COURT REPORTERS – What to do with strong accents?

As court reporters, we get to produce transcripts about everything imaginable and meet people from all over the world.  One of the most difficult parts of our job is to write people who come from different countries, ethnicities, and with strong regional accents.  The question was recently debated on the NCRA manager’s forum:  “Does the reporter write a verbatim transcript or transcribe testimony adding plurals when a person does not have the ability to pronounce an ‘s’ and yet it is obvious the plural is what the person is saying?  Or, “Does the reporter write a verbatim transcript or transcribe testimony inserting ‘him’ for ‘them’ when it is obvious the person is talking about a single person?” 

As a court reporter in the line of battle listening to strong accents I will find myself thinking:  “Did I mishear?  Did the witness say ‘him’ but I couldn’t tell because of the accent, or did the witness say ‘them’?   The thing is ‘them’ wouldn’t make any sense in the context of what he is talking about?  Hmm.  But I think I heard ‘them’.” 

Mind you, this is going through my mind as I am writing 200+ words a minute.

Another problem is witnesses who invent things often come from foreign countries, and court reporters have the added stress of not knowing the intricacies of the science they are talking about, for example, the sequencing of the human genome.

In reading the advice that different court reporters were giving on the NCRA forum, there were two schools of thought, but one of the wisest comments was to the effect, “It can be dangerous to help the person with the strong accent, because where do you stop?  Everyone in the room can hear the accent, and the record with the broken English, incorrect syntax will make sense to the reader in the long run.” 

One thing that I have done when reporting scientists with very strong accents,  scientists who are talking about highly technical subject matter, testimony that is difficult to understand and report, is put a realtime screen in front of the scientist.  I ask all counsel (and put my statement/request on the record as THE REPORTER), “Does everyone agree that I will put a realtime screen in front of the witness so the witness can read what I am transcribing his/her testimony to be, and if I am incorrect, the witness can stop, let me know, and make sure I am accurately recording what he/she is saying in realtime?”  I have found that 99.9% of the time all counsel agree to my solution and are grateful.  Everyone wants an accurate record. 

Realtime makes a lot of court reporters very nervous, and they feel uncomfortable having someone read what they are writing – particularly when the testimony is highly technical.  I say, “Get over it.”  I know I am a really good court reporter, and I know the attorneys know I am a really good court reporter.   For IP, patent litigation, having an accurate record of the science is essential to everyone.  I want to “get it right” and not assume I know what the scientist is saying or guess.  I have used this tool in extremely difficult situations (maybe 25 depositions in my career).

Reporting a deposition with strong accents will never be easy.  Strong accents are one of the many reasons that machines cannot do our job.  I have strong empathy for all reporters everywhere, young and old, who are reporting the tough depositions with speakers almost impossible to understand.   I have a high degree of respect and admiration for all of you out there.  Writing accents is incredibly hard work and takes a tremendous amount of concentration.  Court reporters rock!

Please leave all of your wise comments below.  Your brilliance will help our whole court reporting profession.

@rosaliekramm (Twitter)

10 replies
  1. Sherry says:

    This is good. I like all of the suggestions.

    I often run into situations when I’m CARTing for patients in hospital settings and the docs often like to refer to the patients in the third person. When they do this, I will have to often let them know that they can talk directly to them in the first person. So instead if saying “ask him, how bad is the pain?”. I often take the liberty of just changing it myself as I write and will read “how bad is the pain?” It drives me nuts. Even after I let them know, after so many minutes, they go back to doing it wrong. Sometimes they even look at me like I’m the patient. That drives me even more nuts.

  2. Rosalie Kramm says:

    Sherry, I am impressed you do CART for patients. I think you are wise to change to first person so it makes sense to the person you are CARTing for.

    For an IME I would ask the doctor to talk in first person, just like for interpreted proceedings, but leave it in third if she/he doesn’t pay attention since it is a legal event that is being recorded.

  3. Anne Torreano says:

    Another great blog, Rosalie. Reporting in the Silicon Valley as I do, heavy accents and technical jargon are the norm, not the exception. I love the suggestion of placing a screen in front of the witness. Never thought of that before.

  4. Kim Neeson says:

    Another great blog, Rosalie. We are in the middle of doing a highly complex class action heart valve case and all the witnesses are experts. We are providing realtime and internet streaming, and it was very scary, especially in the beginning, knowing that your writing isn’t everything you’d like it to be. But you’re right, you have to “just do it” and persevere and everyone was very understanding, and lo and behold, after a time the realtime looks awesome and everyone loves the product. So those of you realtiming out there – whether the witness has an accent, is scientific or very technical – just do the very best you can, prep as much as you can and know that with every stroke and dictionary entry you’re improving not only your skill but your product!

  5. Cindy Vega says:

    I believe in verbatim reporting, flaws and all, with the accents. Everyone heard how the witness spoke during the deposition and could figure it out there. I agree with: where do you stop if we do change the “little” things. I have put my screen in front of witnesses that are hard of hearing so the attorney does not have to repeat every question. Will suggest it on my next witness with an accent! Thanks to all!

  6. Rosalie Kramm says:

    Cindy, that is another great way to use our talent, put a screen in front of hard of hearing witnesses. I should have added to put a screen in front of interpreters to help them see the whole sentence before they have to start interpreting.

  7. Donna Leigh Scott says:

    One of the worst things is to be asked to read back an answer from someone who is basically speaking broken English or “interesting” English. I preface by saying something like, “You have such a charming accent so forgive me if it doesn’t sound quite as lovely as it does on you.” Then I read. But I write what they say. Often an attorney will try to correct someone by saying, “You said him, did you mean her?” Many times when something weird is coming out everyone will look at me so I know they know what happened and I wouldn’t dare change it. I’ve been doing this for 35 years and I write the way people talk and attorneys have said to me that they can “hear” the witness when they read my transcripts. I like the idea of letting the witness see the screen but my writing would probably confuse him/her. Once I had an Indian guy who no one in the room could understand. I had to basically repeat almost every answer to make sure it was accurate. After a while I got into his rhythm but YIKES, I hate these depos where I’ve used up all my spare thinking by the end of the day! I feel like saying, “I have to go now, I’m losing my looks.”

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