The Judge and the Uncertified Interpreter

Today's feel-good story comes from a rural Nevada court, where Judy witnessed the following:

I was interpreting for a witness during a short trial at this particular court, and before my witness took the witness stand, I quietly waited, seated behind the prosecution and the defense. After a few minutes and because of references made by all parties, it became evident to me that the victim in this case, who was seated behind me, was a deaf person who needed assistance with the proceedings. She had a young girl next to her who was signing quite fast, but who did not look like a certified interpreter with the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, as she looked like a teenager. I immediately thought: this isn't right! The victim is entitled to have all proceedings properly interpreted for her into American Sign Language (ALS) by a certified interpreter. I was thinking about how to communicate this to the court without being disruptive, when the judge seemed to read my mind and said:

Judge: Ms. X, who is this young lady who is sitting next to you and who's interpreting for you?

Victim, speaking through self-appointed interpreter: That's my niece.

Judge to niece: Are you a certified interpreter?

Niece: No, I am not. But I am really good at this. 

Judge: Well, be that as it may, I will not allow you to interpret in my courtroom. I just attended a workshop on this, and we are to only have properly certified and trained interpreters at these proceedings. The victim has a right to a certified interpreter if one is available. We will continue these proceedings tomorrow once we have found a certified interpreter in our town. Thanks for trying to assist, but I must follow the law and I must ensure that the interpreter is certified. For example, we have our certified Spanish interpreter here (pointing at me), and ASL interpreters must also be certified. 

It was wonderful to see that a judge in a small town had recently attended a workshop on this important issue and was making sure all rules were being followed. Judges have a lot of things on their plates and on their minds, and many times, ensuring proper language access is not high on their list. How refreshing to see that this court is making efforts to include those who have a language barrier!

What about you, dear colleagues? Have you witnessed something similar before? We bet it's probably more likely that you've witnessed the flip side: ad hoc interpreters being appointed. We would love to hear your experiences!


Alina on April 15, 2013 at 10:51 AM said...

That is amazing. I am glad the system still works there. I am not sure if you've heard about what's been happening here in the UK. The MoJ has decided to award all court interpreting assignments to only one company that failed miserably. Just to give you an example, an interpreter, who was too busy,sent her husband to interpret, as he spoke the language too. Someone even managed to register their pet rabbit on the repective agency's database. I can send you a link to a website dedicated to all these stories if you are interested.

Alice in Translation on April 15, 2013 at 12:00 PM said...

I've never seen or heard anything like what you described, just the opposite. But I'm talking about Italy and sometimes I think nothing makes sense here. I'll check with collegues, anyway. This post of yours sort of made my day, you know? It's wonderful to read such beautiful examples. Have a nice day,


Karen Tkaczyk on April 15, 2013 at 2:34 PM said...

Great story, Judy!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 15, 2013 at 4:20 PM said...

@Alina: Thanks for your comment. Don't get us wrong: the system is very broken here, too, and this is the exception. We are very familiar with the royal UK court interpreting mess, and frequently tweet about it. We've also blogged about it here -- what a terrible situation! We also wrote on this blog about the 30% paycut for court interpreters in Clark County, Nevada (it's all very county-based), so we have a long way to go before we have decent working conditions for court interpreters here. This particular judge is definitely the exception, not the rule. Sad to say, but it's true. And yes, we very certainly did hear about the pet rabbit that registered to interpret with ASL -- the bunny was even featured in The Guardian! Thanks for sharing.

We agree that working conditions for court interpreters (and pay, etc.) are sometimes less-than-ideal, but some moments are wonderful, which is why we shared this particular story. Let's keep on working together to make things better! Thanks for reading and for commenting.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 15, 2013 at 4:22 PM said...

@Alice: Unfortunately, we agree. The same is true here in the US. We've very rarely seen this particular situation, either. Rather, we see awful situations, such as judges trying to appoint ad hoc interpreters who happen to be related to one of the parties (really). There's obviously a lot of work to be done in terms of training judges and other members of their team, but this story at least shows that *some* impact is being made. One judge at a time....

Very happy to hear that this post made your day! It had us smiling for a long time, too. I just wanted to go up and hug the judge! He also seemed very pleased with his knowledge and very committed to doing the right thing, which is just fantastic.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 15, 2013 at 4:23 PM said...

@Karen: Thanks so much, girl! It's great to know that some judges really help certified court interpreters in their efforts to ensure that only certified terps work in the courts.

Alice in Translation on April 16, 2013 at 2:58 AM said...

@Alina. Can you post the link anyway? I would really appreciate reding more about it!

@Judy. Exactly, one judge at a time. When I was still attending my master, a professor of mine, who was a lawyer AND a translator, informed the judge of a big mistake in the translation from Rumanian into Italian which could have a strong impact on the defence of her client. The judge simply answered "It is not my problem". And that was it. It was SO infuriating to see that the client had become just another victim of the system... Well, better think of YOUR example instead. It gives hope :)

Marianne Reiner on April 18, 2013 at 4:53 PM said...

Judy, great story that really made me happy today!
I have a story where a misinterpretation could have derailed someone's life. Very early on, when I was volunteering with a local legal organization doing some asylum cases representation, I assisted an attorney and her client to prepare for an asylum hearing. After several months of working with them, the attorney invited me to attend the hearing. I was thrilled. It was my first time (not the last!) at an asylum hearing. Like in many asylum cases, the recounting of the client's story of violence and in this case, torture, was essential. The client was so brave, sat down and recounted her story. A French language interpreter paid by the immigration court was there. The asylum seeker had been raped. She said it in French. And the interpreter interpreted the word "rape" as "violation". I was livid. I panicked, managed to pass a note to the attorney alerting her to this grave misinterpretation. The attorney requested that the testimony be postponed until another interpreter was found. The judge denied her request. The asylum was not granted. An appeal was filed and a year later, the client was finally awarded her asylum. A large portion of the appeal rested on this one word misinterpretation.
I have since learned that the immigration judges are also supposed to receive a training on the importance of language access....I sure hope so.
Keep up the great work you do, Judy.

Chris on May 1, 2013 at 5:36 AM said...

This is great. I come from a small town, so it feels like issues like these just get missed, but I'm glad to see that it isn't so. Everyone should know of the right to a certified interpreter and it's great that this is getting spread around!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 1, 2013 at 3:07 PM said...

@Marianne: This is a truly frightening and disturbing story. We've heard of many similar incidents, as interpreters in immigration court do not have to hold the regular state certification, but some sort of special certification that's managed and administered by the agency that won the national contract.
How terrible that this poor women's interpreter cannot accurately interpret a simple and such an essential term. Good thing that this case ended well, but there sure were some trials and tribulations. Good thing you were there! We still have a long way to go when it comes to proper language access in the courts for non-English speakers. One of the first steps would be to only allow Consortium or California certified interpreters certify in court, if certification is available in that particular language combination. Here's to taking things to the next level! Slowly, but surely.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 1, 2013 at 3:08 PM said...

@Chris: Thanks for reading and for commenting! Don't get us wrong: language access oftentimes gets overlooked, even in big cities... but there's some hope.

Alina on May 10, 2013 at 4:33 AM said...

@ Alice: Sorry for the late reply. Here is the link You will find lots of stories about what is going on.

Elisabet Tiselius on May 14, 2013 at 1:10 PM said...

Interesting. And great that the judge had attended a workshop on the topic. I was curious to know, did the young niece get any info about RID or certification (for later in life I mean)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 15, 2013 at 5:56 PM said...

@Elisabet: Good point. Things move very, very quickly in these courts, and as far as we know, the niece did not get any information, but perhaps she will find her way to this fabulous profession on her own soon!

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