Seven strategies for court linguists

Legal translation reaches a crescendo of both urgency and importance when the translators and interpreters are called in to assist in a court case. Linguists often find that they are called in just after a motion for document discovery yields a roomful of handwritten lab notes or an e-mail archive in languages the attorneys cannot read. It is on this evidence that the trial will hinge; this is what the depositions will center on, mediated by a skilled interpreter.

Choosing the right linguistic talent for such occasions is made challenging by the ad hoc nature of such teams, as attorneys specialize in matters of law and strategy rather than in any particular linguistic group. Project managers who are called upon to match a linguist with the legal team have even more than the usual challenge. Here are seven strategies for making a good fit between linguist and lawyer, and keeping linguistic matters transparent.

First, start by looking in all the right places. When seeking a good match for your team, start by finding several candidates. Listings in resources such as the American Translators Association (ATA) database and the MultiLingual Resource Directory are a good start, but when it comes to court work, consider the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). A register of federally certified linguists is available only to court personnel, but a call to the clerk’s office can often yield a few recommendations. See sidebar for additional resources.

Second, ask the hard questions. Having lined up a few linguists, take the time to interview them — if possible, in person, and otherwise by phone.

You don’t want to have your interpreters do their first gig at your deposition. Ask about experience in prior assignments, including all aspects likely to come up in the case at hand. Can they handle handwritten material? Even scrawls in cursive writing? How about recordings, wiretaps and video evidence? How firm is the translator’s command of the subject matter?

A good question to ask is whether the linguist has a favorite co-interpreter or co-translator for such cases. This is useful both to verify experience and because it pinpoints the question of whether your linguist is a team player. Court work of the type discussed here requires a combination of skills and professional capacities: translation (written), interpreting (spoken) and crossovers of various kinds. It is useful to ascertain experience in each of these.

Third, verify qualifications and references. Of course we all call references. Right? Alas, this is not always done. A few conversations with satisfied past clients will help with that “ascertain experience” step above.

Professional qualifications are easy to check on. The Administration of the Courts in whichever state issued the court interpreting certificate will confirm professional standing if requested. If certification was issued via the ATA (in many languages) or NAJIT (Spanish only), these organizations will confirm the linguist’s standing.

Fourth, provide background. Before your linguists get to do the very first translation, make sure they have as clear a sense as you legally can divulge about the specific background for the case. This is best done before making the final selection for your team, and is more than mere jargon nuance. The language of computer science, for example, is very different from that of application design. A case handling algorithms will use different vocabulary and mindset than one handling design and marketing. Professional linguists will respond to this material by reading up about the specific matters at hand. Sometimes they’ll make a glossary of terms and sometimes they’ll line up resources to provide usage examples. Maximize the opportunity for getting things right by providing maximum prep time.

Fifth, adopt The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right, a book written by surgeon Atul Gawande about the recent revolution in the safety of surgical practices. He reports and expounds on the theory of skilled people making costly mistakes in high stakes situations. More training does not catch those mistakes, he explains. However, putting a checklist in place can indeed catch them and dramatically reduce costly mistakes.

When put into practice, Gawande was surprised to discover that in surgery, checklists helped surgical teams reduce post-operative mortality by double-digit figures at every hospital where they were introduced. Likewise, in legal translation, checklists enforce the review process into a situation where urgency might trump reviews, to the detriment of the final result.

As part of the process of selecting your translators, build a checklist of verification steps for each type of material. If your linguist tells you such devices aren’t necessary, remember Gawande’s report of a double-digit drop in surgical deaths and find another linguist.

A checklist that will match your team and situation is as unique as the team itself. Here are a couple of checklists covering two typical situations involving an interpreter and a translator:


Deposition via video conference

 Introduction and form of address completed (including court reporter)

 Translator interprets and is familiar with language and dialect

 Background documents have been received and read

 The goal of the deposition is clear to all team members

 A strategy for off-the-record con-

sultations is in place

 Maximizing interpreter efficiency (digestible linguistic chunks)

 Equipment review

 Any further open questions closed


Document reviews


 Translator is familiar with language, dialect and media (handwriting/microfiche/software/recordings)

 The types of desired information are clear to all team members

 General subject-matter domain is within the translator’s domain of com-


 Glossaries, similar documents and terminology experts are available

 Inquiry policies are clear (context that can be shared is: none/oblique/full references)

 Scope, schedule and time frame

 Any further open questions closed

The final step, making sure that any further questions are answered, is important and should be included in every pre-project checklist. It is always surprising to find out what things people want to know, but are bashful about asking outright.

Sixth, remove transparency. It is tempting to see the translator as transparent. Interpreters are particularly good at being invisible, channeling the information coming at them with no comment of their own. In many cases that is a good use of a linguist’s skills; in the setting of a legal case, a translator’s cross-cultural expertise can provide crucial insight. How can this insight be accessed?

Here, too, the medical profession lights the way. Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto discusses the steps taken by operating room teams before going into surgery. One of the steps involves giving everyone a voice, including all nurses, doctors and other members of the team. All are encouraged to state their names and talk about their expectations for the operation. This pre-operative step has the effect of giving each of the team members permission to speak up. Gawande marvels at the information that comes up in such conversations, information that would have been hidden when nurses “kept their place” and said nothing because the doctors were supposed to have all the answers.

Linguists are trained into invisibility, and the departure from it requires both permission and an environment that encourages good input from all team members. The payoff for welcoming such input can be the kind of information that determines outcomes.

Finally, put a feedback loop in place. The team is at work together — the linguists doing their thing among the lawyers and paralegals. Everyone has been introduced, the linguist’s feedback is requested and received, above and beyond the interpreting or document review. Will it work perfectly? Not if there are humans involved.

The difference between an effective system and a broken one is notable when problems arise. How does the team handle errors and miscommunications? How can the team learn most effectively under pressure?

Having a predefined process for smoothing out the inevitable learning curve helps keep the teamwork alive. A discussion at the end of every session helps clarify expectations and works to improve linguistic accuracy and cultural fidelity. The alternative to a team that has to learn from mistakes is a team that never learns from mistakes. In real-time, mission-critical linguistics, it is best to prepare the ground for learning.


The Babelfish fallacy

In the popular science fiction trilogy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams spoiled the world for all linguists, forever. He wrote about a fish that could slither into your ear and interpret any language both flawlessly and completely. It fed on brainwaves, he explained, swallowing meaning and intent in one language and excreting it directly into the brain in another. Wouldn’t it be nice to have such a fish in your ear?

Everyone wants one and no human linguist can match that performance. To get very close to that and understand everything you might find in a court case — from handwritten notes to wiretaps to bank statements to cash register slips to nuances of language in a deposition — we need good ad hoc teams. Sadly, imaginary fish cannot do the work. A well-thought-out, well-screened team that includes respected professional linguists will work magnificently.