"The Use of an Interpreter, on its Own, Is Irrelevant to the Issue of Credibility"

Reasons for judgment were released today by the BC Supreme Court addressing whether a witness who has a good understanding of English should have their credibility negatively assessed where they choose to testify trough an interpreter.  In short, the Court held that this factor alone is irrelevant in assessing credibility.
In today’s case (Kim v. Khaw) the Plaintiff was injured in a vehicle collision that the Defendant was responsible for.  The Plaintiff sued for damages and testified using a translator.   The Plaintiff had a good understanding of English and as a result the Defendant argued the Plaintiff’s credibility should be negatively impacted by using the buffer provided by a translator.   Madam Justice Sharma disagreed and in doing so provided the following reasons:

[100]     Mr. Kim’s comprehension of English was good; therefore, does his decision to use an interpreter impact his credibility?

[101]     There is no doubt that hearing evidence through the filter of an interpreter can be challenging: Wang v. Hu, 2003 BCSC 552 at para. 24; R. v. A.F., 2010 ONSC 5824 at para. 87. The court must be alive to the fact that the impact or nuance of interpreted testimony may be “lost in translation”, especially during cross-examination. For example, inconsistencies in explanations or expressions may be the inevitable result of there being no exact translation, or perhaps many translations, for an English word, phrase or concept in the foreign language.

[102]     It is unfortunate, but inescapable, that hearing evidence through an interpreter may make it more difficult to consider and weigh that evidence. Difficulty, however, cannot be a bar to fairness; fairness is the measure against which the court must gauge whether the fact that evidence was given via an interpreter is relevant to or affects the credibility of that witness’ testimony.

[103]     Mr. Kim felt more comfortable testifying in Korean. A major issue in this case is whether his mental status has been detrimentally affected by the Accident. This required him to discuss and reveal highly personal and emotional information, including his intimate relationship with his wife and his interactions with his children. He testified about matters that all doctors accepted he felt enormous shame and guilt about. I find it reasonable and understandable that he would choose to testify in his native language even if he does understand English well. This is especially true because he is not just a witness, but a party, in the case.

[104]     The comfort of one’s native language, even when English is understood, is surely a factor for many witnesses who testify via an interpreter. That comfort would be seriously eroded if, without reasonable justification, a court were to take into account a witness’ preference for interpretation when weighing their evidence or assessing their credibility. It is my view that the use of an interpreter, on its own, is irrelevant to the issue of credibility. To find otherwise could unfairly prejudice participants in the trial process who used interpreters and could undermine public confidence in the trial process. In my view, there must be some evidence, or a reasonable inference that can be drawn from evidence, that the witness’ use of the interpreter was not necessary for them to fairly participate in the trial, but rather was a deliberate intent to gain some advantage: Mee Hoi Bros. Co. v. Borving Investments (Canada) Ltd., 2014 BCSC 1710 at para. 13 and 21 [Borving].

[105]     In this case, Mr. Kim demonstrated that he does understand spoken and written English, and that he speaks English (although, from the very little I heard, with a heavy accent and somewhat haltingly). I understood the defendants to rely on Mr. Kim’s facility with English as another reason the court should not rely on his testimony. I find that to be irrelevant to the weight I attach to his evidence. In this case, the defendants’ counsel was able to conduct a vigorous and effective cross-examination of the plaintiff despite the interpretation.

[106]     I do not discount the possibility that counsel may want to argue that the use of an interpreter, where one was not absolutely necessary, caused the trial to be longer which should be recognized in a costs award, but that issue is entirely different from credibility.

bc injury law, credibility, interpreter, Kim v. Khaw, Madam Justice Sharma

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ERIK
MAGRAKEN

Personal Injury Lawyer

When not writing the BC Injury Law Blog, Erik is the managing partner at MacIsaac & Company, based in Victoria, B.C. He is also involved with combative sports regulatory issues and authors the Combat Sports Law Blog.

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