Keeping Your Distance

View from US District Court, Reno, NV.
If you are intrigued by the title of today's post, you might or might not be a court interpreter. If you are (and even if you are not), please read on for today's brief comments on ethics and keeping your distance.

One of the pillars of the code of ethics for court interpreters is neutrality: we don't get involved, we are on no one's side, and we are certainly not allowed to give legal advice (nor are we qualified). We are there to interpret and to do absolutely nothing else. Obeying this basic rule will serve you well as a court interpreter, and it seems easy enough, but in practice it can be tricky.

One of the rules of thumb that we try to use is to not be alone with a person who needs interpreting services in a judicial setting. One usually needs at least three people for interpreting to take place (in our case, the non-English speaker, the non-Spanish speaker, and the interpreter) and no good usually comes out of having any sort of one-on-one conversation with the non-English speaker (LEP), so it must be avoided at all costs. The question is: how do you avoid talking to people if they walk up to you in the hallway? What if you see them in the parking lot afterwards and they have a question about their loved one's case that you are not allowed to answer? These situations can be tough, and there's no one right answer, but we usually use this approach:


  • Avoid being in public places where you could run into one of the parties alone. Ideally, walk with the lawyer/person you interpreted for. If their client comes up to the two of you, then you can certainly interpret.
  • Avoid leaving a hearing right after the LEP or his/her family so you don't put yourself into the situation of being asked a question about the case. Wait a few minutes inside the courtroom if need be. This might be awkward, but it does remove you from a potentially challenging situation.
  • If an LEP comes up to you without his/her attorney and asks a question, excuse yourself as quickly as possible. LEPs usually see you as their ally because you speak their language, but as a court interpreter, you are no one's ally and you must avoid all appearance of conflict of interest. One option is to briefly apologize about not being able to talk, and say that the code of ethics does not allow court interpreters to speak with LEPs on their own because we are neutral parties, and go looking for their attorney as quickly as possible. This is oftentimes quite disappointing for LEPs, but you must stick to the code of ethics. You don't ever want to get into a situation where an LEP says in court: "The interpreter told me...." It happens more often than you would think, so don't put yourself in the situation.
  • If necessary, go to the bathroom. This doesn't sound like a very elegant solution, and people might still want to talk to you inside the bathroom, but being inside a stall is usually a solid bet.
We'd love to hear other possible solutions/thoughts from fellow court interpreters! 
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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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