Criminal Defense of Immigrants


§ 4.25 D. Supervision of Interpreter

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                Once a qualified interpreter has been found, counsel must maximize their usefulness in court or at trial.  The interpreter should be located where s/he can hear all witnesses, the defendant can hear the interpreter, and where no one’s back is facing the interpreter.  Counsel should not turn his or her back to the interpreter when making opening or closing statements.  One of the most challenging aspects of simultaneous court interpreting is the poor acoustics in most court­rooms.


                Counsel should keep the following issues in mind to reduce interpreter error: [77]


                a. Keep questions short.


                b. Avoid the passive voice.


                c. Avoid double negatives “Isn’t it true that you weren’t there.” This form is often alien to non-English speakers and the chances are increased that a witness will not understand the question, or that either a “yes” or “no” answer will have a 50 percent chance of being wrong.


                d. 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,” “supervisor.”


                e. 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.”


                f. Counsel should advise the client or witness to speak clearly and to wait until the interpreter has finished interpreting a question before answering. Counsel should likewise wait until the interpretation is completed before asking further questions or making objections.


                g. At times, witnesses with some English language skills will answer in English, especially if the answer is “yes” or “no.” Counsel should instruct these witnesses always to answer in the source language.


                h.  Counsel should respect the fact that interpreters are primarily language conduits and should not be used or viewed as an advisor, informant, consultant, or assistant, unless specifically engaged for these purposes.


                i.  Counsel should be aware of interpreter fatigue and schedule breaks for the interpreter at regular intervals during a court proceed­ing. In a lengthy proceeding, two interpreters should work in shifts.[78]

                j. If possible, counsel should use the same interpreter for a client throughout the case. Regularly using the same interpreter can enhance the quality of the communication, since an interpreter familiar with a speaker’s vocal style and customary phrases will be able to interpret more effectively.


                k. Counsel should not avoid an interview or consultation with her non-English speaking client due to the perception it will be too cumbersome to arrange for an interpreter to be present.


                l. If reading from a prepared text rather than speaking extemporane­ously, counsel should speak slowly. It is always more difficult to interpret someone who is reading, as there are fewer pauses, the pace is faster, and the intonation is not always natural.

[77] These suggestions are drawn from Kay, Ramirez & Hill, Using Interpreters, in J. Connell & R. Valladares, eds., Cultural Issues in Criminal Defense 2-1, 2-29 through 2-31 (Juris Publishing 2000).

[78] Conference interpreters employed by the United Nations are replaced every forty-five 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.  Judge’s Guide to Standards for Interpreted Proceedings 139.