What Would YOU Have Done?

Here is another installment of WWYHD. We thank our colleagues who have shared their experiences with us and invite YOU to contribute. All articles are shared anonymously and to avoid breach of confidentiality, all identifiable details are removed from the stories shared with us in compliance with our Code of Ethics. This space is for us to help each other overcome or prepare for unexpected situations. Do you have an experience to share? Please write to the  Editor.

The interpreter and court reporter were ready, waiting for the couple to arrive with their respective lawyers. It was going to be a prenup signing. Nothing to it. But the interpreter couldn’t stop thinking about the different cultures involved, the different legal systems and their peculiarities.

You SigningThe first bump happened when one of the lawyers started asking questions from a sheet of paper. There was no copy for the interpreter. The proceedings had to be stopped for copies to be made. The questions were complex, pertaining to the content of the pre-nuptial agreement, the nature of the parties’ relationship, level of knowledge of each other’s affairs, motivation to enter into the agreement and whether they were both doing so of their free will.
The interpreter’s brain was going into overdrive: The document was signed in the US, just a few days before the ceremony. US Judges frown upon prenuptial agreements signed “just before” the ceremony. One party was from Europe, the other from South America. Some countries in South America do not allow properties acquired after marriage to be commingled; some countries in Europe do.

All the interpreter could think of was if the parties had discussed the agreement with lawyers in their own countries, how their marriage and prenuptial agreement were going to be registered in their different countries, and if the American lawyers took the legal differences into consideration.

No, the interpreter was professional enough not to raise any questions but he just wanted his brain to stop wandering.  Knowing when to be quiet is an art. But here is the question, what do you do when your brain starts playing “lawyer”?


  • Take a sip of water to calm down
  • Pray that the couple lives happily ever after
  • Vow to become a lawyer and take all these myriad details into consideration
  • Take mental notes and submit them to The NAJIT Observer

11 thoughts on “What Would YOU Have Done?”

  1. LIVIU-LEE ROTH says:

    I am a lawyer, I practiced law for 12 years in my country, but when I am in court interpreting, I think “interpreter”, not lawyer. After the case is over and my job done, I may discuss the odd details. I remember from years ago, there was an immigration judge who liked to briefly discuss with me the case in which he issued a decision; it was fun and both of us learned a lot from those discussions.

    1. Gio Lester says:

      The closest I came to that was a judge ask me what was “Spanglish” after an interesting immigration case; other than that, I did not exist outside my role of interpreter.

  2. Sylvia Torena says:

    No, you are there to interpret the words and not open an opinion. Even after the fact, what ever talks you have with either of the attorneys, judges, or anybody involve in the case. It happened to me and the attorney that I had a casual conversation in the elevator, three months down the road call me as a witness. Never, ever, ever talk about a case that you were hired to interpret with anybody.
    That is just me.

  3. Gio Lester says:

    At least, in this case, Sylvia, no one can go after our colleague. I follow the same guidelines you spouse.

  4. Vicki Santamaria says:

    This issue comes up for me frequently because I am a staff interpreter in a court where law school students work as interns with both the public defender’s office and the district attorney’s office. Thus, I often find myself interpreting for a student intern in his/her talks with a defendant. It becomes readily apparent when the student’s lack of knowledge can affect the case. If it is a procedural matter–for example, I know that the judge will require a particular form to be filled out–I will tell the student attorney about the form. Or if there is a resource unknown to the student attorney–a church which offers supervised visitation for non-custodial parents–I might give the student attorney a copy of the brochure. That is where I draw the line–giving information that any court employee would be aware of. It is really hard to keep quiet when an attorney is doing a bad job, but we must.

  5. Milagros K says:

    That should be the ethical thing to do in a situation like that.

  6. Arnaldo B says:

    I don’t think any of those questions are any of the interpreter’s business so I would just do my job and keep my mouth shut. As for the issues raised, who knows, maybe later at some point there might be protracted and complex divorce proceedings requiring the use of a professional interpreter for many, many hours of work?

  7. Margaret Wolfe-Roberts says:

    I can definitely empathize. It seems that as interpreters we often find ourselves in situations in which we may have the opportunity to notice the potential failings and omissions of others, and it can be tough to keep quiet. I like Vicki’s solution of drawing the line at only giving information that any court employee would be aware of, in her role as staff interpreter. Occasionally I find I have some cultural expertise, relevant to certain potential misunderstandings, that is appropriate to share, especially when asked about an issue. Other times I might have a genuine confusion about what I’m hearing for which I seek clarification, and in the process, someone else’s error is discovered and corrected. But mostly it’s time to keep our heads down, focus on doing our own best at the job we’re there for, button our lips, and let the other professionals do their own jobs, for better or worse.

    As an example of sharing from our cultural expertise, there was once the custody mediator who put her index fingers up to her temples during a mediation and wiggled them like horns, referring jokingly to putting horns on the other person, by which she meant, treating the other person like the “bad guy”. I told her after the session was over and the parties had left that putting the horns on someone in Latin America typically refers to infidelity. The mediator was thunderstruck and said she would avoid using that particular metaphor with Spanish speakers in the future. If either of the parties had reacted noticeably to the metaphor but without saying why, I might have offered an explanation during the session, but they did not so I kept quiet about it until later.

    Another time during a tense property settlement negotiation between divorcing parties and their attorneys, I was asked to give an opinion on a Mexican legal document in Spanish in response to a question about property law. I looked the document over a few minutes in silence. I then warned that I was not an expert in Mexican family law, but that there was a section of the document, here, where an option is presented to select the type of economic regimen under which the marriage is to operate, and that the selection made appeared to be for some kind of shared property. Properly hedged, I felt my answer was adequate to the request, but had it been a more complex question, I likely would have refused to answer on the grounds that I am not trained nor acting as an attorney in Mexico.

    In another situation early in my career, towards the end of a long DSS meeting with a mother who’d had her baby taken from her after seeking help for post partum depression, an attorney made an extremely harsh statement to the mom. I felt that the remark would likely tank whatever rapport they’d managed to build over course of the three hour meeting, but I went ahead and interpreted it as-is and without comment. A couple months later the attorney came up to me in the hallway and said the advocate who had been at the meeting told her the woman had been devastated by the comment. The attorney was genuinely surprised and asked what I thought about it. I no longer remember what I told her, but I tend to feel it would have been okay to give her my true opinion at that point since she was asking me in private. Other times however, attorneys have asked me during a break in a hearing “How am I doing?” or after interviewing a client “Do you think he’s lying?” and of course I must refuse to answer those types of questions. More difficult to resist sometimes are the friendly conversations after an interpreted proceeding or interview where open-ended observations are commonly shared and solicited. I try to walk a fine line between sociable but innocuous comments and ones that may reflect in any way on the parties and their case.

    In the case of the pre-nup, since the documents were being drawn up and signed in the US, presumably US laws will govern their interpretation. Whether the attorneys did their due diligence, and whether the parties were well or ill-advised to sign, as interesting a question as it is, cannot be the interpreter’s concern, as the OP notes. I think the OP did well to focus on his or her own performance by requesting copies of complex material for reference, and to keep his or her lip buttoned about whatever he or she thought the legal ramifications might have been. Maybe the experience could inspire some independent research on international law for one’s own satisfaction later on. But if the timing of the pre-nup was going to be a problem for some judge somewhere, and you’re just itching to show off your smarts to the point of distraction, perhaps you could remind yourself: “That’s above my pay grade.”

    And if the urge to pipe up gets really, really strong? Can’t focus on the job at hand for the questions swirling around in your head? Maybe it’s time to switch to some silent vocabulary drills. Here are some more options to get started:

    That’s not in my wheelhouse. That’s not in my bailiwick. It’s beyond my pay grade. Gonna keep my lip buttoned up and stay quiet as a clam. Gonna keep my mouth shut, keep my head down, and guard my trap. That’s none of your beeswax!

    1. Observer Editor says:

      “That’s not in my wheelhouse. That’s not in my bailiwick. It’s beyond my pay grade. Gonna keep my lip buttoned up and stay quiet as a clam. Gonna keep my mouth shut, keep my head down, and guard my trap. That’s none of your beeswax!”

      Our colleague should add these to his repertoire.

  8. Helen Duffy says:

    Stay impartial. That is the hallmark of our profession. We never act as advocates.

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