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.

The Interpreting Olympics


As readers of this blog may have recently discovered, we like to draw analogies between sports and interpreting, mainly because well, we are pretty serious athletes ourselves and because we are tired of the same old analogies about interpreting.

During this month's 2018 Olympics in Korea, we are reminded, as you would expect, of the Olympic spirit of competition and sportsmanship. We especially loved Olympic gold medalist figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu motioning for his fellow medalists to join him on the top of the podium. Shoma Uno and Javier Fernández (who took a historic bronze for Spain), and in a touching moment, they all embraced on top of the podium. Uno and Fernández initially seemed to think that Hanyu was only motioning for them to come closer, but no, he wanted them to share the moment with him as equals. It was a touching gesture that's oftentimes done in Olympics, but it's powerful every time.

And perhaps this Olympic moment can serve as an important reminder that in the profession of interpreting, we are all in it together. It's not a competition, and while some of us might have a higher profile than others, get more glamorous assignments, have more visibility than others, have more followers on social media platforms, have cooler clients and higher rates, travel more or less than others, or get more coverage in the media than others, we should keep in mind that we must all work together to further our profession.  We are, essentially, all equals. No matter your language or your skill level (let's face it: there are skills differentials) or whether you are a high-flying diplomatic interpreter or do thousands of cases in dingy courtrooms for non-glamourous cases, you are just as important as every other interpreter. Oftentimes in our profession we don't realize that we need to be each others' best allies and fans in order to strengthen our profession from within. It is true and correct that we also have to work with the outside world to increase visibility and improve rates and working conditions, but let's not forget that it all starts from within. Let's ask each other to join each other on the proverbial podium. Let's celebrate each other's succcesses and get inspired by them: just like Olympic athletes. This analogy may or not be a stretch, but perhaps we can get a medal for trying to make it. Go #teaminterpreters! 

Cancellation Policies for Court Interpreters

For one of our final posts of 2017 (time flies, doesn't it?), we wanted to discuss an important issue for court interpreters: cancellation policies. 

If you have worked as a court interpreter for any length of time, you will be familiar with a common phenomenon: depositions, arbitrations, mediations and other types of hearings get moved, cancelled, postponed, etc. It also happens in court, but many courts will  pay the interpreter for a cancellation that is received less than 24 hours ahead of time. For civil cases and in the private market, it's up to the interpreter to set and enforce cancellation policies. In general, as a profession, we can do a better job at enforcing this, and we have (anecdotal evidence here) noticed that colleagues can be timid about their cancellation policies. However, definining them and sticking to these policies can be key to preserving our earning potential. We recently heard from a dear colleague who doesn't like to take depositions anymore because so many of them get cancelled. She has a good point, but rather than not taking the work, we think the better approach is to draft a good cancellation policy. In fact, we like cancelled depositions and other hearings.

It's entirely reasonable to have a cancellation period. In fact, many professionals have it, including doctors, lawyers, and even massage therapists and hair stylists. Most people understand that you have relatively little opportunity to sell your time again to someone else if the first person, the one you had originally scheduled, cancels a few hours ahead of time. In addition to potential lost income, there's also the issue of professional courtesy: most of us are busy enough that once we have a slot booked we get inquiries for the same slot from other clients, which we turn down (if you operate on a first-come, first-served principle, like most of us do). It's reasonable to expect clients to give us plenty of notice so we can fill the slot once they discover they need to reschedule.

Our cancellation policy is 24 hours, and we have enforced it without major problems for years. Once in a while a client will ask us to cut them some slack if they cancel, say, 23 hours ahead of time, and depending on the client, we do. We are now thinking about changing our cancellation policy to 48 hours, because in our experience, it's quite difficult to fill cancellations within a day. What about you, dear colleagues? How have you handled this issue? We'd love to read your comments.

Webinar: Negotiating Skills for Linguists

Image created on www.canva.com
We know, we know: negotiating is probably most linguists' least favorite part of the job, but it doesn't have to be painful. Join Judy and the CLEF in Québec (Carrefour des langagiers entrepreneurs/Language Entrepreneus Forum -- go entrepreneurs!)  on Friday, December 8, 2017, for a pre-holiday webinar on how to make everyone, including yourself, happy when negotiating contract terms -- but maybe not always. It's important to keep in mind that the negotiation process doesn't have to be something negative and adversarial. Sometimes it's good to look at it just as a conversation during which each party gives and takes a little.

Note: the webinar will be presented in English.

Here's a webinar abstract:
Regardless of your profession, negotiating is often everyone’s least favorite activity. It can be stressful and intimidating for linguists, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s also an opportunity to hone your skills, try new strategies, and even cement your business relationships if done right. It takes practice, patience, and the willingness to assume some risk. During this webinar, the speaker will take you through some of the main things to keep in mind when negotiating with potential and existing clients.

You can register for the webinar here. Hope to see you there and happy negotiating!

Open Thread: Spooky/Scary/Funny Interpreting Experiences

Image by freepik.
Happy Halloween, dear friends and colleagues from around the world! Halloween-based posts and newsletters (and advertising, of course) are a thing this year, so we thought we'd jump in by asking interpreters to share their scary/spooky/funny stories as they relate to their interpreting experience. Some assignments can be very scary, others are emotionally draining and difficult, while others are simply funny. Of course we do not mean to make light of challenging or scary situations, but we would love to hear about them and share them here.


Below are some of ours:

Scariest interpreting experience:  A few years ago, Judy went into a county jail to interpret for a defendant and his public defender. After the appointment was over, all three of us were locked in the interview room because the jail doesn't have enough staff to come and unlock the door. Judy wasn't scared of the defendant at all, who was very polite, but didn't enjoy being locked in a small room. Being claustrophobic doesn't help. Plus, it was lunch time! It took about an hour for staff to let us out.

Spookiest interpreting experience: Last year, Dagy had the pleasure of interpreting at an OPEC event in Vienna (Judy was there as back-up interpreter), specifically at the gorgeous Hofburg (Imperial Palace) Conference Center. It was a high-profile event with media from all over the world, but finding your way around, especially to the interpreting booth, was a bit spooky: think dark corners (no ghosts, though), hidden corridors, and hallways so complicated that it makes you want to leave breadcrumbs so you can find your way back from the bathroom. The Imperial Palace dates back to the 13th (!) century, and the fourth-floor interpreting booths are obviously much newer than that, thus creating an architectural challenge and was not always solved in the most elegant way. After much running around, we are happy to report we did did find our way to the booth, to the bathroom, to the hall were lunch was being served, and back out without needing any breadcrumbs.

Funniest interpreting experience: Judy showed up at a mine (yes, a mine) in desolate central Nevada wearing a business outfit, only to be told that she'd be interpreting outside in 115-degree weather, and that she'd be working around corrosive and potentially explosive (!) materials. Since there was no other clothing available, she was given the nurse's scrubs, socks, and steel-toed shoes, which she wore under fire-retardant clothing (brand-new, at least). The client showed up and was puzzled that the nurse spoke German.  Judy had to explain that she wasn't the nurse, but the interpreter. 

We'd love to hear your scariest/spookiest/funniest interpreting experience, dear colleagues! Please leave them in the comments below and have a fantastic Halloween!


Budgeting for Quarterly Estimated Tax Payments

Norwegian kroner, because we had the picture handy. Photo by Judy.
If you are like most small business owners here in the U.S, in our profession or any other, you are probably quite familiar with quarterly estimated taxes, which are due four times a year. We generally think taxes are a great thing, and that they are one of the main things that make a society work, and we are happy to pay them. But sometimes small businesses run into cash flow issues and occasionally you have to scramble to come up with the estimated tax payment when it's due. It's happened to us, too, and while we have always been able to pay it, we figured we needed an easy way to guarantee the money is there when we need it.

The strategy we started using is quite simple, but one we had only used intermittently before: every time we deposit a check into our checking account or receive a payment via online banking transfer (which they all should be, but we digress), we immediately take 20% of each payment and transfer that into a savings account that's used to pay taxes. The two accounts are with the same bank (Chase, as much as we dislike them at times) and the transfer is quick, easy, and free. Since the money goes out so quickly after it's been deposited, we don't really miss it, and we ware delighted to have it come tax time. 

What do you think, dear colleagues? Do you follow a similar strategy?

Free Event: Proz.com's International Translation Day

Can you believe it's September? We can't, but the great news is that International Translation Day, one of our favorite days of the year, is right around the corner. This year September 30 falls on a Saturday, so many T&I organizations and groups are having events on Thursday and Friday of that week. Just like every year, Proz.com is putting on a free virtual event -- complete with American Translators Association CE credits (currently pending). This is a big event with some 10,000 registrants expected to sign up! Judy is delighted to be part of the festivities and will present two sessions:

1) The art of the business lunch: How to handle yourself and grow your T&I business (September 26)
2) Is Twitter stupid? (September 27)

Other sessions that look very interesting include:
What I would do differently if starting over (September 26)
Tips and tricks for remote interpreters (September 27)
How to create multiple streams of income as a linguist (September 27)


There is no need to register: you simply log on here when you are ready. Recordings will be available to all attendees (depending on your Proz.com membership status, you can access the recordings for 72 hours, 1 week, or forever). Happy International Translation Day, everyone!

Personal Document Translation: What If I Can't Read Something?

The last post of the month is about a topic that's not very glamorous, but can be quite lucrative: personal document translation. Oftentimes, linguists shy away from it because dealing with non-businesses can be time-consuming and it's happened more than once that you don't get paid. We avoid this by kindly asking for pre-payment for personal document translations. We've translated hundreds of documents for dozen of government agencies around the world, and one of the most frequently asked questions we get from new colleagues is: what do you do if you can't ready something? Allow us to share our thoughts.


  • Ask the client. The beautiful thing about working directly with individuals who most likely are the owners of the documents in question is that you can easily go to the source. This is important for handwritten documents where say, the place of birth is noted but it's a small province in a country you are not familiar with. In these cases, we do think it's perfectly acceptable to ask the client, as they would obviously know where they were born.
  • When to put [illegible]. While there are no hard and established rules on this, we would never guess or fill in the blanks (more than a letter or two) if the portion we cannot read is typed but either too faint to read, cut off, etc. In that case, even if the client could solve it for us, the issue is readability of the document (rather than sloppy handwriting), and in such cases, we usually put [illegible]. Most of our colleagues have tended to handle it this way, but of course there are other approaches.
  • Requests for changes. You'd be surprised how often clients have asked us to change their birth date (because it was incorrect on the original or for other, significantly less legitimate reasons), name (because they have since gotten married or divorced), or simply asked us to translate parts of the document and exclude others. However, that gets us into the dangerous territory of document falsification, and you want to steer as clear of that as humanely possible. Since these document translations are almost always certified and notarized, we never change, add, redact, etc. anything at all -- no matter how small. Explaining to the client that document falsification is a crime in which you will not participate usually does the trick.
  • Certifying other's work. This is a bit off-topic, but still related. Oftentimes clients will say that they "just translated this themselves since they speak both languages" (we can see the collective eye roll from here!) but that they want a "real" translator to certify their work. We gently point out that we cannot say the work is ours when it isn't.
What about you, dear colleagues? Do you handle this in a similar fashion? We would love to hear your thoughts. Just leave a comment below!

Interpreting: Spanglish Example of the Month

As many English<->Spanish interpreters know, especially those of us who work in the US, interpreting Spanglish and anglicized versions of Spanish words can be a signficant challenge. Many non-English speakers do speak enough English to throw English terms into their Spanish-language speech, which makes things interesting, to say the very least.  Even if you live and work in an area where you are surrounded by Spanish and Spanglish (as Judy is in Las Vegas, NV), many of these can can still throw you for a loop. Having grown up in Mexico City, we pretty much know how Spanish speakers can potentially mispronounce English-language terms to come up with all kinds of indecipherable things, but here's one that really was a challenge. And perhaps it wasn't even Spanglish. We don't really know what it was, but here it is for your reading pleasure. Note: the following is in both English and Spanish.

At a deposition. The attorney, Ms. Higgins, is the English speaker, and the deponent, Ms. Ríos, is giving testimony in Spanish..  Mr. Urr is Ms. Ríos attorney. All names have been changed. Judy is the interpreter.

Ms. Higgins: On the afternoon of April 10, where were you going?
Judy (interpreting): En la tarde del 10 de abril, ¿a dónde se dirigía usted?
Ms. Ríos: A la Willy-Willy.
Judy (interpreting): To the Willy-Willy.
Ms. Higgins: I am not familiar with Willy-Willy.
Judy (interpreting): No conozco la Willy-Willy.
Ms. Ríos: ¡Pues la Willy-Willy! En la Decatur esquina con Tropicana.
Judy (interpreting): Well, the Willy-Willy! On Decatur and Tropicana.
Ms. Higgins: I don't know a store with that name.
Judy (interpreting): No conozco tienda alguna con ese nombre.
Ms. Ríos: Pues no sé, licenciada, pero yo voy a cada rato. Muy buenos precios.
Judy (interpreting): Well, I don't know, counsel, but I go all the time. Great prices.
Mr. Urr, interrupting: For the record, my client is talking about the Goodwill store.
Judy (interpreting): Quiero hacer constar en actas que me cliente se refiere a la tienda Goodwill.
Ms. Ríos: ¡Exacto! La Willy-Willy, o Goodwill, o como le digan. ¡Es lo mismo!
Judy (interpreting): Exactly! Willy-Willy, or Goodwill, or whatever it's called. Same thing!
Ms. Higgins: I would never have guessed that. OK, let's continue talking about what happened when you went to the Goodwill store.

During depositions and all other legal proceedings, things happen very quickly and you have very little time to react. In retrospect, Judy did have a hunch (based on the address the deponent provided) that the Ms. Ríos was referring to the Goodwill store, but definitely knew that a hunch (or a guess) was not an acceptable option. We think this worked out beautifully -- an attorney who had knowledge of the case clarified everything for the record and we went on with the deposition. After it finished, there was much good-natured laughter about Willy-Willy.

We would love to hear your best examples of Spanglish or other challenging interpreting situations, dear colleagues!

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. 


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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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