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Problems the Courts Face with Foreign Language Interpreters

Foreign Language Interpreters in Courtroom
Problems the Courts Face with Foreign Language Interpreters
on October, 17 2017

The United States is composed of several communities of different nationalities. It is therefore expected that many of them are not English-language speakers. Because of their continuous growth in numbers, it is inevitable that many individuals who have limited English proficiency will have interactions with the U.S. court system. And that they will need foreign language interpreters.

The courts have to live up to the rising number of immigrants who have limited English proficiency (LEP) or no English proficiency (NEP). The courts need to have language access measures to foreign language interpreters in place. Without them, the LEPs and NEPs will have a very difficult time availing of needed legal, social and medical services, which can lead to serious consequences.

Related Post: What Do The US Courts Look For in a Legal Interpreter? 


Legal Interpreters in US Courts

Mistakes Regarding Foreign Language Interpreters

The media have reported several incidents when foreigners who have limited English speaking skills received mistrials. There were also incidents when people who were not proficient in the English language were denied foreign language interpreters.

One of such mistakes was the January 2008 case of Jong Yeol Lee. Police arrived at three in the morning at his residence in Virginia to arrest him by virtue of a warrant from the District of Columbia. Lee is a permanent U.S. resident who is an LEP and mostly speaks Korean.

He was not able to properly communicate with the officers and he was held at a Fairfax County detention center for four days. He was not provided any foreign language interpreters there or in the station in Columbia where he was transferred.

He was released after several hours without any charges. The Metropolitan Police Department determined that he was mistakenly arrested.

There are many such cases happening around the U.S. where foreign language interpreters are failed to be supplied. As complaints continue to rise, the federal law enforcement was tasked to investigate.

There were several courts across the U.S. that were faulted because of their failure to provide foreign language interpreters. One of the most challenged is the State of California, the country’s most linguistically diverse state.

Following the investigations, courts started to abide by the U.S. civil rights law, which prevents discrimination due to the individual's origin. Courts that fail to act stand to lose their federal funding.

Linguistic Diversity

Based on the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 350 languages spoken across the United States, made up of indigenous and immigrant languages.

150 of them are spoken by Native Americans and 200 are immigrant languages. Outside of English, top of the language list is Spanish, followed by Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, Filipino (Tagalog), Vietnamese, Arabic, French, Korean, Russian and German.

Given the number of immigrant languages, it is a daunting task to find trained and certified foreign language interpreters for the U.S. courts. In California alone, its courts handle over eight million cases annually. This highlights the tremendous need for foreign language interpreters.

Related Post: The Languages Spoken in the United States {Infographic}


Languages in United States


The legal world is complex and tough as it is. If someone is not able to speak English in the United States, the legal field becomes even tougher to navigate.

The moment an LEP individual enters a courthouse, she or he is already at a disadvantage because most of the signs are in English.

Important signs such as finding the court attorney, the office of the clerk or the petition rooms are written in English. Because a courthouse is often crowded, it is even difficult to find the office of the foreign language interpreters. The multilingual signs do not always help because these are hard to read.

Language Access

The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ), Civil Rights Division, maintains the civil and constitutional rights of all the residents of the country. It implements the federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on national origin, familial status, religion, disability, sex, color and race.

It sees to the effective and consistent implementation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Federal Coordination and Compliance Section (FCS) of the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ, via the Courts Language Access Initiative, assures the rights of everyone, regardless of English language ability and national origin, to meaningfully take part in state court programs and proceedings.

In compliance with the aforementioned regulation, some courts provide foreign language interpreters and offer materials in other languages.

Problems of U.S. Courts with Foreign Language Interpreters

Even with the directive from the DoJ, the courts around the U.S. are facing several problems in providing foreign language interpreters.

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) previously did an informal survey, led by its chair, Isabel Framer. They found that there are some 3,000 certified interpreters in the U.S. However, 2,500 of them are Spanish interpreters, while the rest speak other languages.

Lack of Qualified Foreign Language Interpreters

One of the major problems the courts face is the shortage of qualified foreign language interpreters who have had the training and have passed the exam to prove they have the required skills to be court interpreters.

According to Ms. Framer, there had always been a lack of qualified foreign language interpreters. It's just that it became more prominent in recent years because of the continuous arrival of immigrants, the 9/11 events and the Courts Language Access Initiative of the Department of Justice.

In 2015, the number of immigrants in the country was 43.3 million. About 48 percent or 20.7 million of them were naturalized citizens, while 52 percent or 22.6 million comprised legal residents on temporary visas like temporary workers and students, unauthorized immigrants and lawful permanent residents.

According to the latest data (2015), around 11 million people living in the United States are illegal immigrants.

At times, when no certified foreign language interpreters are available, the court has to bring in an interpreter from other cities. In some cases, the court has to postpone trials because there is no certified interpreter available.

Although such a situation is inconvenient, it also highlights that the role of foreign language interpreters in the courtroom is very important.

Related Post: Spotlight: What Do Translators And Interpreters Do?


Translators and Interpreters

Work Environment

The shortage of foreign language interpreters can be attributed to the high-stress work environment and low pay.

Based on what's listed on the website of the United States Courts the fees of court interpreters are as follows:

Professionally qualified and certified interpreters

  • $418 - full day
  • $226 - half day
  • $59 - overtime (per hour or part of an hour)

Non-certified (language skilled) interpreter

  • $202 - full day
  • $111 - half day
  • $35 - overtime (per hour or part of an hour)

Interpretation goes beyond word substitution. Aside from knowledge of judicial and court terminologies and foreign language skills, a court interpreter must have cultural understanding because he or she has to interpret cultural import.

While interpreting in court, foreign language interpreters call on his or her technique and training as well as skills to perform the assigned task.

The work is very demanding and there’s no room for error. Most courts prefer to work with certified foreign language interpreters. However, with such a small number, it is not possible all the time.

Moreover, a national certification program for interpreters is not available. The ways of qualifying foreign language interpreters depend on each state.

A certification exam is declared reliable and valid only by a state supreme court. A court interpreter certification exam is likewise available at the federal court level. State courts may accept it at times. By statute, federal courts have to use certified interpreters, unless there is no one available.

Too Few Speakers of Other Languages

Looking back at the informal survey done by NAJIT, there are more Spanish interpreters than other languages. It’s understandable because Spanish is the second most spoken language after English. However, the courts across the country do not only handle cases involving Spanish speakers.

In California, which is the center of linguistic diversity in the entire country, about 220 languages are spoken and about 44 percent of the residents speak other languages beside English. Californians who cannot speak English very well are around seven million.

The court system in California is also the largest in the U.S., bigger in size than the total number of federal courts in the country.

Basing the need for certified foreign language interpreters in the country on California, there is a great need for Punjabi, Arabic, Filipino (Tagalog), Russian, Cantonese, Farsi, Mandarin, American Sign, Korean and Vietnamese interpreters. Other languages include dialects of the Aleutian Islands, Lao, Hmong, Malayalam, Japanese and Cambodian/Khmer.

Inadequate Standards

In a study, the researchers found that some court interpretation failed to abide by the recognized state and national guidelines. Some of the issues found:

  • Foreign language interpreters fail to interpret accurately and fully
  • Foreign language interpreters summarize what the attorney and/or judge says to a litigant and vice versa
  • They fail to alert the judge when they are not familiar with a term mentioned in the source language and they cannot translate it into the target language
  • Interpreters are not interpreting for the court. They miss conveying the judge’s instructions such as when the court will resume after a brief recess and how to enter a plea
  • Interpreters and litigants engage in side conversations
  • Interpreters address the court in the first person, instead of in the third person

The failure to follow court protocol influences the quality of interpretation. It also builds obstacles for individuals with limited English proficiency who need access to the U.S. court system.

Related Post: Top Challenges Interpreters Face Every Day


Challenges Interpreters Face

Lack of Familiarity

Courts also face other obstacles, such as the lack of familiarity of attorneys and even judges with procedures and standards of how to work with foreign language interpreters. Although the situation is not universal, there were observations about the issue:

  • There are judges who address their questions and comments to the foreign language interpreters, rather than the litigant with limited English speaking skills
  • Judges do not moderate their speech patterns to help the interpreter
  • Judges in some counties fail to present the interpreter to the courtroom, direct the taking of an oath to the interpreter, or explain the role of the interpreter
  • There are judges who do not evaluate the non-certified interpreters’ qualifications fully. They also allow family members and friends of an LEP litigant to be their interpreters
  • Some attorneys sometimes fail to schedule a foreign language interpreter for a client.
  • There are some attorneys who want to go ahead with the cases where interpreters are required yet no one is available

Courts and concerned organizations are working on addressing the problems. There’s still a long way to go but with the Consortium for Language Access in the Court in place, 40 states have already joined in to make court interpreter certification tests and foreign language interpreters in 16 languages available.

Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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