Interpreting for the Jury.

January 24, 2012 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

When I lived in Albuquerque I had the wonderful experience of interpreting for members of the jury. In New Mexico jurors do not need to speak English. The source of this right is the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty signed by the U.S. and Mexico. The State Constitution and State Supreme Court decisions have affirmed this right that all citizens of that State have, regardless of their first language. Historically, after the Mexican-American War, the New Mexico Territory did not have enough English-speaking citizens.

Interpreting for the jury is a different ballgame.  I have experienced first-hand jury deliberations without being in the jury, and I have learned a lot about how humans come to a decision that will affect a person’s life.  My main concern when it comes to this type of interpretation has to do with stamina. Jury deliberation is a process that goes on for hours and can last several days.  The interpreter providing this service has a very important task, and has to work in a very complex environment.   Obviously, this job requires of team interpreting;  however, sometimes there is no room (literally speaking) in the deliberations room for the two extra chairs, and one interpreter has to leave or stand up.  In my opinion, this is an extremely difficult task that requires more than two very good interpreters. Maybe we need a team of three (or even four interpreters for very long trials) and when there is no room for two chairs, the second interpreter should at least be nearby with secured equipment so she can listen to the deliberations and assist her teammate with research and suggestions.

I have not worked a trial in New Mexico for several years and I would love to hear what it is that they are doing to provide top quality interpretation during jury deliberations.  To our New Mexico colleagues:  Please tell us what you are presently doing.

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§ 3 Responses to Interpreting for the Jury.

  • Ok, let me start by making clear that I am not a lawyer. But having spent 15 of the last 20 years working 6 hours a day in Federal Court, I would like to think that a little has rubbed off on me. I also need to acknowledge that the members of the New Mexico Supreme Court must be much better lawyers than I could ever be, but there is something that I don’t understand here.

    Being a juror is not a “right” that all citizens have, it is a “duty” and “obligation” of citizenship. Saying that “the right to be on a jury has been affirmed” simply doesn’t sound right to me. It is like saying that I have the right to be drafted into the Armed Forces!

    The reason why we have Judiciary Interpreters is because the defendant in a criminal proceeding has the RIGHT to understand that proceeding. But by way of example, the general public that comes to watch that proceeding doesn’t have that same “right”, and even when there are interpreters and equipment present at said proceeding, the Court has no obligation to provide interpretation for them.

    Jurors are chosen from among the citizens of the jurisdiction where they are going to serve. And prospective jurors are REJECTED for a myriad of reasons, and even for no reason at all. It is the Court and the parties in the proceeding who decide whether I will be chosen or rejected. Do I have the “right” to challenge that decision and demand that I be seated among the jury? Of course not.

    As a defendant, I would be very worried if my case were to be decided by someone who does not understand the evidence, the law and the court’s instructions first-hand and requires someone else to interpret them for him/her. To further complicate things, this is not the case of evidence received in another language being translated for ALL jurors to understand, because in that case all jurors listened to the same evidence. This is the case of SOME jurors listening to first-hand evidence, while other jurors listen to someone’s INTERPRETATION of what that evidence was!

    And don’t get me wrong, I am a GREAT interpreter! But regardless of how good we are, or we think we are, at our jobs, interpretation is not an “exact science”. After all, we disagree among ourselves all the time! So how can we guarantee that all of the jurors are listening to the same evidence, if some of them are listening to my version of it?

    I was at a trial once where the Court spent half a day listening to arguments about whether a door was “closed” or “locked” because the police report simply said that “la puerta estaba cerrada”. And that was in Federal Court in Puerto Rico, where all of the Judges, lawyers and jurors speak Spanish, but the trials are held in English because the record on appeal has to go to the 1st Circuit in Boston. What I mean is that the Judge was fluent in Spanish and he knew what the problem was. Can you imagine if the Judge didn’t speak a word of Spanish and therefore could not see what the problem was? And then, can you imagine if I had to make a decision “on-the-fly” on how to translate the word, and some of the jurors heard “closed” and the ones listening to me heard “locked”?

    I think that there is too much at risk here for us to be climbing on our soap boxes to argue what our rights are as “non-English speakers”. One of t e Judges that I worked for had a very simple test question that he would ask jurors who had a “problem” but still thought that they could be jurors; “If you or someone you loved were a defendant, would you like your case to be decided by someone like you?”

    I can say with 100% certainty that I would not like my case to be decided by someone who does not understand the language that the trial was held in, regardless of what that language is. And in our judicial system, everything is about protecting the defendant’s rights, as well it should!

  • A Challenging work situation.

  • Margaret Wolfe-Roberts says:

    Jaime makes a very good point. To bring out the other side, a little, I will say that I believe the idea of having the “right” to serve as a juror in the U.S. in spite of having limited English-language abilities, actually refers to the right of a defendant to have present persons on the jury who may share a more similar cultural and linguistic background to his or her own, and not have them automatically excluded for reasons of language alone.

    We all hear and process data through many “filters” even when the language is all the same on the surface of it. Monolingualism is no guarantee of conformity of thought and perception! But the wholesale interpretation of testimony, arguments and deliberations into another language entirely certainly adds a big twist. How uniform are the jury’s perceptions meant to be, anyway?

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