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Q&A: Court Interpreters And Notarization

Court interpreters play an important role in cases when a person giving testimony cannot speak English. The Legal Professionals Section spoke with Franklyn Salimbene, a senior lecturer in law at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and the former director of Bentley’s legal and medical interpreter program, about the duties of court interpreters and how they are very similar to, but separate, from Notaries.

Tell us about the role of court interpreters.
The primary function of the court interpreter is to interpret what is said in the courtroom, to a non-English speaking party. An interpreter might sit with a defendant who does not speak English and translate what is being said during court proceedings, or he or she would translate the questions from the attorney and the answers from the witness if a non-English speaker is on the witness stand. It’s very important that they be accurate, because particularly in criminal prosecution, significant rights could be in danger if the translation isn’t accurate.

Notaries are ethically prohibited from translating documents they also notarize. Does this mean the roles of court interpreters and Notaries must remain separate in a courtroom, or do they ever overlap?
If you’re in an industry that uses interpreters in different situations, it’s easy to get confused about when and how they are properly used. That’s why the roles of Notaries and interpreters are kept separate. You cannot use interpreters for notarizations.

Do interpreters follow any special procedures for notarized documents submitted as evidence?
A notarized document might be presented at a trial, and an interpreter could be asked to translate that document into the language of the listener or to relay questions about the document from a lawyer to a witness.

What special rules/guidelines must be followed for interpreting in a court?
Just like with Notaries, ethics are a very important part of the interpreter’s trade. As a standard of practice, an interpreter must avoid conflicts of interest. This can arise in some court proceedings where a formal certified interpreter isn’t present but the judge is in need to know what witness is saying. You might have a proceeding in family court where a wife seeking a divorce speaks Spanish and her husband — who is the other party in the divorce — speaks English. If the judge asked the husband what the wife said during testimony, that clearly would raise all kinds of problems, because the husband might translate in a way beneficial to his side of the case. Just as a Notary must be impartial, an interpreter must perform their duties in an impartial, fair and accurate way.

Notaries must follow a similar strict code of conduct and ethics.
Yes, especially regarding issues like personal appearance. As a Notary myself, I’m sometimes appalled when I’ve heard of businesses passing a document around to be signed then returning the document to the Notary to be notarized without the signers being present.

Does a court interpreter simply repeat word-for-word what is being said, or in the case of a document, read?
No, being an interpreter requires more than being bilingual. It requires paying attention to inflection, tone, and cultural sensitivity. The interpreter must not only translate word-for-word but also has to capture the sense and inflection what is being said. It’s quite a skill.

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