A Lawyer's Guide to Cross-Cultural Depositions

Copyright © by , CEO, All Language Alliance, Inc.

This article discusses the use of professional interpreters in cross-cultural depositions, and provides tips for depositions involving non-English-speaking deponents.


The skillful interpretation of languages is both a craft and an art. In the 1964 Cold War drama, Fail-Safe, Henry Fonda plays a U.S. President who must avoid all-out nuclear war by convincing the Soviet Premier that U.S. bombers had been mistakenly sent to attack Moscow with nuclear weapons. By his side at the hotline is his Russian interpreter, a young Larry Hagman. As Fonda prepares to make the call, he briefs his interpreter:

Sometimes, there's more in a man's voice than in his words. There are words in one language that don't carry the same weight in another. . . . So, I want to know not only what he's saying, but what you think he's feeling-any inflection in his voice, any tone, any emotion that adds to his words-I want you to let me know.1

Attorneys sometimes trade gloomy stories of testimony by foreign-born witnesses. A common complaint is that following a long verbal exchange between the witness and the interpreter, the interpreter turns toward the attorney and solemnly declares, "The witness said, 'Yes.'" Today, almost one in five Americans speaks a language other than English at home.2 Therefore, it is no surprise that many non-English-speaking witnesses appear daily in depositions nationwide. At times, many attorneys may yearn for a high-caliber interpreter, like the one played by Larry Hagman in Fail-Safe, to help them navigate through the esoteric cross-cultural terrain.

This article addresses ways of overcoming some challenges of a cross-cultural deposition. For purposes of this article, a cross-cultural deposition is one in which the attorney is English-speaking (generally American-born), and the deponent is foreign-born and speaks limited or no English. In other words, a cross-cultural deposition is one in which the attorney and the deponent do not share the same cultural archetypes and common linguistic patterns.

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