One of my favorite things about being an interpreter is getting to meet all kinds of people. I interpret in restaurant kitchens, in board rooms, in hospitals, at construction sites. But perhaps the biggest test for an interpreter is entering the court room. It’s a true cross section of life, and you never know what’s coming next!

Becoming Certified

All court interpreters must be certified. There are two levels of court certification: state and federal. Examination guidelines vary between states. The North Carolina state certification consists of a written screening test in both languages, a skills building workshop, an exam consisting of sight translation, simultaneous interpretation, and consecutive interpretation. Candidates must also pass a background check, submit four letters of recommendation, and swear to an oath of interpretation. The federal exam is even more exacting, with only half of the exam offered each year. Needless to say, becoming certified is no walk in the park. Nor should it be! Cases can end in mistrial if the interpreter makes mistakes. 

Subject Matter: Unknown

Although you are ideally informed ahead of time about the general subject, walking into a courtroom is like being dropped into foreign territory. You may have seen the notice of deposition beforehand, but that only provides a clue as to what’s coming. The defendant is the owner of a construction company, so you have to work with that terminology. Masonry veneer, trench shield, joist, balustrade. But then the line of questioning turns to injuries and physical therapy and so the terminology changes.

Everyone is an expert in their field, but you have to be familiar with all of them. The trickiest part might be the acronyms. Every field has its own! We all know what a DUI is, but the police use a huge number of acronyms when talking to each other. The SFST, for example, is the Standard Field Sobriety Test. And that’s just the beginning. 

Tricks of the Trade

One of my favorite ways to quickly determine some of my surroundings is to ask the person I am interpreting for where they are from. Knowing country of origin means I know which accent to expect. I can quickly gauge whether they can understand some English, or none at all. Every little bit of context is helpful. You must of course ask permission before doing this. It wouldn’t look particularly impartial for me to be having a private conversation with a deponent or a witness!

Nowadays, it’s normal to bring interpreting equipment to the courtroom. Sometimes the person I am interpreting for is actually the guardian or parent of a juvenile involved in the hearing. If a mother is there for her son’s hearing, and she is the Limited English Proficient person, I need to be sure she understands every word that passes between lawyers, witnesses, and the judge. In that case I’m able to simultaneously interpret from the sidelines. If it’s a trial, however, I have to interpret consecutively. Relaying messages back and forth takes more time, but it’s important for everyone present to understand what’s being said and for the transcription to be accurate.


It goes without saying that a court interpreter must be a neutral party. The biggest trick to remaining impartial? Stick to the words.The interpreter must be completely unbiased. We hear the words in one language and speak them in another. You can’t play favorites or pick sides. The attorney that hired you doesn’t get  any preference over the defendant. 

It takes a lot to be a court interpreter. The mental load is taxing. The subjects can be all over the place. The accents might be strong, the speakers far away. But it is good work, and it is rewarding. And the best part? I can walk out the doors and leave everything behind.