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Legal Interpreting and Translating: Getting Started

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American attorneys increasingly find themselves challenged by work scenarios involving foreign languages. These challenges arise not only in transactional work, with the need for translations of legal documents, but also in litigation and trial work, both requiring not only the translation of documents, but also the interpretation of oral transactions, testimony, and courtroom proceedings.

There is an important distinction between translating and interpreting. The average American may use the terms interchangeably; in many cases Americans refer to "translating" or "translation," as in "courtroom translating" and "simultaneous translation," when they mean "interpreting" and "interpretation" instead.

"Translating/translation" refers to a written rendition of a document from one language into another language. The rendition is expected have a very high level of accuracy because the translator has sufficient time to consult dictionaries and to produce a thoughtful and precise translation.

"Interpreting/interpretation," on the other hand, involves oral communication, and is usually done in real time. It is either done simultaneously (by the interpreter as the speaker is speaking). Or, the interpreting may be done consecutively, viz., the subject speaker speaks, and is then followed for several minutes by the interpreter.

In a courtroom setting, translating may indeed be used, particularly in something like commercial litigation, where contracts and business letters are translated. However, in present-day America it is the simultaneous/consecutive courtroom interpreter who plays a key role. This is particularly true in immigration litigation and in criminal proceedings.

The following materials should help anyone pursuing a career in courtroom interpreting and/or legal translation. In addition, the research guide should be of interest to anyone dealing with legal issues involving foreign languages.

The print materials outlined in this research guide are all part of the University of Iowa Libraries' rich print collections, especially those of the University of Iowa's Law Library, one of America’s top academic law libraries.

In addition, significant space is devoted to information on multilingual/bilingual law dictionaries. Online dictionaries and general online resources, including federal and state interpreter/translator websites, are provided as well.

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