Questions that Sink and Questions that Float

Big JoyYour question is hanging in midair and the witness, in the sworn proceeding is looking at you, gape mouthed. Was the question clear?  Or maybe the witness is deciding what part of it to answer. You could be facing  a cycle of delays and frustration. This occurs whether the proceeding is interpreted or not. But it does seem that as the interpreter, I can see the disconnect happen before the questioning attorney catches on.

The fault lies in the broad wording of the question that allows for a flexibility in responsiveness. Add a nervous, reluctant, or even impatient witness and you have Q&A chaos. I’ve even got a name for it: the “Who’s On First” scenario after the famous Abbott and Costello comedy sketch.

It’s no fun for any of us to go down that bumpy road. Sometimes the lawyers get irritated at each other as the objection, “Non Responsive” triggers the objection: “Asked and Answered” over and over. Other times I’ve seen the questioning attorney instruct that the question be certified because the opposing counsel will  refuse to allow the question to be repeated after several attempts. Fact witnesses and Pro Se witnesses, who are unfamiliar with the questioning process, can quickly stymie whatever progress has been made when the “Who’s On First” routine starts up.

In such cases that there is an interpreter, professional interpreters know to simply be patient, show no reaction and continue interpreting accurately and completely. These situations are not a challenge to an interpreter.

In 1999, Claims Magazine, the national publication of the Insurance industry, published my article titled, What do You Mean by That? Specific Terms in a Q&A Produce Direct Responses. You can find the article on my website here http://www.linguisticworld.com/books_and_articles.html.  At the date of this blog post it is a full 17 years later and I still see many of these examples of questions that sink.

The most common culprit is the compound question. This is a question that contains two or more questions being asked. Often it offers alternative responses much like a multiple choice question. This kind of question is standard for casual conversation but in a Q&A setting, where the person is under oath, a single yes or no to such a question encompasses more factors. Another form is when the subject action is maintained but extra dates, times and persons are added to the single event.

Unfortunately, even a seemingly simple question can be compound.  The Yes or No to “Do you know if the light was red for the other driver?” could be responsive to the light being red or not, or it could be responsive to the witness knowing or not. Several clients of mine offer a follow up question to that one with a “No, you don’t know or no, the light wasn’t red?” And surprisingly, the response is the complete answer that contains the question.

The solution is to break down the question as soon as you see the witness is not able to transition to compound questions smoothly. Limit high register legalese terminology that will trigger confusion. The result will be more concise responses and a well-connected communication.

Interpreting in the Middle of A Missile Attack

missile-attack

A missile attack  is disorder, loud disruption and chaos. Depositions and even court trials can take on that air before being  brought under control. For the interpreter and the court reporter it is  very difficult to perform our work under those conditions. And mistakes are understandable.  For the interpreter, these are impediments to your performance that you cannot overcome. But you can do damage control as soon as the disruption begins.

Certified (“Licensed” in Texas) court interpreters are bound to a Code of Professional Responsibility that includes an instruction to report any impediments to our performance.

(i) CANON 7: ASSESSING AND REPORTING IMPEDIMENTS TO PERFORMANCE. Interpreters shall assess at all times their ability to deliver their services. When interpreters have any reservation about their ability to satisfy an assignment competently, they shall immediately convey that reservation to the judge.

I have been interrupted while interpreting by jackhammers breaking up a parking lot next door, that was so loud I could not  hear the witness. Also I’ve experienced the witness yelling at the attorney while the attorney continued asking the question and while the other attorney was yelling at his witness and the court reporter was yelling at all of them to stop talking over each other.  I recall several more incidents when the witness has erupted over an aggressive question, behaving physically or starting a screaming rant.  In those situations you could easily misinterpret so you have to retain control of your actions including possibly to stop interpreting.

Once everyone calms down the interpreter has  to report , on the record, to the attorneys or to the judge the point in the testimony at which you were no longer able to interpret and specify the cause: the specific impediment. Then they decide how to rectify the miscommunication.

More often than not the witness goes silent and I find I am interpreting the attorneys argument and I indicate by gesture the respective attorney while they talk over each other.  The court reporter is often the one who stops the  disruption at a deposition, at trial it is the Judge.

Sometimes the location itself is a minefield of impediments.  I’ve interpreted in industrial facilities with loud machinery operating around me. I’ve interpreted  statements on the deck of container ships in the middle of the Houston Ship Channel.  Colleagues report interpreting assignments where they are at the back of a City Council room filled with protesters.

Attorneys, investigators and insurance adjusters have to go where they can find the answers to the questions in order to best represent their client.  If that means talking to a Limited English speaker at their workplace or wherever they can be found then that’s where you will go.

A professional interpreter understands this but also knows to  assess the location for impediments at the moment of the assignment. Ask where it is  specfically and look up the address.  If it is a questionable location, express your concerns to the person you will be interpreting for and ask for a change of venue. Tell them that you will have to stop the proceeding if you are not able to interpret accurately. Then don’t be afraid to turn down the assignment.

Know the difference between milder forms of chaos that you can overcome and still perform your job according to your oath and impediments that  will not allow you to interpret accurately.

And Now for the Musical Portion of my Closing Argument.

As  court interpreters, we have to be ready for all kinds of terminology. Speaking styles too. A register that rises to the level of Shakespearean sonnets , or drops to a Mafioso style threat.  We have to render it duplicating the tone, style and meaning. So, we study and prepare. I enjoy sitting in on trials and study how the lawyers speak especially during opening and closing.singer-on-stage

But none of that prepared me for the lawyer who sang during his closing argument.

I was interpreting the trial for the defendant. It was a car accident and my client was the insurance company. It was all so standard that I don’t remember the details or most of the testimony.  The opposing counsel was well prepared and consistently …normal sounding during litigation. Nothing stood out during  voir dire or cross or even  the deliberations over the charge to the jury. A bit of drama during that would have tipped me off.

I wasn’t even distracted by the Plaintiff’s father who wore in a full Marine dress uniform throughout the trial. He sat behind his daughter, a high school senior.

I was interpreting the full trial for the defendant, a middle aged man from Honduras. He was calm, polite and…normal.

I remember being aware that since we were at closing arguments, all that was left, time wise, was jury deliberations and then I’d be released.  Frankly I was probably thinking about dinner plans.

For closing, both lawyers restated the high points of the case that reflected well on their client. And the lawyer for the plaintiff, as usual, proceeded to follow the defense with a second closing.  In this one he reminded the jury of the testimony presented showing how his client was very close to her father and that her father had been very worried  about her ever since  this accident.  And that her father was an honorable member of the military.

The lawyer stopped right in front of the jury, looked right into their eyes and asked them,

“Who today isn’t aware of the contributions of the military to our country?  It just makes me think of the song,  Some Gave All by Billie Ray Cyrus

Then in a pretty nice baritone voice he sang these words:

“All gave some and some gave all / And some stood through for the red, white and blue / And some had to fall / And if you ever think of me / Think of all your liberties / And recall, some gave all.”

He caught me off guard for a second.  I may have shown surprise on my face. But I got right to work interpreting ….not singing…. the lyrics. I avoided eye contact with the defendant and I focused on the wood grain of the table while interpreting simultaneously. But out of the corner of my eye I caught my client’s jaw drop.  There was no reaction from the Judge and the jury didn’t applaud.

I have been surprised by literary testimony that included poetry and recitations from religious texts. I guess I can add interpretation of live singing to my own repertoire, so to speak.

I’m just glad he didn’t choose Achy Breaky Heart.

(Some Gave All. (C) 1993 Mercury Records, a Division of UMG Recordings, Inc)

Uncontested Flashback

UnhappyrockScanIt was supposed to be a quick uncontested divorce proceeding.  The 72 year old woman was the petitioner.  She hadn’t seen or heard from her husband since he walked out the front door in 1994, a full twenty one years ago.  The petitioner was calm, collected and very polite as I interpreted her attorney’s explanation of how to speak through an interpreter during the court proceeding.  She very sweetly thanked me for my service, something that always melts my heart a little.

The court had appointed an ad litem to search for the missing husband and this attorney was there to report on his failed efforts to find the husband.

Once on the record we smoothly flowed through the preliminary verification of the petitioner’s request that the court grant her a divorce and a name change to her maiden name.

I was interpreting simultaneously as the Ad Litem attorney gave his account of all the procedures he followed to locate the husband, whose name he kept repeating.  Suddenly the petitioner started to speak, more like grumble, and it grew louder and louder.

“Que hombre tan desgraciado” (What a wretched man), she proclaimed forcefully. 

I was afraid she was referring to the Ad Litem who glanced at her with a quizzical look on his face.  He continued and so did she, with single word edicts every time she heard her husband’s name. 

“Unbearable!  Unbelievable!  Liar!  Low life!” 

And there I was interpreting the Ad Litem’s testimony as well as the petitioner’s running commentary; each word in the same tone and volume as the speaker.

The judge who was listening intently to the Ad Litem, did not interrupt him.  She appeared oblivious of the outbursts.  The attorney for the petitioner never objected, despite the bemused expression on her face.  In the back of my mind I imagined a record transcript worthy of a Saturday Night Live skit.

The Ad Litem finished and the divorce was granted and no one spoke of the remarks.  Once off the record, the petitioner was thanking the Judge when her attorney started to apologize.  The Judge cut her off with a wave of her hand, stating, “I know just how she feels.”