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May 29, 2018 |

What Is a Courtroom Interpreter and What Do They Do?

A courtroom interpreter makes communication possible in the courtroom. Thanks to their special skills, courtroom interpreters help all people involved to understand the proceedings, regardless of the language they speak.

As people’s lives depend on the quality of the translation, court interpreters should be highly specialized. They must be proficient in both languages, and understand court and legal jargon, as well.

A courtroom interpreter must translate every word they hear accurately, whenever the judge, lawyers, or witnesses are speaking.

Relying on family members or people who don’t have the right qualifications isn’t acceptable. Such a situation can generate misunderstanding or lead to conflicts that could influence the outcome.

It’s in everyone’s interest to hire a professional courtroom interpreter to make sure all parties involved can understand the proceedings.

How to Ask for A Courtroom Interpreter

People who have difficulty in speaking and understanding English are entitled to a courtroom interpreter in all stages of a proceeding and all types of cases.

Lawyers can make the arrangements easier, but even without a lawyer, witnesses, plaintiffs, and all involved parties can get an interpreter, if the judge recognizes that they have difficulties in communicating due to poor language skills.   

Generally, there are two types of interpreters:

  • Staff Courtroom Interpreter – a permanently employed interpreter, who knows the court well, is familiar with local procedures and with most of the legal professionals
  • Per Diem Courtroom Interpreter – an independent contractor, who works for clients in more courtrooms, on a per-diem basis

In both cases, courtroom interpreters need to demonstrate their language competency by passing tests and getting specific certifications, depending on the court they want to work with.

For example, the State of New York asks interpreters to pass a Written Test of English Language Proficiency and Legal Terminology, followed by a second examination of oral language skills.

For federal courts, interpreters need to get a federal certification after passing written and oral examinations. All courtroom interpreters must also go through a criminal background check.

Courtroom Interpreters Don’t Work Only in Court

Courtroom interpreters are often involved in more stages of the legal process when authorities like the police or immigration contact them for help (for situations such as interviews following an arrest). They also interpret during attorney-client meetings and depositions.

Depending on the process, a courtroom interpreter can work anywhere between a couple of hours to several days.

When working with interpreters, breaks are necessary to maintain a high standard of communication. Interpreting for too many hours without proper breaks causes fatigue and lack of concentration, which can generate misunderstanding or errors. That’s why, for lengthy processes, a team of interpreters should be considered.

Courtroom Interpreters Must Stay Impartial

The courtroom interpreter must listen to what is said and pass on the information from and into the target language, without adding or removing any word that can change the meaning of the speech.

People who need a courtroom interpreter to communicate should be aware of the expert’s role in the process. Courtroom interpreters aren’t allowed to give advice or make any suggestions during depositions or in front of the judge.

Private conversations between the interpreter and the person who doesn’t speak the language should be kept to a minimum, to preserve impartiality.  

Courtroom Interpreters Are Sworn-In

The oath is a symbol, a way to guarantee that the interpreter will respect the principles of the court and the code of ethics for legal interpreters. The oath for court interpreters varies with the state, but in all cases, it includes the duties and responsibilities that a courtroom interpreter has in the cause of justice.

Here’s an example from Wisconsin:

I solemnly swear [or affirm] that in all proceedings in the courts of Wisconsin to which I am appointed as an interpreter, I will interpret truly, accurately, completely, and impartially, in accordance with the standards prescribed by law, the code of ethics for court interpreters, and Wisconsin guidelines for court interpreting.

When the courtroom interpreter says his or her name, the judge can ask if any party knows the interpreter, to ensure a neutral interpreter.

There Are More Types of Court Interpreting Services

In this niche, experts work with more types of interpreting services:

  • Simultaneous Interpreting – This consists of explaining in real time, while people are speaking. It’s used for jury instructions, arraignments, or motions. It’s comfortable during the stages of the proceedings that mostly include speaking by and between lawyers and judges, and the person who needs interpreting services must listen rather than talk.
  • Consecutive Interpreting – In this case, the interpreter translates one thought (or paragraph) at a time–between 40 and 60 words in a batch. This type of interpreting is used in court when the person who doesn’t speak English is in the witness stand or during client-attorney interviews. The interpreter must listen to what is being said, store the information and pass on the exact message. This process makes interviews and testimonies longer, and breaks can be required if the interpreter gets tired.
  • Virtual Remote Interpreting – This type of interpreting service relies on the latest technology to permit effective communication in court. In this case, the courtroom interpreter doesn’t appear in court and provides the services by phone or video-conference. Using technology, the interpreter has a full view of the courtroom and control over audio in consecutive, simultaneous, and private mode. It’s an excellent way of providing high-quality interpreting services in states where there’s a shortage of qualified courtroom interpreters.

The role of the courtroom interpreter is crucial. That’s why you need to work with professional teams that can provide you with the best services. When the fate of your future swings in the balance, it’s not the time to cut costs hiring amateurs.