Did you say you wanted a volunteer interpreter, Your Honor?

In most states, a bilingual individual who wishes to be on the court’s roster of qualified interpreters must meet certain requirements. These are not whimsical or random requirements. The first one is usually an orientation seminar about the court system in the state where the person will be providing his or her professional services. That’s because most lay persons who come in contact with the court system usually do not know the difference between an arraignment and an arrangement. They both sound so much alike that people figure it must be some fancy way judges have of saying “arrangement.” After this seminar, and having now learned about the court system’s structure, jurisdiction, hierarchy, and proceedings (with all the proper legal terminology that entails), the person must then take a written exam, generally to test their proficiency in the languages to be interpreted.

Studies conducted by linguists and others in similar fields of study have determined that a competent interpreter must have a proficiency level in both languages interpreted equivalent to at least 14 years of formal education. That is just the minimal threshold. If the person passes this written exam, thereby demonstrating their language proficiency, the candidate must take an oral exam to demonstrate they can (1) understand the wide range of language levels used in legal proceedings, and (2) transfer the full and correct meaning to the non-English speaking person (also known as Limited English Proficient or LEP individual.) The transfer of meaning can be simultaneous (as one person speaks, the interpreter is processing the information and converting it into the second language), or consecutive (one person speaks in one language, the interpreter processes the meaning of the utterance heard, holds it in short-term memory, mentally processes the equivalent utterance in the other language, and after the first person speaks, the interpreter renders the complete message accurately to the listener.) Once the candidate demonstrates he or she can accomplish this, the state grants a credential that is based on an objective evaluation of the person’s skills and knowledge. The compensation paid to this certified interpreter is a reflection of the special skills and knowledge he or she brings to the table.

Most lay persons do not know the difference between probation, parole, and supervised release; they are unlikely to know the difference between an information and an indictment, and chances are they won’t know what a judicial confession, a collateral attack, or an advisory sentencing guideline are. That’s not even counting all the nuances of guardianship and conservatorship in family court, or all the other specialized terminology that comes up in civil litigation. Certified interpreters not only know what these technical terms mean, they also know how to translate them correctly into whichever language they are certified to interpret.

Good interpreters make their work look easy, so maybe that’s why some non-interpreters think anyone can do this work, but it is certainly not enough to have learned a second language at home or have taken some courses in high school or even college. The demands on a judiciary interpreter’s specialized knowledge and skills are directly proportional to the LEP defendants’ right to due process, and litigants’ right to equal protection. Since the historical decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in United States ex Rel. Negron v. State of N.Y., 434 F.2d 386, 390 (2d Cir. 1970), the right to an interpreter has been on par with other Constitutional rights afforded to all criminal defendants in U.S. courtrooms. Furthermore, the right to an interpreter means a right to a competent interpreter. State v. Teshome, 122 Wn. App. 705, 711 (Wash. Ct. App. 2004). It is also a right to have everything that is happening in court interpreted, not just to be provided with a summary. The right to communicate with counsel in order to assist in his or her own defense falls within the protection of the due process clause in both the Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments.

Now, the question is, Your Honor, do you still want a volunteer interpreter instead of a certified interpreter?


Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She recently obtained her Master in Legal Studies (MLS) degree from Arizona State University and holds an M.A. in literature and history from the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She worked as an independent contractor for over twenty years in federal, state, and immigration courts around the U.S. before taking a full-time job. Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a staff interpreter in April 2002 and retired in 2017. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, embracing the joys of being a grandmother. She also enjoys volunteering for her professional associations, has been on the SSTI and TAJIT Boards, and is the past Chair of the NAJIT Board of Directors. Contact: palmajanis88@gmail.com.

Featured image (cropped) taken from “Young people and Volunteering” by Lily Meszaros at Actuaries Digital, under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. Text-body photo taken from “Diaconie et bénévolat” by Jean-Marc Leresche at Le blog de Jean-Marc Leresche, under a CC BY 4.0 license.

9 thoughts on “Did you say you wanted a volunteer interpreter, Your Honor?”

  1. David B. Olson says:

    Some personnel in a courtroom are legally required, such as a judge, attorneys, a court reporter, a bailiff, etc. and they must be duly qualified to carry out their jobs. Nobody would every consider accepting any volunteers in those categories, so why would they imagine that a “volunteer” interpreter would somehow be “legally” acceptable?

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Hi David! That is precisely the motive behind my blog this week. I happened to see a couple of instances in which the judges were considering the possibility of having “volunteer” interpreters instead of professional ones. You would be amazed at how little some judges know about the work we do and what it takes to do it right.

  2. Georganne Weller says:

    My dear friend and colleague,
    As always, right on target. I don’t think judges realize the vetting process that is behind the certification of a court interpreter. Maybe it should be included as subject matter in whatever procedure or continuing education a judge must take, or maybe they don’t have to do this, but I think it’s important to upgrade judges´ understanding of what is behind a good interpreter´s performance on the job. This is a subject NAJIT could be a leader in!

    1. Dennise Serrano says:

      This is my dream. I have reached out to the Federal Bar Association in Puerto Rico, proposing a CLE seminar regarding this very topic, but the answer was, “We will let you know.” The main issue I have encountered is that not only they don’t know, they don’t care.

    2. Remedios Bashi says:

      Janis, great article, as always! Georganne, In Wisconsin there was a class on the topic of interpreting that was offered as part of the judicial college, but sadly, I don’t think it’s offered anymore. I’ve always thought law schools should include language access as part of their curriculum, and for sure, judges should have at least a basic understanding of what interpreters do.

  3. Janis Palma says:

    My dear Georganne: I forgot to mention that there is a white paper on the NAJIT website under “Publications” that explains what is required to become a certified interpreter: It can be downloaded and shared with lawyers, judges, court personnel, community organizations, etc. I am hoping this blog will also be helpful.

  4. Glenda Obando says:

    Great article as always Janis. Do you have any federal or state case law that says judges with their judicial discretion cannot name, after their own voir dire of whomever, and anoint said person as an interpreter? The last time I tilted at windmills, I was told by my supervisor that the judges have that discretion (state court) and they can do what they wish in their courtrooms. It seems the struggle never ends.

  5. Janis Palma says:

    Glenda, sadly, that is the state of the law at this time. The way to go is to educate judges about what it means (and what it takes) to be a certified interpreter versus what is a “bilingual” person. That was my motivation to write two white papers on the subject of certification, what it means, and even what is the difference between the many “tiers” that some states have implemented (which judges and lawyers usually don’t know what they are, either.) They can be downloaded here: https://najit.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Interpreter-Certification-Tiers.pdf and here https://najit.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/What-is-a-Certified-Interpreter.pdf.

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