Court interpreters are in high
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 28, 2005
Many defendants, witnesses don't
By 11:15 on a Thursday morning,
Kathleen Penney has already worked 13 hearings in Juvenile Court in Mesa.
Penney is an interpreter for Maricopa County Superior Court, a one-woman
information highway between the judge and jury on one side of the courtroom, and
defendants and witnesses who don't speak English on the other.
A petite blonde with blue eyes, Penney is a native of Argentina, and she grew up
in Peru and Ecuador.
Her English and her Spanish are unaccented. Her job requires that she be able to
listen in one language and "transfer" into the other simultaneously.
And as unobtrusively as possible.
"The interpreter should be invisible," she says. "You cannot influence the
proceedings in any way. Your job is to make the person who is speaking sound as
if they are speaking in the target language."
It requires intense concentration, and to tune out distracting stimuli, she
focuses her eyes on a point on the wall, seemingly lost in her translation.
Other interpreters close their eyes and look as if in a trance.
Superior Court has 24 full-time Spanish-language interpreters on staff. It needs
two more immediately, and Raul Roman, manager of the court's interpretation and
translation services, has requested 11 more over the next year. There is also
one staff interpreter in American Sign Language, used by the hearing impaired.
Interpreters of other languages are hired on a job-by-job basis from a pool of
Small pool of interpreters
Right now, according to Roman, Spanish interpreters go to about 3,000 court
events per month - hearings and trials at two Superior Court facilities and 23
Justice Courts across the county, not to mention attorney-client conferences in
and out of the jail.
It's not enough.
"The biggest problem is finding a pool of qualified applicants," Roman said.
It's a pool that doesn't grow because competent interpreters are retiring faster
than schools can turn out qualified replacements, he said. Those who remain
follow the highest salaries. To lead them toward Maricopa County, Roman recently
convinced the court administration to raise the salary range for interpreters to
between $40,000 and $70,000 annually.
The Spanish numbers will only grow.
"There's going to be more and more people and our resources are going to be
outstripped by the population," said Barbara Rodriguez Mundell, who takes over
as presiding judge of the Superior Court in July.
"The population is exploding. We've got what, 8 (thousand) to 10,000 people a
month coming here to Arizona and a lot of them are Spanish speaking? And so we
have to do something so they can have access to the court. It's not just about
having a ride that brings you to court. It's not just about being able to walk
up the steps to the courthouse. It's also about being able to speak the language
so that you can exercise your rights."
Mundell, who speaks Spanish and conducts a DUI court in that language, also
understands how difficult it is to find people capable of doing the job.
"The problem is, colleges aren't just preparing them and sending them out the
door to get jobs," she said.
According to Roman, there are only two schools in the country that have
established programs for training professional interpreters. The National Center
for Interpretation at the University of Arizona began a third program last
semester that offers training in translation and interpretation as a
concentration for undergraduates majoring in Spanish or Mexican-American
Studies. The center has also offered its curriculum to Maricopa Community
Colleges to make some courses available there as well.
So Penney's skills are in high demand here in a state that borders Mexico, a
state whose Spanish-speaking population grows daily.
Penney helps ensure that Spanish speakers receive their constitutionally
guaranteed right to due process under the law. She helps guarantee that
witnesses to a crime can tell the judge and jury everything they know.
"A lot of people think that anyone can interpret," said Ramon Delgadillo, who
like Penney, has been an interpreter for more than 20 years.
Delgadillo is tall and dark. He grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, fascinated by the
interplay of two languages flowing through that border town. His wife, an
American, is an interpreter in private practice.
"We taught each other," he said.
As an interpreter, Delgadillo must navigate a sea of variables: technical
jargon, whether legal terms or terms from construction, dentistry, auto
mechanics, science and medicine. He must understand various dialects, slang,
accents. The range of Spanish accents and regional words, from Cuban to
Argentine to Mexican would match the range of English from Jamaica to Oxford to
ebonics. He needs to understand all of them.
The people for whom he interprets may have any imaginable level of education -
or none at all.
Then there are the made-up words and mispronunciations: the person who says
"Queen Creek" but it comes out "Quee-Quee." The man who doesn't know the Spanish
term for "roofer," and so he invents "rufero."
The terms and colloquialisms get lost in translation. Insults and obscenities,
which in English tend to refer to body parts and bodily functions, in Spanish
may refer to someone's mother.
"You don't clean them up and you don't make them sound like you," Penney said.
"You make them sound like them."
Penney and Delgadillo tell anecdotes about attorneys who think they know more
Spanish than they really do: One attorney thought he was asking a defendant to
fill in a box on a form when he was really asking him to mark his private parts.
Another was trying to say pena de muerte, "death penalty," but it came out piņa
de muerte, "pineapple of death."