Legal Interpreting Services in Rare Chinese Dialects

Chinese Deposition Interpreters Fluent in Regional Languages/ Dialects

You might not know this, but “Chinese” isn’t just one language. It can be challenging to find a competent English to Chinese legal interpreter who not only speaks Mandarin or Cantonese but is also fluent in Toishanese/ Taishanese; or is fluent in Fuzhou/ Foochow/ Foochowese/ Fuzhounese/ Fuzhouhua/ Fujianese/ Fujian/ Fuchaw; or is fluent in Minan/ Minnan/ Minnanese/ Southern Min/ Southern Fukenese.

The difference between a language and a dialect is not always clear-cut. Sometimes, two varieties of speech are considered dialects of the same language if they are mutually intelligible, meaning that speakers of one variety can understand speakers of another variety. Other factors that may influence whether two varieties are considered dialects or languages include historical, political, social, and cultural aspects. For example, some varieties that are not mutually intelligible may be considered dialects of the same language for political reasons, such as the many Chinese dialects. Conversely, some varieties that are mutually intelligible may be considered separate languages for cultural reasons, such as Hindi and Urdu in South Asia, or for linguistic reasons, such as Croatian and Serbian in the Balkans.

Chinese Is More Than Just Mandarin and Cantonese

The first case for today’s blog is Zhiwen Yang v. Harmon, decided by the Appellate Division, Second Department of New York on February 15, 2023.  The plaintiff Zhiwen Yang (hereinafter Yang) was a patient of the defendant doctor Gregory K. Harmon from August 24, 2015, to November 25, 2015, for the treatment of a cataract of the right eye. After Harmon treated the eye surgically and prescribed medication, Yang allegedly sustained injuries including loss of vision in her right eye.

Yang and her husband sued for damages for medical malpractice and lack of informed consent against Harmon and his medical practice. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants departed from the accepted standard of care in providing pre-operative, operative, and post-operative care, and prescribed contraindicated medications for Yang, without informing her of the risks, potential adverse reactions, or alternatives.

Trouble Finding a Chinese Interpreter Fluent in a Rare Chinese Dialect/ Regional Language

The defendants sought to depose Yang as part of the discovery process. Yang did not speak English and required a deposition interpreter. Defendants hired a Mandarin interpreter for the March 2nd deposition. But Yang did not speak Mandarin, either. She was from Guizhou, a region in China where residents speak a different Chinese dialect. When defendants couldn’t produce a deposition interpreter with knowledge of the same dialect, the plaintiffs proposed that Yang’s daughter serve as interpreter at her deposition. The defendants objected to this proposal and argued that Yang’s daughter was not a qualified interpreter and had a conflict of interest as a potential witness and beneficiary of the action.

The trial court ordered that Yang’s daughter serve as interpreter at Yang’s deposition. The court reasoned that there was no evidence that Yang’s daughter was biased or incompetent as an interpreter, and that the defendants could cross-examine her on any issues regarding her interpretation.

Deposition Interpreters Should be Both Skilled and Unbiased

The Appellate Division reversed the order of the Supreme Court and held that Yang’s daughter could not serve as interpreter at Yang’s deposition. The court stated that “only under exceptional circumstances- not present here- may an individual serve as interpreter for a relative or in an action in which the proposed interpreter will be a witness”.

The court explained that a deposition interpreter must be impartial and unbiased, and must not have any personal interest or involvement in the outcome of the litigation. The court noted that a deposition interpreter who is related to a party or who is a material witness may have a tendency to distort or embellish the testimony of the party or witness, either intentionally or unintentionally.

The court also emphasized that a deposition interpreter must be qualified and competent to perform the task of interpretation. The court pointed out that interpretation is not merely a literal translation of words, but also requires an understanding of the context, tone, and nuances of the language. The court observed that an interpreter who is not trained or experienced in interpretation may fail to convey the meaning and intent of the testimony accurately and completely.

The court concluded that Yang’s daughter did not meet these criteria for serving as interpreter at Yang’s deposition. The court found that Yang’s daughter had a personal interest and involvement in the litigation as a potential witness and beneficiary of the action. The court also found that there was no evidence that Yang’s daughter had any qualifications or competence as a deposition interpreter.

Other Cases Where Qualified Interpreters Were Hard to Find

This New York restriction barring family members from acting as translators exists in other jurisdictions as well. In a New Jersey unemployment benefits case (Carranza v. Board of Review), Carranza appealed a decision that disqualified him from receiving unemployment benefits. The decision was based on the finding that he left work voluntarily. He argued that he left work because he was harassed and discriminated against by his supervisor. Carranza requested that his daughter translate for him—the court declined, and hired a Spanish court interpreter who appeared telephonically.

However, the claimant and Spanish interpreter seemed to have trouble understanding each other—they spoke different versions of Spanish and the hearing transcript contained the word “inaudible” 17 different times. Because of the miscommunication between them, the court had substantial doubt as to whether the claimant understood the questions and whether his responses were accurately interpreted. They ordered a new hearing, to be conducted with the help of a Spanish-speaking interpreter whose dialect matched Carranza’s.

Kansas took a similar approach in another case (Kan. v. Jiwu Wei), in which the defendant was prosecuted for traffic violations. Defendant spoke very little English, and his native language was a rare dialect from Southwest China. Although the prosecutor urged the court to force defendant’s wife to interpret at trial, the court observed instead that statutory requirements mandated “”No one shall be appointed to serve as an interpreter for a person . . . if such interpreter is married to that person, related to that person within the first or second degrees of consanguinity, living with that person or is otherwise interested in the outcome of the proceeding, unless the appointing authority determines that no other qualified interpreter is available to serve.” Because the court was unable to find that rare Chinese dialect interpreter, the case was dismissed.

The failure to find a qualified interpreter or translator can doom a prosecution. In another recent federal criminal case (United States v. Mejia-Perez), the court was unable to find a qualified translator who spoke defendant’s primary language: Mam (a Mayan language from Guatemala). Although the defendant spoke some English and limited Spanish, the court determined that proceeding without a Mam interpreter would violate the defendant’s constitutional due process. Because the government was not able to give the defendant a meaningful opportunity to participate in the proceedings, the case was dismissed.

Impartial and Qualified Court Interpreters for Deposition Interpreting

The cases we covered in today’s blog post illustrate the importance of having an impartial and qualified interpreter at a deposition or hearing involving a non-English speaking party or witness who speaks their specific dialect or regional language. The case also shows the challenges and difficulties that may arise when trying to find such a qualified court interpreter in some situations.

Cases Referenced:
Carranza v. Bd. of Review, 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 308
Kan. v. Jiwu Wei, 450 P.3d 386, (Court of Appeals of Kansas, 2019)
United States v. Mejia-Perez, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100755 (Arizona)
Yang v. Harmon, 2023 N.Y. Slip Op 893 (App. Div. 2023).

Contact All Language Alliance, Inc. to reserve an impartial and qualified deposition interpreter for a non-English-speaking party or witness who speak an exotic, hard-to-find, or rare dialect or regional language.

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