Category Archives: INTERPRETERS


Confession.  Many of us self-employed people have a tendency to worry about getting enough jobs, then get overtired from the jobs we take, and then worry about getting enough rest.  Then we get rested up and we go back to worrying about getting enough jobs.   I know, it sounds like a personal problem, but many interpreters have reported  falling into this same vicious  circle, which never seems to get old to our survival-based reptilian brains.  Sometimes, my month is comfortably filled with jobs before it begins. Other months gleam forth from my open calendar with the snowy white of blank days, leaving plenty of space for worry.  My colleagues report the same.

We sometimes fall into despair and decide we simply cannot do it anymore.  We are too tired, too poor, too unstable to go on.  We need a job with insurance, and we simply must have a “guaranteed” income, although we all know that is somewhat a myth.  Employees get laid off, transferred, have reduced hours or pay, and suffer all the vicissitudes of the economy just like contractors.  I should know – I have been laid off from a very solid non-profit agency, a major university, and a community college myself, even while my work itself was being praised.  And yet, akin to Hans Christian Anderson’s story about The Little Match Girl, I sometimes find myself out in the cold, looking longingly into a workplace window, imagining all the safe and happy people who get regular paychecks.

Then a couple weeks go by.  My calendar picks up, my fears recede, and I am back in the game, appreciative of how amazing it is to keep self-employed.  I am proud of myself for keeping my business going for over two decades, figuring out my own taxes, and funding, however poorly, my own retirement account.  I am proud about living lightly so I can minimize what I must earn to stay afloat.  I am happy to have the flexibility of traveling to several courts and working with a wide variety of people.  There is so much to learn, and self-employment leaves so many opportunities for growth.  I am good at what I do, the money keeps coming in, and I feel fine.  And I will keep on feeling fine, until some weeks or months from now, when my calendar gleams white again.




I used to have an abrupt and sometimes rude family member, who left our family circle after a divorce.  Rumor has it he is now a mellow hiker and rafter who brews his own kombucha and listens to people talk, but back in the day, he was impatient and interruptive.  Mid-sentence, he would cut even his elders off with a curt, “What’s your point?!”  He used to brag that when a door-to-door solicitor or young campaigner would come to his house, he would say to them, “Say goodbye!” and when they did, he would slam the door in their face.

I have a certain amount of residual affection for him, partly because we always got along, as strange as that seems.  Partly because it was hard for him to get a word in edgewise in our family.  Partly because he produced two wonderful children who are my dear relatives. And knowing that he brews his own kombucha and has turned into what his adult children describe as a kind of a cool, mellow nature boy.  And partly, full disclosure, because when I am slammed with three courtrooms waiting for me and my day is running into the clock on the wall, in my weakest moments, I too feel like barking out in two languages, “Say goodbye!”

This happened again today, and as always, I resisted the impulse to act on my impulse.  But I am painfully aware that some people do not know how to end a conversation, so instead of appropriately winding up, they simply repeat the last thing they were saying.  This can go on five to ten or even fifteen times, because the listener does not catch the signal for closure, so they circle around each other and I taste the same words in my mouth like the chewy, overcooked (probably horse) meat of my impoverished childhood.  Cannot swallow.  Cannot spit.  Repeat.  Keep repeating.  Aargh!!

I would love to train people on how to politely close a conversation.  But I am not allowed to, of course, while interpreting.  So I just keep doing my ethical duty, and repeating along with them.  Whatever they want to say, however many times, I must say it, too.  Today, someone was going to check on something.  He expressed this over and over, because he just doesn’t know how else to wrap up a conversation.  I suspect he was waiting for the other party to say goodbye, but that party was being polite to an authority figure and it wouldn’t have crossed her mind to end the conversation on her own initiative. So they circled each other like boxers in the ring without a referee.

A few of the phrases I interpreted to say the same thing over:  “Okay, I will check on that.  I will look into that.  I’m gonna go ahead and look at that.  So we will check on that.  That will be sent on, and they will check on it.  They are going to check on that.  I am sending on.  It will get checked on.  Someone is going to check on that.  I will make sure that gets checked on.”  I will not bore the reader with every iteration.

This interpreter kept hoping there might be some added value coming in the new sentences pouring forth.  Maybe some unspoken questions could be answered amongst all the verbiage.  For example, who will check on it?  How long will it take?  How will I know?  Will you contact me?  Shall I call you, or someone else?  What number should I call?  Or will you call me?  What if I don’t hear from you?  How long should I wait to check back?  Will I get a letter?  Who makes the decision, an office worker or a judge?  Do I need to do anything else?  What else do you need from me?  Nothing?  Then why are you repeating yourself?  Why do you keep saying the same thing?  How long must I keep saying okay before you will say goodbye?  Thirteen minutes – fifteen minutes, eighteen minutes and counting – lord have mercy.  Do you even realize you are repeating, repeating, repeating yourself?  Could somebody, anybody, say goodbye?

Say goodbye!


All interpreters who are court-certified are considered equal, and as we have all been formally found to be competent to perform court interpreting, we are considered interchangeable as well.  I do sometimes wonder, though, how that works out when we are speaking on behalf of a witness on the stand.  In theory, we are simply “putting them in the position of an English speaker”.  But how does it play out in practice?  Several questions come to mind.  One, is a witness more believable (in the eyes of the jury members) if she is speaking her own English with a strong accent, or testifying in her native tongue through an interpreter?  Two, for those witnesses using an interpreter, is the witness more, or less, believable if the interpreter is a native speaker of the target language?  And do juries determine witness credibility in part based on their subconscious views of the interpreter’s credibility?  What kinds of overlay might sway a jury toward or away from believing in the witness’s credibility?

One issue to consider is the lag time.  Does it affect the jury to hear a  question, then have to wait for two more interim utterances (the question and answer in the other language) before hearing the answer in English?  Do they disconnect from observing or sharing the speaker’s emotions, and stop watching the non-English speaker because they are focused on the interpreter?  Perhaps a person whose English is fairly fluent might “sound” better in their own English than in their native tongue, in the ears of the jury.  Certainly, the rhythm would be more natural.

Then again, if the speaker has a very strong accent, makes frequent mistakes, or cannot be readily understood, is the jury going to believe their testimony?  Is the jury going to understand it all?  Will they get fatigued in straining to understand convoluted sentences, mispronounced words, and incorrect word order?  Does someone who is clearly making a lot of mistakes come across as more likely to lie, misremember, or simply not be that swift?   Or might witnesses seem more credible or likable because they are at least trying to speak in the dominant language of their host country?  Hard to say, because it is subjective, and subconscious in many cases.

As to the interpreter, one lawyer forum strongly recommends using a native English speaking interpreter so that the witness will sound “clear, cogent, and understandable”.  The site claims that an interpreter with a strong accent or who speaks at all halting or hesitant undermines the credibility of the witness testimony.  A study out of Australia contradicts that, by claiming that at least their university students found witnesses in a mock trial more credible if their interpreters actually had a slight accent, perhaps because then the interpreter “sounded like” the voice of the witness.

The Southern District New York federal court has an interesting position on its website: “The best interpreters will allow you to follow the natural rhythm of questioning, and will at the same time convey some of the “flavor” of the witness, contributing to a sensation that you are hearing the witness directly, despite the language barrier.”  I am not sure what that flavor is supposed to be.   Is part of it an accent?  It would be interesting to see an example.  There are several theories about this, that tend to mirror the arguments about translated literature.  Some claim it should not be traceable to the source language, and others that it should retain the “flavor” while still being understandable.  The devil is in the details for that argument.

Back to court interpreting.  What if a witness speaks for several days, and ends up having three different interpreters due to scheduling issues?  The witness could easily wind up speaking through one native speaker and then two interpreters with different accents from two different regions.  Do the jury member listeners get the subconscious feeling that the witness is “all over the map” and thus less credible?

Another problem that I have seen occur.  Unwittingly, the substitute interpreters may end up using variations of words as they render the witness testimony into English, making the witness sound like she is changing her story, even if she is using the same word consistently in her native language.  Did he throw a brick, a tile, a block, or a tablet at you?  What was it really? Did he throw anything at all?  Why are you overstating the case?  Or, you said you were pushed. Now you claim you were shoved.  Were you shoved or pushed?  Were you just bumped?  Now you are saying you were bumped into.  What was it really?  Why do you keep changing your story?  When the witness answers “I’m not” and looks confused, how does that come across to the jury?

Ideally, we interpreters would have time to share terminology information as we hand off the job, and stay consistent, but the realities of our scheduling do not always allow for this.  While I have been handed a helpful vocabulary list when taking over for another interpreter, it is the exception to the rule.  Many times, we are simply ordered to go to a certain courtroom and begin interpreting for a witness, cold.  We may not even know the names of the parties, or the details of the case to any extent.  I worry that our natural hesitations in those situations could detract from an otherwise credible witness’s appearance before the jury.

Interest groups such as trial lawyers have made thorough and ongoing studies as to how juries can be brought to believe or disbelieve witnesses.  Sometimes interpreters tease each other off the record  about which of us looks more credible, innocent, harmless, or dangerous.  But we seriously have no objective way to know the hidden effects of our “look” as to race, gender, age, appearance,  or our “sound” as to accent or lack thereof, rate of speech, intonation, and loudness.  And we don’t know how things like hesitation or confidence, facial expression, and other language and non-language matters play into who is believed.

We also have no objective way of knowing to what degree the jury members judge the interpreter, rather than the actual witness, in drawing their conclusions on witness credibility.  But there is a certain amount of gut feeling that the juries are called upon to use in deciding the facts of the case.  And when it comes down to whom they choose to believe, and why, the subconscious mind has a lot to say that we don’t know about, and the stakes can be very high.  It kind of makes me want to gulp nervously when I am about to interpret at the witness stand, but I wouldn’t want to make the witness look bad!


Isis to me is a wonderful goddess who watches over us poor humans with her hawk wings and her maternal protection.  She is a Madonna figure who predates Mother Mary by thousands of years.  She is often depicted breastfeeding a human, when she is not flying about the skies.  It is strange that Isis has become the name for a political group known for violence.  Then again, the Department of Defense is also a strange misnomer.  But I am not here to talk about politics.  Rather, I want to introduce you to another protective figure who has gained mythological or archetypal significance, by rising above what most humans could do: giving his life to protect what he cherished so that future generations may enjoy what he cannot.

Some of you know that Damascus, Syria, is commonly considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with settlements going back over 10,000 years to the Copper Age.  Some distance outside of Damascus in the desert, you will find one of its oldest trading partners, the ancient city of Palmyra.  It has been declared a World Heritage site because of its wealth of irreplaceable treasures of art and architecture.  If the city of Palmyra were a living being, I suppose she would be tired by now.  She must have seen destruction and rebirth so many times over the thousands of years.  And last year she was under hostile occupation once again.

Palmyra was blessed to have a revered scholar of antiquities who loved her treasures of art and culture so much, that he dedicated his life’s work to them.  Last summer found him still working in Palmyra, at the age of 82, having worked there for over half a century.  The driving force, for that kind of a career, can only be love.  If you look for him online, you will find among the photos of him, one of him kneeling down and smiling, next to another scholar, who died over two thousand years earlier. This photo looks like so many FaceBook photos of friends.  He appears to rest his hand on the shoulder of his companion.  His face glows with affection.   But his hand is resting on a sarcophagus, the carved stone coffin, of an ancient priest.

That photo was taken some years ago, before recent events overtook the scholar.  When Isis arrived in Palmyra, one of their missions was to locate and destroy “idols” – or sell them to fund their ongoing battles.  In any case, they found and captured this elder scholar.  They held him and interrogated him for a month.  They insisted, with all the force they had, that he tell them where Syria had hidden some of these ancient treasures to protect them from destruction.  He did not tell.  After his month of silence, he was brought out to a pubic square, and his head was cut off with a sword; his body left on display.

It is important to acknowledge that Isis is not the only group of people with guns who cause harm.  They are not the only group destroying treasures and killing people.  I am not writing a story about war and its excesses.  And my purpose here is not to vilify one group of warriors above others.  I am simply trying, in my humble way, to honor an old man whose life story I admire.  An elder who in the face of so much loss and destruction, tried to save something of worth, even at the cost of his own life.  Even under torture.

What is remarkable to me is that this man chose to stay in the city.  He was threatened with death even before his capture, and he simply decided, I will not flee.  I will not leave my life’s work behind.  I will not save myself at the expense of what I cherish.  I am ready to face whatever comes rather than betray myself and others.  This was not a young parent protecting their own child.  This was not a trained soldier.  This was a man who at age 82 had worked to an age beyond most people’s life expectancy.  He had clearly done his duty and could honorably retire and moved to a safer place, enjoying the fruits of his long labor.  But he chose not to.  He chose to stay and face death.  Why?  And how does it come about that I even know about this?  Who taught me to care?

I have never been in Syria or anywhere in the Middle East.  But as an interpreter, Syria and many other areas of the Middle East and the world have been brought to me.  My colleagues travel the world and read the news in a hundred languages.  They represent every major culture and language spoken in the world today.  Their combined wealth of knowledge and love for their their heritage is awe-inspiring and eye-opening.  I am enriched on a daily basis.  My life as an interpreter is a personal introduction to world cultures and a very personal blessing.

I would like to think, and I do believe, that in this tiny, beautiful, magical community of interpreters, we also have a few among us who would stand firm, as Khaled Al-Asaad did, and act out of our great love and integrity, come what may, unswerving .  True to ourselves and our most deeply held, core values.  But few of us will be put to the test.

What an honorable person, to follow through on what he believed, and accept captivity, torture and death rather than betrayal.  I feel that he must have died happy within himself.  If the opportunity comes, if any of these treasures survive, I hope to make a pilgrimage to see what he protected for us.  And even if those treasures end up being destroyed, Mr. Asaad’s life itself is a treasure and an inheritance for all of us in the global community who care about justice and art.  Rest in peace, honored scholar. knowing that others will carry on, to the best of our limited abilities.  Thank you for shining your light across our path.


Anyone who works around a lot of trauma will recognize that fatigue can set in pretty easily.  We remind ourselves that we are making a difference, being of service, and helping to improve the human condition, but there are times where we just get tired.  Worn out.

I had one of those days recently.  I started out interpreting an attorney-client visit where the accused was facing a lot of jail time for family violence and he just kept talking about irrelevant details.  For example, he was not charged with anything related to alcohol, but he kept pointing out that he was not drunk when he broke into his wife’s house and assaulted her in front of the children, in violation of a no-contact order.  Not helpful.  So the lawyer kept cutting him off.  When the defendant started talking about how he doesn’t want his kids to grow up without their father, like he had, his lawyer said to him, “They are going to.  Because you are going to be in jail and then you are going to be deported.  And your wife is going to have to raise them alone.”  The defendant looked surprised, like he had never connected the dots before, and his eyes filled with tears, and that is how we left him.

From there a few minor matters, and then a guilty plea.  A man in his thirties who “fell in love” with a twelve-year-old, who eventually told her mother, who then told the police.  The charge was reduced from child rape to several counts of assault with sexual motivation enhancements.  “Enhancements” are essentially additional time that cannot be reduced for good behavior and cannot be served concurrently, but must be served consecutively.  In order to avoid the young victim having the trauma of testifying, the prosecutor had worked a deal where, in exchange for reducing the charges,  the defendant would agree to serve the amount of time he would have on the original more serious charge.  The defense lawyer had me read to the defendant the factual basis written out to justify his guilty plea, as required by law, but he didn’t see himself in it.  He told his lawyer it sounded too harsh.  What he didn’t like was the part that said he had caused the victim pain and suffering.  That was depressing, he said.

On to a drug dealing case, where the defense attorney acknowledged that the “deal” had taken place as charged, but wished to bring to the court’s attention the unfairness in the police actions surrounding his client’s arrest and the investigation.  Apparently, someone who deals drugs regularly, and has ties to a drug cartel, was caught and pressured by law enforcement to “cooperate”.  But of course he could not lead the police to the real higher-ups in the cartel, or he would end up dead (or wishing that he were dead).  So he talked an old friend into doing him this one favor to help an ailing relative, or whatever the story was.  This friend had been clean for a decade, but he had a record.  The “snitch” was wired throughout this set-up, even while he was convincing the reluctant defendant to commit the crime of delivery of a controlled substance.

Most people don’t realize that the defense of entrapment is not available to anyone who has ever been convicted of the same crime at any time in the past.  The idea of entrapment is that police informants or law enforcement are making you do something you would not otherwise have done.  If you have ever done it, you cannot use that defense.  Because this particular drug deal was recorded and documented, and he had no viable defense, this defendant had to plead guilty, and was going to spend the better part of a year in jail.

Then on to another visit with a very down and out man who has the habit of masturbating in public places.  Not the highest risk group among the deviants, but certainly it is not pleasant to be at your local gym or library and find a stranger wanking.  His lawyer was there to tell him about an offer from the prosecutor.  It included having to do the sexual deviancy evaluation, and registering as a convicted sex offender.  The lawyer tells him that the evaluation will show that he has serious problems, and those results will be used against him the rest of his life.  Also, it will be difficult for him to find housing, or get a job, as a registered offender, and the registration requirement is lifelong.  Bad news.  See you next week.  The defendant thanks us politely for our visit.

I won’t drag my dear readers down with more sad tales from the dark underbelly of my daily grind.  It is days like this when I am tempted to “drop an s” from my introduction into the record, in which I state my name, declare that I am a court-certified interpreter, and that I am permanently sworn (sworn to follow my code of conduct, the ethical guidelines for interpreters as officers of the court).  Yes, it is on days like this when I am tempted to publicly declare my exhaustion, my fatigue, my vicarious trauma, and introduce myself into the record as a  “court-certified interpreter, permanently worn”.


There are several kinds of vicarious trauma that legal interpreters face as a regular workplace hazard.  One form of it is akin to when medical students believe they have, or will develop, a certain disease as they learn about it in depth during the course of their studies.  It is very human, but hopefully fallible, to presume that whatever we delve deeply into holds special meaning for us and may be information we need to keep our future selves safe and happy.

We had a residential burglary some years back.  Due to some plumbing problems, we left all our windows open with fans running, even when we left the house.  Not the best idea, but our neighborhood felt safe and it was just for a few days.  Who would be watching, except our loving and kind neighbors and the harmless dog walkers whose worst transgression was leaving behind an unwanted gift from Fido on our lawn?  Who else would watch our house?

I never really answered that question, presuming the break-in was just a random slap of fate, until I happened to interpret for someone who described in detail a group of roofers who scoped out the surrounding houses  from their very convenient rooftop lookout, and then returned to break in during the regularly scheduled absences of the neighbors.  Aha!  I remembered immediately that my neighbor was getting her roof done at the time of our break-in.

For a brief moment, I became obsessed with the coincidence – if it was indeed a coincidence.  Could I investigate the roofing company, demand copies of their worker ID’s, run their criminal records, and maybe even find the silver coffee pot with the acorn lid that my grandmother’s siblings had saved up and bought for her as a keepsake when she emigrated from her homeland?

Damned roofers!  Spying on us and making us unsafe!  All of them must be criminals!  Over time, of course, I faced the fact that correlation does not equal causation.  I faced the fact that there are thousands of roofers in my town, and the handful of them who were doing residential burglaries were caught and jailed.  I faced the fact that I will never know who has my grandmother’s silver coffee pot, and that it doesn’t really matter much at this point.

I accepted that no matter how safe I felt, I was always in danger of having a break-in.  I still am in danger of having a break-in.  And I am not going to prevent it by studying the faces of the people I see in court, or by trying to make sense of the sometimes senseless world around me.  I am not going to be able to prevent anything bad from happening to me by being good, or careful, or wise.   Some things are random and unfixable and some things just happen for no good reason.  Learning to live with that is a lifelong challenge.


A party representing himself in family court was accused of having failed to follow up on one of the myriad obligations involved in trying to get a Parenting Plan and Child Support Order finalized.  To me, it is a miracle if any couple manages to do so, given the complex and confusing steps, departments, names of people, and forms.  Where I live, the process takes over a year to get from filing to trial date.  And we sometimes joke that it is not really because of a backlog, but simply because it take people a year to figure out the paperwork and steps.

In any case, this party wanted to tell the judge that he was absolutely sure he had not missed any deadlines or failed to provide a report or refused to speak to someone regarding a parenting plan evaluation, and in a very urgent voice, he claimed that he had been “at the margin” in every way throughout the year since having filed.  The funny thing is, that phrase usually means to be outside the law, but it was clear from context that he meant he WAS doing everything that had been asked of him.  I certainly wasn’t going to be a purist and have him say he had been outside the law every step of the way.  But I know some interpreters would.

This reminds me of a Russian interpreter who was working with an elderly, hard of hearing patient who was suffering from prostate problems.  The phrase for prostate gland starts out “predstatel” and the word for chairman is “predsedatl” and this gentleman always called his prostate his chairman, but the interpreter, knowing what he meant to say, was able to say prostate, and the elderly man never faced the rude but helpless giggles of the overworked staff, or a lengthy explanation about how he doesn’t know his own body parts.  He was suffering enough, and his meaning was clear.

If we pose this situation as being in a court of law at an interpreter training, there will be interpreters who pop up and say the correct response is to say “chairman” and then state on the record that the Russian word for chairman and prostate are very close and you believe he meant prostate.  Then other interpreters will stand up and argue that the interpreter by doing so has just made herself an expert witness and given testimony and now she must recuse herself and stop interpreting, mid-trial, with a full jury and courtroom of workers.  Then everyone can stand by for a couple hours while they look for a replacement interpreter.  Because interpreters are not allowed to testify.  And we cannot know what someone else means, the purists will argue, even though we make that leap of faith in every single sentence we convey all day long, because language and context and meaning are messy and organic and situational.

Interpreters all struggle with the concept of how to avoid “fixing” what someone says and still conveying their meaning.  In the case above, as this family father said he was outside the law, even if it is nonsensical in this context, some would say the interpreter must say “outside the law”.  If someone says Tuesday and we know they mean Wednesday, we certainly don’t fix it.  Then again, metaphors and such are not as clear cut as the days of the week.  He used a phrase that allows for some variation in meaning, and was exceedingly clear from context.

To me, it seems wrong to put a clearly false phrase into his mouth, causing a break in the hearing, creating confusion, and affecting his credibility and confidence on the stand.  Should the interpreter risk breaking the hearing down just to make sure the interpreter is not “fixing” anything?  In this case, the speaker’s meaning was crystal clear.  So I had to set aside the whole quandary of fixing, and get the right tone for his obvious meaning of really straining to do right.

My first go-to was to use something equally visual.  I thought of “up to the mark” or “toeing the line” but neither was a perfect fit.  Up to the mark sounds satisfyingly similar, but in English it means good enough, and no better.  In this case, the party was clearly trying to convey the idea of being much better than good enough – making it highly unlikely, almost impossible, that he had failed to comply.  Toeing the line sounds even less like a willing performer going above and beyond the call of duty, as it tends to mean following the rules under pressure.  In that split second of racing brain, I had to abandon both toes and lines.

“Your Honor, I want to point out that I have been scrupulous in fulfilling every obligation of this court.  I have attended every single meeting as required.  I have not missed a single hearing.  I respect your authority and I am following all the rules.  I do not recall having received this letter, or I would have responded, I assure you.”

Scrupulous.  It means attentive, thorough, and detail-oriented, along with ethical and upright.  I think I captured it.  I think I was scrupulous in coming up to the mark.  And I hope that knowing what he meant and conveying that does not put me on the fringes, or outside the law, in the interpreter world.  It is absolutely not the fallback position to “fix” what someone says, but when it is metaphorical and clear from context, such as my example, I find it appropriate to carefully convey the intended meaning.

So why is writing this giving me a nervous stomach?  Because there is so much more to say about this.  It reminds me of our interpreter workshops covering ethics, where we can argue endlessly about a single scenario, by just adding one more detail to our hypothetical.   For now, because it is a lovely Saturday, and the garden calls out to me, I will save further discussion until someone criticizes me, and then I can be up to the mark about justifying how scrupulous I truly am.


Years ago, I came across a study trying to parse out why certain doctors had such fewer complications in performing gallbladder removals than others.  Did it correlate to their training, their pay grade, or perhaps their hospital reputation?  The closest correlation was actually based on frequency.  If your doc has removed two or three thousand gallbladders in the last year, you are looking at a better likely outcome than if that number is two or three.  Practice makes perfect, as the old saying goes.

So how does this relate to the legal field?  A certain number of defendants seem to believe that by price alone, private defense attorneys are bound to do a better job than a public defender would.  Even if the private attorney they happen to hire is not familiar with that court, or doesn’t do many of that particular type of case.  Or sends out rookies without supervision to handle their work.

Public defenders are assigned, sometimes for years at a time, to a single court, doing the same kind of cases day in and day out.  They get to know the staff, the judges, the procedures and forms, and how things work in that microcosm, while gaining a deep knowledge of the relevant law.  What they lose in pay, they gain in a shared sense of purpose and shared knowledge.  They watch for patterns and work together to file briefs that will affect policy for years to come.  Public defenders are not in competition with each other, so they share briefs and legal theories, shadow each other, act as co-counsel, and have a great deal of teamwork as part of their day.  As busy as they may be, they are truly masters of their craft.

Since new defendants make up the majority of our cases, very few of them have any knowledge of this.  They tend to hold to the common perception that you get what you pay for.  So when they are told that they can get a “free lawyer” or they can go hire someone, it can create a certain amount of fear and panic.  Let’s take a look at what happened to one fairly typical first-time offender when he scraped it together to hire someone.  First of all, the immigrants I work with tend to hire whoever advertises the most, because they don’t typically know anyone who knows any lawyers.  And they often end up seeing a younger associate from that firm rather than the figurehead, at least from what I have seen.

Here is a true-life example.  One spouse was pushed by another who pushed back, during an argument.  Because “any offensive touching” is fourth degree assault in my area, there does not have to be any injury.  There are great policy reasons for that which I will not get into here.  Back to this thread, the police arrested one of spouses after the shoving match.  The victim now wants to lift the no-contact order, and does not plan to show up at trial.  The defendant has hired a name-brand lawyer and the person who shows up is a new associate from that office.

The private lawyer tells the defendant that a trial is completely random, like a roll of the dice, so the defendant should not go to trial.  The public defender, in contrast, tells others in this situation that if the victim does not appear, it is extremely likely that the case will be dismissed, because the prosecutor will likely not be able to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt without the main witness.  That is standard policy on non-injury cases in this particular court.  But the private attorney doesn’t know this.  So he misses the chance to have an actual dismissal, and just discounts trial out of hand.

The private lawyer tells this defendant that he can try to get the victim to lift the no-contact order. He doesn’t mention that this a new criminal law violation.  The public defender, in contrast, typically explains that the defendant should absolutely not contact the victim either directly or indirectly, but that the defense investigator is allowed to interview the victim and ask if the victim intends to cooperate with prosecution, and defense will be notified if there is a motion to lift the no-contact order.  They also routinely clarify that violating a no-contact order is a crime with serious ramifications.

The private attorney tells the defendant that if he signs a Stipulated Order for Continuance, he is admitting guilt.  These forms are sometimes confused with  Suspended Sentences, which constitute an admission of guilt and will show up on your record as a conviction.  The public defender would explain that the Stipulated Order of Continuance will show on his record as “charged and pending”, but there will be no conviction unless the defendant fails to meet all the requirements, including following the no-contact order.  He is not admitting guilt, but allowing the court to read the police report and determine his guilt only if he fails to meet the conditions to get treatment, pay fines, and stay out of trouble.

The private attorneys tells this defendant they have to attach the police report to the Stipulated Order for Continuance, but that will be okay, because they can “write something better in the form, like it was just an offensive touching” instead of a push or shove, so it will “look better to immigration”.  As to deportation or exclusion, he says he doesn’t know, but he doesn’t think it will be a problem, and it’s probably okay.  This, in spite of the fact that there is specific case law ruling that a criminal defense attorney has an obligation to confer with his client about potential immigration consequences before allowing any kind of a plea.

The public defenders have produced some very specific immigration-safe language to use in conjunction with Stipulated Orders for Continuance, and they make sure that the police report is not attached to the order.  It is kept separately, where it will not be part of the record or easily accessible to immigration.  They actually routinely cross out a portion of the printed form, and use an addendum to create more protective language.

Further, public defenders have a set-up by which they interview their defendants on immigration issues, send that report to an immigration consultant, and provide them with some educated counseling on what the immigration consequences of various pleas would be, so they can make an informed decision on their criminal case.  They also let people know that they should not apply for any new status while on probation.  They refer them on to an immigration project as needed.  Most importantly, they encourage their defendants to follow the law, get their needed treatment, and respect the no-contact order, because the consequences will include both criminal and immigration fall-out.

Whatever anyone says, we interpreters render it faithfully into the target language.  We express no opinion; we correct no one.   And so we are called upon to give a vastly wide variety of legal advice in response to extremely similar sets of facts.  And we must treat each case the same – doing our best to convey the message and meaning of what the individuals are saying, even if we may think they are wrong.  Sometime I remind myself I am like the postal carrier, in that I am not responsible for the content of the message – just the delivery.  Yet certain packages are a true pleasure to carry, while others are heavily burdensome.

The jury may be out among the general public as to whether you get what you pay for in hiring a private attorney for criminal defense, but my general views are as stated above, because I have experienced similar situations so many times.  And while I have certainly had the pleasure (mixed with pain when justice is not done according to my lights) of interpreting for top notch private attorneys, if I ever get arrested and qualify, there are quite a few public defenders into whose hands I would put my freedom before I would feel the need to hire someone privately.


Sarcasm is so culturally bound.  In my native speech community, it is often used in an attempt to create a “we against them” feeling of belonging.  It is a way to show through words that “I am on your side.”  But it seldom comes across that way to non-English speakers.  I see this over and over, especially among the less erudite lawyers who may still view sarcasm as universal (because they have not yet noticed that the other person is seldom laughing along).

I offer you a simple, everyday situation as example.  A young lawyer has her client’s personal file.  She hands it back to him with a laugh, saying, “Here, take this – I don’t want to steal it from you.”  Without thinking, I process it into the target language as “Here, take this – I don’t want this to be stolen from you.”

The lawyer understands enough of the target language (but not the culture) to notice she did not hear the word “I” and she wanted to.  This is somewhat ironic, as traditional speakers of this language avoid the use of the word “I” in order to be polite and properly humble.  Instead of saying “I am here to speak,” an older traditional speaker would say, “Your servant is here to speak,” referring to herself as “your servant,” the person who is at your service, and not focused on herself by using I, me, and mine.  The polite person, by tradition, avoids referring to herself directly.

But this lawyer wants to be prominent.  So she repeats, adding emphasis and elongation, “I – I don’t want to steal from you!” Suddenly realizing that this lawyer does not want the feel and the meaning conveyed, as much as the literal words, this interpreter says “I – I don’t want to steal from you!”  But contrary to what the lawyer had hoped, her sarcasm falls flat and the client takes his file back with a look of concern rather than humor.  What has gone wrong?

Sarcasm.  The lawyer thinks the defendant is in on the joke, because she is using sarcasm, and if he gets it, he is an insider and they can laugh at the world together.  But as she is joking that she has power and control, and can take something from him, and he cannot do much about it, and that is laughable, he is not amused, as she had expected.  She has divided them instead of uniting them, by insisting on this literal translation, when use of the passive voice would have accomplished her goal in this instance.  Because in spite of whatever language skills she may have, this lawyer does not seem culturally sensitive.

This lawyer does not seem sensitive to the fact that her clients are already separated from her on many levels.  She is a well-educated, well-situated lawyer who has the knowledge to keep her defendant out of jail, or then again, as a new lawyer, she may get him jailed and then deported.  (This interpreter is not claiming that what the defendant did has no bearing on outcome – I am simply trying to relay how the defendant may be viewing things.)  In his view, the lawyer is clearly in a power position.  She is confident, while he is scared and confused.  He actually smells of scared sweat.  She doesn’t seem to see how scared he really is.  She is laughing about stealing something from him. He is not laughing back.

Joking is probably not appropriate at all in this situation.  But if joking is going to be a bonding opportunity, the person with less power cannot be mocked or ridiculed.  There has to be certain level of familiarity, comfort, and mutual trust before joking in such a serious situation could be in the least amusing.  I have seen it work between two lawyers.  And between a defendant and a trusted family member.  As professional comedians can tell you, on the whole, the best kind of humor is self-deprecating, allowing the person to laugh at the speaker.  It seldom causes a guffaw to directly mock the person with the short end of the stick.  There is nothing bonding there.

Behind every joke is something underlying that is serious in nature, and serves a purpose.  One of the fundamental purposes of a joke is to create a feeling of bonding, usually by excluding others.  If the lawyer had joked as I automatically changed it, it might have worked, because it would have included a protective stance:  “I will make sure no one ELSE will steal your things.  I am protective of you.  I’ve got your back, in and out of court.  I won’t let anyone take something that is yours – not your file, and not your freedom.  So don’t worry.”  There might be cause for a bit of a laugh in that, to break the tension, in that undercurrent.

The point is that every joke is the bubbling up of humor coming out of an undercurrent of something quite serious, often dangerous or frightening.  Konrad Lorenz, that wonderful old German scientist, wrote, if I recall correctly, in his book On Aggression (1963) that laughter stems from aggression.  We laugh to “blow off steam” and release tension, among other things.  I believe that we also laugh to make sense of things we cannot understand, and to bond with others by getting someone on “our side”.  Laughter can create a feeling of safety, when it is not directed at the listener.

In this case, the undercurrent that the defendant ended up hearing was: “I have power and control, and I can sit here laughing about you and your case.  If I wanted to, I could steal your file and you are too helpless and low to be able to do anything about it.  But I choose to give it back to you, because I don’t want to steal it.  Just one more way in which I exert my power.  I could harm you or take something from you, and there isn’t much you can do or say.”  No wonder the poor guy isn’t busting a gut laughing, but thoughtfully taking his file back with trembling hands.

This whole analysis may seem silly or contrived to some people.  I am thinking of my brother, in particular, here.  But having studied sociolinguistics, I am convinced that much of what we say is not “just words”.  Indeed, everything we say performs a social function or a purpose.   We use words for many things, and one is to create a feeling in the other person, be it inclusion or exclusion.   The function of saying “take this so it isn’t stolen” is protective. The function of saying “I could steal this from you” is a reminder of who is in power.  And a very misguided and inappropriate use of sarcasm in a tense communication situation, leaving the defendant feeling unsafe and uncomfortable.

The question comes up whether this interpreter was trying to “fix” what was said by the quick removal of the first person and changing it to passive voice.  I would argue that I was not.  I was following what I hope was the actual intent of the attorney – to bond with her client; to joke in order the lighten the mood, and to build trust.  That, I still believe, was her sociolinguistic intent.  However, by insisting on a literal interpretation, her sarcasm came through in a way that I hope was unintended.  And her client left feeling more nervous than he needed to be.



I was interpreting for a frustrated defendant who had been waiting for his attorney for over an hour.  The attorney was equally frustrated, as he had been stuck down “in the tank” with his in-custody cases longer than expected and was now running late for court.  After hearing the defendant’s complaints, the lawyer burst out, “I wasn’t just twiddling my thumbs!” and I of course had to rush to find a way to convey that.  But in my target language, people do not twiddle their thumbs.  And why would they?  Twiddle is such a strange verb.

Twiddle apparently showed up in English in the 1500’s when someone decided to combine the concepts of twirling and twisting – the circular movements – with the concept of fiddling, meaning wasting time or fooling around.  I don’t know why fiddlers got this bad rap of being time-wasters, but perhaps it comes from a long history of Puritan religious types who considered dancing a sinful waste of time.  So fiddling,  and twirling and twisting, were duly married and gave birth to the new phrase “twiddling our thumbs”, which has survived for the last 500 or so years.  But only in English.

I have a rather delicate problem rendering most slang into the target language.  Almost any really slangy phrase is likely to have a vulgar equivalent as the first go-to in my mind.  This is not because I have a particularly dirty mind.  But I happened to have learned my target language from an ethnic language group that has linguistically found a way to insert the penis or other phallocentric sexual references into pretty much every slang phrase.  So I have to bypass the first phrase that comes to my mind and see if I can quickly reach a nicer equivalent.  If I cannot do it fast enough, I have to just grab the underlying meaning and spit it out in less colorful language.  Which is still better than being too colorful.

I hate to disappoint my readers, but for twiddling my thumbs, I must confess that in the press of the moment, I ended up saying something quite bland.  If I recall correctly, I said “I wasn’t just gadding about”.  I used the verb form of the word that is now in English for “vagrant” which means a person who wanders about aimlessly.  Because the idea behind the lawyer’s phrase was to show that he was not just wasting time or fiddling about.  The term in the target language is not as quaint and unusual as “gadding” is in English, so it was easily understandable, and I chose it because it shows both movement and idleness together.

The first phrase that came to my mind and that I chose to hop over, to be perfectly biblical here, would be rendered as follows: “I was not casting my seed upon the winds”.  Or in lay terms, “I wasn’t just jacking off.”  As an older woman speaking between two younger men, the last thing I wanted to do was to introduce a penis where none had been brought up, or should I say, exhibited, by the lawyer himself.  So I moved quickly to “aimless wandering”  or “gadding about” as a second best.

Interpreters entertain ourselves for hours thinking about a word or a phrase, and I had fun asking my colleagues what they would have said in this instance.  No one came up with anything to do with thumbs (or penis for that matter) but both hands and arms were recruited, along with the belly button, and curiously enough, the crab.  Here are the top phrases we came up with.

“I wasn’t sitting with one hand over the other.”  This seems too passive to me, whereas twiddling is a sense of keeping busy and being active, while not productive.

“I wasn’t just there with my arms crossed.”  This has a slight flavor of aggression or refusal at least in English.  Someone stands with their armed crossed during an argument, to show they are closed and unwilling.  It seems more contrary than the happy twiddling.

“I wasn’t just gazing at my navel. ” This smacks of self-contemplation, or analyzing one’s self, rather than wasting time.  It also sounds a bit conceited and self-interested, which again twiddling does not convey.

My favorite: “I wasn’t just contemplating the immortality of the crab.”  It has a daydreamy, lost in thought feel to it that seems to make it the closest match to thumb twiddling.  If the music of the fiddle is lost in translation, it seems to be made up for by the playfulness of the phrase.

There is a funny little philosophical theory behind this old saying.  The premise is that the crab has no self-awareness.  An unlikely premise, but for the sake of this argument, let’s say the crab has no self-awareness.  Because the crab is not aware that it is alive, it will likewise not be aware when it dies.  Therefore, from its personal point of view, the crab does not experience death.  Therefore, the argument goes, from the crab’s personal point of view, it does not die.  And because it does not die, the crab is immortal.

So when you loll about contemplating the subjective and objective points of view, and how we shape our own realities, but perhaps not that of the universe, you can say you are “contemplating the immortality of the crab”.  You can also jokingly say this when you are doing a whole lot of nothing.

So, dear lawyers, when you see an interpreter hesitate for a split second before rendering whatever you just said, please do not judge us harshly, or presume that we hesitate because we “can’t think of anything”.  You couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Random yet interwoven bit and pieces, sticks and twigs, and even fleeing crabs, run through our heads like wildfire before our tongue catches flame and we exhale your thoughts, like a magical dragon.  And yet there are certain things that come to mind, like casting our seed upon the wind, that we have to make sure we leave unsaid.  So give us a moment, if you please, and be patient.  After all, it’s not like we are just sitting there, twiddling our thumbs.