Legal interpretation: The possibility of an international standard, 06 21, 2016

Liese Katschinka sits in an interview in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. [Photo by Chen Boyuan/]


By Jesse Anderson

Liese Katschinka is a freelance interpreter and translator from Vienna, Austria. She works as both a courtroom and conference interpreter and is the current president of the European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association (EULITA), which was founded in 2009 to represent the needs of legal interpreters and translators. EULITA's full members include 31 professional associations from 20 EU member states -- representing around 50,000 legal interpreters and translators -- while its associate members include a variety of organizations and individuals from both Europe and elsewhere, including two distinguished professors from China. In a brief interview with Ms. Katschinka at the 8th Asia-Pacific Translation and Interpreting Forum, she talked about the importance of legal interpretation and the growth of EULITA.

Could you give us a brief introduction to legal interpretation? What makes it so important?

Legal interpretation is very important because it contributes to fair trials and to the fair conditions of people in court who don't speak the court's language. And, of course, it's important that the services are accurate and precise, because this is a question that will lead to the guilt or innocence of a person. We know that there have been cases, especially in the U.K., of a miscarriage of justice because of interpretation mistakes.

How successful has EULITA been in your opinion, and what challenges does it still face?

I cannot of course say that we have been very, very successful because that would be showering pride on ourselves, but I think we have been very effective in using directive 2010/64, a 2010 directive that guarantees a person's right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings, which we have used, with EU funding, to conduct a number of EU projects to help the transposition of the directive and to promote legal interpreting. We then decided that it would not be enough to work only on a European scale with the directive and to put this on a more international scale. This is why we decided to go for an ISO (International Organization for Standardization] standard in legal interpreting. We asked ISO for this work item in 2014, and last year, in 2015, I presented a first draft of the ISO standard. I will also be going to Copenhagen this coming week to present the already updated and further developed text on the legal interpreting standard.

What does the creation of a standard on legal interpretation services entail?

It's about the qualifications. A standard will always define the "state of the art" for a product, for a process, for a service. So, you define what qualifications a person has to meet and what the settings are in which the services are to be provided. It's important that many countries contribute to the standard. So, for example, I may ask my colleagues here in China to contribute the Chinese experience to the international standard we're working on.

What are the possibilities of a global-version of EULITA?

Well, there is FIT (International Federation of Translators), and FIT has a committee on legal interpreting and translation. I used to chair that committee, and at that time the committee was very much focused on Europe and also with the creation of EULITA. We then said that the FIT forum should be more international, and actually it was, because it had a conference in Lima, Peru, last October. But EULITA is also becoming international because our associate members can come from anywhere. Actually, it was just a few days before I came to Xi'an that the Northwest University of Politics and Law, a Xi'an-based university, joined EULITA as an associate member. I will now go to Beijing, where a talk is beginning to set up a committee on legal interpreting and translation, and I hope to be able to establish some links and perhaps some cooperation forums with this committee. So, we are becoming international in a way.

If you have two countries with very different legal systems, how does that affect legal interpreting and translation?

Well, this is one of the reasons why we said we need to have an international standard and not only the directive in Europe, because even within Europe you have countries with Roman law systems and common law systems, and, of course, all over the world legal systems are different and legal interpreters need to integrate themselves and be a part of the national legal system. The competences that you must have as a legal interpreter are, namely, a good solid knowledge of your mother tongue and the foreign language, interpreting qualifications including whispered interpretation, consecutive interpreting and note taking, and then your code of conduct, which is very important. The guidelines for good practices can differ from country to country and from judicial stakeholder to judicial stakeholder.

How much legal training should go into a legal interpreter's education?

That's difficult to say, because there are the big languages and big languages will be different from country to country. In Europe, it's basically English, French and German, and there it is easy to set up university training, which can be general or specialized, on legal interpreting. But there will always be situations in court where it won't be possible to call on a university-trained interpreter. If you take Europe, for example, right now we have those waves of refugees coming from Syria and Africa, and of course we don't have university-qualified and trained interpreters for Wolof or various Arabic dialects. So, it must always be possible to have someone called in who is qualified on an ad hoc basis for one case. So, what we promote is that professional associations give very basic training and that universities give very basic seminars to people who are from other countries but are not trained as legal interpreters or translators, so that basic qualifications can be obtained.

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