Interpreting at Court Hearings

By Victoria Clark

Victoria Clark is an attorney with DCB Law, with offices in Chambersburg and Harrisburg

While interpreters are provided at court hearings, there is nothing better than testifying in your own words without the assistance of an interpreter.  As a trilingual attorney, I have attended many hearings in which my clients request the assistance of an interpreter.  Court interpreters are trained to accurately translate the testimony and take an oath to do so.  However, many times, the meaning of the witness is lost in translation.  Even the most expert of interpreters can confuse the witness’ meaning or mishear the testimony resulting in an incorrect interpretation.  At hearings in the past, I have corrected interpreters translations and wondered at what might have happened if the attorney did not speak Spanish in order to correct the mistake.

The witness’ emotion is lost in translation.  When a witness tearfully recounts an injury or an accident, the interpreter does not recreate the testimony with the same tearful inflection.  It is more difficult for the judge to assess the witness’ credibility when the testimony is obtained through an interpreter as the voracity of the interpreter rather than the witness is what is communicated.  The other down side to testifying through an interpreter is the lag time created by the interpretation.  Hearings that are scheduled for 30 minutes, take 45 minutes to an hour because of the added time for the interpretation.  Many judges and attorneys dread hearings where an interpreter is required because of the added time.

If possible, it is always best to testify in English if you are able.  If you need the assistance of an interpreter, it is important to speak clearly and slowly.  You should pause frequently so that the interpreter can translate your testimony without omitting important details.  Always use words when testifying as the interpreter cannot translate gestures, nods or ummhumms.  Wait for the complete translation before answering a question.  Even if you think you understood the question in English, it is best to wait for the interpreter to finish the translation.  Never speak over the interpreter.  If you do not understand the question, ask for clarification before you start answering the question.  The other benefit of attempting to testify in English is that the judges appreciate your attempt to learn English.  I have heard Social Security judges negatively judge claimants who have lived in the U.S. for years but do not speak English.  By testifying in English, you give the judge one more reason to find you credible.          


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