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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (November/December 2006)

Team Interpreting: Does It Really Work?
By Giovanna L. Carnet

The interpreter arrives in court equipped with the trial information, dictionaries, pens, note pads, and a host of other essential items for the trial. Even though the interpreter is well prepared for the task at hand, the fact remains that she will be interpreting the entire proceeding without backup assistance. The court officials and parties involved in the case have overlooked the absence of a second interpreter because they believe that a single interpreter should be more than capable of undertaking this trial with minimum breaks. Does this scenario sound familiar?

The Need to Impress

Many interpreters believe that they have to impress those they work with in order to gain respect. They will accept assignments that are entirely too complex in terminology or skill level, or agree to continue interpreting when they clearly know they need to rest. It is this constant need to impress that can cause a great deal of problems in our profession. As professional interpreters, it is imperative for us to understand and accept that we are not superheroes within the language industry. We are but mere mortals who need to allow ourselves some downtime within the timelines of our assignments to let our brain recuperate from this intense cognitive activity.

I have been interpreting in both the legal and medical arenas since 1996. I remember when I first started out how exhausted I was at the end of a long day out in the trenches. All I wanted to do was come home and just sit. I needed to escape to a place where there was no noise, no chatter, and no voices. I wanted silence. Why was I so tired? Because I was one of those pseudo superhero interpreters who believed I could interpret for hours without a break. After all, this is what all great interpreters do, right?

The Team Concept

Team Interpreting (TI) is defined as the use of more than one interpreter to provide communication effectively to and from all participants. When TI is used correctly, it prevents the premature exhaustion of the working interpreter, allowing for a seamless flow of the interpreting task through minimal interruptions. The TI approach is ideal for tasks lasting more than two to three hours that will be conducted primarily in the simultaneous mode.

There are several things needed for the TI concept to work. Promoting the use of TI is one of the hardest things an interpreter will have to learn to do. Helping court officials understand the need for more than one interpreter without sounding like a complainer can be quite an undertaking. Many judges will cite monetary constraints as their number one enemy and others will express their lack of familiarity with interpreters coming in from different districts. After all, the interpreter just has to talk-how tiring can that really be?

The first time I had the opportunity to work within a team format was about a year ago. The defendant's speech pattern was very difficult to understand and the interpreter assigned to the case knew that concentrating on that fact alone would be exhausting, so they had requested the assistance of another interpreter. This relatively straightforward request turned out to be the most difficult obstacle in the entire trial. The court wanted to know why they should grant permission for the use of two interpreters when in the past one had been sufficient. Why now? Why this case? What had changed?

We Are Only Human: Mental Fatigue

Studies have shown that significant errors in meaning occur after 30-45 minutes on task in simultaneous interpretation. According to one report studying the effects of interpreter fatigue: "the interpreters appeared to be unaware of this decline in quality, as most of them continued on task for another 30 minutes...considering that each meaning error, no matter how minor, does distort the message, a considerable increase in the number of meaning errors after 30 minutes on task does represent a significant decline in output quality." 1

Interpreter fatigue is the most critical element for court officials to understand, because once they are aware that errors are taking place, they may be more inclined to ask for more than one interpreter. Interpreters can process up to 22 cognitive skills while doing their job. Whether it is in the simulta neous or consecutive modes, the brain will tire after constant use without proper rest. The court should understand that interpreters do not simply utter words. They must comprehend complete thoughts and ideas, correctly restructure sentences, identify ambiguities, decipher speech patterns, take notes, preserve register, and block out background noise. Interpreters must be familiar with legal terminology, street jargon, idioms, and metaphors, and be able to retrieve that information from the brain archives almost immediately. It is very unrealistic to assume that all of this can be accomplished without mental fatigue setting in.

Adopting a Team Spirit

Familiarity is what makes a great interpreting team. In order to work well with others, you must...well, work well with others.

In my opinion, one of the biggest issues facing interpreters right now is that they lack a sense of camaraderie at times. In certain sectors, interpreters compete fiercely against each other. There are individuals who are so afraid of losing work to other colleagues that they accept assignments that border on insanity. They embark on three to four day trials with minimal breaks and no additional help. They accept depositions that last six to seven hours, again without any additional help. The superhero complex I mentioned before sets in and, believing that they have extraordinary interpreter strength, these individuals step out in front of the assignment train and attempt to stop it all by themselves. Why are some of us so afraid to ask for assistance?

Making the Team

The first step in putting an interpreting team together is identifying who will be on that team. Familiarize yourself with other interpreters in your area. Court administrators should have lists of certified and qualified interpreters within the district. Making time to actually see these interpreters working is very important. There is a saying in the military,

"You are only as strong as your weakest link." Knowing the attributes, strengths, weaknesses, and style of your team member is paramount. The reason you work with other interpreters is to aid each other. If one team member is carrying all the weight, the point of TI is moot and the stress level for that interpreter has been doubled. The following are some questions to ask yourself:

• How many interpreters do you know?

• How many interpreters have you worked with?

• How many interpreters possess your interpreting style, techniques, etc.?

• How many interpreters would you recommend to others?

• How many interpreters do you feel comfortable working with?

• How many interpreters feel comfortable working with you?

Answering these questions will aid you in choosing potential interpreting partners.

Once you have picked your team, here are a few suggestions you can follow:

• Agree on time breaks.

• Agree on signals.

• Agree on terminology.

• Agree on possible discrepancies and how to handle them.

• Agree on equipment.

• Work together for the experience (even if not compensated).

The more you work together, the better your team will be. One of the assets of TI is that it allows the interpreting assignment to run with minimal interruptions. Signals should be practiced among team members prior to using them in court. Visual signals such as cue cards, hand gestures, or colored cards can be used. It is crucial for the team to practice as much as they can outside the work environment. This will allow members to hone their skills and master the fluidity needed for the team to be successful. Other areas to be addressed include common court terminology, which should be discussed and compiled into a user-friendly folder. Dictionaries should be perused and marked for easy access or research. The team should obtain as much information as possible on the assignment prior to the work date. This will be important for the team in terms of being prepared to handle areas of concern or confusion. In case of discrepancies with words or terminology, the team must remember to address these issues outside of the courtroom. It would be a grave mistake to argue with other team members in a courtroom full of jurors and court officers. TI works wonderfully when approached correctly. Professionalism is the key to success in this concept.

If They Say "No"

As mentioned earlier, one of the hardest obstacles you may encounter is convincing your district that TI may be needed for a specific case. You may encounter several rejections before your idea is received, so do not give up. One approach is to ask the court if they are willing to do half-day TI sessions. If this idea is met with resistance then broach the subject concerning "breaks." You can stress to the court that you will need to take a break about every 30 minutes. You also need to point out that the key for a "break" to work is to allow the interpreter downtime. These breaks should not be used for attorneys to discuss additional information with their clients or to have the interpreter read information or answer questions. Ideally, the interpreter should be allowed to disappear for at least 15 minutes to have some time to rest away from the courtroom.

If you are confident in your delivery and have done research on TI, you will be able to present a very clear and convincing argument to your district. It may take you a few tries, but with perseverance you may finally win your district over and they may be willing to see if TI really works. Once the opportunity presents itself, all of the details involving TI should already be worked out. The team concept works, but like anything that is done haphazardly, if not practiced it will fail. You may only be given one opportunity to prove yourself; do not wait until then to find out if you can do it or not. Practice and be prepared whether it is in or out of the courtroom. Get together with your team member(s), rehearse, and brainstorm. Network with other interpreters in your area and try to get others to participate in TI. Make it a point to work with other interpreters for both the experience and the exposure to other judges and districts. It will take time, but it will be worth the wait in the long run.


1. Vidal, Mirta. "New Study on Fatigue Confirms Need for Working in Teams." PROTEUS , Vol. VI, No. 1 (Winter 1997).

Giovanna L. Carnet is the owner of All World Translation Services, L.L.C. in Sioux City, Iowa. She is a certified court interpreter in Iowa and Nebraska, and has been interpreting in legal and medical settings since 1996. In addition to ATA, she is a member of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators and the Iowa Interpreters and Translators Association. Contact: