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When we advocate for interpreters, are we not also advocating for the LEP population?

I have been turning this question around in my head for a while, since someone raised the question in a social media exchange: am I advocating for interpreters? Or am I advocating for the LEPs we serve? And I just have to wonder, can we separate the two? Advocacy is generally understood to be some act undertaken to support or promote a cause or the interests of a group. In my own advocacy initiatives for interpreters, I am always encouraging interpreters to learn new things, to go outside their comfort zones and find new and better ways to do what they do. My advocacy for interpreters is constantly focused on taking their expertise to the next level, which necessarily has ripple effects on everything else: working conditions, remuneration, respect.

When I give a presentation somewhere, or a webinar, or a workshop, I talk about things that I hope will inspire my audience to explore beyond the one, two, or three hours they will be with me. Things like cross-cultural communication, discourse analysis, rhetorical and figurative use of language, the difference between semantics and pragmatics, and how adding all these things to your interpreter’s toolbox can make your work not just better but also easier.

This is my way of advocating for interpreters because raising our performance standards will proportionately raise our leverage to negotiate better working conditions. For example, a colleague of ours, Hilda Shymanik, recently approached me to ask what she could do to educate a judge about appointing two interpreters to a trial. The judge saw no need for two interpreters. By educating that judge and showing him how important it was to have two interpreters working together for long proceedings, she not only advocated for interpreters but also for the LEP defendants, because that improvement in the interpreters’ working conditions would also result in improved interpreting quality for the LEP defendants. It’s hard to keep one act in support of best practices for interpreters from also being an act in support of improved language access for LEPs.

I also tell interpreters everywhere that they cannot simply be repeating what they hear without thinking, without analyzing, and without really understanding what they are hearing. And once they do that, then they have to figure out how they are going to reproduce that message they heard so it can also be understood by the person listening to them. If the person listening to you doesn’t understand what you are saying, then what is the point of having you there?

Interpreting in legal settings is not like interpreting in healthcare or educational settings, and certainly not like conference interpreting, where quite often you don’t even have direct contact with your audience. The legal domain is the only interpreting setting in which the listener has a protected constitutional right to understand what is being interpreted. That is a higher bar than the rights of patients in the healthcare domain or parents in the education domain.

There is a fundamental fairness principle that underscores LEP defendants’ right to an interpreter in every proceeding that takes place during a criminal prosecution. It is not just a matter of making sounds that may theoretically be attributed to a language code the LEP individual is purported to speak and understand. If the string of sounds that are produced by the interpreter fails to convey meaning for the LEP listener, the entire fairness principle falls apart. In fact, the entire construct of a fair and equitable system of justice falls apart.

When the sounds uttered by an interpreter are incomprehensible to the LEP listener, either because they are speaking too fast, or because there is no appropriate intonation and it is all a monotonous rendition, or because there are lexical items chosen by the interpreter that are not part of the listener’s active vocabulary or cultural referents, then the presence of that interpreter is nothing but an act of deception. Mind you, I am referring to the simultaneous interpreting provided to an LEP defendant. When no one else can hear what is being interpreted, and everyone in the courtroom believes the LEP individuals are receiving information in their own language so they can remain informed of everything that is happening during a criminal proceeding against them, so they can confront the evidence and witnesses against them, so they can assist in their own defense, so they can have a fair trial and due process and all those other rights that are supposed to be protected through the appointment of an interpreter, the fact is they are not. Not if they cannot understand what the interpreter is saying.

Here is where the advocacy for interpreting quality becomes intertwined with the advocacy for LEPs’ rights. When I encourage interpreters to develop techniques in the simultaneous mode that allow them to maintain a good delivery pace—so they don’t have to speak at 250 or 300 words per minute when they interpret—I am advocating for a level of expertise that will provide the interpreter with greater control over their delivery and better management of their cognitive loads. When I show interpreters the advantages of discourse analysis and how to identify and take advantage of linguistic cues through discourse pragmatics and encourage them to use their own judgment to make interpreting decisions, there will be a spillover effect on the comprehensibility of the interpretation delivered to the LEP. The quality of the interpreter’s rendition and the comprehensibility of what the LEP defendant hears go hand in hand.

We cannot simply ignore our listeners because some court administrator somewhere at some point said it doesn’t matter if the LEP defendants understand or not. That is not only absurd in the face of all the case law over the course of the last four decades that affirms the right to an interpreter so the LEP defendants can understand, but it also creates a false perception among judges and lawyers that the LEP’s due process rights are being duly protected through the appointment of a qualified interpreter. Like I said earlier, even the most qualified interpreter will be no more than a fake veneer of due process if the LEP defendant cannot understand the interpreter’s renditions.

The long and short of it is that I really don’t think I can advocate for interpreters without also advocating for the LEP population, and vice-versa. They are just two faces of the same coin.

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