What’s the difference between a regular interpreter and a court-sworn interpreter? Why do some offices insist on using “official” interpreters? And why do they cost so much more? I finally feel adequately informed to answer this question, because I’m in the middle of my vocational training to become a court-sworn interpreter. And it is no pony ride, let me assure you.
“Can’t you just show up and translate?”
It’s easy to think of interpreters as some sort of walking dictionary that can just be switched on and perform, flawlessly and spontaneously in any environment under any conditions. In some cases, this is possible. For example, I’ve been to the foreigner’s office, the Bürgeramt, the Standesamt, banks, Kitas and job agencies so many times that I could do it in my sleep. Even a casual meeting with a mortgage broker or architect, your child’s teacher, etc – these are all things that an interpreter can do with minimal or no preparation.
But then there are things that require advance preparation, and lots of it. Such as:
- You purchase property, set up a business entity or draw up an artificial insemination agreement with legal help. Your notary gives you a contract, anywhere from 3-30 pages long. You need an interpreter to read it out at the signing.
- You have a meeting with a German investor in which you are passionately trying to convince them to sponsor your company, which commercializes fusion energy.
- You’re giving a 2-hour lecture on new cryptographic protocols in quantum computing at a conference to an international audience.
- You’re filming a documentary and need someone to interpret simultaneously.
Some of these, a regular interpreter can do if she just has the documents in advance – interview questions, the contract, your lecture notes, a briefing etc. Sometimes, you’ll need to take a court-sworn interpreter.
This is a pretty far-out example of what can go wrong on the job, but civil servants and bureaucrats in Germany also have some pretty hair-raising experiences when working with interpreters. In Germany, the profession is not protected. Anyone can wake up and call themselves an interpreter (I did it myself!). In some extreme cases, interpreters have noticed mid-appointment that they’re well out of their depth, panicked and simply bailed, leaving everyone else with a massive problem on their hands. So to ensure that the interpreter is qualified, knowledgeable and reliable, many authorities (such as courtrooms, notary offices, and political institutions) will insist that the interpreter is “sworn in”.
The Swearing-In Process
In Germany, graduating from a 4 year Bachelor’s Degree in Translation makes you eligible to be sworn in by a District Court. For the rest of us, there’s the state examination, which you can only sit once you complete a 2-3 year vocational training course. The exam only takes place once a year, the process takes the better part of a year to complete, and you only get two chances in a lifetime to actually pass it.
Once you pass the state examination to become a translator, you can be sworn in as a translator (written work only). You’re then eligible to complete a second state examination to become an interpreter. This is a whole new skill set. If you’re lucky enough to pass that, then (and only then), you can get sworn in by taking an oath at a district court and becoming a court-sworn interpreter.
All things going well for me, I will complete my vocational training in 2019, pass the first state examination in 2020, pass the second state examination in 2021 and maybe get sworn in by the beginning of 2022. Wish me luck!
Court-sworn interpreting can be hundreds of Euros for just an hour or two. Why?
I charge my regular rate of 75 an hour (this includes VAT) for things that don’t require any advance preparation and don’t require me to take any sort of legal responsibility. I don’t charge travel time, either. But if you take a court-sworn interpreter to a contract read-through with a notary, she needs to make sure that he knows each and every term that appears on your contract. Does she understand concepts like the “priority notice” (which is unique to German law, by the way) and conveyance? Does she know the full names of all the abbreviated legal acts and paragraphs referenced? She can’t paraphrase, omit or fudge over things because in this case, the interpreter takes an oath to translate accurately and completely. She signs the document with you at the end of the reading and can even go to jail if it turns out she royally screwed up. (I wonder if this lady in the USA got any extra jail time for her efforts?). In the process of reading, the interpreter often has an impatient seller and notary breathing down their neck to get the appointment over as quickly as possible. A typical 25-page purchase contract takes about 7-10 hours to prepare before I step into the room.
If you’ve got an appointment coming up and you’re not sure whether you need a sworn translator or not, get in touch and we’ll help you figure it out.