What is the appropriate consecutive rendition from the witness stand?

November 15, 2016 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Court interpreting is a complex task that requires of all main modes of interpretation: simultaneous, sight translation, and consecutive.  There seems to be a consensus among court interpreters as to when simultaneous interpreting and sight translation are required during a judicial proceeding. I am afraid that we cannot say the same about a consecutive rendition.

Consecutive interpreting is convenient, and for that reason, widely used during client-attorney interviews at the law office, detention center or courthouse. It is also the mode most attorneys use to prepare their witnesses for the stand.  Even those attorneys and interpreters who favor simultaneous interpretation partially use the consecutive rendition. It is common to have a situation where the interpreters simultaneously interpret the attorney’s questions or remarks to the client or witness while resorting to the consecutive mode for the answers.

For reasons we will not discuss on this post, many courthouses have adopted this system for direct and cross-examination of foreign language-speaking witnesses during a trial. They employ the services of two court interpreters: One interpreter, located away from the witness stand, sometimes in a booth, others at a dedicated table in the courtroom, simultaneously interprets the questions for the witness who gets the rendition via a receiver and an earpiece. The other interpreter, sitting or standing next to the witness stand, waits for the foreign language-speaking witness to answer the question aloud in his or her native language, and then interprets said answer consecutively. Some have proposed that both, question and answer be interpreted simultaneously from a booth using standard interpreting equipment, with the jury, judge, attorneys, and others listening to the answers through a receiver and an earpiece, the same way a question and answer session is conducted in a conference setting. So far, I have not seen this anywhere, and later we will address what I believe are the reasons why this has not been attempted.

Therefore, most courtrooms use consecutive interpreting at least for the answers given by the witness, defendant, victim, or expert, from the witness stand. The controversy arises at the time of deciding what kind of consecutive interpretation is best suited for a trial.

We all know that there are two main types of consecutive interpreting: long consecutive, used in conference settings, press conferences, diplomatic and ceremonial acts, and others; and short consecutive, generally considered as the rendition of choice for court proceedings. Recently healthcare interpreters have entered the professional stage as a major presence; they generally use an even shorter form of consecutive interpreting than the one chosen by many court interpreters.

Dear friends and colleagues, I constantly travel for professional reasons, and my trips take me to places where I have a chance to meet and talk to local interpreters who share their concerns, ideas, and experiences with me. This, together with my own experience as a court interpreter for many years, and what I have observed in courtrooms of several nations, made me realize that there are two distinct schools of thought: Some of our colleagues believe that interpreters should use long consecutive from the stand, and others think that short consecutive is more appropriate.

Let’s see:

We call long consecutive the interpretation of a segment of a speech in the source language that the interpreter renders into the target language after the orator has spoken for about 10 to 15 minutes (sometimes longer) relying on his concentration, memory, visualization, and note taking, rendering longer messages with more complete ideas and more separated in time. It is used by diplomatic, media (press conference) and conference interpreters. It requires of a skilled interpreter who knows the basic consecutive interpreting techniques, and allows for the source speaker to convey more complete thoughts, as he is not encouraged to cut the ideas short for the sake of shortening the segments. Interpreters who defend this type of rendition argue that it fosters a more comprehensive answer or narration of facts, helps the jurors and judge understand the answers, and because of its complexity, it requires more seasoned, capable interpreters, eliminating mediocre ones who simply cannot provide a lengthy consecutive interpretation. A lot of formally educated, and current and former conference interpreters favor this modality.

Short consecutive works with shorter segments of speech, often lasting between 10 seconds to one minute, or about fifty words (U.S. Federal Court Interpreter Examination handbook) and it is used in court hearings and other legal settings such as depositions and witness preparation sessions. It requires a skilled interpreter who mainly relies on memory, but also uses concentration, visualization, and a note taking system that is quick enough for the interpreter to begin the rendition almost immediately after the speaker finishes the segment in the source language. The length of the segment makes it difficult to embrace very long elaborate descriptions, as the orator is encouraged to stop for the interpretation after one or two sentences.  The interpreters who advocate for the short consecutive rendition argue that it is more accurate and detail-oriented as the interpreter can easily recall everything the witness stated, and it offers a more dynamic exchange and rhythm between witness and interpreter, which is often needed when witnesses are nervous, intimidated by the process, reluctant to testify, or not very sophisticated. It is true that, for many reasons, some court interpreters believe that they cannot render a long consecutive interpretation (lack of proper training, note-taking skills, practice, etc.)

In general, not speaking of court interpreting, I personally like the long consecutive mode better because it lets the speaker stitch together his thoughts and ideas, and it allows me, as the interpreter, to understand the message better. This results on a better rendition.

However, to determine what is more appropriate for a testimony during a court proceeding, first we need to answer the most fundamental question: Why is it necessary to interpret what was said at the witness stand?

Unlike interpreting the entire court proceedings for the foreign-language speaking parties (plaintiff, defendant, victim) interpreting the testimony of a witness who does not know, or is not fluent, in the language used in court is not done for the benefit of said individuals, after all, they speak the same language as the witness; it is done for the attorneys, and more importantly: for the judge and jury so they can properly evaluate the witness’ testimony and determine if they will believe all, part, or nothing of what the person said. Because the judge and juror do not speak the foreign language, they could not evaluate the credibility of the witness without the interpretation. You see, interpreting for the witness, is an essential part of the process of reaching a decision about the facts of a case.

But understanding the statement of a witness through an interpreter is not enough. In order to assess credibility, judges and jurors must look for, and consider, other clues such as body language, facial expressions, utterances, reactions to a question, demeanor, and others.  Sometimes a witness may be saying one thing with his words and a very different thing with all these other clues.

Therefore, judges and jurors must be given a chance to perceive and link all of these clues in real time. A short consecutive will allow them to consider all of these elements as closely to the verbal answer as possible. A long consecutive removes the jury from the moment when the words were said by the witness, making it more difficult to associate all clues and reach a reliable conclusion. Long consecutive will showcase the interpreter’s skills, but will foster distraction as it is difficult for a juror to follow a speech that he does not understand for several minutes. This happened in the defunct League of Nations, a precursor of the United Nations Organization born after World War I. The delegates to the League would speak in their native language and then the entire speech would be consecutively interpreted into a second language, and then into a third language, and so on. Because these delegates did not understand the original speeches, or their consecutive interpretation into other foreign languages, they could not pay attention to the speech itself, and in many cases would leave the session because they knew that the interpretations would also take a long time. Eventually, when the United Nations were founded, this consecutive interpreting practice was eliminated and replaced with the new, technologically more advanced simultaneous interpretation.

It is also true that court interpreters must interpret everything a witness says: false starts, stutter, utterances that may not be a word, redundancies, repetitions, and so on. Remember, the jurors and judges are assessing the credibility of the witness and all of these elements are very important during that process.

When the rendition comes right after the witness’ answer, there is no doubt that judges and jurors will be able to link one of these renditions to the original speech and to the body language.  It is also more likely that the interpreter will remember all of these circumstances better when he just heard them a few seconds ago. It is widely held that short consecutive is more precise than a long rendition, and in these circumstances it is more evident.  Also, a short consecutive will allow the attorneys and judges to direct the witness to answer a question or to object to an answer more efficiently.  It makes it possible for an interpreter to clarify a term or expression with the person speaking from the witness stand.

In my opinion, even though I like long consecutive better, I believe that a short rendition is more appropriate for court.

We still need to determine how short that rendition needs to be.

There are two main tendencies when it comes to short consecutive court interpreting from the witness stand: Those who want an extremely short segment of just a sentence or a couple of phrases, and the interpreters that believe that consecutive interpreting in court should be short, but it also needs to make sense, fulfill its purpose.

During my years of practice in court I saw some interpreters who were busy stopping the witness every other sentence, according to them: for accuracy; according to me: because of mediocrity on the part of the interpreter. I do not believe that you can argue accuracy when faced with a rendition that goes like this:

“…can you please…” stop. Interpretation follows.

“…tell us your name for the record…” stop. Interpretation follows.

Extremely short segments risk the possibility of producing a testimony that nobody can understand, and cutting the witness’ train of thought, resulting in unintended omissions by a witness who can never get to the point of concentration, and that could be very serious.

Short consecutive in court must be long and flexible enough, for a witness to tell part of his story in a coherent, logical fashion where he feels free to finish an idea before having to stop for the interpretation. Sometimes, this can be achieved with a ten second segment, but sometimes the witness may need three or four minutes to share the facts of the case in a way that is clear, complete, detailed, and gives the judge and jurors the necessary tools to evaluate the credibility of that witness.

It is also important to mention that the court interpreter should always allow the witnesses to finish his statement (unless the judge orders him not to). Because of this complex interpretation, that is almost like a dance between witness and interpreter, a good interpreter must talk to the witness ahead of time, explain what is needed to have a good accurate rendition, and in my opinion, the interpreter must be in the proximity of the witness (being careful not to obstruct the view of judge and jurors) so that clarifications, repetitions, and hints as to stop at the end of a segment (maybe through eye contact, a hand signal, or other) can be done without disrupting that rhythm. This is, in my opinion, the main reason why we have not seen the proliferation of two-way simultaneous interpretation from the witness stand. The interpreter needs to be with the witness, not in the booth or somewhere else.

You see, court interpreting is sui generis; it often breaks the rules of other more conventional types of interpreting. It is not just about the message, it is about the credibility of the individual delivering the message, and for that reason, the obvious, the redundant, and the obscene have to be interpreted from the witness stand. I now ask you to share with us your comments about consecutive court interpreting from the witness stand.

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§ 6 Responses to What is the appropriate consecutive rendition from the witness stand?

  • Miguel Socarras says:

    I have some experience at the witness stand as a court interpreter, and I am also in favor of exclusively using short consecutive for witness testimony. In addition to the well explained reasons stated in the article, I would like to add that questions as well as answers should only be done consecutively. I am going to direct my comments to the questions part since the answers have been explained very clearly. I am of the opinion that in order to correctly phrase a question in the target language, the whole question must be heard first in the source language. It can take a longer, but the accuracy of the question is much better. Many times when interpreting a question simultaneously, halfway through the question, it has to be rephrase or the interpreter have to wait to the end to complete the question thus creating an uncomfortable syntax. The other reason why I prefer the use of consecutive when interpreting question at the witness stand is that today the use of recording is almost universal and interpreters are not infallible. In case of a doubt with the interpretation of the question, by the other interpreter team member or anyone else in the court room, you can always go back to the recording to verify the interpretation. In case of a simultaneous interpretation only the interpreter and the witness hear the interpretation. If the answer is unresponsive or awkward, everyone assumes that it is the witness fault and that is not always the case.

  • Vinka Valdivia says:

    I agree with most of what you’ve written here. I especially appreciate the explicit message that interpreters should interpret every false start, utterance, and errors. I’ve found that so many of my colleagues don’t do this, thinking that it makes them look bad when, in fact, they are obligated by our code of ethics to do so precisely for the reason you pointed out: it conveys things about the person testifying.

    What I don’t think is advisable even if it were possible is a so-called long consecutive. I doubt anyone could render 10-15 minutes accurately, certainly not for what is required in court. 1-3 minutes is already an enormous amount. Try recording yourself speaking for that long and see how much text that really covers. You mentioned this briefly in your post, but it should be repeated that all parties lose interest when the interpretation is too far removed from its original message.
    I would argue that 1-3 minutes is already a long consecutive and should be the limit. Most interpreters I’ve seen are not capable of rendering that length for the very reasons you cited.

  • It depends on the type of hearing, the witness, etc. We must have a big tool box to use what’s within as needed. Fifty words or less is good. After that, it’s risky for court, as far as accuracy. Vinka’s last paragraph above has about 33 words. Read that once, and interpret it perfectly without missing any nuance.

  • Witness stand testimonies vary greatly, as does the quality of interpretation. If it is a Q&A session, short consecutive interpreting may be the most appropriate, but during the same testimony a witness may need to recount a situation that may call for long consecutive, when done correctly and generally is not longer than 3 minute renditions. Long consecutive as is still taught, of 10-20 minutes, is rarely used these days for the reasons you mention. The most important thing is that interpreters know both long and short consecutive. You never know if a situation will call for a traditional long consecutive and a well-trained interpreter should have such skills. However in legal, more than any other specialization, care to remain faithful (not literal) is of the utmost importance. Hesitations and repetitions need to be interpreted. Some interpreters only have a two-day orientation before starting to practice, so some simply are not trained enough, period. Adequate legal interpreter training and certification should be a requirement for practice. Qualified professionals should know what to do and how to do it. Certified medical interpreters use short consecutive, long consecutive, sight translation, and simultaneous mode, depending on what the medical situation calls for. In both medical and legal interpreting you may have a one word answer or a long story that cannot be interrupted. The linguistic skills used are the same. The level of difficulty is the same.

  • Alba says:

    Perfect! May I share this in my Linkedln profile? It would be very useful and helpful for us, Court Interpreters in Kosovo. Thank you!

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