The Extraordinarily Difficult Nature of Legal Interpreting

Trust me, legal interpreting is not for the faint of heart. There are daunting encounters for professional court interpreters. First, they must be experts in their language pair(s). Second, they must have accurate knowledge of current legal terminology. Third, they must always maintain neutrality and professionalism. However, one of the greatest obstacles legal interpreters face is practicing in a combative environment.

The interpreter finds himself in the middle of a war between the defense attorney and the prosecutor.  Both sides grasp diligently onto anything they can find that could help move their case forward. Why is this such a big problem for legal interpreters?

  1. Legal interpreting is subjective

In the English language, there are many synonyms that describe the same thing. You could have three different interpreters, and each one may select a different word with the same meaning. Just like southerners, westerners, and northerners each have their own expressions, interpreters from diverse backgrounds also use diverse but correct expressions of their choosing.

Legal interpreters have a very challenging craft because they must render the source language information into the target language accurately and instantaneously, without the benefit of researching every word.  They investigate information beforehand. They reformulate the message using their best skills and electing the best rendition in that moment. As an interpreter myself, I often listen to other interpreters and contrast how I would have conveyed the message. It is easy to listen and, at that moment, think of a better word. I often remind myself that although he might have opted for a different word, the message was indeed accurate.

In the aggressive court arena, the professional interpreter must have thick skin and expect not only bilingual but also monolingual attorneys to question the use of specific words. Remember, they are looking for any argument that can help their case. Although the interpreter is a neutral officer of the court, he is often treated by both sides as the suspicious, untrusted enemy. And yet, impartiality is a primary rule of professional court interpreter conduct.  Professional interpreters must be prepared to stand by their rendition when correct and gracious enough to petition the Court to amend a rendition. It is never easy to navigate communication between opposing sides!

  • Legal interpreters convey the message

Many attorneys have the erroneous idea that interpreters are supposed to reformulate the entire message verbatim. Not only is verbatim not how foreign languages are structured, but also not how interpreters practice. Every language has its own grammar, syntax and semantics. Also, words and expressions are often dissimilarly constructed from one language to another. Interpreters must convey the message, not the specific words.

It is common to hear attorneys complain that the interpreter isn’t asking the question word for word. Attorneys with very limited understanding of other languages might hear a false cognate and conclude that the interpreter is inaccurate. For instance, in Spanish, he might here the word intoxicado and believe that he is saying intoxicated or drunk. The accurate meaning in Spanish for intoxicado relates to food poisoning.

Once again, it is the nature of opposing attorneys to get caught up in tiny little word differences and argue every little thing they can find. Undaunted, the professional interpreter must maintain professionalism and defend word choices while maintaining composure during this belligerent process.

As you can see, the nature of interpreting in a legal setting can be arduous. There are things that can help. 


Certified court interpreters have been trained and demonstrated the minimum standard of proficiency by passing an oral examination (just as lawyers who pass the bar possess minimum standards of proficiency to practice law). They are uniquely prepared to work in the court environment.  Untrained paraprofessionals and interpreters who don’t possess minimum standards of proficiency, although perhaps skilled, are often flustered when they feel attacked by an attorney in court. They usually find themselves ill-prepared to justify their decisions before the court; the frustration can negatively affect performance (which may already be dubious at best).

Bench and Bar Education

Many of the problems mentioned are a result of others in the court not fully understanding how interpreting is supposed to be done. Proper training can help judges and attorneys recognize certified and qualified (those professionals for whom certification is not yet available in their language) interpreters doing their job correctly and call out the fakers and hackers.

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2 thoughts on “The Extraordinarily Difficult Nature of Legal Interpreting”

  1. Hi Alfonso, great article highlighing the challenges of a court interpreter. <> does not exclusively refer to food poisoning – it is poisoning (general if no specific context conveyed) or nauseated in some less formal contexts.

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