In 1987, I traveled in Europe with my sister. I was 20 and she was 18. We bought a Eurail pass and decided to visit several countries. We first went to London and then traveled over the English Channel to France. I had tried, twice, to learn how to speak French, to no avail. I must admit I am not a classroom student of languages. Having learned to speak English as a second language beginning at age two, sitting in a classroom with a book about French grammar was really not my thing. Besides, I have the attention span of a wasp, so, naturally, I didn’t get very far. However, I have always had a good ear for languages, and French is a Romance language and thus shares Latin roots with Spanish. That should surely make it easy to pick up, right?
Wrong. Nevertheless, while in Paris, I still tried. I would listen carefully, and chew on the few words I did know to attempt to order at a restaurant or ask where the next Metro stop was. You know what happens when you speak to someone in French while in Paris? Well, they tend to speak back to you in French! Funny, right? Not.
Inevitably I would stare back at them, like a deer in headlights. Their first instinct was to repeat the answer as if I had perhaps not heard properly. After a dead silence, I would, in defeat, say: “Je ne parle pas Français.”The people speaking back to me in French asked: “Anglais? Espagnol?” And then we would carry on.
In the June Wisconsin Lawyer, I wrote a short piece titled “Now Imagine …” in which I described what a non-English-speaking client feels when forced to participate in the U.S. legal system, in English. I received many comments on the story. Most people said that it made them think. So I have decided to write a little more on the issue of language. I am fascinated by it, and I spend a great deal of time not only trying to perfect my English, but also exploring the richness and idiosyncrasies of Spanish: its uses, varieties, verbiage, and misuses.
A Fascination with Language
About 10 years ago, I went to the Waukesha County jail with a lawyer who was appointed to represent a Spanish-speaking client. At the time, I was still working as an interpreter. We met at the jail, and once we checked in, we were escorted into a “professional visit” room. The client was brought in, and we all took a seat; I, next to the client; the lawyer across the table from us. The exchange went somewhat like this:
Cynthia Herber, Univ. of Pennsylvania 1993, operates CRH Legal LLC, Milwaukee, practicing criminal defense and family law. She has been a Wisconsin Supreme Court Certified Spanish Interpreter since 2004 and a Federally Certified Court Interpreter through the U.S. Courts since 2009. She is secretary of the Wisconsin Hispanic Lawyers Association.
Lawyer XX would ask a question, I would interpret the question, and then the client would answer. I would then interpret the client’s answer back to Lawyer XX (this time in English). As the interview progressed, the lawyer’s tone got louder and S-L-O-W-E-R. It got to a point where she was practically yelling. The constant parsing of her sentences made it impossible to interpret. After a few question-and-answer exchanges like this, I had to stop. I explained to her that cutting her sentences at odd places was not necessary, as I needed to hear the entire question before I could interpret it into Spanish. But most important, I explained to her that yelling or speaking really slowly would not make the client better understand what she was asking in English. The client was confused, and frankly, I was offended.
You see, people who do not speak English, or any other language other than their own, are not hearing impaired or mentally challenged. Well, perhaps some are. But the point is that when someone does not understand when spoken to in English, it won’t really help for the English speaker to speak more loudly or very slowly. Actually, it will not help at all. It just won’t.
Let me illustrate the point a bit more. Remember the Godzilla movies? You know, the Japanese movies dubbed into English that usually come on TV at 3 a.m. The ones where the characters’ lips stop moving well before the words in English end? If those movies were shown in their original language, Japanese, at a really high volume and with the people speaking very slowly, in Japanese, would you understand? Probably not.
So perhaps this is a good place to lay out a few basic ideas on working with a person who has limited English proficiency and on using an interpreter; the Yin and Yang, if you will.
Limited English Proficiency
There are many people who speak English but still would request or benefit from using an interpreter. Many people who immigrate to the United States come without a solid grasp of the English language. They know enough to hold conversations in an informal setting, and to get by with routine employment situations, but do not have the technical register or the necessary command of the language to understand a court proceeding or legalese. In a legal setting (a court), only the person with the limited English proficiency can determine whether he or she needs an interpreter. It is neither the lawyer’s prerogative nor the judge’s. There must be a colloquy between the court and the litigant to determine the need.
Speaking More Than One Language Doesn’t Make Someone an Interpreter
Be very careful. Several lawyers I have encountered get by not using a certified interpreter because their spouse or the legal assistant can speak Spanish. Not everyone who speaks a second language is an interpreter. Interpreters are trained professionals. An interpreter will listen in one language, and speak in a second language contemporaneously, in real time. It’s a technical ability that not every bilingual person has. Besides, there is an expected proficiency in technical language that regular bilingual people do not have.
Even If You Speak Your Client’s Language, You Cannot Interpret for Him or Her in Court
Many years ago I showed up in a felony court to interpret for a defendant. When I approached the bench to talk to the clerk, she informed me that my services were not needed for that particular defendant because “the lawyer spoke Spanish and he could just interpret for the defendant.” Huh? I’m sorry, but unless you can speak two languages out of both sides of your mouth at the same time, I am not sure how one can do that. It is impossible. If there is an interpreter requested and available for your client, use the interpreter.
Interpreters Are Professionals and Are Bound by a Code of Ethics
Interpreters are bound by a code of ethics, just like lawyers. As such, they are professionals who take their job very seriously. A certified interpreter has undergone a certification process that includes written and oral tests to determine whether they can perform at the expected level of proficiency and professionalism. Please do not say things like: “Oh, she is just the interpreter.” Remember that without the interpreter, you cannot proceed with your case. Interpreters are an integral and necessary part of the court proceedings.
Don’t Speak in the Third Person
How many times have you heard the following: “Please ask him where he was on Tuesday at 3 o’clock.” Don’t do that. When addressing the person who has limited English proficiency, speak to him or her directly. An interpreter will say in the target language exactly what you said. For example: You should not say: “Ask him when did he arrive” or “When did he arrive?” Instead, say: “When did you arrive?” See the difference?
Respect the Interpreter’s Scope of Practice
Just as lawyers have limits to what they can do, so do interpreters. So please don’t ask the interpreter to speak to the client directly, explain legal terms or concepts to the client, offer opinions on the proceedings at hand, or interpret materials on the spot (like plea questionnaires).
An interpreter is by definition impartial. Asking the interpreter to tell you what they think makes the interpreter part of your team and obliterates the impartiality. Interpreters who are hired by the clerk of courts to interpret in court are not obligated nor required to help you fill out the plea questionnaire with your client outside court. Please do not ask them to do that. More often than not you will be met with, “No. I don’t do that.”
People Who Do Not Speak English Are Not Illiterate, Mentally Challenged, or Lazy
People you encounter who do not speak English may have a higher level of education than you. Do not discount people as illiterate or lazy just because they have not mastered the English language to the proficiency level of a native speaker, even if they have lived in the United States for years.
Do you speak another language? Perhaps you took Spanish in high school. Would you be able to understand an entire court proceeding in Spanish if you needed to? Think about that. I once interpreted for a man from Spain who had a master’s degree in engineering but did not speak English well enough to understand the questions posed to him during a deposition.
Do you understand? Entiende lo que le digo? Compendre? Capisce?