Legal Translators and Court Interpreters- What Attorneys Need to Know about the Differences between Them

Although case law, courts and the general public tend to use the terms “translator” and “interpreter” interchangeably – and even refer to “court interpreters” as “court translators” – the terms actually refer to two different professions, which require two very different skills and methods.

By definition, “translation” is the process of rendering a written text from one language to another. “Interpretation“, or “interpreting”, on the other hand, is a process of oral rendition of speech from one language into another.

“Interpreters” translate/interpret oral communication and must immediately deliver their work product by producing an equivalent of the utterance spoken in one language into another language, back and forth. For example, during cross-examination an English-French interpreter interprets the English-speaking attorney’s question into French for the French-speaking witness and subsequently interprets the French-speaking witness’s answer into English.

In contrast, “translators” take their time working with written texts, often researching new and unfamiliar terms and concepts while translating foreign language documents into English, or English-language documents into a foreign language. Translators are accomplished writers and translate documents only in one direction, most often into their native or dominant language.

When an English-language document needs to be translated into French, and a French-language document needs to be translated into English, two different professional translators will translate the two documents. The first one will be translated by an English-French professional translator, and the second by a French-English professional translator.

CAUTION: To obtain translations that do not read like translations (but sound as if they were originally written in that language) attorneys would benefit by hiring professional translators who work into their native language.

With that said, there exist professional translators who work in both directions, but they are more of an exception than the norm. Nonetheless, there are some translators who interpret oral communication, and there are some interpreters who translate written communication. However, keep in mind that not all professional interpreters are also translators, just as not all professional translators are also interpreters.

The lesson to be learned: in civil litigation involving multilingual documents and witnesses, law firms can save time and money by understanding the differences between translators and interpreters, and using the core competencies of translators and interpreters to their strategic advantage. Let translators mainly work on the review of foreign-language documents during e-Discovery and on translation of foreign-language documents, deposition and trial exhibits, and get interpreters involved in interpreting oral communication in pre-deposition meetings, as well as deposition and trial testimonies of non-English-speaking witnesses.

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