Similarly to the real estate industry, the legal sector has been a growing field for professional interpreters since the 1960’s and 70’s when the Civil Rights movement deemed the right to an interpreter as a universal standard in the American court system (Title IV Civil Rights Act of 1964 / Court Interpreter Act of 1978). With the non-English speaking population rapidly growing in the U.S., the importance of accurate communication in the justice system grows along with it. In fact, the number of non-English speakers in the U.S. has jumped from 23 million in 1980 (one-in-eleven) to over 60 million (one-in-five) in 2011 and although the majority of that population speaks some English, or at least enough to get by, they most likely are not familiar with the complex vocabulary used in most court settings. And considering that in 1985, 6% of federal court hearings required an interpreter, the demographic that makes up one fifth of our population today has surely surpassed that percentage.    Legal Interpreter

With this increase, the need for court interpreters to be cautious of unauthorized practice or of any inaccuracy in their work also rises substantially. Court interpreters must recognize their role as conduits of information and avoid adding or rendering any of the legal advice given by the attorney. Ultimately, the attorney is responsible for preventing, noticing and reporting any mistakes made by the interpreter regarding impartiality, conflicts of interest or any inappropriate acts outside of their role as an objective conduit. However, the interpreter must also extensively understand their duties and limitations in such a sensitive and influential setting.

To help facilitate a complete understanding of these duties and limitations, the canons of ethics for court interpreters outline about half a dozen points to remember for this delicate work. The first and probably the most important canon is to strive for accuracy and completeness in the interpretation. This stresses the importance on the interpreter to be sure not to add, omit or summarize any part of the translation because even the slightest discrepancy can affect its intended audience.

Secondly, the interpreter must strive to be as neutral as possible by avoiding or reporting any potential conflict of interest. If there is any conflict of interest between the client and the interpreter (familial relation, influential past interactions, any unnecessary contact with the parties et cetera), then it must be reported to the court and dealt with accordingly.

Thirdly, the interpreter must be completely impartial regardless of who is paying them for their work. As surprising as it may sound to have to point out, absolutely no gifts or additional communication can take place between the interpreter and any other party involved in the case. Obviously this creates a conflict of interest and the agreed upon sum of compensation for the interpreter must be the only payment they receive for the work.

The fourth canon clarifies that the interpreter must also be mindful of the Attorney-Client privilege at all times. Meaning that if the Attorney and Client have a closed meeting/interview and the interpreter is used, then any information exchanged will be completely confidential unless otherwise authorized by the Court.

The fifth canon covers the rules of confidentiality specific to the setting of the case, which directly relates to canon four, and also covers the professional credentials and demeanor demanded of the interpreter. Even the body language and intonation of the interpreter can affect the opinion of the judge, attorneys and jurors, which once again stresses the need for objectivity and accuracy in court interpretation. These high standards of conduct are expected of the interpreter and this is why for court interpretation, more so than other forms, it is essential to have an experienced and qualified interpreter.

Some states have allowed the client’s attorney to act as the interpreter for the court, which does save money in the long run, but allowing the attorney to gauge their own competence as an interpreter is inherently questionable. This also creates an interpretation with an unintentional bias since the attorney will undoubtedly have a preference for their client to win the case. In conclusion, court interpretation demands a high level of professionalism and respect for the legitimacy of the legal process on the part of the interpreter, as well as a rather extensive knowledge of legal jargon.

How would you say your experience with judicial interpretation differs from other interpretation projects? Please share your comments, questions and stories with us below!