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Frequently Asked Questions

What is court interpretation?

Court interpretation means the unrehearsed transmitting of a spoken or signed message from one language to another in a courtroom setting.  Qualified oral interpreters generally use consecutive and simultaneous interpretation in court. Sign language interpreters render the meaning of a sign into speech and vice versa.  Interpretation is different from "translation," which relates to the conversion of a written text from one language into written text in another language.

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What do court interpreters do?

Court interpreters interpret for people in court who cannot communicate effectively in English or are deaf or hearing-impaired.  These people include defendants and witnesses in criminal court, as well as litigants and witnesses in family and civil courts.  Interpreters may also be hired outside of the Minnesota state courts by attorneys or public agencies to work in out-of-court settings such as attorney-client meetings, depositions, witness preparation sessions, and interviews with court personnel. 

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What skills do I need to become a court interpreter?

Interpreting requires the ability to perform several mental processes while at the same time vocalizing the message.  The process includes:

  • Listening
  • Understanding
  • Summarizing the message from the words and word order
  • Retaining ideas
  • Understanding a message's intent
  • Recreating the exact message in the other language
  • Doing these things while speaking and listening for the next phrase to process

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What qualifications do I need to become a court interpreter?

First, know your languages.  Full bilingual proficiency, ample vocabulary, and knowledge of standard grammar are prerequisites.  One effective self-training technique is to observe court proceedings and mentally interpret them to yourself.  Write down the terms that stump you, and then look for solutions in dictionaries.

It is also important to possess educated, native-like mastery of both English and a second language; a wide general knowledge, characteristic of someone who has a minimum of two years of a general college-level education; and the ability to perform the three major types of court interpreting (consecutive, simultaneous, and sight interpreting).

Other skills considered essential include:

  • A good working knowledge of court procedures, court rules, and Minnesota statutes, as well as an understanding of how they apply at the various court levels.
  • Excellent customer service skills for internal and external customers.
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills.
  • The ability to pass a test in English on the Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters.
  • The ability to work independently with minimal supervision.
  • The ability to work effectively with judges, administrators, and court staff.
  • An understanding and ability to interpret court policies and procedures, as well as an understanding of how the Code of Ethics relates to particular assignments.
  • The desire to continue learning.

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How do I become a court interpreter in Minnesota?

According to the Minnesota Supreme Court rules on interpreting, individuals, whether qualified as a court interpreter in another state or not, who wish to interpret in the state court system and be included on the statewide roster of interpreters must first complete the following:

  1. Pass the English proficiency portion of the National Center for State Courts Court Interpreter Written Exam. This is a written test made up of 75 multiple-choice questions in English.  The test measures candidates' comprehension of written English vocabulary and idioms. Individuals who register for the test will receive a copy of the Court Interpreter Written Examination: Overview for study. There is no charge to take this test.
  2.  After passing the English proficiency test, attend the required orientation program.  Orientation programs are usually held on weekends and are conducted in English.  The program provides an introduction to the Minnesota Judicial System, introduction to common legal terms, practicing interpreting techniques, and analyzing the role of interpreters in the court system.  The program cost is $150.
  3.  After completing the orientation program, pass the second section of the National Center for State Courts Court Interpreter Written Exam.  This is a written test made up of 60 multiple-choice questions in English.  The test measures candidates' knowledge of court-related terms and knowledge, and understanding of the Code of Professional Responsibility for Court Interpreters.  Tests are typically given on Saturdays.  Individuals who register for the test will receive a copy of the Code about two weeks before the test to allow time for study.  An optional two-hour review and discussion led by professional court interpreters is held immediately before the test.  Candidates then are allowed 1 ½ hours to complete the test.  The registration fee is $50.
  4. File an affidavit with the State Court Administrator's Office that explains that you agree to be bound by the Code of Professional Responsibility.  The affidavit form is given to interpreters after they pass both sections of the written exam and is to be completed, notarized, and returned to the Court Interpreter Program.  Upon receipt of their affidavit, interpreters will receive a letter confirming they are eligible to work in the state court system and  their name will been placed on the statewide roster of court interpreters.

Sign language interpreters:  The Minnesota state court system does not have a testing program for sign language interpreters.  However, Minnesota courts do comply with the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 by providing qualified sign language interpreters when appropriate and necessary to ensure effective communication with people with disabilities.  The Minnesota Supreme Court has mandated in the General Rules of Practice, Rule 8, that sign language interpreters must meet the minimum requirements to interpret in the courts.  In addition, they must maintain certification by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf or the National Association for the Deaf.  (See below for certification requirements.)

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How much do the testing and training programs cost?

The fees are currently:

  • Written Test: no charge
  • Orientation program: $150
  • Ethics class & test: $50
  • Oral Certification Exam:  $400

(These fees may vary depending on program costs.)

The fees cover some, but not all, of the costs associated with administering each program.  Costs include exam grading or rating; copying, printing, and postage of announcements and registration forms; creation and revision of exams by nationally-recognized experts; and the hiring of exam proctors.

Qualified interpreters of languages that are new to Minnesota are needed to overcome communication barriers and provide equal access to justice in the state court system.  Interpreters of languages that are under-represented or not represented on the statewide roster qualify for a half-price registration fee discount.

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What are the different types of interpreting? 

There are three types of interpreting.  They are:

  • Consecutive: Providing the interpreted words after the speaker has stopped speaking.  The length of the interpretation may near the limits of the interpreter's capacity for recalling what is said.  Interpreters would typically take notes to help them interpret.
  • Simultaneous: Providing the interpreted words continuously at the same time someone is speaking. 
  • Sight: Sometimes referred to as "sight translation," this is a hybrid type of interpreting during which the interpreter reads a document written in one language while converting it orally into another language.  In this type of interpreting, a written text is interpreted without advance notice.  Court interpreters often sight-translate legal documents such as plea agreements.

The interpreter's duty is to:

  1. Ensure that the proceedings in English reflect precisely what was said by a non-English-speaking person, and
  2. Place the non-English-speaking person on an equal footing with those who are proficient in English.

Interpreters interpret from one language to another everything that is said, preserving the tone and level of the original language, adding and deleting nothing.  A bilingual individual is not necessarily qualified to interpret in court.  Court interpreting requires additional knowledge and skills.

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For what kinds of cases do court interpreters interpret?

Interpreters participate in virtually every type of case in the state court system.  Matters range from personal injury cases, small claims, landlord/tenant disputes, traffic, domestic violence, child support, sexual assault, drug offenses, arson, and DUI, to name a few.

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How do I get started after completing the minimum requirements? 

Most interpreters work as freelance interpreters or through an interpreter provider agency (search the Yellow Pages under "Translation").  Interpreters may promote their services by contacting their county court administrator's office and providing information about their skills and availability.  Please note that the Court Interpreter Program does not hire interpreters for the courts. 

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How do I become a 'certified' court interpreter?

Experienced court interpreters who decide to make a career out of interpreting may take a legal interpreting proficiency exam for certification (see Spoken Language Certification).

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What is the certification exam?

The legal interpreting proficiency oral exam for certification consists of:

  1. A simultaneous exam on a compact disc, which contains a recording of a passage that is based on an attorney’s opening or closing statement in court.  The passage is about 900 words in length and is recorded at a speed of about 120 words per minute.
  2. A sight translation exam during which an interpreter must read an English document aloud while being recorded.  An interpreter must also read a non-English document aloud while being recorded.  The documents are about 225 words long.  Interpreters are allowed six minutes to complete this portion of the exam.
  3. A consecutive exam, during which the interpreter will interpret English language questions into the non-English language and vice versa.

Sign language interpreters:  The State Court Administrator has recognized the Legal Specialist Certificate in sign language as the highest level of certification currently available from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. The Registry awards the certificate to interpreters who have demonstrated entry-level legal interpreting competence by passing written and performance exams.  Certificate holders should be considered more qualified to interpret in legal settings than sign language interpreters holding generalist certificates only.  Sign language interpreters who obtain the certificate and complete all requirements for inclusion on the statewide roster can apply for certification in the Minnesota state court system.

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Are sign language interpreters needed and are the requirements for sign language interpreters different than for an interpreter of a foreign language?

Minnesota's courts are in great need for competent and certified American Sign Language interpreters.  Interpreters are required to complete all requirements for inclusion on the statewide roster, as well as maintain certification by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf or the National Association for the Deaf with:

  • Certificate of Interpretation:  the ability to interpret between American Sign Language and spoken English in both sign-to-voice and voice-to-sign, and
  • Certificate of Transliteration:  the ability to transliterate between signed English and spoken English in both sign-to-voice and voice-to-sign.
  • Or Comprehensive Skills Certificate,
  • Or NAD Level V (Master),
  • Or NIC,
  • Or CDI or CDI-P.

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the National Association for the Deaf base their certifications on rigorous evaluation of candidates' interpretation skills and knowledge of the Code of Ethics by a group of professional peers.  The system establishes minimum levels of achievement, representing a starting point for interpreters that varies according to certification area and competence level.  Interpreters certified by these organizations are expected to improve their skills by attending workshops and training seminars, and through frequent use of sign language.

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What is the Council of Language Access Coordinators?

In 1995, Minnesota and four other states initiated the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts, now known as the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC). The CLAC is an offical part of the National Center for State Courts (NSCS) and provides test materials and educational programs, sets standards for interpreter test development, administration and education and serves as a forum for information-sharing among states and interested organizations. 

Interpreters who pass an NCSC oral proficiency exam for certification in any other state are eligible to apply for certification in Minnesota without having to retake the NCSC exam.  Applicants must complete all requirements for inclusion on the statewide roster before applying for certification in the Minnesota state court system.

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How are the NCSC proficiency exams developed?

Language and interpreting experts, coordinated by the National Center for State Courts, develop the language proficiency exams, which includes. 

  • Publishing test documentation enhancing the credibility and legitimacy of the testing program.  The National Center for State Courts has prepared and maintains standardized manuals for test construction, test administration (including a candidate information booklet), and test rater training.  This documentation serves as the foundation for meeting the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (Washington, DC: American Education Research Association, American Psychological Association, and National Council on Measurement in Education, 1985).  Standard 5 relates to the publication of technical and user’s manuals.
  • Maintenance and publication of test validity and reliability statistics.  Standards 1 and 2 of the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing relate to validity and reliability.  States return test results to the National Center for State Courts.  Because so many states use the same tests, it is possible to accumulate test results in large enough quantity for statistical analysis of item validity and test reliability for each test form for each language.  The analysis protects the courts from legal challenges and helps identify test items that are not working as intended so that they can be replaced to strengthen subsequent test forms.  Data is also maintained to support analysis of inter-rater reliability, a key component in the process of determining how test scores are properly interpreted.

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Why do the courts use interpreter provider agencies instead of scheduling interpreters directly?

Many district courts choose to work with interpreter provider agencies because they have a high demand for interpreters of various languages each day.  Agencies can often meet the demands within their extensive list of interpreters of many languages.  In addition, agencies sometimes offer the courts benefits that individual interpreters cannot, including:

  • Convenient centralized scheduling that is staffed full-time, eliminating the wait for returned calls.
  • Interviewing, training, and quality control of interpreters.
  • Filling last minute cancellations by an interpreter because of illness or emergency.
  • Rotating interpreters to prevent conflicts of interest and burnout.

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What can happen if I make a mistake while interpreting?

The consequences can be severe if an interpreter fails to interpret a legal proceeding accurately and fairly.  Poor interpretation may fail to capture the eloquence of a judge, attorney, or witness.  Questions and testimony can be distorted, leading a judge or jury to be confused or uncertain.  Especially in criminal matters, poor interpretation can result in a wrongful conviction or acquittal.  The consequences can even extend beyond a single proceeding and compromise the integrity of the judicial system.

Interpreters are often required or strongly recommended to maintain professional liability or errors and omissions insurance.  Check with your local insurance agent for rates and additional information.

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