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Know Your Rights: Using Interpreters in Your Legal Case


By: Janice Dantes


The United States is a “melting pot” of so many cultures, which is why I enjoy living here so much. While English is the primary language spoken in the United States, not everyone in the United States is fluent in English. The justice system recognizes this and therefore, if you are summoned to court for a civil or criminal case, you have a right to seek an interpreter to assist you in understanding the proceedings. Here are my practical tips for clients in need of an interpreter.

1. I do not speak Tagalog. I speak Waray, can I request an interpreter in court who speaks Waray? Yes. You can request an interpreter for your native language even if the language is not a widely spoken language. I have represented Filipinos who speak Tagalog and other dialects including Ilocano, Kapampangan, and the Visayan languages. The only thing to keep in mind is that if an interpreter for that language is not available on your court date, you may have to bring your own interpreter. Further, rarer languages generally have more expensive interpreters. Keep this in mind for your legal budget.

2. I can understand and speak English ok, but I’m nervous in court. Can I still request an interpreter? Yes, you or your lawyer can inform the judge that you are not able to fully communicate and understand the proceedings and are in need of an interpreter. However, if you are seeking an interpreter, please be sure the interpreter is being used. This means, even if you understand the question and are able to answer in English, have the interpreter interpret the question and respond in your native language. Also, I would recommend doing this even if you are confident in the answer. Any incorrect answers because you did not fully understand the question in English could damage your credibility and make you look like a liar. The judge could revoke the use of the interpreter if you are not using the services.

3. I have documents in a different language. Can I just translate it myself for my lawyer? Typically, documents that are translated from another language to English need to be translated by a certified translator and need additional credentials for authentication. Please be sure to work with your attorney to make sure that your translated documents will be accepted by the court or any other administrative body.

4. Can my daughter or son serve as my translator? You would have to seek special permission to use a relative to serve as your interpreter. Many times, relatives are unable to serve as your interpreter because they are not trained and may be biased. Further, in divorce cases, the judge does not typically allow children of the marriage to be involved in the proceedings. You can ask your attorney if you can bring your daughter to meetings with him/her and it would be determined on a case by case basis if your attorney would allow a relative to be in meetings with you because of confidentiality issues.

5. I was given a document that I need to sign, but I do not really understand it. Should I sign it anyway? It may seem embarrassing to admit that you do not understand a document. I do not recommend you sign documents you do not understand fully, especially if the client is under oath or signing a certification that the facts in the document are true. There are serious implications. Be sure that you work with an experienced attorney to guide you on signing important documents.

6. I want to work with a Filipino lawyer who speaks Tagalog. Do they exist? Yes! In all honesty, I become very sad when I meet a kababayan who is being represented by a lawyer who is not Filipino and they are having difficulty communicating. There is help for you including a national network of Pinoy lawyers through the National Filipino American Lawyers Association (NFALA).

If you would like to know about using interpreters in your legal matter, please call (312) 546-5077 or janice@pinaylaw.com.

Thank you for reading. Until we meet again, love one another.

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