Getting the Right Interpreter in Any Language
by Dina Spevack
(County Bar Update, February 2003, Vol. 23, No. 2)

Getting the Right Interpreter in Any Language

By Dina Spevack at the request of the Law Practice Management Section Executive Committee. Spevack is the director of American Language Services, located in West Los Angeles, which has provided interpreters for legal, medical, and other matters since 1985. She can be reached through its Web site at The opinions expressed are her own.

Los Angeles is truly a melting pot when you consider that more than 200 languages are spoken in the city. If you’re involved in a deposition, arbitration, examination under oath, hearing, or trial, you want to ensure that you can be understood and that you can understand the other person. Getting the right interpreter for your legal proceeding is extremely important.

There is a story of one attorney who requested a Chinese interpreter but who really needed someone who spoke Korean. China has 202 languages, including Mandarin and Cantonese, which are popular in the United States. When requesting an interpreter, many attorneys don’t know the specific language and instead wrongly request by country.

Another issue is the dialect. For example, the Armenian language has two dialects -- Eastern and Western. A Russian Armenian most likely speaks the Eastern dialect, and a Lebanese Armenian would probably speak the Western dialect. Asking where the client is from usually indicates the dialect.

There is some confusion by attorneys in requesting a “certified” interpreter. Currently, only eight languages hold a “Court Certification” for the California State Trial Courts: Arabic, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.

The certification process for interpreters for the above eight languages takes approximately three to six months. The examinations generally are given twice a year and are overseen by the Judicial Council of the State of California. The first part, a three-hour written exam, tests the applicants in both English and the designated language. The second part, a one- to two-hour oral exam, tests the applicant’s skill in consecutive and simultaneous interpretation. The oral exam also includes sight translation, which involves reading documents and simultaneous verbal translation and interpretation.

Certification renewal is fulfilled by continuing education and ongoing interpretation, the latter of which can be waived for extenuating circumstances (e.g., if there is no call for a specific language within the specific court system).

California is considering granting certifications for additional languages. Proposed languages to receive court certifications are Armenian, Cambodian, Farsi, Mandarin, Punjabi, and Russian. According to the California State Code, if all parties agree, it is permissible to use “non-certified” interpreters in the California State Court System in “a brief routine matter.”

California state courts will accept interpreters of languages (other than the eight listed above) to work in the court system as long as they meet the requirements developed for court interpreters. These people hold an accreditation called “Court Registered” interpreters. They must pass an English proficiency exam, which tests their knowledge of English, courtroom procedures, and professional ethics, although testing is not done in the designated language. Each county’s superior court has its own application procedure.

With a “Court Approved” accreditation, an interpreter can apply to a city, county, state, or superior court system. The court may “approve” an interpreter to work in that specific court. However, a superior court approval in one county does not mean an interpreter is “approved” in other superior courts.

The Federal Court Interpreter Program is in charge of certifications for the U.S. court system. Within this system, there are three classes of certifications: “Certified” Interpreters,” who offer three languages: Haitian-Creole, Navajo, and Spanish; “Professionally Qualified” interpreters of all other languages, who have passed minimum requirements; and “Language-Skilled” interpreters, who have demonstrated their ability to the satisfaction of court officials.

In finding an interpreter for less common languages, attorneys don’t have an option of using a court registered interpreter. They need to look at the person’s education and experience.

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