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Lost In Translation - Going to court if you can't speak English

Jeffrey S. Witten, B.A., LL.B.
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Personal Injury Lawyer at McComb Witten Marcoux

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"Lost in translation: A trial halts while lawyers search for an acceptable interpreter" 

- Vancouver Sun Sept 13/13 article written by Daphne Bramham

Testifying in a court room is a frightening experience for people who've never done it before. Even if they do speak English.

So imagine how someone who can't speak the English language must feel if they have to give testimony in a Vancouver court.

How do they get their point across?

The Greater Vancouver Area is a very multicultural place. It's home to people who've come from all over the world.

We've got people from China, Iran, The Philippines, Korea, Africa, Russia, Afghanistan etc., etc. who've moved to the Great Vancouver region in the recent past.

Some of these people speak no English at all.

Others speak "street english" i.e. enough to get by on a day to day basis but not enough to clearly express themselves when it comes to more involved/complicated matters.

So how do these people navigate B.C.'s justice system ?

Well, when it comes to a language that's fairly common, a certified court interpreter is often available.

What happens is that the interpreter attends in the court room? In very simple terms, the interpreter translates everything the non-English person says into English for the court ( judge, lawyers etc.). And translaters everything the judge and lawyers say from English back into the person's native tongue.

But sometimes the person doesn't speak English has concerns about this whole translation process.

How do they know that what they are saying in their native tongue is being accurately translated?

What if the terms they want to use in their own language doesn't translate translate accurately into the English language?

What if the language they speak is  less specific than English and as such their testimony comes across as vague or evasive  in English?

What happens if the dialect they speak doesn't exactly jibe with that spoken by the court interpretor?

What's going to happen if the tone of the language they speak is more "dramatic" than English and may lead someone to conclude that they are over stating their testimony?

These are merely a few of the questions that I've pondered when representing people who don't speak English.

Quite frankly it's a fascinating subject.

Interested in discussing how non-English speakers can interact with B.C.'s justice system?

Call me at 604-255-9018 or e-mail me at [email protected]

Jeff Witten



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