As we don the new year and doff the old one, it occurs to me that interpreters have to know many archaic terms, such as don, doff, and for that matter, archaic.  Archaic means old and somewhat out of date.  Donning means putting clothes on, and doffing is taking them off.  It comes from contracting the phrases “do on” and “do off” that came into use during  the Middle Ages.  These terms dropped out of use a few hundred years later, because language is constantly growing and renewing itself.  But archaic terms like don and doff live on in our written laws, and are argued about all the way to the US Supreme Court.  Why?

With the exception of a few time-limited laws, such as a five-year bridge levy,  our laws live on in perpetuity (another legal term) without ever dying – unless and until the law or some section of it is actually killed.  It has to be voted out of law, and almost always replaced with another version covering the same area.  With the over-arching goal of written laws bringing stability to our legal and social systems, it is rather hard to change a law.  Any overhaul takes years of studies, massive negotiations, and in the end, often fails to pass.  Think of all the promises and threats of immigration reform, and how rarely meaningful changes actually happen.

I was interpreting for a rather large civil case related to employee rights, and one question that came up was the degree to which workers must be paid to “don and doff” which by which they meant changing  clothes and possibly putting on certain protective gear.  What if the company doesn’t want you “on the clock” until you are going to be actively productive?  Do you as a worker have the right to be paid for putting on clothes at work?  As usual, the legal answer is “it depends”.  And mostly it depends on how we define the terms.

The US Supreme Court recently decided that union workers putting on their protective gear did not have to be compensated as a matter of law.  Instead, it was open to be negotiated at collective bargaining.  But the way the Supreme Court decided this was to unanimously rule that “donning and doffing” means “changing clothes” under the relevant law.  The union bringing the law suit claimed that “changing clothes” and “donning and doffing” are not the same thing because putting on (or donning) protective gear should be compensated even if changing clothes is not.

The US Supreme court chose to define donning and doffing as synonymous with changing clothes.  They further ruled that “clothes” means – er – clothes, and includes “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.”  They then had to continue down the rabbit hole of words and definitions, and further rule, for example, that a “hardhat” is “clothes” but that “earplugs” are not “clothes”.  By the end of their ruling, they had a long list of “clothes” and a very short list of items that are “not clothes”.  So they decided that “donning” the short list of items was not a substantial enough matter of time to support a ruling that it should be compensated as work, as a matter of law.

Are you confused yet?  If so, you are not alone, because very few people follow the lawyers down these underground tunnels, curves and turns.  But interpreters have to.  It is our job to follow their logic, comprehend what they are saying, and quickly render it into our target language.  We have to keep up as best we can.  Trying to stay just a word, a half a thought, the inkling of an idea behind them, running along like a scared rabbit, hitting the walls of the tunnel, clawing and panting, heart racing, in my personal case, at the worst of times.

So if you ever walk past a courthouse and see an interpreter emerge and blink confusedly in the daylight, do not be surprised.  We have been donning our protective gear, girding our loins with the strength of our vocabulary and legal knowledge,  and following lawyers into the labyrinth of words and definitions, as closely as we can manage.  So when we finally come up for air, give us a moment to readjust to the everyday world – where people play loosely with language, and toss around words interchangeably.  And we don’t have to repeat what anybody says.  Whew.