Ever get called for a legal case that's so high profile you hesitate to accept the assignment? This has happened to me several times, and sometimes - as tempting as the work may be - I've had to reluctantly make the decision not to accept it. It's up to us as interpreters to know our limits, and to act ethically by refusing a case that may put us into situations we may not feel confident we have the qualifications to handle. Sometimes a case may present situations that will be so uncomfortable, our confidence - and therefore our abilities - may be challenged. Most of you experienced interpreters have probably faced these questions over cases that are particularly violent or scandalous, which may draw a lot of media attention.

Have you also had the experience of feeling that you yourself, as an interpreter, are on trial? I have felt that way appearing in Federal Court, and I have observed situations where the opposing lawyers involved closely challenged the interpreter's work, and this has given me cause to hesitate. But it is cases where there is a lot of media coverage that make me most uneasy, because I feel the media too may all but put the interpreter on trial. After all, we all know that there is usually more than one way to interpret any given utterance.

So I was pleased and hesitant when an inquiry came through my web site requesting a legal interpreter for a case I'd heard about many times in the news. The case had been going on for several years already, as they do when millions of dollars are involved in class-action suits with many many respondents and large legal teams, and of course, boxes and boxes of documents. When the case reached to the U.S. company's partnership with a well-known large Japanese corporation with worldwide operations, I was asked to participate, and I wondered what I could be letting myself in for.

When I began discussing the assignment with the inquiring legal firm, I was relieved to learn they wanted me to be the check interpreter. The other side had engaged two top-notch interpreters from New York. I was glad to hear they were taking turns in about 20 minute shifts - which UN research has proven to consistently provide more accurate and smooth performance from the interpreters, but for which many companies are unwilling to pay. If you've ever done depositions day after day, you know how exhausting they are, and we were talking about doing depositions for three weeks straight!

The legal team wanted to add me to their side for several reasons: they needed to know that the interpretation performed was complete and accurate - the basic function of a "check" interpreter. However, there were also times when the deponents and the interpreters appeared to have "side conversations" which made them very uneasy, because then they didn't know what was being said or going on. They felt that adding a Japanese speaker to their team would beef up their side, and effectively put the other side on notice that someone was observing and checking not only the actual interpretation offered, but monitoring any other conversations they were otherwise excluded from.

It sounded like an ideal assignment to me in some ways. I was excited at the opportunity to increase my interpreting skills by observing and silently shadowing all the proceedings these other highly skilled interpreters would be handling on the record. And the job might not be so stressful since I wouldn't be the one on the hook hour after hour, but only in those instances where I would function to "check" the other interpreters' work, and would then be "on the record." I contracted to do the job, and bought a new computer/book bag with wheels and handle that I packed heavy with reference books to take with me for three weeks in Ohio.

The Check Interpreter Role

Have you ever worked as a "check interpreter" or with one present? When I have been the interpreter of record, and the other side has brought in someone too, I try to connect with them as quickly as possible. The interpreters on this assignment responded with "Of course, we're all here to be sure that the best interpretation possible is rendered." The atmosphere in depositions can be adversarial enough without the interpreters feeling that they are also there opposing and challenging each other, so I was glad to hear their friendly - and professional - viewpoint. If the interpreter "checking" your work feels that you are trying to meet this common objective, they may even help should you get stuck for a word or interpretation. Anytime interpreters talk to each other on the record, as always, it must be clearly stated in English that "The interpreter would like to ask for help in clarifying this phrase" or whatever is appropriate.

Have you noticed that depositions are recorded with varying degrees of specificity? Sometimes only the litigants themselves take their own notes without even a formal court recorder or reporter present. However, in a case of this magnitude, one of the best court reporters I've ever worked with was on the job. I find it very helpful when the recorder is outfitted with a notebook computer which almost instantly converts their shorthand to readable English, and they can position their computer screen where the interpreter too can refer back to long involved questions. The two interpreters of record often referred to the screen for this aid. The two also invaluably supported each other: while one was speaking, the other who was ostensibly taking a break often checked on words, or caught a phrase that was neglected and passed little notes to the one speaking during the proceedings. There were so good at this that my job was made comparatively easy, and I'll tell you why this was such a good thing.

With deponents as high profile as these top executives were, who had been flown to the US for these depositions, the judge overseeing the case at this point rigidly circumscribed the amount of time allotted to each one's testimony. In other words, for Mr. Top Executive So-and-So, the lawyers probing what he knew or didn't know had exactly this eight hours today, or only those four hours in the morning, and they didn't want to waste a minute of "their" given time. Being lawyers, they did spend a good bit of time arguing back and forth about who had what time and who was wasting whose time, but they certainly didn't want me "wasting their time" on differences of interpretation that they might feel were trivial. This was very clear to me after I raised one or two questions, and after that I considered very carefully whether what I had to say really made a material difference and whether to open my mouth or not.

As the days went on, I had such confidence in the capabilities of the two women I was working with that I thought twice and then again before I interrupted. There were a few instances when what I had to add made a difference, but part of my job was to assure my team that the interpreters were truly doing an excellent job, and then to keep my mouth shut - all the while paying the closest attention, of course.

Attending to every word, and interpreting each utterance silently to myself was great practice, and also very affirmative of my own competency, as time after time in my own mind I came up with exactly what the interpreters of record said, or something very close. I love the way our job keeps us so mentally focused: when we're the one speaking, that keeps us closely attentive, but just listening to hour after hour of testimony, and minutely pouring over documents can certainly be a challenge.

The only disappointing aspect of this job was that because the side I was on was so concerned about private conversations that might occur with the witness, and wanted me there largely to put the other side on notice, I was not able to "talk shop" with or even get to know the other interpreters much at all. We were constrained from talking with each other, other than perhaps a brief comment when we took a break from the proceedings and I could give them a compliment on their skillful interpretation, or ask them why they had interpreted something as they did. We were all in hotel rooms away from home, and as much as I'd have liked to have dinner - or even lunch - with those two wonderful professionals from New York, we observed the restrictions we felt were on us to not communicate much at all.

Lest you think the "check interpreter" doesn't really have to do much, let me give you just two examples when having me on their team paid off for the lawyers who engaged me. The first is an example of what I meant by beefing up our team by putting the other side on notice that any side conversation would be understood. We had been deposing a major witness all morning, a top Japanese executive of a major Japanese corporation, and he had not had any reason to pay attention to me. I was just another member of the opposing side. I took the elevator down with him and his lawyers when we broke for lunch. They were discussing what they wanted to eat, and he said nothing too heavy like the beef being suggested, or he'd lose his concentration. I said, using an old Japanese phrase, that beef would "lie heavy on his stomach." He was visibly startled at hearing Japanese from me, and muttered "That's scary." You can believe he was very careful what he said all afternoon, and I'm sure the lawyers on the other side made sure to tell the deponents who I was after that incident.

Another incident when the value of my presence was clear was when one morning I became aware that someone crowded against the wall in our packed room was signaling to the witness sitting opposite him. I wasn't sure if the attorneys I was working with were aware of it. I watched out of the corner of my eye for a while to be sure this was really happening, and then passed a note to the lead attorney. He was shocked! He turned around and gave the offender the eye, and that was all it took to make him stop. He was very thankful I had been alert to this and advised him.

All in all, this was one of the most interesting situations I have worked in, and I wanted to share some of my experiences. If what I have communicated sparks anyone to share their related experiences with me or all our colleagues, we will all benefit.


Maiyim Baron specializes in high-level and technical Japanese interpretation, and through her partners in her company Baron-Charms International Services, has offered translation and other Japan-focused communications services since 1990. You can always connect with her through www.JapaneseInterpreter.com or by telephone at 206-523-1324 in USA.