How to Work with Court Interpreters


How to Work with Court Interpreters

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By Elliott Wilcox

image_InterpretingServices_sm¿Cómo está usted?”
“Comment allez-vous?”
“Come sta?”
“Wie geht es Ihnen?”
“How are you?”

Sooner or later, it’s going to happen. You’re going to have a great witness, someone who saw the entire incident and completely corroborates your client’s story. There’s only one problem…

You can’t understand anything they say.

What do you do? Not call them? Of course not. What you’ll do is call upon the services of a court interpreter to translate for your witness. Here are twenty tips to improve your results when working with an interpreter.


1. Let the interpreter speak with the witness before trial. A witness from the Bronx in New York City speaks differently than a witness from southern Alabama. The same is true with speakers of foreign languages. Give the interpreter an opportunity to familiarize themselves with your witness’s regional dialect, unique vocabulary, and any differences in pronunciation. This is also a good time to discuss any limitations in education or language.

2. Use a qualified interpreter. Don’t use a friend, relative, or office worker for any serious court events. It gives the appearance of a conflict of interest.

3. Make sure the witness understands the interpreter’s role. The interpreter’s role is to translate everything that is said. The interpreter shouldn’t add anything, omit anything, or summarize anything. Your witness needs to understand that he shouldn’t say anything to the interpreter that he doesn’t want repeated aloud in court.

4. Give the interpreter some context. What is the case about? Who are the parties? When did it happen? It’s easier for the interpreter to properly translate if they have a little background information.

5. Create a vocabulary list. Will your witness be mentioning nicknames, street slang, speaking in “Spanglish,” repeating numbers (amounts of money, account numbers, phone numbers), or referring to unusual terms? Let the interpreter know in advance to minimize any risk of confusion. Are there any words which need to be specifically translated? In some languages, there may be numerous words to describe a single article or action (for example: slap, hit, smack, punch, thump, batter, knock, rap, bang, strike). If you need a particular phrase used, make sure you tell the interpreter in advance.

6. Craft your questions with extra care. When you say, “Did you go to the store,” do you mean “you, yourself,” or “you and the people you were with?” Eliminate double negatives or other “legalisms” that are more likely to be misunderstood.

7. Introducing translations into evidence. If you’re introducing a translated document into evidence, prepare with the interpreter before court. Don’t ask for an on-site translation. The more legal or technical terms contained in the document, the greater the need for preparation.


8. Speak directly to the witness, not to the interpreter. If you say, “Ask him who else was at the meeting,” the interpreter won’t translate, “Who else was at the meeting?” The interpreter will translate the equivalent of, “Ask him who else was at the meeting.” The interpreter’s role is to translate everything you say. Just pretend like the witness speaks English and speak directly to them.

9. Make sure the interpreter gets frequent breaks. It’s not easy to listen intently, speak non-stop, and keep your brain performing at an optimum level for extended periods of time. Give it a try. Watch the evening news for an hour, and simply repeat everything that is said. Don’t translate it into another language – just repeat what they’re saying. How do you feel 10 minutes later? 30 minutes? An hour? It’s not easy to perform real-time translation, so make sure you switch interpreters every half hour or so.

10. Speak loudly and clearly. Interpreters can’t translate what they can’t hear. Speaking with clarity is always important but especially so when working with an interpreter. To ensure the interpreters hear everything that is said, position them where they can see and hear both you and the speaker.

11. Don’t let two or three people talk at the same time. It’s difficult enough to perform real-time translation for one person. Trying to translate what two or three people are saying at the same time is almost impossible. To avoid the problem, don’t interrupt the witness, compete with the opposing lawyer, or talk while the judge is talking.

12. Tell your witness not to interrupt. Sometimes, the witness speaks enough English to understand some of the attorney’s questions, but, due to the seriousness of the case, still requests the services of an interpreter to feel comfortable. Tell your witness that, even if they understand the question, they must not interrupt the interpreter. Tell the witness to wait for the interpreter to finish the translation, and to answer in their native language.

13. Don’t interrupt. If you speak a second language, you may understand your witness’s responses before the interpreter’s translation is complete. Even though you understand, don’t interrupt, because the judge and jurors still need to hear the translation before they understand what was said. Don’t interrupt. Wait until the interpreter has finished translating the witness’s response before you pose your next question.

14. Watch your pacing. You can expect that the interpreter will be efficient at around 150-200 words per minute. At rates faster than that, the interpreter may not be able to keep up and will interrupt the flow of your presentation.

15. Be patient. Understand that the interpreter is translating thoughts and ideas, not just converting individual words from one language to another. Sometimes it takes longer to say something in another language than it does in English. Be patient, and give the interpreter a chance to translate.

16. Pause. Both you and your witness should pause to provide the interpreter an opportunity to catch up. However, make sure that you speak in logical, meaningful phrases. Unless you pause intelligently, it won’t help. Don’t pause every 10-15 words – pause at the end of a logical thought.

17. Let the interpreter signal to you when you need to pause. Tell the interpreter to raise their hands if they need you to pause or use a “slow down” motion if you’re speaking too fast.

18. Let your witness present himself to the jury. Tell the witness to speak directly to the jury, the judge, or to the attorney and to speak in a loud, clear voice. Just like any other witness, jurors will still read your witness’s body language.

19. Ask shorter questions and get shorter answers. The longer your witness’s responses, the greater the chances that some of the details will be lost in the translation. It’s obviously more difficult to remember a response that fills two pages of courtroom transcript than a reply that fills a single paragraph. Shorter questions will lead to shorter answers, allowing the interpreter to fully translate everything that is said without risk of omission or error. Give the interpreter permission to tell you or your witness to pause when your questions or answers grow too cumbersome for translation.

20. The interpreter won’t repeat or clarify non-verbal responses. If your witness says, “It was about this big” and holds his hands 6” apart, you need to describe for the record what the witness indicated. Some non-verbal actions have culture-specific meaning. If necessary, you should ask the witness what the non-verbal response means.

21. What to do about mistakes. Using an interpreter increases the risks of misunderstanding and miscommunication. If you think the witness has answered incorrectly or that the witness didn’t understand the interpreter, your best solution is to immediately follow up by rephrasing the question.

Working with interpreters can be a rewarding experience. With their assistance, thoughts and ideas that would otherwise be trapped can be released and persuasively communicated. Prepare in advance, know what to expect, and your (translated) presentation will be a success.

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