Litigation Interpreting Services
for Law Firms and Attorneys

What Law Firms Should Know
to Hire the Right Translators and Interpreters

Legal Translators vs. Legal Interpreters.

Many people, including lawyers and judges, use the terms “translator” and “interpreter” interchangeably. However, there is actually a distinct difference between these two professions. Legal Interpreters translate and interpret oral communication while Legal Document Translators work with written texts translating foreign-language documents into English and vice-versa. Civil litigation lawyers should be aware of these distinctions as they will inevitably encounter the need for an interpreter and/or a translator at some point in their career if they have not already. Lawyers handling cases involving multilingual documents and witnesses will especially need to familiarize themselves with the key differences between translators and interpreters in order to save time, money, and embarrassment. In complex cases involving foreign languages, Translators should work primarily on reviewing foreign-language documents during e-discovery and on foreign-language documents necessary for deposition and trial exhibits while Interpreters should focus on interpreting oral communication both before and during depositions of non-English-speaking witnesses.

The Value of Professional Legal Interpreters.

Civil litigators who are unfamiliar with conducting foreign languages depositions requiring the use of a legal deposition interpreter may not understand the tremendous value they can bring to the table throughout the civil litigation process, particularly during the discovery phase of domestic and international litigation. While chances are the foreign language-speaking client or deponent probably has a friend or relative who could interpret on their behalf, lawyers should think twice about using the client or deponent’s friends or relatives to interpret for them. Untrained, non-professional interpreters often do not understand the fact that, in a legal setting, they must translate exactly what the deponent says and that they cannot aid or assist the deponent in any way during the deposition. Non-professional interpreters may try to “help” the deponent by relaying only the testimony which the interpreter believes to be favorable. Similarly, untrained interpreters may simply summarize the deponents’ testimony instead of interpreting every word (which is more difficult to do), leaving out crucial information in the process. Furthermore, interpreters who have a personal relationship with the deponent or an indirect interest in the case are unlikely to be completely objective in relaying the testimony exactly as it is stated, which in essence defeats the purpose of having an interpreter at a deposition in the first place. Finally, in the author’s experience, immigrants residing in close-knit communities may know most of the people in their community. Thus, the attorney should screen the deposition interpreter for any conflicts of interest beforehand to make sure that the interpreter is not a friend or relative of the deponent.

What to Expect From a Legal Interpreter During a Civil Deposition.

It is important to know that professional interpreters use “direct speech” when interpreting. This means that a trained interpreter will always refer to himself or herself in the third person as “the interpreter” or “this interpreter.” A professional interpreter would never refer to himself or herself on the record in the first person, such as “I.” Likewise, as noted above, a professionally trained deposition interpreter should translate exactly what the deponent says in the manner in which it is said and should never summarize, paraphrase, explain, or verbalize his or her opinions.

As an example, if a foreign-language deponent testifies in his native language saying: “the defendant rear-ended my vehicle,” a professional interpreter would never say “the deponent said that the defendant rear-ended his vehicle.” Instead, the interpreter would translate the words “the defendant rear-ended my vehicle” exactly from the foreign language into English. An interpreter’s failure to abide by these translation protocols usually presents itself at the beginning of the deposition and can signal the interpreter’s incompetence or inexperience. If the interpreter says “he said.. ” or “she said…” before each translation, the attorney should stop the deposition immediately and remind the interpreter of his or her duties to translate the testimony exactly as it is stated and, if the problem persists, terminate the deposition until a suitable interpreter can be found.

Likewise, attorneys should remember to address the deponent directly and maintain eye contact with the deponent throughout the deposition. For example, instead of telling the interpreter to “ask him where he was born,” the attorney should look directly at the deponent and ask him or her directly: “where were you born?” The interpreter should then interpret that question, and the deponent’s response, exactly as it is stated, and so forth.

What is a “Check” Interpreter and When Might an Attorney Use One?

Finally, when in doubt regarding the professionalism or objectivity of a legal deposition interpreter, an attorney may want to consider hiring their own impartial “check” interpreter. Parties defending non-English depositions in cases with significant dollars at stake will often employ “check” interpreters to ensure that the deposition questions and answers are being translated fairly. To ensure an accurate and clean record, the check interpreter will only interject if the primary interpreter fails to provide an accurate interpretation of a particular question or answer. Such “check” interpreters are also used to assist attorneys in preparing the deponent for their deposition. The overall goal of using a check interpreter is to obtain the most accurate translation possible.