You Don't Need an Interpreter!

Those who interpret in community and court settings will probably be quite familiar with this interesting species: the person who does not really need an interpreter, but who requests one (and is certainly mostly entitled to one) anyway. We've never personally seen this happen in conference interpreting settings (or at least we don't find out, but we have heard of conference attendees who get a headset to listen to the interpreting just to see if it's good). Those who DNRNAIs (=do not really need an interpreter) can present a wide variety of potential challenges, and it also makes for an interesting interpreting assignment. Here's our take on how and why this happens and how to deal with it.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the interpreter is there to interpret and has not been retained to give an expert opinion of the person's ability (or lack thereof) to speak the language. Many times, attorneys, especially during highly contentions civil depositions, will try to pull the interpreter into the argument, asking him or her to "tell us if the deponent (the person who has requested an interpreter) speaks _________." When we are in that situation, we politely say that we are not qualified to give an on-the-spot language ability assessment  nor has it been agreed upon which criteria or scale should be used. Our advice: don't give an opinion. While you may have some insight into the person's language ability, you are probably not qualified to give an expert opinion, so you should not. Stick to your role.
Who needs an interpreter?

Now that it's probably been established that the interpreter should stay (after much bickering between attorneys or other parties), the tough part starts. For example: it is probably quite true that the person in question (the DNRNAI person) understands the source language quite well. That means that the DNRNAI person doesn't really need an interpreter to understand the question, but does need one to answer, as he or she is simply not that strong in the second language -- understanding is always easier than speaking. There are a variety of reasons for requesting an interpreter when you don't truly need one (again, there's a lot of debate as to who needs an interpreter):

  • For tactical advantages in court. We've seen this a lot during divorce and custody proceedings. Sometimes things are so contentious that the parties don't want to leave anything to chance, even though they can communicate in English with their attorneys just fine. However, once proceedings start, the parties (or party) do want an interpreter, many times in the hopes that court interpreters will simplify or explain the proceedings to them, which of course we cannot.
  • As a security blanket. Some parties just want an interpreter present in case they don't understand something and request the interpreter to be on stand-by. Usually the other party loudly protests this and demands that the interpreter either interpret everything or nothing. Of course everyone knows things will take a lot longer with an interpreter, which is why occasionally attorneys will kindly suggest sending the interpreter home. Again, as the interpreter, we don't chime in. We sit there, looking pretty (if we can), smile, and let the parties sort it out. 
  • Because they can. Depending on the state, the jurisdiction and the type of case, people have a well-established right to an interpreter (Civil Rights Act of 1964, etc.), so many times people just want their interpreter, period. Sometimes, this can get a bit odd. Judy has interpreted for well-known business owners who've lived and worked in the United States for years, yet want an interpreter for their native language (Spanish), which is no longer their dominant language. The problem: when you interpret correctly into their native language, they oftentimes don't understand it, because English is really their dominant language. Still, they insist on answering in half-English, half-Spanish. We just keep calm and carry on.
Now, during the actual proceedings, DNRNAI persons will routinely NOT wait for the question to be interpreted, since they understand it just fine in English. They will start answering the question in their foreign language immediately, even while the interpreter is still rendering the (unnecessary on all fronts) interpretation. Usually, their counsel will instruct them to let the interpreter finish, but that rarely works (in our experience). One must be prepared for hours of constantly being interrupted. This also really confuses the court reporter, and it's one of the big problems of interpreting for someone who doesn't need an interpreter. In addition, their attorney will usually instruct them to answer exclusively in their native language and let the interpreter do the job. The problem with that is that they are no longer fully fluent in their native language and thus speak Spanglish, Denglish, etc., which is of course also challenging  on all fronts, especially since they use many terms incorrectly.

As you can see, interpreting for people who don't really need an interpreter (DNRNAI persons) is full of potential landmines, but somehow, we manage to enable communication without too many problems. What's your experience? We'd love to hear about it. 


Tim Windhof on February 14, 2013 at 10:00 AM said...

Interesting insights! It can also go the other way:

Sometimes you need an interpreter, but it might appear that the interpreter is doing "a little more" than just interpreting. When I was still practicing law in Germany, we once had to reject an interpreter for bias/conflict of interest (Befangenheitantrag).

Anonymous said...

I’m just going to throw into this deadly cocktail, attorneys that know enough of the target language to be dangerous. To be fair, many moons ago, when I was a novice interpreter, an attorney actually saved me in a deposition (I could not figure out what “güiriro” meant and when I asked the deponent for clarification, the attorney said “It’s ok, I got it: weed eater.” Phew!) But this is not the norm. Back to the subject of your post, have you experienced a situation where the allegedly LEP person corrects your rendition or starts using Spanglish that sounds familiar to the English speaker and then they all look at the interpreter as though s/he has grown a third eye for using a different term? That is also fun.
Great post, I really enjoyed it and brought back memories!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on February 14, 2013 at 12:47 PM said...

@Tim: Thanks for commenting. Very interesting point indeed. That's why it's essential to use certified and sworn court interpreters for all proceedings. We don't add or omit anything. There sure is a lot of room for error when you work with people who have not been properly trained and who are unfamiliar with the profession's code of ethics.

@dguanipa: Thanks for sharing this great story! Love the example you give -- and yes, that happens quite a lot, too. The interpreter says "delito grave" instead of the incorrect "felonía" annd everyone looks stunned. Ah, good times. And Spanglish is our enemy for sure. Your point about attorneys who know enough to be dangerous is spot on. If we had a dime for every time an attorney tells us they speak the language before proceedings start (as a warning? to put us on notice?) we'd be rich.

Elisabet Tiselius on February 18, 2013 at 6:19 AM said...

Thank you for a great post. I have the same situation all the time for Swedish/English. Your advice is very good. My most embarrassing experience was interpreting a very technical hearing where the defendant was well aquainted with all the terms in English, while I had to struggle and sometimes double check. The worst was that I was never wrong, but the court saw my struggle and therefore had less confidence in my interpretation, especially while the defendant was sniggering all the time

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