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Information for Attorneys About Language Interpreters in the Courtroom

Background Information Translators Resources for Attorneys
LEP in the Courtroom The Interpreter in the Courtroom

The Alaska Court System uses interpreters when a party or witness has limited proficiency in English and is unable to understand, speak or use English well enough to effectively participate in court proceedings. Interpreters help such persons receive equal access to justice and help court proceedings function efficiently and effectively.

Background Information


What court rule covers providing interpreters in the courtroom?

Alaska Court System Administrative Rule 6 (effective October 15, 2016) addresses interpreter services in court proceedings.

Under Administrative Rule 6, the Alaska Court System provides and pays for the necessary services of an interpreter during court proceedings for all parties, witnesses, and victims with limited English proficiency, regardless of ability to pay or representation status.  The court also provides interpreters for parents of juveniles in delinquency cases, and for out-of-home care providers, tribal representatives, and grandparents in CINA proceedings.

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What is the difference between interpreter and a translator?

An "interpreter" is someone who orally conveys the meaning from one language to another when the speakers speak different languages. A "translator" is someone who converts in writing the meaning of written text from one language to another. In other words, "interpreter" is for spoken language whereas "translator" is for written language.

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Why should I use a trained court interpreter?

Why should I use a trained court interpreter? Because a person is bilingual does not mean that they have had adequate training to interpret in a legal setting. Legal interpretation is a specialized field requiring specific knowledge, training, and experience. Courtroom interpreters must have skills to interpret accurately, faithfully, exactly, and impartially. In court proceedings, important constitutional issues may be at stake such as a person's liberty, or the custody of children. Using the most qualified interpreter reduces the likelihood that an interpreter may make a substantive error that affects matters central to the case and harms a party. An untrained interpreter's actions, choice of words, lack of skill, lack of specialized terminology or unfamiliarity with the professional responsibilities of an interpreter may adversely affect the outcome of court proceedings, the integrity of the record, and the confidence of those involved in the court hearing. A trained court interpreter will follow the Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters.

The Code of 10 canons requires interpreters to be:

  • accurate and complete
  • maintain confidentiality
  • avoid conflicts of interest
  • limit themselves to interpreting or translating and not give legal advice, express personal opinions to the limited English proficient person, or explain anything that he or she is not interpreting
  • continually improve their skills and knowledge through training and self-study.

For more information on interpreter issues on appeal, read Interpreter Issues on Appeal by Virginia Benmaman.

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What is the difference between a "proceedings" interpreter and a "table" interpreter?

There are 2 different kinds of interpreters who interpret in court: “proceedings” interpreters and “table” interpreters. Each performs a different role during court proceedings. The “proceedings” interpreter is the official interpreter for the court record and interprets all spoken communication to ensure that a limited English proficient party or witness understands what is stated out-loud. The “table” interpreter is hired by an attorney to interpret attorney/client communications in the courtroom.

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What does a "proceedings" interpreter do?

The proceedings interpreter is the official interpreter for the record during witness testimony and interprets all spoken courtroom communications to ensure the person with limited English proficiency receives accurate interpretation. The proceedings interpreter is different from a table interpreter who interprets communications between an LEP client and attorney (see next FAQ for a discussion of table interpreters). The judicial officer will conduct a voir dire of the proceedings interpreter to determine if the interpreter is qualified. If qualified, the court administers the interpreter oath. The proceedings interpreter is considered an officer of the court. The Alaska Court System hires and pays for proceedings interpreters for all courtroom hearings and trials.

Proceedings interpreters are either court-certified or court-qualified by the Alaska Court System or by another state court. Proceedings interpreter may appear in-person, video remotely, or telephonically. For trials and hearings longer than two hours, the court system hires two qualified proceedings interpreters to prevent interpreter fatigue.

The proceedings interpreter is required to abide by the Code of Professional Responsibility of Interpreters in the Judiciary. The Code includes 10 mandatory canons:

  • Accuracy and completeness
  • Truthful representation of qualifications
  • Impartiality and avoidance of conflict of interest
  • Professional demeanor
  • Confidentiality
  • Restriction from public comment on court cases
  • Scope of practice to include only interpreting and not advocating or explaining things that were not stated
  • Assessing and reporting impediments to performance
  • Duty to report ethical violations
  • Professional development

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What does a "table" interpreter do?

A table interpreter is hired by an attorney to interpret attorney/client communications in the courtroom. The table interpreter is not the official court interpreter and does not interpret for the record. The court does not conduct a voir dire of the table interpreter’s qualifications nor will require the table interpreter to take the interpreter’s oath. An attorney is solely responsible to pay for the table interpreter’s services. It is a good idea for table interpreters to have bilingual language skills, ability to interpret using the appropriate modes, understand legal terminology and court procedures.

In the event an attorney does not have access to a table interpreter for attorney/client communications in the courtroom, it is ethically permissible for the proceedings interpreter to assist with such communication because the interpreter is neutral. The attorney should notify the court prior to the hearing or trial that the proceedings interpreter may be needed for attorney/client communications in the courtroom. (Note: An attorney is solely responsible to hire and provide an interpreter to prepare for a case and to communicate with the client after the hearing or trial is done for the day. In some cases, attorneys have contracted with the proceeding interpreters to provide after-hours interpreting to communicate with the client.)

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What are important tips for an attorney working with an interpreter?

Speak clearly and at a normal rate and volume, directly addressing the LEP person. It is helpful to speak in plain language and avoid idioms which are challenging to interpret because there may not be analogous meanings in another language. Plan extra time for hearings and trial when using an interpreter.

View the Northwest Justice Project: Tips for Attorneys Working With Interpreters Play Tips for Attorneys Working With Interpreters Video

See Representing non-English Speaking Clients: 10 Points Attorneys Should Know by Mary Lou Aranguren.

See An Attorney's Primer: Working With Interpreters by Isabel Picado, NAJIT.

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LEP in the Courtroom


Who is a person of limited English proficiency (LEP)?

Persons of limited English proficiency (LEP) are those whose ability to read, write, speak, or understand English is limited.

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How do I know my client needs an interpreter?

Many individuals have enough English proficiency to communicate on a very basic level, but effective participation in court proceedings requires a much higher level of communicative ability.

Clients must be able to evaluate and respond to witness testimony and assist in their own defense; they must understand the details and the subtle nuances of both questions and answers spoken in English. In non-evidentiary proceedings that involve child custody, advising rights, sentencing, or obligations and responsibilities established in a court order, LEP persons must be able to understand and communicate their positions, ask and answer questions, and understand their responsibilities.

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What should I do when I think my client needs an interpreter?

When in advance of a hearing you recognize that your client needs an interpreter, file a notice with the court system. The court system will enter the need in the case management system. Once the information is entered, the statewide Interpreter Services Coordinator will schedule a proceedings interpreter for the courtroom event.

If an attorney wishes to provide a table interpreter for client-attorney conversations, the attorney must schedule and pay for that interpreter. The Alaska Court System’s Interpreter Services Coordinator can help an attorney locate qualified interpreters for attorney-client communications. Contact sburich@akcourts.us.

(Note: Table interpreters will not interpret for the courtroom proceedings. Only the proceedings interpreter hired and paid for by the court will interpret for the LEP parties, witnesses, and victims during the proceedings. In limited circumstances, the proceedings interpreter may interpret for client-attorney conversations. The attorney should notify the judge when the proceedings interpreter is needed for this purpose.)

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The Interpreter in the Courtroom


Are there different levels of interpreters?

Yes. There are qualified and certified court interpreters. Each level involves different training requirements. All interpreters follow the Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters.

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What is a qualified court interpreter?

A qualified interpreter is someone who has successfully completed all the training programs required by the Alaska Court System. A qualified interpreter must follow the Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Judiciary and has passed the NCSC written exam at a score of 80% or higher.

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What is a certified court interpreter?

Certified court interpreters are individuals who have mastered speaking both English and a second language. A certified interpreter has achieved the highest level of training and has successfully passed the National Center for State Courts' written and oral exams or the Federal Court’s oral exam. A certified interpreter must follow the Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters. Certified court interpreters are able to perform the three major types of court interpreting (sight translation, consecutive interpreting, and simultaneous interpreting. Certified court interpreters are able to perform the three major types of court interpreting (sight translation, consecutive interpreting, and simultaneous interpreting).

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Can I use a family member, friend, or untrained bilingual person to interpret?

The court system does not schedule and pay friends or family members to interpret as official proceedings interpreters. Friends and family members are not able to be impartial and a trained interpreter must adhere to the Code of Professional Responsibility which mandates that an interpreter be impartial.

Read Suggestions for Working Effectively With Non-Professional Interpreters.

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Can a minor child be used as an interpreter?

A minor child should never be used as an interpreter. Even in the simplest legal proceedings, minors do not have the vocabulary necessary to interpret accurately. In addition, court proceedings are often filled with emotions and complicated interpersonal relations that a minor is unable to process. The child should not be put in that difficult position regardless of ability or maturity. It is especially harmful and troubling when a child is asked to interpret for a parent in domestic relations hearings.

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How does the court determine if an interpreter is qualified?

The judge will conduct a voir dire of the interpreter to decide whether the interpreter is qualified to interpret for the court proceedings.  If the judge is not satisfied with the interpreter’s qualification, the judge will appoint a more qualified interpreter.  Read Suggestions for Working Effectively With Non-Professional Interpreters.

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What are the modes of interpreting used by a trained interpreter?

The mode of interpreting to be used at any given time – whether consecutive or simultaneous -- depends on the types of communication to be interpreted within a proceeding, not on the types of proceedings. In fact, both simultaneous and consecutive modes will often be appropriate within a proceeding.

The following describes the modes and typical situations for their use:

Simultaneous Mode

Simultaneous interpreting is the rendering of one spoken language into another when running renditions are needed at the same time as the English language communication. The interpreter speaks virtually at the same time as the LEP person.

The simultaneous mode of interpreting is used for an LEP person who is listening only. A court-certified interpreter will interpret in the simultaneous mode in situations such as the following:

  • for an LEP person when testimony is being given by another witness,
  • for an LEP person, including a witness, when the judge is in dialog with an officer of the court or any person other than the LEP person,
  • for an LEP person when the court is addressing the jury or gallery or any other persons present in the courtroom, or
  • for an LEP person when the judge is speaking directly to the person without interruption or regular call for responses .

Interpreting in the simultaneous mode is a difficult skill and not all trained interpreters are able to interpret in this mode. In general, a court-certified interpreter will be able to interpret in the simultaneous mode when it is appropriate to do so. (There are relatively few simultaneous interpreters in Alaska.)

Consecutive Mode

In consecutive interpreting, the interpreter waits until the speaker has finished before rendering speech into another language. Consecutive interpreting is spoken in brief sound bites successively, without omissions or embellishments, so that the parties can understand each other slowly and deliberately.

The consecutive mode of interpreting is used when a non-English speaking person needs to be active in responding to questions. The interpreter will use the consecutive mode when the LEP person is giving testimony or when the judge or an officer of the court is communicating directly with such a person and is expecting responses (e.g., taking a plea). The consecutive mode is the normal mode for witness interpreting.

The interpreter needs a microphone any time an LEP witness or party is testifying or answering questions for the record.

Sight Translation

Sight translation is a hybrid of interpreting/translating whereby the interpreter reads a document written in one language while translating it orally into another language. It is sometimes called sight interpreting. In this mode of interpreting a written text must be rendered orally, on sight, without advance notice.

Sight translation is used when LEP defendants are given forms in court that are written in English, such as rights forms, plea forms, and probation orders. It is also used when non-English documents such as birth certificates or personal letters are presented in court.

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What can I expect from a trained interpreter?

Some people mistakenly believe that an interpreter renders court proceedings word for word, but this is impossible since there is not a one-to-one correspondence between words or concepts in different languages. For example, sometimes one word in English requires more than one word in another language to get the same idea across, and vice versa. Rather than "word for word", interpreters render meaning by reproducing the full content of the ideas being expressed.

A trained and qualified interpreter, whether present in-person, video remotely, or telephonically, will enable court proceedings to progress in an efficient manner, without undue delay. There are a variety of actions or behaviors that will be apparent in a trained and qualified interpreter:

  • The interpreter will interpret in the first.
    Witness: (in native language) "I was at dinner in my neighbor’s house…"
    Interpreter: (in English) "I was at dinner in my neighbor’s house…"
    Not: "She said she was at dinner in my neighbor's house"
  • The interpreter will address the court in the third person, in order to keep a clear record.
    Interpreter: (addressing the court in the third person) "Your Honor, the interpreter requests that the last question be repeated."
    Not: "Your Honor, I request that the last question be repeated."
  • The interpreter will have paper and a pencil available to take notes and may have a dictionary, a smartphone, a tablet or other reference material with him or her as well as a headset.
  • The interpreter will be as unobtrusive and professional as possible.
  • The interpreter will not converse with the LEP in court except at the beginning of the hearing to ensure they understand each other. If the interpreter needs to clarify a word or phrase used by the LEP, he or she will ask the permission of the court to do so.
  • The interpreter will not "explain" any form, document, or activity to the party or witness, nor change the register of the speech.

The interpreter will adhere to the Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters.

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What are "red flags" I should watch for when I work with an interpreter?

  • Beware if the interpreter is not interpreting everything that is being said in the courtroom. Summarizing and paraphrasing is not appropriate under any circumstance.
    By observation, you can determine if a very long statement is interpreted in just a few words or a very short statement for a very long time. When this happens, remind the interpreter of their obligations to accurately interpret what is being said without summarizing or paraphrasing.
  • Beware of the interpreter who tells you that they are "certified" as a court interpreter. Unless the interpreter has successfully passed the National Center for State Courts Oral Proficiency Exam administered by the Alaska Court System, the person may be misrepresenting his or her qualifications. As of July 2013, there is only one court Spanish interpreter certified by the Alaska Court System. If an interpreter says they are certified, ask to see their certification documents. Certified interpreters, even if certified by other state courts or the federal court, are more than willing to show you their certification papers. If you are unsure if an interpreter is certified, contact languageservices@akcourts.us
  • Beware if you observe the interpreter engaging in unapproved conversation with the LEP party or witness. Unapproved conversation may indicate that the interpreter is giving legal advice.
  • Beware if the interpreter is coaching or encouraging a party to answer in a certain way -- such as nodding "yes" or "no," "sss-shing" the party, or using facial expressions to convey personal encouragement or discouragement.
  • Beware if the interpreter draws undue attention to himself or herself. A trained interpreter will be as unobtrusive as possible and professional in manner.

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What happens if an interpreter doesn't know how to interpret a word or phrase?

The answer depends on where this occurs. Knowledge of ethics and technique come into play when an interpreter is confronted with an unknown word or expression.

  • If a witness says something that the interpreter does not understand, the interpreter must seek clarification of the problem word or expression, after requesting permission from the judge to inquire of the witness.
  • In situations outside the courtroom, the interpreter must request permission from the attorney or other judicial or law enforcement officer to seek further clarification from the speaker.

While simultaneously interpreting court proceedings, an interpreter may have to interrupt the speakers in order to request a repetition or clarification.

There are several other ways of making corrections or compensating for gaps, depending on the situation. In general, an interpreter uses finely tuned analytic and cognitive skills to derive meaning from context. Electronic or other dictionary resources may quickly be consulted, or colleagues may be consulted, or further clarification may be requested of the original speaker.

A trained interpreter will not hesitate to request clarification immediately if a witness uses an unfamiliar expression.

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What do I do when I think the interpreter has made an error?

Professional interpreters are trained to understand and act on their ethical obligation to correct any errors that they make during a proceeding.

When an interpreter discovers his or her own error, the interpreter should correct the error at once, first identifying him/herself in the third person for the record (e.g., "Your honor, the interpreter requests permission to correct an error"). If the interpreter becomes aware of an error after the testimony has been completed, he or she should request a bench or side bar conference with the court and the lawyers to explain the problem. The court can then decide whether a correction on the record is required.

When the judge, an attorney, or another officer of the court besides the interpreter suspects an error, that person should bring the matter to the attention of the judge at the earliest convenient opportunity. If testimony is still being taken, the problem should be raised before the witness is released.

In the case of a jury trial, notify the judge without disclosing the issue to the jury. The judge will likely handle the interpretation error issue at a side bar conference.

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How many interpreters are needed for courtroom proceedings?

Research shows that interpreter fatigue occurs after 30 minutes of continuous interpreting. For longer hearings or trials, the court system may arrange for two interpreters. Having two interpreters allows for adequate breaks, minimizes the fatigue factor and allows interpreters to help each other with unfamiliar terms and correct interpreting errors if they occur. Finally, team interpreting allow for continuous interpreting so the proceeding can progress at a reasonable rate.

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Where will the interpreter be positioned in the courtroom?

Trained interpreters know where to position themselves in the courtroom. The location for interpreters depends on whom they will be interpreting for. For example, the interpreter needs a microphone anytime an LEP witness or party is testifying or answering any questions so the interpretation will be on the record. The interpreter may use special equipment to interpret for a LEP individual who is listening but not speaking during courtroom proceedings. This equipment may include a headset so that the LEP person can hear the interpretation.

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Should I provide the interpreter with a copy of exhibits?

The interpreter should have a copy of the exhibits that are submitted. The attorney introducing the exhibit should notify chambers of the exhibit so chambers can provide the exhibit to the interpreter.

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What happens at a pre-trial hearing to discuss interpreting services?

Many judges have found it very helpful to hold a pre-trial hearing to discuss interpreter services prior to the trial. These pre-trial hearings may include the interpreters, attorneys and if possible, the LEP party. Also, the Alaska Court System’s Language Services Director may participate to provide information regarding the court system’s policies and procedures regarding interpreting in the courtroom during the hearing.

The purpose of the pre-trial hearing is to educate everyone involved about the role and responsibilities of the proceedings interpreter. Pre-trial hearings have saved time by providing an opportunity to respond to questions and identify solutions about interpreting services in advance of the trial. At the pre-trial hearing the following are typically discussed on the record:

  • Interpreter’s qualifications
  • Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters
  • When specific modes of interpreting are used (simultaneous, consecutive, sight-translation)
  • Delivery method (video-remote, telephonic, in-person)
  • Number of interpreters
  • Logistics such as positioning in the courtroom, special equipment
  • Role of the table interpreter (if any)
  • Exhibits that the interpreter(s) need to review before trial
  • Availability of proceedings interpreters for attorney-client communications outside of the trial time
  • Interpreter fatigue and breaks
  • Proper ways to address issues regarding interpretation (e.g. hand signals)
  • Tools interpreters may use in the courtroom (e.g. dictionaries, smart-phones, note pads, etc.)

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Translators


What does a translator do?

A legal translator prepares written translations of documents related to criminal and/or civil matters, such as medical or psychological evaluations; forensic reports (drug analyses, DNA reports or medical reports); divorce decrees; foreign judgments; extradition documents; statutes and contracts, or other relevant documents. The translation may be from the non-English language into English or from English into the non-English language. Translation is an area of legal interpretation that requires additional training and expertise.

Translated documents may also be introduced into evidence or used for other legal purposes. A true and accurate translation must be produced at all times. When working with foreign language documents from different legal systems, a translator must find accurate equivalents in English for legal terms, at the same time taking care not to mislead the reader to assume that the underlying legal concepts are identical in the two legal systems, when in fact they may not be.

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Where can I find a trained translator?

The Language Interpreter Center has trained translators in several languages. Contact them for more information.

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Resources for Attorneys

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