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Accuracy and Justice – Courtroom Interpreting

Accuracy and Justice – Courtroom Interpreting

Imagine you have been accused of wrongdoing while visiting a foreign country. Your court hearing begins and you don’t understand anything being said. A government-appointed interpreter translates for you as you explain that you did not know you were in possession of someone else’s suitcase, you thought it was your own. The faces of those in the courtroom who understand the interpreter’s words cloud with anger and you have no way of knowing why. No one else in the room speaks your language so no one realizes that the interpreter has mistranslated your words.

Such terrifying multilingual nightmares have happened to people in real life. Trials, hearings, and other proceedings with defendants or witnesses who are not proficient in the language of the court are extremely vulnerable to errors that reduce the chance of a trial ending with justice. The only people that can really ensure courtroom accuracy are highly trained, tested interpreters; truth and justice depend on them. High profile courts are likely to provide certified interpreters for those who need them, but in many parts of most countries they are not required. Additionally, they can be hard to come by so judges and attorneys often accept whatever interpreters are available, even if they cannot provide verifiably accurate interpreting.

Errors made by interpreters can be divided into three main categories: *

  • Mistranslation of a defendant’s testimony
  • Mistranslation of a witness’s testimony
  • Mistranslation during court discussion of a judge or attorney’s words

Clearly any one of these could distort the content of the court proceedings and lead to unfair, inaccurate conclusions. In the United States, individuals in court whose first language is not English are deprived of their right to be meaningfully present if they don’t have interpreters. This is unconstitutional.

In 1978 in the US the Court Interpreters Act was signed into law providing for the establishment of a program “to facilitate the use of certified and otherwise qualified interpreters in judicial proceedings” initiated by the US government. The Administrative Office (AO) of the US Courts is empowered by the 1978 act to identify and certify qualified interpreters, and it administers a list of about 3,000 tested interpreters for hundreds of languages. The AO specifies that court interpreters must exhibit the following knowledge, skills, and abilities: **

  • Highly proficient in both English and the other language.
  • Impartiality.
  • Able to accurately and idiomatically turn the message from the source language into the target language without any additions, omissions or other misleading factors that alter the intended meaning of the message from the speaker.
  • Adept at simultaneous interpretation, which is the most frequent form of interpretation used in the courtroom, and in consecutive interpretation and sight translation.
  • Able to communicate orally including appropriate delivery and poise.
  • Demonstrates high professional standards for courtroom demeanor and professional conduct.

Good court interpreters must be able to straddle two cultures, two languages, and a variety of language levels from street talk to legalese. It’s a nerve-racking job; the interpreter is in the spotlight and expected to be 100% accurate while at the same time they are feeling the emotions of everything going on in the courtroom. Even when they are experienced and being in a courtroom is a familiar, every day event for them, interpreters must remain aware that those they are interpreting for are going through extremely important, potentially life-changing events.***

At Skrivanek we take courtroom interpreting extremely seriously. We are able to provide for your needs through a global network with offices in 17 countries. Contact us for all types of interpreting, even on short notice or for extensive assignments involving multiple languages.



J. V. McShulskis


*If an Interpreter Mistranslates in a Courtroom and There is No Recording, Does Anyone Care? By Lisa Santaniello, Fall 2018, Volume 14, Issue 1, scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu

** Uscourts.gov    https://www.uscourts.gov/services-forms/federal-court-interpreters/interpreter-skills

*** US Courts Knowledge Seminar: Court Interpreting Access to Justice https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_zJDlH53HY



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