4 Modes of Interpretation

At its most basic level, interpretation is the oral translation into a language of the words of a person speaking a different language.1 This definition, however, belies the complexity of this process as performed by the interpreter and as experienced by those dependent on the interpreter for communication in a courtroom. 

For example, the mere fact of being bilingual does not qualify an individual for court interpreting, even if the person is fluent. This is also an important point to note in the context of attorney-client communications. Even a bilingual attorney’s language skills may not rise to the level of proficiency necessary to engage in communication with the LEP client in a way that meets the standards of the Rules of Professional Conduct; this may also be true of bilingual staff. 

In the parlance of interpreters, interpretation occurs when a statement in a “source” language (the language to be interpreted) is rendered in a “target” language (the language into which the statement is interpreted). Professional interpreters understand and appropriately use four modes of interpretation: simultaneous, consecutive, summary, and sight translation.

Simultaneous interpretation occurs when the interpreter and the speaker whose statements are being interpreted speak contemporaneously.2 The foreign language is normally conveyed to the non-English speaker in a whisper or through the use of headphones. This mode is mandated in federal courts for use with an LEP party except when that party is testifying. 3

In consecutive interpretation, the interpreter allows the speaker to completely finish a statement in the source language and then gives an interpretation in the target language. This mode of interpreting is mandated in federal court for use with testimony.4 If a state court deviates from this normally accepted methodology, it may be prudent for the attorney to evaluate the need for the variance and to raise an objection if simultaneous or summary interpretation impinges on the client’s due process rights.5

Summary interpretation occurs when the statement made in the source language is condensed and thereafter rendered in the target language. This mode of interpreting should be avoided altogether. At most, it should be restricted to interpreting highly technical language (legal or otherwise) that would be difficult to follow even for a native English speaker. 

Sight translation refers to the oral translation of a document for the benefit of the court or the parties. It is often employed in the course of a party’s court testimony and in depositions involving the use of documents in a language in which the deponent is not proficient. 

Please note that in Louisiana none of the foreign language testimony or questions rendered by the interpreter in the foreign language are stenographically or audio recorded by the court reporter. Everything the interpreter renders in English is recorded, as normally expected.6

  • 1What Does a Court Interpreter Do? Learn.org.
  • 2“This is the mode used at the counsel table, whereby the interpreter interprets for the defendant or litigant what the attorneys, judge, and English-speaking witnesses are saying.” Susan Berk-Seligson, The Bilingual Courtroom 38 (2002). This would include opening statements, closing arguments, and ongoing exchanges between the party and the court.
  • 328 U.S.C. § 1827(k).
  • 4Seligson, supra, at 38.
  • 5For instance, simultaneous interpretation of testimony can be very confusing because two different languages are spoken at the same time. Similarly, summary interpretation allows the interpreter to choose what is conveyed in order to render it in a condensed form - a recipe for prejudice, as it does not convey what is actually said.
  • 6For a good discussion of the lack of a record in the foreign language as directly affecting LEP individuals’ constitutional rights, see Lisa Santaniello, If an Interpreter Mistranslates in a Courtroom and There is No Recording, Does Anyone Care? The Case for Protecting LEP Defendants’ Constitutional Rights, 14 Nw. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 91 (2018). However, note Minnesota courts’ suggestion that it is a best practice in criminal cases to make an audio recording (or video for sign language) of all proceedings where an interpreter was employed in order to ensure an avenue for challenging interpreter accuracy in the event that the fairness of the trial is questioned. Minn. Sup. Ct. Interpreter Advisory Comm., Best Practices Manual on Interpreters in the Minnesota State Court System 17 (1999); see also State v. Ahmed, A11-0977, 2012 WL 2685009, at *3 (Minn. Ct. App. July 9, 2012).

Disclaimer: The articles in the Gillis Long Desk Manual do not contain any legal advice.