Frequently Asked Questions

Working as an interpreter

I am interested in working as a Spanish interpreter in federal court.
Spanish interpreters are required to obtain federal certification. To find out about the certification examination, administered throughout the country every two years, see http://www.uscourts.gov/services-forms/federal-court-interpreters/federal-court-interpreter-certification-examination. You can purchase the Examinee Handbook and register on line.
I am interested in working as [an other than Spanish] interpreter in federal court.
Send a detailed résumé to the district court you are interested in working with, and inquire as to their needs in your language. Most district courts will be interested in knowing you if you are a competent simultaneous interpreter with experience in the legal field. Also see our credentailing overview.
I am a Spanish interpreter and would like to look up frequently used federal court terminology. Where do I start?
I am an interpreting student and would like to observe court proceedings in your courthouse.
All members of the public are entitled to observe public court proceedings.

Working with interpreters

How do I request an interpreter for a criminal proceeding before the District Court?

If you are a Courtroom Deputy Clerk or Law Clerk, please post your request electronically with a minumum two business days' notice, preferably more. The best practice is to notify the Interpreters Office of your need at the same time you learn of it yourself.

If you are not the USDJ's direct staff (e.g., if you are a defense attorney or AUSA), in most cases it is not your responsibility to request interpreting services.

For details please see the Court's policy regarding requesting interpreters.

I need a Spanish interpreter for a meeting with my client.
District courts maintain lists of certified Spanish interpreters in the area. Our list for the SDNY is available here A national court interpreter database is available to federal court personnel through the J-Net.

For attorney/client meetings in the MCC/MDC, your interpreter must have security clearance in order to be allowed to enter the facility.

I need a list of [other than Spanish] interpreters.
Once you inform us of the need, the language and the nature of the proceeding, we will be glad to provide referrals by email or telephone.
I would like to talk to my client in the cellblock before or after our court appearance.
We provide this service as a courtesy to defense counsel so long as other court duties do not interfere. Priority is given to requests made with a minimum of 24 hours notice. If available, an interpreter will assist counsel for a brief consultation.
I need to get some documents translated. How much should I expect to pay?
Prices vary greatly depending on the content, length, language and turn-around time, but translation is generally costlier than people think. Translation prices are customarily based on a word count. The first thing to determine is what information in the document is actually required. Often you may not need the whole document translated, or an initial sight translation (the translator renders a rough version aloud) will reveal the relevant sections which do need complete translation. Money can be needlessly spent on complete translations of documents which are not essential to the case. In large lawsuits where documents are voluminous, it is a good idea to appoint a translation manager to coordinate the effort.
I need an interpreter for a civil case. What do I do?
The Court does not provide an interpreter free of charge in a civil suit unless the government is a party or the party is hearing and/or communication impaired (28 USC 1827) For any other matter, the party requiring the interpreter is responsible for locating and compensating the interpreter. The interpreters office can help with referrals if you need them. Most importantly, plan ahead, or it may be hard to cover your needs.
How do I know if an interpreter is doing a competent job?
Inquire as to the interpreter's credentials and years of experience. When you first try out an interpreter, if the pacing of the communication seems to flow and the interpreter does not hesitate or mumble, engages in no private conversation with the parties and you hardly even notice the interpreter's presence, that is a good indication of competence. It is not a sign of incompetence if an interpreter occasionally asks for clarification of meaning before interpreting.
I am an AUSA in the Southern District. What is the procedure for scheduling interpreters for court proceedings?
I am an AUSA and I need an interpreter for a proffer.
You can contact, or have your office contact the interpreter directly. Try to find an experienced interpreter who is familiar with federal terminology and knows what a proffer session is. Make sure the interpreter signs a confidentiality agreement. For advice on how to brief the interpreter, see Best practices: For AUSAS
I am an AUSA and I need an interpreter for a trial witness.
For trial testimony, care should be taken to find the best possible interpreter for the job. If the testimony will be lengthy (more than an hour or two) you will need two interpreters to rotate with each other to ensure accuracy. It is best to provide continuity, so that the same interpreter(s) who prepared the witness and is familiar with the context and the witness' idiosyncratic use of vocabulary will be the one to interpret at trial. The best interpreter for trial testimony is someone who is experienced, skilled, flexible and does not call attention to him or herself. The interpreter should also be thoroughly familiar with trial protocol and the interpreter's code of professional conduct.
What is the current rate paid to contract interpreters in federal court?

About Our Office

How many staff interpreters do you have?
Seven. See our "About" page for biographical information about our staff.
What languages are most frequently used?
We began recording interpreter-events in a database in June 2001. The following table shows the number of interpreter-events by language through yesterday's date. Not included in these figures are events for which the interpreters were belatedly cancelled, which happens about 16% of the time.
Have you been busy lately?
In general, the SDNY Interpreters Office is a busy operation with one of the largest volumes of interpreting work and greatest linguistic diversity of any federal interpreters office in the United States. We rely on both staff interpreters and a sizeable roster of contract interpreters to meet the demand for both in-court and out-of-court events. Staff interpreters also manage the considerable administrative overhead of scheduling, processing and tracking payments to contract interpreters, and providing training and orientation for new interpreters.

About Court Interpreting Generally

What do court interpreters do?
They orally translate from from one language into another in court proceedings and related events. Their mission is to remove the language barrier for non- or limited-English speakers who come before the courts so that such persons' access to justice is the same as that of similarly situated English speakers.  As the Standards for performance and Professional Responsibility (pdf) describes it, "Interpreters shall render a complete and acurate interpretation or sight translation that preserves the level of language used without altering, omitting, or adding anything to what is stated or written, and without explanation."

A court interpreter's job is to convey the proceedings exactly and enable communication to take place regardless of the litigant or witness's ability in English. Interpreters are neutral parties who are not to overstep their role by acting as a social worker or legal adviser.

Is interpreting difficult?
Both simultaneous and consecutive interpreting are generally difficult, because they require an extensive knowledge base, as well as the ability to quickly and accurately comprehend, analyze, and communicate the source message in the target language.
What is a certification examination and how is it different from other types of examinations?
Interpreter qualifications for different settings may be based on Q & A telephone interviews, screening exams, written testing only or oral testing only, or on full certification testing. Certification testing is generally mandated by legislation for professional standards. From 1979 (when the Court Interpreters Act, 28 USC 1827, became law) to 2002, the federal courts developed certification testing in Spanish, Haitian Creole and Navajo. Federal certification is considered a high standard of interpreter testing. Currently federal certification is only available in Spanish.
Professional associations such as the American Translators Association and the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators have developed certification tests of their own, which are generally well respected.
What is the difference between interpretation and translation?
Interpretation deals with oral speech and translation deals with written text. Interpreters convey meaning orally from one language to another, while translators convey meaning from one language to another in written form. Sometimes the term translation is used loosely to refer to either interpretation or translation. But because the skills are different, they are not interchangeable. Interpreters and translators both work with language, but their training and work experience may vary greatly.
What if an interpreter does not know how to translate a word or phrase?
The interpreter may request time to consult dictionaries or colleagues. Alternatively, the interpreter may ask the speaker to rephrase an ambiguous question or answer.
What happens if an interpreter makes a mistake?
No human being can be 100% accurate 100% of the time. The interpreter is duty-bound to correct any error of substance as soon as possible.
Is there a code of ethics that court interpreters and translators must follow?
Yes. Interpreters working in the federal courts are bound by this Code of Professional Responsibility.
Is there a statutory or constitutional right to an interpreter?
See 28 USC 1827, which pertains to all federal criminal cases and judicial proceedings instituted by the United States. Many states as well have statutes governing the use of interpreters.
Under Judicial Conference policy, a Court must also provide sign language interpreters or other auxiliary aides and services to participants in federal court proceedings who are deaf, hearing-impaired, or have communication disabilities, and may provide these services to spectators when the Court deems appropriate (JCUS-SEP 95, p. 75).
Have cases ever been successfully appealed because of interpreter issues?
Yes, but rarely. A thorough discussion of interpreter-related case law in the United States was published in 2000 by Viriginia Benmaman: Interpreter Issues on Appeal.
How do you study to become a court interpreter?
First, know your languages. Full bilingual proficiency, ample vocabulary, and a knowledge of standard grammar are prerequisites. Court interpreter training may be available at local universities or continuing education programs: training focuses on specialized vocabulary and interpreting skills.

Some colleges and universities in the U.S. offer minors or certificates in court interpreting at the undergradutate level, and/or in interpreting or translation generally. Some colleges offer a Masters degree in interpreting or translation. There are occasional short-term seminars and workshops around the country. A good way to keep abreast of course offerings is to join organizations like NAJIT as well as your local translator and interpreter organization so that you will receive newsletters.

One indispensable study technique is to go to court frequently and observe different types of proceedings. Mentally translate to yourself. Can you do it? Write down the terms that stump you, then look for solutions in dictionaries.

Does court interpreting pay well?
That depends on the court, the jursidiction, the need in your language, and the cost of living in your area. There may be considerable difference between federal court and state court rates. In some states the pay is low; in others it is more reasonable. The current federal court rates are posted here. When interpreters are hired by private parties, the rate of remuneration is negotiable.

Most court interpreters are freelancers (self-employed) and treated as independent contractors, although this determination varies with jurisdiction. Where the volume of work is greatest, courts have created full-time staff positions, almost all of them for Spanish interpreters. Starting salaries for staff interpreters may range from around $30,000 up to $100,000+. Freelance interpreters and translators can earn over $100,000 per year.

What kinds of cases do court interpreters do?
Interpreters in federal courts mostly cover criminal cases relating to drug trafficking, illegal reentry, kidnapping, money laundering, terrorism, credit card fraud, and counterfeiting as well as other federal crimes. Drug crimes are the most common.

Interpreters in other jurisdictions — state and municipal — cover a broader range of cases, including civil lawsuits, domestic violence and other family court matters, juvenile court cases, traffic offenses, etc.

Is the work interesting?
It depends on your point of view. The job is generally interesting to those who find law, language and the dynamics of human social interaction interesting. Sometimes court proceedings are formulaic and dull. At others times the work is challenging and complex. Sometimes it is exhausting, distressing and stressful. But most interpreters will probably tell you they enjoy their work.