Speak Easy: Working with Interpreters

Daily Journal
By: Keith Rohman

Before it came to Disneyland, the “It’s a Small World” ride was a featured exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. I was 7 years old when I first took the ride, and the world seemed anything but small to me as my family toured the fair that year. None of us could have imagined how the world would change over the next 40 years. With the Internet, low-priced airfares, Skype, NAFTA, CAFTA and the outsourcing of jobs to the Third World, we now live and work in a truly global market place.

This new “small world” impacts legal work more and more each day. Whether it is a criminal case with a Mexican defendant, a wage and hour case with sweatshop workers from Thailand or a major piece of contract litigation involving international partners, our legal world now extends beyond our county, our state or our national borders.

Increasingly, witnesses, clients and defendants come into our practices speaking languages other than English. And that is a problem because in the law, the precise meaning of even a single word can influence the outcome of a multimillion-dollar civil suit, or mean the difference between freedom and a lengthy prison term in a criminal case.

To represent our clients successfully, we sometimes need to know exactly what people are saying, even when they don’t speak our language. This requirement forces lawyers and investigators into league with a completely different group of professionals: interpreters and translators. This group, with its own practices and protocols, may or may not understand our needs. In fact, when using an interpreter, lawyers yield control over a vital aspect of their case, often to someone they may have met only five minutes before a critical witness interview.

Translation is not a science – ask anyone with even a passing knowledge of a foreign language who has watched the English subtitles of a film in that language, and scratched his or her head at the inaccurate and sometimes entertaining mis-translations. Similarly, all of us know some words in a foreign language that don’t quite translate into English because they stand in for a cultural concept that gets lost in translation. In fact, every act of translation involves the interpreter making one subjective judgment call after another.

In spite of these challenges, lawyers and investigators can take steps to ensure that the translation process works as effectively as possible.


Lawyers seem to hire interpreters the way they hail cabs in New York City: They get in the first taxi that comes by. But hiring the right interpreter is the critical first step in determining the quality and quantity of the information you obtain. Here are some factors to consider:

Personality: Do you feel comfortable talking to this person? If not, your witness will likely have the same problem.

Language skills: Where did they learn the language, and where have they practiced it? Spanish spoken in Madrid is very different from Spanish spoken in a rural Mexican village. Think about the differences between the English spoken by the British, Americans or the Scots; there are at least as many different versions of Spanish. Ask your interpreter how much experience he or she has in the local dialect of the area you will be working in.

English proficiency: You can evaluate this from your own conversations with the person.

Cultural issues: Speaking the same language does not guarantee understanding. While in Jordan interviewing Iraqis with Palestinian interpreters, I had Sunni Iraqis tell me they were uncomfortable with the translators who came from a Shiite background. While this may be a dramatic example, huge cultural differences also exist between many of the national groups in South and Central America. Even within national groups, there can be differences and conflicts. In the aftermath of the Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s, many Salvadorans from both sides of the conflict settled in Los Angeles; having them together in the same room was often a problem. There are also significant differences of class and education between rural and urban Mexicans.

Case issues: In many criminal cases and some controversial civil cases, vet your translator for any attitudes that could make working on your case difficult. A translator married to a police detective may not be comfortable working for a notorious criminal defendant, for example. I recently worked on a criminal case involving a high-ranking member of a Mexican drug cartel. Not every Spanish-speaking translator would be comfortable on that case.

Pre-Interview Conferences

Once the hiring decision has been made, hold a 10- to 15-minute pre-interview meeting with the translator. A number of issues need to be resolved.

Simultaneous vs. consecutive translation: Simultaneous translation involves the translator starting to translate your words while you are still speaking, as opposed to consecutive translation, where the translator waits for you to finish before starting the translation. You will want to be on the same page with your translator about this before you start.

Case-related terms: You want to review any technical or legal terms that may come up during the interview. A short general briefing on who they will be speaking with, and what the interview will be about, is also useful.

Setting up the appointment: If the translator will be calling the witness to set up the appointment, you want him or her to be well-briefed on what to say to the witness and what questions may be asked.

Cultural briefing: If your interpreter knows something about the area you will be working in, ask him or her for advice on what cultural issues or barriers may come up with people from that area. A good interpreter can provide valuable insight into local mores and customs. On a recent case in Mexico, my interpreter recommended addressing an elderly female witness as “Doña,” a term of respect that helped smooth the waters. In Korea, my interpreter educated me on the proper manner of passing a food plate at the table (always with two hands), and when to make a little bow when meeting someone.
During the Interview 

It is showtime, and there are a number of steps to take to ensure you are successful as the interview unfolds.

Learn a little: Even if it is just “hello,” “goodbye” and “thank you very much,” those small bits of whatever language is needed are affirming to the person being interviewed. Even making mistakes in their language puts you more on the same level with the witness. Apologize for not speaking their language. Most Americans don’t even have a passport, while much of the educated world speaks at least two languages. I have lived in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, and I still speak very little Spanish.

Cultural literacy: You may not speak the language, but you can learn a little about the culture you will be working in. What are the right forms of address? What are the local manners and expectations? What is the local history? While it is time-consuming, consider reading a history of the area in which you will be working, as well as a novel written by one of the national authors. Becoming familiar with the region has been useful to me in a surprising number of ways.

Keep your sentences short: This is perhaps the most important single piece of advice. The long, compound sentences and questions that many lawyers rely on can be death to an accurate translation. Once you utter the second subordinate clause, you can be pretty sure that something will get lost before you get your answer.

Speak directly to the witness: Don’t address the interpreter; address the witness as if you are speaking to him or her, which you are. Also, avoid the tendency to start talking in the third person, as in, “Ask Jose if he remembers what he was doing on March 23.” The interpreter then translates the answer as in, “He doesn’t remember where he was.” This process loses much of the emotional connection you want to make with the witness, and, as importantly, results in inaccurate translations.

Make sure you are getting full answers: When a witness gives a three-minute response to your question, and the interpreter gives you a 20-second response, you may not be getting the full story.

Post-Interview Meeting

Use the interpreter as another source of information. Inevitably, issues came to light that did not get communicated in the translation. Ask the interpreter about the emotional responses of the witness, about any questions the witness had and for any local or cultural context the translator has. Ask for the interpreter’s impressions of the person who was interviewed.

Significant barriers to communication exist across language and culture. However, lawyers and investigators can become skilled at making connections across these barriers. In the short run, the up side will be a better understanding of the facts that influence our cases, and, in any event, these skills will be essential in the legal world of the 21st century. The reason? As those annoying, singing child-robots in the Disneyland ride tell us again and again, “It’s a small world after all.”


Keith Rohman is the president of Public Interest Investigations in Los Angeles.. With over 20 years of experience conducting investigations in civil and criminal cases, Rohman has worked with translators in the United States, Mexico, Jordan, Turkey, South Korea, South Africa and Germany.