No matter how many languages you speak fluently, at some point in your legal career you will likely encounter a client, an adverse party, or a witness who prefers a language that you don’t know. Sometimes attorneys avoid contact with non-English speakers because they just aren’t sure how to handle the situation. But why do that? Conveniently, there are professionals whose entire job is to facilitate communications between speakers of different languages – interpreters! Nowadays, you can access interpretation quickly and efficiently on-site, through video or on your phone. Consequently, there’s no need to avoid a client who prefers a language that you’re not knowledgable on. Here are some tips for productive communications using an interpreter.
Know the difference between translators and interpreters
Translators work with written words (such as a Chinese translation or a Spanish translation). Whereas, interpreters work with spoken words. Know which one you need for your project. This article only covers working with an interpreter, which is what you would need to interview a potential client, conduct a deposition, or something similar.
Finding the interpreter
Interpreting is considered a profession for good reason; it’s difficult and requires special training. There is a common misconception that any bilingual person can interpret. But that’s like saying any native English speaker is qualified to write legal briefs or argue cases in court. It’s just not true. So look for a certified legal interpreter or work with a reputable agency that trains its interpreters. Services can be provided by phone if local interpreters are not available. It is generally better to have a highly qualified interpreter over the phone than a less qualified interpreter in person.
Preparing the interpreter
Interpreters prepare for jobs by reviewing technical vocabulary and terms they anticipate will be used. Any information you can provide beforehand about the planned interaction or facts of the case will help things go more smoothly.
Also, be clear with your interpreter that this is a legal matter and you need a “verbatim” interpretation. This does not mean that the interpretation is literal or stilted, but that every “um” or vague utterance in the foreign language is converted into an “um” or similarly vague statement in English. Explain that you do not want the interpreter to paraphrase, add commentary, or clarify anything directly with the client. If there is any confusion, the attorney will ask clarifying questions to uncover the needed information.
During the session
Keep the interpreter in a separate location from the foreign language speaker until the session begins. If they are together beforehand, it is natural that they may start to chat. It is not uncommon for the foreign language speaker to ask the interpreter for advice or speak about important details that you wouldn’t want to miss.
Once the session has begun, speak directly to the non-English speaker, not the interpreter. Pause every few sentences to let the interpreter work. Avoid slang and colloquial expressions; they usually don’t have literal equivalents in the foreign language and you are making the interpreter’s job much, much harder. And if the session is going to last more than an hour or two, it would be best to have a team of two interpreters so they can switch back and forth to prevent fatigue. Interpreting is much more difficult than speaking, and accuracy decreases significantly when the interpreters are fatigued.
Learn more every time
The first time you use an interpreter, it can feel somewhat strange. However, once you’ve done it a few times, it will feel more natural. And most importantly, once you are proficient in using interpreters for your work, you will be able to communicate with anyone on the planet. That might come in handy.