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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.