Court Interpreting: A brief introduction

What are the qualities of a court interpreter?

The role of a court interpreter in a court case is hugely important. This is why many professional court interpreters take a test to become recognised as a Court Certified Interpreter. They enable their client to speak and answer the court’s questions but at the same time represent them to the rest of the people present in the court room. The interpreted testimony of a witness to is often a deciding factor in a trial and can consequently dictate its outcome. There are therefore three essential qualities that any court interpreter must have; accuracy, impartiality and experience.

  1. 1. Accuracy: the interpreter must interpret the words of his client as closely as possible, being careful to not omit off-hand comments or parts of the testimony itself. Additionally, the interpreter must convey the tone and register of his client as such features of speech are often used to evaluate the character of the person speaking.
  2. Impartiality: the role of a court interpreter is not the same as a lawyer and therefore they do not have the right to defend or advise the client in any way. In order to ensure this is the case, everything that is said by both the interpreter and client is noted in a transcript that can be examined later if necessary.
  3. Experience: court interpreting does not only require high levels of fluency and articulation in both languages but also experience in the legal field and the individual subject matter of each case. With his/her experience, the interpreter can therefore clarify  technical vocabulary that may impede the client’s understanding of the matter at hand and also interpret any specialised vocabulary used by their client to the other members of the court.

How does court interpretation work?

There are two ways in which a court interpreter may work, either via consecutive interpreting (which is used most commonly) or simultaneous interpreting (which is used in a significantly small amount if cases). Consecutive interpreting involves interpreting a complete thought expressed by the speaker, whereas simultaneous interpreting runs along-side the original speech and is often transmitted to the listeners via headphones. Especially in the case of simultaneous interpreting, the work load is shared by a team of interpreters, owing to the demanding and intense nature of their work. In many high-profile cases, a check interpreter may also be used, to aid and verify the work of the main interpreter.

Different types of court

During their career a court interpreter will work in a number of different courts. The function of each of these courts is different as they deal with cases that involve both civil and criminal law, and are of varying levels of gravity.

The County Court: this can also be called the Small Claims Court and usually deals with civil cases such as breach of contract or personal injury.

The Magistrates Court: this is where the vast majority of criminal cases are heard and resolved.

The Crown Court: cases that are seen as too serious for the Magistrates courts are sent here and are tried in front of a jury.

The High Court of Justice: this is based at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in London and is where the most high-profile criminal cases are heard.

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”.

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.

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.

If you are specifically looking for a Japanese <> English court interpreter, please visit our sister site The Japanese Connection or send us an email.

Members of: ATC, ITI, Proz

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