17 May Team Interpreting Boundaries
Team interpreting* is a process. There is no one single way to work as part of a team. There is no formula you can apply that will make it run on wheels every time. It is all going to depend on the chemistry between the team members.
We don’t always get to choose our teammate, unfortunately. When we do, we usually know each other’s preferences already and have great synergy, so there is very little that needs to be laid out before getting started with the interpreting assignment. It flows!
But what about those times when we are paired with someone we don’t know? Or know but have never worked with as a team? I’d say, “get to know your teammate, and let your teammate get to know you.” Find out if they have ever done team interpreting before, and what their experience has been (good? bad?). This should be a “do unto others” moment. Don’t make your teammate feel you are being judgmental in any way.
Being part of a team does not mean “you do your thing and I do mine, and we just stay out of each other’s way.” Once this relationship starts, you both need to have each other’s backs for the duration, i.e., the interpreting assignment. You both need to have clear ground rules, expectations, and boundaries.
Perhaps the most basic rule on which you need to agree is how long each one will be at the microphone. No one likes a “microphone hog”, or a colleague too quick to shorten her turn at the mike. Different proceedings and different participants may call for longer or shorter turns. Whatever you two agree, that’s the rule for the duration of your assignment, unless you both decide to change it by mutual agreement. For example, when someone starts to speak really fast near the end of the day and you are already tired, or when a highly technical witness takes the stand and is a true challenge to your mental stamina, you may both decide it’s time to take shorter turns at the mike.
The way in which you switch your turn at the microphone will have a lot to do with the equipment you have. Do you need to push a button or pass a microphone? Are you okay with switching even if you’re in the middle of a sentence or would you rather wait for the next natural pause to pass the mike on to your colleague once your time is up? If one of you prefers to wait and the other doesn’t; just agree on what each other prefers and respect that agreement.
Now, once you pass that microphone, do you get up and leave? No! Unless you have an urgent need to use the restroom or have some other emergency, you stay by your partner’s side and pay attention in case she needs help with a term or turn of phrase, or maybe something she did not quite hear. This is essential to team interpreting. Otherwise, we’re back to “you do your thing and I do mine.” That’s not a team.
Another thing you should do is discuss any technical terms that will be coming up in the case, or as they come up, to make sure you both agree on the best rendition and both use the same equivalents throughout the assignment. Sometimes interpreters come from different countries and even the everyday words they use are different. This can be confusing for the non-English speaker. If that happens, find a neutral or standard term you can both use. This is one of those times when professionalism has to be king (or queen), and we must abandon nationalist pride in favor of clarity in our renditions.
It’s also a good idea to discuss how you prefer to be helped if you get stuck on a word or can’t hear the speaker. Should your partner whisper the word you’re looking for? Pass you a note? Do nothing and let you move on until you find a solution? What will be your signal so your partner knows you want help, or don’t? This can make or break a good working relationship. Abide by the Golden Rule and always be respectful of your teammate’s requests and preferences (even if you would do things differently!). Of course, your partner should do the same for you.
What if you cannot agree on something? This is where the team spirit should kick in. Talk! Work out the differences. Be mindful that this is your colleague and sooner or later you may end up working together again.
What if the team has more than two interpreters? We must assume these 3 or 4 or however many interpreters did not end up working together by happenstance. Someone “created” the team. These teams need a “point person”, a team leader, someone to coordinate the internal mechanics of the team and any external interactions, if needed. If the team was assembled by one of the interpreters who is also a member of the team, that person should be the team leader. If the team was assembled by a supervisor or anyone else who is not a member of the team, that person should appoint the team leader. The rest of the team then lets the leader be the leader.
Having a team leader makes the work flow because you don’t have two, three, four bosses all wanting to make decisions at the same time. It also simplifies the process when there is a need to communicate with the client (i.e., the court or the party that hired the team.) The team leader makes sure everyone has had some input into the decision-making process for the way in which the team will work, and once the decisions are made, the entire team should honor them.
Finally: do not forget that when you are working in a team situation, whatever you do is going to reflect on your teammates, and vice-versa. Always be on your best ethical behavior and, when in doubt, consult, consult, consult!
*You may learn more about Team Interpreting in this NAJIT Position Paper on the subject.
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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. She 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.
Read other posts by Janis Palma.