Whose interpreter is it, anyway?

For a long time, I have wondered why the interpreting profession is respected more in some places than it is in others.  I have asked myself how this affects the work we do and the pay we receive for it.   I believe part of this greater or lesser perceived value stems from the understanding (or lack thereof) of whom we are interpreting for and why. Allow me to share some examples from my personal experience.

In my time as an interpreter in Mexico, people who had hired my services would proudly introduce me as their interpreter when meeting an English-speaking colleague or guest. It could be that my clients knew that having an interpreter is something not a lot a people can afford, and interpreters (as we know) are highly qualified bilinguals with specialized skills and certifications. In Mexico, people seem to understand that interpretation allows diplomats, public speakers, politicians, and engineers to communicate accurately in many languages other than their own. It also allows them to hear a message spoken in another language without omissions or embellishments. It seems that people in Mexico have a better understanding than the average person in the United States that interpreters make the magic happen—a flow of communication across languages and cultures.

Court interpreters in the Midwest will often be referred to as the “interpreter for the defendant,” or worse, “assisting the defendant.” Ongoing efforts to educate judges and attorneys on matters of interpretation has still a ways to go.

When two people who speak different languages want to have a conversation, they both need the interpreter. The need for an interpreter comes from the fact that people who have a message to convey cannot use the same language.

You may be the speaker of the dominant language, the language most used in a certain place, but unless you speak the language of the people you want to converse with, you need an interpreter.

The need for an interpreter is not swayed by language, nationality, or the geographical area where the communication happens. When two people who speak different languages want to exchange ideas, they both need an interpreter because neither speaks the language of the person they desire to interact with.

Interpreters have existed probably since humans began using a spoken language. If two individuals or two groups of speakers of different languages wanted to communicate, they would need a bilingual go-between person.

Once upon a time, many original languages were spoken across what we now call the United States of America. Have you asked yourself how the different nations communicated? Then came the people from Europe. Once they arrived on this land, did they need interpreters? Yes. And so did the people who were already here. They all spoke different languages.

You need an interpreter when you want to communicate with a speaker of a different language. That’s the only factor that determines who needs an interpreter: the desire to communicate in a language other than your own.

An interpreter transfers information back and forth between speakers and languages. Both parties need the aid in communication equally, regardless of which language they speak. We may say we do not need an interpreter if we speak and understand the language of the other party. But even in that case, you may still need an interpreter to perform professional duties.

Reme Bashi has been a certified court interpreter in Wisconsin since 2008.  She began her career as an interpreter and translator in Mexico, at the University of Veracruz, where she majored in pedagogy. Being bilingual in English and Spanish lead her to language teaching and then to translation and interpreting.  She was a conference interpreter for several years, interpreting for the media and government events in Mexico.

In the Midwest, Bashi has interpreted in a variety of settings – education, manufacturing, legal, and community. When she’s not interpreting, she likes to learn about new subjects, something that she considers pivotal to becoming a more proficient language access professional. Recently she has immersed herself in hospitality, urban gardening, and ancestry research. Contact: reme_sullivan@yahoo.com

Featured photo: “Defense.gov News Photo 000205-D-2987S-028” by Helene C. Stikkel, at Wikimedia Commons; photo in the public domain (work of the U.S. federal government). Text-body photos: “Sidang kasus Angelina Sondakh,” unknown author, from Wikimedia Commons; photo in the public domain in Indonesia; photo “Judge Gavel” in the public domain, from PublicDomainPictures.net.

14 thoughts on “Whose interpreter is it, anyway?”

  1. Georganne Weller says:

    Really enjoyed her article. Wish out paths had crossed in Mexico, too late now!

    1. Remedios Bashi says:

      Maybe we’ll meet at the next NAJIT conference? Thanks for commenting!

  2. Rebecca M Garcia says:

    I believe the “English Only” movement in the United States has affected the way interpreters are viewed. I have had people make disparaging comments like, “So that’s where my tax dollars are going,’ when they find out I’m a court interpreter. Others say things like, “they should just learn English!” Many people in this country do not value the privilege of being able to communicate with someone who does not speak their language. They just want everyone to speak English.

    1. Remedios Bashi says:

      Sadly, that ‘s often the case.

  3. Rebecca says:

    I used to say, partly in jest, that when I started interpreting I thought I was working for the LEPs, then I began to think I was there for the judge, but finally I realized the person who really needs me is the court reporter. Seriously, I appreciated this article and I note your objection to the “interpreting for the defendant” verbiage, but what do you suggest instead?

    1. Remedios Bashi says:

      I think many of us have gone through a similar thought process. When I feel it’s appropriate, I say something like ” The interpreter is here to interpret for the court, the state and the defense”, or in simpler words- “the interpreter will interpret for anyone who speaks during the proceedings”.

  4. Carlota Dalziel says:

    Hi Reme,

    I enjoyed reading your very interesting article. I lived in Mexico (Mejico lindo) for four years which my family and I enjoyed tremendously, specially becoming better acquainted with your rich culture and enjoying your outstanding cuisine. Life will never be the same!

    Your varied interests and ongoing incursions into new fields will surely keep you young way beyond your “tercera edad”.
    Having majored in pedagogy must have surely helped you to understand the people you work with/for and how to deal and best approach them. Understanding different cultures and their diverse behavior is an asset, I have always believed. Those of us who have had the advantage of living in different countries should be eternally grateful I would say.

    Perhaps one day we will meet. Cordiales saludos!

    1. Remedios Bashi says:

      Thanks for your kind comment. I agree, living in more than one county is a blessing. I plan on continuing to explore new areas of knowledge for as long as I can!

  5. G. Daniel Bugel Shunra says:

    “Court interpreters in the Midwest will often be referred to as the “interpreter for the defendant,” or worse, “assisting the defendant.” Ongoing efforts to educate judges and attorneys on matters of interpretation has still a ways to go.”

    This is an excellent point. Next time I’m introduced as an “interpreter for the defendant”, I will make a statement that I am actually here as an “interpreter for the court”. The defendant does not need us, He has a legal right to live his life and speak in Spanish (or any other language). He does not need an interpreter to speak his own language, It’s THE COURT that needs an interpreter to understand the defendant, and it’s the court that, for good reasons that need not concern the defendant, insists that the procedure be held in English.

    Moreover, every description of us as “assisting the defendant” will necessarily frame us as partisan, and that is something we cannot acquiesce to.

    1. Remedios Bashi says:

      Absolutely, Daniel! I consider it our responsibility to help people understand our role, and object to any misrepresentations of it.

  6. James Clark says:

    Your well-written piece is spot-on! The misconception that the interpreter is merely there to help the “poor LEP” has always bugged me, too. As you point out, part of it is due to the lack of cultural awareness and relatively low level of multilingualism in the US compared to other countries. It’s a common mindset found in court, medical and community interpreting settings because of the innate power imbalance of these encounters. There is a perception that figures in authority speak at those who come before them, not the other way around. Sometimes they even pick and choose what they think is relevant to interpret into the LEP’s language! Recently, I was in a remote hearing where the judge addressed an English speaking minor to offer him a personal tour of the court and a chance to sit in the judge’s chair and play “judge for a day.” The kid was frozen and just said, “no I must go to school.” He did not seem to understand when the judge encouraged him to come when he was not in school. Meanwhile the Spanish speaking father was totally oblivious to the conversation. When I asked the judge to allow me interpret the exchange to the father, after taking her time talking to the boy, she said “no, he doesn’t need to hear that” in order to rush things along. That is unfortunate, but it does not surprise me.
    Even stranger, however, is that I encounter this in conference settings as well and I constantly have to explain why in a conference where people take the floor in more than one language, everyone who does not speak all conference languages needs a headset to listen in the language of their choice. Clients often only order enough headsets for the foreign language speakers without considering that when people take the floor in another language, the English speakers need headsets, too. When interpreting at conferences outside the US I have never had to explain this common-sense rule to clients.
    Honestly, I really don’t like the term “LEP” and I like to say that in an international meeting, the “LEPs” are “VIPs” since they are often dignitaries or invited guests. Of course, conference and judicial interpreting are very different, but perhaps if we adjust our language and use examples from the world of conference interpreting in our client education, that would help to get the point across. I find it helps to tell clients that we all need to understand what it said in the other languages, “you know, like at the UN.”

    1. Remedios Bashi says:

      I encourage you to turn your comment into an article for the blog! You make great points!

  7. Marlene Monteolivo says:

    What an interesting discussion, thank you all! -I guess I was blinded by the system’s ignorance and fell for it. Without intending to do so, all your input opened my eyes to something very important. -Daniel, I love your statement: “I’m here as an interpreter for the court”; with your permission, I’d like to borrow it in the future.
    -Question though, what about when there are two interpreters hired by opposing parties and the proceeding is via BlueJeans or whatever? -How would you introduce yourself to the court clerk for the record via chat? I’ve been introducing myself as “the interpreter for the plaintiff” (or for the defendant as the case may be) and so does the other interpreter. Since both interpreters are hired by their own respective parties; I think doing so might be important for the record.
    –I can see myself saying something like … I’m the interpreter for this proceeding, but what about the other interpreter? What about the fact that we are both hired by the opposing parties? -How shall we let it be known so that the opposing party doesn’t do away with their own interpreter and rely only on you as their own interpreter, only to save themselves some money? Could this particular situation affect our pocketbook in the long run?

    1. Remedios Bashi says:

      I hope we get some comments from other colleagues on the questions you present. I have never been in a situation like that. I’m not even sure I understand it completely. Why doesn’t the court hire the interpreters in these cases? What type of hearings are they? Is it all done remotely? Do you interpret for the parties in a breakout room? If a hearing is long, do you then have four interpreters? Are you sworn in? I’ve only been hired by the defense or the DA to interpret outside of court. If I interpret in court, then I’m hired by the court.

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