Reclaiming Our Profession

“I am an interpreter.” I was giddy the first time I said these words out loud, having just finished my inaugural shift as a volunteer interpreter in a medical clinic. To me, the possibility of uttering this phrase was an honor earned through hours and hours of study and sacrifice. From monolingual to bilingual by the skin of my teeth, I leapt from the classroom into a world of Spanish As It Is Spoken By Native Speakers. I dove into idioms, regionalisms and accent variations. I interned, observed, practiced, and practiced some more. I learned to refer to myself in the third person, constantly monitor my output and apply the code of ethics to a variety of absurd situations. Finally, I leapt over that scary precipice to land on the other side as a master approved court interpreter and freelance medical interpreter. Not only am I an interpreter now, but I get paid for it, too!

It is all the more odd, then, that when I say that phrase: “I am an interpreter,” nobody seems to know what it means, or the commitment it took to get here. “Oh! So you’re the one who writes down everything in court?” ask strangers at parties. In hospitals, I am condescended to and misunderstood: “So I guess you took some Spanish classes in high school?” muses one physician’s assistant. “You know you should be in there translating!” orders a nurse as I stand outside the examination room for forty-five minutes because there is nowhere to sit, no provider in the room, and it is unethical for me to be alone with the patient. Just this last spring, I had to explain to a packed and open-mouthed courtroom that I was under the obligation to inform them that I needed a break and it was actually standard protocol to have two interpreters present for an 8-hour trial day. Luckily the judge took me seriously, a break was granted and another interpreter called. The lawyers later told me I should inform the court that it was standard practice to order Coolatta refills every fifteen minutes. Ha ha.

But let me just tell you that yesterday took the cake as far as depositions are concerned, and not because of any difficulties in interpreting! It was a tricky job but I was pleased with the outcome. The Colombian plaintiff I was interpreting for had been living in the United States since 9 years before I was born. Let’s just say that the extent to which his Spanish resembled Spanglish was, well, to a “gran extento” (that’s “large extent” for those of you who are Limited Spanglish Proficient). My brain started to implode after endless replies of, “um-hmm [stare from court reporter], YES! …Sí, sí” [yes, yes]. And, “That’s correcto” [correct]. It got really fun when he gave a long impromptu (and unelicited!) explanation about how he had lived in three different apartments, one of which caught on fire, but they needed more “rooms” to accommodate their divorced son. He kept referring to the apartment sizes as “dos rooms” [two bedrooms] and “tres rooms” [three bedrooms]. I am proud to say I rendered the whole utterance intact without a repetition!

But no, the difficulty began a few moments after I entered the law office. As I was reviewing the complaint and jotting down vocabulary that might come in handy, I overheard the firm’s (and plaintiff’s) lawyer loudly tell the opposing party that there would be a paralegal sitting in to watch the translator “in case there are any problems.” It didn’t stop there; for the next five minutes, they both laughed about terrible interpreters: “I know some Spanish too, and I can tell when they’re messing up!” (It is moments like these when I wish I interpreted a less widely “known” language, although of course that carries its own set of trials.) As I felt my blood jump twenty degrees and begin approaching boiling point, I practiced my yoga breathing and thought over a few options.

I opted with knocking ‘em dead.

And I did just that. As time dragged on and I continued to accurately interpret the lawyer’s long convoluted questions without interrupting him, as I triumphantly found just the right words (eg. “When I was least expecting it” as opposed to the more literal, “when I least thought about it”), I tried to avoid noticing the paralegal who sat there, taking no notes but staring straight at me with wide judgemental eyes and not a trace of a smile. Finally, an hour and a half into the deposition, her moment arrived. The plaintiff said “diez” [ten] but I heard “dos” [two] and before I had a chance to correct my error, the paralegal began gesticulating wildly saying, “Stop! That was wrong! She made a mistake!”

The opposing counsel, bless his heart, informed them that the paralegal was being unprofessional and inappropriate, and that if she had anything she needed to say she could make a note of it and the plaintiff’s lawyer could address it later. The plaintiff’s lawyer, in turn, argued that they had only wanted to ensure that the Spanish was correct. I practiced my yogi breathing and finally spoke my piece. “I am a master court approved Spanish interpreter,” I began, and with all the strength that our blossoming field affords, I rattled off a quick and comprehensive list of my qualifications. I explained that interpreters do make mistakes and we are happy to correct them. I explained that other people might believe a mistake has been made and if such is the case then we are happy to review the interpretation and act accordingly. I explained that as a professional, I wished that the lawyer had approached me personally with any potential concerns, and I stated that I had been put in an awkward and uncomfortable position knowing indirectly that someone else had been assigned to watch my every move.

It was decided that the paralegal would write down any possible issues discreetly. Four hours and fifteen minutes after we began, the deposition finished and the lawyers turned to me, expressing their surprise and appreciation for how well it had gone. I informed them that with all due respect, ours is a difficult profession and if they are so concerned about accurate interpretations (which is understandable) then they should inquire into interpreters’ qualifications before hiring them. We had an amicable enough conversation and then parted ways.

There is a lesson here somewhere, I think. Throughout my drive home, I tried to bring my blood temperature back to simmering while I daydreamed clever essay possibilities: “Explaining Our Profession To Idiots” is one title I had in mind. I idly wondered if NAJIT would print such a story. Nonetheless, it struck me today that I am above all grateful to belong to a new and increasingly more powerful field. No, not everyone understands our career at first glance, or how hard we interpreters work to get here. But we have the opportunity to shape and participate in our profession in a way that people in other professions do not. And the fact that I interpret now instead of 30 years ago means that I can already count on the support of so many hard-working people who have paved the way before me. We have a rock-solid code of ethics that has our backs. I absolutely love my job, and so do pretty much all of the interpreters I have met. And so my new motto is: Educating People About Interpreters, One Lawyer at a Time. Meanwhile, I believe I’ll keep practicing my yoga breathing.

Originally published in the winter 2012 edition of Proteus, NAJIT’s official publication

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