Finding, Qualifying & Working with Interpreters

Qualification standards for court interpreters vary from state to state, and are usually established by the state court administrative agency. The state determines what knowledge, skills, and abilities are needed to serve as a court interpreter, and establish procedures to assess and qualify an interpreter. To find a qualified interpreter, contact your local court or your state administrative office of the courts and ask for a list of qualified interpreters. The following information can assist you in qualifying an interpreter, if a state qualified/certified interpreter is not available.


1. Finding Interpreters

Information and referrals can be obtained from the following:

  • Administrative Office of the Courts for the State
  • Local courts
  • Partner agencies and other service providers
  • Professional interpreter associations and services
  • Telephonic interpretation services

2. Steps for Qualifying Interpreters

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3. Working with Interpreters

Limited or non-English speakers have the right to speak, be understood by and understand everyone; advocates can facilitate the process. Effective use of an interpreter requires preparation on the part of the advocate, client, and interpreter. Advocates should ensure that the interpreter does not have a conflict of interest; schedule additional interview time; brief the interpreter about the case, nature of proceedings, special terminology, and ground rules about not soliciting disclosures or giving advice. Likewise, advocates should prepare a client for the interpretation process, especially the limits to the interpreter’s role. Advocates should speak slowly, with regular pauses, use plain English, and step in immediately when they notice problems with the interpretation.

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4. Addressing Problems

Typical problems from using poorly trained interpreters or untrained bilingual speakers include:

  1. Lack of fluency: Interpreter is not fluent in English and/or foreign language.
  2. Lack of accuracy: Incomplete interpretation, interpreter cannot keep up with subject matter, is ignorant of specialized terminology, is uncomfortable with domestic or sexual violence terms, etc.
  3. Lack of neutrality: Interpreter gives advice, doesn’t reveal a conflict of interest.
  4. Breaking confidentiality: Interpreter discusses or shares case information.
  5. Personal and cultural bias: Interpreter’s biases filter and/or change what is said.
  6. Providing ‘cultural interpretation’: Explaining cultural practices, offering themselves up as cultural experts, reflecting their own or their larger ethnic community’s cultural biases.
  7. Gender bias: Blaming victims, emphasizing traditional roles for women, admonishing them for asserting their rights.
  8. Interpreter knows one or both parties: In small communities when an interpreter knows the victim and/or batterer, they should disclose this to the court as a potential conflict of interest or bias, and allow the court to make a determination on whether a conflict or bias exists. Attorneys or advocates should be prepared to suggest an alternative interpreter to the court, e.g., telephonic interpretation by an interpreter from the adjoining county.
  9. Assigned interpreter is known to be a batterer: For reasons of confidentiality (e.g., the domestic violence agency is providing services to assigned interpreter’s partner) and protection against liability, such information cannot be publicly stated in the court. The attorney or advocate can bring another interpreter to provide interpretation services if the court will agree to it.
  10. Bilingual advocates are asked by the court to interpret: In general, advocates must decline to interpret, particularly if no attempt to find a qualified in-person or telephonic interpreter was made before the advocate was asked. If a judge insists, the advocate should request that an objection be placed on the record before starting to interpret. ONLY in the interest of a victim’s immediate safety and when a qualified interpreter is not available in person or via telephone, an advocate can step in to interpret.
  11. Victim’s batterer is asked to interpret: Batterers should not be allowed to interpret for victims at any time. The advocate should request that a qualified in-person or telephonic interpreter be used by the court because the batterer is not neutral and has a conflict of interest. Agencies should maintain a list of potential interpreters that advocates can take with them to the court. If the court is unable to find a neutral in-person or telephonic interpreter, be prepared to suggest an alternative interpreter to the court, e.g., telephonic interpretation by an interpreter from the adjoining county. If possible postpone the matter until a neutral interpreter is obtained. If the matter cannot be postponed until a neutral interpreter can be found, and the judge insists on using the batterer, request that an objection be placed on the record. Document everything that is said during the proceedings and debrief with your client and an interpreter. File a complaint with the court administration (e.g., the presiding judge and/or court executive) and with your state Administrative Office of the Courts.

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In response to problems, advocates should:

  1. Document problems: Take notes on inaccuracies, errors, omissions, summaries.
  2. Explain how they identified the problem: (a) based on what the client told them, (b) because they speak the target language and have detailed notes, (c) although they do not speak the foreign language they have notes on concerns and debriefed with the client to determine what went wrong, (d) reviewed case transcripts of proceedings and compared them to information disclosed by client to advocate in the course of providing services.
  3. Report the problem: Advocates should report all problems to the victim’s attorney whose role is to notify the court and raise the appropriate objections on the record. For unrepresented clients, problems should be reported to: (a) officers of the court by writing a note describing the issue and give it to the bailiff or court clerk who will alert the judge, (b) interpretation services provider or court interpreter coordinator (if there is one), and (c) professional associations that list or certify interpreters.

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5. Resources and Tip Sheets: Finding, Qualifying, Working with Interpreters

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