Working with Interpreters: Tips for Solicitors

It is important for solicitors to appreciate that being a professional, competent legal/court interpreter is not easy. It requires intellect, skill, experience and knowledge of the legal system.

To be bilingual, no matter how competent, is never enough. A real interpreter is a professional interpreter. The legal system understands this and as a result we have procedures in place such as the 'National Agreement on Arrangements for the Use of Interpreters' plus a host of various accrediting bodies that give their stamp of approval to interpreters such as the NRPSI, IOL and ITI.

It is still important that solicitors learn the concepts and principles that ensure a good interpreting service. Indeed, solicitors may have arguably the greatest interest in ensuring that correct interpretation takes place.

By way of introducing these concepts and principles, the following ten canons can go a long way in terms of bringing solicitors up-to-speed on the use of interpreters and getting the best out of them. All of these canons are important for interpreters and to solicitors who work with interpreters in court, prisons and other legal settings.

Precision: Interpreters are trained to interpret without additions or omissions. A good interpreter will never summarize, paraphrase, edit or simplify statements in order to 'help' the client. In fact this is to be discouraged to the extent that even poor language, bad grammar, slang or profanity should even be translated. If someone is sarcastic, swears, repeats or contradicts themselves then that is exactly what should be interpreted.

Conflict of Interest: When appearing in court, interpreters serve as officers of the court and must appear to be neutral and unbiased. Not only should interpreters disclose prior contact with a person involved in a trial but they must also refrain from socializing with counsel/client and converse only as part of their duties in order to prevent the appearance of favouritism or bias. However, a meeting between the interpreter, client and solicitor/barrister, in necessary to ensure communication is clear and understood.

Scope of Duties: This is an vital area of important and one in which most mistakes are made, however unintentionally. An interpreter is always only present to offer one thing - oral translation. They should never be asked to offer procedural, personal or legal advice in any form whatsoever. Solicitors must not ask interpreters to explain forms, procedures, to escort clients or in any other manner to assume the duties of the solicitor. Nor should solicitors attempt to question interpreters about statements made by their client or their impressions of the client. It is good practice for interpreters to make a brief statement to clients and counsel at the start of a case describing the limits of their duties to prevent misunderstandings and inappropriate questions or requests.

Maintaining Standards: Interpreters are obliged ethically and professionally to ensure the accuracy of their service. For example, an interpreter may ask the court to remind counsel to slow their speech, to talk one at a time, to address questions directly to the witness and not the interpreter. Interpreters may also occasionally request the court's permission to use a dictionary, for clarification of a legal term, or for a solicitor to re-phrase a question if an equivalent word is not available in the non-English language. If not abused, this is the mark of a professional, conscientious interpreter.

Solicitors who find themselves working with interpreters are encouraged to really understand the nature, role and responsibilities of an interpreter's work. Interpreters, no matter how good, cannot by themselves be expected to offer an unblemished service. There is need for partnership. Successful interpreting takes place with full, accurate exchange of content, context and meaning.

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