Facts and Misconceptions about Judiciary Interpreters

Vol. 16 No. 4


Rob Cruz is chairman of NAJIT.

As the need for interpreter services within the legal system rises, it is important to understand the role of judiciary interpreters. Professional interpreters convert, almost immediately, oral communication from one language into another. They often work in a variety of places including healthcare facilities, community gatherings, military settings, and courthouses. While professional interpreters share similar skill sets, their roles may be different depending on the setting.

Although some might view an interpreter as an “aid” for the limited English proficient (LEP) individual, once sworn in, an interpreter is a neutral officer of the court. The interpreter’s function is to protect the LEP individual along with the integrity of the justice system by removing lack of language proficiency as an impediment to the equal dispensation of justice. Interpreters also help ensure that the constitutional rights of the LEP individual are protected. Proper judiciary interpreting involves rendering interpretations exactly or as close to exactly as originally spoken without editing, omitting, paraphrasing,or summarizing.

Judiciary interpreting is complex. The notion that a bilingual individual is innately capable of adequately performing the functions of a professional judiciary interpreter is a common misconception. To provide legally equivalent renditions, judiciary interpreters must possess unique cognitive skills and have a complete command of language and vocabulary for both English and the foreign language. These skills take years to develop and must be refined as languages continuously evolve.

Most state and federal jurisdictions require certification or licensure for judiciary interpreters to ensure competency and uniform standards of quality. The credentialing requirements in federal courts are generally considered to be more rigorous and demanding than in state courts. Federal certification is currently possible in three languages (Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Navajo), while the Consortium for Language Access in State Courts provides certification examinations in 18 languages to its 41 member states.

Judiciary interpreters are goverened by codes of ethics, be it the federal code, an individual state’s code, or that of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). These codes exist to help ensure the interpreter’s neutrality. While codes may vary, they share the same fundamental canons. Among them are “Accuracy and Completeness,” “Impartiality and Avoidance of Conflict of Interest,” and “Confidentiality.”

Judiciary interpreters are bound by privilege with regard to to attorney-client communications. They are also expected to maintain confidentiality, even as it pertains to information that may not be otherwise privileged. Privilege, however, does not apply to communications between the interpreter and the LEP outside the presence of counsel. It is therefore recommended that judiciary interpreters not remain alone in the presence of or converse directly with LEP individuals. Attorneys should inform LEP individuals that any communication with the interpreter is not bound by privilege, which means the interpreter could be called as a witness in the case. If the interpreter were called as a witness, a new interpreter would have to be assigned because a judiciary interpreter is ethically precluded from working on a case in which he could potentially be called as a witness.

The judiciary interpreter serves the LEP individual, the court, and society as a whole. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement officials depend on competent, unbiased interpretation to fulfill their responsibilities to the courts. The possibility of undetected biases or erroneous interpretations can undermine a just resolution. As such, to ensure quality interpretation, the expense of interpreters should be budgeted along with other essential services. It is also vital that all the parties who share a stake in the legal system clearly understand the role and function of judiciary interpreters to remove language as an impediment to the normal course of action and to make encounters that necessitate the use of an interpreter as seamless as possible.

Attorneys should familiarize themselves with the best practices when working with interpreters and communicate such practices to LEP clients. NAJIT has many useful publications, links, and FAQs available to the public. The U.S. Department of Justice has articulated a position that taxing the cost of interpreter services to the LEP individual is a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and the ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense’s Laying the Path Project is developing standards for proper interpreting practices in state courts that take into account the DOJ requirements.




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