You Should Be Translating, Not Interpreting

by Jamison Koehler on January 1, 2011

During an earlier life, I was a member of the U.S. delegations that negotiated the international ozone and climate treaties. The negotiations often lasted a couple of weeks, with the opening statements alone — from the 100 nations participating in the negotiations – taking up most of the first day.

The U.N. provided interpretation in seven languages throughout the negotiations, and, after the first couple of days, the cheap headsets would begin to chafe in your ear.  It also didn’t take long to tire of the hesitating, heavily accented voice in your ear, with the interpreter reciting yet another delegation’s concern about a particular part of the agreement.  Delegates always seemed to be particularly fond of such words as “modality” and “instrumentality.”

Sitting at the U.N. Headquarters in New York or Geneva was also a valuable lesson in culture and language. We Americans often surprised the other delegations with our lack of formality and our directness. On the other end of the spectrum were some of the Spanish-speaking countries.  My favorite was always the opening statement from the Cuban delegation. Two minutes of rolling and impassioned words in Spanish were translated into our headsets with four simple words:  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

So you would think that, with this experience, I would have been pretty used to dealing with interpreters upon becoming a criminal defense lawyer. You would be wrong. Doing my first cross-examination of a witness testifying through an interpreter, I made the rookie mistake of speaking directly to the interpreter.  “Please ask the complaining witness,” I began, only to be cut off by the judge.  “No, no, no,” the judge admonished me.  “You should address the witness, not the interpreter.”

The interpretation does cut into the flow of the testimony a bit, and you have to remember to speak in short sentences, which is a valuable skill anyway. But once I had that part figured out, the part about speaking directly to the witness, directing or cross-examining a witness through an interpreter has always been pretty straightforward.

The real problem I have encountered with interpreters is not with what happens during trial but before trial.  Interpreters seem to have no problem translating the witness’ words directly into English for the court while keeping themselves as invisible to the process as possible. This is because judges will insist on no less. But in the private discussions with the client in the office, hallway or anteroom before trial, many of them can’t seem to resist the urge to insert themselves between you and the non-English speaking client.

Reminiscent of the Cuban delegate’s flowery opening address at the U.N., a long exchange between the client and the interpreter will be translated back to you with a couple of simple words:  he doesn’t understand. No, no, no, you tell the interpreter. Translate for the client directly what I have said. And then translate back to me exactly how the client has responded. You should be translating, not explaining, not interpreting what I have said. However well meaning your efforts may be, you should not be substituting your own legal advice for mine.

2 Comments on “You Should Be Translating, Not Interpreting

  1. With time and a working knowledge of certain languages, a translator can be a useful tool in having some fun with testimony. For example, when a Spanish speaking witness who testifies that he was with someone, is asked who that person might be, the translator will inquire “quen es?” But the meaning, to the witness, is to describe the person rather than identify the name of the person. To get that information, the translator will ask, “como se llama?”

    When the defense puts on such a witness, and prosecutor crosses (itself always fun to watch), let the prosecutor ask three times who the person was, and get increasingly frustrated and angry with the witness for his refusal to provide a straight answer. Then, when he’s about to explode, suggest loudly that he just ask, “what was the person’s name,” and the witness will happily answer, leaving the prosecutor to look like a blithering, antagonistic idiot.

    Just one example of fun games to play with translators.

  2. SHG: Great to have you back commenting on this site. It has been a while.

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