Do many interpreters experience vicarious trauma?

May 7, 2019 § 26 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I ask this question because I have been an interpreter for over 30 years and I have experienced no symptoms of vicarious trauma. When I started my career, nobody ever talked about vicarious trauma whether by its name or by any other name; however, in the last few years I have read many articles and attended many interpreter conferences where some of my colleagues dealt with this issue. I did my homework before writing this post. I read about the symptoms and activities that, as interpreters, put us at a higher risk because of the exposure to people or situations involving suffering, injustice, and many terrible things.  I read about empathy, compassion, internalizing your feelings, emptiness, denial, coping with big world tragedies through psychic numbing, and even sociopathy (antisocial personality disorder) and discover that none apply.

I consider myself “normal”. My friends see me as a regular guy. I am kind and considerate to those around me; I am a happy guy, and I have been told that I am a good friend, relative, and colleague. I will never be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but I have a full life doing what I like with those I care for.

After much consideration, I concluded that my attitude towards my profession has kept me from vicarious trauma. My background is in Law. I was an attorney before I was an interpreter. During the years I practiced my former profession, I was exposed to many bad things. I got to see the dark side of human nature. Then, my interpreting career began in the courtroom. I now work as a conference interpreter, and I have never worked as a healthcare interpreter, but I spent my days in courthouses and jails for many years. Both occupations put me in the middle of murders, rapes, drug crimes, child molestation, ugly divorces, loss of parental rights, domestic violence, wrongful dead, bankruptcies, deportations, and similar situations. For years I interacted with people: defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, and victims, providing my professional services on what had to be the worst day of their lives. People do not get up in the morning and say: “I think I would love to be arrested today”; or “today is a good day to terminate my parent-child relationship forever”. Unless they go to get married or to adopt a child, regular humans do not go to courthouses just because.

I have worked side by side with many interpreters during trials involving vicious criminals and people found not guilty by a jury. I have interpreted testimony of children graphically describing sexual crimes committed against them, and have interpreted when a mother described to the jury how the bad guys killed her son in front of her.

I have sat next to individuals charged with murder and facing the dead penalty, and with parents of young children who know they will be deported on that day. During those hundreds of cases throughout several decades, I never heard a fellow interpreter say they were feeling the symptoms of vicarious trauma. I now wonder if they, like I, experienced none of them, they did not recognize them, or they were just hiding them.

I think that I have never suffered the effects of this trauma because, even though I cry at the movies, I have always focused on the task and delivered the service, always knowing these were cases, not my personal life. I have always treated the client with respect, addressing them by their name and accommodating their professional interpreting needs regardless of the charges they were facing. To me, a murder trial is never about the gross details of the killing. It is about the theory of the defense, the prosecutorial strategy, the skill needed to get certain evidence admitted to trial. It is never about the small kid telling the judge who he rather be with: his father or mother; it is about delivering the rendition with the proper register, hearing everything that child is mumbling from the stand, staying out of the judge’s field of vision so she can better evaluate the witness’ testimony. I have never injected myself into a case or the personal life of the parties. Unlike most of my colleagues, after a rendition, I remember the legal arguments in a motions hearing much better than the testimony of an eyewitness. When I do legal interpreting without ever thinking about it, I have always seen myself as a person looking through a window, a spectator, a professional doing his job. I never identify my life or feelings with those of the parties in a case. I act professionally around those I interpret for, but I have never held a conversation with them; not even small talk beyond inquiring their place of origin so I can hear their accent and know what to expect. I never asked them if they want a glass of water. I never ask them if they have questions. Those are things for their lawyer or the Marshall to ask. When they occasionally ask me to convey a message to a relative in the courtroom, I simply tell them I cannot. It is not part of my job. Except for the names of those who I first interpreted for many years ago, unless my client was a celebrity for the right or for the wrong reasons, I never even remember their names or faces.

I never planned it; this is how it always was. This is how it always will be. Therefore, when I leave the courtroom after the convicted felon has been sentenced to life, after I interpret the deportation order, or when I hear the still doors closing behind me as I leave a prison, I go home, meet friends for happy hour, or catch a baseball game at Wrigley Field without ever thinking about the things that took place at work. I close the drapes of that window.

The question at the beginning of this post is real: Have you experienced vicarious trauma? I am sure some of you have, but I would like to know if I am in the minority or not. Please share your experience; I would love to hear from you. It is fine if you just want to tell us yes or no. The last thing I want is for you to bring back your bad memories again.

Much to learn from Mexican interpreter program.

August 30, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in the first legal interpreting workshop for Mexican Sign Language interpreters in Mexico City. It was a three-day event attended by sign language interpreters from all corners of Mexico.  With the arrival of the new oral trial proceedings to their country, now Mexican interpreters will play an essential role in the administration of justice. Until recently, the country followed a written proceedings system where interpreters were rarely needed, but now, with a system similar to the one in the United States, interpreters will participate at all stages of a court proceeding; moreover, because Mexico kept their traditional substantive law system, based on Roman, French, and Spanish Law, interpreters will also be needed in all proceedings before a Notary Public where a party does not speak Spanish.

Certainly, Mexico is not the first or the only country switching to this more agile and transparent legal system, but what I saw during the workshop showed me a different, and probably better way to incorporate interpreting into the legal system, and provide a professional service by good, quality interpreters.  What Mexican Sign Language interpreters are doing should be adopted as an example by many other interpreter organizations everywhere.  Sign language, foreign language, and indigenous language interpreter programs could benefit from a strategy like the one they are now implementing in Mexico.

Like many countries, including the United States, Mexico is facing problems familiar to all judicial systems: shortage of quality interpreters, ignorance by judges and administrators, lack of a professionalization system that eventually will only allow interpreters with a college degree.  Unlike most countries, and even foreign language and indigenous language interpreters in Mexico, sign language interpreters are trying to achieve all of those goals by partnering with the courts and academia.

The workshop was the brainchild of a judge from Mexico City’s Electoral Court who identified the need to provide deaf citizens a way to exercise their political rights.  The judge devoted her experience, reputation, time, and connections to the project, and after some effort, the Mexico City Electoral Court, Mexico’s Supreme Court, the Mexican National University (UNAM) and some district judges came on board, together with the sign language interpreter associations.

The workshop was held at three different venues in order to get all interested parties involved, and to send a message to Mexican society that the effort was real. On the first day, at the Mexico City Electoral Court, interpreters learned about the Mexican legal system and its recent changes. On the second day, interpreters attended an all-day session at the postgraduate degree school of the Mexican National University (UNAM) where more practical presentations dealing with interpreter problems and participation in a court hearing were discussed. It was refreshing to see how interpreters were able to convey their concerns to some of the highest authorities within the Mexican court system, accomplishing two things: that their voice be heard, and that judges be aware of how little they know and understand of the interpreters’ role in court.  During the second day of the workshop, a program to develop a curriculum for Mexican Sign Language interpreters to get formal education and obtain a diploma after a year of studies sponsored by the Mexican National University (UNAM) and perhaps Madrid’s Complutense University (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) got its kickoff. The idea is that eventually, this program will allow sign language interpreters to learn the law, court procedure, and court interpreting by attending a combination of virtual and classroom sessions for one year, so that at the end of the year they be ready to take a certification exam that will first test their bilingualism, so that only those who have demonstrated proficiency in both languages move on to the interpreting portion of the exam.  Once an interpreter passes the exam, their name will be added to the list of certified court interpreters they judiciary will have and use to determine who is fit to practice in court.  Eventually, the goal is to develop a degree in Mexican Sign Language Interpreting so that all interpreters working the courts have a college degree.

Finally, the third day of the workshop was held at the building of Mexico’s Supreme Court, where one of the Justices addressed the attendees who spent the time learning about the professional and business aspects of the profession. The day ended with a mock court trial where interpreters participated with the help of law students and professors.

I still believe on addressing the private bar directly bypassing court administrators, but in my opinion, the example set by Mexico’s sign language interpreters is a lesson that should be applied elsewhere. Having justices and judges of the highest level, together with college deans and professional interpreter associations generate a plan of realistic action that goes beyond the demagoguery so often practiced by government officials who never had the desire to help in the first place, would change the “balance of power” that court interpreters are suffering in many places, including many states in the U.S. where ignorant administrators pretend to run a court interpreter program with their eyes set on the budget and their backs to court interpreter needs and the administration of justice.  Having the highest authorities within the judiciary to listen, understand, and support interpreter initiatives (that are nothing but efforts to comply with a constitutional mandate) would go a long way, and having the most prestigious universities in the land to volunteer to sponsor a court interpreter education program with an eye on eventually turning it into a college degree, would solve many problems we see today in all languages.  The Mexican approach encourages the interpreter to professionalize by fostering the direct client relationship between courthouse and interpreter, eliminating once and for all the unscrupulous intermediary that charges for the service, keeps most of the money, pays interpreters rock-bottom fees, and provides appalling interpreting services.

I invite all of you, my colleagues, regardless of where you practice: The United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico and elsewhere, and regardless of your type of interpreting: sign languages, foreign languages, or indigenous languages, even those Mexican interpreters who practice as foreign or indigenous language court interpreters, to consider this Mexican strategy. I believe that it has a better chance to work than those other tactics interpreters have attempted to follow for such a long time.

I now ask you to opine on this very innovative strategy adopted by our colleagues in Mexico with the full support of their authorities and academia.

How to Defend Your Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter.

September 4, 2014 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Good professional interpreters are usually consumed with taking care of their clients, improving their skills, managing their agenda, and marketing to new clients. This takes a lot of time and energy, and it is essential to succeed as an interpreter. Unfortunately, sometimes during their career some interpreters may experience other aspects of the profession that are less pleasant, more time-consuming, and very stressful.

Our professional tools are our brain, mouth, and a language combination. We can make mistakes, we are susceptible to questioning and second-guessing by others, and in our litigious society we are exposed to lawsuits that can leave us with no career, no resources, and a tainted reputation.

There are many circumstances that can affect our career as professional interpreters, but at this time I would like to focus on two of them:

The first one occurs when our work is subject to criticism and questioning by our peers or by others. This often happens in a legal setting. All court interpreters have faced situations when in the middle of a court hearing a judge, attorney, witness, litigant, and even a juror, have interrupted our rendition to correct what we just said. Most of the time we were right and they were wrong. On occasion, because we are not machines, and because nobody can possibly know all regional expressions, these voices do us a favor as they correct our mistake and allow justice to be served. These are the scenarios we usually face when doing our job. It sounds simple and straight to the point: Either we are right and we say so in order to keep the process moving along, or we are wrong, and in that case we correct our error. The same facts are true in a healthcare or community interpreting setting; even at the negotiating table or in the booth during a conference we sometimes make mistakes out of exhaustion, due to bad acoustics, a speaker with a heavy accent, or because we misunderstood a word or term. This is why we have team interpreting, this is why good interpreting equipment, an appropriate conference room, and breaks or recesses are important.

Unfortunately in the real world we have to deal with attorneys who are not happy because their foreign language speaking client or witness is not saying what they wanted them to say in the trial, and with doctors and nurses who want to dodge the consequences of their negligence, and with the party that lost at the business negotiating table, or with the agency that tries to justify the disaster caused by its outdated broken-down interpreting equipment. The first thing they all do is to cast a doubt over the rendition of the interpreter. It is even worse when all of this happens and you know that those who are questioning your work are clearly wrong.

The second situation I want to bring to your attention is when the same individuals mentioned above, decide to go for the jugular and to put the blame on the interpreter’s rendition; so they take you to court. They argue inadequate interpretation and you are sued for damages. How can we defend our work when our rendition is questioned and we know we are right? What can we do to protect ourselves in case somebody takes us to court for damages? There are preventive measures that we can take as interpreters to diminish the possibility of having to defend our work, our assets, and our reputation.

There are also steps we must follow in case our professional work is questioned or attacked in court.

These complex issues have to be addressed, and as true professionals we must be prepared in case this happens to us. For this reason, I will present: How to Defend Our Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter” during Lenguando Londres in London on September 13, 2014 at 2:30 pm. I invite you to attend the event on the 13 and 14 of this month and see how you will be able to interact with some of the superstars of all language-related professions, and I encourage you to attend this presentation where we will discuss these sad but possible scenarios, we will explore the different preventive measures that we should always take in order to avoid an adverse outcome, and we will talk about the path to follow once our rendition or our skill has been formally questioned in a court of law. I hope to see you in London; but even if you are not attending, I ask you to share with the rest of us your experiences on having your rendition questioned, challenged, or having a lawsuit filed against you as an interpreter.

When the interpreter thinks the attorney did something sleazy.

July 14, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I was contacted by a colleague who wanted my opinion about a professional situation that was making her life miserable. Her problem was that she had been part of a court assignment where an attorney did something she disliked. At the time she contacted me she was debating about letting it go, or reporting the situation to the judge of the case. I listened to the facts, and I immediately remembered other events where an attorney’s conduct had been questioned by other interpreters. This is her story:

An interpreter was hired to work during a deposition at a law office. While waiting for the assignment to start, she had a conversation with other individuals in the waiting room. One of the others was also a court interpreter. Finally, after a long wait, a secretary came to the waiting room and announced that the deposition had been cancelled. The interpreter went home, she got paid on time for this assignment, and she forgot about this incident.

Several months later, she was contacted by another agency that offered her a transcription/translation assignment. She agreed, and a few days later she received a CD with the audio recording. She began the transcription, and about an hour into the transcription, she concluded that she knew at least one of the voices in the recording; it was the voice of another interpreter, in fact, it was the voice of the interpreter she had been talking to, months earlier at the law office, while she waited for the deposition to start. She immediately knew that she had to stop the transcription and report this circumstance to the agency. A decision had to be made about her involvement in the transcription job. Before contacting the agency, the interpreter decided to see if the other interpreter’s voice was all over the recording or just at the beginning. She had just been working on the transcription for about an hour, so she wanted to find out. She fast-forwarded the recording, and to her surprise, she now recognized a second voice: It was her own voice! She was part of the recording the agency sent her, and the recorded conversation was the one they had at the attorney’s office on the day the deposition had been cancelled months earlier. This obviously changed everything, and the possibility of continuing on the job if the parties consented to it after a full disclosure was now gone. She knew she could not continue transcribing the recording. She immediately contacted the agency and told them what happened. The agency retrieved the recording and sent it to another transcriber. The interpreter was paid for the work done even though the agency knew that they would never use the transcription. The real problem for the interpreter was that she did not know that she had been recorded and she wondered why this had happened, what they were going to use the tape for, and what she should do about the whole situation. She did not even know if the recording was legal or not.

The recording was related to the case where she had been hired to do the cancelled deposition; she knew the attorneys involved, and she had heard that they both practice law very aggressively. She felt bad and she felt cheated. The interpreter thought that this strategy had been sleazy and perhaps illegal. Her first impulse was to contact the judge in the case and let him know that she had been recorded without her consent. Something had to be done.

Fortunately, she waited and thought it over. Without revealing any names or details of the case, she consulted an attorney and learned that in her state, as long as one of the parties to a conversation is aware of the recording, and she consents to it, the rest need not know or consent for the recording to be legal and even admissible in court. Based on this, the interpreter did not go to the judge or anybody else. She had no legal standing and no law had been broken by the attorney who ordered the recording. In fact, she realized that she could not even disclose any of these facts to anybody else because of the interpreter duty of confidentiality, which cannot be broken unless a crime was committed or may be committed unless the interpreter speaks. Going to the judge would have been the wrong thing to do because she really had nothing to report. She learned a valuable lesson after this case because she understood that in an adversarial legal system, the attorneys may do things that we dislike, but as long as they are legal, they are allowed to do them, and we should not get involved or judge the legal strategy.

On the second case I will now share with you, I was interpreting in a plea hearing many moons ago. The defendant was going to enter a plea of guilty to a federal offense. I was working for the court. I arrived to the courtroom about fifteen minutes before the hearing, which was customary at that courthouse, I let the clerk know that I was there, and I sat down to wait for my case. The defense attorney arrived about five minutes later and asked me to help him with his client. He told me that the defendant, who was in detention, was already in the holding cell, and that he needed to talk to him for a few minutes before the judge came out for the hearing. As many of you know, this happens all the time in federal court in the United States, so I agreed and off we went next door to the holding cell. The moment we arrived I realized that the defendant spoke some English and understood many things; however, he was far from being fluent, and definitely needed an interpreter for the most complex legal concepts. As soon as we greeted the defendant the attorney started this, in my opinion, self- serving speech telling his client (the defendant) how hard it was to get him the deal with the prosecution, and that this was his chance to bring the case to an end by just pleading guilty to the charge in the plea agreement. Then the attorney “asked him” but in reality told him “the agreement is almost identical to the version you already saw before when I went to see you with the other interpreter, remember?” and “…the judge is going to ask you if you were interpreted the new version by a certified interpreter and you are going to say yes because if you don’t, then the judge will continue your case for another day, maybe in a month or two, and you will have to sit in jail all that time waiting to come back in here. All of it for a document that practically says the same that the one that was interpreted to you before. Do you understand?” Of course I interpreted all of this to the defendant and he said yes. Next, the attorney told his client that “… when the judge asks you if you have any questions you need to say no, unless you have any questions, and if that is the case we will have to come back before the judge in the future, and he is going to ask you if everything was interpreted to you into Spanish and you will say yes because as you remember we went to the jail and the interpreter interpreted everything, including your questions, right?” The defendant said “yes.” The attorney continued: “…Well then, let me ask you right now: has the plea agreement been explained and interpreted to you in Spanish?” The defendant answered: “yes.” The lawyer continued: “…Has your attorney answered all of your questions with the assistance of an interpreter” The defendant: “yes.” Finally the attorney added: “…Do you have any questions at this time for the judge, for me, or for anybody else about your case, charges and plea you are about to enter?” Once again the defendant said “no.” “…Great” said the lawyer; and added: “… So you know why you are answering the way you are right?” The defendant: “Yes, so I can go to prison sooner.” Attorney: “…and, even though we didn’t interpret the latest version of the agreement, since we went over another version that was practically identical, you will tell the judge that we did right?” Defendant: “Yes, I will tell him that you explained everything to me through the interpreter, and in my mind you did, and I really believe so, and I have no more questions. I know what I am doing and I just want for all of this to be over.”

We went in front of the judge who asked the very same questions. Both, the attorney and his client answered almost with the same words as they had used in the holding cell. The judge entered the conviction and the defendant left very happy with the outcome of the hearing, on his way out he told his attorney: “…thank you very much. You are a great attorney. You know what you need to do for the benefit of your client. I will send you clients…”

Although the attorney and the defendant did not lie to the judge because they phrased everything very carefully, thus avoiding breaking the law, and despite the fact that the attorney had fought for, and vigorously defended his client’s best interest, which was to go to prison as soon as possible so he could start some treatment not offered by the jail, I left the courtroom feeling a little strange. I knew there was nothing for me to do since no laws were broken, and everything had been legal strategy between client and attorney discussed in confidence and under the protection of the client-attorney privilege, but it took me a couple of hours to get over it; you could even argue that I did not get over this case since I am still telling the story so many years later, but the truth is that yes I got over the case, and the reason why I am sharing the story with all of you now is because both the defendant and the attorney have since passed away, so there is no privilege anymore.

I would like to invite you to share similar stories or comments about things you have done or were tempted to do when in your opinion an attorney did something sleazy.

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?

When the court interpreter asks for a sidebar.

February 11, 2014 § 42 Comments

Dear colleagues:

There are times when the court interpreter is already working in the courtroom and he comes across certain information, notices something in the courtroom, or faces a situation that makes his job unnecessarily difficult.  Usually the recourse is to let the judge know. This is an effective way to solve most problems and continue providing interpretation services during the judicial hearing.  Unfortunately, depending on the issue at stake, this is more difficult when working in the presence of a jury.

All court interpreters should know that, to avoid a mistrial, certain things cannot be said in front of an already impaneled jury.  What is left for the interpreter to do under these circumstances?  The same thing attorneys do: Ask for a sidebar.  Now I would like to share a story that happened to me several years ago while I was interpreting during a criminal trial in the United States.

A colleague and I were interpreting for a defendant charged with a crime that involved some horrible physical injuries.  It took the first two days of the trial to pick a jury, and it took the prosecution another three days to present their case to the jury.  The first defense witness took the stand on the sixth day.  It just happened that this witness did not speak English so we had to interpret for both: defendant and witness. We did a consecutive rendition of the testimony and we positioned ourselves next and right behind the witness stand.  We interpreted over the courtroom sound system so the defendant heard all the questions and answers in Spanish.  Direct examination by the defense began that morning. Nothing out of the ordinary to this point except for the fact that the prosecuting attorney spoke Spanish.

It was my turn to interpret so I started the afternoon session. After the first standard questions about the witness’ name and occupation, the defense attorney asked him questions about the facts of the case.  The witness started answering in Spanish and his testimony disputed what up until then the prosecution had advanced as their theory of the case.  It was clear to all Spanish speakers in that courtroom that this testimony was not favorable to the prosecution. As the witness was speaking, the prosecutor stood up and objected to the witness’ answer stating that the testimony was hearsay.  The judge sustained the objection.  It bothered me that this English speaking judge had granted the prosecutor’s objection even before I interpreted the witness’ answer into English. The defense attorney said nothing. Two or three questions later the same thing happened again.  At this time I was very concerned about the direction this was heading to, so when the prosecutor objected for the third time I got up, raised my hand and asked for a sidebar.  The judge and attorneys were a little confused but after hesitating for a fraction of a second the judge asked us to approach. While walking towards the bench I turned to the witness stand and signaled the other interpreter (who was then sitting behind me as she was the supporting interpreter at that time) to join us for the sidebar.

As soon as we were all in front of the judge I voiced my concern. I told the judge that I believed that in order to sustain or deny an objection there has to be something on the record for the objecting party to object to a statement by a witness, and that sustaining or denying an objection without having heard the objectionable statement probably was not the best way to act.  The judge asked me to clarify so I basically told her that my rendition into English reported on the record by the court reporter is the actual testimony, that an attorney who objects to an answer given by a witness in a foreign language is not objectionable unless it is first interpreted into English. Before this happens the answer given in Spanish is not part of the record and therefore, there is nothing to object. My second argument was that the counterpart, the defense in this case, had no way to argue against the objection because he does not speak Spanish and does not know what the witness said.  Finally, I told the judge that in my humble opinion, as a non-Spanish speaker, she would also need to wait for the interpretation of the answer given in Spanish before she could decide what to do with the objection.  There was silence after I spoke. A few moments later the judge said: “He is absolutely right. We have to wait for the interpretation.” We had no more problems with that or any other Spanish speaking witness for the rest of the trial.

About two weeks later I was contacted by the head prosecutor in that judicial district who invited me to give a talk to all of this prosecutors about this issue.  Dear colleagues, do not lose sight of the fact that as interpreters we are officers of the court, and as such, we must use all the tools that the system gives us in order to do our part to preserve the integrity of the judicial process.  During my career I have asked for a side bar in countless occasions when I have faced a situation similar to the one I mentioned above.  Now I invite you to tell us your sidebar experiences and to share with us some of the difficulties you have faced while on the job and how you have solved them.

Should Consecutive Interpretation Disappear From Court?

November 4, 2013 § 15 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every time I write about some issue that involves consecutive interpretation in court, I get a considerable number of comments arguing for the disappearance of this mode of interpretation. Whether it is because of how difficult it is to render it, or due to some legal issue, the fact is that the number of interpreters, and courts, moving away from consecutive interpretation from the witness stand is growing every day.

Currently, there are many courthouses in the United States where the interpretation of a witness’ testimony is done consecutaneously: The attorney’s question is interpreted simultaneously by an interpreter sitting (or standing) next to the witness and the answer is rendered consecutively by the same interpreter.  Other courthouses are using one interpreter for the simultaneous interpretation of the question, with the help of interpretation equipment, and a second interpreter, sitting (or standing) next to the witness, who renders the answers consecutively. The feedback from both systems, as far as I have heard, is positive.  Apparently this approach solves the problems presented by the way cross-examination is phrased, keeps the jury focused on the witness, and not on the interpreter, and eliminates the unfair advantage that some witnesses have in cases when they speak some English, but prefer to employ the services of an interpreter,  thus having an opportunity to reflect on their answer to a question while they “listen” to the interpreter’s rendition of said question.  It is also true that this is not a “bulletproof” solution. Consecutaneous interpretation from the witness stand can be confusing to some lay witnesses; and in the case of different interpreters for questions and answers, it could present a problem when both, the question interpreter and the answer interpreter interpret correctly but using a different term.   For what I hear, judges and court administrators love consecutaneous interpretation because it saves a lot of trial time, as the time for the consecutive rendition is eliminated altogether.

I must confess that for a long time I was a “purist” who opposed consecutaneous interpretation in the courtroom. Although I still dislike consecutaneous interpretation, I have changed my mind.  Now I believe that in this world full of technology, where we go to the booth with nothing but an iPad, where we can do a word search in seconds, where we can interpret remotely from a different continent, we need to take advantage of everything that exists out there.  The technology for simultaneous interpretation of a witness testimony already exists. I dislike consecutaneous interpretation not because I want to keep the consecutive mode for the witness stand. I dislike it because I think that we interpreters deserve better, the court deserves better, and the witness deserves the best possible access to the source language: simultaneous interpretation.  Real time interpretation of everything that happens during the hearing or trial.  Let us leave consecutive interpretation where it is needed: escort interpretation, jail visits, and some aspects of medical and community interpreting.

In an era where many hearings are held with the defendant appearing remotely by video, and attorneys file their pleadings electronically, there is no excuse to keep interpreting back in the Stone Age.  There is no reason why the witness, judge, attorneys and jury cannot have access to a headset to hear in their native language the questions and answers.  The argument that it is too complicated, that these people will be distracted by the equipment, is absurd. We are talking about the same people who drove themselves to court while listening to the radio or talking to their kids on the back seat of the car. We are talking about the same people who talk and text, walk and surf the net at the same time.  Learning how to switch a button on and off is not brain surgery; moreover, they can just remove the headset when they don’t need to use it.  By the way, this would also eliminate the distraction of having the interpreter next to the witness. It would remove the distraction of the interpreter’s whispering from the courtroom as we could be working from a booth like in all other venues where we render our services, and it would ensure more accuracy as we will be able to hear everything better from the booth. Will this cost money? Yes it will. Will these changes take time? Of course they will.  It is all true, but at some point in time we have to start.  Maybe if we start now the new courthouses will be designed and built with a booth.  In new colleges and universities classrooms are built this way.  Perhaps it will be other court systems that take the first steps towards this best solution.  Many countries are switching over to the oral proceedings. They are building new courthouses. Maybe they can be the pioneers. Maybe the European courts will be the frontrunners now that they are implementing their new court interpreter system.

The point is, dear colleagues, it is clear that we need to move towards full simultaneous interpretation of all court proceedings. All that remains to be decided is when we start and where we take the first steps.  Please share your comments and opinions on this issue.

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.

How to Defend Your Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter.

May 7, 2013 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Good professional interpreters are usually consumed with taking care of their clients, improving their skills, managing their agenda, and marketing to new clients.  This takes a lot of time and energy, and it is essential to succeed in this career.  Unfortunately, sometimes during their career some interpreters may experience other aspects of the profession that are less pleasant, more time-consuming, and very stressful.

Our professional tools are our brain, mouth, and a language combination. We can make mistakes, we are susceptible to questioning and second-guessing by others, and in out litigious society we are exposed to lawsuits that can leave us with no career, no resources, and a tainted reputation.

There are many circumstances that can affect our career as professional interpreters, but at this time I would like to focus on two of them:

When our work is subject to criticism and questioning by our peers or by a counterpart in a legal setting. We all have faced situations when in the middle of a court hearing a judge, attorney, witness, litigant, and even a juror, have interrupted our rendition to correct what we just said. Most of the time we were right and they were wrong. On occasion, because we are not machines, and because nobody can possibly know all regional expressions, these voices do us a favor as they correct our mistake and allow justice to be served. These are the scenarios we usually face when doing our job.  It sounds simple and straight to the point:  Either we are right and we say so in order to keep the process moving along, or we are wrong, and in that case we correct our error.  Unfortunately this is not how it happens in the real world.  Out there we have to deal with attorneys who are not happy because their non-English speaking client or witness is not saying what they wanted them to say, so the first thing they do is to cast a doubt over the rendition of the interpreter; there are those cases when the non-English speaker passionately defends his “translation” of a term even though we know for sure that he is mistaken. Sometimes the problem may be the judge who does not speak the foreign language, but out of fear of offending the non-English speaker decides to question the interpreter and sometimes even to adopt this person’s rendition of a word or term that you know is clearly wrong.

The second situation I want to mention to you is when a case does not end the way that one of the parties wanted it to conclude and the blame is totally or partly placed on the interpretation. The court decision is appealed on grounds of inadequate interpretation, or even worse, the interpreter is sued for damages by this losing party.  How can we defend our work when our rendition is questioned and the case goes on appeal? What can we do to protect ourselves in case somebody takes us to court for damages? There are preventive measures that we can take as interpreters to diminish the possibility of having to defend our work, our assets, and our reputation.  There are also steps we must follow in case our professional work is questioned or attacked in court.

These complex issues have to be addressed, and as true professionals we must be prepared in case this happens to us. For this reason, I will present: How to Defend Your Interpretation and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter in and out of Court” during the NAJIT annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri on May 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm. I invite you to go to the conference and I encourage you to attend this presentation where we will discuss these sad but possible scenarios and we will explore the different preventive measures that we should always take in order to avoid an adverse outcome, as well as the path to follow once our rendition or our skill has been formally questioned in a court of law.  I hope to see you in St. Louis.

The ten worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Part 2.

April 2, 2013 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last week I posted my first five worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Next, I share the rest of my list in the understanding that there are plenty more examples of these “worst things,” and inviting you to review my top ten, share your “war stories” and share your comments and solutions with the rest of us.

Here we go:

  1. Six.  “Mr. interpreter let me introduce you to my daughter, she took Spanish in high school and spent a month in Costa Rica so I want her to start interpreting my easy cases. Just show her what you do. She’ll pick up in no time.”   I was asked once to help this lawyer’s daughter because she was “really good with languages.”  Fortunately for me, I have no problem establishing my ground rules when at work so I immediately declined.  Unfortunately, I have seen many of my colleagues playing this role of mentor/teacher/parent with the lawyer’s child who just wants to get her dad to send her to a foreign country during the summer and has no intention whatsoever to become an interpreter.  The only solution is to politely explain that you are doing a job and that the lawyers are paying you a lot of money to provide your services; that you are not a teacher (even if you are) and that the “future polyglot“ daughter would not get anything from following you around, so the only thing to be accomplished would be a heftier interpretation services invoice.  I would also bring up the client-attorney privilege rules, and remind the attorney that the daughter’s presence could be a waiver of the privilege, and as such, it is the defendant who has to decide after being advised of these potential complications. A more permanent solution could include a paragraph on the written contract stating that you will not train anybody unless you bring the trainee and the defendant agrees to her presence during the interpretation.
  2. Seven.  “You know what, you charge too much, so I want you to just interpret the main parts of the hearing so I don’t have to pay you that much.”  I have been told this… more than once! You have been hired to do your job: interpret a hearing because the person does not speak English and he has the right to an interpreter. The fact is that, just as the lawyer, you are a professional and you sell your time.  You are there at the courthouse and you cannot be anywhere else. You cannot make money somewhere else because you are committed to this particular client.  You are getting paid to be there and interpret everything that is said (ideally) or everything your client tells you to interpret; but you were hired to BE THERE. Because you charge by the hour, just like the attorney, you need to be paid for the time devoted to the case, whether you are interpreting, waiting for the case to be called by the judge, taking a bathroom or lunch break during a recess, or traveling back and forth between your office and the courthouse or law office.  Maybe you should remind the attorney of this circumstance when he tells you not to interpret and you will see how quickly he changes his mind and asks you to interpret everything.  Here again, the long-term solution to this situation is to educate the attorneys and to have a written contract that states your fee, services, and what you are being paid for.
  3. Eight.  “Do not interpret that!”   This usually happens when the client complains to the court about the lawyer.  I once had a case when the defendant was before a judge to be sentenced for the commission of a crime. After the prosecutor and defense attorney spoke, the judge asked the Spanish-speaking defendant if he had anything to say. As I interpreted this words to the defendant he looked at me, then he turned to the judge and said: “solo que mi abogado es un pendejo.” (just that my lawyer is an asshole) The attorney, who spoke Spanish, and had political ambitions, stopped me immediately and told me not to interpret what the defendant had said. He then told his client in Spanish that he should not tell those things to the judge.  The dialogue looked quite strange even for those who do not spoke Spanish and the prosecutor (who I believe knew all the bad words in Spanish like many Americans do) immediately said  to the court that he wanted to hear what the defendant had said. The defense attorney said that it was privileged information, but the judge ruled that it had been said in open court while addressing him directly so he ordered me to interpret the words, which I did with pleasure, to the endless laughter of everybody in the courtroom. The attorney was mad at me for many months as if I had been the one who said it.  In this case, the outcome was ideal (well not for the defense attorney) because I let the attorneys argue the point and then waited for the judge to decide. The solution to these situations when somebody raises client-attorney privilege is always to let the lawyers argue the law and then wait for the judge’s decision. It is a legal matter and as such, we should keep our opinions to ourselves.
  4. Nine.  I need you to tell the jury that my client did not understand because he speaks a different type of Spanish”  I have been approached, and sometimes retained as an expert witness to convince a jury that a person did not understand what he was told by another interpreter because she had used a “different kind of Spanish.” Of course I testify as an expert all the time, and when I do, it is because I was retained to assess what happened and give my expert opinion about the issue in question. I have never nor will ever take a case where they ask me to testify one way or another, regardless of what really happened.  The simple, and effective solution is to turn down the case; however, most lawyers are not really asking you to lie under oath; in reality they are just asking you to see if their theory is even possible. I usually meet with the attorneys, explain my role, and make sure they understand that most Spanish-speaking people understand Spanish in general, regardless of where they were born, but that there are real idiomatic expressions, cultural practices, and words that have a different meaning depending on the part of the Spanish-speaking world where they were said.  If I notice that the claim is frivolous because of the expressions or words involved, and due to the educational background of the individual, I explain to the attorneys that my testimony would only hurt their case; on the other hand, if I see merit on the allegations, I accept the assignment and go to work. I believe this is the best practice because it grants access to your services to those who really need them while at the same time you are avoiding being part of a useless unrealistic claim.
  5. Ten.  Please collect my fee from my client.”  Very few things can get me going the way this request can. Many lawyers have trouble understanding that we are hired to interpret what they tell their client, not to act as their representative or agent during a legal fee negotiation. Many years ago an attorney handed me an invoice from his law firm without saying anything. Of course, I immediately understood what he wanted. I handed it back and told him: “You gave me this document by mistake.”  I could see him getting mad, and later I learned that he complained to other interpreters that I was not willing to “work for my own pay.”  I never worked with that attorney again, and I have never bargained, collected, or prepared a payment plan for any of the clients of the attorneys I have worked for.  Sadly, I have seen how many of our colleagues play this game and spend hours on hallways and courthouse steps waiving invoices, collecting checks, and handing receipts to those who have never been their clients. It is important to set boundaries from the beginning. We all know that part of our job as interpreters for a private attorney includes interpreting fee negotiations between client and lawyer; that is perfectly fine as we are providing our interpretation services to facilitate the communication between the parties to that professional relationship.  There is an abyss between what I just described and what some attorneys ask the interpreter to do.  Negotiating on behalf of the lawyer is not interpreting and therefore it is not covered by my fee. It is not what I do for living. As I said at the beginning of this post, my clients are attorneys who know how to work with an interpreter and they would never ask me to act as their collections agent, but just in case, you should always be ready to tell the attorney that you are glad to interpret the negotiations, but that you cannot and will not negotiate for them.

As you know, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Please review these “ten worst” and if you are up to it, I would love to read your top ten, top five, or even top one.  This should be good…

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with defendant at The Professional Interpreter.