Acronyms are so prevalent in court talk. Over time, we learn what they stand for and know each word that rolls out in the collective legal mind when the quick acronym is pronounced. But the issue remains as to how to best convey that. Let’s take something simple like NHTSA for an example. It stands for National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It is a national agency that among other duties provides training and guidelines for the Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST or just FST). So in pretty much every Driving Under the Influence (DUI) trial, people talk about NHTSA. (PS I just gave you an example of how hard it is to cognitively process information including acronyms and their definitions.)
NHTSA is pronounced “nitsa”. Like many acronyms, many people use it and cannot say what exactly it stands for, only what it means. Nitsa is a made-up word that means absolutely nothing in standard English. In the collective legal mind, though, it hold as much meaning as “DUI” and other working acronyms tossed about in our alphabet salad. So when you hear nitsa, as interpreter, you have several options. If there is time, and that is a huge, huge if, you could roll out the full verbiage the first time, as in “The national administration for safety in traffic along public roads as known by its acronym “nitsa”. Obviously, you can try out saying “nitsa” aloud and then saying that choking mouthful, and realize that timewise it is not going to happen too often, if ever.
Another option is to pop it out in bits and pieces as you can squeeze in another word edgewise the first half a dozen times it is stated, such as NITSA – traffic administration. NITSA – of public safety. NITSA – national highway. NITSA – field sobriety test trainers. There are several problems with this method – how to remember whatever you already said, and how to squeeze in any other words to create a whole picture. How to avoid crossing the line between interpreting and explaining, especially if you tell the defendant what you wish someone else would mention (but no one did!) , which is that we are talking about nitsa because they set the standard for the field sobriety test. And I think it is also unfair to keep barking NITSA at your defendant followed by a different snippet of a phrase each time. I am not convinced that this is ethical, fair, or explanatory.
Another option if you dare is to pop up and say, “Your Honor, the interpreter would like the acronym spelled out for the benefit of the non-English speaker” after which everyone will glare at you for a couple reasons. First, you interrupted the process. Was that really necessary? Second, you are crossing the dangerous line of advocating for the defendant, deciding and calling out on the record for what (you think) should be explained to him. Third, you are embarrassing the speaker who if they are typical will NOT remember exactly what NITSA stands for – because no one ever utters the actual words – and everyone in court knows that NITSA means – nitsa. And I am one of the few who even know that there is an H in the acronym. A silent H that is pronounced like an I. So lawyers look for an I word when they guess at the acronym’s actual full utterance. And now the interpreter has made a lawyer lose face – possibly in front of the jury. Oops. Not the best way to remain invisible.
In the trenches, we end up just saying NITSA almost all the time, because it is risk-free. It is easy. It is as short as the English. And we can comfort ourselves that we are “putting the language service recipient in the position of an English speaker” which is to say keeping them in the dark. Argh.
I know it is one of my many impossible dreams, but it would be great if speakers would slowly spell out the acronyms they are going to use thereafter. I don’t expect this to happen, so let me repeat myself. Argh.