Four Truths about Court Interpreting

Both my interpreting students and beginning court interpreter colleagues pursing certification ask me regularly what it’s really like to be a working court interpreter. In this column I will answer this question (partially, of course) with four cold, hard truths that you might not have learned in college or during your training. 

1. You will be scared and/or intimidated at times.

It’s fine. Tennis great John McEnroe is not known for his deep insight, but rather for his tantrums on the court (tennis court, not justice court!). However, he did once say something along the lines that if you don’t have butterflies in your stomach before a match (or in our case, a court hearing) you simply don’t care enough. I still have occasional butterflies, and the situation usually merits it. A lot is at stake in court, and the proceedings are somber and serious occasions with real consequences for people who are right next to you. It’s not for the faint of heart. Embrace the butterflies. Your work is important and relevant, and sometimes the weight of it will affect you. If you don’t feel any sort of nervous tension at all—ever—you may have become complacent.

2. Sticking to a code of ethics can be a significant challenge.

Codes of ethics are key, but they can also be confusing and too general, and they are open to interpretation. Being impartial is one of the key aspects of the codes of ethics for court interpreters in all states, but this can be harder than it seems. It’s also about avoiding the appearance of partiality, which includes not talking to non-English speakers unless you’re interpreting. It takes three people for interpreting to take place, and you’re not to have side conversations with anyone. This is oftentimes difficult, as witnesses and defendants may want to have a friendly chat. Avoid it. If an attorney asks you to explain something to his or her client, say you’ll interpret anything they want, but you’ll never explain. (The lawyers do the explaining, while the interpreters do the interpreting.) When in doubt about the code of ethics, go for the strictest interpretation possible.

3. It will be heartbreaking and difficult.

You’ll see grown men cry, teenagers get sentenced to 10 years in prison, and families get ripped apart. You’ll witness injustice, incompetent lawyers, petty disputes between the prosecution and the defense, needless motions, angry judges, overworked bailiffs, upset family members, and much, much more. The American justice system is very much imperfect. As a court interpreter, your job is not to change it or advocate for anyone, but to interpret. You do it if everyone is crying (but you don’t cry). You do it even if it’s hard or if something is happening with which you completely disagree. You solider on and do your job. And, yes, you may be asked to interpret for child molesters, wife killers, and those who deal meth by the kilos. Be ready.

4. Respect is earned.

As a new interpreter, you might find the pace impossible. I hate to tell you this, but no one will slow down for you. Attorneys, courtroom administrators, law clerks, and all other players in the courtroom are busy people and their dockets, desks, and calendars are full. The last thing they need is a struggling interpreter, and while that seems unfair for beginners, that’s the way it is. Be ready to perform at a high level after getting certified, and don’t rush into interpreting in open court until you really are ready. Being certified is great, but it’s the minimum requirement. All parties usually have high expectations of court interpreters, as they should. Earn their respect by going above and beyond. This includes arriving early and impeccably dressed in business attire, putting away your cell phone, being prepared for your case, knowing where to sit or stand, handing in your paperwork, being respectful to everyone, not taking sides or giving advice, and introducing yourself to attorneys you don’t know. Court interpreters are an integral part of the American judiciary and of everyday court proceedings, but oftentimes we hear interpreters complain that they don’t get the respect they deserve. The flip side of this coin is that attorneys oftentimes complain that interpreters are late and poorly dressed, which is unacceptable. Who’s right? I don’t know, but I have certainly witnessed plenty of tardiness and (yes, really) completely inappropriate apparel. When in doubt, wear a black suit.

This column is not intended to constitute legal, financial, or other business advice. Each individual or company should make its own independent business decisions and consult its own legal, financial, or other advisors as appropriate. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of ATA or its Board of Directors. Ideas and questions should be directed to judy.jenner@entrepreneuriallinguist.com.


Judy Jenner is a Spanish and German business and legal translator and a federally and state-certified (California, Nevada) Spanish court interpreter. She has an MBA in marketing and runs her boutique translation and interpreting business, Twin Translations, with her twin sister Dagmar. She was born in Austria and grew up in Mexico City. A former in-house translation department manager, she is a past president of the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association. She writes the blog Translation Times and is a frequent conference speaker. She is the co-author of The Entrepreneurial Linguist: The Business-School Approach to Freelance Translation. Contact: judy.jenner@twintranslations.com.

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