Subject to Interpretation

Janis Palma on Legal Interpreting EP [48]

February 19, 2021 DE LA MORA Institute Season 2 Episode 48
Subject to Interpretation
Janis Palma on Legal Interpreting EP [48]
Show Notes Transcript

'Subject To Interpretation' is a weekly podcast that deep dives into the topics that matter to interpreters.🎙 Hosted by Maria Ceballos Wallis

This week we speak with Janis Palma on her career as a legal interpreter

Janis Palma has been a federally certified English-Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in federal, state and immigration courts around the U.S. before taking a full-time job. Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a staff interpreter in April 2002 and retired in 2017. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, embracing the joys of being a grandmother. She also enjoys volunteering for her professional associations, has been on the SSTI and TAJIT Boards, and is currently on the NAJIT Board of Directors.

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Speaker 1:

Welcome to subject to interpretation, a podcast, which takes us deep into the topics that matter to professional interpreters. I'm your host, Maria Jo Wallace . Today, we're gonna talk to an interpreter who has managed state current productive and influential in the field for more than 40 years, working in a field that has so many moving parts requires adaptability resilience and a desire to learn. I'm speaking about Janice Palmer . She's a federally certified Spanish English interpreter since 1981, who has worked for 20 years as an independent contractor. Then for 15 years, as a staff, interpreter and supervisor in the federal courts in Puerto Rico and upon retirement in 2017, she returned to her interpreting roots in Texas as an independent contractor. Janice is a prolific writer and a fervent advocate for interpreter education. Welcome Janice ,

Speaker 2:

Maria . Thank you so much for inviting me. It is really an honor and a pleasure for me to be here and I deeply appreciate the invitation you extended to me.

Speaker 1:

Well, I am happy to have you here. So let's get started. Janice, as of August of 2020, the public roster of federally certified interpreters had approximately about a thousand Spanish, Haitian Cray and Navajo interpreters. The national center for state courts interpreter database has approximately 451 interpreters in 51 languages who have signed up to be in their public database. That doesn't count all who have been certified as , um , state certified interpreters registered or some of the other categories. Let's start by defining the difference between what a federally certified court interpreter is and what a state certified interpreter is.

Speaker 2:

Sure. State certified interpreters , uh , take , uh , credentialing exam or go through some sort of credentialing instrument, generally design either by the state or they have joined what used to be known as a consortium. So they have a test provided by the national center for state courts. Whereas in federal court, there is one test only for anybody who wants to be certified to work in federal court. So I would say basically the difference is that states have, may have different testing instruments. Whereas the federal court has only one testing instrument.

Speaker 1:

Now, would you say that working in federal court is very different from working in state court?

Speaker 2:

It has been my experience that working in state court is a little more hectic. You never know exactly what to expect. You may be running from one court to the other because they call you at the last minute that they need someone , uh , in federal court. It's a little bit less hectic in the sense that usually interpreters know where they're going to be. When, what time, what judge, et cetera , uh , federal courts also pretty much follow the same scripts, no matter where you go, it's the same procedure, no matter which federal court you go to with very, very few differences. Whereas in state court, you have all kinds of different crimes to begin with different terminology for each state, different , um , perhaps even procedures for state courts. And , um, and the variety is amazing. In state court. You can go all the way from a criminal murder trial to a landlord tenant dispute. It's really, I find state court to be so challenging and such a fertile ground for learning that. Um, I have to say that I admire state court interpreters.

Speaker 1:

Having said that though, becoming a federal interpreter seems to be a Rite of passage with a lot of interpreters. Why do you think that is?

Speaker 2:

I believe that the , um, level of , um, proficiency that is expected of a federal court interpreter is quite strict and that is perhaps a difference between what state courts test and what the federal courts test. So the threshold for the state court interpreter, even though it may be high, it's not going to be as high as the federal court. So state court interpreters need to work a little harder to develop their, their vocabulary E you know, from a to C and all kinds of subject matters, and also learn this whole new terminology that is used in legal proceedings in federal court. That is not necessarily the same as state courts. So I would say the difference is you need to push yourself a little harder, a little more to get that federal certification, but once you're there don't think you have arrived because you still have to keep learning.

Speaker 1:

Now, there are different types of ways that a person can work in federal courts. You could be an independent contractor, a staff interpreter, a supervisor or coordinator, and you've covered all of these over your career. So for our listeners, let's talk about the differences between each roles and start with independent contractors,

Speaker 2:

Independent contractors have to know how to get the people contracting, hiring to keep you in mind, because there are so many other people that want to work. And the , the contracting person, whether it's a supervisor, interpreter, or coordinator is only one . So they're going their mind is gonna go first to the person that they see most often that they hear from most often. Um, and also the person that makes their job easier, because if you go to work and you're always complaining, that's not good. That is not going to encourage a supervisor to call you again. You have to learn how to be a team player and, and make sure that that coordinator or that supervisor knows that you're a team player and you're there to help the workflow better from the contractor's point of view. I would say that's the most important thing.

Speaker 1:

Now, what about a staff interpreter? Once you have crossed over into, let's say the dark side, if you could call it

Speaker 2:

That way , if interpreters have to learn how to work with the system courts are bureaucracy like any other government agency, there are rules and procedures and things that we may like things that we may not like, especially if you're coming from the freelance field, working as a staff, interpreter can sometimes feel like a straight jacket. And there is a period of adaptation. Most of the time you can get past the hump and really learn how to work with the system, but not everybody can do it. The biggest incentive for contractors to become staff interpreters is the regular paycheck. Let's just be honest. Okay. Um , but sometimes not even that is enough to get you used to not being your own boss. You have to do what somebody else tells you to do. You have to ask permission if you wanna travel, if you wanna go someplace, you wanna take a few days off, or if you have to go to the doctor, whatever, you have to ask someone for permission. So these are little things that you have to learn after having been , been your own boss. Learn not to be your own boss.

Speaker 1:

And then there's a possibility of maybe rising up a little bit more in the ranks into more of an administrative position, right?

Speaker 2:

Yes. Um, fortunately the , um, the , the courts approved a supervisory position for interpreters not too long ago. Um, this position was not available when, when the court interpreting position was first instituted after the federal certification, everybody was just staff and everybody fell under the clerk's office. And somebody in the clerk's office supervised, fortunately this position was if you have a certain number of interpreters that you have to coordinate, then you qualify for that supervisory position. And it's , um, like I would say it depends on the courthouse , um , mid-management or management. So more rules, more , um, things that you have to learn to work with as you , uh , become responsible for others that work for you. And if somebody does doesn't show up in court, for example, that you sent to court, it's your responsibility. If somebody does something in the courtroom that they shouldn't be doing, it's your responsibility. Um, somebody doesn't show up. I used to get calls at , um, you know, five in the morning, I'm sick. I can't make it. And so at five in the morning, I'm calling other interpreters because I have to make sure that every court is covered. I cannot leave a judge without an interpreter. So there's, there's a lot involved, but it's also from my point of view, very satisfying, because I like to organize and plan things. So organizing plant things. So I created all kinds of, of instruments to keep that office organized and running, you know, like, like it was supposed to, and for me, it was fun.

Speaker 1:

Now, as far as the assignments are concerned for staff interpreters, do interpreters , uh, do interpreters go to assign from assignment to assignment, or are they assigned to specific judges?

Speaker 2:

I don't think there are any courts left that have interpreters assigned to specific judges. That's the way it started when the , the positions were created, the interpreters would be assigned to the judges. So if you had three judges in a courthouse, you would have three interpreters. If you had five judges, you would have five interpreters. I don't think they do that anymore. Um, and when I first arrived as a staff interpreter in Puerto Rico, that's the way it worked. I was assigned to a judge, but after a while , um , it was evident that that was not gonna work because sometimes you had interpreters sitting in the office doing nothing. And then you had another interpreter in court all day without a break. So it took a little convincing, but we finally managed to convince the higher ups that it was better not to assign interpreters to the judges and just let interpreters cover whatever needed to be covered and also instituted team interpreting.

Speaker 1:

So let's talk a little bit about your personal journey to give, to flesh out maybe the, the details of what happens when you work as a federal interpreter. You started out in day county, Florida, and then you moved to Texas. And then you had a period where you were as an independent contractor all over the us before moved to Puerto Rico, where you became staff and then the supervisor. And now you're back in Texas after having retired from a federal position. And now you're working as an independent contractor. Again, tell , tell me about this experience overall.

Speaker 2:

I think at heart , I'm a freelancer <laugh>. So , um, retirement for me was going back to where I really wanted to be, but moving around , um, I , it was so enriching for me because I learned so much when I was in day county. For example, I learned lot about how Colombians speak that this was back in the eighties. And a lot of the people that I interpreted for were from Colombia. So I learned to even differentiate between the accents from Bogota or me <inaudible> or some other place. It was, it was always a learning experience. Um, being in Texas, it was a learning experience for the, the way that , um, Spanish was spoken here by people recently arrived from Mexico people, some people who just live on the other side, but cross every day because they work on this side . So there's a certain , uh , hybrid language. And then there are the people who have lived here in the United States, maybe second generation, or maybe even third generation who have learned Spanish at home, but their main language is actually English. So their Spanish is a completely different version. So again , um, becoming a part of the communities, the, the , the language communities where you live is for me has been a very enriching experience. The same thing happened. Um , I , I worked in New York. I worked in DC and those are two places where you get people from almost every country. Um, and I would encourage interpreters to just try to learn as much as you can from the people that you're interpreting for. Do not resist , do not think, oh, this word does not exist. Um , this is not a word in Spanish. No, listen, learn, absorb that. Uh , I had a colleague who would say interpreters were like sponges, who needed to absorb everything. So , um, yes, just being all over the place to me was extremely helpful because I learned from every single person I encountered that I had to interpret for.

Speaker 1:

Now tell us about Puerto Rico. Why is Puerto Rico different than any other jurisdiction? Um , on the mainland, which uses federally certified court interpreters,

Speaker 2:

I will start by saying Puerto Rico is known as a Commonwealth in English and in Spanish is known as a free associated status . None of which really defined the relationship between , uh , Puerto Ric Rico and the United States. So , um, you can go look that up, but the fact remains that the language in Puerto Rico is Spanish. Everybody speaks Spanish and the , the local court, which is not a state court is , is we would call it an insular court, cuz it's an island. The language, the official language of the court is Spanish. So if you're going to interpret in state court, in Puerto Rico, you are going to be interpreting from Spanish, into English. Most of the time it'll be an English speaker who does not speak Spanish and does not understand what's going on , uh , either as a litigant, as a defendant or as a witness. So it's interesting that when you're on the witness stand, you're interpreting questions from Spanish into English and answers from English into Spanish. It's like writing a bicycle backwards. Believe me, same thing with the simultaneous. The simultaneous is into English, not into Spanish. Now the federal court is in English. And the reason why the federal court is , uh , is conducted in English. Even though everybody speaks Spanish, everybody understands Spanish. And some of the people who speak English are actually using words in English, but Spanish grammar. The fact remains that it's in English because any appeal has to go to a circuit court where judges don't speak Spanish. So if an appeal were to be taken to a circuit court from a proceeding in Spanish, it would all have to be translated into English. Then whatever is sent to the , uh , appeals court is not really what the jurors heard. It's not really what happened in court. So you can't have that. The , they cannot review a record of what really didn't happen because it's a translation. So in the end, the only way to follow the course of a case, like every other case in a federal court from district court to court of appeals to the Supreme court, if necessary was to , uh , hold it , the proceedings in English. That means that in Puerto Rico, 98% of cases require an interpreter because defendants do not speak English. Most witnesses. This is also interesting. The witnesses that the government brings in, in other courts in the us , they would be FBI da you know, the da forensics lab and they'll speak English in Puerto Rico. They bring in the experts from the local forensic lab. So they'll speak Spanish. And that means that they need an interpreter. So interpreters are very, very busy in Puerto Rico. Um, however, if you are not used to the accent and you're not used to local usage and you wanna go work in Puerto Rico, you should spend a little time listening and getting your ears used because even the court reporters have a hard time keeping up. It's fast. It's it's now , you know, we omit a lot of consonants <laugh>, which is gonna make it sound strange for people who are not used to it . And , um, and like I said, some people speak English use using Spanish grammar and, and have very, very thick accents. So it's really unique. It's um, I would encourage anybody who can, at some point in their lives experience this go at least and listen, but it is, this is what makes it different from every other federal court in the United States and makes the local court different from any other state court in the United States.

Speaker 1:

Now, what about terminology? You mentioned that a lot of the time people are speaking English with Spanish grammar. What about terminology? Puerto Rico is notorious for using words that in Spanish, that originate in English and which have actually been included in the legal codes in Puerto Rico. Talk about that

Speaker 2:

Actually that's a misconception. Okay. The words that are supposedly incorporated from English are actually words that come from the Spanish legal terminology of the Spanish courts. And if you go look at old dictionaries or even right now, there are dictionaries online from the Royal academy, they have the pan Hispanic legal dictionary and , uh , several others where you can look up these words that are supposedly , uh , borrowed from the English. And they're not, they're actually legitimate legal words in Spanish that come from the court system in Spain.

Speaker 1:

Now <affirmative>, now we've talked about Puerto Rico. We've talked a little bit about your experiences in Dade county, Florida, where you learned , um , more about the Colombian , um , vocabulary that was being used at the time. Did you find it difficult to go from place to place and actually identify which population of immigrant or which language variation was being used, and then incorporate that into your own toolkit?

Speaker 2:

I have to say that I maybe have a slight advantage because my background is in literature. So having read all the Latin American authors at the time , uh, and learning the language from literature first , um, learning to value and appreciate all the variations of Spanish from short stories and novels and poetry. Um, to me, it was like a natural progression from literature to interpreting from learning about languages in books, to learning about languages from live people. So I I've always encouraged interpreters to read a lot. And I don't know if we have the richness nowadays that we used to have back in the days of K PA and Betti and you know, those people. But , um, but if you have that opportunity to read, read from different countries , um, and, and learn not just from people but from books, because that is also gonna give you a sense that every word is legitimate. Every word is a valid word. It will move you away or take you away from this concept of what is a real word and what is not a real word, what people say and what people don't say, you know, it just kind of broadens your horizons. I think when you read,

Speaker 1:

Well, they say that LA language is a living thing. And so as such, we would expect that language would change over time. And that enjoying the literature from the fifties, the sixties or the past century would actually enrich us because we'd actually be able to see perhaps even the evolution of the words that we're using today and where they came from.

Speaker 2:

Yeah , absolutely. Absolutely. Um, and it just opens up your, your horizons so much, it just, there's all these different worlds that you can explore just by opening a book. It's like, you don't even have to leave. And right now, you know, with <laugh> with everybody being in lockdown, pretty much what better way to travel the world than through literature.

Speaker 1:

Absolutely. So Janice, you returned to Texas after almost 20 years. Did you notice any change in the language after all that time?

Speaker 2:

Actually, there hasn't been that much change. And , and let me tell you a little bit of what's happened with the Spanish along the border. Um, as , as you know, the , um, the border was populated first by Mexico, Mexicans, and then came the , uh , people who were hungering the, the new frontiers and take well ,

Speaker 1:

The settlers

Speaker 2:

And, and , and taking over that land. So when the Mexicans who lived on the north side of the river got incorporated into what became the us , the language evolution stopped. They didn't have the, the ability to evolve, like the people who remained on the south side of the river. So language freezes when, when you isolate it like that, it freezes in time. And that's why we hear a lot of archaic usage of language along the border. And we don't see a lot of evolution , uh , a lot of changes. So the things that I learned when I was in , in school, I went to UT Austin, and I learned a lot about the Spanish , uh , spoken in, in Texas while I was in school. So when I came back, I didn't find that many changes. I mean , uh , RUCA is still AKA for example, which is a chick, you know, or , um , a <inaudible> is still a car . And, and it's not because it looks like furniture it's because you have real property and personal property and then Spanish is we , or in we . So <laugh> , that's where it comes from. It's also fascinating to look at the etymology of these words, you know , um, and I don't see it changing a whole lot. Maybe there's new professions or new occupations , uh, that have developed new vocabulary. Uh , so the shrimp shrimpers have their own , uh , lingo and then welders have their own, you know, if there's a new occupation that comes up, they may have new words for that occupation. But in general, I don't see a whole lot of change

Speaker 1:

Now for, to inform our viewers. You've also lived in Mexico and you've studied in Mexico. So you have the added vantage point of, of, you know, not only being at the border and, and , and listening to, and learning that language, but also the language that was not frozen from which this , um , order language originated, right?

Speaker 2:

Yes. Yes. I did live in Mexico. I went to the SM in techn the studios superiors. I think that's what it means. <laugh> um, and I , and I also taught there. I was trying my whole life. I tried to learn as much as I could of anything that I could. So I was taking courses in semiotics and communications while I was also teaching literature. And , um, that was my adventure in Mexico. <laugh>

Speaker 1:

Now, during all of these years that you have been on your adventures, you've also saved some time to work towards the benefit of the profession. You've shaped it by participating in boards, committees organizations. And as you mentioned earlier, teaching and advocating for the profession, you're also a lifetime member of Nat . And that means that you were one of the original members of the organization, which preceded it. SEATA court interpreters and translators association, which was begun in 1983. And just to share with our listeners a little bit of your trajectory after being on the Nat board in the eighties and nineties, then you became an integral member of the nonprofit research arm of Nat , the society for the study of translation and interpretation through most of the early two thousands, that organization is known as S S T I , and now once again, you've done come full circle and yet another aspect of your life. And you are once again on the board of Nat . Talk about that journey.

Speaker 2:

When I took my first job as a staff interpreter, there was a training offered by the administrative office. And , uh , one of the people who came in , uh , Dina Cohen , uh , mountain Dina , Millman, she was one of the founders, founding members of Cita in New York. And I was fascinated. I was hooked from day one when I heard that there was a group of other interpreters who were getting together and sharing information and learning from each other, it was like, yay, I want it . So , um, and act , and actually just , um, I believe that Cita was organized or incorporated like in the late seventies, it , it kind of decided with the , uh , federal certification exam. But anyway , um , I was super excited just because it was so important to be able to communicate with other interpreters, to learn from other interpreters at a time when there was nothing out there for us. We really had to do things , uh, mostly improvising all the time. And then , um, when I, I moved to New York and I got really super involved with, with , uh , the association because the hub was in New York and almost everything was happening in New York. Um, but we realized at some point, this is not enough. We can't just focus on New York. We need to expand. We need to bring in people from other places and little by little as we discussed this , um, need to make sure that Cita was not just a New York group. The idea grew to change the name from Cita to Nat . And we went through several different possibilities, ended up picking Nat and then submitted that to the membership. Um, the membership approved. So , um, in the early nineties, Cita became Nat . And at the time I was the president of the board and , uh, it , it was like a dream come true because then this almost was like giving us permission to say, okay, now we're gonna have in our meetings all over the place. And so we started having meetings in new Orleans and Denver and , uh , different, different parts of the country. And so that the, the network could grow. And basically that's what magic is. It's a network where you can find people who think like you and , um, you know , wanna learn and grow just like you do have the same concerns about the profession. And , um, and then of course I had to step down at some point <laugh> . So when I stepped down, I feel like, well , I still have to do stuff. So I, I wanted to teach, I wanted to do , um, short workshops. We still didn't have programs, university programs. And all we had were short workshops, three day workshops, one week workshops. So we were doing that. Um , we had a really nice group , um , and , um , among them were , um , and then Miran , um , who she later became his wife , um, just so many people who were committed and had , and , uh , had this, this spirit of sharing, whatever they knew. And they inspired me to share everything that I knew. So I always tried to figure out, okay, what can I teach now? What can I share? What, what am I doing that is right, that I can help somebody else do as well? You know, like I always worked on my memory , so I figured, okay, let me see what I'm doing so I can help other people develop their memory for consecutive and note taking , uh , what am I doing here so I can help other people do the same thing. Nowadays, we have all kinds of courses and webinars and training and university programs , but back then we didn't have anything. We had to figure it out and, and , um, and share it. So that's what I did. That's, that's what I did through SSTI I as well. And , um, and right now SSTI is focusing on research. This is the , the 5 0 1 C three arm of Nat . And what that means is that it's a charit charitable organization, as opposed to an add , which is a professional association. It's a 5 0 1 C six . So for IRS purposes, different codes, you know, small details, but for IRS, they're important. And they are for us too. So SST I right now is focusing on research and whatever fun sake and race , which are fully tax deductible, by the way, are going towards that towards research that helps interpreters research. That's not just the academics thinking. Well, what part of the brain is the one where short term memory is held? And what part of the brain is the one where long term memory is held it's research that we can use, like, okay, if you, if you are , um , trying to remember something short term , then these are things that you can do to improve your memory. If you are trying to memorize vocabulary for long term use, this is, these are the things you can do to help your long-term memory. So that's what SSTI is focused on is research that is applicable and useful for practicing interpreters. And then of course, I came back to the Nat board because , um, I felt that there was still something that I needed to do. It's like I had some unfinished work that I had to do, and I love it. I love, you know, volunteering and, and coming up with projects and ideas. And the most recent one that we just started, that we just opened is the mentorship. Um, and we just put out a call for mentors. And , uh , after that, once we have all our mentors organized, we'll put out a call for mentees and then pair them up and get the NA members helping other magic members. Like, you know, we're supposed to be doing

Speaker 1:

Now prior to rejoining the Nat board. And after having moved back to Texas, you were also involved in the local association or the state organization called tat talk to me a little bit about the difference between local and national associations in terms of advocacy.

Speaker 2:

Wow. It's at night and day, I mean, advocacy for state, the way that I see it is so much reachable it's, it's like , um, that fruit is lower in the tree than it is at the national level. Um, we had , uh , we still do have Christina Hemrick , uh , who was also a former Nat board member in , and is very active with tat . She is fantastic when it comes to a legislative things in , you know, and, and I think that every state has somebody like that, somebody that knows the ins and outs of the local legislature, they know who's who they know who to approach, how to approach them when there's gonna be hearings about some bill that may affect interpreters. And that kind of thing. It's just at a smaller scale together. When, when you have to go from your city to the capital city and your state, it's so much different from going to Washington DC, you know, to Congress. And , uh , of course , uh , lobbying Congress is also a whole different ballgame. Uh, when you have issues affecting interpreters, it just takes more money. It takes more infrastructure in the association. It , it just takes a lot more it's that it's not that low hanging fruit <laugh> for sure. So I think there's a big difference.

Speaker 1:

Do you anticipate that Natt will become more involved in lobbying on a national level? Is that a possibility for Nat given its current structure?

Speaker 2:

Um, not directly as Natt , but , um, I think that at some point every organization is going to have to get more involved with lobbying Washington. Uh , especially if we have a bill of law that is going to affect interpreters. We, we need to be there somehow. I don't think that we can do it as directly as a 5 0 1 C six , but , um, perhaps, you know, through a different group or, or a structure that allows for that. I mean, we do have to look out for the wellbeing of, of interpreters and translators all over the country. Um, and we have to find ways to do it. If , if we're not allowed by law to do it one way, we have to find another way of doing it. And right now I don't think we are allowed by law to do it, but that doesn't mean that we are just going to, you know, cross our arms and say, okay, well, you know, there's nothing we can do. Let's not do it. That's not the kind of leadership magic it has.

Speaker 1:

<laugh> Janice, do you have any parting words for our listeners?

Speaker 2:

Oh my gosh. My parting words is , uh , that I'm so happy that you are listening to this because that means that you care about your profession. It means that you care about growing and learning. And I thank you so much for that. I so much appreciate my colleagues who really are committed to excellence and professionalism. So I just wanna thank you.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for joining us, Janice. It's a great, it's a pleasure to have you here. Thank you, Maria. Thank you. And to our listeners. Thank you for joining us here on subject to interpretation. If there's a topic that you would like us to cover, please email us@podcastdelamodainstitute.com . If you're watching this program on YouTube, please share your comments with us below. And if you're listening to us, don't forget to subscribe. So you don't miss our weekly episodes. Thank you for joining us and take good care.