Survivors of domestic and sexual violence navigate complex legal systems and those with limited English proficiency face additional challenges. Systems that rely on untrained interpreters discriminate against victims with limited English proficiency by failing to provide the same level of access as English speaking victims have.

Interpretation is an art and a skill acquired through extensive education, training, and experience. It requires native-like fluency in both English and a foreign language; knowing the mechanics of interpretation; having training on a range of topics associated with the profession; possessing a technical vocabulary; and adhering to a code of ethics emphasizing accuracy, proficiency, confidentiality and neutrality. These skills go beyond being bilingual.

1. Definitions

  • Interpretation is the process of orally rendering a spoken or signed communication from one language into another language.
  • Translation is converting written text from one language into written text in another language. ‘Translation’ is often misused to mean interpretation, but it is a written medium.
  • Consecutive Interpretation: The process of orally rendering one language into another language after the speaker has completed a statement or question and pauses. The interpreter then renders that statement into the other language.
  • Simultaneous Interpretation: The process of orally rendering one language into another language virtually at the same time that the speaker is speaking with only a very short lag time.
  • Sight Translation: The rendering of material written in one language, completely and accurately into spoken speech in another language.
  • Limited English Proficient refers to individuals who are limited in their ability to speak and/or read the English language, and so cannot receive effective legal representation or other services through communication only in English.

2. Interpreters’ Knowledge, Skills, Abilities, Ethics

The California Administrative Office of the Courts identifies 32 testable knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) needed for court interpretation, to include:

  • Native like proficiency in both languages.
  • Knowledge and use of a broad range of vocabulary, including legal terminology, subject-specific terminology, and slang.
  • Knowledge and use of cultural nuances, regional variations, idiomatic expressions, and colloquialisms in all working languages.
  • Ability to speak with proper pronunciation, diction, and intonation in all working languages.
  • Ability to listen to and comprehend various regional accents and/or dialectical differences in all working languages.
  • Ability to practice and follow ethical standards.

The Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility drawn up by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) reflects the standards adopted by the federal government and by many states for court interpretation, governing:

  • Accuracy
  • Impartiality and Avoidance of Conflicts of Interest
  • Confidentiality
  • Limitations of Practice
  • Professional Demeanor
  • Maintenance and Improvement of Skills and Knowledge
  • Accurate Representation of Qualifications
  • Responsibility to Report Impediments to Compliance with the Code of Ethics

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3. Differentiating Bilingual Advocacy from Interpretation

Many bilingual speakers incorrectly assume their strong language skills pave the way for interpreting, but without training, most bilingual speakers cannot interpret competently. The use of bilingual advocates, untrained in interpretation, results in role confusion and can compromise confidentiality and outcomes. The Fluency, Accuracy, Neutrality, Safety (F.A.N.S.) Checklist asks some basic questions of bilingual speakers to guide them. Is the bilingual advocate or community member:

  • Fluent in English?
  • Accurately able to interpret in the consecutive or simultaneous mode without adding, omitting, or summarizing?
  • Neutral: Can s/he understand and stay only in the interpreter’s role and not move into the advocate’s role?
  • Safe when functioning in dual roles, and not at risk of jeopardizing a case?

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4. Resources & Tip Sheets: Interpretation

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