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  • Writer's pictureBarry Seidel

Tower of Babble - The Joy of Depositions with Interpreters

I've asked the questions at many depositions. I approach the task with purpose, trying to obtain information, clarify facts, and find out what happened and what did not happen. Maybe even get some admissions to hurt their case and help ours. When it goes well it’s kind of fun.

However, taking a deposition through an interpreter isn’t much fun, though sometimes funny things happen.

I’ve asked questions through interpreters in Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, Greek, Polish, Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, Fukanese, Taiwanese), Japanese, Portugese, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Arabic, Hebrew, Creole, Tagalog (a Filipino dialect), and ASL (American Sign Language). I never had German, either because Germans all speak English or they don't have too many car accidents. I never took a deposition with a Yiddish interpreter, but I have seen court testimony with Yiddish interpreters (in Brooklyn, of course.)

Depositions with interpreters share common problems.

Here are a few:

Some questions simply do not interpret well. In car accident cases, many lawyers ask this question "Did there come a time when the vehicle you were driving came into contact with another vehicle". Even in English it's not a great question, it's compound and it can be confusing. Lawyers like it because it establishes certain things.....there WAS an accident, with CONTACT, the witness was THERE, and there was another vehicle involved.

I asked five different Spanish interpreters to translate this question, so I could listen to it with my high school Spanish brain. They interpreted the question five different ways.

One thing about this question IS consistent. When you ask a Spanish speaking witness, through an interpreter, "Did there come a time when the vehicle you were driving came into contact with another vehicle", the answer is always the same.....


So I have the interpreter ask the question again, and the witness says "The accident happened at 7 o'clock." or "You mean was I in an accident?" or "QUE??????"

Sometimes witnesses want an interpreter, even though they speak English pretty well. If they understand your question they answer in English. If they don't understand the question, or if they don't like the question, they wait for the interpreter. I don't let witnesses do this. It's all or nothing. Either no interpreter, or I want the interpreter to do a literal translation of every question and answer.

A related problem is when you ask a detailed question, the interpreter interprets it, the witness gives a long response, and the interpreter translates the response as "Yes". Sitting there, you know the interpreter and the witness have had a dialogue about the question, and the interpreter has taken it upon himself to "paraphrase" an answer.

If this happens, I state on the record what has just occurred, then ask the reporter to read back my question and ask the interpreter to do a literal interpretation of the question and answer. If they don't do it, I advise opposing counsel that if this is not corrected I am busting the deposition. I have done that a few times, and I know other attorneys who have too. Usually though, the threat of busting gets this behavior to stop.

Sometimes the interpreter is just not great at the particular language or dialect. They may have the credentials for both Mandarin and Cantonese, but they are native to Mandarin and have learned Cantonese. What do you do when they just don't know the word? You see them struggling and they don't know how to say "windshield wiper" in Cantonese. So they try some combination of words like "car glass cleaner" and the witness says the Cantonese equivalent of "Que?", so the interpreter tries the Mandarin word for windshield wiper, and now the witness is mad at the interpreter and says nothing.

Finally, the interpreter translates your question in Cantonese, but when he comes to "windshield wiper" he says "windshield wiper", and the witness says "Ohhhh, windshield wiper"....and answers the question.

I’ve also learned that in Spanish for "curb" there are several ways to say “curb”, depending on the country of origin. Try asking questions about a trip and fall on a broken curb, and having the Columbian witness not understand what the Puerto Rican interpreter is asking. And upon that issue being clarified, hear them start arguing about it.

Sometimes, when questioning an English speaking witness, you want to call in an interpreter who speaks "Stupidese", but that is a topic for another day.

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