The ten worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Part 1.

March 26, 2013 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I know that many of you read and contributed to the first posting of this series that dealt with the bad things that judges do to court interpreters.  Well, it is now time for the lawyers to be on the spotlight.  Several years ago I was retained by an attorney (I had never met before) to interpret for a petitioner during the final hearing of a divorce proceeding (final orders, permanent orders, final decree hearing, depending on the place where you live) The attorney contacted me the day before and agreed to pay my urgent fee usually charged for events requested on short notice.  “…It will be really quick…” he said, “…the respondent isn’t even in the country.  We’ll be in and out…”  So we appeared in court the following morning, the judge took the bench and the hearing began.  After the attorney made his arguments to the bench, the judge asked the petitioner how long had he and his wife lived together in the United States.  The petitioner answered in Spanish that his wife had never been to the United States. After a few more questions, and while the attorney was sweating bullets because of this “unexpected” development, the judge dismissed the case stating that he lacked jurisdiction over the parties as they had never lived as a married couple within his county limits. Of course, I interpreted everything to the petitioner but it was clear that he did not understand.  During the judge’s oral decision that turned into a scolding to the lawyer, the attorney turned to his client and whispered in Spanish: “luego te explico” (I’ll explain later) Once the hearing ended and we were in the hallway inside the courthouse, the attorney approached me and asked for my invoice telling me: “…Give me your receipt so we can get the money from my client and you get paid. I don’t think that he will be willing to pay for anything once he understands what happened…” So the lawyer asked his client for my fee, I got paid cash right there inside the courthouse, and the attorney asked his client to go to this office with him so he could explain what had just happened and the reason why “this judge” had decided not to divorce him “yet.”  Well, under any standards this is a horror story that we as interpreters sometimes have to live through; however, this is not a posting about the worst ten things that attorneys do to their clients. This is about the ten worst things they do to us interpreters, so horror stories like the one I mentioned will have to wait for their day on center stage.

Once again keep in mind that I will focus on the attorney, intentionally leaving the 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. I also want to underline that most of the attorneys I work with are real professionals I have worked with for years. Those who fit this article are not on my list of regular clients. Unlike with the judges, we as interpreters get to chose the attorneys we work with, and that is a big difference.  Because of the length of this posting, I have decided to publish it in two parts. This is part one. Part two will be posted next week.

Here we go:

  1. “You are going to charge me all that money just for talking? Those lawyers who do not have the slightest idea of what we do and firmly believe that because we speak two (or more) languages we are pocketing easy money.  A quick solution would be to stay firm and tell him that we are not just talking, that we are interpreting, and simply say that this is what you charge, that you provide a professional service, and that you will not bargain with them.  Long term solution: Talk to the attorney and explain your services in depth. Make him see the advantages of having a real professional interpreter and run by him the potential problems and complications when the service is poorly provided.  With certain clients you can even adjust your fee because of the work volume they represent.  If all these efforts fail, just fire the client; do not accept any work from him.  Remember, a cheap client will be a bad client in all other aspects of the professional relationship. Move on.
  2. Here, take these papers and explain them to my client.”  There are attorneys that think of us as their servants, paralegals, co-counselors, and many other things.  They seem to think that it is a waste of time for them to be around when you are going to be doing “all the talking.” A good short term solution is to ask them with great emphasis if what they mean is that they want you to sight-translate the documents and to tell their client that they will answer any questions after you finish translating. Repeat the last part to the defendant before you start translating, and refuse to answer any questions.  For a long term solution you can explain what your legal and ethical boundaries and obligations are, what is exactly a sight translation, and suggest that these documents be read in advance at the detention facility or the law office (depending on each case) If hired by the court, you should ask the coordinator/supervisor to talk to the attorneys in order to avoid these situations in the future.
  3. “Your Honor, that is not what my client said”. It is common for the Attorney to speak the native language of the defendant. This is usually one of the main reasons a non-English speaker goes to a certain attorney.  You and I know that there are many lawyers who think they speak the foreign language even when their level is way below fluency .Any attorney will tell you that it is impossible to know what a client will tell the judge, and they often say something that will hurt them, especially those who come from a different culture.  Because of the attorney’s knowledge of the foreign language, he will usually learn the disastrous answer given by his client before the words are interpreted to the judge, and many times they will try to blame the poor answer on the interpretation by saying that their client didn’t say what the interpreter said, or by arguing that the question was not interpreted correctly.  One time a lawyer interrupted me in open court arguing that his client had not said what I interpreted, that she was Cuban and therefore I was not qualified to understand and interpret her answers. What I did next is a good short term solution:  Simply state on the record that you stand by your interpretation or rendition, and if necessary state your credentials.  A more durable solution would be to make sure judges and attorneys know and understand that we are the language experts in the courtroom, that when we make a mistake we admit it and promptly correct it, and that our preparation and credentials go beyond speaking two languages.  We should always interpret what the client says, even when the attorney wanted them to say something else. 
  4. “I know I had to pay you long ago, but I cannot pay you because my client hasn’t paid me yet.” It is common for the lawyer to think that “we are in this together” and assume that it is perfectly fine to delay our payment when their client hasn’t paid them.  Unfortunately for those attorneys, we have no client-provider relationship with their client. Our legal relationship was established by a written (ideally) or an oral agreement to interpret during a certain specific event at a certain rate.  This legally binding agreement is not conditioned to a foreign event such as the attorney being paid by his client who happens to be a third party in this interpretation contract. To solve the problem as expeditiously as possible when you have no written agreement, talk to the attorney (he knows that his payment has nothing to do with you) and negotiate payment; maybe if you give him two weeks to pay; you can also take partial payments if you trust the lawyer, but never wait until he gets paid. Many clients never pay their attorneys when they did not get everything they thought they would get from the case. If you have a written contract, stick to it. Send it to a collections agency or take the lawyer to court if necessary. Remember, this is how you make a living and you earned the money. The long-term solution for all services in the future, especially when you do not know the Law Firm very well, has to be a written contract detailing payment, default of payment, and collection costs. In my experience all attorneys sign it when asked to do so. We have to be smart and take advantage of the legal protections that exist.
  5. “Sorry Judge, but we are late because the Interpreter took forever reading the plea agreement.”   Some attorneys want to save themselves a trip to a detention center by informing their clients about a potential plea agreement when they see their clients in court. I have had many lawyers ask me to read a plea agreement or a presentence investigation report just minutes before a scheduled hearing.  I cannot count the times that I have read these documents in holding cells and jury boxes. Then, after reading the always long and exhausting documents, most attorneys answer their client’s questions.  Of course, reading these documents really means sight translating them because they are written in English.  As you know, this is a difficult task and it takes time to do it right; add to that the time the attorney has to spend answering questions from the defendant and sometimes convincing his client to take the offer because that is the best possible outcome of the case.  When done properly, we are talking of hours of work, and I haven’t even mentioned the time it takes for the jail to bring the defendant to the holding cell.  Of course it is true that while we are working our tail off doing this sight translation, most attorneys are just sitting there doing nothing. I am sure it is extremely boring and frustrating to see how the time goes by and the time for the hearing approaches, but it does not justify blaming the delay on the interpreter who has been working hard all this time.  It is the attorney’s obligation and responsibility to defend and advise his client, they know how long it takes to go over those documents, and they know that it should be done on an earlier date. Such a situation can be avoided by talking to the lawyer as soon as he requests the sight translation and telling him that the process will take time and most likely will not be over by the time the judge calls the case. Now it is the attorney who has to decide what to do: request a continuance, be pushed to the end of the docket, change the hearing to the afternoon, etc., and if he ignores the suggestion, as an officer of the court you can always answer the attorney’s complaint by stating on the record what just happened. This will cover you in case of a formal complaint or investigation by the court.  The better long-term solution would be to always agree with the private attorney to do these sight translations days before a hearing, and for the court appointed attorneys and public defenders you should talk to the courthouse’s chief interpreter or administrator and ask them to require these documents to be read to the defendant ahead of the hearing date.

These are my first five. Next week I will post the other five. In the meantime, I invite you to share your stories, anecdotes and opinions regarding this frustrating but essential part of a court interpreter’s professional practice.

When relay interpretation does not go as planned.

March 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Not long ago I worked an event that required interpretation into multiple languages, there were many colleagues in their respective booths working hard and doing a magnificent job. Because of the constant switching from one language to another, we had to work the relay for most of the event.   Relay interpreting is a resource used in conference interpreting when there is more than one language combination.  The speaker delivers the message in his native language and that statement is simultaneously interpreted into English by the interpreter who works the speaker’s language.  This interpretation is fed to all the other interpreters in the other booths who immediately deliver their rendition of the English interpretation to their listeners.  It is a simultaneous interpretation of the rendition by the interpreter who simultaneously interpreted the original statement by the speaker.  Sounds complicated? Well, it can be.

This interpretation is common and vital in our very globalized society, and many experienced interpreters do an excellent job. Very often the listener does not even realize that there has been a relay.  However, this complicated synchronized work has many “moving parts” that could go wrong without a warning.  During the event I am referring to everything went fine, but I have had my share of problems when resorting to relay interpreting.  Sometimes the equipment malfunctions in the other interpreters’ booth,  in some instances it could be that the equipment in your booth is not working, the sound is poor, the relay button is stocked.  In other occasions the original foreign language speaker is not very good at public speaking and makes it difficult for the first interpreter to interpret and the rendition comes in choppy and late;  Perhaps the original interpreter simply forgot to open the relay switch and the other booths cannot hear what he or she is interpreting, and every once in a very while the original interpreter is not ready to do this type of work.

These situations have to be solved by you and your colleague in the booth. Sometimes a quick tap on the wall is enough to get the other booth’s attention, often a little adjustment by the tech support fixes the problem, but in some cases there is not a quick fix.  You have to think fast when faced with this situation. I have been in booths where my colleague or even myself happen to speak the third language   as a “B” and we just move along while the technical problem is fixed, occasionally you can become the relay interpreter or take the feed from a third booth where somebody knows the language.  I have been in situations where the original interpretation coming in from the relay booth is so poor that we have decided to go with our “B” instead of ruining the event.  Sadly, sometimes I have been left with no other choice than informing my listeners that we have a problem and the participation by those who speak certain language will not be interpreted until further notice.  I ask you to share your experience with this type of situation, and maybe tell us how you solved the problem when that happened to you.

Are court interpreters at risk of committing a crime?

March 5, 2013 § 9 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Some of you may have noticed that for about a couple of years there has been a tendency to redefine the court interpreter profession.  Some are now saying that we should not even call ourselves court interpreters; that we should instead refer to those who interpret in court as “cultural brokers,” “language specialists,” “language facilitators,” and many other similar titles.  The basic idea behind this new movement is that many times court interpreters interpret correctly and accurately what has being said in court, but the person they are interpreting for, usually a defendant, victim, or witness, does not understand what happened during the court proceeding.  Some claim that because of cultural differences, lack of formal education, economic factors, and others, these people who do not speak English need more than just interpretation. They need explanations, descriptions, maybe even a lower registry in order to understand what is happening in court.

It has been suggested that court interpretation rules and practices are outdated and therefore ineffective; it has been said that these ethical and professional considerations and expectations cripple the process as they contribute to increase the barrier of misunderstanding instead of eliminating it. The proposal is to approach judges and attorneys and inform them that court interpreters need to change their ethical and professional rules, and that as language professionals, they need to be the ones amending them, not other professionals who are not entirely familiar with the interpreter profession.

It has been suggested that nothing changes in a case when the interpreter tells the defendant that his charges have been “dropped” even though the judge said that they had been “dismissed.”  That this allows the defendant to understand better.

I agree that our job is to make sure that two people who do not speak the same language can communicate.  I agree that the law is technical, complicated, and full of big words and obscure terms. I am aware of the speed at which hearings are conducted in most courthouses, and I do not dispute that it is very difficult to follow a proceeding that took 90 seconds.  The problem is that I am also aware of a crime named: “Unauthorized Practice of the Law.”

Black’s Law Dictionary defines it as “The practice of law by a person, typically a non-lawyer, who has not been licensed or admitted to practice law in a given jurisdiction.” (Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th. Ed. St. Paul, MN: West. Pp 1191-1192) Even licensed attorneys are barred from practicing in jurisdictions (states) where they have not passed the bar exam and being sworn in as attorneys according to Rule 5.5 of the Multijurisdictional Practice of Law Rules of the American Bar Association (ABA) Moreover, unlawful practice of the law is illegal in the federal and state judicial systems, and it  constitutes a crime. Some states treat it as a misdemeanor like Arizona and New Mexico, and in some states a behavior of falsely claiming to be a lawyer is a felony  (TX Penal Code Ch. 38 Section 38.122 & 38.123) Misdemeanors can carry up to one year in jail, and felonies can land a person in prison for even longer.

Asking an interpreter to interpret accurately and completely is appropriate and expected. Asking an interpreter to “edit” and decide what to say and how to say it, even with an amended set of rules of ethics and professionalism, creates a situation where that interpreter has to navigate the very treacherous waters of the law, and act as a cultural and linguistic broker without breaking the law, and with the constant possibility of being deprived of his or her freedom.   In my opinion the risk is too high and many interpreters are not prepared or willing to make a distinction between those illegal activities that constitute unlawful practice of law, and those others that would help the defendant, victim, or witness understand what just happed in a court hearing.

The solution has to be somewhere in the middle:  A good and honest interpreter must be aware of the cultural differences between client and attorney, parties and judge.  If the interpreter determines that there is a problem in the communication, he or she must tell the English speaker attorney that his client may be having difficulties understanding some of the concepts that were debated, the interpreter must help the attorney by explaining the possibility of a cultural, economic, emotional wall between her and her client.  That ends the interpreter’s obligation. Now it is up to the attorney (or judge) who needs to explain and maybe rephrase some of what has been mentioned to her client: the defendant.  It is the attorney who should be giving legal advice, not the interpreter. The attorney needs to determine what is said and explained to the client. The interpreter must interpret all explanations the attorney gives to her client.  In other words, there is nothing wrong in telling the attorney that his client is not understanding what is being said in court.  This way the interpreter stays within his field, and the attorney practices law.  Please share with us your thoughts on this new trend, and tell us your opinion on what needs to be done.

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