At the best of times, clear communication between two people is a chancy thing. It's even more difficult when those two people speak different languages, and the subject matter is complex and technical. That's what makes careers in court interpreting such an intellectual challenge. Whether in the open court or in a deposition, the interpreter must accurately convey both the words and meaning of each speaker.
Depositions are opportunities for the parties to a case, and their lawyers, to sit down together and establish the basic facts of the case. It's legally the equivalent of testifying in court, but without the judge and jury present. Lawyers question both witnesses and principals in the case, seeking to understand each participant's perspective and to identify information that can be used advantageously in court. Depositions can be even more challenging for interpreters than normal court work, because the absence of a judge gives the lawyers opportunity to talk and interrupt more than they would in a trial.
The interpreter's role in a deposition begins with advance preparation. It's important to know the names of all the principals in advance, as well as any specialized legal terms or concepts that will be introduced during the deposition. It's also important to understand any cultural biases that might color the speaker's perceptions. You're required to interpret the speaker's words accurately, but your knowledge of their cultural context can help you choose the words and sentences that best convey the witnesses' meaning.
During the Deposition
During the deposition, your main role is to provide the non-English speaker with an accurate and complete interpretation of all questions and comments, and to report their words just as accurately to the English speakers in the room. If the lawyers are holding forth at length without pauses for interpretation, you might need to interrupt them periodically and establish a more interpreter-friendly rhythm. Always convey the speaker's words accurately and completely, without summarizing, paraphrasing or unnecessary commentary.
Throughout the deposition, your actions should be consistent with your code of conduct as an interpreter. These vary between states and organizations, though they're broadly similar. You should never interpret at a deposition if you have a personal interest in the case, or a personal relationship with any of the parties to the case. You must respect the confidentiality of the proceedings, never violating the clients' privacy by repeating what you've heard during the deposition. You should never accept a contract if you don't have the skills or knowledge to fulfill it adequately, and you must demonstrate professionalism and neutrality throughout the proceedings.
- Lost in Translation: Interpreter Tips -- Legal Witness Deposition
- Bench & Bar of Minnesota: The Person Behind the Face -- A Lawyer’s Guide to Cross-Cultural Depositions
- International Association of Conference Interpreters: Interpreting Depositions -- A Fact Sheet
- Translation Excellence: Interpreters Play Crucial Roles In Legal Depositions
- National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators: Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibilities
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.