Communication is paramount in a court of law. If a foreign defendant
or witness appears in an English-speaking court, a near-perfect interpretation
Some cases are postponed or dismissed because of a lack of qualified
interpreters. A rewarding career awaits those who are completely fluent in
both English and another common language.
Imagine the frustration of trying to communicate a very important issue
with a group of people who speak another language. No one is there to interpret
for you. You risk being seriously misunderstood and possibly accused of something
you didn't do. You can't defend yourself.
This scenario would be possible if there were no court interpreters. They
are an extremely important, yet small, group of highly skilled people. They
are in high demand as the U.S. and Canada grow more culturally diverse.
A court interpreter is someone who interprets in a civil or criminal court
proceeding. Interpreters help both the speaker of the source language and
the speaker of the target language by giving an oral translation.
Legal translators are responsible for translating written documents. These
may include affidavits, legal contracts, subpoenas and legal judgments.
Both are in demand. And in some areas, the shortage is especially great.
Franny Maguire is a judicial educator in Delaware. She recognizes the problem
as far-reaching. "This seems to be a national problem, although there are
greater needs in certain larger metropolitan areas such as those on the East
and West Coasts," she says.
"Due to the influx of various nationalities into the U.S. recently, there
is a dramatic increase in the number of interpreters that the courts must
call annually. In Delaware alone, the number of cases requiring interpreters
has increased by 60 percent," adds Maguire.
Liz Dowling is the coordinator for the Arkansas foreign language interpreter
certification program. "There is definitely a greater need for interpreters
and translators in the courts in Arkansas today," she says.
"We have the fastest-growing Hispanic population in the country. However,
our culture is still very much Anglo, so non-English-speaking persons are
at a definite disadvantage, especially when placed in the court setting."
As the most linguistically diverse state in the nation, California is also
experiencing the shortage first-hand.
"Based on the estimated daily usage of interpreter services, there has
been a constant increased need for qualified court interpreters in the California
trial courts," says Joseph Wong. He is a senior court services analyst responsible
for California's certified court interpreters program.
According to Wong, the need for qualified interpreters is because of two
factors. The first is because of the legal mandate requiring a qualified interpreter
for non-English witnesses and defendants.
"The second is the diversity of languages spoken by parties involved in
the legal system." He adds that Census figures show 244 languages and innumerable
dialects are spoken in the state.
The problem is evident in Canada as well.
Yolanda Hobrough is a certified court interpreter who works in both Canada
and the U.S. "There has been a growing need [for more interpreters] for the
last 20 years," she says.
She says there is also a need for interpretation services for languages
for which there is no certification.
Hobrough's experience has enabled her to see the differences first-hand
between the U.S. and Canada. She notes that the Canadian system is about 10
years behind the American court system.
"Lawyers are more aware of the need for interpreters. They see you as a
professional to guarantee rights," she says when speaking of the U.S. courts.
The pay is also more dependable in the U.S. Hobrough says that if a scheduled
court day in the U.S. is cancelled, the interpreter is still paid for that
day. In Canada, only four hours worth of pay is offered.
In either country, the work of a court interpreter can be quite stressful.
Concentration is a must because accuracy is extremely important. Hobrough
says that in very serious cases, she's been required to work five days straight
with no help from other interpreters.
Interpreters and translators are highly skilled professionals. According
to an article on Law.com, only nine percent of the interpreters who took the
test in California last year could pass the oral portion of the exam.
Clearly, only those who are completely fluent in both English and another
language in the oral and written form can take advantage of this trend.
"Interpreters must be fluent in both the source and target languages,"
says Dowling. "However, just speaking a language well does not mean that one
"Specifically, an interpreter must be able to interpret what is being said
accurately in both the simultaneous and consecutive modes and must also be
able to accurately perform sight translation of documents.
"An interpreter must also understand and adhere to the code of ethics recognized
in the particular jurisdiction where he or is working, and to understand exactly
what courtroom protocol requires of the interpreter."
According to Wong, certification is available for interpreters who speak
the following languages: Arabic, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese,
Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese. Interpreters in other languages may become
registered, but not certified.
In order to become a California court interpreter, the individual must
pass the required exam and submit an application to the Judicial Council.
Interpreters are also required to complete ongoing renewal requirements
every two years: 30 hours of continuing education and 40 law-related interpreting
As the U.S. and Canada continue to culturally evolve, the demand for court
interpreters grows. And although the job requires intense concentration and
can be stressful, Hobrough still says, "It's fascinating work. I love it."
California Court Interpreter Program
Learn more about the training involved
Definitions from RIC International
Explains the difference between translators and interpreters