Court interpreters are in high demand
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 28, 2005

Many defendants, witnesses don't speak English

Michael Kiefer

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 independent contractors.

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.

Understanding languages

"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."