ASK NICE: HOW TO OBTAIN CASE MATERIALS

4 Aug

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Recently a colleague asked “when you are doing preparation for a trial and gathering case information, do you also ask the prosecuting attorney for anything or do you just rely on the defense attorney to provide you with the materials?” Two women sprang to mind immediately: my Aunt Chickie and Isabel Framer. My dear tía says “Ask nice, honey” and Isabel let me know that I had the right to ask for what I need to interpret successfully.

The question splits in two. What do I need and whom do I ask?  The other interpreter’s bible “Fundamentals of Court Interpretation”[i] stresses “it is helpful for interpreters to familiarize themselves with the facts involved in the case at hand before beginning to interpret.” We prepare ahead of time in order to perform unobtrusively. This partial list answers the first question:

  • Complaint
  • Affidavit of the arresting officer
  • Indictments and motions
  • Witness and appearing party lists
  • Medical reports

Okay, list ready so now whom do I approach? In this case start with the defense attorney. Ask, “What’s the best way to communicate with you? Email? Fax?” Does his secretary send out the information, if he has one? If so, I learn her name and contact her, introduce myself and rattle off the same request.

Remember, the stack of files in the defense lawyer’s hand serves as a reminder that interpreters are a wee part of her day. Develop an amicable relationship with that person from the get go. Follow up with a thank you card or phone call. Sure, Email works but why not deliver kind words away from the confines of a 4½” by 2” Android screen?

All well and good but what if the defense attorney refuses? Unfortunately this happened to me in spite of NAJIT position papers and an explanation that “the more information interpreters have, the better he or she can interpret”[ii]. On to the prosecutor.

“Miss Prosecutor, do you have a second?” Explain the request and ask for materials. If she asks “Did you talk to XXX?” I respond with “I need the materials and can you help to aid in Mrs. Defendant’s defense so that she is linguistically present.”

Here I follow the same steps: “Do you have a minute?” Stick to that minute. Now is not the time for idle chatter on last night’s episode of Modern Family. I go to the source and request help. Politely. I avoid “I asked XXX for information but she turned me down and I don’t know why.” Leave the snark for others.

Sometimes defense attorneys stubbornly cling to files in spite of requests. No problem. I approached the person who contacted me first. Again, be aware of the hierarchy and the purpose of your request.

“Hi, this is John Shaklee and I’m interpreting before Judge XXX on XXX case with XXX attorney. Do you have a minute to talk?” If she answers no, then I ask may I follow up with an Email. Then, I explain that I need case materials in order to provide a seamless interpretation and that I keep information confidential. Can she help me out? If she responds with a puzzled look or suspicious tone, say “I keep all information confidential and comply with a professional code of ethics, too.” Bam! I hand over a code of ethics – my dear friend Sandra Bravo taught me that strategy years ago. I follow up with a thank-you phone call or a brief handwritten note.

If refused, it’s time to ask for five minutes of the judge’s time. Again, another contact and chance to develop a relationship with her bailiff, secretary or whomever stands in the legal hierarchy. Come prepared with the request and reinforce that as an officer of the court, the interpreter aids in the defendant’s defense and to assure Mr. Velasco hears proceedings in his native language. My experience has been that court secretaries move mountains. Let them know they made my job easier and I appreciate it. I may send the NAJIT position paper for Court Administrators. Madame Secretary operates as part of a multi-layered system and I hope to initiate a friendly, not adversarial relationship.

Brevity and preparation result with answers. Court folks attend to hundreds of tasks in a day and there’s no need to be pesky. Let me know how your efforts turn out.


[i] Dueñas González, Roseann, Victoria E. Vásquez and Holly Mikkelson. Fundamentals of Court Interpretation: Theory, Policy, and Practice. Durham: Carolina Academic Press. 1991. 507.

[ii] Kenigson Kristy, Judith. “Language and Litigation: What judges and attorneys need to know about interpreters in the legal process.” Proteus Winter 2009-2010. Volume XVIII, No. 4.: 3-4.

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