Can the interpreter’s simultaneous rendition be distracting?

April 11, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I have been very fortunate in my career. I have worked with some of the very best in the profession, and yes, sometimes I have worked with some colleagues, thankfully very few, who would fall short from that rating. As many of you know, I have worked all over the world and I have worked conference, diplomatic, court, and escort interpreting for many years. During those years I have observed and learned many things from this spectacular interpreters and I have also seen so many different styles.

One of the things that many colleagues do when simultaneously interpreting is that they close their eyes and gesticulate a lot. They use their hands to express what they are saying and to understand the concepts they are absorbing from the speaker. This works fine for them. Their renditions are impeccable. After years of working in a booth next to some of them I have become used to their style. I interpret differently. I do not use my hands or head to express what I am saying. I just sit there without any gesticulation. This works for me just as well as the opposite works for many great colleagues. I have no problem with either style when you are working in the booth and you are out of sight; in fact, I applaud those who have found this to be a tool to improve their interpreting skills. The important thing is to provide a good service and bridge the communication gap between the speaker and his audience.

Unfortunately, I am not so convinced that this effusive style is as effective in court as it is in the booth. Interpreters who work in the courtroom are not shield by the booth. Even if they work with equipment they are not out of sight. The equipment is usually of the portable kind, and even though many courts use wireless transmitters and receivers, the interpreter sits at the table next to the defendant or somewhere else in the courtroom in plain view of all participants: judge, jury, attorneys, witnesses, and defendant.

As part of their work, court interpreters can interpret difficult complex concepts and very detailed information. One of the reasons to have a court hearing is to assess the credibility of witnesses and litigants. The jury’s attention has to be focused on those testifying or arguing the law. The non-English speaker needs to understand what is going on in the courtroom and for that he often has to concentrate. Because of some of my professional interests, I often attend court hearings in different parts of the world and as an observer who is not involved in the process, I have noticed that gesticulating interpreters can be distracting. I have noticed how members of the jury are sometimes more interested and amused by the interpreters hand movements than by the witness’ testimony. I have seen how defendants pay more attention to what the interpreter does than to what the interpreter says. I do not think this is appropriate. I believe that the interpreter who is working in the courtroom has to be aware of the fact that he cannot be the center of attention; that unlike conference interpreters, court interpreters are visible to all. I understand that this may be their natural way to communicate, that they may need to do this to understand the message they are about to interpret. Unfortunately, I do not think that most jurors, attorneys, and litigants can just ignore their gesticulation and focus on the testimony. I think court interpreters should learn to control these movements and concentrate on accurate interpreting while being inconspicuous.

I find this to be a fascinating, delicate, and frankly touchy subject that is not easy to discuss with our colleagues. For a long time I hesitated to write this blog, but I finally did it because I want to hear what you all have to say about it. I ask you to please avoid personal attacks and comments about how gesticulating helps the interpreter. Instead, I invite you to share with the rest of us your thoughts on this issue: Is this interpreting style distracting to those participating in a court procedure?

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§ 11 Responses to Can the interpreter’s simultaneous rendition be distracting?

  • Christiane Driesen says:

    Thank you for this interesting observations. Working and training interpreters for the European market, I note that gesturing is a matter of cultural background. It is fun to watch into the 32 booths at the European Parliament: the extreme contrasts between the Finnish and Greek Booth – for instance is striking. Training my students I ask them to adapt their body language to the usance of the delegates they are working for. Extreme latine gesturing would seem totally out of place for a German audience. For court interpreters also I require them to adapt to the Country traditions. In general I personally am in favour of a “transparent” and non invasive interpreter and refrain from gesticulating despite my latine origins.

  • Ralph Dexter says:

    Very interesting.Thank you for your insights. My experience has been in Latin America, mostly Ecuador.
    Due to my foreign appearance and age (69) I am often confused with the guest of honor during breaks or introductions. To avoid that, I try to dress down a bit and stay a step or so behind.everybody else.
    Another problem when interpreting out of the booth, especially during face-to-face meetings, is that people tend to address their comments to me, despite my efforts to remain invisible. To counter that, I look at the person being addressed or look down.

  • weinterpret says:

    Agree 101% with you Tony.
    We, court interpreters should be as unobtrusive as possible!
    Yes, it is distracting and in my humble opinion not professional unless you are an ASL interpreter.

  • David Lauman says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Tony. I agree that in a courtroom setting the interpreter should be careful not to draw unnecessary attention to her/himself and should avoid gesticulating as much as possible. Rather, I think that the energy used to gesticulate should be transmuted into providing a more precise interpretation.

  • Irene Caramuta says:

    For spoken language court interpreters, it is best to be as unobtrusive or “ghost-like” as possible. In fact, the best compliment any court interpreter can get is “I forgot you were there.”

  • Isa Aviad says:

    I was the sole interpreter of a municipal court for years. I agree with you. In my case I focused on keeping all of my physical movements to a minimum. For example, I paid close attention to my hands, keeping them discreetly crossed in front of me. I remained close to the defendant when speaking, and when speaking in Spanish, monitored my volume so as to not interpret the judges train of thought. I noticed that this helped the judge to focus on the facial expressions, movements, etc. of the defendant instead of drawing attention to myself

  • dnc says:

    I am pleased you wrote the article. Yes, it can be a problem in F2F in a Court setting and if you happen to be also “the animated interpreter ” and it is also acceptable in your culture , simply you, need to learn to control it . Remember : you need to be invisible and heard only!

  • Everyone in my family suffers from this malady (animated gesticulations), so I really have to watch for this in court. It can indeed be very distracting.I tightly fold my hands on the desk – and try to keep them there – and even have a little picture of folded hands at the top of my note pad as a reminder.

  • Rocio Savage says:

    Excellent article and insight! As a “rookie” court interpreter, that I still am, I always have a note pad in one hand and a pen in the other. I do this, not just to be prepared to take notes, but to also refrain myself from using my hands when speaking.

  • R.Rodriguez says:

    I don’t find gestures very distracting.
    What I find unbelievably distracting is all the fillers….”um um. ugh, ugh, eh eh, mmmm, ugh.
    Good gosh that can drive a person crazy and interfere with the entire rendition.

  • […] As part of their work, court interpreters can interpret difficult complex concepts and very detailed information. One of the reasons to have a court hearing is to assess the credibility of witnesses and litigants.  […]

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