When the court interpreter asks for a sidebar.

February 11, 2014 § 42 Comments

Dear colleagues:

There are times when the court interpreter is already working in the courtroom and he comes across certain information, notices something in the courtroom, or faces a situation that makes his job unnecessarily difficult.  Usually the recourse is to let the judge know. This is an effective way to solve most problems and continue providing interpretation services during the judicial hearing.  Unfortunately, depending on the issue at stake, this is more difficult when working in the presence of a jury.

All court interpreters should know that, to avoid a mistrial, certain things cannot be said in front of an already impaneled jury.  What is left for the interpreter to do under these circumstances?  The same thing attorneys do: Ask for a sidebar.  Now I would like to share a story that happened to me several years ago while I was interpreting during a criminal trial in the United States.

A colleague and I were interpreting for a defendant charged with a crime that involved some horrible physical injuries.  It took the first two days of the trial to pick a jury, and it took the prosecution another three days to present their case to the jury.  The first defense witness took the stand on the sixth day.  It just happened that this witness did not speak English so we had to interpret for both: defendant and witness. We did a consecutive rendition of the testimony and we positioned ourselves next and right behind the witness stand.  We interpreted over the courtroom sound system so the defendant heard all the questions and answers in Spanish.  Direct examination by the defense began that morning. Nothing out of the ordinary to this point except for the fact that the prosecuting attorney spoke Spanish.

It was my turn to interpret so I started the afternoon session. After the first standard questions about the witness’ name and occupation, the defense attorney asked him questions about the facts of the case.  The witness started answering in Spanish and his testimony disputed what up until then the prosecution had advanced as their theory of the case.  It was clear to all Spanish speakers in that courtroom that this testimony was not favorable to the prosecution. As the witness was speaking, the prosecutor stood up and objected to the witness’ answer stating that the testimony was hearsay.  The judge sustained the objection.  It bothered me that this English speaking judge had granted the prosecutor’s objection even before I interpreted the witness’ answer into English. The defense attorney said nothing. Two or three questions later the same thing happened again.  At this time I was very concerned about the direction this was heading to, so when the prosecutor objected for the third time I got up, raised my hand and asked for a sidebar.  The judge and attorneys were a little confused but after hesitating for a fraction of a second the judge asked us to approach. While walking towards the bench I turned to the witness stand and signaled the other interpreter (who was then sitting behind me as she was the supporting interpreter at that time) to join us for the sidebar.

As soon as we were all in front of the judge I voiced my concern. I told the judge that I believed that in order to sustain or deny an objection there has to be something on the record for the objecting party to object to a statement by a witness, and that sustaining or denying an objection without having heard the objectionable statement probably was not the best way to act.  The judge asked me to clarify so I basically told her that my rendition into English reported on the record by the court reporter is the actual testimony, that an attorney who objects to an answer given by a witness in a foreign language is not objectionable unless it is first interpreted into English. Before this happens the answer given in Spanish is not part of the record and therefore, there is nothing to object. My second argument was that the counterpart, the defense in this case, had no way to argue against the objection because he does not speak Spanish and does not know what the witness said.  Finally, I told the judge that in my humble opinion, as a non-Spanish speaker, she would also need to wait for the interpretation of the answer given in Spanish before she could decide what to do with the objection.  There was silence after I spoke. A few moments later the judge said: “He is absolutely right. We have to wait for the interpretation.” We had no more problems with that or any other Spanish speaking witness for the rest of the trial.

About two weeks later I was contacted by the head prosecutor in that judicial district who invited me to give a talk to all of this prosecutors about this issue.  Dear colleagues, do not lose sight of the fact that as interpreters we are officers of the court, and as such, we must use all the tools that the system gives us in order to do our part to preserve the integrity of the judicial process.  During my career I have asked for a side bar in countless occasions when I have faced a situation similar to the one I mentioned above.  Now I invite you to tell us your sidebar experiences and to share with us some of the difficulties you have faced while on the job and how you have solved them.

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