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Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System

Court Interpreters: Bridging Language Barriers in Court


Kobina Ampah was born in Ghana to a father who traveled frequently and a mother who spoke seven languages. Speaking English without a trace of any single accent, Ampah shrugs and states he can only speak five languages: Fanti, Twi, Ga, English and Russian. Yes, that’s right, Russian.

Kyung-Sik Song came to the United States in 1982 as a foreign exchange student who spoke only Korean.

Anna Ng grew up in Hong Kong, was taught English in private school and learned a third language, Sanwei, in order to communicate with her mother-in-law.

Ampah, Ng and Song are just three of the more than 300 full-time language interpreters for the Unified Court System, where they translate court proceedings in real time for people who have to appear in court but who are either deaf or speak little or no English. The courts provide translation services for 30 different languages, including American Sign Language.

left to right: Kobina Ampah, Anna Ng and Kyung-Sik Song
left to right: Kobina Ampah, Anna Ng and Kyung-Sik Song

When Ampah walks into a courtroom and announces that he is the interpreter, few people are expecting a Russian interpreter who is black. Often when court employees see him coming, they say, “No, I don’t need a Wolof interpreter, where is the Russian interpreter?”

Most of the interpreters are like Ampah, Ng and Song—immigrants to this country or the children of immigrants. Most of their first interpreting experiences all came about due to necessity. Ampah said African families were often transient migrant workers and children had to learn various languages and dialects to communicate with each other.

The Empire State is one of the most diverse states in the country, and with its crowded court calendars, interpreters are a necessary component to make the New York court system run and run smoothly.

“We do this better than anyplace in the country,” said Chief Clerk for the New York City Criminal Court Bill Etheridge. “New York has laws for every criminal court where a person who gets arrested is supposed to be arraigned in 24 hours. If we need to get an interpreter in an hour and a half, we can do that. We’re talking seven days a week with day and night court.”

Court Interpreters at New York City Criminal Court
Court Interpreters at New York City Criminal Court

Court interpreters are given their assignments at the beginning of the day, but carry beepers to alert them to changes in their schedule. Although they are often dashing from one courthouse to another, interpreters say the hardest part of their job is doing their work to the letter of the law while dealing with major cultural issues.

“The legal system can be very different from what happens in their [defendant’s] native country,” said interpreter Phanessia Liao. “In the back [with the defendant’s attorney] you can make the defendant understand what’s happening. But once you’re in front of the judge, there is no time.”

“I’ll never forget when I worked as a Spanish translator in Brooklyn, a judge used to say to us all the time, ‘you’re a tape recorder,’” said Sandra Bryan, OCA’s Coordinator for Court Interpreter Services. “Do not embellish, do not explain. You’re a machine.”

It takes much more than being bilingual to become a court interpreter, said Bryan. Language interpreters must have great listening skills, and the language requirements for this job are far greater than those needed for everyday bilingual conversation. Court interpreters must also deal with the legal vernacular of judges and lawyers, the technical jargon of police officers and the medical terminology used by medical examiners, DNA experts and doctors.

Because such a wide range of people use the court system, court interpreters have to adapt quickly to the cultural and educational background of each individual in need of their services, to ensure comprehension as well as accuracy.

Although the job can be hectic and challenging, court interpreters say they can’t imagine doing anything else for a living.

Fall 2005PDF Format
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Web page updated: September 1, 2006 - www.NYCOURTS.gov