Protect Yourself: How to Prevent Lawyers from Blaming You for Depositions Gone Wrong

By Robert Holloway

If you’ve experienced or heard of a deposition where the interpreter takes the blame, then this article is for you.

You’re interpreting a deposition and it ends in one side’s favor and not the other. Who does the losing side blame? You.

If you’ve experienced or heard of a deposition where the interpreter takes the blame, then this article is for you. You’ll learn five key tips that, when utilized correctly, will help protect your image as a professional interpreter in front of attorneys and clients.

But first, here’s a bit of background for those unfamiliar with the deposition process. In a nutshell a deposition is a stage in the legal process where both parties can gather information about the case by questioning the witnesses involved. Depositions normally take place at law offices or in hotel conference rooms.

Depositions, however, can be characterized by a very adversarial atmosphere, just like court. Why? Although there’s no “winner” in a deposition, one attorney might feel as if the interpreting isn’t going their way for a variety of reasons: the witness doesn’t provide answers to questions the attorney thinks they should know, the opposing attorney objects to every other question his counterpart asks, the witness avoids giving straight answers, etc. It’s not uncommon for the attorneys to engage in heated arguments during the deposition.

Now imagine you’re in the middle of that as the interpreter for the witness. You’re neutral, but it may feel like you’re in between two competitors. Here’s the thing: sometimes when the deposition doesn’t go the way one attorney wanted it to, they blame you: “The interpreter didn’t interpret correctly,” “The interpreter interpreted too slowly,” “The rendition was wrong,” “The witness didn’t understand the interpreter clearly,” etc. Even though you know you did a fantastic job with your renditions, this is the verdict.

This entire situation may seem ridiculous, but in a very important way it’s not. If you’re an interpreter, you’re likely an independent contractor. This means your name is your brand, and your brand is your business. Even one incident such as this can ruin your reputation with that attorney, the other attorney, their firms, and their colleagues (interpreters are often found by word-of-mouth by attorneys), and it may not even be your fault! So, how do you protect your image, your brand, and essentially yourself? I asked myself the same question.

I began researching and based on what I found compiled a list of five key points we interpreters can utilize before and during a deposition to help protect ourselves. The goal of these is to facilitate the best flow of communication so you don’t get blamed for a lack thereof.

1. Dress the Part: First impressions are everything, and so is maintaining that impression. In the business world one major aspect of giving off a professional look is through one’s clothing. No, clothes don’t define a person, but they definitely influence others’ perception of you.

Any time you’re on the clock you should be dressed professionally—suit, tie, business attire, ironed, fresh-smelling clothes, you name it. On several occasions I’ve been confused with an attorney solely because of the way I dressed. I’ve also been treated differently when people mistake me for one. I’ve found that attorneys are less inclined to use you as a scapegoat for something you didn’t do if you present a highly professional image.

2. Use Those Ethics: If you’ve received formal court interpreter training, then the importance of adhering to an ethical code has been stressed. Well, I’m going to stress it again: use your ethics. An interpreter who knows and references an ethical code in real time during a deposition shows how well they know and respect the standards of the trade. Used correctly and confidently, attorneys often won’t hesitate to abide by an interpreter’s ethical protocol. Ethical codes are tools. It’s easy to memorize them for training and put them by the wayside afterward, so revisit your ethics regularly—perhaps before each deposition so they’re fresh in your mind.1

3. Know Objections Better than the Back of Your Hand: A few years ago I attended an international high-profile personal injury deposition as a check interpreter and witnessed perhaps the best interpreter I’ll ever see in my life. The deposition was full of specialized vehicle engineering terms, yet his renditions were impeccable. His vocabulary seemed limitless, he never hesitated, and his flow was excellent.

However, one area that stuck out to me was how well he knew objections and how effortlessly he interpreted them as the attorneys seemingly referenced every single one in the book. (And believe me, they really threw out each and every single one in the book!)

I’ve noticed that attorneys often assume that interpreters are unfamiliar with certain objections or that objections are particularly difficult to interpret. (For example, you might hear an attorney say, “Asked and answered. Oh sorry, I’m not sure if this can be interpreted…”) For this reason, it only behooves you to memorize every type of objection you can find so that you, too, will be able to interpret them flawlessly and surprise onlookers. If you can do this, it becomes one less area for attorneys to try to use as a way to prove that the interpreter is at fault for a miscommunication.

4. Don’t Apologize: Let’s say you interpret something the witness said, but you made a mistake with the rendition and want to go back and change it. Or, shortly after you interpret, another party picks up on an error in the interpretation. What do you say? “I’m sorry, the interpreter needs to make a correction.” “I’m sorry, the interpreter needs to correct that.” Or something similar? Don’t say “sorry.” Even though you were wrong and need to make a change, the words “sorry” and “correction” give a stronger impression that you were wrong, you’re admitting you’re wrong, or even that you may not be as much of an expert as you claim to be.

Instead, say “The interpreter would like to make a change to the rendition.” Then, change your rendition and move forward without skipping a beat. This may seem like a very simple change, but try it and take note of people’s reactions when you use this phrasing compared to when you were apologizing. I learned this trick from a veteran interpreter several years ago.

5. Make an Interpreter Guide for Witnesses: A few years ago, after having interpreted for dozens of depositions, I came to realize that there were a few very common linguistic mistakes that Korean witnesses would make at depositions. I talked with other colleagues who also noticed the same mistakes. I said to myself, “If they’re the same almost every time, then how about we figure out a way to help witnesses stop making those mistakes?” The result was a five-point guide, The 5 Most Common Linguistic Mistakes that Koreans Make at Depositions–and How to Avoid Them, that I provide to attorneys and witnesses before every deposition.2

From speaking in English (instead of their native language) to trying to have side conversations with the interpreter, this guide has everything a witness will need to avoid common linguistic mistakes during interpreted depositions. This is important for interpreters because when witnesses make these mistakes it often falls on the interpreter. For example, when a witness tries to have a side conversation in Korean, it looks as if the interpreter is trying to tell them something secretly.

I also compiled a Korean-language version of the guide, but the points will more than likely differ depending on the language you speak. So, I encourage you to get together with your colleagues and compile a similar guide for yourself.

Boost Your Credibility While Protecting Yourself

By utilizing these five key points when you interpret for depositions, you’ll boost your credibility and image and be able to protect your name even more. Don’t allow for one situation gone awry to ruin a career you built from the ground up.

  1. The court interpreter’s list of ethics can be found on the National Center for State Court’s website.
  2. The 5 Most Common Linguistic Mistakes that Koreans Make at Depositions—and How to Avoid Them. (Click here for Korean version.)

Robert Holloway is a native English speaker-turned-Korean-interpreter. Inspired by his Korean-adopted mother, he set out to learn Korean, a language his mother didn’t have the opportunity to learn because she grew up in the U.S. speaking English. Determined, he left the U.S. for Korea 13 years ago and never looked back. He’s been training vigorously for the past 10 years to become a Korean court and conference interpreter with a mission to be a model of someone who’s using the tools of their culture to build their life.

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