The Mexican Deli Debacle: How Attorneys can Sabotage Themselves, Their Clients and You

We’ve all worked with attorneys who just don’t get it. There are those who simply refuse to learn how to work with interpreters, who fail to conduct a thorough preparation of their LEP clients for deposition or trial, who make no attempt to phrase questions simply and clearly, or who ignore cultural nuances. They are not doing their clients any favors, and the results usually reflect badly on the attorneys themselves in court.

This is the story of one such attorney and two of his clients. I’ll call him Mr. Green. He was young and relatively inexperienced, but arrogant and opinionated. He had moved from “the big city” in the north, where he had been working at a large civil law firm, in order to set up his own practice in the southern part of the state. One of his goals, he told me, was to take advantage of the concentration of Spanish-speaking people in this area, and establish a clientele partially consisting of members of this community. To that end he had hired a young local “bilingual” assistant who would supposedly reach out to the community for clients and also do the in-office interpreting.

Part 1: A Civil Matter

My contact with the entrepreneurial Mr. Green began like this. A few months ago, I was called by the local small claims court to interpret for a landlord/tenant trial to last two hours. They told me that they were not allowed to give me any information about the case, and that I would have to contact the attorney, which I did. It was Mr. Green.

Mr. Green informed me that his clients were two Mexican brothers who had rented a small commercial building to set up a deli/taco business. After operating the deli for six years, they had been given notice to vacate the premises for various reasons. The case centered on the security deposit, purported damages to the property and sundry items of a culinary nature which the owner had retained after the brothers had left.

The suit had initially been brought by the owner to recover monies for destruction he alleged the brothers had caused, including structural and plumbing damage. The brothers had countersued, requesting return of the security deposit and the restaurant equipment ,

Part 2: Before the Trial

From the moment I contacted him, the attorney was reluctant to help me prepare for the trial. I explained to him that it would be to his clients’ advantage if I were familiar with the facts of the case and any terminology that might come into play. Finally, after some persuasion on my part, he allowed me to go to his office and peruse the case file. This I had to do on my own time, since he felt that I really should not need the information if I was a “good” interpreter. As I sat there going through the file, I jotted down various terms relating to restaurant equipment and building construction. There were such culinary-related items as a meat slicer, tortilla maker, cheese melter, and deli case, but also structural terms such as plywood, drywall, floor tiles and door jamb.

When I was finished, I mentioned to the attorney that it would be a good idea for me to have a meeting with him and his clients to be sure that we were all on the same page as to the vocabulary to be used at the trial. He almost laughed out loud. “I hardly think that’s necessary, Ms. Shelly. This is a very simple case, really, and the words you seem to think might cause problems are just everyday things, after all. I’m sure my clients will recognize them in Spanish. And even if they don’t, they know enough English to understand my questions anyway.” Then he gestured toward the bilingual assistant. “At any rate, that’s why I hired Stephanie. She’s fully bilingual. Why, she doesn’t even need to use a dictionary!”  Stephanie grinned and gave a little wave. I groaned inwardly.  

I thought of giving the attorney some materials on best practices for attorneys working with interpreters, but I had to wonder if it would make any difference. I decided against it, and to just let him learn the hard way.

Part 3: Sabotage and Strategy

What Mr. Green refused to understand was that he was setting himself and his clients up for possible failure. If the trial was constantly interrupted by linguistic questions and lack of communication, not only would his clients and he himself appear to be ignorant and unprepared, but also the judge would soon lose patience and interest in the proceedings. 

He was also placing the interpreter in a very difficult position. Because of his complete and willful lack of knowledge of language and of interpreting, he was creating a situation rife with opportunities for confusion and misunderstandings for which the interpreter might be deemed partially responsible.

By not allowing me to interpret or speak with his clients beforehand, I had no way of determining a number of factors that would help me render a smooth and seamless interpretation of the procedure with accuracy and clarity. First of all, I would lack the advantage of acquainting myself with the particular accents, mannerisms, and speech patterns of the witnesses. I also had no way of knowing if indeed the brothers would understand both the English question and the standard Spanish translation, of which the attorney seemed so certain.

My main problem, however, was that I couldn’t possibly foretell which words the brothers would understand in standard Spanish. While they might know some of the terms they heard in Spanish, a lot of them referred to items they probably had never seen or used in their own country. Take the word “plywood,” for example. The word in standard Spanish is “contrachapado,” but I have never heard any Spanish-speaking person refer to it as anything but “plywood” because they have only come across the product in the United States. So when interpreting a question about plywood, should I use the English/Spanglish “plywood” or the standard “contrachapado?” I could be fairly sure the brothers would know the word “plywood” in English, and that they had never heard the word “contrachapado,” but how could I be sure? And what about the other fifty-odd contested items? How could I possibly know the words the witnesses would use or understand?

I finally decided to interpret everything into standard Spanish. This posed certain risks for myself as an interpreter. If the witness did not understand the questions, there existed the possibility that my interpretation could be perceived as faulty and unprofessional, when in fact it was the opposite. I had to think of a way to protect myself and make sure the judge understood that the attorney had not taken the trouble to prepare his clients adequately.

Part 4: During the Trial

On the day of the trial everyone showed up early, and I was allowed a few minutes to speak with the two brothers. We understood each other quite well; I had lived near their area of Mexico for about a year, and their way of speaking was very familiar. Then we were called into the courtroom. Present were the judge, the original plaintiff with his attorney, the two brothers with their attorney, Stephanie, the assistant, and I, the interpreter.

The original plaintiff went first, of course, and I interpreted his testimony simultaneously to the two brothers. I was counting on the fact that both of the attorneys and also the plaintiff would introduce at least some of the words for the items in dispute, and such was the case. I had my glossary in front of me and made sure to enunciate the standard Spanish translations as carefully as possible so that the two witnesses would get at least somewhat familiar with the terms I would use when it was their turn.

The younger brother then left the courtroom, and the older brother took the stand. Things actually went very well for a while. The witness seemed like an intelligent guy and, whether by the context or his knowledge of English, he had little trouble with the either the direct or the cross examinations. Inevitably, however, there was a language snag, and I immediately took the opportunity to state to the judge that “the interpreter” was using standard Spanish, and indicated the possibility that the witness might not be familiar with the Spanish term and why. This was important because there would probably be more misunderstandings down the line, and I was darned if I was going to be made to look like an idiot.

And sure enough, when the younger brother testified, everything fell apart. Apparently, he did not work at the deli as much as his brother, and also knew less English. It was awful. I once again let the judge know what the trouble was, and she became more and more annoyed, not with me, though, but with the attorney.

I’ll never forget one amusing moment during the testimony. The younger brother was asked a question about a walk-in refrigerator the two brothers had installed. I used the standard Spanish expression “cámara frigorífica,” Great puzzlement ensued on the part of the witness. The question was repeated, and, after further clarification, he finally burst out with: “¡OH, EL WAHL-KEEN!”

Part 4: After the Trial

Well, the trial lasted a good deal more than two hours, of course, and I was exhausted at the end of it. At one point I took a peek at Stephanie, who, to my satisfaction, looked rather red-faced and disconcerted.

The attorney? I’d like to say I observed a huge change in him when the trial was over, but he seemed just as bumptious as before. As we parted, though, he shook my hand, bowed (a little mockingly) and said: “Thank you, Madam Interpreter.”

References

“Translation for Lawyers.” All Language Alliance. http://www.translationforlawyers.com/2008/05/deposition_interpreters_and_pr.html

Mark S. Shipow, Esq. “Using Interpreters in Litigation.”http://ils-ipp.blogspot.com/2009/09/using-interpreters-in-litigation.html

See NAJIT Advocacy Committee publications at http://www.najit.org/advocacy/bandb.php

3 Comments
  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 09:01h, 16 May Reply

    I really had fun reading this. It was like reading a short story in which I was one of the characters. Yes, I have been there, but the language was Brazilian Portuguese.

    I believe it is time that universities create a subject called “The Interpreter: Your ally in a multicultural and multilingual world.” Lawyers do need to learn how to bring the interpreter into their team and exchange resources/knowledge. My experience tells me this is a problem that has to be handled BEFORE they leave school; afterwards is (most times) too late.

    Thanks for an entertaining breakfast companion, Kathleen.

  • Olivia Ocana
    Posted at 14:00h, 06 June Reply

    Great article! Thanks for sharing, Kathleen.

  • Business Lawyers
    Posted at 07:12h, 04 August Reply

    Nice post!!! It was interesting and gave information about lawyers and their strategy.

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