Survey of practising accredited court interpreters
Around 30 accredited court interpreters from German-speaking cantons took part in the survey conducted by Silvia Cerrella Bauer, accredited court interpreter at the Higher Court of the Canton of Zurich, in May and June 2023. The anonymity of the participants is guaranteed.
The aim was to present the professional situation in Switzerland and the prospects of the profession from the perspective of practising accredited court interpreters in our country.
Experienced accredited interpreters, who are well distributed throughout German-speaking Switzerland and cover various language combinations, took part in the survey, which enabled the collection of qualitative data that gives a good overview of the situation in Switzerland.
You can find a summary of the results here:
Scope of the work
- 50% of court interpreters have an average of less than ten assignments per month with various authorities (first and foremost with courts, followed by public prosecutors’ offices and the police, as well as other offices such as civil registry offices, justices of the peace and law firms), while only about 15% have more than 50 assignments per month.
- 50% of the court interpreters interviewed cannot make a living from their work.
- 72% are able to accept orders even at (very) short notice.
- Around 60% of respondents believe that this work is not adequately remunerated, while 40% have the opposite opinion.
- On the other hand, 80% are satisfied with their cooperation with the authorities.
- 47% find the work varied and appreciate the flexibility and versatility of this profession.
- As a disadvantage, 35.4% of respondents refer to the low pay in particular. All in all, 23.5% see no difficulties worth mentioning. A further 23.5% find the following points difficult to cope with 1) unfriendliness, 2) demanding participants, 3) pressure to perform, 4) difficulty in separating oneself internally.
Almost 77% of respondents said that they use the note-taking technique in consecutive interpreting, while only 23% do not use this technique (because they have not learned it or because they are more familiar with other/their own methods).
Availability of interpreters
- Although they do not have access to statistics, around 67% of respondents believe that the authorities are able to find a suitable interpreter for their language at short notice, suggesting that there are a number of accredited interpreters available for the most common languages.
- For languages such as Tigrinya, Vietnamese, Somali, Norwegian and some other African languages (also from the Maghreb region), almost 95% of respondents are of the opinion that it is difficult for the authorities to find an interpreter at short notice.
New technologies – audio and video interpreting
- 89% of respondents believe that new technologies will change the way they work in the next five years.
- Just as many believe that in the future the authorities will use technology such as audio interpretation for remote interpreting in the legal field.
- 11% of respondents do not share this opinion for the following reasons:
- Data protection
- Audio quality can lead to misunderstandings or affect the quality of the interpretation.
- For these 11%, the use of such technologies is only conceivable in certain police situations (e.g. traffic offences), which are not very confidential, and in conversations with detainees in which no procedural details are discussed.
- Those who think implementation is possible assume that this:
- could still take a long time, as the legal regulation will still be slow in coming;
- is already practised in police questioning after accidents / in minor cases as well as in talks between lawyer and client in prison, as it saves a considerable amount of time for both sides;
- method will also be used to increase efficiency and reduce costs, as well as for the use of interpreters for rare languages.
- Nearly 60% of respondents believe that authorities will use technology such as video interpreting for remote interpreting in legal matters in the future.
New Technologies – Artificial Intelligence
- 57% of respondents believe that artificial intelligence could change the current working conditions (frequency and number of assignments, rates) for court interpreters, compared to 43% who have the opposite opinion. In this respect, the opinions are balanced, as are the possible consequences:
- General deterioration of the profession
- Huge underestimation of the importance of the human factor in the profession
- Reasons that could slow down this trend are:
- the guarantee of data protection;
- the fact that these tools are not yet accurate and reliable and confidentiality is not yet guaranteed.
- Only 45% of interpreters would use automatic speech recognition software that instantly transcribes the spoken content to support their consecutive interpreting in legal situations, provided that confidentiality is guaranteed, or in scenarios where this is permitted.
- The AI tools that respondents believe are most likely to change the working conditions and methods of court interpreters are:
- a combination of speech-to-text and text-to-speech (50 %);
- speech to text (25%).
Development of the profession in Switzerland over the next five years
- The majority of respondents (95%) do not believe that the profession of court interpreting in Switzerland will undergo any significant change in the next five years.
- The following reasons were given:
- The system is currently working very well.
- Legal regulations always take a long time.
- Qualifications will remain important.
- In Switzerland, everything moves very slowly (“the mills of administration grind slowly”), so no significant changes will be evident in such a short time. Maybe in the next ten years.
- The law stipulates what a court interpreter is obliged to do and that he or she must interpret reliably and truthfully. No artificial intelligence can do that.
- In fact, 95% of respondents are not aware of any cases in which speech-to-text technology is already being used in court interpreting in Switzerland. Accordingly, almost 70% of respondents do not believe that speech-to-text technology, even in combination with text-to-speech software, will be used in court interpreting in Switzerland in the next few years. In this context, the following considerations were expressed:
- It would be worth a try. Transcription could be quicker if everything didn’t have to be read again to make sure there were no mistakes in the text. Speech recognition could be a problem because a new interpreter is always being used. The question is rather whether the speech recognition programme can adapt quickly. These programmes need time to get used to a voice.
- A few months ago I interpreted at an international trial where a “court reporter” took notes. Some of it worked well, some of it didn’t, and then if you didn’t concentrate on your own notes you had no basis for interpreting at all. The speech recognition would have to be perfect and very reliable to be useful.
- Still very immature in my language combination.
- Transcription yes, as it is very time-saving, but it still needs to be checked to see whether it is correct.
- It facilitates interpreting, especially for longer sections and when interpreting consecutively. It supports the note-taking technique or the interpreting process.
- I am rather sceptical as to whether it will work properly soon; until it starts working very well, it would affect my work and concentration.
- 62% of respondents think that the profession of accredited court interpreter will continue to have the status it has today and that the same working conditions will remain.
- The reasons given were:
- Court interpreters are irreplaceable. But we also have to move with the times and adapt to new conditions or requirements of the authorities. In the past, it was impossible to interpret minor traffic offences over the phone. Today, this is done on a regular basis.
- Agencies are already being used today. Why not AI soon?
- I am not sure what changes there will be, but there will definitely be some, depending on technological progress. I expect that court interpreters will continue to play an important role in ensuring effective communication in court proceedings.
- Regarding recognition (fees), I doubt there will be an improvement.
- Regardless of the use of AI, it is clear that a professional interpreter must always be present when mistakes of any kind could have serious consequences, e.g. in a trial. You can never rely one hundred percent on such tools.
- 62% of respondents also do not believe that the authorities will stop working with individual interpreters and instead work with audio/video interpretation platform providers, g. to save costs.
- Reasons given:
- Because of the duty of confidentiality. Every single interpreter is checked by the authorities for good repute, language skills, etc. Leaving this to a platform would not be in the spirit of the law and the authorities.
- Because of data protection.
- Cooperation with interpreters will not be discontinued, but possibly reduced in favour of the use of platforms, as is already the case in Germany.
- I don’t think that the central authorities who have developed an admission procedure themselves and have it under their control would delegate the selection of interpreting resources. I rather believe that they would keep open the possibility of using the tool but would continue to use interpreters they know.
Conclusion: For the time being, court interpreting will continue to offer an attractive professional perspective in an era of advancing AI technologies.
According to court interpreters practising in Switzerland and accredited by the Swiss judicial authorities, AI technologies will change the conditions for the profession of court interpreting in our country in the medium and long term. However, there are good reasons to believe that this profession will continue to offer interesting professional prospects in the future:
- Restrictive use of AI in the judiciary: It is well known that the judiciary is very restrictive about the use of AI tools. Especially in proceedings where precise and reliable communication is of paramount importance, human interpreters will remain indispensable. This gap offers room for experienced (accredited) court interpreters who are familiar with the nuances of language and culture.
- On-site interpreting as a legal requirement: In many countries, the use of court interpreters in court proceedings is required by law. This makes it clear that the personal presence, the interpretation of mood and tone and the guarantee of smooth communication by human interpreters are irreplaceable. In addition, on-site interpreting helps to protect official secrecy, as confidential information is not transmitted through digital channels.
- Government control and governance: In countries such as Switzerland, the authorities attach great importance to having control over accredited professional interpreters. In some cantons, they determine and manage the admission and accreditation processes of court interpreters. This reflects the need to ensure trust, quality and safety in court proceedings. Human interpreters can meet these requirements and provide a reliable interface between different languages and cultures.
The role of court interpreters in our country thus remains an essential part of the justice system, despite technological advances. The ability to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers is and remains indispensable – an emerging professional perspective in the dynamic world of jurisprudence.