What is court interpreting?

Comments on how conference interpreters see court interpreting.

A number of conference interpreters were asked what they thought made court interpreting different from conference interpreting. Below is the gist of their answers:

1) A court interpreter does not work from the comfort and isolation of a booth.

2) The average "client" of a court interpreter is rarely as articulate or fluent as a conference delegate. Fear and uncertainty also renders their language more incoherent.

3) A court interpreter rarely has the advantage of working in a team of interpreters. Court interpreters work alone, for long hours, with no rest or recovery time. The potential damage to their vocal chords is never considered.

4) Court interpreters do not only work in court, but they are involved at every stage of the legal process, especially in systems where they are called to the interview following arrest. Such sessions often take place at unsociable hours. Interpreters are naturally expected to arrive at the police station, alert and articulate, minutes after being dragged from slumber by the telephone.

5) Court interpreters must naturally observe neutrality regarding the content and impartiality between parties. This is frequently difficult to maintain due to the insistence by the "client" to regard their (compatriot) interpreter as an ally.

While these points reflect - to some extent - the actual situation, they require some commenting in order to put things into a proper perspective:

1) I think there are many different forms of interpreting. Working in the simultaneous mode from a booth is just one. Also for conference interpreters, consecutive and whispered interpretation are still common features in certain situations (business negotiations, factory visits, study tours, visits by political delegations/heads of state, board meetings, interviews, etc). When considering the special set-up of the standard courtroom and the most common type of interpreting assignment for court interpreters (hearings, interrogations of parties or witnesses of 30 minutes to 2 hours), then conference-room facilities are certainly not necessary. After all, only a fairly small percentage of court proceedings involves interpreting. However, in some countries (e.g. the USA), courtrooms are fitted with booths and conference equipment since case after case is handled in a non-stop manner.

2) While it is true that the average educational background of a court interpreter's client differs from that of the average conference delegate, which has an influence on speakers' oral performance, one should also bear in mind that it is often more essential for a defendant or a witness to be properly understood and interpreted than for a conference delegate. It should be a challenge to any interpreter to have the necessary language skills ready when working in court in order to help a person to be properly understood and to understand. As to speakers' fear and uncertainty - it is my opinion that conference speakers will often speak too fast, simply because they are afraid of delivering a paper in public or are insecure about their speaking skills. I guess we have all had ample opportunity at conferences to complain about fast or unintelligible speakers.

3) The standard assignment of a court interpreter is usually finished within a couple of hours, except for major trials. Whenever court sessions are scheduled for longer periods, breaks will certainly be the order of the day, since all parties present in the courtroom will request them. I personally never had any difficulties asking a judge for a break, especially when making all arrangements concerning the court interpreting ahead of a trial. The same is true for working in teams. Again, the arrangements will depend on the case and the (growing) understanding of judges or attorneys regarding the work of court interpreters. In arbitration proceedings, working in a team (consecutive or simultaneous) has become standard, especially when the case lasts more than a day. I do not think that damage to the vocal chords is the major health risk related to uninterrupted hours of work. Fatigue and lack of concentration should be considered first. One should also bear in mind that that large courtrooms often have amplification systems so that interpreters (as well as judges, prosecutors, witnesses, accused, counsels, etc.) do not have to shout.

4) Court interpreters are usually assigned to do court work, but the police, immigration and other authorities will sometimes contact them when their own interpreters are not available. Since crimes frequently happen at unsociable hours, it cannot be avoided that court interpreters will occasionally have to work at such hours. However, this is the exception rather than the rule, unless an interpreter is called in to work for a major drug or racketeering case. I personally find, though, that being where the action takes place is more challenging (and rewarding) than waiting in some conference booth or interpreters' lounge at a ghastly hour for a debate to end or a meeting to resume.

5) As a court interpreter, you must make it clear from the very beginning - and to everybody in court - that you are impartial and will assist only in the cause of justice, contributing (hopefully!) to everybody's better understanding. The seating arrangements which an interpreter seeks in a courtroom can often contribute to making that point clear, especially to a court interpreter's "clients". Avoiding conversations - in a firm and friendly way- is another way of preserving one's impartiality.

I think it would be highly informative for interpreters who work only at conferences and with conference-room facilities, to attend a court session with interpretation. In particular, they would soon realize that unless you have mastered all interpreting skills - in addition to knowing the legal system and the particulars of the specific case - you will be unable to perform well in a court job.

Liese Katschinka is a member of AIIC's Legal and Court Interpreting Committee.

Recommended citation format:
Liese KATSCHINKA. "What is court interpreting?". aiic.net September 10, 2000. Accessed July 12, 2020. <http://aiic.net/p/239>.

Message board

Comments 17

The most recent comments are on top

kiguru E. G.


I am interested in carrying out research on court interpreting in my country Kenya. I would appreciate any information on research on this subject carried out in different parts of the world. Iam especially interested in the impact of lay interpreters on the justice system.

Total likes: 1 1 | 0

Norma Canencia


Hola! mi nombre es Norma Leticia, y al igual que muchas de las personas que aparecen en esta pagina, busco informacion sobre alguna escuela que me prepare en la rama de la interpretacion en el area de Fresno,CA.

Si alguien tuviese informacion alguna sobre este tema por favor de comunicarse conmigo a la brevedad posible.

Muchas gracias por su atencion.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Johnson Xinhong ZHANG


I quite agree with Judith Kenigson Kristy that the court itself is often our client. First of all, it is the court who hires us. Second, the language of the court and the prosecution is more often than not much more difficult to render and more professional, esp. when the public prosecutor leaves the case for the time being to expalin jurisprudence-related issues -- which always gives me a hard time.

Anybody interested interested in what is going on in Chinese courts involving court interpreting services? I can offer some info related to my own experience. Please use my email address to contact me.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Adriana Caicedo


I just found this site, read about transalting, I'm a translator too, and I would like to know if you or someone can help me and advice me, to apply or fill an application form to get a job as an Interpreter. If you or someone can help, I'll be more than happy to receive your advice.

thanks !

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Adriana Caicedo


romina yo estoy en la misma situacion que tu buscando una escuela de traduccion en florida asi que te agraeceria hartisimo si compartieras conmigo alguna informacion que encuentres

Total likes: 0 0 | 0



i don't know but i alsa want to find out! please let me know of any info if you get some.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Romina Chevallet


My name is Romins Chevallet, I'm 20years old and very interested in becoming an interpreter. I am from Argentina and speak spanish fluently. I live in Florida and would like to know where do I begin as far as school. I took some spanish classes in high school but after I graduated I joined the military. My contract with the military ends in Nov. of 2004 and that's why I'm trying to get more info as to where I should start. If anybody can help I would greatly appreciate it.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Elizabeth Braun


As a currently working Spanish/English criminal court interpreter, I recognize some of the difficulties mentioned in the first part of the discussion to be present in the work environment, but mostly on rare occasions. Usually at our particular Courthouse, we track our cases throughout the system and if a major criminal case is going to trial, we schedule more interpreters and give each other breaks every 2 hours or so as needed. When there is expert testimony with specilized information, we work in teams to search words that may be unfamiliar or not have a clear translation. My career as an interpreter been mostly a challenging and rewarding experience...although reading this makes me wonder if conference interpreting might not be fun as well. Maybe that is just a grass is greener type effect though.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0




It has been my experience that written translations for agencies pay better than most interpreting jobs for hospitals and especially for the courts. You could send your CV or resume to local agencies for interpreting jobs, but don't exclude national agencies for document translation. If you haven't already done so, it would also be a good idea to invest in a high speed internet connection here in KC (Road Runner seems reliable.) and a membership in MICATA. I wouldn't bother taking the certification tests from MICATA; paying your membership dues is enough to get your name around.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Mariela Marquez


I have a bachelor's degree in Translation and Interpreting from a South Amercan country. I am moving to the States soon. I wonder where to start in order to find a job as a translator or interpreter. I am moving to kansas City, MO. Any ideas?

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Judith Kenigson Kristy


I was surprised that the comments published about court interpreting reflected only the level of language used by those persons called "clients", apparently referring to defendants and witnesses in court cases. As a practising court interpreter and educator of court interpreters in the USA (Tennessee), I would like to emphasize that, at least here, it is the Court itself that is our "client", and the level of discourse heard in legal arguments is high, indeed, and very specialized; it requires special knowledge and mental agility to simultaneously interpret such arguments.

Court interpreters are ethically bound to maintain absolute fidelity to the level of language being spoken, be it the frozen, stylized language of legal professionals or the street slang and dialectical variations used by parties and witnesses. At the same time, they must be accurate, without modifying, omitting details or adding to the content of the communications. When interpreting testimony in the consecutive mode, court interpreters are, in fact, forming the offical court record, since only their rendition in the Court's language will be recorded by the court reporter for use in appeals or other future proceedings. This is a serious burden requiring excellent short-term memory skills. Added to that burden is the awareness that one's performance at this stage can have grave consequences in the life of another human being.

Court interpreters who are aware of their ethical obligations recognize that one of their most important tasks is to educate judges, administrators, attorneys and other interpreters that team interpreting is essential for correct performance and compliance with their oath to interpret accurately and completely every word spoken in the courtroom. As the author pointed out, fatigue is the principal enemy, and ethical court interpreters will always insist on the conditions needed to avoid fatigue and inaccuracy, either by requesting a partner to work with (the best solution, in an ideal world!) or by requesting frequent breaks (at least every 30 minutes). I teach my students to simply refuse to work without a partner in any session lasting more than 2 hours or any evidentiary proceeding, no matter what the estimated length. If everyone who works in court insists on this rule of thumb, we will start to obtain the working conditions we need.

I am not a member of AIIC, although I sporadically do some conference interpreting, but I think it is important that we share ideas about this subject to correct some obvious misconceptions. I also admire AIIC's well-known stand on working conditions and hope court interpreters will follow that lead to achieve the conditions that most favor our performance, although I recognize that, in that sense, we have a long and frustrating struggle ahead of us. Thank you for affording this opportunity to discuss court interpreting matters.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Judith Kenigson Kristy


For those asking where to begin in court interpreting, consider joining the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators; you can check out their web page at www.najit.org (see FAQs) for more information about the profession. Depending on the state where you live, you may need State Certification in order to interpret in court; for Federal Courts, you will need to be certified by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. You can access information about those certification exams, as well as NAJIT's own certification exams, through links on the NAJIT site.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Liese Katschinka


Contact the association of court interpreters in your country

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Guadalupe mendoza


I'm a recent college graduate looking for work in court interpreting. I have a experience interpreting in a legal setting and in translating legal documents. I would like to start working as a court interpreter, but I'm not sure where to start. Can someone send me a sample of a resume for court interpreting and any other information that may be helpful?

Thanks you.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Stephanie K.


I am finishing a German and French Bachelor. I would like to know if a master is necessary after my bachelor or if a court interpreter certificate would be enough for me to find work. Also, would anyone know how to start looking for a job as a court interpreter. I live in Florida.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Luis H. Sanchez


When choosing an interpreter for Spanish into English and English into Spanish, the bigest misconcepton is that all Spanish is the same.

The terminology used to express the same idea from country to country in South America alone can be very confusing. This lack of knowledge by some court interpreters may at times produce a negative outcome in court.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Janet Saba


In Australia, it appears that we do not have enough training for interpreters to keep up with the changes in the legal field. I enquired at a legal institution about training for legal practitioners or interpreters and was advised that there are short courses not specifically for interpreters but generallly for who is interested. I wish there is somehow, somewhere a course available to boost the interpreters understanding and expertise in this unique and complex field.


Janet Saba

Arabic Interpreter

Total likes: 0 0 | 0