In order to help facilitate accurate records of trials, depositions, and court transcripts, all those involved—witnesses, lawyers, court reporters, etc.—must clearly understand what is being spoken. Unfortunately, it took the U.S. court system until 1978 to establish qualifications of and rules for appointing interpreters with the implementation of the Court Interpreters Act. Interpreters and translators are responsible for clarifying statements made by witnesses whose primary language differs from the primary language spoken in court—whether it be a foreign language or sign language.
Appointed court interpreters must be highly skilled in both the language needed as well as court proceedings. However, when the interpreter misinterprets the proceeding process or deviates from pure translation, it’s the responsibility of the court reporter to do whatever is necessary to maintain the accuracy of the transcript—even if this requires interrupting the proceedings or altering the flow of the transcript itself.
Times to Interrupt or Adjust the Transcript
For the sake of accuracy, a court reporter must be able to differentiate between who is speaking and what is being said on some else’s behalf. Obviously, this job becomes a significantly harder when a third-party interpreter is speaking for a witness. However, since perfection is the goal, it is up to the court reporter to step in, step up, and step outside her comfort zone when issues arise that may affect a transcript’s clarity. Some instances that may provoke such an interruption include the following:
- When an interpreter uses the wrong pronoun. Although interpreters are translating on behalf of a witness, it is easy for them fall into speaking in third person—”He says he understands”… rather than “I understand”). Unfortunately, this forces the court reporter to set up a dialogue within the transcript in order to clarify who is saying what. Therefore, when this situation occurs, the court reporter should ask to go off the record in order to explain to counsel or the interpreter that for a clean record, everyone should speak in first person, as if the interpreter weren’t even there.
- When a translator is needed. If there isn’t an interpreter or if the interpreter provided is incomprehensible, the court reporter must interrupt to explain that the proceedings aren’t being recorded due to a lack of understanding. If an interpreter cannot be provided, the court reporter can offer to call another reporter who may be better equipped to understand what is being said.
- When the attorney doesn’t wait for translation. If the questioning attorney understands the foreign language and continues to ask questions without allowing the interpreter to translate the answers, the court reporter needs to interrupt to clarify what was said.
Additionally, some circumstances where the transcript may need to be adjusted due to a translation difficulty include the following:
- Adjustments for clarifications. When an interpreter asks for clarification or additional information such as a spelling, the court reporter must note the interruption in the transcript by way of a colloquy—”Interpreter: (asked for clarification on spelling) Can you please spell that?”
- Adjustments for multiple language use. When a witness uses both English and a foreign language, the court reporter must note which language is being used throughout the questioning—”(All answers are translated through the interpreter, unless otherwise noted)” or when a single answer is spoken in English, “Witness: Yes (spoken in English)”
- Adjustments for witness/interpreter discussions. When there is a translation difficulty between the witness and interpreter, or if the witness and interpreter are speaking without interpretation, the court reporter is to report only what is said in English. Since the conversation isn’t apart of the questioning, if the attorney wants clarification, it is up to him to ask what was said in order to have it entered into the record.
As a court reporter or attorney, we’d like to hear your thoughts on court interpreters and how they affect the clarity and accuracy of court transcripts. Do you have any interpreter pet peeves? Should there be an easier way to transcribe testimonies of foreign speakers?