Becoming a Court Interpreter: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a court interpreter? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a court interpreter is right for you.
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The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Court Interpreter

Job prospects for court interpreters, who translate spoken word into sign language for hearing-impaired attendants, are very good. Continue reading to learn more about the pros and cons of a career as a court interpreter.

Pros of a Court Interpreter Career
Excellent job prospects (46% job growth projected between 2012 and 2022)*
Multiple educational or training options to choose from*
Courts may hire full-time staff positions**
Certification is available (can improve marketability and lead to increased pay)**

Cons of a Court Interpreter Career
Many interpreters are self-employed, which can lead to fluctuating income*
Irregular work schedule*
Maintaining accuracy can be difficult when listening and speaking at the same time**
Must continually update skills to learn new terminology***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators, ***Michigan State Court Administrative Office.

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Court interpreters orally translate spoken words in English to another language for all types of legal matters. As a court interpreter, you may work in various types of legal settings, including court rooms, jails and lawyers' offices. You must interpret testimonies, court rulings, lawyers' arguments, pleas, interviews and other proceedings in an unbiased manner without adding explanations or omitting information. This involves you having to speak and listen at the same time while remaining entirely accurate, which can be challenging.

At times, you may also translate written documents, which is called sight translation. An important aspect of the court interpreting career is to uphold the highest ethics, which includes preserving confidentiality while witnessing privileged information. While on duty, you may be responsible for maintaining records of your work activities, including attendance and time.

Salary Information and Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), interpreters and translators earned mean annual wages of about $49,320, as of 2014. However, incomes can vary, especially if you're self-employed, which many court interpreters are, according to the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). Additionally, NAJIT stated that wages can also vary according to the need for interpreters, the state, and the interpreter's qualifications. January 2008 data from NAJIT showed that certified or professionally qualified freelance court interpreters earned $376 for a full day, $204 for a half day or $53 per hour; those without certification earned $181 for a full day, $100 for a half day or $31 per hour. Some courts staff full-time interpreters and pay them salaries ranging between $30,000 and $80,000, reported the NAJIT. Collective bargaining rights are granted to some court interpreters who work in jurisdictions where they're considered judiciary employees.

A faster-than-average 46% job growth rate is anticipated for all interpreters and translators during 2012-2022, according to the BLS. Court interpreters, specifically, can also expect good opportunities because it's imperative for all parties to comprehend vital information about their constitutional rights.

Education and Training Requirements

The principle requirement for employment as a court interpreter is fluency in English and another language. A college degree may also be required by some employers. Some colleges offer degree programs in interpretation, although you could also major in a law-related field or language.

Court interpreters must be able to interpret simultaneously and consecutively, which is often learned through specialized training. You can check with postsecondary schools, courses, conferences or professional associations for training programs or courses. In these programs, you may also learn terminology and jargon associated with the legal field as well as other subject-matter expertise.

Required Skills

As a court interpreter, you must be able to retain equanimity and not react to shocking testimony. You must also have the ability to instantly interpret information without pausing for thought. Additionally, because the people you will be interpreting for most often come from different cultures, you need to express understanding and patience when dealing with them.

Job Postings by Real Employers

Job postings typically describe the languages and job duties required of the court interpreter. Proficiency tests are sometimes required. Below are some examples of job postings from May 2012:

  • A Los Angeles court is looking for a court interpreter who is certified or registered by the Judicial Council of California to interpret court proceedings using simultaneous, consecutive and sight translation methods.
  • An Arizona city has an opening for a court interpreter to perform simultaneous and consecutive interpretations during legal proceedings and to translate English or Spanish documents. Candidates must have knowledge of spreadsheets and word processing and at least two years of experience.
  • A court in Texas wants to hire an English/Spanish court interpreter to perform simultaneous and consecutive interpretations. The candidate must have at least four years of experience as a court interpreter and certification from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

How to Gain an Edge in the Field

Many employers prefer to hire certified court interpreters, so earning certification may increase your employability. Additionally, you may earn higher wages with certification. You have multiple options for where you can earn certification, such as professional associations like the NAJIT and the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts. You can also check with your state to see if it offers certification.

Having experience is a major component for landing jobs, and the BLS suggested that if you're just starting out, you can get involved with volunteer opportunities. You can check with local organizations or hospitals, or you can even seek internships.

Through membership with professional associations, you can find access to mentors as well as other professionals that can help you hone your skills. These organizations may also help increase your visibility by including you in membership directories or providing access to members-only job listings.

Alternate Career Paths

Court Reporter

If learning a foreign language isn't your forte, but you like the idea of working in the legal system, consider becoming a court reporter. Court reporters use stenotype machines or digital recorders to record every word spoken during legal proceedings and meetings. They also describe actions and gestures, which become part of the legal record. When the proceedings are finished, court reporters prepare transcripts for the lawyers, courts and other interested parties. According to 2011 BLS data, court reporters earned mean annual wages of about $54,000. The BLS also estimated an average job growth rate of 14% between 2010 and 2020.

Legal Assistant

If you would like to take your interest in law further, you may be interested in becoming a paralegal or legal assistant. These professionals perform supportive tasks for lawyers, such as preparing documents and conducting research. BLS projections show that employment for paralegals and legal assistants should grow an average 18% from 2010-2020. As of May 2011, they earned average salaries of roughly $50,000, stated the BLS.