A Look at Translating for the Judiciary

On this blog, we dedicate a great deal of time and effort to the profession of interpreting for the courts. We tell stories, share experiences, propose new ideas, and issue calls to action. This week, let’s look briefly at some issues related to translating for the judiciary.

What’s the difference?

If somebody asks for the court translator, they probably mean to say interpreter, but we answer up anyhow. Nonetheless, given a few extra minutes, most of us would probably clarify that the interpreter works with spoken language, while the translator works with the written word. The difference becomes pretty important when we think of the tasks a language specialist would likely perform in a court setting.

Scope of practice

Court interpreters are often the first people that judges or attorneys think of when they need a document translated or an interview transcribed/translated. This is understandable, and even common practice, because most interpreters have been trained in the subject area and possess an excellent working knowledge of the terminology likely to arise. However, not all (in fact, relatively few) court interpreters work as translators. Why? The reasons vary, but are often based on a lack of confidence in the written word and a perception that translation is tedious. Similarly, a translator who specializes in the legal field may have little desire to work with the spoken word in court or depositions, for example. Although many interpreters and translators have dabbled in each others’ specializations, most do not hold themselves out to have expertise in both.

Specializing in legal translation versus translating for the judiciary

When we think of the courts, the criminal arena probably comes to mind first. Within that context, a typical request for a translation will be the transcription/translation of a police interview conducted in a foreign language, or perhaps a letter of confession or other similar evidence that must be translated into English to be included in the case record. This is where a court interpreter can easily apply his or her expertise in the spoken language to the related task of translation of conversations or informal writing.

The civil courts have a wide variety of translation needs, as well. Property titles and vital records are often requested for family law and probate matters, not to mention the typical civil suit. Here’s where many court interpreters could draw the line. Since complex legal documents such as these require a broader knowledge base that isn’t easily gained just by working in the courts,  the interpreter may defer to a colleague translator when an attorney seeks their language expertise in this context. At the end of the day, the decision a court interpreter makes to accept or refuse written work will depend primarily on understanding his or her abilities and ethical duty to properly represent them to others.

On the other hand, we have those translators who specialize in legal translation. This field of work often stretches far beyond the typical lawsuit and ventures into international business and even politics and diplomacy. In other words, the work is not necessarily limited by the confines of a lawsuit or the courts. In my experience, translations performed for these fields are complex and often lengthy. Interpreters who work primarily for the judiciary are less likely to be approached for this sort of work on a typical day.

Can you be both an interpreter and a translator for the judiciary?

It took me many years of personal experience and discussions on this subject to come close to a definitive conclusion. I do believe it’s possible to do both, and that there are many talented colleagues who are able to perform well with the written word and the spoken word. The more poignant question is should we do both? Is it enough to be capable of each, or is the more professional answer to perfect one or the other?

Let’s think of the bench and the bar. We all probably know attorneys who take on criminal defense and civil cases, but how competent are they? Are all of them equally good in both arenas? How about judges? After being assigned to the family law calendar for five years, can they perform at the same level of excellence when first reassigned to criminal matters?

The comparison gets more complicated, mind you, when we consider that the opinion of an expert witness (the translator) may not be as easy to analyze and correct as judicial performance or competent representation. It seems that the analysis is similar to the one we go through to decide which of our working languages is our A language… it often depends on the individual, the subject matter and a myriad of other factors.

Proceed with caution, even after passing the tests

I’m a firm believer in the value of a certifications and accreditations, but only as a starting or reference point. There is no doubt that experience and overall maturity in the profession should be considered when deciding whether to take on the task of translating a document for purposes of a court case. Moreover, we cannot assume that our experience in translating documents and transcribing/translating interrogations automatically gives us the expertise of our translator colleagues who work in the international court arena.

Just as the translating and interpreting professions are similar, but not the same, translating for the judiciary itself and for the legal professions are similar, but not the same. They can share many of their characteristics, but closer examination reveals differences that can be relied on when deciding who the right professional is for the job. Each interpreter, interpreter/translator and translator should proceed with caution when venturing  beyond proven expertise, just as our ethics tell us.

This is meant to be a brief overview of some issues relating to translating for the judiciary. What do you think about practicing as both an interpreter and a translator? Any ideas on where to draw the line? If you work as a translator, are there certain types of judiciary work you prefer or would rather not take on? Continue the discussion below by commenting. We’d love to hear from you!

26 thoughts on “A Look at Translating for the Judiciary”

  1. It is very important to know the scope of translating service to be able to handle the demands of the job well. Translating for the judiciary should be done by professionals to enable accurate flow of discussion and present facts without causing confusion.

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      I agree. Part of our ethics in both the translation and interpreting fields require us to evaluate our skills for the task we are being asked to perform. It’s great to discuss the differences!
      Thanks for contributing to the discussion!

      1. Sandra N Arthur says:

        Hi Jennifer,
        As you stated, it is possible. I worked as an inhouse interpreter and as such, we are required to do both, interpreting and translating. There are set times for the translating portion of course. Although, there are times -many I might say- when during a hearing or trial, someone comes up with a letter/document written in a foreign language and the Judge asks for the translation. That is a difficult task but one that can be performed only if stating that a written and more detailed/accurate translation will follow. Years ago it was a bit difficult for people to understand that not because one speaks, read, and writes in another language, that person becomes an Interpreter/Translator automatically. With the proper education given, mainly to the Judicial body, it has become an understandable and almost common practice.

        1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

          Hi, Sandra!
          I like how you handle that, and I believe it’s commonly held that a sight translation requested from the witness stand (aka on the fly) be understood to be inferior to a written translation. Do you work for the federal court or for a state court? I’m curious because here in California we do not have an expectation to translate for the court (whether or not that should be part of our duties is debatable). However, in my nearly 10 years as a medical interpreter, it was part of both my job and my title to translate. The experience gained was incredible, and I felt it made me a better interpreter. Like I said in the article, not all interpreters feel the same about written work (and vice versa).
          Thanks again for sharing!

  2. Helen Eby says:

    This requires further discussion. I’m finding that in the United States, for a variety of reasons, there is a much greater separation between oral and written skills than in other countries. In Argentina, where I grew up, people developed these skills in tandem, all the way through. Therefore, the separation between translators and interpreters is not so great! In fact, as I was talking with a member of the Colegio de Traductores Públicos de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, most interpreters are actually very good translators in Argentina!

    I find that many of my interpreting students have a very good grasp of the nuances of the Spanish language, but simply haven’t been exposed to the formal study of Spanish in a way that fits them culturally. It is possible that this is one of the issues that drives the divide between interpreters and translators, and by working on solving this problem we may help our interpreters move forward professionally. I am starting to propose and experiment with a solution for this problem. More later, I hope… I’d love to have some discussion on this!

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, Helen!
      Thanks for chiming in. I think you are right to explore this as compared to other countries. In fact, I wonder if the disparity in skill sets is more common among languages of larger diffusion where there are so many heritage speakers.
      Let’s keep this discussion going!

  3. Roth says:

    When dealing with criminal matters, the two fields, interpreting and translating are very close and complement each-other.
    For the last 8 years I have been interpreting letters rogatory sent by the DOJ and soon thereafter I was requested to interpret in federal court in that particular case.Since I translated the whole case(Indictment, Affidavits etc.) I was familiar with the details and my job was much easier.
    Civil matters are different and I would not try to do both of them.

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, Roth!
      Indeed. In addition, your example illustrates something that we are faced with every day, and that’s familiarity with the case itself. It’s like the experience that an interpreter brings to the table when deciding to translate in the same field in which he or she interprets (or vice versa).
      Thanks for commenting!

  4. Roth says:

    I meant „I have been translating” not „interpreting”

  5. Is there anything lile a certification exam for court or legal translation?

    1. Roth says:

      there is a certification program for court interpreters. It depends in what state you reside and what is your language pair.

      Check your local judicial administration for state courts. You should find all the info on their site.

      1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

        Here in California, there is a test for court interpreters, but the test does not purport to validate writing skills, let alone the advanced writing skills of a translator. I am curious about other states, but off hand I don’t know of any testing program that holds itself out to test both interpreting and translation skills. Individual entities may have internal testing that does so, but I don’t know of state or national programs that do both.

        1. Helen Eby says:

          Hm… There’s someone out there who calls himself a certified court translator for California! I guess he’s kind of wrong, then? What should we do with folks like that?

  6. Di Clark says:

    After many years as an occasional translator (while working as a business manager of professional firms) – and honing my interpreting skills informally by interpreting the radio news in my car en route to work – I finally became a full time self-employed translator and interpreter. In my case, the skills are complementary: my experience in the courts supports my translation of legal texts and vice versa. I tend to be somewhat slow and painstaking as a translator … but after a day or more of simultaneous interpreting – depositions, overseas classes for the US State Department, trials, conferences – I find my translation work speeds up by about 30%! I hope that what it gains in speed it doesn’t lose in fidelity.

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, Di!
      What a joy to be able to use one to improve the other! I think the important element is that you are aware of where each can impact the other, and where your true strength lies. I’m sure that if you took on a particular translation that wasn’t within your comfort zone you’d be quick to recognize that fact and find a solution. Personally, I find it invigorating to translate legal writings by attorneys from Spanish to English one day, only to find that the next day in court I’m interpreting a similar motion into Spanish for a litigant. The vocabulary is readily available in recent memory and easy to apply!
      Thanks for joining the discussion!

      1. Di Clark says:

        You make a good point, and I came across that same situation when translating trial documents on mobile telephony in the Apple v Samsung cases and then interpreting depositions on the same subject. Typically when I complete a specialized interpreting assignment – on a genome patent, for example – the specialized vocabulary has left my memory cells within a day or two! But working on both written and oral versions of the material helps to imprint it; and I also strongly recommend taking notes of specialized terms and creating a personal glossary. I make it my practice to add all the new terms i have encountered during a deposition, etc. as soon as I get back to my desk … repetition and recording makes them more likely to reappear on the tip of my tongue when needed. One of the great things about language work is that you get glimpses into so many different fields of human endeavor.

        1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

          So true, Di!
          Keeping those terms in our memory requires us to think about how we learn best, but the first step is to make a note of them. I find that at the end of the day I’ve written down terms that I may never put in a glossary, but the mere fact that I wrote them down helps keep them in my memory since I tend to be a visual learner.
          Thanks again!

  7. Gladys Matthews says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    Thank you for writing about this issue. I read your posts very often but usually do not reply. Today, however, I am writing to tell you briefly about my experience. I came to the US about fifteen years ago, and although I had an M.A. in translation and terminology, as well as extensive experience in legal translation, it was hard to get work in the US judiciary as a translator. So, I decided to purse certification as a court interpreter. Upon gaining certification and working as a court interpreter for a while, I finally started getting work as a translator. One of the more rewarding contracts I’ve received was to translate portions of the Indiana Code for the state Supreme Court. The work was demanding in that it required an enormous investment of time to find the right term and the right wording in the target language, and this time investment is often what detracts interpreters from getting into the translation field. But for me, finding the right word is what I love most, which is why I love translation so much.
    I think one can be both an interpreter and translator, but because of a person’s nature or preference, the tendency is to excel more in one or the other. I personally prefer translation because of my love for the right word and because it gives me control over the time I can invest to get the job done –when the deadline is not too tight. Of course, both activities require training to acquire specific skills, which experience allows us to hone and take to higher levels.
    Thanks again for this post.


    Gladys Matthews

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, Gladys!
      I agree. It’s such a personal decision that can’t be taken lightly. When I get a long weekend of translation to work on, I come in Monday morning feeling like I was preparing to work in my interpreting role. I’ve also found that as a translator, I’m both more critical of transcripts and translations for technical reasons, but I also tend to admire good work that was obviously done by somebody with court experience. So cool, but not for everyone.
      Thanks for commenting. It is great to see the interest in the topics we bring to the table!

  8. José A. Navarrete says:

    So, just a couple of points on this subject, in no particular order:

    +I would hope that a certified interpreter would possess the writerly skills necessary to at least translate legal materials in the criminal and (most) civil fields….that we already practice. In court, the Law is practiced, and Codes are enforced: the very nature of our work is based on Text (written material). When most utterances are made in court, there is a written record being produced. Jury instructions, for instance, require an ability to voice out a clear translation–one only needs to transcribe our rendition……a judge’s hems and haws, notwithstanding (and yet, even hems and haws possess a written representation). Many types of professional writers dictate a recording before performing the actual act of writing. In order to enunciate the Spanish language (interpreting), we must know how to write it. I would seriously question the abilities of a working interpreter who isn’t able to take on most translation jobs that dealt with criminal and (most) civil law.

    +There is a disconcerting trend or movement in the court system (in California, anyway) called “Plain Language”. The idea is that in order to connect to a plain-spoken populace, we must use terms that aren’t correct, legally or lexically. Via our AOC, we are bombarded here at our local court with a number of erroneously translated forms, which include terms like “corte”, “probación”, “custodia (for custody)”, “visitación (for visitation)”, and a great many others. It only creates a lack of uniformity and consistency, when we have been trained to accuratey interpret legal terms and concepts, and the Spanish-speaking public is subjected to written garbage in and out of court. The premise is insulting: Latinos (read: poor and Mexican) are not sophisticated enough to understand their own language. It is completely impossible to direct a translation to a class of people. How do you gauge the ken and cognizance of an entire community? How are you supposed to decide when to use correct language and when to dumb it down? “Plain Language” is nothing else than a vehicle to give mediocre, underqualified professionals a chance to get translation jobs. Dumbing down the language does not make it any plainer, it only makes it dumb, and that does not serve anyone.

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, Jose!
      Thanks for chiming in. I know you are deeply familiar with what is going on in California, and we are both living it, so I know where you are coming from. There are a lot of people out there who have said for a long time that we don’t have nearly enough prerequisite education or proven skills for even taking the court exam. How does that change? I’m not sure anybody has the perfect answer for it, but talking about it and continuing to pursue greater professionalization of all interpreting fields is a step in the right direction.
      As for what we should be able to do, I tend to see it the same way, but I’m a bit biased. I learned both written and spoken Spanish at the same time (as a non-native speaker who learned it as an adult) and so my ability to speak tends to be highly reliant on my knowledge of how something is written. However, that’s mostly vocabulary. Even the best conversational and formal writing ability (and command of proper vocabulary) in one language could stand to be polished through formal training/experience in the theory and practice of translation.
      Opening up this topic to discussion is, if nothing else, a reminder to the profession to be sure that we represent all of our great skills in the most ethical manner possible, and to remind the world (or whoever may be reading this) that one skill isn’t automatically the other (and certainly this is true where testing does not purport to comment on a successful candidate’s writing skills).
      Thanks again for commenting, colega!

  9. Gio Lester says:

    Writing is a difficult skill. Knowing the right terminology and knowing how to spell and punctuation does not a writer make. So, I can relate to what you say, Jen.

    In my country, I believe due to the fact that translation and interpreting where not traditionally differentiated as it is in English, the judiciary translator is expected to perform in both arenas. In Portuguese the terms used were “tradução escrita” e “tradução oral”; the professional is a “tradutor”. Without any specific training, they are expected to also interpret in court.

    Love the closing comment above: “Opening up this topic to discussion is, if nothing else, a reminder to the profession to be sure that we represent all of our great skills in the most ethical manner possible, and to remind the world (or whoever may be reading this) that one skill isn’t automatically the other (and certainly this is true where testing does not purport to comment on a successful candidate’s writing skills).”

    Thank you!

    1. Gladys Matthews says:

      Hi Gio,

      Just for your information. I teach court interpreting for the Master of Conference Interpreting of Glendon College -York Universiyty, in Toronto, and have one student from Belo Horizonte. Last year’s cohort included two Brazilian students, but I don’t recall whether they were in Brazil or in Canada. At any rate, it pleases me to see interpreters seeking formal training.



  10. Sophia says:

    The difference is important because I know many professionals who do document translations but not interpretation in person!

  11. Sonia says:

    Hi, Jennifer!

    I graduated in Law and specialized in Legal Translation and English Consecutive Interpreting.

    Currently, I´m a translator and reviewer in Brazil but I´d like to work with court translation too. My intention is to move to the USA as soon as possible.

    Would you recommend a good course in USA for me in order to be able to work with legal and court translation there?

    Thank you,

    Sônia Gonçalves

  12. José A Navarrete says:

    One cannot become an interpreter without being a translator, point blank. One has to be readerly and writerly with one’s skills. There is no other way..

    For instance, any sight translation course, alone, involves nothing but practicing written translations. Néstor Wágner had me write an essay and translate it to be let into his Southern California School of Interpretation back in 2001. The field we practice in, THE LAW, is nothing but a set of written materials. When we interpret Jury Instructions during a trial, our professional rendition should sound like we’re reading text…..because that’s what the judge is doing! Complaints, Informations, Transcripts, Tahl Forms, Probation Orders, among many other documents…….of course we have to know how to translate, and we SHOULD be tested on it more rigorously.

    By the way, it would be great if our state certification exam was restored back to how it was before: a difficult written exam in BOTH English AND Spanish. Now they want to allow “near-passers” to work in court, further creating inconsistency and mediocrity among our ranks. Now we’ll have 2nd AND 3rd class colleagues across the state. This nonsense benefits no one.. instead of developing effective training, recruitment and mentorship programs, they continue to dumb down our profession.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *