The Couch

The Couch – A Guilty Conscience

There is a new colleague on The Couch. Read the post and see if you can lend a hand.
Please note: all contributions should be sent to the Editor and not entered in the comments. We will make sure that all data that might make the parties or case identifiable are removed.


figure sitting on top of a giant question mark

Let’s help clear out colleague’s guilty conscience.

This happened to me a few years ago and I have lived with a guilty conscience ever since.

The couple formed a “União Estável” in Brazil, moved to the US, and got divorced a few years later. During the divorce, one of the lawyers was not sure how to refer to the parties: since they were not married, should they be referred to as husband and wife? The thing is, I knew the answer but I did not open my mouth. The lack of an answer to that question made the case go on for longer than warranted (in my humble opinion). And I have felt guilty ever since. Was I right or wrong not to volunteer the information?

So, what say you? And please, provide a complete explanation for your position, so our colleague can stop feeling guilty. He has suffered for years now.


Check out other topics discussed here and here.


  • Margaret Wolfe-Roberts
    Posted at 20:05h, 12 January Reply

    Cases may drag on for a variety of reasons. It’s not all on us. Maybe the attorney is trying to increase the attorney fees. If one of the attorneys didn’t know the correct term in English, the attorneys and judge might have discussed it together, or even the judge could have made an inquiry of the parties in order to resolve this issue. Had the parties themselves used the term in Portuguese, or during a sight translation of documents, of course you would have promptly provided the appropriate term in English as part of your rendition, and there you go.

    We could argue that the attorneys have an obligation to learn the relevant terminology and law in order to best help their clients. Attorneys are not always perfectly informed. We see this representation gap in other situations as well, whenever a party decides to go pro se, or if one attorney seems more or less vigorous, charismatic or knowledgeable than another. That doesn’t mean we should rush to fill the gap. Even if others are not doing their jobs well or correctly, the interpreter should stick to her role, as uncomfortable as it may get.

    Whenever misunderstandings arise or could arise from the interpreting process, of course the interpreter has the obligation to speak up. This happens for example when a witness has a used a term that was first interpreted one way, but later it becomes apparent that the word was better interpreted a different way. Not to speak up would be an injustice to the witness, whose listeners may become muddled or doubt the testimony as a result of the disjuncture.

    However, when the misunderstanding or lack of understanding may arise not from the interpreting process itself but from a linguistic or cultural gap, and the interpreter is not asked to supply an answer, this is more of a gray area. The interpreter should be careful not to present himself as a legal expert far beyond the language skills he or she possesses.

    In this case the interpreter likely felt the appropriate term in English would be “civil partners” or some such. This is not such a difficult thing for the attorneys to figure out, or else they might have done some research on the matter. If they had consulted the interpreter I think the interpreter would have been fine to provide an opinion, given that the issue of the wording choices was directly within his competencies as an interpreter and not an arcane point of law. On the other hand, if there were legal issues being contended through the choice of words, and if the interpreter was not asked to supply an opinion, I think he should continue fulfilling his role using his best skills and abilities, and let his conscience rest at ease.

  • Teressa Weaver
    Posted at 21:38h, 12 January Reply

    If one of the attorneys or the parties had asked you for your opinion as a cultural liaison, then you could have easily supplied the terminology. I agree with Margaret who wrote that you maintained your professional role and there is no guilt to assume on your part.

  • AJ Elterman
    Posted at 00:26h, 13 January Reply

    I fully agree with Margaret. If the question was posed to the parties, the interpreter (I assume) must have interpreted the question to the parties, and if the parties did not give an answer or said they did not know, that takes the burden off the interpreter, I think. And the fact that the interpreter has given so much afterthought to this memory and worried, means s/he will be much more vigilant for similar moments in the future and intervene with a cultural remark if deemed appropriate — besides the fact that the past is the past and no amount of worry can change its outcome.

    Moreover, as we interpreters know, sometimes the most innocent, well-meaning, and professional “explanatory” or “clarifying” or “cultural gap” related comment we make to the attorneys may end up getting a cold reaction that makes our remark seem unwelcome, while other attorneys react with gratitude. Every instance and “chemistry” between the individuals involved onsite is unique and general rules don’t always apply. Whoever has the most power decides what is “right,” and we move on, having been enriched by one more experience.

    I hope the interpreter will be relieved. S/he must be a very conscientious professional with whom to work should be a pleasure..

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