Source of the following article Persuasive Litigator.

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm: 


At one point back in my university teaching days, I worked with an international consulting group providing training on persuasion and argumentation to teachers around the world. Often, I would work with a translator. I remember being in Haiti, for example, providing training while my presentation in English was being simultaneously translated into both Haitian Creole and French. The three of us talking at once might have sounded like a cacophony, but it seemed to work just fine for the teachers attending. I remember being impressed that the translators could keep this up continuously, listening and speaking at the same time, to provide an uninterrupted stream of speech. It is definitely a specialized skill, and a useful one as well: Not having to stop and wait for the translation means that you can provide the same content in half the time. 

Used in a courtroom, simultaneous translation can be just as useful in getting through testimony in half the time. It can also be just as challenging, perhaps more so with one additional obstacle: credibility. In court the credibility of the witness is key. The judge or jury is there, after all, to scrutinize the clarity and truthfulness of the witness. Can they fulfill that role if they are, in reality, listening to a translator who is speaking at the same time as the witness? Does this shift of attention have the potential to reduce the credibility of the witness? An interesting new study (Hale, Martschuk, Ozolins & Stern, 2017) takes a look at the effectiveness of translation modes in the specific situation of courtroom testimony. In the study, 447 mock jurors in Australia viewed the same content from a witness delivered in one of three conditions: In English, or with Spanish to English translation provided either sequentially or simultaneously. There was no significant effect on verdict, however, consecutive translation (where jurors listened first in Spanish before hearing from the translator in English) led to lower recollection of the testimony, particularly when it was delivered in the afternoon (We’ve written before on the post-lunch slump in attention). The mock jurors also found the consecutive translation to be more distracting than simultaneous translation. So in this case, it seems that the timesaver is also an attention-saver for jurors. In the rest of this post, I’ll share some additional advice on dealing with the translated witness. 

Beyond the advice to opt for simultaneous translation in court, here are a few other good ideas:  

1. Find a Very Good Interpreter

When I asked one of my interpreters in Haiti how she did it, she said “It is hard to describe: My brain becomes like a continuous tube with English coming in and French going out.” Suffice it to say, it is difficult. One company described the challenge like this: “This fact should make it evident how difficult the task of the interpreter really is: She must translate the sentence into the target language while simultaneously listening to and comprehending the next sentence. You can experience the difficulty of the task even if you only speak one language: try paraphrasing someone’s speech with a half-sentence delay while making sure you understand the next sentence and paraphrasing the previous one.” So when you are looking for a translator, find one with a lot of experience, ideally including courtroom experience, in simultaneous translation. 

2. Find an Effective Pace 

Together, the witness and the translator need to work out a pace of speech that works for both. You might think that the best pace is going to be very slow in order to give the translator time to process. However, in the unique context of a courtroom, that slow speech can actually make it harder for a judge or a juror to pay attention. What tends to work the best for maintaining a pace that is at conversational speed, or even a bit faster. There is also research showing that a faster presentation speech is more persuasive because it limits the mental counterargument that your target audience might otherwise engage in. 

3. Find an Effective Grammatical Structure

As comedian Steve Martin said about the difficulty of the French language, “They have a different word for everything!” They also have a different grammar and, when translating, word order and sentence structure can make the task easier or harder, especially when the translation is simultaneous rather than sequential. The more the translator knows about the witness’s key talking points and typical style, the better. Because the translator has to have an idea of where the sentence is going before she starts to speak, the sentence structure will be important. For example, if testimony is being translated out of English to something else, then an active voice construction would nearly always be better. The passive voice is likely to be difficult to translate because it will often “bury the lead” by saving the subject of the sentence until the end. 

4. Spend Some Time Practicing 

Of course, simultaneous translation is not truly “simultaneous.” The translation is not just a translation of each word as it comes (that would result in some odd grammatical constructions in the target language). Instead, the translator needs to understand the focus of a sentence before she or he starts to speak. So finding that flow between witness and translator can take a bit of time. Even a very experienced translator will need to spend some time learning the style and the content of the witness, and the best way to do that is with some dry runs of the expected testimony, including both direct and cross.

 As with everything else having to do with witness preparation, there is no substitute for direct and realistic practice. 


Other Posts on Challenging Witness Testimony: 


Hale, S., Martschuk, N., Ozolins, U., & Stern, L. (2017). The effect of interpreting modes on witness credibility assessments. Interpreting, 19(1), 69-96.

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