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The right to a fair trial is one of the cornerstones of the American legal system, but sometimes providing one can be complicated. Many new arrivals to the country can't understand English, and can't be fairly tried unless interpreting services are provided. If you're an educated person with a strong command of English and one other language, you may be able to earn a healthy full- or part-time income as a court interpreter.
The Basic Skills
A native or near-native knowledge of English and one other language is the most basic requirement for court translators. Conversational fluency is only the starting point, because court translators and interpreters must also understand the court system and its vocabulary. Interpreters must have the skill to mentally translate between the English spoken in the court and the other needed language, either simultaneously or as the other speaker pauses. Interpreters must also provide sight translation, reading documents in English and simultaneously speaking their content in the second language.
The court interpreter's main role is to provide an accurate, unbiased translation that captures the literal meaning of each person's speech. It's important not to explain or expand upon anything that's said in either language, because if you do you run the risk of introducing inaccuracies and potentially altering the course of the trial. To avoid any risk or appearance of bias, you have to avoid having contact with any parties involved in the case. If you have any prior relationship with someone involved in the case, or any perceived conflict of interest, you need to disclose it and recuse yourself. You're also required to observe confidentiality when your interpreting work gives you access to privileged information.
Training and Certification
In most jurisdictions, professional translators and interpreters are required to have a bachelor's degree. No specific major is necessary, but interpreters need the strong vocabulary skills that usually come with education. You will usually need to attend an orientation class, pass written and oral examinations, and undergo a criminal records check before you can be accepted as a court interpreter. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), Consortium for Language Access In the Courts and Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf all offer certifications in legal interpreting. Federal courts have their own rigorous certification process for Spanish-English interpreters.
Demand for interpreters and translators is high, and won't be going away any time soon. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected 42 percent job growth for translators and interpreters between 2010 and 2020, triple the average for all occupations. Your specific job prospects will depend on where you live, and which languages you can interpret. Spanish interpreters are needed in most areas, but demand for languages such as Farsi or Vietnamese might be sporadic. When you're working, the pay is good. NAJIT's website reported a rate of $376 per day for certified interpreters as of 2008, and $181 for non-certified interpreters.
- United States Courts: Guide to Judiciary Policy -- Court Interpreting
- United States Courts: Standards for Performance and Professional Responsibility for Contract Court Interpreters in the Federal Courts
- National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators: Frequently Asked Questions About Court and Legal Interpreting and Translating
- National Center for State Courts: List of Certification Requirements, 2012
- United States Courts: Three Categories of Interpreters
- USA Today: Shortage of Court Interpreters Worsening in U.S.
- KEPR TV: Not Lost in Translation -- Local Courts Grapple with Interpreter Shortage
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
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