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Translatum Journal - Issue 5


Antonia Keratsa

Court Interpreting: features, conflicts and the future


Legal interpreters perform their vocation in several legal settings, under a specific code of ethics, and at the same time have to confront communicative conflicts and dilemmas. This article explores the mission, the code of ethics, and the challenges, conflicts and dilemmas encountered by court interpreters.


The demands of courtroom interpreting are complex and legal interpreters have to perform a variety of tasks in order to achieve cross-linguistic and cross-cultural equivalence. Broadly speaking, their mission as agents of languages and cultures determines the outcome of legal procedures and may either lead to success of the communication process or communication breakdown.

This article sets out to examine several features of legal interpreting with specific reference to the controversial issue of ethical conduct and the moral dilemmas interpreters face in court interactions. It will also highlight the need for more explicit standards in the field and specialized training of future interpreters.


Mark Shuttleworth and Moira Cowie state that Court Interpreting is a term that refers to all kinds of legal interpreting; either it takes place in a courtroom or in other legal settings, such as police departments, prisons, immigration authorities etc. Its basic purpose is to enable the client to participate in proceedings and provide communicative links between claimants, who usually belong to immigrant communities, and the adjudicating body (1997:32), thus ensuring the effective exchange of messages and the success of legal processes.

Court interpreters cover virtually all kinds of legal cases involving people of different age groups, cultural backgrounds, social status and literacy competence. Therefore they need to have general knowledge of various cultural elements and extensive command of vocabulary, ranging from formal legal language to slang and colloquialisms.

Apart from the necessary skills that will enable them to interpret accurately and bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps between claimants and judiciary, interpreters need to prove understanding of legal procedures and be impartial and confidential. Accurate interpretation does not only involve articulating the clients' claims, but also complying with certain ethical standards in order to ensure the integrity of the justice process.


‘If the trial is a battle, it is a battle fought with words and the role of discourse strategies in achieving supremacy becomes all important' (qtd. in Hale 1997b: 201). In the case of court interpreting, such battles are fought by people who cannot speak and understand the legal setting language and the presence of an interpreter is considered essential as a mediator and a necessary contributor in overcoming language barriers and ensuring communication.

However, interpretation in such contexts is bound with ethical standards and considerations that interpreters have to uphold in order to operate effectively and avoid jeopardizing a case's outcome. Such ethical principles involve fidelity, confidentiality, impartiality and professional conduct (Mikkelson 2000:49-55).


Holy Mikkelson states that interpreters have a moral and professional, not to mention legal, commitment to convey the complete meaning of the speaker's message (2000:49). Since they are the link between claimants, lawyers and the adjudicating body, they have extreme power in the courtroom and need to be very careful in order to conform to the ethical standards of accuracy and faithfulness of clients' speech.

Therefore, their task does not only involve encoding and decoding speakers' messages, but also ensuring translation equivalence by preserving the actual words of the original language, adding or deleting nothing. Moreover, they need to maintain all non – verbal elements, such as tone of voice or pauses, so as to convey the whole message of an utterance and avoid distorting the legal process by providing incomplete renditions.

As far as gestures or facial expressions are concerned ‘it can be argued that everyone in the courtroom can see the witness and there is no need for the court interpreter to repeat any movements or facial expressions made by the witness' (Mikkelson 2000:50). It should be stated however that such non – linguistic elements are often cultural specific and sometimes interpreters need to intervene to the legal process in order to clarify these unstated conventions.

Instances of such interferences are also allowed and considered essential when interpreters have a problem relaying everything stated. Namely, in cases when it is not possible to convey all features of a statement, the court needs to be informed so as to ensure full understanding of a speaker's testimony.

Finally, when interpreting errors occur, due to misunderstanding or other factors, such as fatigue or rapid speed, all parties have to be briefed and a valid correction is essential.


‘Interpreters shall respect confidentiality at all times and not seek to take advantage of any information disclosed during their work'. The above is stated in section 4 of the ‘Ethical and Professional Issues' in the National Register of Public Service Interpreters' Code of Conduct of the United Kingdom (Mikkelson 2000:50).

Thus, the role of the interpreter is restricted to full secrecy of any major or minor information about the trial process and whatever uttered during the legal procedure. The knowledge interpreters have about a case must be limited to the understanding of the case and preparation of relevant terminology. No details must be revealed or general comments made that may enable manipulation of information and have an impact on the case's outcome.


An important issue that can affect an interpreter's image and reliability in legal contexts is impartiality. As Muhhamad Gamal argues, impartiality places a special constraint on court interpreters who have to distance themselves from witnesses (1998:55).

Thus, personal opinions and judgements must not be expressed and conclusions that might colour the interpretation process positively or negatively must not be reached so that the jury remains neutral and the outcome of the trial unrestrained. Interpreters should concentrate on their mission and avoid sympathizing or being disdainful of speakers. They should also restrain from conversations with any of the parties, since they might give the impression of interfering with the legal process. However, if they consider it essential to interact with witnesses in order to clarify certain concepts, they should do it privately with the jury's permission and act distantly and professionally.

It has been often observed that people of the same ethnic group as the interpreter view him/her as an ally and ask for advice or clarifications about the trial. In such cases interpreters must refer those people to the jury explaining that they are unbiased and not allowed to have independent conversations or give advice of any kind.

Even though it is natural for interpreters to form impressions about the claimants and their statements, they should refrain from any personal reactions. Their individual opinions and emotions must be kept in check and they should adopt a neutral attitude. This will ensure all parties that the interpreter is properly qualified and dedicated to professional conduct.


There are certain practical guidelines interpreters have to follow in order to comply with the standards of professionalism in legal settings.

As far as their role in the court is concerned, they need to uphold the legal protocol and use proper forms of address for courtroom personnel, as well as bowling or standing and sitting at the appropriate times (Mikkelson 2000:54). They should also be punctual and interpret properly, articulating the correct meaning of statements with the appropriate speed and tone of voice, so as not to disrupt the legal proceedings.

What is also significant is an interpreter's relations with his/her colleagues. The Spanish Code of Ethics (sections 2.2.7 and 2.2.8) for example, argues that ‘interpreters help their colleagues, present and future, and refrain from expressing opinions about the competence of other interpreters' (Mikkelson 2000:54). They should therefore manifest solidarity and avoid disputes or conflicts in order to maintain the dignity of each case and the profession in general.

A crucial requirement for professional interpreters is adequate preparation for different cases. Before the beginning of a trial, competent interpreters should research, ensure knowledge of the nature of the case and convey relevant terminology. Furthermore, they should prove integrity in cases when they become aware of any inability to perform their services effectively. In such an instance, they should not only inform all interested parties, but also withdraw from the case so that they do not put legal procedures and outcomes at risk.

Finally, rigorous and specialized training is essential so that interpreters keep up with language development and any modifications in the field. Namely, participation in workshops, professional meetings, interaction with professional colleagues and reading of current literature (Mikkelson 2000:55) is considered crucial so that interpreters are constantly capable of upholding their standards of practice.


Interpretation in the legal context is a vexed notion involving faithful rendition of speech according to verbatim standards and excluding transmission of any meaningful concepts or intentions of the speaker. It is therefore viewed as a mechanistic translation process that restricts interpreters from reflecting any unstated conventions by which language operates. This fact affects the interpreters' role as mediators and makes them face moral dilemmas as to their mission in legal procedures.

As stated in the previous section of this article, accuracy in legal contexts stands for total equivalence of a claimant's utterances, including dialectal correspondence, stylistic features of speech etc. However, interpreters often have the tendency to either eliminate a speaker's foreignness, by raising the level of formality when interpreting into the courtroom language, or lowering it, when interpreting into the language of the claimant, in order to establish mutual comprehension.

Sandra Hale provides and comments on several examples of such tendencies of complex interpretation. Firstly, she sets out examples of Spanish claimants' utterances where the interpreter alters linguistic features and the court gains a wrong impression about the witness's status. E.g.:

Witness: Ahora, si yo no me tome ningun acto de echarla , porque yo le prometique no la iba a echar . (Now, if I didn't take any act to throw her out , because I promised her that I wouldn't throw her out .)

Interpreter: And also I had promised her that I wouldn't evict her. (1997a: 47)

The above example proves that there are instances when interpreters tailor speakers' words in such a way in order to conform to the courtroom's language.

The opposite can happen when interpreters use language familiar to witnesses so as not to confuse and puzzle them. Thus, they opt to transform complex words or sentences in order to avoid misunderstandings and facilitate the legal procedure. E.g.:

Solicitor: And you are the defendant before the court?
Interpreter: Y usted es el que esta aqui en la corte? (And you are the one who is here in court?)
(Hale 1997a: 49)

This example shows that the interpreter deliberately simplified the solicitor's utterance in order to make it comprehensible to the witness.

The above pattern can also occur when the interpreter and the witness belong in the same cultural community and the interpreter faces the dilemma of assisting and becoming personally involved in the process by elaborating the claimant's utterances in such a way so as to meet the court's requirements and help achieve communication between the parties. As Robert Barsky argues, sometimes interpreters provide appropriate contextual information to minimize the damage resulting from behaviour, which is unacceptable in the host culture (1996:55). This is typical in Convention Refugee hearings where interpreters often feel that they should recast information in order to extinguish cultural differences that may interfere in the process and avoid any cross - cultural communication breakdowns.

Barsky provides such an example involving a Pakistani interpreter and a Pakistani claimant that occurred in a hearing in Quebec. The claimant insisted on speaking French, even though he did not have fluent command of the language, probably in order to impress the authorities. E.g.:

Claimant: Moi j' ai demande Madame, moi demande, Monsieur n' a pas besoin de translation. Maintenant vous parle pour moi, pourquoi? Moi demander Madame. Je demandais pour moi, moi probleme pakistanais. Elle dit, desole. Moi demander Parisien. France governement, il decide pour moi.
(Literally: Me I asked, Madam, me asked, sir does not need the translation. Now you speak for me. Why? Me ask, Madam. I asked for me, me Pakistani problem. She says, sorry. Me asked Parisian, French Government, it decides for me.)

In this case, the Pakistani interpreter rendered the statement in an acceptable and comprehensible format and supplemented it with additional information, so as to meet the requirements of the Refugee Board.

Interpreter: If I understand correctly, they did not ask the important question: Why
am I sitting in Canada , why did I apply as a refugee? These are the questions that they
should ask. Why was I in prison? Why was my brother killed? Why was I accused of killing the MSF vice president? What he was asked was questions that have nothing to do with the claim. Here is what he is trying to say. They asked questions that had nothing to do with the claim. Why didn't they ask why I came to Canada ? I was attacked, my brother was assassinated. How many times I have been tortured, imprisoned. And even I have been arrested. They are not talking about the issue that brings to status. They are talking about something different.

However, even though the interpreter managed to achieve comprehensibility between the claimant and the board, this particular witness's claim has been refused, since no proper interpreter was present during the initial hearing. In that case, the claimant had asked to testify in French, even though he did not have adequate command of the language, in order to impress and convince the French – speaking members of the board (1996: 54).

Unclear material is another critical issue and a major dilemma for interpreters in legal settings. According to Ruth Morris, rules imposed by the court usually forbid the court interpreter to address questions directly to a witness (1995:33). This is a severe flaw that creates deficiencies in the rendering of a speaker's words and affects the quality of interpreting.

In the following example provided by Morris, the interpreter's indication about a witness's slip of the tongue caused the court's disapproval and reprimand since the speaker's intention was presumed and clarified. E.g.:

Witness: (in German): Some said they would not travel to Israel .
Interpreter: …to Germany ; witness says Israel but it must be Germany (1995:35).

The burden of interpreters' responsibilities and the moral dilemmas they face are much more severe when they concern bridging cultural and linguistic gaps in legal contexts where deaf claimants are concerned. Deaf people often view the interpreter as an advocate or an ally, since he/she is the only communicative link between them and the adjudicating body. In these settings it is very difficult for the interpreter to be an invisible presence by performing simple translation tasks and often becomes obtrusive by trying to fill in information gaps, since there are inherent differences between sign and spoken language and concepts that need to be clarified (Brennan 1999:233).

Therefore, interpreters face dilemmas concerning lexical modifications, when they believe that use of certain signs will be difficult for deaf persons to understand or when there is no clear correspondence between specific elements of the two languages. Brennan compares the English language and British Sign Language (BSL) in courtroom settings and states that an ongoing problem for interpreters is the fact that speakers often use English generic terms for which BSL has no direct equivalents. For example, while the English word hit does not clarify how or where someone was hit, the BSL tends to be more specific (1999:233). In this case, the interpreter has to act as mediator and make additions, so as to transmit concrete and eligible information.

All the above illustrations are only a sample of several conflicts and dilemmas court interpreters face in order to facilitate legal procedures and illuminate meanings. It is evident that interpretation in judicial contexts is problematic, since it is restricted to an inflexible and transparent translation process. Therefore, the vital goal of achieving ultimate accuracy through the interplay of culture becomes complex and often unachievable.


The future of legal interpreting seems ambiguous. The role of court interpreters as agents of culture and negotiators of alien elements and meaningful information is underestimated and reduced to that of a translation device. The deficiencies of the legal norms in this field places emphasis on the need for a formal system that will establish clearer patterns of interpreting behaviour and allow legal interpreters to play an active role in court interactions, so as to translate flexibly, express concepts and meanings and finally draw attention to speakers' foreignness.

Furthermore, education for proficient court interpreting has to be ameliorated. Academic institutions should provide courses and training, seminars and workshops and finally professional certificates for court interpreters ‘in an attempt to bridge the gap between “generalist” academic training in interpreting and the specific standards and skills required in the professional world' (Gamal 1998:56).



This article has attempted to draw attention on certain important concepts about legal interpreting and highlight the critical role of court interpreters in judicial settings. It also commented on some of the challenges and conflicts interpreters are subjected to, in order to fulfil their mission and at the same time comply with the law's standards. However, one should note that further research has to be carried out in the field, in order to challenge and reflect the need for more explicit codes of ethical conduct, extended education and clearer patterns of interpreters' behaviour in legal contexts.


• Edwards, Alicia (1995) The Practice of Court Interpreting, Amsterdam &
Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
• Mikkelson, Holy (2000) Introduction to Court Interpreting, Manchester UK and Northampton MA: St Jerome Publishing.
• Shuttleworth, Mark and Cowie, Moira (1997) Dictionary of Translation Studies, Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.

• Barsky, Robert (1996) ‘The Interpreter as Intercultural Agent in Convention
Refugee Hearings’, in Mona Baker (ed) The Translator. Studies in Intercultural Communication 2(1), Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 45-63.
• Brennan, Mary (1999) ‘Signs of Injustice’ in Mona Baker (ed) The Translator. Studies in Intercultural Communication 5(2), Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 221-246.
• Gamal, Muhammad (1998) ‘Court Interpreting’, in Mona Baker (ed) Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, London & New York: Routledge, 53-56.
• Hale, Sandra (1997a) ‘The Treatment of Register Variation in Court
Interpreting’, in Mona Baker (ed) The Translator. Studies in Intercultural Communication 3(1), Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 39-54.
• Hale, Sandra (1997b) ‘The Interpreter on Trial. Pragmatics in Court
Interpreting’, in Silvanna Carr, Roda Roberts, Aideen Dufour and Dini Steyn
(eds) The Critical Link: Interpreters in the Community, Amsterdam &
Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 201-211.
• Morris, Ruth (1995) ‘The Moral Dilemmas of Court Interpreting’, in Mona Baker (ed) The Translator. Studies in Intercultural Communication 1(1), Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 25-46.


FAQ's about Court Interpeting
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