What is the appropriate consecutive rendition from the witness stand?
November 15, 2016 § 7 Comments
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.
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.
Should Consecutive Interpretation Disappear From Court?
November 4, 2013 § 15 Comments
Every time I write about some issue that involves consecutive interpretation in court, I get a considerable number of comments arguing for the disappearance of this mode of interpretation. Whether it is because of how difficult it is to render it, or due to some legal issue, the fact is that the number of interpreters, and courts, moving away from consecutive interpretation from the witness stand is growing every day.
Currently, there are many courthouses in the United States where the interpretation of a witness’ testimony is done consecutaneously: The attorney’s question is interpreted simultaneously by an interpreter sitting (or standing) next to the witness and the answer is rendered consecutively by the same interpreter. Other courthouses are using one interpreter for the simultaneous interpretation of the question, with the help of interpretation equipment, and a second interpreter, sitting (or standing) next to the witness, who renders the answers consecutively. The feedback from both systems, as far as I have heard, is positive. Apparently this approach solves the problems presented by the way cross-examination is phrased, keeps the jury focused on the witness, and not on the interpreter, and eliminates the unfair advantage that some witnesses have in cases when they speak some English, but prefer to employ the services of an interpreter, thus having an opportunity to reflect on their answer to a question while they “listen” to the interpreter’s rendition of said question. It is also true that this is not a “bulletproof” solution. Consecutaneous interpretation from the witness stand can be confusing to some lay witnesses; and in the case of different interpreters for questions and answers, it could present a problem when both, the question interpreter and the answer interpreter interpret correctly but using a different term. For what I hear, judges and court administrators love consecutaneous interpretation because it saves a lot of trial time, as the time for the consecutive rendition is eliminated altogether.
I must confess that for a long time I was a “purist” who opposed consecutaneous interpretation in the courtroom. Although I still dislike consecutaneous interpretation, I have changed my mind. Now I believe that in this world full of technology, where we go to the booth with nothing but an iPad, where we can do a word search in seconds, where we can interpret remotely from a different continent, we need to take advantage of everything that exists out there. The technology for simultaneous interpretation of a witness testimony already exists. I dislike consecutaneous interpretation not because I want to keep the consecutive mode for the witness stand. I dislike it because I think that we interpreters deserve better, the court deserves better, and the witness deserves the best possible access to the source language: simultaneous interpretation. Real time interpretation of everything that happens during the hearing or trial. Let us leave consecutive interpretation where it is needed: escort interpretation, jail visits, and some aspects of medical and community interpreting.
In an era where many hearings are held with the defendant appearing remotely by video, and attorneys file their pleadings electronically, there is no excuse to keep interpreting back in the Stone Age. There is no reason why the witness, judge, attorneys and jury cannot have access to a headset to hear in their native language the questions and answers. The argument that it is too complicated, that these people will be distracted by the equipment, is absurd. We are talking about the same people who drove themselves to court while listening to the radio or talking to their kids on the back seat of the car. We are talking about the same people who talk and text, walk and surf the net at the same time. Learning how to switch a button on and off is not brain surgery; moreover, they can just remove the headset when they don’t need to use it. By the way, this would also eliminate the distraction of having the interpreter next to the witness. It would remove the distraction of the interpreter’s whispering from the courtroom as we could be working from a booth like in all other venues where we render our services, and it would ensure more accuracy as we will be able to hear everything better from the booth. Will this cost money? Yes it will. Will these changes take time? Of course they will. It is all true, but at some point in time we have to start. Maybe if we start now the new courthouses will be designed and built with a booth. In new colleges and universities classrooms are built this way. Perhaps it will be other court systems that take the first steps towards this best solution. Many countries are switching over to the oral proceedings. They are building new courthouses. Maybe they can be the pioneers. Maybe the European courts will be the frontrunners now that they are implementing their new court interpreter system.
The point is, dear colleagues, it is clear that we need to move towards full simultaneous interpretation of all court proceedings. All that remains to be decided is when we start and where we take the first steps. Please share your comments and opinions on this issue.