The Militant Interpreter

The phrase itself should set off an alarm. Or perhaps “militant” is too strong a word. How about “the advocate interpreter”?

Merriam-Webster defines militant as “having or showing a desire or willingness to use strong, extreme, and sometimes forceful methods to achieve something,” or, in short, “aggressively active (as in a cause).”

An advocate, on the other hand, is “ a person who argues for or supports a cause or policy.”

Is the difference between an advocate and a militant a matter of degrees? Either way, by definition a militant or an advocate cannot be an impartial or neutral person, whereas an interpreter, particularly in a judiciary setting, cannot be anything but impartial and neutral. Does that mean a judiciary interpreter can never support a cause that he or she believes in?

Hardly. Interpreters are people with all sorts of causes near and dear to their hearts. Mine is saving abandoned and abused animals. Others may want to save the planet from wasteful plastics. Perhaps a favorite cause for some is a literacy programs for inner city teenagers, or taking art appreciation outside of the museums through urban murals. We can even be militant vegans, or corporate take-your-kid-to-work advocates. But the litmus test must be: does this in any way affect my impartiality and neutrality when I have to interpret in a legal proceeding?

If it does, then you have to either recuse yourself from the case, or abandon your cause. Since most, if not all, causes are based on personal convictions and principles, chances are that in the face of such a choice, an ethical interpreter will recuse him or herself from the case, and simply move on to the next one where there will be no conflict because the required neutrality will not be lacerated.

Of course, there is no “ethics tribunal” for interpreters. It is up to each one of the members of this profession to uphold the Code of Ethics that has been promulgated through NAJIT, and to simply know which lines can be crossed and which ones cannot.

Staying ethical when you have a cause also means knowing yourself.

I know I could never be an interpreter in an animal cruelty case because I would certainly want the perpetrator to go to prison for a long, long time! It’s what is known as a “no-brainer”. If someone has polluted the rivers with illegal toxins, I can keep my opinions under wraps and interpret with no trace of bias whatsoever, even if I think the defendant is scum. I can vent later on, with my colleagues, behind closed doors, if need be.

If you have a cause in your life and are also a judiciary interpreter, take a moment to ask yourself: does my cause make me biased in a way that could affect my performance? Will I try to influence the outcome of a case through my choice of words while interpreting because of my personal beliefs? Are my opinions so strong that I am no longer perceived as a disinterested person in a case for which I have been called to interpret?

Bear in mind also that if you are a judiciary employee, there are liberties other citizens have that you don’t. Employees of the federal judicial branch, for example, cannot openly campaign for any political candidate. We cannot speak to the press without authorization from higher-ups, and we cannot post on any social media images that depict our place of employment. No selfies at your desk!

So if you contract for the state or federal judiciary, find out what the rules are regarding your “freedom of speech”, and make sure to follow them. If you don’t like the rules, it is your choice not to accept engagements in those venues. As long as we each remain within the boundaries of our Professional Code of Conduct, we can be faithful to both, our individual principles and our collective ethical responsibilities.

15 thoughts on “The Militant Interpreter”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    Interesting question: “Is the difference between an advocate and a militant a matter of degrees?” I do not have an original answer to that, but I do agree with your very last statement, Janis.

    Thank you!

    1. Janis says:

      Thank you, Gio. Sometimes we don’t have the answers but at least we are asking the questions that can lead us to those answers. I’m glad we agree on that last statement.

  2. Helen Eby says:

    There is a difference between being a “militant” during the interpreting encounter and advocating for high interpreting standards in appropriate places in the very many places when the opportunity arises.

    As interpreters, we have many opportunities to state our case as professionals adn explain that professionals are the ones best qualified to do this job, to come to the table and explain how the job is done, to come and explain what the requirements for the job are, to explain what is at risk when the job is not done right, to explain what we need to do our job so that the LEP and the attorney/doctor/teacher or other English speaker can get the most out of the interpreting encounter.

    That is not biasing the encounter. That is simply setting things up for success for ourselves, for the next interpreter, and for the next LEP and the next English speaker. And it is setting things up so our own tax dollars don’t go to waste.

    I am not sure exactly how this is biased, crosses political lines, or any of that. these are things we can and should all do. In the Oregon Code, I would say it all fits under Assessing and Reporting Impediments to Performance.

    We should, of course do this following the rest of our canons:
    Professional Demeanor
    Representation of Qualifications
    Professional Development

    I’m just listing the ones on the back of the Oregon Court Interpreter ID badge that apply to thei particular situation.

    I see no reason they would conflict with the rest:
    Accuracy and completeness
    Restriction of public comment
    Duty to report ethical violation

    I think we have some misunderstandings here about what constitutes advocacy and what constitutes militant advocacy. We don’t try to go in with loudspeakers, disrespectfully yelling at judges! But we do think it is appropriate to speak up and take advantage of public hearings about interpreting laws, sit at the table to discuss these things, bring them to the table, etc.

    1. Gilbert says:

      I’m a Freelance Court Interpreter and I am also a Level II BIA Accredited Representative. I am authorized to represent people before the United States immigration service and the United States immigration court as an advocate. Many times when I show up to court the question of immigration comes up but I know that at that moment I’m wearing interpreter hat so I do not even bring in my knowledge of immigration matters when I’m working as an interpreter. Is just safer to limit your role to the job that you’re doing. If you keep your mind focused on the task at hand you would do a better job.

      1. Janis Palma says:

        Gilbert, thank you for a great example of how you can keep advocacy and interpreting separate, even when you get to wear those two hats, albeit at different times.

      2. Liviu-Lee Roth says:

        Correct! This is the right approach!

    2. Janis Palma says:

      Helen, thank you for your comments. I think you said it yourself, “That is not biasing the encounter.” What you describe is commendable, and I don’t see the conflict, either.

  3. Milena Calderari Waldron says:

    I respectfully disagree with your belief that “there is no ethics tribunal for interpreters”. Certifying bodies have the right to discipline interpreters they certify and even revoke their certifications. Washington State has an Interpreter Commission within the Administrative Office of the Courts whose disciplinary subcommittee evaluates ethical violations and imposes sanctions. Several states have published their court interpreter disciplinary policies on their websites.Professional associations have their own ethics boards as well. A code of professional conduct that is not being enforced is just a useless piece of paper.
    Then again what about those interpreters who tirelessly advocate for the betterment of the interpreting profession?
    And what about the ethical dilemma staff court interpreters frequently face when the court, your employer, asks you to interpret a trial alone, without team interpreting?

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Milena, I applaud the State of Washington for having a body that evaluates ethical violations and imposes sanctions as well as any other state that has followed suit. There is no such thing at the federal level, and once certified there is no procedure in place to de-certify an interpreter. Nevertheless, a code of professional conduct is not a useless piece of paper just because there is no outside entity to enforce it. It is a code of honor, as well. We abide by it because it is the right thing to do. And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with advocacy, either. Like I said, I am advocate for animal welfare and animal rights, and as long as that does not interfere with my ability to remain impartial when I am interpreting, it is a non-issue.

      1. Cristian Saenz says:

        Hi Janis,
        I very much agree!
        Also, I enjoyed the very important article that touches on a topic that is at the cornerstone of our profession, which is impartiality. If we cannot remain neutral, then we must refuse ourselves, much like a judge has to recuse himself/herself from a case where there is a conflict of interest.

      2. Cristian Saenz says:

        Hi Janis,
        I very much agree!
        Also, I enjoyed the very important article that touches on a topic that is at the cornerstone of our profession, which is impartiality. If we cannot remain neutral, then we must recuse ourselves, much like a judge has to recuse himself/herself from a case where there is a conflict of interest.

  4. Helen Eby says:

    When it’s 10:30 and a judge closes a hearing that started at 9:30 saying “this hearing is dismissed at 9:30” i say “The interpreter requests a repetition”. The judge knows what I’m doing and is cool.

    When I see a person say “that wasn’t a gift” in Spanish, and the US person say “Well, it was, under the legal definition”, I say “the interpreter requests clarification of the legal definition of gift” for the Spanish speaker to understand and be able to respond.

    I don’t view this as advocacy. I view this as linguistic clarification, which we should all do for good communication to flow. Then the Spanish speaker can decide what to do, but they can at least understand.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Sounds like you are doing a great job, Helen. I don’t see that as advocacy, either.

    2. Cristian Saenz says:

      Hi Helen,

      Thank you for your very thoughtful responses. In my opinion there is a fine line here.
      I completely understand how our job as an interpreter is to place the participants on an equal language footing, but in this case wouldn’t it be up to the LEP to ask for that clarification?
      It’s much like in court when an LEP doesn’t understand a legal term, as much as we would like for it to be defined for the LEP to understand, we are only there to interpret the term, not to ask for it to be defined for the LEP, unless the LEP says “I don’t understand what you mean by Williams Rule”, for example. Of course, it’s a different story if we don’t understand a term, then we ask for clarification because we must understand it first, in order to interpret it.
      I am just playing devil’s advocate here. Thanks!

  5. Anna says:

    The Professional Code of Conduct….something that should be required reading, at least once a year for all of us! Thank you, Janis, for such an insightful look at what we do!

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