Interpreting in International Family Law  

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International family law is a very complex area, and the laws are vastly different from country to country, or even region or state. You certainly can’t assume that one person’s experience with family law in one place may indicate what will happen in another.  

Family law is rarely black and white. Each case involves issues as unique as the family itself — questions such as how to divide property, how to assess the need for financial support, how to determine the validity of any prenuptial agreements, and most importantly, how each parent will continue to play a role in the children’s lives. 

Furthermore, when divorce and child custody take on international dimensions, these complexities multiply. So naturally, interpreters that are working in international family law can expect huge variations in legal processes and procedures from state to state and even more so from country to country.  

States and countries create their laws to reflect their own societal and cultural values. While shared histories and cultural similarities have left many countries with legal systems that are quite similar to one another, there are hundreds of unique systems of law in use throughout the world.  

When it comes to Family Law, these variations typically reflect the unique cultural beliefs and values of that society. For example, in many Middle Eastern countries, the child’s custody rights rest solely with the mother till the child is seven years of age, except if she is considered unfit or incapable of raising the child. Meanwhile, in the U.S., if the spouses have children together while married, the parents have joint guardianship over the child(ren) and the parental rights are equal. Each parent has an equal right to the custody of the child when they separate.   

Several treaties related to family law have been created and signed by abiding countries. A few examples are the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages and the Hague Convention on the International Recovery of Child Support and Other Forms of Family Maintenance among many others. These conventions set the groundwork for common principles that the signatories’ countries will abide by in terms of Family Law. 

So, what do court interpreters working in Family Law need to know?

All court interpreters should first and foremost have a thorough command of a given language pairing, but also a broad knowledge of the legal systems, local legislation and cultural norms and customs of the country/countries concerned. They must also be familiar with all the terminology specific to the field, in this case, of family law. For instance, terms like “shared physical custody”, “Friend of the Court” or “parenting plan” may not have a direct equivalent in someone’s language.   

In addition, a legal interpreter must possess a high degree of professionalism, a strong work ethic, oral fluency, concentration and a very good memory. They must be able to translate complex dialogues completely and accurately to avoid misunderstandings or ambiguities. These qualities are essential, as the slightest error in interpretation can compromise the quality of the exchanges and potentially impact the outcome of a hearing. 

Interpreters that work in international family law cases can expect these cases to take a long time to be resolved. Whether it is a child custody case, a divorce, or division of property, when more than one country and more than one judiciary system is involved, it can take a long time for these families to get closure. Issues heard in the Family Court are known to take 2 – 3 years on average to finalize matters, and sometimes involve delays.  

Family court cases can be emotionally draining and ethically conflicting. It is crucial for an interpreter to remain impartial and professional, as always. This can be hard to do when an interpreter has to witness families going through such difficult proceedings. An interpreter should rely on their code of ethics to maintain the highest standard of service to their clients.  

At the end of the day, a court interpreter is providing language access to the client so that they can actively participate in the legal proceedings. Imagine if a father was fighting for the custody of his child after the mother took the child to Mexico illegally. How well could he defend his right without an interpreter present? How often does a similar situation happen in courts today all over the world?  

Linguist Education Online provides training for court interpreters on topics ranging from Preparatory Courses for the Court Certification Exam to Court Interpreter Ethics, and so much more! If you are interested in International Family Law, check out our International Family Law Terminology course here. 

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