The Fixer

          In my home I am “the fixer”. This is not a role that I chose knowingly and intentionally; it just came with the territory. I own a home, so if anything breaks I am the one in charge of fixing it or finding someone who does. It is usually the latter, since my skills as a plumber, electrician, and mason are woefully lacking. Otherwise, if one of our dogs or cats gets sick, it is my job to run to the vet and fix it. If we run out of bread or eggs, it is my job to go to the grocery store and fix it. If a light bulb burns out, I change it and… well, you get the idea.

          At work, I am also “the fixer”. In that territory, however, I feel a lot more confident about the likelihood of my being able to fix whatever needs fixing. I am the one in charge of finding interpreters for the judges, among other things. If you compare our district to other district courts, it may not seem so big: seven district judges, four magistrate judges, and two senior judges who keep a full calendar; plus two separate buildings about 30 minutes away one from the other in city traffic. It should be easy enough to look at the calendars for the coming week and know how many interpreters will be needed each day, since 98% of our criminal matters require a Spanish interpreter. If it’s on the calendar, there will be an interpreter assigned to cover it.

          That is, of course, barring any last-minute changes.

Juggling calendar changes

          Court assignments in our district are finalized near the end of the day, just because changes will inevitably take place up until the very last minute. We have 7 staff interpreters, and whatever staff interpreters cannot cover gets covered by contract interpreters. Unfortunately, I often have to wait until the end of the day to make those calls: “are you available tomorrow?” I have tried contracting in advance, like for a whole week, and it just doesn’t work. Events tend to disappear, leaving me with too many interpreters I simply cannot justify. Notwithstanding all my diligence, once I have assigned staff and contractors to every judge with a criminal matter on his or her calendar I can still be caught off guard. Sometimes a judge may decide to “move” something for the afternoon when there was an interpreter assigned only for the morning. Other times a proceeding that was supposed to last one hour, tops, ends up taking the whole day. As “the fixer”, I need to scramble to find those extra interpreters. I usually end up begging someone to come in and —thank goodness— the contract interpreters in my district take pity on me and oblige.

Juggling interpreters

          Court setting can be like Jell-O: wiggly and slippery. On any given day a jury selection that was supposed to take two days may end up taking half a day because the defendant decided to plead guilty. Or I may have one interpreter running from one court to another with little time to spare because I did not have enough interpreters to cover every judge, when suddenly everything gets cancelled. Then again, a contract interpreter may call 15 minutes before court to let me know her car won’t start, or a staff interpreter can get sick in the middle of the night and I’m texting away at one in the morning to find a replacement. These things happen. I try to take deep breaths and not get upset. My job is to fix it.

          I have called interpreters I know are on their way home because they just got cancelled by someone else, begging them to run back to cover something in court. I have also called them five minutes after contracting them to say, “never mind! I just got two trials cancelled.” I sometimes have to move staff interpreters around like chess pieces to accommodate calendar changes, but perhaps most important to everyone is that I also move people around to accommodate the interpreters’ needs and sudden emergencies.

          All this, of course, is just for Spanish interpreters. We only have a couple of qualified interpreters in our District for languages other than Spanish. And yet, Border Patrol can call on their way in to let us know they are bringing in a group of Chinese nationals that need an interpreter (but they don’t know if it’s Mandarin, Cantonese or some other dialect.) The FBI can come in with a bunch of rowdy passengers they have just arrested on an airplane who speak only Russian. When these same-day requests come up, I have found that staff interpreters in other Districts are an amazing asset when it comes to finding last-minute resources in every imaginable language.

Help for the fixer

          I do not expect the dynamics of court settings and calendar changes to take my own needs and concerns into account. If I cannot provide an interpreter for every judge who needs one, then I am not doing my job. What I think makes me a better “fixer” at the office than at home is that I have a great team at the office and very good lines of communication with non-staff interpreters. Staff interpreters are always ready, willing and able to help put out fires. Everyone is a bright shining star, but not a diva (big difference!)

          Freelancers let me know when they are available and when they are not, when they are travelling out of the jurisdiction and when they will be back, when they have something that got cancelled and their availability has opened up. On the other side of the coin, they also know that if I contract them, they will work. This is a fine line I walk, which means I cannot make long-term commitments. But whatever commitment I make, I keep. It is a two-way street, in which we have built mutual trust and collaboration. I know they will get me out of a bind, and they know I will not leave them hanging in the wind.

          The same goes for the staff interpreters. They’ve got my back and I’ve got theirs. But since no one is perfect, if I mess up… they know I will own it and fix that, too!

          The bottom line is that I would not be able to “fix” anything without the staff and contract interpreters. And my “ace up my sleeve” is the fantastic group of colleagues in other districts. It is a totally symbiotic relationship. And it’s a great feeling when it all works out and everything gets fixed!

2 Comments
  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 10:43h, 17 October Reply

    “Court setting can be like Jell-O: wiggly and slippery.” I am not a great fan of Jell-O. Glad there are others like you out there to take care of the jello-o-like realities of our profession.

    Obrigada, Janis and all other Fixers out there.

    • Janis Palma
      Posted at 21:07h, 26 October Reply

      Well, I used to love Jell-O when I was a kid. But not this kind. Thanks for your comment, Gio.

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