The Rural Interpreter

I didn’t exactly grow up on a farm, but my small town was indeed surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans. When I was in my teens I started out on what turned out to be years of travel, living in enormous cities both in the U.S. and abroad. I never thought that I would one day find myself back on the farm, but now I make my home once again amid green fields and forest. As I look out my living room window the long rows of green and silver corn stretch out before me. In the distance a graceful border of tall trees defines the edges of the field. The back yard looks out on a dense and mysterious green wood. There is something basic and beautiful about it, and after years of racketing around the world I am content to be here.

I have lived in this house for sixteen years. The places I work—the courts, the doctors’ offices, the law firms—seem to reflect the atmosphere of this southernmost of three counties in this tiny state. People here pride themselves on not allowing those hoity-toity folks from upstate to dictate how things ought to be done. Many of the places to which I am sent are located in lovely little towns in rural Delaware and the Maryland eastern shore. I am always happy to travel to some place I have never been before, some charming little gem of a town with its gracious old courthouse and friendly people.

That’s not to say I never work in cities, though; I go wherever the work is but I can never totally overcome that nagging feeling of trepidation at having to deal with the traffic, the parking, the crowds… I just stand up straight and get the job done.

For the most part, though, I tend to work in the courts distributed throughout the same small geographic area, where there is a large population of Spanish-speaking immigrants who have come seeking work at the chicken plants, the construction business and landscaping. Since there is little public transportation, a good 85% of my work has to do with traffic (not trafficking) offenses. I often interpret for the same people over and over as they get stopped for driving without the licenses they may never be able to get. I don’t see a lot of high-profile cases, which is the one thing I envy the urban interpreter. I have had some doozies, though. Remind me to tell you some time about the bizarre trial of the man who cut off his wife’s toe with a machete, or the extraordinary case of the brave young woman who managed a whispered call to 911 with her would-be rapist in the next room.

After all these years, I have become rather well known. I am “Ms. Shelly” to all the court personnel, prison guards, police officers and attorneys, and Señora Kati or Mees Katleen to the Spanish-speaking community. Total strangers come up to me on the street and say, “You’re that interpreter lady, aren’t you?” Hey, it’s a very small world here. People see me not only at court, but at church and local activities. Sometimes I worry about the ethics of my situation, but I have never encouraged anyone to consider me as anything but an interpreter. I never give legal advice, and I do everything possible to avoid one-on-one conversations with defendants or witnesses or even hospital patients. I do not make friends with anybody I work with.

What I have always sought to do is to educate both court personnel and the members of the Spanish-speaking community as to what the duties of the interpreter are. Very early in my career I interpreted for a lady who was confused as to what it was I was supposed to be doing. This was a trial for traffic charges at the very lowest level of the court system. She had no attorney, and understood almost nothing of what a trial entailed. The judge did his best to explain the process to her, but she would answer questions only in monosyllables, and kept looking at me as though I should be saying something besides “Yes” and “No.” The worst thing was that the judge seemed to expect me to say something more too! At any rate, the lady lost the trial, and as we left the courtroom she began berating me for not having “interpreted” for her. When I tried to explain to her what my role was, she drew herself up and said to me, “You are a very bad interpreter,” and then left in a huff!

I realized then that most of the people I would be working with had never before had contact with a trained interpreter. It was a real eye-opener. In due course I met the people who had been “interpreting” in the courts and in the community, and they were what you might call very much “hands-on,” to the point of telling people how to plead and paraphrasing what was said to them. Back then there was little training of judges and attorneys on how to work with interpreters, and in some ways it was up to me to show court personnel what the interpreter could and couldn’t do.

It is still an uphill battle. Just last month, an agency sent me to interpret at an investigative interview for the mother of a child in a sexual abuse case. The advocacy center, which usually relies on bilingual personnel, requested a court certified interpreter since the purpose of the interview was to provide the prosecutor’s office with the information necessary to make an indictment. Almost as soon as I began, I could tell that many of the people there, accustomed to working with untrained staff members, had never seen a qualified interpreter at work. Some of those present—social workers, police officers, victim advocates—asked a few questions presaged with the usual “ask her” and “tell her.” Then the prosecutor, a man I had worked with before, started firing questions directly at the mom, who answered in voluble Spanish amid loud sobs of grief. Me, I sat back, took notes and did my job. I actually saw one woman’s jaw drop.

As I was leaving, the person in charge of the center told me she was very impressed with my work, and asked me for my card. I explained that since I had been retained by an agency, it would be unethical for me to do so. It was good to know, though, that she had learned to understand and appreciate the work of the trained interpreter.

I guess that’s part of our job no matter where we are located. Whether the setting is rural or urban, our duty is to render the very best interpretation of which we are capable while showing the difference between real interpreting and fudging it. I know I would have greatly enjoyed the work opportunities that larger areas afford, but when I really think about it, I guess I am just a small-town girl at heart after all.

Maryland County Courthouses


0 thoughts on “The Rural Interpreter”

  1. Athena says:

    This article was fascinating and very well written. Thank you so much for sharing your stories. I myself have mostly experienced Urban Interpreting and I have wondered what interpreting would be like in a rural setting; I was even curious to see whether it would be possible to get work in those regions that I find more preferable, but of course I suppose that depends more on demographics than geography.. Finally, I can certainly sympathize with your need to educate the people you work with about what interpreters actually are. I encountered that from the moment I started interpreting and I tend to consider it an aspect of my job. Thanks again for your article!

    1. Kathleen Shelly says:

      Thanks, Athena. Yes, demographics definitely play a part. There happens to be a large population of Guatemalans and Mexicans in this small part of the country, but it does fluctuate. There are far fewer immigrants now than when I first started 15 years ago!

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