How Distance Protects You : The Witness Outburst

Legal interpreters are taught to keep an emotional distance with the witness to guarantee the witness complete access to the  judicial process, as if they spoke fluent English. It also benefits the interpreter  to have a sole focus on the linguistic components of the statement  while monitoring the content.  Certified interpreters are  bound  by our Code of Professional Responsibility to not show any emotion or bias  in reaction to the statements we are interpreting. In order to do this we have to remain oblivious to the base problem  between the parties.distance-can-protect-you380w

Sometimes maintaining  distance can protect us too. By virtue of being a party to a lawsuit,  some witnesses are facing a very difficult phase of their lives. No matter if they are the plaintiff or the defendant.  The setting exposes the interpreter to a witness whose perception of the difficulty  can range anywhere from an inconvenience to a  life changing crisis.

For example, in a civil matter where a business agreement was not honored, the party will suffer compromise of the investment of time and money.  A personal injury affects one party’s physical and emotional life yet may affect the financial life of the other. Family law and criminal cases easily display a strain on either party and often it is on both parties.

The interpreter can’t predict aggressive questioning or  know how a witness will react to a probing Q&A process.  Establishing the distance at the start of the proceeding is  a good safeguard. In my introductory spiel I include that I have nothing to do with the case and that my work is regulated by state law.  Not making eye contact reinforces the distance. Most outbursts in a courtroom are quickly diffused by the Judge. But that is not the case in other discovery proceedings.

I’ve had a 6’7 Stevedore pick me up by my shoulders and yell in my face, angry at the pointed question I very accurately interpreted. I’ve had several witnesses dissolve into tears in my lap when reminded of the loss of a loved one. I’ve seen witnesses curse and yell  at everyone in the room. I’ve seen a witness knock over the videographer’s camera. One angry witness hit the court reporter’s steno machine to stop writing what he said. The most memorable was a divorce mediation and the wife announced she was a witch, whereupon she went around the table putting a curse on everyone. When she got around to me, I reminded her I would have to interpret the curse and it would fall back on her.  I was spared.

Interpreters need to understand the lawyer’s obligations to their client. Lawyers are trained to evaluate their client’s personality so they can best represent them. Lawyers can assess their client’s responsiveness patterns during deposition and trial preparation.  But we interpreters need to  be prepared for outbursts  from the start of our career. We also need to be comfortable knowing that in such an eruption that we can and should reference the event as an impediment to our performance. We can ask for a break. And we can address the issue with the attorney. We can protect ourselves and our good work.

Keeping Up With the Warp Speed Witness

12512317_1666237360285094_2805551571254001401_nListening to anyone speaking fast in a sworn proceeding is more of an event of animated questioning for most participants at the trial or deposition.

Unless you are the interpreter or the court reporter.

Court interpreters are sworn to transmit the question and the response word for word, accurately and completely. So we develop listening, note taking and responsiveness analysis skills. Here are a few tips on identifying and rendering the complete and identical sounding statement of the warp speed speaker in compliance with  your oath.

The attorney and the witness have a higher probability to speak super quickly during a Q&A process. In trial, Judges pick up speed while reading out loud the  written instructions or the charge to the jury. Almost everyone speaks faster than normal when reading written evidence into the record.

TIP: Ask for a copy of the document to sight translate simultaneously, in trial if there is no screen displaying the document or during a deposition .

The attorney will respond quickly to  evidence mentioned by a witness that is uniquely  positive or negative impact on their case. If positive, they will want the witness to stay on that topic so they will quickly add related questions. If negative,  they will want the witness to go no further on that topic and they will change the topic altogether.  In both situations they will accentuate the words in tone and volume that pertain to their chosen emphasized topic.

TIP: In your taking, jot down the accentuated words, since they will possibly be repeated by the questioning attorney for whom that is a valuable topic. And if one side wants the subject matter changed, the opposing counsel may zero in on that subject during cross.

Witnesses launch into hurried responses when triggered by something they feel strongly about. Their attorney may want that emotion displayed for the jury or on the deposition record, so we interpreters need to perfect our skills as much as possible before resorting to asking for intervention from the judge (or the questioning attorney (deposition).

Some triggers are obvious in the pointed, aggressive wording of the question, others are unknown to the interpreter.

TIP:  We ignore the impact of the  question or the response and focus on the content.

An animated emotional response has  peaks of loudness, words that are run together, repeated points and sometimes stammering if  the witness is flustered. We are supposed to render the same tone and style of the speaker in our interpretation.

TIP: Take notes while the witness responds to allow the witness to respond completely without interruption. Speed up your note taking with symbols and abbreviations.

TIP: Circle the loud words or phrases. ( I reserve underlining for topics frequently repeated in a question.)

TIP: Separate the words that were run together when spoken or you won’t be able to read your own notes. But encapsulate from end to end them with an underlining arrow or brackets to remind you to render them in a run together fashion.

TIP: Number the repeated points and the words that are stammered so that you repeat them just as many times as they were originally spoken. For example   He turned left⁴

Have an evacuation plan. Know your limits by shadowing with a recorded lecture or television audio. Be prepared to notify the Judge, on the record and  in the third person, that the witness is speaking too fast and is impeding your ability to render an accurate interpretation. Normally the Judge will advise the witness to slow down. Frankly, this instruction rarely sticks. If necessary, tell the Judge  that you respectfully request that the witness be asked to break up their response into 3 or four sentences at a time.

TIP : Remember if you or the attorney interrupts the witness, that you have to interpret every word spoken  for the record, even if it is an incomplete sentence.

 

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.

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.”