Protecting Interpreters and Their Clients: An Introduction to the Interpreters Guild of America

By Johanna Valle Sobalvarro

Protecting Interpreters and Their Clients

The Interpreters Guild of America (IGA) is a unit of the NewsGuild-CWA, a union representing journalists, interpreters and translators, social justice workers, and nonprofit and public-sector professionals. Its main purpose is to protect the rights of interpreters, who bear tremendous responsibilities and are vulnerable to a number of professional challenges. → continue reading


Legal translation workshop attendees.

Our workshop classroom at the UCSF Downtown Campus.

Professor Holly Mikkelson shares her expertise in legal translation and interpreting. BY INEZ MORAN

Approximately 50 translators and interpreters representing various languages attended the three-hour “Legal Translation for Court Interpreters and Translators” workshop in San Francisco. The Seminar was held on June 18th at the Judicial Council of California —Administrative Office of the Courts. Holly Mikkelson provided excellent insight and expertise on nuances often present in legal document translation. This seminar was replete with pertinent information. As a new member of  NCTA, I found this seminar to be informative and full of useful tips for our profession.

Mikkelson, a highly regarded authority on interpretation and translation, currently is Adjunct Professor of Translation and Interpretation at the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation, Monterey Institute of International Studies, a Graduate School of Middlebury College. She is an ATA-certified translator (Spanish <> English) and a state and federally certified court interpreter who has taught translation and interpreting for over 30 years. She is the author of the Acebo interpreter training manuals as well as numerous articles on translation and interpretation. She is a co-author of Fundamentals of Court Interpretation: Theory, Policy and Practice. Professor Mikkelson has presented lectures and workshops to interpreters and related professionals throughout the world. → continue reading


Our March workshop offered a crowd of enthusiastic NCTA members a hands-on approach to legal translating and interpreting.


As a practicing interpreter and workshop provider, I was looking forward to attending the Legal Translation and Interpretation workshops to be taught by Corinne Cline, an instructor with the Sonoma State University Certificate Program. Before the event, all participants received via email the workshop handouts, which included the National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibilities, information about consecutive and simultaneous interpreting practices, and useful legal terms and phrases that interpreters and translators often encounter in English <>Spanish legal texts. Attendees were asked to bring a cassette tape recorder, as sample practice tapes were to be provided.

The morning session, which covered legal interpreting, began with a video created for judges and attorneys about working with interpreters in court. The video showed examples of interpreted hearings with both qualified and unqualified interpreters at work. Some important issues covered included the need to use the first person at all times (except in certain very specific circumstances), problems encountered when there are overlapping conversations, the need for a judge’s intervention to avoid confusion, examples of an interpreter correcting his or her mistakes on the record, and the difference between certified and qualified interpreters.

Clarifying the role

In an important scene and one of the best examples I have ever seen of what is expected of a court- certified interpreter, a judge establishes an interpreter’s credentials, asking questions regarding the interpreter’s education, fluency in source and target languages, specialized training, and other pertinent issues. The video also addresses the importance of the interpreter as “clarifier” when he or she is faced with unfamiliar slang and the serious problems arising from changes of meaning when the interpreter edits, omits, or adds material on the record.

Ms. Cline underscored the importance of the code of ethics with a capital E and reminded us that note-taking is part and parcel of our professional duty. I believe in the need to take notes as well, even when we feel confident that our memory will not fail us. The presenter also provided information about topics such as full-time employment, fees paid by the courts, and training opportunities. Afterward, we broke up into small groups and practiced “shadowing” (same-language simultaneous exercises) as well as target-language interpretation. Before the lunch break, the participants had a chance to ask more questions regarding the certification exam, compensation, and the use of monolingual and bilingual dictionaries. Ms. Cline also provided us with an extensive list of print and online resources.

Translation basics

Because the presenter for the afternoon session was unable to attend, Ms. Cline also covered the topic of legal translation. Since this is not her area of expertise, she focused mainly on sight translation, both as an interpreting skill and as a preamble for good translation. Ms. Cline discussed ways to prepare to become a competent translator and interpreter, using both material from her own experiences and resources from the Monterey Institute for International Studies. Most of the workshop attendees were experienced translators, but it was nonetheless refreshing to review term-research techniques.

The workshop ended with a lively Q&A session. Participants discussed strategies for sight translating repetitive English terms and approaching translation when there are no good target-language equivalents. Overall, novice interpreters felt that the workshop had been very helpful, while experienced interpreters were grateful to have had an opportunity to review the legal process and to go over specialized terminology. There is a continuing need for certified interpreters in federal and state courts, and the positive feedback confirmed that this type of workshop is extremely useful for aspiring interpreters.


With rates under increasing pressure from globalization and other trends, many translators are turning to specialization. But the leap is not always easy.


This article was inspired by recent postings from several NCTA members inquiring about transitioning into certain fields, and the respective pay rates that one might expect. In today’s general translation marketplace, with more competition and lower pay, translators are looking to focus their content expertise, and specifically in the specialized fields of medical and legal interpreting.

Many translators and interpreters are what I would call generalists. A random peek into their profiles shows the ability to work in a variety of fields, ranging from finance, engineering, and education to telecommunications, law, medicine, and science. These professionals tend to work on a few projects in each area, allowing them to (justifiably) tout the range of their capabilities.

Other translators and interpreters, however, specialize in one or two fields at the most. A specialist can be a generalist, but not vice versa: even the slightest interpreting errors in fields such as medicine and law can have grave consequences for the limited English-proficient (LEP) client. As an interpreter in these two highly specialized disciplines, I know that success requires significant dedication, study, and training. It can take anywhere from four to six years to be a proficient interpreter in either of these fields.

The best medicine

Working as a medical interpreter, I am of course well-versed in medical terminology but am also familiar with many medical procedures as well. When a doctor gives an NOP order, I know exactly what that is (no oral products). When a patient requests a DNR order, I also know that he does not want to be resuscitated in a life-threatening circumstance. It’s not reasonable to expect a translator who doesn’t have such training—a generalist—to walk into a medical interpreting setting and be able to know what these terms refer to.

Other times, the medical translator specialist will be required to work in emotional and stressful conditions such as emergencies or life-and-death situations. There was an occasion where I interpreted a religious prayer conducted by a hospital chaplain for a terminally ill patient. This event had nothing to do with medical interpreting, yet of course it was an important part of the job.

Rules of law

In the field of legal interpreting, many will find the compensation fairly good. Legal interpreting is one of the most comprehensive interpreting fields in that it requires broad knowledge of numerous other subfields. For example, family and probate law will require knowledge of financial terms. Criminal cases will require knowledge of science and medicine pertaining to forensic evidence. Civil suits involving worker’s compensation or personal injury will require knowledge of medical, vehicle, and insurance terms. Immigration, small claims, juvenile, and other specialized areas all have their own terminology. And, needless to say, courtroom interpreting can be challenging and intensive when opposing lawyers, witnesses, and judge are all talking at once.

When generalists take on the work of specialists without the proper training, few of them will be able to render acceptable translations or interpretations. Once, a medical glossary translated by a generalist provided me with incredulous comic relief. The term athlete’s foot was literally translated as “the foot of an athlete”; hives was translated as “disease of beehives”; and speed (methamphetamine) was translated as “velocity.”

The client comes first

A generalist may go into a medical or legal interpreting setting believing that he can render an interpretation without the adequate training, and thinking that no one will know if he makes an interpretation error, but this may not be the case. I have known of some interpreters being sent away in the middle of a job for poor performance.

On one occasion, I provided interpretation for a couple whose child was hospitalized. At the end of the session, the father posed several questions to the doctor in perfectly good English. I inquired afterwards why they needed my services if the father was proficient in English. The father answered that my services were for the benefit of the mother, who did not understand English; that even though the father’s English was good, it did not mean that he could accurately interpret for his wife. They were more comfortable employing an interpreter. Another time, while interpreting in a deposition, the client, client’s attorney, and I all spoke the same native language. If an interpreting error was made, the client’s attorney would definitely have noticed.

Some generalists will accept assignments that they are not qualified to do for financial reasons. I view being a translator or interpreter as a noble profession that is rewarding in so many ways. We are the conduits that enable LEP clients to have fair access to a number of services that might not have been possible because of language barriers. Without them, we wouldn’t be working. Therefore, we owe it to them to be properly trained and qualified so that we can deliver the exceptional service that they deserve.