A Clearer Understanding- Why Legal Interpreting is Important

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Imagine entering court, knowing that whatever decision that follows hinges on the impression you make…but you have no idea what is going on because you can’t speak the language.

Imagine the stress and fear you would experience.

Imagine the absolute terror of not being able to ask for the help you need, or to advocate yourself- all because of a language barrier.

While the legal system seeks to bring truth to light, an inability to communicate often throws a wrench in the proceedings-preventing witnesses or victims (who might otherwise come forward) from receiving the justice they need or offering any tangible form of assistance.

It is here that court interpreters come to the rescue- working behind the scenes and serving as the bridge between plaintiffs and the courts. To understand just how vital their role is, let’s take a look at legal interpreting and its role in the judicial system.

What is Legal Interpreting?

Legal interpreting is specialised area of interpretation which enables people who speak different languages to communicate with each other in a legal/ paralegal setting. A legal interpreter:

  • Facilitates communication with law enforcement personnel
  • Interprets court proceedings
  • Interprets and enables communication between a counsellor and their client

Legal interpreting focuses on spoken or signed communication (written communication is covered by legal translation) and its main purpose is to ensure that justice is delivered within a multilingual society.

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When is it Needed?

Legal interpreting is useful at nearly every stage of the judicial process- beginning from reporting a crime in the first place. Often, the lack of language accessibility is what prevents a victim or witness from coming forward to report a crime. This is because the inability to communicate (and thus have action taken) often leads to negative consequences for those who do come forward- including potential victimisation as perpetrators are aware that they will not be able to seek adequate protection.

Legal interpreting is also important in criminal investigations where those involved have limited proficiency in English/ Bahasa Malaysia/ the local lingua franca and/or use sign language. Without an interpreter or a proper means of communication, it is very easy for misunderstandings to occur due to the language barrier, or cultural factors. This could also lead to issues such as uncollected evidence or misinterpreted facts- which could horribly skewer the course of an investigation and ultimately ruin any attempts at receiving justice.

In court, legal interpreters serve as a neutral third party- assisting both the accused and the prosecution to ensure a fair outcome. Malaysia’s judicial system (excepting the Shariah Courts) is based off the British common law system, which requires defendants in criminal cases to be able to understand the charges against them, giving them the chance to mount a proper defence. Here, legal interpreting comes into play as court interpreters work to ensure the accused can understand the charges against them, and the on-going court proceedings.

This also ensures that cases proceed efficiently as interpreters are also able to help communicate responses and counter-arguments to the court, ensuring there is no opportunity (or at least, a lower opportunity) of a mistrial occurring.

Legal interpreting is no easy task- even someone who is fluent in both the source and target language may have difficulty explaining ongoing proceedings, given that legal terminology differs from country to country- which is why it is helpful if an interpreter also has a strong legal background.

In Malaysia, requests for an interpreter can be made via the e-Jurubahasa system, set up by the Legal Practicing Certification Unit (USAG). The USAG unit is responsible for the provision Foreign Interpreter services for criminal cases in criminal courts throughout Malaysia- including cases where either the accused or the witness requires translators in foreign languages, sign language, state-based dialects as well as specific languages of the Orang Asli communities.

As complicated as it seems however, legal interpreting should not be considered a luxury or something unnecessary to court proceedings.

In fact, all parties having a clear understanding of court proceedings could be the very thing a case decision and judgement hinges on. As such, the utilisation of court interpreters and legal interpreting ensure that justice is truly served, rather than in the form of lip service.

"The worst form of injustice is pretended justice." (Plato)