Court Interpreters: Who They Are and Why They’re Important for US Courts – Guest Post

Court Interpretation


Courtroom interpreters play a crucial role in ensuring that the US justice system is able to serve the needs of individuals with low English proficiency. Census data in the past decade has shown that the number of LEP individuals in the United States has reached 25 million, making court interpretation services ever more important as immigration continues to grow in the global age.

This article will be a primer on what court interpreters do and how they fit into the system of the US judiciary. If you want to learn more, then read on!


The basic objective of a court interpreter is to assist a designated party, who has difficulty communicating in English, throughout the court proceedings. The designated party could be a litigant, witness, or juror who is LEP, and thus entitled to this service,

Court interpreters are expected to perform three major types of interpretation in the course of their duties:

  • Simultaneous interpretation. This constitutes the main bulk of an interpreter’s duty during court proceedings, and is also the most challenging. Simultaneous interpretation means interpreting English speech in real time for the benefit of the designated LEP party. A court interpreter must be able to convey what has been spoken quickly and accurately so that LEP individuals are able to engage with the court proceedings in the most direct and meaningful way possible.
  • Consecutive interpretation. In this mode, the interpreter renders an interpretation of a statement during intermittent pauses after someone speaks. Consecutive interpretation is used in instances during court proceedings that require an LEP party’s active participation, such as when giving testimony or responding to officers of the court.
  • Sight interpretation. In instances where text in English is presented in the course of court proceedings, the interpreter makes an oral interpretation of the text for the benefit of the designated LEP party.

A court interpreter will use any of these three depending on the needs of the situation.


Provisions regarding the certification and appointment of interpreters for federal court proceedings are outlined in the Court Interpreters Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1827. The Administrative Office of the US Courts classifies interpreters into three grades:

Federally certified interpreters.

These are interpreters who have passed a federal certification examination, which is done in two phases.

First, a candidate needs to pass a written exam in order to qualify for the second phase, which is an oral exam.

In the oral exam, they will be tested for simultaneous, consecutive, and sight interpretation.

At present, the AO offers a certification program for Spanish-English interpreters. Previous certification programs for Navajo and Haitian-Creole are no longer offered.

Professionally qualified interpreters.

For languages other than Spanish, the court may call upon the services of professionally qualified interpreters. In order to be recognized as such, a candidate must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Passed an interpreter test from either the United Nations or the US Department of State.
  • Is a member of either the Association Internationale des Intèrpretes de Conférence (AIIC) or the American Association of Language Specialists (TAALS).

In either case, the candidate’s qualification must be in a language pair that includes English and the specific target language required by the court.

Language skilled interpreters.

Should no certified or professionally qualified interpreter be available, the court may appoint an ad hoc interpreter who can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the court that they are capable of interpreting court proceedings between English and the required target language.


For state court proceedings, individual states generally follow a similar model but have their own specific criteria and procedures regarding interpreter certification in their own jurisdictions. They may offer certification in other languages, depending on the state’s demographic. Unfortunately, access to language interpreters does vary in each state as well, so it is still important, when preparing for cases that might require interpretation, to know what specific provisions your state court system has for court interpretation services well beforehand.


In most cases, the court clerk is responsible for securing the services of court interpreters as deemed necessary by the presiding judge. The clerk’s office should have on file a list of certified or otherwise qualified court interpreters. Attorneys need to file an application prior to the hearing of the case so that an appropriate court interpreter may be found.

Courts will provide interpreters for free for most kinds of civil cases, though terms and accessibility will vary by state. A party or their counsel may also choose to seek out interpretation services on their own, but may only retain them in the court setting if they are certified or registered with the office of the court clerk, or otherwise authorized by the presiding judge.


Does a candidate need a degree to become a court interpreter?

While a degree is not a prerequisite to becoming a court interpreter, the certification process is usually stringent enough to warrant specialized training. At the same time, being a professional interpreter does not immediately qualify one to provide court interpretation services. Some states have specialized programs for this, and higher educational institutions may also offer certificate courses in  court interpretation.

Can court interpreters translate court documents?

No. Translating court or any other legal documents is not within the purview of a court interpreter’s duties.

Can bilingual attorneys also provide court interpretation services for their clients?

While there is no legislation specifically disallowing a designated party’s counsel from serving simultaneously as court interpreter, many courts frown upon it, as it opens up the possibility of ethical violations and malpractice. Attempting to provide both legal and interpreting services simultaneously would do one’s client a disservice by splitting attention between two professional functions that are separate and crucial in the court setting.

How can I find qualified court interpreters for rare languages?

The court clerk’s office should have a statewide registry of court interpreters you can contact, but you may have difficulty finding qualified interpreters for rare languages. In such cases, your best option would be to secure the services of a language service company.

Larger companies are more likely to have a more diverse roster and broader interstate reach. One example is Tomedes, which has offices in over a dozen major cities in the US and offers interpretation services between English and over 120 other languages.

This kind of service does come at a higher premium, but is offset by the ease of matching with a professional who has all the necessary certifications.

Are there any other authoritative resources available regarding court interpretation in the US?

Aside from individual state initiatives, most of which can be found on their respective websites, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) represents the largest and most comprehensive center for interstate resources and solutions regarding court interpretation. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators is another major non-profit initiative for language professionals in a court setting.


Ofer Tirosh is the CEO of Tomedes, a language service provider with expertise in interpretation services for court and other settings, and a decade of experience serving 95,000 clients in 120 languages and 950+ language pairs. Visit their website to learn more.

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