A Separate Case:
Interpreting Guidelines for Legal Service Providers
(Originally published April 2012)
Did you know that the number of people in the U.S. who speak a language other than English at home has more than doubled in the last three decades at a pace four times greater than the nation's population growth, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau report? So, with more than 20% of the U.S. population speaking another language and the increased enforcement of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requiring “language access for limited English proficient persons,” it is more critical than ever to provide effective interpretation services in legal settings. Here are some strategies to help you effectively work with interpreters to successfully overcome language barriers for such legal activities as depositions, official statements, hearings, and trials, just to name a few.
Verify the interpreter’s qualifications and credentials. In general, interpreting requires the ability to understand the meaning of a spoken message in one language and accurately convey it in a second language without unnecessary additions or deletions and without injecting one’s own opinion. Be sure that legal interpreters have the right credentials, which for courtroom situations means the interpreter needs to be state or federally certified depending on the court. For legal proceedings outside of the courtroom, certification is not required, so if a certified court interpreter is not available, just be sure the interpreter has a strong legal interpreting background.
Also, because it is critical that the interpreter have the appropriate skill set and be completely unbiased, it is inappropriate to use a friend or family member of the client or even an untrained in-house staff member to do the interpreting.
Determine what mode of interpreting is needed. Depending on your particular situation, work with your Language Services Provider (LSP) to determine what mode of interpreting would be optimal: consecutive or simultaneous. With consecutive interpreting, the interpreter waits until a complete statement has been spoken and then begins interpreting in the second language, while the speaker waits. With simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter listens to the source message and conveys what is being said in the target language at the same time that the speaker is talking. Simultaneous interpreting usually requires equipment although whispering can be used in some instances.
Provide the interpreter with as much information and support as possible. The more information an interpreter has about a case, the better he or she can prepare for the assignment and effectively interpret. Be sure that the interpreter has access to any documents or other information relevant to the assignment as far in advance as possible. When feasible, a pre-session meeting with the interpreter and legal provider can help to determine ground rules, review terms or documents, and discuss any cultural or logistical issues prior to the interpreting sessio.
Position the interpreter appropriately. You should face the client. The interpreter needs to be to one side of the client, potentially a little behind. This positioning puts the interpreter in the background and emphasizes the key relationship: you and your client.
Use the interpreter to facilitate direct communication, not as a “go-between.” Address the limited-English proficient client directly, as if he or she understood everything. The interpreter will then repeat what is said in the required language. Avoid the use of indirect speech (e.g. “Ask him if…” or “He says that…”) because this can create confusion and a flawed record. Also, be aware that the interpreter must interpret everything that is said in the room, so do not say anything you do not want interpreted.
Speak clearly at a moderate pace and audible volume. Unclear speech is, of course, very difficult to accurately interpret. Try to keep everything clear and to the point, speaking more slowly and in a audible volume. It is also important to pause occasionally to provide enough time for the interpretation. Avoid long, convoluted statements or unfamiliar jargon or acronyms that may be difficult to interpret. Explain legal terms in simple language whenever possible. Ask one question at a time because often subsequent questions are missed or ignored if asked together.
Check for understanding. It is the legal provider’s responsibility to ensure the client understands information and questions. Do not ask the interpreter if the client understands, confirm directly with the client by asking “Do you understand?” so the interpreter can then interpret the question. A nod of the head or even saying “yes” in some cultures may not always indicate that the person understands. It may be necessary to ask the client to repeat what is said for important information that you need to ensure is understood. Also be aware that the interpreter may need to ask for clarification from time to time to make sure the information is correctly and thoroughly interpreted.
Do not ask the interpreters to act as legal assistants. Interpreters should not be asked or expected to explain any legal information, procedures, forms, or concepts or to fill out any documents for the client. Legal providers must provide this information, with the interpreter focused on being the neutral party interpreting what is being conveyed.
The interpreter should not be left alone with the client or allowed to have side conversations. Clients often feel an affinity with the interpreter, which may interfere with the attorney-client relationship. Legal providers need to be present at all times to keep the focus on the attorney-client, relationship rather than on the interpreter. It is also important to discourage any side conversations between the client and the interpreter. Also, refrain from making any side comments to the interpreter, keeping in mind that the role of the interpreter is only to facilitate the conversation between you and the client.
Debrief with the interpreter after the session. When possible, particularly if you will be working on multiple assignments with the client, debrief with the interpreter to examine how the session went and what, if anything, can be improved. This also presents a good opportunity to clarify and provide additional explanation regarding any issues that may have come up in the session.
By following these guidelines and consulting with an LSP about your specific needs, you can maximize the use of interpreting services in order to effectively bridge communication barriers in legal settings in any language. For more information on your language needs, contact us today!