September 4, 2014 § 12 Comments
Good professional interpreters are usually consumed with taking care of their clients, improving their skills, managing their agenda, and marketing to new clients. This takes a lot of time and energy, and it is essential to succeed as an interpreter. Unfortunately, sometimes during their career some interpreters may experience other aspects of the profession that are less pleasant, more time-consuming, and very stressful.
Our professional tools are our brain, mouth, and a language combination. We can make mistakes, we are susceptible to questioning and second-guessing by others, and in our litigious society we are exposed to lawsuits that can leave us with no career, no resources, and a tainted reputation.
There are many circumstances that can affect our career as professional interpreters, but at this time I would like to focus on two of them:
The first one occurs when our work is subject to criticism and questioning by our peers or by others. This often happens in a legal setting. All court interpreters have faced situations when in the middle of a court hearing a judge, attorney, witness, litigant, and even a juror, have interrupted our rendition to correct what we just said. Most of the time we were right and they were wrong. On occasion, because we are not machines, and because nobody can possibly know all regional expressions, these voices do us a favor as they correct our mistake and allow justice to be served. These are the scenarios we usually face when doing our job. It sounds simple and straight to the point: Either we are right and we say so in order to keep the process moving along, or we are wrong, and in that case we correct our error. The same facts are true in a healthcare or community interpreting setting; even at the negotiating table or in the booth during a conference we sometimes make mistakes out of exhaustion, due to bad acoustics, a speaker with a heavy accent, or because we misunderstood a word or term. This is why we have team interpreting, this is why good interpreting equipment, an appropriate conference room, and breaks or recesses are important.
Unfortunately in the real world we have to deal with attorneys who are not happy because their foreign language speaking client or witness is not saying what they wanted them to say in the trial, and with doctors and nurses who want to dodge the consequences of their negligence, and with the party that lost at the business negotiating table, or with the agency that tries to justify the disaster caused by its outdated broken-down interpreting equipment. The first thing they all do is to cast a doubt over the rendition of the interpreter. It is even worse when all of this happens and you know that those who are questioning your work are clearly wrong.
The second situation I want to bring to your attention is when the same individuals mentioned above, decide to go for the jugular and to put the blame on the interpreter’s rendition; so they take you to court. They argue inadequate interpretation and you are sued for damages. How can we defend our work when our rendition is questioned and we know we are right? What can we do to protect ourselves in case somebody takes us to court for damages? There are preventive measures that we can take as interpreters to diminish the possibility of having to defend our work, our assets, and our reputation.
There are also steps we must follow in case our professional work is questioned or attacked in court.
These complex issues have to be addressed, and as true professionals we must be prepared in case this happens to us. For this reason, I will present: “How to Defend Our Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter” during Lenguando Londres in London on September 13, 2014 at 2:30 pm. I invite you to attend the event on the 13 and 14 of this month and see how you will be able to interact with some of the superstars of all language-related professions, and I encourage you to attend this presentation where we will discuss these sad but possible scenarios, we will explore the different preventive measures that we should always take in order to avoid an adverse outcome, and we will talk about the path to follow once our rendition or our skill has been formally questioned in a court of law. I hope to see you in London; but even if you are not attending, I ask you to share with the rest of us your experiences on having your rendition questioned, challenged, or having a lawsuit filed against you as an interpreter.
July 14, 2014 § 4 Comments
I was contacted by a colleague who wanted my opinion about a professional situation that was making her life miserable. Her problem was that she had been part of a court assignment where an attorney did something she disliked. At the time she contacted me she was debating about letting it go, or reporting the situation to the judge of the case. I listened to the facts, and I immediately remembered other events where an attorney’s conduct had been questioned by other interpreters. This is her story:
An interpreter was hired to work during a deposition at a law office. While waiting for the assignment to start, she had a conversation with other individuals in the waiting room. One of the others was also a court interpreter. Finally, after a long wait, a secretary came to the waiting room and announced that the deposition had been cancelled. The interpreter went home, she got paid on time for this assignment, and she forgot about this incident.
Several months later, she was contacted by another agency that offered her a transcription/translation assignment. She agreed, and a few days later she received a CD with the audio recording. She began the transcription, and about an hour into the transcription, she concluded that she knew at least one of the voices in the recording; it was the voice of another interpreter, in fact, it was the voice of the interpreter she had been talking to, months earlier at the law office, while she waited for the deposition to start. She immediately knew that she had to stop the transcription and report this circumstance to the agency. A decision had to be made about her involvement in the transcription job. Before contacting the agency, the interpreter decided to see if the other interpreter’s voice was all over the recording or just at the beginning. She had just been working on the transcription for about an hour, so she wanted to find out. She fast-forwarded the recording, and to her surprise, she now recognized a second voice: It was her own voice! She was part of the recording the agency sent her, and the recorded conversation was the one they had at the attorney’s office on the day the deposition had been cancelled months earlier. This obviously changed everything, and the possibility of continuing on the job if the parties consented to it after a full disclosure was now gone. She knew she could not continue transcribing the recording. She immediately contacted the agency and told them what happened. The agency retrieved the recording and sent it to another transcriber. The interpreter was paid for the work done even though the agency knew that they would never use the transcription. The real problem for the interpreter was that she did not know that she had been recorded and she wondered why this had happened, what they were going to use the tape for, and what she should do about the whole situation. She did not even know if the recording was legal or not.
The recording was related to the case where she had been hired to do the cancelled deposition; she knew the attorneys involved, and she had heard that they both practice law very aggressively. She felt bad and she felt cheated. The interpreter thought that this strategy had been sleazy and perhaps illegal. Her first impulse was to contact the judge in the case and let him know that she had been recorded without her consent. Something had to be done.
Fortunately, she waited and thought it over. Without revealing any names or details of the case, she consulted an attorney and learned that in her state, as long as one of the parties to a conversation is aware of the recording, and she consents to it, the rest need not know or consent for the recording to be legal and even admissible in court. Based on this, the interpreter did not go to the judge or anybody else. She had no legal standing and no law had been broken by the attorney who ordered the recording. In fact, she realized that she could not even disclose any of these facts to anybody else because of the interpreter duty of confidentiality, which cannot be broken unless a crime was committed or may be committed unless the interpreter speaks. Going to the judge would have been the wrong thing to do because she really had nothing to report. She learned a valuable lesson after this case because she understood that in an adversarial legal system, the attorneys may do things that we dislike, but as long as they are legal, they are allowed to do them, and we should not get involved or judge the legal strategy.
On the second case I will now share with you, I was interpreting in a plea hearing many moons ago. The defendant was going to enter a plea of guilty to a federal offense. I was working for the court. I arrived to the courtroom about fifteen minutes before the hearing, which was customary at that courthouse, I let the clerk know that I was there, and I sat down to wait for my case. The defense attorney arrived about five minutes later and asked me to help him with his client. He told me that the defendant, who was in detention, was already in the holding cell, and that he needed to talk to him for a few minutes before the judge came out for the hearing. As many of you know, this happens all the time in federal court in the United States, so I agreed and off we went next door to the holding cell. The moment we arrived I realized that the defendant spoke some English and understood many things; however, he was far from being fluent, and definitely needed an interpreter for the most complex legal concepts. As soon as we greeted the defendant the attorney started this, in my opinion, self- serving speech telling his client (the defendant) how hard it was to get him the deal with the prosecution, and that this was his chance to bring the case to an end by just pleading guilty to the charge in the plea agreement. Then the attorney “asked him” but in reality told him “the agreement is almost identical to the version you already saw before when I went to see you with the other interpreter, remember?” and “…the judge is going to ask you if you were interpreted the new version by a certified interpreter and you are going to say yes because if you don’t, then the judge will continue your case for another day, maybe in a month or two, and you will have to sit in jail all that time waiting to come back in here. All of it for a document that practically says the same that the one that was interpreted to you before. Do you understand?” Of course I interpreted all of this to the defendant and he said yes. Next, the attorney told his client that “… when the judge asks you if you have any questions you need to say no, unless you have any questions, and if that is the case we will have to come back before the judge in the future, and he is going to ask you if everything was interpreted to you into Spanish and you will say yes because as you remember we went to the jail and the interpreter interpreted everything, including your questions, right?” The defendant said “yes.” The attorney continued: “…Well then, let me ask you right now: has the plea agreement been explained and interpreted to you in Spanish?” The defendant answered: “yes.” The lawyer continued: “…Has your attorney answered all of your questions with the assistance of an interpreter” The defendant: “yes.” Finally the attorney added: “…Do you have any questions at this time for the judge, for me, or for anybody else about your case, charges and plea you are about to enter?” Once again the defendant said “no.” “…Great” said the lawyer; and added: “… So you know why you are answering the way you are right?” The defendant: “Yes, so I can go to prison sooner.” Attorney: “…and, even though we didn’t interpret the latest version of the agreement, since we went over another version that was practically identical, you will tell the judge that we did right?” Defendant: “Yes, I will tell him that you explained everything to me through the interpreter, and in my mind you did, and I really believe so, and I have no more questions. I know what I am doing and I just want for all of this to be over.”
We went in front of the judge who asked the very same questions. Both, the attorney and his client answered almost with the same words as they had used in the holding cell. The judge entered the conviction and the defendant left very happy with the outcome of the hearing, on his way out he told his attorney: “…thank you very much. You are a great attorney. You know what you need to do for the benefit of your client. I will send you clients…”
Although the attorney and the defendant did not lie to the judge because they phrased everything very carefully, thus avoiding breaking the law, and despite the fact that the attorney had fought for, and vigorously defended his client’s best interest, which was to go to prison as soon as possible so he could start some treatment not offered by the jail, I left the courtroom feeling a little strange. I knew there was nothing for me to do since no laws were broken, and everything had been legal strategy between client and attorney discussed in confidence and under the protection of the client-attorney privilege, but it took me a couple of hours to get over it; you could even argue that I did not get over this case since I am still telling the story so many years later, but the truth is that yes I got over the case, and the reason why I am sharing the story with all of you now is because both the defendant and the attorney have since passed away, so there is no privilege anymore.
I would like to invite you to share similar stories or comments about things you have done or were tempted to do when in your opinion an attorney did something sleazy.
June 3, 2014 § 4 Comments
I received a message from one of my students of court interpreting in Mexico City. With the new oral trial system that is now being implemented in Mexico there will be many opportunities for interpreters to find assignments in court settings, so she is considering becoming a court interpreter when she graduates from college. She researched the matter, and as she was getting deeper into the world of court interpreting she decided to contact me with some of her doubts. Her questions were very good, so I thought about responding through the blog so that others, in Mexico and elsewhere, with the same or similar concerns could learn a little more about this area of the profession. I asked her if this was an acceptable way to answer her questions, she said yes, so I wrote down my answers. As I was responding to the questions I realized that this would be a lengthy post so I decided to divide it in two parts. Part 1 was posted two weeks ago. I now invite you to read the rest of my answers to her questions.
- What do you do as a court interpreter when a legal concept in the target language is similar, but not equivalent, to a legal concept in the source language or vice versa? Do you explain it? How do you get the knowledge to identify equivalences or similarities if you studied law?
There are many times when the interpreter faces a situation where there are similar legal concepts but the exact legal term or figure does not exist in the other language. This happens more often between languages from countries that have different legal systems: written Roman Law versus oral Common Law. The general rule for the interpreter is that she does not have to explain or define anything. It is the attorneys’ job and duty to explain the law not only to their client, but if needed, to the court interpreter so she can do her job. In a situation where a competent interpreter who has done her homework runs into a legal concept that she does not understand, she must research it and study it as part of her preparation for the case, and if there is no time for that, she has to inform it to the judge or attorney, depending on the interpreters function in the particular proceeding, so the legal term can be explained to her. Many times the explanation will allow the interpreter to find the correct term in the target language. Interpreters, who have studied Law as your question says, have the advantage of knowing and understanding legal figures and terms without any explanation. If this is the case, and the interpreter is ambitious, she can study the legal figure from the country where she did not study law and this way find a better solution to her problem. This is one of the reasons why most legal systems require interpreters to comply with continuing education requirements. Fortunately for you, with the new legal system being implemented nationwide, Mexican court interpreters will not find this situation very often anymore.
- What happens when someone, the judge, prosecutor, or defense, realize that the interpretation is wrong or misleading? Is the interpreter penalized, and if so, what sanctions does he face?
Interpreters are human and they perform one of the most difficult tasks in the world. Court interpreting is so complex, that most court systems in the world are now requiring team interpreting for all hearings lasting over an hour. Any interpreter can unintentionally make a mistake and we all do at some point. It is what the interpreter does after the mistake that makes the situation irrelevant or serious. In most countries, mistakes due to bad acoustics, poor delivery by the speaker, interpreter fatigue, etc., can be easily corrected by an observation on the record amending the mistake. Other more serious mistakes due to a complex legal concept or a lack of context may be more relevant but they can also be cured by a correction as previously stated or by an admonition by the judge. Mistakes due to the interpreter’s ignorance can be corrected by the other member of the team who will discuss the discrepancy with the interpreter who made the mistake, and then together the team informs the court, outside the presence of the jury, that there was a mistake, the circumstances are explained, and if necessary, the judge will admonish the jury, and the attorneys will draft a special instruction for the jury that the judge will read at the end of the trial. On rare occasion the error could be so serious that there needs to be a mistrial. I can only recall one case but that particular case was really a judge’s error and not an interpreter’s. The interpreter who made the mistake can be sanctioned depending on the seriousness of the mistake and the applicable law. In general, sanctions could range from an informal reprimand to a temporary suspension followed by a probation period, to permanent revocation of the certification, patent or license. There is usually a formal procedure that includes notice and hearing, and the interpreter is allowed to retain the services of an attorney. Depending on the magnitude of the mistake there could be civil responsibility and the interpreter may be required to pay a fine and damages. This can only happen when ordered by a judge or jury after a civil lawsuit where the interpreter will be allowed to present witnesses and legal arguments through an attorney if he wishes to do so. Like all professionals, interpreters are encouraged to carry civil liability insurance (errors and omissions). If covered, the interpreter will be represented by the insurance attorneys and in most cases all he needs to do is to pay his deductible.
When the mistake is really an intentional act by the interpreter to defraud or mislead another individual, he could face criminal charges, and if convicted, he could go to prison.
- Are there laws or regulations that state the requirements that need to be met to perform as a court interpreter, and are there any written duties and rights?
All countries that employ the services of court interpreters as part of their judicial process have legislation that sets the minimum requirements to qualify as a court interpreter and to maintain that status. There are also authorities that regulate the profession setting procedures, protocols, responsibilities and rights. There are also ethical canons, and professional responsibility norms that control the way the services are provided. Some countries, like Mexico, are currently in the process of developing these legislation and regulations where all of the interpreter’s duties, responsibilities, work conditions and rights will be included. In the United States there are two levels of legislation and regulatory agencies: the federal level with the United States Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and the Federal Court Interpreter Act as the legal basis, and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) as the implementing federal agency. All states either have or are in the process of developing court interpreter legislation, and they all have a state-level Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) as their implementing agency. In Europe the legal foundation is twofold: it comes from the Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Rights to Interpretation and to Translation in Criminal Proceedings, and from the county-by-country legislation. Court interpreters in Europe have joined forces to ensure access to justice by the founding of the European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association (EULITA). In Canada it is the provincial regulatory bodies that grant the certifications and the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council (CTTIC) applies uniform standards across Canada. Most regulations and rules set minimum fees for court interpreters and basic work conditions.
- Some government court interpreting websites talk about working with certified and non-certified interpreters; why is that, and what advantages and disadvantages does that bring to the defense, prosecution/plaintiff, or judges?
The only acceptable option is that of a certified interpreter who has studied, tested, and proven to be able to provide the service. This however, is easier to do in smaller countries where there is not a wide variety of languages as there are in a country the size of the United States. In other words, the reason why you see non-certified interpreters even mentioned in these websites is because of the lack of interpreters. It is important to separate non-certified interpreters who work in languages where there is a certification program from those interpreters who work with languages with no certification program. For example, the United States has certification exams for three languages: Spanish, Haitian-Creole, and Navajo; at this time it only offers federal certification for Spanish interpreters, so it is understandable why a very good Russian interpreter is not federally certified. You cannot call them federally certified, but you cannot group them with the Spanish interpreters who failed the federal certification test and by that fact have demonstrated a lack of the minimum requirements to work in federal court in the United States. Depending on their own realities, some states offer certification in certain language combinations and other states do not. There are also administrative law courts in the United States, and remote courthouses in very little towns where there are no certified Spanish interpreters but there are many Spanish speaking litigants because it may be an agricultural center where many immigrants live. The dilemma appears when the system is confronted by a Constitutional mandate to provide interpreter services and a reality that says there aren’t any. It is for these cases that non-certified interpreters are used. In the United States this is happening less at the federal level in Spanish language cases because of new technology that allows a certified interpreter to provide her services remotely from a big city. Certified court interpreters are physically transported to the small towns if the case goes to trial or a long complex hearing is held. Speaking of Spanish court interpreters, the advantage this “compromise” brings to the parties, and in my opinion it is a very questionable one, is that they have an interpreter, they will at least have the best that was found, and the court can always stop the proceeding and demand a certified interpreter be provided either remotely or in person. The disadvantages are obvious: The court and parties will not have an interpreter that at least meets the basic requirements to work in federal court (a certification) The situation worsens when you see courts and attorneys hiring these marginal para-professionals when real certified court interpreters are available solely to save money as these individuals will usually (although not always) be cheaper than a certified court interpreter. There is also another problem in the United States and other countries that will hopefully be avoided in Mexico through legislation: Because the U.S. is a free society, there are plenty of language agencies, language “academies”, and “professional” associations who offer their own self-serving certification so that their lower-level “interpreters” can present themselves as “certified” or “licensed” and make the client believe that they are hiring somebody with professional credentials. There are those who justify this practice for what they call “lesser court cases” such as administrative court proceedings. I completely oppose this practice and I have written and spoken extensively against it.
- There are some suggested self-study techniques to become a good court interpreter, such as expanding your vocabulary, developing your own glossaries, developing your own interpreter techniques, and others. Do you have any tips or advice on how to do it?
I already addressed part of this question in Part 1 of this post when I discussed some of the things that a student can do to become a better court interpreter. I would add that you can expand your vocabulary by picking ten new words from the dictionary every weekday. At the end of a week you will know fifty new words; you will probably remember 15 to 20 and that will be a net increase of 20 words per week. Not bad. I would do the same with legal terminology. Pick a topic and learn the terms. By week’s end you will remember about twenty percent of what you studied and you will have a much better understanding of that legal figure: a contract, court proceeding, corporate document, etc. You can also develop your thematic glossaries; I would do a different one every month and I would use an application for that. I personally use Interplex because I have been using it for many years so I am used to it; I also like the fact that it is compatible with your telephone and tablet so you can have the glossaries with you anywhere you go. Finally, I suggest that when you watch a real court proceeding or when you go to a courthouse to watch a trial in person, you practice your rendition (in court under your breath of course) and when you do so, pay attention to those things that work for you, and develop them; this could be the way you come up with your own personalized note-taking system. When doing this, many years ago, I realized that it was easier for me to remember numbers and figures if I could associate them to the numbers of the jerseys of professional athletes. I am a big sports fan and I have always naturally remembered the players’ numbers, so for me it is very easy to remember an address let’s say on 3272 Main Street, if all I have to do is to remember Franco Harris (32) Mickey Mantle (7) Derek Jeter (2) Main Street. I know this system only works for me, but it works very well, and I came up with it by developing my own personalized technique.
I hope these answers helped you on your quest to become a court interpreter, and I hope they helped others in Mexico and elsewhere, including the United States, who are considering this profession. I also invite all of you to share with the rest of us any other suggestions or input you may have on any of the ten questions. I would love to hear from students, new interpreters, veterans of the profession; anybody who may be interested in helping the next generation to get there.
April 11, 2014 § 11 Comments
I have been very fortunate in my career. I have worked with some of the very best in the profession, and yes, sometimes I have worked with some colleagues, thankfully very few, who would fall short from that rating. As many of you know, I have worked all over the world and I have worked conference, diplomatic, court, and escort interpreting for many years. During those years I have observed and learned many things from this spectacular interpreters and I have also seen so many different styles.
One of the things that many colleagues do when simultaneously interpreting is that they close their eyes and gesticulate a lot. They use their hands to express what they are saying and to understand the concepts they are absorbing from the speaker. This works fine for them. Their renditions are impeccable. After years of working in a booth next to some of them I have become used to their style. I interpret differently. I do not use my hands or head to express what I am saying. I just sit there without any gesticulation. This works for me just as well as the opposite works for many great colleagues. I have no problem with either style when you are working in the booth and you are out of sight; in fact, I applaud those who have found this to be a tool to improve their interpreting skills. The important thing is to provide a good service and bridge the communication gap between the speaker and his audience.
Unfortunately, I am not so convinced that this effusive style is as effective in court as it is in the booth. Interpreters who work in the courtroom are not shield by the booth. Even if they work with equipment they are not out of sight. The equipment is usually of the portable kind, and even though many courts use wireless transmitters and receivers, the interpreter sits at the table next to the defendant or somewhere else in the courtroom in plain view of all participants: judge, jury, attorneys, witnesses, and defendant.
As part of their work, court interpreters can interpret difficult complex concepts and very detailed information. One of the reasons to have a court hearing is to assess the credibility of witnesses and litigants. The jury’s attention has to be focused on those testifying or arguing the law. The non-English speaker needs to understand what is going on in the courtroom and for that he often has to concentrate. Because of some of my professional interests, I often attend court hearings in different parts of the world and as an observer who is not involved in the process, I have noticed that gesticulating interpreters can be distracting. I have noticed how members of the jury are sometimes more interested and amused by the interpreters hand movements than by the witness’ testimony. I have seen how defendants pay more attention to what the interpreter does than to what the interpreter says. I do not think this is appropriate. I believe that the interpreter who is working in the courtroom has to be aware of the fact that he cannot be the center of attention; that unlike conference interpreters, court interpreters are visible to all. I understand that this may be their natural way to communicate, that they may need to do this to understand the message they are about to interpret. Unfortunately, I do not think that most jurors, attorneys, and litigants can just ignore their gesticulation and focus on the testimony. I think court interpreters should learn to control these movements and concentrate on accurate interpreting while being inconspicuous.
I find this to be a fascinating, delicate, and frankly touchy subject that is not easy to discuss with our colleagues. For a long time I hesitated to write this blog, but I finally did it because I want to hear what you all have to say about it. I ask you to please avoid personal attacks and comments about how gesticulating helps the interpreter. Instead, I invite you to share with the rest of us your thoughts on this issue: Is this interpreting style distracting to those participating in a court procedure?
November 11, 2013 § 7 Comments
In the past we have discussed professional and ethical issues in the blog, but I don’t believe we have ever tackled anything as serious as the situation I will share with you today. This happened to me many years ago and made me think about my professional and ethical boundaries as a court interpreter.
It all started when I was hired by an attorney to interpret during a final decree of dissolution of marriage hearing. In other words, I was retained to interpret in court for a person who was getting a divorce. I had never worked with this attorney before (or since) but I had seen him many times at different courthouses running from one courtroom to the next. He was a general practitioner who spoke Spanish, advertised on TV, and had a lot of cases. He called me, we agreed on my fee, and we made an appointment to meet at the courthouse right outside the courtroom some thirty minutes before the hearing. I arrived first and about ten or fifteen minutes later the attorney showed up accompanied by his client. Again, keep in mind that the attorney spoke Spanish. After the introductions, I asked the client the standard questions I am sure you all ask when you just met the non-English speaker: full name (for spelling purposes because there are no grammar rules when it comes to a person’s name) country of origin (for accent, regional expressions, and general vocabulary) academic background (to assess the individual’s mastery of the target language) and general health-related questions (in case the person may have a special request due to hearing problems for example) He answered all these questions to my satisfaction, and added that he “…had already discussed everything with (his) lawyer…(and) …everything was clear and in order…” The attorney, who was present during the exchange, confirmed in Spanish everything his client said. It was going to be an easy assignment.
When it was time for the hearing all three of us went inside the courtroom. As soon as I came in I noticed the court clerk, the court reporter, and the bailiff. I didn’t see the other party or her attorney. I asked my client about it, and he informed me that the other party was not going to appear. That she had been given notice by publication because she wasn’t at her last known address anymore, and that his client would probably be awarded sole custody of the children born to the marriage despite the fact that they were with the mother at an unknown location. This happens often, and I wasn’t complaining. The hearing was going to be even shorter. Boy I was glad I had successfully negotiated a generous minimum fee.
Next the judge came out and took the bench. The hearing started. After the bailiff called the caption of the case and my client and I entered our appearance on the record, the judge placed the Spanish speaker petitioner under oath and began questioning him. To my surprise, the petitioner told the judge that he and his wife had never lived together as a married couple in the United States. In fact, he told the court that his wife had never been to the U.S.
I looked at the judge and I saw that I wasn’t the only one in the courtroom that was shocked by the answers. The judge also learned that the petitioner had never paid child support to his children. Next the judge asked the petitioner when the last time he had known the respondent’s address was. The Spanish speaker said, and I interpreted, that although he didn’t know where his wife lived, he was pretty sure he could find out because her parents still lived at the same address they had lived at for over twenty years.
With that, the judge shook his head. Looked at the attorney for a long time, and then said: “…I hereby dismiss this petition for dissolution of marriage due to lack of jurisdiction. For this court to be able to hear this case, at some point in time the parties had to live within the judicial district as a married couple; unless without having lived within the jurisdiction, both parties voluntarily consent to the jurisdiction of this court. None of these circumstances happened in this case…” As if this wasn’t enough, addressing the petitioner, the judge added: “…Sir, I have no doubt that your attorney will explain to you what just happened. He will also explain to you the following order: It is the order of the court that petitioner pay child support to his minor children according to the schedule applicable to this district. The child support payment will be retroactive to the time when petitioner ceased to live with the minors. I find that I have jurisdiction to enter this order because petitioner is a resident of the judicial district. Good luck Sir…” The judge got up and exited the courtroom. There was absolute silence. The Spanish speaker turned to his attorney and asked him what had just happened. He even remarked: “…I don’t think I am divorced yet…” His attorney asked him to step outside the courtroom. We all did.
As we were leaving the courtroom, the attorney approached me and whispered to my ear in English: “…We better get your money from him right away. He won’t be a happy camper once he learns what just happened…” Once we were outside, the attorney told his client: “…Well, it didn’t go as we planned it, but we can fix it. I will explain everything when we get to my office…but first let’s pay the interpreter so he can go…” The Spanish speaker pulled out some cash and with no hesitation he paid me right at the steps of the courthouse. This was a first for me, but I had done my job, so I took my fee, gave him a receipt, and said goodbye. That was the last I heard about that case. To this date, more than twenty years later, I still don’t know what happened.
Now, for me to arrive to the conclusion that I should get paid for my services was a no-brainer. I did my job. The part of this situation that I had to debate in my head before I said my goodbyes was about the lawyer’s conduct and the damages caused to the petitioner by this apparent negligence. This is how I made my decision: First, I didn’t know all the facts. I had no way to know if the attorney and his client knew that a dismissal was a possibility, but what they were really trying to do was to avoid a long and costly divorce proceeding. It could be expensive to look for the spouse back in their home country. This could have been a strategy. Maybe the lawyer really spaced out and didn’t consider the possibility of a lack of jurisdiction; maybe they were going to regroup at the office and try to either find the spouse and get her to consent to the jurisdiction of the court, or to file a divorce petition in their country. Maybe the attorney was going to tell him that a child support order from this judge would be unenforceable back in his country, and that a child support ordered by a judge back home would involve a lesser amount that would be more in synch with the economy of the country of his children. Or maybe he was just going to apologize and refund the attorney’s fees. The thing is that I didn’t know and I had no reason to think the worst. Not many lawyers are willing to lose their license and reputation for a case that small. He was a big shot with TV ads and lots of clients. Moreover, that was not my role. I had no legal, professional, or ethical grounds to do anything other than to take my money and leave. There are legal channels for people who want to redress a controversy. The petitioner had to be the one to decide to do that, not me. The fact that he did not speak English did not mean that he was incapable to defend himself, and it certainly didn’t give me the right to get involved in a situation that was not my business. The judge didn’t get involved. He even said that he had no doubt that the attorney would explain everything to his client. So you see, I defeated that impulse that many colleagues have to become super heroes, and I stayed out of it. Of course, if subpoenaed, I would have testified to what I saw and heard, but that is different. To this day I believe that I did the right thing and I would like to hear from you to see if you agree or disagree. I also invite you to share with all of us other situations where you have faced ethical or professional issues and the way you resolved them.
September 16, 2013 § 11 Comments
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.