For the Record: A Healthcare Interpreter in Court

Can a healthcare interpreter work in court? With the right training and a little courage, sure!

Can a healthcare interpreter work in court? With the right training and a little courage, sure!

I wonder how many healthcare interpreters there are out there like me, who are dipping their toes in the waters of legal and court interpreting.  At a certain point, you just have to go out there and do it.  After passing my state certification exams, and two grad school courses in court interpreting, I couldn’t put it off anymore.  It’s scary to go do something new after having spent over a decade in healthcare, so here are some tips that might help someone who’s one step behind me.

Where do I go?  I’ve had the training, I’ve memorized the terminology and the set phrases, I know what our ethical principles are.  But the most uncomfortable part?  I don’t know where to go.  I don’t know who to report to.  I haven’t yet been to the same place twice.  Sometimes it’s easy.  I go to an assignment in a private office, and they’re waiting for me.  Other times, like in court, I don’t know who to check in with.  I don’t want to talk too loud when I ask where to go, and then have the judge shoosh me.  I don’t want to go where I’m not supposed to go.  I’m getting better at scoping out the bailiff, who is a good person to check in with.  I’ve gotten to court assignments early just to sit and observe who all the players are.  Just settling in to the environment helps ease my anxiety about where I should be.

Should I take notes? I developed a modest note-taking practice during my work in healthcare, and then had a chance to really develop it in grad school.  We did a ton of consecutive practice with notes.  Now that I’ve had some practice in court, I’ve found it really helpful to make a clear note of names, birth dates, addresses, and anything else that’s really specific, that would be easy to mess up.  Then I can keep referring back to those notes, because that same info is going to keep coming up.  I recently got through an hour-long deposition using just one page of notes.  Not that’s it’s a contest to see who can use the fewest notes.  My point is, it was just the same info over and over again, rephrased into different questions and statements and it all fit on one page.

Also, this might sound silly, but having your notebook already out and turned to a blank page, along with your uncapped pen ready to go will avoid any kind of paper rustling or pen clicking that will just make your possibly already-frazzled nerves even more edgy.

What terms should I know? Here are some that keep coming up (in no particular order): Appearance, hearing, arrest, operating a vehicle while intoxicated, driving under the influence, resisting arrest, probation, misdemeanor, time served, criminal record, charges, sentence and sentencing, impaired, for the record.

Beyond terms, being prepared for names and numbers is helpful.  I remember a seasoned court interpreter telling me that if you can at least get the defendant’s (or whoever is speaking) name before you start, that will be a huge help.  I didn’t get it at the time, but it’s true.  If you can get the defendant’s name, and write it down at the top of your notebook, that helps a lot, especially because they’re going to be asked to spell their name for the record.  That way, you’re not scrambling to write down and read back a name from the beginning, which can make for a rough start.

Why are they talking like that?  In my test prep for state certification, and in my grad school course work, we practiced interpreting with recorded dialogues, many of which were from actual court cases.  And the attorneys and judges in the dialogues spoke in this really formal register.  Well, it turns out that they really do speak like that.  So far, on every occasion I’ve interpreted in court, the things that the attorneys and judges say are word-for-word from the dialogues that I practiced in school and for my test prep (I used the very helpful Holly Mikkelson’s Interpreter’s Edge for both cert test prep and grad school).  Also, the book pictured at the top left is from grad school, and gives great explanations of where this formal language comes from.  Interesting stuff.

In a way, I think the formality makes it easier.  It’s not nuanced or trying to influence or trick anyone (though this kind of speech does show up, over and over), it’s just the same every time.  Because of this same formality, I’ve felt that it’s easier in court than it is in the hospital to intervene and ask for clarification or a repetition.

Because I’ve been lucky to work with people who really know how to work with an interpreter, and because of my preparation, I’ve had all great experiences so far in court and the legal setting.  It wasn’t this way when I started working as a medical interpreter, because nobody knew how to work with an interpreter, I didn’t know how to tell them, and I started with very weak terminology.  I’m taking a break from court interpreting while I finish graduate school, and once I’m back in the US, I’m eager to go dive deeper into this very interesting and challenging work.

How’s your experience been making the leap from healthcare to court interpreting?  What about going to other way, from court to healthcare?  Let us know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “For the Record: A Healthcare Interpreter in Court

  1. dynamiclinguist says:

    Hi Liz! Just found your blog and love your posts! I have not yet taken the leap from healthcare to court interpreting but have occasionally considered it. This is definitely useful information. The thing that has always made me hesitate is my conception that court interpreting is extremely depressing and sad. Sure, medical interpreting has its sad moments but in general I find it uplifting and inspiring. The one time I observed immigration court I felt SO sad afterwards for all the people likely to be deported and separated from their families. I was wondering if you have any thoughts on this aspect. Do you like it so far? Do you feel you are helping people or do you feel more like another piece of the justice system? Thanks and keep up the great writing!

    • thatinterpreter says:

      I’m so happy you enjoy the blog! How court and legal interpreting makes us feel is an important point, since it can interfere with the quality of our work. I loved healthcare interpreting, though at times it felt like a grind to me. That’s when I knew I needed to take a step back, take a break, and remember why I was there. I think it’s similar in court. In the beginning, I started out with cases that I perceived as having “good” outcomes, and of course, I liked that–even though it had nothing to do with me personally. Then, the more time I spent in the courtroom, the more I noticed that I just did not feel good when I was there–you see a lot of people in really tough spots, with seemingly no way out. That’s my perception, anyway. I think that again, focusing on why I’m there is important. Also I think this is where a professional support network can come in handy. Knowing that others experience difficulties and sharing strategies for overcoming them can be part of the difference between burning out and hanging in there.

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