Court Interpretation

A Court Interpreter is someone who works with the court system to provide language interpretation for those who do not speak fluent Spanish. Court Interpreters may work with witnesses or defendants in such cases. They are fluent in multiple languages and are able to understand the tone of conversation in other languages. It is a Court Interpreter's job to orally translate everything that is said. They must work to preserve the same tone and connotation as the original language and are not able to add or delete anything from the conversation. The vocabulary range of a Court Interpreter must be extensive and include everything from formal language to slang.

There are two methods in which conversation is translated: simultaneous and consecutive. Simultaneous interpretation requires the Court Interpreter to listen and speak at the same time. It is quite common for this type of interpretation to be done in pairs. The interpreter will begin translating aloud as the person is still completing their sentence. It is not typical to be used in the court systems, but can happen. Consecutive interpretation, on the other hand, begins after the person has completed their thought, sentence or phrase. Many times this means the interpreter will take notes or shorthand to make sure nothing is missed from the conversation.

Court Interpreters will typically work in a court room or other judicial location. They may also work in attorney-client meetings for interviews and depositions. They work with witnesses, families, legal personal and defendants. Court Interpreters may work odd hours and oftentimes work part-time. Depending on the need of the organization they work for, their services may be needed consecutively one month and sporadically the next. It all depends on the legal cases and need for language interpretation. When Court Interpreters are on a case, the hours may be long and the job can become stressful. However, freelance and self-employed Court Interpreters may enjoy the opportunity to control their schedules.

The work can be fascinating, sometimes dramatic, always challenging, mentally stimulating, and can even be perceived of as fun. After a few years of experience, certain types of jobs can appear formulaic and predictable, but generally a judiciary interpreter or translator never knows what his or her next assignment will bring, and that keeps interpreters and translators on their toes. Sometimes the work is exhausting and stressful. Sometimes interpreters struggle to hear under less-than-optimal conditions. Translators can work long hours on rush assignments.

In addition to near-native fluency in Spanish 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 of art 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.

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.

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.