One profession, one name

Can we please standardize the name we use to refer to our profession and those who practice it? There are so many variations on a theme: legal interpreting, community interpreting, court interpreting, public-service interpreting, judicial interpreting, and of course, the one name adopted by our national association: judiciary interpreting. The thing to keep in mind is that interpreters who work in legal settings do not always work in courthouses or courtrooms. Sometimes the work takes place in small jailhouse rooms where attorneys get to meet with their clients. Sometimes it happens in elegant high-rise offices with a stunning view of the ocean. Legal settings can range from conference rooms to living rooms, with all sorts of courtrooms in between: municipal, federal, small claims, family, drug courts, juvenile.

Interpreters who are qualified to work in legal matters can be called upon for polygraph exams, medical exams, psychological evaluations, post-arrest bookings, pretrial services interviews, none of which happen inside a courtroom necessarily. Calling us “court interpreters” or what we do “court interpreting” is not just limiting but is also misleading. Interpreters who work in legal settings perform under wildly unrelated sets of circumstances – even depositions in the middle of an oil field or on a dairy farm, on board a shrimp boat or a luxury cruise liner.

Furthermore, our work is not limited to legal terminology, as the designation “legal interpreter” or the label “legal interpreting” might suggest. Criminal matters, for example, can involve forensic sciences like fingerprint analysis, DNA testing, ballistics, and things as dissimilar as the parts of an automobile or the parts of a body. State and federal laws can include the protection of marine biology or prosecuting wildlife smugglers. Civil matters, on the other hand, can involve insurance claims arising from natural disasters or medical malpractice; they can come about from a hydraulic-engineering failure that caused a bridge to collapse or from the damages to a family resulting from a defective product. The level of language proficiency and subject-matter expertise required in this professional specialty goes far beyond the realm of what the term “legal” by itself could encompass.

What we do is a necessary public service, but we are more than public servants. Our work benefits different linguistic communities, but we are not interpreters for a specific community. Nor are we “judicial interpreters,” as some have also termed our profession, because judicial refers to the function of judging or the administration of justice, which is not what we do. Our function is not judicial. Neither are we “linguists.” We are interpreters. Yes, we need a good foundational knowledge about linguistics, but our role is far more complex. We are not just “one who speaks several languages” or “a person who specializes in linguistics.”

The work we do can best be described as “judiciary interpreting” because the term judiciary encompasses everything that happens within “a system of courts of law.” That is the overarching context in which we perform our work. Decades ago, the NAJIT membership pondered this question and decided to adopt a name that truly described the nature of our work, a name that is neither limiting nor misleading. Now, if we were able to find consensus to call our professional organization the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, can we not find a way to standardize the names of all those educational programs around the country, all the academic research papers and all the references to our profession in every government agency? Can we please call interpreters in legal settings judiciary interpreters? It would be one step, maybe small but also significant, towards getting practitioners and stakeholders on the same page, sharing an understanding of what this critically important function for our country’s system of justice is all about: judiciary interpreting.

Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. 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 currently on the NAJIT Board of Directors. Contact:


22 thoughts on “One profession, one name”

  1. Ramón del Villar says:

    I absolutely agree with your opinion (probably should say opinions) as I normally feel the same every time you write one.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Thank you so much, Ramón!

  2. Rosemary L King says:

    Thanks so much for the clarification Janis. I was so relieved to see this in written form as I recently had my business cards redone using the term Judiciary Interpreter.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Yay, Rosemary! I love that your cards now say “judiciary interpreter.”

  3. Kathleen Morris says:

    Completely agree that “Judicial interpreter” pretty much covers it all.

    Thank you, Janis, for clarifying that the term “linguist” has absolutely nothing to do with our day-to-day job! I’m always annoyed (and I’m sure that actual linguists would agree with us) when interpreters themselves, or translation agencies, refer to us incorrectly in this way.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      I think a lot of us feel that same annoyance, Kathleen. But just to clarify, I’m sure you meant “judiciary interpreter”, not “judicial”. Thanks for the feedback!

  4. Constanza Meier says:

    Very well said, Janis. A much needed and clear explanation and differentiation of terms. I am adopting the term “judiciary interpreter” from now on. Thank you!

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Thank you, Constanza! I love that you’re adopting the term “judiciary interpreter” from now on.

  5. Great post, as always Janis. I agree wholeheartedly with this. It should be our designation from now on. We need to start referring to that as our title ourselves. Thanks!

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Thank you, Hilda!

  6. Thank you, Janis. Great insight!

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Thanks, Madeline!

  7. I like it. But … it’s too hard to say. : )

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Too funny, Michelle! But if it were too hard to say, then the more reason to keep it away from the mouths of those who are NOT professional interpreters and should not be appripriating a title we have all worked so hard to attain.

  8. David Henner says:

    Although I began my career as a court interpreter, I have spent the past 25 years working in and around courts without being a court interpreter. I have often struggled with what to call my profession, usually opting for “legal interpreter” when speaking with colleagues and simply “interpreter” when dealing with the lay public. Thank you for providing the most accurate term; I will always use this one from now on.

    1. JPalma says:

      Wow, David! These are the sort of things that make me feel I am walking down the right path. Thank you for sharing!

  9. David Mintz says:

    Does it really matter all that much? I’m not sure I’m convinced that it is, and not sure we have quite as much control as we might like over what it’s called. As we well know, language changes organically at its own pace: sometimes fast, sometimes not. In many cases names persist long after they become dated and/or disfavored by some. (Yeah, we live in a era of acute sensitivity to the socio-political baggage associated with certain labels. Fortunately this is not so sensitive a case.) Not a perfect analogy, but in our line of work people talked about “tapes” (used as evidence in criminal prosecutions) for a good 15 years after that old analog medium had been superceded by digital technology. The name stuck around for historical and conventional reasons. You knew what they were referring to; it wasn’t a problem.

    1. JPalma says:

      It matters, David. Just like it matters that people know the difference between a translator and an interpreter (every time they call an “interpreter” a “translator” in the news, I cringe!) It matters when practitioners don’t know what to call their own profession. It matters when outsiders decide to label what we do as what it’s not, like when they call us “linguists”. It matters on so many levels, I could write an entire new blog on just that. Oh, wait! I did write one! That was my October 2019 blog post. [] And it was reprinted by ATA and several other associations. Yes, language changes, and sometimes change comes about because we make it happen. Well, I’m trying my darndest to make it happen because I do believe it matters, David. And I’m so happy you asked.

  10. I love this post, Janis. I wholeheartedly agree, and we should refer to ourselves as much! We should make it a trend; and add it to our websites if it’s not there already.

    These are other considerations that will keep me going back to court /legal interpreter. Search engines tells us that when people search for our specialization those are the words entered the most. For instance, I did a search for “judiciary interpreter” and I got 25,600,000 results (0.49 seconds) hits but they all came up was related to “court interpreter”, of course NAJIT showed up. While the “court interpreter” gave me about 39,900,000 results (0.53 seconds). Finally, when searching “legal interpreter” about 51,000,000 results (0.52 seconds) twice as many hits, telling me that those are the meta tags used to locate us. There are other ways to measure this, but entering a term on the browser is the easiest.

    I’m wondering if NAJIT could trademark “Judiciary Interpreter” to distinguish the members from others. Is that too farfetched? Maybe, Worth exploring it for all the reasons you mentioned.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you, Esther. I get what you’re saying about search engines but I am hopeful that we will get “judiciary interpreter” to prevail. I don’t know about a NAJIT trademark because there are a lot of university programs for which I would love to see a name change, and a trademark could hinder that–not to mention all the short courses offered all over the country. The goal is to move away from the “legal” and “court” towards a more standardized “judiciary”.

  11. Mengistu Dinato Didena says:

    Dear Janis,
    Thank you very much for the insightful description of the profession and the context in which the professionals are operating. I have always been wondering why this profession is referred to by different term by different authorities. It seems the time has come to get a standard term for the profession. I agree fully with the proposal: judiciary interpreting for the profession, and judiciary interpreter for the practitioners. So far I have been using court interpreting which many (especially law professionals) confuse with court interpretation, and I, always, had to explain the difference between the two first in my presentations.
    In my country, this language service is provided, by and large, by ad hoc “interpreters”. Only in rare cases, one may find High Courts in which there are individuals who serve as “interpreters” although they are employed to do other jobs because they speak a language in question. For that matter we don’t have a formal training of any level on interpreting. Only now, a federal level attempt is being made to begin a BA level training in Interpreting and Translation, which I think will open a room for judiciary interpreting in the future.
    I got introduced to this area when I did a study on language services in the South Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State High Courts for my PhD in Applied Linguistics and Communication.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      So great to have your input and feedback on this matter, Mengistu! Perspectives from other countries is always so important. Thank you!

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