Some administrators make interpreting very difficult.
June 30, 2015 § 9 Comments
Interpreting is an extremely difficult profession. Besides mastering their craft, interpreters must know enough about practically everything, possess the will to research and study, and be confident and clear when assisting others who need to communicate in two different languages. This is a plate full of challenges, sleep-deprivation, and the need to be aware that this is a business where we need to excel if we want to survive. Unfortunately, too many times this tough profession gets even tougher because of ignorant, incompetent, narrow-minded, or lazy, supervisors and administrators, even when they are well-intentioned and mean no harm to the interpreter or the profession.
We all know that there are good, hard-working, and capable administrators, many of them former interpreters who know what it takes to do a good job (although some former colleagues, for whatever reason, have not been successful as supervisors or administrators). I am not talking about them here. Today I am referring to those who fit the description above and have made the lives of our colleagues impossible, and even nightmarish.
There are many examples of poor decisions and unfortunate actions by these “people in power”, and I am sure you all have your fair share of them. My travels take me to so many places where I hear these stories from frustrated interpreters, so I know, as well as you do, that there are numerous examples where to choose from. This selection process was, at the same time, difficult and easy, but I finally settled for the two cases that I will describe below. In choosing them, I took into account the magnitude of the error, and the impact this has on ourselves and our profession. I say to my friends and colleagues who do not practice in the court system that the examples are from the legal field, but they could easily be from medical, community, military, or conference interpreting.
Some time ago, an administrator in a court setting put an interpreter’s knowledge of his duties, legal procedure, and rules of ethics to the test, by reacting unexpectedly to a very delicate situation.
This seasoned veteran interpreter was working in a trial, together with another colleague who apparently was fairly new to the practice. They were interpreting for a member of the jury who did not know English (the main language in the jurisdiction where the trial was taking place). Although uncommon, there are places where the law allows people of other languages to be a part of a jury. This was one of those cases.
In the middle of the trial, a police officer was called to testify. During the testimony, he went on to describe how he had learned about the circumstances of the case, and part of what he was describing to the jury, had to do with the manner in which he gained access to the home of the defendant. At that point, the non-English speaking juror that the interpreters were assisting, passed a note to the judge through the bailiff. The judge read the note, and asked the interpreters to sight translate it for him and the attorneys on a sidebar, so the jury would not hear what this person wrote. The note was a question from the non-English speaker to the police officer who was testifying: The juror wanted to know if the officer had authorization from the owner of the house (the defendant) to enter the property. After discussing it with the attorneys, the judge allowed the question, as in this jurisdiction, like in many others, members of the jury are permitted to ask questions during a trial. The veteran interpreter sight translated the question aloud, for the record and for the benefit of the witness and the jury. The novice interpreter stayed with the interpreting equipment ready to simultaneously interpret back the police officer’s answer to the non-English speaking juror. Once the question was posed to the witness in English by the veteran interpreter, he went back to his place next to the novice interpreter. I do not have the transcription of the exact answer, but after a moment, the police officer responded something like this: “…No… but because of the specific circumstances of the situation, this is one of those exceptions allowed by the statute…” and he went on to describe the circumstances and the exception to the rule. Regardless of the truthfulness of the officer’s statement, for all practical purposes, his answer was that he was acting legally when he entered the property. At that point it was for the jury to assess the credibility of the witness and decide if he was telling the truth. After this answer, the jury was well equipped to make that decision. Unfortunately, the non-English speaker juror did not hear a complete interpretation of the answer given by the policeman. As noted above, the rendition the juror heard in English was as follows, and again, I did not have the benefit of the transcript, so the officer’s answer was something like this: “…No… but because of the specific circumstances of the situation, this is one of those exceptions allowed by the statute…” and he went on to describe the circumstances and the exception to the rule. Sadly, the interpretation by the novice interpreter was: “No”. Nothing else.
When the veteran interpreter, who was sitting next to the novice interpreter heard the rendition, and saw how the novice interpreter just kept going without even trying to correct his mistake, the veteran interpreter worried. He immediately realized that there was a juror who had asked a question, and at this time was at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the jury because an interpreter had omitted a crucial part of the testimony. Dear colleagues, while the other jurors heard how the police officer was legally allowed to enter the house of the defendant, the non-English speaker heard the officer say “no”. He heard him answer to his question by saying that he was not allowed to enter the home. The veteran interpreter tried to make eye contact with his colleague, also wrote him a note, but the novice interpreter ignored the efforts of his fellow interpreter, and avoiding his stare, he just kept going as if nothing serious had happened.
As soon as the veteran interpreter realized that his colleague was not planning to correct the rendition, he wrote a note to the judge asking for a moment to talk to him and the attorneys. The bailiff gave the note to the judge who read it, acknowledged the veteran interpreter, and signaled that he would listen to him as soon as it was prudent to come to a stop in the trial.
A few minutes later, the judge took a recess, asked the jury to leave the courtroom, and in open court, without the presence of the jury, he listened to the veteran interpreter who explained what happened. After some debate by the attorneys, the judge decided that he was not going to tell the jury about the misinterpretation; instead, he considered that the best way to cure the mistake was to allow the prosecution to explain during closing arguments that the officer was legally allowed to enter the defendant’s residence because of an exception to the law and that the police officer knew this when he decided to go inside the house. This is exactly how it happened, and the problem was cured by the judge’s decision and thanks to the skill and quick thinking of the veteran interpreter. After the trial the judge thanked the interpreter for disclosing this issue that otherwise would have gone unnoticed by the court.
This would have been a happy ending for everybody, even the novice interpreter who thanks to the actions of his veteran colleague learned from his mistake without harming the legal process . Unfortunately, there is more to the story.
When the court administrator in charge of interpreter services found out what had happened during the trial, she immediately asked the veteran interpreter to go see her. Apparently, when the interpreter got there, she was fuming because, according to her, the interpreter had made a big mistake by writing a note to the judge informing him that he needed to talk to him and the attorneys. In the opinion of this administrator, who is not an interpreter or an attorney, the veteran interpreter needed to stand up and immediately state aloud, for the record, that the interpreters needed to correct something, and then immediately correct the mistake of the novice interpreter by doing a full rendition of the police officer’s answer to the non-English speaking juror. The veteran interpreter could not believe what he was hearing as the administrator spoke of sanctions to the interpreter for not making the correction right away on the record!
Obviously, the veteran interpreter immediately explained to the administrator that her suggested solution was not even an option, that interpreters need to know the basic rules of criminal proceeding, and that doing what the administrator was suggesting as the solution to the problem would have been nefarious. This action could have risked a mistrial because of an interpreter decision to disclose something to the jury without first informing the judge and the attorneys who should be the ones who, after arguing the facts and the law, decide how to cure the error. Obviously, the judge thought that in this case, instead of correcting the rendition the way the administrator wanted, the appropriate solution was to fix it on closing statements as they did. Judges can be wrong, but interpreters should not take over the judge’s function and decide what to do in a trial. Even after this explanation, the administrator did not admit the mistake to the interpreter, perhaps to save face, but she knew that the he was right because no sanction was ever imposed to the veteran interpreter. We can clearly see that, an example of an interpreter doing the right thing to correct a mistake was praised by those who knew the law, but it created undeserved stress and generated unnecessary expenses to the interpreter, who had to be worried about possible sanctions by the administrator, and had to spend a day at the administrator’s office instead of earning a living. Some administrators make interpreting very difficult.
The second case happened to me. As you know, I teach workshops and seminars all over the world. On one occasion, the organizer of a workshop that had hired me to teach, among other things, an advanced ethics seminar, contacted me to let me know that the person in charge of approving continuing education credits in a rural state in the U.S. had informed them that she was not going to grant credits because the title of the seminar did not include the word ethics. I was extremely surprised to hear this because that exact seminar had been approved for continuing education credits many times in the past, and in fact, it had been approved for the same seminar in other jurisdictions.
I sensed the concern on the part of the organizers, because even though the state denying the request for credits was small and we would probably get very few interpreters who needed that approval, if any, they felt (as I did) that the credits were deserved. To alleviate my client’s concern, I wrote a very detailed explanation to this state officer explaining sentence by sentence how the description of the seminar that she was given from the beginning referred to the Canons of Ethics. I even indicated what Canon applied to each one of the parts of the description of my seminar. I further explained that adding the word “ethics” to a title does not qualify a class as ethics, that my experience as a professional instructor had taught me that to get a big crowd to attend a seminar or workshop you need a catchy title, and that was the reason why I had decided not to go with a boring title with the word “ethics” as part of it. That is why we provide a seminar description so that those deciding to attend can make up their minds. To our surprise, this bureaucrat, who has never been an interpreter, is not a lawyer, and has been in the government for over twenty years, rejected the credits request because “…the description (of the seminar) does not match the title (of the presentation…).” Because of the size of the jurisdiction that she represents, we decided not to pursue the continuing education credits that state anymore. This was a business decision, not an academic one; it did not impact my career or my pocket, but for the purpose of this post, I thought it was important to include this ignorant decision by a person who in the past told a newspaper that to find court interpreters: “…we call restaurants, churches…I found a Kurdish interpreter at Target…” It is no mystery why there are so few certified court interpreters in this jurisdiction, and why they are among the worst paid nationwide. Our colleagues who deal with this individual regularly know well that some administrators make interpreting very difficult.
I now invite you to share with all of us your stories about those occasions when the ignorance of a supervisor or an administrator made your work more difficult, and remember, please do not mention people’s names or places.
When the court interpreter asks for a sidebar.
February 11, 2014 § 42 Comments
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.
The ten worst things a judge can do to a court interpreter.
November 30, 2012 § 32 Comments
I know that just the title of this article made you think of a myriad of things that go on in a courthouse that seem to be designed to make the life of the interpreter miserable. Believe me, you are not alone. For this reason, I decided to compile some of the most infamous ones and share them with all of you. Keep in mind that I will focus on the judge, intentionally leaving the attorney’s worst 10, clerk’s worst 10, witness worst 10, and so forth for future articles. I am writing this with a therapeutic perspective, trying to add some possible solutions to these problems while at the same time creating empathy and inviting a good healthy laugh when relating to these horror stories.
Here we go:
1. “Please ask him his date of birth.” Those judges who insist to address the parties on the third person despite what they have been told over and over again. A quick solution would be to “ignore” the judge and simply interpret on the first person even if “Your Honor” doesn’t. Long term solution: Talk to the judge over and over again. Organize a presentation for all judges and hope these judges show.
2. “Why do we need two interpreters? We only have one court reporter.” Those judges who think that a bilingual individual should be able to effortlessly interpret a difficult proceeding on their own, since we are “”just talking after all,” a good short term solution is to have the chief interpreter or his equivalent go to the judge (ideally with the two working interpreters) and explain the reasons why this is needed, assuring the judge that there is a budget for this “inconvenience.” For a long term solution you can provide some team interpreting literature to the court , and maybe “arrange” a meeting with other judges who understand the team interpreting concept.
3. “Just have a seat. I will take care of the private attorney cases first because they are busy.” For those state judges who need votes to keep their jobs and want the private bar on their side, a good short term solution could be to talk to the clerk and explain that you are needed somewhere else. Many “nice” clerks will help the interpreter. A more durable solution would be to meet with the administration and point out the waste of resources caused by an interpreter sitting in a courtroom for hours doing nothing.
4. When you cannot hear the judge. When the judge whispers or speaks away from the microphone making it impossible to hear what she said. We all know that drama in the court is part of the “showmanship” influence of the media, but we simply cannot interpret what we can’t hear. For a quick fix interrupt the hearing and politely ask the judge to speak louder and into the microphone. Of course, we all know that this request will only be honored for a few seconds, so the lasting solution has to be smarter; maybe getting the court reporter on board as she is probably having the same difficulties, or maybe drafting the IT people as your allies in those courthouses where the hearings are recorded.
5. “Sorry Mr. Interpreter but we already did the case because the defendant’s spouse speaks English.” It is getting better, but not everywhere. You may want to establish a system with the clerk where she does not give the file to the judge unless the interpreter is in the courtroom. Another solution could be to involve the attorneys and explain to them the risk of an appeal for lack of a certified interpreter. Be creative, sometimes it works.
6. “Would the interpreter stay still and speak lower? You are distracting my jury.” I was asked once to “speak as lithe as possible.” You should ask for a sidebar with all parties involved and explain how in order to interpret you need to talk. Maybe suggest the “distracted” juror moves to another seat, and maybe point out to the defense the fact that a “distracted” juror may not be who the parties want to have deciding the faith of their client. Just a mere thought.
7. “Why do we need you to interpret? He’s been in the country for 20 years.” Sometimes I ask myself that same question, however, the fact is that when the person does not speak English, he has the right to an interpreter. Maybe you can answer the judges question by saying, very politely though, that it is because he does not speak English. The long-term solution to this problem is non-existent with this particular judge. For the rest, an orientation by the Bar, the court administration, or the local interpreters’ association may prove to be valuable.
8. “Do not interpret consecutively. We need to get going and you just got new equipment.” This usually happens during testimony. A way to overcome this obstacle is to explain how the jury needs to hear and understand the answers, and it will be quite difficult for them to hear an answer if both, interpreter and witness are speaking at the same time from the stand. Of course, despite of what some colleagues think, some simultaneous interpretation equipment for the members of the jury would cure this problem,
9. “What do you need the file and jury instructions for? It is a waste of paper”. I know thie second part of the quote is unthinkable in some states, but trust me, it happened to me some years ago. To overcome the ruling of this “ecologist” judge, you should ask the court administration or chief interpreter to get you those materials in advance. AS a back-up plan, try to get the prosecution and/or defense to understand the need for these documents. However, no matter how difficult or scary, never give up. Do not settle for a trial without a file and jury instructions. You would be setting the profession back!
10. “I think you can settle parts of this claim, so use the interpreters during lunch.” This awful judge just put you on a tough spot. You are an officer of the court so you need to perform, however, nobody can work without a break, even if we are “just talking.” Solve this situation by asking for the chief interpreter’s help. He or she should be the one solving this problem. Maybe a second team can work the conference room while you rest, have lunch and get ready to come back for the formal hearing in the afternoon.
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…