#319 – English, Please!

With a two-hour wait ahead of me, now seems as a good a time as any to discuss this morning’s deposition snafu. The one problem I didn’t anticipate during my first-ever use of a translator was an issue with the speech decipherer himself. Under the circumstances, I suppose he’s no more to blame than my secretary. Even so, I’m admittedly itching to find some scapegoat for this mess, other than Karma.

I’m in Phoenix, where I’ve journeyed to depose a non-party witness in a suit alleging wrongful interference with a business relationship. My client claims the defendant stole various internet customers, and the defendant listed today’s witness as its largest purchaser. This same individual previously was my client’s biggest customer. In discovery, the defendant identified him as Juan Lee, a resident of Phoenix.

I’d arranged for service of a subpoena on Mr. Lee in Arizona, in order to take his deposition there. Shortly after, someone had called my office on his behalf and informed my secretary that he doesn’t speak English. When she, in response, asked where he hails from, the caller had answered: “Mexico.”

I consequently contacted an Arizona firm and hired a certified Spanish translator to attend this morning’s deposition. The proceeding seemingly began without issue. The witness, who appeared without an attorney, stated his name for the record. The translator, Mr. Ortega, asked whether Mr. Lee would swear to tell the truth, prodding him with “si o no?” In response, the witness answered “si.” Similar nudging from Mr. Ortega elicited another “si,” after the translator conveyed my typical deposition instructions and asked Mr. Lee if he understood them.

The first sign of trouble occurred when the witness refused to answer my initial inquires. Rather than respond, he stared questioningly at the translator. His intransigence caught me by surprise, since he had no stake in the outcome of the case and no apparent reason to withhold information.

Only after several questions did Mr. Lee finally break his silence with a series of unsolicited statements. That’s when Mr. Ortega revealed his linguistic shortcomings. Instead of converting the commentary into English, he announced: “The translator regrets to say he does not understand the witness.”

Well, I hadn’t understood him either – a fault I attributed to rusty high school Spanish combined with a local Mexican dialect that made Mr. Lee’s Spanish more difficult to comprehend. But I would’ve thought a professional translator could handle any linguistic variations. I said as much too, prompting a testy response from Mr. Ortega: “It’s not some local dialect confusing me; it’s the fact that the man’s not speaking Spanish!”

We managed to isolate the problem a half hour later, after Mr. Lee spoke by phone with various members of Mr. Ortega’s company. At last, one translator understood our witness. The two of them conversed for a bit, whereupon the professional reported back to us: “While he did come to Phoenix by way of Mexico, he previously moved to Mexico from his home country, China! And incidentally, his name isn’t ‘Juan Lee.’ It’s ‘Huan Li’.”

The Chinese translator said he’ll get here in a couple of hours, which leaves me plenty of time to contemplate the improbability of my present circumstances.

This Arizona company can supply you with a translator for almost any language.

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