5 Truths About Court Interpreting

Image source: http://www.in.gov/judiciary/2794.htm
Both our interpreting students and beginning court interpreters colleagues pursing certification regularly ask us about what it's really like to be a working court interpreter. As Judy is a federally certified Spanish court interpreter, she is going to (partially, of course) answer this question  with 5 cold, hard truths that you might not have learned at university or during your training. In no particular order, here they are:

1) You will be scared/intimidated at times. It's fine. Tennis great John McEnroe is not known for his deep insight, but rather for his tantrums on the court (tennis court, not justice court!), but he did once say something along the lines that if you don't have butterflies in your stomach before a match (or in our case, a court hearing) you simply don't care enough. Judy still has occasional butterflies, and the situation usually merits it. A lot is at stake in court, and they are somber and serious occasions with real consequences for people who are right next to you. It's not for the faint of heart. You might have become complacent when you don't feel any sort of nervous tension at all, ever. Embrace the butterflies. Your work is important and relevant, and sometimes the weight of it will affect you.

2) Stopping proceedings is not really a (good option). It's true that we are taught that you should interrupt proceedings and ask the court (meaning the judge) for permission to look up a word if you don't know it, as guessing is never an acceptable alternative in court. While this is, in theory, true, Judy hasn't seen it done once in 10 years in court. Things move so fast, are so hectic and often so contentious that there usually simply isn't a good time to say: "The interpreter requests permission to look up a term." So the best thing you can do is to train your brain to not have that "out" and be prepared. Overprepare. Obsess about terminology. You must know it once you enter a courtroom. Realistically, you won't have time to look up terminology, so you better know your stuff. If this thought scares you, that's a good thing. Fear is a good motivator. Go and study some more terminology.

3) Sticking to the code of ethics can be a significant challenge. Codes of ethics are key, but they can also be confusing and too general, and, no pun intended, they are open for interpretation. Being impartial is one of the key aspects of the codes of ethics for court interpreters in all states, and it can be harder than it seems. It's also about avoiding the appearance of impartiality, which includes not talking to non-English speakers unless you are interpreting. It takes three people for interpreting to take place, and you are not to have side conversations with anyone. This is oftentimes harder than you think, as witnesses and defendants may want to have a friendly chat. Avoid it. If an attorney asks you to explain something to his or her client, say that you will interpret anything they want, but that you will never explain (the lawyers do the explaining, while the interpreters do the interpreting). When in doubt about the code of ethics, go for the strictest interpretation of it possible. You don't want to have the reputation of not being impartial. Your career very much depends on, in part, sticking to the code of ethics. It's better to be a stickler for the rules than to be dragged in front of the ethics committee.

4) It will be heartbreaking and difficult. You will see grown men cry, you will see teenagers get sentenced to 10 years in prison, you will see families get ripped apart. You will witness injustice, incompetent lawyers, petty disputes between the prosecution and the defense, needless motions, angry judges, overworked bailiffs, upset family members and much, much more. The American justice system is very much imperfect, but it's the one we have. As a court interpreter, your job is not to change it or to advocate for anyone, but rather to interpret. You do it if everyone is crying (and you don't cry). You do it even if it's hard or if something is happening that you completely disagree with. You solider on and do your job. No one cares about what you think and about how it affects you. This may not be what you want to hear, but it's the reality of the profession. And yes, you may interpret for child molesters, wife killers, and those who deal meth by the kilos. Be ready.

5) Respect is earned. As a new interpreter, you might find the pace impossible, and  we hate to tell you this, but no one will slow down for you. Attorneys, courtroom administrators, law clerks and all other players in the courtroom are busy people, and their dockets, desks and calendars are full. The last thing they need is a struggling interpreter, and while that seems unfair for beginners, that's the way it is. Be ready to perform at a high level after getting certified, and don't rush into interpreting in open court until you really are ready. Being certified is great, but it's the minimum requirement. All parties usually have high expectations of court interpreters, as they should. Earn their respect by going above and beyond: arrive early and impeccably dressed in business attire, put away your cell phone, be prepared for your case, don't interrupt, know where to sit, stand and hand in your paperwork, be respectful to everyone, don't take sides, don't give advice, introduce yourself to attorneys you don't know, etc. Court interpreters are an integral part of the American judiciary and of everyday court proceedings, but oftentimes we hear interpreters complain that they don't get the respect they deserve. The flip side of this coin is that attorneys oftentimes complain that interpreters are late and poorly dressed, which is unacceptable. Who's right? We don't know, but we have certainly witnessed plenty of tardiness and (yes, really) completely inappropriate apparel. When in doubt, wear a black suit. It's quite a thrill to get mistaken for the judge, which happens to Judy on a regular basis. 

We hope you have enjoyed these five short truths! We'd be delighted to hear your thoughts.


Victor Dewsbery on March 1, 2018 at 1:51 AM said...

Be ready for an acoustic challenge, too. On my last court appearance in a historic court building in Berlin we were in an old room that was much too big for the five people (including me) who were at the hearing. The room had a dreadful echo, the judge had an extremely quiet voice but because of the room furnishings and the protocol she was sitting several yards away from the rest of us. The windows were not sound-proofed, and there was building work going on outside.
Under these circumstances, I frequently had to ask for statements to be repeated and clearly enunciated.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 1, 2018 at 8:45 AM said...

@Victor: Many thanks for your insightful comment! Oh yes, problems related to acoustics are a significant challenge indeed. You can't interpret what you can't hear, and sometimes even just having the bare minimum in terms of decent working conditions can be a struggle, as you described so well in your Berlin scenario. Sounds like you made it work anyway in spite of all the adversity. Thanks again for reading and for commenting.

Andrew on March 3, 2018 at 2:11 PM said...

Judy, thank you for sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly of court interpreting. This is very insightful for me as I'm just starting out in this world. The reminder regarding terminology is sorely needed and warmly received! I was interpreting a (non-court) appointment last week and fell quite flat on on my face trying to interpret a conversation on car repair between a bunch of mechanics from rural eastern WA. I went home realizing I could no longer avoid learning about this dreaded topic. Then again, the continual learning is part of what I love about the profession.

Thank you for taking the time to write about your experience and share tips. It's always helpful.

Anonymous said...

Although originally a State of CA and AOUSC certified Spanish court interpreter, I have for years refused to work for a judiciary that has legalized torture by changing the legal definition of the word, legalized kidnapping by eliminating habeas corpus, legalized highway robbery by re-branding it as 'civil asset forfeitures', legalized a de facto police state by invariably failing to prosecute egregious cases of law enforcement abuse against innocent citizens, legalized massive spying on the general population on a level never previously seen before in human history, and a legalized system of secret parallel courts (FISA courts) that use secret interpretations of law in order to issue secret warrants that no one will ever know about thanks to secret gag orders.

The United States of Amerika is a nation that is COLLAPSING as we speak.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 28, 2018 at 3:39 PM said...

@Anonymous: Thanks for bringing up this very weighty and important subject. We agree that the judiciary is imperfect at best. JThis is a big subject that's probably best discussed in person at a conference somewhere (if you want).

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 29, 2018 at 2:32 PM said...

@Andrew: Thanks for your comment and so sorry about the late response. Oh yes, there are so many topics that will come up that are entirely non-judicial, and as you say, the learning continues every day indeed. Car repair is a tough one indeed... happy learning new vocab! I bet you will use it again in depositions (not infrequently, deponents work as mechanics and get asked about their work).

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