Interpreting depositions: a fact sheet

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are ever contacted to interpret at a deposition.

1. Prepare very thoroughly: learn not only the facts of the case and points of law, but also the names of the law firms, the companies and/or individuals, exhibit numbers, and amounts involved. Figure out in advance which symbol you'll use for each name.

Lawyers tend to speak very fast during depositions, perhaps to buy time or to obfuscate, and those names and numbers need to be ready to roll off your tongue.

2. Rehearse the situation using YouTube and other online sources.

There is plenty of material about preparing for depositions. Although it is mostly meant for lawyers, it will help you too. There are even lots of videos of actual depositions.

3. Hone your consecutive skills. Remember to rely on your memory above all.

This is the toughest, most demanding consecutive interpreting assignment I can think of. You'll be tempted to regress to early training days, when notes were more of a crutch than a signpost – don't.

4. Be as literal as possible: reformulate only if there is no alternative.

This is in aid of your memory: try too hard to understand in great depth and you'll lose track.

5. Only interpret. Never try to answer a question made to you by the witness or talk aside with them during the hearing itself or breaks.

If this happens, immediately translate what the witness is saying, e.g., "The witness is asking me whether I know a good place to buy leather around here” or "The witness is telling me his wife is also a translator." It is very important for both parties to trust you and be sure that you would never take sides, no matter which party actually retained your services.

6. Ask speakers to repeat names as many times as necessary.

Never hesitate to do this; better to appear “dense” once than to call Obama “Osama” and remain forever on tape to be heard over and over again.

7. Expect scapegoating. Don't take it too personally if someone claims you have mistranslated something.

Once, a witness with excellent English claimed he would be more comfortable testifying in his own language, but then proceeded to correct my every word – with less-than-perfect results. He also kept asking me to repeat, so I was forced to explain to the lawyers that the witness wanted me to repeat my translation, then restate what I had said to the best of my memory, and finally accept the criticism and the correction. It was hard to keep a poker face, but I soon realized it was merely a tactic to wear out the other side: I was just collateral damage.

8. Be prepared for abrupt changes in register; don't get caught off-guard. Highly educated language may be followed by colorful street slang.

Harvard-graduate lawyer: "Sir, I need to ascertain the genuineness of the exhibit I am about to present to you. For the record, this is Exhibit A453. Can you unequivocally attest to the fact that this letter was written by your Uncle Tom?”
Deponent:  “Listen, man, you'll have to give me a full ear here. I’m no hobnocker
[1]. I told ya’ already, I ain’t gonna pretend I recognise the letter if I wasn’t with Uncle when he wrote it.

[1] A hobnocker is someone who does something illegal and gross.

Recommended citation format:
Verónica Fabiana PEREZ GUARNIERI. "Interpreting depositions: a fact sheet". June 16, 2010. Accessed July 9, 2020. <>.

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Fantastic video series from The New York Times of very common #deposition exchanges between deponent & lawyer. Hilarious, to boot. Good videos for beginner deposition interpreters to watch as introduction to depositions. I can't paste URL here. See "Verbatim: What is a Photocopier?" on YouTube.

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Excellent notes. Especially, scapegoating. In high stakes litigation, this occurs too often. 

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Verónica Fabiana PEREZ GUARNIERI


I thank all of you for your comments. They help me grow, improve my writing and focus my ideas. Good point that of Manuel. It makes me think about writing a sequel to this article.

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...fascinating topic indeed, and both your articles and your exchange do it honour, so much so that I'm brinbing them to the attention of my region :-)!

One aspect you may want to comment further is the flat-out "addition" of elements, called for by one's target language (particularly when going from Germanic to Romance) so as to faithfully convey meaning... a necessary but dangerous endeavour in legal contexts...

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On the author's recommendation, I am now reproducing an interesting conversation we have been having via e-mail:

"Querida Veronica,

he leido tu excelente articulo, y comparto totalmente tus consejos y atingencias. La única duda que siempre me persigue es sobre qué debemos entender por "literal" y por "reformular".

Me permito citar una pequeña nota que he escrito sobre este tema. La encuentras en

bajo el titulo "Traducción literal, traducción libre, un falso dilema", publicado el 19 de octubre del año pasado.

Por mi parte, estoy absolutamente convencida de que este es un problema central, quizás el problema central tanto del traductor como del intérprete.

Me he encontrado exactamente en la situación que tu describes en tu artículo: el declarante y cuatro abogados (dos por lado del litigio), todos inteligentes en inglés y castellano. Uno de ellos me invitó a traducir "literalmente". Mi respuesta fue que la traducción literal no es posible. Lo pensó un momento, luego asintió.

En la interpretación de discovery depositions, creo que se trata de seguir estrictamente la hilación lógica del razonamiento, la secuencia de eventos tal como los cuenta el declarante, con todos sus errores y traslapos y dislates y matices emocionales. Pero no se puede hablar de "literal". Lo literal no existe, pues en la lengua la forma y la sustancia son una sola cosa.

Creo que, cuando hablamos de literal (yo tambien uso este termino, por supuesto), nos referimos a traducir el sentido no metafórico: "llueven perros y gatos" por "it's raining cats and dogs" en lugar de "está lloviendo a cántaros", en el caso de aquellas expresiones (sobre todo las idiomaticas) que tienen un sentido metafórico y uno no metafórico. Pero en realidad, pensandolo bien, toda expresion lingüïstica tiene diferentes niveles de sentido metafórico, pues la lengua es simbolo. Allí es donde me atraco. Se aceptan sugerencias."

To which she replied:

"Mil gracias por tu comentario. Este tipo de intercambio siempre enriquece. Cuando digo “literal” en mi artículo no quiere decir palabra por palabra sino que me refiero a lo siguiente (y cito definición en la RAE)


(Del lat. litterlis).

1. adj. Conforme a la letra del texto, o al sentido exacto y propio, y no lato ni figurado, de las palabras empleadas en él.

2. adj. Dicho de una traducción: En que se vierten todas y por su orden, en cuanto es posible, las palabras del original.

Fijate que en la acepción dos dice “en cuanto es posible” y en la uno dice “al sentido propio y no lato ni figurado”. Por supuesto que hay que respetar las diferencias entre idiomas y demás."

To which I replied:

"Correcto, de acuerdo.

El punto es, quién y cómo se decide el "sentido exacto o propio"?

Te cito parte de otra pequeña nota que estoy tratando de escribir:

Asistieron a la reunión tres gatos.

Aun cuando no se trata de una expresión idiomática (hasta donde me consta), esta oración se puede entender tanto en sentito metafórico, como no metafórico.

Sentito metafórico: “The meeting was attended by hardly anybody”.

Sin embargo, si de lo que se trata es que en la reuniones estuvieron presentes, literalmente, tres personas, la traducción debería ser algo así como: “The meeting was attended by, literally, three people.

Si a la reunión no fue nadie, la frase es una manera de señalarlo para hacer hincapié en el desamparo: “The meeting was attended by, literally, three cats”.

Si se trata, por ejemplo, de una nota de color local, y se quiere señalar la presencia de gatos en la reunión cualquiera que haya sido el número de personas presentes, una posible traducción sería: “Present at the meeting were three cats.”

En otras palabras, la distinción entre sentido metafórico y no metafórico no es suficiente para el traductor, pues cada oración tiene un número ilimitado de sentidos metafóricos, dentro de un rango que va desde la frase carente de sentido no metafórico (crown prince) hasta la frase idiomática (it’s raining cats and dogs)."

To put the matter in a nutshell, I am firmly convinced that, whether in translating or interpreting, we need to reject the literal v. free rendering concept.

The floor is open...

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Angela KEIL


Thank you very much for your article.

A colleague recommends "Nolo's Deposition Handbook", which was written for non-legal specialists and has proved to be good background reading:

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I disagree with your comment that trying too hard to understand could lead to losing track. I

sincerely believe that it is the very effort of trying to understand at all times that enables you to fill in the gaps in your memory or your notes.

As for not being seen as being on one side or the other - the most amusing thing that happened to me was when counsel on the opposite side followed me down the corridor at every break to ask for my card - I was interpreting for his client but hired by other lawyer! I guess he saw me as objective!

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