Four Tips to Working with an Interpreter in Legal Depositions

Whether you are an attorney or a court reporter needing to hire an interpreter for your deposition, you may want to know what would help your deposition run smoothly and make sure the record is clear.

Before delving into the depo format itself, it’s important to hire interpreters who have the training, the certification and licenses required by the state where the deposition will take place. Whether this is in person or by Zoom, WebEx, Google Meet, or whatever platform will be used for the deposition. To find out more about how to make sure you get the right interpreter, stay tuned, I’ll soon be posting about this.

What is the difference between an interpreter and a translator? There is a bit of confusion on this topic for people outside of the profession. But, that is because interpreting and translating are very similar. Interpreting is taking an oral message and rendering that into the target language. Translation is taking a written message and transferring that into the target language. Most of the work done in depositions is actually interpreting. So, you will need an interpreter and not a translator for your deposition.

There are many attorneys and court reporters who are very seasoned in working with interpreters during depositions. And they already have the following suggestions down. If you are one of them, I just want to tell you that it’s a pleasure to work in an environment where everyone is on the same page. If you are new to working with interpreters, I hope this post helps.

1. The Court reporter gives a summary before going on the record

At the start of the deposition, some court reporters indicate to all parties what the order of the deposition will be. They may say something to the effect of: “I will read my statement, then I will get the agreement from the attorneys, then I’ll swear in the interpreter, then I’ll swear in the witness.” Or whatever order they have. I recently saw this in one of my depositions and loved the practice!

This sets the stage beautifully and lets everyone know what is going on. It keeps the witness from being confused. I’ve had times where the witness raises their hand when they see the interpreter’s hand come up for the interpreter’s oath. This practice avoids such confusion.

2. The Interpreter explains their role

When given the opportunity, with the permission of the attorneys, I tell the person for whom I am interpreting something like this: “My name is Yadira and I will be the interpreter during this deposition. I will repeat the exact meaning of what people ask you and what you reply without adding, omitting or explaining. For example if an attorney asks you: “Do you know who I am and whom I represent?” I will repeat: “Do you know who I am and whom I represent?” That doesn’t mean that I’m asking the question. I’m just repeating exactly what they said. So, please answer directly to the attorney who is asking.”

3. All parties talk directly to each other as if the interpreter wasn’t there

It helps to know that everything the interpreter says will be in the third person. Even before going on the record. One thing that parties at a deposition sometimes do is talk directly to the interpreter. For example: “Can you ask her to …….?” I believe this is to show kindness and acknowledge the interpreter. Something that works out better is: “Ms. Witness could you please…..?” And the interpreter would then render this exactly as it was stated. We are trained to do this. It doesn’t mean you are being rude if you don’t speak directly to us. It actually makes it easier for us. But, I get it, it’s hard to remember.

4. The deposing attorney lays out the expectations to the witness

  • “Even if you may understand some English, please wait for the interpretation before answering.”

This helps avoid overlapping voices which can burden the court reporter, not only because it’s hard to hear, but it could also interfere with the order of the questions and answers. Waiting for the interpretation could also help when the actual meaning of the question in English was different from what the witness assumed.

  • “Please answer in your language.”

There are people who are eager to learn and do everything they can in English. This is very commendable in other settings. During legal proceedings it may be a hinderance. It’s better to communicate through the interpreter to keep a rhythm. I’ve had a few times where the witness answers in English and I’ve interpreted that into Spanish. I believe this happened because I focus more on transferring the message to the other language than keeping track of who is supposed to be speaking which language. As interpreters, we are listening while taking notes, then translating those concepts in our minds before we render into the target language. Dealing with answers in English from the witness adds one more level of complexity unnecessarily.

  • “Make the appropriate pauses to allow for a full interpretation. If the interpreter needs you to pause they will signal with their hand.”

An experienced interpreter can interrupt a witness who speaks too long. However, interpreters try not to disrupt the flow of ideas. I’ve observed that when witnesses have been instructed to pause for interpretation, they become more aware of their speech. This awareness often leads witnesses to express themselves more concisely and reduces the need for interruptions by the interpreter. The expectation of a certified interpreter is to render full interpretation of the witness’ sworn testimony. This step aids in nothing being left out.

  • “If you don’t understand the question, ask for a repetition or rephrasing.”

I know this is regularly explained to all witnesses, regardless of language. But, it takes on a new meaning when there is a language barrier. I just want to emphasize how important this question is when working through an interpreter. Misunderstanding can come not just from the way the attorney phrased the question, but also from the way the interpreter chose to interpret it.

I believe that when we take these four steps during a deposition, the chances of it flowing better, finishing faster, and being easier greatly improve.

I love depositions! I interpret for depositions in person in the St. George, UT area. For other states, I work virtually. I’m Court Certified and/or Licensed in the states of Arkansas, California, Texas and Utah.