The Couch

The Couch: A Straw to Break the Camel’s Back

The Couch is a place to exchange ideas and brainstorm, not only for its contributors but also for our readers who engage in the ensuing discussions. Sometimes, a day’s proceedings in the courtroom can seem more like an episode of Jerry Springer than they do a trial. A special thank you to this week’s contributor for the Couch idea.

You are interpreting at a civil proceeding. An American woman is suing her ex-husband for his having stopped paying her alimony four months ago. You have been hired by the attorney for the defendant, whose English is very broken.

The judge asks the woman what she does for a living. She says, “Currently unemployed.” The judge then asks the man who has accompanied the plaintiff to court, a well-built man in his late twenties, in what line of work he is. The man and the woman act in such a way that it is clear they are a couple. The brawny man answers: “Well, I don’t work either.”

            “And how long have you been without a job, sir?”

            “Three years.”

            “Do you have any children?”


            “Then,” asks the judge, “may I ask what day-to-day life looks like for the two of you?”

            “Well,” the man starts, “I get out of bed around noon. Both of us then go the gym to work out, you know, to keep our bodies really fit for each other…”

At this the defendant, for whom you have been interpreting and whose blood appears to be boiling, turns to you and says: “¡Y son esos ******** que tengo que mantener con mi labor!” (“And it’s with my hard-earned money that I am supporting these ******!”) You have, of course, interpreted the defendant’s words for the court.

Tension rises in the courtroom. At your last utterance for the defendant, the plaintiff’s boyfriend jumps to his feet, looking menacingly both at the defendant and at you, his messenger. “Take that back or else!” It becomes quickly impossible to interpret anything since now at least five people are talking at once (including the judge and both attorneys).

The judge calls to order. The plaintiff’s lawyer takes the floor: “This man [the defendant] must support his ex-wife, as agreed upon and recorded in the divorce papers.”

You are not to judge based on appearances and must remain neutral. But as things go on, it really looks like the plaintiff may win the case. The defendant, whose demeanor portrays a hard-working, lower-middle-class member of society, may well be forced by law to continue to pay for what appears to be an… unproductive lifestyle.

Eventually the defendant’s character witness gets out of hand as well (the brawny boyfriend seems to have a very short fuse and is good at pushing others’ buttons), and to continue trying to interpret appears to be utterly futile. The temptation to simply walk out is growing within you. But the defendant needs you. What do you do?

Please note: If you have a topic you’d like to see discussed at The Couch, write to the Editor. The comments section here should be used only to reply to the issue under discussion today. When you submit a question or topic for The Couch, we will make sure to remove all information that might make the parties or case identifiable.

Body picture by lassaffa from Pixabay

6 thoughts on “The Couch: A Straw to Break the Camel’s Back”

  1. Helen Duffy says:

    Keep calm and carry on, of course.

  2. Halina Malinowski says:

    Stay put. Keep calm and carry on. Do the best you can under extremely difficult circumstances and remind yourself the code of ethics for interpreters. Hopefully the judge/ court officers will be able to bring the situation under control, as they should. Also, putting yourself mentally outside of this very contentious situation is a key to keeping your head level! Not you monkeys, not your circus.

  3. Winny says:

    You must continue, of course, but you can certainly continue to remind all in the courtroom that the interpreter can only interpret for one person at a time.

  4. Armida Hernandez says:

    First off, I would hope that the interpreter is using wireless equipment and maintain some physical distance from all parties, especially given the possibility of physical violence but primarily in order to preserve professional distance and impartiality. Secondly, I make it a practice to focus on interpreting and not making any judgments (even mentally) on the merits of either litigant’s argument/position. I admit that that is difficult, but it is an essential part of our ethics and professional standards.

  5. Javier La Rosa says:

    I would definitely stay. It’s not my place to lean one way or another. I’m getting paid to interpret. If the disruption(s) impede my ability to do that, I’d still bill for my time

  6. Marie C Franceschi says:

    I stay and wait until the judge control the situation. As an interpreter, I do not take anything personal and hopefully I will continue doing my job in a professional way, one person at a time.

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