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When Advocacy Backfires

Diplomacy does not come naturally

I admit I am not a good diplomat. Although I have learned to avoid the bull-in-a-china-shop approach, I confess that my first attempt at trying to get a federal judge to understand my need to research a case before interpreting for the witnesses ended with my losing my job. I was young, I was inexperienced, and the truth is I did not know, I mean REALLY know, that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Translation: I had no idea how to advocate.

Actually, not everyone can be a good advocate. Not every interpreter has the right temperament, or even the right tools to be a good advocate. Even good resources, such as NAJIT’s position papers, may provide some guidance but they do not automatically make us all good advocates.

Suppose you are advocating for more credentialed interpreters in some part of the country where the courts have a difficult time finding interpreters at all. Push the wrong buttons and you may end up having those courts go in the opposite direction, hiring anyone who claims to be “bilingual” and foregoing any credentials at all.

To not underestimate the value of words

Too often interpreters will go talk to a judge or an attorney about the law and the constitution. When you do that you are, in fact, telling them they don’t know what they’re doing. Expect a backlash. We don’t want judges and lawyers telling us how to do our job, they don’t want us telling them how to do their jobs, either. Choose your words carefully. There is a huge difference between telling your source-language speakers, “I need you to speak slow… loud… into the microphone…”, etc., “because I cannot interpret what I cannot hear or understand,” or telling them “If you don’t slow down… raise your volume… use a microphone…” etc., “you’ll be violating your client’s Fourteenth, and Sixth Amendment rights because I will not be able to interpret everything you say.”

“We need to be diplomats when we advocate. We speak for ourselves, but we also speak for the entire profession. “

Interpreters also need to be honest about underlying motives when engaging in any advocacy initiative. It is very difficult to set a clear boundary between advocating for higher competency standards for interpreters in legal proceedings and advocating for linguistic minorities’ right to have competent interpreters. Yes, they pretty much go hand-in-hand, but we cannot confuse our interest in setting the highest standards for our profession with some other group’s interest—i.e., protecting the rights of linguistic minorities. The minute we get those two mixed up and start taking a position that is intended solely to benefit one segment of our clientele we expose ourselves to losing credibility as impartial professionals. Let’s not forget, our clients include the monolingual English speakers as well as the monolingual non-English speakers. Taking a public stand on behalf of one or the other is a sure way to be ill-perceived as biased mediators.

Likewise, when we advocate for the use of credentialed interpreters versus non-credentialed interpreters, our interest above all is the standards to which we hold our profession. Everyone engaged in the process of language mediation in a legal setting should have a valid and reliable credential that assures all stakeholders this process is being conducted in accordance with the highest ethical and practical standards for judiciary or legal interpreters. How much additional work a credential interpreter will get when non-credentialed interpreters are no longer used is undoubtedly a factor in this equation. But we have to be very careful not to be perceived as duplicitous when we advocate for one thing that we know will bring other, albeit unspoken, benefits. Shift your focus ever so slightly and your advocacy efforts may backfire.

Trus can be the most valuable currency in advocacy

Once you have lost your audience’s trust and credibility, it is extremely difficult to grab their attention again. Advocacy efforts backfire when you are not honest about your true motivations; when you move forward with a tunnel vision that keeps you from understanding where you may be taking the wrong approach and you fail to foresee the need to change course. Advocacy can also backfire when you don’t do your homework to learn what stakeholders on both sides of an issue are thinking and come prepared to offer solutions for any possible resistance to your requests.

In the end, advocacy for interpreters should be about interpreting, about professional standards, credentials, pay scales, working conditions, and issues inherent to our performance and our ethics. Whatever secondary benefits those may bring should remain secondary or even outside the scope of our advocacy efforts.

Janis Palma

Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.

Read other posts by Janis Palma.

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