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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