Court interpreting involves much more than just oral language translation.
According to veteran court reporter, Giovanna Carnet: “Interpreters have to process up to 22 cognitive skills while doing their job. They must comprehend complete thoughts and ideas, correctly restructure sentences, identify ambiguities, decipher speech patterns, take notes, and block out background noise. Interpreters must be familiar with legal terminology, street jargon, idioms, and metaphors, and be able to retrieve that information from the brain archives almost immediately. They require special memory skills including the ability to keep pace mentally with conversations that may overlap or run concurrent to each other.”
Federal law requires all local, state, and federal courts to provide an interpreter for anyone with limited English proficiency (LEP). For the Latino trying to master the English language, a court appearance can be a very frightening and intimidating process. Thus the court interpreter's efforts are instrumental in facilitating communication.
This free service has its origins in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which requires any agency receiving federal funding to provide equal access to its services for all residents. For Latinos, this means the agency is required by law to provide an interpreter who can orally translate into Spanish everything that is said in their presence. In theory this requirement extends not only to the courts system but also to school systems and medical facilities that receive any federal funds.
The State of Georgia recognizes three court interpreter licensing designations: Certified, Conditionally Approved, and Registered. Depending on the jurisdiction, many courts also allow interpreters who have not completed these training regimens to serve as interpreters.
In an interview with La Voz Latina last month, Michelle Gonzales, who is Chatham County's only Certified Court Interpreter, agreed to explain a few basic concepts related to the role of an interpreter.
La Voz Latina: How did you develop your Spanish-language expertise?
Gonzales: In addition to studying Spanish in language-immersion school, my husband and I spent six years serving as missionaries in the Dominican Republic. When we moved to Savannah in 2006, I became a Registered Court Interpreter. I continued my studies and became a Conditionally Approved Court Interpreter in 2009, then a Certified Court Interpreter in 2010. I'm a member of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, the Atlanta Association of Interpreters and Translators, and the Medical Interpreters Network of Georgia. In addition to court interpreting, I also work as a Patient and Family Services Interpreter for a local hospital.
La Voz Latina: Why is training so important to become an interpreter?
Gonzales: Our criminal justice system has very specific guidelines that must be followed. My job is like any other acquired skill– if you want to do it correctly, you need to understand and follow all the rules. In addition to paying out numerous licensing fees, I also invested many, many hours of study. But I understand how intimidating it must be for someone to sit in a courtroom surrounded by people speaking a language they do not understand. My training has prepared me for any number of scenarios that are likely to come up in a courtroom situation. An untrained interpreter could break those rules without even knowing it and cause serious damage. Some such interpreters have even told their clients when they should plead guilty or not guilty or to send their cases to other courts. A trained interpreter knows that they are not allowed to give any legal advice to the persons for whom they are interpreting. Court interpreters are not lawyers! A licensed interpreter could lose their license for such conduct.
La Voz Latina: English and Spanish expressions don't always translate word for word. How much leeway does the court give you when you are translating a client's response into English?
Gonzales: Interpreters interpret for meaning because word-for-word interpreting is often confusing and impossible and the result may not make sense. Idioms are the most difficult. I learned in one of my continuing education courses that a Mexican witness referred to a “mordida” which literally means “a bite of food”. In this case, he was actually talking about someone bribing a policeman.
La Voz Latina: If you sense that a defendant or a witness does not understand a question or comment during his court proceeding, can you explain to him what is going on?
Gonzales: Never! Court interpreters merely repeat other people’s words. If he doesn’t understand something, HE has to say “No entiendo.” And then I repeat in English, “I do not understand.” If he does not speak, I do not speak. I am strictly prohibited from ever giving legal advice, expressing personal opinions to attorneys or their clients or engaging in any other activities which may be construed to constitute a service other than interpreting or translating
La Voz Latina: Do your personal feelings about a court case ever influence your work?
Gonzales: I have to remain neutral. My loyalty has to be to the court system and to equal access to justice. I can't allow personal feelings to play a role in my work. On one occasion, a witness made a racially-insensitive remark. Since I repeated what the witness said as if I were speaking the words myself (in the first person), everyone in the courtroom gasped and stared at me as if I had made the remark. But if the witness says it, I repeat it. And I repeat it the way they said it. I do not clean it up.
La Voz Latina: What is team interpreting?
Gonzales: Team interpreting is a good example of why continuing education is so important. This is a recent development where the courts realize how physically and mentally exhausting court interpreting can be. They now have a system where, in trials, two interpreters work in tandem to provide relief for each other every 30 minutes or so.
La Voz Latina: Who is responsible for paying your fee when you provide court interpretation?
Gonzales: When I work for the courts, I am paid by the court system. Typically, I earn $50 an hour. The courts are required to provide interpreters free of charge but I have heard about people bringing an outside interpreter to courtrooms in Chatham County where they have paid as much as $300 for their services. Such interpreters have no license nor education to serve as interpreters.
La Voz Latina: Do you offer any other client services outside the courtroom?
Gonzales: Yes. I have my own private practice called Gonzales Interpreting. I offer legal interpreting for depositions, mediations, worker's compensation hearings, unemployment hearings, and attorney-client interviews and I offer medical interpreting for doctor's visits, exams, procedures, physical therapy, and mental health sessions. My website is gonzalesinterpreting.com