If English is not your primary language, and you do not speak or read it well, you may be entitled to help
If you do not speak or understand English well, agencies such as government offices, schools, courts, hospitals, police, fire departments, and nonprofit agencies, such as Legal Services offices, must provide you with a free interpreter and translated materials. Our laws consider language assistance to be a basic civil right. Not providing language assistance is a form of discrimination. For more information about what state and federal laws say about language assistance, visit the federal Limited English Proficiency Web site.
Who is eligible to get language assistance?
If you are unable to speak any English, or if you speak some English but are more comfortable speaking in your native language, you are considered to be Limited English Proficient (LEP). If you do not speak or understand English at all, or do not speak or understand it well enough to know what is going on in a hospital, a courtroom, or in your conversation with an attorney, the law says that you must be given language assistance.
How do I ask for an interpreter?
Agencies must give you language assistance starting with your first in-person visit or phone call to that agency. The agency should identify the language that you speak and communicate with you in that language. If the agency does not do this, tell the person you are talking to what your native language is and ask for an interpreter.
Does the agency have to give me an interpreter?
Once you have made a request for an interpreter, the agency must give you that service. This is true no matter what your native language is. The agency is not allowed to tell you that they do not have interpretation services in your language. If an agency refuses, tell them the law says that they must provide an interpreter.
The agency may choose what kind of interpretation service to provide. It may give you an on-site interpreter or a bilingual staff member or use a telephone interpreting service.
You may have to wait to receive interpretation services. However, the agency may not make you wait a long time for these services. You should keep track of how long it takes to receive interpretation services.
Will I have to pay for an interpreter?
By law, the agency, government entity, or nonprofit where you are seeking help must pay for the interpreter. The law does not allow the agency to ask you to pay for interpretation services.
What if an agency tells me that I have to bring my own interpreter?
Agencies often tell LEP individuals that they should bring their own interpreter. Under federal and state law, agencies are not allowed to ask you to rely on a friend or family member for interpretation or translation. You may bring a family member or friend to support you, but the agency may not require that person to serve as an interpreter. Certain family members, such as children, may not be interpreters. The law does not permit any minor person (under the age of 18) to interpret.
You may bring your own interpreter if you wish, but an agency may choose to use its own interpreter.
What is the interpreter’s job?
An interpreter’s job is to correctly interpret into English what you are trying to say in your native language to government agency workers, a judge, an attorney, or another service provider. The interpreter must also interpret into your native language what the government agency personnel, judge, attorney or other service provider is trying to say to you in English.
To correctly interpret, an interpreter must speak both English and your native language equally well. This means that the interpreter should have the same vocabulary level in both languages. There are other rules that interpreters must follow, such as the requirement that they use the same grammatical person as the speaker.
There are some things that you can do to help the interpreter do a good job of interpreting what you say. For instance, do not speak to the interpreter. Instead, speak through the interpreter as if you were speaking directly to the judge or service provider. Also, if you don’t understand the interpreter, have the interpreter ask the judge or service provider to explain or repeat what was said. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you cannot understand the interpreter, you should report this to the agency that provided the interpreter.
What are some things that an interpreter should not do?
An interpreter is not supposed to be your friend or advocate. The interpreter is required to remain unbiased. If you know the interpreter as a friend or through another personal connection, tell the agency staff, judge, or your attorney immediately and ask for another interpreter.
The interpreter should only speak to you when you are trying to speak to an agency staff member, judge, attorney, or another service provider. While you may feel comforted by the interpreter’s presence because he or she speaks in your native language, the interpreter is limited to the role of interpreter only.
An interpreter may not give you advice. The interpreter may only interpret the advice or communication given to you by the agency personnel, judge, your attorney, or another service provider.
Finally, the interpreter is required to keep your personal information confidential.
If an interpreter does not perform his or her role, complain in writing to the agency.
What should I do if an agency refuses to provide an interpreter?
If the agency continues to refuse to give you an interpreter, you should complain in person first and then in writing. Make sure to write down whom you talked to and when. Keep copies of all your notes and letters. You should take the following steps:
- Get the name and address of the person and the agency or business that denied your request for an interpreter.
- Ask to speak with the supervisor of the person who spoke to you.
- If you still do not get an interpreter, write a letter of complaint to:
- The mayor, if the agency is a municipal (town) agency;
- The governor of the state where the agency is located;
- The congressperson who represents you;
- Your state or local representatives;
- The agency or business director;
- The New Jersey Division of Civil Rights;
- The federal government agency that provides money to the agency refusing to provide you with an interpreter;
- The United States Department of Justice.
- File a formal complaint in Superior Court.
Am I entitled to translated materials?
The law also requires agencies to translate vital (important) documents free of charge in a timely manner. This includes all notices regarding the reduction, denial, or termination of services or benefits; notices that require a response from participants; notices offering free language assistance; notices related to work activities and available services; notices of appointment; applications; assessment notices; and other important written materials. The agency is required to translate these documents or provide sight or oral translation of these documents for you into whatever languages are common to the LEP population in your community.
Where can I go if I need help?
If you are unable to take these steps and need assistance with getting an interpreter or translated materials or making a formal complaint about an agency or an interpreter, contact LSNJ-LAW™, Legal Services of New Jersey’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529) or (732) 572-9100 if you are calling from outside New Jersey. Hotline hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. If you are not eligible for assistance from Legal Services, the hotline will refer you to other possible resources.
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Looking Out for Your Legal Rights®.
This information last reviewed 10/27/11.