Words From the Eye of Hurricane Harvey.

As I write this, at home in Houston, Texas in the middle of Hurricane Harvey, I am trapped at home surrounded by feet of water encircling my house.

But I am safe, the house is prepared, no water is getting in and I have power.  So I will write and tell you the interesting phrases and terminology I hear throughout this five day event.  You may be interpreting it for other media, or you may be hunting for expressive terms for your own creative writing, forensic writs and communications or you may be a terminologist. Full disclosure: some tongue in cheek humor has found its way into my writing.

Rain event–   I heard this a lot the first day. And yes, Harvey started out as that but then the rain became a flood and then spawned many foods.  A “Rain Event” is used in a comparative sense to describe a weather storm event in which rain is predominant. The comparison is to the other damaging elements such as high wind, tornados, storm surge, and flooding.

Lengthy wait.  Waiting for drinking water, gas for your car, waiting on a freeway for the water to go down at your exit or in line at grocery stores finally open after three days in a hurricane is subjective.   This term was used to describe waiting in line to check out at a grocery store as 2 hours by one person and 5 hours by another. People called it a lengthy wait when they waited -overnight- on a high point of a freeway before they could get off the freeway.

Mandatory evacuation.   You have to leave. City officials and law enforcement get involved.

Tornado Watch     A watch is issued when conditions are favorable, for example, either for a severe thunderstorm or tornadoes.

Tornado Warning   Warnings mean that severe weather is imminent. It is on you now.

Cabin Fever   This is restlessness because you can’t leave a location your home or a shelter.  It can lead to dysfunctional or really useful productive behavior. It also leads to being Slap Happy and writing great comedy and inventive games. Another relative term is Stir Crazy.

Shelter In Place   This means stay where you are.  I think this term is problematic because you could be under an overpass or in your car on a highway in a dangerous storm.  So I highlight the emphasis on Shelter- you need to be sheltered by your location and don’t be wandering around.

Stay Safe.   This is the universal pleasantry uttered by people who are not themselves facing any form of risk, danger or inconvenience.

Impassable Roads.   Your car will not and should not get through. They really need to replace this word with more of an impacting visual term: Totally Blocked or Walled Off. The reason I say this is we had several people drive into areas declared Impassable and they drowned in their cars.

Trapped.  I have learned that you can be trapped in a bad place or in a good place. So the word is grounded on the location being safe and not the lack of freedom or confinement. I feel lucky to be “trapped” in a flood water free home with power compared to being trapped in rising water in a car or in your house.

To Underestimate. This is constantly being used to describe the supposed thinking of people who drove into high water and didn’t survive. It is also being stated by people who got stuck on the flooded roads when a reporter catches up with them.  My point is this, the root of the word is estimate, which should involve appreciable thinking. In so many ways this seems doubtful.

Five Career Boosting Lessons I learned from Attorneys

 I have worked with some of the best attorneys and Judges in the nation.  And I love watching them work.  Sometimes I am lucky enough when on subsequent cases, they reflect back on a trial or a proceeding and they explain to me what they were doing and why. These  lessons can be applied to  any interaction, conversation or discussion you have .

1.   The Value of Preparation

  •    Knowing the answer before you ask the question gives you the opportunity to observe and learn about the person you are questioning and allows you to stay on top of the conversation.


2.   Poise Under Pressure

  • People are more inclined to listen to you and believe you when you are calm and collected.


3.   Integrating the rules into your standard routine. 

  • The rules governing a Q&A are inherently agreed upon when opposing sides are brought together. Therefore, no matter how much disagreement there is, basing your statements on that point of agreement maintains a reminder of a potential agreement on more contentious points.


4.   Patience

  •   Never be impatient with a long-winded client or fact witness. If you wait long enough you will hear what you need to hear.


  •   Take the time to word critical questions and run them by someone before you put them on the record and the respondent hears them. Having to restate or deflect objections is a sloppy dance that shows you as unprepared and out of control.


5.   Balance client representation with judicial ethics.

  • Filter all the needs and requests of a client through the ethical rules that govern your work. It is only a matter of time before those rules will be the judge of your performance.

Freedom of Speech Versus Speaking Freely in America

first-amendmentIn today’s heated political climate in the U.S., arguments spread faster than mosquitos after a week of rain. I get a kick out of hearing someone tossing a sharply worded opinion, and then diving behind the defensive shield follow up       “ I have the right to Freedom of Speech”.  I had a nagging feeling it wasn’t so all inclusive and since my ancestors fought in that Revolution, I did some research.  Hopefully you, as an American, claim this right knowing it was granted in the first amendment to our constitution in 1789. The driving force was freedom of political dissent. Today in America there cannot be a law that limits your freedom of speech.  Here is the wording of the first amendment- one sentence of 45 words:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The author James Madison, meant it to be simple and basic so it would pass the vote. But, I feel, over 227 years later we really need to take responsibility for our words.  And to prove that, look at how lawsuits helped form new terms classifying exercising freedom of speech.

Fighting Words

Words which would likely make the person whom they are addressed commit an act of violence.  Fighting words are a category of speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment.  Chaplinsky v New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942).


A statement that injures a third party’s reputation. The tort of defamation includes both libel (written statements) and slander (spoken statements).

If you want to sue someone who you feel has defamed you to win a defamation case, a plaintiff must show four things: 1) a false statement purporting to be fact; 2) publication or communication of that statement to a third person; 3) fault amounting to at least negligence; and 4) damages, or some harm caused to the person or entity who is the subject of the statement.

Unless that person has Absolute Privilege

If a statement is made in certain contexts or in certain venues, the First Amendment may give the speaker an absolute defense to a charge of defamation.  This privilege usually only exists in the government context; for example, sworn testimony in a judicial or legislative hearing is privileged.


Libel is a method of defamation expressed by print, writing, pictures, signs, effigies, or any communication embodied in physical form that is injurious to a person’s reputation, exposes a person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or injures a person in his/her business or profession.


A false statement, usually made orally, which defames another person. Unlike libel, damages from slander are not presumed and must be proven by the party suing. See, e.g. TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources, 509 U.S. 443 (1993).

So how about making it clear that you are speaking freely? There is a standard for that too. You are supposed to ask permission.

The history is during Operation Torch (invasion of North Africa in 1942) which took place under US command, British service personnel didn’t know how to address their American counterparts. Being British and polite, they said ‘Permission to speak freely sir.’

The only time I see that happen is working as a court interpreter when the witness, already on the stand,  will ask the Judge for permission to speak freely. Their attorney immediately turns pale with eyes as wide as a deer in headlights. I guess no one told them about Absolute Privilege.

Are you ready for the reputation  you’ll have as a “Free spoken” person?  Defined as  “ Given to speaking freely without reserve, frank and outspoken”, the term was first used in  1625.

That was a full one hundred and sixty four years before there was a right to do so. I wonder how they would define it today.

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.

Spanglish, Chinglish and Konglish: There’s a name for that.

80sBoatppleScanAn interpreter or translator can be easily tripped up by distinctive wordings that appear to be a mix of both the source and the target language. These wordings are based on the speaker or author merging his or her grasp of two languages and using a term from one language as if it were a component of the other. Our flow can be interrupted when the speaker or text author uses the vocabulary learned in their single language household or social group.
There is a name for this! It is called Second Language Acquisition. In fact it is an entire component of the field of linguistics. I taught a graduate class on this subject for a University of Houston program for Bilingual Educators. Translators and interpreters should take a look at these elements of communication because you will be seeing it in documents and you will hear it spoken.
A professional interpreter or translator never passes judgment on the speaker or author 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 the highest professional standards.
Second language acquisition elements can dominate the communication patterns of dual language speakers in certain geographic regions. Interpreters in Houston are used to hearing the English term for feeder road used interchangeably in Spanish and English as “la feeder” or ”feeder”. I have seen it in Spanish source texts written as fider. East coast Spanish interpreters hear La Gua Gua for bus because of the predominance of the Puerto Rican use of this term. I invite you, dear readers, to comment and report examples in other languages.
In industrial employment settings, sub groups also demonstrate transference patterns. Names of tools, equipment, materials, employer titles or specific places on a job site (lunch tent) may have very different version that have no resemblance to the dictionary translation.
Job duties and procedures can be expressed by converting the English name (noun) for the equipment into a verb and using that word for their job title or description.
These are examples of Second Language Acquisition Transference.
transfer: influence of similarities and differences between the TL (target language) and a SL (source language) that has been previously (perhaps imperfectly) acquired.
Here are some problems that transference causes which impede the LEP from successfully acquiring the second language:

negative transfer (interference): cross-linguistic influences resulting in errors.
underproduction: learner produces few or no examples of the second language. This is often caused by conscious avoidance of difficult wordings in the second language.
overproduction: learner develops a habit of repeating a transference wording more so than native speakers of the second language.
miscomprehension/misinterpretation: When relying on native language transference the second language is not thoroughly comprehended nor used correctly resulting in production errors:
Why is the linguistic explanation important to Judicial T&I professionals? Because it defines how the speaker or author came to use this untranslatable term. Lawyers and Judges benefit from knowing these elements of the communication process. Lawyers can better represent their client when they know how their witness communicates naturally. Judges benefit from knowing that the testimony is intact and not altered by mistranslated evidence or misinterpreted testimony. Translators can use Second Language Acquisition elements in their translator’s notes.
I will follow up with specific suggested procedures to follow when you face SLA elements in your work. Look for the post: What To Do: Spanglish, Chinglish and Konglish.

Wording Trends: The Motorized Vehicular Accident, Discovery and Litigation

DianeyellowMGScan      Questions about cell phone use are now standard in these kind of cases. I say motorized because people driving heavy machinery use their cell phones while driving. I’ve seen park landscapers on the phone while driving commercial sized mowers. I’ve seen people on their cell phones while driving combines in fields. Vehicular-pedestrian accidents happen when the pedestrian is on their cell too.
Cell phone use is so common now that we reference it in the comprehensive phrase “being on your cell phone” that includes all the functions performed on a cell phone. People can do any of these tasks with their cell phone: talk, text, read emails, respond to emails, listen to voice mail messages, view maps and other content and listen to music. Did I forget anything? If so, please let me know. I want to be ready to interpret those words.
Attorneys word their questions in a variety of ways. But as accident causes evolve, new vocabulary and phrasing appears. In order to provide the best representation of their clients, lawyers get more and more specific in their questions so the respondent doesn’t overlook a fact not referred to in the question. So, I am already seeing the trend of the all-encompassing question “Were you on your cell phone?” or “Were you using your cell phone?” being rephrased by specifying cell phone functions. Interpreters should become familiar with all the different service providers, the different brand names and styles of phones and the and setting options.
Additional vocabulary for this line of questioning includes, distraction, line of sight, paying attention and focus. All of these terms would be conjugated into the simple past, the present, imperfect indicative, and the conditional tenses. You are going to use the subjunctive for the questions about instructions, necessity, urgency suggestion, preference, possibility, regret and doubt.                                 For examples of accidents and the process of resulting lawsuits and comprehensive training take a look at this excellent book.
The Interpreters Guide to the Vehicular Accident Lawsuit. By Josef F. Buenker

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.