Sunday, September 19, 2004
Open to interpretation? Courtroom jobs fill niche
In the Roanoke Valley, the interpreter's role is still being defined.
The Roanoke Times
They tear down the language barrier on a nearly daily basis in Roanoke Valley courthouses. Speaking languages from Farsi to Laotian, and most of all, Spanish, when they do their job right they convey every hesitation, every slang term and every grammar mistake of foreign language testimony. If they mess up, the justice system can fail.
They are court interpreters. Their services cost Virginia about $3 million last year.
As immigrant populations swell, interpreters have gone from bilingual friends helping out a defendant to state and federally certified professionals who stand by a strict code of ethics. In the Roanoke Valley, where interpreters are required on an almost daily basis, their role is still being defined as lawyers, judges and the interpreters themselves determine the ethics, qualifications and courtroom protocol necessary for judicial interpreting.
An improperly trained interpreter is like a paramedic performing surgery, said Kevin Hendzel of the American Translators Association, which is based in Northern Virginia. Interpreters-they are not called translators because translation involves the written word-need to know much more than a foreign language, he said.
"You don't turn into a simultaneous interpreter," said Liana Arias de Velasco, one of the few state-certified interpreters who live in Roanoke. Arias de Velasco, 41, said interpreters need to have legal vocabularies and street vocabularies in the languages they work with. They need the ability to listen to long testimony and interpret everything.
For Marisol Aspillaga, 43, that meant when a nervous Spanish-speaking defendant said his birth year was in the 1800s, she had to tell the courtroom the date that would have made him far more than 100 years old.
The same goes for inappropriate language.
"If they say s---, I have to say it," said Tracy Krug, a native of Bolivia who lives in Roanoke County.
Another challenge is making do when a word simply does not exist in English or the other language. Michelle Moosavi, 42, who lives in Roanoke County, once had to explain to a judge why she kept calling a BMW a BMV when she interpreted English into Farsi. The answer was easy: There is no W in Farsi.
Even body language is a consideration, said Ann Macfarlane of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. Furrowed eyebrows or quick hand gestures contribute to meaning. Some body language is cultural, Macfarlane said. A good interpreter knows when to recognize that.
Interpreters must be familiar with all topics that come up frequently in court. So, in addition to having a bilingual understanding of terms such as objection, indictment and subpoena, they must know crude references to drugs and sex. Arias de Velasco jokes that she needs some prostitute friends because their words always trip her up. Krug carries an interpreter's guide with her that includes drug graphics.
Interpreters have to think about all those things while simultaneously switching between languages. To get an idea of how difficult it is, even without the complication of language changing, have someone read a paragraph to you out loud. Then try to repeat it.
Sometimes defendants will come to court with a relative or friend to interpret. Ultimately, the judge decides whether to allow that, but the Supreme Court of Virginia encourages courts to use unbiased interpreters.
"You can't use somebody who would be familiar with one side over the other," said J.M. Bailey, the deputy clerk in the Roanoke Circuit Court office. Clerks typically find interpreters.
In Roanoke, with its small pockets of tightly knit ethnic communities, finding a local, unbiased interpreter can be nearly impossible.
A few weeks ago, it was impossible.
Abdishakur Muhidin Hassan, a Somali man who spoke limited English, faced first-degree murder charges. A local Somali interpreter could not help because of a conflict of interest with Hassan. A woman stepped forward, but she had no experience interpreting and wasn't familiar with legal terminology.
The court resorted to a woman who interpreted over the phone from Washington. Hassan ended up entering an Alford plea to a charge of second-degree murder-meaning he maintained his innocence while acknowledging that the evidence against him was strong-but Roanoke Circuit Judge Charlie Dorsey said that if he had pleaded not guilty, the interpreter would have been brought to Roanoke for the trial.
In cases when the interpreter is in the courtroom, defendants often think they can ask the interpreters for legal advice or confide in them. Arias de Velasco does everything she can to prevent that.
"I limit my contact with the client by telling them that I am not allowed to talk to them about anything at all," she wrote in an e-mail from Spain, where she was visiting relatives. "I don't even sit near them. It's culturally strange sometimes, so I try to explain why I cannot chat during wait times."
Only about 100 interpreters are certified-meaning they've passed a written and oral exam-by the Virginia Supreme Court. The rest are still allowed to work but are questioned by a judge to make sure they have the language and courtroom skills to interpret. Certified interpreters get $60 per hour; uncertified ones earn $40 per hour.
"The certified interpreters are uniformly good," said Dorsey. "And the noncertified ... some are very good, and some are not as good."
Certification is only offered in Spanish. Only about 15 percent of those who take the test pass.
The state Supreme Court hasn't been able to afford to offer the test since 2001. Although interpreters could travel to other states or take the even more difficult federal exam, Krug said she gets plenty of work without certification.
Typically, when Roanoke courts need an interpreter, their first phone call goes to the Refugee and Immigration Services Office. Usually the office can locate someone through their database of 200 people - all of whom have passed a skills test and who speak a collective 50 languages, but none of whom is certified. Courts also tap other language service companies or individuals or even local universities.
Federal courts only use interpreters who are federally certified. Since none live in the area, they usually travel to the Western District of Virginia from Richmond, Northern Virginia and Washington for trials.
One of the biggest problems with court interpreting, said industry experts, is that some courts don't know proper protocol and prevent interpreters from doing their jobs well. They don't place interpreters in a good position to see the defendant, said Macfarlane, and they address the interpreter when they should be addressing the defendant.
Arias de Velasco said she struggles ethically sometimes simply because other people in the courtroom don't understand what exactly her job is. They will say to her: "Tell him that ..." Then, ethically bound to restate every word, she will turn to the person on the stand and say in Spanish "Tell him that" followed by whatever else was said. It's very confusing.
"It's not expected to be a professional service, and that's what's bad," Arias de Velasco said.
Macfarlane said the demand for interpretation is only going to grow and that courts need to take interpreters' jobs more seriously.
"Unfortunately, what I think it will take are some very bad outcomes in lawsuits," she said. "But you don't wish for those; you wish for justice."
A sampling of languages used in Roanoke courtrooms
"... Interpreters are obligated to apply their best skills and judgment to preserve faithfully the meaning of what is said in court, including the style or register of speech. Verbatim, "word for word," or literal oral interpretations are not appropriate when they distort the meaning of the source language, but every spoken statement, even if it appears nonresponsive, obscene, rambling, or incoherent should be interpreted. This includes apparent misstatements."
- From the Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters Serving in Virginia Courts