19 Feb When Perception is not a Reality – Interpreter’s quality of service is a vital issue
– by Maria Teresa Perez, 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.