ATA Law Seminar: Four Perspectives

Attendees from this year’s ATA Law Seminar discuss what they learned from high-level speakers.

In February, 80 legal interpreters and translators gathered in Jersey City, New Jersey, for ATA’s Law Seminar. It offered a full-day of intermediate-to-advanced workshops featuring presentations by Melinda Gonzalez-Hibner, Elena Langdon, Holly Mikkelson, and Sandro Tomasi. Robert Joe Lee was the event’s keynote speaker. Lee, a 30-year veteran of the New Jersey Judiciary, is well known for implementing quality control and performance standards for language professionals working in New Jersey courts. If this seminar is an example of the direction in which training is going for judicial interpreters and legal translators, then we’re certainly on the right track. Here’s what some of the attendees had to say.

Chris Verduin

As a certified court interpreter of a language other than Spanish, there have been times where I’ve had difficulty finding the appropriate, acceptable continuing education training that’s required to maintain my certification. I’ve even considered paying a hefty price for beginner material for which I had little use simply to get the continuing education units. It seems that those involved in court administration are becoming more aware of this dilemma, and some states I work in are now taking steps to resolve the situation by providing reasonably-priced, more focused seminars that qualify for continuing education units. ATA’s Law Seminar fit the bill perfectly.

All photos by Hilda Shymanik.

Keynote—Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Takeaways from 26 Years Managing a State Judiciary’s Translation and Interpreting Program

Robert Joe Lee’s keynote was a revelation of what it takes to get a certification program underway.

Lee worked for the New Jersey Judiciary from 1978 until his retirement in 2008. After a few years working as a research associate in the probation division and staffing the Supreme Court Task Force on Interpreter and Translation Services, he managed New Jersey’s translation and interpreting program to ensure equal access to the courts for linguistic minorities. He has coordinated the development of court interpreter tests in numerous languages, as well as numerous policies in the field. In collaboration with the staff of the National Center for State Courts and three other state judiciaries, he helped establish the Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification and led New Jersey to be a charter member.

Lee explained how the New Jersey Judiciary was transformed from an organization that had virtually no policy regarding translation and interpreting to one where appropriate standards of quality control and professional performance by language professionals are an unquestioned, normal part of its operational culture.

I expected a dry historical presentation of the steps taken to establish New Jersey’s translation and interpreting program, but I actually found myself riveted to the chain of events as Lee described how he felt compelled to relentlessly pursue an avenue for providing linguistic equality. Since my career began under Lee’s leadership, the events related were all the more interesting and relevant to me.

Lee embarked on a long and arduous journey to replace the practice of allowing pretty much anyone who speaks another language to interpret in court. After years of perseverance, setbacks, resistance to change, patience, and what Lee calls “serendipity” (i.e., taking advantage of unexpected doors of opportunity), testing for judiciary interpreters was developed. However, even after testing was implemented, it still proved incredibly difficult to find interpreters who could achieve a passing score. Even now, the pass rate for state tests in general is incredibly low and courts still struggle to find competent interpreters in many languages of lesser diffusion.

From left: Hilda Shymanik, Leda Melara Gonzalez, and Sonia Barria take a break from the seminar to enjoy the New York City skyline.

One of the lingering questions in my mind regarding New Jersey interpreters is why the state doesn’t require continuing education for its court-approved (as they are called in New Jersey) interpreters. In other states, continuing education is something that’s expected and required for court interpreters. Lee explained that due to the lack of adequate funding and the scarcity of competent interpreters to fill existing needs, the immediate focus has been on the provision of qualified interpreters in all languages. Allocating already scarce resources to the area of continuing education would require additional funding and personnel for oversight. Lee’s practical outlook made perfect sense.

Melinda Gonzalez-Hibner—Performing from the Stand: Advanced Sight, Simultaneous, and Consecutive Skills

Melinda Gonzalez-Hibner gave attendees many things to consider in her engaging presentation. She pointed out that all the skills we use in the various modes of interpreting are interconnected. She emphasized engaging in ongoing practice, since no one outgrows the need for focused, intentional skill building that includes ways to specifically measure progress. The following points stood out:

1. Pay attention as you practice. Be aware not only of what is said, but of the emotions, tone, gestures, and facial cues and how to transmit them appropriately

2. In a court situation, try to avoid eye contact with either party, since our role requires us to foster the direct relationship between the parties involved. Options for making this happen were addressed, such as where to look, where to sit, and what to do if the witness starts speaking English. (The answer to the latter is to repeat the English.)

3. Never stop shadowing, in both languages, or more, if you work in more languages. Shadowing means listening to and repeating any spoken material in the same language in which it’s presented. Shadowing in our working languages helps us maintain active vocabulary, challenges brain function, and helps maintain speed of retrieval (immediate language access), which tends to lessen as we age. Any type of practice material will work, from Ted Talks to the news or even watching soap opera in your languages.

4. Mix up practicing all the modes of interpreting. Identify your biggest need and focus on it first.

5. Record your practice sessions. Make a recording when you practice your interpreting, play it back, find out what’s lacking, and try again. And again. And again.

We were sent practice materials before the session to download on our devices for use. I always struggle with even the simple technology on my cell phone (e.g., where is that stupid recording button, which thing do I press and how do I stop it, how do I play it back, etc.). However, I soon realized that the more I was forced to do these maneuvers in the group, the more comfortable and adept I became at performing the logistics involved. This means that I will be much more likely to tackle such exercises at home alone!

Elena Langdon—Anatomy of a Deposition and How to Master this Niche!

Elena Langdon’s session was divided into two sessions: deposition and ethics. (Fellow attendee Bridget Hylak provides more details on the latter below).

For those experienced court interpreters who have not yet branched out into depositions, Langdon’s presentation provided the basic structure and procedures involved, such as what to do, and perhaps more importantly, what not to do, in that area of legal interpreting. It focused on the specifics of interpreting at legal and non-court hearings in the U.S.: sworn depositions with attorneys, hearings for government agencies, and other similar situations. Elena covered videoconferencing, how to make fast friends with the court reporter, how to deal with “immigrant speak,” and logistics. Preparation (and survival) strategies, vocabulary, and dos and don’ts were also addressed.

The second session provided theories and models of ethics that are important for informing and guiding the canons of ethics by which judicial interpreters make ethical decisions. These basic ethical theories are: 1) virtue ethics, 2) deontology, 3) utilitarianism, 4) cultural relativism (laws), 5) social group relativism, and 6) egoism. The end goal is to be able to make a decision that agrees with as many of these principles as possible.

Bridget Hylak

Elena Langdon—Ethics in Action: Moving Beyond Should and Shouldn’t

Elena Langdon’s workshop was an eclectic mix of fact, theory, and introspection. Langdon took us inside and outside the box of our profession. She began by providing a general overview of what ethics are and aren’t, and then ever-so-gently dared to suggest that we could (and should) give closer thought to what they “should or shouldn’t” be. Delving into the area of what ethics “should and shouldn’t” be, combined with a unique overview of ethical theories, was a refreshing take on the subject—something beyond Ethics 101 with a bit of a liberating feel.

Drawing from her years of practice and research as a “linguist purist,” Langdon crafted a workshop that provided irresistible bite-sized “tidbits for thought” that sparked the attention of attendees and stirred debate.

Langdon served up a flavorful yet curious dish of actual interpreting dilemmas as encountered by working linguists in various venues (e.g., court, deposition, or even the Department of Motor Vehicles). She seasoned those staples with several heaping teaspoons from the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators’ Code of Ethics and a liberal dash of Federal Courts Standards. She then combined all this with an interesting exercise. The resulting flavor—for an ethics workshop—offered a unique perspective that did indeed move “beyond” the ordinary.

Langdon challenged attendees to analyze the interpreter’s role and purpose in various situations and according to varying ethical theories. She essentially provoked some healthy introspection and asked attendees to consider the following questions: “How do you feel about what happened here?” “What would you have done?” and “What could or should you have done?”

Her passion was evident, her manners impeccable, and her professional maturity was on full display as she occasionally fielded junior questions that other veterans of her caliber may have scoffed at.

Of particular note was a thoughtfully-prepared section regarding professional authenticity and self-care, a topic which seems to be “trending” in many professions. Those of us who sit for hours a day behind a computer, or stand for trials that seem to go on and on, can never be over-reminded of the importance of taking care of ourselves.

Overall, this was an ethics workshop for beginners and experts alike, which led many of us to realize we have a lot more to consider.

Evelyn Yang Garland

Holly Mikkelson—Translating Legal Documents: Expert to Expert

This language-neutral workshop addressed the issues encountered by legal translators of all languages who must deal with the sometimes impenetrable and arcane language of the law. As Holly Mikkelson observed, law is a very conservative institution that resists change. Judges and attorneys still use legalese heavily despite the plain English movement. Because of this, Mikkelson says she intentionally incorporates legalese into her translation so that it will look familiar to its target audience. Additionally, she’s convinced that the use of certain legalese helps make the text more succinct.

Her workshop covered the history of legal language and the use of commonly used legal expressions. A lively interactive practice session followed, where participants “translated” back and forth between legalese and plain English. Mikkelson emphasized the importance of research, which is an indispensable step in her approach to translation despite her extensive experience working as a court interpreter and legal translator for over 40 years. She provided a list of recommended readings for translators who wish to learn more about legal translation. All in all, it was a productive day of learning, discussion, and networking.

Paul Merriam

Sandro Tomasi—Translating Legal Terms Based on Functional Equivalency

Since legal translation and interpreting are comprised of not only translating from one language to another but also translating from one legal system to another, it’s vital for court interpreters or legal translators to go beyond the linguistic aspects of the source- and target-language terms and be mindful of the legal concepts behind them. Sandro Tomasi’s workshop provided essential legal translation theory along with techniques that can be applied to written and oral communication. Translation examples based on functional equivalency were also included.

Tomasi provided some historical material on the theory of legal translation. These included the 1907 Rossel translation of the Swiss Civil Code from German into French, where the French-speaking population of Switzerland was given the right to insist that they be provided with material in the spirit of the French language, rather than Gallicized German or Germanized French.

Tomasi’s primary emphasis was on the concept of legal transfer as opposed to linguistic transfer. A specific example given was the term “lineup,” for which some American case law was provided to clarify the concept in English. Six possibilities for translation were provided with discussions of how they might be affected by case law. Tomasi also discussed how to deal with situations where the words don’t exactly match. Some techniques for handling such situations include using explicitation (e.g., “Bye. Good luck” as opposed to the literal “Bye. Luck”) and compensation (adding information in a later utterance: e.g., referring to the president as “she” in a later sentence when the gender is clear in Spanish—la Presidenta—but ambiguous in English—the president).

Big Thanks

So, thanks and bravo to ATA, Headquarters staff, and key volunteers who took part in putting on this event. We look forward to more opportunities of this kind in the future.


Bridget Hylak is an ATA-certified Spanish>English translator and a certified Spanish>English court interpreter (Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts). She is an approved oral exam candidate for the Federal Court Interpreting Certification Examination. She is also a master editor (English, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese). She has directed Come Alive Communications, Inc. since 1990. Contact: bhylak@comealiveusa.com.

Evelyn Yang Garland is an ATA director. She is the owner and manager of Acta Chinese Language Services, a firm that has translated presidential writings and specializes in Chinese>English translation. She is an ATA-certified English<>Chinese translator, court-certified interpreter, and contract conference interpreter for the U.S. Department of State. She served on the Leadership Council of ATA’s Chinese Language Division and as co-chair for programs for the National Capital Area Translators Association (an ATA chapter). Contact: garland@actalanguage.com.

Paul Merriam is an ATA-certified Russian>English translator. After spending 20 years in the U.S. Army, he spent 10 years as a project manager in an agency with a Department of Justice contract. He now works as a freelance translator from Russian, German, Polish, and Spanish into English. Contact: pmerriam@rcn.com.

Chris Verduin is a Pennsylvania court-certified Portuguese interpreter working in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware. Contact: verduinchris@gmail.com.

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