Interpreting for the attorney from hell.

September 16, 2013 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

During my years as an interpreter I have done a lot of court interpreting. I have worked interesting cases, boring proceedings, and nasty trials.  While doing it I have had the opportunity to meet and interpret for great people and I have had the misfortune of interpreting, or better said: attempted to interpret, for horrible speakers.  No doubt you all have had your share of difficult people regardless of the type of interpreting work you do; but court interpreting makes it particularly difficult when you are faced with the consecutive interpretation of the cross-examination of a witness.

For those of you who do not practice in the courts, cross-examination is a phase of a trial when the attorney for the counterpart interrogates a witness offered by their opponent. Because the witness has already testified for the side that originally offered him, the attorney for the other party in the controversy has the right to ask him questions about the contents of the statement provided during the interrogation by the party that presented him as a witness, to test inconsistencies in the testimony; in other words: to impeach the witness. To do it, attorneys are limited as to the questions they get to ask during this cross-examination. They cannot ask anything that goes beyond the scope of the original questions and testimony (called direct examination)

To be able to successfully uncover discrepancies and falsehoods, during cross-examination attorneys ask questions that suggest the answer to the witness and leave no room for long explanations or excuses. They do this by starting or ending all questions with phrases such as: “Isn’t it true that you saw him steal the money?” or “You knew all along where she was hiding, didn’t you?” This way the witness can only answer with a “yes” or “no.”

As you can imagine, this type of questioning is very difficult to interpret, not only because it is done consecutively, but because of the importance of the phrasing. The interpreter must interpret the question into the target language in a way that the answer has to be a “yes” or “no.”  It is also important for the attorney asking the questions, and for the judge and jury, to see the immediate reaction of the witness after he listens to the question as the judge is developing a line of questioning that leads to impeachment, and the jury members are assessing the credibility of this witness.  There are many attorneys that are very good at cross-examining through an interpreter. They know that they need to pause for the question to be interpreted before doing a follow-up question; they know that they must ask questions that are easily interpreted into the target language within the format explained above. Unfortunately, there are also many lawyers who do not know how to work with an interpreter in a trial, even if they have been practicing for a long time.  You probably met these attorneys during your career. So did I.

However, among all those difficult to interpret lawyers I have worked with, there is one that is by far at the top of the list. I call him the attorney from hell.

Sometime ago I was retained to interpret for a very long trial with multiple defendants and many attorneys. My job was to exclusively interpret the testimony of the witnesses that took the stand. I knew several of the attorneys but not all. The trial started and we got to the witness testimony. Everything went fine for several days, until it was time for the attorney of one of the defendants to cross-examine a Spanish speaker witness from the prosecution. The attorney made this experience one of the most frustrating ones in my long career.  In fact, he became a walking-manual of how not to cross-examine when working through an interpreter. First, he would repeatedly ask questions with double negatives, making these questions very difficult to understand, and portraying the witness as a liar when in fact he was trying to understand the attorney’s question. Next, when the witness would say that he had not understood the question (because it was a double negative) the lawyer would make fun of him and repeat the very same question very slowly and loudly. Obviously, he was trying to show the jury that this witness was reluctant to tell the truth, but in reality he was “talking to the wall” since his disrespectful questioning had to go through the interpreter before the witness knew what was asked.  Obviously my interpreter colleague and I did not need him to repeat the question slowly; we needed him to get rid of the double negatives.  By the way, we are not deaf either. I know many people speak very loud when talking to a foreigner who doesn’t know the language as if a loud voice could magically be understood in any language. This attorney never waited for the interpretation to be rendered. He would start making fun of the witness even before the witness had heard the full question; there were many occasions when the judge on his own; or at the request of the interpreter had to ask this attorney to wait for the question to be interpreted before asking something else again.

Imagine this problem, and combine it with countless false stops during the question where the lawyer stops talking, the interpreter starts the rendition, and half way through it the attorney continues with a second part of the question (which by the way is not allowed according to the rules of evidence). The result is a big mess. If this wasn’t enough, the attorney would constantly pull out pages from the witness’ prior statements to the Grand Jury (during the indictment phase of the case) and read for many minutes non-stop, then he would put the document down and ask the witness: “So is it or is it not?”   Obviously it is very difficult to interpret this way as the interpretation of the written statement goes on for a long time, and then the interpreter ends with the question above. Needless to say, the witness gets confused, the attorney loses the jury as they have to sit there for a long time without understanding a word of what is being said, and the attorney gets impatient and interrupts the interpreter telling me or my colleague to stop right there, even though he doesn’t even know how far into the interpretation of the prior statements we got.  Add to all of these atrocities that the attorney was sarcastic and used big words during the entire cross-examination (which many lawyers do and is justified as part of the impeachment process, given the fact that the witness will have a chance to rehabilitation during the re-direct examination by the attorney who originally offered his testimony) and the fact that the lawyer had a paralegal sitting at the defense table next to their client, and this person was acting as a sidekick to the attorney as he was constantly laughing at all the sarcasm during this dog and pony show. We did our job, interpreted everything as we should, asked for repetitions and clarifications every time it was necessary, and kept our composure and professionalism throughout the trial.  Many people probably didn’t even notice the difficulties attorneys like this one create for themselves by not knowing how to work with the court interpreter, and this lawyer will probably work with interpreters many more times before his career is over.  Now I invite you to enter your suggestions when this situation arises in court, and please share your stories about working with difficult attorneys during direct or cross-examination of a defendant or a witness.

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§ 11 Responses to Interpreting for the attorney from hell.

  • Catalina Bajpai says:

    This is why I use simultaneous interpreting at the witness stand. Consecutive defeats the purpose of the cross-examination, diffusing the sudden effect of those aggressive questions. It works great for everybody and provides accurate rendition in every aspect of the procedure.

  • […] Dear Colleagues, During my years as an interpreter I have done a lot of court interpreting. I have worked interesting cases, boring proceedings, and nasty trials. While doing it I have had the opp…  […]

  • Glendia Boon says:

    First, kudos to you and your team for keeping your professionalism!

    I’m a sign language interpreter and when in the courtroom I have no qualms to ask for permission to approach the bench and explain to the judge the process is not flowing well. Perhaps, the judge will have worked with interpreters enough to understand and then in turn educate/direct the attorney from hell to accommodate the interpreting process.

    Or maybe the next time request a meeting with all legal personnel on the case to discuss how things should proceed when an interpreter is being utilized.

    Wow….thanks for sharing….I’ll be making sure to emphasize the importance of us all working together to accomplish the common goal!

  • Vinka Valdivia says:

    I use a combination of simultaneous and consecutive at the witness stand, despite the fact that most schools don’t teach this. I interpret in the simultaneous mode as the question is being posed by the attorney and then switch to the consecutive mode when interpreting the answer. Since I am whispering, only the witness hears the question interpreted and since he/she supposedly only speaks Spanish, is not distracted. I use consecutive for the answer so that a simultaneous interpretation while he he/she is talking is not disruptive to his/her train of thought. This works very well.

  • Clarence says:

    V. Valdivia: I do the same as you. With the receiver’s earpiece plugged into the witnesses ear, the witness is able to concentrate on what is coming from the receiver into the ear. When confusion occurs, once in a while when an attorney is passionate, the witness will likely turn suddenly to the judge or take off the earpiece and it becomes clear that the attorney is over dramatic or becoming incoherent. At such times, even the judge says words to the effect: Yes, you lost me too there counselor.
    Standing behind the Witness or sitting aside or behind the Witness, sort of out of site of the attorney also helps keep the attorney focused on the Witness instead of me. I don’t like it when some attorneys look at me while asking the questions as if saying with there eyes: tell the Witness this or that, or ask the Witness this or that. Such instances in the end are not frequent as Tony’s attorney from Hades is not very common.

  • Ben Jones says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if there were a booklet like Chris Durban’s “Interpreting: Getting it Right” designed specifically for lawyers? I’ve worked with many who had brilliant brains, and in many cases were linguists too, but still lacked an understanding of how best to use interpreters.

    One example I recall, when the two sides disagreed with the translation of a particular word: “Ms Interpreter, how would you normally translate X into [other language]? And how would you normally translate [the translation just given] into English?” (Interpreter naturally gives the original word.) “Thank you, that demonstrates that it is the correct word.” (with no reference at all to context, potential ambiguity, nuance, etc.).

    Let alone the nightmares caused by those who ‘know’ that “Hai” in Japanese means “yes”… but don’t appreciate that it can also mean “no”, or even “I couldn’t hear what you said”, depending on how it’s used.

  • Ivelina Vaykova says:

    Thank You! It is really impossible sometimes to keep quite and wait until the attorney /or who ever is interrogating to understand how stupid he sounds. Usually they are looking at me as if I am not interpreting correct. Or as if I am teaching the interrogated person what to answer.
    By the way, with the Germans you have no chance if you do not hear all the sentence, since usually the NOT comes at the end and can change all! Or using every time different interpreter, translator and not giving them having a glance at the previous statements…

  • Manuel Bellón Arrojo says:

    It is part of the judge’s job to prevent things like this from happening. Interpreters can’t do much but coping with it. Thank you for your post.

  • The HUGE importance of the Pre-Session.

  • Maritza Vazquez says:

    Tony, thank you for sharing this experience. When similar things happen, the interpreter feels like he/she is the only one on the planet that this happens to. Earlier this month, I was interpreting in court and the attorney told the judge that I was not doing my job and only interpreting 80% of what his client was saying. Plus, he mentioned his credentials of knowing Spanish and formerly working as an interpreter (didn’t mention in what field he had interpreted). I remained calm. Several things were said that made it seem that I was in the wrong. First, as you all probably have experienced, his client would answer a question saying, “they knocked on my window” and “I was asleep” and then answer a similar question saying “he knocked on my window” and “I think I was asleep.” The client said, “I didn’t understand the question,” meaning just that, but the attorney was making it seem like I had rendered the question incorrectly causing his client to not understand the original question.

    the judge stood on my side and also did the prosecutor and even the bailiff (none of who know Spanish). Later, I found out that this attorney causes everyone grief. That evening, I reviewed my notes, played everything over in my head and realized that I had interpreted correctly. I’m glad I remained calm, but I was still embarrassed that my work had been attacked as inadequate.

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