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A Courthouse by Any Other Name

Okay, perhaps it’s a bit far-fetched to compare a courthouse to Shakespeare’s famous rose, but I have to admit that after months away from court (or, should I say,  du palais de justice…our francophone neighbors certainly have a way with words, don’t they?!) when I arrived at the entrance to the Montreal palais a couple weeks ago, it felt like I was coming home. A courthouse by any other name, my friends, feels just the same.

Inside, there was the same big entranceway, the same line for security and the same friendly banter from sheriff’s officers (although, to my delight, this time around that banter was occurring in French).

Upstairs, I was at first confused that there seemed to be so many judges in the courtroom (it turns out that here, certain attorneys also wear a robe, and their outfit is differentiated from that of the judge by the color of the sash around their neck). But otherwise, business proceeded pretty much the same as normal (except, to my utter glee…in French!)

You see, I remember being scared silly, the first time I went to work as a real, live, court interpreter. And it wasn’t just the fear of being able to keep up with judges who read orders at light-speed or remembering all the words with the spotlight on me in the witness stand. The formality of the courthouse, combined with an overwhelming number of proceedings, compounds the intimidation factor.

But spend enough time in a courthouse, any courthouse, and you will begin to learn its patterns. Take family court. There we will find proceedings handling divorces, child support, domestic violence, juvenile proceedings, abuse and neglect. Yes, some terms, programs and acronyms will be different in your state, but I guarantee that if you look for the patterns, you will find them.

Allow me to summarize two for you here:

  • FM: In New Jersey, marital dissolution can be found on the FM docket, which means that you will know straightaway you are dealing with a divorced/divorcing couple. Divorcing couples with children are required to attend a seminar, which you may have the opportunity to interpret. There you will learn the process for divorce, with parties encouraged, at each stop of the way, to settle their differences outside the court. You may interpret for their mediation, for their Early Settlement Panel (where a volunteer attorney advises them as to the likely outcome of the case to help with negotiation), for their trial, and finally, their divorce. If a divorced couple with children returns to renegotiate child support or visitation after the divorce is file, they use the same FM docket number.
  • FV: In New Jersey, the “V” denotes violence. After being screened by an intake worker, a plaintiff is heard by a hearing officer, who is not quite a judge but can still hear testimony and make a recommendation that the judge then must sign in order to make it effective. The intake worker will have sent the general details of the case to the hearing officer, so you can usually get a sneak preview if you ask. If they are granted a Temporary Restraining Order, they are scheduled to return within ten days, for a trial to make that permanent (the Final Restraining Order). As long as proper service has been given to the defendant and no-one procures an adjournment, the trial goes forward and you may be in that courtroom for quite some time. But, there’s a method to the madness: First the judge gives instructions, which are always different versions of the same stuff (“these are potential consequences, would you like an attorney, are all of your witnesses ready,” etc.) Then, the plaintiff presents their case: They testify to the specifics of the incident in question and any past history of violence, and present any witnesses. Then defendant’s case, with any witnesses. Then final arguments, and then the verdict. Pro tip: Ask the clerk for a copy of the Temporary Restraining Order at the beginning. She may look at you cross-eyed until you explain that it’s to help prepare you interpret. It will contain most relevant names, addresses, and the interpreter’s gold mine: the allegations. That way testimony about a past suicide attempt or the defendant’s obscure knife collection won’t take you by surprise.

I could go on, but I’ll stop there for now. My point is, while there may be many different proceedings in a courthouse, there are not an infinite number. And the more familiar you are with them, the less scary it will be to interpret for them.

I’d love to hear your own summaries of different proceedings, and some pro tips of your own in the comments below. And I’ll check back in a couple months to give you the full low-down on Montreal courts. Happy interpreting!

[Also published at https://najit.org/blog on 6/9/17]

The Trouble With Memory

…or, How To Forget About Interpreting and Just Listen

You know how the saying goes: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I’m sure you have heard it; we all have. But have you heard the saying for interpreters? No? Well, that’s because there isn’t one, but I’m going to float one by you. How about: The only thing that messes up our short-term memory…is fear of messing up our short term memory. Well? How about it?

Think about it this way. Remember that time you heard that rumor about your best friend’s sister-in-law and were able to recount it word for word? Or when you could explain to someone the entire plot arc of a 7-season television series? Or remind your partner, during an argument, of what exactly she promised you last week? Well, it’s happened to me, and I’m sure something like it has happened to you too.

Yet something happens when we stop listening and enter interpreting mode. Suddenly just a few sentences feels positively overwhelming. One sentence goes by and we think, “I’ve got this.” Two sentences go by and we think, “I can manage it.” And then a third goes by (or the speaker tosses in a word that doesn’t have an immediate obvious translation) and if they don’t stop talking it’s like someone has just set off the sprinkler system in our brain. We shut down completely and enter full-on panic mode. And then, in our diligent effort to remember absolutely everything, we find ourselves remembering nothing at all.

So, I ask, what’s an interpreter to do? Well, this builds a little off the premise I discussed in previous blogs, Conquering Consecutive and Save the Interpreting for Last (Published 10/27/16 and 4/24/15, respectively). The issue I raised then is that we have to understand a message first in order to properly interpret it.

The same applies to memory. In order to remember a message, you have to listen to it first!  You can only remember what you actually hear. (And don’t tell me that the problem is your notes. Okay, yes, notes may be a factor. Our notes can always be improved, and perhaps you do have a problem with legibility/organization/writing too much or too little, etc. But here’s the thing about notes. They are there to trigger your short-term memory. But if you didn’t build that memory to begin with, your trigger is useless.)

So what stops us from listening, and therefore remembering? Well, it’s that pesky little voice distracting us, of course. The one that tells us we have to remember absolutely everything. The one that panics when the person keeps speaking. The one that knows we can remember an entire episode of Friends, but doesn’t trust us to listen to a 50-word utterance without slamming on the panic button.

I liken that voice to your cranky child in the back seat of the car. “Mom! Mom! Mom! I’M HUNGRY!” goes your beloved 4-year-old son, over and over. But you can’t pay attention the 4-year old right now. Of course, you can’t very much kick him out of the car, either, but what you can do is shut him out of your brain so you can concentrate on driving.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I dare you to practice (because this has to be practiced. It’s way easier said than done) ignoring that voice of panic in your head. No, you can’t get rid of him completely, but you can choose not to engage him. I dare you to trust in your ability to do a fine job interpreting later, once you’ve finished listening to the message. The longer the speaker goes on, the harder you should concentrate on listening. That cranky kid in the back seat is just going to have to wait a while, and then once you get home you can feed him. Because once you’ve heard the whole message, and I mean truly heard it, interpreting will get easier. And that’s a promise.

[Also published at http://www.najit.org/blog on 4/28/17]

Interpreting for Justice

The problem with court interpreting is that it’s messy. Heck, life is messy, and court interpreting is just a manifestation of our daily struggle with chaos.

Allow me to explain.

For months now I have been mentoring students to study for their tests; notably I’ve been coaching them for the federal exam, which is fast approaching. And tests, of course, are their own embodiment of the devil incarnate. But in a way, they are so simple. Tests are black and white. Points are awarded or not. A phrase is in the dictionary, or it isn’t. In other words, tests are clean. Continue reading “Interpreting for Justice”

That’s Not How You Say it in Gringa-Land!

Here’s the thing about my Spanish: I learned it from a book. When I enrolled in my first Spanish class, I didn’t even know how to ask someone, “How are you?” But I progressed quickly, with brilliant professors hailing from places like Peru, Costa Rica, Spain and Chile.

I regarded my teachers and my native-speaking classmates with envy. They rolled their “r”s without even trying and they understood all the political in-jokes while I struggled valiantly to hide my laughable ignorance of world geography and current events. Most importantly, I, the lowly gringa, would not dream of claiming the intuitive understanding that allowed them to announce, “Yes, that word just sounds right.”

Continue reading “That’s Not How You Say it in Gringa-Land!”

Sailing Through Sight

Ah yes. Sight translation. The interpreter tendency to ignore sight translation is kind of like that affliction suffered by us middle children. You know middle child syndrome, right? It’s like this: our big brother Simultaneous is overtaking the track field and our parents (the interpreters) are too busy trying to catch up to him while making sure that our little sister, Consecutive, isn’t leaking scoring units all over the bleachers. Meanwhile us poor middle children represent that out-of-sight-out-of-mind interpreting mode, Sight Translation.

Continue reading “Sailing Through Sight”