Your Honor, the interpreter cannot hear.
October 14, 2013 § 17 Comments
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.