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.