Should Consecutive Interpretation Disappear From Court?

November 4, 2013 § 15 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every time I write about some issue that involves consecutive interpretation in court, I get a considerable number of comments arguing for the disappearance of this mode of interpretation. Whether it is because of how difficult it is to render it, or due to some legal issue, the fact is that the number of interpreters, and courts, moving away from consecutive interpretation from the witness stand is growing every day.

Currently, there are many courthouses in the United States where the interpretation of a witness’ testimony is done consecutaneously: The attorney’s question is interpreted simultaneously by an interpreter sitting (or standing) next to the witness and the answer is rendered consecutively by the same interpreter.  Other courthouses are using one interpreter for the simultaneous interpretation of the question, with the help of interpretation equipment, and a second interpreter, sitting (or standing) next to the witness, who renders the answers consecutively. The feedback from both systems, as far as I have heard, is positive.  Apparently this approach solves the problems presented by the way cross-examination is phrased, keeps the jury focused on the witness, and not on the interpreter, and eliminates the unfair advantage that some witnesses have in cases when they speak some English, but prefer to employ the services of an interpreter,  thus having an opportunity to reflect on their answer to a question while they “listen” to the interpreter’s rendition of said question.  It is also true that this is not a “bulletproof” solution. Consecutaneous interpretation from the witness stand can be confusing to some lay witnesses; and in the case of different interpreters for questions and answers, it could present a problem when both, the question interpreter and the answer interpreter interpret correctly but using a different term.   For what I hear, judges and court administrators love consecutaneous interpretation because it saves a lot of trial time, as the time for the consecutive rendition is eliminated altogether.

I must confess that for a long time I was a “purist” who opposed consecutaneous interpretation in the courtroom. Although I still dislike consecutaneous interpretation, I have changed my mind.  Now I believe that in this world full of technology, where we go to the booth with nothing but an iPad, where we can do a word search in seconds, where we can interpret remotely from a different continent, we need to take advantage of everything that exists out there.  The technology for simultaneous interpretation of a witness testimony already exists. I dislike consecutaneous interpretation not because I want to keep the consecutive mode for the witness stand. I dislike it because I think that we interpreters deserve better, the court deserves better, and the witness deserves the best possible access to the source language: simultaneous interpretation.  Real time interpretation of everything that happens during the hearing or trial.  Let us leave consecutive interpretation where it is needed: escort interpretation, jail visits, and some aspects of medical and community interpreting.

In an era where many hearings are held with the defendant appearing remotely by video, and attorneys file their pleadings electronically, there is no excuse to keep interpreting back in the Stone Age.  There is no reason why the witness, judge, attorneys and jury cannot have access to a headset to hear in their native language the questions and answers.  The argument that it is too complicated, that these people will be distracted by the equipment, is absurd. We are talking about the same people who drove themselves to court while listening to the radio or talking to their kids on the back seat of the car. We are talking about the same people who talk and text, walk and surf the net at the same time.  Learning how to switch a button on and off is not brain surgery; moreover, they can just remove the headset when they don’t need to use it.  By the way, this would also eliminate the distraction of having the interpreter next to the witness. It would remove the distraction of the interpreter’s whispering from the courtroom as we could be working from a booth like in all other venues where we render our services, and it would ensure more accuracy as we will be able to hear everything better from the booth. Will this cost money? Yes it will. Will these changes take time? Of course they will.  It is all true, but at some point in time we have to start.  Maybe if we start now the new courthouses will be designed and built with a booth.  In new colleges and universities classrooms are built this way.  Perhaps it will be other court systems that take the first steps towards this best solution.  Many countries are switching over to the oral proceedings. They are building new courthouses. Maybe they can be the pioneers. Maybe the European courts will be the frontrunners now that they are implementing their new court interpreter system.

The point is, dear colleagues, it is clear that we need to move towards full simultaneous interpretation of all court proceedings. All that remains to be decided is when we start and where we take the first steps.  Please share your comments and opinions on this issue.

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§ 15 Responses to Should Consecutive Interpretation Disappear From Court?

  • Sonja says:

    As someone who spent a year learning consecutive and having it drilled into my head that it was the foundation for simultaneous before I was allowed to even enter a booth, I believe consecutive has a place in court settings as it is more precise when performed correctly- especially given the roundabout ways attorneys can speak. The problem is untrained interpreters don’t like it and don’t do it well because no one ever taught them how, and they didn’t spend two years working on it full time. That said, one of the major frustrations in the US is the utter terror that native English speakers are unable or unwilling to wear a headset for some reason. Sim into English in courts certainly should have a place when appropriate, and it should be the norm for private market conferences, rather than exceptional.

  • Sonja says:

    One benefit of moving to sim for the English speakers might be more monitoring of the interpreters’ output. Judges, attorneys, anyone else listening might realize that we are very sensitive to our working conditions and do something revolutionary, like speaking into a microphone, giving us a feed, and maybe even letting us work from a booth!

  • Aimee Benavides says:

    I was just thinking about this yesterday. I remember interpreting for a sentencing – I was interpreting for the father-in-law of the deceased. In such an emotionally charged situation, it always makes me feel bad when I have to gesture the person speaking so that they will pause for me to interpret. It decreases the emotional charge of the words spoken, and it definitely interrupts the person’s train of thought. But what other options have we had up until now? Without the right equipment, simultaneous can sound like a jumbled mess of voices which leaves consecutive as the lesser of two evils.

    • C. Leigh says:

      I agree. Some lawyers give a little thought of the listener/ interpreter and just want to put their point of view across quickly. Simultaneous interpretation can be a total disaster.

  • Joao Faria says:

    Consecutive interpretation should deffenetly be baned from the court system, for it allows for changes of testimony and creations and subtractions of statments interpreted. As a court interpreter for many years working with other”collegues” using the consecutive method, I can tell you that, you would be terrified if you heard the stories I have lived with these pseudo interpreters. The only reason that certain interpreters can choose to interpret consecutivelly instead of simultaneouslly would be because they are terrified of having to learn a difficult method – simultaneous – choosing the easiest but dangerous and less accurate venue.

  • Lionel says:

    In all the years I have practiced as a Court Interpreter, close to 25 now, my method of handling witness interpreting has evolved over the years. I have gone from all consecutive to a mode that now involves, whispered simultaneous and consecutive. Of course II use equipment and that allows me to work in this manner.
    Cross examination is a procedure that lends itself to a faster mode of interpretation.

    “…simultaneous interpreting is particurarly suited for cross examination because it maintains the spontaneity and rapidity of the questioning……”(Leon Dostert Head of Translation
    Division and first Chief Interpreter at Nuremberg. Origins of Simultaneous interpretation, Francesca Gaiba, ISBN 0-7766-0457-0)

    I think is wrong to assert that one mode; sim/consec, is easier than the other, they both have advantages and challenges. However the combination of the two modes have enabled me to put forth a better product. I practice in the En/Span combination. And many times the juries where I work in front of are bilingual. Many times one of the attorneys or the judge also speak Spanish and it becomes essential that the interpreter gets to interpret everything the witness says before one of fthe Spanish speaking attorneys put forth an objection because they understood the Spanish utterance. With me its not a matter of style which mode I use, its more a matter of practicality.
    This is a topic I have talked about a lot and would love to discuss it more but in the spirit of being succint I will stop here. Thank you for such an engaging topic Tony.

  • Karin Reinhold says:

    I have experienced in court that the simultaneous mode during testimony is not allowed because it interferes with the recording devices and in the event of an appeal the transcriber will not be able to decipher the testimony.

    • Lionel says:

      Karim, you may want to explore this formula and still remain unobtrusive:
      Questioner to witness ——> whispered simultaneous. (recording device never records you) Witness to questioner ——–> consecutive. However, and i say this with much trepidation, but when working in the consecutive mode the interpreter has to be keenly cognitive about when to break the source so that the thought, message in the source language is not interrupted at a relevant, crucial point. A real challenge indeed.

  • sonja swenson says:

    I think this all goes back to an earlier blog entry you wrote about why US courts don’t use the same standards and conditions (ie simultaneous both ways, in a booth, with trained/accredited interpreters), as international criminal courts. Of course someone has to figure out a way to convince the judiciary and reticent interpreters that this is the best way, then figure out how to handle certain issues, such as whether bilingual attorneys/judges/jurors are required to wear their headsets when the LEP speaks in his/her language, what happens when English speakers realize that interpreter quality really does matter after all, if pay rates should increase if court interpreters are effectively now doing the same work as conference interpreters, etc… Hmm new project?

  • marzolian says:

    Interesting comments all. I have two questions:

    I attended a presentation three years ago which advocated more simultaneous interpreting, in particular for witness testimony. It was stated that jurors who do not speak the witness’s language will ignore the tone, body language, etc, while listening to listening to testimony being interpreted consecutively. Instead, they “turn off” the speaker and “tune in” only to the interpreter, most of the time. On the other hand, with consecutive, they are more likely to pay attention to the speaker’s facial expressions and body language when the testimony is being rendered simultaneously. Does that suggest that perhaps witnesses who speak the witness’ language should be treated differently?

    The loss of the speaker’s tonal information is quite noticeable when watching news reports on television. But that can be minimized. News reports often let the audience hear a few words in the original language before the speaker’s voice is “faded out” and we hear the voice of the interpreter. Or sometimes the original speaker’s voice is retained in the audio but at a much lower volume. Is that practical in court situations?

  • Liliya Robinson says:

    As an experienced trial interpreter, I would like to point out the fact that at any trial somebody’s life is at stake and we need to tread carefully as to any changes.

    Yes, the ideal choice will be rendering the message simultaneously, in the same register, tone of voice………BUT
    admit it, even the best simultaneous interpreters make mistakes,
    they have to correct themselves,
    when the court reporter has to clarify certain things,
    when the judge asks some questions,
    the defense attorney speaks,
    the prosecutor objects…….
    and now when everybody has headphones on and listen to interpreter trying to keep up and identify speakers and rendering what they say….. and I am not mentioning when there are speech defects, mumbling, defense attorney speaks too fast……
    ability to differentiate between different voices
    ability to multitask – listen to headphones and observe what’s going on in the courtroom
    these are just a few points that come to mind mind I just returned from a trial and will continue next week

    ACCURACY outweighs any other considerations when somebody is on the witness stand and


    Well, as a practicing interpreter, I will have to raise my liability insurance many times if I have to interpret witness testimony simultaneously. And not because I am a lousy simultaneous interpreter but because I know what might be “lost in interpretation” and why.

  • Judith Kenigson Kristy says:

    Some compelling arguments for “consecutaneous” interpreting at the stand have been presented (although I personally believe plain consecutive is more accurate) but one important element is lacking – the integrity of the RECORD. If the simultaneous interpretation of a question is incorrect, then the answer will also be incorrect (answering a different – wrong – question), creating a flawed record. However, the erroneous rendition of the question into the foreign language (FL) will presumably not be heard by anyone but the witness (in his/her headphones) who is in no position to doubt its accuracy, and there will be no recorded evidence of that erroneous interpretation of the question, nor of the FL answer for that matter. At present, if I’m not mistaken, only words spoken out loud in the courtroom are audio or video recorded – and the court reporter is the only person allowed to make such recordings. So, in effect, there would be no way to appeal a decision based on this wrong evidence because there is no recorded proof of the FL portions and, thus, the error(s). The Alfonzo case in Florida (see the article in NAJIT’s “Proteus”) is a good case in point: an incompetent interpreter made omissions and errors in most of her translations but, fortunately, the whole hearing was captured on tape because it was all audible (in consecutive mode). The tape was then reviewed and a transcription and translation of its contents revealed the interpreter’s errors. The wronged defendant was able to overturn the court’s decision based on those errors. With “consecutaneous” interpreting, would such a record exist, in regard to the quiet (inaudible in the courtroom) FL portions rendered into English in simultaneous mode? Probably not — most judges refuse to have several recordings going at the same time (it would have to be hooked up to the simul transmission system and would be asynchonous with the reporter’s recording); there is currently no technical provision for this and judges generally feel that it’s too much complication for the already-overburdened reporter. Until this problem is overcome, for justice to be served, consecutive interpreting on the stand should remain the method of choice. If there has been a solution presented somewhere, I’d love to hear about it.

  • I have a different idea of what consecutaneous is. My own personal invention. What you described to me is just switching back and forth between the two modes, simultaneous for the judge’s words, consecutive for the witness’ words. But consecutaneous for me would be consecutive in short phrases, not even complete sentences.That would be my ideal since I dislike consecutive so much (no one has a perfect memory) and it would be easier to keep up with than simultaneous. I know…lazy interpreter. But it would be nice. Maybe we could call it real time consecutive. (Just dreaming.)

  • There are times when consecutive interpreting is the better choice, especially on the witness stand. A clean record is a necessity. Cross examination can result in a need for consecutaneous or also if the witness is long winded.
    I do a lot of consecutive and a lot of simultaneous. I think consecutive is usually more accurate. The pace needs to be kept up, however.
    I’ve been working as a Court Interpreter for about 35 years. All forms of interpretation are needed, as is flexability. That’s my opinion.

  • David Gilley says:

    A little bit late, but I wanted to share a link to an opinion piece by Harry Obst which I think is relevant to this topic
    I tend to agree with his opinion, and with that of several comments here, that consecutive is much more accurate when coupled with effective note-taking because it allows the interpreter more time to analyze and render the best possible version in the target language.
    In my personal experience simultaneous is easier than remembering long utterances, but I think that it is also much more susceptible to calques from the foreign language, and to gross changes in meaning simply because the interpreter is so rushed that he has no time to detect errors.
    To echo the sentiment of Ms. Kenigson Kristy, professional interpreters should seek methods of detecting and correcting errors, and doing everything possible to maintain the integrity of the interpretation.

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