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The “Invisible” Interpreter

My master’s thesis was on the “invisible” women who cut sugar cane for a living in Puerto Rico during the 19th and 20th centuries. They were there, but no one saw them because they blended into the general landscape. Something similar happens with interpreters, or should happen, if you’re really good. Of course, the women who cut sugar cane were invisible for many other cultural and sociological reasons, and were not invisible by choice. An interpreter, however, should be invisible by choice. No one should notice you’re there. No one should be paying attention to you at all.

In Puerto Rico, where I have been working for the past 24 years or so, people are very friendly. While we are in court waiting for the judge to come out, attorneys will come up to say hello to everyone who is already there. And I mean everyone: the court security officer, the courtroom deputy clerk, the court reporter, the defense attorneys and the prosecutors. Sometimes they include the interpreter. But if they don’t, I do a small victory dance inside: “I am invisible!”

The best compliment an interpreter can get is, “I didn’t even realize you were interpreting.”

Staying off the record is a good rule-of-thumb to start. What I mean by that is the requests interpreters often direct to the judge: “Your Honor, may the interpreter ask for a repetition?” “Your Honor, could you please instruct counsel to slow down?” “Your Honor, the interpreter needs to inquire about the meaning of a word the witness is using.” Those little and seemingly innocuous interruptions go on the record as the voice of the INTERPRETER, so the more you interrupt to ask for clarification or repetitions, the more visible you are, both on the record and in the eyes of everyone present in court.

Furthermore, judges in particular and attorneys in general are never happy about disruptions during proceedings, whether in court or out of court. So, asking one time for a clarification or repetition can certainly be justified and reasonable, but more than once? Perhaps you should be asking yourself if there is some other issue that needs to be addressed. One of those issues could be simply a lack of familiarity with the particular subject matter. For example, if you have a car mechanic as a cooperating witness giving details about the parts of a car that got stripped down in a chop-shop as part of a stolen cars scheme, and you have to keep looking up words in a dictionary or electronic glossary, that is going to shift everyone’s attention to you rather than the witness.

Or the issue could be a matter of regional variations in language use. Staying off the record is advisable on many levels, and recusing yourself from a case in which you are not familiar with the terminology, or with a particular speaker’s accent and possibly regional variations in language use, is always an honorable and highly ethical alternative.

Our “cloak of invisibility” in the simultaneous mode is our volume. If you have a hard time keeping your voice down so no one except your client can hear you, then you need to practice, practice, practice. Few things are as annoying as a constant “rumble” coming from somewhere in the courtroom (i.e., the interpreter) all throughout a proceeding. Trust me, everyone will be aggravated and even if they cannot pinpoint the source of their aggravation, in the back of their minds they are building up this generic animosity that will eventually spill over onto you and every other interpreter they encounter from that point forward. So being invisible includes not being heard by anyone except your LEP client while interpreting in the simultaneous mode.

Some courtrooms—I have heard through the grapevine—are experimenting with interpreter booths. This may or may not contribute to the interpreter’s invisibility, because it is something new and everyone will want to know why it’s there, what it’s used for, why now and not before, and so on and so forth. So maybe when everyone gets used to an interpreter’s booth in the courtroom, it will help to keep us “invisible”. Until then, it may have the total opposite effect, I suspect.

In the consecutive mode invisibility is a bit more challenging. It means being seamless in your rendition. You establish a certain rhythm with both the attorney asking the questions and the witness answering them. Even if you do not engage in the practice of long consecutive, the points at which the source language speaker stops for you to interpret are natural pauses that do not break up a thought into awkward or even ungrammatical segments. It also means that your lag is minimal between that moment when the speaker stops talking and the moment when you start to render your interpretation. When everyone has to hold their breath while the interpreter finishes her notes, for example, and then tries to figure out what she wrote before starting her rendition, you have a sure way of drawing attention to the interpreter.

And, of course, your delivery has to be flawless. When all these elements come together, the interpreter becomes invisible and everyone stands in awe of your skills. A true conceptual oxymoron!

- Janis Palma


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