Time for a Paradigm Shift, Part IV: In Which We Get Serious

Two weeks ago, we considered an ethical dilemma that had come up in my office. Today I would like to discuss the concepts of “demands” and “controls”. These terms were first used by Robert Karasek in his work on occupational stress in the late 1970s, but they simply mean (respectively) the factors that place stress on us in our jobs and the range of options at our disposal to cope with those factors.


Demands can be of several types. Karasek identified three: environmental, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. When Robyn Dean and Robert Pollard extrapolated Karasek’s findings to interpreting in their seminal 2001 article “Application of demand-control theory to sign language interpreting:  Implications for stress and interpreter training,” they added a fourth class of demand: paralinguistic. I posit that there are two more types: linguistic, and a sixth factor I’ll call divergent.  They can overlap (for example, difficulty hearing a particular speaker could be environmental, paralinguistic, or both).

Environmental: Demands created by the space itself: lighting, temperature, seating or lack thereof, obstructions between the interpreter and the parties, etc.

  • I was standing in an unfamiliar location in the courtroom.

Interpersonal: Demands having to do with the interpreter’s interaction with the parties, or interaction between the parties.

  • The judge was tired of hearing from the defendant.
  • The defendant hated his lawyers.
  • The lawyers on both sides were frustrated with the defendant.
  • I was wary of the defendant because of his many prior outbursts.
  • For that matter, I was also frustrated with the defendant.
  • My teammate was a new colleague whom I had not worked with very much.


Intrapersonal: Demands that are internal to the interpreter, such as hunger, fatigue, etc.

  • I was very unsure about what to do.
  • I was afraid of annoying the judge.
  • I was uncomfortable standing in such an unfamiliar place.
  • I wondered what my teammate would think about whatever decision I made.


Paralinguistic: Demands that have to do with communication, but not language per se: body language, tone of voice, speech impediments, etc.

  • The defendant and his attorney were speaking very loudly.
  • The judge’s body language conveyed that he did not want to listen to the defendant.
  • The defendant and attorney were facing each other, not the Court; however, from time to time the defendant did turn toward the judge.

Linguistic: Relating specifically to the words being used in the source and/or target languages. Unfamiliar vocabulary (such as scientific language or regional slang) would fall into this category. Because I’d been working on this case for so long and was so accustomed to everyone’s speech patterns, there weren’t really any unusual linguistic demands on me. (The defense attorney can certainly be “high-falutin’” when he gets going, but it wasn’t his speech that was the dilemma.)

Divergent: Demands created by  having to carry out the physical act of interpreting under abnormal circumstances—using unfamiliar equipment, running out of paper in your steno pad and needing to use a legal pad instead, using a ballpoint pen instead of a rollerball, etc. (As a profession, we are set in our ways, aren’t we?)

  • I was interpreting simultaneously from Spanish into English, not my (or any court interpreter’s) usual direction.


Now let’s discuss the controls I had at my disposal—i.e., the things I could have done.

  • Interpret the attorney-client conference, unless and until I was told to stop.
  • Not interpret the attorney-client conference, unless and until I was told to begin.
  • Ask the judge on the record whether to interpret or not.
  • Ask the judge off the record whether to interpret or not (remember, I was standing quite close to him).
  • Move away from where I was standing to consult with my colleague about what to do.


As I’ve said before, the goal of interpreting within the court context is to facilitate an experience as close to possible as what it would be if all parties involved spoke the same language.

And what is the Demand-Control Schema?

Awareness of the demands placed upon us allows us to decide which controls to apply. The overall goal (desired outcome) of our interpreting is what guides that decision. Demands, controls, and goals vary from context to context and situation to situation … but if we consider them as three classes of variables, then the Demand-Control Schema provides a unified theory of interpreting. It is equally applicable to any context in which interpreters work (court, medical, school, religious, conference…) and any individual assignment. And that’s why this series is called “Time for a Paradigm Shift.”

See you next time, when we discuss the implications of this paradigm shift.

0 thoughts on “Time for a Paradigm Shift, Part IV: In Which We Get Serious”

  1. Kathleen Shelly says:

    This analysis is invaluable for evaluating so many courtroom dilemmas facing the interpreter. I have already gone back and applied the Demand-Control schema, and have come up with some very interesting conclusions. Thanks, Bethany. I hope you go one producing your fascinating and thought-provoking observations!

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