The jury was thoroughly confused when a witness testified through an interpreter that he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a ladder in a construction case I tried a few years ago. What reasonable person would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a ladder? The “ladder,” however, was really a staircase—a distinction that was obviously important to the case. The delineation between interpreting and translating—in other words, between explaining the meaning and translating words verbatim—is vital when it comes to the use of interpreters during witness examinations.
The American legal system is wrought with a specialized lexicon and complexities that do not exist in the English language. Though an interpreter is not allowed to explain the legal procedure or give advice to a witness, they are your conduit to the witness and the mouthpiece of the witness for the judge or jury. An interpreter has the power, whether consciously or unknowingly, to skew the words of the witness as they choose your words. One question or answer, rephrased improperly, can completely change the outcome of a case.