Judiciary interpreters and translators facilitate communication in legal settings. Many people think interpreting and translating are the same, but there's a difference. Translation converts the written word—such as articles, books, instructions, and documents—from one language to another. Interpretation converts spoken messages—attorney-client interviews, doctor-patient consultations, speeches, and so forth—from one language to another.
With interpreting and translating, you want to specialize so you become an expert in the terminology and concepts of your chosen field. Those who choose the legal field are sometimes also called court interpreters or legal translators, but judiciary encompasses all the work we do inside and outside of court.
What I do most often is interpret for people in our justice system who do not speak or understand English. My function enables communication between them and the attorneys representing them, the judge, and anyone else who needs to communicate with them, like probation officers. If there's a document that needs to be translated, I do that too.
For example, if someone is giving testimony in court, then I will interpret out loud: taking turns with the person asking the questions, generally interpreting from English into Spanish; and with the person answering, generally interpreting from Spanish into English. If there's a letter sent to the judge in Spanish, I translate that letter into English so the judge can read it.
Translators usually work alone, but interpreters work in teams for extended proceedings, such as trials. We help each other with any difficulties that may arise, like sound issues, or perhaps one of us needs the other one to look up a term. Working as a team also means we take turns interpreting to minimize mental fatigue.
I hardly have what I'd call a typical workday. I may go to court for a trial, or I may go for a series of short hearings. I work in federal court most of the time and travel to other districts outside of the city where I live, so my workday is not in the same location all the time.
If I'm working on a trial, I'll report to the courtroom about 15 minutes before the judge has summoned everyone to be there, check to make sure the interpreting equipment is working, gather whatever case-related documents the case manager has for me and my partner, and settle down to study as much as I can before the judge comes out.
If I'm working a series of short hearings, I follow the same pattern except that in most courts, I'll get a calendar instead of case documents. If it's expected to be a brief calendar, I'll cover it by myself. If it's expected to be lengthy, I'll likely have a partner working with me. Calendars can include any of the stages of a criminal case other than a trial, including arraignment, bail hearing, or sentencing.
If it’s a trial, I want to know as much as I can beforehand, so I know what to expect. I want to see the indictment and the complaint. Indictments don’t say much, but complaints have a lot more information about who did what, when, and where. I also want to see the list of witnesses for both sides. The witness lists will give me some idea of the expert testimony that may be presented, and I can brush up on any specialized terminology, like for fingerprint analysis or ballistics.
If it’s a calendar with many different types of cases and I see something noteworthy, I'll ask for a copy of any document that can provide me with details. For example, for a weapons smuggling case, there may be a document with information about the guns: model, caliber, serial number.
Sometimes we interpret for a probation officer conducting an interview in order to prepare a report for the judge, or between an attorney and his or her client.
Other proceedings outside of court include depositions (testimony for civil or criminal cases), which are usually taken in a law office but can be taken just about anywhere: someone’s living room, a dairy farm, a shrimp boat. It all depends on the type of case and where the witnesses are.
I happened upon it by pure serendipity. I answered an ad by an agency looking for someone with a degree in a foreign language. I had a degree in Spanish, majoring in literature. I was chosen by the agency, trained, and eventually sent by them to take the federal certification exam, which was brand new when I took it in 1981. It has been my passion ever since.
I feel like I'm making a significant contribution to our system of justice by making sure that every person for whom I interpret can communicate with others around them as if they could all speak the same language.
I love what I do. And I love teaching it and writing about it, which are two other things related to this occupation that I have been doing since 1986.
Learning how to distance yourself from other people’s tragedies is probably the greatest challenge for a judiciary interpreter and translator. That's a really difficult skill to develop. If you don't learn how to do that, you'll end up suffering from vicarious trauma and burning out early in your career.
I plan to set up a nonprofit that trains and educates young interpreters so they can become certified. Hopefully the nonprofit gets funding to help these interpreters offset the cost of getting certified.
I'm a lifelong learner and research is my happy place, so I'm also going back to school.
If you want to be an interpreter or translator, focus on critical thinking, learn to be analytical, and become familiar with the theory of translation and some basic concepts in linguistics. All of those will help you understand the reason why things are done this or that way. Be inquisitive, and never think you've learned all you need to learn.
Join a professional association. Try not to work in isolation; if you do, you'll condemn yourself to making the same mistakes over and over again.
Read a lot in both languages and expand your knowledge of the cultures in which your languages are spoken. It takes a deep desire to contribute to equal justice through language access.
Patricia Tate, "Judiciary interpreter and translator," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 2022.