Foreign language interpretation is often a crucial part of legal matters – and one that many people don’t fully understand. We spoke with Emily Shearer, Director of Client Services at Trustpoint.One to learn more about what’s involved and what steps people should take to ensure a positive outcome.

What are some of the key points to understand – and some of the biggest misconceptions?
One common misconception is that the people who perform document translation and the interpreters are one in the same, but the fact is, translating and interpreting are two very different skill sets. Few people master both, so the roles are typically performed by different individuals, and it’s therefore unlikely that the interpreter in the courtroom would have had any part in translating the documents.

Further, legal cases can be fast-moving, especially during the discovery phase, and there may be hundreds or even thousands of documents to review. When a foreign language is involved, a team of professional translators with strong project management support needs to work in concert to meet strict deadlines. Since many of those translators may reside in other countries, it would be impractical – and largely unnecessary – to have that team be present during court proceedings, even via videoconference.

But doesn’t the translator need to vouch for the accuracy of their work?
Very few translators will agree to testify, especially if they know that several people have been working on the materials. The question quickly becomes one of responsibility: who finalized the documents? Who will take responsibility for the translation being accurate? Given those questions, the standard in the industry is for the language services company providing the translations to certify them. Essentially, we know the professionals we have hired and vetted for the particular subject matter and language combination at hand, so we are confident that the end-product is accurate. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that “legal translation” means many things – most importantly, that the translator has both subject matter expertise and an excellent grasp of both languages. That combination is key to a successful legal translation.

Are the interpreters certified as experts in a particular language?
Well, yes and no. The oral and written certification process only exists for about fifteen languages. For all the others, there may be an abbreviated version or none at all, so you’re not always going to see certified interpreters. This is all the more reason why you need to know and trust the company you’re working with, and be familiar with their general background, what kind of experiences their clients have had, and how many legal or court assignments they have completed.

Beyond being fluent in the language, what factors do you consider when you’re evaluating an interpreter’s level of competence?
Firstly, recruiting qualified interpreters takes time – time that many attorneys or paralegals do not have to spare. Whether it’s an unusual language combination or one that’s in high demand, your language services provider will already have a qualified pool of resources they know they can trust.

Second, competent legal interpreters must follow the Code of Ethics for Interpretation. They must understand their role in the courtroom and possess a broad range of skills including both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting as well as sight translation and whisper interpreting. Most interpreters learn some form of shorthand during the certification process, so they can quickly take notes while they actively listen – thus ensuring the accuracy of the message. They also need to be well-versed in all kinds of matters related to both civil and criminal hearings.

Whisper interpreting? Simultaneous? You gave a few different examples there – can you explain?
Example of Consecutive Interpreting 2:18 minutes
Example of Simultaneous Interpreting 1:06 minutes

Consecutive interpreting is the most common type of interpreting. The interpreter orally translates the words of each speaker after he or she has stopped speaking. The interpreter will often take notes during this process.

During simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter orally translates the words of the original speaker in real-time—while the speaker is still speaking. The interpretation is almost instantaneous, and special equipment is required.

Whispered interpreting is a specialized type of simultaneous interpretation. The interpreter is translating orally for only one or two people and speaks quietly so only they can hear it. No special equipment is required for this mode of interpretation.

Court interpreters also need to be experienced in sight translation: if the attorneys have documents that are in a different language, they will often need to be orally translated for the attorney or the client.

So what are some of the factors that can impact the way an interpretation session plays out?

Different courts often have different requirements or even legal constraints.

Remember, a court interpreter is completely neutral and unbiased. You can certainly bring your own interpreter, but in most cases, the courts will assign the interpreter. Depositions or other legal proceedings have a bit more flexibility. Both plaintiff and defendant will likely want their own interpreter present.

And then there’s the intrinsic difficulty of the effort. Interpreting is cognitively taxing even for the most experienced professional. Not only does the message need to be conveyed properly, but the emotion of that message does too. All parties need to consider the additional time that is required to work with an interpreter. Breaks are needed frequently and working in consecutive mode can as much as double the time needed to complete the proceeding. Some interpreters require that they work in partnership with another interpreter for lengthy assignments – especially if simultaneous interpretation is required. They switch and rest every 20 to 30 minutes. Lastly, many interpreters do not work more than a 6-hour day.

Is there anything else that people should know?

Professional interpreters will always request preparatory material. They need context – documentation, an explanation of the claims that are being made, information about the circumstances – in order to interpret everything correctly.

They will also be honest about their capabilities and subject matter expertise. Unfortunately, there is a lot of fraud in this industry. People pretend to be translators and interpreters, collect their fees, and then disappear or show up with no competency in the field.  So working in partnership with a reputable company is key. They know how to avoid such fraudulent applicants and already have a vetted network of experienced professionals to contact.

While working with a professional interpreter may seem costly to some, this is not an area where you want to skimp on budget. Keep in mind that just because someone is bilingual, that does not mean they have the necessary skills to interpret or provide document translation. It’s important to plan ahead and consider this cost in your budget, because a wrongly-conveyed message could result in a devastating outcome for your client.

Sum it up for us. What should people do to ensure a great experience?
First, do your research and work with a reputable firm. Second, whether you need interpretation, translation, or both, treat it like an integral part of the matter. Think of the interpreter as another member of your team, and make sure they have the context they need to do their job well. And third, plan for the effort. Make sure you understand the logistics that will be required by the particular court in question and that everyone is prepared and knows what to expect. If you do those three things well, your interpreter will be a real asset, and your experience will be positive.