Using Interpreters in Litigation
Mark S. Shipow
Los Angeles Lawyer April 2008, continued
Also, an interpreted deposition permits the attorney somewhat less control. If a deposition is given entirely in English, the attorney can interrupt his or her witness if the witness appears to be heading into a problem, such as revealing privileged information. In an interpreted deposition, the answer can be given (at least in the foreign language) before the attorney has a chance to do anything.5 Even if the interpretation is not provided, the answer will be understood by anyone in the room who understands the foreign language (such as an opposing party), and if the deposition is being taped there will be a recording for possible future use.
Whether an interpreter will be required typically becomes apparent early in litigation, although sometimes the need for an interpreter arises only after a witness who does not speak English is identified. In either situation, as soon as a decision is made that an interpreter is needed, counsel should take steps to identify a qualified interpreter. Government Code Section 68561 require use of a court-certified interpreter in any "court proceeding" using a language designated by the Judicial Council under Section 68562(a), except for good cause shown.6 A court proceeding is defined as any civil, criminal, or juvenile proceeding, including a deposition in a civil case.7 One source of interpreter candidates is the court's list of certified interpreters.8 However, as in any other profession, certified interpreters have strengths and weaknesses, and some may be better than others in particular situations. In deciding which interpreter to use, an attorney should consider numerous factors.
Court certification is beneficial and helps to overcome objections or reservations from judges or opposing counsel. However, court certification is not a guarantee, and not necessarily even an indicator, of competency. Conversely, an interpreter who is not court certified is not necessarily unqualified.9
Ideally, the interpreter should be fluent in English and the foreign language. However, most interpreters are stronger in one language than the other. In that situation, attorneys are well advised to use an interpreter who is stronger in English than in the foreign language. It is critical to have an English interpretation that a judge or juror will readily understand. After all, the main purpose of the interpretation exercise, as with every other aspect of litigation, is to be able to provide information to the fact finder in a clear, cogent, and understandable manner. That purpose is undermined by having an interpreter speak in halting or stilted English.
Another factor to consider is whether the interpreter is experienced in litigation. Interpreting at a deposition or during trial is quite different from interpreting at a business meeting. The interpreter must be familiar with, and not intimidated by, the adversarial process, including interpreting pointed cross-examination questions, handling arguments between counsel, understanding legal terms, and dealing with an interpreter who checks the first interpreter's work. Also, a litigation-savvy interpreter is more likely to understand the need to provide precise interpretations, rather than simply conveying the gist of the question or the testimony. Interpreters who primarily handle business meetings are used to conveying the sense of what the speaker intends, taking liberties to interpret what is meant. And this is much easier and safer to do when people are conversing about business issues. In contrast, litigation typically hinges on rather specific events, statements, words, and phrases. More precise interpretations are required. In this regard, it also is important that the interpreter be experienced in seriatim interpretation (providing the interpretation after the statement rather than simultaneously).
Before retaining an interpreter, counsel should interview the candidate, in person if possible. If counsel has access to someone who is fluent in, or at least knowledgeable about, the foreign language at issue, include that person in the interview. Even with an interview, it may be difficult to gauge the interpreter's skills in the foreign language. At the least, confirm that the interpreter's English is strong, so that the interpretations will be understandable, that the candidate will be able to get along with you and others involved in the case and survive the ups and downs of litigation, and that the candidate will be generally available for assignments so that you do not need multiple interpreters working on the case. Speaking to other attorneys who have used the interpreter will help in considering these factors.
After selecting a primary interpreter, it is good practice to identify a backup interpreter. Having another interpreter preselected will help in the event that the primary interpreter is not available or is unacceptable to opposing counsel, or a checking interpreter is needed, or other circumstances arise that prevent using the first choice.