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8 Tips to Maximize Interpreter Effectiveness

Once you find a qualified interpreter, apply these eight tips to maximize the interpreter’s usefulness in court or at trial.

  1. Locate interpreters where they can hear and be heard. One of the most challenging aspects of simultaneous court interpreting is the poor acoustics in most courtrooms. Locate the interpreter where he or she can hear all witnesses and everyone can hear the interpreter. Make sure not to turn your back to the interpreter when you’re speaking.
  2. Watch your language and sentence construction. Keep the following issues in mind to reduce interpreter error (see Ramirez, Cultural Issues in Criminal Defense, Use of Foreign Language Interpreters (2d ed 2007)):
    • Keep questions short.
    • Avoid the passive voice.
    • Avoid double negatives such as “Isn’t it true that you weren’t there?” This form is often alien to non-English speakers and its use increases the chances that a witness won’t understand the question, or that either a “yes” or “no” answer will be given in error.
    • Give the gender of neuter English words that have a feminine or masculine form in the source language. Examples of words of this type in Spanish are “cousin,” “friend,” “teacher,” and “supervisor.”
    • Clarify pronouns. In English, the second person pronoun “you” is both singular and plural. In other languages, such as Spanish, French, and Mandarin, the singular second person pronoun may be different from the plural second person pronoun. Counsel can avoid confusion by refining the use of “you” in English by saying “you yourself” or “you and Mrs. Jones,” or “you, Mr. Ramirez.”
  3. Go slow. Speak slowly, especially if reading something. It’s always more difficult to interpret someone who’s reading, as there are fewer pauses, the pace is faster, and the intonation isn’t always natural.
  4. Pause for interpreting. Advise your client or witness to speak clearly and wait until the interpreter has finished before answering. You should likewise wait until the interpretation has been completed before asking further questions or making objections.
  5. Stick to the source language. At times, persons with some English language skills will answer in English, especially if the answer is “yes” or “no.” Instruct them always to answer in the source language.
  6. Use interpreter only for interpreting. Respect the fact that an interpreter is primarily a language conduit and shouldn’t be used or viewed as an advisor, informant, consultant, or assistant, unless specifically engaged for such a purpose.
  7. Avoid interpreter fatigue. Schedule breaks at regular intervals during a court proceeding. In a lengthy proceeding, two interpreters should work in shifts. For example, conference interpreters employed by the United Nations are replaced every 45 minutes by a co-interpreter. Interpreting in court is very taxing and an awareness of the fatigue issue and making arrangements to replace interpreters can reduce interpreter error.
  8. Use the same interpreter throughout. If possible, use the same interpreter for your client throughout the case. Regularly using the same interpreter can enhance the quality of the communication, because an interpreter familiar with a speaker’s vocal style and customary phrases will be able to interpret more effectively.

These tips fall under the duties to non-English-speaking clients discussed in CEB’s California Criminal Defense of Immigrants, chap 2. For more on choosing and using interpreters, check out CEB’s California Trial Practice: Civil Procedure During Trial, chap 11.

Other CEBblog™ posts you may find useful:

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