The Waterfall Witness

Despite all the terminology compiled and studied before a proceeding, the way a witness responds to a question can hold the most surprises for the legal interpreter.  So we have to change our listening and processing mode for each different style of responsiveness. We base our performance on canons of professional responsibility for completeness, not paraphrasing and not omitting what is said. But if we don’t catch every word spoken, we run the risk of failing our oath.

Witnesses respond according to their reaction to the question and to the way the subject matter is emphasized. Sometimes they are intimidated by the process. Sometimes they show anger while facing the representative of those they hold responsible for damages or those who sued them. It is an entirely personal behavior no matter how much preparation they were given by their lawyer.

The easiest back and forth to interpret is the orderly question followed by the short response with no heightened emotion by either party. The other extreme is the witness who either launches into or builds up to a rapid free flow of extensive narrative, without a pause whatsoever. I call this the Waterfall Witness. Waterfall

The interpreter needs to develop three skills to master the rendering of waterfall testimony.
1. Prediction. Observe the witness long enough to catch any emotion beyond complacence. Note the length of the responses to the personal history questions. If they are beyond the scope of the question, you have warning of a pattern there. If the witness dissects the question in the answer, that can erupt in long winded hostility. Grief lends itself to listing memories. Anger becomes confrontation and repetitive phrasing of the stated issues.
2. Pace duplication. As linguists we are listening in order to render. You will have to erase any reaction to the content of the testimony in order to retain it. The best way is to keep pace with the speaker. Duplicate the tempo of the speaker with either your notetaking or your simultaneous interpreting.
3. Keep track of the topic. The waterfall witness will add topics and stray off topic. Your notetaking should highlight the new topic and the key word they use. I have even drawn a hierarchical map with arrows charting the response from topic to topic.

I have found that in a deposition the attorneys rarely interrupt a waterfall witness simply because they want to hear everything this witness may possibly have to say about the issue. If they do it is through an objection. But in trials, attorneys will interrupt via objections and the Judge will interrupt with an instruction. So the interpreter also has to monitor the point when the judge interrupted during the witness’s testimony for the court reporter to hear that clearly. Then the full instruction to the witness has to be interpreted along with their response. Even then, you cannot rest because the objecting attorney may reply with a “Thank you, your honor”.

The interpreting mode can be an issue. Trying to take fully accurate notes of a 300 word missive at the pace of emotional discourse is risky. I expand my note taking to include topic with key words and identify the order in the response. I go through a lot of paper. It is easier to go into simultaneous mode which can be done in a deposition. But  in court it  is hard for the jury, the court reporter and the judge to hear you not to mention the attorney further back in the courtroom. If you are allowed to use simultaneous, I suggest getting permission from the Judge to step forward closer to the court reporter and then speaking louder.

All told, taking on a waterfall witness is not for the novice interpreter. So practice a lot and go watch one in court. Remember, witnesses have the right to testify in the form that is natural to them. So, it is up to us to raise our skill level to meet this challenge.

The Perils of the Pro-Se Witness

Court interpreters should prepare carefully for the pro se witness. A Pro Se witness is a litigant who chooses to go to trial without an attorney or legal representation. “Pro se” is a Latin term, meaning “on one’s own behalf” and a “litigant” is someone who is either suing someone or is being sued in court.Gorilla

The right to appear pro se in a civil case in federal court is contained in a statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1654. Thus, anyone can appear pro se, and anyone who appears before the Court without an attorney is considered pro se. Interpreters can find out if either party is pro se by looking at the case style or reviewing the court docket online. There won’t be a pro se party in the following cases:
A. When the litigant is a corporations or a partnership.
B. A pro se litigant may not represent a class in a class action.
C. A non-attorney parent may not appear pro se on behalf of a child, except to appeal the denial of the child’s social security benefits.

This post covers both scenarios, the pro se witness needing an interpreter, or if the witness for the opposing counsel needs a full trial interpretation. The interpreter should be prepared for many objections and rulings and interruptions to ongoing testimony. Tempers can flare and there will be a lot of people talking over each other. This interpreting setting is not a smooth question and answer process.

Pro se witnesses often don’t know the correct procedure for testifying in a courtroom or the trial procedures litigants have to follow. I also notice that most pro se witnesses are so focused on having their say that when they are told they have to follow certain steps, they get irritated. There can be disruptions with such normally quick and effortless procedures such as pre-trial motions and agreements and document filings. Just getting to the point when they are put under oath will take longer than you are used to.

The interpreter must be ready for objections and instructions by the judge during pro se testimony. Such litigants usually aren’t familiar with testimony limitations, such as hear say, mentioning insurance and references to evidence not admitted. Another pattern I see is the tendency to testify in the narrative. This is when they tell a story instead of following the standard question-answer format which allows opposing counsel to object to a question before it was answered.

The best advice for interpreters with a pro se litigant is to pack your patience. Be prepared by knowing the potential objections and the definitions which the judge will use to explain them. You will use note taking a lot to cover the talk overs, interruptions, long, rambling responses and compound questions. I recommend that you brief the pro se on the correct process of speaking through an interpreter. But hold fast to the limitation of your scope of work and do not ever provide advice on how to proceed or define terminology.

In my classes I always suggest observing a case with a pro se litigant before you interpret such a case. Justice of the Peace courts often have pro se litigants. Get permission to observe from the bailiff first and then sit back and be prepared to be amazed.

The Document Translation Gold Mine for the Court Interpreter.

A lot of us claim to be translators or interpreters but not both. For many years I too, only claimed to be a court interpreter and I would only accept in person assignments for legal or law enforcement proceedings. Then I discovered the treasures that translating legal documentation provided.
FtBCtyjailScanThe fact is the terminology that stumps us the most is legalese. Not the rantings of an emotional witness but terms like: “The Plaintiff prays” and “Requests for Admissions “and “General Denial”. The most abundant source of this is the continuous stream of legal documents produced in the discovery phase of the civil lawsuit. Most of my colleagues consider the pre deposition, pretrial phase as a lawyer’s only domain so they don’t even investigate what happens before we step in, when the parties face each other. I believe the best preparation is knowing as much as possible about what happened before I step in and what is expected to happen afterwards. So I studied these phases from the attorney’s point of view and I discovered all the words that had ever stymied me. Since then I have never been even delayed in providing an accurate translation of those terms.
I incorporated these assets into a continuing education course I developed on civil discovery for licensed court interpreters and translators in Texas. From the start to when the class finished, comments like “That’s what that means”, or “That’s what they are talking about” echoed around the room.
Whether in court or a deposition, we can be handed such documents, as exhibits, and asked to sight translate them. So, studying samples first is key to seamless sight translation. In depositions, questions may contain phrasings taken directly from these standard forms but the interpreter may not be handed a document to refer to. Recognizing the document title, the interpreter can then know the terms associated with that document and their meanings and usage. Documents such as Plaintiff’s Original Petition, Original Set of Interrogatories and Verification of Employment can show the foundation for the questions and objections we hear and must be familiar with.
Then I made another amazing discovery of my own. I volunteer at the Harris County District Clerk’s Historical Documents room at the civil courthouse. This room houses court records dating back to the 1700s; through the period Texas was a part of Mexico, then a Republic and then after joining the United States as the 28th state of the Union. I index and transcribe evidence and court transcripts, the earliest written in quill pen. Some, originally written in Spanish, were translated over 180 years ago. Our court system has followed the same processes with the same legalese for centuries. I found Plaintiff’s Original Petitions, Charges to the Jury and Summons as old as the Republic of Texas. They contain the exact same phrasings of those used today.
So, try translating legal procedural documents. Study and practice with them. Your interpreting skills will grow and your performance will shine.

Handing the Witness Something He can’t Possibly Read

Mayan HirogliphicsA deposition in a contract dispute is going smoothly. A certified court interpreter is interpreting the questions asked by the attorneys and the responses given by the witness. The questioning attorney has a document marked as an exhibit and hands it to the witness, asking him to verify what it is. The witness looks puzzled. The contract, all 15 pages, is in English. The witness states that he cannot read English and he is unable to read the exhibit. The witness’s attorney sits silent and unaccommodating.  The solution to this potential confusion and delay is sitting right there at the table.

Professional court interpreters are able to read out loud documents that are written in English into the witness’s language. This is called sight translation and it is included in our scope of practice. We are trained to know and understand legal terms, specialized industrial, commercial and discovery material terminology and the correct translations for such terminology in the written form, just as we are trained in the spoken form. We read the document out loud at a smooth uninterrupted pace. Sight translation is part of the licensed court interpreter’s job. But we can’t offer to assist one side or the other during the questioning process, whether a trial or deposition; it is up to the attorneys to know to ask us to perform this function.

While on the record, state that you are requesting that the interpreter sight translate, to the witness, the marked document, specifying the passage or section. For example state “The third paragraph on page three. Or, “The second sentence of the first paragraph starting with “In the event of “and ending with “notify your supervisor”. This allows the section or document sight translated to be correctly indicated in the record.

When the section has been sight translated, the interpreter should state in English for the record, “The specified section has been sight translated to the witness.” The attorney can then ask the witness if they understood what was read to them or simply follow up with the question.

Most short passages from legal or standard commercial documents are easily sight translated. In a courtroom setting provide the interpreter with a copy of the document to be sight translated long enough before they take the stand so they can quickly review it for needed term translation.

If the text is specialized terminology, do yourself and the interpreter a favor and advise them of the subject matter prior to the deposition. At examinations under oath, when you introduce the document to be marked, show it to the interpreter to review in case they need to look up terminology.

I have sight translated Subpoena Duces Tecums, Requests for Production, notices, contracts, agreements, applications for employment, accident reports, warning labels, safety manuals, ship’s log books, product use instructions, prescription labels, letters, bank statements, ingredient lists for natural remedies and deposition transcripts. With the exception of poetry, any document that the rules allow to be handed to the witness being questioned can be accurately sight translated. This is just another way the language barrier is removed allowing due process to continue unrestrained.

The Unique Ability to Focus

distractalbqScanInterpreters are obligated to listen and render a verbatim of what we hear. This is a uniquely challenging occupational task, because it is unnatural for humans to ignore what we see people do and suppress reactions to what we hear people say. Even at the subconscious level humans react to this stimuli.

I saw a CBS Sunday Morning segment on autism and it mentioned a study on attention at The Mc Govern Institute for brain research at MIT . Brain scans showed standard neuro stimulation when we faced a person and they faced us or looked away. Whether a witness is looking at me or not is the least of my concerns in a legal proceeding.  I am even ignoring the discerning stares of the Judge, the jury and the attorneys.  But it was news to me.  that, beyond my control, my brain is reacting to the physical behavior of others.  I realized we interpreters are highly adept at controlling our conscious reactions and we stifle subconscious reactions. We don’t act on them. If we do, we will lose focus.

You can witness proof of interpreters excelling at this process of focus, when an untrained bilingual disputes the interpretation provided by a professional interpreter.  The challenger will emphasize and spend time expressing their dissent.  They display excitement over their detection. They look at the others around them soliciting support for their opinion, avoiding eye contact with the interpreter. They emphasize their bilingualism. Their tone is challenging and self-justifying. The last thing they do is to repeat the words they are challenging. But since that isn’t their priority or focus, more times than not, their recall is faulty and they admit not being able to repeat the words verbatim.

Meanwhile, the interpreter’s demeanor is the opposite.  The interpreter is subdued because he or she is sorting through their metal hard drive of what we heard spoken and what we interpreted.  Even during this interruption, that is our focus.

Our sole center of attention is on the words spoken.  We have no personal agenda. Legal interpreters have no vested interest in the outcome of the case. We have no bias. Our task is all consuming and difficult enough as is. The message is a ticker tape of words running across our minds.

Shutting out external stimulation is a real skill.  What caught your eye in the photo from the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico?  The gas balloon looming in the horizon or the teeny tiny lizard we found on the launch field?  

What we do is a process of hearing without feeling any emotional reaction to what is being said. We focus on the words, tone and register that we hear so intently, that we perform machine like. Some of us call it being in the zone. And it does become more automatic the longer you perform and develop the skill.

But at least our brains still sense all the stimuli even though we don’t react to it.

Good to know.

The Inevitable for Freelancers. Assignments can be canceled or postponed.

CourtDomeCertain types of cases have defendants that are encouraged to stop the litigation or discovery process and come to a financial agreement or a punishment agreement.  In civil law this is called to settle, In Criminal law this is called to take a plea.  Procedures that are scheduled in advance will be canceled when a plea is entered or when the two parties agree to a settlement.

So you should consider the potential cancellation of a deposition or hearing or trial in civil court and a hearing or trial in criminal cases.  Part of being professional is being prepared to protect yourself financially from such losses.  At the same time, being a good professional means knowing how to not antagonize a client by penalizing them for performing in the best interests of their client.  So, know that these types of assignments can be cancelled at any time by the attorney, the court or the agency.  And learn what your market standard is for a minimum charge for a cancellation during a certain time frame.

Assignments can be postponed.

       In civil court, a trial can be postponed if the Judge decides to order the parties to go to mediation.  Interpreters may not be necessary during mediation.  The parties may come to an agreement and settle as a result of mediation so you will lose the assignment altogether.  Or they may not settle and the trial would be rescheduled.

         It is important to hold on to your client and not make over burdensome demands but preserve your financial integrity.  You have to know the possible change of direction the legal process can take that can turn a postponement into income producing assignment or a loss.  You should have a postponement policy in place that you ask the client to agree to, in writing, when you first accept the assignment or enter into a contract with your client.  It is considered unprofessional to notify the client of a change in terms or fees after you accept an assignment.  But much like what the parties experience in the outcome of a mediation, you are going to have to accept less of your goal fee and the client is going to have to pay more than they hoped they would.  This is a situation when you should blend familiarity of your market standards with flexibility in your terms.

Three Sheets To The Wind. The Challenge of Idiomatic Expressions

The culprit, views en route - Copy


In the state required court interpreter orientation courses that I teach, rarely have my students seen the inside of a courtroom; much less do they know how to interpret according to regulations.  I interpret on a daily basis and I continue to study the craft in order to keep my skills at the highest level possible.  But it is also important to me to make what I teach is valuable to the students.  As an instructor, it is good to be reminded of what you didn’t know how to do when you first started.  And I really enjoy hearing those questions that you yourself asked a long time ago.  Interpreting experiences serve as great examples to use when explaining the answer especially when there is no set standard.

One of the students in a recent orientation class asked about how to interpret the idiomatic expression “Three sheets to the wind.”  Since, I consider it risky to interpret idiomatic expressions, I started to give him my short answer, “You don’t.”  Then I remembered how it felt to have rules piled on me without reference and reasons.  I have decided to avoid interpreting idiomatic expressions   based on my oath as well as the integrity of due process, in spite of hearing interpreters debating, almost proselytizing translations of idiomatic expressions.

Several years ago I took a class on interpreting idiomatic expressions for Spanish and English given by some veteran interpreters.  They defined expressions in English and then offered an equivalent idiomatic expression in Spanish as acceptable translations.  Very quickly Spanish speakers from Central America disputed the expressions presented which were spoken in a South American country.  The class dissolved into a volley of numerous variations declared emphatically with national fanfare between those trainers and the students.  I left knowing none of those translations would hold up in court and wishing I could get that hour back.

Legal interpreters have an obligation to maintain the exact statement rendered.  Attorneys and judges are speaking according to their own regulations and their task to represent their client.  Witnesses have the right to be heard in their own words.  Nobody else has the right to change those words.

There are three points of criteria that I apply to idiomatic expressions.  Each one of these has to be filtered through being held to our oath.

1.    Can you be absolutely certain that you know the meaning of the expression?  Probably not.  Idiomatic expressions are based on subjective experiences and therefore are subjective.  Anyone who consumes alcohol can say that there was a time when they felt like they were “three sheets to the wind” but the fact is they all would not have each been equally inebriated.  So this example is particularly quantitative and you run the risk of altering the measurement intended by the speaker.

2.    How can you prove that your translation of the expression is totally and completely correct?  If there is published proof of your translation, don’t get too comfortable, because there is probably published proof of a different translation.  The term Idiomatic Expression is defined as sayings that have a meaning different from the meaning of the words in the expression.

3.    Will a possible misinterpretation of an idiomatic expression alter the testimony?  The answer to that question is always yes.  Any misinterpretation alters testimony.

So far, in my experience, few translations of idiomatic expressions survive that criterion.  It doesn’t matter if the idiomatic expression is used in the question or the response; I believe it is too risky if you attempt to translate an idiomatic expression.  You can still comply with court interpreter procedural standards and not disrupt the proceedings when encountering the need to avoid translating an idiomatic expression.  I will explain this in an upcoming post.

Meanwhile, please note that this is an issue for judicial interpreters and translators.  

Encountering both High and Low Registers

UpsidedownScanThe interpreter should be able to anticipate register, but people can surprise you. I have interpreted arbitrations with foreign government officers as witnesses and the register remained high throughout. Then there are disgruntled defendants in a deposition who speak in a low register especially when arguing with the opposing counsel. When transcribing a 9-1-1 call, the register can reflect the emotional state of the speaker.


But there are times when the register changes, even during the official spoken ritual of a Judge or lawyer. It is good to see this effort to reach across the divide allowing full participation in the judicial proceeding.


The best example of bridging the gap between high and low register I have seen is when a child witness is being put under oath by a judge to swear under oath to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth The judge needs to verify that the child knows how to make a promise and if they know the difference between a lie and the truth. The judge breaks down the high register of the oath and piece by piece and institutes the child’s definition of a lie and then their definition of the truth. Finally the child is asked if they promise to tell the truth.  Further gaps in register are filled in by establishing and accepting the word choices used by the child. Often during the examination of the child, unique words and terms used by the child are defined by the child as what they call what the Judge is asking about. Then the Judge will use the same terms the child expresses for those same things or concepts. The child’s terms and definitions are verified and placed on the record in the process.

This merging of registers is not the job of the court interpreter. We simply follow the register as presented.  The Judge or attorney has the option and right to do this. But we interpreters have the responsibility to recognize different registers and interpret accurately and completely while maintaining that register.

Once you consider the speaker and setting youkan then be aware of the potential switch in register. Then you can smoothly interpret in the same register.  Attorneys, Judges, law enforcement professionals and interrogators/interviewers are trained to alter their register to facilitate comprehension.

Many times I have seen in a Q&A format when a formal register was used in the questions and the respondent really couldn’t understand the questions. I have also seen expert or technical witnesses respond in a formal register and had to be asked over and over to clarify their answer. It is also very common for a witness, who I am interpreting for at court, to seem to be caught off guard when they hear the formal register of the proceedings spoken by the Judge and attorneys. One result is they lose concentration and their testimony is diminished. They are already a bit nervous and they are used to conversing with their attorneys in an informal almost casual register. Litigators can resolve this by preparing the witness for the court room experience and explaining that they can expect to hear formal language during the proceedings. The interpreter cannot do this on their own.

Unfortunately if the questioner is not paying attention to the register abyss that has developed, they have the tendency to blame the interpreter for the miscommunication. Consider the source first. If there is a problem in the original wording, a good interpretation transfers that problem just like a telephone. And we, professional  interpreters, enjoy providing a good connection.

Riding the Register Roller coaster

parrot scan0001Court Interpreters are expected to know the correct word and phrase and usage for whatever we hear spoken by the questioner and by the respondent. So we study specialized terminology for specific industries. Even entry level interpreters learn the legalese used by the attorneys and Judge throughout each proceeding.

But beyond those fundamental terms, you could still be caught off guard by the unique words and phrases used by a witness who has had minimal formal education in their native language. They are communicating the way they are accustomed to and not necessarily in the same tone and word choices typically heard in the judicial setting. Another transformation in language happens when an expert takes the stand and you are interpreting full trial testimony for the Limited English Proficient (LEP) plaintiff or defendant. You will be swimming in very official, formal terminology and phrasing.

These distinctions in communication are called Register. Identifying it and duplicating it is another skill court interpreters must master. Register is a highly documented component of the field of linguistics. The professions we serve in the judiciary and law enforcement learn about register as part of Q&A procedures.

A professional court interpreter never passes judgment on the speaker by labeling their language as correct or incorrect. It is our job to learn all the different ways a person may choose to communicate so that we perform in accordance to our oath.  Canon 1 of the Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility [State of Texas regulations] states that we do not change the tone or register of the speaker. Learning about register is how you prepare yourself to recognize different registers and interpret accurately and completely while maintaining the register of the speaker.

  There are five levels of register and each is spoken in identified settings by specific relationships of people.

1.  Static.   This is a register of wording or phrasing that never changes.  You do not state these in a lower register or simplify them. Examples would be a Pledge of Allegiance or the   Miranda Rights.

2. Formal.  This register is used when the wording carries weight and importance in its delivery. Formal register is used for speeches, sermons, rhetorical statements and questions, pronouncements made by judges, announcements.

3. Consultative Register. This language is formal but it is accepted comfortably as the societal standard for polite and professional language. It is used when strangers meet, communications between a superior and a subordinate, doctor and patient, lawyer and client, lawyer and judge, teacher and student and a counselor and client.

4. Casual Register. This is the informal language used by peers and friends. It frequently includes slang, vulgarities and colloquialisms. This is “group” language. Speakers must be a member to communicate in this register. People who use it are close friends, teammates, in chats, emails, and letters to friends.

5.  Intimate Register This is the register of private communications. It is reserved for close family members or people who are intimate.  This register is heard between husband and wife, intimate partners, between siblings, and parents and children.


In our line of work the most common levels are Static, Formal and Consultative. When your interpreting is flowing along in those three levels, if one of the speakers jumps into a Casual or Intimate register, our flow, especially is interrupted. 


I can sense an oncoming change of register when a speaker is getting irritated. If they were speaking in a Formal register they will drop to Casual seemingly to show disdain for the questioning or the responsiveness. Or if they were feeling very familiar and unthreatened and then get irritated they will jump from Casual to Formal to display an imposed distance and ending the relaxed closeness they were exhibiting. 


You will also see a body language shift that signals the change in register. The speakers’ posture and attentiveness display shifts when they change register. Often during in person interpretation settings, respondents will turn their bodies away from the questioner and face me directly. They will suddenly respond “yes or no Ma’am” directly to me, when the questioner is male and they had been responding with “Sir” up to that point. The standard rule for interpreting is to continue saying exactly what the speaker is saying so the gender shift will be reflected on the record. But this is a sign that the questioner has irritated the respondent. To see this happen, watch a few interrogation videos and you will see the shift and you will hear the change in register spoke.  Actors are taught to display this with the dialogue they are given.


 Skill Building Tools   Expose yourself to examples of registers as expressed in your language pair. If Casual is what you hear most, immerse yourself in Formal. Develop that vocabulary. Stay attuned to the speaker and your interpreting will flow.

Exercise: Link the Register to the Speaking Event


Bailiff speaking to initial jury pool prior to voir dire.


Judge giving Jurors their Oath.


Testimony: Conversation during lunch hour between coworkers about upcoming layoffs.


Testimony: Police taking report at scene of vehicle accident.


Testimony: 911 call audio recording of assailant and victim in a domestic violence altercation.