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4 Tips for Finding the Right Interpreter

thinkstockphotos-498555620When a witness can’t understand or communicate in English, you need to get an interpreter. Evid C §752(a). It’s not as simple as just finding someone who speaks the same language as your witness. But getting the right interpreter is much easier if you follow these four tips.

  1. Check the interpreter’s references. Be sure to check references, especially with difficult or unusual languages. If possible, consult with an attorney who’s fluent in the language you want interpreted. Not only is such a person likely to know of several interpreters, but he or she is also in a position from personal experience to know which ones interpret accurately and literally. Don’t assume that simply because someone is a court certified interpreter he or she will do an adequate job of contemporaneous, literal translation for the particular witness in your case.
  2. Make sure the interpreter understands how your witness speaks. The fact that you have a well-educated and articulate interpreter doesn’t automatically mean that your witness will be able to converse at the same sophisticated level. A problem often arises when witnesses have difficulty expressing themselves in the native language or use slang or colloquial terms that the interpreter may misunderstand. Make sure that your interpreter understands the slang or colloquial terms and that the interpreter will take the initiative to explain these terms.
  3. Get an interpreter from the same nationality/region. Give specific attention to your witness’ nationality and region of origin. For example, a problem may arise if your witness is a Mexican national and you retain a Chilean interpreter, because although both speak Spanish, the same word may have entirely different meanings in each country. The same problem can arise when the witness and interpreter are from the same country but from different regions of that country.
  4. Find someone who interprets literally. There are two types of interpreters: Those who interpret literally and those who paraphrase to interpret the essence and meaning of a witness’ statement. An interpreter who interprets literally is usually preferable because he or she won’t miss any detail that you (in questioning) and the witness (in responding) may consider crucial. But the literally interpreted answer may sound strange to the judge or jury, and your witness may have difficulty understanding a literally interpreted question. It’s best when you can find a literal interpreter who understands the state of mind of the English-speaking listener and will take the initiative to explain an unusual-sounding translation to the judge, jury, or witness, along with the basis of the interpreter’s explanation.

Once you choose an interpreter, practice both direct and cross-examination with him or her and your witness. Ask for explanations of any problems the translator is having. This is your opportunity to make sure that you’ve chosen the right interpreter for your witness.

For more on using translators and interpreters, including the procedure for appointment and examination tips, turn to CEB’s California Trial Practice: Civil Procedure During Trial §§11.28-11.43.

Other CEBblog™ posts you may find useful:

© The Regents of the University of California, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

8 replies on “4 Tips for Finding the Right Interpreter”

There are two types of interpreters: Those who interpret literally and those who paraphrase to interpret the essence and meaning of a witness’ statement.
I think that is a misconception. Yes, there are two types of interpreters: trained, professional, certified interpreters and bilingual or semi-bilingual individuals who claim to be interpreters. A trained, profesional, certified interpreter will interpret (not translate) meaning at the same register as the speaker. If you ask for a literal interpretation you may end up with ” he is taking my hair” from a Spanish speaker who means ” he is pulling my leg”, “I fall fat on her” for “she dislike me” and other very funny expressions that would only complicate your case.


Interpreter here. Just wanted to point out a few things.

1) an interpreter should not “explain” things. That is not his/her job: that is down to the attorneys and the judge. The interpreter can, however, interpret said explanations. We’re not there as advocates: just as a bridge in the communication gap. If you think interpreters are there to simplify/explain things, then you haven’t peoperly worked with interpreters.

2) having an interpreter from the same region/country as the litigant does not necessarily facilitate the communication. It might but the idea behind being an interpreter is that you, as an interpreter, might be aware of terms that are native to one country/region and if you’re not, should something come up during the proceeding, you can always ask for clarification.

3) being bi-lingual does not equate to being an interpreter. Sadly many attorneys, though not all, tend to think so.

4) literal interpretation is another fallacy. I’ll simplify this: if you, as a crossexamining attorney, ask a witness for his name (what’s your name?) And the witness replies (in Spanish) me llamo Juan, a LITERAL INTERPRETATION of that would be “I am called Juan”. The correct interpretation would be “my name is Juan”. Again, if you wsnt your interpreter to be literal or think this is the right practice, then you, or whoever, have been using interpreters incorrectly.

Best regards.

Gonzalo Tobar

You forgot to include tip nr. 5:
After you have checked tips 1 through 4 off of your list, make sure you are willing to pay the rate and accept the terms and conditions that a qualified, certified and professional interpreter that fulfills all 4 items above entails. This includes: full rate for all hours (not just 2-hour minimum) bookec for cancellations with less than 24-hour notice, roundtrip mileage and travel time when applicable, and payment within the timeframe agreed – for eg.: if it’s net-30 from date of invoice submission that the interpreter gets paid, actually by 30 days of the date the invoice was submitted rather than in 60 or 90 or 180 days.

Julie, it is great to see your concern for hiring the right person for each case. As a Master Licensed Court Interpreter I’d like to offer a few corrections:

1) Professional interpreters do not interpret literally. That is what Google Translate does (replacing words on a 1:1 ratio) and is the reason the results can be gibberish. Instead, interpreters accurately communicate the speaker’s message in the same register (formality level) as the speaker–whether the speaker (witness, attorney, judge, etc.) is speaking in a sophisticated or very colloquial fashion. This also means that, to use your example, even a sophisticated interpreter will not clean up or formalize a witness’s speech, but rather will preserve the meaning, intent, and effect of the original utterance as much as possible. This is a basic tenet of court interpreter ethics and you should be very concerned if your interpreter makes an inarticulate witness sound articulate.

2) Interpreters do not explain terms or anything else to the witness, jury, judge, or anyone else. The interpreter will only interpret the speech from one party to another. When any speaker uses a term with which the interpreter is unfamiliar, professional court interpreters are trained to request clarification or consult authoritative references as needed before providing a rendition of the term or phrase. This is also a basic tenet of court interpreter ethics and you should be very concerned if your interpreters are giving explanations unless specifically requested by the court, as any such explanations constitute testimony and the interpreter is no longer serving as an interpreter but as an expert witness, and the attendant requirements apply.

For more information I encourage you to consult the American Translators Association’s very informative guide to hiring interpreting services, Getting it Right.

Hi, I am quite surprised about the portion that states that it’s best to find an interpreter that understands the state of mind of the witness. That is a big, big no no in our profession. A persons state of mind is not something an I terpreter should ever use to help her interpret words expresssed . First because it entails making all kinds of assumptions and second because we are by oath limited to expressing what is actually s aid and only that without interference of what we may think is the witnesses state of mind and what we think the witness meant due to his/her state of mind.

Counselor –

With all due respect, the article you’ve submitted for guiding other attorneys as they engage interpreters bespeaks of a history involving rather unskilled interpreters rather than competent interpreters; in other words, interpreters who had no business whatsoever working in court.

There are no modern theories of interpretation which support working at the morpheme level in any domain (legal, medical, mental health, etc.), and certainly no theory of interpretation or linguistics which would support your idea that an interpreter working at this level is able to achieve better message congruence than an interpreter working at a propositional level.

What’s more, in many languages around the world, h-o-w one builds a thought or argument is different from English. Further, w-h-e-n one introduces a thought or a bit of data into a thought is different across languages. For example, in American Sign Language the time indicator comes first unless the speaker means present tense. If an ASLInterpreter were to transliterate, as you describe it, your cross examination of a witness, it would be a complete failure. For example, if you asked a witness to describe what he had done the day before today, and by some miracle he understood the question being transliterated, the Court would hear this:
Yesterday me do-do?[eyebrow raiseWH] Yesterday my house green like-hair-on-arm GROWTH WOW, all-along two three [headshake no] two-week me put off put off finally accept, machine push push push finish tire, wear out!
I believe this is not doing anyone any good. The professional interpreter would refuse to work at that morpheme level, choosing instead to deliver this interpretation:
You asked, what did I do yesterday? Well, I mowed the grass at home which had gotten pretty tall, something I had put off for two or three, no two weeks; after I finally accepted doing the mowing, I was tired. I mean worn out!

After working in 1,000s of state court cases and numerous federal court cases, I have the experience to couple with my education so I know that what I have said here is valid and not in dispute among linguists and reputable interpreters. It pains me to see your experience with “interpreters” has been so juvenile.

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