Speaking bluntly, interpreters aren’t prepared to or trained to subpoena. The sole responsibility of the interpreter is to render communication from one language to another, which is a painstaking and detailed responsibility.
Ingrid Christensen, President and 20+ year professional Spanish interpreter stated that “our job is to say exactly what each party in the room says – nothing more, nothing less. Once our job is done, everything that was said disappears. I speak for hundreds of people a year and I cannot tell you tomorrow what I interpreted today.” According to Christensen, professional interpreters train for years to strengthen their short-term memory, which includes note taking. “I look at my notes post-assignment and they look like chicken scratch… I’ve developed my own “language” of sorts that helps me remember details, but they mean nothing after the assignment and mean even less to anyone else. Subpoenaing my notes would be worthless to anyone, even me!”
Interpreters study and strengthen short term memory techniques to ensure that their interpretation is accurate, complete and without additional content at the very moment the interpretation occurs. They do not study long-term memory techniques nor work toward strengthening those skills. At the very moment the interpretation occurs literally means in one ear in one language, out the mouth in another language while simultaneously listening to the next message to interpret.
What interpreters don’t do is recall information or messages for future use, which is precisely why interpreters would not perform very well under a subpoena.
There are legal and ethical reasons why interpreters shouldn’t be subpoenaed. The Executive Committee of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) released a statement, which points to its own Code of Professional Ethics and says that the “cardinal principle applied worldwide since WWII [is] that interpreters should never be obliged to give testimony.”
Interpreter Code of Ethics
A growing trend to subpoena interpreters to testify about something they may have witnessed or interpreted while on assignment clearly puts the interpreter in violation of a tenet found in all interpreter codes of ethics: the tenet of confidentiality. Protecting confidentiality is fundamental to the work of the interpreter. Without absolute trust in this practice, the consumer of services is less likely to be fully engaged in the encounter. That said, a subpoena is a subpoena and interpreters are not above the law but because it conflicts with their professional Code of Ethics.