This one is for court interpreters, but I bet it can apply to other language professionals, too. Look back over your career path for just a moment. How many times did you have to navigate around a barrier, only to find that the detour turned out to be a permanent new direction? Is this what you expected when you had your sights set on interpreting in court? The global pandemic that will forever characterize 2020 continues bringing unexpected twists and turns that so many among our ranks aren’t fully prepared to overcome. Just when we thought we had it made, been down our paths and reached the brass ring, some are having to rethink their professional endeavors or reinvent themselves altogether. If only we had known then what we know now…
So, let’s go down that rabbit hole. Imagine going back and standing at the starting point of your career path, but knowing what you know now. What would you have done differently?
There it is. That’s what we should be thinking about when we create a vision for five or ten years from now for ourselves or—even better—when we mentor others who are interested in our profession. We now have a brand-new opportunity to retrace our steps and think about how we can consider our successes and mistakes in order to prepare for our future or mentor the new generation.
The path of so many court interpreters is not a straight line. In fact, it is not unusual for it to be an afterthought, a second career or something people simply stumble onto after having traveled other journeys first. I bet when you were a kid, career day didn’t have representation from the language professions. There is no one answer to how to become an interpreter because it is often a combination of training and life or academic experiences.
My story, for example, didn’t even begin until college, when I discovered my love for the Spanish language and decided to learn it so I could use it in a career. I went into medical interpreting and later, court interpreting. Along the way, I decided to focus on legal translation, which helped tremendously in my court interpreting abilities. For a good part of my career, I also taught interpreting and translation, and since I was continually growing and developing myself, I was able to share relatable stories with my students that could help them envision their own paths. Most recently, I turned my attention to the management side of language access in the courts, where I remain today. Each time I started a new position, I knew that once I got my footing, I would need to focus on what might come next.
What would I have done differently? I wish I had taken the time to develop more direct client relationships for my translation side gig, because I am not seeing as many offers from the same old agencies I came to rely on. If I decide I want to rebuild that part of my income stream, I will need to be prepared to adapt to the new environment. Looking back, I can see that I have been adaptable as I have taken on new roles and applied my skills in new areas before, so I should be able to trust myself with my own future and mentor others as they travel theirs.
As veteran members of our profession, we should all eventually be able to guide an aspiring interpreter. Certainly, we become better at giving advice as we grow ourselves. As I raised my kids, for example, we had lots of talks about choosing a career path. Early in their lives, I found myself encouraging them to pick a journey that had the fewest possible bumps along the way: do well in school, get scholarships, go to college and study for an established profession that pays well so you can have a comfortable life, then start living. As I matured in my own career and as a mom, I realized that no matter the path they chose, it would have stops and starts, just like mine did; what was important was for me to help them grow in adaptability, and find a path that they were passionate about so that they would be more likely to have the dedication and focus required to withstand whatever could come their way.
There’s a key question to ask an aspiring court interpreter: Is this what you really want? If you’re in the position to mentor somebody by posing this question, you can frame it by telling stories about your best and worst days. Or maybe describe that one case where a word mattered, or the one that shook you to your core and forever changed how you see the world. Where I live, court interpreters can have full-time benefitted positions with a court and they are paid a handsome salary, so if the answer is all about the money, get them to dig deeper. Are they passionate about the idea of using a dictionary as pleasure reading, debating grammar with really smart colleagues, or challenging themselves to use their self-control or acting skills to both perform beautifully and keep a poker face? The deeper interest they have in achieving great things in the art and science behind the professional task, the more likely they will be to rise to the top of their game and even diversify a little. Maybe they’d like to teach on the side, or become translators, or work in court by day and study to become a conference interpreter by night. A punch in the gut from a pandemic could be less likely to knock over a diverse professional who has invested in themselves, in my view, so what a great opportunity we now have to make sure that the next generation is truly in it for the long haul by making sure it’s the right profession in the first place.
Something else that the idea of hindsight brings to mind is the opportunity we have to treat our newly minted court interpreter colleagues how we would have liked to have been treated when we were newbies. Where I live, lots of court interpreters were told that on their first day of being certified they should be prepared to interpret for incredibly intense situations. Although this is true, the idea that on day one we should be so amazing can easily cause the veteran interpreter to forget about all the growth and development that is only gained through experience, and instead grow impatient with the newbie. I know that this is not unique to the interpreting profession, but our profession doesn’t have widespread recognition and lots of examples to follow; we should be careful not to default to the know-it-all mentality when we have the chance to mentor somebody who is looking to us as their closest available example. What we see in them is how we once were, and our ability to band together as a profession will help all of us weather this storm, or at least innovate our way out of it.
There’s a thought: innovation. This year has brought a plethora of change to our profession. I never thought we would have to figure out a way of doing our jobs without being near somebody. In my former career as a medical interpreter, I learned to breathe through my mouth to avoid bad smells; as a court interpreter, I modified my personal space expectations to accommodate mid-trial attorney-client conferences in the dead silence of a packed courtroom, where even whispering is too loud. Innovation for court interpreters in 2020 has meant finding ways to have quiet conversations from a safe social distance. At some courts, it has meant embracing the idea of interpreting over video. Innovation and adaptability are no longer just a nice quality to have—they are practically life preservers in a stormy sea.
At my office, I started displaying holiday décor last month. I’m so done with this year and I am only half kidding when I explain to my staff that I’m ready to skip ahead. But the reality is that we are all on a new path. This is the time to think about where we have been, what got us here, and how we can use what we know to be better prepared (or prepare the next generation) to weather whatever storms may come our way. We are in a profession, and as such, it requires a lot of effort to be good at it, let alone land a full-time job or become a successful entrepreneur. It takes time, and my hope is that these words remind you of how remarkable you are to be a language professional; how you might be wise to start thinking five or ten years ahead; how you can use your stories to inspire the next generation. May we all come out of this just a little more amazing than we ever expected—we’ve sure got it in us.
About the Author:
Jennifer De La Cruz is a certified court interpreter (California, Federal Courts) and an ATA-certified translator (Spanish<>English). She currently works managing the language access program in a large California court. She has a BA in Spanish and an MS in Management and Leadership. The opinions expressed in this piece should not be taken to represent or speak on behalf of her employer court.
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