Zen and the Art of Interpreting

During a presentence interview with a man who had pled guilty to stabbing a stranger to death “by accident,” I could almost see an embodied form to the protests taking shape inside my brain. The vision was similar to a cartoon where the angel and the devil sit on either shoulder egging on the poor hapless human, except in this case the drawing depicted a fight between me as an ethical professional interpreter and my sense of righteous indignation.

I must say, it was a difficult battle, but Interpreter Me managed to contain Sense of Outrage long enough to finish the interview. It wasn’t just the fact that the limited English proficient (LEP) person for whom I was interpreting had murdered someone — it was his whole demeanor. He looked genuinely apologetic, the way I would feel if I unwittingly slammed a door on someone’s finger. Except in the scenario with the door, no one died. He alleged true regret, and I actually believe he felt sorry…which makes what he did even that much more unbelievable.

There is more to the story, including my Sense of Outrage kicking and screaming at the man’s admission to the fact that he “had not acknowledged” his only son born back in his home country, and the fact that he “didn’t remember” his son’s mother’s name. But with some difficulty, I shut up my inner voices and finished interpreting the interview.

While I have a right to my opinion of murderers, rapists, and other Really Bad People, there is a linguistic dilemma posed when one’s angry thoughts start overtaking one’s brain. But there are other areas of criticism and judgment that are more difficult to justify. Yes, the bilingual attorney is extremely irritating when he objects to a client’s utterance before you have interpreted it, interrupts you and then corrects your interpretation. Yes, the couple before the judge arguing about who has to pay their kid’s medical bills is behaving like a pair of selfish five-year-olds whining to their mom.  And yes, it is frustrating when your clients whisper, mumble, don’t wait for you to finish, and in other ways put your interpreting skills to the test. On the other hand, who among us hasn’t interrupted someone, talked fast or said unfortunate things to a spouse?

Here’s the thing: the people we interpret for are human and so are we. All of us hear, think and react. But the art of our profession as interpreters manifests itself in how we process our reactions. We simply must put everything out of our minds except for meaning and language if we are to do our jobs effectively. Mindful focus and concentration become paramount, and with practice we can home in more precisely on what people are saying. Background noises don’t bother us as much, and we become skillful at letting things go.

I daresay that with practice, we can also cultivate a more empathetic and open mind. The key phrase here is “with practice.” Empathy does not necessarily come naturally, and it helps to purposefully inject some perspective. The fact that I don’t often associate socially with the demographic that I interpret for in court can distance me and make me more judgmental.

On a recent trip to Honduras, while interacting with friends and acquaintances, I stopped to think, these are people who, if they were going through a rough time right now and found themselves in my New Jersey courtroom, would need me to interpret. They might not understand how to speak in a way that would make interpreting easy. They might behave childishly toward their ex-husbands or wives. On the other hand, they are normal people with everyday struggles and diverse personalities. Also, some of them tell hilarious jokes or make baleadas* that are to die for. In other words, I took the opportunity to see LEP individuals in context. Then, when I returned home with a fresh dose of perspective to accompany my Honduran mosquito bites, I practiced kindness.

As it turns out, being nice takes practice. But when we go into an interpreting situation with the understanding that everyone deserves respect, it becomes that much easier to concentrate on doing our job. And then, even in truly challenging interpreting situations, where we think maybe they don’t deserve any respect at all, we are able  to set aside those angry, sad or outraged voices in our heads.

We are interpreters. Passing judgment is the judge’s job, not ours. And thank goodness for that!

*  A baleada is a wheat flour tortilla, often quite thick, folded in half and filled with mashed fried beans and other ingredients. A Honduran specialty.

Originally published in the Summer 2014 edition of Proteus, Official publication of NAJIT.

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