Court Interpreters

If you don’t speak or understand English very well, you may need a court interpreter to help you in court. A court interpreter verbally translates (called “interpreting”) everything the judge and others say from English into your primary language, and everything you say back into English. Even if you speak English well enough for every day life, the situations and language in court can be very difficult. An interpreter can help make sure that you understand and can communicate as well as possible.

Qualified court interpreters speak English and the other language really well. They know legal terms in both languages. They understand the legal process. And they stay neutral and impartial at all times.

Ask the court to provide you an interpreter as soon as you find out that you will need to go to court. In many cases, the court will be able to provide you an interpreter for free. In some cases, the court may ask you to bring your own interpreter. If that happens, find someone who is trained and qualified. Do not bring a minor (someone under 18) to interpret for you.

Note: There are also  sign language interpreters for persons that are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The court will provide you a sign language interpreter or other accommodation you may need. You can ask your court’s ADA Coordinator for more information. Or read For Persons With Disabilities Requesting Accommodations.

When will the court give me a free court interpreter?

You can get a free interpreter for criminal cases, traffic court, juvenile cases, and domestic violence cases.  Many courts may also provide you an interpreter for: evictions, family law (like child support and child custody and visitation), restraining orders for elder abuse, dependent adult abuse, and civil harassment, guardianships, conservatorships, and others.

Not all courts can provide you a free interpreter in these types of cases. Ask your court's self-help center or court clerk, or check your court's website, to find out for sure.

If your court cannot give you an interpreter for your type of case, click for help finding a qualified interpreter.

How do I find a court interpreter if the court cannot provide one for me?

Look for an interpreter who has passed the required exams, and has been approved by the Judicial Council of California.

There are 2 types of approved court interpreters in California: Certified and Registered.

  • Certified court interpreters have passed a written exam and a bilingual interpreting exam, and have registered with the Judicial Council. Interpreters in California can be certified in these 13 languages:
    American Sign Language and
     Arabic  Mandarin
     Eastern Armenian  Portuguese
     Western Armenian  Russian
     Cantonese  Spanish
     Japanese  Tagalog
     Korean  Vietnamese
  • Registered court interpreters are interpreters of spoken languages for which there is no bilingual interpreting exam. They must pass a written exam, oral proficiency exams in English and in the other language, and register with the Judicial Council.

Find a list of certified and registered court interpreters. Click to learn more about becoming a court interpreter.

What can I do if I cannot find or pay for a certified or registered interpreter?

You can use someone else like a friend, relative, or someone else to interpret for you when you go to court. But they must be qualified.

Just because someone speaks English and another language does not mean he or she will be a good interpreter. Court interpreters need to know both languages really well. They need to know formal and informal speech. They also need to know legal terms in both English and the other language. And they need to know how to interpret—there are many rules for how to interpreter in court. Most people, even if they are fully bilingual, are not able to interpret well.

Court hearings are your only chance to tell your side of the story to the judge. If you have an interpreter that does not interpret what you are saying exactly as you are saying it, you will not have a second chance to talk to the judge. And if your interpreter does not accurately interpret for you everything that the judge or the lawyers say, you may miss really important information and be at a disadvantage. Once the court hearing is over, there is usually nothing you can do to fix a problem that happened because you had a bad interpreter. That is why it is very important you have a qualified interpreter in court.

What is the court interpreter’s job?

Court interpreters usually interpret whispering into your ear or with the help of headphones. When you speak, they will interpret your words into English loudly so the judge can hear.  Interpreters sometimes interpret at the same time as the person speaking. This is called “simultaneous interpreting.” Other times, they will let one person finish talking and then will interpret what was said into the other language. This is called “consecutive interpreting.”

In general, interpreters have to follow these rules:

  1. The interpreter will repeat what you say, just as you say it. The interpreter will not add, leave out, or change anything you say.
  2. The interpreter has to interpret every single thing you say. Don’t say anything to the interpreter that you don’t want the judge or others to hear.
  3. The interpreter cannot give you legal advice or talk to you about your case.
  4. The interpreter cannot answer your questions or explain to you what is happening in court. If you don’t understand something, say so. The interpreter will interpret your question into English so the judge, a lawyer, or other person can explain it to you or say it in a different way.
  5. The interpreter may take notes to help them remember everything you say.

Tips for working with an interpreter

  1. If you cannot hear or understand the interpreter, for any reason, tell the judge right away.  Unless you speak up, no one will know you cannot understand.
  2. Speak only in your language, even if you speak some English.  If you speak partly in English, you may confuse others or even yourself. And, you may not be able to express yourself exactly how you would like.
  3. Listen only to the interpreter. Don’t try to listen to the English at the same time. It will make it hard to focus on the interpreter and you can miss important information.
  4. Speak directly to the person asking the questions, not to the interpreter.
  5. Speak loudly and clearly. Speak at a normal pace or a little bit slower, so the interpreter can keep up with you.
  6. If the interpreter signals you to slow down, just take a pause or slow down. Don’t stop talking or lose your train of thought. The interpreter just needs time to catch up or make sure not to forget anything you are saying.