Court interpreters in short supply in multilingual Texas

09:25 AM CST on Sunday, January 25, 2009
By DIANNE SOLÍS / The Dallas Morning News

The Honduran woman had been beaten repeatedly. And when it was time to face her former boyfriend who she said had tormented her, she wanted the jury in the Dallas courtroom to understand key details. Her voice shook. She spoke only Spanish.

The young woman used an interpreter, Lyda Baro. In English, Baro said, "And from a beating, he gave me a miscarriage."

The accused was found guilty of a criminal misdemeanor offense.

Court interpreters like Baro give voice to women challenging domestic violence, to children who've been abused, to witnesses of murders, and to many other parts of often-complex legal processes. And they have never been in more demand - a reflection of the demographic sweep of immigration in North Texas and across the country.

"We live in a state with a death penalty," Baro said as she sat outside a courtroom. "So this is crucial stuff."

It is also the exacting stuff of stories that will affirm or contradict guilt or innocence or witness credibility. And yet a victim with a limited vocabulary can't be helped by an interpreter with a college degree, a poetic flair and a gift for narrative arc.

Interpreters must remain neutral and not add or subtract from what's said, according to administrative rules of the state licensing agency.

There are false cognates, and there are true cognates. (Crimen isn't an exact translation of crime, for example.) There are literal meanings versus idiomatic expressions of a certain region. ("Keep your nose clean" isn't so easy to translate.)

Linguistic nimbleness is only half the skill needed, experts say. Interpreters must also know a good deal about the law and have excellent memories.

Interpreter scarcity

So the licensing process is tough.

There are only 32 licensed interpreters in Dallas County, and about 500 in the state. About 40 percent of Dallas County, or 830,000 people, and about a third of the Texas population, or 7.2 million, speaks a language other than English in the home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Spanish dominates among the foreign languages, followed by Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean.

"To have this low number of interpreters is ridiculous," said Esther Diaz, an Austin interpreter active in the American Translators Association. "One of the reasons we have so few is that the test is so rigorous, you really have to know Spanish inside and out."

Marilyn Retta, a licensed court interpreter in Dallas, said: "I turn down about as many jobs as I take because there just aren't enough interpreters. That is a good place to be if you want job security."

Not everyone who believes he's bilingual makes it as an interpreter for the foreign-born.

"A good interpreter has very high language skills, phenomenal skills," said Gerda Stendell, director of the Access Language Center. "They have to be fully bilingual. But being bilingual is only the raw material. A professional interpreter needs a vast vocabulary, ranging from street language to master's degree quality."

Training for focus

Precision was at play at a recent training session for court interpreters in McKinney. Elegible in Mexico commonly means a person who legally can be elected. It doesn't mean eligible.

"It is an Anglocism; but Anglocisms are becoming more and more common," Holly Mikkelson said as she led the training for the Texas Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.

Mikkelson warns about the word crimen. It doesn't mean just any crime but is instead reserved for unusually violent crimes. In English, the word "delinquent" refers to a petty offense by a minor. But in Spanish, delinquencia can mean any crime by a person of any age.

While repeating word for word what's being heard, she has a student write down a mathematical sequence such as skip-counting by threes, said Mikkelson, who also teaches at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a language school in California.

The interpreter's role is huge, said District Judge Lena Levario. "A wrong interpretation can mean the difference between freedom and a prison sentence," she said.

She recalled a case from years prior when, as a young public defender, she represented a man who received a bad translation of what the perpetrator allegedly wore. Her objection meant freedom for her client.

Luis García, president of the state interpreters group, said he sometimes hears complaints that interpreters cost taxpayers too much money. But court interpreters aren't just for defendants, García said.

"They are for victims, too," he said. "What if the person who needs an interpreter was a witness to the murder of your mother or another loved one?"

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