Why is it important to use Certified Interpreters?

The following is a guest post by Mark McCaffrey, PhD, a California Certified Court Interpreter, on the importance of using certified interpreters:

The difference between a certified court interpreter and one who is not certified is analogous to the difference between a law student and an attorney who has passed the bar.  Certainly there are, here and there, gifted law students capable of parsing the law skilfully and speaking before an audience or jury.  However, who would want such a person as an attorney on an actual case, speaking and making motions on the record?  Passing the bar means, minimally, that an attorney has demonstrated the competence considered essential to begin practicing law. Add some experience to that competence and your confidence in your attorney is bound to grow.

Although an interpreter might be defined as anyone who stands between two people of different languages and tells each what the other is saying, the interpreter who has prepared for this work and passed a rigorous exam testing his or her ability to perform this battery of tasks in carefully simulated courtroom scenarios is one an attorney can rely on for an accurate rendering, and therefore record, of what has actually been said.

Consider for a moment several scenarios, both as used on certification exams and as they present themselves in day-to-day judicial life.

The witness stand.  We could leave our description at that – the witness stand – but let’s introduce some nuance and imagine an evasive or dissembling witness, an articulate and educated witness, a shy and mortified witness, an impatient and disruptive witness, or a cold and uncooperative witness.  If in a creatively conceived MCLE seminar experienced attorneys were asked to compose five minutes of the testimony to be expected from each of these character types, can anyone doubt what a broad color palate of language we would be dealing with?  The expert witness casts his or her thoughts in lengthy, articulate sentences.  The mother of the drive-by shooting victim is muttering her grief through choked-back tears.  The liar’s speech contours and body gestures create a sort of rhetoric in their own right.  The cold fish uses an insistent monotone even if his language suggests much unspoken content beneath the surface.  The average, unprepared witness speaks in stringy, sometimes unintelligible fragments of thought.

The point here is that a certified interpreter has been tested to deliver all of this and more, and I am speaking only of the witness stand scenario here, where consecutive interpreting, the most demanding of all, is, or should be, required.

Jury selection and closing arguments.  Here the work is done simultaneously and the content is of crucial importance to the plaintiff/respondent/defendant.  In both civil and criminal cases, attorneys generally want, or must appear to want, client input for jury selection.  Let us say that a prospective juror “pretty much trusts” any uniformed officer to “take thorough notes” on what he has seen, or assumes any claims adjustor “won’t doctor the details” on an accident report, even though that juror himself years ago had a “run-in with a cop” at a domestic violence scene or with an adjustor after an accident. These details of trust and bias are conveyed through language and must not be omitted or denatured by the interpreter.  Nor must the judge’s follow-up questions be missed, as they are often meant to tease out juror bias or unmask clever attempts to get out of jury duty.  It is not the uncertified interpreter who is going to stay on top of this, simultaneously, as a morning or afternoon wears on.

As for the closing arguments scenario, these come in as many rhetorical styles, and as many language levels, as there are courtrooms and law offices to host them.  Whether it’s the folksy attorney standing at the jury box like your next door neighbor handing you his best heirloom tomatoes, or the by-the-book statute reciter trusting the law to do her convincing for her – in other words, whatever the register and whatever the tone – the non-English speaker’s right to due process means that he or she is entitled to know both what was said and what was implied.  Conveying it in real time takes a certified interpreter, not merely a bilingual speaker.

To be sure, the analogy between certified intepreters and licensed attorneys will not withstand analysis from every possible angle, if only because the legal profession can generally be said to have a floor under it, a sort of measurable minimal level of education that interpreters, alas, cannot boast of.  That said, the interpreter court certification exam, as given now in many states and in an array of languages, does go a long way towards winnowing out candidates whose skills in two languages do not rise to a level that attorneys can trust to generate reliable records of criminal and civil proceedings.

Mark McCaffrey, PhD (CV Mark McCaffrey)
M&M Language Services, LLC
Federally Certified Spanish Interpreter
California Court Certified Spanish Interpreter
ATA Certified, Spanish to English
(323) 972-9017

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Interesting article

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