Do court interpreters need to understand the legal proceeding they are interpreting?

May 13, 2013 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Many times during my career when working as a court interpreter I have been told by some colleagues that they do not enjoy court hearings where attorneys argue the law.  They say they much prefer to interpret witness testimony because the hearing is about the facts of the case and not about the law.  More than once, when I have asked a court interpreter what was the hearing she just finished about, the answer has been: “I don’t know, legal things, boring stuff.” Some others have told me that it was “…lawyers arguing…and I didn’t understand…”

I have always approached my work with the idea that you cannot interpret what you do not understand. To me it seems impossible to do a good job when you cannot interpret in context, when you do not know where the speaker is taking the argument to. I understand that not all court interpreters went to law school and some of the issues litigated in court are difficult to understand even for lawyers and judges.  I am also aware of that “blank” our mind seems to produce after we finish working. In fact, for my own sanity I am glad it happens. “In one ear…out the other…”

This is not what I am referring to in this posting. I am talking about the minimal legal knowledge a court interpreter needs to have to do a good job. I also know for a fact, because I have a law degree, that the more you understand the proceedings, the better your rendition, because you will be able to follow the trend of thought, to anticipate the speaker’s next move, and to employ the correct terminology and vocabulary.  I believe that court interpreters should at least know as much about the law as a paralegal. We need to understand the issues to be litigated in a motions hearing so we can do a good rendition. We also need to understand the process during that hearing; we need to know what is allowed and what is not.  Court interpreters should do their homework and prepare for a trial or hearing, but on top of that they should know rules of evidence and rules of criminal and civil procedure. It is easier to interpret a trial when you actually know why the attorney is objecting to a question and how he is objecting to it.  In my experience it is this type of knowledge that lets you develop a strong relationship with the big law firms, with the key players in the legal world. Court interpreting is as much a part of that world as it is of the world of linguistics. Unfortunately, some colleagues do not seem to realize it

It is for this reason that during the NAJIT Annual Conference in St. Louis Missouri I will be presenting in Spanish: “Evidence. A comparative Study between Mexico and the United States.”  During the presentation I will walk those attending trough the evidentiary process in the legal system of the two countries where the people we more often interpret for either live or come from.  We will cover topics such as discovery, admissible and inadmissible evidence, types of objections, exceptions to the hearsay rule, different burdens of proof, judicial notice, best evidence rule, and many more.  I invite you to attend the presentation on Sunday, May 19 at 11:00 am during the NAJIT conference in St. Louis.  I hope to see you there, but even if you are not able to attend, please tell us if you believe that court interpreters should know the basics of the law, and specifically procedural law.

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§ 8 Responses to Do court interpreters need to understand the legal proceeding they are interpreting?

  • Pat McNamara says:

    when I have been interpreting for a client I have found that a minimum level of legal knowledge is invaluable, it makes sense to me and so I can pass this on to the client, and avoid wasting time and energy, not to mention being exasperated with answers which do not address the real question in the dialogue.

  • I agree 100%. I wish I had a law degree. But I do what I can to prepare. It isn’t only a matter of vocabulary, that you cannot interpret what you don’t understand, which is very true. But in addition to that, having an understanding of the proceedings and terms makes me feel more confident and when I feel confident I do a better job in general. I cannot attend the conference but am open to any suggestions to improve my legal understanding.

  • Maritza says:

    I agree 100%! As in any field of interpreting, the interpreter needs to be familiar with the terminology. It is a must to be able to interpret accurately and not just render a general translation based on your limited personal knowledge. Interpreters are “transtlating machines with a brain”. We need to be able to deliver the best translation possible. We owe that much to our clients, our reputation, and our profession!

  • noeliabg says:

    I totally agree with you. The same thing happens in other settings. If you are going to interpret a conference about climate change, the least you can do is know a little bit about what it is, its consequences, the terminology… That way, it’ll be easier to anticipate the ideas and there will be less surprises during the speech. The same happens in court, if you don’t know what a deposition is or the difference between a civil case or a criminal one, you may get lost while interpreting and your client will not be able to know what’s going on.

  • Lionel says:

    I could not agree with you more Tony. Language happens within a context and having a least some background knowledge of the legal system we work in is essential. A few years ago I founded a professional association called ALIGNY (Association of Language Interpreters of Greater New York) and held a series of workshops. Among them we offered one that walked interpreters throught the Criminal Case process. We had a Bronx County Prosecutor, guide us through it. He used a publication I am enclosing. It was very, very helpful.
    Feel free to use it in NAJIT if you like.

  • marzolian says:

    When I do interpreting, it’s almost always related to my main specialty, which is technical and commercial translations for the energy industry. In my case, it’s extremely helpful to have an engineering degree and some business experience.

    There’s a way of writing and speaking that used by engineers and managers in the oil and gas business, that is more readily understood and communicated by a translator or interpreter who has specialized knowledge of engineering topics such as mathematics, strength of materials, conversion of units, etc.

  • Cristina Helmerichs says:

    I think you are right and MIchelle G hit the nail on the head, you cannot interpret what you do not understand. If you do not understand what you render does not qualify as interpreting, it is, usually, unintelligible and therefor means you are not living up to your sworn duty to be full and complete.

  • Carol says:

    I am a freelance interpreter for the Courts in the Cayman Islands and I agree with your post; nonetheless, I hardly interpret at hearings or trials and focus more on evidence. I also prepare as much as possible prior to the court appearance.
    I wish I lived near Missouri in order to attend the conference.

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