Court interpreting in Italy: are we keeping the pace with other model countries?

Posted by Athena Parthenos

Some years ago, during my first experiences in the interpretation field I had the opportunity to see a professional court interpreter at work, experience that inspired my BA dissertation. Later, thanks to the support of this interpreter, who was my professor at that time, I also worked in the court as translator of tapping during an international penal trial. It was in 2006 and through this experience, I discovered the field of court interpreting and all its numerous problems, particularly in Italy.

Court interpreters in Italy are not acknowledged professional with a national registry as lawyers and doctors are, for example. Consequently the court personnel is not used to work with interpreters, they don’t know how to handle the role of interpreters during a trial ending up in fully unacceptable requests. Court interpreters play a crucial role during trials involving people who speak a language different from the one of the process and they have therefore to be qualified professionals fully recognized by the law, accurately certified and adequately paid.

In my opinion, Italy needs to have a stricter program through which establishing better practices allowing interpreters to perform their job and provide their clients with a quantitatively and qualitatively adequate service. Court interpreters enable communication despite language barriers between the parties during trials and this role is becoming increasingly important in today’s society where immigration is a growing reality and travels abroad are no longer limited to small elites of people.

All these exchanges of people through different countries increase the chances that problems such as law infringement and related issues may occur. The legal systems in most of the countries in the international community state the right of each person to a fair trial and, most importantly, to understand all phases of the proceeding even if the person does not speak the language of the country where the trial is held.
The European Union has taken concrete steps through the Proposal for a Council Framework Decision on Procedural Guarantees for Suspects throughout the entire EU and the AGIS Project JAI/2003/AGIS/048 to define the role of the court interpreter but its implementation is up to the single member states.

In Italy the articles of the Code of Civil Procedure (art. 122 and 123) and the Code of Penal Procedure (2nd Book, 4th Title, articles 143-147) clearly define the role of the court interpreter; unfortunately they are not applied systematically. According to the above mentioned articles, the defendant who doesn’t speak Italian has the right to an interpreter and their crucial role in guaranteeing a successful execution of the process is clearly underlined.

An example? One from my personal experience: I was asked to quickly translate for the defendant his charges by summing them up because he would have been expelled anyway and there was no need to go into details or to translate all articles. Of course, I answered that I could not and I took my time to translate every single charge. But the question is: why do we have to keep explaining what we are supposed to do and what we cannot do? Why not introducing some guidelines and handbooks for the court staff, in order to make things clearer and fairer?

Since there is not a real recognition of the interpreter role, the pay for the job is also an issue. The payment of court translators and interpreters depend on the Italian Ministry of Justice. A 8-hours working day is calculated in ‘vacazioni’, each one consisting of 2 hours, and therefore a working day can reach a maximum of ‘4 vacazioni’. The first one is paid 14.68 Euros and each of the following is paid 8.15 Euros. Therefore, it is not a big surprise if in Italy people without any professional qualification are sometimes hired as interpreters during trials. Indeed in order to work for the court you need to accept their general conditions including the hourly pay; but since the wage does not correspond to the amount of work and preparation needed to perform the job, few professional interpreters are willing to work in Italian courts and often unqualified court interpreters are hired instead.

There is absolutely room for improvement in Italy, as a matter of facts there are many countries where court interpreting is well integrated in the system and perfectly functioning. For example the United States are now a model country which has been defining best practices for court staff and interpreters for years and where interpreters are recruited through difficult certification exams where they have to show all their linguistic and professional skills.

In the U.S. the big change was achieved through the Court Interpreters Act in 1978, when the Congress of the U.S. defined court interpreting as a highly specialized profession and introduced the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination (FCICE) in order to verify interpreters’ skills such as: language skills, deep knowledge of the themes dealt with (including the legal system etc.), listening and memorization and specific interpreting techniques. In addition, in 1986 the Federal Court Interpreters Advisory Board (FCIAB) was established. The exam is divided in parts: written examination, sight translation, consecutive interpretation and simultaneous interpretation (a 10-minutes speech).

No wonder that in the U.S. courts professional interpreters are hired and that their pay reflects the requisites they are required to have and the quality they are asked to deliver. Just an example regarding Certified and Professionally qualified interpreters’ pay: 364 $ for the full day, 197 $ for half-day and 51 $ per hour or part thereof. In the U.S., certified interpreters are also required to further specialize during their career, through the so-called ‘continuing education’ in form of workshops and seminars organized for court interpreters.

There are also numerous universities offering BA and MA in court interpreting.
I believe that in Italy the legal system in relation to the role of court interpreters needs a big change, best practices for the court staff (judges, prosecutors, lawyers etc.) should be implemented, interpreters should undergo a test to be certified and recognized as professionals with clear standards, sets of rules and regulation. A better pay is the logical result for a more than qualified professional service. All this with the main purpose of providing a fairer trial to defendants and clients in general and a better workplace for all.
Only this way the following can become a reality also in Italy:

Above all else, [Court Interpreting] is a thorough knowledge and understanding of our ethical and professional responsibilities. A good court interpreter not only speaks of ethics but also lives it and demonstrates it through their own professional and ethical demeanor. Everything else follows under ethical and professional responsibilities, which include but are not limited to: accuracy, neutrality, confidentiality and continuously working to improve their skills and increase vocabulary
(Isabel Framer, Chair of NAJIT, private interview)

author: Sara Martellini – Senior Interpreter at Athena Parthenos srl

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