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No Room for Mistakes in Legal & Medical Interpreting

By May 10, 2016 April 27th, 2019 No Comments

An Interpretation Challenge:

A legal deposition is an incredibly important piece of evidence that serves as testimony by an expert, eyewitness, or other individual with knowledge relevant to your case. As the world becomes smaller and the global economy continues growing, more and more depositions are being done of people who speak languages other than those spoken in court. That makes interpretation a critically important element of your legal argument, because if you get it wrong, you could lose your case, and nothing will cost you more.  And when the stakes are high, such as in a criminal trial, interpreting errors are even more egregious. An inaccurate interpretation of one word may subject someone to lifelong incarceration or even the death penalty.

Fair Trial or “Garbled” Justice?

Little right hand in jail

South African interpreters at the Oscar Pistorius trial had been criticized for “ropey translations” (poor interpreting) during the former double-amputee Olympic sprinter’s court proceedings for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, his girlfriend and famed South African model. It began with a 90-minute delay to the start of the trial, after the court interpreter employed to convey witness testimonies from Afrikaans to English never appeared. Her replacement was subsequently criticized for “inexperience”, with the witness, Michelle Burger, repeatedly correcting her English. As the defense questioned why Burger had described the evening of the shooting as “confusing”, she explained that the interpreter misunderstood what she said and that her “words are not exactly the same”.  The next day, a new interpreter appeared in court, but lawyers immediately questioned her accuracy after she interpreted “noises” as “gunshots” and international correspondents were complaining that she is “harder to understand than the last one”.

Interpretation is Important:

As any good attorney knows, semantics and the meaning of words are critical elements of any argument. And you need to use words appropriately and within the correct context to make an effective argument. If your interpretation of what a deposition says or means differs from the way the court interprets it, you will find yourself on the losing side every time. This is why professional interpretation is one of the most important elements of a deposition.

Protective Custody or Tragic Oversight?


One 2-year-old girl with a clavicular fracture was mistakenly placed in child protective custody for suspected abuse. In the absence of an interpreter, a medical resident who may have spoken some Spanish misunderstood “se pegó” to mean the girl was “hit by someone else” instead of the girl “hit herself” when she fell off her tricycle. To a non-Spanish speaker, such an error would seem highly unlikely, but in fact, both translations for “se pegó” – “she hit herself” and “she was hit” can be correct. In this situation, a medical resident who spoke some Spanish was worse than a provider who spoke no Spanish. A professional interpreter was needed to glean the correct meaning from the context.

Cultural Differences Matter:

Words mean different things in different cultures, even if those words look virtually identical. A torch in the United States is a very different thing from a torch in the UK, for example. It’s the cultural interpretation that makes the difference, and that makes a big difference in the meaning. A good rule of thumb is: The greater the cultural differences between the parties involved, the more difficult it is to correctly interpret a deposition. In other words, the vast cultural differences between China and the United States make interpreting a deposition by a Chinese witness into U.S. English much more difficult than interpreting a similar deposition by a witness from France
or England, for example.

Patient Embarrassment or Medical Negligence?


There are lots of pitfalls to avoid when interpreting. Particularly dangerous are false cognates, which are words that sound the same in multiple languages, but mean something different. “Embarazada” in Spanish does not mean embarrassed. It means pregnant. Imagine the woman in her first trimester struggling to explain her condition to the ER staff in her rudimentary English, “I am embaras.” Because of this word, a fetus might be exposed to harmful x-rays or drugs.

How to Interpret Properly:

When it comes to interpreting one language into another, you need much more than someone on staff you think is an expert in a particular language. Just because someone grew up in a Spanish-speaking household does not make that person an expert in the nuances of the Spanish language or a Spanish interpreter. You will need an expert, i.e., a certified legal interpreter, in order to ensure you have a properly worded and accurate deposition and thus, to properly present your argument and potentially win your case.

Simple Misunderstanding or Costly Malpractice?

Standard manual wheelchair standing in empty hospital corridor

Willie Ramírez, an 18-year-old, was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. At the time of admission, an interpreter made a mistake and translated the Spanish term “intoxicado” which means poisoned or having an allergic reaction as: “intoxicated”. Willie, who was suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage was only treated for an intentional drug overdose. As a result, he was left quadriplegic. The law suit resulted in a settlement over Willie’s lifetime of approximately $71 million, assuming he lives to age 74.



See related experiences in the CASE STUDIES section of MediaLocate’s Interpretation Division (RSLS) and find out more about our legal and medical interpretation services HERE.



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