The Inevitable for Freelancers. Assignments can be canceled or postponed.

CourtDomeCertain types of cases have defendants that are encouraged to stop the litigation or discovery process and come to a financial agreement or a punishment agreement.  In civil law this is called to settle, In Criminal law this is called to take a plea.  Procedures that are scheduled in advance will be canceled when a plea is entered or when the two parties agree to a settlement.

So you should consider the potential cancellation of a deposition or hearing or trial in civil court and a hearing or trial in criminal cases.  Part of being professional is being prepared to protect yourself financially from such losses.  At the same time, being a good professional means knowing how to not antagonize a client by penalizing them for performing in the best interests of their client.  So, know that these types of assignments can be cancelled at any time by the attorney, the court or the agency.  And learn what your market standard is for a minimum charge for a cancellation during a certain time frame.

Assignments can be postponed.

       In civil court, a trial can be postponed if the Judge decides to order the parties to go to mediation.  Interpreters may not be necessary during mediation.  The parties may come to an agreement and settle as a result of mediation so you will lose the assignment altogether.  Or they may not settle and the trial would be rescheduled.

         It is important to hold on to your client and not make over burdensome demands but preserve your financial integrity.  You have to know the possible change of direction the legal process can take that can turn a postponement into income producing assignment or a loss.  You should have a postponement policy in place that you ask the client to agree to, in writing, when you first accept the assignment or enter into a contract with your client.  It is considered unprofessional to notify the client of a change in terms or fees after you accept an assignment.  But much like what the parties experience in the outcome of a mediation, you are going to have to accept less of your goal fee and the client is going to have to pay more than they hoped they would.  This is a situation when you should blend familiarity of your market standards with flexibility in your terms.

The Inevitable for Freelancers. The Market Sets the Standards.

R1-03649-0000          Don’t set your fees and terms of payment without finding out what the market charges and requires.  The vast majority of law firms, court administrators, Court Reporting firms are familiar with the standard range of fees and terms.  Some courts have set fees, otherwise you tell them your rates and terms.  They also know the value of experience in legal settings, certifications and training because that means you are reliable and self-sufficient.  T&I agencies for the most part, set limits on what they will pay you.  The good ones follow what is considered fair rates.

If you ignore the market fees and terms, you run the risk of charging too much and making unreasonable demands for your work.  Or if you charge too little and are too flexible in your terms you open yourself to the disrespect of not being paid on time or worse, not at all.  Learn the standard behavior and terms of your market.  Your market is defined by your geographic location, your language pair and those who share the same credentials, experience, training and reputation that you have.  As in any profession, if you are just starting out you can’t expect to charge the same as someone  who has a long list of tests passed, training  and ten, twenty or thirty years of experience.  But you can prove yourself as reliable, competent and fair.  We all started at a lower rate, paid our dues and rose in rank.  That is the path of a freelancer.

Three Sheets To The Wind. The Challenge of Idiomatic Expressions

The culprit, views en route - Copy


In the state required court interpreter orientation courses that I teach, rarely have my students seen the inside of a courtroom; much less do they know how to interpret according to regulations.  I interpret on a daily basis and I continue to study the craft in order to keep my skills at the highest level possible.  But it is also important to me to make what I teach is valuable to the students.  As an instructor, it is good to be reminded of what you didn’t know how to do when you first started.  And I really enjoy hearing those questions that you yourself asked a long time ago.  Interpreting experiences serve as great examples to use when explaining the answer especially when there is no set standard.

One of the students in a recent orientation class asked about how to interpret the idiomatic expression “Three sheets to the wind.”  Since, I consider it risky to interpret idiomatic expressions, I started to give him my short answer, “You don’t.”  Then I remembered how it felt to have rules piled on me without reference and reasons.  I have decided to avoid interpreting idiomatic expressions   based on my oath as well as the integrity of due process, in spite of hearing interpreters debating, almost proselytizing translations of idiomatic expressions.

Several years ago I took a class on interpreting idiomatic expressions for Spanish and English given by some veteran interpreters.  They defined expressions in English and then offered an equivalent idiomatic expression in Spanish as acceptable translations.  Very quickly Spanish speakers from Central America disputed the expressions presented which were spoken in a South American country.  The class dissolved into a volley of numerous variations declared emphatically with national fanfare between those trainers and the students.  I left knowing none of those translations would hold up in court and wishing I could get that hour back.

Legal interpreters have an obligation to maintain the exact statement rendered.  Attorneys and judges are speaking according to their own regulations and their task to represent their client.  Witnesses have the right to be heard in their own words.  Nobody else has the right to change those words.

There are three points of criteria that I apply to idiomatic expressions.  Each one of these has to be filtered through being held to our oath.

1.    Can you be absolutely certain that you know the meaning of the expression?  Probably not.  Idiomatic expressions are based on subjective experiences and therefore are subjective.  Anyone who consumes alcohol can say that there was a time when they felt like they were “three sheets to the wind” but the fact is they all would not have each been equally inebriated.  So this example is particularly quantitative and you run the risk of altering the measurement intended by the speaker.

2.    How can you prove that your translation of the expression is totally and completely correct?  If there is published proof of your translation, don’t get too comfortable, because there is probably published proof of a different translation.  The term Idiomatic Expression is defined as sayings that have a meaning different from the meaning of the words in the expression.

3.    Will a possible misinterpretation of an idiomatic expression alter the testimony?  The answer to that question is always yes.  Any misinterpretation alters testimony.

So far, in my experience, few translations of idiomatic expressions survive that criterion.  It doesn’t matter if the idiomatic expression is used in the question or the response; I believe it is too risky if you attempt to translate an idiomatic expression.  You can still comply with court interpreter procedural standards and not disrupt the proceedings when encountering the need to avoid translating an idiomatic expression.  I will explain this in an upcoming post.

Meanwhile, please note that this is an issue for judicial interpreters and translators.  

Encountering both High and Low Registers

UpsidedownScanThe interpreter should be able to anticipate register, but people can surprise you. I have interpreted arbitrations with foreign government officers as witnesses and the register remained high throughout. Then there are disgruntled defendants in a deposition who speak in a low register especially when arguing with the opposing counsel. When transcribing a 9-1-1 call, the register can reflect the emotional state of the speaker.


But there are times when the register changes, even during the official spoken ritual of a Judge or lawyer. It is good to see this effort to reach across the divide allowing full participation in the judicial proceeding.


The best example of bridging the gap between high and low register I have seen is when a child witness is being put under oath by a judge to swear under oath to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth The judge needs to verify that the child knows how to make a promise and if they know the difference between a lie and the truth. The judge breaks down the high register of the oath and piece by piece and institutes the child’s definition of a lie and then their definition of the truth. Finally the child is asked if they promise to tell the truth.  Further gaps in register are filled in by establishing and accepting the word choices used by the child. Often during the examination of the child, unique words and terms used by the child are defined by the child as what they call what the Judge is asking about. Then the Judge will use the same terms the child expresses for those same things or concepts. The child’s terms and definitions are verified and placed on the record in the process.

This merging of registers is not the job of the court interpreter. We simply follow the register as presented.  The Judge or attorney has the option and right to do this. But we interpreters have the responsibility to recognize different registers and interpret accurately and completely while maintaining that register.

Once you consider the speaker and setting youkan then be aware of the potential switch in register. Then you can smoothly interpret in the same register.  Attorneys, Judges, law enforcement professionals and interrogators/interviewers are trained to alter their register to facilitate comprehension.

Many times I have seen in a Q&A format when a formal register was used in the questions and the respondent really couldn’t understand the questions. I have also seen expert or technical witnesses respond in a formal register and had to be asked over and over to clarify their answer. It is also very common for a witness, who I am interpreting for at court, to seem to be caught off guard when they hear the formal register of the proceedings spoken by the Judge and attorneys. One result is they lose concentration and their testimony is diminished. They are already a bit nervous and they are used to conversing with their attorneys in an informal almost casual register. Litigators can resolve this by preparing the witness for the court room experience and explaining that they can expect to hear formal language during the proceedings. The interpreter cannot do this on their own.

Unfortunately if the questioner is not paying attention to the register abyss that has developed, they have the tendency to blame the interpreter for the miscommunication. Consider the source first. If there is a problem in the original wording, a good interpretation transfers that problem just like a telephone. And we, professional  interpreters, enjoy providing a good connection.

Riding the Register Roller coaster

parrot scan0001Court Interpreters are expected to know the correct word and phrase and usage for whatever we hear spoken by the questioner and by the respondent. So we study specialized terminology for specific industries. Even entry level interpreters learn the legalese used by the attorneys and Judge throughout each proceeding.

But beyond those fundamental terms, you could still be caught off guard by the unique words and phrases used by a witness who has had minimal formal education in their native language. They are communicating the way they are accustomed to and not necessarily in the same tone and word choices typically heard in the judicial setting. Another transformation in language happens when an expert takes the stand and you are interpreting full trial testimony for the Limited English Proficient (LEP) plaintiff or defendant. You will be swimming in very official, formal terminology and phrasing.

These distinctions in communication are called Register. Identifying it and duplicating it is another skill court interpreters must master. Register is a highly documented component of the field of linguistics. The professions we serve in the judiciary and law enforcement learn about register as part of Q&A procedures.

A professional court interpreter never passes judgment on the speaker by labeling their language as correct or incorrect. It is our job to learn all the different ways a person may choose to communicate so that we perform in accordance to our oath.  Canon 1 of the Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility [State of Texas regulations] states that we do not change the tone or register of the speaker. Learning about register is how you prepare yourself to recognize different registers and interpret accurately and completely while maintaining the register of the speaker.

  There are five levels of register and each is spoken in identified settings by specific relationships of people.

1.  Static.   This is a register of wording or phrasing that never changes.  You do not state these in a lower register or simplify them. Examples would be a Pledge of Allegiance or the   Miranda Rights.

2. Formal.  This register is used when the wording carries weight and importance in its delivery. Formal register is used for speeches, sermons, rhetorical statements and questions, pronouncements made by judges, announcements.

3. Consultative Register. This language is formal but it is accepted comfortably as the societal standard for polite and professional language. It is used when strangers meet, communications between a superior and a subordinate, doctor and patient, lawyer and client, lawyer and judge, teacher and student and a counselor and client.

4. Casual Register. This is the informal language used by peers and friends. It frequently includes slang, vulgarities and colloquialisms. This is “group” language. Speakers must be a member to communicate in this register. People who use it are close friends, teammates, in chats, emails, and letters to friends.

5.  Intimate Register This is the register of private communications. It is reserved for close family members or people who are intimate.  This register is heard between husband and wife, intimate partners, between siblings, and parents and children.


In our line of work the most common levels are Static, Formal and Consultative. When your interpreting is flowing along in those three levels, if one of the speakers jumps into a Casual or Intimate register, our flow, especially is interrupted. 


I can sense an oncoming change of register when a speaker is getting irritated. If they were speaking in a Formal register they will drop to Casual seemingly to show disdain for the questioning or the responsiveness. Or if they were feeling very familiar and unthreatened and then get irritated they will jump from Casual to Formal to display an imposed distance and ending the relaxed closeness they were exhibiting. 


You will also see a body language shift that signals the change in register. The speakers’ posture and attentiveness display shifts when they change register. Often during in person interpretation settings, respondents will turn their bodies away from the questioner and face me directly. They will suddenly respond “yes or no Ma’am” directly to me, when the questioner is male and they had been responding with “Sir” up to that point. The standard rule for interpreting is to continue saying exactly what the speaker is saying so the gender shift will be reflected on the record. But this is a sign that the questioner has irritated the respondent. To see this happen, watch a few interrogation videos and you will see the shift and you will hear the change in register spoke.  Actors are taught to display this with the dialogue they are given.


 Skill Building Tools   Expose yourself to examples of registers as expressed in your language pair. If Casual is what you hear most, immerse yourself in Formal. Develop that vocabulary. Stay attuned to the speaker and your interpreting will flow.

Exercise: Link the Register to the Speaking Event


Bailiff speaking to initial jury pool prior to voir dire.


Judge giving Jurors their Oath.


Testimony: Conversation during lunch hour between coworkers about upcoming layoffs.


Testimony: Police taking report at scene of vehicle accident.


Testimony: 911 call audio recording of assailant and victim in a domestic violence altercation.