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Legal interpreting: Making communication easy

Headphones on a chair
in Legal

Legal systems around the world are complex constructs and, at times, as the UK government observed two years ago, so baffling that even professionals can struggle to understand and comply with laws. For ordinary people, it can be “intricate and intimidating”.

Imagine then, that it is your responsibility, as an individual, to interpret the law from one language to another and to do so in the moment. To be trusted with accurately conveying the meaning that honours the source language and is understood in the target language. And all within full compliance of two different legal systems.

That’s the job of legal interpreters, who possess, it has to be said, rather remarkable skills. There can be no room for complacency, no hesitation in conveying an idea and no indecision with getting across a point of view.

This ability is quite phenomenal, and as one professional remarked to the Guardian in an interesting article on how some interpreters “have a front-row seat to history”, the ability to “listen and speak at the same time” is dumbfounding: “There is something happening in my brain I can't understand.”

Again, all of these demands take place against the intricacy of law, the implication of which is a high standard at all times – suboptimal performances are few and far between in agencies that pride themselves on high standards.

To interpret, not translate

You can get a taste of how challenging legal interpretation is when comparing it alongside legal translation (note, there is a lot of confusion over these and while both involve adapting one language into another, the latter concerns text, the former spoken).

Interpretation is therefore immediate, in real time so to speak, with communication between stakeholders promptly expressed. It needn’t be in person either, as it can take place over the telephone or the internet.

Translation, meanwhile, occurs after source material has been produced and, although requests for a quick turnaround are commonplace with legal requests, they nevertheless have time to consult material to ensure they can deal with any challenges.

The skills of a legal interpreter

While there is certainly some overlap between legal interpreters and legal translators – see our piece on the latter – both have very distinct skills and attributes.

For the most part, legal interpreters are exceptional listeners, powerful verbal communicators and fluent in at least two languages. Not only do they have to have the intellectual capacity to swiftly convey cultural references, idioms and metaphors, they also have to effortlessly transfer legal complexities in the moment.

Therefore, they need to have a strong grasp of the law in both the source and target language and be relatively informed of the context of what it is they are translating (as an example, if they’re dealing with a particularly intricate merger between two countries, being aware of the parameters of that deal is helpful).

As with translation, interpreters do not adapt one language to another, word for word. This would result in something vague and muddled, if not incomprehensible. Meaning is therefore paraphrased, expressed in one language – all the while simultaneously listening to the next part of a speech in another language.

Accordingly, all interpreters have to be at the top of their game, and most professionals tend to have a graduate-level qualification in their second language and at least two years’ worth of interpreting experience within their industry specialism. This affords them both the technical and linguistic abilities needed to deliver the most accurate of interpretations.

The facilitators of language

In an increasingly globalised, interconnected world, where countries enjoy the benefits of multiculturalism, there is a growing need for legal interpreters to simplify and allow for easy communication where language is a barrier.

Interpreters are ultimately facilitators, who allow for the seamless exchange of information between different languages. They make impossible conversations happen, and, when done tremendously well, it’s as if they’re not there at all. That’s interpretation at its best.

Whether it is at a local level – interviews and court appearances – or an international one – cross-border meetings ironing out multilingual contracts – the demand for this unique, complex and highly important service is growing by the day. You really can’t underestimate how important they are for maintaining order, building relationships and connecting people. Without any sense of hyperbole, they’re a hidden talent we’d be lost without.

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