The most interesting part of my internship at Advocates for Human Rights is when I’m called on by the refugee/immigration branch to serve as a French interpreter. Interesting, however, does not always mean easy. Whether the client is from Eritrea or Togo, Cameroon or Mali, there’s a story behind their application for asylum that’s often difficult for me to hear and I imagine more difficult for them to recall. Most of the cases that I’ve interpreted for this summer have been political opinion cases in which an individual is persecuted for their political, whether actual or perceived, affiliation. This is apparently mirrored internationally as there’s quite a bit of jurisprudence form both the Inter-American Court for Human Rights and European Court of Human Rights on the same subject.
The most interesting aspect of serving as an interpreter is the relationship that you form with the individual for whom you’re interpreting. The lawyers (all of the lawyers that I’ve worked for have been doing pro-bono work which I think is really cool) always explain to me that I’m not to say anything of my own creation to the individual: I interpret what has been said to English into French and then from French to English. Nothing more. Nothing less.
What this means is that I may talk to an individual for three hours, may take a trip to the airport with them, without saying a single one of my own words to them. Despite the lack of verbal communication a relationship of some type is formed. Recounting stories of the past seems like a cathartic exercise for most people who usually shake my hand and thank me when all is said and done. They’ve shared a part of their lives with me and I’ve performed a service for them. I’d say most of the time the relationship is one of mutual trust and appreciation.
I came to law school because, perhaps naively, I wanted to help people. It’s hard to feel as though I’m making a difference when I sit behind a desk and stare at a computer for eight hours a day but when I get a chance to hear someone’s story, look them in their eyes and thank them, I know my decision to go to law school is the right one.
The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center. As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.