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What Does an On-Site Interpreter Do?

The essentials of how and when interpreters support legal activities

Usually, linguistic diversity enriches our cultural landscape.  In the courtroom, though, that diversity adds complexity to already complicated matters. For example, English may be the dominant language in the United States, but it is still just one of over 350 languages that current US residents speak: 41 million residents are native Spanish speakers. Around a sixth of Russian residents do not speak Russian as their native tongue. In India, English is the common language of the judiciary, yet only around 10 percent of the population spoke it according to a 2011 census.

When people who appear in court or in a deposition speak a language different from that of the lawyers, there’s a gap in understanding between the parties. This, in turn, can compromise the legitimacy, accuracy, or interpretation of the legal matter at hand.

Court Interpretation and Beyond

Legal interpreters address this barrier by offering access to high-quality interpretation services at the place and time of need, face-to-face with counsel and with any others involved. While interpretation can take place over the phone, professional interpreters often attend depositions and court appearances to ensure that those with limited English proficiency (LEP) can make their meanings clear in English-speaking courts or in legal proceedings and preparations all over the world. (For example, interpreters supporting English-speaking lawyers in witness interviews in China.)  The same principle applies of course to interpreters bridging communications gaps between native language speakers and non-native language speakers of languages across the globe.

The work that court interpreters do spans every aspect of the legal process, sometimes beginning long before court cases commence. Interpreters can play a key role in developing juries, securing accurate testimony, and presenting evidence at trials.

Below, we’ll go over the many different roles that interpreters can fill—and the influence they hold in high-stakes legal situations.

A gray-scale image of a law school courtroom, similar to ones where many Lionbridge legal interpreters studied.

Jury Member Selection

In cases involving juries, interpreters often assist with the selection process.

In the US, limited English proficiency is not a sufficient reason to bar an otherwise qualified individual from jury duty. Consequently, lawyers need skilled interpreters when selecting potential jury members. When people who struggle to speak English do end up serving on a jury, they will require an interpreter’s services throughout the duration of the legal process.


During a trial's discovery phase, depositions can provide a key source of background information. Detailed testimony is greatly valuable no matter what language the witness speaks. An inaccurate translation can unfairly warp the meaning of a witness’s responses.

Skilled legal interpreters do not merely translate testimony word-for-word; they capture the implicit meaning that lies in the individual's intonation, vernacular, or non-verbal expressions. The real meaning of a testimony often hinges not so much on the words the speaker uses, but on how she or he uses them.

Direct and Cross-Examination

Depositions provide witnesses the opportunity to share their testimony in a less formal environment. In court, however, direct and cross-examinations can be nerve-wracking, leaving key witnesses feeling flustered.

This anxiety can prompt changes in speaking patterns and intonation. Ultimately this widens the language gap and make a witness’s message more difficult to understand.

Interpreters can provide a calming effect by allowing witnesses to take comfort in the knowledge that they will be able to express their sentiments accurately. What’s more, this provides witnesses with the confidence they need to share vital details that judges or juries might otherwise miss.

Opening Statements and Closing Arguments

Opening statements and closing arguments grant legal professionals greater flexibility to advocate on their clients' behalf. These declarations can influence how plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses behave throughout the duration of the case.

Such statements can also help judges or juries understand the basis of each side's argument. They go beyond facts, figures, and evidence by offering an emotional appeal.

A skilled trial interpreter can provide immediate translation as needed to ensure that jury members, defendants, witnesses, and other key players who lack English proficiency understand the entirety of each opening and closing statement.

Communication with Non-English-Speaking Attorneys or Judges

The inherent complications of dual-language courtrooms become even more difficult to overcome when handling international matters.

In these situations, witnesses, attorneys, and court officials often speak different languages. Judges may struggle to communicate effectively with those they are supposed to preside over in court. International interpretation ensures understanding among all parties throughout the entirety of the case. This, in turn, promotes a streamlined and harmonious courtroom environment. 

Common Practice Areas for On-Site Interpreters

While on-site interpreters provide clear value in a variety of courtroom and administrative settings, they are most frequently seen in a few key practice areas:

  • Major commercial litigation. In today’s global economy, trade secrets can cross borders even more quickly than the goods or services themselves. Protecting intellectual property in jurisdictions around the world requires an in-depth understanding of regulations in each country as well as international laws.
  • Antitrust: These proceedings are less like a stereotypical court setting and more regulatory in nature. Properly prepping a witness with an interpreter and later deposing or examining that witness with the same interpreter can set nerves at ease.
  • Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The very name of this legislation makes it clear these could be multilingual disputes. With up to $25 million at stake, clear communication becomes even more valuable. Witness interviews and simultaneous interpretation for hearings are common FCPA roles for interpreters.
  • Securities law. This is a job for specialized interpreters, as they need to be fluent in financial and legal terms in both languages. Interpreters played a crucial role in the LIBOR interest-rigging scandal, which impacted corporations and financial institutions around the world.

Interpreters hold a weighty responsibility as they lend their linguistic expertise to courtroom proceedings. Charged with accurately conveying complex concepts, they must capture the full meaning of witness testimony or the expressions of plaintiffs and defendants. Meanwhile, they must resist the temptation to infuse such translations with their own convictions.

Successful interpretation prevents linguistic diversity from disrupting courtrooms or altering the content of witness testimony. It promotes understanding on all sides, dramatically increasing the likelihood that the process will reach the correct outcome.

No matter your courtroom needs, you can count on Lionbridge's legal interpreters to provide accurate courtroom services. We are pleased to offer legal interpretation services both on-site and over the phone. Reach out at your earliest convenience to learn more about our on-site interpretation services.

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April M. Crehan
April M. Crehan
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