Your Honor, the interpreter cannot hear.

October 14, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Court interpreting can be exciting, interesting, and well remunerated, at times it can be challenging and even frustrating.  It is all part of the job and I accept it as it comes; however, the thing I cannot accept is the noise, poor sound system, bad manners of many attorneys who just won’t stop talking, and the lack of understanding, by many officers of the court, of our need to hear what is being said.

There is a very simple rule: you cannot interpret what you don’t understand and what you can’t hear. It is that simple. Yet, many courthouses have turned into some of the worst possible environments to work.  Many times this happens because of ignorance and lack of will to help improve the court services (which include interpretation for those who do not speak the language used in the courtroom) and on other occasions the courts just turn a blind eye to the problem even though they perfectly know that it is essential for the interpreter to hear what the parties are saying during the hearing.

Among these nightmarish environments to work as an interpreter, we have the attorneys who never stop talking in the courtroom; it seems that they have never thought of taking their conversations to the hallway.  I couldn’t tell you how many times I have overheard conversations about dates from hell, complaints about bosses, stories about spoiled children, and opinions about judges, all while I sat in a courtroom waiting for my case to be called.

Of course I couldn’t leave out of this piece the cheap, old, poorly-kept, and obsolete sound systems that are waiting for all of us at many courthouses.  These artifacts have outlived their useful life and instead of an asset, they constitute an obstacle to our work.  It is very frustrating to try to do your job while the receiver keeps skipping forty percent of your rendition, or when the batteries are so low that you are not sure they will last the entire hearing.  I would like to meet the person who thought that changing batteries, plugging and unplugging equipment, and running around looking for a better transmitter was part of interpreting; and if we are on the “mood” for meeting some of these “pillars of the court interpreting profession,” I would love to meet those who first dared to ask the interpreter to CLEAN THE EQUIPMENT after using it! I have never done it and I sure hope you haven’t either.

We must include all those attorneys who move away from the microphones as they speak, and we couldn’t forget the lawyers who talk so low that nobody can hear them.  Somehow they don’t understand that the interpreter sits behind them (or to the side) and this makes it very difficult to hear them because their voice is projecting the opposite way: towards the judge, witness or jury.  This group’s main characteristic is that after being reminded to speak into the microphone or to speak louder, they do it for about two minutes and then they go back to the old ways.  I guess some of them are just following the lead of that judge who turns away from the microphone when she speaks, or the one who talks so softly that it’s easier to hear when a pin drops in the courtroom even though she is speaking.

Finally, my “favorite”: In some lower courts there is no place for the interpreter to sit in the courtroom.  Interpreters are supposed to sit “wherever” as long as they are not “bothering” anybody else with their work. Often times, the interpreter ends up in the back of a courtroom, behind an easel or a screen, or sitting among the audience.  How can anybody expect you to hear anything under these circumstances?

Of course, it is important to educate the courts. It is necessary to explain that we have to be able to hear what is being said by the judge and the parties over our own voice.  All of this is crucial. We have been “educating” the bench and bar for many years.

Unfortunately, after years of “educating” judges and lawyers, many colleagues and administrators still believe that the solution is to continue. To do the same over and over again until they all finally get it. I disagree.

I think somebody has to say out loud that we have been “educating” them for a long time and it is time for the courts to set the appropriate conditions for us to do our work.  It is time to stop solely “educating” and to start demanding that court administrators and chief judges do their job. We are officers of the court and an essential part to the system. We are not an inconvenience; we are an important step in the administration of justice.

It is true that most federal courthouses now have appropriate equipment, a place for the interpreter, and a noise level adequate for us to do our job, but there is much to be done at the state and lower levels.  It is time for the state judges to start controlling their courtrooms so that people who “need” to talk exit the courtroom, those who need to be heard use the microphones, and those who are in the courtroom to interpret have a place where they can sit, use their computers or tablets, and more importantly, listen to what is being said during a hearing.  We are not mind-readers. We are court interpreters.  Always remember: you can’t interpret what you can’t hear.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with this essential issue turned into a nightmare by many courts.

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§ 18 Responses to Your Honor, the interpreter cannot hear.

  • Doris Ganser says:

    I hope you don’t mind if we place this on our website under “client information” – excellent article. You always provide very useful information, not theoretical dribble as one often reads.

    • Doris, I don’t mind as long as you give me credit. Thank you for your words.

      • akismet-52384f5cbe4e92eeb36dcfde98b56272 says:

        Thank you, Rosado,

        Of course, I would not dream placing this without any credit (although when I first had a company website, the geek who set it up had omitted all the credits and posted my half-finished articles he found on my computer.)

        Again, thanks for your permission.


        Doris Ganser, President, Transl. Grad.

        Transimpex Translators-Interpreters-Editors-Consultants, Inc.


        Phone: 816-331-1863

        Fax: 816-331-6353

  • I recall one trial where I was interpreting and one of the jurors was hard of hearing. They provided the juror with earphones but forgot that there was a microphone near to where the interpreter was interpreting. The interpreter had assumed the microphone had been placed there for the purpose of recording the proceedings, and not for the purpose of the juror hearing the simultaneous interpretation into Spanish until the juror complained she could not hear the testimony because of the other person talking all the time. The microphone was then moved away from the interpreter. Apparently the court did not have the capability to record separate sound-tracks.

  • Ion Capatina says:

    Great article, Tony!
    I had one experience, where I had to fly a few good thousand miles AND drive more than a hundred in order to interpret in a court where the judge was on the video link. As soon as I started “complaining” about the poor sound system on the judge site, and I asked them to repeat, the reply was that “I had attorneys interrupting me, but not interpreters”. I got it, our job is just to say something to the already convicted LEP, right? We don’t have to hear everything I guess, just give a brief…That’s why they call it “video link”, not “video-audio link”….
    I don’t want to mention about waiting in a lobby 30 min, while the judge (staff) was calling the agency about the interpreter not being there.
    I had to wait 3 months for the payment, till the agency checked on my credibility, like I hadn’t flown there 24 hours before…and I had checked a day before on address location, time, etc.
    We are just “a necessary evil”…
    That’s what was my exact reply to the judge:
    “I can’t interpret what I CAN’T hear”
    Ion C.

  • Lidia Carney says:

    I once interpreted on a case where the victim spoke a bit of “pigeon English” so the judge decided that to speed things up, she would not use the interpreter (me) who just stood by her in case she got “stuck”. The whole thing was a nightmare, I couldn’t understand her “English”, and I am sure nobody else could…I told the judge I felt she was not understanding the questions being asked (which was clear), and that she wasn’t being able to make herself fully understood. The judge (and the barristers) just ignored my comments and carried on. So I had been booked, I was getting paid for the job, I was there, stood next to her, but was not allowed to do my job because some idiots wanted to “speed things up”. Next time anything like that happens, I will ask for permission to leave and simply leave them to it.

  • […] Dear Colleagues, Court interpreting can be exciting, interesting, and well remunerated, at times it can be challenging and even frustrating. It is all part of the job and I accept it as it comes; …  […]

  • Gloria Hughes says:

    Thank you for your article. It made me think of an article written by Roxana Cárdenas entitled “You don’t have to hear, just interpret!”:

    Click to access CardenasYouDon%27tHavetoHear,JustInterpret.pdf

    I wish all judges and attorneys attended an interpreting “boot camp” so that they could experience first hand and understand what we go through on a daily basis!

  • Aimee Benavides says:

    Hi Tony,

    I enjoyed reading this post! I suffer from the same frustrations and I am beginning to think it goes beyond the courtroom and is more of a symptom of our society. Recently a Judge had to tell a DA that is is not proper to open a can of soda in the courtroom. Overall decorum in the court no longer seems to be “sacred”. I realize I am generalizing a bit, however it seems to be increasing rather than decreasing in the many counties where I interpret.



  • arnaldo says:

    Good points. Let me add to your piece that some states now require that judges undergo training on how to work with interpreters, including the jurisdiction I work for. And that helps immensely with some of the problems you point out. Now, where I can’t agree with you is when you state that “court interpreting can be exciting, interesting”. Conference interpreting is interesting, and well remunerated. Court interpreting is a steady paycheck and health benefits for the family. Other than that, it’s an endless parade of poor saps who either can’t behave ethically or resolve their differences on their own. I find it kind of depressing, actually. Especially least since I started doing it full time.

  • Margaret Wolfe-Roberts says:

    This issue is completely germain to our work; it is of constant and daily concern.

    I recommend that all court interpreters go immediately and equip themselves with wireless equipment the use of which has much to recommend it. While not eliminating such difficulties entirely, wireless works wonders by affording interpreters the opportunity to move around the courtroom as necessary in order to create better sight lines to the speaker and/or get closer.

    I often sit a few feet away and at right angles to the defendant at the far end of the defense table speaking into my microphone, while he/she and any LEP witnesses listen through headsets. This puts me slightly in front of the attorneys and eliminates any need to lean towards someone’s ear. Other times I may sit at a small table up at the judge’s bench where I am well in front of all attorneys and parties. During jury trials I may switch positions several times during the day, from a seat behind the attorneys that is located directly in front of an English-speaking witness, to the far wall a few rows down from the jury box during opening and closing statements, to the end of the defense table, even standing up at the front wall behind a witness while a soft-spoken attorney conducts questioning up by the witness stand. Having the microphone an inch away allows me to keep my voice very low; one primarily needs to be concerned about making the transitions quietly and efficiently and staying a couple of yards away from the court reporter who is also listening intently, and out of the jury’s line of sight.

    Occasionally, attorneys and/or jurors may say or show that they are distracted by our proximity. We must be attentive and responsive to those concerns by lowering our voices further, using a notepad or hand to partially block the sounds we emit, and/or moving farther away.

    Since I started using my wireless equipment regularly I have received numerous compliments from other court officials on how unobtrusive and effective it allows me to be. Many of the problems I used to have with not being able to hear have been largely ameliorated. But we must be willing to move around the courtroom as we work in order to derive maximum benefit, and do take the time to explain to attorneys and judges ahead of time what you are doing (and why).

    As a side note, I’m not entirely sure what kind of equipment Mr. Rosado refers to in his article. Personally I do not resent as Mr. Rosado does the task of cleaning and maintaining the wireless set-up since I am a self-employed contract interpreter and the equipment I use is my own.

    • Iveta Taylor says:

      Hello, could you please advise what wireless equipment do you use? I am willing to purchase my own but not sure what is best to buy. Many thanks

      • You should do your homework and research the equipment that better fits your needs. In my case, when I purchased my first sets of portable wireless, I got Williams Sound and CSI Listen. Both are very popular and priced about the same. Go online and decide for yourself. Good luck!

  • Molly Sheridan says:

    Reading this article could not have been timelier! Thank you for posting it and for providing me with the language to simply say, “Your Honor, the interpreter cannot hear”. I’ve shared this link with 3 colleagues with whom I will be soon working in a trial. I had an acoustic neuroma removed in one ear 4 years ago thus leaving me with one-sided profound deafness. And while I do have a bone-anchored hearing aid(BAHA) on the deaf side, optimal acoustics are paramount.
    Thanks again for giving me a sense of “liberty” with the language to appropriately self advocate.

  • […] Finally, my “favorite”: In some lower courts there is no place for the interpreter to sit in the courtroom. Interpreters are supposed to sit “wherever” as long as they are not “bothering” anybody else with their work.  […]

  • Atika says:

    Hi Tony,
    Thanks for sharing your concerns. My experience in Scotland is very good up till now. I do notice courtroom is well controlled environment here, and I found the jury, Judges, officered very cooperating. Yes, for some lawyers I felt they are showing less favour towards interpreting services but on the whole I am happy with my experience in Scotland.
    Your information is helping me to feel as if I am not the only one, there is a community of interpretors with me in all around the world.


  • Dyann Berndt says:

    Every point you made applies to the court reporter, as well. I’ve lost count of the times that the record suffered due to folks who were soft-spoken, mumbling, having side conversations, clerks stamping orders, etc. Perhaps the interpreters and reporters should band together. There is strength in numbers!

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