As a legal professional, you may have been asked by a client why a client’s family member can’t act as an interpreter for a court proceeding.
If the family member knows the language and is available — not to mention willing to do the job for free — 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 have some type of interest in the case at hand, be it 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.
A professional court interpreter is best
Being a good interpreter is more than just 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.