Everyday Quandaries of a Court Interpreter

Just another day in court: Trapped in the middle of a contentious divorce trial
between two pro se parties full of rage and completely unversed in the rules of law and trial proceeding.

After hours of arguing, Mrs. Divorcee calls her first witness: her 92-year-old
mother. The tiny, sedate lady approaches the stand, takes her oath, and refuses
to raise her voice above a (very faint) whisper. Furthermore, she doesn’t really
want to answer her daughter’s questions (and to be fair, her daughter’s “direct
examination” consists wholly of questions such as: “Is it true that I told you
he was a bad person?”) She merely wishes to issue a monologue under her breath
about how much she dislikes the soon-to-be ex-son-in-law. She explains
indignantly after the fifth request that she raise her voice, “but then they
all [indicating the judge and court clerk] will be able to hear me!”

Finally the excruciatingly painful direct examination ends, and the cross-examination begins. In an attempt to demonstrate his soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law’s lack of credibility, Mr. Divorcee begins asking her what she can and can’t remember, including today’s date. This is when things go from hairy to hairier. In Spanish, the witness says, again under her breath, “the date…what day is it. What day is it? No, what day is it?” I begin to interpret this into English and she looks straight at me, raises her voice for the first time and snaps in Spanish, “SHUT UP!”

Let’s be real here. This is an amusing anecdote. But it also illustrates some of the every-day quandaries that we interpreters face. We are under an obligation to facilitate communication so that court proceedings with people who don’t speak English are equivalent to those of people who do; no more, no less. We are supposed to try to be invisible. But our mere presence in the room and our proximity to the litigants changes that courtroom experience. The 92-year-old witness was most likely looking to me to provide an answer to her out-loud ponderings. If I had not been there (i.e., if she had spoken English), the incident most likely would not have played out the way it did.

Likewise, what of those litigants trying to get the court’s attention? If they say, “permiso, puedo preguntar algo?” even if they ask very quietly, I have no problem saying in English, “I’m sorry, can I ask a question?” But sometimes they simply try to catch my eye, raising their hand a fraction of an inch, trying to get not the judge’s attention, but mine. It turns out I’m not invisible. But they are not saying anything, so what can I interpret?
Then there are the litigants who try to show you evidence. They have photos they try to shove under your nose, receipts they forgot to hand to the sheriff’s officer and again, there is nothing to interpret.

I find that a little bit of education goes a long way; explaining that I am there only to interpret, that they should speak clearly and slowly and direct all testimony to the judge. Many judges will include that in their instructions, and perceptive judges will notice when the litigant is trying to show the interpreter something and redirect the parties’ attention. If all else fails, I can say, “your honor, the interpreter is being given documents.” But this always feels a bit sticky. Am I overstepping my boundary? If I were not there, the litigant might be trying to show this directly to the judge, but they might not.

English-speaking litigants don’t have someone whose sole job in the courtroom is to make sure they understand the proceeding. No, we interpreters are not there to simplify the language or help with the proceeding in any way other than providing linguistic equivalence, but their interaction with the interpreter is most likely more comfortable and less intimidating than their relationship with the judge.

In the end, it seems that our task is impossible. There is no exact equivalent to the non-interpreter proceedings; you either speak English and there is no interpreter, or you do not speak English and there is one. When there is one, the dynamics of the room change. Is our job then not to create equivalence but to minimize differences? I am curious to know your thoughts. In the meantime, I will cross my fingers that today’s divorce proceeding does not end with a tongue lashing directed at yours truly!

Published at http://najit.org/blog on 12/26/14