The Couch: Manipulative and Sly Lawyer

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, to certain people, “keep calm and keep interpreting” may not be enough. A thank you goes out to this week’s anonymous contributor for the Couch!

You are working in a criminal trial involving a serious crime, and the trial has been emotionally charged. You’ve been interpreting accurately and impartially throughout the proceedings and have demonstrated true professionalism.

Now, during the cross-examination of a key witness, it becomes evident to you that the defense attorney is attempting to manipulate the testimony by pressuring the witness and twisting her words. The witness, who speaks limited English, appears confused and intimidated. You realize that the defense attorney is taking advantage of the language barrier in the hopes of securing a lesser sentence for his client.

Your primary duty is of course to accurately interpret all statements made in court, but you recognize the unfairness of the situation. The defense attorney’s tactics are out of line, the witness is being unduly influenced, and the judge does not seem to realize what is going on.

Remember that you are in open court. Do you continue interpreting accurately and impartially, knowing that it may contribute to an unfair trial, or should you take a more active role in ensuring justice is properly served? If so, how?

Please note: If you have a topic you’d like to see discussed at The Couch, write to the Editor. The comments section here should be used only to reply to the issue under discussion today. When you submit a question or topic for The Couch, we will make sure to remove all information that might make the parties or case identifiable.

Body photo from “Las Zorras” by PASTOR SAUL GUEVARA at Reflexiones Con El Pastor Saúl Guevara, under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.

16 thoughts on “The Couch: Manipulative and Sly Lawyer”

  1. Janis Palma says:

    Not your circus, not your monkeys! It is up to the government or state attorney who sat the witness to object if there is anything in the cross-examination that is impermissible. You are doing your job, which is to interpret faithfully to the full extent that language differences allow. Whether or not defense counsel is able to impeach the witness through this tactic, that’s his/her job! That’s what a good defense attorney is supposed to do. You can only do so much, and you have to let the lawyers do their job. That’s what the whole adversarial system is about.

    1. Rafael Barreras says:

      Absolutely agree!

  2. Javier Castillo says:

    Of course not! That would be a clear violation of your ethical duties.

    If you were to do so, you should never be allowed to work in court again.

    Taking a “more active role in ensuring justice is properly served” is advocacy. And it’s not up to the interpreter.

    Would the court reporter say something as they are taking down the record in an “unfair trial”?

  3. Kenneth Barger says:

    I’m with Janis. It sucks, but our role is limited, and I don’t think this is one where there’s a way we can intervene. Sometimes our work is uncomfortable! But it’s so valuable and important.

  4. You are not contributing to an unfair trial by continuing to interpret, nor are you “ensuring that justice is properly served” by bringing counsel’s tactics to the judge’s attention. As interpreters, we are in the courtroom to enable communication across languages, not to serve as special advocates for those for whom we interpret. Leave it up to opposing counsel to object, address the issue on redirect, etc.

  5. Elizabeth Giersberg says:

    It is not part of your job to judge the attorney’s tactics. Your job is to interpret as faithfully as possible. If the question is confusing, you reflect that in your rendition. Always keep in mind that attorneys may seem unfair, aggressive, intimidating and even dumb, and it’s all part of their strategy. Your rendition needs to reflect the same.

  6. Cristian Saenz says:

    Very well said by everyone! The day interpreters involve themselves in an attorney’s cross-examination tactics in open court, during a trial, in any way other than interpreting the same…we might as well just stop interpreting and walk out of the courtroom…and do something else!

    1. David Gilbert says:

      Interesting scenario. I observed a very similar situation during a drug related trial in Australia. The court interpreter did not deviate from her professional approach but the issues were made explicit to both the defense and prosecution teams by another court interpreter while the court was in recess. This resulted in the court revisiting previous questions and answers which again were conveyed through the court interpreter. It was a mess. The discussion became protracted and everyone in the courtroom became confused about what had been said and what was meant. Discourse entropy is usually irreversible resulting in outcomes that, as professional interpreters/translators, are difficult to bear witness to. The interpreter is not unlike a soldier. Both messengers unleash their power without questioning aspects of justice. They do the job then walk away. Reflection, disbelief, detachment, anger, sadness, process, acceptance and, unfortunately for many….empty shells.

  7. M says:

    Is this a trick question for court interpreters? Lol

  8. Carmen Mustile says:

    Best said: Of course not! That would be a clear violation of your ethical duties.

    If you were to do so, you should never be allowed to work in court again.

    Taking a “more active role in ensuring justice is properly served” is advocacy. And it’s not up to the interpreter.

    Would the court reporter say something as they are taking down the record in an “unfair trial”?

  9. Francisco Santiago says:

    Entirely agree. It is important to remember that the judicial system is a machine of many parts. Interpreters, attorneys, judges, juries, court personnel, etc. Everybody has a job to do and do well. No one gets to do someone else’s job, under the guise of doing his/her own job, out of a personal sense of fairness. That would distort the system. If errors or wrongful action has been allowed by an incompetent judge or attorney ( or, one might add, interpreter ), that’s what appeal courts are for.

  10. AJ Elterman says:

    Well said by Janis and all colleagues and I agree, and yet still think there is a way out of such a distressing dilemma before being faced with it:
    by briefly informing the LEP witness — if given the few seconds or minutes time before their testimony, which is very useful for familiarizing the interpreter with the witness’s accent, anyway — about my impartial role as court interpreter and that I will be each speaker’s voice (like a microphone), reflecting their words/sentences/tones/meaning as closely to the original as possible and that I cannot change, add or omit anything, no matter who is speaking and what they are saying. The LEP should understand this ground rule and act accordingly (hopefully incorporating their own awareness of the situation in the given non-native environment in which they find themselves). I feel so much better after imparting this brief warning information to the LEP and have extended this little ritual to as many interpreting settings as feasible/reasonable and see that it reduces unnecessary confusion and controversy for all..

  11. Shawna Stevenoski says:

    Great example of the value and need for team interpreting.. When it becomes “evident to you that the defense attorney is…” this is a perfect moment to switch with your colleague.

  12. Claudia says:

    I totally agree with my peer’s responses. We are interpreters and our responsibility is to interpret accurately everything is being said. Ever since I can remember, the lawyers are trying the best they can to cast a brighter light on their client and a dark one upon the opponent

  13. Araceli Sullivan says:

    I agree with all my colleagues. We are not there to advocate for anybody, no matter the circumstances. It is not up to the interpreter to make sure the judge or the attorneys involved do their job, we are there to interpret accurately and impartially.

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