Mistake of the Week

The solution is on the left side.
True to our tradition to occasionally poking fun at ourselves with the goal of having others learn from our mistakes, here's Judy's mistake of the week during a legal interpreting assignment.

All Judy knew was that she was to interpret at a deposition. She had the case name, the time, the plaintiff's name and the deponent's name. It's very common to get incomplete information about the cases for which you are to interpret; even if you ask. It's just something court interpreters work to live with, but we all know that it's always ideal to have as much context and background information as possible. Having had it would have solved the following situation that we are now delighted to present. In fact, it could have been prevented with a single photograph that everyone but Judy had previously seen.

The attorney is deposing a maintenance worker. That is all Judy knows about the deponent at this point.

Defense attorney: So why did you trim this tree?
Judy (interpreting): ¿Por qué recortó usted este árbol?
Deponent: Bueno, porque las ramas estaban llegando hasta la carpeta (note: last word was hard to understand).
Judy (interpreting): Well, because the branches were reaching all the way to the carpet.

Puzzled looks all around, including from Judy.

Here's an explanation: the Spanish word for carpet is not carpeta. It's incorrectly used by Spanish speakers in the U.S. all the time. The correct word for carpet in Spanish is alfombra. Carpeta is also a Spanish-language word, but it means folder, as in a manila folder that you would have on your desk. We've gotten very used to Spanglish terms, and when we hear carpeta we immediately interpret "carpet." Now, Judy was very aware that it didn't really make sense in this context to talk about carpet since the issue in question as a tree, which would most likely be outside. That said, she didn't have any other context and interpreted what she heard. Here's what followed.

Plainttiff's attorney: At this point I'd like to stipulate that my client said "cart path." Would our interpreter agree?
Judy: It is the interpreter's opinion that the deponent could have used the English-language term "cart path," but pronounced it in such a way to render it almost unintelligible.
Defense attorney: For the record, I did not hear anything resembling an English word in the deponent's answer.
Judy: Would counsel like the interpreter to clarify that the deponent meant to say "cart path"?
Both attorneys: Yes, please go ahead.

A few minutes after this incident, the defense attorney introduced an exhibit: a photograph that clearly showed an image of a golf course, a tree, a cart path, and a maintenance cart belonging to the worker. An image speaks a thousand words, and context sure is king. After the session ended, all parties agreed that this was a new one. But yes, if you pronounce "cart path" a certain way, it could sound like carpeta. Mystery solved.

We don't really know how Judy would have been able to do any better with this one under the circumstances, but it's still a mistake that's worth pointing out. Actually, mispronounced English-language words by Spanish speakers and Spanglish are very interesting topics that we don't discuss much in our industry, and we plan on writing more about them in the future.

What do you think, dear colleagues? How would you have reacted? Having asked for repetition would have resulted in the deponent repeating the word with, most likely, the same pronunciation, so the options here were limited. 


champacs on March 7, 2016 at 8:59 PM said...

"mispronounced English-language words by [foreign language] speakers": I agree this can be a big problem, especially when you're not expecting it. I had the case last week where a French speaker said a word that sounded something like "woodwart". As I was doing chuchotage interpreting I couldn't stop the speaker to ask what he meant, but when he paused I had a lightbulb moment and was able to enlighten my client: the speaker had actually said 'Woolworths'!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 8, 2016 at 1:05 PM said...

@Champacs: Many thanks for your comment! What a fantastic example you have given us here; thanks for sharing! Ah, those proper nouns sure can be pesky, can't they?

TranslatorPhillips on April 3, 2016 at 12:05 PM said...

My interpreting days (consec with a little simul) are back in the 1970s but I managed interpreter outsourcing for a Government department from 2001 to 2009. One of my cardinal rules was: "The success of a bi/multi-lingual meeting hinges on how well the interpreters are briefed." If someone had shown you the photo of the cart path before the hearing, Jenny, you would have had no difficulty.
Here's one of my own mistakes. I was interpreting FR-EN on a visit of US and UK Army officers to French Army stockpiles in Berlin (for use in the event of a Soviet blockade similar to the one that led to the Berlin Airlift). Stacked high on shelves were cans marked 'Singe'. The French officer replied to my puzzled query: 'Oui Monsieur, c'est vraiment du singe' So there are probably some retired officers around who believe the French Army eats monkey meat. It was some time later that I discovered the term is also French military jargon for corned beef!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 4, 2016 at 9:44 PM said...

@TranslatorPhillips: Thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful comment. We really appreciate it, and wow, what a great anecdote you share here. We learned something for sure! And yes, we agree that the most international meetings' success very much depend on interpreters and on their performance. Excellent point about the cart path and a picture. If I'd seen a picture beforehand, things would have been so much easier indeed. Thanks for reading and for commenting.

Sounds like you've had a lot of great experience in our industry. Did you enjoy your most recent job? Tell us more about your everyday experiences if you want...perhaps there's a future blog post there?

Anonymous said...

Judy, I love your blog here. In my opinion, you handled this situation as well as can be expected given the circumstances of your not being shown a valuable piece of information. Not sure I could have handled it any better or what I would have done. I probably would have tried to wing it as best I could and went with my best momentary instincts, as you did. The alternative would be to interrupt proceedings to request a clarification of the unclear term used. I might have said, "Your honor, the interpreter wishes to ask the deponent for clarification of a word he just used with which the interpreter is unfamiliar." I don't know if that would have been the best way to handle it; I might have done that. But I might have chosen to wing it as you did. It's so interesting the variety of interpreting problems that can happen in court. It is truly a challenge to always be 'thinking on one's feet' and trying to solve problems in an instant. Such a challenging but rewarding profession we interpreters have chosen! Again, I really like your blog. And I believe I read on another site that you passed the FCICE in 2015! Congratulations! I am still trying to get state-certified ;) Right now, I am still provisional. I passed all three sections of the oral exam now, but long story short, I still have to pass one more section a second time (because of timing out restrictions). Wish me luck! I just have to take the simultaneous exam in November. I hope I can finally achieve certification. This process has dragged on so long now... ;)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 31, 2016 at 9:11 AM said...

M.C.: Thank you so much for your lovely comment --we are delighted to hear that you love our blog. Yes, I am federally certified now; pretty exciting! Best of luck on your state exam. Be sure to use Speechpool (wwww.speechpool.net) to practice simul. Which state exam are you taking? Yep, I think in hindsight, I could have stopped proceedings and asked for clarification, but I wasn't really aware that the term didn't make any sense until it came out of my mouth. :) It all happened very quickly, as it always does. For the record, there's no judge during depositions, but I could have still stated on the record: "Counsel, allow the interpreter to clarify..." The problem with these mispronounced English-language words oftentimes is that the deponent isn't able to clarify anything; they frequently just repeat the word, which doesn't do any good. But it's worth a try, and it's the best way to proceed. Hindsight is 20/20 for sure! We appreciate your insightful comments; keep them coming. And don't give up on the exam, but be sure to improve your skills on an everyday basis.

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