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.