What do you do when your client or witness doesn’t speak English?
Some attorneys frequently work with clients who don’t speak English at all or are just not fluent enough to testify under oath or understand the legal jargon. However, for most lawyers, working with such a client/witness is an occasional occurrence.
So, what do you need to know when working with an interpreter?
Who provides the interpreter?
Usually, courts provide interpreters for hearings and trials. While the attorneys will need to hire interpreters for depositions, mediations, witness prep, client/attorney meetings, etc.
However, the rules vary from state to state and some state courts only provide interpreters for certain types of cases.
You can also hire a check interpreter, especially for high profile litigation cases. A check interpreter ensures the questions and answers are being translated completely and accurately, monitors for cross-cultural issues, and verifies everything complies with the ethics and rules of interpretation.
How do I select the interpreter?
The easiest route to hiring an interpreter is going through an agency.
Agencies have large databases filled with interpreters of various languages, qualifications, expertise, and experience. The agency will be able to match your interpretation needs with the right interpreter for your event.
You can always request the same interpreter for multiple events, any good agency will be happy to send the requested interpreter as long as there are no scheduling conflicts.
Additionally, an agency is your best bet when needing to find qualified and reliable last-minute replacements when your interpreter can’t make it.
What are the rules of behavior around the interpreter?
Simply put… an interpreter’s job is to interpret as is.
That includes any slang, level of formality, and mistakes on the part of the person being interpreted for. An interpreter should never simplify legalese to the witness or correct messy language or slips of the tongue. This also means that when the witness says, “I did…” the interpreter will translate by saying, “I did…” in the first person. When the interpreter needs to speak for themselves, they will speak in the third person and say, for example, “The interpreter needs clarification.” The interpreter may need to interrupt to ask for something to be repeated, speech to be slowed down, or for a party to speak louder.
Using clear language reduces the chance of a mistake in interpretation; don’t use double negatives (“You didn’t say you wouldn’t do that, did you?) or highly complex sentences with many subordinate clauses (You didn’t, although you could have, gone there, even though you knew you should have, am I wrong?). Also keep in mind that humor, sarcasm, colloquial sayings, slangs, idioms, etc. may not translate well into other languages.
The witness should never have a private conversation with the interpreter, whether during the examination or before/after. A properly trained interpreter should inform the witness of this at first attempt at private conversation. Also, make sure the witness understands to answer the question asked in their language and not what they understand of the question asked in English.
How do I prepare?
It is important to practice questioning the witness with the interpreter present. The flow of the questioning will be different and, if you don’t work with interpreters often, you will need the practice as much as your witness. This will also allow the interpreter to get used to the witness’ linguistic quirks, regional dialects, speech defects, etc.
Your interpreter should be knowledgeable about the industry. The depth of that knowledge will differ depending on the case.
It is always a good idea to provide your interpreter with case documents (such as the complaint, indictment, prior testimony, or tape transcripts) ahead of time, so they can prepare.
The more complex or technical the case, the more time the interpreter will need!
You should also provide the interpreter with names, places, addresses, slang, code words, etc. that may come up as well as any relevant emotional factors that may affect testimony.
Use this time with your interpreter to ask if there are any cultural considerations you need to keep in mind. In some cultures, the view of time, time telling, punctuality, etc. may differ. Also, directions such as south, north, east, and west may be expressed or understood differently. In some cultures, expressing a vague affirmative answer may not be indicative of agreement. Don’t be afraid to use your interpreter as a cultural guide!
Does using the interpreter retain the client/attorney privilege?
It is generally accepted that third parties hired by counsel to assist in providing legal advice to a client are covered by the attorney/client privilege as long as these parties are nearly indispensable or serve some specialized purpose in facilitating attorney/client communications.
Individual states may have additional statutes that cover communications through an interpreter. Please consult any relevant laws or regulations before hiring an interpreter.
Can I use my interpreter to translate documents on the spot?
Yes, you can use an interpreter to perform sight translation. However, this should be only used for simple documents. It should not be used as an official translation of a document.
Legal language is dense and complex, and it takes a long time to prepare an official translation.
Not all interpreters translate complex documents so if you want to keep the same linguist, talk to your interpreter first before assuming. If an official translation is needed, make sure to allow plenty of time, it always takes longer than expected.
The next time a need for an interpreter or translator arises, call Legal Interpreters LLC!
Find out how our expertise can fulfill your linguistic needs.