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Translators Needed to Overcome Legal Language Barriers

Communication is paramount in a court of law. If a foreign defendant or witness appears in an English-speaking court, a near-perfect interpretation is needed.

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, 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 can interpret.

"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 assignments.

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

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