Four years ago tomorrow I started my career as a court interpreter. I got on a train at Clapham Junction and travelled to a small town near London to complete my very first court interpreting assignment. Since 20th March 2012 I have assisted with approximately 580 court cases. In comparison to some of my colleagues, my experience is still relatively modest. However, I believe I have had sufficient experience to reflect upon, and make a number of observations about, court interpreting. Throughout this time I often felt like I was living some sort of double life that seemed incompatible at times. Constant rushing, frequent tiredness, daily commutes between courts and occasional emotional overload had not let me appreciate what I clearly see today.
When I introduce myself to other people and say what I do in life professionally, they often think that I must be interested in the evilness of those committing crimes – the evilness that is shrouded in mystery and fear, something that automatically brings C.S.I-like connotations. The truth is that what draws my attention the most is how people respond to crime, whatever we think it is. And the criminal justice system is a great place to observe the variety of responses to people’s wrongdoings. Every single sanction imposed on the offender sends an encrypted sentencing message to which victims, lawyers, judges, probation officers, court staff, or offenders’ families react differently.
I interpreted in cases when harsh (punitive) comments were made at sentencing hearings, when efforts were made to address offenders’ addictions or other underlying issues (rehabilitative), when powerful statements were made about regret, remorse, the need for apology to the victim (restorative). I still remember as if it was yesterday when everyone was moved by hearing a convicted offender say how the judge’s decision made him rethink his life, how grateful he was to everyone involved in his case offering him a helping hand. And I know for a fact that this was not just trumpery.
The process of breaking this sentencing code and delineating these reactions is what fascinates me. Even more fascinating is that throughout these four years of being in and out of courtrooms I have experienced a diverse range of situations involving Polish offenders, which in essence feels like interpreting between two societies, or rather between two societies’ perceptions of crime, punishment and justice.
Throughout these four years I have mastered the skill of simultaneous interpreting, not linguistic interpreting as you might expect, but the translation of experience into theory. There are a number of theories or theoretical concepts that accompany my daily presence in courts. For example, when I speak to barristers/solicitors I usually think of Nils Christie [who says that crimes are the property of people not lawyers]. When I am surrounded by police officers I recall Tom Tyler’s work [which argues that fair decision making and fair interpersonal treatment contribute to the increased respect and trust in authorities]. I can interpret defendant’s evidence in the witness box while simultaneously thinking of neutralization techniques by Sykes & Matza [which relates to the denial of responsibility]. Whenever a victim impact statement is read out I wish I could get hold of Brathwaite’s scholarship [and his theory of reintegrative shaming in particular]. This applies in reverse too. When I attend a criminological lecture I almost always have a living example I would like to share, as if I became a 24/7 matchmaker between theory and practice. Hundreds of people’s stories cross my mind within a second. Having assisted with 580 court cases feels like having done 580 mini-fieldworks, like I have been in everyone’s shoes, I have been everyone’s voice, and have experienced it all …
And now a few words about the context of court interpreting itself. I started court interpreting at a difficult time for the profession. It was when the interpreting services were privatized and all new ‘providers’ were mistrusted and heavily criticized for their limited knowledge or lack of experience. First I had to prove the critics’ wrong, then I had to come to terms with the circumstances in which court interpreting is performed. There are a couple of myths that are worth acknowledging. We, court interpreters, are not walking bilingual dictionaries, the same as comedians do not crack jokes around the clock. There is a difference between knowing language fluently and perfectly – the latter doesn’t exist. Speaking a foreign language is a constant learning process and the clue can be found in our interpreters’ oath that says ‘according to the best of my skill and understanding’. This of course does not mean that we are not linguistically competent to interpret in court, however, the quality of our performance should always be situated in a broader context. Court interpreting is often limited by ridiculously fast-paced talkers in general, illogical submissions, glass-walled docks, whispering counsels, theatrical prosecutors, unexpectedly loud printers, mumbling or inarticulate clients and our own limitations. Therefore, whenever I interpret I do this to the best of my own human ability.
Back in 2012 I knew little where this journey was going, how it was going to influence my criminological imagination, and most of all how this experience was going to shape me into the person I am today. I have become confident and humble at the same time. My confidence stems from the volume of observations made in the criminal justice settings; nonetheless this confidence is constantly challenged by the realization that there are no black and white certainties, and the obvious can be challenged by something that is out of the ordinary. I have been imbued with a perpetual need for reflexivity that has affected the way I perceive my court interpreting (and research) experience. With all its opportunities and obstacles court interpreting is an experience I am enormously grateful for as this is where I draw strength from to be a better criminologist.