THE INVISIBLE INTERPRETER: SOME TIPS ON LETTING THE WITNESS SPEAK

The best compliment I ever received on my interpreting wasn’t exactly about the quality of my work or even how well I spoke both languages. The words that made me glow with satisfaction? “I almost forgot you were there.” To any interpreter, this should be one of our most important goals—to let the witness be the center of attention, to let him tell the story with as little interference as possible.

On this particular occasion, conditions were absolutely ideal. It was a trial for the murder of a police officer. Both the defense attorney and the prosecutor’s questions were concise and to the point. There was none of that fumbling or backtracking that is the interpreter’s nightmare during direct and cross-examination. The dreaded “strike that” did not once put in an appearance. The witness for the prosecution, who had been expertly prepared, listened carefully to the questions and answered without hesitations, babbling or non sequiturs, even though his testimony was very emotional (the officer had died in his arms.) Good preparation and smart attorneys enabled me to fulfill my role with no cumbersome requests for repetition or clarification. Smooth as silk.

But it doesn’t always happen that way, does it? We’ve all interpreted in disastrous situations in which we are forced to bring attention to ourselves in order to protect the record. At the same time, we are expected to make everything work smoothly in spite of too-lengthy or wordy questions and answers, and poorly prepared lawyers and witnesses.

The best thing we interpreters can do is prepare as much as possible. This not only means preparing ourselves by seeking out and examining all information on the case, but also (in the nicest way possible) educating the attorney or attorneys on how to question their LEP witnesses on the stand. A few instructions made to the witness beforehand are, of course, absolutely essential.

So you’re all ready. You understand the case and you have researched all of the terminology you believe you will need. You have spoken briefly with the witness to become acquainted with speech patterns and accent, and perhaps even been so lucky as to have interpreted for the witness preparation. What else can you do to ensure a smooth-running consecutive interpretation?

Make yourself invisible. No, really. Being as unobtrusive as possible will help the triers of fact to concentrate on what the witness is saying, and not on you. There are various steps you can take to achieve this near-invisibility. The first, of course has to do with how you look. Dress conservatively but neatly. You’re not there to impress anybody with your fashion sense, but rather to focus attention away from yourself and toward the witness.

Positioning helps too. When I interpret consecutively, whether for attorney/client consultations, depositions or courtroom witness testimony, I place myself if at all possible to the side and somewhat back from the witness. Unlike simultaneous interpreting without equipment, there is no need to stay close or to whisper into the witness’ ear on the stand, since whatever the interpreter says, whether into or from the witness’ language, should be spoken aloud—indeed, loud and clear. The reason for this is two-fold: I don’t want to draw attention to myself and away from the witness, and I don’t want the witness to be looking at me, but rather at the person asking the questions. In addition, when a proceeding is being recorded, it is essential that every word be clear because of the possibility of later challenges to the interpretation.

As for myself, I don’t need to look at the witness at all during consecutive interpreting, since I am either taking notes or reading them, although I can see the witness out of the corner of my eye. As I am reading and interpreting my notes, I do glance up as frequently as possible at the attorney or judge who has asked the question to maintain the illusion that the witness is speaking through me.

At about this point, you are probably saying to yourself: “I know all that. Why is she going on about it?” Well, I guess my point is that it’s important to review your courtroom demeanor objectively or, better yet, have a colleague observe you and give some constructive criticism. All good interpreters love feedback.

The following is a true story.

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to observe two of my colleagues, both certified interpreters, in a situation that was far from ideal. The witness was an elderly lady who spoke very slowly and ponderously. She was not at all hard-of-hearing, but she seemed to have her own agenda, something she wanted to communicate that sometimes had nothing to do with the questions being asked. Some of her answers took the form of non-sequiturs, and her slow, hesitant delivery was difficult to interpret accurately. The prosecuting attorney became more and more frustrated, and his questions began to take on an accusatory tone. The strategy of the first interpreter was to look directly at the witness, and get as close as possible in an attempt to somehow make her listen to the questions. The only result was that the witness looked at the interpreter when answering, but little else was achieved. The interpreter, intent on trying to make sense of the old lady’s ramblings, did not take any notes. As if relieved to have understood what she was saying, and afraid of forgetting it, the interpreter would summarize as quickly as possible in a rather perky tone far removed from the lady’s own manner of speaking. These attempts to make the old lady listen, and then to clarify what she said became extraordinarily distracting.

When it came time for the other interpreter to take over, she simply sat back, took notes, and tried to convey exactly what the lady was saying with no attempt to have it “make sense.” Her words were delivered slowly; they seemed ever so subtly to reflect the weight of years expressed in the voice of the old lady. Every pause and “uh” was there. The atmosphere became less charged and things seemed to fall into a natural rhythm. The interpreter was doing her job. I almost forgot she was there.

Online resources

National Center for State Courts
Court Interpreting: View from the Bench
http://www.ncsconline.org/wc/publications/Res_CtInte_StateCrtJV20N1ViewFromTheBenchPub.pdf

New England Law Review
Protecting the Rights of Linguistic Minorities: Challenges to Court Interpretation
Charles M. Grabau and Llewellyn Joseph Gibbons
http://www.nesl.edu/userfiles/file/lawreview/vol30-2-GRABAU.HTM

National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey: Interpretation Guidelines, p. 4
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhanes/nhanes_07_08/Interpretation_Guidelines.pdf

 

No Comments
  • Gio
    Posted at 10:27h, 04 May Reply

    Beautifully said, Kathleen! Sometimes it is very hard to work with a frustrated lawyer who then chooses to talk ABOUT the deponent rather than TO the deponent out of contempt. Redirecting that pattern is hard but doable.

    Thanks!

  • Kathleen
    Posted at 06:48h, 09 May Reply

    Thnks for your kind words, Gio!

  • Jennifer De La Cruz
    Posted at 02:10h, 12 May Reply

    Hi, Kathleen! This blog post was circulated all around our courts and has really reminded us of how crucial it is to keep our consecutive skills up. In my opinion, using “the court wants us to go simultaneously to save time” as an excuse to do some sort of hybrid of consecutive and simultaneous on the stand (“consecutaneous” as one presenter calls it) is simply that– an excuse. We have to be prepared for consecutive at all times!

    One thing we did was sit around the office and dust off an old consecutive exercises book and kinda quizzed each other. It was a bit intimidating to try to demonstrate our note-taking skills and consecutive abilities in front of very talented colleagues, especially because the exercises were a bit complex, but it was a great exercise. We are all more aware of our strengths and weaknesses, and there is a renewed commitment to continually polish our skills.

    Thanks for the post. It was really great!

  • Kathleen
    Posted at 09:12h, 12 May Reply

    Thanks, Jennifer. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the fact that you and your colleagues went to the trouble of reviewing consecutive skills. As you say, we must be prepared for consecutive interpreting at all times. I was surprised that some courts pressure interpreters to use the simultaneous mode for witness testimony. You would think that protecting the record would be of paramount importance.

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