Category Archives: INTERPRETERS

AN ASIDE

Long ago, and far away, as almost never happens (haha) an interpreter was caught off-guard.

Prosecutor: “Do you understand the charge against you?”

Defendant: “Yeah well sure but what I don’t understand is why I am even being charged with this because the cops even told me right there that she wasn’t saying I did anything and she wasn’t gonna, like, help them press charges or whatever because when I got there -“

Defense attorney, in defendant’s language: “Don’t say anything more!”

Interpreter: Your Honor the defense attorney just stated to the defendant, ‘don’t say anything more’ and the interpreter would like guidance as to whether to state on the record her interpretation of the defendant statement, which if we were working physically in court, may have been stated as an aside to the attorney.”

What then ensued was a perhaps ten or fifteen minute emotional argument about whether the defendant should be placed in the position of the English-speaker, because if such a person blurted out anything on the record, it would be on the record. Then again, their attorney would have cut them off. The defense attorney was scolded for using non-English in court. The judge stated it was hard for him to rule without knowing the content of the utterance. Did he say he doesn’t understand why he wasn’t arraigned last week, or was he talking about the content of the case?

The defense attorney stated that he was discussing the facts of the case and specifically his discussion with police officers, which could be prejudicial to his defense. The prosecutor stated that what was said was already on the record, albeit not in English, but anyone could easily play the recording and have access to what was said. He cited the famous “you can’t unring the bell” theory, and argued that it might as well get interpreted on the record. Defense objected. This interpreter had to keep interrupting people to let me interpret as they argued, and in the end, the judge did order me to go ahead and say what the defendant had said.

I made a split second decision to go from memory, and in hindsight I should have asked to have it played back. Nowadays, I am more likely to just blurt out whatever the defendant says, because it is not my place to screen anyone or comment on the evidence, but it is quite common in court that whenever a defendant starts to speak of the facts when it is not in their best interest, the defense attorney, or even the judge, will cut them off – a few words into it – and advise them to direct their statement to their attorney off the record. So it is not an easy or simple decision for the interpreter in the moment. And it is complicated by the fact that the English-speakers don’t know whether to cut off anyone’s speech until the interpreter starts to render it. I have certainly been cut off by judges midstream and ordered to “stop interpreting” because most judges don’t want a defendant testifying against himself out of ignorance, and prefer to give them the full opportunity to meet with their attorney before choosing whether to testify.

To add to the awkwardness, the prosecutor then – to my mind – mischaracterized what I had interpreted, when he gave his bail setting argument. He stated that it was of great concern that when the defendant chose to “talk about the facts, he didn’t make a blanket denial, but stated that he understood that the alleged victim was not going to cooperate with the police.” This led to defense attorney to very politely but fairly state that “due to the length of time between the utterance and the interpreter’s rendering of my client’s statement, I believe I must take exception to it, because I understood that he stated that the witness told the police at the scene that he hadn’t done anything, not that she was not going to “cooperate” in any potential prosecution.” I was left wondering whether I had said “cooperate” – I distinctly remember the defendant stating that she wasn’t going to “press charges” but I don’t remember saying “cooperate”. Or did I say cooperate, and then correct it to press charges? Without saying, “interpreter correction”? Hmmm. I tried to run through my back memory of what I had said, and do a word search for cooperate. Had I said that?

Here is my problem, and if you are an interpreter, it may be yours as well. In trying to harken back and remember what exactly the defendant had said, and what exactly I had said in rendering it some time later, I was sinking into the quicksand of having said it all. I myself had heard and understood everything said in both languages, and I myself had said everything that had been said in both languages. I had said press charges. I had said nothing happened. I had said the witness wouldn’t cooperate. I had said it all.

Luckily, perhaps, for me, my rendition on the record of that disputed interpretation, memorable as the one and only “challenge on the record” of my career (to date) became a moot point, so any error I may have made cannot be considered material, as it did not affect the outcome of the hearing. The judge chose not to impose the $25,000 bail that the prosecutor was requesting. The defendant was ordered released on his own recognizance, meaning without bail. The judge cited several factors in play: his lack of a criminal history, his decades-long stable work history, his having shown up for all his court appearances, and the extended length of time since the alleged crime without any further incidents while he was out of custody. The judge ruled that under Criminal Rule 3.2, which requires the “least restrictive conditions” awaiting trial, taking into consideration public safety, interference with justice, and the likely commission of another violent crime, by putting a written No Contact Order in place, justice would be served and the community safeguarded while the defendant awaits the resolution of his case, without imposing bail. So it turned out that my interpretation was just an aside.

And here is another aside: In future, I will blurt until instructed not to blurt.

ONE DAY

People often ask interpreters what kind of cases we see. And we tend to answer “all kinds”. One day this week:

An injured farmworker comes in with herniated discs after falling out of a tree at an orchard. It took him about a year of multiple trips to the farmworkers clinic, sporadic and painful physical therapy, and spinal injections, before he finally got permission to see the specialists “in the city”. This patient has trouble expressing himself or knowing what information would be relevant to his case, and he confuses the doctor even further by agreeing with whatever is said: You have pain that comes around the right side of the ribs? Yes! But your injury is on the left. Yes! Then the pain cannot be from the injury. Yes? Because the herniated discs are protruding out to the left, so that would impinge the nerves on the left side. Yes! The patient is clearly hoping for a surgical fix, and talks repeatedly about his need to “get back to normal so I can support my family” but in the end, the surgeon does not believe that surgery will help him. As interpreter, I have no way of knowing if any part of the surgeon’s decision is due to the respectful and even fearful manner of the patient, and how much was a foregone conclusion based on his chart.

A young woman comes in and tells the nurse practitioner she has gastritis. She details her current diet. They take a good 40 minutes to go over the myriad of foods and ways of preparing it that have triggered this patient’s symptoms, from diarrhea to cramping to bloating to heartburn to the feeling of getting gut-punched to “the sense that the stomach is gnawing a hole in itself so I am worried I may have an ulcer and I read online that an ulcer can give you cancer so now I am really worried!” The nurse practitioner reassures her that she does not likely have an ulcer, as the antacids she took for it did not help, and the specific foods she has eliminated are not related to ulcers, and in any case, only a very few kinds of ulcers are linked to any cancer risk. Questions? Yes, what can I eat?! The patient is referred to see a nutritionist, and meanwhile, they will do some further studies to see if perhaps the gallbladder is involved. Just kidding on that last point! That is what the interpreter kept expecting to hear, but it was never mentioned.

Sweet elderly lady with diabetes and repeat urinary tract infections comes in to get more antibiotics. Her new young doctor explains to her that when blood sugar is very high, even urine is sweet. And since bacteria live on sugar, it’s like preparing a feast for them. The bacteria multiply and get overgrown and that’s why she keeps getting these bacterial infections. She needs to change her diet, not just take more antibiotics. So let’s get you back to a diabetic specialist, my dear, so they can figure out how to help you get better control of the diabetes. And we will hold off on prescribing more antibiotics until we grow out the urine culture to see what you actually have. For now, watch your diet. The patient is amazed and impressed: “I never knew that my blood sugar would feed the tiny creatures and cause infections! That explains a lot! Thank you for telling me, doctor and thanks interpreter for saying it all so clearly – may God in his almighty mercy rain down a veritable SHOWER of blessings upon you both!” Their two beaming faces smile and wave at me as we disconnect.

Next is a stroke survivor with a speech therapist who specializes in swallowing and cognitive support. Food gets caught and pooled inside the cheek where the patient now has less sensation and less tongue mobility. They talk about things she can do to clear the food, and some safe swallowing tips to make sure she doesn’t aspirate any food or liquid into the lungs. They move on to some cognitive training , and the therapists asks the patient to read aloud about focused, sustained, selected, alternating, and divided attention. But because her left field of vision has become foggy and mysterious, the patient reads to the end of the first line, and gets stuck. Her eyes cannot find their way back to the start of the next line of text. The therapists offers some tricks like following the index finger, and even draws a bright pink line to the left of the text, but it is too difficult.

The therapist switches to verbal teaching, and sets up scenarios like “what could you do, for example, if you were trying to learn something and your attention was divided because there were people talking loudly in the hall?” The patient looks horrified and exclaims! “I could NEVER go out there and tell them to be quiet! God forbid! That would be so RUDE!” The two then argue politely about whether it would seem equally rude to simply shut her door. The patient believes it would be rude. The speech therapists thinks the people in the hall would understand. They stick to their opinions, and finally the interpreter slides in with a question: “The patient may not know, this is the interpreter speaking, is shutting the door something you as therapist could order or suggest to staff yourself?” I back-interpret the question for the patient and she gets so eager about this escape hatch from the pending confrontation:” Yes, yes, you do it! You do it! You don’t have to worry about anyone getting mad at you. You’re not the one trying to convince them to let you order the baked salmon every night when they tell you to try something else!” The therapist laughs and promises to let staff know that the patient will need to hit the call button to have her door closed, as part of her cognitive therapy. The patient shows off her newly crooked and mischievous smile.

Baby in Neonatal Intensive Care Unit – born some weeks early, and having heart trouble. The new doctor is being so vague that even the interpreter is unclear as to the severity of the problem or whether surgery is on the horizon: “As you know, your baby has a hole in its heart. This is very common – it’s called a Ventricular Septal Defect or VSD. They usually close on their own, but not always, and they can be dangerous, but not necessarily – we don’t know if this one will close up or not, so we are still deciding whether to send the baby to Children’s for a procedure, but it could still close up on its own. But usually by his age the heart would have sealed itself, so anyways, it is potentially dangerous and can cause damage to heart and lungs if it stays open, but we don’t know yet that it will stay open, and surgery is an option, but we don’t know if that will be necessary.. any questions?” The Dad bravely stands up and says, “Yes doctor, can you come back and tell me what you DO know and what the plan IS as of now, rather than this wishy washy what the hell scare-us-even-more kind of bullshit presentation?” Haha, no he didn’t. He is not there, and the mom just nods politely and avoids eye contact. No questions, Doctor. Thank you, Doctor.

A pair of twins in which one is getting much more of the blood supply and nutrition, and the other is so tiny and starved that they have to hospitalize the mother and monitor the rest of the pregnancy, in case “things get dangerous” requiring an immediate C-section to extract the tiny little fellow (and his robust brother). Mother gently repeats that she doesn’t understand about percentiles, even after the doctor tries to give her a crash course on higher math and statistics. As interpreter, I ask for permission to restate with less math, and offer to say “Imagine a lineup of a hundred babies in size order, from smallest to biggest. Out of a hundred typical babies, your bigger twin is bigger than 73 of them, so very big, but instead of being up there next to him in the line, your smaller twin is way far apart, at the very beginning of the line. Because the smaller twin is one of the 3 smallest babies out of the whole 100 babies – so very, very small.” This off-the-cuff explanation is allowed. The expectant mother’s eyes get really big and worried, because she finally understands, but the doctor is smiling and enthused, and tells me she is going to use “your way of explaining – I love the lineup!”. Then the bell rings and my day is ending.

Will the injured farmworker get relief for his now chronic backpain? Will the woman who has limited her diet to mostly white rice and boiled chicken with no spices find out she has gallstones? Will the sweet lady with diabetes get it under good control soon? Will the stroke victim learn new ways to eat, focus, and become assertive enough to have her door closed? Will she keep ordering baked salmon for the rest of her hospitalization, while smiling her crooked grin? Will the baby’s heart seal up without surgery? And will the puny little twin make it out okay? It is not given to this interpreter to know. So many stories unfinished and unfolding – all in a day’s work.

ACCENTS

When people ask me about interpreting, they tend to focus on how one can possibly “remember what someone said” and then quickly figure out how to say it in another language. And of course, that is a huge part of interpreting. But among the many things interpreters ourselves talk about is how difficult it can be when someone is not speaking in their native language at the time we must interpret. A heavily accented speaker, at least for me, makes my brain kick into overdrive in trying to figure out the message so I can render it. And it creates a layer of anxiety that can make it harder for me to process the language, a sort of overload feeling. Sometimes it feels quite biological, like a bird making itself large by puffing out feathers. I feel like my brain must be sending out waves or sparks. Sometimes I even feel like my face is tingling.

The United States is famous for being an immigrant community (ever since the early Europeans took over the land from the indigenous communities). In virtually all areas of the US workforce, we have non-native English speakers. And within the many groups who need interpreters to render their speech into English, quite a few of those speakers have to speak in their non-native language in order to find an interpreter who can understand them. A great example is Central and South America, where indigenous languages are estimated to be upward of 500 still, and interpreters can be rare to non-existent. Various levels of Spanish, with rudimentary grammar and varied pronunciation, become a make-do communication path.

My struggle with accented speakers is two-fold. One is more of an irritation and the other is a true barrier to understanding. First, my confession. At times, I hear myself in spite of my efforts to the contrary somehow mimicking or tainting my rendering by carrying through some aspect of the speaker’s accent, even when they are the medical staff and it serves no purpose to “speak strangely” to the poor patient. I don’t know if anyone has studied this, but if so, and you got permission, you could record me working, say, with a Chinese doctor and adding the singsong tonality to my rendering, or a Russian doctor and not being able to stop myself from rolling my r’s more heavily. I hate it, but it will flow out of the whole “sounding like they sound” and the undercurrent of taking on some of their personality to sound like them. I do not do this willingly or even wittingly, but I will catch myself especially when fatigued carrying over something of the accented speech pattern. And I do wonder what it sounds like to the native listener when in addition to my non-native accent, I add a light frosting of the speaker’s pronunciation quirks.

The true barrier for me is understanding a very heavily accented English speaker, and this has been a politically sensitive issue for decades. When I attended university, there was a wave of likely brilliant foreign scholars arriving on our shores from around the world, and in my area, from Asia. Students and parents complained because many of them were not understandable, being so far from fluent and having very strong accents. I never complained, being working class, but I do remember my lowest grade being in economics, where I was in Week 7 of the quarter before I realized that the Chinese professor, when he kept saying Pudaposbicuv, was talking about the Production Possibility Curve. The university caved under pressure, and roped in ESL instructors to set up an “accent reduction” program, and test and train incoming professors. With a certain level of “what the hell did they just say” barriers to comprehension, the visiting scholar was barred from lecturing and limited to research.

I don’t want to go off into the whole concept of accent reduction and how realistic it is, or what current thoughts are in linguistics, but of course the information is out there. And language fossilization (getting stuck in our ruts) is very real. I just did an internet search on “accent reduction” and got over 40 million hits, mostly offers, including a chipper ad offering to “reduce your accent for a mere $3.99 a week!” But no matter how accents can (or cannot) be cured or alleviated, we interpreters must deal with all speakers where they are at, not where we wish they would be.

Case in point. Video interpreting this week for a man sitting in a chair at home with his wife and children standing around him. The German doctor was using Telemedicine to do a surgical follow-up visit. As usual, medical staff gives the interpreter zero information that would give us context for what we might be talking about, so we just jump over the waterfall in our linguistic barrel and hope to follow the current of whatever is said in any direction. The direction here was that the patient had a very complex procedure due to the condition of Spanaconengery. My first thought, being near lunchtime, was spanacopita, and perhaps everyone who is not tired can read that word aloud and guess its meaning, but in the throes of my workday I admit I could not come with it on the spot in the midst of her flow of heavily accented words using German sentence structure. I asked for repetition, then spelling. The doctor was surprised, and so was I, when she spelled out spinal cord injury.

On my notepad from that session, I wrote down several other terms as best I could hear them to try and figure out what she may have meant, either from context, or guesswork, or even searching my bizarre renditions online, or looking up spinal cord injury and seeing what terms might come up that would sound anything like her pronunciation – all while still interpreting, of course. Most terms that were common I could stumble upon through educated guesswork. It was like those old language tests where you get a sentence with a missing word, and have to fill it in from context. But when the terms were more rare, and I was truly at a loss, I had to ask for repetitions or even spelling. Adam is Lexie, in the context of a wheelchair-bound patient’s blood pressure surges when laid down, turned out to be autonomic dysreflexia. (No one had mentioned he was in a wheelchair and I could only see his head and shoulders.) And my personal favorite, Puzzle Lavalaveggie, was related to equipment used for wound care due to a pressure sore. The doctor clearly stumbled over the term, which is properly rendered as Pulsatile Lavage.

I have dreamed many times of having neurobiologists research our brains as we face these difficult situations. I feel sure that my brain would be lit up in the first language area, with the second language learned as an adult resting like a hat upon the first language with little overlap, flashing like lightning in the Wernicke and Broca areas of the brain, as I go from comprehending to rendering speech. My caudate nuclei on both sides of the brain would be firing furiously, as they coordinate the multiple cognitive tasks being performed simultaneously. I am sure more areas known and unknown (to me) would be alight. And in this case, my whole limbic system and especially my dear old amygdala would be processing fear, discomfort, a great desire for fight, fight or flee (mostly the latter of the three). Would the doctor be able to see if I subtly lifted an errant finger to disconnect accidentally on purpose? And for the record, no, I did not hang up.

To add to the accent, in this case, the doctor kept scolding me for interpreting what she said when she spoke English to the English-speaking children in front of the patient. “I am toking to ze childrrin. Stop ze trenslation pliz. You interrrupt!” To which I, of course, firmly replied that this interpreter has the duty to render everything that is said in any language by any speaker to any speaker into the patient’s language, because informed consent and patient care requires by law – and hospital policy – that the patient is placed as closely as possible in the position of the English speaker, who would of course understand anything spoken in their presence. Before the doctor could say another word, I launched in to a speedy rendering of everything she and I had said for the benefit of the patient, who responded with thanks. To which I added in English for the finger-drumming frustrated doctor: “Oh, thank you – and doctor, interpreter speaking – the thanks was directed to this interpreter! For interpreting everything. You may go on now.”

I do recognize the irony of trying to make sure the patient understood what most English speakers would not, which is this doctor’s horrible pronunciation. But lets face it. An English-speaking patient is much more likely to say “I cannot understand you” instead of just nodding politely.

The doctor and I left the session with a mutual wish to never meet again, and I admit to a feeling of smugness when I was able to sign off the session by rendering to the doctor the kind and appreciative words of the patient and his wife: “Thank you interpreter for your excellent work! May God repay you because we cannot! Yes, thank you for helping us understand!” When the children chimed in to add in English “Yeah, man you were SO great,” I was in the middle of rendering that back to the patient when the German doctor hit her button and removed my fatigued yet satisfied face from her screen.

Within the same day, I went on to interpret for a Chinese medical assistant, and a French-Belgian fellow being supervised by a Russian attending physician. After my experience with the German doctor, it all seemed a breeze. The Chinese assistant had a very mild accent and spoke clearly and slowly. The Russian had a stronger accent but I am very familiar with that accent, and she also spoke clearly. (I do fear I may have rolled my rr’s more, don’t hate me for it! I try not to!) And the French speaker who had the strongest accent of all used simple constructions, short sentences, asked for teach-back style checks of patient comprehension, and spoke with a great effort to be clear and concise. I could literally feel my brain activity calming down during this soothing session, and the visual I got was a peacock who had been quivering its feathers full-length in a sustained, strained, self-protective fashion (with the German doctor) being able to relax its cerebral tailfeathers and stand at ease.

I look forward to the day when functional brain scans or other technology can be used to train those who use interpreters, so they can better understand and get visuals of what they are actually demanding of us. Until then, let’s make sure we insistently advocate for performing our jobs fully and ethically under all conditions. If that means raising our tail feathers and telling a doctor when it is their turn to talk, so be it. And yes, we are allowed to ask doctors to repeat themselves, spell out something they cannot pronounce, and do whatever else is needed for the patient to understand their healthcare, and the decisions they face. It is their right, and our privilege, to participate in these sessions with clearly rendered, understandable communication.

MOVING TARGET

After a decade of interpreting exclusively in courts, I went back to a combination of medical and court interpreting, mainly because I needed to secure my finances from the ups and downs of full self-employment. By working at a hospital as a 50% employee, I was able to have the best of both worlds. Now that I do all my interpreting from home, I have been struck by just how different the sound and view quality is between the two settings. Some is due to the equipment and platforms used, but the very physicality of medical work, all those bodies in motion, is a large factor, especially with in-patients and doctor teams.

During an Intensive Care appointment with a pregnant COVID patient this week, I was getting queasy as the foggy video on wheels (encased in a protective plastic bag) moved first through the hall, then was pushed in a zigzag pattern around all the moving targets in the room, from staff to IV poles to a table and more. They settled me on a view of the ceiling, then at my request lowered the angle so I could see the patient’s face. That lasted a few sentences, only to have someone abruptly grab and swing the machine to the wall as they moved in to adjust the patient in bed. No warning. Whoosh. Eye wrench.

With the camera now facing the wall, I spent some time calling out what I could hear from the team such as “there you go” and “this way” and “let me grab your pillow” and “do you want your head more up?” (and what I dearly hope was a mumbled “uh-huh” on the part of the patient). Then one of the many nervous residents in the room reached out and used the video remote as her personal fidget toy. Wall. Sink. Wall. Sink. Wiggle. Jerk. Wiggle. Jerk.

For the record, this is a very common occurrence. I called out that “someone seems to be holding onto and moving the video, which affects the sound and view quality!” The camera lens jerked upward as it was released and settled on a very nice dangly earring peering forth from beyond all the masks and protective gear of one of the nurses. It was a bronze crescent with an intricate tree and root carving. Then the room abruptly spun again, I scanned the ceiling and was suddenly face to face with the patient who was now safely on her side and covered again.

With a steady face-to-face view, as I interpreted vital medical information about the unborn baby for the visiting Labor and Delivery team, the ICU team walked in off camera and began to discuss the case amongst themselves – while I was mid-sentence interpreting. I had to interrupt to call out that “the interpreter cannot not hear everything that is being said because there are people in the room off camera talking over us!” An invisible someone called out sorry, and so the Labor and Delivery team was able to continue their session with less background noise and better accuracy. And the screen was blessedly still for a few precious moments.

In my favorite court, the cameras are steady and well arranged so that each party on the WebEx call is clearly visible and audible as needed. It is organized, formal, and predictable. We are not dragged around on a pole or flipped around on a laptop. We are on our own steady systems at home. Upon virtually entering each courtroom as pre-assigned, we check in via the chat feature with the bailiff, on mute with our cameras off until our case is called. We can see each party present in the courtroom, and have a view of the whole courtroom as well. No one is adjusting or moving anything, and every speaker is facing their mic. It is a quiet and respectful working environment, with excellent and reliable quality.

What a difference! No feeling like a circus performer as the room spins and shakes. No staring first at an earring, then a left bare buttock, then the ceiling. No one ever stands obliviously directly between me and the person for whom I am interpreting. And whenever anyone talks too long at a time, or attempts to interrupt or talk over me, the judge immediately admonishes them to allow for the interpreter to “do her job!” No one in court has ever dared to “practice Spanish” or interrupt my interpretation to gleefully call out, “I understood what they said!” followed by their own broken interpretation, proudly rendered. The absence of chaos in court, like the stillness of my screen view, is restful indeed.

INTERRUPTIONS

In normal conversation, when someone interrupts the speaker, there is a moment of both people talking. Then one cedes the floor, and the other continues, but there is not a pause between speakers. On the contrary, there is overlap. Interpreting in court yesterday, one judge had to interrupt a newly hatched lawyer half a dozen times to order her to stop interrupting and let me do my job so her own client could hear what was said in the courtroom about his case. I would think this would be obvious, but apparently not. May I make a plea to lawyers and others to please try to play nicely and wait for your turn? Especially when you are speaking through an interpreter?

As the normal procedure goes at arraignment, the prosecutor formally tells the accused what they are being charged with. That in the City of Someplace on or about a Specific Date, the accused committed the crime of a Specific Crime. They are then asked to confirm their name and date of birth, acknowledge receipt of the complaint and waive formal reading, and then plead guilty or not guilty. Virtually everyone starts by pleading not guilty as the case is investigated and they meet with their lawyer.

The judge then invites the prosecutor to request the government’s “conditions of release” which include setting bail, and other conditions. But in this case, as soon as the prosecutor started her presentation, and before I had the chance to interpret anything, the new defense attorney burst in, “Fifteen hundred dollars on a case that is five years old? I – I don’t know why anything this City does surprises me, but this is outrageous!” The Judge then said, “Counsel!” The overlapping talk continued and whenever the judge ordered the defense attorney to stop, and allow for interpretation, I had to interpret for three people, so the only way to make it clear to the defendant was to add in who was talking, as follows:

The prosecutor stated, “Your Honor, in this case, the City is requesting a bail of $1,500 based on the facts cited in the Police Incident Report No. 123456789 – the defendant was weaving in and out of traffic including driving in the parking lane.” Then the defense attorney interrupted, “”Fifteen hundred dollars on a case that is five years old? I – I don’t know why anything this City does surprises me, but this is outrageous!” The Judge then said, “Counsel!” Then the prosecutor stated, “Your Honor, I have not yet finished my presentation of the conditions of release. May I continue without further interruption?”

I then had to add in English: “Thank you, Your Honor – the interpreter has caught up” after which I of course had to render in the defendant’s language “Thank you, Your Honor – the interpreter has caught up”.

The judge then admonished the defense attorney to stop interrupting, told them both to speak in three or four sentences at a time, and allow for interpreting each and every time, and I had to rush to squeeze in the judge’s admonishment in the defendant’s language before the prosecutor started presenting on conditions of release again. Before the prosecutor got her four sentences in, the defense attorney once again burst out, this time to exclaim, “You are seriously asking for an Ignition Interlock Device or a SCRAM Unit for a case that didn’t involve alcohol? Are you kidding me?” At that point, the judge interrupted, and we went around again. And I had to remember it all and render it as best I could for the defendant:

“The prosecutor said, “Due to our safety concerns, the City is asking for an IID, Electronic Home Monitoring with Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring, no new criminal law violations…” Then the defense attorney interrupted with, “You are seriously asking for an Ignition Interlock Device or a SCRAM Unit for a case that didn’t involve alcohol? Are you kidding me?” Then the judge stated, “Counsel! You will get your turn! You should know the process by now! The City presents their WHOLE case for conditions of release. She is going to say three or four sentences at a time, to give the interpreter the chance to keep up with her. I am warning you, do not interrupt!” Then the prosecutor said, “Your Honor, The City would like to state on the record that we are NOT done presenting and when I stop it is for the interpreter, not for the defense attorney to talk. I will let the court know when I finish the City’s presentation”. Then the defense attorney said, “I’m sorry I just can’t believe you are talking about alcohol monitoring for a non-alcohol case!” Then the judge said, “Counsel! You will get your turn! It is NOT your turn now!”

After stating all of that, I went back to, “Thank you, Your Honor, this interpreter has caught up again,” and I then rendered that statement into the defendant’s language.

Having these three-layered interpretation sessions interspersed with police incident numbers, dates of birth, high emotion, and words of censure just adds to our agony, and more importantly for the record and for due process, puts the accuracy of the interpretation at risk. So can you please, just like they told you in kindergarten, wait for your turn?

STILL LEARNING

I was able to participate in an online training for court interpreters to learn the latest in technology for remote interpreting. They went into great depth about equipment, brand names, and the best systems for interpreting with maximum sound quality and least disturbance. All good information, culled from a pool of professional interpreters and their wealth of experience and knowledge. But the best takeaway for me was not the technical information. It was the philosophical idea of the “flexible purist” – the person who for all her idealism must stay flexible in order to survive. Letting go of the “best practices under ideal conditions” model and accepting “best (and new) practices under these circumstances” is not easy for all of us. And by all of us, I mean me.

For courts, transitioning from our “in-person is required” to trying to avoid being in the same room with others in order to save lives – in a patchwork of independent courts with a variety of equipment – was a leap of faith and a need for technology that confounded many of us. It only grew worse as the weeks and months of courts being mostly shut down dragged on. With cautious re-openings, and most court interpreters working from home, faulty equipment and new and untried applications have added to our transition woes.

Half a year into the pandemic, the idea that interpreters can work from home with high quality equipment, and avoid being vectors for infection throughout the court system, has gained traction and acceptance. Yet some of the technology bugs remain. An added challenge is that court contractors routinely interface with dozens of courts large and small (and deal with each court’s chosen modalities, applications, and anomalies). There is still a lot of confusion about what to buy, what platforms to learn and sign up for, whether to use laptop, desktop, or something else. Lots of us are scrambling. In the webinar, they offered a quote that interpreters will not be replaced by technology, but by other interpreters who are better at technology.

I was surprised to have one of the speakers present at length about preferred equipment, home office setups, and other specifics without the use of any visuals. Then I looked down at the questions section button, and saw there were suddenly 37 outstanding questions. The off-screen co-presenter popped onto the screen and let the the person presenting know that she was not sharing her screen. It was refreshing to have expert speakers on technology face an issue with technology, and they were able to go back and give us a quick look at the slides we had missed.

During a demonstration of several applications, we were shown a sample of remote conference interpreting. There was a small set of languages to click on to hear a sample of live interpreting into those languages. And there was an OFF button for listeners who wanted to hear the actual speaker. As I clicked between languages, I noted that the Spanish button brought up a Mandarin interpreter, and several lines were silent. Finally, our presenter announced, “The buttons are mixed up. For those who are asking how to listen to Spanish, it is somehow the OFF button!”

With a large crowd, participants were neither visible nor audible, but I imagine we shared – remotely – a bit of relieved and gentle laughter that even experts can have their technical glitches. We are all still learning, and it is likely to get easier as we have more practice, says this flexible purist in training.

EVERY DAY’S A SCHOOL DAY

My sister, a schoolteacher working remotely through these hard times, sent me a cartoon with an older fellow sitting on a stool in his kitchen, a pen and paper balanced on his knee, leaning forward and peering intently at the microwave, while asking his wife in frustration, “Where the heck are my students?!” Her calm response was simply, “That’s the microwave, Bob.” Truly a cartoon for our times. My sister also told me that a fellow teacher brought up a good question: “Does anyone know how to make myself the one in charge of my virtual classroom? Because one of my students is the monitor and he keeps muting me while I am trying to lecture!”

As an interpreter, I am fortunate to be allowed to work from home and limit my exposure to disease, but like Bob and many others, technology does not come easy. Especially when we have to try and learn it in isolation. Getting back into court interpreting after their cautious re-opening, I was nervous about it all: the video remote, my new headset, using WebEx for the first time, logging into pre-planned sessions, potentially doing simultaneous and switching different parties onto mute, getting codes, getting more codes, remembering to block my call if I was asked to originate the call to a defendant, and much more – both real and imagined. To add a bit of spice to my day, the court staff were given my phone number, and I was expected to take all incoming calls, which today of all days included frequent spam robocalls from ever-varying numbers with dire warnings about my social security number being hacked – which I had to keep answering in case it was a court clerk working from home.

I miss being physically in court, with my phone on silent and my laptop miles away. I miss running up and down the stairs at the courthouse and reminding the different courtrooms I am available. Seeing for myself who is in which court – whether a defendant has no-showed, whether an attorney is with another client, whether the prosecutor, crime victim, and victim’s advocate are ready for a chat. Whether a social worker or probation officer wants to talk to someone prior to the hearing, whether an attorney wants me to “go down to the tank” and interview a defendant in jail. Whether there is a walk-in for urgent help with domestic violence or housing, or someone who needs to screen for an attorney, quash a warrant, or pay a ticket. I miss seeing the familiar faces and sharing information in person. I want to see what is happening. I want my familiar world.

Working in isolation from home exacerbates my already pathological sense of helplessness and personal frustration with all the new modalities, new technologies, and very distant, sometimes even disembodied, human contact. I miss being recognized and acknowledged, even with something as subtle as eye contact, a half smile, or a silent nod of appreciation. With the inevitable stress and trauma of our work, any sense of camaraderie, of reassurance, would help ease me into the new technology. It can be lonely and scary and sometimes funny, although on the whole it is only funny in afterthought. Kind of a “someday we will look back and laugh” situation, presuming things get better. Things will certainly never be the same. And maybe that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t feel good yet.

My first call of the day was a clerk asking me to get onto the WebEx platform for a video remote jailhouse arraignment, but I had no information about the case because it was not on my schedule. So he emailed me an invitation, and I tried to sign into the hearing from my laptop. But I could not get onto their audio system. There was no sound. I called the clerk back and he told me that had happened to him as well, so I should try to call in via phone instead of on my laptop. So I tried that. But as soon as I entered the meeting room code into my phone keypad, my phone auto-filled some password, then rejected it as wrong, and then hung up on me. I tried several times, seeing if I could input the correct password from the email before my phone took over, with no success.

Meanwhile, the clerk was calling me back, and that call was clicking through while I was desperately trying to call into the hearing. Also meanwhile, I was going into sensory overload and having to breathe to keep myself grounded. I took the clerk’s call and told him what was happening with my phone-in attempts, carefully masking my voice so I sounded like a functional human being. He sighed and then passed the call over the another clerk “who is good with technology”. She in turn suggested I hang up, go back onto the laptop, open my email, use the invitation to log in to the WebEx session again, and choose the option from the dropdown menu for a callback instead of calling in myself, and then stay off my phone, and wait for them to call me back at my phone number. That would bypass the need to keypad in the password, and avoid the auto-fill. Nice workaround.

I did that, but instead of someone in the courtroom making the decision on when to call me, the system called me instantly, and when I answered, I was auto-clicked right into a courtroom, without video, where it sounded suspiciously like they had just started the hearing without me – if it was even the correct courtroom. I couldn’t see anything or anyone, of course. And I knew they couldn’t see me, so I immediately piped up and announced my presence and identity to the judge, stating that I was standing by to interpret.

One invisible person giggled shortly, but no one else said anything. I had no way of knowing whether the giggle was for my interruption, or whether anyone had even heard me. No one directed me to interpret. No one directed me to stand by silently, or hang up, or get into another courtroom. Just the short and mysterious giggle into the void. So I just stood by as my heart rose to my throat and I thought about getting a job in a daycare or as a gardener. Would it really be that much less money? Plus they cannot make you do those jobs remote! After an ice age, there was a short break in the hearing, and I heard and recognized one of the clerk’s voices as they chatted. I called him by name and asked him if I was in the right place. He told me yes, and to stand by. They had passed over my hearing, he explained. A voice from the darkness. A voice of comfort. I was okay. My hearing would be next.

The day crept forward between these blind calls and some short written translations for traffic court. Between interpreting sessions, I exchanged many emails regarding scheduling updates, and received 5 or 6 more robo-calls about “criminal or fraudulent activity in Texas using YOUR Social Security card! Urgent action is needed! Please stay on the line!”

At the final hearing, we had a pro tem (substitute) judge. She was asking a lot of questions and trying to make sure everything was done correctly. This was an old pending case that had been in line to become a dismissal, except the defendant had picked up new charges, and thus lost her chance to avoid a conviction. The two sides had negotiated an overall settlement for both old and new cases with a guilty plea, and credit for time served. The hearing went well, I thought. The sound was fine, and I was allowed to interpret consecutively, which was very nice. Everyone stayed close to their microphones.

Then the prosecutor was asked to fill out the Judgment and Sentence. He did so as we stood by, then announced that when he sent it electronically for all signatures, it had turned into a blank form. He asked for time to fill it out again. Granted. But the same thing happened. He then found that the version that he had originally filled out was still on his computer, and asked if “instead of reinventing the wheel,” he could send it as a PDF, because it was “not transmittable from Library”. A voice from the void stated that a PDF does not allow for signatures. Meanwhile, another voice from the void, likely a clerk, offered the opinion that “you should never send a document from Library, but only from Workflow, because it generates an automated sending to all participants while Library blanks things out”.

The prosecutor announced tersely that he had to use Library because Counts 2 and 3 were being added to the same case resolution, and you cannot have added counts in the Workflow system. Workflow doesn’t allow it! Another voice suggested just printing it and handwriting in the new counts, but that didn’t seem adequate to preserve the record. The judge suggested that the document should stay intact in Library but be emailed for signature as an attachment, and then signed through Adobe Sign. Another voice stated the defendant herself would not be able to sign the document in Adobe Sign, not having a login, and there was an unresolved discussion about whether you need a login.

The clerk circled back around to suggest strongly that “nobody should ever use Library” while one of the lawyers reminded her again that “it’s the only way to add the two new counts!” and this discussion went on for a while. At some point, people clearly moved away from the microphones to look at and discuss the paperwork, presumably looking at each other’s screens, and conferring about how to make this happen. From my perspective, darkness, mumbling, and personal discomfort.

Things were eventually resolved – I was not privy as to how. The final document was sent around and signed electronically, and that was clearly stated on the record, and duly interpreted. The judge brought the case to a close with a sigh of relief, and reminded us that “as a family member of mine likes to say, Every Day’s a School Day… we are all here learning together. And we will figure this out! Thanks everybody for your patience! And thank you, Madame Interpreter! You are released!”

I would have liked to be physically present and look around the courtroom just for that brief second, to share in a communal sigh of relief with my colleagues. To nod in acknowledgment of the judge’s encouraging words. To catch someone’s eye on the way out with a silently shared, “This is hard, right?!” But I am not standing in the courtroom as the case goes off the record. I am sitting here alone at home, in my basement office, with a disconnected phone in my hand. And with all due respect for the luxury of working in a suit jacket with pajama bottoms, it can be disheartening. Trying to figure out the technology, working in the dark, and remaining isolated are heavy weights to bear. Others have it worse, of course, and my heart goes out to them. But I direct some of my compassion back to myself, in a very small circle of comfort indeed.

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL

Like a fairy tale movie, imagine a humble and unpretentious young woman who suddenly gets a horrible disease. During her ordeal, her kidneys fail, her liver is affected, and the treatment itself causes the lining of one of her coronary arteries to be eaten away, causing a thinning of the wall. She is now at even higher risk of dying suddenly. But she somehow manages to hang on by a thread of life. She languishes for months in intensive care.

The doctors explain that she is in a race for time. If her organs recover quickly enough, they may be able to operate on the coronary artery before it bursts. If not, well, they are very sorry. It may burst at any time and then she will “bleed out” and die within minutes. She must simply trying and remain calm and let time pass. Try to relax and not panic. Stay strong. A true fairy tale ordeal, calling for the greatest feats of endurance.

Doesn’t sound much like a modern fairy tale, of course, where the ordeals are often quite trivial and last less than an hour on screen. Traditional fairy tales were much more reflective of the human experience. They had more gut-wrenching decision to be made, shifting and confusing scenarios requiring heroic choices and efforts. There were offers of wise or fatal advice from elders and others, often in disguise, to be heeded or ignored at the peril of the explorer. And discernment was required, as things were not as they seemed. Three choices. Two choices. Facing pain and uncertainty. One chance to survive. Fairy tales were life and death warning tales.

In the US especially, we like to pretend that life is safe. If we work hard, and keep our nose to the grindstone, and do our best, we will be rewarded with long life, money, a good partner and healthy children, and probably a house. Yet we, like our fellow humans around the globe, find to our dismay that our life is filled with perils. This young woman went through a long series of painful procedures, with sometimes conflicting and ever shifting high-tech advice pouring in during the daily rounds. She lay there like a boat in harbor, calmly waiting to see whether she might emerge in time, or be destroyed there. Months went by.

Not having grown up in our modern fairy tale rewards-based culture, she never seemed to feel that what was happening was unfair to her in particular. It was nothing personal. It was fate. She simply accepted that she might die, and waited. As the months passed and her health rose and fell in a series of complications, yet not resulting in her death, she quite naturally decided that the doctors, for all their expertise, were ignorant at best. They did not know what her ultimate destiny was to be. They were not, after all, above God. There was something magical, something miraculous even, in her slow and jagged recovery and eventual discharge to her home.

At discharge, she was warned once again that she must always consider her coronary artery and the known fact that it may burst at any moment. It was like a very bad varicose vein. She was not healed! She was still fragile and weak. She was barely well enough to go home. But there was a slight hope. She had made it this far. Over time, if her lab work looked good enough, a cardiologist might decide on her behalf that the risk-benefit analysis made the heart repair a worthwhile endeavor. They would let her know. She should stay in touch and of course see the cardiologist regularly.

She went home and did something that was quite natural if terribly risky. She apparently decided that if she might die so soon, just as her life was beginning, that she should at least produce a child before she goes. Leave something behind her to carry on. Experience the natural progression of events. Apparently. Because she got pregnant. The doctors are dismayed, and they plan to give her a good talking to when she comes to the clinic for her maternal care. I am guessing she will sit and look at them quite seriously, nodding in polite agreement as she did from her hospital bed, knowing that if God wants her baby to survive, then her baby will survive. That her life is in God’s hands and always will be. But the actual words that are to be exchanged at the visit need to be spoken, and adequately interpreted.

As interpreters, we try hard to stay in neutrality. To allow our patients the dignity of applying their own value system to the choices they make. In this kind of a situation, some of us might wish we could advocate for her to live her own life and not feel like the only meaning it could have is through reproducing. Others might support her doing exactly what she wants, even if her choice seems self-destructive or wrong-thinking from our cultural bias. Some might condemn the poor communication skills of the doctors who didn’t make it clear enough for her to process, even during months of hospitalization, and fret about whether she can understand her risk.

The neutrality clause for interpreter ethics is not about not having any feelings or thoughts. It is about being able to put ourselves aside for the moment. Whichever interpreter ends up getting invited to this difficult prenatal appointment for this heart-wrenching discussion, must go into it with a straight face, and allow the parties to communicate without intruding our own values, hopes and fears into the situation. Once we come out of there, we are free to cry or laugh or call a colleague and debrief while protecting patient confidentiality. Meanwhile, the patient gets their care and advice through a clean conduit, and we can lick our wounds, and make up our fairy tale endings, on our own.

TRUST

In marked contrast to my current work, I used to attend political asylum hearings as a refugee advocate during several civil wars. I was not interpreting then, but sitting with the refugee and their attorney as support. And I remember things the judge at that time would say. At one hearing, after reviewing a doctor’s statement and attached medical record confirming electric shock to the kidneys administered with two knives to the back, the judge simply stated that “I know you guys all play soccer and I have no way of knowing this isn’t a sports injury.” Political asylum denied for lack of proof. Applicant ordered held in custody.

This trial remains in my mind because of the hours of detailed testimony about torture from a kind-faced man whose mother was wailing softly in the corner with a handkerchief held over her face so as not to disturb the judge. She was allowed to stay in the room after she had testified about how he was taken from their home before dawn, roused from his bed and forced to leave in his underwear, because the soldiers assured her “he won’t need any clothes where he’ll end up!” The mother went on to testify that so many dead bodies were being tossed into their local river during the civil war that the residents didn’t have the heart to eat fish from there any more, “because we fear we may be dining on our beloved missing ones”.

I cannot describe the emotion and the strain of that immigration case in words, except to mention that at the end of the trial after the decision was rendered, the attorney stood up with tears on her face, and sent a shock wave through the courtroom by straight up saying to the judge: “I hope you can sleep tonight!” The judge from his throned chair was able to calmly reply, “Thanks, it has been a long day!” and adjourn the session. One guard led the refugee away in handcuffs, and the other ushered us back into the street, as our trial had run over and the building was closed. Having to stand by the mother while armed men once again took her son away. Saying our goodbyes outside of court, leaving the mother bereft. Knowing a young man who had been tortured in prison was now facing custody again. Imagine the pain. The suffering. The helplessness. Multiplied.

I once worked with a man who while under interrogation in his home country, was presented with a psychiatrist on his torture team. Not a treating physician, but a military staff doctor who would come in and see if he was close to breaking under interrogation, and make sure he wasn’t likely to die before he had said everything they wanted to hear. With post-traumatic stress, you can imagine how hard it was for this counseling patient to accept meeting with a psychiatrist here in the US, who was sadly quite a cold fellow, and limited his “treatment” to pharmaceutical side effect oversight, such as appetite and sleep. There was no reaching out or acknowledgement that “someone in his position” had so irretrievably harmed this patient, even after the refugee tremblingly explained in wrenching detail what the “other psychiatrist” had done. It left an aching void in all subsequent sessions that was never healed over.

These are extreme cases, and I sometimes comfort myself by choosing to believe they are rare, because the alternative is too painful. Let us turn to more everyday disappointments and reasons not to trust. What about interpreters? How many of our language service recipients have had another “interpreter” let them down? How many have had their voices cut off or skewed? How many were not fully and accurately told what the English speakers with power and control were actually saying? How many suffered some degree of harm? Probably most, to one degree or another, over time. From a bilingual border agent to a resident doctor to a teacher’s aide at their children’s school. To a certified interpreter, yes, it can happen. Do interpreters have any obligation to acknowledge the harm, acknowledge the power dynamic, and vow to do better? Do we have any obligation to reach across to them? Are we even allowed to?

In discussing this with various colleagues who work in the medical field, where such a pre-session would be allowed, while some agree, others don’t seem to fathom the problem. Some have shrugged and claimed, “I just say what they say.” Some talk about how they are not responsible for what someone else said or did, so why should they apologize? Most of those cases were not even “real interpreters” so what does it have to do with us? Some feel that even a two-sentence introduction before an interpreting session could seem invasive and center the interpreter, where we are supposed to be “in the background”. They hate pre-sessions and just want to dive in. A few have even told me that they cannot possibly know, nor do they need to, whether someone has had a bad experience in the past with an interpreter. Not their problem. They do a good job!

It may be worth pondering how healing, how helpful it might be, to have a very brief acknowledgement: These can be difficult experiences, but I want to assure you that with me, you will be heard and respected. Or should our work, should our words, should our voice, as it becomes their voice, tell them all they need to know? Should we silently expect them to take that leap of faith, once again, and trust this unknown and imperfect process to keep them safe? I find that with a clearly hesitant or worried patient, it merits a quick statement, even a couple words and a nod, to reassure them that we are here for them. That we will do our work honorably, and serve them faithfully. A quick acknowledgement to let them know that we care. Remembering the many ways in which our patients may be particularly vulnerable, this is a kindness that should not be overlooked.

STRAIN OF NEUTRALITY

Since the Spanish occupiers wrote up an interpreter code of ethics around 500 years ago (hint – it includes an absolute ban on assisting the native population or advocating for them in any way in their “negotiations” with the Spanish occupying forces) and likely even before, interpreters who work between two unequal parties may feel the strain of enforced neutrality. Never as much as the disenfranchised party does, of course, but the strain is there. The “just doing my job” while witnessing injustices becomes vaguely reminiscent of extreme cases, such as war crime tribunals.

It is an absolute requirement for interpreters to stay neutral, but as the power differential between the two parties grows, so does the strain. Having worked with interpreters from around the world, including war zones in which the United States is implicated, I have met people who have provided language services during interrogation. I have also met people who have witnessed and been the direct victims of torture under interrogation during imprisonment for their political affiliations. And I have met people who have interrogated and even killed prisoners.

I feel fortunate to live in a city where by and large, our judicial system is open, transparent, and follows the rule of law. The laws and the system are not perfect, and I would be either a fool or a knave to make such a claim. But in general, in my little duck pond, due process is followed. The people for whom I interpret, including the accused, the crime victims, and many parties in civil proceedings, are shown respect and treated with dignity by the judges and the court staff. There is even room for compassion and healing with alternative programs for the mentally ill, veterans, and impoverished defendants.

People ask me how I can “stand” to hear all the sadness, the violence, the failures and betrayals of human society, over and over again. My true answer is that I do believe in the rule of law. I do see people getting fair trials, and crime victims having a voice and support through their advocate, and low income, uneducated parties having court facilitators to help them access the court system. I do see people seeking and finding some modicum of justice, some redress and protection from further harm. The system is far from perfect, but there is a concerted effort to follow the law and provide assistance where possible. And this makes it much easier for me to “stay in the field” and keep to my vow of neutrality as interpreter.