Wednesday, April 8, 2009

educating attorneys and others on how to use interpreters well

Below is the text from a hand out that I prepared years ago for educating pro bono attorneys in Seattle. Feel free to use all of part of it. Many of the suggestions are useful for folks other than attorneys. Changes/suggestions welcome. If you use it please do cite me and this site. (photo from here)

Tips on Communicating through Interpreters for Legal Cases

Hiring the interpreter

It is cheaper and more reliable to hire directly than to go through an agency. To find an interpreter:

King County Superior Court Interpreters Office can give referrals: (206) 296-9358

Directory of all court certified interpreters:

The federal courts certify Spanish, Haitian Creole and Navajo interpreters only. Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts certifies for Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Cantonese, Korean, and Lao.

If the courts do not certify interpreters in the language that you need, or if no certified interpreter is available, look for other levels of certification. Your next best bet in Washington State is medical then social service. If an interpreter tells you that they are “certified” check at what level. Though translation (written) is a different art, it is a good sign if an interpreter is accredited by the American Translators Association. Their directory is at Some translators work in several languages so make sure the accreditation is for the appropriate language combination.

Many less common languages are not certified and never will be. If you must use a non-court certified interpreter inquire as to their education and language skills.

The following questions are suggested before contracting an uncertified interpreter:

  1. When and how did you learn English and ___?
  2. What is your level of formal schooling?
  3. Do you have any training as an interpreter?
  4. What experience do you have as an interpreter? (When and where have you interpreted?)
  5. Please define a few English legal terms that will be used in this case, such as negligence, respondent, domestic violence, abuser, victim, etc. What are the translations for these terms? (you probably won’t know the translation but can judge if they hum and haw before giving it)

It is helpful to ask ALL interpreters the following questions on the phone before hiring them:

  1. “Do you know any of the parties or witnesses?” Some language communities are so small that it may be hard to find an interpreter who does not know the client, in which case you should ask, “Are you a potential witness in this case?”
  2. “Have you ever interpreted before for either of the parties?” (You don’t really want as an interpreter for a victim someone she saw interpret for the abuser last week in court, for example).
  3. Do you think there might be any conflict of interest or reason why you should not interpret for this case? There may be a conflict within a language group that determines the choice of an interpreter; for example in the Seattle area there is a division between Pentecostal and Jewish Ukrainians. An Eritrean interpreter who speaks Tigrinia as a first language may be preferable to an Ethiopian interpreter who speaks Tigrinia as well as Amharic. You can’t possibly know all of these politics so simply ask the interpreter before hand.

Gender. In hiring know that the gender of the interpreter may make a difference in the comfort of the client. A woman interpreter is generally preferable for a victim of domestic violence.

Using a family member or friend, even an acquaintance, should be avoided at all costs, even if they happen to be professional interpreters. It inevitably skews what the client will say to you, how they say it, what will be interpreted and in what fashion. It also may have a negative impact on the relationship between the client and the person serving as the interpreter in the future. When the interpreter relationship is not formalized and the interpreter is not an agent of the attorney the interpreter could be subpoenaed and breach atty./client privilege. This is unlikely, but something to consider.

Book well ahead. Do not expect an interpreter to be available on a day's notice. Good interpreters are much in demand.

Payment. Establish the payment rate clearly and in advance. Ask the interpreter what their rates are. Rates vary widely depending upon language. It is always cheaper to go directly to an interpreter, since agencies keep up to 50% of their fees. Interpreters charge by the hour. Many have a 2 hour (or more) minimum charge and a 48 hour cancellation policy. Some interpreters also charge for travel time, generally at a lower rate. Some interpreters will charge mileage or parking.

Volunteers and reduced fees. If you are doing pro bono work yourself for a worthwhile cause some interpreters, when you describe the project, may consider reducing their fees or donating their services, but do not expect this. Expect the same ethics and standards from volunteers – do not use an unqualified interpreter simply because they are free! It can be far more expensive in the long run when they misinterpret information.

After hiring and before the appointment:

Give the interpreter background information and tell them what to expect. Establish the context and the nature of the visit for the interpreter. For example, "This will be my initial visit with Juana to prepare her self-petition. This is a process whereby she can ask for legal immigrant status on the basis of being married to an abusive citizen or resident who refuses to petition for her. She and I will be going over the history of her abuse, which includes things like rape and abuse of the children.” If you are going to review documents send them to the interpreter before hand, or at least have the interpreter come early to review them. Alert the interpreter to any unusual vocabulary that may come up. Give an estimated end time for the visit. Understand that the interpreter may book another appointment after yours, so confirm time constraints on the day of the visit.

If they are not a certified court interpreter send them more background material to prepare with (such as the self-petition explanation handouts) and remind them to tell you if they don't understand terms you use or the terms aren't easily translated. Interpreters who are not court certified should also be sent a copy of the code of ethics for legal interpreters beforehand, copy attached.

The day of the appointment

Introduce yourself to both your client and the interpreter.

Confirm language. Ask the interpreter to speak briefly to the client and confirm that they can understand each other, and do not have problems due to accent or dialect. It is increasingly common in the U.S. to have Latin Americans who speak an indigenous language as their first language and Spanish as their second language, so if you have any suspicion that this might be the case ask your client, through the interpreter obviously, if they are fully comfortable speaking in Spanish.

Confidentiality. The first thing that you say to the client through the interpreter, after introductions and hellos, should be a brief reassurance that the conversation is entirely confidential and that the interpreter is also bound to uphold the confidentiality of the conversation.

Common mistakes to avoid

Speaking to the interpreter. Speak directly to the client, never use the third person “tell her that …”. Also tell your client to speak directly to you, and not to the interpreter. When you are speaking look at your client, and make sure that she too is looking at you when she speaks, rather than at the interpreter. If you do need to speak to the interpreter make it clear that’s who you are speaking to, for example don’t ask “Are you available Monday?” ask “Is the interpreter available on Monday?” Note that the interpreter should still be interpreting this question so that your client can understand what you are saying.

Role and confidentiality. Explain your role to the client, and at the same time review the role of interpreter. Make it clear that the interpreter is neutral, can’t talk to them or befriend them, but that they can expect that the interpreter will interpret everything and will never repeat anything said outside of the room.

Speed and volume. Do not speak any more loudly that you normally would. You do not need to speak super slowly or pause between words. If you tend to speak very fast you might slow down a tad bit, but generally you should be able to speak in a normal voice and rhythm. Take care not to mumble. Avoid acronyms and abbreviations.

When to pause. If using simultaneous interpretation pause, at normal syntactical breaks, for the interpreter to catch up. If using consecutive interpretation don’t break it up into gibbles, be sure not to break until a complete thought or phrase has been expressed, but be aware of the limits of the interpreter’s memory. Professional interpreters will have good note taking and memory skills and be able to interpret much longer phrases. They should also be comfortable telling a speaker when to stop or continue. Be sure to not cut the fragments so short that they are meaningless, but not to make them so long that the interpreter may miss some of the content in the rendition. If your client says a particularly long statement, and you are working with an inexperienced interpreter who has not cut her off or taken good notes, know that some of the content may have been lost. Be aware that it can be hard to interrupt speakers in the middle of emotional testimony, or to ask them to repeat disturbing statements, and this is one of the many reasons it is crucial to have a qualified interpreter who can handle long statements.

Cultural concepts. If the client is expressing a culturally embedded concept which you do not understand do not expect the interpreter to be a cultural expert. They are not sociologists, and may well come from a very different background that the client (for example, a rich urban Mexican woman may have little in common with an indigenous rural Mexican woman). Interpreters come with their own world views and who knows, their personal understanding of a cultural issue may not be accepted in their own cultural group. It is always best to ask cultural questions like this directly to the client, “How do you do this, what does this mean to you, etc.”. Ideally if you are expressing a concept which the interpreter thinks may not transfer culturally she will let you know that, by saying something like, “The interpreter is not sure that the concept of a jury is being understood.” I recommend the cultural profiles of major immigrant groups at They are written for doctors but have a lot of pertinent information about common misunderstandings. On the culture note please avoid the use of sports metaphors and idioms in general, such as out of the frying pan and in to the fire. These generally don’t transfer well.

Bilingual clients and attorneys. Beware, if the client speaks some English they may think that they are understanding what you are saying in English when in fact they don’t. Imagine if you were living in a foreign country where you spoke some basic Farsi, say, even if you had been there for years, would you really be able to conduct legal business in that language? If the attorney speaks some Farsi, say, it’s great to use it for introductions, but unless the attorney has experience in and is comfortable with legal terminology in that language it is safest to use an interpreter.

Interruptions. Please do not speak before the interpreter has finished. The notes she takes are very cryptic and only serve to guide her memory for the next few moments. If you throw her off track she will probably not be able to reconstruct what your client said and that information will be lost, since we know that clients never repeat themselves exactly. Please wait until she has finished interpreting before responding, even if you think that the information she is interpreting from your client is irrelevant. There may be some nugget of information there that is useful, and it will help keep the interpreter centered and focused if you do not interrupt her. If your client is rambling a lot please wait until the interpreter is done and then ask your client to please give short direct answers to your questions only. If your client is interrupting the interpreter please give them the same instruction through the interpreter.

Register. Early on ask your client what their educational level is and what experience they have with the legal system so that you can keep the literacy level of your client in mind. If you are speaking in legalese in English the interpreter must render it in legalese in the target language. Some immigrant groups are more likely to have a much lower level of education. Don’t assume this though, the best thing to do is simply ask them how many years of schooling they’ve had. If they say 3 that does not generally mean 3 years of higher education, it may well mean that they’ve only been through the third grade. If they say a very low number like that you might ask them if they are comfortable reading and writing in their own language. But don’t automatically dumb it down just because they are an immigrant, they may in fact be a PhD.

Legal concepts. Many immigrants come from vastly different legal systems, and may not understand basic legal concepts here. I highly recommend an outstanding book that outlines the common misunderstandings about the criminal courts held by several major immigrant groups and what basic explanations are helpful for each group. The book is Immigrants in Courts by Joanne Moore, published by the University of Washington Press. The University of Washington bookstore will mail it to you in the U.S. with no shipping charge, they are at 1-800-335-READ,

Breaks. The interpreter may be sitting still, but an extraordinary number of her cognitive wheels are spinning. Interpreter fatigue can have a great effect on the quality of interpretation services, so please offer frequent breaks, water, and do not schedule overly long appointments. In an ideal world interpreters work in teams and alternate every 20 minutes. Realistically you might provide short breaks every hour and not expect an interpreter to work for more than 2 and a half hours steadily.

Comments. Please don’t ask the interpreter to comment on the content of the meeting or the case, as this is against our code of ethics. Instead when the appointment is over is complete, don't be afraid to provide constructive feedback to the interpreter and ask her if she has any tips for you. We can always improve!

Interpreter scenarios to watch out for and how to respond

If communication seems vague and unclear, and your client’s answers don’t correspond to your questions stop and inquire of the interpreter if in fact they are able to communicate well with the client. Perhaps the source communication from the client is also unclear, or they may be having some other difficulty that clouds communication, such as mental illness issues. It may be that the client speaks an indigenous language and speaks, for example, Spanish only as a second language but was embarrassed to admit this to the interpreter when initially asked. Or you may have an interpreter who is in over her head.

The most common complaint about unprofessional interpreters is that they seem to be abbreviating. Some languages do simply take much longer to speak. It takes 6 times longer to say something in Russian than in Chinese. However if there are several instances where a long statement is rendered with a very short interpretation stop and express your concern to the interpreter and reiterate that they interpret fully and exactly. Similarly if the interpretation seems much longer than your client’s statement you might stop and make sure the interpreter is not adding anything.

There should not be any back and forth conversation between the interpreter and your client. If the interpreter needs to ask the client what a term they have used means, or couldn’t make out what the client said and needs a repetition, the interpreter should tell you that this is what she is doing, with something like, “The interpreter needs to clarify a term used”. If there is unexplained cross-talk stop and ask the interpreter to explain the discussion and remind her to please interpret everything completely.

Other scenarios to watch out for:

  • Interpreter is coaching the client (uses body language to suggest answer)
  • Mumbling client or interpreter
  • Can’t understand the interpreters English
  • Interpreter using "He says", "she says"
  • Interpreter looks lost with terminology but doesn’t say so

In general I suggest that you address these problems by briefly stating the problem, reminding them of the value, and requesting a clear solution.

Problem: Be specific, describe the behavior don’t judge or label it, don’t label the person

Value: In this scenario this is almost always clear communication, or direct, effective, etc.

Solution: Be specific, describe the behavior or give an example.

Example: Interpreter, I just heard my client give a long answer in Russian and you just rendered it in English with only 3 words. I want to be sure everything is communicated accurately and completely, please give me a full interpretation of absolutely everything that my client says. What exactly did my client just say?

One last reminder of my professional pet peeve: Interpretation is oral and Translation is written. Yes, often confused, but getting it right is a way to show you know and care about multilingual access!