1 Jul

“Unfortunately, because of a general lack of understanding among the judiciary and the public concerning the consequences of not providing appropriate language services, interpreters have never been subject to uniform professional or legal regulation. Consequently, through the years, the use of unqualified, untested, and untrained individuals as interpreters has led to a serious abridgement of due process rights for many United States Citizens.”*

Kudos to Judge Andrea C. Peeples of Franklin County Municipal Court in Columbus, Ohio. She spent three hours after a full workday to introduce budding court interpreters to their roles and how to preserve the record. This is the first of a series on a three-hour crash course for us to serve in her and other courts throughout Ohio.

When you enter the courtroom, locate the prosecutor and let her know which language you interpret. The defendant needs to know her charges, if she needs a lawyer, what are the fines and will she find herself incarcerated. Or, can she resolve her case today? We interpreters assist in leaping the language barrier. We don’t give legal advice, but solely interpret. Our job is to interpret somewhat stilted language of the court and the LEP. Work to keep things flowing and to understand what goes where and when you need to remain silent and when to intervene.

A lot is going on in Municipal Court. Find the court reporter and introduce yourself with a handshake and your business card. Write the defendant’s name and case number on the reverse side so she can identify you properly for the record. Her job is similar to yours: hear the goings on in order to produce the record. Keep your voice low while interpreting while simultaneously interpreting as proceedings are recorded.

The Ohio Rules of Superintendence cautions us to warn the court of impediments to compliance.* We interpreters must notify Your Honor when we can’t hear with defense attorneys, prosecutors and frantic defendants who speak at the same time. The judge expects this will happen to make sure the record is clear. “Your Honor, would you please instruct all parties to speak one at a time so the interpreter may interpret accurately?” Don’t be afraid to speak up. When you don’t hear something clearly, stop and ask, “Your Honor, the interpreter requests a repetition.” Then, wait for her response. Again, your job is to assist to produce a clear record. Her Honor can also locate an errant attorney who slows down her docket. That’s why you must arrive and identify yourself ideally fifteen minutes before court begins. No need to incur the wrath of anyone in an already adversarial atmosphere.

Your friend, the court reporter, needs to identify who is speaking when and to whom. Start your sentence with “Your Honor, the witness has used a term with which the interpreter is unfamiliar. May she clarify?” At that point Madame Court Reporter knows who is who. Just make sure that when you speak on your own behalf, you say “This is the interpreter speaking: I …”.

What do you do when a defendant chatters on in perfect Spanish then wham! He code switches from Spanish to Spanglish, then English and back to Spanish. Does this present a problem? If the court reporter hears English, she’ll record that. A certified interpreter in attendance suggested to repeat in English. Why? The court reporter becomes accustomed to listening to the interpreter, not the 2nd language speaker. Don’t always assume the reporter can understand heavy accents. I interpreted once in open court and the defendant said he worked at Oh-lee-vay gar-deens. What? After clarification a voice piped up “He works at Olive Garden.” Feeling foolish yet? Not to worry – this happens to all of us. Remember that we are the language specialists and are there to facilitate communication.

Madame Peeples, the bailiff and attendant attorneys race through dockets at lightning speed. Become familiar with terms to have a better understanding unique to each courtroom. Learn municipal, juvenile and common pleas vocabulary. Take the time to visit a courtroom to become familiar with both the speed and pet phrases of court personnel. Jot down unfamiliar words and research them later. You already started a term list that will grow with each new assignment. Your job is to render accurately from the source language to the target language, that is, from English to Polish and back to English.

What do you think? Please leave your comments and questions to generate further dialogue. Stop by Judge Peeples’ courtroom to say thanks for the time and effort she took to help you keep within the role of a court interpreter. Watch for more suggestions within the coming week. See you in court.

*Dueñas González, Roseann, Victoria F. Vásquez, and Holly Mikkelson. Fundamentals of Court Interpretation: Theory, Policy and Practice. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1991.


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