When I first started my education as an interpreter, I learned that the interpreter is someone else’s voices. This someone is, as a matter of fact, a person who does not understand and/ or speak a language their interlocutor speaks. If you are doing simultaneous interpretation, yes, you are only someone’s voice. But how does it work in other situations? When decisions are made based on your job as interpreter, it demands a lot of dedication and professionality.
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Let me start with an easier situational example and then get into a more dramatic one. I mainly work as consecutive interpreter, that means i meddle the conversation between two or more individuals. If you have more than two individuals to interpret to, sometimes you are, in fact, one of them’s ears as well. There is often a setting where one individual who speaks to two other. It might be a parent and a student talking to a teacher or a principal. Or it might be a teacher and a principal talking to a parent, if we take a school for an example. It is quite important that, if the two of them talk to each other, the third person understands what is being talked about. So, the teacher and the principal engage in a discussion that does not involve the parent, but has to do with him/ her and their child. The parent has the right to understand what the school personnel is saying. You, as the interpreter, have to control so that everybody understands everybody. The conversational turns are managed by you.
When you are in court however, your are devoid of much of that control I described in the school scenario. There is a lot more going on - there are many people involved and often one single person whose destiny is put in jeopardy and who does not understand the language of this country they are being sued in.
This defendant’s understanding of the charges s/he is going to answer to and how every piece is put during the trial is of enormous importance. But it is not always you can stop a discussion between prosecutor and judge because you do not catch up as you interpret. On the other hand, the defendant has the right to understand what are the arguments that are being presented by the accusation.
Not seldom is the defendant in a position to try to understand the whole situation and has a limited reaction time to object or to tell their counselor about their objections - as you as the interpreter are also busy transmitting the prosecutor’s or judge’s arguments, your are not enough to interpret any interaction between the defendant and their lawyer.
Now, there are factors that makes it harder to you and it is the setting in the court. As I live and work in Sweden, I can tell about the configurations you find out there. Some courts offer you, the interpreter, a place with a mic and a headset to improve the hearing. Then you are supposed to translate only consecutively - annotation techniques are decisive for a good job here, but it is harder to the defendant react, since when you are allowed to interpret the context might have been gone.
Some courts offer you the setting where you sit near the defendant and interpret by whispering (quite simultaneously). If the defendant is quick enough s/he can call their counselor’s attention to an objection. It hardly happens though.
For you, the challenge is to follow this prosecutor/ counselor’s reading of a paper everybody have but you. Also you can fall in a more dangerous trap - translate or not all the formal terms? How to be sure the defendant will follow it? And then, you might, as I confess it happened to me, let the very technical terms go - and your interpretation is compromised.
Whichever configuration you find yourself in, deep and broad terminological knowledge and good judgement are the only reliable tools you have. But as accessory you have to make use of some ‘cold blood’ as well. Because you often will question how good each part understood the other and it will compromise your interpretation as well.
Remember, the interpreter is in a position of neutrality and impartiality. If the prosecutor places a tricky question and for cultural reasons you know the defendant will not give him or her the answer they are supposed to, your consciousness will plague you on and on. However, you are the defendant’s ears, not his understanding, nor his defendor.
By these few points I hope I could call for at least a discussion on in court interpretation. It is a rather difficult seat to put yourself in, but after each good job you have done, your self-confidence grows, and you blood goes colder. As sad as it might sound, it is just good for you improving the quality of your interpretation.