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.