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.