The ten worst things a judge can do to a court interpreter.

November 30, 2012 § 32 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I know that just the title of this article made you think of a myriad of things that go on in a courthouse that seem to be designed to make the life of the interpreter miserable.  Believe me, you are not alone. For this reason, I decided to compile some of the most infamous ones and share them with all of you. Keep in mind that I will focus on the judge, intentionally leaving the attorney’s worst 10, clerk’s worst 10, witness worst 10, and so forth for future articles.  I am writing this with a therapeutic perspective, trying to add some possible solutions to these problems while at the same time creating empathy and inviting a good healthy laugh when relating to these horror stories.

Here we go:

1.       Please ask him his date of birth.”  Those judges who insist to address the parties on the third person despite what they have been told over and over again.  A quick solution would be to “ignore” the judge and simply interpret on the first person even if “Your Honor” doesn’t. Long term solution: Talk to the judge over and over again. Organize a presentation for all judges and hope these judges show.

2.       Why do we need two interpreters?  We only have one court reporter.”  Those judges who think that a bilingual individual should be able to effortlessly interpret a difficult proceeding on their own, since we are “”just talking after all,” a good short term solution is to have the chief interpreter or his equivalent go to the judge (ideally with the two working interpreters) and explain the reasons why this is needed, assuring the judge that there is a budget for this “inconvenience.”  For a long term solution you can provide some team interpreting literature to the court , and maybe “arrange” a meeting with other judges who understand the team interpreting concept.

3.       Just have a seat. I will take care of the private attorney cases first because they are busy.”   For those state judges who need votes to keep their jobs and want the private bar on their side, a good short term solution could be to talk to the clerk and explain that you are needed somewhere else. Many “nice” clerks will help the interpreter.  A more durable solution would be to meet with the administration and point out the waste of resources caused by an interpreter sitting in a courtroom for hours doing nothing.

4.       When you cannot hear the judge. When the judge whispers or speaks away from the microphone making it impossible to hear what she said. We all know that drama in the court is part of the “showmanship” influence of the media, but we simply cannot interpret what we can’t hear. For a quick fix interrupt the hearing and politely ask the judge to speak louder and into the microphone. Of course, we all know that this request will only be honored for a few seconds, so the lasting solution has to be smarter; maybe getting the court reporter on board as she is probably having the same difficulties, or maybe drafting the IT people as your allies in those courthouses where the hearings are recorded.

5.       “Sorry Mr. Interpreter but we already did the case because the defendant’s spouse speaks English.”   It is getting better, but not everywhere.  You may want to establish a system with the clerk where she does not give the file to the judge unless the interpreter is in the courtroom. Another solution could be to involve the attorneys and explain to them the risk of an appeal for lack of a certified interpreter. Be creative, sometimes it works.

6.       “Would the interpreter stay still and speak lower? You are distracting my jury.”   I was asked once to “speak as lithe as possible.”  You should ask for a sidebar with all parties involved and explain how in order to interpret you need to talk. Maybe suggest the “distracted” juror moves to another seat, and maybe point out to the defense the fact that a “distracted” juror may not be who the parties want to have deciding the faith of their client.  Just a mere thought.

7.       “Why do we need you to interpret?  He’s been in the country for 20 years.”  Sometimes I ask myself that same question, however, the fact is that when the person does not speak English, he has the right to an interpreter. Maybe you can answer the judges question by saying, very politely though, that it is because he does not speak English.  The long-term solution to this problem is non-existent with this particular judge. For the rest, an orientation by the Bar, the court administration, or the local interpreters’ association may prove to be valuable.

8.       “Do not interpret consecutively. We need to get going and you just got new equipment.”   This usually happens during testimony. A way to overcome this obstacle is to explain how the jury needs to hear and understand the answers, and it will be quite difficult for them to hear an answer if both, interpreter and witness are speaking at the same time from the stand. Of course, despite of what some colleagues think, some simultaneous interpretation equipment for the members of the jury would cure this problem,

9.       What do you need the file and jury instructions for? It is a waste of paper”.  I know thie second part of the quote is unthinkable in some states, but trust me, it happened to me some years ago.  To overcome the ruling of this “ecologist” judge, you should ask the court administration or chief interpreter  to get you those materials in advance.  AS a back-up plan, try to get the prosecution and/or defense to understand the need for these documents. However, no matter how difficult or scary, never give up. Do not settle for a trial without a file and jury instructions. You would be setting the profession back!

10.   “I think you can settle parts of this claim, so use the interpreters during lunch.”  This awful judge just put you on a tough spot. You are an officer of the court so you need to perform, however, nobody can work without a break, even if we are “just talking.” Solve this situation by asking for the chief interpreter’s help. He or she should be the one solving this problem. Maybe a second team can work the conference room while you rest, have lunch and get ready to come back for the formal hearing in the afternoon.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Please review these “ten worst” and if you are up to it, I would love to read your top ten, top five, or even top one.  This should be good…

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§ 32 Responses to The ten worst things a judge can do to a court interpreter.

  • Ion Capatina says:

    I just had a legal interpreting appointment about two months ago (still not paid yet) and wanted to bring some aspects:
    The interpreter is still “being investigated” for being late to an appointment where he checked the address and time a day before, presented himself to the appointment a half an hour before the scheduled time and the “visiting judge” was actually on a video link, in the same room with the government representative but the interpreter was with the defendant and his attorney at the detention location with a very poor (or should he call it almost non existent sound). The interpreter was harshly criticized for interrupting the judge or/and the government representative in order to repeat or fix the audio system, and the judge eventually interrupted the show, The interpreter is still being investigated for being late (or what else),..
    The judge mentioned: ” I’ve been interrupted before by attorneys but never by an interpreter”. The interpreter replied that “something you can’t hear can’t be interpreted”…I don’t want to mention the location and not to generalize, there are still great judges with excellent understanding of our job…

  • Jaime D. Sotomayor says:

    There is one situation that I keep hearing about more often; judges who don’t allow interpreters to have smartphones or tablets, which contain electronic dictionaries and other tools, in their courtrooms. I even had a judge ask me once; “Why do you need a dictionary, aren’t you an interpreter?” My answer was; “Your honor, the interpreter needs a dictionary precisely because he is a professional interpreter”. I don’t think he understood the answer either.

    • Ion Capatina says:

      That’s actually the reason I couldn’t answer my phone or verify on my laptop anything, I left anything in the car, I was sent to a “waiting room” for about 40 minutes, in the meantime the judge was calling the agency, and the agency was calling me, to see why I wasn’t there.
      This sounds a lot like ” when the left hand does not know what the right one is doing”.

    • Tony Baldwin says:

      I would ask the judge if they know every word in the English language (nobody does).
      If they don’t know every word in the English language, how do they expect me to know every word in TWO languages?

    • Rodrigo Saenz says:

      Or, one could say: your honor, for the same reason that you need a law secretary.

  • Janeth says:

    >> “7. …The long-term solution to this problem is non-existent with this particular judge…” <<–Could the following help, perhaps? Explaining to the judge that LEPs work two and three jobs at once in order to support their families and do not have time to go to school to learn English…Or that, at the end of the day, their back hurst so much from working so hard from fishing, or picking up the fruits and vegetables we put on our dinner table, which we usually or convenientely take for granted, that they cannot possibly go to school… Depending on who the judge may be, and whether or not he/she has fallen into the fallacy known as 'grandiosity', I would handle this myself or be industrious and have either the court administrator, the state court administrative services director, the interpreters' program coordinator, another judge with the proper knowledge and wisdom to help this judge understand… Just my two cents.

    • Júlio Reis says:

      I’m not an interpreter, but there are several reasons why someone might ask for an interpreter, even if they know the language. Fear of the court procedures, perhaps? It’s one thing to greet your neighbors and deal with coworkers, but facing the Law is a different and very scary deal altogether.

      What if I get a word wrong? What if they say something I don’t understand? Will I go to / stay in jail for a misunderstanding, when I could have asked for an interpreter? It can be a tough thing to be part of a minority; and it can be comforting to hear your own language, more so in court. Maybe some judges would understand that the person may even speak English in ordinary circumstances, but that a legal procedure is not an ordinary circumstance. My own 2¢.

      • Irene de la Cruz Court Interpreter says:

        Excellent comment. Mastery of the language would determine if one requires an interpreter or not.

  • Michelle Gonzales says:

    Thank you for your top 10 list. I have experimented some of these and I am sure that the rest are in my future. So I appreciate the advanced warning and solutions.

    One of my worst experiences was when a judge made a comment in open court about “these people” not learning English. I was in interpreter mode (automatic pilot) and opened my mouth to interpret when the judge pointed his finger at me and sternly said, “Don’t interpret that!”

    • Janeth says:

      “Don’t interpret that!”—I speak Spanish very fast, I wonder what would’ve happened if by the time the judge said that I would’ve already interpreted it…One thing I can think of is…I would have received a dirty look, at least. And depending on the level of grandiosity the judge may suffer from, I would probably have been banned from his courtroom-

      • Michelle Gonzales says:

        I’m sure I am not as fast as you. Of course, this was in the consecutive mode because the judge was going over the voluntariness questions with the defendant and had paused and then made his comment.

        I don’t think you would’ve been banned from his courtroom if he had not been able to stop you in time. I think it would have been a good wake up call for him. But either way, I think that he did learn his lesson. I have never had this problem with him since.

    • Anna says:

      Interesting, as according to interpreter code of practice you are expected to give a fair warning right at the beginning (or at least you should do) that you WILL INTERPRET EVERYTHING! that is being said in this room (between involved parties), so I am surprised that Judge gave you stern warning, he should know better! 😉 (at least that is the practice in UK)

      • Michelle Gonzales says:

        I agree that he should have known better. But at that time judges in our area were still not used to working with professional, trained interpreters. Actually there are still interpreters that are allowed to work in our courts that do not interpret everything. But don’t get me started about them. It is very frustrating.

        However, I would like to understand one part of your comment. Do you mean to say that everytime you interpret in court you instruct the judge in open court on how to use an interpreter? I cannot imagine that is what you really mean. Of course, I instruct the LEP and/or his attorney before their case begins. But not the judge.

  • Doris Ganser says:

    I have done very few court interpreting assignments (German is not needed much), so I would definitely not call myself an experienced court interpreter. Allow me nevertheless to comment, because, over the decades, I have had a keen interest in the situation and have spoken to many court interpreters since getting into the T&I business when I founded Transimpex in 1974. Moreover, I used to room with Dr. Etilvia Arjona during our time on the ATA board (when we had to pay for our own board meeting expenses) while she was on the government commission that developed the US court interpreters bill. We often talked about the problems involved. I have continued my interest in the matter in the background. So my idea after reading this excellent summary (thank you) is that, after obtaining a little more input, it may be possible to develop a neutral and diplomatic set of “Dos and Don’ts” for judges, court clerks, attorneys, etc. that can be simply carried or deposited by court interpreters and sent to various courts by others. In a particularly “annoying” or inappropriate situation, the relevant point could simply be checkmarked on the flyer. What do you think?

  • Excellent article with constructive solutions.

  • Irena Ruta says:

    I have 20+ years of court interpreting experience and cannot imagine a court hearing where ANY of these scenarios might have taken place! Judges are much more intelligent and knowledgeable than this author describes in the article.

    • Jaime Sotomayor says:

      Rita, then you must be the luckiest interpreter that I know! Look around a read, or better yet, listen to some of the “war stories” from those of us who have experienced lots of the things that Tony mentions here, and some even WORSE, and you might just start figuring out exactly how lucky you have been!

    • Irena, a colleague was thought as incompetent to interpret because she did not look Latin enough – she had not even opened her mouth. Many judges do not understand the need for team interpreting, and the list goes on and on. If you join the NAJIT litserv you will hear about many unpleasant experiences. You are lucky indeed. Do *not * tell us where you work – there will be an influx of competition there!

      • Janeth says:

        “I am not lucky, I am just diligent and hard working. I pay attention to details”—Irena, just to make sure–and let me be clear, I do not know where you are from or how many times you have interpreted around the United States of America or the world, or what part of the earth planet you live in, but considering your replies here one can only wonder where the heaven you are trying to portrait here is located—one thing that is clear is that you know very little, if anything at all, about Mr. Rosado. He, in fact, does have many, many years of experience, and, most importantly, he is experienced in all fields of interpretation. He is not only highly trained, intelligent and kind; he does what nobody else, as highly trained and qualified as he is, does–he humbly, intelligently and responsively shares his empirical knowledge and wisdom with others around the globe! His kindness and generosity have no equal!

        Having said that, is it your intention to imply that Mr. Rosado’s assertions are frivolous? And furthermore, are you telling the rest of us that we are negligent and lazy? Or is it that English is your second language, thus you were not able to properly and diligently convey your message-

    • Tony Baldwin says:

      Well, lucky for you…I freelanced for the judicial branch through an agency for 5 years in my state, and the state didn’t even have a certification program for interpreters until my 3rd year of doing so.
      I can only assume your location was ahead of my state on such matters. I have seen situations similar to some of those mentioned here.
      I have actually sat on the bench for 6 hours waiting to help a client with a minor traffic matter, on more than one occasion, for instance, and have seen many instances where a Spanish interpreter was asked to assist a Portuguese-speaking subject, because, after waiting for hours, I was needed in another court-room. I’ve also been the ONLY Portuguese interpreter assigned to a case, on several occasions, and been at the stand for hours, assisting several subjects, non-stop, ordered to assist counsel during any and all court breaks, and then insulted for asking for a break for myself just to use the restroom.

      • Anna says:

        I hope things did improve since that time, I do understand that in US things are a bit different, but certain issues would not be acceptable in UK, like for example worn out, tired and barely concious interpreter, it’s called here ‘accomodation of interpreting process’, and commonly understood that tired interpreter is not good enough and easily may make mistake which could result in fatal miscarriage of justice. If there is no such thing in US maybe it should be taken on board as major adjustment that needs to be worked on, to improve the service of interpreters as well as satisfaction of customers.

  • Ana says:

    Totally great, especially #2, 3, 8 and 9. I am lucky because I get to interpret at a home town evening court and I get to set the schedule depending on my time, but in big courts, it is hurry up and wait (sometimes all day!). That’s a bad use of budget money don’t you think?

    • Janeth says:

      “That’s a bad use of budget money don’t you think?”—I would say that is a form of compensating interpreters for all the times when they are underpaid and are not even paid for travel time and mileage when they have to travel long distances to get to the courthouse, at times risking their lives as it is the case during winter…I would say it is a form of compensating interpreters for using them, abusing them and disposing of them as one disposes of a pice of dirt. The fact is many judges either are ignorant as to what interpreters do, or they conveniently chose not to aknowledge that without interpreters they wouldn’t be able to complet their dockets; without intepreters they would be pacing in the corridors back and forth with their faces all red in indignation for not being able to handle the cases because there is no interpreter available to interpret for them, as the law dictates…the interpreters got fed up of being abused and mistreated so decided to go on strike! Ah? you think I am exagerating? I can assure you I am not! It has already happened! So, to respond to your question, Ana, the answer is no! Cases are most of the time handled promptly; sometimes not.

  • Katarina says:

    Dear me, I’m sure it is a rewarding and interesting job, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it, but this sounds awful. Seems some judges’ egos are just a wee bit too big…

  • Judith Kenigson Kristy says:

    Here’s one to add to the list – when the judge speaks so fast that even English-speaking people can’t follow him! (E.g. when asking a memorized the list of plea questions or reading the jury charge.) We have one such judge (who also is guilty of soft speech, not using the mic, turning his back to the courtroom while speaking, etc .) who simply ridicules the poor interpreter who might have the temerity to ask him to slow down. Most of our local ‘terps now refuse to work in this courtroom since there is no way to comply with our ethics code while working there.

  • I feel quite identified with most of these points, and #10 is quite common, especially in Costa Rica; one time an attorney asked me to go with her and interpret for the prisoner… to tell him what to or not to say in court (this was in the court’s prison).

    • Anna says:

      It is common practice to interpret for prisoner and then during proceedings, the thing is as an interpreters we are bound by strict confidentiality issues, even if you do know that the client is guilty but was told by lawyer not to admit guilt when faced with court, you’re not supposed to disclose it, if it is an issue for you (understandable) then you should withdraw from assignment, simple.

  • I am yet to do a courtroom assignment, but I must say that you guys are making me quite afraid to accept one should it turn up. I specialize in Economics and Business Interpreting and primarily work conferences via an agency here in Jamaica and I must say that, to date the inly problem I have encountered is clients/potential clients who want champagne for the price of a coke.
    Lost one client (who shall remain nameless) because they did not see the need for 2 interpreters at their Jamaican Office to interpret during a video conference between their offices in Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They were adamant that only one was necessary.

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  • Margarita Abaracon says:

    Thank you for this article.
    Sometimes we are treated like second rate citizens inside of a Courtroom by a judge, attorneys and/or clerks and even the bailiffs, and we are denied basic rights, which, among other things, would ensure our work is done correctly, and the disrespect of which, may compromise the accuracy of the record.
    The 11 item I’d add to your list is when a judge refuses to give you a break or says, ‘ok, let’s have a 5-minutes break’.

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