Legal terminology and the good court interpreter.

January 27, 2017 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

For several months I have noticed a proliferation of blog posts, language agency advertisements, webinars, and conference presentations where the interpreter’s knowledge of legal terminology is emphasized.  Seminars, on-line and in-person, focus on the importance of legal terminology and are usually packed with lists of words and phrases found in statutes and regulations. Bilingual glossaries are given away as perks to those who paid to attend the talk, and power point presentations are full of sections of the law that were literally cut and pasted from the statute.

Attendees to this “terminology workshops” are told to memorize the new words and expressions just because “…that is what the Act says” or “this is the term found in the bilingual legal dictionary”, and their questions are often answered with the reading of more sections of the law, without giving any logical reason or explanation as to the why it has to be the way the instructor said so. There are many blog posts, language agency websites, webinars, and conference presentations where current and accurate terminology is shared, but there is absolutely no context.  This is dangerous and it is wrong.

Sometimes we read that a populist government, a well-known linguist, or a prestigious language institution issue statements advocating for legal terminology that is more accessible to the common individual.   This is also extremely dangerous, irresponsible, and very wrong.

Legal terminology is what it is for a reason: It deals with social values higher than accessibility; it deals with legal accuracy and legal certainty, two values that are needed in any society to keep individuals safe.  Free to pursue their lives as they please by creating legal transactions, forming legal bonds, and asserting their legal rights, which are necessary to reach their goals and be happy. To protect this higher values, a legal system needs to be complex and sophisticated. We need the proper terminology to put these concepts, which we call legal precepts, in writing for all to see and observe.  It is a fact that many times they will differ from conventional language, not because legislators, attorneys and judges wanted to, but because they had to. This is why we have lawyers in our society.

Memorizing legal terminology like a parrot is easy, it only requires of memory and patience. Knowing the “why” and “how” of a legal term, and understanding its different meanings and applications according to context is a different story: it requires a deep knowledge of legal philosophy, substantive and adjective law, and the development of an analytical capacity that allows the individual, who has the background mentioned above, to decipher hidden meanings, legislators’ intent, and applicability to the specific set of facts (there is a term in Spanish to describe this essential skill: “criterio jurídico”)  It is only then that we are in a position to truly know the meaning of a term that makes it applicable to our particular set of facts. We need to have context to know when and how to use legal terminology. Everything else is confusing, vague, and potentially damaging to the client.

In Mexican legal Spanish, the term for bankruptcy is different depending on the type of proceedings. The legal term “bankruptcy”, used in the American legal system does not give us enough information to decide the appropriate terminology. We would need to have context to determine if we are facing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, in which case the correct legal term would be “quiebra”, or a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as this would be translated or interpreted as “suspensión de pagos”. Without getting into Bankruptcy Law, I have to tell you that these are two very different legal figures and proceedings with very distinct consequences.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines legal interpretation as: “The art or process of discovering and ascertaining the meaning…” (Black’s Law Dictionary Centennial Edition 6th. Edition p.817)

To be able to properly interpret a hearing or sight translate a legal document, court interpreters must know legal terminology on both languages, but to provide a professional accurate rendition, the interpreter must understand the legal concepts and court proceedings being interpreted, and put everything that is happening at the hearing in context, so the choice of legal terms and concepts in the target language is correct.

It is essential that those teaching legal terminology are skilled in this area so they can answer questions with accuracy, and it is important that they explain the “why” and “how” of the legal terms and concepts that they are teaching. It is also very important that those paying for a webinar, workshop, or glossary, demand this knowledge from their instructors. Everything else is dangerous and unethical.  Please do not get me wrong, I am not calling for all court interpreters to have a law degree (although having one is a tremendous advantage). All I am asking is that you stop and think of all the possibilities before you utter a legal term in court, and that when you pay for a continuing education course, workshop, talk, or webinar on legal terminology, you make sure the instructor does have the required legal knowledge and skill to teach the subject correctly.

I hope that the next time you see an agency advertising that their interpreters know the appropriate legal terminology, you go a little deeper to find out if they are offering interpreters who truly know how select the applicable legal term or concept, of they are simply advertising bilingual parrots for hire. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your ideas regarding this crucial aspect of court and legal interpreting.

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§ 10 Responses to Legal terminology and the good court interpreter.

  • Maribel PINTADOESPIET says:

    Back in the day when I taught the certification course (150 hours) for interpreters in Boston for the Massachusetts Trial Court, I would provide interpreters with a blank glossary that they had to research and complete by the end of the course. I recall being visited by an “author” who just wanted to collect our glossary…we never released one because we wanted our interpreters to understand the “why” and the “how”. It is sad to see how people cling to the parroting mode and get charged for it. In a recent workshop I made the suggestion I always make, “Read the penal code from your country; study the code of criminal procedures”. Unfortunately, interpreters prefer the ready-made solutions. I still come across those who prefer the Louis Robb’s Legal Dictionary (a transcription of the index cards he kept) to Javier Becerra’s Legal Dictionary. On the bright side, I continue to encounter attorneys who completed their law degree in Spanish speaking countries and are well versed in terminology and procedural language. Unskilled interpreters should know that there are other people listening who are better prepared than you are.

    • André Csihás, FCCI says:

      In my personal experience as a state-licensed and federally-licensed court interpreter, it is we, as court interpreters, who must hone our skills individually. IT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY to do the actual grunt work of learning and perfecting our skills.

      It behooves us to continually study and improve our own terminology because it is the essence of our profession.

      Your caveat is well founded: There is always someone who’ll challenge our interpretation, so the best defense against that is to have a broad vocabulary with a good understanding of the local codes.


      André Csihas, FCCI

  • zinnesther says:

    A timely article! It’s frustrating for court interpreters themselves when forced to attend continuing education classes for compliance purposes and find that it’s the same old thing.

    It’s also very hard to find quality workshops that actually teach something truly useful. It behooves trainers to learn new ways of teaching more advanced subjects for court interpreters already working in the field.

  • The exact technical term is Continuing Extortion.

  • Mark Willan says:

    Uk legal terminology is different – for example the US Chapter 11 is roughly what we call official receivership (though this is more difficult to survive financially than the US process) and bankruptcy only applies to private individuals – companies go through liquidation.
    But what i need to remind us all is that legal terminology changes and the definitions also – so in the UK before the 1986 Fraud Act there was a criminal offence of “obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception”, which has now disappeared, as it falls into a wider definition of Fraud.
    I just mention this to remind us all that interpreters are not lawyers, and we should tread very carefully with technical terms, and check our facts with lawyers (who are there in court with us and who can be queried with the judge’s permission of course), preferably in the pre-hearing briefing.

    • Thank you for your comment, Mark. You bring up one of the reasons why terminology workshops and webinars need to be taught by people who can provide such explanations. There are several instructors who are both: interpreters and lawyers. They can share these legal concepts and subtleties the way they should be explained.

  • giolester says:

    Recently, in The NAJIT Observer, a colleague made the exact same case, Tony. In his article, the scenario was Brazil and Brazilian terminology: “In Portuguese, the nouns identifying plaintiffs and defendants vary according to whether the case is civil, administrative, or criminal.” (

    Now, imagine how confusing that is!

  • Alina Salvat says:

    Thank you so much Tony. I have always found it more helpful to me as a state certified Interpreter to read the code before I go into court on any given case — especially in a “criminal” case, even if it is pleaded down. In this manner, at least I feel I have some “background” information re the statute. Just something that has worked for me. Hope this is helpful.

  • […] Dear Colleagues: For several months I have noticed a proliferation of blog posts, language agency advertisements, webinars, and conference presentations where the interpreter’s knowledge of legal terminology is emphasized. Seminars, on-line and in-person, focus on the importance of legal terminology and are usually packed with lists of words and phrases found in statutes and regulations.…  […]

  • Sasha Spencer says:

    I find that taking classes designed for paralegals in a local college allows me to find/choose better equivalents in the target language for every term I encounter. It is an effective way to learn legal concepts and differences between jurisdictions.

    These classes also point you in the right direction for research in different areas of the law, and how to use available online resources (if you don’t have access to Westlaw or Lexis). I think they even count towards a portion of the required CE hours.

    An additional benefit is that if I am completely stuck with a term, I can always ask one of my former professors who have practiced law for many years in different jurisdictions.

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