No hay justicia para los intérpretes de los tribunales

Javier Rodriguez H.
© 1998 Hispanic Link News Service

Oct. 11, 1998 -- Throughout this year California's court interpreters have waged a courageous lobbying effort to convince the state legislature to grant them a well-deserved and long overdue salary increase. In fact, for the first time ever, they proudly staged pickets and walkouts in the San Francisco and Los Angeles court districts, momentarily leaving the two court systems in disarray.

They succeeded with the legislators. A limited $6 million fund was included in the state budget approved for the 1998-1999 fiscal year.

But contrary to their hopes, for the eighth consecutive year, they will not be receiving the raise. Their share of the pie fell victim to the draconian last-minute, $1.5 billion line-item budget slash imposed by lame duck Gov. Pete Wilson.

Not surprisingly, Latino interpreters -- by far the majority affected -- feel this is one more injury by Republicans against their community.

Court interpreters comprise a professional workforce in this country that ensures monolingual or limited-English-speaking defendants and plaintiffs the fundamental right of equal access to due process. This right is guaranteed by the 4th, 5th, 6th and 14th amendments of our Constitution.

Historically, the United States has provided language services to the non-English-speaking. Nowhere is this more clear than in director Steven Spielberg's epic "Amistad.'' It was through the language skills of a former slave turned U.S. sailor that Cinque, the film's protagonist, was able to narrate the truth about the slave ship, successfully refuting the arguments of ownership of the despicable slave traders and a Spanish monarchy backed by a U.S. administration fearful of escalating the imminent civil war.

The finding of the interlocutor was the turning point of the case, elucidating the path all the way to the Supreme Court. Before then, the accused did not have a voice nor did they understand the proceedings. In effect, they were not there. Due to inadequate interpretation, case law is replete with injustices as far back as 1809 (Amory v. Fellowes).

A case in point is that of Texas folk-hero Gregorio Cortez in 1906. During an investigation, key misinterpretations by a Texas Ranger caused the death of Gregorio's brother and two sheriffs and initiated the largest single manhunt ever in the infamous history of the Rangers.

Gregorio ended up serving 12 years in prison, all because he denied having traded a caballo, which denotes a male horse in Spanish. In reality he had traded a yegua, a mare. Cortez died soon after his release from prison. His story was immortalized in the film "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez'' (Esparza-Young 1983).

A more recent example is the 1977 Arizona trial of the Hanigan ranchers. That incident involved three young undocumented immigrants who, after crossing the Arizona border in the desert, ventured desperately onto the Hanigans' ranch looking for water. The immigrants were abducted, severely tortured and shot by the Hanigans.

During the trial, the substandard interpretation exhibited gross errors, which the defense counsel used to soften the testimony of the victims. The jury, experts say, became confused and exonerated the Hanigans. Immediately, a national uproar by Latinos and civil libertarians prompted the U.S. Justice Department to file charges against the Hanigans for interfering with interstate commerce.

Today, notwithstanding the rising anti-bilingual mood in our society and to the chagrin of English-only proponents, the United States court system is unequivocally bilingual. The Federal Court Interpreters Act of 1978, an outgrowth of civil rights legislation signed by President Carter, mandates the use of qualified interpreters in any civil or criminal actions initiated by the United States involving non-English-speakers. Just as important, the law calls for the certification of interpreters.

The certification process is extremely difficult and rigorous, comparable to what court reporters endure. California's examination results for fiscal year 1997-1998 clearly reveal it. Out of 578 tested, only 14 percent passed. For Spanish and Korean, the two languages most in demand in California, the results were even lower.

Statistics on a federal level are more compelling. Since 1985, out of 17,000 tested, less than 800 have been certified.

Interpreters labor at breakneck speeds, moving from 120 to 200 words per minute in the simultaneous mode. In the consecutive method, they are required to retain 65 or more words in one breath. They continuously move back and forth in two different cultural linguistics, and understanding the concept is crucial.

Retaining the essential, in a split second they decodefy it to the target language. All this while observing semantic rules and adding paralinguistic meaning such as uhs, ohs, well, ahas and silence.

The interpreter has to manage and conceptualize thousands of terms and be well versed in more than 20 specialized and technical areas such as forensic, DNA, slang, etc.

Additionally -- and a very difficult task -- he or she must interpret in the language level of the courts, i.e., a 14th grade level, including legalese jargon commonly referred to as frozen language, dating back to the 14th century. As you can see, the interpreter becomes an incredible mind machine.

Yet, with the exception of Federal court interpreters, the pay for this estimated 100,000 professionals ranges from $60 to $210 a day, with no benefits.

Unfortunately, there is an ingrained societal attitude against interpreters, primarily stemming out of a bias which public and private institutions exploit to their benefits. The root of the problem lies with the clientele interpreters serve. It is composed of immigrants, minorities and the underclass.

"For this, interpreters are sneered at by association,'' says Dr. Roseanne Duenas Gonzalez, director of the University of Arizona's National Center for Interpretation Testing, Research and Policy. In the age of globalization, this reality does not bode well for the United States. Unions should take note, because this industry has zero collective bargaining rights established.

On the other hand, interpreters do still maintain a provincial political outlook. They have yet to discover the rich and historical experience of organized public service employees.

Unless they begin to expand their horizon, they will enter the new millennium without a better future.

Javier Rodriguez H. of Los Angeles is a recent graduate of UCLA's Legal Interpretation and Translation Program and the University of Arizona's Federal Court Interpretation Program.