20 tips for lawyers working with interpreters

I’m sure lawyers taking depositions from deponents speaking other languages, especially when travel to foreign countries is required, are fully aware of the logistic costs involved, and wish to get the best results from interpreters working with them. This post was originally written for journalists working with interpreters, but I felt strongly that it applied so well to the legal context that it was worth sharing with you all.

Of course one or two of the items would generally not apply in a deposition context, such as giving the deponent the option to speak a language other than their own (tip n° 10), but the vast majority of the points mentioned would improve things dramatically in my experience!

Perhaps the key thing to take away is that by making the efforts below you are not ‘making the interpreter’s job easier’ but making your communication more effective, and, ultimately, getting a better result.

See what you think… 

The article was written by Rachele Kanigel, who is executive director of ieiMedia and an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University. She was a newspaper reporter for 15 years, and has freelanced for Health, TIME, U.S. News and World Report, CNN.com, Prevention and other print and online publications. Over to you Rachele!

20 tips for working with interpreters

Working as an international journalist often means interviewing people with whom you don’t share a common language. Even if you spend months or years studying a language, you may be better off using a trained interpreter, who can translate not just the words but the nuances of what your source is saying.

But working with an interpreter can be challenging. You must learn to slow down, read body language and form a connection with your source in ways that transcend words. Here are some tips for getting the most out of an interpreted interview.

Before the interview

1. Build rapport with your interpreter. Get to know your interpreter as well as you can in the time you have. Try to find out the person’s background and perspective and reveal some of yourself. You will be partners in the interviewing process and need to have the interpreter on your side.

2. Discuss the purpose of the interview. Make it clear what you are looking for from this interview.

3. Make sure you speak the same language. Review any technical, slang or obscure words you are likely to use. It might be useful to have a bilingual dictionary or reference text, such as a medical dictionary, with you. Wordstodeeds: I’d add acronyms here!


4. Ask for direct translation. Request that the interpreter translate as literally and completely as possible and avoid paraphrasing.

5. Remind the interpreter to speak in the first person when interpreting. The interpreter should say, “I have worked in this factory for 12 years,” not “He has worked in this factory for 12 years,” when interpreting the source’s statement.

6. Prepare the interpreter thoroughly. Warn the interpreter if you expect to ask any sensitive questions, such as something very personal or contentious. That way, you can plan your strategy for posing tough questions together.

7. Review your list of interview questions together. You may not be able to anticipate every single question you’re going to ask but do go over the basics. Try not to give your interpreter any big surprises.

8. Be aware of cultural differences. Ask the interpreter if there are any cultural issues that might be barriers to communication. Be aware that things like age, gender, authority and class or regional differences could get in the way of the interview.

During the interview

9. Start the interview with introductions. Explain the role of the interpreter to the source and ask if there’s anything the source doesn’t understand about the process.

10. Find out how much English the source understands and can speak. Ask the source directly “Do you speak English?” and see how the person is able to respond. If the source speaks some English explain that the interpreter is there to help facilitate the conversation.

11. Maintain eye contact with the person you are interviewing, not with the interpreter. Even if your source can’t understand what you’re saying, he or she may be able to read your body language, particularly smiles or welcoming gestures.

12. Speak clearly and slowly. You want to make sure your interpreter understands the question and your source may be able to understand the gist of what you’re saying, too.

13. Speak in short, simple sentences. Avoid long, complicated sentences where the meaning could literally get lost in translation.

14. Avoid slang and jargon. Don’t use words the interpreter may not be familiar with or may have difficulty translating.

15. Pause after each sentence or two to let the interpreter catch up. Don’t speed ahead of your interpreter.

16. Don’t speak at the same time that someone else is speaking. Let the interpreter and the source each have the floor.

17. If you think the interpreter has made a mistake, do not challenge him or her. Instead, rephrase the question.

18. Pause the interview if you’re not getting what you need. If the interpreter appears to be summarizing information or giving a much shorter version of what the source is saying, ask for a full translation.

After the interview

19. Review the interview with your interpreter immediately. Go over any responses that troubled or confused you. Ask your interpreter if there are any points that he or she feels still need clarification.

20. Give your interpreter feedback and thanks. If you plan to work with this interpreter again, discuss what went well and any problems you encountered. Interpreting is difficult, tiring work; show your appreciation.

11 thoughts on “20 tips for lawyers working with interpreters

  1. Pingback: PSIT: 20 tips for lawyers working with interpreters

  2. Good points about cultural references. Any professional interpreter will know to use the first person, and unfortunately, in many instances the lawyers will not give us the time of day for a pre-session interview. What do you think? They are the Lawyers. Sorry to say. I have tried to point out the cultural and legal system differences issue just to be shut down as an undesirable mosquito might have been squashed. Unpleasant. Then the depo unreavelled into a circus because the lawyer could not relate to the deponent’s cultural need to “defend” himself in his answers… I am lucky, though, that most of the lawyers I work with will understand when I say “I am here as part of your team, not as an outside complement. My dictionaries are on the table because they are the tools of my profession. Would you be able to discuss quantum physics in your native language? My dictionaries will ensure that I render what you said as accurately as possible.” We usually have NO problems.

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