What Do You Do When Your Client or Witness Doesn’t Speak English? Hire an Interpreter

By Agata Baczyk

The first step is always to confirm the language/dialect. Never assume! Your client from Mexico may not speak Spanish but may need an interpreter of one of the many native languages, such as Mixteco. Hiring the right interpreter can have a huge impact on your case. In addition to aiding in clear communication with your client, an interpreter can serve as a cultural expert. Did you know that your Karen-speaking client (Myanmar/Thailand) doesn’t have the words in their native language for many modern technologies, like car parts? Or that your Amharic-speaking client (Ethiopia) uses a different calendar and considers 2018 to be 2011?

What’s the interpreter’s job? To interpret as is. That includes any slang, level of formality, and speaker’s mistakes. An interpreter should never simplify or explain legal vocabulary to the witness, or correct sloppy (careless) language or slips of the tongue. This also means that when the witness says, “I did…” the interpreter will translate by saying, “I did…” in the first person. When the interpreter needs to speak for themselves, they will speak in the third person and say, for example, “The interpreter needs clarification.” The interpreter may ask for something to be repeated, speech to be slowed down, or for a party to speak louder.

When questioning a witness, speak slowly, clearly, and pause every 2-3 sentences to allow time for interpretation. Using clear language reduces the chance of mistakes; don’t use double negatives (“You didn’t say you wouldn’t do that, did you?”) or complex compound sentences (“You didn’t, although you could have, go there, even though you knew you should have, am I wrong?”). Keep in mind that humor, sarcasm, colloquial sayings, slangs, idioms, etc. may not translate well.

It is important to practice questioning the witness with the interpreter present. The flow will be different and, if you don’t work with interpreters often, you will need the practice as much as your witness. This will allow the interpreter to get used to the witness’ linguistic quicks, regional dialects, speech defects, etc. However, the witness should never have a private conversation with the interpreter, whether during the examination or before/after, to avoid any possible bias.

You may also need to change your jury strategy when using an interpreter. Any emotional response from a witness will be delayed and the translated question may not have the same impact as in English. Also, make sure the witness understands to answer the question asked in their native language and not what they understand of the English. Most LEPs will have some degree of understanding English and an answer to a misunderstood question may have an unintended, and possibly damaging, result. Either have the witness provide the whole testimony through an interpreter or, if able, testify without one.

Your interpreter should be knowledgeable about the industry. The depth of that knowledge will differ depending on the case. Allow your interpreter to prepare, provide them with case specific vocabulary, the complaint, prior testimony, or relevant tape transcripts. Again, the more complex or technical the case, the more time the interpreter will need. You should also provide the interpreter with names, places, addresses, slang, code words, etc. that may come up as well as any relevant emotional factors that may affect testimony.

When you have a limited English speaker as a client or witness, view the interpreter as a valuable resource. Use the interpreter to provide further insight into your case and develop questioning strategies around the differing flow. Use the advantage that learning to work with interpreters can bring.