FAQ for Legal Professionals

FAQ – Legal Professionals

What is judiciary interpretation?

There are several different branches of interpretation: (1) legal, (2) conference, (3) medical/mental health, (4) escort, (5) seminar, and (6) business. Legal interpretation is divided into two main categories, judicial (commonly known as court interpreting) and quasi-judicial (interpreting that takes place in other legal settings). Judiciary interpreters work in courtrooms and in out-of-court settings, in any matter related to law or a legal case. 

Judiciary interpreters are highly skilled professionals who fulfill an essential role in the administration of justice by providing complete, unbiased, and accurate interpretation between English speakers and non-English or limited-English-proficient (LEP) defendants, litigants, victims, or witnesses. They are impartial officers of the court, with a duty to serve the judicial process. The judiciary interpreter’s role is to help remove the linguistic barriers that impede an LEP individual from full and equal access to justice under the law.

Where do judiciary interpreters work?

Assignments may take place in juvenile, municipal, state, or federal court, or in out-of-court settings such as attorneys’ offices, jails, law enforcement facilities, or other locations. In some states, such as California, certified court interpreters are also qualified to interpret in medical settings, by virtue of their certification, qualification, training, and experience.

What kinds of cases do court interpreters work in?

Judiciary interpreters cover virtually every kind of case (civil and criminal) in municipal, state, and federal courts. State court interpreters cover matters including personal injury, small claims, landlord/tenant disputes, traffic violations, domestic violence, child support, sexual assault, rape, homicides, drug offenses, arson, and illegal gambling, to name a few.

Legal proceedings may include initial appearances, bail applications, pretrial conferences, pleas, evidentiary hearings, trials, sentencings, or post-sentencing hearings. Judiciary interpreters also work outside of the courtroom in other legal or quasi-legal settings such as attorney-client interviews, prosecutor and victim or witness interviews, proffer sessions with prosecutors, Grand Jury proceedings, or law enforcement interviews and interrogations. In addition, they may interpret for court support personnel or other justice services (e.g., probation officers, medical personnel conducting psychiatric evaluations, law enforcement personnel conducting polygraph examinations); probation and parole interviews; administrative hearings; depositions; immigration hearings; and worker’s compensation hearings.

What is the difference between interpretation and translation?

In popular usage, the terms “translator” and “translation” are frequently used for conversion of either oral OR written communications. However, within the language professions, translation is distinguished from interpreting according to whether the message is produced orally (interpreting) or in writing (translation).

What is the difference between the trained interpreter and the bilingual speaker?

While a trained interpreter is bilingual, a bilingual person is not a competent interpreter in the legal environment. A legal interpreter is trained in professional conduct, is knowledgeable about legal terminology and procedures, follows ethical procedures required in courts and other legal settings, allows both parties to communicate as directly as possible. While the legal interpreter is not allowed to address possible cultural issues in the court setting, he/she may be able to identify and address these cultural barriers during legal consultations in the lawyer’s office and other non-court settings.

What are the techniques of interpreting? How is it done?

In legal settings, only three modes of interpretation are permitted by federal or state statute, court rule, or case law. These modes are: simultaneous interpretation, consecutive interpretation, and sight translation. All three modes require skills beyond near-native proficiency in both languages. (See Position Paper on Modes of Interpreting.)

The main technique in judiciary interpretation is that the interpreter uses the same grammatical voice as each speaker, without ever lapsing into the third person. This is called direct speech, and permits people to communicate with each other directly. The interpreter’s task is to interpret everything from one language into the other language, while preserving the tone and register of the original discourse. An interpreter is not permitted to give a summary (also known as “occasional” interpretation) of a speech or text.

Some judges and attorneys have a mistaken belief that an interpreter renders court proceedings word for word, but this is impossible since there is not a one-to-one correspondence between words or concepts in different languages. For example, sometimes one word in English requires more than one word in another language to get the same idea across, and vice versa. Rather than word for word, then, interpreters render meaning by reproducing the full content of the ideas being expressed. Interpreters do not interpret words; they interpret concepts.

What does a legal translator do?

A legal translator prepares written translations of documents related to criminal and/or civil matters, such as medical or psychological evaluations; forensic reports (drug analyses, DNA reports or medical reports); divorce decrees; foreign judgments; extradition documents; statutes and contracts, or other relevant documents. The translation may be from the foreign language into English or from English into the foreign language. Tape transcription and translation of audio or video recordings are also needed for legal and quasi-legal proceedings. Transcription is an area of legal interpretation that requires additional training and expertise.

What are the job requirements for becoming a court interpreter?

In addition to near-native fluency in English and another language, and specialized skill in the required modes of interpretation, a judiciary interpreter and/or translator must be knowledgeable about the structure of the court system and the terms related to criminal and civil justice settings. A judiciary interpreter must have wide general knowledge (equivalent to at least two years of college-level education); and an extensive vocabulary ranging from formal discourse to colloquialisms and slang. Competence also requires a cooperative and flexible attitude. An interpreter deals with people from many walks of life and must remain professional, unbiased, and neutral towards all. Lastly, a judiciary interpreter must have a good understanding of the protocol applicable to each distinct venue and be familiar with the interpreters’ code of ethics and the laws that govern it.

An interpreter must possess good short-term memory skills; must be able to multi-task while engaged in note-taking; and must process and reproduce meaning quickly and accurately into another language. These skills are acquired over considerable time and constantly polished to improve speed, accuracy and delivery. A translator must possess excellent writing, research and analytic skills.

Is there a code of ethics that judiciary interpreters and translators must follow?

NAJIT has a Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibilities which is binding on all its members.

The Administrative Office of the United States District Court has developed standards for performance and professional responsibility.

The states that belong to the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts have also developed codes of ethics for judiciary interpreters and translators, which may vary in format, but are based on the National Center for State Courts’ Model Code and cover the same ethical principles. CourtEthics.org has a compendium of interpreter codes in the states.

Are interpreters subject to background checks and security clearances?

Yes. Each court system may conduct a criminal record check on the interpreters it employs part or full time.

Is there a constitutional right to an interpreter?

Although the United States Constitution does not explicitly provide for the right to an interpreter, the individual rights and liberties afforded to all individuals under the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are meaningless for non- or limited-English speakers unless they are provided with complete, competent, and accurate interpreting services.

Do states have statutes that require interpreters for court proceedings?

Yes. Many states have statutes or court rules that provide for the appointment of interpreters in court proceedings. An internet search will lead you to the relevant statutes.

Is there a federal statute that governs the appointment of interpreters?

Nationally, the Court Interpreters Act was enacted in 1978. Title 28 USC §1827 is the federal law that establishes appointment and qualification procedures for interpreters in judicial proceedings instituted by the United States. In addition the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Executive Order 13166, issued in 2000, requires all recipients of federal assistance, including state courts, to implement plans to ensure that limited English proficient individuals have access to services.

In recent years, the U.S. Department of Justice has been reviewing state court’s compliance with this executive order. In 2010, Assistant Attorney General Perez wrote a letter to the state courts outlining the Department of Justice’s concerns about access to courts for limited English proficient individuals.

What is the relevant case law regarding interpretation?

United States ex rel Negrón (1970) is among the most important cases related to judiciary interpretation. In Negrón, a Spanish-speaking defendant’s New York state murder conviction was overturned on constitutional grounds. Negrón had been provided only periodic summaries during breaks, rather than a complete, ongoing interpretation of his trial proceedings. His limited comprehension of the proceedings was found to be a violation of his due process rights.

What happens if an interpreter makes a mistake?

Poor interpretation may cause injustices; that is why standards, training, and certification are so vitally important. However, interpreters are human, and humans are fallible, so mistakes do occasionally occur. When an interpreter becomes aware of an error in interpretation, the interpreter is ethically required to correct the mistake immediately. In court, the interpreter should address the judge, acknowledge the error, and request that the record reflect the correction.

Outside of court, an interpreter should address the legal authority in the specific setting in which the interpreter is working. For example, if an interpreter has been contracted by an attorney to interpret in an attorney-client interview or witness interview, the interpreter should address the attorney to acknowledge an error. If an interpreter has been contracted by law enforcement, the interpreter should address the interviewing or interrogating officer. If an interpreter was contracted by a social services agency, the interpreter should address the social worker, and so forth.

Complex and sensitive issues of protocol are involved when correcting a mistake for the record. For example, the interpreter might need to request permission to approach the bench during a jury trial. Interpreters should become familiar with procedures and protocols for resolving specific problems or managing specific situations.

Ideally, interpreters should work in teams of two for trials and longer proceedings. This helps avoid interpreter fatigue, and provides mutual assistance when omissions or other errors occur. Federal statute as well as some state court statutes or court rules contain provisions on the use of team interpreting. NAJIT strongly recommends this standard. (See NAJIT’s position paper on Team Interpreting).

What happens if an interpreter doesn’t know how to interpret a word or phrase?

The answer depends on where this occurs. Knowledge of ethics and technique come into play when an interpreter is confronted with an unknown word or expression.

  • If a witness says something that the interpreter does not understand, the interpreter must seek clarification of the problem word or expression, after requesting permission from the judge to inquire of the witness.
  • In situations outside the courtroom, the interpreter must request permission from the attorney or other judicial or law enforcement officer to seek further clarification from the speaker.

While simultaneously interpreting court proceedings, an interpreter may have to interrupt the speakers in order to request a repetition or clarification.

There are several other ways of making corrections or compensating for gaps, depending on the situation. In general, an interpreter uses finely tuned analytic and cognitive skills to derive meaning from context. Electronic or other dictionary resources may quickly be consulted, or colleagues may be consulted, or further clarification may be requested of the original speaker.

An interpreter should not hesitate to request clarification immediately if a witness uses an unfamiliar expression.

Are cases ever appealed because of an interpretation issue?

Yes. For a thorough discussion of interpretation-related issues on appeal, see Interpreter Issues on Appeal by Dr. Virginia Benmaman(Proteus, Fall 2000). See also, “Interpreters and Their Impact on the Criminal Justice System: The Alejandro Ramirez Case,” by Isabel Framer (Proteus, Winter-Spring 2000). Finally, you might want to read “Interpreters As Officers of the Court: Scope and Limitations of Practice” (Proteus Summer 2005);