Interpreting the Law

Patricia Kilroe considers court
interpreting as a career in California

Court interpreters provide a valuable community service throughout the world, but there are few places where the demand for court interpretation is greater than California. According to a recent study, more than 200 languages are spoken in California alone. Of the state’s 36 million residents, about 20 percent speak English less than “very well.” That’s almost seven million Californians who would qualify for a court-appointed interpreter if they found themselves in court charged with a crime.

Court interpreters have an important job: They render messages orally between two languages, preserving the meaning, style, and level of each spoken message with great accuracy. They know legal terms and they are familiar with a variety of court procedures and forms. To do the job of court interpreter, a person needs to be completely bilingual in English and a second language. They also need to be highly skilled in the three modes of interpretation used in the courts: simultaneous interpretation, consecutive interpretation, and sight translation. In simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter lags slightly behind the source language speaker, interpreting the message into the target language at almost the same time as the original message is being said. In consecutive interpreting, the interpreter listens to a unit of speech in the source language, usually about 40-60 words long, and then conveys the entire message into the target language. In sight translation, the interpreter gives an oral interpretation of a written document.

All interpretations must be complete and accurate with no omissions, additions, or changes in meaning. The core skills an interpreter needs to do the job of court interpreter fall primarily into the categories of speaking, listening, reading, interpreting, and behavior. They are known as the KSAs (for Knowledge, Skills and Abilities) and can be found on the California Court Interpreters Program website ( Court interpreters must also maintain good working relationships with judges, attorneys, other court personnel, supervisors, and co-workers.

To become a California court interpreter, the first step is to become fully bilingual in English and a second language. The next step is to pass the exam to become either a certified or a registered interpreter. Once you have passed the exam, you must register with the Judicial Council of California in order to be placed on the master list of interpreters.

Currently, California court interpreters can be certified in American Sign Language and twelve spoken languages including Arabic, Eastern Armenian, Western Armenian, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. People whose second language is different from one of these can become registered interpreters.

All candidates for court interpreting in spoken languages must first take a written, English-only exam. Those who pass are eligible to take the oral exam, which for certified languages is a bilingual interpreting exam known as the Court Interpreter Certification Exam. Candidates in registered languages need to pass an English oral exam known as the English Fluency Examination. Detailed information about the exams, including test dates and locations, registration, study materials, and more can be obtained by visiting

California offers exams in spoken languages only. To become a certified interpreter in American Sign Language, you must pass the exam for the Specialist Certificate: Legal, offered by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). For more information, see

California court interpreters may be employees or contract interpreters. For employees, the minimum full-time starting salary is $68,000 and it includes a full benefits and retirement package. Cert­ified and registered interpreters receive the same full-time pay and benefits.

No special training is required to pass the court interpreters exam and become a California court interpreter. However, because of the high level of language and interpreting skills needed to do the job, training is highly recommended. There are colleges and universities throughout the state that offer programs in interpretation. Most of these are for the language pair English-Spanish, although a few programs exist for other languages and American Sign Language. Visit the website at to find out more about these programs. There you will also find suggestions for self-study as well as a brief self-assessment questionnaire that can help you decide if you have the potential to become a court interpreter.

For more information, please visit the California Court Interpreters website at

Patricia Kilroe, linguistics analyst for the California Court Interpreters Program, Administrative Office of the Courts, is an adjunct professor of writing at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, Calif.