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Like father, like daughter: the journey to becoming a court interpreter

As the daughter of a translator and court interpreter, Emma Kosanovic knew from a young age that she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps. Pursuing her passion with drive and ambition, she became the Netherland’s youngest court interpreter and also runs her own translation agency. In an interview with SwissGlobal, she speaks about her journey, shares some of her best tips, and explains what she thinks the future of interpreting will look like.

Emma, you are 24 years old and currently the youngest certified court interpreter in the Netherlands. How did you achieve this at such a young age?

Becoming a translator and interpreter is something I have always wanted to achieve. At a young age, I was surrounded by different languages and cultures. My parents come from different countries, so I was raised bilingual and constantly on the move between Croatia and the Netherlands. 

Besides learning Dutch and Croatian at home, I learned English, German, French, and Latin at school and Russian at university. I have never stopped learning new languages ever since. Also, it’s a profession within the family, as my father has been working as a certified translator and court interpreter for over 30 years. It always amazed me how easily he could switch between different languages, and helping people through communication attracted me too.

When I had to decide on my future career, I chose the international track of European Studies and finished it with a master’s degree in translation studies. But somehow, I felt something was missing. My passion for law, combined with languages, made me enroll in the course for court interpretation. Once I passed all exams, I knew I was ready to start my freelance career in the language industry! Up till today, I have been working with the Dutch, English, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin language

To those who are not familiar with the terminology: could you briefly explain, what it means to be a “sworn” interpreter and perhaps, more specifically, to be a “sworn” court interpreter?

If you want to become a sworn interpreter in the Netherlands, you must meet certain quality requirements, such as having completed a recognized educational course and having enough work experience. If this is the case, you need to sign up in the Register for sworn interpreters and translators. This entails meeting all kinds of requirements and competencies to be eligible for registration.

For example, you will need to have language skills in both the source language and the target language. It would be best if you also had integrity and the attitude of an interpreter. To register, it is also necessary to know the culture of both the source language as well as the target language. After taking the oath at the court, you receive the deed of swearing-in. From this point on you can start working as a sworn interpreter.

A sworn court interpreter must, above all these skills, have powerful communication skills and be able to anticipate what is being said quickly. Court interpreters are not only media of transmission or invisible persons in the courtroom. They are active participants in the proceedings who act independently, autonomously, and on their initiative. For this reason, court interpreters need to develop the proper identity of their role.

The qualification of a sworn court interpreter has mainly been set up to benefit clients of interpreters in the judicial circuit and the police. Think of courts (particularly in criminal cases), the Public Prosecution Service, Immigration and Naturalisation Services, the Council for Legal Aid, and so on. They are obliged to work with sworn court interpreters.

What was the biggest challenge on your journey to becoming a sworn interpreter?

During my road towards becoming a court interpreter, finding study materials and preparing myself for the final oral exam was most challenging. Since you can hardly practice interpretation on your own, you need high-quality audiovisual materials or people around you to practice with. Court sessions are usually not being filmed or recorded, which complicates the practising part even more. 

I solved this by watching Dutch criminal series or legal documentaries that often take place at the court to get familiar with the terminology. While watching it, I had my headphones on and interpreted simultaneously, taking notes and focusing on what was being said. I always recorded myself to listen to my translation later on and improve it where necessary. Or, if I didn’t know or understand a particular legal term, I would pause the video and look up the translation. This turned out to be a great way to practice interpreting that I would recommend to everyone who already works as an interpreter or is aiming to become one.

As with most interpreting, being physically present in the room as a court interpreter is a big advantage, in order to really pick up on linguistic subtleties, emotions or even body language of the person you are interpreting for. Were you still able to be in court during the pandemic or did you have to switch to remote interpreting?

In the Netherlands, we partly switched to remote court interpreting during the pandemic. Many criminal cases were postponed until after the pandemic. The most important cases that still needed to take place took the necessary measures. Some of them were taken care of with video calls. If the interpreter had to appear in court, plastic screens were installed, or the interpreter worked with a headset on.

Interesting fact: you are not required to be vaccinated or to have a negative test with you when entering the court. The place is accessible for everyone.

Besides being a court interpreter, what other types of work are you currently doing?

As a court interpreter, your day is never filled up totally. A criminal trial takes on average about one to two hours, after which you still have time for other things. Therefore, I decided to expand my services with:

-Legal and marketing translation

You can learn more about the services I offer on my LinkedIn profile or my website.

Any predictions about what the future of interpreting will look like?

First of all, there is an increasing amount of people who speak English, which makes interpretation services sometimes unnecessary. But what I am more concerned about is the rates set for court interpretation. Would you work for a salary rate that hasn’t changed since 1981? 

For 40 years, the minimum wage for court interpreters in the Netherlands has stayed the same. While prices are increasing and life is getting more expensive, our salaries aren’t changing. This is why the court interpreters for Frisian – the second official language in the Netherlands – have decided to stop working for the Dutch courts.

Court interpreters and legal translators are highly trained and specialised professionals. We need to keep our knowledge up to date through paid permanent education. Besides this, like any other person working at the court, we need to meet the highest standards of integrity. This profession requires an intricate level of knowledge and experience. Naturally, more experience results in higher pay – up to a point.

Hopefully, the Dutch government understands our role and appreciates it by paying us accordingly. In the end, it’s them wanting to stick to the minimum rates for interpreters and translators at all costs.

On the other hand, there has been a considerable increase in work concerning remote interpreting, mainly in the medical field. I expect this to go on for a more extended period, mainly because of the improvements made when it comes to online platforms for remote interpreting. Clients can opt for a video call which is nowadays possible via many apps. With all these video calling apps, you can easily make video calls from home while having an interpreter on the line!