Saturday, May 6, 2023

A Day or Two in the Life (of a French Court Interpreter)



It has been a week of work and drives. No, it has been two weeks of working and driving. No wonder I am feeling fresh as a May daffodil. (In Iowa, this equals drooping and done.) Despite the fatigue, I appreciate the beautiful detail in historical courthouses (Polk County above and to the right, Benton County below). There was a trial out of town on Monday, which can bring out the best and the worst in me. On one hand, I settle down to prep work in a serious way, but that is because I know that this is going to be intense. Even breaks will be taken up with attorney-client communication and I will have nary a minute to stop and do any extra research.

Trials mean, most importantly, that I will get to work with another interpreter, to collaborate with someone, to have someone to relieve or be relieved by when fatigue sets in, to laugh with after this is all said and done, mainly said, done is a matter of opinion, to have made memories with in both languages, which one can only do with another interpreter. Most of the time it is just me. 

On a non-trial day, there is a routine that may look a lot like this:

Interpreter shows up at courthouse, and on a good day, finds a parking spot less than a mile away. Interpreter stands in line at the front door with all of the other clients of the day. We wait to be scanned, bag and person. We usually have a minute to greet the guards, but not enough time to dwell for too long upon the misery of poverty and missed opportunities, despondency, mental illness, and (sometimes) horrible actions that have brought many of the people in this line to this place today. There are a number of individuals who look scared, rebellious, nervous or resigned, but most of them look down on their luck.

Everyone then either finds the printed-out sheet on the table in the hallway, or glances up at the electronic bulletin board by the elevators, or simply treks the three flights up to the clerk's office, depending on the county, to figure out which courtroom one needs to be in for their case. The smaller the courthouse, the greater the chances of needing to trek up three flights of stairs. Some counties let interpreters and attorneys know where they will be via email the night before. In one county, I will most likely descend to the basement and ask the smiling clerks at the bottom of the steps if 1) I am on the correct floor and 2) if the assigned attorney and party needing French have arrived. 


At this point, there is no set procedure, but if I can, I say; "tell them they can find me in courtroom 1-F," and I set up shop down the hall, comfortably installed, coat on a hook, ipad and ipencil at the ready, headsets for each party too, and on my guard for the moment someone may be looking for me. In the over-crowded, less welcoming courthouses, I have to shuffle about in the lobby of the floor everyone is supposed to be on, craning my neck every once in awhile to see if I can see the look that says, "hey, are you the French interpreter?" 

There is a very particular look, recognizable on faces of attorneys who I've not yet met, part panic, part exasperation, part rushed and harried, then such relief at finding each other. In the ones with whom I am familiar there is a different note of stealth and slyness and hope, "maybe she won't see me and I can just sneak in this very annoying and insistent client first who will only take a moment of my time, then I can deal with the man who needs an interpreter and will take twice as long since we have to say every single bloody word twice." 

"No, sorry ma'am, this interpreter knows that you think it will take but a moment, and that 45 minutes later, I will still be hanging out and checking for you to find me, with the added risk of every minute spent out here means a greater chance of your client asking me questions I am not allowed to answer." Now, would be the best time to utilize my services, merci.

Was that not clear? Let me explain...and I never explain, so pay attention, this is important if you want to look like a professional interpreter who knows what she is doing.

What my job is and is not: the duty is to interpret, which means, more or less that the stuff said in English goes into French and vice versa. If there is only French coming in, especially in the form of questions I am not qualified to answer or statements about what they say did or did not happen in a case, there is no interpreting, because my answers would be in French too, and they would be my own words. So, unless there are three of us present, I am not doing my job. 

In the hallway, a conference room, or a courtroom, the interpreter's role is always the same: interpret the message accurately from one language into another and back again, every message and utterance, the whole time.

What the job is not is giving my own opinion, ever using "I" except to convey what either of the other two parties just said to the other one. This is what makes waiting in a holding space of any sort (lobby, waiting room, hospital room, jail cell) with one person problematic...I am not interpreting, I am engaged in a conversation. This is especially true of an LEP individual who suddenly finds themselves in the presence of someone who understands their language fully and to whom they may of a sudden find themselves very much inclined to confide every last detail or ask every question about this very confusing system in this foreign country. I would do exactly the same thing in their place, should I ever find myself in similar straits in say, Bali or Tokyo, and I would milk it for all it was worth, because I am here, I do not understand and I NEED TO KNOW. 

It is natural, it is also equally in my nature to want to help, to offer a kind word or an answer to requests such as, "How do I call and set up the drunk driving class?" (Yes, it really is referred to that way by some judicial officers). "What if I am a permanent resident, would the plea offer get me deported if I took it?" In front of a third party, I become perfectly legit. I just say that phrase in English and allow the other person (the person qualified to answer) to take over. I am obligated by a strict code of ethics and in the interest of the system working the way it should to not give the appearance of any conflict of interest. This used to feel cold to me, but then came the day when I was accused of just that, and I was not allowed to complete an assignment the way I would have preferred. Live and learn. 

But still, occasionally someone catches up to me in the hallway after a hearing to say, "Madame, Madame, is he going to be allowed to have weekend visitations with the children, even though he told my brother back home he hates us and will have us deported or kill us?" Or, "I did nothing, that cop did not even talk to me when the accident happened. She was the one, the other driver, who ran into my car, not the other way around. This is so messed up, man. I just bought that car, it was almost new. What, is it because of the color of my skin? What is going on here?" The parking meter they have out in front of the courthouse in City A is full of glitches and there are requests to help out with it, back outside in the rain. And so I hide in courtroom 1-F until it is time to interpret.

Recently there have been three trials, scenario A. It has been a great pleasure to work with two French colleagues. I absolutely adore my fellow Franco-American interpreters and had been counting on working with one of them, but agencies will surprise you sometimes and set you up with a trial partner you've never met. I love that the French expression can come out so elegantly with a native speaker, and the flow is beautiful. I delight in hearing accents that are familiar as family to me.

The last trial, the third one in as many weeks, was a bench trial, set for a duration of half an hour. This means there was only one interpreter assigned to the case. I thought it would be a piece of cake to handle a little plea hearing in one city, drive two hours, and interpret for this "short trial", then drive an hour home. Three hours later, this civil law suit with a counter claim turned out to be a fresh new circus of ..."he said, I said, they did, they did not," with a never-ending set of documents to prove the contrary of the other side's argument. When we ended and I had not collapsed from exhaustion, it was a triumphant moment. 

I got back into my car, put on the most outrageous podcast I could find to keep me wide awake, and drove home to my family. It is not a bad life at all.