Today, for the first time I witnessed a court hearing in which telephonic interpreting was used. As an interpreter I am familiar with this means of interpreting, and I even have a telephonic interpreting services managers talk about it to my interpretation students, but it has always been more of an acquired knowledge than a real experience. Telephonic and other types of remote interpreting have their supporters and detractors, but there is a consensus that when interpreters are not locally available, this means of interpreting is not only acceptable but also desirable. But what about when qualified interpreters ARE available locally?
The court where I saw telephonic interpretation this morning has access to certified court interpreters managed by a full-time coordinator. However, for some reason, this particular court decided to use telephonic interpretation. While the interpreter on the phone showed a high level of professionalism and did, in my opinion, an acceptable job, there are some elements that are worth comment. Neither the interpreting agency nor the interpreter had background information on the case in question. In this morning’s case, the interpreter only knew the subject matter jurisdiction of the calling court. Is this enough information for the interpreter to provide fair language services to the parties in a ligation? At one point this morning, two court cases were merged into one. Both case numbers were given to the interpreter, who assumed the numbers given were “card” numbers, which was how the case number was interpreted. Did the interpreter hear “card” instead of “case”? Perhaps in courtrooms where this particular interpreter usually works case numbers are written on a card. Who knows? While there is some homogeneity in process and procedures in US courts, institutional culture does exist and is a vital element to take into consideration in interpreting. While one can argue that this is not a serious error, it does prove that accuracy is being compromised. Due to a lack of feedback, the agency and the interpreter have no means to know the mistakes being made, so they can’t improve.
Meanwhile, people in the gallery were looking everywhere in absolute silence, wondering perhaps what was going on. Officers of the court and the parties involved in the case were hardly moving and as soon as the telephonic interpreting session was over, the normal activity of the courtroom resumed, i. e. people talking softly, getting in and out of the room, attorneys checking their files, etc. Whoever called the interpreting service forgot to let the interpreter know the interpreting session was over. After a few seconds she announced she was going to hung up if her services were no longer required. Very interesting experience!
After sharing this experience with my fellow interpreters, all of them working as contractors, outrage followed: they were there, in the very same building, and in larger numbers than usual because of the supposed load of the day. Was there a lack of internal coordination? Very likely. The core question here is why was a remote interpreting provider called? The answer is very simple: convenience. Another important question is why do interpreters work for an interpreting agency? Also very simple: convenience. Why do interpreters complain about agencies? That’s easy: agencies get a larger chunk of the revenue. And why do agencies get a larger chunk? That’s easy as well: they invest efforts and resources in client development. Jobs do not abound for interpreters and translators, so we need to act more like an agency – create partnerships with fellow interpreters and translators, and approach our work not only as a job but as the foundation for an exciting career.