| by Jiayi Feng MATI '21


Certified court interpreter, Jessie Liu, outside the Google campus.
Middlebury Institute translation and interpretation student Jessie Liu on the Google campus in Mountain View, California.

Middlebury Institute translation and interpretation student Jessie Liu MATI ‘21 is a California-based certified court interpreter and translator.

Liu has extensive experience in courtroom interpretation of various legal proceedings ranging from arraignment to trial, as well as legal procedures outside of courtrooms. In addition to working in the state court system, Liu is also a registered interpreter with the U.S. Courts (federal) and the U.S. Immigration Courts.

Outside of the legal settings, Liu works extensively with federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Defense (DoD) via a government contractor. When she is not working as an interpreter, Liu teaches at the court interpreter training program at UCLA extension. Translation and interpretation student Jiayi Feng spoke with her classmate Liu recently.

You were already working as a court and legal interpreter before joining MIIS. Now that you are more than halfway through the program, has everything been what you expected when you made the decision to take a pause in your career to go back to school?

Yes, indeed. This experience has been so much more than what I expected. If I could have anything differently, I would only wish for COVID-19 to not have happened, so I could enjoy more time on campus in stunningly beautiful Monterey. I have never known any career or profession that requires as much continued learning as being an interpreter. Being an interpreter is so much more than just having the hard skill sets, i.e., the linguist proficiencies, note-taking mastery, the ability to work under pressure, etc. It is more of an attitude of nonstop learning and growing that is driven by natural curiosity. That curiosity brought me to MIIS. I often like to use the analogy that conference interpreting and court interpreting are similar and yet so different, just like driving a car that has an automatic transmission or a stick shift—both drive, but they operate so differently. My experience at MIIS so far has been nothing but rewarding and enriching. I have no doubt that this learning experience will be instrumental in making me a more well-rounded linguistic professional.  

You mentioned earlier that interpreting in legal settings is quite different from conference interpreting. Can you give a few key differences?

Among other things, I think the biggest difference is the atmosphere of the work environment, or the “vibe,” as I call it. Legal settings, whether it be a deposition or a courtroom, are generally adversarial. That alone can be nerve-racking because ultimately, one side wins and one side loses. The nerve-racking effect can then be compounded exponentially by a representing attorney who is bilingual in the interpreter’s language pair, and thus scrutinizes everything the interpreter renders and may use the interpreter as a scapegoat or a defense strategy; or worse yet, a check interpreter is hired to listen in on the active interpreter’s rendition. That check interpreter has one job only—to pick on the active interpreter. Under so much scrutiny, the interpreters usually resort to what I call the “dictionary mode,” where interpretation is done on a word level, rather than being on the meaning level, because then and only then, the interpreters can be “safe.” Therefore, the very literal approach of interpretation is a second major difference between court and conference interpreting. More often than not, conference interpreters can request and have the transcripts, presentation material, etc., available before the actual event, or at a minimum, have a general idea of the theme of the event just by knowing the name of the event. That is usually a luxury that legal interpreters do not have. There are some ways to tell whether the case is criminal, civil, or some other case type. Sometimes it is shooting in the dark whether you land a murder trial or a simple speeding ticket.

I often like to use the analogy that conference interpreting and court interpreting are similar and yet so different, just like driving a car that has an automatic transmission or a stick shift—both drive but they operate so differently.
— Jessie Liu

Besides the hard skill sets of interpreting, what other qualities should one have in order to become a court interpreter?

Stress management is essential in working in a potentially intimidating environment. It is very easy to get overwhelmed when so many parts are moving together. Get comfortable with saying bad words. Be professional, humble, and receptive to constructive criticism, but do not get bullied. Be firm and sure of the rendition given. If it gets challenged, courteously and professionally state that “I stand by my interpretation.”

What is the job market like for court/legal interpreters in California?

I cannot simply say if the job market is good or bad for legal interpreters in California. However, I can share some numbers to perhaps help put things in perspective a little bit. On May 15, 2020, the Judicial Council of California published a study report titled “2020 Language Need and Interpreter Use Study,” in which the number of Chinese-speaking persons between 2013 and 2017 who don’t feel comfortable using English in legal settings is 665,320. Obviously, not every one of these 600,000-plus people will go to court or be involved in a legal matter, but if we estimate that 10 percent of them will find themselves in legal proceedings, that’s 66,532 people who are going to need legal interpreters. As of today, there are 78 court-certified interpreters (Chinese) in the entire state of California. The report clearly points out that one of the challenges in providing language access to limited-English persons in court is that there are not enough credentialed interpreters. I would also encourage people, who are interested, to take a look at Assembly Bill 1657, where in California it is the law for only court-certified interpreters to interpret in legal settings. I also want to add that these facts exist rather independently of the general relationship between the U.S. and China.

How can you get certified?

The certifying authority is the Judicial Council of California. Their website lists in details the nuts and bolts of becoming a court-certified interpreter. There is a certifying exam that consists of bidirectional sight translation, bidirectional consecutive interpretation, and English to Chinese only simultaneous interpretation of seven minutes at the speed of 120 words per minute. There is also a written exam that needs to be taken before the oral exam. The written exam primarily focuses on legal vocabulary, general legal knowledge, and court interpreter ethics.

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