Translations of documents, tape and video recordings or other material are frequently needed by counsel for criminal cases. The most frequent need is in Spanish, but translation into or out of any other foreign language may be required. A pool of freelance translators is available for translation assignments.

Note: Machine translation currently available online may be used for "gist" translation, to get an approximate idea of the content of a text.

With any translation, an attorney needs to plan ahead and get involved in the process so that expectations are clear and the end-product is satisfactory.

Experienced translators will ask various questions before accepting an assignment:

  1. When is it needed?
  2. What is it needed for? (to review, to introduce into evidence, for some other purpose?)
  3. Is there any specialized vocabulary? (the more technical the subject, the more knowledge is required by the translator)
  4. Are there special formatting requirements? (these take extra time)
  5. Will any contextual information be provided as background?
  6. Is the document an original or a copy? Is it legible? Was it written by an educated or uneducated speaker?

Market rates for translation always cover a range, depending upon the type of material, language, deadline, format, etc. The rates vary according to the rarity of the language and the supply and demand for translators in that language. Defense attorneys should obtain an estimate of the translation costs before commissioning a translation. Different rates may be quoted by different translators, and are subject to negotiation. Note that estimates are not exact figures of final cost.

Where material is voluminous, recommended practice is that defense counsel have a translator sit down and go through the documents first, to identify them by type and content. The translator can give an oral summary in the presence of the attorney, or prepare a "for-information" written summary of each document (eg., deed to house, birth certificate, etc.) Alternatively, a translator can sight-translate or summarize the content of voluminous documents into a tape recorder. Then the defense attorney can decide which materials are appropriate for a full translation.

A word of caution: translation projects can often go awry because of misunderstanding between the client and the translator. Mistakes are extremely costly. Care should be taken to request translations of relevant sections of documents only.

The translator should be given clear instructions and enough time to complete the assignment.

If the attorney is retained, translation costs cannot be contingent on third-party payment but are payable by the attorney who has requested the translation.

The American Translators Association has an excellent brochure on translation standards, which can be found at:

Translations for CJA Attorneys

After the translator completes the translation at an agreed-upon rate, a CJA21 voucher (available in the CJA Office, U.S. Courthouse, 500 Pearl Street, 2nd floor) is completed. The form requires signatures of the translator and the attorney. The form must be filed with the CJA Office, which then submits it to the presiding judge for approval. Defense attorneys are required to get prior approval from the presiding judge for any translation costs above $500. If the cumulative total cost of translation is above $1,000, prior approval by Second Circuit Judge Sotomayor is required.