Interpreting near the border: Not necessarily a pleasant experience.

October 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As a veteran interpreter I have seen many things, faced numerous obstacles, and solved hundreds of situations such as bad equipment, poor booth location and lack of research materials, noisy courtrooms, difficult accents, and rotten clients.  I am sure you had your fair share as well.  However, I came to a realization a few weeks ago when I was teaching a seminar in the great State of Texas.  I lived in a border state for many years and I had to face the bilingualism problem on a daily basis, but nothing I ever went through compares to the story I am about to tell you:

There is a judge in Houston Criminal Court who has very little regard for her interpreters, this combined with her colossal ignorance of the interpreter profession, of who the officers of the court are , and her self-centered goal of only caring for the next election (because state judges are elected by the voters in Texas) have resulted in a very uncomfortable work environment for our good colleagues.

I lived in New Mexico for many years and I experienced first-hand the constant struggle of interpreting from and into Spanish in a place where most people have an idea of the language and many of them speak it at an average level.  It is very difficult to work under these circumstances, especially as a court interpreter because in an environment where the judge, attorneys, clerks, police officers, witnesses, and jurors understand, or think they understand, at least some of what was said in Spanish, puts the interpreter in a place where he or she is constantly on the spot, been “corrected”, receiving unwanted “suggestions”, and sometimes being challenged by one of this so-called Spanish speakers.

There was a case in another state some years ago where a member of the jury, who supposedly spoke Spanish, disapproved of the official interpretation of a witness during a trial and during deliberations informed the other jurors that she spoke Spanish, that she understood what the witness said in Spanish, and that the interpretation had been incorrect. She then told them what in her opinion the witness really said, and that swayed the jury.  Because of that comment by the bilingual juror there was a conviction that otherwise would have never existed.  Once the circumstances during deliberation were known by the judge and attorneys, the defense filed an appeal that made it all the way up to the State Supreme Court where the conviction was overturned.  The reality was that the interpreter had been right all along. The juror did not have the necessary knowledge of the Spanish language to really comprehend what was said and then interpret it into English accordingly (like the interpreter did)  In their decision, the Justices clearly indicated that the court, including the jury, has to abide by the official interpretation into English provided by the certified professional court interpreter. That is the record in the case, it is not there to be doubted or debated by other bilingual speakers.  As a result of that case judges in that state now read an instruction to the members of the jury clearly telling them to rely on the interpretation and not in what they may believe was said as they are not professionally trained to interpret.

The absolute opposite of what this court decision stated happens every day in this Houston Texas Criminal courtroom.  Whenever there is a trial before this judge that requires Spanish interpretation, from the beginning of the proceedings the judge asks the Spanish-speaking jurors to “…let (her) know if something that the interpreter said was wrong… Because (in that case) we’ll try to figure it out, and if we can’t come to an agreement (of what was said) then we’ll get an expert…”

This is what she says with the licensed interpreter (in Texas there are no certified interpreters, they are licensed) present and interpreting to the defendant!  Of course, most freelancers now refuse to work for this ignorant “judge”, but the staff interpreters are stuck with her, at least until the next election.  Once I heard the story I concluded that no matter how bad we think we have it when doing our job, there is always somebody who has it worse.  I would like to see what you think about this situation, and I would love to hear any suggestions you may have for the Houston interpreters who deal with this individual on a daily basis.

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