The Staff Interpreter: Finding Balance

Without a doubt, a staffer can face precarious positions on an ethical level. We develop close relationships with those around us, and we become very knowledgeable about the processes in our courts. Such familiarity can lead us to become more likely to act outside our roles as neutral parties to the court process. Our relationships with the public, our employer and other actors in the justice system must be developed with a clear understanding of our dual task of representing the Court as an employee and being the voice of others without taking over their tasks. We must have a balanced approach if we want to be successful on both sides.

Dealing with court users: Interpreter or staff member? I’ve found it best to remember my role in the system at all times. There are certain things I think I can answer as a member of the court staff, but most of the time the answer is simply to guide the court user to another staff member or resource. For example, if somebody asks how they can get a copy of the minutes, my answer would be to tell them where the clerk’s office is; I wouldn’t venture to tell them information such as how much it costs per page or how fast the copies are available – even if I knew that information. If somebody asks what they need to do to talk to a public defender, I might tell them that there will be announcements shortly and to listen up. The truth is, I may know the process, but I recognize it’s not my place to provide such specific instructions. My reasoning is simple: I never want to be faced with, “The interpreter told me to xyz.” Over the years, I’ve found ways to delicately refuse to answer questions outside my role, and they have served me well.

I’m an employee: Does that mean I’m not the boss of me anymore? Well, this is an interesting question. As employees, we are probably expected to follow the same rules, procedures, and guidelines of other non-interpreter positions. This can be quite difficult! The typical scenario is that court interpreters know how to conduct themselves independently with little to no oversight, so having to conform any micro-management tendencies can be extremely frustrating. I believe there are certain aspects of independence I surrender to my employer, including my schedule, my assignment, and who I partner with. I do, however, retain full control over my professional discretion. I also do not lose my place as an expert and an officer of the court. I want to encourage new staff interpreters to remember why they were chosen for the job: expertise in the skill of interpreting. Having this clear helps us remember where we are indeed in control, and where we are not. The truth is, we’re working for a system where our role is unique. As such, we can continue to conduct ourselves with the poise and grace of a top expert; we simply exercise such expertise inside a strict structure.

Our buddies, the attorneys. I have very much enjoyed the relationships I’ve developed with the district attorneys, public defenders, and private attorneys at my court. It would be easy, however, to take these relationships beyond the casual and inadvertently affect how we are perceived. If we’re seen talking up a storm with the district attorney who is prosecuting the defendant we’re about to interpret for, we could be perceived as taking sides. Because our role is to be the neutral voice of those we serve, any perception of partiality on our part can hinder willingness to share information and how it is presented. Relationships with attorneys is to be handled with care and with an eye for how that relationship can change how one or both of us perform our duties.

These few ideas should be sufficient to get an internal dialogue going. Having a home court to go to on a daily basis has its benefits, and ensuring that our roles as employees and as interpreters have clear limits can help prevent misunderstandings and misperceptions at every turn. Our behavior and how we handle our relationships and roles is a continual process of growth within our roles and in how to relate to people. Striking the balance is both the journey and the goal.

4 Comments
  • Mike McMillion
    Posted at 08:36h, 03 May Reply

    100% agree and is a representation of why I listen first and choose my answers carefully. This is not just “court.” It is ANY interpreter setting (VRS, school, hospital, tours, etc) wherein we are “just there working” (not JUST the interpreter). Please read the article.

  • Jennifer De La Cruz
    Posted at 10:37h, 08 May Reply

    Thank you, Mike! I agree. These lines can become difficult to walk no matter where we interpreters are providing our services. We are required to leave “self” aside to recognize our roles and not fall into unethical practices. We are often in a position of perceived authority and what we say on our own can be taken as truth when in fact it may just be the opinion of a well meaning, but underinformed, language expert.

  • Janis Palma
    Posted at 16:34h, 28 May Reply

    Thanks for this, Jennifer. I am sharing it with my colleagues because I too believe it is important to keep that balance at all times.

  • Hilda Shymanik
    Posted at 15:53h, 09 May Reply

    Thank you for that article Jennifer. Very relevant at any point it is your turn to become a staff interpreter. Thankfully our Judiciary has a 40 hours orientation where all those questions are answered and we have a dedicated HR department well aware of our role. Not only that but at any given momeny in the courthouse you are a few feet away from a handful of brochures describing the interprete’s role. What we can and cannot do.

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