To be or not to be an Interpreter in the Court?

Over the last several months, I interpreted in 100 kg of illegally imported heroine case, for a person who was dying, for a woman in labour, and in a murder case that ended up with a life prison sentence. I am now writing these words not as an Interpreter but as a Behavioural Specialist and Development Trainer. 

In my 18 years of professional experience, I have met and worked with clients from different social and business backgrounds. Recently, I have also met many Interpreters who have become very frustrated, exhausted, often very bitter, upset, unsatisfied and burnt out.

A couple of days ago, I read an article “Court drama” where an author complains about a lack of psychological support for interpreters. Despite the fact that I disagree with the author on many points, I can understand her frustration. Nevertheless, this only proves what I have observed in the interpreting world: most of the interpreters do their job for all the wrong reasons and with a wrong approach to the profession.

In the mentioned article you can find some advice for stress release like e.g. practicing meditation, having a walk, or having a glass of wine, however, the truth is that none of them will help… because they do not remove the source of frustration.

Of course, you can treat symptoms but it will be a never-ending treatment since you are not able to remove them without aiming straight at their source.

What is the source of emotional stress in an interpreter job? There are two main reasons why interpreters have become frustrated, bitter, annoyed, angry, and very often burnt out too early.

The first reason is not following one of the fundamental rules that are provided in the Code of Conduct for Interpreters.

This essential rule (but unfortunately so quickly forgotten) from the Code of Conduct for Interpreters is: I am an independent and impartial interpreter who doesn’t represent any of the parties I interpret for. Independent and impartial.

This is the most difficult and challenging approach an interpreter can stay attached to.

What makes the rule so difficult to follow on? Well, it’s been caused by an interpreter’s ego.


There are no schools for interpreters where you would be taught how to manage your emotions, how to stop and arrest your ego. They teach you useful linguistic stuff, but they won’t tell you what to do when your ego wins…

If you have a look at your past experience and if you honestly admit how many times you allowed yourself not to be independent and impartial? Too many times indeed…

The Code of Conduct has been created by experienced interpreters who spent their lives collecting knowledge about this job. The rules have been set not only to guide you in providing excellent interpreting but also to protect you.

As we confront most challenging emotions during cases in the courts, I would suggest you make all below your main, cast-ironed approach to your interpreting so as to protect you from frustration and disappointment. I myself don’t like to be tough, but I need to whilst interpreting in the courts. Does it make me look or behave like a bi*ch? No, it protects me from being emotionally involved and it also protects me from breaching the Code of Conduct.

Here we go:

  • You must never, under no circumstances, interfere with defendants whilst in a secure dock in a court. They will always try to chat with you, to talk to you, but you are not allowed to talk to them. You may think that a chat with a defendant will somehow dismiss your fear, but this a delusional approach. I do know that sitting arm to arm with a defendant causes fear and anxiety, and there is no need to deny it. You are a human being and you have a right to be scared. Nevertheless, chatting with a defendant will not help you in your interpreting, as contrary – it can cause even more severe problems for you
  • If a defendant tries to involve you in a conversation, you can and should refer to a guard, who always stays with you and a defendant in a dock, and ask him for permission to inform a defendant that you are not allowed to speak with him. I can assure that every guard will permit you to tell a defendant about your rules. Then, you must calmly inform a defendant that you are not allowed to talk to him and you will appreciate him respecting your professional rules. I am sure that you can do it in a polite and gentle way
  • If you interfere with a defendant, your interpreting starts to be unjust, partial, involved. If you say “No, it doesn’t!!!”, well, there is no need for you to read this article…
  • If you interfere with defendants, you enter into their energy and you lose your safety zone. Your job is to protect your emotions, because the more balanced your emotions are, the better service you can provide
  • You also have to establish an invisible, virtual, energetic wall between you and a defendant, so you can be focused on your words and tone of your voice. You can practise setting such a wall during a meditation
  • Remember that your service is being observed during a trial by many people: an usher, a legal aid, the judge, the jury, and if it is considered as not impartial, you may be excluded from the interpreting and even face some serious legal consequences
  • During long periods of waiting outside the court, you are not allowed to speak either with a defendant’s family or his friends
  • You are not allowed to give any advice to any person involved in a case you interpret in
  • You must not talk to any witness
  • You are not allowed to show an emotional support to any person involved in a case you interpret in
  • If your interpreting, especially simultaneous, lasts longer than 20-30 minutes, you can and you should inform an usher by raising your hand and saying that “The interpreting may be  jeopardised”. Once you raise your hand, it will be noticed instantly by an usher or a legal aid, and then you should tell them that you need a break because the interpreting may be not accurate. They will understand it and your professional approach will be respected and appreciated. You are not a machine, you are a human being and it is up to you to protect a quality of your interpreting. You are not there to prove that you are a linguistic hero. Because you are not; you are a human being whose brain capacity of permanent focusing on bilingual service is limited. This is why during any conference interpreting, there are always two interpreters in a booth so they swap between themselves every 20 minutes. Do you think you are better, more skilled, more experienced than them?

The second reason causing frustration is misunderstanding the goal of an interpreter job.

You are there to interpret not to comfort anybody. Your job is interpreting, not solving people’s problems. You are not on a mission to save the world. Your mission is to protect your emotions and to stay calm and impartial. Your duty is to provide interpreting so people can communicate and understand each other as a result of your service.

Each time you permit your emotions to become engaged in your service, you will damage your impartiality and independence. And then, you will blame yourself, you will feel guilty and you will be frustrated.

I do understand that very often it is simply against a human nature not to react to a tragedy, sorrow, anger, tears, all these heart-moving things we see during interpreting. However, if you really understand what is the job about, you will do everything to protect your emotional health as it is your most important tool in interpreting. You will be taking part in many challenging and unpleasant situations, therefore, the better your self-protection is, the better service you can provide. Even though it may sound bitter, interpreting is not about saving the world. Interpreting is not about showing empathy, it is about being calm and impartial.

You should also know that no agency can provide you with details about a client you will be interpreting for since they don’t know that. Once you receive your job time sheet, the only thing you know is where, when, at what time, and what is an estimated time of interpreting. Sometimes, you can find a name of your language client which is provided in your job time sheet. If you see a name of a person on your time sheet, especially in a Crown Court case, you can google such a name and then decide if you want to provide an interpreting for this person.

Well, if you look deep into your consciousness, you will understand that if it is only you who causes your frustration, you are about to overcome your stress! You have been causing all this mess in your head and only you can stop it. If anybody says that interpreting is a nice, easy job, they are wrong. I would it is not an easy job at all, but it can be managed in a proper, sensible, successful way.

Whether you are about to start working as an Interpreter, or you have already been doing interpreting for many years, you may consider all above and decide if you are ready for a significant change in your approach to this profession.

Frustration is good if we use it as an indicator; it shows you that you have reached the certain point at which you have to change something in your approach to one specific thing you deal with on daily basis.

You are always welcome to leave a comment so as to help other interpreters understand where your mistake was and what helped you to release stress and frustration in your interpreting service.


An update:

The Court of Justice of the European Union is looking for freelance translators from most EU languages into English:

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15 Comments on "To be or not to be an Interpreter in the Court?"

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Nice article, what about if defendant is waiting outside courtroom with you, sometimes even whole day, Are you not allowed to talk to him either? Not even ask what are his charges?thx


Every informative piece… I enjoyed it. I think I read it at the right moment as I’ve started having doubts about this job after 7 years of doing it. Thank you.

Unfortunately in this economic climate nobody cares if you are tired, or that there should be 2 interpreters. Nobody cares about your code of conduct anymore. This article is a bit outdated. Even during trials there is rarely 2 interpreters interpreting for the defendants. I would like to see the face of the judge when every 20 minutes a break would be requested. Let the jury go for a break every 20 minutes 😀 I think it would be your last day at that court ever and a terrible feedback in addition to that, person who never did this type… Read more »

I wouldn’t like you to be my interpreter in court, that’s for sure.


Great article! Well articulated, and extremely hard to practice I’m sure. Emotional investment happens so naturally in those situations. Thanks for sharing your perspective.


Forrai Éva

Shocking when someone with such limited understanding of legal and generally English terminology and with such a personal agenda set themselves up and pretend to be experts and pontificate to others! I am utterly flabbergasted… you should stick with your abraka-dabra you call neuro-marketing…

Maybe there is a much easier way forward and it would be giving interpreters a say in whether or not they should be seated in the dock at all … or reconsider the practice of seating an interpreter in the dock, sometimes without much justification for it as it causes all kinds of difficulties, relating to well-being or health and safety, impartiality etc. Also it is clearly not your lack of impartiality that is the issue here, it would probably be the opposite if anything at all. You are clearly impartial and not backing down just to make someone feel… Read more »

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