Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Language Barriers in the Courtroom

By John DiMotto

One of the most challenging issues facing a trial judge involves language. In more and more cases, we find litigants and witnesses who require the services of an interpreter in order to be heard. An example is the case of State v. Lor. The defendant was charged with sexually assaulting his wife. Most of the witnesses spoke Hmong and the trial was "interpreter intensive." The jury needed to assesses the credibility of all of the witnesses via the interpreter. The challenge is not to be swayed by the person doing the interpretation. The interpreter is not the witness. Also, when the jury is paying close attention to what the interpreter is saying, it is sometimes difficult for the jury to watch the witnesses and evaluate demeanor. To make matters even more complicated, during voir dire, the trial judge must discover whether any of the jurors are proficient in the language to be interpreted and then make sure that the juror will agree to accept the official interpretation whether the juror agrees or not. Some jurors may have an understanding of a foreign language, but may not be as proficient as the court approved interpreter. The juror must defer to the "official" interpretation.

I think that we all take language for granted. In the courtroom, where more than one language is spoken, it can never be taken for granted.

1 comment:

  1. Certainly, in such a case one should request that a translator be used and not an interpreter. Translation allows for less error than interpreation.

    Court translators should be apprised before hand that they have little room to move from a strict translation into an interpretation of what is being said for any reason.