The Tale of an Arbitration

-by Gio Lester, 2014

At the last arbitration for which I interpreted, the panel consisted of three judges: a monolingual American, a bilingual native Spanish speaker and a native Brazilian Portuguese speaker who also spoke Spanish and English. The lawyers for the parties were mostly bilingual, in different combinations of those three languages.

A ghost in the room

The linguistic closeness of Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish made for some interesting moments, and an enlightened comment by the monolingual American judge. Paraphrasing, he stated that though English was the language of the proceedings and Brazilian Portuguese was the language of one of the parties, a third language lurked in the minds of many of those present.

I was interrupted a few times by Spanish speakers to confirm meanings. “Didn’t várias in that specific sentence actually mean ‘various’ and not ‘many’ as rendered?”, “Does uns mean ‘a few’ or ‘some’?”, “The gentleman said perfeito and it was rendered as ‘yes’ – is that accurate?” To the last one I explained that most times when we hear “I see” it does not mean the person uttering the phrase has a visual reference – and the Brazilian judge on the panel stated that my rendition was accurate.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

For me, the most interesting part of arbitration is preparing for it. In my case, that involved researching in Brazilian legal servers and going over statements, confirming meanings, clarifying nuances, and developing a glossary based on content from declarations. Though time consuming, preparation is essential and it does pay off when we are on stage.

The most exciting part is the delivery. Lawyers often forget there is an interpreter present and go on for long stretches arguing details among themselves and the panel. In the meantime, I am trying to convey their exchanges to the witness using simultaneous interpreting. Once finished, the lawyers are usually ready to pick up right from where they had left off and start rephrasing the interrupted question. At this arbitration, all I had to do was to raise a hand and silence would fall, while their questioning faces would focus on me: “The interpreter requests time to finish conveying your conversation to the witness.”

The court reporter placed a monitor connected to his machine in front of me and that was such a great help! Here I was using sight translation, which lent itself perfectly to the situation, since it allowed the lawyers to fully formulate and ask their questions, allowed the witness to “hear” the emotional tone, and allowed me to improve my performance.

Negative questions?

In depositions, lawyers ask convoluted questions, and in arbitrations they are twice as convoluted. That’s because the questions are based on written declarations the lawyers have had weeks or months to disassemble into minute units of meaning. It seemed that all their questions started with “wouldn’t you say” or “didn’t you state” or “isn’t it true that”. Most times the witness would request a repetition, and I would translate the request to the lawyers who would rephrase the whole question instead of having the court clerk read from the record. That only confused the witness more and made the proceedings lengthier.

There were two moments when I had to ask for clarification. One of them had to do with an addition in the translation that led the lawyer using the translated written declaration to misinterpret what was actually stated by the witness on the original declaration. We were able to find the culprit and the question was dropped. The other one was a word in English that I had never used before and I uttered it before fully realizing what I was doing. I had to excuse myself and check the word in the dictionary to confirm that it actually existed in English.

The devil is in the details

What still surprises me, though, is all the “assuming” that goes on. Without regard for cultural and legal differences and, at times, differing business objectives and practices, two enterprising entities come together with great gusto to succeed. They assume they understand each other fully, and those differences become “minor details”.  The all-out importance of those “minor details” only becomes apparent when the expected results are not attained.

Some of us still believe

And I am in awe of the passion and attention to detail displayed by the arbitrators, as well as their dedication and infinite patience. Even when their authority was challenged, their sense of impartiality and fairness allowed them to project themselves onto the situation of the challenger and very delicately, always unanimously, make a ruling that favored a fair resolution that would not trample anyone’s rights.

The panel and the lawyers have a date scheduled in March to reconvene. I wish I could be there to learn the outcome of the case.

2 thoughts on “The Tale of an Arbitration”

  1. Terri Shaw says:

    This is a fascinating report Gio. Sounds like you did a great job.

  2. Gio Lester says:

    Thanks, Teri. It was a great experience.

    – Gio

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