When Perception is not a Reality – Interpreter’s quality of service is a vital issue

– by Maria Teresa PereMaria Teresa Perezz, Spanish Court Interpreter, Ocean County Vicinage (NJ). Maria Teresa has been a certified Spanish interpreter since 1996, previously applying her skills in California, and now as a Staff Interpreter with the Superior Court of New Jersey, Ocean County Vicinage. In her spare time, she loves to travel abroad, and enjoys music and the arts. Maria Teresa is the now the newest member of the blog team.

During the last ten years as a freelance and staff court interpreter for the New Jersey Judiciary, I have attended many meetings and discussed many topics dealing with issues pertaining to the interpreting profession.  I recall one meeting in particular, back in October 2007, in which the topic was the perception that many -including interpreters- have of interpreters’ fatigue, and the lack of understanding of the impact that it has on our performance.

As interpreters, we are often misunderstood when we express feelings of being tired or fatigued during the course of our workday.  Those who have not experienced the stress and rigors of interpreting in a courtroom setting could easily conclude that someone expressing fatigue is merely a lazy person; someone who is seeking to avoid their work responsibilities.   That perception is not necessarily true for foreign language court interpreters.

Many studies, tests, analysis and round table discussions regarding interpreters’ mental fatigue have been conducted by experts in linguistics.  These experts have concluded that depending on the nature of the proceeding, complexity of a case, speed of discourse, terminology, specialty of an expert witness and other factors, the quality of service provided by an interpreter will diminish over time.

Nancy Festinger, Chief Interpreter for the United States District Court, Southern District of New York, (Manhattan), observed that, “The demands placed on a legal interpreter are linguistically extraordinary”.  She further described the interpreter’s role as follows:

We perform mental gymnastics, jumping from an attorney’s constitutional argument in a motion to suppress, to a drug addict’s slurred explanation, to a witness’s deliberately elusive answer, to the socio-psychological jargon of a probation report, to the small print of a statue, to a judge’s syntactically convoluted charge to the jury-often, all in the space of a few hours.  We repeat patent nonsense, veiled (or not –so-veiled bullying), impassioned pleas, righteous indignation, stern admonishments, nit-picking questions, ironic remarks, barbed answers, tearful confessions, and through it all we must pay unflagging attention, betray no sign of annoyance or incredulity, all the while maintaining composure, impartiality and linguistic fidelity.”  (CR:bkv/E9B01018 May 23, 2001, updated by mp, 3/13/06 – MS Word by SLL, 11/6/07).

Many articles appearing in the various blogs and magazines of interest to our profession speak about studies that have been done.  Some of these articles demonstrate that during simultaneous interpretation, significant errors in the meaning of what is being interpreted can occur. This may be attributed to the effects of mental fatigue after an interpreter works for too long, usually after 30 to 45 minutes.  The interpreter may be unaware of the decline in quality, and may continue interpreting for another 30 minutes before reality sets in.  Thus, each “meaning” error, no matter how minor, may distort the interpreted message. The greater the number of errors, the more significant the decline in the quality of the service rendered may be.

The obligation to determine when that quality of service is no longer acceptable cannot be guided by rules and or studies, which simply gives us general guidelines.  It is our own self-duty and obligation, and that of our colleagues, supervisors, judges and co-workers in the judiciary, to assure that when interpreter’s fatigue sets in, the interpreter is relieved by capable colleague, or at least provided time to regain composure and mental stamina.  Team interpreting has proven to be one solution to this dilemma.

Our profession has a long history but we still struggle for understanding.  In order to provide quality service to the judiciary, the litigants, and the public, the perception and the unique nature of an interpreter’s role must be understood and provided for.

6 thoughts on “When Perception is not a Reality – Interpreter’s quality of service is a vital issue”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    Thank you, Maria Teresa, for bringing attention to this issue. There is still so much work needed in this area. From what I hear, the concept of “team” is not well understood in the courts across the US.


  2. Diana Clark says:

    Thank you, Maria Teresa … I also work as an interpreter for the NJ Judiciary – freelance, in my case – and I appreciate your drawing attention to this issue. During UN General Assembly last year a colleague told me that the simo interpreters at the UN work for only 10-20 minutes at a time before being relieved in that vitally important stressful environment. On the rare occasions when I have been teamed up with another interpreter in court in NJ it has always been possible to agree on a 20 or 30 minutes switching schedule. I don’t know if all the efforts of NAJIT, ATA. CIOL and other professional bodies to publicize the facts of an interpreter’s life have worked some magic, but in recent months I think I have detected more healthy respect for our work among many in the courts and elsewhere. Of course there are still some who resent the inevitable delays caused by the need for interpretation and don’t hide their annoyance … but I think things are looking up. Thanks, and please keep posting from Mercer in Our Fair State!

  3. Janis says:

    Thank you for raising this very important issue once more, María Teresa. Even the most professional and experienced colleagues fail to realize sometimes that mental fatigue has set in and they are making silly mistakes they would not otherwise make. These can range from changing the gender of a word, to simply saying the wrong word, or even omitting information altogether. Each one of us has a duty to recognize and acknowledge this phenomenon and not try to be “heroes” or otherwise push ourselves beyond the fatigue threshold. I believe that when all of us do that, it will naturally “trickle down” to the rest of the community where we work.

  4. Arnaldo Buzack says:

    This is why the NJ AOC’s directive for staff interpreters whereby any matter of up to two hours is to be handled by one interpreter only makes no sense; whenever I try to bring this up in my vicinage, though, I am almost scolded, and viewed as a crybaby. My colleagues claim they can handle it, and probably think so. But studies show otherwise: the quality of services rendered tends to decrease well before the interpreter is aware of it, as this article lays out. I just wish we decided to do something about this as a class, because there are times when even 20 minutes is too long, as pointed out by Diana Clark in her comment above. I have had occasion to interpret in conferences where the subject matter was so complex, and the speaker so fast, that we had to switch every 15—or even 10—minutes. To expect us to keep interpreting for up to 2 hours in a courtroom where 5 or 6 lawyers—some of which forcibly will have better diction and ability to express their ideas clearly than others—and a judge hold discussions in legalese is really not fair, and worse: it tramples clients’ constitutional rights.

  5. Ramiro Arango says:

    It’s great to see interpreters call out attention on this point. What’s not so great is that no one seems to talk about any actual studies on the subject, which I know exist before Mirta Vidal’s 1994 study, about the only one to be found online.. I had heard about another one by the University of Geneva and yet another on court interpreting done by the University of Arizona with the help of Holly Mikkelson.

    Since I’m working on a client-education initiative for the Asociación Colombiana de Traductores, Terminólogos e Intérpretes, ACTTI, it would be a very good thing to find one of those detailed studies. So my question is, does any here know how to get a hold of one them?

    Thank you very much in advance,
    Ramiro Arango
    Founding member of ACTTI

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