The Couch

The Couch: We don’t have all day…

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, the saying “Don’t shoot the messenger” has, even today, failed to catch on for some individuals. A special thank you to this week’s contributor for the Couch idea.


You are interpreting for a particularly acrimonious case. Each side is pressuring the other – discovery on both sides was insufficient, the parties are late for the day’s proceedings, preparation was poorly done, lawyers are passing the blame onto their subordinates; no one is taking responsibility. Parties are poorly prepared, and as a result, everyone is suffering because the case is stalling.

The judge is flustered. You, meanwhile, an experienced interpreter, have worked in all kinds of difficult situations, many worse than this one, and you are not fazed. You remain professional and are doing everything you are supposed to be doing.

Yet though you may be the best interpreter on earth, your performance doesn’t depend entirely on you. If people talk over each other, you still have only one voice; if an utterance is unclear, your interpretation will be, too, and you are not to blame.

And in the courtroom, as with anywhere else, there is always at least one person who does not understand the complexity of the task you are faced with. This time, that person is the judge.

Through no fault of your own, you need to request several repetitions and clarifications from both parties. The parties are exasperated, and the exchanges are emotionally charged and often illogical. You can’t bring clarity to what is already unclear.

Around the third time you ask for a repetition, the judge looks at you as though you don’t know what you’re doing. At the fourth request for a repetition, the judge calls you out: “Interpreter, need we ask for someone else? We don’t have all day.”

You keep interpreting. But the parties’ demeanor and communication are not improving. You get the feeling you will need to ask for several more repetitions before the session adjourns. But the judge, a very influential one in the local community, thinks you, and not the parties, are to blame. No one in the courtroom right now appears they would be receptive to explanations regarding the interpreter’s role.

What do you do?


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Body picture by Stephen Mackenzie from flickr

7 Comments
  • G. Daniel Bugel-Shunra
    Posted at 14:55h, 25 April Reply

    Such situations are not uncommon.
    When interpreting consecutively into English, it’s easy: I slow down my pace to the pace I would like the parties to talk, direct my speech to the court reporter who writes down what *I* say, and intersperse it with comments such as “the remainder of the defendant’s answer was rendered inaudible to the interpreter due to an interruption on the part of the DA”. if it keeps happening, I can even precede that by “let the record reflect that…”. Eventually they’ll start worrying about due process.
    When interpreting simultaneously from English, it’s harder. One I tend to raise my hands, and ask – always on the record – whether due process requires that the proceedings be interpreted. If the answer is yes, I often quip that simultaneous interpreting does not imply the ability to interpret two speakers simultaneously, and I ask the judge to ensure that parties don’t interrupt each other and facilitate *my* role in guaranteeing due process.

  • peter r pei
    Posted at 14:57h, 25 April Reply

    i would ask the judge to slow down the dialogue and let one person speak at one time, not all at once. also advise the court that to interpret two voices is way beyond my expertise not that there are many people that has this talent. but unfortunately i am not one.

  • CAROLISA MORGAN
    Posted at 15:04h, 25 April Reply

    I’d say:
    Your Honor, if you think someone else could do better, you are welcome to request another interpreter. I am a certified professional, and I am doing my best job UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES.

  • C Carrera
    Posted at 15:37h, 25 April Reply

    Keep interpreting. Ask to be allowed to speak as interpreter. Then, explain Y repetitions have been asked so may times, preface with “in the interest of accuracy and for the record”.

    Follow whatever Judge decides (keep or remove you as interpreter), but if you feel you can’t continue doing the job as.professionally as you can, recuse one’s self. It’s a free country, no involuntary servitude.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido
    Posted at 15:49h, 25 April Reply

    My recommendation is prevention. Come to court with copies of the Code of Ethics (COE) for your jurisdiction. Hand out copies to the judge (through a staff person), prosecution, and defense counsel.
    Then one can preface a request for a repetition or clarification by saying, “In accordance with Canon #X of the Code of Ethics, the interpreter is requesting….”
    However, in this scenario, it is too late for prevention. So, since the interpreter is carrying a copy of the COE either on paper in his or her briefcase, or electronically on a smartphone, or both, the interpreter can state, “In accordance with the relevant COE, which can be found on the court web site at …, and which states …, the interpreter is requesting…”
    During a break, obtain copies and hand them out, as above.
    The real problem in this scenario is that the judge lacks information about the judge’s role in managing the parties in an interpreted proceeding. Solve that problem and one may get a better result.
    The interpreter could also request, when appropriate, “Your Honor, could the court please instruct counsel to speak one at a time. An interpreter cannot interpret for two or more people who speak at the same time.”
    Alternatively, “Your Honor, since the interpreter cannot interpret for two people who are speaking at the same time, does the court wish to indicate for the record which one of these people I should be interpreting for?”
    That *should* improve the behavior of the attorneys.
    This is why client education is so important.
    Best of luck.

  • Helen Eby
    Posted at 16:27h, 25 April Reply

    This is looking backwards, but if it is over 2 hours you should be working with a partner, doing team interpreting, even if it is consecutive. I got the impression this is a looong solo appointment.

  • Chris Verduin
    Posted at 20:42h, 25 April Reply

    I vote for Daniel’s emphasis on putting it on the record. First of all, it identifies the problem and becomes a record also
    of the interpreter’s (or interpreters’, as the case may be) of the interpreter’s attempts to solve the problem. Interpreters need to be aware of how things appear that may harm their reputation.
    Prevention is

    a nice thought, but many judges and attorneys do not take kindly to the fact of an interpreter telling them how to
    run the show.

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