If you don’t speak or understand English very well, you may need a court interpreter to help you in court. A court interpreter verbally translates (called “interpreting”) everything the judge and others say from English into your primary language, and everything you say back into English. Even if you speak English well enough for every day life, the situations and language in court can be very difficult. An interpreter can help make sure that you understand and can communicate as well as possible.
Qualified court interpreters speak English and the other language really well. They know legal terms in both languages. They understand the legal process. And they stay neutral and impartial at all times.
Ask the court to provide you an interpreter as soon as you find out that you will need to go to court. In many cases, the court will be able to provide you an interpreter for free. In some cases, the court may ask you to bring your own interpreter. If that happens, find someone who is trained and qualified. Do not bring a minor (someone under 18) to interpret for you.
Note: There are also sign language interpreters for persons that are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The court will provide you a sign language interpreter or other accommodation you may need.
When will the court give me a free court interpreter?
You can get a free interpreter for criminal cases, traffic court, juvenile cases, and domestic violence cases. Many courts may also provide you an interpreter for: evictions, family law (like child support and child custody and visitation), restraining orders for elder abuse, dependent adult abuse, and civil harassment, guardianships, conservatorships, and others.
Not all courts can provide you a free interpreter in these types of cases. Ask your court’s self-help center or court clerk, or check your court’s website, to find out for sure.
How do I find a court interpreter if the court cannot provide one for me?
Look for an interpreter who has passed the required exams, and has been approved by the Judicial Council of California.
There are 2 types of approved court interpreters in California: Certified and Registered.
- Certified court interpreters have passed a written exam and a bilingual interpreting exam, and have registered with the Judicial Council. Interpreters in California can be certified in these 13 languages:
American Sign Language and
Arabic Mandarin Eastern Armenian Portuguese Western Armenian Russian Cantonese Spanish Japanese Tagalog Korean Vietnamese
- Registered court interpreters are interpreters of spoken languages for which there is no bilingual interpreting exam. They must pass a written exam, oral proficiency exams in English and in the other language, and register with the Judicial Council.
What can I do if I cannot find or pay for a certified or registered interpreter?
You can use someone else like a friend, relative, or someone else to interpret for you when you go to court. But they must be qualified.
Just because someone speaks English and another language does not mean he or she will be a good interpreter. Court interpreters need to know both languages really well. They need to know formal and informal speech. They also need to know legal terms in both English and the other language. And they need to know how to interpret—there are many rules for how to interpreter in court. Most people, even if they are fully bilingual, are not able to interpret well.
Court hearings are your only chance to tell your side of the story to the judge. If you have an interpreter that does not interpret what you are saying exactly as you are saying it, you will not have a second chance to talk to the judge. And if your interpreter does not accurately interpret for you everything that the judge or the lawyers say, you may miss really important information and be at a disadvantage. Once the court hearing is over, there is usually nothing you can do to fix a problem that happened because you had a bad interpreter. That is why it is very important you have a qualified interpreter in court.
What is the court interpreter’s job?
Court interpreters usually interpret whispering into your ear or with the help of headphones. When you speak, they will interpret your words into English loudly so the judge can hear. Interpreters sometimes interpret at the same time as the person speaking. This is called “simultaneous interpreting.” Other times, they will let one person finish talking and then will interpret what was said into the other language. This is called “consecutive interpreting.”
In general, interpreters have to follow these rules:
- The interpreter will repeat what you say, just as you say it. The interpreter will not add, leave out, or change anything you say.
- The interpreter has to interpret every single thing you say. Don’t say anything to the interpreter that you don’t want the judge or others to hear.
- The interpreter cannot give you legal advice or talk to you about your case.
- The interpreter cannot answer your questions or explain to you what is happening in court. If you don’t understand something, say so. The interpreter will interpret your question into English so the judge, a lawyer, or other person can explain it to you or say it in a different way.
- The interpreter may take notes to help them remember everything you say.
Tips for working with an interpreter
- If you cannot hear or understand the interpreter, for any reason, tell the judge right away. Unless you speak up, no one will know you cannot understand.
- Speak only in your language, even if you speak some English. If you speak partly in English, you may confuse others or even yourself. And, you may not be able to express yourself exactly how you would like.
- Listen only to the interpreter. Don’t try to listen to the English at the same time. It will make it hard to focus on the interpreter and you can miss important information.
- Speak directly to the person asking the questions, not to the interpreter.
- Speak loudly and clearly. Speak at a normal pace or a little bit slower, so the interpreter can keep up with you.
- If the interpreter signals you to slow down, just take a pause or slow down. Don’t stop talking or lose your train of thought. The interpreter just needs time to catch up or make sure not to forget anything you are saying.
How to request an interpreter for your court date
If your court provides interpreters, make sure you ask for one at least 1 week before your court date, if not earlier. Your court’s website will likely have an email address or form for you to fill out to ask for an interpreter.
You can also use the form Request for Interpreter (form INT-300) to ask for an interpreter in a civil case.
Ethical and other professional rules that court interpreters must follow
Court interpreters have to follow a number of professional conduct and ethical rules. The list below has some of the most important ones, but you can find them all in California Rule of Court 2.890 and in the Professional Standards and Ethics for California Court Interpreters.
Court interpreters must:
- Interpret completely and accurately.
- Be and stay impartial and unbiased. They also should make sure their conduct does not appear biased.
- Disclose any conflicts of interest they may have or may appear to have.
- Keep communications confidential between you and your lawyer.
- Not give legal advice.
- Say if anything is making it difficult or impossible for them to do their job well. For example, if they can’t hear or they don’t know certain terminology, or if there is any reason why they can’t interpret well at any given time, they must say so.
Complaints against court interpreters
If the court gives you a court interpreter and something went wrong – like, they showed up late or not at all, or they made serious mistakes when interpreting for you, or they seemed biased against you or someone else, or they behaved in a way that was very unprofessional – you have the right to complain against that interpreter.
You have 2 options to complain against an interpreter:
- You can complain to the court that gave you the interpreter. Ask the language access coordinator at the court or the self-help center how to complain.
- You can complain to the Judicial Council about that interpreter. Keep in mind that the Judicial Council is the licensing agency for court interpreters so if a court interpreter behaved in a way that goes against their license requirements, they can investigate.
Contact the Court Interpreter Program at firstname.lastname@example.org to file a complaint with the Judicial Council against a California certified or registered court interpreter.
Remember that complaints to the Judicial Council have to be about interpreters that are certified or registered in California and either the court gave you, or you hired to help you.
Complaints to the court have to be about an interpreter that court gave you.
If you bring your own interpreter, like a friend or family member who is not licensed in California, you cannot file a complaint about them with the court or the Judicial Council. That is another reason why it is a good idea to always get a certified or registered interpreter. That way, if the interpreter makes serious mistakes or behaves unprofessionally, you can file a complaint and ask for an investigation. If you brought your own un-licensed interpreter and you do not think they interpreted correctly, talk to a lawyer or your court’s self-help center to see if there is anything you can do.
from California Courts