Perception Conflicts: The Role of Sign Language Interpreters in Court

July 29, 2014

While working in the legal system, sign language interpreters may encounter moments when the rules of the court come into conflict with the values and norms of Deaf culture. Carla Mathers explores the ways that interpreters in legal settings can manage and reconcile this conflict.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Carla’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Carla’s talk directly.]


Hello friends. I’m thrilled to be here.

Today, I’ll be talking about the court interpreter’s role and perceptions about that role from the perspectives of the court, as well as the Deaf Community.

The court has specific views related to the interpreter’s role, as does the Deaf Community. These perceptions include expectations about the court interpreter’s conduct and communication. While in the courtroom, the interpreter’s conduct, communication and decision-making can influence the court’s view of the interpreter’s role and the Deaf party. Similarly, the court interpreter’s conduct and communication can also impact the Deaf party’s perceptions of the interpreter’s role and the court system itself. In some instances, the impact can be positive but in other instances, the impact is not so positive.

Deaf Heart in Court

I’ve been an attorney for over 20 years now, so my view of the interpreter’s role in court is often influenced by the court’s perceptions.

Over the past few years, here at StreetLeverage-Live 2014, at StreetLeverage-Live 2013, on various vlogs, websites, etc., there has been much discussion around the concept of “Deaf heart.”  I must confess that I’m slightly uncomfortable with the concept as it relates to the role of sign language interpreters in court.  On a broader scale, I recognize and acknowledge the need for sign language interpreters to support and value the Deaf community.  I agree that this is important.  After all, some of my best friends are Deaf.

I’m not opposed to supporting the Deaf Community or valuing its members. My focus is specifically related to the interpreter’s role in our court system. The court system is based on a set of rules and protocols. Everyone who has reason to be involved in court is expected to follow those established rules.  At times, the rules of the court will conflict with the rules of the Deaf Community, will conflict with supporting the Deaf Community and will conflict with the idea of Deaf heart. In any conflict between the court’s rules, Deaf Community values, and/or interpreter role expectations, the court’s rules will always trump those other rules. The court system will always reign. Always. Bearing these thoughts in mind, my dilemma has been how to reconcile  our support for the Deaf Community, Deaf rights and the value we have for Deaf people with the rules that the court requires us to apply in courtroom interpreting.

The three examples I selected for this presentation were not chosen because I disagree with the ideas or with the people who proposed those ideas.  In fact, I have a great deal of respect for all three of the individuals represented here. I selected these items because I have some concerns.

Questing for a Deaf Heart

Let me use Betty Colonomos’ quote from her 2013 StreetLeverage article, Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart, as the first example. “Forego ego, pride & unwillingness to fight for what is right”. Does this mean that the interpreter is to decide what is right? Does it imply that the interpreter should decide when to fight and how? Again, as a general concept, I agree with the sentiment but when applied to the courtroom, I see some potential conflict.

In her article, Colonomos cites an excellent example. She writes about juvenile court cases where sign language interpreters, legally certified, specially trained, and experienced enough to know when a Certified Deaf Interpreter is required but who do not act or advocate and instead, accept the legal work without the support and teamwork of a CDI. This example is a good one.

Prioritizing Deaf Community Relationships

In David Coyne’s StreetLeverage-Live 2013 presentation in Atlanta, he conducted a wonderful discussion regarding social justice, Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters. He discussed the relationships that sign language interpreters have in the course of their work–with the Deaf Community, the hearing consumers and their relationships with other interpreters. One of his main points was the importance of interpreters making their relationships with the Deaf Community a priority. As I have said, in general, I concur and support this concept.  Again, I ask, how do we apply the concept to interpreting in the courtroom?  If, as a court interpreter, I prioritize my relationship with the Deaf party over my relationship to the court, I may create conflict or even prevent the Deaf party from achieving their desired result from the court system. This is a problem.

Situational Disempowerment

In Trudy Suggs’s 2012 StreetLeverage-Live presentation, Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter, she discussed issues surrounding situational disempowerment—the way hearing interpreters may, through their routine, every day conduct in the world, unconsciously participate in the oppression or disempowerment of Deaf people. Oppression is not their intention, but it is the end result.  I suggest that interpreters, in their efforts to support Deaf rights and help the Deaf Community, mistakenly participate in situational disempowerment during courtroom interpreting.

Core Value Conflicts – Perceptions and Implications

I have some examples to share with you – stories from my own experience and some that have been shared with me where sign language interpreters attempted to apply one of these concepts to a courtroom setting and which resulted in negative consequences. We’re going to look at core values conflicts and the perceptions and implications of the conduct that reflects these values.

Perception is Reality

Imagine a courtroom where a Deaf witness is completing their testimony. Once the lawyers have completed their questioning, the Deaf witness leaves the witness stand, walking by the interpreter. As the Deaf witness passes, the interpreter reaches out and pats the witness on the shoulder. Both the jury and the lawyer witness this behavior.  Their perception of this action may be that the interpreter is supporting, agreeing and/or establishing rapport with the Deaf witness. The rules of the court require the interpreter to remain neutral. I know that is considered a bad word, but the court system requires neutrality. The interpreter may simply be trying give comfort and support in an oppressive environment, but any appearance of bias should be avoided, regardless of the interpreter’s intentions. Our court system is oppressive and often interpreters instinctively want to mitigate that feeling without considering the potential implications of their actions.

Interpreters as Witnesses

Scenario two is a police interrogation situation.  A Deaf person is arrested and brought in for questioning. A sign language interpreter is called and the Deaf party must wait until they arrive at the police station. When the interpreter arrives, the Deaf person immediately begins to share their story with the first person they have seen who shares their language and an understanding of the Deaf experience. They feel a rapport with the interpreter by virtue of these things and they tell their story to the interpreter. What the interpreter has seen cannot be unseen. It cannot be undone. They now possess information and have no place to put it. The Deaf person likely has little knowledge about the role of the interpreter or the fact that the interpreter could now be called as a witness to testify about the information they just received. What looks like support in the immediate present may ultimately create conflict and severely impact the Deaf person’s experience in the court system. In reality, this decision, that kind of help, is in conflict with what I believe most Deaf people would expect from us as sign language interpreters in these situations. Interpreters must always be cognizant of the fact that sometimes what appears to be “help” may ultimately hurt the Deaf party.

Requesting Preferred Interpreters in Court

Let’s talk about the next example.  In general, when a Deaf person wishes to attend a seminar, meeting, school function or other event, I believe they have the right to request their preferred interpreters. Using consistent, known interpreters often results in better interpretations and outcomes. I’m very aware of that and I support the idea. In courtroom settings, Deaf individuals are not permitted to select their preferred interpreters. Many years ago, as I was starting my career as a lawyer, whenever I would get a Deaf client, I would contact the court and request specific interpreters by name. My requests were always denied. I tried to explain that my requests were based on the interpreter’s level of training and the level of comfort the Deaf party would feel with them. Eventually, I realized that the court is not interested in making the Deaf person feel comfortable. The court’s perception of these requests might be that I’m requesting my friends who will interpret in such a way that they could better my case. Again, the concept of honoring the Deaf party’s preference in interpreters is an important one, but I question how we can apply it to court interpreting.

The next example is one from my own experience. Many years ago, I worked on a case that involved a number of young Deaf children as witnesses. When it was time to call one of the children as a witness, the court interpreter would go to the door and call the children into the courtroom, lead them to the witness stand and then prepare to interpret.  From the lawyer’s perspective, it appeared that the interpreter was helping the children and possibly acting in some sort of babysitting capacity. Ultimately, the lawyer filed an appeal based on the interpreter’s conduct in the court room. While the interpreter had the best of intentions—to provide comfort, the ultimate result was very negative.

Elements of Transparency

My next example is about transparent interpreting. There are two parts to this example. The court has very specific rules about what we are permitted to interpret and what we are not. The conversations and communications interpreted are determined by the court, not the interpreter. A Deaf person may be accustomed to gaining access to any conversation they wish when an interpreter is present just by virtue of asking, however, in the courtroom, that is not the case. The court’s rules dictate what may or may not be interpreted. There are some examples where interpreting is not permitted at all. Bench conferences are a good example of this type of rule. A bench conference may occur when a lawyer objects to something that was said in witness testimony. A bench conference would occur between the lawyers and the judge for a private conversation about what the witness just said. Decisions are made to determine if the testimony will be permitted, if the topic should be dropped, if the jury needs additional instructions regarding the testimony, etc. Basically, a bench conference is an intentionally private conversation in court between the lawyers and the judge and should not be interpreted. The rules of evidence state that bench conferences are to be private.

In my experience, I have seen sign language interpreters provide bench conference information because they feel that is equal access. Their reasoning is that “if the hearing people can overhear it, the Deaf person should also be able to have access,” and they proceed to provide that information to the Deaf party. Yes, the interpreter is being transparent, but they are also violating the court’s rules and protocols and may ultimately compromise the case.

The other part of transparency may come into play whether the Deaf party is a witness or one of the parties going to court. It usually occurs when the interpreter feels the Deaf party does not have all the information that is available to the hearing participants. It usually involves a conversation between the Deaf party and the interpreter where the interpreter imparts meta-information about “what’s going on” during their interpretation. If we use the example of a bench conference again, it could be that the interpreter can overhear the bench conference and lets the Deaf party know that they have more evidence or whatever the case may be. If you understand the rules of the courtroom as an interpreter, there are only three people that can speak to a witness. When the judge speaks to the witness, they are giving instructions.  Lawyers are also limited in their communication with witnesses and may only speak to them while they are questioning them during testimony. They are not permitted to communicate with those parties during break, lunch or any other time. Finally, the interpreter is permitted to speak with the witness during interpretation only—not during the breaks, not to provide meta-information. While intentions interpreters have—to give comfort, to even the playing field, to provide information access—are good and I understand their motivations, they lack the understanding that these types of decisions can compromise a court situation.

Faulty Decision-Making

This last example is not from my own experience, it is an example that was shared with me. The situation goes something like this: A Deaf person is arrested and the interpreter, for whatever reason, did not like the conduct of the arresting officer(s). The interpreter felt the officer had violated the Deaf person’s rights and walked out of the assignment. Imagine what the officer’s perception is at that moment. How will they question the person they have arrested? Most likely, they will try to use written communication. The interpreter’s conduct may be considered permission to conduct questioning without a sign language interpreter present. What recourse does the Deaf person have once the interpreter has walked out? They may, without a complete understanding of the risks involved, permit questioning/communication via written means if that appears to be their only option. In this  circumstance, it is highly likely that the Deaf party’s lawyer would file a motion to dismiss all charges as the Deaf person was questioned without an interpreter present to facilitate communication. The principle that leads a person to make this kind of decision, that they want to equal the playing field, is understandable, and at the same time, police do lie. These things happen. You saw this last night in Anna Witter-Merithew’s workshop when she talked about many instances of police misconduct. It isn’t nice and it isn’t comfortable, but it is not our duty to make things comfortable.

It’s Not Comfortable

The bottom line is that court is not comfortable for anyone. Whether a person is Deaf or hearing, whether you are an interpreter or even a lawyer, you will sometimes be uncomfortable in the courtroom. The power structure there looms large. If you aren’t a judge, you are always in an inferior position.

Legal norms are unyielding. They dictate who can talk, when they can talk, which topics may be discussed. These norms dictate the conduct of all parties before, during and after the courtroom event. These norms and rules will not change at the request or due to demands from sign language interpreters regardless of our good intentions or our goals.  

What Can We Do?

In light of the fact that legal norms and rules are not going to change for sign language interpreters, what can we do?

I believe it is important for sign language interpreters to start noticing decision points.  Notice when those decision-making opportunities come up and recognize that each decision leads to the next. Each of these points may have consequences down the line. We must evaluate those consequences and their implications. If the consequences of a particular line of decisions are negative, clearly, that is not the decision we want to make. Rather than staying the course, interpreters must transform their decisions-making process.

This leads us back to the question, what can we do?

In a given situation, the goal is to provide a complete, cohesive, well-matched interpretation. Unfortunately, we may not be able to provide support or the means of leveling the playing field and that may be the best I can provide as the sign language interpreter. My best interpretation, however, will never equal the value, skills and contributions of a Deaf interpreter. As a hearing interpreter, my accent is sometimes strong. At other times, it may be less impactful, but I still have an accent. The best case scenario in these situations is for the hearing interpreter, who signs with a non-native accent, to call in a Deaf interpreter who has a native accent in the language.

A Deaf interpreter possesses the skills and innate understanding of the language and Deaf experience which allows them to use language that is most accessible to the Deaf party, to apply expansion of concepts appropriately in order to ensure the communication is clear and accurately conveys the intended meaning.  By ensuring that Deaf interpreters are involved in courtroom interpreting, we reduce the oppressive nature of the environment and we ensure that the support and advocacy needed are available to the Deaf parties involved. In addition to the linguistic expertise a Deaf interpreter brings to the courtroom, they are also often able to navigate the strict conventions and rules of the court. The Deaf interpreter may be able to provide perspectives and explanations regarding the seemingly oppressive court system that will allow the Deaf party to understand the system and its rules more clearly. At the very least, a Deaf interpreter may make navigating the systemic conflicts more palatable.

As we’ve discussed, it is important to begin to notice those decision-making points as well as their implications down the line.  In our evaluation of those points, we are not only looking at the short-term outcome of a single decision. We must also look at the long-term implications and consequences of our actions, even when the immediate decision seems to have a positive outcome. As Trudy Suggs discussed, we are often so accustomed to conducting ourselves in that routine, unconscious manner and forget that our conduct has consequences. We must take the time to consider our behavior. All of our behavior as interpreters needs to be analyzed and evaluated in this manner.  Every action we take as sign language interpreters can be challenged during courtroom interpreting.

Never Stop Caring

So, finally, we come back to the question: Does the concept of “Deaf heart” apply in courtroom settings for sign language interpreters? We are all here to discuss the possibilities, the how and why, and best approaches to incorporating Deaf heart into our interpreting practice. All those things are important and at the same time, we must never lose the care and value we have for the Deaf community and the relationships we have created there.

Thank you so much.

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