The Couch: Coaching the Defendant

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, you want to “keep calm and keep interpreting,” but external factors make that simple solution difficult to achieve. A thank you goes out to this week’s anonymous contributor for the Couch!

You are interpreting for a rather routine criminal trial on a drug offense. The LEP defendant has been consistently cooperating with their lawyer throughout the proceedings. However, you start to notice that the defendant occasionally whispers to their lawyer during the trial. You can’t hear the content of their conversations, but the body language and urgency seem to suggest that the attorney might be coaching the defendant on how to answer questions or providing instructions during testimony.

As the interpreter, you want to focus solely on the interpretation, but this behavior is distracting to you. On one hand, it could be a sign of unethical behavior. On the other hand, you don’t want to jump to conclusions and risk creating unnecessary tension in the courtroom. You have concerns about maintaining your impartiality and not overstepping your role as an interpreter.

The person who presented this scenario would also like to add that s/he struggles with shyness and would hesitate to bring to the judge’s attention behavior that s/he finds distracting while the “offender” is in the room.

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11 thoughts on “The Couch: Coaching the Defendant”

  1. Kenneth Barger says:

    I’d leave it alone. No way to know for sure whether their communications are about something unethical, and by my reading of the code, at least here in Washington State, our ethical obligations apply to us and we’re not under any requirement to police the activities of other professionals. There are exceptions to that, like if they’re trying to get you, as an interpreter, to do something prohibited, or if they are planning a crime or something, but this one doesn’t sound to me like it rises to that level. Up to the judge or opposing counsel to raise the issue if there is some potentially unethical behavior going on. Great question.

    1. Andreea B says:

      Completely agreed. There are many things that we will find distracting by the nature of our profession and part of it is learning to keep swimming despite the distractions. It sounds from the scenario presented that the judge may also be able to observe this behavior and be able to call it out if deemed inappropriate. Of course, it all depends on how disruptive it is in the actual situation.

  2. Helen Duffy says:

    The defendant has every right to consult with their lawyer. The interpreter can’t allow themselves to be distracted by normal hubbub in the courtroom.
    P.S. I’m intentionally using gender neutral pronouns here.

  3. Do nothing – if their body language is what makes you think things are unethical then don’t let it concern you; everyone else in the room can see the same body language you see. Think about what would happen if this were an English-speaker with no interpreter present; the issue would either be brought up by another party or left alone. It only becomes an issue if you are being asked or pressured to do something in conflict with our Code of Ethics.

  4. David Henner says:

    100% in agreement with Helen. Lawyers and their clients must confer with each other to present an effective defense. I don’t see any problem with an attorney “coaching” a defendant. Providing a client with guidance in answering questions is part of a defender’s job. This would only be a problem if the lawyer is telling the client to lie in his/her testimony. In any case, the court interpreter has no dog in that fight.

  5. Diana Noman says:

    Attorneys have practice sessions with their clients on testifying and how best to do it all the time. That’s part of their duties to their client is to have their client be presented in the best light possible. I am not sure how the defendant consulting with their attorney in this scenario is being construed as potentially being a sign of unethical behavior.
    As for the interpreter, it is always best to use equipment when interpreting. This way, the interpreter can situate themselves wherever it is most convenient for the interpreter in terms of hearing the speaker (and in this case, away from other people who are whispering and talking). The use of equipment allows the interpreter to separate themselves physically from the party for whom they are interpreting (in this example, it seems to be the defendant) and concentrate on interpretation.

  6. I agree with what everyone else has said, and I really don’t see what the issue is in the first place. Defendants are entitled to consult with their attorneys, and attorneys would be expected to instruct their clients on how to handle cross examination if they intend to testify. When I see defendant engaged in a whispered conversation with the attorney during the hearing or trial, I always keep on interpreting, regardless of whether the defendant is even paying attention, as I am under oath to interpret everything that is being said.


    Totally agree with our esteemed colleagues above: First off, we’re not the cops. It’s incumbent on the judges and their staff to maintain courtroom decorum.. THe question begins referrring to the courtroom but later alludes to testimony.. There is such a thing as attorney client privilege and of course we have the same obligations to respect that confidentiality as much as any other actor. If the witness is being coached while testifying, the judge and others would likely pick up on that. But let’s say theoretically they didn’t: One could perhaps ask the court to instruct the parties to speak up so they can be translated.

  8. Janis Palma says:

    No, no, no, no, no, no… to stepping out of your role as a communicator and take any sort of action about the described situation. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes… to everything that every colleague has written so far.

  9. Neda Sobhian says:

    Conversation between attorney & client is privileged, attorney can counsel his client as he deems, thus translator needs to focus only on his/her duty as an interpreter.

  10. Cynthia Herber says:

    Totally agree with every one of the comments above. However, one thing is not clear: where is the defendant when he/she is “consulting” with the attorney? If the defendant and counsel are sitting at counsel’s table, and they are whispering to each other, then their communication is NOT on the record, and the interpreter should do nothing as this is likely and attorney client privileged conversation. If the defendant is on the witness stand and the attorney is gesticulating to him/or her then everyone in the court can see it and it is up to the judge or the prosecution to say something about it. Attorneys are supposed to coach their clients on how to testify. It’s called “prepping the witness”. Moreover, the interpreter is there to facilitate communication between the LEP, the court and the parties so that there is a record of the proceedings. That’s it.
    There is absolutely nothing unethical, illegal or wrong about a client having conversations with their attorney during a trial. Nothing.

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