Got Assumptions? Proceed with Caution!

(The following was originally published on the blog of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, https://najit.org/#blog.)

We humans are biologically programmed to walk into a situation and immediately start to assess it, right? In fact, what we see around us will often dictate how we conduct ourselves—a true testament to our nature as social beings.

As interpreters, this pre-set mechanism can cause a reaction in us that can backfire and be really embarrassing, uncomfortable, or even downright unprofessional. In my years as a court and medical interpreter, I’ve learned to proceed with caution. I have a few anecdotes I hope will serve as reminders in this battle against our instinctive urge to make assumptions.

Caution: The Unexpected Cometh!

I was once interpreting in a hospital clinic when I was called to assist an intern. We began with friendly greetings because we hadn’t worked together in a while, and it was a very pleasant moment right outside the exam room door. Our smiles, friendly tones, and the skip in our step continued as we entered to see the patient. Unbeknownst to me, the intern had been tasked with confirming a woman’s cancer diagnosis, and she was about to begin moaning and weeping uncontrollably at the most terrifying news of her life. There was an instant mood change just moments after we walked in the room.

Caution: Lovebirds in a Nosedive!

In family court, couples sitting together waiting for their cases to be called are often a soon-to-be-divorced spouse and his or her new love interest. There are also situations where a pair has started a divorce case, only to realize that they are still willing to drop the matter and give the marriage another go. Either way, people who sit together are seen as amicable, right?

So, I remember having to read a particular “couple” some mediation reports prior to their hearing. They had been sitting together when I pulled them from the courtroom and sat together when I read them the report. They were very sweet, smiling a lot, and I thought, hmm, maybe this will be another surprise request for dismissal of the case. Quite the contrary happened, and the hearing ended up being unusually contentious. They argued over everything, so there was certainly not going to be any reconciliation that day! I still don’t know how they could do such an about-face with each other, but I was sure glad that I didn’t make the small talk I was tempted to engage in about how love conquers all, etc. Beyond the ethical dilemma, it would have turned into such a messy pre-hearing conversation. Awkward!

Caution: Hidden Heartbreak Nearby!

One of the tasks I’m charged with as a staff interpreter is getting the limited-English crowd organized in our misdemeanor courts before the doors open. This requires me to make announcements in a busy hallway. I’ve learned it’s best to make a little speech in English first so that the court customers don’t wonder why only a certain group is being addressed. I guess I’m a pretty cheerful person in the morning (thank you, Starbucks), and so on more than one occasion I’ve had to hold back the urge to be extra chatty as people greet me. You would think that this is not a big deal, right? I mean, gosh, what we deal with in misdemeanor court can be pretty run-of-the-mill and a little levity might be a nice way to start the day.

Unfortunately, not all members of these morning crowds are there for those average cases. I remember a particular family that came to court many times after a terrible tragedy—the death of the defendant’s child after a child seat violation in an accident. Here again is a reason to resist the temptation to be overly friendly. Just imagine being in the habit of trying to make everybody smile and feel relaxed—meaning well, of course—and then having to interpret in a very painful situation for some of those same people. I’ve found it safer to have a demeanor that stays a bit more neutral, remembering that a routine morning for me could be somebody else’s worst morning ever.

Safety in Abiding by Our Ethics

The ethical standards we practice give us guidance that, when followed, help prevent us from walking head-on into uncomfortable situations. After all, not only are we tasked with being the voice of another, but it’s imperative that those we serve not be distracted by our behavior. Notice that my anecdotes above were all based on good faith and positive conduct, and yet the situations described simply didn’t call for certain attitudes to be present—whether shown or not—in the interpreter.

Something I’ve noticed is that as professionals mature, both as a function of age and experience, it’s easier to be wise in our attitudes and conduct. However, because the nature of our role is helpful and can be seen as positive, the lines between neutral, safe conduct and entering into the danger zone can become blurred. As interpreters in the judiciary, we’re expected to be ready to adjust and adapt to others, rather than make it our task to guide those we help to some happier place. Often, something just slightly more than a Mona Lisa smile has to suffice.

Something else to consider is the dual-role of staff member and interpreter. Might it be that keeping a professional distance is easier for interpreters who work as contractors? After all, we may start getting so comfortable in our daily routines and locations that our guard is let down. Caution! We sometimes need that official reminder that we work in a solemn environment, and for the sake of those who may be the exception and not the rule, we are wise to keep our conduct in check and to review our ethical duties list every so often.

Oops, I Tripped and Knocked Over the Caution Sign. Now What?

So, what if we goof up? What if we have opened our mouths and deftly inserted our foot, causing a situation to change direction unexpectedly? For sure, we have to acknowledge whatever we’ve done to those it affects. Once I thought a hearing was over when the judge repeatedly thanked a litigant in an effort to silence him. I started to get up from where we were seated and the litigant followed suit. Because of me, the guy started getting scolded for attempting to leave the hearing! I immediately indicated to the judge that I had misunderstood that the hearing was over and apologized that my movement (aka: my assumption) caused difficulty for somebody else. When we take mistakes in stride and truly feel badly for any time our conduct makes a situation go sour, it makes us stronger as individuals, as interpreters, and as a representative of our profession.

Really, this is all about assumptions, and we all know what those do! We often associate assumptions with the negative, but remember that assumptions even about the positive can lead to situations we don’t want to find ourselves in. We assume we know where a conversation is going, what others need to turn that frown upside down, what a contentious couple should look like. Just remember the anecdotes: happiness can turn into instant sorrow; a cordial moment can turn into a boxing match; and the sunny hello can be followed by talk of tragic regret. The safety zone: no assumptions, a neutral attitude, and solid application of ethics. We’ve got this!


Jennifer De La Cruz, CT has been a certified court interpreter for the California courts and the U.S. district courts for over 14 years. She is also an ATA-certified Spanish<>English translator. She has taught interpreting and translation courses throughout her career for a variety of schools and universities. She currently oversees the language access program for a California Superior Court.

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