When we advocate for interpreters, are we not also advocating for the LEP population?

I have been turning this question around in my head for a while, since someone raised the question in a social media exchange: am I advocating for interpreters? Or am I advocating for the LEPs we serve? And I just have to wonder, can we separate the two? Advocacy is generally understood to be some act undertaken to support or promote a cause or the interests of a group. In my own advocacy initiatives for interpreters, I am always encouraging interpreters to learn new things, to go outside their comfort zones and find new and better ways to do what they do. My advocacy for interpreters is constantly focused on taking their expertise to the next level, which necessarily has ripple effects on everything else: working conditions, remuneration, respect.

When I give a presentation somewhere, or a webinar, or a workshop, I talk about things that I hope will inspire my audience to explore beyond the one, two, or three hours they will be with me. Things like cross-cultural communication, discourse analysis, rhetorical and figurative use of language, the difference between semantics and pragmatics, and how adding all these things to your interpreter’s toolbox can make your work not just better but also easier.

This is my way of advocating for interpreters because raising our performance standards will proportionately raise our leverage to negotiate better working conditions. For example, a colleague of ours, Hilda Shymanik, recently approached me to ask what she could do to educate a judge about appointing two interpreters to a trial. The judge saw no need for two interpreters. By educating that judge and showing him how important it was to have two interpreters working together for long proceedings, she not only advocated for interpreters but also for the LEP defendants, because that improvement in the interpreters’ working conditions would also result in improved interpreting quality for the LEP defendants. It’s hard to keep one act in support of best practices for interpreters from also being an act in support of improved language access for LEPs.

I also tell interpreters everywhere that they cannot simply be repeating what they hear without thinking, without analyzing, and without really understanding what they are hearing. And once they do that, then they have to figure out how they are going to reproduce that message they heard so it can also be understood by the person listening to them. If the person listening to you doesn’t understand what you are saying, then what is the point of having you there?

Interpreting in legal settings is not like interpreting in healthcare or educational settings, and certainly not like conference interpreting, where quite often you don’t even have direct contact with your audience. The legal domain is the only interpreting setting in which the listener has a protected constitutional right to understand what is being interpreted. That is a higher bar than the rights of patients in the healthcare domain or parents in the education domain.

There is a fundamental fairness principle that underscores LEP defendants’ right to an interpreter in every proceeding that takes place during a criminal prosecution. It is not just a matter of making sounds that may theoretically be attributed to a language code the LEP individual is purported to speak and understand. If the string of sounds that are produced by the interpreter fails to convey meaning for the LEP listener, the entire fairness principle falls apart. In fact, the entire construct of a fair and equitable system of justice falls apart.

When the sounds uttered by an interpreter are incomprehensible to the LEP listener, either because they are speaking too fast, or because there is no appropriate intonation and it is all a monotonous rendition, or because there are lexical items chosen by the interpreter that are not part of the listener’s active vocabulary or cultural referents, then the presence of that interpreter is nothing but an act of deception. Mind you, I am referring to the simultaneous interpreting provided to an LEP defendant. When no one else can hear what is being interpreted, and everyone in the courtroom believes the LEP individuals are receiving information in their own language so they can remain informed of everything that is happening during a criminal proceeding against them, so they can confront the evidence and witnesses against them, so they can assist in their own defense, so they can have a fair trial and due process and all those other rights that are supposed to be protected through the appointment of an interpreter, the fact is they are not. Not if they cannot understand what the interpreter is saying.

Here is where the advocacy for interpreting quality becomes intertwined with the advocacy for LEPs’ rights. When I encourage interpreters to develop techniques in the simultaneous mode that allow them to maintain a good delivery pace—so they don’t have to speak at 250 or 300 words per minute when they interpret—I am advocating for a level of expertise that will provide the interpreter with greater control over their delivery and better management of their cognitive loads. When I show interpreters the advantages of discourse analysis and how to identify and take advantage of linguistic cues through discourse pragmatics and encourage them to use their own judgment to make interpreting decisions, there will be a spillover effect on the comprehensibility of the interpretation delivered to the LEP. The quality of the interpreter’s rendition and the comprehensibility of what the LEP defendant hears go hand in hand.

We cannot simply ignore our listeners because some court administrator somewhere at some point said it doesn’t matter if the LEP defendants understand or not. That is not only absurd in the face of all the case law over the course of the last four decades that affirms the right to an interpreter so the LEP defendants can understand, but it also creates a false perception among judges and lawyers that the LEP’s due process rights are being duly protected through the appointment of a qualified interpreter. Like I said earlier, even the most qualified interpreter will be no more than a fake veneer of due process if the LEP defendant cannot understand the interpreter’s renditions.

The long and short of it is that I really don’t think I can advocate for interpreters without also advocating for the LEP population, and vice-versa. They are just two faces of the same coin.

Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She recently obtained her Master in Legal Studies (MLS) degree from Arizona State University and holds an M.A. in literature and history from the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She worked as an independent contractor for over twenty years in federal, state, and immigration courts around the U.S. before taking a full-time job. Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a staff interpreter in April 2002 and retired in 2017. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, embracing the joys of being a grandmother. She also enjoys volunteering for her professional associations, has been on the SSTI and TAJIT Boards, and is the past Chair of the NAJIT Board of Directors. Contact: palmajanis88@gmail.com.

Featured image taken from “Critique de l’analyse pure de la photographie : plaidoyer pour la lecture naïve” by Mes formations en ligne : CSIprof at CSI Doc Rock, under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. Text-body photos: “Honoré Daumier. 1808-1879. Paris. Les deux avocats. The two lawyers” by Jean Louis Mazieres at flickr, under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license; “The Denial of St Peter” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), found at the Wikimedia Commons – photo in the public domain; “Justitiemord,” photo taken by Osvald Hedenström, found at the Wikimedia Commons; photo in the public domain – source: Lehtikuva.

9 thoughts on “When we advocate for interpreters, are we not also advocating for the LEP population?”

  1. Anil Mehrotra says:

    For interpreters it’s merely a job however for LEP it’s their life and freedom on line. No comparison

    Certified MA, ME & CT court interpreter
    in Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi & Urdu languages

  2. Kat says:

    Thanks for this article and your thoughts. We as interpreters need to distance ourselves more from this flawed notion that we are “there for” the LEP only. We are officers of the court and the way we interpret also affects English-speaking parties. I’d argue the work we do that goes on the court record is even more high-stakes than what is interpreted into the Non-English language as it is taken down and will live on in a transcript. In the end, interpreting is an exchange among BOTH sides and that, without our presence, these sides could not understand each other and justice would not be served.

  3. Janis Palma says:

    Thank you Anil and Kat for you comments and for your contributions to this conversation. Advocacy can take many forms, and even though it is not part of our “job” to advocate for the LEP persons in court, I don’t think it is in any way wrong to advocate for the highest interpreting standards if they will, in turn, benefit the LEP individuals in court.

    When you say that for interpreters “it’s merely a job”, Anil, I think that, to be fair, for interpreters it is a lot more than a job because most of us know that there are lives at stake, people’s freedom, and exposure to monetary losses, all of whom depend on our accuracy and proficiency.

    And, yes, Kat, we do interpret for everyone in the courtroom, English speakers and non-English speakers alike, but if there were no LEP persons present we would not be there at all.

  4. Cristian Saenz says:

    Hello! Another very important and very interesting topic in our field is presented in another great article. First, I will say that with regards to “advocacy” it is my opinion that judiciary interpreters in particular just have to be very careful about putting on that hat, lest it be misinterpreted (no pun intended) as us crossing the ethical boundary of being “for the LEP defendant/respondent/petitioner”. When I advocate for interpreters it is a cause and effect thing that affects all parties that will be at the receiving end of my skillset, from the LEP to the judge, and should not necessarily be considered actively advocating for the LEP’s, but I understand your point…thanks for the great article!

    1. Janis Palma says:

      And I see your point too. Thank you, Cristian.

  5. Rosemary Rodriguez says:

    Janis, thank you for this thought-provoking article.

    As a court interpreter I believe we ALWAYS need to be concerned about what the LEP in hearing from our mouth.

    There have been many times when the judge will reject a plea agreement for example, because the LEP doesn’t understand and cannot answer the questions to the colloquy the judge is saying, precisely due to lexical items that are not part of the listener’s active vocabulary or cultural referents, as you mentioned.

    I believe the onus is on the PD or Private Counsel to explain the terms to the LEP with an interpreter in a conference room, prior to the hearing.

    Our job as court interpreters is to be accurate and complete, according to the Conon of Professional Responsibility. When the LEP is in front of the judge that LEP should have been prepared as to what he will hear as to the next steps of his case, sentence, terms and conditions etc..

    It is not the interpreter’s job to do that. One way to advocate for the LEP is to be proactive, maybe ask counsel if they need to speak to the LEP and go over what will happen when they come out before the judge. You’d be surprised how many say “Oh, yeah. That’s a good idea.

    Of course, I suspect there will always be some sort of confusion for the LEP what with all the legalese and judicial process, but even English only speakers have that problem.

    Have a Merry Christmas everyone and a prosperous 2024.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Good point, Rosemary. The key is for the attorneys to prep their clients WITH an interpreter to keep the terminology uniform and consistent. That too is advocacy. “Bilingual” attorneys should either learn the terminology used by interpreters in their court, or prep their clients using an interpreter (of course, a CERTIFIED one, not their “bilingual” paralegals or secretaries!)

  6. Georganne Weller says:

    Dear Janis and many colleagues,
    Me again! As normally has occured over the years, I fully agree with Janis. I too am a conference and court interpreter and a sociolinguist interested in these causes and am a strong advocate in Mexico for the training of professional interpreters with the combination of an indigenous language and Spanish. This is not easy socially, linguistically, politically, in all spheres, but we are not dissuaded easily, “en pie de lucha” is our motto and of course speakers of Mexico´s indigenous languages are LEPS with a different language combination and the stigme that goes with it. The case of the ignorant judge greatly saddens me, in these cases, we’re back at square one. As always, THANKS Janis for bringing this topic up for discussion, couldn’t agree more!

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Dear Georganne, I always know I’m on the right track when you agree with me! You are doing the work of angels in Mexico. Thank you!

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