Please do not confuse court interpreters with conference interpreters.

September 23, 2019 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I will not write about a new topic. My post deals with something we have heard for years, and has been brought up to me in various ways recently. During the last few months I have seen interpreting agency websites that claim they only use certified court interpreters to interpret during their conferences. I heard a colleague proudly say in a professional conference for interpreters and translators he always “recommends federally certified court interpreters (in the U.S.)” when hired to interpret in the booth; and I recently had dinner with some colleagues who looked surprised when I told them that retaining certified court interpreters to work in a conference was a bad idea.

This article is not an attack on court interpreting. It is not written against conference interpreters either. I know both disciplines. During my career I have practiced them both. They are complex, demanding professional services that require preparation, skill, and talent. It is difficult to be a court or a conference interpreter, but they are two very different disciplines which require of a competent practitioner, and most of the time, that individual is not the same person. Let me explain:

Conference interpreting is conveying a message spoken in a language into another. It is practiced at international summits, professional seminars, congresses and meetings, bilateral or multilateral meetings of corporate executives, heads of state and government, and meetings between chief executives and labor union representatives (aiic.net April 23, 2012)

Conference interpreters must have a good mind, a complete mastery of their working languages, including an excellent command of their native language. They need an immediate grasp of their passive languages, and a well-developed capacity to express themselves in their own language.  To achieve this, they need a good level of general education, a lively and flexible intellect, analytic capacity, the ability to put themselves in the minds of those for whom they are interpreting, and they need to concentrate, have good memory, a pleasant voice and good diction, physically and mentally robust, and able to interpret for a massive audience. (https://aiic.net/page/4003/conference-interpreting-is-the-interpretation-of-a-conference/lang/1)

Court interpreting, on the other hand, is the oral transmission of information by lawyers, judges, litigants, and witnesses from a source language into a target language for a legal proceeding inside and outside a court setting. Court interpreters must be fluent in more than one language, and they need to know of legal terminology and procedure.

A court interpreter interprets in a court proceeding such as arraignments, motions, preliminary hearings, pre-trial conferences, depositions, trials, and sentencing hearings. They also interpret outside the court at attorneys’ offices, detention centers, and prisons. They must completely and accurately interpret for individuals with a high level of education and for persons with very limited language skills without changing register, altering, omitting, or adding anything to what is stated, and without explanation. They need interpersonal skills as they work next to their clients, a good level of public speaking, endurance, concentration, and acute sense of hearing, and the ability to remain neutral, and control and hide their personal emotions regardless of the controversy and the facts of the case. (https://courts.michigan.gov/Administration/SCAO/OfficesPrograms/Documents/access/FAQs.pdf)

Court interpreting has very special characteristics that set it apart not just from conference interpreting, but from all other types of community interpreting such as healthcare, public assistance, school, etc.

Court interpreters must interpret everything said in a hearing, the rendition must be complete; summarizing, omitting speech defects such as false starts, stuttering, and utterances is not allowed. They must maintain the speakers register, which fluctuates from formal and legal when interpreting what attorneys and judges say, to scientific and technical, when interpreting expert testimony, to crude, vulgar speech, idiomatic expressions, and criminal lingo such as gang or drug dealer talk. Generally, they work under adverse conditions without a booth, in crowded and noisy settings, and without a partner. Unless they interpret for a trial, most of their assignments are less than two hours, but they work several assignments in a day with no consideration for the vocal cords. These interpreters’ goal is to interpret everything for the record in case there is an appeal later on, and to provide judges, jurors, and attorneys, all linguistic elements needed to assess the credibility of a witness or a party to the controversy so they can reach a verdict or decision.

Court interpreters cannot explain what they are interpreting. When working for the courts, they must be neutral at all times, and leave all explaining to the legal professionals. Because they are responsible for a complete and accurate rendition, they must correct any errors or mistakes as soon as they realize they incurred on them. Their loyalty is to the record of the proceedings.

Finally, because of the unique nature of their field, court interpreters are officers of the court, they must be certified, they work under oath, and they are covered by the client-attorney privilege which is a higher level of protected confidentiality than any ethical or professional duty conference interpreters abide by.

Conference interpreters serve a different purpose. They interpret so the parties can communicate when they do not have a common language, and because their main objective is that the parties understand each other, their rendition must be coherent, clear, pleasant, rendered at a good pace. They must convey the message which they must understand first, and then transform, reorganize, and render so it is proper of the target language with the right syntax and equivalent expressions. To transmit the main message, conference interpreters need not interpret everything a speaker says, only the relevant portions of the speech. If needed, conference interpreters can summarize, avoid the obvious and redundant, put what is being said in context so it can be better understood by the audience, even if this means the interpreter has to add a reference or short explanation in the target language. Unlike, court interpreters, conference interpreters correct mistakes at the first opportunity it is reasonable to do so, even if several minutes go by, and they can use their rendition to correct mistakes and clarify concepts. Conference interpreters work in teams of 2 or 3, they rarely meet their audience face to face as they perform their services from a booth usually, and their work takes place under a controlled environment with clear sound and few distractions. Conference interpreters work multi-day assignments and must travel often during the year. Unless they are placed under oath due to the nature of the event to be interpreted or for security reasons, they need not work under oath all the time.

There are differences on the way the services are performed:

Conference interpreters work from a soundproof booth most of the time; they hear the speaker through a headset, and their work is mostly rendered in the simultaneous mode. Because the goal is that the foreign speaking audience understand the message, interpreters practice decalage (the length of time between the start of the speech and the beginning of the interpretation) A longer decalage allows for higher accuracy because the interpreter gets more context before interpreting. It also allows for a better paced, clear, pleasant rendition the audience will enjoy and understand.

Court interpreters need to interpret at a speed higher than conference interpreters because they must interpret everything, as it all must go on the record. There is little to no decalage in court interpreting as the simultaneous rendition usually involves more than one speaker. To avoid foreign language speakers get lost, interpreters have to stay as close to the speaker as possible, so the audience sees who is the person being interpreted at that specific time. For example, for the foreign language speakers to understand the rendition during an objection by one attorney, the interpreter has to finish the first speakers’ speech almost with the speaker, and then immediately interpret the objection by the other party. The jurors also should see the reactions of foreign language speakers to what is being said in court. Interpreters need to stay very close to the speaker they are interpreting. Obviously, sometimes this gives interpreters no time to process and put in context what was said, and it is usually very difficult to understand even a good rendition because of the speed of the interpretation. Completeness for the record and not a pleasant paced rendition is what interpreters are looking for.

There is little consecutive interpreting in conference settings. It is usually reserved for official dinners, press conferences, or tours of infrastructure such as industrial plants, military facilities, and others; When there is consecutive interpretation it is long consecutive. Speakers talk for several minutes nonstop, sometimes for up to 20-30 minutes; interpreters concentrate, apply their memory skills, visualization, and take notes. Once the speaker stops, interpreters take a moment to organize their ideas, go to the beginning of their notes, and start their rendition observing the appropriate grammar and syntax of the target language. Once the interpreter finishes the interpretation, the speaker continues his talk, and so it goes until the end of the event. This consecutive interpretation requires of great skill, practice, concentration, and the interpreters’ attitude to be on the spot.

Court interpreters use consecutive interpreting every day, but they practice short consecutive. This mode of court interpreting is used for all dialogues between individuals who do not share a common language. They renditions into the target language have to be on the record. Short consecutive is used when interpreting witnesses’ testimony and questions to the foreign language speaker by the court.  Consecutive interpretation in court is often complicated by the difference between the educated speech of attorneys and judges, and the popular, uneducated speech used by many parties and lay witnesses. Interpreters rely mostly on their memory for this rendition, they can ask for repetitions and clarifications from attorneys and parties, and they must start their rendition almost immediately after the question was asked, because their interpretation of the answer by a witness or defendant has to be contemporaneous to the witnesses body language, facial expressions, and other reactions so jurors can take them in as one and better assess the credibility of the person testifying from the witness stand. Unlike conference interpreters, court interpreters start their consecutive rendition while they are still looking for the beginning of their notes (usually one or two pages at the most). Court interpreters’ consecutive interpretation faces another problem: unlike conference interpreters, who interpret for an individual eager to convey his message at the press conference, court interpreters have to interpret consecutively evasive answers, half-truths, utterances, and false starts, often unresponsive. In these settings, many witnesses are testifying against their will, and they try to hide their involvement, or they try to exaggerate or downplay the facts so it is more beneficial to their personal interests.

Sight translation happens in a conference setting rarely; it is usually in a written speech interpreters get ahead of time. Many colleagues do a simultaneous rendition while following along if the speaker deviates, as it frequently happens, from the written statement.

Court interpreters practice sight translation more often. It usually involves documents interpreters never see before the hearing, generally police reports, criminal complaints, indictments, and plea agreements. It is common to see interpreters requesting a recess to look at more complex documents they were just handed in open court without prior notice.

As you can see, these are two very different disciplines, both require of specialists who can do the job, but that court interpreters are certified to work in court means they have passed a rigorous exam that tested their skills as described above, not their knowledge and skills as conference interpreters.

Court interpreters are not lesser interpreters by any means, but their skill is not appropriate for a conference setting. Many colleagues and clients complain of events interpreted by certified court interpreters who spoke very fast, interpreted every single noise that came from the speaker’s mouth, and constantly interrupted a speaker during a consecutive rendition because they are used to a 2 to 3-minute segment before consecutively interpreting it.

There are many interpreters who successfully transitioned from court to conference, and even some who practice both disciplines. The difference is they understood the difference between the booth and the courtroom and acquired the needed knowledge and skills.

Just as it would be disastrous to assign a conference interpreter to do a trial, it is appalling that agencies and court interpreter colleagues accept conference assignments because they believe they are ready for them. Unfortunately, agencies seek these court interpreters because they are paid less money than their conference counterparts, agree to work alone, do not demand preparation materials, and gladly work from a table top or sitting behind a table using portable equipment.

I invite all my conference interpreter colleagues, in places like the United States where we see this situation all the time, to sit down with their clients and explain these differences between court and conference work, and I ask all my court interpreter friends to please understand these are two disciplines. Those who want to cross over to conference work need to do it right, commit to study and practice until they can honestly call themselves conference interpreters. I now invite you to share with us your thoughts on this subject.

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