The interpreter’s frustration of not being understood.

June 4, 2013 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I decided to write about something we all feel, or at least have felt at some point during our career.  I am fortunate to have clients who hire me for assignments that are interesting, relevant, and professionally challenging. I get the topic, prepare, and execute my job to the best of my ability, and  often during an event, I get stopped on a hallway by a person who recognizes me as the interpreter and congratulates me for the rendition or thanks me for my work. Interesting work, good working conditions, and excellent pay are key to a successful career, but that type of appreciation by those you just interpreted for (not by your peers or the agency programmer) is what keeps me going.  That is my motivation to better myself every time I turn on the microphone in that booth.  It is a pleasure to interpret for an audience and see how they are assimilating every word I interpret, how my job is making it worth for them to attend the conference, to listen to the presentation. When I am working I know that people are listening and understanding what I say. That is very rewarding.

Just like many of you, I have also worked in court for many years, and when I do, most of the time the experience is the opposite. When I am retained for a court proceeding I also prepare for my work, develop glossaries, learn the details of the case, and research the relevant legal aspects; however, as I begin to interpret a trial or a hearing, I soon realize that in most cases the defendant or whomever I am interpreting for does not understand what is happening. The purpose of this posting is not to underline the differences between these two kinds of clients; we all know that is a factor, I am not writing this article to talk about attorneys who do not explain the proceedings to their clients either. I am writing this posting to talk about the frustration that comes to you as an interpreter when you realize that after all the preparation and all the hard work, at the end of a two-hour hearing the defendant turns to you and asks you: “what did the judge say?”  Once a colleague told me that the difference between conference and court interpreting was that in conference interpreting you prepare so that your audience understands your interpretation, and in court interpretation you prepare so that the other interpreter who is working the trial with you understands your interpretation, because she is the only one in the courtroom who will.  That may be true.

My question to all of you is a complex one: How do you deal with the frustration that comes from knowing that those you are interpreting for do not, and will not, understand what you are saying, not because of a poor rendition, but because of their level of education?  I am not looking for the legal answer that it is because of the constitutional principle of equal access to the law. I do not want the philosophical argument that it is the fair thing to do to serve justice.  I don’t even want to hear that it is because we are interpreting for the record and not the defendant and our rendition is provided in case there is an appeal, and please do not take the easy way out by telling me that you are never frustrated when this happens.  What I would like to read is your personal way to deal with this very human feeling of frustration of knowing that all your work will not be appreciated, that many times you could be there reciting a nursery rhyme instead of interpreting the hearing and the person you are interpreting for wouldn’t even notice.  In my particular case, I do the best job I can because of me.  I owe it to myself. It is my commitment to my own professional and moral standards to prepare and provide the best interpretation I am capable of.  The owner of the ears that will hear me is irrelevant to my motivation to be the best.  Of course I enjoy the praising that goes on when I interpret at a conference or diplomatic event, but I don’t let that be my motivation to excel. If I do, I would have a difficult time interpreting for those who I know will not understand and I cannot let that happen. Please tell us how you deal with this frustration.

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§ 12 Responses to The interpreter’s frustration of not being understood.

  • Diana Coada says:

    Well, here in England, when we introduce ourselves to the person we will interpret for, we are trained to say the following:

    ”It is not my duty to explain legal terminology. If you don’t understand something, please interrupt/ask/etc.” or something along these lines.

    But I never get frustrated. I normally get quite a few questions from patients when leaving the doctor’s office, so why wouldn’t they have questions after the hearing/police interview/etc.? It’s human nature. They open up with us more that they do when facing an authority.

  • Janeth says:

    Interesting post as always, Tony, thank you!

    I usually inform the attorney and, so far, they have always lowered the register in an effort to help the LEP understand the meaning he/she (the attorney) is trying to convey. While in court I inform the judge off the record if possible. If I do this and the judge ignores me, I say it on the record. I have not seen this type of thing happening in criminal court; however, I have seen it in other settings. One time I informed a judge that it was clear to the interpreter that the respondent did not speak/understand Spanish and that he spoke a dialect. The judge ignored me. We started on the record and at the right time I said it again–it got recorded. The judge did not like me doing that but I did the right thing, regardless. The same thing happened with the next case. I had already informed the judge that the respondent spoke a dialect. He ignored me. The off-the-record bond hearing started. It was clear to me the LEP did not understand Spanish, so I asked the judge if we could verify the language again and his response was: “Oh, no, I already verified it”–he continued asking questions and the answers given by the respondent were so illogical that the judge said: “What language do you speak, Mr….?”. The judge was furious. At the end of the day he had the nerve to tell me he needed to speak with me in his regular courtroom (the hearings had been conducted in the detained court setting). He went looking for the court administrator and then proceeded to tell me he had summoned the court admin because he wanted him to witness what he had to say; the so-called-judge then told me (in a demeaning manner, waiving his hand) that I was just an interpreter, and that if I had a problem with the interpretation, I should inform him and only him! The following week the first LEP appeared again by video with his attorney present in the courtroom. His attorney requested a new bond hearing and informed the judge that his client had not understood the Spanish interpreter at the previous hearing because he spoke a dialect! The judge had to conduct another bond hearing.

  • Lionel says:

    At the very beginning of my interpreter career in Bronx Criminal Supreme Court, I used to stress out a lot by the fact that many of the defendants I was providing my services for, were not cognizant about some things that were being said in court. After many years I have become, let’s say jaded, so I have rationalized the whole issue and have concluded that many of the English speaking defendants are equally ignorant about what is being said. Don’t get me wrong, I still strive to provide my best rendition of what is being said. I just don’t stress myself out, thinking about how much the person is actually comprehending. Since I practice solely in criminal court, my permissible interaction with the defendants, witnesses is very limited, thus the only “clarification” of what is taking place is done only if the attorney is willing to take the time to explain what was said.

  • Catalina Bajpai says:

    I totally relate to your feelings. My solution is that I choose to do a perfect rendition of what goes on in court, for my own standards. I learn every time to be a better interpreter. I aim for perfection. Before I begin, I tell the defendant or plaintiff that I have a duty to interpret everything that is being said in court, and that he/she will probably be unable to understand everything, some matters are complex legal issues, such as motions or objections when cases are quoted by the attorneys. I tell my non/English speaker for whom I am interpreting through the earphones and my private microphone, that when we have a recess, I will ask his/her attorney to explain what happened, and then he/she can ask the attorney whatever he/she needs to have clarified. This way I have done what I am supposed to, and for my own sake, met the challenge of rendering the best interpretation I am capable of. I also jot down all the new concepts or terminology and then go home and research it. I also ask questions of the attorneys if an issue is unclear to me. My aim is to improve and practice my wonderful craft, and to help the people I interpret for to understand what is happening around them. I believe it is not my job to explain anything, but rather to connect the people who need to communicate with each other, using my skill in the two languages. No frustration for the interpreter this way, but a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. Try it. Regards. Catalina Bajpai

  • P Diane Schneider says:

    Yes of course this happens. We always hope the person says that while their attorney is still standing there. If not, sometimes the court clerk at the outside window will take the time to explain what is required of them. Otherwise one can suggest to the client that he make an appointment to see his attorney so he can get a more complete explanation.

  • As far as the dialects go, these are independent native American languages. There are Guatemalan children who receive all their education in a Maya language. It is always necessary to determine what language(s) the client speaks.
    Another problem can be that there are many variations within the languages themselves –Penninsular Spanish, Carribean Spanish, Mexican Spanish, etc. British, Australian, American English, etc.
    I always clarify that the Spanish I speak is Mexican Spanish and try to avoid certain words and expressions if the person is from another country. If there is a communication problem, the attorney should be so informed.
    It is the responsibility of the attorney(s) to explain the legal consecuences.
    I have not usually had problems with court interpreting, but that is what I usually have done for many years. I do remember one situation with a Guatemalan, but that is all. His Spanish was quite different from mine.

  • Peg Snider says:

    Ditto to what everyone has said, especially LIonel. I just have to resign myself to the fact that the attorney’s duty is to advocate for his client and that the defendant is an adult and needs to speak up for himself. Years ago I drove home from a day in court banging my fist on the steering wheel swearing I was going to become a public defender (which never happened). I inform the court and counsel that there is an impediment to performance as dictated in our ethics and beyond that I have to divorce myself emotionally.

  • Angela Zawadzki says:

    All your comments are great.The world of the courts and of public service interpreting are very different from that of the booth and conference interpreting. In court we work with a prestige language(English), and what is considered by many as “inferior” languages, such as the Spanish spoken by poor immigrants from Latin American countries or Mayan languages. I agree that attorneys often fail to do their job, and like Peg, I invoke our code of ethics and do the most professional job I can. On the other hand I feel very enriched by what I have learned have learned over the years about Native American languages, the peoples of Mexico and Guatemala and so many varieties of Spanish. It would have never happened had I stayed in my Euro-centric South American country.

  • ArnaldoB says:

    It’s near impossible for me to answer your question on your terms, because I do “take the easy way out”, as you say. Not being understood for reasons beyond my control—such as in your courtroom example, where the interpreter is ethically bound to give a register-accurate rendition to the best of his ability—does not frustrate me at all. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m as susceptible to compliment as the next interpreter; but I do think our professional obligation is with the message, first and foremost. Frustration as a result of not being understood is a function of ego, and ego can be an obstacle to achievement. The greatest artists and athletes don’t do it for the audience. They lose themselves in the moment, and that’s where great beauty and performance come from. If no one understands it, so be it. The best way to deal with frustration, or any other emotion, for that matter, is: Just observe it. Let it run through you and seep into the ground. Or pass like a cloud. Peace.

  • Being a interpreter is a great opportunity. But sometimes frustration comes. But we don’t have to show it to anyone or in our work. NIce post!

  • Loretta says:

    If my boyfriend was represented by public deffender but she never advised of the plea offered or explained his options or right by certifed translator she use me at meeting but my Spanish is limeted can i do anything i feel he was not represent probably and did not have fair trail can she let me interputor if I’m not fluent I know she never advise of right and options

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