Court Interpreting: Complexities and Misunderstandings

Court Interpreting: Complexities and Misunderstandings

Haydee Claus

"Court Interpreting: Complexities and Misunderstandings" by Haydee Claus. Alaska Justice Forum 13(4): 1, 7-8 (Winter 1997). Accurately interpreting to and from English in proceedings requires a language proficiency often misunderstood by participants in the court proceedings, and lack of proficient interpretation can give rise to errors with threaten the integrity of the justice process. A certified interpreter for the federal and California court systems corrects misunderstandings about the nature of language interpretation in legal proceedings. A sidebar story, "Language Interpretation and the Alaska Justice System", describes the practice of Alaska courts and other Alaska justice agencies for language interpretation.

Accurately interpreting to and from English in legal proceedings requires a language proficiency often misunderstood by participants in the judicial process, and a lack of proficient interpretation can give rise to errors which threaten the integrity of the justice process. As a certified interpreter for the federal court system and the California state system, I have observed some common patterns of misunderstanding among judges and attorneys regarding the nature of language interpretation.

It is common to encounter the misconception that if an individual is bilingual he can interpret and, by extension, can interpret in court and translate court documents. In reality, the demands of courtroom interpreting are particularly complex, requiring extensive knowledge of at least two languages and rigorous training in interpretation.

Bilingualism is relative rather than absolute. In other words, one can speak a foreign language, and be bilingual in it, to different degrees. In court, I frequently encounter people whose familiarity with a foreign language stems from being raised in this country by foreign-born parents, who may themselves have had a limited formal education. Such individuals may be able to perform simple tasks in the foreign language, such as asking someone's name and address in order to fill out a simple form, but may not be able to tell a person what he is being charged with, administer a field sobriety test, describe the details of a crime or interpret courtroom discourse.

These tasks require differing degrees of language proficiency. Yet, I have seen judges assume that if a person can do one, she can do the other. In addition, the problem can be compounded, because sometimes people do not easily admit they cannot do something perceived as simple, especially if they have already accepted the label "bilingual." To make matters worse, the non-English speaking defendant or witness may either be too intimidated by the proceedings or not want to seem ungrateful; therefore, he may never say he does not understand his interpreter.

The demands of courtroom discourse on a person's linguistic resources differ vastly from those of the environment in which many people in this country have become bilingual. In a typical family, whether immigrant or not, members usually don't discuss "indictments," "waivers," "felonies" or "conspiracies." Yet these are common terms in court discourse. Individuals may learn these terms in school, but only in English. It takes particular additional effort to learn them in another language. Soon after an individual begins school in this country, proficiency in the "native" language often stagnates or at least fails to develop at the same pace as skill in English, and the native language ceases to be the "dominant" or "primary" language. Thus, many "bilingual" attorneys, policemen, government agents and clerks with an excellent command of English can only speak the foreign language at the level of a chid. Bilingualism, therefore, is a matter of degree.

The degree needed to communicate easily in various legal settings is very high. A depth of understanding may be required that encompasses the slang and profanity often heard in jail interviews or on the witness stand, the technical jargon of motions, the elegant and erudite language of closing statements, and the complex grammatical structures in jury instructions. A person who aspires to become a court interpreter must be comfortable at all these levels in at least two languages even before beginning training in the art of interpreting.

As part of her job, a court interpreter is required to interpret everything that transpires from English into the foreign language. She must understand everything she hears because interpreters render ideas, not just words. In a typical trial a judge may read the jury instructions at more than 120 words a minute. The interpreter must hear the English, grasp each idea, and transform the English ideas immediately into the words and grammar of the second language. She must do this continuously and almost simultaneously, usually lagging behind a few words. She must perform a careful balancing act of intense concentration. If she focuses too much on what she hears, she loses track of what is coming out of her mouth and she runs the risk of stuttering, making grammar errors or leaving sentences unfinished. If she focuses too much attention on her delivery, she can miss what is being said in court. She must have a broad enough educational background and language proficiency to understand and simultaneously interpret testimony, whether the witness is a forensic doctor, a fingerprint expert or a ballistics expert.

The demands of consecutive interpretation, usually done at the witness stand, are different but equally rigorous. The interpreter is required to retain long questions and answers (utterances as long as 50 words are not uncommon) and render them into the target language completely and accurately. This means no paraphrasing, no embellishment, no improving the grammar and no summarizing.

To grasp the nature of the skill required in consecutive interpretation, try reading the following sentence and simply repeating it in English to yourself, without looking at the text: "Well, uh, the thing is, like I told you, me and Joe and Rick had a couple, well maybe more than a couple, say four, I guess, beers apiece before the cops got there but that was after we had had two scotch and sodas and two, no one, or was it two, well, a couple of Margaritas at the bar on 5th and Folsom."

In order to train one's brain to do two things at once - listen and speak - aspiring students of interpretation practice exercises. They may first listen to a tape in one language and repeat what they hear in the same language, lagging a few words behind. If they can do that easily, they are asked to lag a few more words behind and attempt to do that continuously, without skipping anything. Then they are asked to perform the same task while writing numbers backwards, from 100 to 1. The next step is to perform the repetition while writing numbers backwards in two's: 100, 98, 96, 94..., and after that, by three's. Then the speed in which the text is delivered is increased, and then the complexity of the text. Before using two languages, students work on analysis of complex sentence structures, text paraphrasing, vocabulary development and memory exercises.

Another common misconception concerning the nature of interpreting is that an interpreter provides word by word equivalency between the languages. In reality, accurate interpretation does not proceed on such a literal basis.

Spanish Literal translation Correct translation
Andaba bien pedo. He walked real fart. He was smashed.
Las utilidades se dispararon cuando la oferta aumentó. The utilities shot themselves when the offer increased. The profits sky-rocketed when the supply increased.
Es que yo a ella no la conozco. Is that I to her don't know her. The thing is, I don't know her.
El hombre del pelo chino dijo que lo había hecho para pagar una droga. The man with the Chinese hair said he had done it to pay off a drug. The curly-haired man said he had done it to pay off a debt.
If you insist on a literal translation (written) or a literal interpretation (oral) you may end up with sentences such as the ones in the box above.

A good interpretation conveys the meaning of the original accurately and completely, at the same level of language or register as the source language. In the first example above, therefore, the meaning could be conveyed fairly accurately by saying, "He was very intoxicated." Since the register in the original is much lower, however, a good interpreter would match that register and choose "smashed" rather than the more formal "very intoxicated." By the same token, if the judge states, "You are remanded to the custody of the Marshal...," the interpreter cannot take it upon herself to say, "The Marshals are gonna take you to jail now," because that is not the register the judge chose to use. A professional interpreter must also be familiar with the more common slang terms and regionalisms used in the languages she interprets. In the first example above, "pedo" (literally "fart" in standard Spanish) is also common Mexican slang for "drunk."

There are other reasons why literalness is not something to aspire to in interpretation. For example, in many Latin American countries, boys are often called "papá" (literally "dad"); friends are often called "cuñado" (literally "brother-in-law"); and children are often addressed as "mi hijo" or "mi hija" ("my son" or "my daughter") by adults who are not their parents. A good interpreter must choose the equivalent term in this country that preserves the connotation and is appropriate to the situation, perhaps "honey" for children, or "bro" for a friend, because those terms best convey the intended meaning in the source language. After all, the Spanish speaker who calls a little boy "papá" uses the word as a term of endearment and certainly does not mean to convey the meaning that "dad" conveys to an English speaker.

Accuracy, therefore, requires communicating the same meaning, connotation, level of intensity and register - but not necessarily exactly the same words.

Suggestions for Judges and Attorneys

Use court certified interpreters whenever possible. Such a person has passed a test that demonstrates that she is minimally qualified to interpret in court. The federal courts currently certify in Spanish, Navajo and Haitian Creole. Some states have also established certification procedures. California, for example, currently certifies court interpreters in Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, and Portuguese, in addition to Spanish.

Speak to the defendant or witness directly, using the first person. For example, ask: "Is this your first appearance in this court, Mr. Martinez?" rather than saying to the interpreter, "Ask him if this is his first appearance in this court." Interpreters are trained to act as the voice of the speakers, not as intermediaries who paraphrase. Using the third person throws the interpreter off track, and the use of pronouns can create confusion and ambiguity.

Interpreters should not be asked to explain legal concepts or procedures or to fill out forms without an attorney present. Legal explanations must be left to attorneys.

Beware of asking Spanish speakers to spell words, even their own names. Spanish is a very phonetic, regular language so Latin Americans are not routinely drilled in school in spelling aloud, as students are in this country. As a result, even highly educated Spanish speakers will have difficulty spelling aloud with ease. If they see their names written, they can readily confirm the spelling. Alternatively, interpreters can be asked to confirm with the person the spelling of a name.

Concepts of time and distance vary from culture to culture. It should not be assumed that a witness is trying to be evasive or vague when he doesn't answer questions with the same precision expected from someone in this culture.

Interpreters should be permitted to ask questions, since they may need to clarify concepts. In some Asian languages, for example, the word "uncl" may be used to mean "neighbor, "friend," "uncle," or it may be used as a term of respect for an older man. If a witness uses the word and the interpreter is unsure of the intended meaning, some clarification may be needed to insure accuracy.

Accents are a very superficial reflection of mastery in a foreign language. If an interpreter's accent in English interferes with comprehension, it becomes a problem. However, many good interpreters have slight accents simply because they learned English as teenagers or adults; they may have an otherwise excellent command of the language.

Interpreter Training

The educational level necessary for proficient court interpreting can be underestimated. Most interpreters who pass either Federal Court Certification Examination or the California State Certification Examination possess at least an undergraduate college degree and often a graduate degree.

Both the federal test and the California state test have a passing rate of less than ten per cent. Many applicants attempt the tests without sufficient preparation. The passing rate increases substantively for graduates of court interpreting programs.

At present only a few institutions in the Ninth Circuit are offer comprehensive training for court interpreters. These include: San Francisco State University, Extended Education; Monterey Institute of International Studies; University of California at Los Angeles; California State University at Los Angeles and San Diego; and University of Arizona, Tucson.

Haydee Claus is a federally-certified interpreter and the academic advisor for the legal interpretation program at San Francisco State University. She is a native of El Salvador. This article has been adapted from a longer piece.