The U.S. federal courts ensure that people with limited English proficiency have access to certified court interpreters. The language access program is implemented in the federal courts because the country is multiethnic and multilingual and it is not expected that everyone can speak English.
Having an interpreter during court proceedings ensures that even if the defendant cannot speak English, the individual can fully understand what is being discussed and he or she can provide the right answers to questions in his or her own language.
Different requirements for court interpreters
Interpreting is a very demanding job that requires a lot from the interpreter. But being a federal court interpreter demands a higher level of expertise. The work requires meeting stringent professional and ethical standards in order for justice to be administered fairly. The services of court interpreters are required by litigants, defendants, witnesses and victims with limited proficiency in the English language. They must serve the judicial process and must act as impartial court officers.
Numerous settings require the presence of judiciary interpreters, such as federal, state, municipal or juvenile courts, or in settings out of court such as law enforcement facilities, jails and offices of attorneys as well as several other locations where there is a need for a legal interpreter. They also work on criminal and civil cases in federal and state levels.
State and federal courts must provide people with no or limited English speaking capabilities with interpreting services. It is part of the Civil Rights Act and other statutory and regulatory requirements enforced by the government at the state and federal levels.
As such, the federal government and several states instituted the certification programs that professional legal and court interpreters should pass. Interpreters are required to take a certification examination. They are also expected to take professional training in interpretation ethics and techniques regularly.
All court interpreters must adhere to the ethical standards imposed by the state and federal courts and other professional organizations they belong to.
Certification by the court
The 28 U.S.C. §1827 or the Court Interpreters Act allows the Administrative Office of the United States Courts Director to determine, order as well as certify the professional qualifications of individuals who are to serve as certified federal court interpreters. It is upon the discretion of the Director if the certification is well earned by the interpreters for people with hearing defects and for those people who speak one non-English language, during legal proceedings within the courts of the United States.
Qualifications of court interpreters
The requirements needed from a federal court interpreter are very complex. They should have above average abilities, skills and professional knowledge. These qualities fit the rigors of courtroom proceedings where communication can be quite complex and very different from everyday life. In most cases, the involved parties might use legal and specialized terminology and informal and formal registers. Speakers might also speak in a variety of languages or use jargon and dialect that provide different nuances in the meaning of the words.
Categories of interpreters
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts classifies interpreters in different categories: certified interpreters, professionally qualified interpreters, and language skilled interpreters.
1. Certified interpreters
Professional court interpreters become certified when they pass the certification exams given by the Administrative Office. As of now, certification programs are available only for Spanish speakers. In the past, certifications programs were also available for Navajo and Haitian Creole. A judge selects from the pool of certified court interpreters when needed.
The Spanish-English Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination is given by the Administrative Office in two stages. First is the written examination. The candidates can only proceed to take the oral examination after passing the written exam.
Both exams are rigorous and in the oral exam, the ability of the candidate to perform consecutive and simultaneous interpretation accurately is measured. They should also be able to do sight translations, which are often encountered during actual proceedings in the federal courts.
Professional interpreters should keep in mind that the certification exams for Spanish are regularly given every two years. The written examination is given on years ending in an even number. The computer-administered exam comprises 100 multiple-choice questions to test the candidate’s proficiency in English and Spanish. The questions are specifically chosen to assess the candidate’s understanding of the two languages. The candidate has to pass the written exam before the individual can move to the oral examination. The passing mark for the written exam is 75%.
The oral examination is given only on years that end in odd numbers. It is a 45-minute exam where the candidates are required to do verbal interpretation (consecutive and simultaneous) and sight translation from Spanish into English and from English into Spanish. The candidate must demonstrate the correct content and form of authentic interpreting procedures that happen in the courts.
Test items include legal and technical terminology, specialized language and vocabulary as well as formal and informal or colloquial language that demonstrate the articulateness of the speaker.
The passing mark in the oral exams is higher – 80%. Only after passing the oral examination will a candidate be given a federal court interpreter certification.
Failing to pass the written examination means a candidate has to wait two more years before reapplying.
2. Professionally qualified court interpreters
Interpreters for other languages, including Haitian Creole and Navajo, may be determined by the local federal court to be either professionally qualified or as a language skilled interpreter. An interpreter can be considered as professionally qualified if he/she has enough authentication and documentation. The individual must also meet one of these specific criteria:
- Passed the test for seminar or conference interpreters in a language pair including English and one target language given by the U.S. Department of State. The escort interpreter test given by the U.S. Department of State cannot be used as qualifying proof.
- Passed the interpreter test in English + a target language given by the United Nations.
- Presently a member of either AIIC (Association Internationale des Interprètes de Conférence) or TAALS (The American Association of Language Specialists). The membership qualification should be in English and the target language.
- If the individual is a sign language interpreter, he or she must have a Specialist Certificate: Legal, issued by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf or RID.
3. Language skilled interpreters (Ad Hoc interpreters
Not all professional court interpreters can be recognized as an interpreter that is professionally qualified. But the interpreter can still become a language skilled interpreter provided he or she can satisfy the court on his or her ability to interpret court proceedings accurately in English and the target language in both directions. If the interpretation skills satisfy the court, the interpreter will be declared as a language skilled interpreter or an ad hoc interpreter.
Skills required of a court interpreter
Court certification is important for professional interpreters because of the demands of the job. The qualified candidates should not only pass the written and oral exams administered by the Administrative Office; the professional interpreter must also demonstrate special abilities, accomplishments and knowledge.
- Possesses high level of proficiency in English and Spanish, the main languages and in English and other required languages.
- Demonstrates impeccable partiality.
- Has the ability to idiomatically and accurately interpret what the source says into the other language free from omissions, additions or misleading elements that might alter the specific meaning of the message given by the speaker.
- Must be skillful in the three forms of courtroom interpretation – sight translation, consecutive and simultaneous interpretation.
- Has the ability to orally communicate with appropriate poise and delivery.
- Exhibits high standards for professional conduct and courtroom demeanor.
The U.S. federal courts’ biggest operational requirement right now is for interpreters for English and Spanish. But this does not mean that these are the only required languages. The courts also need interpreters for several other languages, notably Arabic, Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, Portuguese and the Chinese languages such as Cantonese, Foochow and Mandarin.
The local district courts determine the need for the other languages. But the Court Interpreters Act mandates the Administrative Office to create the guidelines and standards for choosing and using the professional interpreters during proceedings in the federal courts.
Court interpreter tests could be offered under federal or state authority, typically through the court administration’s main office. However, other states such as Washington and California certify court interpreters. Contract interpreters working in the courts of New Jersey or New York are not certified by the two states. They have a different testing process to qualify, screen or register contract interpreters.
Some courts offer orientation seminars while others require candidates to attend codes of ethics seminars prior to testing. It should be noted that an approval by a state does not automatically qualify an individual to be a federal court interpreter.
In a multilingual, multiethnic country like the United States, it is critical that language access for non-English speakers is implemented. Day Translations, Inc. has a team of certified legal interpreters with the right skill set to handle depositions, whether in court, in interviews, video conferences and over the phone. Our interpreters have long years of experience in different court proceedings. Day Translations is a member of the National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). We assure our clients that our certified legal interpreters understand legal concepts, terminology and jargon perfectly.
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