Giving Justice a Chance to Be Fair

This article was originally published in The NAJIT Observer, December 2014.

Gio Lester © 2014

After having interpreted at immigration court, the county jail and federal prison, I was called to interpret at the county’s psych ward. It was a long, long drive from my home; way past urban areas and the farmland to the south and west of that. I was in the boondocks.

The doctors had suspected that the inmate was not mentally capable of standing trial until they realized they had mistaken his native language. They had initially paired him with Spanish interpreters and were getting nowhere. That’s when they requested a Portuguese language interpreter. 

…they had mistaken his native language.

According to the doctor assigned to the case, the inmate was non-responsive. It was as if he did not care about his future. The doctor’s concern stemmed from the fact that the charges against the inmate were grievous and he needed to be given every chance to make his voice heard.

Ten minutes into our first interview the inmate was smiling. The doctor was shocked. I relaxed.

After some exchanges, the doctor was still having some difficulty comprehending the inmate’s indifference towards his own situation. There had been a breakdown in communication again. At that point, I felt I needed to fall into my cultural broker role.

…the inmate started asking questions…
I shared with the doctor the perception of legal dealings in the inmate’s country, the polar opposite of what happens here in the US. Though the concept of innocent until proven guilty exists there also, it is not practiced as the norm, and most dealings with the justice system are not favorable to suspects. To break through the inmate’s feeling of helplessness it was necessary to explain the basics of the legal process in the US, i.e. that he did not have to prove that he was innocent, instead the prosecution had to prove that he was guilty. After about 15 minutes of discussions on the subject, the inmate started asking questions that led the doctor to believe she had succeeded in breaking through one more barrier.

The assignment had turned into a multi-step project.

We managed to establish the inmate’s competence, give him hope of having his side of the story heard, and establish communication, thus reducing his sense of isolation. But still, he had no access to or support from his own community. I asked the doctor if the Brazilian Consulate had been notified of the incarceration of one of its citizens and gave her the necessary contact information. She contacted them and found out that the consulate had been in touch with the inmate at the original holding point, but had lost track of him after his transfer. The consulate was happy to reestablish contact.

The next step was to get the inmate to recognize some English words in order to empower him in his day-to-day life at the ward, including interacting with other inmates.

Making use of my language teaching skills, I devised a game the doctor could use on her own with the inmate and the results were very positive. That meant the end of my three-week assignment. And what an assignment: it required the use of my interpreting skills, my cultural knowledge, and my teaching skills. Mission accomplished.

Interpreters… give meaning to the voices on all sides of the equation.
Interpreters often get asked what it is that we do. The answer is complex and multi-dimensional. In the judicial context, I’d say we help justice prevail in the most complete way. We are the ones who give meaning to the voices on all sides of the equation.

When words cannot be understood, they become just noise—or meaningless silence to hearing impaired individuals. Noise and meaningless silence alienate and disenfranchise through fear and the sense of powerlessness. By giving meaning to incomprehensible noise and meaningless silence, interpreters help level the playing field and give justice a chance to be fair.

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