By Esther M. Hermida
This article is written from the perspective of a Spanish<>English interpreter, for US court and conference interpreters who, while comfortable in their respective niches, might be curious, or even actively looking into combining the two. There are many interpreters who have successfully done so.
There is an undeniable appeal to conferences: the locale, the environment, and the perceived prestige. There is the opportunity to meet interesting people and be exposed to innovation. The interpreter becomes part of a different world without losing independence, much like a tourist getting to explore a different country and then returning home.
The court interpreter world is of a more conservative and institutional nature, bound by a code of ethics similar to the one adhered to by lawyers. A person’s life depends on the accuracy of the interpreter’s delivery, down to the inflection and intonation, the pauses a defendant might make while answering a question, the passion or resignation, the slang – all of it might seem tedious, but it is also rewarding as it allows the interpreter to become a part of our justice system.
The different spirit of the two specialties makes the possibility for crossover thrilling and enriching. Challenging? Absolutely. Impossible? Not at all.
A closer look at the differences
One of the advantages I see in combining the two is the financial stability in court interpreting compared with the seasonal nature of conferences. There is a constant demand for legal interpreters in and out of court. However, interpreting for a conference can bring a welcomed and refreshing break from the repetitive nature of legal work.
There are specific demands in each field that must be considered when crossing over. While the skills are transferable, there are differences to adapt to in each environment:
|Not required in the private sector nor requested by conference organizers, if chosen from their pool of experienced interpreters with a history of reliability. They do look for prior experience in the subject matter.
|Required. State and Federal courts require certification and separate testing for each. Interpreters may have to state on the record that they are certified. For instances where a certification is available.
|Not required, but it never hurts to have one. A degree is required to work at the United Nations. Preferred at the State Department level. The parties contracting the interpreters may consider those with a degree over others, but expertise in the subject matter takes priority.
|Not a requirement in State courts. May be required in Federal court if applying for a permanent position in a major city. Although a degree is not required, passing the exams requires college-level knowledge.
|Yes – Long and Short
|Usually short; long consecutive is discouraged at the witness stand, as the non-English speakers’ attorneys may want to interpose an objection.
|No, although consecutive interpreters will read from their notes.
|Yes. Usually done outside the courtroom. State courts may limit the number of pages that are sight translated, while the Federal court has no page limit.
|Use of booth
|Some federal districts use it, but it is uncommon.
|Use of interpreting equipment
|Yes– from the booth or handheld transmitter.
|Yes. Court-provided interpreting equipment is available for defendants. An interpreter may provide his/her own equipment. Also used in depositions in some areas.
| Excellent passive comprehension of their two source languages;
– Accuracy in interpreting into the target language in a grammatically correct manner
– Ability to construct complete sentences
– Understanding of the appropriate style and register
– Ability to keep up with the speed
– Intelligent editing of logically redundant words and phrases
– Ability to cope with difficult or dense passages
– Good diction and delivery
Usually interprets in one direction only, if in the booth. Languages are classified as A, B, and C. Conference interpreters interpret to their A and B languages, and only interpret from the C language.
| Possess educated, native-like mastery of both English and a second language;
– Familiarity with cultural nuances, regional variations and slang
– Display a wide general knowledge of what a minimum of two years of general education at a college or university would provide
Interpreters are required to interpret into and from the two languages used.
|Mandatory for most State Courts, recommended for Federal Court.
|Code of Professional Ethics
| Yes - AIIC
| Yes, each state has its own.
Using your skills in each setting
At first the crossover is not easy, but with a little practice it can certainly be done. For instance, at a conference, a court interpreter may find it hard to summarize when the speaker talks very fast. As a result, the interpreter may sound incoherent and/or the rendition may sound rushed rather than well-paced. However, in court, conference interpreters with a court certification may be tempted to summarize and omit hedges and hesitations as they may deem them unnecessary. Listeners will quickly pick up on this. Depositions taken abroad utilizing a conference interpreter without legal setting experience can wreak havoc on a testimony, including the use of the third person.
In most situations, court interpreters walk in cold, perhaps only having a few minutes before a hearing to talk to witnesses and to the attorney to get a brief overview of the case. In civil matters where the interpreter is hired by one of the parties, there’s a higher likelihood that the interpreter has the opportunity to prepare and anticipate possible terminology pitfalls. Language service companies rarely provide more than the case name and type of proceeding, so it might be beneficial for the interpreter to do an online search beforehand. Some state courts have public access systems for civil cases. Generally speaking, court interpreters perform well with very limited preparation time. Court interpreters must take every measure to make sure the message is not lost. An interpreter in legal matters is allowed to ask for clarification or repetitions and to correct their errors if detected while on the record.
Conference interpreters usually receive a lot of material beforehand, including PowerPoint presentations. In most cases, interpreters can create and/or collaborate in creating a glossary. Conference interpreters have access to the agenda weeks in advance and can research any prior speeches made by other speakers. Conference interpreters are rarely unprepared at events. Conference interpreters can control the pace and delivery of information without losing the message. If a mistake is made, one of the interpreters will have an opportunity to correct it if the troublesome term comes up again.
For court interpreters, every pause and inflection is crucial during testimony, whereas in conferences one can summarize to get to the core of the subject.
While conference interpreters have preset subjects set for them, there is no way to predict what a witness in a courtroom will say in the moment or how they will say it.
Sight translation is expected of court interpreters. It is not common on the record, but it is one of the duties required. This task is not usually performed by conference interpreters.
Many combine the two fields seamlessly while others find it difficult to adjust their interpreting style. Here are a few suggestions on how to overcome the challenges.
As a court interpreter trying to break into the world of conferences, one might consider choosing a boothmate with more experience, if available, and sharing glossaries.
As a conference interpreter interested in the legal profession, the first move would be to become certified at the state level, if available. Interpreting in court has its own challenges. Working with more experienced colleagues can help interpreters ease into the field.
As an interpreter who excels in both fields, is it helpful to advertise this versatility. Some things to consider – narrow specialty might suggest a deeper knowledge of the field, while versatility might give the hiring party confidence that the interpreter will rise to the occasion, no matter what turn the project takes. It is also important to know one’s limitations and being upfront about them will serve an interpreter’s reputation well.
“Analysis of the different types of interpreting shows that regardless of the adjective preceding the word “interpreter,” practitioners of this profession the world over perform the same service and should meet the same standards of competence.” – Holly Mikkelson
Esther M. Hermida is a Spanish interpreter certified by the state of California and the US District Court (federal court). She has over 26 years of experience in different areas of interpreting, including legal, conferences and simulcast; dialect coaching; language consultancy; script translation; and voice-over work. Esther is a passionate advocate of her profession, a real-life mentor who uses social media as another tool for mentoring. She helps new interpreters find their way and presents seminars related to best practices in the private sector.