Proceedings requiring the assistance of a court interpreter-translator

Broadly speaking, there are two types of proceedings in which a court interpreter-translator may be called to assist in: proceedings instituted by operation of law (criminal proceedings) and those instituted ex parte (civil proceedings in which one of the parties has been granted legal aid). In criminal proceedings the obligation to provide interpreters and translators is the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice (or its regional counterparts) while, in civil proceedings (except in those cases entitled to legal aid), the parties to the case must provide and pay these professionals. Likewise, there are also some administrative procedures, such as asylum seeking hearings, in which the State must provide the interpreter and/or translator.

Legislation regulating court interpreting and translation

In Spain, there is no specific legislation that regulates the profession of a court interpreter and translator. It could be said that the only regulatory framework appears in the Spanish Act of Criminal Procedure (Ley de Enjuiciamiento Criminal), more precisely in its section 440 –which regulates the right of non-Spanish speaking witnesses to be assisted by an interpreter– and section 441 –which regulates the appointment of such interpreter–, which reads as follows:


“The interpreter shall be chosen from among those that hold such qualifications, should there be any available. If that is not possible, a school teacher of the corresponding language shall be appointed, and if there were none, any person who knows the language”.


Section 762.8 of the same Act, which provides the framework for fast-track proceedings (procedimiento abreviado), goes even further and eliminates any type of requirement to appoint an interpreter:


“Should defendants or witnesses not speak or understand Spanish, an interpreter shall be appointed as provided for in sections 398, 440 and 441 herein, not being necessary for the interpreter appointed to hold any official qualification”.


Likewise, section 231.5 of the Spanish Act of the Judiciary (Ley Orgánica del Poder Judicial) reads as follows:


“In oral hearings, the Judge or Court shall be able to appoint any person who knows the required language to act as the interpreter and he/she shall take a prior oath or promise to that effect”.


Therefore, drafting specific norms within the field of court interpreting and translation seems to be a matter to be urgently addressed.

Court interpreters vs. sworn interpreters

Those who are not familiar with this field frequently get confused over these two kinds of professionals.


Sworn Interpreter status is obtained by appointment of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (in language combinations including Spanish) or by the Autonomous Regions enjoying such powers in connection with their regional official languages (Catalonia and Galicia). Sworn Interpreters are entitled to render official translation and interpreting services. The appointment may be obtained basically in the following two ways: 1) sitting the exam called for annually by the Ministry (or the Autonomous Region) or 2) attesting before the authorities the successful completion of certain course credits in legal translation and interpreting by those holding a Degree in Translation and Interpreting (Licenciatura en Traducción e Interpretación). Sworn translations may be required within numerous proceedings or settings, either public (Civil registry documents, academic documents, etc.) or private (documents issued by notaries public and any other document that may be submitted to the public authorities).


For its part, a court translator-interpreter develops his/her career within the courts. There are some who work as staff, i.e., civil servants employed directly by the court system who have gained their position through a competitive examination/selection process. However, the vast majority of court translators and interpreters work on a freelance basis, either directly for the courts or through outsourced companies offering language services for the court system. Although there is no legal provision establishing specific qualifications or accreditation among court interpreters and translators, some of them may have gained Sworn Interpreter status, and many others hold degrees in various fields such as Translation and Interpreting, Foreign Languages or Law.