Team Interpreting for Magistrate Courts in Texas

While over-the-phone interpreting and video remote interpreting have been great solutions for courts that have to conduct daily business online, these solutions still come with the pitfalls associated with always providing professional interpreting services.

Sometimes people involved in language access decisions believe that first appearance hearings—or, as we refer to them in Texas, magistration hearings—are an easy task for interpreters. This is probably because even though they’re fast-paced, these hearings are also repetitive. Once you’ve interpreted for magistrate courts for a while you know the drill. Judges will always mention four things: 1) the charges brought against the detainee, 2) the range of punishment, 3) the detainee’s rights, and, if the detainee is eligible, 4) the bond amount set for their release and its conditions (e.g., they cannot have committed or been convicted of a certain type of serious crime).

But stakeholders who believe that these hearings are an easy task for interpreters overlook the fact that it can be difficult to adjust to the speech patterns of the various speakers involved. The questions and comments uttered by detainees can be long and incoherent, and court colloquy, when providing information or responding to questions, can be lengthy and complex. And, if interpreting online, add to the mix distorted sounds, frozen screens, people speaking through their smart phones, surgical masks (and sometimes even clear face shields) muffling the utterances, voices overlapping, and interlocutors speaking through a computer microphone instead of headphones. Here you have the perfect recipe for inaccurate interpreting, miscommunication, and an inaccurate record of the proceedings.

Over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) and video remote interpreting (VRI) have been great solutions for courts that have to conduct daily business online, and they have certainly been great for magistrate courts in Texas. That being said, these solutions still come with the pitfalls associated with always providing professional interpreting services.

The Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA) played an important role in helping courts transition to conducting business online and providing language access remotely. OCA provided free Zoom licenses for courts across the state that included the option of a simultaneous interpreting channel. Providing remote interpreting services was nothing new for OCA. They had been offering free over-the-phone and VRI services to courts across Texas through their Texas Court Remote Interpreter Services Program1 for almost a decade. This put them in a good position to assist courts that were becoming acquainted with VRI. The challenge was when two counties would request assistance with court interpreting for magistration hearings taking place at a prison or detention center three times a day, seven days a week.

The OCA’s Language Access Department was happy to provide the service, but it was reserved for short, non-contested, and non-evidentiary hearings. Staff interpreters soon found themselves working mostly for magistration hearings, so they knew they wouldn’t be able to continue providing services for a long period, at least not without help. They presented the arguments not only to justify hiring a few contract interpreters to assist them, but to also provide team interpreting whenever dockets had more than five detainees that required the services of a Spanish interpreter.

The services have exceeded expectations, thanks in part to the lead interpreter in charge of the program, and to the administrative staff that has been very supportive toward interpreters. The program complies with the state’s government judicial code requiring master licensed court interpreters2, since statutes don’t allow basic license holders to interpret for judges acting as magistrates. Interpreters in the program have developed a methodology (discussed below) that allows them to minimize delays due to technical difficulties or lack of interpreters on-site. They also have convinced judges and staff that having a backup interpreter can always come in handy. I’m happy to be part of this interpreting team and would like to share some highlights of the program.

Working and Communicating with Your Team Interpreter

By the time my interpreting partner and I joined the team, the two staff interpreters had already established a method to communicate with each other while working. As the program has grown, each one of us has contributed with comments and ideas on how to improve the system. Here are the highlights of the methodology.

Interpret in the consecutive mode. This is the best interpreting mode for this type of hearing, since detainees generally appear in groups of five to eight individuals, and the Magistration Warnings, also known as the Advisal of Rights, are read to them as a group. Later on, judges hold individual sessions (online hearings) and address the specifics of each case.

Use a Microsoft Teams Channel to communicate with team members. This chat allows us to keep track of the docket by typing in the name of each detainee, which is also the session we need to interpret. When we’re in the last session of each group, we let our team interpreter know so they can join and be ready to start interpreting for the next group. This chat also allows us to provide support if one of us is stuck on a word or having technical issues and needs the other one to take over immediately.

Use a Microsoft Teams Channel to communicate with court staff. This chat allows us to communicate with the rest of the team if we’re experiencing audio or video problems that can impact our performance (e.g., loud noises at the jail or feedback generated by a microphone or speaker).

Multitasking can be challenging in the beginning, especially if you’re not computer savvy and on top of using the delay feature with the regular headaches of VRI (e.g., having to focus on typing things in the chat). Once you become accustomed to the system, however, the steps become part of your daily routine and you don’t even think about them anymore.

Creating a Good Environment When Working with a Team Interpreter

Of course, not everything is easy sailing when working as a team interpreter. It requires compromise and a willingness to accept working with a partner. For those of us who are impatient, used to working alone, or feel overwhelmed when working with someone we feel might be judging our performance, here are a few recommendations:

Create a glossary. This helps to lay the foundation for what type of terms and word choices everyone feels will be clear to the majority of detainees, as there are always language variations and regionalisms that might be difficult to understand. Having a glossary on hand also avoids judges and staff speculating as to why one interpreter keeps using one term while others use a different one.

Learn to compromise. Keep in mind that you’re working as part of a team. You’re there to help each other, not to compete and try to outshine your colleague. Having a good relationship with your team interpreter will make the work environment more pleasant. This is important to avoid both of you feeling like you’re working with a check interpreter instead of a support interpreter.

Find your rhythm while allowing others to find theirs. You might be a fast typist but slow to adjust the settings on your headphones and camera. Your partner might be a fast speaker, whereas you are not. That’s okay, as everyone has a different rhythm and working routine. The important thing is to learn to be patient and take advantage of each other’s strengths to excel while interpreting.

Limit messages on the chat. Unnecessary messages can be distracting and stressful and will affect performance.

Be respectful to your colleague. Remember that you’re both equally qualified. Respect each other’s word choices and don’t try to impose your interpreting style on your partner. Make comments only when the term chosen impacts the meaning of the message, or when you notice your partner is stuck on a word they might not remember or with which they are unfamiliar.

Make it a habit to conduct team meetings to discuss possible issues. Be sure to have periodic team meetings to work through any issues that might have surfaced while working together.

General Recommendations

Anticipate, but don’t get ahead of the judge. Being able to anticipate allows interpreters to start to structure utterances before the speakers are done talking. However, sometimes interpreters who have been working for the same judge for a while may be tempted to stop listening after the first few words because they think they know what the judge will say next. This can result in interpreting errors, as a judge might say something different than what’s expected and the interpreter will miss it or add something to the message that was not yet said by the judge.

Avoid interpreter fatigue. If you need a break, just say so. Some judges forget about the interpreter and either speak very fast or for long periods, which puts stress on interpreters and forces them to write lengthier notes. If this makes you tired, ask for a break or ask the judge to slow down and insert pauses. Remember, the code of ethics for licensed court interpreters3 requires that we disclose things that can hinder our performance, and fatigue is one of them.

Protect your hearing. Always use a good set of headphones and adjust your volume settings so the sound won’t hurt your ears. Acoustic shock4 has become a concern for many VRI and conference interpreters, so we must be aware of this risk and protect ourselves against it. If you think that someone else has set their volume too high or too low, let them know. Don’t take unnecessary risks to please other stakeholders.

Wear professional attire. Remember that even if you’re working remotely, you’re still an officer of the court and should always dress professionally. Judges appreciate that, especially in an era where people appear in sweatpants and tank tops, thinking that the proceedings are less formal because they’re using a tablet or their smartphone.

Finally, I would like to say that while this article focuses on VRI team interpreting, the program created to provide video remote hearings for Texas magistrate courts wouldn’t have succeeded had it not been for the entire team of stakeholders. They understand that due process cannot be met unless magistrate judges and non-English and limited-English-proficient individuals can communicate effectively.

  1. Texas Court Remote Interpreter Services Program (Office of Court Administration).
  2. Government code (Texas Judicial Branch) requiring master licensed court interpreters.
  3. Texas Court Code of Ethics for Licensed Court Interpreters.
  4. El-Metwally, Maha. “Acoustic Shock: What Interpreters Need to Know,” The ATA Chronicle (July/August 2020), 33.
Additional Resources

Ballantyne, Linda, Philippe Fournier, Marc Orlando, Gabriella Verdi, and Klaus Ziegler. “Acoustic Shocks Research Project-Final Report” (International Association of Conference Interpreters, 2020).

Salazar, Teresa, and Gladys Segal. “Team Interpreting in Court-Related Proceedings”: Position Paper (National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, 2020).

Sandra Dejeux is a Texas master licensed court interpreter and a certified health care interpreter. She works part-time for the Texas Office of Court Administration as a contract interpreter for Operation Lone Star. She provides translation and interpreting services for courts and law firms in the Houston metro area, as well as online training for legal and medical interpreters through her company, SD Translations LLC. She has a BA in international studies and an MA in Spanish translation and interpreting.

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