5 Best Practices for Court Interpreting

court translationCourt interpreters ensure that speakers of any language can fully participate in the judicial process and gain access to justice. As officers of the court, interpreters hold a specific duty and responsibility to deliver high-quality court interpreting. Essentially, court interpreters function under fictional invisibility to bridge the gap in communication. “The more invisible, the less noticeable you are in the courtroom, the better you’re doing your job,” says Teresa C. Salazar, the Director of Interpreting Services at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, in a phone interview. Court interpreters should leave their egos at the door.
The United States Courts verify interpreters’ skills and credentials in advance according to the best standards available for each language. As Spanish is the second most common language, the United States Courts give exams to certify Spanish interpreters for court interpreting at Federal Courts. The Federal Courts do not offer any exams other than Spanish. Consequently, they use alternative standards for other languages. When finding a Chinese court interpreter, for example, they may consider Chinese conference interpreters who have passed exams with the United Nations and the US State Department. Education and training in conference interpreting at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) also opens doors to court interpreting.
Court interpreting is part of legal interpreting. All court interpreters may do legal interpreting, but not all legal interpreters are qualified to do court interpreting. Effective court interpreting skills include comprehensive knowledge of the source and target language for a variety of legal and other topics.
Court interpreting requires an advanced and broad vocabulary on a variety of topics, including legal terminology. In a criminal trial, for example, a Chinese court interpreter may need to interpret legal arguments and expert testimony on ballistics, chemicals, DNA, drugs, fingerprints, and handwriting. The diversity of witnesses and defendants requires a Chinese interpreter to know a wide variety of accents, dialects, idioms, and regionalisms of Mandarin and Cantonese. A Chinese court interpreter, for instance, clearly produces messages with good diction and pronunciation. In addition, he or she must be able to switch between formal and informal registers of Mandarin Chinese or Cantonese.

5 Best Practices for Court Interpreting

Consecutive interpreting best serves the question and answer mode of giving testimony. That’s why the court often employs short form consecutive interpreting with witnesses on the stand. This emphasizes the verbatim rendition required on the record, or transcript, of court proceedings. Here are 5 best practices for court interpreting:

1. Pause

Defense attorneys and prosecutors pose questions during direct and cross-examination. Pausing at the appropriate intervals allows the interpreter to accurately and completely render the words into the target language.

Lengthy testimony requires a team of interpreters to preserve the integrity of interpreting. Constantly changing vocabulary, registers, and regional accents quickly exhaust interpreters. Mental exhaustion may set in as early as 15 minutes. Team interpreting prevents brain fatigue. Professional court interpreters insist on a team. Team members follow the flow of speech and stay ready to provide words and terminology.

2. Interrupt

Interrupt the speaker when necessary. The interpreter may use a hand gesture, a nod of the head, or eye contact to request that the speaker pause. However, the interpreter may never have any conversations with the defendants or attorneys. Any formal interruption or request for repetition or clarification requires the express permission of the judge.

3. Correct mistakes

As soon as the interpreter realizes a mistake in interpreting, he or she should take steps to amend the record. Team members can also catch mistakes to improve the accuracy of the transcript record.

To fix a mistake on the record, the interpreter first requests to approach the judge, saying, “Your honor, the interpreters made a mistake, and the mistake should be corrected on the record.” The judge will announce that the interpreter needs to make a correction on the record. The sooner the interpreter corrects the mistake, without breaking the rhythm of court proceedings, the better.

4. Take notes

Court interpreting requires focused concentration, simultaneous listening and note taking, and excellent short-term memory. Interpreters must take notes to assist short-term memory. Write down the addresses, dates, foreign currency and other mathematical conversions, measurements, names, and numbers.

5. Master emotions

Interpreters must master their emotions and properly reflect others. They should not attempt to copy or imitate the gestures, facial expressions, or emotions of witnesses. Complete accuracy is impossible. Professionalism requires that interpreters use their voices, not their hands, to convey meaning. The interpreter may give a similar feeling by going one level below the speaker’s tone.

The high-stress role of interpreting at courts and jails requires professionalism and mastery of emotions. Public defenders or attorneys also bring court interpreters to go to jail to interview clients. High profile cases bring international press who understand all languages spoken in the court. The reactions of the people receiving the interpreting indicate the performance quality of the interpreter.

Following these 5 best practices of court interpreting allows court interpreters to maintain impartiality and professionalism. Ultimately, this allows anyone to exercise the pursuit of justice no matter whether they speak English, Spanish, Chinese, or any other language.

Capital Linguists is a translation company that offers translation services for court interpreting, legal interpreting, and legal document translation.

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Philip Rosen

Philip Rosen

Capital Linguists’ certified translation service and interpreters service was founded on Philip’s vision of a super-elite translation and interpreting force. Drawing on other high level interpreters and translators, he leads an exclusive cadre of highly skilled, professional language specialists.

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