The Judge and the Interpreter

Judges are busy court officers.  They have many hearings and trials to preside.  Additionally, they attend continuing education and serve on various committees.  When a judge hears a matter that has a limited English proficient (LEP) individual, a court interpreter will be needed.  How does the judge know that the interpreter will truly comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct for Court Interpreters?


Many times, the answer is uncertain.  If the judge does not speak the LEP person’s language, she must trust that the interpreter is performing an accurate rendition.  Many times, everyone involved believes that someone else has verified this information.  However, to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of having a ruling overturned by a higher court, the judge does well in securing a competent, certified interpreter.


What does the law in South Carolina say about court interpreters in criminal matters? Section 17-1-50(A)(1) states that a “Certified interpreter” means an interpreter who meets the standards contained in subitem (A)(4) and is certified by the administrative office of the United States courts, by the office of the administrator for the state courts, or by a nationally recognized professional organization.  Therefore, only an individual who is certified meets the minimum standards of proficiency for court interpreting.  To use another individual as a court interpreter is to invite risk of misinterpretation.  Why?


Section 17-1-50(A)(4) states that a Qualified Interpreter is (a) 18 years or older; (b) is not a relative of the LEP person; (c) is not confined to an institution (this rules out bilingual inmates or mental patients); and (d) has education, training, or experience that enables him to speak English and a foreign language fluently, and is readily able to interpret simultaneously and consecutively and to sight-translate documents from English into the language of a non-English speaking person, or from the language of that person into spoken English.  A Qualified Interpreter has not passed a state or national exam to demonstrate minimum proficiency.  Therefore, it is not on record that this person can interpret simultaneously and consecutively or sight-translate documents.  Few of these Qualified Interpreters engage in continuing education as stated in the SCACR §511.   Just as attorneys must pass the bar in order to practice law, some 30 practicing court interpreters in South Carolina have passed the state court oral interpreting exam.  Nationwide, the pass rate for the state court interpreter certification examination is nine (9%) percent.


Currently, court interpreter certification in South Carolina is not available in all languages, but it is definitely available to Spanish interpreters.  It is expensive and exhaustive to create and administer these exams.  Therefore, if your hearing or trial requires a Spanish interpreter, the officer of the court who will perform that duty ethically will be a certified court interpreter. What happens if a Spanish certified court interpreter is unavailable?


In the interest of providing meaningful language access, the matter should be continued until one can be secured (in the same manner as when counsel is unavailable to appear her client).  However, Section 17-1-50(D)  permits a party or a witness to use a qualified interpreter who is not on the court’s directory upon voir dire by the court.  The voir dire will allow the judge to confirm or deny the qualified interpreter.  You may download this voir dire file for your reference.


Some judges see court interpreters every day.  Others only see them once in a blue moon.   By having pertinent information at your disposal, you can ensure accurate interpretation on the record.

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