Posted by: sbilingual | February 16, 2012

Court Interpreting Mistakes Can Lead to Mistrials

Mistranslations and misinterpretations can be more than just confusing and inaccurate –- in a court setting, they can even cause mistrials.

Misinterpreting Indonesian in the Courtroom

An alleged mistake by an interpreter in an Australian courtroom late last year caused the court to throw out a case at the expense of thousands of dollars to Australian taxpayers. According to The Age, the dispute involved the mistranslation of several Indonesian words as a suspected Indonesian smuggler was testifying in court. The words “did you stop anyone moving” were allegedly translated as “did you push anyone.”

A juror who spoke Indonesian brought the mistranslation to the attention of the judge. After a lengthy debate, the judge declared a mistrial over concerns that the trial and the jury had been tainted by the misunderstanding.

The Importance of Using Professional Interpreters and Translators

The Australian court example illustrates the importance of using professional interpreters and translators in the courtroom. A minor discrepancy in interpretation or translation can lead to serious errors in trials. When the stakes are high, such as in a criminal trial, interpreting errors are even more egregious. An inaccurate interpretation of one word may subject someone to lifelong incarceration or even the death penalty.

If you are in need of legal or court interpreting services, you must make sure you hire a qualified interpreter who can interpret skillfully and accurately.

Qualifications of Linguists in Legal Settings

Although legal interpreting guidelines vary from state to state, many professional and certified linguists have met certain minimum qualifications. Some jurisdictions even have an official code of conduct that court interpreters must follow. These codes reflect not only the skills that interpreters must have, but also how they are expected to act, dress and communicate in court.

Of course, among the most important requirements of an interpreter is the ability toaccurately interpret. Specifically, court interpreters must give the most accurate interpretation of any word despite usage of slang and colloquial language. Interpreters must also be careful to maintain the same tone, inflections and emotions of each speaker to ensure the message is understood correctly. A good interpreter is always aware of cultural expressions and actions of the speakers.

Interpreters must also remain impartial at all times. This means interpreters should avoid unnecessary conversations with other participants in the courtroom.

Specifically in the courtroom, interpreters are expected to maintain the demeanor and professionalism of the setting. They must arrive on time, dress in proper attire and maintain a low profile.

Interpreters may be asked to prepare for cases by reviewing materials such as police reports, indictments and interview transcripts.

Because the job of the interpreter is so crucial to the adjudication of the case, interpreters must inform the court if they are tired or are concerned that their interpretation may decline. Any errors should be collected at once and recorded on the court transcript. If an interpreter is unable to understand the speakers or lacks the vocabulary to accurately interpret the conceptual or technical terms, he or she must withdraw from the case.

By using a professional interpreting agency, however, you can increase your chances of working with an interpreter who has experience working in court and other legal settings.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit


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