The Couch

The Couch – Where we analyze our professional dilemmas

We have renamed the “What Would You Have Done?” section. Presenting to you, The Couch. We trust you will feel the same warm welcome here, and confident enough to air issues and to help our colleagues. All data that might make the parties or case identifiable have been removed. Please note: all contributions should be sent to the Editor and not entered in the comments.

The interpreter is getting a glass of water and her client’s lawyer joins her. Apparently, he can’t help but comment on the case, specifically about their client’s demeanor.

He can’t even pretend he is not guilty. Can’t sit up in his chair to look me in the eye. And claiming he was only giving those guys a ride. He thinks I am stupid?

The interpreter notices that, apparently, the lawyer was not versed in cultural differences in behavior and misread his client’s body language. The gentleman was sitting scrunched up in the chair because he was taller than the lawyer and did not want to appear disrespectful by being “more.” Also, looking someone of authority in the eye could be misconstrued as an offense in his birthplace.

Clearly, the lawyer was using his own social behavior filters to judge someone from a different culture, he also seemed to have already made up his mind about his client’s guilt, and the interpreter feared that any word said in the wrong way may result in more problems for the client. Plus, they should not be discussing the case!

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? How would you advise our colleague?


18 thoughts on “The Couch – Where we analyze our professional dilemmas”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    I have found myself in a very similar situation. My decision was simple: tell the lawyer the differences in social behavior, just as casually as he was commenting to me. An immigration lawyer (my case) who can not be sensitive to cultural differences has no business being an immigration lawyer, in my humble opinion.

  2. What culture was the client from?

    1. Gio Lester says:

      Nicholas, in my case, Brazilian.

  3. Myriam c. sigler says:

    A lawyer who is not concerned or at least curious about cultural differences leaves a lot to be desired. Do not discuss the case but tell the lawyer that there are important cultural differences to consider.
    Myriam Sigler.

  4. Sylvia Torena says:

    No, we are not there to educate the Lawyers, we are there to interpret his words mo matter how wrong, misguided, misunderstood he is. Never engage in casual conversation with any participator of the procedure in which your interpreting. Walk away, politely remove yourself from the conversation.

  5. Elisa P. Brodbeck says:

    I fully agree with Sylvia T. We have to remember what our role is – that of communicators, bridging the language gap between the parties. . That is our training and our expertise. Although fully aware of cultural differences, I am not an expert on the subject. Sylvia said it well: walk away and remove yourself from the conversation.

  6. Gio Lester says:

    Sylvia, in my case, I was not hired by the lawyer, but by his client. My loyalty was to my client, without losing site of my professional responsibility. It was a witness preparation scenario and the lawyer’s bias was interfering with his job. In my mind, my obligation was to help my client secure the best legal service possible. My other option would be to go to the client and let him know how the lawyer was reading his body language – definitely a NO-NO!

    In our colleague’s scenario, I have no idea of the circumstances and cannot make a proper assessment of about what would be the most appropriate thing to do. I hope she made the right decision.

  7. Margaret Wolfe-Roberts says:

    There are situations in which it might be appropriate to say something, but they must be carefully assessed. One clear-cut example in which I will almost always speak up is when someone is about to hand a Latino a slip of paper with date written down as 2/6/17, for instance, and I am the interpreter for their interaction. This is because of the potential for confusion between February 6th and June 2nd that exists based on cultural differences in how dates are typically recorded. Do I know for sure the LEP party will misread the date? No, but the potential is there, and the intervention is straightforward and usually appreciated.

    On the other hand, body language differences are much more ambiguous to read and understand to a certainty. I would hope the attorney was not making these potentially damaging statements in a courtroom where other parties might have overheard them, since it’s my understanding that that kind of behavior would be a breach of ethics for someone who has sworn not to injure his or her client’s case. Likely the attorney believed that the particular body language is so strongly “coded” in his culture to mean dishonesty that he believes he is only stating the obvious, and that others would certainly agree with him, but it might not be the case on either count. Frankly I believe the interpreter could be justified in expressing concern to the attorney’s supervisor, if she feels her impartiality in the case could have been affected by being approached in that way, either because she now tends to feel protective of the defendant whom she feels was misunderstood, or else disdainful of the defendant if she were to adopt the attorney’s attitude, or even possibly annoyed with the attorney for his or her indiscretion. Who knows, raising the issue in another setting (by going to speak with the attorney’s supervisor if they have one, or with the attorney himself or herself somewhere away from the courtroom setting), could lead to opportunities to address the issue of how we read body language and cultural differences in a more constructive and comprehensive mode through some kind of educational workshop with the local bar or public defender’s office. Surely there is a need for this kind of educational outreach.

    Having said that, I find that I have occasionally made remarks to attorneys of a general sort about cultural differences, or else believed afterwards that I perhaps should have, primarily in order to avoid some distortion of implied meanings rooted in differences in national origins. For instance, an attorney and I were leaving a jail together after going over a Superior Court transcript of plea with his client. The attorney was expressing to me that he felt offended when his client made a big deal about hesitating before putting his signature on the plea, as if this were an expression of lack of faith in the lawyer. I mentioned that the traditional legal systems in many Latin American countries are more document-oriented, whereas with the adversarial system here in the US, oral arguments play a greater role. So it was possible that the client was remarking on what felt to him like a big, momentous act, not realizing that in spite of his signature on the form, his decision to plead guilty wouldn’t be final until he went in front of the judge later that week. The attorney expressed that in the future he might explain the procedural implications of signing to his Latino clients more explicitly with that awareness.

    I believe my remarks were acceptable in that instance because they were 1) limited in scope and 2) made in a non-public, informal setting and at a moment where they were not likely to affect any particular legal proceeding, Furthermore I believe that the misunderstanding likely wouldn’t have arisen had the lawyer and client been from the same national background. This point matters because as interpreters we are there to “level the playing field” by eliminating as much as possible any communication barriers based on national origins. Had I failed to share the knowledge about differences in legal systems it’s likely that the attorney’s communication with his client in the future would be damaged due to differences in their national origins. I also knew that the perception of insult rose to a certain level of significance in its potential impact because the attorney remarked on it, not only with his client during the interview itself (at which time I stuck to interpreting the exact conversation, with no comments of my own), but afterwards once we were away from the LEP party. Finally, I avoided giving my own opinion. I didn’t claim to tell the attorney what his client was thinking or feeling, merely offered some possibly relevant cultural information that he might not have been aware of, allowing him to come to his own conclusions.

    These are some very complicated situations and I’m glad we’re talking about them. In my experience, the request for opinions from the interpreter comes up surprisingly often, frequently after the interpreter has helped an attorney interview a client, and the attorney is trying to get a read on their client. We must roundly resist any pressure to make assessments of someone’s credibility. I’ve even had an attorney ask me, during a break in the proceeding, “How do you think I’m doing in there?” He seemed rather surprised when I explained that I couldn’t give that kind of feedback.

  8. Gio Lester says:

    You make a few interesting points, Margaret. I will respond to the cultural differences in body language or non-verbal comments. I was trained not to repeat gestures, to repeat hums and ahs, then a judge said (during a training) that she liked when “her” interpreters included the parties’ gestures in their rendition. That resulted in a heated conversation.

    We explained to her some basic differences (the OK hand gesture used by Americans is equivalent to flipping someone a bird in Brazil; my Japanese students pointed to their noses when referring to themselves rather than to their chest as Westerners usually do, etc.). The judge was shocked.

    Cultural sensitivity is important and should also be part of witness preparation.

  9. Alfredo Babler says:

    Wow. So now we are “Cultural Sensitivities Experts.” Nice. Would you like some fries with that? Some hot apple pie with that? How do you know what you “interpret” as cultural isn’t just a neurological disorder, a nervous tick, or a put-on act, for that matter? STOP! Concern yourself with language and it’s meaning, and give the best possible rendition in the target language minding context and syntax. Do your job and STOP aggrandizing yourself beyond your responsibilities as a LANGUAGE INTERPRETER. But what do Inknow, I’m just an old school, antiquated interpreter. For all I know, it’s probably the norm nowadays to wait until everyone’s back in the courtroom to interrupt the proceeding and say, “Your honor, counselors, esteemed members of the jury, all eyes on me now, if you would. The interpreter, me me meeee, noticed that the witness placed his index finger near his buttocks, as I am illustrating now, look at meeeee, and the attorney made the face that disdainful, culturally challenged American people make when someone scratches an itch near their rear end when, in fact, an index finger near that area means that the person is saying they’re innocent, if we consider the cultural background in certain tribes of the Amazon jungle… ahem, look at me, I’m so cultural I can barely stand it, me, me, look at meeeeeeeee.” Good grief! Do your job and let the chips fall where they may. Do you realize how risky it is to assume that you are versed in an individual’s subconscious psychosomatic intent by ascribing meaning to their body posture and movements? STOP!

    1. Gio Lester says:

      Alfredo, I cannot dissociate language from culture. And no one is saying that interpreters are to be THE Culture Experts. We are only pointing out that, in some circumstances, we do have an advantage when we share the same culture as the LEP we are interpreting for.

      Just remember that the purpose of The Couch is to HELP by offering guidance and not to put people down.

  10. Alfredo Babler says:

    Oh, Gio, it isn’t my intention to put people down. If it came out that way, please accept my apologies. Please, let me clarify my position. Of late, I can’t help but notice that political correctness and vapid virtue signaling are jeopardizing the very fabric of our society, including the rudiments of our beloved profession. I am just making what I am pretty certain is a feeble attempt to pull on the reins of outright nonsense when it comes to our industry standards, out of respect for those illustrious linguists that came before us, on whose shoulders we stand today, and for the betterment, or at least the preservation, of the profession itself. There was a time when everyone knew common sense protocol. It was passed down from the old, experienced professional interpreters to the young, inexperienced ones. But look, I am aware that I might already be sort of a dinosaur in this new era of being culturally “woke.” See? This is precisely the reason why I have always consciously abstained from pointing out anything at all about anything at all. I don’t want to offend anybody with my antiquated common sense. I really don’t. Everyone gets a medal, a safe space, and a coloring book. If the new norm is to interject cultural savvy into legal proceedings by pointing out our self-declared expertise in matters of cultural sensitivities, sign me up for the next brainwa… sorry, webinar. LOL, boy, am I getting more cantankerous with age or what? Heheheh. God bless. It’s all good. The show must go on.

    1. Gio Lester says:

      Sense of humor is hard to cross cultures without some loss here or there…

  11. Alfredo Babler says:

    Your honor, the interpreter would like the court to build one of these inside every courtroom, for the interpreter, meeeee.

  12. Alfredo Babler says:

    I’m just kidding. LOL… I hope.

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