The Importance of Strong Solicitor-Interpreter Communications
Interpreting is all about removing language barriers. Bridging the communication gap is essential to help individuals talk fluently to each other, beyond the lack of a shared tongue. This is a particular imperative in the legal sector, where minute detail can make all the difference in a case.
On the surface, interpreters’ jobs may seem limited to the linguistic aspect; however, their expertise goes well beyond that realm. Interpreters often function as a bridge between cultures, interpreting not only the words of an individual but also decoding their background and customs to smooth the communication and make it more successful.
This cultural role of interpreters is particularly important in fields that are closely influenced by local customs, uses or norms. In the legal world, cases in family law or children’s services are a good example of this. Approaches to family relations, parenting, education and upbringing, among others, are greatly tied to local customs, traditions, and lifestyles, and can vary widely across regions, countries or societies. What is socially and legally accepted in one society may not work the same way in another one. And these differences can be at the heart of a legal case.
The smallest cultural misunderstanding can have big consequences in a legal context. Kristine Peltz, West African languages consultant and part of THG Fluently’s linguist network, shared her experience working on a transnational legal case. A solicitor questioning a witness from Sierra Leone placed an event at lunchtime when reconstructing a timeline. For the solicitor, this meant roughly between 12:00 and 12:30. However, in the witness’s village, people usually have one single meal at around 2:00 in the afternoon. Plus, the concept of lunchtime didn’t directly translate across cultures, as times throughout the day are referenced differently. This meant that the solicitor’s timeline was off by around two hours — a difference that would significantly change the outcome of the trial. This issue was picked up by the interpreting team and promptly brought up to be amended.
Solicitor-interpreter communication: ensuring positive outcomes
These cultural differences, which may play a central role in any legal case, can also generate a disconnect between solicitors and their clients. This in turn can lead to a poor understanding and, ultimately, a poor outcome for the client. The is why, as much as their linguistic abilities are pivotal, an interpreter’s cultural role is vital also. Effective communication is never just about the words used — it's about language in the context of culture and the nuances that are created as a result that need to be correctly conveyed across cultures. A close relationship and trust between solicitors and interpreters are key to working as a team to obtain the best possible outcome for the client.
So, how can solicitors ensure they are having the best possible communication with the interpreters working on a case? Below, we share a few recommendations.
• Where possible, it’s a good idea for the solicitor to brief the interpreter on all the relevant information and aspects of the case in advance, provided that client confidentiality is not broken. A meeting following the session with the client might also be productive to discuss any specific cultural or linguistic aspects the interpreter picked up on that could be relevant to the case.
• It’s important that the interpreter introduces themselves before the start of the meeting. This is vital to ensure that the client fully understands what the role of the interpreter is and how the interview will work, but it will also be a tool to build confidence and trust, which in turn can lead to a more productive session.
• Communications need to be kept clear and simple, and overly or unnecessarily complex phrasing should be avoided. This will help the interpreter relay the question or comment more accurately to the client and will aid comprehension. Long-winded blocks of speech may increase the chances of something being unintentionally omitted. Avoiding the use of acronyms and jargon is also a good idea.
• In long sessions, frequent breaks are a key necessity, as interpreting for long periods of time can require a high level of concentration and be demanding, particularly when more sensitive topics, which can come up in family law fairly often, are being discussed. This can have a negative impact on the quality of the interpretation.
• Keep the communication flowing at all times. If the interpreter feels that something is unclear, they should feel free to ask for clarifications from the solicitor. Likewise, if the solicitor for example feels the interpretation is too long compared to what they initially said, they can check with the interpreter to make sure everything has been clearly understood and accurately relayed to the client. However, they should always bear in mind that maintaining a conversation where the client feels or is actively excluded is something to be avoided, as this may fuel feelings of mistrust or suspicion.
Interpreters’ responsibilities in legal settings exceed the purely linguistic aspect: they are central pieces in the communication puzzle that help cases move forward. Their close work with solicitors can mark the difference between an individual getting custody of their children and losing it, or going to jail and avoiding it. This is why working with a trusted language service partner and expertly qualified linguists, with broad industry knowledge as well as deep cultural awareness, is essential.
At THG Fluently, we’ve been providing industry leading interpreting services to the legal sector since 2003. In that time, we’ve learned what it takes to give legal organisations the interpreting support they need to help their clients. So, if you’d like to learn more about how we can support your case by connecting you with legal interpreters, feel free to get in touch.