The PII Blog

How Do I Interpret That?

By Cathleen Watkins

Investigators know that words – and their nuanced meanings – matter. We rely on how people describe their experiences to learn what took place. Sometimes our job involves determining the exact wording and connotations of conversations that occurred months earlier.

But what happens when the investigator and the interviewee lack a common language? For example, when a witness is more comfortable being interviewed in Mandarin than in English, or when a deaf or hard-of-hearing complainant uses American Sign Language (ASL)?

In these situations, interpreters can decode for both the investigator and the interviewee. Selecting the right interpreter, however, requires some advance thought and planning.

Issues to consider
First, one can easily fall down an internet rabbit hole trying to clarify the terms “interpreter” and “translator.” At the risk of oversimplifying, interpreters provide a bridge between people who are speaking, while translators work with written text. As part of your investigative plan, consider whether you will need an interpreter for interviews or someone who can also translate text messages, emails, or other documents.

Another factor is the type of case. Will the investigation delve into graphic sexual terms? Profanity? Violent imagery? The interpreter will need to be comfortable with both the vocabulary and the subject matter. If the case involves allegations of sexual misconduct, consider whether the interviewee would be more comfortable with a female or male interpreter.

While you want to hire interpreters who have competency with the language, this can be difficult to assess if you can’t chat with them in the desired language. One way to address this is to use court-certified interpreters; however, this can be expensive. Another approach is to contact translation agencies or language schools, who have access to a wide pool of interpreters and polyglots. In many situations, an interpreter who is not court certified will still have sufficient fluency for your needs.

Similarly, indigenous languages and dialects are prevalent in many parts of the world, so you want to make sure the interpreter actually speaks the language you need. For example, while English and Filipino are the official languages of the Philippines, dozens of languages and dialects are spoken there. In Guatemala, 22 Mayan and other languages are spoken.

Other considerations are regional conflicts or religious or cultural differences. Sometimes, deep-seated grievances go back generations; if they exist between the interviewee and the interpreter, they could derail the interview. Doing some research on the interviewee’s home country can help you ask relevant questions about these topics in the planning stages and avoid potential minefields. For instance, while working in the Middle East, a PII investigator needed an Arabic interpreter but also needed to understand whether an interpreter’s background as a Shia or a Sunni would affect the investigation.

Finally, what type of interpretation do you need: simultaneous or consecutive? Simultaneous interpreting takes place in real time, meaning the interpreter will start to speak or sign while you are talking. This contrasts with consecutive translation, in which the interpreter will wait for a complete sentence or other pause in the dialogue before repeating what was said.

To address issues in advance, consider a pre-meeting with the interpreter. In that meeting, you can discuss some of the dynamics that might unfold with the witness and some of the terms that may come up. If practical, a pre-meeting between the interpreter and the witness can also be helpful. If an interpreter is needed for ASL, you might have the interpreter and the deaf person meet informally over videoconference to see if they understand each other. This is especially important if you anticipate multiple interviews.

Talking to interpreters about the process, both theirs and yours, will help you make sure that you have a shared understanding and avoid mistakes like one I made several years ago: I hired an interpreter for a Spanish-language interview with a respondent who was accused of sexual harassment. The interpreter’s language skills were fine, but what I did not anticipate was that she did not know about keeping a neutral demeanor. When the respondent gave a clearly dishonest answer, it was evident from the interpreter’s body language that she knew this and was annoyed by it. I immediately called for a quick break and talked to her about the need for us to be neutral during the investigation.

Another subject for your pre-meeting is whether the interpreter will take notes during the interview. If so, consider whether these notes should be part of your permanent file. Additionally, if you plan to record the interview, find out if the interpreter will agree to this.

Our growing ease with remote meetings has made access to interpreters from all over the world much easier. Using an interpreter can go a long way toward making a witness more comfortable, resulting in a better interview and a better investigation. A little advance planning can help ensure that you have the right interpreter for your case and that both you and the interpreter understand the demands of the interview.


Cathleen Watkins is a senior investigator at PII.

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