The Couch

The Couch: I don’t know him!

The Couch is a place to exchange ideas and brainstorm, not only for its contributors but also for our readers who engage in the ensuing discussions. Sometimes, without the remotest fault on interpreters’ part, a crowd can have its suspicions aroused against them… A special thank you to this week’s contributor for the Couch idea.


You are hired to interpret in a high-profile murder trial. The prosecution has called an expert witness to the stand; he has been brought in from another country to support the ongoing investigation.

From the outset, you can tell something is “off” with this expert witness. He seems perturbed, and his demeanor betrays an inner turmoil. His resume is beyond reproach, and his life and professional experience speaks for itself, so there is no reason to doubt his capabilities. But here and now, something is not right.

About five minutes into the examination, the D.A. asks him a question, and the expert witness simply stares into space. “Are you alright, sir?” asks the judge. After a ten-second silence, the witness answers in a low, hesitant voice: “Yes, I am okay.” His mind is elsewhere.

The examination continues, but a few minutes later the same pattern repeats itself. You sense a growing impatience and anxiousness in the room. This is a key witness; he has come from afar, and in many ways the trial depends on him. You begin to ask yourself: Did he hit his head on the way here? Is he ill? Did something serious happen to a close friend or family member of his? What’s clear is that he is in no state to undergo the examination.

Doubtless by now the defense counsel is wanting to file a motion to exclude the witness. Other looks, meanwhile, begin to question you, the interpreter, and the job you are doing—after all, you are the only person in the courtroom who speaks the same language as he does.

Suddenly the expert witness looks at you directly with imploring eyes, and the eyes of others in the courtroom follow his. For your part, you have never seen nor met this person before, but he is looking at you as though you were an intimate friend and the only person who can help him. All the questions people will be asking you begin to surge in your mind.

All eyes are now on you. What do you do?


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12 thoughts on “The Couch: I don’t know him!”

  1. Helen Eby says:

    Keep interpreting. Basically, keep calm and carry on.

  2. Sabine H Michael says:

    By now, the attorney who is up to interview the witness should have asked for a sidebar or asked for a brief recess. I’ve had witnesses turn to me in trial and ask : do I have to answer that?”, which I just interpreted. As far as someone just staring at me. I’d hope the attorneys or the judge would do something to break the silence. Not sure I would do anything since there is nothing to interpret. I would not just start saying anything. Looking forward to others’ post their experiences.

  3. If it makes me uncomfortable to a degree that it interferes with my ability to work professionally, I ask for a bench conference. Otherwise I keep going and let the attorneys and the court sort out what to do anything about the weird expert witness, if anything.

    And in the evening, you write your crime novel. 🙂

    1. Linda Ross says:

      Love “and in the evening, you write your crime novel”

  4. Correction:
    *… what to do about the weird expert witness, if anything.

  5. Chris Verduin says:

    You do nothing (not look at him, either, might be a good idea) unless someone else (either he or another person participating in the hearing) says something you can interpret.
    That’s what your role is – interpret.

  6. Carlos Benemann says:

    Ask the court for a short interpreter break. There certainly a relief Interpreter (or should be) in a murder trial. Consult with the relief interpreter and see if he/she is ready to take over and then see if the problem continues. Do not talk to prosecutor or Defense attorney; let them talk to each other first and consult with you if they both indicate they would stipulate to consult.
    None of this stuff like “imploring eyes” or being “off” or “hesitant voice” is on the record so it is not subject to interpretation.
    Cheers
    Carlos Benemann

  7. Cynthia S Hernandez says:

    I would clarify that I can only interpret utterances and not demeanor or aspect. Even if I perceive something unusual it is visually just as apparent to everyone in the courtroom as it is to me. That being said if it is possible to relay any non verbal but audible intonations or hedges and the like I would strive to relay these faithfully.

  8. Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    Did the interpreter have a chance to give the witness instructions/explanations on the role of the interpreter and the appropriate role boundaries? This information should also have been shared with counsel.
    Alternatively, did the judge give these instructions to the witness? That would be the best, to have standard text which the judge reads to each witness–and in the presence of counsel and jury.
    This situation also raises questions for me about how the attorney who brought in this witness spoke to the witness through the interpreter during witness preparation. A crucial aspect of those interviews should have included the information about the role of the interpreter.
    Did the DA encourage or indirectly support inappropriate role boundaries during witness prep? If so, now they are paying the price.
    Having stated this, and assuming the in-court interpreter did give the appropriate instructions/explanations to the witness in advance, I think the interpreter keeps their eyes on their notebook and keeps interpreting.
    This is not the interpreter’s problem to solve.
    The judge is there, so is counsel, It’s in their “kuleana,” that is, their areas of responsibility. Their “row to hoe.”

  9. JANIS PALMA says:

    I absolutely love (and agree with) everyone’s comments, but the winner is… “And in the evening, you write your crime novel.” You made me laugh out loud, Daniel! Thank you for that.

  10. Saúl says:

    Interpret trying to keep the tone of the message and look at your notebook.

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