bias that we French profesionals enjoy Please, let’s call them “Freedom fries” again and let’s enjoy some real French bashing
    I am just trying to bring a little fun to the debate here that seems to get heavier and heavier the more I scroll down

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 01:19h, 09 June Reply

    Merci beaucoup, Olivier! You can be my cher ami any time. This politically correct crap is exhausting to any normal human being. When we lose the ability to laugh at ourselves, the brainwashing is complete. You are a refreshing sight to me. That having been said… Allow me to oblige. I happen to have the epitome of French bashing. Have a nice laugh. Heheheh. Écoute, si vous plait.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwFf9vGRqcs

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 13:11h, 10 June Reply

    And here we go. So, does this qualify as an insurrection or is this still the poor, disenfranchised, cute, smurf-like, coochie-coo, sweeties that need to loot, pillage and rape to let off some steam? I guess when all the cards have been played we’ll be looking back, in retrospect, and realize that while we were sleeping they came and took it all away, and it was an inside job. But for now, virtue signaling is so woke and feels so cozy and good, why worry about these Marxist communist revolutionaries?
    https://pjmedia.com/news-and-politics/tyler-o-neil/2020/06/09/antifa-militants-seize-seattle-police-hq-set-up-autonomous-zone-n512621

  • Pamela Allyn
    Posted at 19:59h, 11 June Reply

    Alfredo Babler has cited pjmedia. I just wanted to post this from mediabiasfactcheck.com: https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/pj-media/. It says they are an extreme, right-wing propaganda outlet with a mixed record for factual accuracy. “Mixed” is the third from the bottom on a seven step scale from very low accuracy to very high accuracy. Is there any moderator on this site to put a stop to sarcastic, mean-spirited, comments of limited accuracy? I understand Alfredo will dismiss my comment entirely, but anyone else?

    • GLester
      Posted at 02:37h, 12 June Reply

      Hello, Pamela.

      The instructions from the Board are: we are not censorship, this is a self-moderated forum, colleagues will react or ignore comments that offend our good sense and morals. Basically, do not engage trolls and haters. Let the readership take a stand.

      The Editor

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 05:08h, 12 June Reply

    Understood. Not surprised, actually. I have a triggering effect on fanatics. I was about to inform you of what’s coming next but, evidently, it’s not meant to be. For the record, I tried and you rejected me. I’ll oblige and take the high road instead. I’m shaking the dust off my feet, so to speak.
    The RUACH has been in your midst.
    Matthew 7:6

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