When 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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