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Workers' Compensation

California: Interpreters and Us

By: Hon. Robert G. Rassp, Presiding Judge, WCAB Los Angeles

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not the opinions of the Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Workers’ Compensation, or the WCAB.

Over the last five years, WorkCompCentral has provided all day ethics training for attorneys and non-attorney hearing representatives. Included in the program was a foreign language interpreter instructor who described the challenges and hard work that certified court interpreters must follow after a rigorous training and licensing process. Like attorneys, physicians, accountants, and other licensed professionals, the licensing authority for certified court interpreters requires continuing education. Recently, a highly respected long-term interpreter who regularly appears on cases at the WCAB Los Angeles District Office shared information that was provided at a continuing education seminar on remote interpreting depositions and trials. I want to share with you both her insights and those of the interpreter instructor at the WCC program on specific issues we are facing in our remote trials, conferences, and depositions:

  • Interpreters do not just translate a foreign language into English and vice-versa.
  • Interpreters are NOT translators in the context of workers’ compensation or other court proceedings. Translators work for the United Nations and other entities where actual spoken words are translated verbatim for understanding. International crises are avoided by accurate translations to and from foreign languages.
  • Interpreters translate ORALLY a foreign language into English and vice-versa, and get certified by the State or the Federal government. In contrast, translators translate IN WRITING documents such as contracts, books, manuals, advertisements, lyrics, movie scripts, news articles. A different certification for translators is required. The most popular accreditation in the US is offered by the American Translators' Association based in Alexandria, Virginia. This certification, however, is not recognized as a valid license to work as a certified interpreter for the State or the Federal Courts. An interpreter may also choose to become a certified translator. This entails paying separate annual license renewal fees, and Continuing Education Requirements for both.
  • Both interpreters and translators have to be very careful because a word may completely change its meaning depending upon the context in which it's being used. For example, a Spanish word that means something funny in Mexico, may be considered to be an insult in Argentina, or in another Spanish speaking country. Both interpreters and translators have to learn all those nuances.
  • To be able to work for the United Nations, interpreters should master at least two foreign languages, and they are encouraged to get accredited as translators as well. Again, their interpreters translate orally the verbal exchanges between dignitaries, their translators translate in writing a trade or peace agreement.

 

SOME RULES OF THE ROAD IN WCAB PROCEEDINGS

  • Interpreters can do some simultaneous interpretation when the judge opens the record via Life Size Cloud or ATT Teleconference, and the Stipulations and Issues are being read into the record, if the interpreter’s microphone is muted, and the interpreter calls the applicant on the phone to translate for him/her what is being said. The same technique could be used to interpret for the Applicant during the testimony given by other witnesses. This would require the interpreter to be able to use two platforms at the same time in order to do some simultaneous interpretation.
  • Interpreters in court proceedings are allowed to interpret what is being said and the meaning is conveyed to the witness or Applicant who responds in their native language. For example, “at the time of my injury, it was raining cats and dogs” would not be translated literally into Spanish. The interpreter would say “at the time of the accident, it was raining hard.” Another example is a true story where a worker fell down a flight of stairs while at work. The employer submitted a report that said the employee fell off a ladder based on its interpretation of the word “escalera.” The insurance company for the employer investigated the claim and denied it based on the fact that there was never a ladder on the employer’s premises. Fortunately the initial medical clinic’s record indicated that the employee fell down a flight of stairs. Escalera in Spanish can mean “stairs” or “ladder.”
  • Due to nuances in native languages such as differences in dialect, culture, and educational level of the person for whom interpreting services are provided, an interpreter must interpret the meaning of the spoken word in English by counsel and the judge into an understandable interpretation so that the deponent or witness understands the proceedings and questions being asked and answered.
  • Remote depositions (via ZOOM) and trials by ATT Teleconference lines and Life Size Cloud present more challenges for an interpreter.
  • In trials or depositions, KEEP YOUR QUESTIONS BRIEF or ASK THEM WITH FREQUENT PAUSES so the interpreter can interpret the question and translate it into the witnesses’ native language. Please be patient with the proceedings, cases involving the need for interpreters require a slower and deliberate pace.
  • All remote sessions (via telephone or video platform) require consecutive interpreting. This means the interpreter MUST take copious notes on the information that counsel or the judge wants to convey to a witness including an injured worker who does not speak English well. The reason there cannot be simultaneous interpreting during a teleconference or video conference proceeding on the record is because two voices speaking at the same time cannot be processed by the software at the same time. The hearing reporter would not be able to hear all of the English words to create an accurate record of the proceedings.
  • Counsel and judges need to be mindful that the interpreter must first understand the question and be given time to interpret the question so that the content of the question and answer are accurate.
  • This requires that questions asked by counsel be brief and well thought out before the questions are asked. Interpreters MUST have increased and sustained concentration during consecutive interpreting. Judges and counsel MUST give interpreters more time to do their job.
  • Take your time, no one is in a hurry to complete proceedings. Judges are aware of the time factor and we will allow time for consecutive interpreting since it is the only way for interpreters to work during remote proceedings. Both Applicant’s and Defense counsel should prepare questions in advance so that the process goes smoothly.
  • Be sure to pause frequently so that the interpreter can interpret your questions and the witness’s answers.
  • Judges and counsel need to be mindful that other witness testimony must be interpreted to the non-English speaking Applicant. It is a matter of due process for the Applicant to understand adverse witness testimony so that possible meaningful rebuttal testimony may be provided.
  • The judge should instruct the parties to speak slowly and clearly in short sentences so that the interpreter can interpret the question or instructions clearly and efficiently.
  • The interpreter and the witness or Applicant do not need to be in the same room.
  • A witness, including the Applicant, can ask the interpreter questions in their native language in order to understand counsel’s or the judge’s questions or statement which does NOT need to be part of the record. Many interpreters will say in English as part of the record something to the effect of “May the interpreter clarify with the witness?” The judge’s or counsel’s answer should always be “yes” allowing the interpreter to communicate with the witness so the witness understands a question and can answer it truthfully and accurately. That dialogue DOES NOT need to become part of the record. The judge does not need to go off the record for these interpreter clarification issues to be resolved.
  • Keep your objections short and to the point and pause after stating your objection so that the interpreter can interpret even as the judge rules on the objection.
  • Judges, please slow the proceedings down when there is an objection so that the interpreter can keep up with the exchange between counsel and the judge on objections.
  • When you are in a remote proceeding (deposition or trial) please mute your microphones when not in use since the video platforms pick up extraneous sounds and zeroes in on them (e.g. barking dogs, motorcycles going by, airplane noises, lawn mowers etc.)

 

Note: The author would like to thank Adriana Camastra from Christina Arana & Associates for her bringing these issues to the forefront and inspiring this article.

© Copyright 2020 Robert G. Rassp. This article is reprinted with the author’s permission.