Nov 052009

By Carmel A. Capati, Wisconsin Court Interpreter Program Manager

interpreterNov. 4, 2009 – The demographics of Wisconsin are changing. Immigrants from Somalia and Latin America can be found working in turkey processing plants in Barron and in dairy farms in rural Buffalo County. Wisconsin ranks third in the nation for its Hmong population, while refugees from Bhutan, Myanmar, and Iraq are the most recent arrivals to our state. Given this population shift, the legal system has seen a dramatic increase in the need for interpreter services. Below are 10 recommendations for practicing attorneys to consider when working with court interpreters.

1. Being bilingual is not enough to ensure the quality of a court interpreter. Don’t make the common mistake of assuming because someone asserts he’s bilingual that he’s qualified to be a court interpreter. Interpreting is difficult. Legal interpreting is even more difficult and requires continuous practice combined with experience and training. Attorneys should inquire about an interpreter’s educational background, courtroom experience, training, or certification she may hold. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Director of State Courts Office established a Court Interpreter Program six years ago, which has overseen certification of interpreters throughout the state. Whenever possible, try to use a certified interpreter if one is available. Certified interpreters have demonstrated their interpreting and language skills by passing a rigorous oral examination used by almost 40 states around the country.

2. Attorneys don’t have to rely on personal referrals to locate court interpreters. The Court Interpreter Program maintains a roster of interpreters, available on the court’s Web site, for more than 25 different languages. The roster has certified interpreters in the following languages: Spanish, American Sign Language (ASL), German, Deaf ASL, Russian, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Hmong, Lao and French.

3. Don’t ask interpreters to provide “word-for-word” interpretation. Interpreters interpret meanings and concepts. They do not provide word-for-word or literal interpretation, nor do you want them to do so. An interpreter told me the story of when he was asked to interpret during a deposition. When he arrived, opposing counsel ordered the interpreter to “translate all the words directly.” The interpreter responded that he normally interprets the meaning of what is said, to which the attorney retorted, “No! I want the exact meaning of the words!” so the interpreter agreed. A question was asked, “What were you doing in the parking lot?” The interpreter rendered the question into Spanish, and the non-English speaking deponent answered, “Estaba manejando mi mueble.” The interpreter said, “I was driving my furniture.” Irritated, the attorney asked what furniture meant. The interpreter told him the speaker meant, “I was driving my old junker.” People from Mexico use the word “mueble” (which has a literal translation of “furniture”) to mean “junker” or “old car.” But since the interpreter was instructed to interpret the exact meaning of the word, he interpreted the word literally and not in the context the word was used.

4. Court interpreters should abide by the Code of Ethics for Court Interpreters. If you are working with an interpreter who is unfamiliar with SCR Chapter 63 the Code of Ethics for Court Interpreters, you should be concerned this person has not been properly trained. Qualified court interpreters are professionals who will follow this Code, which includes keeping privileged communication confidential, representing their qualifications accurately, and maintaining neutrality.

5. Don’t ask interpreters to be attorneys. Court interpreters do not “go over” legal documents or “explain” legal concepts. They interpret while the attorney reviews legal forms or explains the law. One interpreter reported an assistant district attorney asked her to go over the plea questionnaire and waiver of attorney form with several non-English speaking pro se defendants. He directed her to review the penalty charts so she could explain them. Interpreters are not attorneys. Asking them to engage in this type of work is unethical and unfair to both the non-English speaker and the interpreter.

6. Clarify abbreviations and minimize legal jargon. Legal proceedings are filled with abbreviations and jargon (PSIs, GALs, OARs and “probation holds”). While certified interpreters will likely be familiar with the terms, try not to use them, if possible, and say the entire phrase.

7. Be mindful of how you pose questions through an interpreter. As a general rule, when talking through an interpreter, the more straightforward the question, the better. Leading questions and questions posed in the negative are challenging for an interpreter particularly for rarer languages. While it is impossible to eliminate this format of questioning, attorneys should strive for simplicity in speech when an interpreter is used.

8. Don’t ask interpreters not to interpret something.

Interpreters have informed me about attorneys who say something and then immediately instruct the interpreter, “Don’t interpret that.” Asking interpreters not to interpret something is asking them to violate their Code of Ethics. Interpreters are required to interpret everything. If you don’t want something interpreted, don’t say it.

9. Expect most interpretation during a court proceeding to occur simultaneously. Generally, simultaneous interpreting means the interpreter is talking at the same time as the speaker with some lag time. Expect most interpreters to simultaneously interpret during courtroom proceedings. During testimony of a non-English speaking witness, the interpreter will use the consecutive mode, whereby interpretation will occur after each question and answer.

10. Wisconsin statutes allow parties to object to an interpreter for good cause and take into consideration any delay arising from the inability to locate a qualified interpreter. If an attorney has valid concerns about an interpreter appointed by the court, alert the judge. Wis. Stat. section 885.38(6) allows a court to remove a qualified interpreter for good cause and section 885.36(7) states the delay resulting from the need to locate and appoint a qualified court interpreter may constitute good cause to toll time limits.

Carmel A. Capati, U.W. 1998, is the Wisconsin Court Interpreter Program Manager for the Director of State Courts Office of Court Operations, Madison.


– Thanks to State Bar of Wisconsin