Sensational, not Sensationalist, please!

I must admit, it simply rubs me the wrong way to think of interpreters getting stars in their eyes when encountering or assisting in high-profile court cases. Sure, there’s a mixture of nerves and excitement in knowing that we’re going to be involved in something a little different than the norm, but there’s a line that we shouldn’t cross.

We want to be sensational interpreters, but have no business taking on a sensationalist attitude. When we respect our professional duties and ethics, our performance will be top-notch whether or not the case attracts public attention. Our ability to consistently perform with excellence is bolstered by our ability to control feelings that are part and parcel to a high-profile case, thus allowing us to be the epitome of neutrality as per our ethical standards.

The recent Zimmerman trial in Florida involved a witness who was Spanish speaking and used an interpreter. Although video of the testimony will long be an excellent educational tool for current and future court interpreters, I was glad to see that the interpreter was hardly depicted at all in the footage. Sure, he knew he was being recorded and could have been putting on a show rather than simply performing his linguistic duties, but hopefully the world will forever remember him as simply the voice—as it should be.

Our colleagues in the downtown Los Angeles courts are probably old pros at ignoring the media frenzy surrounding the cases that come to their buildings. I would imagine that when a celebrity is being tried in a court where the media is rarely present, however, it is tempting to peek in and see what all of the action is about. Nonetheless, because we are ethically bound to uphold the tenets of professional conduct and remain neutral about the happenings in our courts, trying to avoid all the hullabaloo seems to be the safest game plan, whether or not we’re expecting to be involved in that matter.

So, let’s say we are assigned to a high-profile case, perhaps one involving a public figure or (gasp!) a rock star: how can we possibly be sensational—not sensationalist—with all that pressure?!?! Ironically, I think we may sometimes have to employ acting skills to mask our excitement or nerves and make extra, extra sure we don’t get caught up in the current. If this means we’re the only ones who are indifferent, so be it. What good is the ethical duty of neutrality if we’re going to let a media-worthy case rattle our nerves or ignite our hopes to be caught on camera?

I think the sensational interpreter strives to have the same deep respect for both “big” and “small” cases, preparing and being on his game no matter what stakes, participants, cameras or attention are involved. After all, if we assign the highest importance to every case, can we truly be shaken by that rare occasion when a reporter—or the world—is observing our performance?

Even if we’re able to maintain a poker face, we’re always susceptible to some level of anxiety, no matter how adept we are at not succumbing to media frenzies. Here’s what a few sources say about controlling our nerves in high-stress situations, all of which are readily applicable to our performance as interpreters:

How to Keep Your Cool: 12 Tips for Staying Calm under Pressure

What are some ways I can calm down quickly when I’m feeling overwhelmed?

Managing Presentation Nerves: Coping With the Fear Within

As always, taking the time to think about what we can encounter in our work is half the battle. When faced with an interpreting situation in which we could be in the hot seat, we would do well to over-prepare by being ready for any contingency we can foresee, perhaps studying the prior word choices of the witness and attorneys, if there is a record, and reading all available accounts of the event to formulate a comprehensive glossary. Rather than this preparation being a search for the gossip, however, it must be grounded in an attitude of respect for our performance and the profession.

Big or small, each case we work on deserves our full attention. When we find ourselves involved in something outside the norm, let’s not forget about how crucial it is to remain neutral. If we are able to see the importance of excellence in all we do, avoiding sensationalist attitudes should come as second nature. This way, we are not only giving a solid performance; we are showing the beauty and grace of our composure in midst of everybody else’s turmoil.

7 Comments
  • Yilda Ruiz Monroy
    Posted at 11:25h, 05 July Reply

    Let me congratulate you for such a fine, professional and centered article. I totally agree with what you say, but I had never seen so well expressed and systematized. Indeed, there should be no little or big case for us, since what is at stake is a human being. If we always keep in mind that to the eyes of both God and the Law we are all equal, then all cases must be equal, and therefore our demeanor must be the same = sensational, not sensationalist.

    Thanks a lot.

    • Jennifer De La Cruz
      Posted at 15:13h, 07 July Reply

      Thank you, Yilda and Jean! I appreciate the positive feedback!

      Hi, Clarence! I love how you looked at this even deeper! Thank you for pointing out how much we can admire the performance of a fellow interpreter. You’re so right. Looking at it further, I think that our marveling at each other is something we tend to do in silence when we are in the presence of others, but for sure once we get some private time with that sensational performer, it’s a time for a lot of high-fives and congratulations! I guess we don’t get to dance in the endzone, but nothin’ against us cheering in the locker room! (There ya go, a sports reference now!) Thanks again!! Jen

  • Jean Bellego
    Posted at 18:07h, 05 July Reply

    Great article. Cheers!

  • Clarence
    Posted at 10:09h, 06 July Reply

    I enjoyed reading your blog and commend you on fine writing. I would just like to point to a paradoxical phenomena in your article. One precept of being an interpreter that you so rightly point out is to do the work inconspicuously; being “simply the voice-as it should be.”
    Being sensational, however, is to be conspicuous. The dictionary puts it like this: 1. producing or designed to produce a startling effect, strong reaction, intense interest, etc., especially by exaggerated, superficial, or lurid elements: a sensational novel.

    2. extraordinarily good; conspicuously excellent; phenomenal: a sensational quarterback.

    3. of or pertaining to the senses or sensation.

    Having pointed that out, I remind myself of the target audience of this blog. The readers of your blog are not the people of the Court nor those sitting in the gallary; but are us, fellow interpreters who would be pleasantly astounded (a sensation) at the proper points of how the interpreter performs at a sensational trial with an “inconspicuous” interpreter that is only a voice, and to us, that would be simply sensational; would it not?

  • Lynn Leazer
    Posted at 14:55h, 09 July Reply

    Excellent article that provide plenty of food for thought about our role as interpreters. Thank you!

  • John P. Shaklee
    Posted at 10:34h, 22 July Reply

    Dear Jennifer:

    Thank you for a well-constructed article. I agree that I must focus on my job and not the flashbulbs, should they ever appear. A dear colleague and I interpreted a major drug case in federal court and the furthest thing from my mind was the paparazzi. Towering files, a cavernous ceiling and a cadre of grim-faced lawyers and witnesses provided sufficient intimidation to help me focus on just interpreting. When you mentioned we are to be remembered as a voice, my dear boss Lillian Zdnowski from Language Line reminded me of that years ago. Ours is hardly a glamorous field, yet highly rewarding.

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