Since passing the Colorado French court interpreter certification exam almost exactly a year ago, I’ve been interpreting two to four times a week in the Colorado state courts. I love the work, and I’m not saying that just in case one of my managing interpreters reads this. At first, my goal was simply to pass the court interpreter certification exam to prove to myself that I could do it (hello, imposter syndrome). But lo and behold, I find court work both fascinating and fulfilling; I love learning about the legal system and feeling like I’m serving as a bridge between French-speakers and the legal system. I just love everything about it.
The last in-person interpreting job I did was on Monday, March 16: a fairly lengthy hearing in a little town out on the Colorado plains. Pandemic-wise, things were heating up. Everyone had to wash their hands before entering the courtroom, and the clerks were religiously bleach-wiping every surface in the room. Still, we either didn’t really know and didn’t really want to accept what was coming down the pike: I sat right between the defendant and the public defender, handing pens and papers back and forth and certainly not socially distancing. Since then, I’ve still done a couple of court interpreting assignments every week, but they have all been remote: either over the actual telephone, or using Webex. Most of these have been brief hearings, first appearances, or status conferences; the Colorado state courts have put all jury trials on hold, and even longer proceedings like motions hearings have mostly been postponed until September at the earliest.
Pre-pandemic, I had some questions about the Colorado courts’ emphasis on in-person interpreting. Court interpreters here are paid for travel time (at half rate) and mileage, and there are only three certified French court interpreters in the state, so in some cases I’m driving an hour or more each way, sometimes for an appearance that might last five minutes. I sometimes wondered, is this really necessary? Might some of this be better handled remotely?
In some cases, remote court interpreting has worked really well, and it certainly expedites things. The court staff work really hard to keep things running smoothly, and in most cases, the remote systems work well enough that the hearings can happen. It’s a far better option than delaying everything until it’s safe to go back to the courthouses in person. However, I’ve now become a much bigger fan of in-person interpreting–in fact I cannot wait to get back to in-person interpreting, for various reasons:
- Simple things like not being able to hear someone become a huge issue. I’ve interpreted for people who were driving, sitting outside in public places, or in a house with a lot of background noise, making it incredibly hard to understand them.
- People talking over each other is another huge issue. Especially when you’re on the phone with no video, there’s really no way to get someone to stop talking, other than to try to tell them to stop, or to start talking over them.
- The remote process seems like it would expedite everything, but in some cases it doesn’t. An example is when people call in to a Webex conference on the telephone rather than from a computer, so their phone number appears instead of their name on the meeting ID. This then requires someone (usually a court clerk or the judge) to go through each phone number, read the number out loud, and ask the person to un-mute themselves and say who they are, i.e. “Calling from 333-333-3333, this is Jack Smith and I’m the father of the victim in the Jones case.”
- Confidentiality: I’ve interpreted for a few family court hearings that clearly would have been confidential if they were happening in person. In one case, one of the parties’ children were clearly visible in the background of the video call while custody issues were being discussed, including details that the children really should not have been hearing. Children are prohibited from courtrooms, but I don’t see how it would be possible to require a party to a case to get child care in order to take a video call.
- Appearances: Lots of people don’t show up to remote hearings; anecdotally, the no-show rate seems much higher to me than the no-show rate for in-person hearings. Which raises the question: If you don’t show up to a remote hearing because your phone battery died or you can’t figure out how to use Webex, should that constitute failure to appear? Neither option seems like a good one: if it does constitute failure to appear, is it really fair for someone to face an additional charge because their phone battery died? If it doesn’t constitute failure to appear, what prevents people from simply not showing up, and claiming that they couldn’t log on to the remote system?
- Public participation and oversight: The fact that most court cases are public is a really important component of the US legal system. I spent hours sitting in court and taking notes when I was studying for the court interpreter exam, and you see all kinds of people (reporters, family members, law students, court reporting students, interpreting students) observing in court. Family court cases and some others are closed to the public, but in my experience it’s quite common to see people watching court proceedings just for their own interest or education. In a remote system, it’s not always clear how or if the public can participate.
- The simple fact of people not being in the same room causes some hassles: On several occasions I’ve needed to sight-translate things like plea agreements. Those have to be sent by e-mail, sometimes through multiple people instead of being passed across a table. Then the defendants often have to sign the agreements via Docusign, which can be complicated since they’re often using a phone rather than a computer. In order to maintain the proper flow of information (defendant-interpreter-district attorney-interpreter-defendant), the interpreter has to interpret all of those technical questions (“I don’t see where I have to sign,” “There’s no yellow box,” “The submit button isn’t working”) rather than someone helping the person right there.
In many situations, I think that remote court interpreting falls into the “better than no interpreting” category. If everyone is patient and the technical side works out, things can go pretty well. Using a purpose-built RSI platform, which at least some court systems are looking into, would make things even better. Still, I’m now more convinced of the merits of bringing an interpreter from an hour away to interpret for even short appearances, and I’m looking forward to getting back to that at some point in the perhaps-distant but hopefully possible future!