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March 29, 2019 International Law

Practical Tips for Using Interpreters

By Frederick Harriman

Interpreting Arrangements Deserve Your Focus

Your client is going to be deposed and she doesn’t speak English. You need an interpreter, of course – a good one. How can you identify good ones from bad ones?

If this is the conversation you are having with yourself as you head for the deposition, you have probably waited too long to think about the matter of interpreting. I don’t mean to be a scold, but I am often disheartened by how little attention attorneys pay to interpreting. Perhaps there is the idea that interpreters are like recorders – if they show up on time and know all the right words, then they are good interpreters. That can be said, but how do they get to the point where they “know all the right words?” They prepare – are you helping your interpreter prepare? If you haven’t thought about it, you are probably not helping.

Clients can benefit from communicating with lawyers through professional interpreters who have no stake in matters being discussed.

Clients can benefit from communicating with lawyers through professional interpreters who have no stake in matters being discussed.

Credit: SDI Productions via GettyImages

Conferences and Testimony Require Different Forms of Interpreting

When interpreting sworn testimony or statements, an interpreter is not on your side – even if you are paying him. He is supposed to interpret accurately and as precisely as possible without considering the consequences to any party – this is his sworn duty and failing to do so is a serious breach of ethics.

However, when you use this interpreter during an attorney/client conference, he is not bound by this and can engage in explanations and even advocacy for the sake of good communication if you ask him to. And that is the key: you need to confer with your interpreter and let him know what the aim of the conference is. What questions do you want to get answers to? What misunderstandings do you fear? During an attorney/client conference you can make the interpreter part of your team, but this option is gone once the interpreter is interpreting for sworn testimony.

Can Interested Parties be Interpreters?

Clients are often accustomed to having their children or relatives interpret for them – is this all right? The short answer is a clear: “No.” You should always be very wary of the information gained when a relative interprets. It is one thing to go through a 12-year-old son to schedule an interview with his father, and it is quite another to expect that 12-year-old to interpret to this father that his mother is asking for a restraining order on him. You should get your clients accustomed to communicating with you through professional Interpreters who have no stake in matters being discussed.

Have Your Staff Use an Interpreter for Scheduling

If you have clients who do not speak English and your office staff does not speak their language, contract with an interpreter to assist them, and the time saved will make up for the expense. Your staff can prepare a list of clients, their telephone numbers, court dates, etc., and email such information to an interpreter who can then inform, confirm, and obtain feedback. For the interpreter, compensation for time spent doing work like this is as good as for time spent interpreting. I have made regular arrangements to do work like this and it is a win for all.

Why do you want a well-informed interpreter?

Attorneys are understandably guarded when it comes to letting others know about information and strategy. It is really a good idea to help an interpreter learn as much as possible about your case before she interprets for actual testimony? We just reviewed the fact that once testimony is being given, the interpreter is not on your side.

But imagine a situation where the interpreter misunderstands a word due to lack of knowledge about the context of a question. Let’s say you ask a witness: “Did you encounter the needle in question when turning over cushions of the couch?” – and the interpreter does not know that by “needle,” you meant “hypodermic needle.” The interpreter continues interpreting with the assumption that the needle in question was a sewing needle, and the witness in all honesty answers “no” even though he would have answered “yes” had he heard the correct word for “hypodermic needle.” The interpreter did not know the “right word” because she did not know the context, and the result is wasted time and confusion for all.

This is why interpreters need information and preparation. It is in the attorney’s interest to aid in their preparation. It is usually a simple matter of confirming whether or not an interpreter has received copies of agreements, complaints and other relevant public documents in advance of the date that she is to interpret. It is in everyone’s interest to make sure this happens. So if you are going to court or a deposition and you do not know if the interpreter has been prepared, you are walking into a potential problem.

Know the Normal Protocol for Using Interpreters

Let us assume that you are involved in deposition for a high conflict case that involves the use of interpreters. What are the common protocols for using Interpreters in a manner that assures that all parties’ interests are respected?

  • The party requesting the deposition arranges for a “main interpreter.”
  • The deposed party may arrange for a “check interpreter.”
  • The main interpreter may participate in preparation of the witness, but remember that once sworn testimony begins, the interpreter is not on anyone’s side. He is not “your interpreter.”
  • The work of the main interpreter is more stressful and tiring than the work of the check interpreter.
  • The check interpreter may interject her disagreement with the main interpreter’s rendition, and the main interpreter may either agree or disagree on record, but there is no need to lengthen such discussions. Should the interpreters begin to bicker over a rendition, it is probably best for the attorneys to request them to cease their discussion and proceed. Their points are on the record already.
  • Essentially, both the main interpreter and the check interpreter are bound by the same code of ethics. They are not assumed to be on any particular side, and implying that they are is to imply that they are violating their code of ethics, and that the resulting interpreting has been compromised.
  • Because of the above, should the attorneys for both sides agree, the check interpreter may be requested to perform as the main interpreter should the main interpreter become tired or unable to perform.

Meet Your Interpreter and get to Know Him or Her

It all comes down to making sure that your interpreter knows what words are going to be used. If you can’t meet, call and see if the interpreter has any questions. An email with a few words of advice on what Wikipedia page to refer to can make a world of difference!

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Frederick Harriman

Vashon, WA

Frederick Harriman is a Japanese and Spanish Interpreter and is registered as a Japanese interpreter with the Washington State Courts.