Interpreting Profanity in Court

Interpreting in court is not for the faint of heart. During the course of their careers, judicial interpreters will hear and interpret many things, and sometimes those things can be disturbing. One of the hardest things for some newcomers to court interpreting to master is the fact that they have to interpret everything that is being said, even if it's difficult, offensive, heartbreaking, incorrect, etc. Judy trains future legal interpreters at several universities, and one of the most frequent questions she gets from interpreters-to-be is: How do you handle profanity? What if someone drops the F-bomb or says something worse than that? 

The short and simple answer is: you interpret it. You will probably encounter less profanity than you think, but at some point, a defendant may curse, or attorneys may curse at each other, or a witness may start cursing at a defendant. Judy had to interpret at a deposition a few years ago where a few attorneys screamed at each other for what seemed like an eternity (it was only a few minutes, actually). She had to interpret that for the non-English-speaking deponent, who was shocked by the language being used by all attorneys, including his attorney. 

We've heard some stories, which perhaps are urban myths, that some interpreters, rather than interpret what's being said when it comes to profanity, will say: "Your Honor, the ________ is using profanity." In our humble opinion, that is not really an option. When you are in court, you take an oath that you will interpret everything, unless the judge instructs you not to, and you must do that. It doesn't matter if the language offends you-- you are there to interpret it. Of course, you do technically have the option to recuse yourself from the proceedings and hope the court can find another interpreter, but that's not a good solution in the long run, and it also won't make you popular with colleagues and court staff. 

So our advice to future and current court interpreters: be prepared for profanity, and interpret it. You might actually have to do some research into how to render some terms in the other language (this may be cringe-worthy for some), as these renditions can be trickier than you think. 


Andrew on July 11, 2017 at 1:52 PM said...

I'm studying for court certification now, so can't share personally about this environment, but it seems highly unprofessional to not render coarse language when interpreting in judicial settings. You'd think it was a straightforward issue, yet some do indeed seem to struggle with it.

I suffer not from reluctance to voice curse words, but rather the at times severe discomfort of knowing how such language affects an interaction, and being in the position where you as the interpreter are the conduit of that discomfort.

In my opinion, the answer to this question in court is much more black and white: you interpret it. I see more gray area in medical and community settings (where I currently work), in which the interpreter is forced to, at times, make certain concessions in his/her renditions; otherwise no communication would occur. I have many personal examples of this, but on the subject of profanity, I remember an encounter with an extremely rude, belligerent patient and an agitated doctor, in which I chose, in the heat of the moment, to omit one or two instances of "pinche" in my rendition into English. I felt in the moment that I would be protecting both patient and provider from a pointless escalation of tempers. Would I do the same in hindsight? I can't say for certain. Other interpreters might have handled it differently and included the f-bombs in their rendition. It's difficult to armchair-quarterback this one.

I remember fondly interpreting many a "hijo de puta" and "coño" for a sassy Cuban senior citizen who strongly disapproved of the exercises her physical therapist was assigning to her. The handful of times it's happened, I've enjoyed interpreting profanity. It can add a bit of a zing to an otherwise uneventful encounter.

Thank you for writing about this!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on July 20, 2017 at 12:22 PM said...

@Andrew: Many thanks for your thoughtful comment and so sorry about the late response here on this forum! You bring up some great points indeed. We do agree 100% that you do have some wiggle room in medical/community, which is nice. After all, the point of interpreting is to establish communication, and when some words, such as curse words in the excellent example that you mention, get in the way, it's nice to be able to have some way to remedy that (which of course we don't have in court). We don't work in medical too much, but your decision sounds like a wise one -- you made sure the interaction continued and didn't needlessly agitate the doctor more, which might have had a negative outcome for the patient.

And yes, sometimes it can be a bit entertaining to interpret curse words.... and it's interesting that many other cultures use them more liberally to simply spice up the language, or it's just so common it's not meant/used as an insult. That said, when attorneys start cursing at each other, it's always an insult, and we have to say it has been quite entertaining, at times, to interpret that for the LEP (who mostly are shocked at the attorney's poor behavior). Thanks again for commenting! We think this is a very important subject that must be discussed more in interpreting circles. Love your second example of the sassy Cuban senior citizen!

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