Yasuko Kawakami
Court Translator & Business Communication Specialist

Professional deposition translators must be neutral and impartial. They must also have a firm understanding of the American legal system and its deposition protocol and procedure. The following are my views on what ought to be the appropriate discipline and critical aspects of being a deposition translator.

Official Translator & Check Translator: Foreign language depositions can easily deteriorate into a messy language battle between the official translator and the check translator if proper protocols and court translation rules are not observed. Translators should not participate in unnecessary arguments over esoteric language quirks. The courts require the official translator to render an accurate translation and the check translator can either accept it or reject it. When objecting, the check translator simply offers an alternative translation on the record. The official translator either accepts the translation offered by the check translator or stands on his/her original version. No further colloquy should take place between the translators after that point.

Accuracy of Translation: The court/deposition translator should translate exactly and strictly what has been said, missing no nuances and details, but should also be careful not to add or alter anything as well. In the deposition setting, like in any other situation, people sometimes misspeak, make ambiguous remarks or say things that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. When the matter is a language issue, the translator should, with permission from the questioning counsel, ask for a clarification on the record. In Japanese, the subject of a colloquial sentence is often left out and one is expected to make a guess. Court translators don’t make a guess, so we ask for a clarification. Also, generally in Japanese, there is no word distinction between the singular form and the plural form. So, we must ask for a clarification. Further, many words in Japanese are identically the same phonetically and can be very confusing. We usually ask the speaker which specific Chinese characters or Japanese characters he/she would use for that particular phonetic expression. One phonetic expression could point to several different words. For example, a phonetic expression “ai” could mean “love” or “blue,” if not “I” or even “between.” A phonetic expression “zusan” means “Fig. 3,” “inaccurate,” “faulty,” or careless.” Similarly, we ask for a clarification for English word “you” when we translate for a witness who is testifying as a 30(b)(6) witness as well as in his individual capacity. We usually use his/her last name in place of “you” as an individual and use a company name in place of “you” when he is testifying on behalf of his/her company.

If it is not a language issue, but a substance issue, the translator should not render any corrections nor attempt to offer translations that read between the lines of the speaker. Rather, the translator must wait for the questioning counsel to follow up.

Professional Demeanor: Deposition translators should remain calm at all times and not allow themselves to be intimidated by the nature of the deposition climate. Attorneys may engage in contentious exchanges and witnesses may be displeased with the situation. However, the translator should always remember that he or she is there as an impartial and professional language communicator and that he or she should behave as such. 

Quality Control and Damage Control: The translator is often the first and easiest scapegoat when certain subsequent issue arises. In order to avoid a situation to become a scapegoat, translators must avoid making mistakes and take necessary precautions. While translating depositions, I visualize the trial phase of the case with two overhead projector images showing the Plaintiff’s and the Defendant’s translations. It is a scenario where my translation and someone else’s translation are being compared word for word for accuracy in the courtroom before the jury. That thought always drives me to be very careful during the deposition. I am also conscious of the invisible jurors and court in the deposition room. I am also speaking to the panel of jurors and the court when I translate a deposition. I check and double check my translations mentally, proofread and correct any mistakes right away as I translate the deposition, eliminating any future problems or a subsequent issue.

“Kuroko” –Kabuki Assistants and Working Behind the Scenes: A professional deposition translator should try to remain “behind the scenes” when translating and refrain from taking an active center-stage role. The goal is not to be “visible.” The fewer appearances the translator makes on the transcript, the better it is. I think of myself as “kuroko,” a stage assistant veiled in black robes while they work diligently to assist the Kabuki actors on stage.

Interruptions and Distractions: Whether intentionally or unintentionally, check translators or other participants may disrupt the smooth flow of the deposition or the performance of the official translator. However, the official translator should not attempt to handle such situations. It is the attorney’s job to manage the deposition and maintain a clear transcript.

“Original Flavors”: While translating an intellectual property deposition in Osaka, Japan, the witness, a CEO of an entertainment game machine manufacturer, testified and stated, “we don’t do any pink staff.’ I translated the phrase verbatim, not defining the phrase “the pink staff.” I purposely did not clarify or define the phrase by translating his answer to say, “We don’t offer any pornographic game software.” It is the questioning attorney’s job to ask follow up questions to reach the ultimate meaning. Although this may seem like an inefficient way of conducting the deposition, this allows the jurors to learn about a witness by his/her choice of words. In Japanese, pink, peach, or rose colors suggest some pornographic or erotic things. A euphemism or periphrastic expression may be used due to the modesty and politeness of a person in Japan.

By preserving the original flavors and nuance of the words and statements made by the witness, the court and the jury can make accurate judgments accordingly. A witnesses’ choice of words or expressions often indicates social status, upbringing, personality, culture, and philosophy of the person among other variables. It is the translator’s duty to preserve the witnesses’ words and its nuances so that the court and jurors can take that unhindered translation and judge accordingly the statements made by the witnesses.

Real-Life” vs. “Textbook” Language: Some translators strictly adhere to the dictionary definitions and not by the practical meaning of the words. At a pharmaceutical patent deposition, the word ‘substitution’ became a serious issue to one of the checker translators present that repeatedly objected to my translation. Finally, the opposing party’s Japanese speaking counsel stopped her. ‘Chikan’ and ‘Okikae’ mean the same in Japanese. Another example was ‘Income Statement’ versus ‘Profit and Loss Statement’ and ‘Statement of Earnings.’ Some checker translators argue simply to win a language art contest at the deposition taker’s expense and on the record. Translators who have learned their second language at school through dictionaries and textbooks alone are likely to stumble into such pitfalls. Language is better learned from real life experiences.

Subtleties of Language: Natural command of a language is difficult to attain without real life experiences, most often accomplished by living in the country where the language is spoken and immersing yourself in that culture. I respect a native English-speaking translator who has mastered the reading skills for kanji both by its Chinese-derived pronunciations and by the native Japanese equivalent. In order for a translator to perform with competence, they must have a concrete command of both languages.

Simultaneous Conference Interpretation vs. Consecutive Deposition Translation: Simultaneous conference interpreters usually work in a team of two, taking turns every 20 minutes. Conference interpreters are permitted, if not recommended to interpret between the lines and give the gist of the original message to some extent. Unlike depositions, their ultimate goal is to give the correct message in a fastest possible way. Certain beautification, addition, deletion, short-cut, and/or substitution of the words and phrases are allowed. This is a stark contrast to translating in the courtroom or for a deposition where none of the aforementioned are permitted. Courtroom and deposition translation must be verbatim. Court translators work alone for hours, days, weeks and months with a short break every hour or 1.5 hours. Endurance, stamina and patience are all required virtues of an exemplary court translator.

Evolution of Technology: Video depositions produce a wonderfully accurate record of every aspect of the testimony, including the witness’ Japanese. This is a lifesaver for translators, as we know the record will back us up. A good real time court reporter, a real-time monitor screen, and full preparation facilitate the job of a deposition translator.