How to Choose the Right Interpreter

Did a post recently, How To Speak Through A Chinese Interpreter, setting out ten things that will improve your speaking through a Chinese interpreter. That post led to a number of comments, including one that really kinda ticked me off. And I almost never get ticked off.

The comment that really bugged me was from “Glen,” who had this to say:

Hire professionally-trained interpreters and translators.Using people from “around the office” for formal translation and interpretation tasks is unprofessional for a law firm or any business. Would you ask Jeff from accounting to fix an electrical problem? No. Hire a professional every time.

I would wager that the interpretation mistakes that your colleagues are hearing in depositions are due to the fact that the interpreter has not been trained professionally. If you use professionals, items 1 through 10 on this list are completely unnecessary.

Glen has it all wrong, but instead of simply getting all up in Glen’s face (as was my first inclination), I am going to use his misstatements to expound on how to go about choosing the right interpreter. I do not purport to be an expert in interpretation, having never interpreted much more than a lunch order, but I have done so much through interpreters that I do consider myself expert in selecting and using them.

And, contrary to what Glen seems to be saying, my method definitely involves a lot more than just pulling someone “around the office.”

Glen’s argument for always using a professional interpreter is both wildly impractical and, at least in some instances, flat out wrong.

I choose the interpreter to suit the situation. Sometimes the situation involves a potential client coming to my office. There it makes sense to use someone in-house who knows my firm and, most importantly, someone I know will make a good impression.

Sometimes the situation requires someone who knows and understands the matter to be discussed. This will almost always again mean someone in-house because that someone will probably have been working on the matter all along. And even if that person has not been working on the matter all along, that person has probably worked on similar matters and, if not, I at least know that person has an excellent understanding of legal issues. Even most good interpreters are not good at all in dealing with complicated legal matters.

Glenn seems to fault me for using bad interpreters at depositions and he conflates that with my having used someone from around my office. I only wish. Without exception, the bad interpreters at depositions have been chosen by the other side in circumstances where our lawyers had no say. And the reason I know the interpretations were bad is because for all but the most unimportant depositions, we try to bring along someone from our office to monitor the interpreter. We are not allowed to use our own people to interpret at depositions. The same holds true in court.

When it comes to an important, planned gathering of a large number of people, we typically bring in a professional interpreter from outside our firm, but we again bring along our own people to monitor. The reality is that great interpretation is always desirable, but having your own person there who you trust completely and you know will be looking out for your own interests can be essential.

The personality of the interpreter can also be crucial. Many will view you as they view the interpreter and if your interpreter is arrogant and off-putting, do not be surprised if you are viewed the same way. Many years ago, I was involved in a big case on Sakhalin Island and I was using interpreters when I landed. All were fine, but at some point, I used one who caused an influx of compliments about my firm and me. It was apparent that everyone (both the Americans and the Russians) really liked this person and were hugely impressed by her professionalism and her language skills. I immediately doubled her wages in return for her promising to drop everything and take on my law firm’s matters whenever I was in town.

And in China, if you are going to be using an interpreter for contract negotiation, you better find someone you not only trust, but also someone who will not back down when confronted by the Chinese company with which you are negotiating. Which, for some reason, reminds me of one of my favorite tricks. Try going into a negotiation with someone who the other side would never think speaks their language and never tell the other side that your team has that language capability. You might be surprised at what you learn when the other side starts speaking in their language, assuming neither you nor any of your people understand a word of it.

Your interpreter is you, so choose wisely.

How do you choose your interpreter?

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