For CJA Attorneys: Working with Interpreters

Introduction

The Court Interpreters Office of the Southern District of New York has a staff of six full-time Spanish interpreters and two administrative assistants in Manhattan and one full-time Spanish interpreter in White Plains. The court also works with a large pool of freelance interpreters who are called on an as-needed basis. Our district draws from a local roster of about 40 federally certified Spanish interpreters, many of whom also provide services to other courts and government and private agencies. A roster of active Spanish interpreters in this district can be found on our website (sdnyinterpreters.org/spanish-interpreter-list). Our pool of freelancers in other languages numbers in the hundreds, but not all are highly experienced in federal cases. You can call or email the Interpreters Office to request contact information for interpreters of other languages. We assign interpreters to the Pearl St., Foley Square, White Plains, and Poughkeepsie Courthouses, as well as to the MCC, MDC, Westchester County, and Queens correctional facilities.

The Court Interpreters Act, 28 USC 1827, provides that certified or otherwise qualified interpreters be used in court proceedings initiated by the United States (see: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/USCODE-2009-title28/pdf/USCODE-2009-title28-partV-chap119-sec1827.pdf).

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts classifies three categories of interpreters:  Certified, Professionally Qualified, and Language Skilled (see: http://www.uscourts.gov/services-forms/federal-court-interpreters/interpreter-categories . All SDNY staff interpreters and Spanish contract interpreters assigned to court proceedings have successfully passed the AO’s Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination. These certified interpreters are deemed competent by the AO to interpret between English and Spanish in court proceedings. Since federal certification is only available in three languages (Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Navajo), interpreters of other languages are screened, tested, and trained by the Chief Interpreter of this district to ensure that they possess the requisite skills to work in the courtroom (see: Federal Court Interpreter Orientation Manual and Glossary, Administrative Office of the United States Courts, Court Services Offices, Revised May 8, 2014, Chapter 3: Overview of Court Interpreting, page 22: www.uscourts.gov/file/2872.

There is an interpreter’s code of professional responsibility and protocol promulgated by the AO in consultation with the Court Interpreters Advisory Group. All freelance interpreters working for the court sign a contract which contains an acknowledgment of their adherence to the interpreter’s code of professional responsibility (see: Standards for Performance and Professional Responsibility for Contract Court Interpreters in the Federal Courts:  http://www.uscourts.gov/services-forms/federal-court-interpreters.
Interpreters use three modes of interpreting in the courtroom:

  • In simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter renders a continuous oral interpretation to the defendant at the same time that English is spoken in the courtroom. In this courthouse, this is accomplished through the use of a microphone and wireless listening equipment. Most of the interpretation during courtroom proceedings is rendered in the simultaneous mode.
  • Consecutive interpretation is the mode used in this courthouse when interpreting testimony at the witness stand. The interpreter speaks in segments after the source-language speaker has finished speaking.
  • Sight translation is a hybrid skill between interpreting and translating and involves the oral translation of a written document (see Guide to Judiciary Policy, Vol 5: Court Interpreting: http://www.uscourts.gov/uscourts/FederalCourts/Publications/Guide_Vol05.pdf)

FAQ

How do I arrange for the contracting of an interpreter for a court proceeding?
The judge’s courtroom deputy is responsible for notifying the Interpreters Office when an interpreter is needed.  Our office makes arrangements for the hiring, scheduling and payment of contract interpreters.

I require the services of an interpreter for a meeting with my client.
You should contact, contract, and make payment arrangements with interpreters when their services are needed for meetings held away from the court.  Please refer to our list of certified Spanish interpreters in this district.  You can call our office to request a list of SDNY approved interpreters in other languages.

I would like to speak to my client before or after a scheduled court appearance.
If the defendant is in custody, you can make arrangements to hire an interpreter to meet at the MCC, MDC, or the Marshals cell block.  If you notify our office in advance, and if the interpreter assigned to that case is not needed to cover another matter at that time, we make every effort to accommodate you for a brief consultation with your client. Interviews take place in the Marshals cell block if the defendant is in custody.

My client and/or I have a complaint about a particular interpreter.
The Interpreters Office relies on feedback from attorneys and the Court regarding the performance of interpreters.  Please contact the Chief Interpreter when there is a complaint about an interpreter’s skills, performance, or professional conduct.

Best Practices for CJA Attorneys Working with Interpreters

What should I keep in mind when consulting with my client through an interpreter?
You should maintain eye contact with your client, not with the interpreter, address the non-English speaker in the first person, and speak clearly and at a reasonable pace to give the interpreter a small margin of time to interpret properly. On the other hand, there is no need to speak at an unnaturally slow pace. Your voice should be kept at a low level so that the defendant can hear the interpreter.  You should allow the interpreter to finish interpreting before interrupting with a follow-up comment or question. 

What is the preferred interpreting technique for attorney/client interviews?
Consecutive interpretation is the preferred mode used during attorney/client consultations. In this mode, it is best to speak in short, simple sentences, pausing at regular intervals.

Some interpreters use a combination of simultaneous and consecutive techniques so as not to lose the flow of natural conversation. However, it may be difficult to interpret simultaneously without equipment because in close quarters, both voices overlap, and the defendant may have to struggle to hear the interpreter over the attorney’s voice. If the interpreter and the foreign language speaker are sitting close to each other, the interpreter can speak in a low voice and still keep the flow of conversation going.

Should I rely on the interpreter to determine a defendant’s/witness’ credibility?
It would be inappropriate for an interpreter to assess whether a defendant or witness is lying or telling the truth.  An attorney should never ask an interpreter to give an opinion or in any way expect the interpreter to compromise his/her professional detachment and impartiality.

Proceedings before the District Judge

Be mindful of the presence of the interpreter when addressing the Court. We urge you to talk at a reasonable speed and into the microphone, particularly in the Foley Square Courthouse, where the acoustics are poor. It becomes mentally fatiguing for an interpreter who struggles to hear rapid and unclear discourse, and that could lead to inaccurate or incomplete interpreting.

All courtrooms in this district are equipped with infrared technology so that the defendant can hear the interpretation by wearing a listening device.  The use of sound equipment has several advantages:  interpreters are less obtrusive and disruptive if they distance themselves from the lawyers' tables; interpreters can speak into the microphone at a low volume, and the listeners can control the volume on their headset; interpreter mobility enables them to hear better, thus improving interpreter accuracy; it prevents the defendant from engaging in a private conversation with the interpreter; it avoids the discomfort of having to interpret in an awkward position, which leads to neck strain; and it enables smooth transitions when interpreters work in teams.

Please do not hesitate to contact our office for further information.
 

Prepared by Paula Gold, Chief Interpreter, 2/24/2017