Interpreting and Transcribing Evidentiary Tape RECORDINGS: High scale difficulty, High level satisfaction Interpretation translation jobs
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Interpreting and Transcribing Evidentiary Tape RECORDINGS: High scale difficulty, High level satisfaction

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The transcription and interpreting of foreign language tape recordings is one of the duties included in the scope of the work done by legal interpreters.  It is difficult work as it is extremely time consuming, it requires serious concentration and the source tape is often of questionable quality. I have loved this work ever since over 16 years ago I was handed my first whisper-ridden, undercover tape with the audio quality of a 1930’s Victrola phonograph record.  I have since completed hundreds of hours of tapes; both audio and video and serve as an expert witness on translated tape transcript quality.  But I am continuously striving to enlighten our clients on the need for audio quality guidelines.

What matters to the interpreter are the quality of the tape and the terms of the assignment agreed to with the client.  All areas of the practice of law from family law to criminal to civil potentially present tapes as evidence.  The contents of the tapes are as different as the field of law.  Tape recordings that are included as evidence can range from simple recorded statements taken over the phone for an insurance claim on a vehicular accident to the undercover recordings made on a body wire in a sting operation.  The courts are very accustomed to DA’s and defense attorneys offering tape recordings as evidence.  They are attractive evidence because they are active as opposed to passive evidence.  And if it is at all possible for them to be played at the trial, they make a more memorable impact on a jury than written exhibits ever could.

But a foreign language tape recording looses all of its appeal and credibility as evidence if the tape has not been correctly transcribed and translated.  More and more judges are throwing out evidentiary tapes that are riddled with errors and omissions.  And now, after so many experiences with poor work, litigators have caught on to how to challenge such a tape as inadmissible.  The result of a successful challenge is not only the loss of that specific evidence, but if it was key (such as a confession) then the entire case can be thrown out.  You will also have angry Judges who will take it out on the attorneys, who will then take it out on whoever hired the interpreter.  The result to the legal interpreter is a seriously damaged reputation which could affect them ever being hired again.  The repercussions reach as far as the rest of the profession who are all judged as one.   Omissions in legal interpretation have strict implications that interpreters in other fields don’t have to concern themselves with.   Changing or paraphrasing what is originally said is the same as altering testimony which is considered perjury or lying under oath.   We legal interpreters are subject to the penalties of perjury.

The knowledge that the contents of a tape will essentially be a conversation makes this work and the pay very attractive to the novice interpreter.  They soon learn that it can be a conversation under the conditions of duress, the emotional stress of fear and panic plus language affecting factors like drunkenness, arguing and many more surprises.  Often words and syllables are drowned out by background noises.  And then there is the delightful discovery of a poor quality audio.   When I am assigned to serve as an expert on a tape transcript and I learn that the interpreter was not qualified before being hired, I fear finding faulty work.  Here are a few tips to follow that will help you eliminate the risks involved when working with tape-recorded evidence.

Highly Demanding and difficult work

First, out of respect for the judicial system and the guarantee of a fair trial to all who participate, only accept this work if you are qualified.  You will be affecting a person’s life and in certain states, in criminal cases you can be involved in a death penalty ruling.  Only a qualified interpreter can perform this work and withstand a challenge in court.  It is a complete myth to think that just because a person can speak a language they can interpret much less do quality tape work.  This work is done by transcribing and translating an audio or audio/video tape but we actually combine both procedures into one.  Since you are hearing the spoken word, you will rely on your interpreting experience.  So, essentially a legal interpreter has the best experience to do this work.  You will need to draw on your experience in serving at trials, hearings, depositions; sworn statements which is everyday work in judicial interpreting.  This way you will be used to the common and slang language used by a variety of people.  You will also not be caught off guard by speech patterns that are influenced by the setting and the speaker’s focus on their testimony.  You will need experience with interpreting for witnesses that are upset and emotional when you work with interrogation and confession tapes.  All tapes can include legal terminology so know your “legalese”.

Present Yourself Professionally

Present your qualifications in a concise and written form.  Remember that they will be presented in court so, make no false or unverifiable claims.  Then educate your client on your procedure, the format of your work product as well as your terms and fees.   Part of your procedure will be to have your client attach your qualifications to your final work product when it is entered into evidence.  I also suggest that you attach a signed, dated and notarized Certificate of Accuracy consisting of our court interpreter’s oath.  Advise you client to not send you the only original tape.

Never accept a deadline or assignment without listening to the tape first.  Take as little or as much time as you need to know how much work and time will be involved.  (But if you take too much time in this process you can loose the job, so know when you are in over your head.)  Legal procedures are time sensitive so be ready to be very flexible up to the point that your work quality will be affected.  You have to be willing to turn down a job if the deadline means you will not provide accurate work.  Never divide a job with another person.  If the deadline is truly unreasonable the judge can be notified of the factors and reasons and may be able to grant a continuance.  In this case, provide your client with a professionally written presentation of the factors and reasons that will be the basis of the request for more time.

The Format

It is important that the printed product is clear and easy to follow or it will loose credibility.  When presented to the judge or jury as an exhibit, more than likely only one section will need to be read but the whole transcript has to be admitted.  You don’t want the lawyer standing in court fumbling around trying to find that one section.  And the evidence can be thrown out in its entirety if there are errors in only one section.

The format should be in transcript form and double-spaced.  It should be printed on plain paper, and not on letterhead.   Each page should be titled with the tape recording identification.  This can be the case style, the cause number or however the investigation has been identified. On each page the tape itself should be identified, (if more than one) as well as the side of the tape such as Tape Three side B.

Start a fresh transcript for each new conversation or interview even if on the same tape.  This is because each new conversation can be considered different evidence and it is often referred to separately in court.

Identifying the Speakers on a Tape

The transcript of simple recorded statements can identify the speaker and the investigator but it should be noted that these names were provided to the translator by said investigator.  For tapes being submitted or considered for trial, I never identify speakers on a tape by name.  Translators and interpreters can not know and prove up that a voice on a tape is that of a specific person.  Many litigators today hire voice experts to identify a person on a tape, and they will also use these people to challenge anyone identifying their client based on hearsay.

To avoid any possible misidentifications I prefer to list them as Male Voice One, Female Voice Two and so on.   The enumeration is according to the order in which they appear on the tape as a speaker.

Identifying the Limitations of the Recording itself

In this work, it is recognized that even the top professionals will inevitably come across the following limitations to being able to provide a true and accurate interpretation of the words spoken.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is your client may expect miracles from you anyway.  The advance presentation of the format will help you educate your client.

Even if a couple of syllables are missed from a word the interpreter would have to guess or estimate what the person meant to say.  A legal interpreter can not do this at any time.  This is not an option for tape work, which will come under the scrutiny of the court.  As the oath that we swear to indicates that we will interpret to the best of our ability, therefore we must inform the court and our client of these limitations to our ability.

The following terminology is used within the transcription to indicate that a word or group of words could not be identified.  Develop a Key or Glossary Page to attach to each presentation of your final work product.

(Inaudible) is used when words can not be heard.  This can be due to sounds or noises that drown out the speaker for example, slamming doors, car horns honking, anything crashing, gun shots, explosions, squealing tires and sirens.   It is also used when the tape recorder fails or cuts off temporarily.  Speakers at a distance may not be heard although they will be responded to by other voices.  It is also used when a speaker’s voice trails off at the end of their sentence.

(Unintelligible) is used when words were heard as spoken but can not be specifically deciphered.   This can be caused by human sounds that interrupt or coincide with the spoken word such as coughing, sneezing crying while talking, choking or gagging, screaming and mumbling.  A body wiretap microphone can rub against clothing and muffle parts or complete words.

 (Mixed Language)   This indicates words that are not acceptable as correct usage in either language.  When a speaker is not yet fluent in the target language but is forgetting their source language the result is a mix of the two languages.  For example a speaker will revert to Spanish by adding a Spanish language prefix or suffix to a verb in English to force it to translate; “pushear” for to push.  You can explain this limitation if applicable your translator’s notes.  Again, hold true to the rule of not guessing, as such verbiage can be very confusing in court.  Don’t make your work confusing also.

Standard procedure

The procedure is to listen to each sentence over and over again until what is said is clear to us.  Sometimes even one or two words will have to be replayed before the rest of the sentence falls into place.  An entire section will have to be replayed whenever a speaker talks very fast, when two or more people talk over each other or when they speak in whispers.  Do not shy away from whispering: if the volume can be turned up and the speed slowed down a whispered sentence can be understood.  I have uncovered key evidence in a whispered sentence.  It is possible to separate what is said when two people are talking over each other as long as the two voices are distinguishable and if they are speaking at the same decibel level.  It is actually harder to identify one word by itself than it is to decipher a group of words.  People inflect more when speaking several words and they speak more clearly this way.  Do not fall victim to the temptation to suppose what the rest of the sentence was or what a person would say in such a circumstance.  Do not allow pre-conceived notions of a response or reaction to filter into what you hear.  Don’t count on a speaker to be consistent.  Right when you are confident that you have the words down just play it one more time and you will hear something completely different.  I have found this to be especially true if I allow a day to lapse between replaying a difficult section.  The less you know about the case the better.

Your Working Environment

This will be critical to the quality of your work.  You will need a comfortable setting.  You will need to shut off the phones and all other possible sounds like the radio, chiming clocks and music.   We use a transcribing machine that allows you to slow down the tape and replay it or we use a high quality tape player.  Work healthy: lack of sleep and low energy will affect your listening abilities and you will suffer from what is known as “ audio mirages”

When time is not a factor, some people transcribe the tape directly from the source language and then translate the written transcript into the target language.  Others, including myself, prefer to translate the audio directly into the target language while listening.   Still I will replay and review my work from beginning to end before I hand it to a proofreader.  Once completed the transcripts are proofread and printed up.  In order to protect the integrity of the evidence, a proofreader should only review it for typographical errors, not grammar.  People don’t always use correct grammar while speaking, especially in tape evidence.

Here are the factors that affect your ability to produce an accurate rendition when you do have intelligible and audible speakers.

Deadline and Turnaround Time

As a rule, an eight-minute segment of a good quality recording can take at least an hour to transcribe.  The foreign language element should not add any difference. I perform this service in one step-I interpret what I hear immediately and transcribe it into English or Spanish.  But if you are asked to transcribe the original tape and then translate the transcription; your time consumption will be maximum.  Keep this in mind if you are asked to give a quote in advance.

Reviewing the work of others

There are two ways to proceed If you are hired to review tape work done by another interpreter.  One is to review the tape audibly while reading their transcript in the target language.  I find this causes me to be swayed by inference of words I may not immediately hear and I fall into the trap of pre existing mistakes.  The most efficient way is to perform your own individual interpretation and then compare the two final transcripts.

Don’t play judge and jury over a fellow professional interpreter.  You may not find any errors in a transcript.  Often we are pitted against each other by the opposing parties without realizing that legal interpreters are disinterested in the outcome of the case.  Let’s not lower ourselves to that level.  By acknowledging a fellow professionals credentials and excellent work, you are helping to educate our market.

Quite often I come across persons serving as an interpreter who are thought to be bilingual but don’t have a full command of the target or source language much less any training and experience.  These “throw down interpreters “can range from available employees at a Sheriffs department or an entry-level clerk with a foreign last name.  Once they start to face the tedious difficulties of tape work, in frustration they will invent words or paraphrase or actually use totally incorrect terms.   This will corrupt the evidence as it changes the words of the speaker.  On a more serious note, I often see the incorrect translation of to deny and to refuse substituted with “don’t really want to” It is also common for them to skip parts because they do not understand long-winded or rapid-fire responses.

One of the causes of this is that persons who are foreign born are often expected by employers to have the same interpreting skills as a professional interpreter.  The culprit is the confusion with the term bilingual and the skill of interpreting and translating which is all too common among our market.  Either out of fear of demotion or a desire to not make waves in the company, they will take on the task without any training.  After the product is proven to be riddled with mistakes and the case possibly lost, time and time again, I hear the same feeble excuse, “I never had done that kind of work before.”  

So if you apply the same respect for the professionalism of your interpretation to this tedious task, you can produce work that you will genuinely will be proud of.  And maybe, just maybe you will grow to love tape work, like I do. 

Diane E. Teichman, a Licensed Court Interpreter for the State of Texas and translator has specialized in legal work since 1980.   Diane, a member of ATA, NAJIT, HITA, FLATA and AATIA was also the first administrator of the ID and the editor of the Interpreters Voice.  She is the Series Editor for the book series Professional Interpreting in the Real World. She can be reached at 


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