Where the Paths of Court Interpreters and Court Reporters Coincide and Where They Diverge

An overdue study

Sandro Tomasi has undertaken a comparative study of court interpreters’ and court reporters’ compensation in the New York Unified Court System, with contributions by Mary Lou Aranguren, Milena Calderari-Waldron, and Robert Joe Lee. [1] He compares the job descriptions and required qualifications, in addition to the pay scales. Compared to the salary ranges in the federal court system, interpreters in the NYUCS make between $ 60,335 and $ 70,872 [2] less, whereas court reporters make $ 10,257 less at entry-level, but earn $ 26,686 more at the top of their salary range in NY State Courts versus federal courts.

Furthermore, and the main point of Tomasi’s study, court reporters in New York are earning $ 21,009 more than court interpreters at the entry-level, and $ 46,037 more when they reach the top of their salary scale. The difference seems to obey a profound misconception of the court interpreter’s job, combined with an outdated job description that fails to take into account the actual knowledge, skills, and abilities interpreters must possess in order to do the work required of them, as well as a candidate’s performance in the state’s civil service exam.

Book-learning isn’t everything

For English-Spanish interpreters, the civil service exam is a two-part examination. Candidates are required to pass a “three-hour, multiple-choice test of their bilingual skills first, probing candidates’ grammar, vocabulary, word usage, sentence structure, and reading comprehension, in both Spanish and English.

The written test also assesses candidates’ ability to translate from English to Spanish and Spanish to English.”[3] Those who pass this written examination “qualify to take a one-hour oral examination, which includes viewing a video and interpreting everything spoken in Spanish to English and from English to Spanish, in simultaneous and consecutive modes.

Final grades are based on performance on both the written and oral components of the examination, and candidates are ranked and selected for employment from an eligible list in compliance with state civil service law and rules.”[4] In addition to Spanish, the State tests interpreters in 22 additional languages that account for 80% of the court system’s interpreting needs. Sign language interpreters must have RID certification.

close-up pyramid on dollar bill Disparity as tradition

Such a large court system with the volume and diversity of language access demands certainly needs to reevaluate how court interpreters are classified and compensated. Interpreters are currently at the bottom of a totem pole that has judges at the top, followed by court reporters, clerks, and court officers. This may be a vestige of the ’80s, when the job description for court interpreters for the New York Unified Court System was first written, or perhaps a reproachable spill-over effect of veiled attitudes towards non-English speakers.

Court reporters seem to enjoy a higher prestige among court personnel, on the one hand, because they are the keepers and protectors of the official court record, and on the other hand, because they are not tainted—so to speak—by whatever attitudes other court personnel may harbor towards non-English speakers, particularly those that come before the court as criminal defendants.

Regardless of the cause, the fact remains that for all the progress we have made as a profession in other parts of the country, it looks like the New York Unified Court System has a lot of catching up to do.

Click here to read Sandro Tomasi’s full report.

[1] Tomasi, Sandro. Compensation of Court Interpreters in the State of New York. A report supporting the reclassification and reallocation of the court interpreter job title. April 2019.

[2] Based on Tomasi’s numbers in Table 2, page 13 of his report.

[3] Footnote 48, page 16 of the Report.

[4] Ibid.

Feature photo by  Rido Alwarno, body text photo by Dids from Pexels.

Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department.

Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.
Contact: janis.palma@gmail.com

Read other posts by Janis Palma.

5 thoughts on “Where the Paths of Court Interpreters and Court Reporters Coincide and Where They Diverge”

  1. Clarence Williamson says:

    Ms. Palma has presented us with a most interesting and informative article. The information provoked me to recall and a bit superficially share my experience as both a court reporter and now a court interpreter with regard to recompense.
    I started out in the Maryland Judiciary as a court reporter at a circuit court. There is quite a bit of training involved to become a court reporter. There is also quite a bit of behind the scenes interaction with courthouse personnel: judges on occasion, judges’ secretaries, court clerks, and more. Court Reporters where I worked for some nigh on ten years aside from being responsible for filling and keeping filled the water pitchers and their accompanying sufficient cups, also received, documented, and managed requests for transcripts of court proceedings from litigants and others. Transcribing from the record helped me to apply my Korean language skills to court proceedings in the separate field of court interpreting.
    In Maryland at that time, the pay difference between a court reporter and a court interpreter was and still is significant; but during my transition to the court interpreter work, friction among coworkers arose when I was called to interpret. There were times when a judge on the bench asked me to interpret for an LEP while I was doing court reporter work. That meant that the court reporter manager had to designate another reporter to take my place while I went out the back door as a court reporter and came in the front door as an interpreter. The friction among court reporters lead to friction between the court reporter manager at the courthouse and me. I eventually chose to leave the position of court reporter and do the interpreter work instead.
    There are advantages to both positions. A court reporter work is steady. Interpreter work is sporadic on an as needed basis here in Maryland although there are permanent positions at some courthouses here. Court reporter pay per hour is significantly less, but is dependable. Court interpreter pay per hour is higher and somewhat satisfactory, but due to competition with other interpreters not as dependable. Most striking lately is the Continuing Education points accumulation requirement that the state imposed a few years ago. In general, the newly emerged interpreter and translator training firms that are cropping up are prohibitively expensive with the some exceptions. The Maryland judiciary offers the best and most reasonable training aimed at fulfilling the continuing education point accumulation system’s requirement. Not only is the continuing education cost to interpreters a burden, it also imposes on that all important time aspect.
    So, while being a court reporter here in Maryland is not that lucrative, it is steady and dependable. Overall, being an interpreter pays more by the hour, but the work is also not that lucrative and not dependable. The continuing education requirement has added a significant cost burden on interpreters in terms of training costs and time consumed for languages that are not as much in demand as Spanish is for example.
    One last note about the court reporter field is that the fielding of state of the art court proceedings’ recording equipment has catapulted the field to the point where the machine does the bulk of the work in the courtroom, and the days of the now almost outdated stenographic mode is fast giving way. Stenographers are still working with their stenographic machines, which owing to the training required and the skill level, still garner high, comparatively really high paying work. Stenographers skilled in using the machine are still around in Maryland, but their work takes place primarily in Washington, DC for the federal government. For the most part, now however, courtrooms, especially here in Maryland have the latest in courtroom audio recording and in many cases video as well where court reporters operate the recording system to varying degrees; thus, allowing the state to keep down recompense costs. The way technology is progressing, the interpreter too is likely to face the same situation moving from the courtroom to the home as is the case for many during this pandemic, and will eventually be totally eliminated by machine worked interpreting as repugnant as it sound.
    Ms. Palma’s article shows us interpreters that she is doing her best to inform us of a most important aspect of the interpreter profession, which like all professions requires constant monitoring and individual work to improve.

  2. Arnaldo Buzack says:

    What I can say looking back on my days as a freelance PT interpreter, is that NJ—and even PA—always treated the interpreter and paid better than NY (state) courts.

  3. Markhabo El Nasser says:

    Great article and another testament to the fact that state of NY is simply behind not only language access in many areas but also compensation for that access. It is no secret that interpreters make a lot less than their counterparts in other states in all fields, legal, medical, and community services. I am not sure if I would say this happens as a “attitude”. On one side, having had experience as an interpreter in NY courts, I am inclined to agree. However, as an agency manager (supplier to courts), I do believe it is driven by the supply of available interpreters. In the case of NY, an interpreter that “available” does not always mean “trained/certified”, it simply includes those who can do the job and are approved/registered to service the court. . Let’s use the industry term ‘qualified/language skilled”. In my observation, abundance of qualified interpreters seems to drive the pay rates in NY, although the education and training difference between the qualified and certified interpreters could be exponential. It is normal to see a meager $15-$20 difference in pay per hour between qualified and certified interpreters, no matter how much training or certification is obtained by the Court Interpreters. In the case of medical interpreters, the pay difference between trained and qualified is even less ($5-$10). As mentioned by some commenters here and by the author, the cost of obtaining and maintaining certifications for interpreters is high and it’s becoming even more rigorous year after year. Agreeably, it does not get reflected in the interpreter pay, like it does for the court reporters. Unless the regulatory environment is improved in NY with regard to mandatory use of certified interpreters, the supply of available interpreters will continue effecting the pay.

  4. GLester says:


    Thank you

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