Please do not confuse court interpreters with conference interpreters.

September 23, 2019 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I will not write about a new topic. My post deals with something we have heard for years, and has been brought up to me in various ways recently. During the last few months I have seen interpreting agency websites that claim they only use certified court interpreters to interpret during their conferences. I heard a colleague proudly say in a professional conference for interpreters and translators he always “recommends federally certified court interpreters (in the U.S.)” when hired to interpret in the booth; and I recently had dinner with some colleagues who looked surprised when I told them that retaining certified court interpreters to work in a conference was a bad idea.

This article is not an attack on court interpreting. It is not written against conference interpreters either. I know both disciplines. During my career I have practiced them both. They are complex, demanding professional services that require preparation, skill, and talent. It is difficult to be a court or a conference interpreter, but they are two very different disciplines which require of a competent practitioner, and most of the time, that individual is not the same person. Let me explain:

Conference interpreting is conveying a message spoken in a language into another. It is practiced at international summits, professional seminars, congresses and meetings, bilateral or multilateral meetings of corporate executives, heads of state and government, and meetings between chief executives and labor union representatives (aiic.net April 23, 2012)

Conference interpreters must have a good mind, a complete mastery of their working languages, including an excellent command of their native language. They need an immediate grasp of their passive languages, and a well-developed capacity to express themselves in their own language.  To achieve this, they need a good level of general education, a lively and flexible intellect, analytic capacity, the ability to put themselves in the minds of those for whom they are interpreting, and they need to concentrate, have good memory, a pleasant voice and good diction, physically and mentally robust, and able to interpret for a massive audience. (https://aiic.net/page/4003/conference-interpreting-is-the-interpretation-of-a-conference/lang/1)

Court interpreting, on the other hand, is the oral transmission of information by lawyers, judges, litigants, and witnesses from a source language into a target language for a legal proceeding inside and outside a court setting. Court interpreters must be fluent in more than one language, and they need to know of legal terminology and procedure.

A court interpreter interprets in a court proceeding such as arraignments, motions, preliminary hearings, pre-trial conferences, depositions, trials, and sentencing hearings. They also interpret outside the court at attorneys’ offices, detention centers, and prisons. They must completely and accurately interpret for individuals with a high level of education and for persons with very limited language skills without changing register, altering, omitting, or adding anything to what is stated, and without explanation. They need interpersonal skills as they work next to their clients, a good level of public speaking, endurance, concentration, and acute sense of hearing, and the ability to remain neutral, and control and hide their personal emotions regardless of the controversy and the facts of the case. (https://courts.michigan.gov/Administration/SCAO/OfficesPrograms/Documents/access/FAQs.pdf)

Court interpreting has very special characteristics that set it apart not just from conference interpreting, but from all other types of community interpreting such as healthcare, public assistance, school, etc.

Court interpreters must interpret everything said in a hearing, the rendition must be complete; summarizing, omitting speech defects such as false starts, stuttering, and utterances is not allowed. They must maintain the speakers register, which fluctuates from formal and legal when interpreting what attorneys and judges say, to scientific and technical, when interpreting expert testimony, to crude, vulgar speech, idiomatic expressions, and criminal lingo such as gang or drug dealer talk. Generally, they work under adverse conditions without a booth, in crowded and noisy settings, and without a partner. Unless they interpret for a trial, most of their assignments are less than two hours, but they work several assignments in a day with no consideration for the vocal cords. These interpreters’ goal is to interpret everything for the record in case there is an appeal later on, and to provide judges, jurors, and attorneys, all linguistic elements needed to assess the credibility of a witness or a party to the controversy so they can reach a verdict or decision.

Court interpreters cannot explain what they are interpreting. When working for the courts, they must be neutral at all times, and leave all explaining to the legal professionals. Because they are responsible for a complete and accurate rendition, they must correct any errors or mistakes as soon as they realize they incurred on them. Their loyalty is to the record of the proceedings.

Finally, because of the unique nature of their field, court interpreters are officers of the court, they must be certified, they work under oath, and they are covered by the client-attorney privilege which is a higher level of protected confidentiality than any ethical or professional duty conference interpreters abide by.

Conference interpreters serve a different purpose. They interpret so the parties can communicate when they do not have a common language, and because their main objective is that the parties understand each other, their rendition must be coherent, clear, pleasant, rendered at a good pace. They must convey the message which they must understand first, and then transform, reorganize, and render so it is proper of the target language with the right syntax and equivalent expressions. To transmit the main message, conference interpreters need not interpret everything a speaker says, only the relevant portions of the speech. If needed, conference interpreters can summarize, avoid the obvious and redundant, put what is being said in context so it can be better understood by the audience, even if this means the interpreter has to add a reference or short explanation in the target language. Unlike, court interpreters, conference interpreters correct mistakes at the first opportunity it is reasonable to do so, even if several minutes go by, and they can use their rendition to correct mistakes and clarify concepts. Conference interpreters work in teams of 2 or 3, they rarely meet their audience face to face as they perform their services from a booth usually, and their work takes place under a controlled environment with clear sound and few distractions. Conference interpreters work multi-day assignments and must travel often during the year. Unless they are placed under oath due to the nature of the event to be interpreted or for security reasons, they need not work under oath all the time.

There are differences on the way the services are performed:

Conference interpreters work from a soundproof booth most of the time; they hear the speaker through a headset, and their work is mostly rendered in the simultaneous mode. Because the goal is that the foreign speaking audience understand the message, interpreters practice decalage (the length of time between the start of the speech and the beginning of the interpretation) A longer decalage allows for higher accuracy because the interpreter gets more context before interpreting. It also allows for a better paced, clear, pleasant rendition the audience will enjoy and understand.

Court interpreters need to interpret at a speed higher than conference interpreters because they must interpret everything, as it all must go on the record. There is little to no decalage in court interpreting as the simultaneous rendition usually involves more than one speaker. To avoid foreign language speakers get lost, interpreters have to stay as close to the speaker as possible, so the audience sees who is the person being interpreted at that specific time. For example, for the foreign language speakers to understand the rendition during an objection by one attorney, the interpreter has to finish the first speakers’ speech almost with the speaker, and then immediately interpret the objection by the other party. The jurors also should see the reactions of foreign language speakers to what is being said in court. Interpreters need to stay very close to the speaker they are interpreting. Obviously, sometimes this gives interpreters no time to process and put in context what was said, and it is usually very difficult to understand even a good rendition because of the speed of the interpretation. Completeness for the record and not a pleasant paced rendition is what interpreters are looking for.

There is little consecutive interpreting in conference settings. It is usually reserved for official dinners, press conferences, or tours of infrastructure such as industrial plants, military facilities, and others; When there is consecutive interpretation it is long consecutive. Speakers talk for several minutes nonstop, sometimes for up to 20-30 minutes; interpreters concentrate, apply their memory skills, visualization, and take notes. Once the speaker stops, interpreters take a moment to organize their ideas, go to the beginning of their notes, and start their rendition observing the appropriate grammar and syntax of the target language. Once the interpreter finishes the interpretation, the speaker continues his talk, and so it goes until the end of the event. This consecutive interpretation requires of great skill, practice, concentration, and the interpreters’ attitude to be on the spot.

Court interpreters use consecutive interpreting every day, but they practice short consecutive. This mode of court interpreting is used for all dialogues between individuals who do not share a common language. They renditions into the target language have to be on the record. Short consecutive is used when interpreting witnesses’ testimony and questions to the foreign language speaker by the court.  Consecutive interpretation in court is often complicated by the difference between the educated speech of attorneys and judges, and the popular, uneducated speech used by many parties and lay witnesses. Interpreters rely mostly on their memory for this rendition, they can ask for repetitions and clarifications from attorneys and parties, and they must start their rendition almost immediately after the question was asked, because their interpretation of the answer by a witness or defendant has to be contemporaneous to the witnesses body language, facial expressions, and other reactions so jurors can take them in as one and better assess the credibility of the person testifying from the witness stand. Unlike conference interpreters, court interpreters start their consecutive rendition while they are still looking for the beginning of their notes (usually one or two pages at the most). Court interpreters’ consecutive interpretation faces another problem: unlike conference interpreters, who interpret for an individual eager to convey his message at the press conference, court interpreters have to interpret consecutively evasive answers, half-truths, utterances, and false starts, often unresponsive. In these settings, many witnesses are testifying against their will, and they try to hide their involvement, or they try to exaggerate or downplay the facts so it is more beneficial to their personal interests.

Sight translation happens in a conference setting rarely; it is usually in a written speech interpreters get ahead of time. Many colleagues do a simultaneous rendition while following along if the speaker deviates, as it frequently happens, from the written statement.

Court interpreters practice sight translation more often. It usually involves documents interpreters never see before the hearing, generally police reports, criminal complaints, indictments, and plea agreements. It is common to see interpreters requesting a recess to look at more complex documents they were just handed in open court without prior notice.

As you can see, these are two very different disciplines, both require of specialists who can do the job, but that court interpreters are certified to work in court means they have passed a rigorous exam that tested their skills as described above, not their knowledge and skills as conference interpreters.

Court interpreters are not lesser interpreters by any means, but their skill is not appropriate for a conference setting. Many colleagues and clients complain of events interpreted by certified court interpreters who spoke very fast, interpreted every single noise that came from the speaker’s mouth, and constantly interrupted a speaker during a consecutive rendition because they are used to a 2 to 3-minute segment before consecutively interpreting it.

There are many interpreters who successfully transitioned from court to conference, and even some who practice both disciplines. The difference is they understood the difference between the booth and the courtroom and acquired the needed knowledge and skills.

Just as it would be disastrous to assign a conference interpreter to do a trial, it is appalling that agencies and court interpreter colleagues accept conference assignments because they believe they are ready for them. Unfortunately, agencies seek these court interpreters because they are paid less money than their conference counterparts, agree to work alone, do not demand preparation materials, and gladly work from a table top or sitting behind a table using portable equipment.

I invite all my conference interpreter colleagues, in places like the United States where we see this situation all the time, to sit down with their clients and explain these differences between court and conference work, and I ask all my court interpreter friends to please understand these are two disciplines. Those who want to cross over to conference work need to do it right, commit to study and practice until they can honestly call themselves conference interpreters. I now invite you to share with us your thoughts on this subject.

What is the appropriate consecutive rendition from the witness stand?

November 15, 2016 § 7 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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