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Importance of Interpreters in Court

The law is a linguistic construction. Our abilities to describe and communicate the world define the limits of what the law can proscribe and prosecute. At the heart of our modern legal system is the idea of the social contract. This is the implied understanding between the government and every citizen, and both sides have rights that they deserve and duties that they must perform. These difficult abstract concepts must be clear to all parties, and this requires the services of an interpreter in any situation where the justice system comes in contact with someone who does not speak English fluently.


The clearest possible picture of the events must be obtained in any criminal justice situation. If there is a witness or litigant who knows something germane to a court case, then their language skills must not be allowed to remain a barrier to obtaining their testimony. The law is empowered to go to extraordinary lengths to allow everyone to have their say in court, from children who are too young to take the stand to the deathbed confession of an individual who passed away before they could testify. Those whose native tongue is not English can receive no less consideration. In order for justice to be served they may have to enlist the services of an interpreter. This also applies to the hearing impaired, who will require the services of a sign language translator, and people with other communication-related disabilities.

The position of court interpreter can be a difficult one, and a specialized skill set is required. Fluency in both English and the target language is necessary, but there is much more to it than that. Working as a translator in a court requires the ability to respect confidentiality and understand the law. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts divides all court interpreters that work in federal courts into three categories. These are certified interpreters, professionally qualified interpreters, and language skilled interpreters.

Certified interpreters have the most recognized standing but they can only be classified as certified after passing a stringent examination. Unfortunately, the Administrative Office only gives exams for Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Navajo. Translators of all other languages are considered to be professionally qualified interpreters if they have passed a State Department or United Nations translation test and maintain their membership in one of the two major international interpreter's organizations. Language skilled interpreters, the last classification, include all those who can demonstrate their linguistic competence to the court's satisfaction. There are no tests for qualification for language skilled interpreters, as they are found on a case by case basis for their particular specialties.

Court interpreter is a challenging and rewarding position. The translator's skills at listening and correctly explaining difficult abstract concepts will be tested. Their diligence, patience, and ability to follow complex instructions correctly will be on display. They will almost certainly have to pass a background check and demonstrate that their personal life has been a model of honesty and probity. Most importantly, their dedication to their work will be the foundation of everything they do. A career in the criminal justice industry is not for everyone. It is hard work, under morally challenging circumstances. Nevertheless, in order for justice to be served the language barriers must be overcome. For a person with a calling to criminal justice there are few paths to pursue that will be more meaningful and rewarding than that of a court interpreter.