The state of the UK courts following a five-year contract for court interpreters between the Ministry of Justice and ALS has been a hot media topic of late. Many stories have circulated about the less than orthodox proceedings, from the wife of a non-English speaking defendant who was called in to interpret the proceedings for her husband to the Ipswich Magistrates’ Court Judge who resorted to instructing the defendant in court to use the notorious Google Translate to communicate. In other stories, some interpreters arriving in court have never been in a court room before and are not even sure of the correct dress code.
In the midst of the outcry following these sorts of happenings, it is worth asking; what does providing high-quality court interpreting actually involve?
The question of the importance of high quality interpreting is certainly not a new concept. Virtually all European countries now guarantee the right to an interpreter for defendants who do not speak the language of the proceedings. Indeed, the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by the Council of Europe in 1950, guarantees in Article 6, among other things, 1) that the defendant be present in person when the case is heard in court, 2) that the evidence be heard by an “impartial tribunal,” and 3) that the defendant be informed of the charges “in a language which he understands” and to “have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand or speak the language used in the court”. Recently, research from the University of Western Sydney conducted by Professor Sandra Hale, concluded that the accuracy of court interpreters can make or break criminal cases presented to juries.
However accuracy in court interpreting is not reached by linguistic fluency alone. Of course this is essential, but it is a necessary, and not a sufficient element of what makes an excellent court interpreter. What is also extremely important is a high level of knowledge of legal terminology in both working languages. If an interpreter does not understand legal terminology and procedures they will be unable to pass along what is being asked, to translate legal assumptions to languages that might not natively hold them, and to communicate the requirements and consequences of the situations in which their clients find themselves. What is more, not only must a court interpreter be able to do all of this with speech, they need to be able to translate legal documents and pieces of evidence, verbatim, by sight.
Professor Hale’s study, published in 2010, found that other, often neglected aspects of court interpreting are also crucial in providing the defendant with a fair trial. These other elements include tone, inflection and other subtleties of speech which must accurately reflect those of the defendant. Hale’s research found that juries do not focus solely on what a defendant says, and how they say it is also crucial for their assessment of the defendant’s credibility, intelligence and trustworthiness. It is imperative therefore that court interpreters have had the necessary training to, in the words of the Minnesota Judicial Branch (from their guidelines on the role of a court interpreter) “be able to interpret with exactitude while accurately reflecting a speaker’s nuances and level of formality. The interpreter must interpret the original source material […] conserving the language level, style, tone, and intent of the speaker.”
The role of the court interpreter is a difficult, demanding and complex one which requires talented, highly-disciplined and well-trained professionals. It is easy to overlook the nuances and highly-specialised skills demanded by this profession; far from speaking only two languages the court interpreter must also ‘speak’ the legal jargon of the case and the many linguistic characteristics of his or her defendant.
At TJC Global we have professional, experienced court interpreters working in a very large range of languages. They understand the court system inside out, and many even have a background working in the legal system as barristers amongst other occupations, or studying Law. For more information about our court interpreting or other interpreting services, or for a free quote, please visit our website or send us an email.