Monday, January 16, 2006

A shoutout to interpreters

Over at Blond Justice, Blond has written an interesting post about using interpreters in court. It is such a ubiquitous aspect of my job, I'm a little ashamed that I've never written about them in the past myself. To begin with, I'll point you to Blond's blog, because she does a great job describing how they are so helpful (or not, in certain circumstances). I will add a few things. First of all, the work they do is really amazing. I mean, I know a lot of people who can speak different languages, but when you deal with interpreters (especially Spanish interpreters, because they get so much daily practice), they are able to spit whole conversations out, back and forth, almost without delaying the conversation at all.

First off, you have to get used to speaking with interpreters. So, your thoughts must be more fragmented than usual. You need to give an interpreter about 20 seconds worth of thoughts that they can then turn and interpret to the client. You want the conversation to make sense, so you can't have long, expansive thoughts (this is actually good practice for cross examination and closing arguments).

You can't speak too quickly, obviously.

You also want to try and avoid idioms that may not translate well. It is pretty funny watching an interpreter try to translate are things like "your ass is grass" (just doesn't have the same meaning in Spanish, yet the concept is so appropriate to what I do). KISS (keep it simple, stupid).

I have seen some really bad interpreters before. Blond spoke about some interpreters that would appear to have conversations with defendants, rather than actually interpreting what they say. There was an interpreter of an Asian language (I won't get too specific so as not embarrass anyone) where I work who drove me nuts sometimes. He would do one or more of these different things in every conversation. Sometimes, I'd say something simple and short, he'd then speak with the person for about 30 seconds, the person would reply for about 30 more, they'd go back and forth, then finally he'd turn to me and say "no." As if that's all that happened in the 3 minutes since I finished talking. Other times I would say something, he'd turn and start speaking to the person, and then I'd notice something bizarre, I had a vague understanding of what he was saying. Just as vague as when he spoke to me, only this time he was speaking to the client. He was speaking his pidgin English with the client. Hello! I can do that just as well. A collegue who spoke the language he was an interpreter of noted that he didn't really speak that language well. We all noted that he didn't speak English that well either. Instead of bilingual, she called him "pre-lingual."

The regularly most funny thing that happens with interpreters is when I try to speak Spanish to a client in front of them. They are so used to reguritating what is said to them in English into Spanish, and vice-versa, that they often forget who is speaking to whom. So, the conversation goes back and forth for a little while, and then I'll say something to the client in Spanish (just to show off? Get my point across? Make it so they hear it directly from me? Whatever.), the interpreter will then turn and repeat the statement to the (Spanish speaking) client in English, only to realize that they didn't need to interpret that statement.

I will say this. After working in the courts for so many years, I have met many different people of varying backgrounds. No two people are the same, obviously. But, overwhelmingly, the most interesting people, with the most fascinating backgrounds, varied educations and overall most rounded and coolest people have tended to be the interpreters. Maybe because they often blend into the background of the courtroom (the proceedings are not about them in any way, after all), they don't get noticed as much. But so many of them have great life stories, and have lived in the most exotic places. More than any other group of people in the courthouse, when I socialize with interpreters outside of court, I have best conversations about subjects completely unrelated to work, which is a rarity.


Anonymous said...

Hello, Have been reading your posts for some time. I am defence solicitor in England. Your post about interpreters (especially about the 30 second conversation) really struck a cord with me.
Beofe I go on I must say that over here at the moment we are far less politically correct than the US(Thank God) so what I say may offend some people.
You refer to 30 second conversations.
Over here they can go on for some time longer than that if you get a bad interpreter.
If I meet a good interpreter, I always take their details so that in the future if I need an interpret I can contact them but sadly, to use an English phrase they are as rare as hens teeth.

norcalpubdef said...

I completely agree about interpreters. I worked with one that was a retired Spanish Professor Emeritus from Stanford. They are always very well traveled and have often led unusual lives.

Blonde Justice said...

Great thoughts!

Court Interpreter said...

Thank you for the shout-out!

I agree with your thoughts on interpreters as interesting people. I work with some of the best interpreters around and they are fascinating people. Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, ....

It's a damn cool job.

DeafScribe said...

Curious - any experience with sign language interpreters in court? I've used ASL 'terps on many occasions and have socialized with them as well. I think interpreters tend to be more well-rounded than average due to the exposure to different cultures and ways of thinking. said...

What a great discussion!

Our legal translation and interpreting firm All Language Alliance, Inc. just started a new legal blog

We're planning to talk about many the aspects of working with court interpreters, and about the role of culture in the practice of law.

In the meantime, your readers are welcome to read "A Lawyer's Guide To Cross-Cultural Depositions".

Best regards,