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. Working with Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf-Blind Individuals

Knowledge of Deaf Culture is important to advocates serving deaf, deaf-blind and hard of hearing survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

  • ‘Deaf’ (with upper case ‘D’) refers to an identity with its own culture, language and diverse communities; ‘deaf’ refers to a physical condition/impairment.
  • Deaf and hard of hearing protections appear as a disability issue; however, some in the Deaf community see it as a language access, not a disability, issue.
  • Do not assume that all deaf people are mute: some can speak, some can and choose not to and some cannot (just as some people can sing, some cannot, and some can but choose not to).
  • Dynamics of domestic violence in Deaf communities have additional dimensions: e.g., hiding a hearing aid, disabling TTY equipment, batterers who speak or interpret for their partner.
  • Different sign languages are used in different countries and regions and differ considerably, e.g., British Sign Language (BSL) is not the same as American Sign Language (ASL).
  • ASL is not English made visual; this is also true of foreign sign languages.
  • The process of writing out American Sign Language is referred to as glossing.
  • Sign language needs differ depending on impairment:
    • Deaf: American Sign Language
    • Hard of Hearing: Hearing aids and assistive listening devices
    • Late Deafened Adults (hearing loss occurs after acquiring language, due to age, accident, or living in conflict zones): Computer Assisted Realtime Transcription (CART)
    • Deaf-Blind: Tactile signing

Sign language interpretation for those with Limited ASL Proficiency - Immigrants and refugees who are deaf, deaf-blind or hard of hearing may use their national sign language, e.g., Japanese Sign Language, or an informally developed home sign language; and they may or may not be literate in their native language. Individuals lacking proficiency in American Sign Language will likely require relay interpretation, which involves using more than one interpreter to act as a conduit for spoken or sign languages beyond the understanding of a primary interpreter.

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Social Contexts - In many regions of the world, deaf and deaf-blind individuals may be marginalized.

  • They can be seen as a burden on the family who may not adequately care for them: depriving them of schooling, medical care or equipment like hearing aids. These attitudes are not merely a by-product of poverty, but of cultural stigma.
  • Women and girls who are deaf, deaf-blind or hard of hearing, may be further devalued; and more so if they are victims of gender violence.
  • Consequently, many such individuals will not learn a formal sign language, may not be literate, and may use some form of home signing.
  • The context for refugees will differ: they may have become deaf, deaf-blind or hard of hearing due to war-related physical and psychological injuries; and lacked medical care in such conditions.
  • Individuals who sustained hearing loss after acquiring spoken language, may not have yet learned to communicate through formal or informal sign language and will have different needs.

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5. Resources & Tip Sheets: Interpretation

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