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3 Do’s (and 3 Don’ts) for Working with a Legal Interpreter

As an attorney or paralegal, you may sometimes need the assistance of an interpreter to help facilitate communication between yourself and a client who may speak very little English, or none at all. As clear communication between parties is essential, we’ve compiled a list of our top do’s and don’ts when working with a legal interpreter.



· prepare the interpreter (when possible). If you are able to meet with the interpreter in advance (preferred), provide him or her with any relevant information so he or she is able to better prepare for the meeting. Most languages will have multiple acceptable translations for various terms, and if one of these terms comes up in your client meeting, having the case’s context in advance will help the interpreter make the right choice. If you are able to provide reports, transcripts or other materials from your case, this will help your interpreter prepare.

· choose an appropriately specialized interpreter. Legal interpreters are highly skilled for various legal situations, however not all interpreters who handle cases like medical malpractice suits will be as comfortable interpreting for mediation between two business partners in the event of a dispute. This is yet another reason that providing context and information beforehand is key.

· speak slowly, clearly, in relatively short sentences, and in turn. Doing so will help ensure the interpreter does not miss anything you’ve said. Remember, interpreters are listening to everything you’re saying, and they need the chance to say render the message in another language. Speaking for too long at once without stopping can create the risk of something getting quite literally lost in translation. So keep sentences reasonably short, and allow the interpreter and client to finish speaking before moving on.


· expect an interpreter to be an attorney. Interpreters ethically cannot go over documents with your client alone, nor can they help explain legal concepts. They are only there to interpret what is said. If you ask an interpreter to sight translate a document for your client, be sure that you are present for this in case of any questions.

· ask an interpreter not to interpret something. An interpreter must interpret everything that is spoken and that the client can hear. To ask an interpreter not to interpret something you say (even if it’s just asking the receptionist for a cup of coffee) is asking them to violate their code of ethics. If you don’t want something interpreted, don’t say it at all. Otherwise, you should assume that everything will be interpreted. This allows everyone in the room to remain on equal footing.

· speak to the interpreter instead of the client directly. Speak to your non-English speaking client just as you would speak to any other. Don’t ask the interpreter, “Can you ask him where he was on Friday?”, for example. Instead, make eye contact with your client and ask, “Could you tell me where you were on Friday?” and allow the interpreter to handle the language component. You should also recommend that your client speak to you directly instead of saying things like “Please tell him this…” or “Ask her that…”

While you may already have experience working with interpreters in the past, it is important to remember that interpreters abide by a code of ethics. They are there to assist you, but in the end, only you can give legal advice or share information beyond what you have the interpreter interpret for your client and vice versa.