FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT
COURT AND LEGAL INTERPRETING AND TRANSLATING

What is judiciary interpretation?
Where do judiciary interpreters work?
What kinds of cases do court and legal interpreters work in?
What is the difference between interpretation and translation?
What are the techniques of interpreting? How is it done?
What does a legal translator do?
Is court and legal interpreting difficult?
Is legal translating difficult?
What is the pay scale for interpreters working in courts and other legal settings?
What is the pay scale for translators working in courts and other legal settings?
Is judiciary interpreting and translating an interesting field?
Are other kinds of work available in this field?

Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

What skills should a court interpreter have or develop?
How does one study to become a judiciary interpreter?
What are the job requirements for becoming a court interpreter?
Are there age requirements for becoming a court interpreter?
Are there academic requirements for becomming a court interpreter?
Are there degree and training programs available for legal and court interpreting?
How long does it take to become a competent court interpreter?

Certification and Codes of Ethics

Do the professional associations have a certification process for court and legal interpreters and translators?
Do you have to pass an exam to work in court?
How do I find out if my state has a court interpreter certification exam?
What are the requirements to interpret in federal court?
What are the benefits of certification?
Is there a code of ethics that judiciary interpreters and translators must follow?
Are interpreters subject to background checks and security clearances?

Market Conditions

Which languages are most in demand?
What are the prospects of finding work?
Does this field have growth potential?
Is there more work in specific states?
Is the job market different for interpreters and translators?

Legal Aspects

Is there a constitutional right to an interpreter?
Do states have statutes that require interpreters for court proceedings?
Is there a federal statute that governs the appointment of interpreters?
What is the relevant case law regarding interpretation?
What happens if an interpreter makes a mistake?
What happens if an interpreter doesn't know how to interpret a word or phrase?
Are cases ever appealed because of an interpreter issue?

Disclaimer

The information and opinions expressed herein are those of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators and are believed to be true and accurate to the best of our knowledge. However, in any case where NAJIT's Code of Ethics or position may conflict with the law, the law prevails. It is up to each practitioner to become well acquainted with federal and state court statutes, rules, or interim regulations related to any judicial or extra-judicial setting in which s/he serves.

 

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. Federal cases may include drug or arms trafficking, human smuggling, money laundering, kidnapping, hijacking, terrorist attacks, interstate or international crimes.

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 both interpretation and translation, the goal is for the tone, style, and content of the original to be maintained in the rendition into the other language.

NOTE: Interpretation and translation, while both language-related, are not identical disciplines. Each requires specific knowledge, training, and practice. Credentialing is different for each domain. Some practitioners are equally adept at both; others specialize in one discipline or the other. Although the public and media often use the terms interchangeably, we use interpretation when referring to the language transfer of oral speech, and translation when referring to the language transfer of written texts.

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. In any legal or quasi-legal setting, an interpreter is not permitted to add, omit, or delete any content. Nor is an interpreter 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.

Is interpreting in court and other legal settings difficult?

Yes, because the practitioner is multi-tasking in two languages, listening and speaking at the same time, striving to maintain a high level of accuracy at challenging rates of speech. Additionally, the interpreter must maintain confidentiality and uphold ethical standards. It can be difficult mentally, emotionally, and ethically. Interpreting in court is widely considered to be the most challenging and demanding of all legal settings.

Is legal translating difficult?

Yes, because it requires a rigorous standard of exactitude. Translated documents may be introduced into evidence or used for other legal purposes. A true and accurate translation must be produced at all times. When working with foreign language documents from different legal systems, a translator must find accurate equivalents in English for legal terms, at the same time taking care not to mislead the reader to assume that the underlying legal concepts are identical in the two legal systems, when in fact they may not be.

What is the pay scale for interpreters working in courts and legal settings?

The answer to this question depends in part on the law of supply and demand. Other variables include the type of certification and/or other qualifications held by the interpreter; the frequency and volume of work available; the venues in which interpretation is needed; and the employment scheme under which the interpreter works (self-employment, freelance, or salaried).

Remuneration varies, depending on the specific state and the associated cost of living particular to each area. In some parts of the United States, the pay is only moderate; in others, it is more on a par with professional standards. Most court interpreters are self-employed, and as such are considered independent contractors. In some venues, freelance interpreters are paid by the hour; in others they are paid by the half-day or full day. Some states have what are called "permanent per diems."

The freelance rate in federal courts for certified or professionally qualified interpreters, as of January 2008, was $376 per day, $204 per half-day (up to 4 hours), and $53 per hour or part thereof for overtime. The federal court rate for non-certified or language-skilled interpreters was $181 per day, $100 per half-day, and $31 per hour overtime.

When interpreters are hired by private parties, the rate of remuneration is negotiable.

Where the volume of work is greatest, courts have full-time staff positions, almost all of them for Spanish<>English interpreters. Starting annual salaries in state or federal courts for staff interpreters may range from $30,000 to $80,000. Supervisory positions may also be available.

In some jurisdictions, such as California, New Jersey, and Cook County, Illinois, for example, court interpreters in certain categories, both full-time and part-time, are considered judiciary employees, and as such, have collective bargaining rights.

What is the pay scale for translators working in courts and legal settings?

Translation rates vary, depending on the language, translator's qualifications, the content of the document, the time frame, whether the particular court has an established translation rate or whether the translation is for a private sector entity. Translation may be compensated at a per-word, hourly, per-page or daily rate. Rates vary by language and geographical location.

Is judiciary interpreting and translating an interesting field?

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.

Are other kinds of work available in this field?

Some judiciary interpreters work as consultants, trainers, analysts, or expert witnesses on issues related to translation and interpretation.

Other areas of work in the field include designing interpreter protocols and procedures; designing, administering, and scoring interpreter examinations; developing training materials or programs for interpreters; managing quality control in interpreting; teaching and orienting interpreters; or managing and supervising legal interpretation and translation services in the private or public sector.

What skills should a court and legal interpreter or translator have or develop?

Judiciary interpreters and translators prepare themselves through college or continuing education courses, court-sponsored training, self-training materials, mentorship opportunities, and professional workshops or conferences. Aspiring interpreters may contact their state supreme court or the administrative office of the courts in their areas for information regarding training programs. Local interpreter and translator associations should be contacted as well. NAJIT's Annual Conference provides a forum for training and information exchange among interpreters and translators. Consult the Calendar of Events for more information.

How does one study to become an interpreter working in the courts?

Full bilingual proficiency, ample vocabulary, and knowledge of standard grammar are prerequisites. Judiciary interpreter training normally focuses on ethics, specialized vocabulary, development of consecutive and simultaneous interpretation skills, and sight translation practice.

Periodically there are short-term seminars and workshops around the country offered by state court interpreter programs, by local interpreter and translators associations, or by national associations. You may want to contact your state supreme court interpreter program to see if your state has training seminars scheduled and to request that they include you on their list for notification of any future training seminars. NAJIT's Resources Page has many links to these organizations.

An excellent way to keep abreast of course offerings and many other judiciary interpreting and translating related matters is to join NAJIT. Membership entitles you to receive NAJIT's quarterly newsletter, Proteus, and periodic Cybernews alerts; to attend the NAJIT Annual Conference at a member's discounted rate; and to join the NAJIT listserve, where members discuss training opportunities, dictionary and resource information, terminology, and ethical issues.

One indispensable self-training technique is to go to court and observe proceedings. Mentally interpret to yourself. Write down the terms that you are not familiar with, and then look for solutions in dictionaries. You can also practice interpreting while watching television or listening to the radio. In general, a good practice is to tape your practice interpretations, and then to listen to the replay with a critical ear for clarity, vocabulary, word choice, and coherence.

There are also various self-training print and recorded materials available, developed by experienced interpreter trainers. Some interpreters also join informal practice groups with other interpreters. And finally, mentoring programs provide novices with opportunities to interact with experienced practitioners.

What are the job requirements for becomming 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 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.

Are there age requirements for becomming a court interpreter?

No. Interpreters and translators may be of any age so long as they have the required skill set and can function effectively in the given venue.

Are there academic requirements for becomming a court interpreter?

While an academic background is a plus, academic credentials do not necessarily qualify one as an interpreter or translator for court purposes. Most examinations for interpreters or translators are open to any candidate with a high school diploma.

Are there degree or professional training programs available?

A few colleges and universities in the U.S. offer minors or certificates in legal interpretation, general interpretation or translation, and there are always training programs being offered by associations. NAJIT's Resources Page has additional information about colleges that have programs, and you can find information about training programs in the Calendar of Upcoming Events.

How long does it take to become a competent interpreter?

The answer will vary depending on the person's background, experience, aptitude and training, but general competence is acquired over time. Most students of interpreting need a year or two to acquire minimum interpreting skills after they have mastered their source and target languages.

Do the professional associations have a certification process for judiciary interpreters and translators?

Yes. NAJIT has developed a judiciary interpreter and translator certification examination in Spanish. NAJIT's exam tests interpretation skills and also legal translation skills.

The Consortium for Language Access in the Courts, a division of the National Centor for State Courts, offers certification examinations that are recognized by many state court systems.

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf offers a generalist certification for sign language interpreters as well as a specialist certification in legal interpreting. In addition the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers (NCIEC) has developed specific training for ASL Interpreters working in legal settings. Their Legal Interpreting Site has valuable resources for ASL Judiciary Interpreters, including best practice guidance.

The American Translators Association offers a generalist translation certification in various languages.

Do you have to pass an exam to work in court?

Most courts require that the interpreter candidate pass some form of a credentialing examination. A judiciary interpreter's competence may need to be validated through an official examination administered by a court, a professional association, or another entity. States differ in their testing and registration requirements, and tests for certification in some languages are available only in limited geographical areas. Most examinations contain written and oral components. Some contain an ethics component and some state court interpreter certification tests include a translation component.

The states that belong to the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts usually require that an interpreter attend an ethical orientation as part of the admission process.

How do I find out if my state has a certification exam?

The best way to determine whether your state has certification requirements is to contact the administrative office of your state court system. If your state is a member of the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts you can find information about their requirements directly from the Consortium's webpage.

What are the requirements to interpret in federal court?

Federal court certification is granted by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts through its federal court interpreter examination, which was first administered in 1980. As of 2008, federal certification is available only for interpreters of Spanish, Navajo, and Haitian Creole. The examination for Spanish interpreters is the only one administered regularly.

What are the benefits of certification?

Certification means an interpreter or translator has been tested by a clearly defined method and has demonstrated a minimum threshold of competence. That threshold may be established by a professional association, a governmental organization, or a court system, and the standard or criteria may be different for each. Most courts and the legal community prefer to use interpreters or translators who have been certified. The more certifications a practitioner holds, the wider the potential job market.

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.

Which languages are most in demand?

In recent years, both the media and the U.S. census have reported a steady increase of non-English and limited-English-proficient individuals throughout the country. In the United States, Spanish constitutes the largest language minority, but courts and other justice-based organizations encounter dozens of other languages. Frequency of need for interpreters in a specific language in any given geographical area will fluctuate, depending on the size of the population that speaks that language. Language needs vary from state to state, within a state, and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For specific information about the languages in demand in your area, contact your local state and federal courts.

In New York City, for example, interpreters of dozens of different languages are needed daily. Generally, state courts have the most diverse need for interpreters. The justice systems of many populous states use interpreters of more than 100 different languages each year. In contrast, busy federal courts may use interpreters of some 30 different languages in any given year.

Unfortunately, not all justice-based organizations or support services collect and report interpreter usage statistics, making it difficult to quantify the number of interpreters and languages required in different venues throughout the country.

What are the prospects of finding work?

Prospects will vary, depending on your geographic location, the language you interpret or translate, the need for interpreters or translators of that language, your availability, your credentials, your level of experience and your entrepreneurial abilities. Your first step would be to contact the courts in your area-municipal, state and federal-and inquire as to their needs. Some courts already have an interpreting department; contact those supervisors and seek their guidance. Other potential sources of employment are state justice agencies, public defender organizations, or the private sector.

Does this field have growth potential?

The field of legal interpretation and translation is growing, often in areas that once had limited need. The language services market is generally expanding. Additionally, to bridge gaps in local resources, telephonic service providers use contract interpreters in a variety of national and international locations to interpret over the telephone.

Is there more work in specific states?

Different states have different needs. California is the state that uses the greatest number of interpreters. Traditionally there was greater demand for interpretation and translation services in urban areas, but this is changing as demographics are affected by immigration patterns.

Is the job market different for interpreters and translators?

Yes. Some interpreters do not do translation work and some translators confine themselves to written work exclusively. Marketability is increased if you can work in both disciplines, though the work in each area is unpredictable, with ebbs and flows.

Interpreting and translating can also be practiced on a part-time basis, alternating with other income-producing activities.

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.

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);