How to Work with Court Interpreters

” ¿Cà ³mo està ¡ usted?”
“Comment allez-vous?”
“Come sta?”
“Wie geht es Ihnen?”
“How are you?”

Sooner or later, it’s going to happen. You’re going to have a great witness, someone who saw the entire incident and completely corroborates your client’s story. There’s only one problem…

You can’t understand anything they say.

What do you do? Not call them? Of course not. What you’ll do is call upon the services of a court interpreter to translate for your witness. Fortunately, finding a Translator from companies like Languagers is easy nowadays, for not only the use in court but in many different industries where a language barrier stands. Here are twenty tips to improve your results when working with an interpreter.


1. Let the interpreter speak with the witness before trial. A witness from the Bronx in New York City speaks differently than a witness from southern Alabama. The same is true with speakers of foreign languages. Give the interpreter an opportunity to familiarize themselves with your witness’s regional dialect, unique vocabulary, and any differences in pronunciation. This is also a good time to discuss any limitations in education or language.

2. Use a qualified interpreter. If you require übersetzung französisch deutsch or any other languages, then you may want to avoid relying on your friends, relatives, or office workers. Serious court events as these might require qualified experience. Also, it gives the appearance of a conflict of interest.

3. Make sure the witness understands the interpreter’s role. The interpreter’s role is to translate everything that is said. The interpreter shouldn’t add anything, omit anything, or summarize anything. Your witness needs to understand that he shouldn’t say anything to the interpreter that he doesn’t want repeated aloud in court.

4. Give the interpreter some context. What is the case about? Who are the parties? When did it happen? It’s easier for the interpreter to properly translate if they have a little background information.

5. Create a vocabulary list. Will your witness be mentioning nicknames, street slang, speaking in “Spanglish,” repeating numbers (amounts of money, account numbers, phone numbers), or referring to unusual terms? Let the interpreter know in advance to minimize any risk of confusion. Are there any words which need to be specifically translated? In some languages, there may be numerous words to describe a single article or action (for example: slap, hit, smack, punch, thump, batter, knock, rap, bang, strike). If you need a particular phrase used, make sure you tell the interpreter in advance.

6. Craft your questions with extra care. When you say, “Did you go to the store,” do you mean “you, yourself,” or “you and the people you were with?” Eliminate double negatives or other “legalisms” that are more likely to be misunderstood.

7. Introducing translations into evidence. If you’re introducing a translated document into evidence, prepare with the interpreter before court. Don’t ask for an on-sight translation. The more legal or technical terms contained in the document, the greater the need for preparation.


8. Speak directly to the witness, not to the interpreter. If you say, “Ask him who else was at the meeting,” the interpreter won’t translate, “Who else was at the meeting?” The interpreter will translate the equivalent of, “Ask him who else was at the meeting.” The interpreter’s role is to translate everything you say. Just pretend like the witness speaks English and speak directly to them.

9. Make sure the interpreter gets frequent breaks. It’s not easy to listen intently, speak non-stop, and keep your brain performing at an optimum level for extended periods of time. Give it a try. Watch the evening news for an hour, and simply repeat everything that is said. Don’t translate it into another language – just repeat what they’re saying. How do you feel 10 minutes later? 30 minutes? An hour? It’s not easy to perform real-time translation, so make sure you switch interpreters every ½ hour or so.

10. Speak loudly and clearly. Interpreters can’t translate what they can’t hear. Speaking with clarity is always important, but especially so when working with an interpreter. To ensure the interpreters hear everything that is said, position them where they can see and hear both you and the speaker.

11. Don’t let two or three people talk at the same time. It’s difficult enough to perform real-time translation for one person. Trying to translate what two or three people are saying at the same time is almost impossible. To avoid the problem, don’t interrupt the witness, compete with the opposing lawyer, or talk while the judge is talking.

12. Tell your witness not to interrupt. Sometimes, the witness speaks enough English to understand some of the attorney’s questions, but, due to the seriousness of the case, still requests the services of an interpreter to feel comfortable. Tell your witness that, even if they understand the question, they must not interrupt the interpreter. Tell the witness to wait for the interpreter to finish the translation, and to answer in their native language.

13. Don’t interrupt. If you speak a second language, you may understand your witness’s responses before the interpreter’s translation is complete. Even though you understand, don’t interrupt, because the judge and jurors still need to hear the translation before they understand what was said. Don’t interrupt. Wait until the interpreter has finished translating the witness’s response before you pose your next question.

14. Watch your pacing. You can expect that the interpreter will be efficient at around 150-200 words per minute. At rates faster than that, the interpreter may not be able to keep up, and will interrupt the flow of your presentation.

15. Be patient. Understand that the interpreter is translating thoughts and ideas, not just converting individual words from one language to another. Sometimes it takes longer to say something in another language than it does in English. Be patient, and give the interpreter a chance to translate.

16. Pause. Both you and your witness should pause to provide the interpreter an opportunity to catch up. However, make sure that you speak in logical, meaningful phrases. Unless you pause intelligently, it won’t help. Don’t pause every 10-15 words – pause at the end of a logical thought.

17. Let the interpreter signal to you when you need to pause. Tell the interpreter to raise their hands if they need you to pause, or use a “slow down” motion if you’re speaking too fast.

18. Let your witness present himself to the jury. Tell the witness to speak directly to the jury, the judge, or to the attorney and speak in a loud, clear voice. Just like any other witness, jurors will still read your witness’s body language.

19. Ask shorter questions and get shorter answers. The longer your witness’s responses, the greater the chances that some of the details will be lost in the translation. It’s obviously more difficult to remember a response that fills two pages of courtroom transcript than a reply that fills a single paragraph. Shorter questions will lead to shorter answers, allowing the interpreter to fully translate everything that is said without risk of omission or error. Give the interpreter permission to tell you or your witness to pause when your questions or answers grow too cumbersome for translation.

20. The interpreter won’t repeat or clarify non-verbal responses. If your witness says, “It was about this big” and holds his hands 6″ apart, you need to describe for the record what the witness indicated. Some non-verbal actions have culture-specific meaning. If necessary, you should ask the witness what the non-verbal response means.

21. What to do about mistakes. Using an interpreter increases the risks of misunderstanding and miscommunication. If you think the witness has answered incorrectly, or that the witness didn’t understand the interpreter, your best solution is to immediately follow up by rephrasing the question.

Working with interpreters can be a rewarding experience. With their assistance, thoughts and ideas that would otherwise be trapped can be released and persuasively communicated. Prepare in advance, know what to expect, and your (translated) presentation will be a success.

Comments policy: Be cool. Uncool things (infantile comments, racist crap, spam links, etc) will be removed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

8 thoughts on “How to Work with Court Interpreters

  1. To supplying good court reporters, a modern & successful court reporting agency should provide certain services to be competitive. In the age of information, trends and services change rapidly and a court reporting agency must be able to adapt. A successful agency will offer a wide array of services, utilizing modern technologies to stay competitive and to save the client time and money.
    Get More Info :

  2. I’m a realtime court reporter here in Washington, D.C. I’ve worked literally side by side with top litigators for over 32 years now, and I find the comments from Trial Theater always right on point. I will add to the list of suggestions on How To Work With Court Interpreters that a very, VERY effective way to improve results for everyone is to use realtime court reporting services when taking an interpreted deposition. The fee for an additional realtime screen for the interpreter is minimal, but when everyone can see how the question was ACTUALLY phrased and compare it to the answer that was ACTUALLY given, there’s better understanding by all, and an immediate opportunity to correct an error.

    By the way, “peeking” or looking over the shoulder of the realtime reporter is not an option. Realtime reporters worth their salt work hard to achieve their level of quality, and we include in our professional services the ability to receive the realtime feed, for a fee. Self-proclaimed realtime writers willing to provide realtime for free will often make that old adage come true: You get what you pay for.

    The technology of realtime for court reporting enables the court reporter to output their writing directly to laptops in a deposition setting or courtroom. Believe it or not, every court reporter in the country who writes on a computerized machine … and that means 99.9% of all court reporters … have the technological means to provide realtime. They have the means … but not the ability. Of the tens of thousands of court reporters in the country, precious few are skilled enough to provide realtime you’ll be able to read. My advice? Choose wisely when choosing a realtime court reporter.

    Back to Elliott’s article, I’ll pull out a few suggestions that also apply to the court reporting world. First and foremost, use a qualified realtime writer with a proven track record of quality realtime writing. Provide that case-specific vocabulary list to the reporter in advance of the deposition. And yes, craft your questions with care! “The record never forgets!” And it’s not a court reporter’s job to clean up the testimony. What you say is what you get.

    It goes without saying, but it definitely bears repeating, those basic rules of taking a deposition from the court reporter’s perspective — and Elliott hit them all: Speak loudly and clearly. Don’t let two or three people speak at the same time. Don’t interrupt. And, Elliott, court reporters across the country are loving this suggestion: Watch your pacing! In other words, slow down! Court reporters are trained to write at speeds of 250 words per minute and even higher … but why run full-tilt all day long and use up eight hours of energy in just five or six? Everyone’s exhausted at the end of the day. Pace yourself! Simply put, but so appreciated, Elliott.

    Frequent breaks are appreciated by all, Elliott.

    And as for your last suggestion about What To Do About Mistakes, I’ll repeat that the use of realtime court reporting technology coupled with a topnotch realtime writer for an interpreted deposition will enable everyone to stay on track, catch mistakes the instant they are made, correct inconsistencies, and enable not only better questions, but more on-point objections.

    Excellent suggestions, all, Elliott.

    Mary Ann Payonk, CRR-RDR, Certified Realtime Reporter, CCP, CBC, Washington, D.C.

  3. This article is full of great tips for anyone in need of a court interpreter. I think the most important tips from an agency’s standpoint are #4 and #9. It is crucial that an interpreter be given some background information prior to the hearing (or deposition, if that’s what is required) in order for them to be well prepared. Interpreting simultaneously is difficult enough, but when the interpreters don’t have any idea what the case is about, it makes it much more difficult to prepare for the terminiology that will be used. It’s also very important for interpreters to have breaks every 15 or so minutes when interpreting simultaneously as it is extremely tiring. To give an idea as to what interpreters do, try repeating everything someone says (in English) simultaneously (while they are talking) for five minutes – it’s very difficult. Now imagine having to do that as well as think of the equivalent of each word in a foreign language all in a split second. It’s a very tiring process.

    For more information and tips legal document translation and court interpreting, please feel free to visit my blog at

  4. I’m a federally certified Spanish court interpreter and I really appreciate these tips. Our job is hard enough without people misunderstanding our role and making all the mistakes described above (fast, unintelligible, overlapping speech filled with jargon and acronyms, unknown contexts,etc., etc…

    In my opinion, the most important tip is # 2 and I would add always use a *credentialed* interpreter whenever possible – that way you have some assurance of quality and ethics. And it’s important not get that confused with a credentialed “translator” – translators work only on *written* communications while interpreters work with *oral* communication. They are not interchangeable.

    You can also access a lot of very good information, position papers, links, interpreters directory, etc., on on the website of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, at

    Judith Kenigson Kristy, USCCI

  5. How true, especially tip #12. My witness spoke “some” English, so he kept interrupting the interpreter whenever he thought he knew what was being asked. I’m surprised the court reporter and interpreter didn’t gang up together and beat him up! 🙂

  6. I wish I’d had this tip a few weeks ago! I was trying to question a witness through a Creole interpreter, and it was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. “It gets lost in the translation” takes on a whole new meaning when you’re working with interpreters.

    I’ve got another case coming up where I’ll be questioning a Spanish speaking witness, so I’ll be putting these tips to good use soon. Thanks!