From the Multnomah Lawyer: Working with Interpreters

I used to be an interpreter, and I loved it. Interpreting is a meticulous, multi-layered art form that is difficult to master. It involves not only the ability to speak two different languages back-to-back, but also conveying the correct words, tone, affect, and purpose. Interpreting is an involved and exhausting process, and one that attorneys do not necessarily understand. The purpose of this article is to help lawyers understand the interpreting process, its role in court, and the best practices for working with interpreters.

According to the Oregon Judicial department, about 10 percent of people in Multnomah County are Limited English Speakers (LEP). Throughout Oregon, the most requested language interpreters are for Spanish, American Sign Language, Russian, and Vietnamese. It is not uncommon for lawyers to have a case where one or both parties are LEPs, and it is important for lawyers and clients to know how to work with an interpreter.

What exactly is the role of an interpreter in legal proceedings? An interpreter is a neutral party who takes an oath to interpret everything that is said faithfully and accurately. She is there to ensure effective communication between the parties. The interpreter cannot give legal advice or insert her thoughts or prejudices into what she translates.

An interpreter cannot answer a question directly. For example, if a witness says, “I don’t understand the question,” the interpreter cannot then reframe the question. She must translate the witness’ statement and allow the attorney to do it. An attorney should ask to stop the proceedings if at any point there is a back and forth between interpreter and witness.  I once saw an interpreter give legal advice to a witness on how to properly answer a question. Since I spoke the translated language, I knew exactly what was going on and requested that the judge remind the interpreter that he was there to interpret, not give legal advice.

At other times, I’ve realized that my witness wasn’t really answering the question I was asking. If that happens, re-frame your question - some things can get lost in translation, especially if the interpreter is not privy to the case’s background.

On that note, try to provide a short brief with the case background or special terminology to the interpreter. You can do this for depositions or in-office meetings. This allows the interpreter to better translate specific terms that might not be common in a prompt manner. In Multnomah County, interpreters have access to the court record prior to a hearing.

Attorneys should also brief their witnesses on how to interact with the interpreter. The best practices for both attorneys and witnesses are to:

  • Use short sentences;
  • Speak in plain English;
  • Allow some time for the interpreter to finish interpreting - some languages may require more time than others;
  • do not talk over another person - an interpreter can only interpret one person at a time.
Another important rule is to give the interpreter a break. As I said at the beginning, interpreting can be exhausting. Therefore, it is recommended that interpreters take short breaks every 20-30 minutes. Whenever possible, you should consider having two interpreters if you have a lengthy hearing or deposition.

Give the court as much notice as possible of your interpreter needs. There are a limited number of certified interpreters, and the court must juggle that with the ever-growing caseload. For languages that are not common in your region, provide the court with information such as the witness’ country of origin, dialect, or even geographic region. In that vein, let the court know if your interpreter needs change – every now and then interpreters have to be flown in from other parts of the country. Letting the court know as soon as possible that you will no longer need an interpreter is vital.

And last but not least: remember that the interpreter is a professional, just like you.

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