Why to Avoid Using a Family Member as a Court Interpreter

By Julia at Legal Language
Updated on 05/21/2013
In Legal Interpreting



court interpreterAs a legal professional, you may have been asked by a client — or perhaps even wondered yourself — why a client’s family member can’t act as an interpreter for your court proceeding. If they know the language and are available, what’s to lose?

Unfortunately, there is a lot to lose in using a family member as a professional interpreter.

Court interpreters must be neutral.

Family members acting as interpreters for relatives can put a court case in jeopardy simply because family members are not neutral parties, no matter how you look at it. They usually have some type of interest in the case at hand, whether it be personal, emotional or monetary.

In fact, a family member’s emotional involvement can even result in a tendency to protect the client from bad news. That could mean mistranslations in the courtroom — and even worse news for your case and your client.

Court interpreters have a specific vocabulary and training.

Family members are not experts in the field and may not have the legal and courtroom vocabulary to accurately act as an interpreter in a legal proceeding.

An untrained interpreter may omit, add, substitute or volunteer answers. For example, family members may summarize information for the client, inject their own opinions or observations, or impose their own judgments — all things an interpreter should never do.

Alternatively, family members who are interpreting may be embarrassed to admit they do not understand, or they may be embarrassed by the nature of the conversation. This often results in miscommunication.

Just as important, family interpreters often do not have knowledge of the ethical and professional responsibilities pertaining to judiciary interpreters established by law. This also raises confidentiality questions, as clients may wish to keep some information private from family members and friends.

Family members acting as interpreters can negatively impact a lawyer’s ability to effectively represent a client. Worse, family member interpreters may inhibit communication between your client and a judge, potentially impacting the ultimate decision in the case. What’s more, using a family member as an interpreter in a courtroom may actually be prohibited in some locations.

Why a professional court interpreter is best.

Being a good interpreter is more than being bilingual. A professional interpreter must have an immediate and genuine understanding of both languages, as well as the vocabulary and expertise specific to a courtroom setting. If an interpreter is hired for a court trial but does not know legal terminology, she may struggle to convey what is happening in the courtroom to the client.

In addition, a good interpreter knows how to behave in a court or legal counseling setting, and respects rules of etiquette and confidentiality.

Standards for Court Interpreters

Different states have different requirements for court interpreters, but most require a basic standard of proficiency for any interpreter in the courtroom setting.

When a client with limited English proficiency is involved in the legal system, his or her representation should not be compromised by an untrained interpreter, especially a family member interpreter who is not neutral and may make critical mistakes in communicating among the parties.


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