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The Situation Confronting Sworn Translators in France

(This article first appeared in a modified form in the Bulletin of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, London, June, 1997)

Sworn translators or interpreters (either term I use hereinafter will include both translators and interpreters although the latter term is the one which appears most frequently in French codes of law) in France bear the title Expert Judiciaire près la Cour d'Appel. They owe their official existence to Decree no. 74-1184 of 31 December 1974 which provides that each year a nation-wide list (for the Cour de Cassation, the French Supreme Court) and a list for each Appeals Court district will be drawn identifying the experts appointed by the Court both for civil and criminal matters. These experts include doctors, jewellers, art specialists and interpreters, to name a few. In point of fact, translators and interpreters appear in the Code in a chapter devoted to experts, but under a separate section which explicitly sets them apart. In a much lamented ruling known as the arrêt Dobertin, and in divers and sundry rulings handed down thereafter, the Court stated that sworn interpreters were merely technicians and were not called upon to give their expert opinion, wherefore they are not, stricto sensu, experts. A number of colleagues continue to argue the point, but for the moment, that is where we stand. However, until further notice, we still enjoy the right to use the title Expert Judiciaire.

Prior to the establishment of this corps of experts, each Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI--roughly, High Court, Superior Court, in some cases, County Court) jurisdiction maintained a list of translators referred to as assermentés, i.e. sworn translators. Subsequent to the above-mentioned Decree, these translators were informed that they should apply for an appointment to the list of experts. Many did so, thereby making the transition; some, either because of their advanced age or lack of competence, did not. I mention this point simply to underline the notion that certain titles that one may see on letter-heads and calling cards, such as assermenté or juré, were supposed to have totally vanished after the Decree, the use of which was further supposed to be subject to sanctions. A quick glance at the "yellow pages" clearly shows that enforcement of the measure has never been seriously carried out, and occasionally leads to some considerable confusion in the mind of the general public.


An application is made by the candidate simply by addressing a request to the Procureur de la République. This official then sends a file to be completed by the applicant who is generally obliged to return the completed file before the first of March. The files are taken into consideration by the Presidents of the respective TGIs and the actual appointments are made by a plenary commission consisting of said Presidents, the Procureur and the President of the Appeals Court, usually in November. The results are announced to the individual applicants some time around December. The lists are then published by the Appeals Courts at varying dates, some of which don't see the light of day until July of the following year. As of the date of this writing, the total number of sworn translators in France is about 2,050.

Once appointed, the expert makes a sworn statement to "lend his assistance to justice and carry out his mission conscientiously, objectively and impartially".

At the crux of matter of appointments, the question lies, "What are the required criteria?". Good question, no answer.

The criteria are as varied and numerous as French cheeses. A rare few jurisdictions seem to take the appointments seriously and accept only highly qualified candidates, or at least such candidates who have substantiated some form of advanced linguistic studies. We know of one Appeals Court which individually interviews the candidates to learn their motivations in making their application, a measure which we highly applaud. All in all, however, it is impossible to come to any conclusion concerning the level of competence required by the Courts. Nor is the presentation of the lists done on a uniform basis. On the bottom line, some lists merely contain the appointee's name, address and telephone number. On the other end of the spectrum, the lists contain the above information in addition to a sometimes rather extensive list of the person's training and real professional occupation. On the basis of the latter type of list, we can see that the major occupation of the appointees is that of teacher (secondary and university level). Professional translators and interpreters are far from being in the majority. Afterwards, an astonishing panoply of occupations is represented, including, but limited to, such flabbergasting entries as dentist, hydraulics engineer, gastro-enterologist, shopkeeper, car engine fitter, manager of a floor tile shop, accountant, chemist and, the one I love best: magician. (Aren't we all at times?)

The number of languages accepted for certain individuals is also preposterous. While I can accept the possibility that certain people are highly gifted for language, I find it very difficult to admit that they are "expert" in up to six languages much less the legal systems governing the countries whose tongue they claim to have mastered.

The criteria, therefore, seem to be: I am of such and such origin (Hungarian, Russian, ...); I speak the language of my mother country; I live in France, ergo I am qualified to be an "expert" translator. Most Courts buy this argumentation. Frankly, I do not totally disagree with this principle. For one, it is very possible that a well-meaning and conscientious person who has accepted the title of expert has taken the title seriously and has done everything in his power to acquire essential documentation and to learn the ins and outs of the profession. Conversely, failing such ethics, most cases requiring the services of an interpreter--at a police station for instance--even the mediocre language skills of a bi-lingual shopkeeper are quite sufficient: name, address, why did you shoot the fellow?

I do, however, disagree from other points of view. First, while the intervention may be a simple one, just getting an interpreter to go to the police station or court house is a tormenting affair. Availability is supposed to be one of the prime requisites of being appointed (along with competence and discretion). Yet, there are few teachers who will interrupt their natural science class and few dentists who will halt a root canal to cross town to intervene at a commissariat (police station), thereby leaving the arrested individual to the linguistic competence of a police officer who studied English for five years in secondary school and failed every year. Second, written translations are sometimes no joking matter. Charging orders, enforcement orders of foreign judgements, child custody orders and writs of fi fa might be better entrusted into hands other than those of car mechanics. Third, the list has created a fabulous corps of "illegals". At no time--from the original filing of application to the day that appointees are sworn in--are candidates informed of the obligations inherent to the title of expert. Appointees are unaware that they are theoretically obliged to answer a call for their service at any time of day or night and that any paid intervention on their part automatically qualifies them as independent, self-employed workers and therefore subject to the occupational taxes, social contributions and other assessments payable by other independent professionals. The right hand--the Ministry of Justice--doesn't know what the left hand--the Finance Ministry--expects of its appointees and obviously doesn't care. To be clear on this subject, the result is this: the teachers, for example, are already a civil servants and receive a salary as such. They "officially" translate a birth certificate for a private client and, believing this to be an exceptional service, do not see why they should be declared as independent workers. They thereby receive a ticket for the gravy train, with an approving nod from the Ministry of Justice, without paying the fare. At best, they declare sums received for such work when they file their income tax statements, but circumvent the payment of all occupation-related taxes, social contributions and VAT. Their tariffs defy competition when compared with those applied by self-employed professionals who are subject to all those additional charges to be added to their bills. As no definition has, or can be, given to the notion of occasional work, there is no limit to the sums that some people will cite as too paltry to be declared as income subject to charges: FRF1,000? FRF3,000? One recently had the cheek to tell me that she only made FRF39,000 last year and wasn't about to pay charges on such a meagre sum.


Section 102 of the Rules of Criminal Procedure says that an examining magistrate may (not must) call upon the services of a translator and, if said translator is not on the official list, will be sworn in by said magistrate.

Section 272 says that the Presiding Judge of the Cour d'assises must call upon an interpreters if the accused party does not speak French.

Jurisprudence has proven, however, that such obligation has clearly been left to the discretion of the judge.

Section 344 says that in the event that the accused party or any of the witnesses do not speak French, or if it is necessary to translate any documents presented to the Court, said Court may appoint a translator. The subscripts to this section, however, clearly state that the lack of the interpreter's signature on any record of the hearings or lack of mention of any intervention by an interpreter during the hearings does not constitute grounds to invalidate the Court's proceedings. Unless challenge is entered by the accused party or his Counsel during the hearings, they are either deemed to have been conducted with the assistance of an interpreter or to have been understood by all parties involved.

Sections 345, 408 and 443 provide for the appointment of an interpreter for parties who cannot hear, speak and write. While there are labio-gestual experts on the official lists, these sections basically say that anybody who can understand the party in need may serve as interpreter.

Other sections of various codes provide for sanctions in the event of tampering, intimidation, bribing of witnesses, false testimony, wilful distortion of testimony and procedures for appeal when an expert has been expunged from the list.

This latter occurrence is rare, but it does happen, albeit not as often as it should. Most often it occurs when the Court jurisdictions finally realise that the expert has flown the coop. Normally, all experts are required to submit a yearly report of their interventions. Considering the fact that some names have remained on lists of people who have long disappeared, and who should long ago have disappeared from the lists, it is obvious that the Court authorities responsible for the verification of the validity of these lists are not performing.


The Court is theoretically obliged to call upon their services of an expert appearing on the list failing which the Judge is supposed to state his motive for not doing so. I know of no case in which this tenet has been enforced.

Nevertheless, just for the sake of argument, let's say that an expert is called from the list. Invariably, even though the case has been entered on the cause list for weeks (or months), the interpreter is summoned by telephone an hour before hearings. In fact, every person in the courtroom has been called to appear at the same time, 2 p.m. It is impossible therefore to know whether your case will come up at 2 or at midnight. While I cannot speak for the situation in courtrooms in other areas of France, I imagine that it is generally much the same as the one encountered in the various court houses where I have been called to intervene: appalling. The interpreter is rarely given any background information concerning the case involving his "client". Microphones are unheard of and comments by the Prosecutor and the Bench are often unheard for the background din from the spectators' galley. Magistrates have little experience with and little regard for interpreters, talk a mile a minute and give one second for translation of all the foregoing. If conditions do lend themselves to any form of simultaneous translation, the Bench may frown upon it. During an annual meeting of sworn translators in Paris some years ago, one magistrate told the assembly, "I will not have interpreters whispering in my Court".


Once the translator has accomplished his mission in the court context, he then presents himself to the court clerk for the moment of truth: the reckoning of fees. This is a crucial moment involving a decision left almost entirely to the appreciation of the clerk. Some may take no account of the amount of time that the interpreter has spent in court waiting for the case to be heard. Some will not even begin to entertain the question of travelling expenses. As the majority of interpreters are "illegals", asking for inclusion of VAT on the reckoning gives rise to raised eyebrows and interminable debate. And all this takes place in between hearings. When the interpreter ultimately quits the courtroom with his memorandum of fees in hand, he will find that whatever the amount of time allotted to him, the fees have been calculated on the basis of Section R.122 of the Code of Penal Law, i.e. FRF72 (approximately £7.50/$12.00) an hour for the major European languages. (Written translations are paid at FRF60 (£5.80/$10.00) a page, and it is most often the Court and not the translator who defines what a "page" means.) Finally, the interpreter then submits the memorandum to the payment office. The fees may be paid anywhere between three to six months later, and sometimes never. I had one some years ago that went one and half years without payment. When I enquired at the payment office, I was told that the person who handles expert's fees was on maternity leave. There is no easy procedure for collection of unpaid memos from the court. I have been told that the one possible procedure is to refer the matter to the Administrative Court which requires the intervention of an Avocat. If the memo is paid and the expert does not agree with the sum, he can refer the claim by registered letter to the Procureur, and the matter is ultimately and curiously ruled upon by the Chambre correctionnelle (court handling misdemeanours and criminal offences punishable by up to 10 years' imprisonment).

Little wonder that getting a professional into the courtroom is no minor task.


France has one national association representing sworn translators (UNETICA) with several local chapters, and a myriad of associations representing individual Appeals Court jurisdictions. The latter may be associations of sworn translators, but are generally multi-disciplinary groups encompassing all categories of experts. Membership in any of these associations is not compulsory, therefore none of the associations has managed to amass any significant clout for translators and interpreters. Local associations sometimes enjoy good relations with Court authorities, especially if their leaders are dynamic and have professional or social contacts in the right circles. On a nation-wide basis, however, the overall results of actions instituted have been disappointing. This is primarily due to the deaf-ear attitude of the authorities.

In 1996, the national association launched a petition campaign targeting an increase in the tariff scheme, which has not been revised since 1984. While they did not expressly name an amount, they did call for an annual indexing of the tariffs. Some 1,600 petitions were sent out to sworn translators throughout France. Returns amounted to about 615. While this figure only represents a little under 40%, we view it as encouraging. Account has to be taken for the experts who have accepted the title as a way to embellish their calling cards but who never intervene, and experts who are unhappy with the tariffs but, being entirely in violation of the law with regard to their fiscal obligations, would prefer not to rock the boat.

Encouraging as the result may be, the next step for the union was to arrange an appointment with the Ministry of Justice so as to deposit the petitions into the right hands. Deaf ear. Letters, phone calls and faxes unanswered. At the insistence of the president of that association, an appointment was finally received from the Ministry followed by a reply claiming that the overall justice budget was the object of spending cuts, that the 1997 budget had already been voted, but that he would transmit the file to the to the appropriate department for inclusion into the draft budget for 1998. As of 1 January 1998, no increase has intervened.


The situation in France concerning translators in general, and sworn translators in particular, is deplorable. Translators enjoy no official status in that country. Many practice the profession under flagrantly unlawful conditions, to the detriment of duly declared professionals and apparently without the slightest fear of sanction. Sworn translators are afforded little respect by Court officials, the totally unacceptable amount of their fees being just one manifest sign of this lack of esteem. Campaigns and meetings of concerned associations have recently multiplied throughout the country giving professionals at least some encouragement of a change for the better in the not-too-distant future.



Marseille, France