{05/02/2013}   International arbitrations and international witnesses

I am a stenographer, so I take a verbatim record of legal proceedings to, with the help of an editor, produce a daily transcript of the day’s proceedings.  This is generally fine until you get bad acoustics, overspeaking, fast and/or incoherent witnesses and, an issue in my last three jobs, non-native English speakers as witnesses who might (most definitely) benefit from an interpreter.

It is all very well having an international arbitration but when the witnesses are nigh on impossible to comprehend, I really struggle to see fairness because people don’t come across well on any level if no one can really understand them.

For example, yesterday, throughout a shipbuilding arbitration, we heard “haddock”, eg “Do haddock before painting”, ie clearly wrong.  Eventually a solicitor twigged “haddock” was “hot work”.  Ah, of course, obviously.  Also, I kept hearing, thus writing, eg “I ninja haddock”.  I finally figured out “ninja” was “mean”, though I am still not convinced that can possibly be right.  Seriously, it sounded exactly like “ninja”!  Also, “appreciate” was actually “complete” and a raft of other words we couldn’t figure out, for example “shim” (I had thought “scheme” but it didn’t quite make sense every time it was said).

Yesterday came hot on the heels of five Nigerian witnesses, of whom the latter two prompted woe-is-me tears to well and teeter on the rim of my eye, so incomprehensible were they.  And prior to that, I had two Thai witnesses, the most challenging of whom was via a video link.  Sob.

All these witnesses were important to their side’s case but how anyone could identify more than the words they wanted to hear is beyond me.  I just don’t get how it can help your case if a witness is barely intelligible.  I also think it’s sad and unfair on the witnesses because frustrated lawyers tend to err on the patronising side and speak a little like the witnesses are stupid, when in actual fact the witnesses are not communicating in their first language, in which you would expect them to be able to articulate well.

I once did a case with a Latvian witness, whose first language was Latvian, second language Russian and third language English.  However, his English was not good enough for him to understand and respond in English and the only interpreter they could get was a Russian/English interpreter so the poor witness was struggling with what English he could understand and what Russian he could grasp.  He was clearly a smart man but the English lawyers got frustrated with him (understandable but unfair) as he wasn’t answering the right question.  It made him look stupid and in the end he got annoyed and, in English, told them the above situation.  There was a bit of all-round guilt.  But his evidence was so much harder to understand or be sympathetic towards because of the quality of his answers and the interpreter’s interpretation of his poor Russian into English.  Shoddy really.

I say all this in the wild hope that today’s expert witness, who has a very British name, will not have a thick accent.  However, his being an expert in a niche area of shipbuilding (possibly to do with hot work!) could introduce a whole new challenge to my three weeks of witness hell in that I fear he will be using language I have never heard before!  Spelling hell instead!


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