Self-Talk: A Sign Language Interpreter’s Inner Warning System?

Sign Language Interpreter - Scales of JusticeAs my team interpreter and I stood outside the courtroom, red-faced, sputtering and hissing at each other like a pair of angry snakes, it was clear that I could have handled this situation more effectively.

A confluence of factors led to this stressful scene. Our RID Regional Conference had taken many of the legal sign language interpreters with SC:L’s out of town for the week. As one of the few remaining interpreters with legal certification, I was overbooked and had to arrive late to the court proceeding that afternoon: a jury trial with a Deaf defendant. This county’s court interpreter coordinator knew about and accepted my tardiness, as she was desperately trying to find SC:L’s to cover cases and had turned to an outside agency to fill the gaps.

Better Judgment

Thus, as I entered the courtroom, my teammate was already in the midst of interpreting the proceedings. I sat down quietly in the chair behind the defense table. The District Attorney was questioning a witness on the stand. The members of the jury were focused on the testimony. At that point, I did not have time to confer with the other interpreter, whom I had never even met before. Probably, if I had, I might have approached the judge with my concerns prior to the start of the afternoon’s proceedings. Inwardly, I knew that it was not the best idea to go ahead without context or preparation, but given the inconvenience of my entrance, I pushed aside my better judgment and tried to assess the situation at hand.

My attention was immediately drawn to my teammate, first for wearing extremely casual clothes (a T-shirt and khakis) in a formal legal setting and second for their obvious unfamiliarity with basic legal terms such as objection, sustained, overruled, and stipulation which they chose to fingerspell.

“Its Only Jury Selection”

During a short break in the proceedings, I asked my team interpreter whether they had legal certification or legal training and when they answered in the negative, I asked why they accepted this assignment. The reply, “The agency told me it was only jury selection,” did not assuage my concerns. Ironically, the agency that hired this interpreter specializes in sign language and should have known better than to send an unqualified person to a legal assignment. So I followed up, “Once you arrived and found out that it was the actual trial, why did you continue?” The answer was, “If I didn’t go ahead, they would have had to stop the whole trial.” (As I learned long ago in my legal training, sometimes that is actually the most appropriate option.)

What Are My Options

My team interpreter did not seem to grasp the gravity of a trial and the potential life-altering consequences for the defendant given their lack of legal training and legal certification (one of my state’s laws requires an SC:L for legal proceedings.) Before I arrived in the courtroom, the interpreter had self-identified as “RID certified” because they possess a CI/CT. Most judges are not aware of the difference, unless directed to the specific statute.

At this point, our ten-minute break was coming to an end and the jury was filing in. My mind was racing as I considered my options: write a note and ask to speak with the judge, ask for the other sign language interpreter’s legal credentials (or lack thereof) to be put on the record, slip outside to call the interpreter coordinator? The responsibility to decide on the best course of action in a few seconds had me frozen, until my window of opportunity was gone. Testimony resumed and the other sign language interpreter and I continued trading off tensely.

I decided the best I could do in that moment was closely monitor my teammate and feed signs for legal terms so that the Deaf defendant would have the best chance at accessing the proceedings. I’m sure this only made the situation more stressful for my teammate.

Who Do You Respect in RID?

Anna Mindess - Sign Language Interpreter

Anna Mindess

During our hissing and sputtering encounter at the end of the day, the interpreter accused me of lack of respect, taking the entire matter as a personal insult. I insisted my concern was totally about their lack of legal training. I don’t usually confront my colleagues in this manner, but when the interpreter didn’t seem to get my point, I stated that an SC:L requires hundreds of hours of training and passing a very hard test. “Did you think you could come into a courtroom and improvise?” I asked. No response. Then I inquired, “As an RID certified interpreter, who do you respect in RID, Sharon Neumann Solow? Anna Witter-Merithew? Do you think they would approve of your choices?” The interpreter refused to continue the dialogue and stormed off. Stalemate.

 It Can’t Be that Hard, I’ll Figure it Out

On the drive home, I tried to fathom how this sign language interpreter could have thought it was okay to proceed in a situation with potentially grave consequences, without the qualifications to do the job? After all, the second tenet of the CPC specifies that interpreters should “possess the professional skills and knowledge required for the specific interpreting situation.”

I tried to imagine what thoughts went through their head. Perhaps first, the thrill of being in a new situation, the desire to learn about it, coupled with a sense of confidence from interpreting for 20+ years. Maybe they quieted any inner doubts with thoughts like, “I can handle this, I’m an intelligent person, a skilled interpreter, if there are new vocabulary terms, I can pick them up.” “I like challenges.” “It can’t be that hard, I’ll figure it out.” “They can’t find anyone else, so I’ll just have to do my best.” “I wouldn’t want to stop the whole proceedings and admit any lack on my part. That would be embarrassing.”

Or maybe it was as simple as, “I need the work.”

Examining this hypothetical inner monologue, I noticed there was no mention of the Deaf client’s needs at all. “Ahh,” I thought, “That’s a red flag right there. It’s all about the sign language interpreter.”

A Litany of Excuses

And then, with a start, I realized, there was a reason that I could so easily imagine the rationalizations from that inner voice. In all honesty, I probably have conjured up a similar litany of excuses myself. And in all likelihood, most interpreters have also done so at one time or another–in legal or non-legal settings–if they are willing to admit it. In my case, this occurred–and hopefully it does so much less now–in situations where the Deaf party requires the services of a CDI.

Turn Down the Volume

My current strategy is to be extremely sensitive to the onset of this inner dialogue, so that it acts as a warning system alerting me to stop, assess the entire situation, and consider what is needed to give the Deaf client complete access to vital communication. Yes, it’s true that calling a halt to a meeting or legal proceeding is awkward and may provoke the ire of the lawyers, the judge and the other people involved. But when I cannot, in good conscience, convince myself that the present configuration best serves the needs of the Deaf person, I turn down the volume on that inner emotional voice, so that I can speak up and take action to do the ethically appropriate thing.

Call a Time Out

As a sign language interpreter how do you increase your sensitivity to that inner warning system?

- Monitor your physical responses to the situation. Breathing faster? Stomach tightening up? Your body may be telling you something.

- Are you not comprehending the signs? Resorting to fingerspelling to cope with unfamiliar vocabulary? Do your clients keep repeating themselves?

- Getting distracted by thoughts of how you are being perceived, instead of just focusing on the work?

It’s too hard to think objectively, and plan how to handle a situation that is not working while you are in the middle of interpreting. Call a time out. Breathe. Assess. This will give you a moment to collect yourself and ask the important question, “Should I continue?” Equally important, it will give you an opportunity to consider how to best proceed should the responsible and ethical decision be to stop.

Lets Share Our Collective Wisdom

What strategies do you use to remain sensitive to the alerts of your inner warning system? When have you taken the courageous step to stop the interpretation when you knew something was not working?


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About the Author

Anna Mindess, MA, CSC, SC:L, has been a certified interpreter for over 25 years. She currently specializes in legal interpreting. Anna is the author of Reading Between the Signs, which is used in interpreter training programs around the world. She lectures and presents widely on topics related to intercultural communication. Her collaborations with Dr. Thomas K. Holcomb include several DVDs and a new website, Deaf Culture THAT.

33 Enlightened Replies

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  1. karen kingrey says:

    I am aware that many issues like this arise. Some court administration have lack of knowledge and even do not create a policy. I recalled former Deaf assistant district attorney, law professor, and I gave our presentations to the judges, lawyers, and court adm staff at Deaf & Court workshop which was sponsored by New York State Court Commission in Rochester, NY.

    • Anna Mindess says:

      I think you are right, Karen. Educating court staff is the key. We have several counties in this area and each has their own policies. In one county, we, the legally certified interpreters, convinced them – and showed them the applicable statute -and now they only hire SC:Ls and CDIs, even if they have to fly people in from other cities. Another “tries SC:Ls first” and others, like the one I mentioned, seem to have a “warm body” approach. More education is definitely needed.

  2. Linda Hawthorne says:

    I am a pre-certified interpreter (state QA test taken at a advanced level) , and one of my pet peeves is not getting correct info when accepting a job. (I have a tendency to question any job where I am not familiar with subject matter -(“upper level math” can mean anything from geometry to statistics class)-when I arrive at the job I try to give as much to assessing the situation and if it is not what I “signed up for” I have no problem “upsetting the apple cart” and letting the agency know I am unable to do the job. Interpreters who carry on make it worse for the other interpreters who have to make up the clients lack of knowledge.

    • Kitty LaFountain says:

      @Linda: BRAVO! well said, keep on turning that apple cart over until the agency gets the point.
      @Anna, enjoyed your article, still thinking of a response, maybe will post later. I know you are biting your nails waiting.
      And “OMGG” that’s my substitute for OMG, mine stands for “Oh My Goodness Gracious”, concerning your recent experience. My friends really hated me saying OMG all the time, you know, using God’s name in vain, thingy.

    • Anna Mindess says:

      Linda, I ditto that “Bravo!” Seems like you’ve got your priorities straight. And your ego is staying out of the way. Point is right set of skills and experience for the job. Wishing you a long and fulfilling career.

    • Laura says:


  3. Sherry Smith says:

    Thank you for writing this article. It emphasizes the impact of legal interpreting and the qualifications needed. I truly appreciate how this article also helps interpreters see the need for modesty and humility in assessing personal limitations.

    • Anna Mindess says:

      Thank you Sherry,

      I think “modesty and humility” are key concepts. I hope that readers also see the non-legal interpreting applications of this dilemma.

      I was just thinking about VRS interpreting, for example. In that environment we are, in essence, “accepting” 50+ jobs a day from an “agency” that gives us no context or information with which to assess our fit. For myself, at least, it is much easier to realize, “I need a team.” No shame or embarrassment involved. If it’s too hard to see/hear, the subject matter is extremely serious, the Deaf person’s signing varies from standard ASL, or a host of other reasons, I happily ask for a team. Wish that it were that easy out in the community to push a button and have another pair of eyes and hands magically appear in a few seconds.

      • Brian says:

        One nice thing about VRS is we are allowed to transfer the call out to another almost immediately available interpreter is we realize that effective communication is not happening.

        • Kitty LaFountain says:

          @ Brian, since you brought up VRS, can I tell ya a story?
          Well here goes: My profoundly Deaf sister calls me often through Sorenson Relay, and from what I’m gathering she is difficult to understand (she’s a speed demon) by the interpreters. On one such call the interpreter voiced for my sister, “I want to know about the auto”.
          I was perplexed, her car was just serviced and in good running condition. I asked, “What about your auto, what do you mean?”
          The interpreter voiced, “You know the auto!”
          I again asked what she meant and then I heard the interpreter whispering,”fingerspell again” and she then voiced “The auto- pipsy”
          I realized the interpreter was trying to understand the speed demon’s fingerspelling and the word was actually “autopsy”. My sister’s husband had recently passed away. Even though this was serious we couldn’t help but laugh (the interpreter and me, don’t think sis understood this one).
          But I do wonder, at what time does an interpreter, in the field, legal, medical, general, and as a VRS terp, realize they are in over their heads? Perhaps this is a question for Anna? or for all of us?

          • Brian says:

            Anna, I promise I’m not trying to hijack your discussion board here.

            Kitty, I know we have all had those client who we just don’t match…especially in VRS. It has it’s own list of variables which separate it from the rest of interpreting.

            As far when do we decide we are in over our heads? Well, that’s definitely up to the individual in that hot seat. What do we do about it once we do? Sadly, that’s (most of the time) up to the same individual. Specifically for VRS, that depends a lot on what the VRS company has set forth as their policies.

            I for one would love to see workshops on just that.

            • Kitty LaFountain says:

              @Hijacker: AMEN! My sister’s story is just one of many, sadly for some of my deaf consumers there have been dreadful endings. For example: Deaf consumer was not understood by the VRS interpreter and only later found out that their complaint was dropped because he/she said, “oh forget about it”. NOT!
              And YES I have veered away from the specific topic of “…Inner Warning System” in the legal setting,and jumped on the VRS setting (still an inner warning system needed)as I’m really having a difficult time relating to Anna’s article and her experience. I have, however, been on the other side, the side where I was admonished by another interpreter (CI/CT credentials, as our mine) who yelled, “We don’t say it that way anymore!” and ordered me to stand in the hallway for some education. What I had done, as trained in ITP, was state, “Interpreter error” and then corrected my error. This was not a court setting. The next time I saw (not worked with) that interpreter I walked away. I believe most folks are immediately defensive in explaining their behavior, and as the excuses mount, their hearing/listening is deminished or null and void.
              Have I experienced other terps not properly dressed, yes, and some that are held in high regards, (glittering gold sparkles on her bossoms) Have I waited over an hour for a team terp, yes, (and she/he smelled of alcohol and cigarettes). Have I watched as a seasoned terp signed “cost” when the DA was reading, “And you are charged with the crime of…” Yes. And more, but have felt helpless to find an answer to their lack of inner system warning.
              Okay that’s all my rambling!

  4. gina oliva says:

    Thanks for sharing this awful story. I hope that the guilty parties (and I refer to the other interpreter and the agency who sent her) read this story and if that Deaf Defendent is in jail or was otherwise found guilty, this interpreter and her agency ought to come forward and confess!!! I don’t know enough about legal matters to know how this would work but if I knew who these people were (the terp and her agency), I would be hounding them until they do some fessing up and fix their policies!!

  5. Dianne says:

    I am not an interpreter, just an interested third party. All I can say is, Wow wow WOOOOOOOW! GOD BLESS you interpreters for your commitment and professionalism!

  6. Colette Phippard says:


    I am NRCPD registered interpreter in the UK and this article has been posted on the ENewsli forum. I also chair a working group for the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI) called ‘Future Professionals’ which is aimed at tackling just this problem of sign language qualification holders assuming that these qualifications give them some credentials that would make working as an interpreter acceptable regardless of their motivation. This is a great article and dilemma to think about and I will be using it in the pack that will be given to people that come to the Future Professionals Roadshows that we’ll be doing. We do want to encourage people to train and become interpreters but equally we want to discourage this kind of thing from happening.

    Some of the things that I would like to get BSL learners thinking about are putting the needs of the users of interpreters ahead of their own motivations to accept work. It should be realised that getting qualifications doesn’t necessarily automatically equal the right to get a job. One of the common motivations is the desire to help but I would like to get language learners to start questioning who it is that they are really helping when they decide to take on work. The current contracting for interpreters in the UK would mostly see learners helping agencies to make large profits whilst leaving the users of interpreters (and I don’t just mean deaf people) in a disadvantaged position and I think that is contrary to what the language learner had in mind.

    We have the Equality Act in the UK, previously the DDA. This stipulates that it is unlawful to treat a person with a protected characteristic (in this case deafness under the broader term of disability) ‘less favourably’. In our code of conduct interpreters are tasked with impartiality and this includes treating the users of interpreters equally. For example, I have recently stopped a meeting because I had a sign language user and speaker going at the same time, both ignoring each other, and it is not for me to decide who has the floor and the flow of the interpretation. I asked the chair to make a decision as to who could put their views across, through me, rather than going with who was coming across more clearly. If I chose then I would be breaching impartiality and treating one person more favorably than the other.

    I do not envy the position that the author found themselves in here. A very nerve wracking situation and a hard decision to make a call on in such an intimidating setting. Although it may be inconvenient to the hearing professionals to stop a trial I do think that this would have been the correct course of action.

    This is much easier to say in retrospect once all is said and done but say you find yourself in the author’s shoes – what are you going to learn from this account and what are you going to do in your window of opportunity now that you have had a chance to think about it?

    Interpreters are provided to enable access and if you don’t say something then have you considered that an interpreter might be colluding with the hearing professionals and preventing access. They might unwittingly be joining in and unwittingly discriminating against the deaf person by not pointing out what they can see, which may not be so obvious to the non signing community in the room. A court room is supposed to be a place where everyone gets a fair hearing after all and the unregistered interpreter in this account is totally oblivious to the damage caused by her actions and beautifully demonstrates the need to be a trained interpreter.

    When we think of interpreting it is often only considered that what we do is a language thing but clearly where interpreters aren’t trained they are oblivious to the need to comment on other things that may not be so obvious to others. Also, by not being proficient in both the languages that unregistered interpreter is not able to treat the deaf person equally and I believe that one definition of that is ‘discrimination’. That sounds a bit stark because actually I do not want to discourage potential future interpreters and it would be easy to dismiss concerns about such people as interpreters being ‘precious’ and ‘protecting their patches’ but look at the comments and considerations that the author makes in this piece – does she sound precious? Look how oblivious the co-worker was to the interpreters concerns … a real lack of understanding of the delicate nature of this job. I really hope other language learners see this article and question their beliefs about interpreting and registered interpreters.

    I find the requirement for interpreters to be ‘impartial’ and ‘confidential’ is often taken advantage of as we often lack the opportunity to speak out or be heard and then our profession is trampled all over by people who think they know better and who make unwarranted accusations about why interpreters are so protective of their work. We are only impartial when we are working – it is right to comment on what is appropriate and what is damaging. And it is right to feedback on poor performance (even if people don’t want to hear it) and it is helpful to share dilemmas and use them as examples to make people aware of how much interpreters must be conscious of beyond the linguistic part of the job.

    Thank you for sharing this article it is very thought provoking and I hope many people see it.

    • Anna Mindess says:

      Hello Colette,

      Thank you so much for your very thoughtful comments and for sharing this with your colleagues in the UK. I agree that the issue of being honest with oneself in evaluating whether one has the necessary training to do a good job in a specific assignment cuts across national boundaries. As you you alluded to, just possessing a legal or other certification does not guarantee that an interpreter would be a good fit for every assignment. We need to consider each assignment as a new set of circumstances and players.

      • Colette Phippard says:

        Hi Anna,

        On reflection I really do think that this is a great real life situation to get people thinking and applying reflection to their own practice. I’ve had a couple of awkward incidents recently where I managed at the time but the reflection afterwards and a discussion in peer supervision really enhanced my understanding of the situation and what would be appropriate next time/whether my actions were the right ones. It’s where you mention the ‘window of opportunity’ that interests me because as the reader I am given the chance to reflect on what I might do were I to find myself in these same circumstances. I can imagine how you felt at the time as I’ve experienced different situations but with the clock ticking where I have to make a ‘make or break’ decision and it is absolutely horrible. Again, the reflection afterwards was really key to my development. I think to do this because I’m a trained, qualified and registered interpreter and we now do CPD to maintain registration. How many language learners would evaluate the circumstances afterwards, or evaluate them in a meaningful way and learn and develop from it? How many would be prepared to take painful news from an interpreter, like the lady in your story who clearly did not want to know, in order to improve. I really hope others are reading your posting and using it as a ‘what would I do if this was me?’ so as to be ready for when the moment strikes should they find themselves in these circumstances.


  7. Anna Mindess says:

    I was just thinking that what we are talking about here is a skill that interpreters need to practice, just like so many others. I recently attended a legal interpreting conference where Linda Lamitola led an excellent session on how to talk with the judge about the need for a CDI and many other issues. It really lessened the intimidation factor to share ideas and role play possible approaches.

    I wonder if any ITP students or instructors can chime in here? Do you ever practice how to gracefully and professionally inform clients in the middle of an assignment that the interpreting arrangement is not working and you will need to stop for now until it can be adjusted? Since this is a question more of “when” and not “if”.

    • Terri Manning says:

      I can see the value to train in IPP how to recognize that one is ill-matched for an assignment and how to not continue interpreting and advocate for qualified services. Thank you, Anna, for pointing out the physiological clues and intrapersonal dialogue that are the initial red flags.

  8. Brian says:


    Great topic! While I don’t do any legal interpreting (because I know it’s not my strongest area and I realize the risk associated for all parties), I recognize that this applies to all areas of interpreting.

    I was lucky enough to have instructors in my ITP who emphasized the importance of only accepting jobs for which we are qualified. Even still, after arriving to a job and realizing that it is not what was described, being able to excuse ourselves from the assignment if needed.

    Unfortunately, not all of my classmates took all the information to heart. I have seen interpreters taking jobs for which they are not qualified for various reasons such as “I need the money”, “I want to stretch myself professionally”, “Someone is better than no one”, etc.

    In a few assignments, team interpreters have been asked to leave. Either by the deaf client, the interpreter coordinator, or even the team interpreters. It can definitely be an awkward situation in which to find yourself, but it’s not about us as the interpreters. It’s not even just about the deaf person. It’s about the whole situation and all parties involved. As I was corrected years ago, we do not just interpret for the deaf person. We interpret for the hearing person as well.

    In response to the agency specializing in sign language… I don’t know about your area or the agencies there. We have several agencies in our area which “specialize” in sign language or solely work with sign language interpreters and that means next to nothing. Several agencies always go to the lowest qualified first because they pay them the least and this means a bigger cut for the agency. These agencies tend to send out mass text messages and/or emails and the first to respond may/may not get the job. The few good agencies always look for the interpreter who best fits the assignment. They take the time the make individual contact with those interpreters and go down the list until it is filled…and sometimes pass the job on to the next agency when they can’t fill it with an appropriate interpreter.

    Sadly, we have no Licensure or similar here in my state (even though we’ve been trying for years) so there isn’t much to fall back on. But I am guessing/hoping that in a state where there is such a system in place, or at least specific language on the books, that there would be some form of recourse.

    Thanks again.

    • Anna Mindess says:

      Thank you for sharing your experiences, Brian.

      It reminded me of the irony that just a few weeks before the incident I describe, our community had a large meeting with interpreters, Deaf individuals and representatives from some local (sign language interpreting) agencies. The purpose was to discuss the problem of spoken language agencies who are getting awarded bids for jobs in our state and know nothing about our field. Various remedies were discussed, including some extreme proposals of refusing to work for any non-sign language agency.

      In my own experience, I have found that some spoken language agencies are willing to be educated. Several agencies who routinely hire for legal assignments, such as depositions, have listened to the counsel of the legally certified interpreters and understand why they need to follow our statute and best practices. We can count on them only to hire the appropriately trained and certified interpreters. If none are available, they inform the client and we work out a mutually agreed upon future date. Unfortunately, a few of the sign-language agencies do not follow the same protocol and end up with the best interpreter they can find for the date the client requests. (Would we accept a podiatrist if we really needed a cardiologist?)

      • Brian says:


        I wasn’t even referring to the spoken language agencies…that’s a whole different ball game. It’s gotten to the point where we have too many spoken language agencies trying their hand at sign language just because they see the dollar signs. We even have some from out of state bidding on (and winning) state contracts who have no experience with it. This only leads to more detrimental situations because they have undercut everyone else and now need to fill the assignment with anyone who is willing to take it so they don’t lose the contract. (Hold on while my head stops spinning…) I have only come across one (understand I have not had the opportunity to speak to them all) who was “willing” to be educated. That “education” ended with them saying “If they’re a NIC Master, that means they’re the best in the field and able to accept any job”.

        I think the real remedy lies with education of the clients who are requesting services/hiring interpreters. Yes. This means the hearing clients most of the time. What do they know other than they can see this person is “waving their hands around” and the deaf person is doing the same. That means they must be competent, right? Maybe once they understand the true risk associated with all parties involved (including their own) will they continue looking for the right fit?

        I love the comparison of medical specialties, but far too often we’re viewed as just interpreters. The main stream doesn’t realize the specialization of fields within our profession. Again, this is where the education comes in.

        I’m sure you can tell by now this is a bit of a hot-button topic for me (and others). But I am glad to see it being addressed.

  9. Sherrie Donaville-Sims says:

    Hi Anna,

    I’m currently an IPP student at American River College (ARC), in Sacramento, CA. (Graduation, Spring, 2013.) This evening I walked into an establishment where I spoke with an ASL student about legal interpreting. During that discussion I took the liberty of limiting the conversation, because the student refused to understand (my impression) how vital it is that before accepting an assignment for legal interpreting one must be qualified to do so. At ARC I’m proud to say each of my professor’s have continued to ensure that we understand the Code of Professional Conduct and to follow it at all times. Especially to do no harm… Also, not to accept an assignment we are not qualified to do, if we must to contact the agency and ask for a replacement, let them know that we are not qualified for the assignment, by contacting them as soon as possible…

    Im grateful for the IPP’s and ITP’s, for they are an important tool for learning about making the right ethical decision(s) for the consumers.

    • Anna Mindess says:

      Hi Sherrie,

      Good for you and glad to hear of the excellent job done by the instructors at ARC. I’m sure they are not the only ones. Best of luck with your interpreting career.

  10. Andrea K Smith says:

    Anna -

    I commend you on a very interesting article! Indeed, our bodies will alert us when there is a “disturbance in the Force”. I do not envy you the difficulty of this situation and I applaud your efforts to confront the interpreter directly.

    At the risk of playing Monday Night Quarterback, however, I would like to offer some thoughts on how you proceeded. I think the single biggest challenge of legal interpreting work is being willing to stand up in open court and throw our team interpreter under the bus. You clearly saw that the team interpreter was unprepared (lack of professional dress, clear unfamiliarity with the content/context, and unwillingness to step down on their own behalf) and your body was sending all manner of “Danger, Will Robinson” signals, but you chose to proceed. I think that issue is very much at the heart of your questions here.

    We need to be able to give ourselves permission to do something in court that we wouldn’t do in just about any other context. Remember that the Deaf juror was empaneled to sit as a peer to the defendant and pass a verdict on their behavior. The Constitution guarantees the right to have such a trial for any of us who are accused of a crime. If the Deaf juror is not getting equal access to the testimony and information being presented in court, then all of the foundations that the jury system are built upon begin to fall apart and we are complicit in violating the defendant’s right to due process. It is important to remember that our client is NOT the Deaf person or the defendant in this matter. Our client and our duty is the record. When we consider how our actions (or inactions) may be affecting the record, the answers to how we should proceed with these types of conflicts take on an entirely different dimension.

    I had a situation almost identical to yours where I showed up for a jury trial and my team was someone provided by a sign language agency (should have known better!). Even though I arrived in a timely fashion, the judge was already on the bench and wanted to call the case. I asked to approach and requested 10 minutes to discuss the case and plan our strategy with my team. Once outside, I discovered that my team interpreter was an 18 y.o. ITP student from a local community college with no certification or training. Her response was similar to your experience in that she felt that she could handle the case because the Deaf person was “just a juror”. As it happens, the Deaf participant was one of the defendants in this matter. I informed her that I would be going back into the courtroom and telling the judge that she was not qualified and that we would have to reschedule. Instead of returning to court, she left (imagine my surprise!). Of course, the judge and parties were not happy with the situation, but I was firm in knowing that I was making the correct decision as this girl didn’t even have the basic vocabulary required to perform the assignment. I was successful at redirecting their ire towards the scheduling office and the interpreting agency who provided someone who was clearly unqualified (our state has similar requirements for certification and qualification, which this girl clearly did not meet).

    Of course, I had to deal with the fallout of an angry phone call from the agency owner, but I knew I had done right. The trial was rescheduled and I was brought back for the later date with a competent team. The defendant took the stand and there was extensive testimony given that I cannot imagine having to try and interpret without a solid team.

    Perhaps some of the bio-feedback you’re talking about is really rooted in the fear of doing what we know needs to be done?

    Again, very interesting discussion!

  11. Anna Mindess says:

    Hello Andrea,

    Thanks for your comments and the reminder of how uniquely demanding our job as legal interpreters is. I applaud your quick thinking and taking appropriate action in the story you relate above.

    I’ve written before, in a different context, about how important it is to be able to predict the kind of challenges, cultural or otherwise, we may face in a given interpreting situation so we can internally strategize and prepare ourselves to deal with them before we even lift up our hands. I have noticed in my own work on several occasions that it’s one thing to write–sitting at my desk at home– about what an interpreter could or should do and another when I am in the middle of a challenging situation. I think we all need to be our own “Monday morning quarterbacks,” and analyze what we could do differently or better next time. In other legal situations, where I had the luxury of arriving early and other team interpreters with whom to discuss what needed to be done, we have indeed stopped the proceedings and informed the judge of the problem.

    What I learned from this situation is to come into court (on time or early!) mentally ready to do whatever needs to be done if the configuration of the interpreting team is not optimal. Personally, I find that if I can visualize myself doing something (like running a little video in my head seeing how I approach the judge) then it’s easier for me to take that action in the moment, if it actually comes to pass.

  12. Kendra says:

    Thank you, Anna, for taking the risk of sharing your experience and your thoughts about the process, outcomes and future directions, a great opportunity to dialogue has been presented. I agree with Colette that this is a very apt case to use in mentoring and interpreter education. As IPP faculty, we do practice case studies where the demands may lead to a decision to self-select out of a situation. This is primarily handled in the level II Ethics class. Cases are presented, a dialogic analysis done, role plays practiced, and post discussions held. I approach it as I do supervision and case discussion in my private workshops and mentoring. It’s a wee beginning, as there are of course time limits and the need to add more opportunity with a wider demographic of faculty and community weighing in on this practice, using this practice. I know the faculty in our program do encourage only interpreting when qualified…which then is applied in many different ways when the ‘rubber meets the road’ in actual work situations.

    I see a great need to continue the dialogue and the negotiations process for all working interpreters for those moments where we are rendered verklempt (or non emotionally speechless as well), as LInda Lamitola is teaching. It may help to begin with recognizing the signs of overwhelm and fear which may preclude engaging in a holistic decision making process focused on the impact on the people our services affect and not our own survival or saving of face or…. thanks for mentioning some of these signals.

    There are those of us training ourselves and others in preempting the fight or flight response and engaging more purposefully with the task and people present in the moment, to better think of strategies and alternative solutions. The post discussion via peer supervision, supervision, debriefing, etc. is critical, especially with those who do not shut us down with the “always/never” approach so that we can progress to a deeper understanding of the impact of our decisions, even that we are actually making such decisions.

    A long winded way of saying yes! and here here! and gratitude for the discussion and your speaking up.

  13. Thomas G says:

    I experience that often. I have been told that my area of content is not an interest for the interpreter and yet they accept the assignment. I often feel awkward knowing that they are not comfortable or interested in my work but yet they are the voice of my words. That creates a distrust in the interpreting process. I often have to wonder if my messages are being interpreted correctly, to carry the conviction and the passion that I put in my message to the hearing person. Often it doesn’t happen. When I try to rectify the situation, the interpreters often treat me with “Who the hell are you to correct me, I am the professional, not you!” *sigh*.

  14. Roberta W says:

    Hi Anna…I agree wholeheartedly with your article in getting a qualified interpreters, especially in court, and if someone isn’t qualified and realizes this, this interpreter would do us all a big favor by being honest and tell their agency that he/she isn’t qualified.
    Since you’ve had experience with the court proceedings…I’d like to ask you if this is a fact in many court situations…I will explain my situation below and would like your feedback on this.
    Last Spring, I went to court with my lawyer, my lawyer has no knowledge about interpreters. The court provided 2 interpreters…we all came early and we had a chance to talk to familiarize one another with our signings which always helps. During court, when I took my stand, I was thrown off when the interpreter didn’t say anything when I signed…so I stopped, then she voiced to the court what I signed. I was expecting that she would voice while I was signing. It just threw me off…so when an opposing lawyer asked me some questions, a few answers I had was lengthy, the interpreter didn’t say anything…I told her to go ahead and interpret what I said. I felt very uncomfortable because I didn’t know if she would remember or understood everything I said. During a short break, I asked the interpreters if they could interpret at the same time I’m talking and not waiting until I finish. They both said, that’s the way court is, we have to wait til you finish then we interpreted. I told them it was awkward for me and that it threw me off. They said it’s the way it is with all court cases. I felt that it wasn’t the case but I had no experience with court proceedings, so I didn’t argue. I would like to know if that’s a fact in all court proceedings….for all interpreters to wait til their clients are finished talking (signing) then they interpret what was said to the court. Thanks for this great article for us to share our feedbacks and helping one another.

    • Anna Mindess says:

      Hi Roberta,

      Thank you so much for your comments and questions. As Dani mentioned below, it is now commonly accepted “best practice” that consecutive interpreting leads to interpretations that are more accurate, especially in the legal setting. A lot of research has been done on this topic – most notably by Debra Russell of Canada. I am including a couple of links to for you to read more, if you are interested, at the end of this comment.

      But that doesn’t mean that the 2 interpreters in your proceeding could not have handled the situation better. First, I think it is very important to let the Deaf person who will be testifying know ahead of time that the interpreters intend to use a consecutive approach. For example, I often interpret for depositions (long questioning sessions by one or more attorneys, where the Deaf person is under oath and their answers will be preserved and treated just like courtroom testimony – except that this usually happens in an office without a judge present.) I always explain that I will listen to the whole question from the attorney first and then interpret it and in addition, will watch the whole signed answer (or as much as I can hold in my memory) and then render it in speech.

      Often the reason this works best is that ASL and English utterances are not presented in the same order. So that the first thing the attorney says, may end up being the last thing signed in an ASL utterance and vice versa. I find if I just start interpreting right away before hearing or seeing the whole question or answer, I don’t yet know the point being made and often end up signing the question twice (once in a literal English order and second, once the attorney gets to the end and I see their point, in a more appropriately structured ASL question – for example, with the time indicator at the beginning of the ASL statement instead of at the end).

      Another tool that ASL interpreters are making more use of is note taking. So that the interpreter who is not actively working is taking written notes while the Deaf person is signing and can support the other interpreter’s voice interpretation.

      I think if you showed your concern, the interpreters owed you more of an explanation than just “that’s how it’s done now”. I hope this brief explanation helps a little and that your interpreters will be more willing to share their strategies with you for a successful interpretation in the future. I see a successful interpretation as a team effort between the interpreters and the Deaf parties. (Here are links:)

      A Comparison of Simultaneous and Consecutive Interpretation in the Courtroom by Debra Russell

      and Best Practices in Legal settings

  15. dani f says:

    Hi Roberta W, I live in Australia where our accreditation system is different. For example, we don’t have specific legal accreditation, but we do have levels of generalist accreditation. You’re supposed to be at the top level of accreditation before you set foot in a courtroom.

    I hold the top level of accreditation but don’t do much court work (mainly because I don’t want to work for the main agency that offers this kind of work). nonetheless, i believe that in many situations which are absolutely criticial (eg court, medical) it is MUCH better to have consecutive interpreting (where the interpreter waits for you to finish, then interpreters) than simultaneous (where the interpreter starts interpreting while you’re signing). Why? because consecutive interpreting is actually much more accurate. it’s also much more likely to lead to a smooth, cohesive interpretation. but your comment raises the very important point that many of our clients (both deaf and hearing) are not used to consecutive interpreting, and so it’s up to us terps to help educate both types of clients and to explain why this form of interpreting is better in these situations. after that explanation, if one or more of the clients still says they don’t want consecutive interpreting, then i guess the interpreter would need to let all the other parties (including the judge in this case) know, with the warning that this might mean a less accurate interpretation. (btw, the other situation where i often interpret consecutively is when i have a deaf client who uses their own speech while they sign. this is both because i find it very difficult to speak over someone else’s speech, but mainly because it’s very hard for the hearing client to try to hear both sets of speech. but i always try to discuss this beforehand with the clients, to see how this can be accommodated – eg would the deaf person rather use their own speech and i don’t voice at all? or would they rather try to ‘switch off’ their voice while they sign? or would they rather i interpret consecutively? it’s a negotiation but i think an important one.) i hope your court case went well and thanks for the opportunity to comment.

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