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Thoughts on Interpreting – the invisible language

– By Gio Lester © 2016

Living in Miami, Florida, a bilingual city for sure, one thing we notice is that every other attorney speaks another language. Most of them have studied Spanish or their families are from one of the myriad Spanish-speaking Latin American countries, or they themselves were educated in one of them. The fact that I work with Brazilian Portuguese does not deter them; after all Brazilian Portuguese is just Spanish with a funny accent (yes, I have heard that).

Even when it is not one of the active languages in a case, Spanish is still present. During an arbitration I interpreted at, the lead judge acknowledged the ghost in the room, the third language we were not using, but yet was in everyone’s mind. The proceedings were in English, and a few witnesses spoke only Portuguese. However, the Spanish speaking lawyers were always checking the interpretation and the deponents’ statements back into Spanish.

Whenever I enter a deposition room, I tell the court reporters I am on their team, that I am there to make sure their job is done as easily and accurately as possible. And it has resulted in great alliances. They will defend me before I even open my mouth, “Will the attorneys please take turns?” Or my favorite, “Sir, if you don’t wait for the interpreter to finish I can’t do my job.” You get the picture: the lawyer speaks enough Spanish to make out key words in Brazilian Portuguese in the deponent’s utterance and jumps to the next question.

Lawyers also have a predilection for negative questions during depositions. But that will work best in a direct interaction. It has the potential of becoming a problem when interpreters are present as the questions may become convoluted because of the sentence structure in the foreign language or the cultural logic. And instructions to deponents – I have to say Brazilian are notorious for not following them – should also focus on explaining the purpose of the procedure to allay cultural bias and fears.

Since I rarely do court work, my most extensive experience with judges is restricted to immigration and I have witnessed a lot of understanding, grace, and compassion. But I hear my colleagues’ complaints, and I see that it is not only a dislike for our professional class that leads to the problems we encounter, it is also a cultural void that almost paralyzes the system.

I really would love to see NAJIT put together workshops or videos targeting lawyers and judges. “Make it easier on yourself – the secrets of working with interpreters!” or “Cultural awareness can help you get through a deposition faster” – these are two of the workshops I have in mind. Any takers?

portrait of Gio LesterBrazilian-born Giovanna “Gio” Lester, Co-Chair of NAJIT’s PR Committee, started her career in translation and interpreting in 1980. Gio is very active in her profession and in the associations she is affiliated with. In 2009, she co-founded the Florida ATA Chapter (ATIF), served as its first elected president (2011-2012), and later as president of its interim board. As an international conference interpreter, Gio has been the voice of government heads and officials, scientists, researchers, doctors, hairdressers, teachers, engineers, investors and more. Gio has been a contributor to The NAJIT Observer since its inception in 2011, and its Editor since 2016. In 2017 she was appointed Chair of the Miami Dade College Translation and Interpretation Advisory Committee, which she had been a member of since 2014. In 2018, Gio was elected to the Executive Committee of the Brazilian Association of Translators and Interpreters,  Abrates, as its General Secretary. You can follow her on Twitter (@cariobana) and she can also be reached at
Click here to read other posts by Gio.


15 thoughts on “Thoughts on Interpreting – the invisible language”

  1. Johanna Aguayo says:

    Great post Gio! And I agree. As a Spanish Interpreter in Los Angeles, most attorneys speak or know “some” Spanish and like to point it out on the record if they think the interpreter made a mistake. I love feedback and I don’t get offended if I make a mistake, after all I’m human. But the “mistakes” they point out are not mistakes, they could be word preference, false cognates, or words they expect a very literal interpretation for when in fact a better interpretation that is more understood exists. I think having workshops on how to teach lawyers that we are there to help them would be great! Attorneys often think we are there to help the deponent when in fact we are there to help the entire team, including the attorney.

    1. Gio Lester says:

      I too find it incredible that they do not understand that we are neutral. And when that is brought up the retort is “But WE are paying you.” Go figure.

    2. Linda Ibarez says:

      Hello! I happened to stumble upon this page, and find this work very interesting! Any pointers on how to get started??

      1. Observer Editor says:

        Hello Linda,

        Court interpreting is not a work, it is a profession. It is very interesting and emotionally rewarding. The best place to start is to check the National Center for State Courts website ( to find out the URL for your state’s courts site. There you should find a link to interpreting services or something in that line. You should have all the information you need to start your career.

        TNO Editor

  2. Maria Loranca says:

    Gio, I especially love your comment on bilingual attorneys jumping in on the next question without allowing the interpreter to render the complete interpretation. Attorneys forget there’s a court reporter present during depositions and for her to render a true and complete script, she will need to hear the complete interpretation.

    1. Gio Lester says:

      Duh! Even when we are not there, they still have to be polite to the poor court reporter, don’t they???

  3. carlos cerecedo says:

    I tell bilingual lawyers….if you keep your knowledge of your language to yourself…I promise I will not give legal advise to your client… basically …do your job….I will do mine..

    1. Gio Lester says:

      Right! You do your thing, I do mine. And we are both happy.

  4. Sandra N Arthur says:

    Very good point Gio! Because of my husband’s work we had the opportunity to reside in Sao Paulo for four years!… I studied the language and had some very good Brasilian friends and was able to practice and became fluent. Upon our return to the States, I started my work as a Spanish Interpreter/Translator and found also there was a need for Portuguese. I did and still do some work in Portuguese, but as you said, although it might sound similar to Spanish at times, it can also have a totally different meaning.
    Regarding that “training” for Judges and Attorneys, would be the greatest thing! In Miami, there are several Attorneys who speak Spanish…or so they say, but without really having studied the language, they cannot really know the many different ways somethings can be said, they are limited to one or perhaps two, and that is when the problem starts!

    1. Gio Lester says:

      That’s exactly why I do not interpret into Spanish. I just did a 30-40 minute interview in Spanish in Cuba BUT I was controlling the vocabulary, I knew what the subject was, AND those were my own words. Trying to put other people’s words from a language I do not completely command into English would be professional suicide. There are plenty of capable colleagues out there who could more elegantly and intelligently earn those dollars.

  5. Gabriela Munoz says:

    Gio, this is a phenomenal post and I’m in complete agreement that a course for attorneys and judges should be offered. Especially with question structure! Some attorneys catch on that the way they’re structuring a question can get jumbled up in the interpretation, but others don’t and you end up with a room filled with frustrated attorneys and LEP witnesses.

    I also run into the issue during depos that monolingual attorneys will bring bilingual staff in to “check” my interpreting. I have no problem being corrected since, as someone stated previously, I’m not infallible, but having someone cut off an interpretation breaks up flow and makes already lengthy depositions take up even more time.

    A solution I have found is to try and get the attorneys’ “language helpers” on my side by introducing myself, saying I understand that I can make a mistake and am fine being corrected, and then asking them that if they think I made an error to please let me finish rendering first, then have the attorney object on the record so we can resolve whatever issue may have come up in a quick manner together.

    I’ll still get some unprofessional behavior, but most of the time I find that framing it this way gets the bilingual “checkers” on my side by putting them in the mindset that we all are working towards the same goal: having an accurate record of what was said. Most of the time, they end up staying out of the way during the session.

    I hope NAJIT will take that seminar proposal into consideration!

  6. Gio Lester says:

    I am right there with you, Gabriela. I have had attorneys bring bilingual staff, sometimes other lawyers, sometimes secretaries, to check my work. However, the “checkers” were very polite about it and they would pass a note to the attorney who would then make the objection on the record. Sometimes they would go off the record to check a point of grammar or word choice. I actually welcomed the intervention and always pointed out my dictionaries in front of me whenever they started with an apology: “I am here to help keep the accuracy of the record, thank you for assisting me.”

  7. Margaret van Naerssen says:

    I really liked Gio’s blog post–and the other comments. Another ghost language might be an indigenous language–as the first language of the defendant/ witness. If from, say, Mexico, the assumption sometimes is made that the person’s dominant language is Spanish. BUT not necessarily so. And no checking has done to verify this.

  8. Terri Shaw says:

    I have been fortunate enough to participate in panels for judges and lawyers about how to work with interpreters. The reaction was very positive. They asked questions and seemed to appreciate the information.

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