By Katrin Johnson
Working with Court
Interpreters to Overcome
AN ACTUAL JURY TRIAL SCENARIO, EXPERIENCED BY THE AUTHOR
Prosecutor: And what happened next?
State’s Witness (in Spanish):
I saw the man step up to the police officer and reach for his gun.
Interpreter (in English):
I saw the man step up to the police officer and reach for his arm.
Linguistically, this mistake is somewhat logical. The
Spanish word the witness used for gun was “arma.” In English
we often use arm to indicate a gun, such as being armed, or the
right to bear arms. Yet in a criminal case where a defendant
is charged with assaulting a police officer, the unchecked
misinterpretation of this short word could have had a profound
impact on the outcome.
The practice of law relies almost exclusively on written and
spoken language. Most of us who gravitate to this field aren’t
too keen on spending our days calculating equations or working
in laboratories. Instead words are our tools–for researching
precedent, communicating with clients, writing convincing
analyses, carefully wording documents, questioning witnesses,
and persuading others to our position. Yet for a field that relies
so heavily on the spoken and written word, we still have much
to learn about the importance of qualified interpreters, why
credentials matter, the ethical standards required by court rules,
and steps attorneys can take to improve interpretation accuracy.
Harder than it looks
Like professional athletes, chefs, or ballet dancers, good inter-
preters make their work look much easier than it actually is.
Think, for a moment, about what interpreters actually do. They
carefully listen to and analyze a statement, mentally convert
the meaning to its equivalent in the other language (which
often doesn’t share comparable terminology), and articulate
the equivalent in a level tone appropriate for the setting. Yet
they do this nonstop as we continue to talk and talk. In fact,
while interpreting in the simultaneous mode, the interpreter
is listening to and analyzing one statement while speaking/
signing the previous statement. Interpreting requires a level
of intellectual and linguistic gymnastics that most of us have
Professional legal interpreting requires the sophisticated
mastery of many competencies, but most can be boiled down
into three key skills: ( 1) a high level of language proficiency
(including legal and other technical terminology) in English
and the non-English language; ( 2) the mental dexterity to
quickly and accurately convert meaning from one language
to another; and ( 3) application of professional responsibility
standards designed for interpreting in the legal environment.
Who are these experts and how can lawyers find them?
Since the 1990s, the Washington State Administrative Office
of the Courts (AOC) has administered the Court Interpreter
Program, which annually tests and trains aspiring court
interpreters in foreign languages. The select few who attain
the “Certified” credential must pass a national oral exam that
tests their accuracy in interpreting legal discourse in the three
interpreting modes: simultaneous, consecutive, and sight
translation (interpreting a written text aloud into the other
language). Each mode requires different skills and abilities,
and few people can accurately perform in all three. The
passing rates for these exams are typically below 10 percent