Working with interpreters

illustration with 'hello' in different languages and various court icons


For more information on court interpreters check the court services for interpreters section.

Practical tips for working with interpreters

Limited English proficiency

  • Means the inability to adequately hear, understand or communicate effectively in English in a court proceeding. Wis. Stats. §885.38(1)(c). Many people communicate at a basic level at work or in the community, but court participation requires more sophisticated skills.
  • Limited English proficiency may be due to a non-English native language or because of speech impairment, hearing loss, deafness or other disability.
  • To participate effectively in court, a person must be able to describe persons, events, and conversations, request clarification, understand the implications of testimony, and understand the judgment and conditions imposed.
  • To test for limited English proficiency, ask open-ended questions that require complete sentences as answers, and ask about common legal terms that most native English speakers understand.

In all criminal and civil proceedings

  • If the person has limited English proficiency as defined above; or if the court determines that the person needs an interpreter to communicate with counsel, understand English testimony, or be understood in English; then the court shall advise the person of their right to a qualified interpreter. §885.38(3)(a). This determination does not require an elaborate hearing. For suggested questions to determine language proficiency see here .
  • An interpreter shall be appointed at public expense if the person is a party; a witness while testifying, a crime victim, a parent of a minor party, a legal guardian, or another person affected by the action if deemed necessary and appropriate by the court. §885.38(3)(a).

Other considerations

  • The court may appoint an interpreter in additional proceedings out of court that related to court proceedings. §885.38(3)(e).
  • The court must appoint if the need for an interpreter is due to a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • The court must appoint if the court receives federal funds for court programs.
  • The clerk of circuit court may appoint interpreters for questions at the counter.

A qualified interpreter

  • Is able to readily communicate with the person of limited English proficiency.
  • Can orally transfer the meaning of statements between languages.
  • Can interpret without omissions or additions, conserving the meaning, tone, and style of the original statement, including dialect, slang, and specialized vocabulary. §885.38(1)(c)
  • The court must establish interpreter's qualifications as an expert witness and swear the interpreter in. §906.04. The court should ask interpreters about their experience, training, and certification. For suggested questions to ask of the interpreter see guide below on conducting a voir dire of the court interpreter: spoken and sign language.
  • Qualified interpreters will understand the code of ethics for court interpreters and will be able to apply it in their work, will attend trainings offered by the court or other entities, and will pursue continuing education
  • A "certified" interpreter has passed a rigorous oral performance exam given by the director of state courts office, or has been granted reciprocity for passing a similar exam given by the federal courts, another state, or the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

Court interpreter code of ethics

  • Interpreters should review the file prior to court proceedings. See SCR Ch. 63.
  • Interpreters should talk briefly with the person of limited English proficiency to be sure communication is established.
  • Interpreters should suggest the best position in courtroom.
  • Interpreters should clarify statements, correct mistakes, and check dictionaries.
  • Interpreters may not explain court procedures or documents. They can read documents but cannot explain or answer questions about them.
  • Interpreters may not act as advocates or advisers. Instruct the parties, attorneys, and jurors on the role of the interpreter.
  • Judges and attorneys should observe interpreters to make sure all statements are interpreted but no conversation is going on.

Recommended practices

  • Use the best-qualified interpreter available, taking into account the seriousness of the proceeding. Certified interpreters should be called first whenever available.
  • Do not use friends or relatives of the parties as interpreters for any serious questioning. In court, do not use social workers, victim advocates, law enforcement officers, or others with real or apparent conflicts of interest.
  • Speak clearly, at a moderate pace, one person at a time.
  • Provide rest breaks as needed, since interpreter accuracy declines significantly after 30 minutes of continuous interpretation. Consider using two interpreters for trials and longer contested proceedings.
  • Telephone and video interpreting services may be used for proceedings other than trials. §§807.14, 967.09.
  • Court staff should be aware of which statewide court forms have been translated and make them available to appropriate court users. All translated court forms can be found here.

Guides for courts and court staff on specific interpreter issues

The following documents are in Adobe PDF format unless otherwise indicated.

Colloquy to clarify interpreter's role

Recommended: "We will have an interpreter assist us through these proceedings. The interpreter is here only to interpret the proceedings and to enable us to communicate with each other. The interpreter is not a party in this case, has no interest in this case, does not take sides and is not allowed to give legal advice or any other assistance."

Interpreter's oath

"Do you solemnly swear or affirm that you will interpret truly, accurately, completely, and impartially."

Judicial mannerisms that making interpreting difficult (four videos)