If a native English speaking person on trial decides to exercise his right of freedom of speech by speaking in a foreign language (i.e. Chinese), does the court have to hire a translator?

  • If the Limited English Person has an official role to play in a legal proceeding (such as complainant, defendant or witness), generally there will be an interpreter provided -- often by phone. – aparente001 Jan 18 at 17:12
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    If you are a known proficient English speaker I could see you being held in contempt of court if you suddenly forget how to speak it during trial. I don't see how first amendment rights applies in this situation. – Ron Beyer Jan 19 at 5:37
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    On trial in which country? – Pharap Jan 19 at 8:23
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    @Pharap Excellent point. When discussing law, we should be careful. If a native English speaker on trial in Germany decides to speak German, and his German is good enough so the court believes that what he says is what he meant to say, there's no reason the court would get a translator. – gnasher729 Jan 19 at 16:38

Not necessarily. The right to a translator is derived from the 5th, 6th and 14th Amendments, and the prohibition against discrimination based on national origin (the Civil Rights Act). However, SCOTUS noted in Perovich v. US, 205 US 86 that appointment of a translator is a discretionary matter for the court (this was simply mentioned, without details as to why a translator was asked for). There is a federal law (applicable to federal cases) that sets up an infrastructure for providing interpreters, but this does not create a right to an interpreter. In US ex rel. Negron v. New York, 434 F. 2d 386, defendant was not afforded a translator throughout the trial, and the court found that

The least we can require is that a court, put on notice of a defendant's severe language difficulty, make unmistakably clear to him that he has a right to have a competent translator assist him, at state expense if need be, throughout his trial

The question which the court has to ask and answer is whether the defendant is capable of competently assisting in his defense were the trial conducted in English. If a person is perfectly bilingual in English and Mien but decides to testify in Mien to be annoying, the court will not pander to the defendant's desire to be annoying. If the person has a weak grip on English and can more effectively testify in Mien, then (after cogent arguments to that effect) the defendant should be provided a translator. The question that the court has to address is necessity.

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  • Did you mean to leave out the first couple words of the quoted sentence? The quoted sentence starts with "The least we can require is ..." – Tanner Swett Jan 19 at 4:33
  • Worth noting that the services of an interpreter at government expense may not be provided in all civil cases in the US, even though civil cases can often have a great deal at stake (child custody, restraining orders, divorce, eviction, etc...). It depends on the jurisdiction's rules and the type of case. – Zach Lipton Jan 19 at 5:21
  • @ZachLipton However, even in cases where there is no right to an interpreter at government expense (and that right is significantly broader than the right to counsel due to due process concerns), there is definitely a right to an interpreter as your own expenses. – ohwilleke Jan 20 at 22:50

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