November 12, 2018 § 1 Comment
I recently learned that some federal district courts got involved in the way federal prosecutors pick their interpreters for hearings. I have practiced in federal court for many years, and the decision on who will interpret for the office of the United States Attorney has always been left to the prosecutors who know the case better than anybody else. This means they, and their prosecutorial team of paralegals, investigators, detectives, and law enforcement agents, know the language complexities of a particular case, and therefore, better equipped to decide who they need for that interpreting assignment.
I do not dispute that some districts, because of a lack of federally certified court interpreters, or out of plain ignorance, have never tried a case where the assistant U.S. attorneys (AUSA) have their own interpreters for a trial. Some districts are so small, the AUSA office does not even have a staff interpreter. Some districts are so remote, that even the court tries cases with unqualified court interpreters (usually certified or accredited at the state level) because it is next to impossible to get somebody to the courthouse. Evidentiary hearings and trials require that an interpreter be physically present at the hearing. Remote interpreting is not a viable option for these proceedings.
That some have always followed this practice does not make it right, and courts in districts in urban centers where federally certified court interpreters are available have no reason to inject themselves in what should be an internal process of the Department of Justice. Let me elaborate:
The American legal system, and all legitimate legal systems in the world, are based on an independent judiciary free to decide with no pressures or fear of retaliation. The United States Constitution recognizes and enshrines this principle through the separation of powers. The Executive Branch of the federal government originates from Article 2. The Judicial Branch stems from Article 3.
With administration of justice in a criminal case, all individuals in the United States have the rights and protections established by the Constitution and secondary legislation; mainly, the right to a public and fair trial by their peers, starting with a presumption of innocence, charging the Executive Branch of government, through the United States Department of Justice, with the burden of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, in an orderly regulated process, presided by and controlled by the Judicial Branch of government. To put it simply: Because the government cannot be judge and party, it is an agency from outside the Judicial Branch, in this case the Justice Department, who prosecutes the case on behalf of the U.S. government, including the citizens that the government must protect from the bad guys.
We can see that having the burden of proof is no small task. Federal prosecutors must investigate de facts, test and evaluate the evidence found, and prepare a case that will persuade the jury and judge of an individuals’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt. If successful, the Justice Department will meet its duty to protect society. This is no easy task; it also means that individuals will lose their assets, their freedom, and even their life. A prosecutorial team must have the best team available to fulfill its function, and that is extremely difficult.
Federal prosecutors must call witnesses to testify in the trial. When these witnesses do not speak English, their testimony must be interpreted into English to benefit the defendant, the defense attorneys, the judge, and the jury. It is only then, after the rendition of the interpretation, that the defendant will have exercised his constitutional right to confront the witness or accuser. It only after the rendition that a judge or jury can assess the credibility of the witness. It is this time they will decide if they believe all, part, or nothing of the witness’ statement.
But most of the work is done before the witness steps in the courtroom and takes the stand. Prosecutors and their teams test, evaluate, and prepare their witnesses before a trial. Questions are asked many times, in many ways; adjustments are made. Not to influence testimony, but to present the truth clearly to the trier of fact (judge or jury). Usually the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution is very complex, specialized, scientific. Dense concepts and sophisticated terminology must be interpreted into English during the trial; cultural concepts must be clarified before the final rendition (many expert witnesses come from abroad just for the trial); legal systems compared so the accurate term in the target language is rendered by the interpreter. Leaving loose ends is not an option: The prosecution must prove, and the standard could not be any higher: beyond reasonable doubt. Prosecutors and their teams, assisted by the interpreters, go over the testimony with every witness as many times as needed. These interpreters must research, study, practice, develop a common glossary for each testimony. The witness gets used to that team of interpreters and the interpreters get used to the witness.
The interpreters for the prosecution know the case, they are familiar with names, dates, places, and other key information that must be interpreted with accuracy. From gang slang, to amounts of drugs, to family relationships. It all needs to be well-understood so the interpretation heard in trial is accurate, pristine, and truthful.
Confidentiality is essential to our justice system. It lets the parties tell the truth to their attorneys so they can represent, in a criminal case, a defendant or society with full knowledge of the facts. Confidentiality is also very important when it comes to the lawyers’ strategy. Prosecutors and defense attorneys develop a strategy to win a case. The interpreters for the prosecution know the strategy and facts, and they are covered by the veil of secrecy. Using a court appointed interpreter to interpret for the prosecution generates a conflict of interest. You cannot be judge and party simultaneously. Even the most professional, trustworthy interpreters should never be placed in such situation. The sole appearance of conflict is enough to cast a shadow on the proceedings. Client-attorney privilege only exists when there is an expectation of privacy. How could this be argued when the same interpreter hears all confidential details?
The independence of the prosecutorial interpreters is so important, that even their payment differs from that court appointed, public defender, and Criminal Justice Act (CJA) attorney interpreters receive. I am not referring to staff interpreters, I am talking about independent contractors retained to work in a case. While interpreters for the court, public defender, and CJA attorneys are paid through the judicial system (Judicial Branch of government) interpreters for the prosecution are paid by the United States Department of Justice (Executive Branch). The funds come from different budgets to assure independence, absence of conflict of interests, and separation of powers. The Office of the United States Attorney pays better that the courts, and unlike the latter, fees are negotiable between the parties (interpreters and AUSAs). This can also be relevant if you think that most more experienced, better trained interpreters would rather work for the prosecution, leaving a smaller pool of top-level interpreters to work for the courts, and increasing the risk of an inaccurate rendition of a prosecutorial witness’ complex testimony during the trial.
The widely, and constitutionally backed, practice of having a separate interpreter team for the prosecution in federal cases must continue as long as we have separation of powers, and a system where one party has the burden of proof. There is no rational justification for this practice by the executive branch of government, to be changed by court staff, from a different branch. Such decisions are being made in courthouses where none of the issues above were given any thought, where prosecutors did not reflect on the implications of such changes, and a decision was unilaterally made, perhaps due to a lack of understanding that lead to this policy deprived of common sense. If the decision at these district courts was made unilaterally, we have a separation of powers issue; if it was decided for monetary reasons, remember that interpreter fees are paid from two budgets (executive and judiciary); if it was decided to avoid comparisons between experienced prosecutorial interpreters, and perhaps less qualified court appointed ones, it was motivated by unethical reasons and it shows a disappointing level of professionalism; and if this was a joint decision by the courts and AUSAs in some districts, they must address the conflict of interest and at the least the appearance of conflict.
Our legal system has been around for 250 years. It has organically adjusted its parts to observe the fundamental democratic principles, starting with an independent judiciary, a separation of powers, and the rights and protections to the individual and society. In today’s world where many things that were, are no longer, let’s hope this is not changed by the capricious decision of a few. I invite you to share your thoughts on this issue.
January 27, 2017 § 10 Comments
For several months I have noticed a proliferation of blog posts, language agency advertisements, webinars, and conference presentations where the interpreter’s knowledge of legal terminology is emphasized. Seminars, on-line and in-person, focus on the importance of legal terminology and are usually packed with lists of words and phrases found in statutes and regulations. Bilingual glossaries are given away as perks to those who paid to attend the talk, and power point presentations are full of sections of the law that were literally cut and pasted from the statute.
Attendees to this “terminology workshops” are told to memorize the new words and expressions just because “…that is what the Act says” or “this is the term found in the bilingual legal dictionary”, and their questions are often answered with the reading of more sections of the law, without giving any logical reason or explanation as to the why it has to be the way the instructor said so. There are many blog posts, language agency websites, webinars, and conference presentations where current and accurate terminology is shared, but there is absolutely no context. This is dangerous and it is wrong.
Sometimes we read that a populist government, a well-known linguist, or a prestigious language institution issue statements advocating for legal terminology that is more accessible to the common individual. This is also extremely dangerous, irresponsible, and very wrong.
Legal terminology is what it is for a reason: It deals with social values higher than accessibility; it deals with legal accuracy and legal certainty, two values that are needed in any society to keep individuals safe. Free to pursue their lives as they please by creating legal transactions, forming legal bonds, and asserting their legal rights, which are necessary to reach their goals and be happy. To protect this higher values, a legal system needs to be complex and sophisticated. We need the proper terminology to put these concepts, which we call legal precepts, in writing for all to see and observe. It is a fact that many times they will differ from conventional language, not because legislators, attorneys and judges wanted to, but because they had to. This is why we have lawyers in our society.
Memorizing legal terminology like a parrot is easy, it only requires of memory and patience. Knowing the “why” and “how” of a legal term, and understanding its different meanings and applications according to context is a different story: it requires a deep knowledge of legal philosophy, substantive and adjective law, and the development of an analytical capacity that allows the individual, who has the background mentioned above, to decipher hidden meanings, legislators’ intent, and applicability to the specific set of facts (there is a term in Spanish to describe this essential skill: “criterio jurídico”) It is only then that we are in a position to truly know the meaning of a term that makes it applicable to our particular set of facts. We need to have context to know when and how to use legal terminology. Everything else is confusing, vague, and potentially damaging to the client.
In Mexican legal Spanish, the term for bankruptcy is different depending on the type of proceedings. The legal term “bankruptcy”, used in the American legal system does not give us enough information to decide the appropriate terminology. We would need to have context to determine if we are facing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, in which case the correct legal term would be “quiebra”, or a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as this would be translated or interpreted as “suspensión de pagos”. Without getting into Bankruptcy Law, I have to tell you that these are two very different legal figures and proceedings with very distinct consequences.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines legal interpretation as: “The art or process of discovering and ascertaining the meaning…” (Black’s Law Dictionary Centennial Edition 6th. Edition p.817)
To be able to properly interpret a hearing or sight translate a legal document, court interpreters must know legal terminology on both languages, but to provide a professional accurate rendition, the interpreter must understand the legal concepts and court proceedings being interpreted, and put everything that is happening at the hearing in context, so the choice of legal terms and concepts in the target language is correct.
It is essential that those teaching legal terminology are skilled in this area so they can answer questions with accuracy, and it is important that they explain the “why” and “how” of the legal terms and concepts that they are teaching. It is also very important that those paying for a webinar, workshop, or glossary, demand this knowledge from their instructors. Everything else is dangerous and unethical. Please do not get me wrong, I am not calling for all court interpreters to have a law degree (although having one is a tremendous advantage). All I am asking is that you stop and think of all the possibilities before you utter a legal term in court, and that when you pay for a continuing education course, workshop, talk, or webinar on legal terminology, you make sure the instructor does have the required legal knowledge and skill to teach the subject correctly.
I hope that the next time you see an agency advertising that their interpreters know the appropriate legal terminology, you go a little deeper to find out if they are offering interpreters who truly know how select the applicable legal term or concept, of they are simply advertising bilingual parrots for hire. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your ideas regarding this crucial aspect of court and legal interpreting.
March 24, 2014 § 8 Comments
As many of you know, over the last few years there has been a tendency among Latin American countries to switch from their traditional, and much slower, inquisitorial written procedural legal system, based on Roman and Napoleonic Law, to the quicker adversarial oral Common Law system followed by many Anglo-Saxon countries, including the United States. These changes have been difficult and have required a long time. For many decades, and more so within the last twenty five years, many Spanish speaking individuals have been forced to seek the protection and advantages of the American adversarial legal system to assert their rights, exercise their defenses, and create brand new legal obligations. Differences in the two types of systems, and specialized terminology exclusive to them, made it difficult to communicate with accuracy and legal precision complex concepts that are essential to prevail in a contractual situation and in court. It was then that many concepts and terminology were created out of necessity by translators and interpreters in the United States and Latin America. In many cases with plenty of good intentions and in good faith, but without even considering legal figures and concepts. This is how we got the “first generation” of bilingual “legal terminology” born from a linguistic conception without a legal perspective.
Globalization, immigration, and the exchange of goods and services between the United States and Latin America, especially Mexico, brought us a more coherent and consistent terminology and legal doctrine based on comparative law. This made it possible for interpreters and translators (in the United States and Latin America) to work with attorneys and law firms that required an interpreter/translator with a more sophisticated knowledge of the subject matter and correct terminology than a defendant in a criminal case with no formal legal or business background. It is from this point in time that we see translations and hear renditions that make sense to the legally-trained individual, and use the same language and terminology that lay individuals used to hear back in their country of origin. These terms and legal figures were correct and they could be found in the law; however, they still required of a legal expert interpretation to be correctly matched to their legal counterpart in the other legal system.
Finally this all changed. Due to the tremendous judicial backlog and the need for more transparency in the administration of justice, several Latin American countries decided to reform their procedural legal systems shedding the old written inquisitorial system and replacing it with the faster and more transparent adversarial system where proceedings are oral and open to the public.
There were many that debated the change but Chile and Mexico undertook the greater changes. Chile decided to create a new system based in part on the German legal system. Mexico decided to base its reforms on the legal system of the United States.
Dear friends and colleagues, the journey to an acceptable, accurate and coherent translation and rendition is finally over: On March 5, 2014 Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law the new Federal Code of Criminal Proceedings applicable throughout Mexico. This new legislation will apply to all criminal proceedings at all levels: local, state, and federal. This new system embraces an adversarial system similar to the one applied in the United States with public and oral hearings, rules of evidence taken from the American legislation and adapted to the Mexican culture, and a sentencing system based on the one used in America. The biggest differences between the Mexican and American systems are found in the trials. Mexico will only have court trials, the U.S. has both: court and jury trials.
These new legislation gives us the equivalent legal figures, procedural stages and terminology necessary to do a precise rendition and an accurate translation. Moreover, by integration, reference and interpretation, all substantive terminology contained in the criminal, civil, constitutional, and administrative legislation will now make it easier for any interpreter or translator to use the correct terminology and legal concepts. This legislation has been analyzed and drafted by legal professionals; it contains all required legal concepts and structures needed to have a coherent product, and creates, just like American legislation, a separate but precise legal terminology derived from legal concepts and not linguistic considerations. Remember, this is not English, this is not Spanish. We are talking about legal English and legal Spanish. In fact, we are referring to American legal English and Mexican legal Spanish. Translators and interpreters will be able to communicate the legal message to their clients without any ambiguities. No more “agreement/ contract/convenio/acuerdo/contrato salad.” We now have the correct legal figures for each situation. This new terminology is the one that the brand new Mexican court interpreters and legal translators are learning and will use during the proceedings down there.
Some of our colleagues may resist this change but it is inevitable. Arguments that the terminology is too technical and their clients will not understand it do not apply anymore. This is the same terminology they will hear in their own countries, at least the overwhelming majority of the litigants who are from Mexico, or have a connection with Mexico. We have to keep in mind that we have been using a combination of terminology that was never correct and some valid terms that are now obsolete. You cannot continue to say something wrong and make it right by mere repetition. It is also important to remember that good court interpreters should widen their practice, and only those who can be understood will work with Mexican attorneys. Even attorneys and judges from other Spanish speaking countries will favor the Mexican terminology as it is legal terminology and not just a translation with no legal foundation. Those of you who may consider taking the Mexican court interpreter certification (not in place yet) in order to work in court south of the border, and even those of you who may want to do depositions in Mexico will need these new legal terms. This is the time to learn and grow. This is the time to be ahead of the rest and find your place in the new market. Unfortunately, this is also the time to become obsolete and irrelevant.
Although the law is already gone into effect, the new legal system will be fully implemented by 2016 so there is time for all of us to learn and be ready.
For all of these reasons I have been studying the new legislation, and because of my unique position as an attorney who knows both, the American and the Mexican systems, and as an interpreter who has plenty of experience in both systems, I have designed a series of workshops on this subject. I will teach the first two workshops based on this brand-new Mexican legal system in Mexico City on March 29 & 30, and in Guadalajara Mexico on April 5. In the United States I will teach these legal changes for the first time on May 16 as an all-day pre-conference workshop within NAJIT’s annual conference in Las Vegas Nevada. I invite you to attend these or other workshops that I will be teaching on this subject, and I invite your participation and comments on this issue right here on the blog.
May 13, 2013 § 8 Comments
Many times during my career when working as a court interpreter I have been told by some colleagues that they do not enjoy court hearings where attorneys argue the law. They say they much prefer to interpret witness testimony because the hearing is about the facts of the case and not about the law. More than once, when I have asked a court interpreter what was the hearing she just finished about, the answer has been: “I don’t know, legal things, boring stuff.” Some others have told me that it was “…lawyers arguing…and I didn’t understand…”
I have always approached my work with the idea that you cannot interpret what you do not understand. To me it seems impossible to do a good job when you cannot interpret in context, when you do not know where the speaker is taking the argument to. I understand that not all court interpreters went to law school and some of the issues litigated in court are difficult to understand even for lawyers and judges. I am also aware of that “blank” our mind seems to produce after we finish working. In fact, for my own sanity I am glad it happens. “In one ear…out the other…”
This is not what I am referring to in this posting. I am talking about the minimal legal knowledge a court interpreter needs to have to do a good job. I also know for a fact, because I have a law degree, that the more you understand the proceedings, the better your rendition, because you will be able to follow the trend of thought, to anticipate the speaker’s next move, and to employ the correct terminology and vocabulary. I believe that court interpreters should at least know as much about the law as a paralegal. We need to understand the issues to be litigated in a motions hearing so we can do a good rendition. We also need to understand the process during that hearing; we need to know what is allowed and what is not. Court interpreters should do their homework and prepare for a trial or hearing, but on top of that they should know rules of evidence and rules of criminal and civil procedure. It is easier to interpret a trial when you actually know why the attorney is objecting to a question and how he is objecting to it. In my experience it is this type of knowledge that lets you develop a strong relationship with the big law firms, with the key players in the legal world. Court interpreting is as much a part of that world as it is of the world of linguistics. Unfortunately, some colleagues do not seem to realize it
It is for this reason that during the NAJIT Annual Conference in St. Louis Missouri I will be presenting in Spanish: “Evidence. A comparative Study between Mexico and the United States.” During the presentation I will walk those attending trough the evidentiary process in the legal system of the two countries where the people we more often interpret for either live or come from. We will cover topics such as discovery, admissible and inadmissible evidence, types of objections, exceptions to the hearsay rule, different burdens of proof, judicial notice, best evidence rule, and many more. I invite you to attend the presentation on Sunday, May 19 at 11:00 am during the NAJIT conference in St. Louis. I hope to see you there, but even if you are not able to attend, please tell us if you believe that court interpreters should know the basics of the law, and specifically procedural law.
November 19, 2012 § 13 Comments
Although this is not new, it seems to me that technological advances and globalization have generated a more hybrid sui-generis type of terminology that is practically used and applied all over the world. We had always seen certain terms and expressions cross-over to languages other than their original, but it was not as pervasive as it is now.
In the last few months I have interpreted conferences on many topics where the translation of a word or term we find in the dictionary has nothing to do with the ones used by the native speakers I am interpreting for. In fact, the word in the dictionary is not even known to them. Of course, the overwhelming majority of these cases have to do with the English language and scientific terminology, but not all.
When confronted by this real-life situation the interpreter needs to decide how to interpret a word, a term and a concept. I have seen some of my colleagues go with the dictionary and use the term in the books, others have chosen the foreign language better-known term. This is not a mere academic distinction as the interpreter is faced with a very serious question for all linguists: Do you select the correct term in the foreign language and educate the listener when he does not recognize the term in his native language, or you adopt the English term and use it just like the foreign language speakers do? To me this fork on the road is a no-brainer; I always go with the expedient efficient live language, so I use the English or anglicized term that those listening to my rendition understand, even if it is not in the dictionary. I believe that our role as interpreters is to allow foreign language speakers to receive information as if it were provided in their native language. This way they can concentrate on the substance of the presentation, proposal, or lecture instead of having to divide their attention between their real scientific job and learning new vocabulary in their native language. I know some colleagues disagree. They think that as interpreters our first loyalty is to the word. They also believe that it is important to point out the real words in a foreign language so that language is preserved for the future. I don’t find this latter approach useful to the listener who is counting on me to “hear” what he is being told in another language. Please share your comments and let us know what you think about this issue.