Say What?! An Investigator’s View on Conducting Interviews in the Witness’s Native Language

Conducting witness interviews in the witnesses’ native language (or at least by someone with knowledge of the witnesses’ native language for clarifying points where necessary) is vital to protecting the integrity of an investigation for three very important reasons.

First, in our experience, witnesses who are able to communicate directly with the investigator tend to offer more information because there is less likely to be a lapse of communication. A person feels more comfortable in their native language and is not worried or embarrassed about how they are expressing themselves. Rather than looking for the right word, they are able to share information and knowledge freely.

Second, sometimes words do not translate well– For example, suppose a monolingual Spanish speaking employee is caught adjusting his start time to reflect that he came to work on time, when in actuality he was 5 minutes late and failed to call his boss ahead of time to let him know of his delay. While this act may amount to a minor a violation of the company’s time-keeping policy, the same Spanish-speaking employee may completely freeze up if an interpreter mistakenly uses the word violacion instead of infraccion to inquire about this conduct, since violacion in Spanish actually means rape. One can imagine how this grave error in translation would curtail an employee’s willingness to divulge further. I recall a matter in which a witness who spoke Greek used the word “paidi” and meant “young person” (as in their twenties) but the interpreted transcription read “child” which is also “paidi.”   This translation error could have been dispositive in that case, but was not, because I speak Greek and had the error immediately corrected.

Third, where an investigator interviews through an interpreter a witness who has some command of the English language, a different problem presents itself. Often investigators have limited time to get to the root of the issues presented before moving on to other interviews thus, it is nearly impossible to conclude the witnesses’ level of English proficiency. A person who understands some English but insists on the assistance of an interpreter is actually getting two bites at the apple. Hearing the question twice give the witness additional time to formulate answers they may not have thought of but for the delay in the conversation.

We are proud at EPT Legal to have investigators who are either fluent in or have working knowledge of English, Spanish, Greek and Hebrew. We have found this very useful in our work and to our clients.


Elena Paraskevas-Thadani and Jodi Morales are attorneys and investigators at EPT Legal LLC, a firm specializing in internal workplace investigations, training, ADR and executive coaching. This is what they talk about over coffee.