"When you interpret words, you interpret culture," says Connie Chan, the Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP)'s May Volunteer of the Month. For instance, the word "brother" in Chinese can mean "cousin" in English, depending on context. Connie is attentive to the nuance of language, just as she is attentive to the needs of the attorney-client relationship, for which she is a pivotal intermediary.
Fifty percent of VLSP clients are monolingual and in need of an interpreter. Connie has a special knack for allaying the fears of such clients who are faced with a daunting legal system they don't entirely understand. "No one wants to be involved in a law suit," Connie says, "They look to me for an explanation. I'm able to calm them down."
Connie's early life was spent living in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where she learned to speak Cantonese and Mandarin, respectively. Later at the University of California at Davis, Connie's double major in Chinese literature and comparative religion gave her extensive experience with translated material. A professor suggested that Connie sign up with the American Translators Association to do free lance work after graduation. Connie recalls her first gig, which she landed soon after September 11th. "I had to translate a contract for a Taiwanese company buying security equipment," she says with a laugh, "I was very nervous!"
After picking up a few paralegal classes, Connie was inspired to get hands-on experience by way of volunteering. An internet search led her to VLSP, and Connie was off and running, taking on a family law case before picking up a second landlord-tenant case. The first involved a simple dissolution between a client and his Vietnamese mail-order bride, who, having apparently blanched at the prospect of a life with this man, disappeared. For this reason, the divorce proceedings have lasted longer than the marriage.
Connie's second case involved eviction defense for an elderly immigrant couple in their mid-70s. "When you first hear the case, you sympathize with the client," Connie says, "But as the story unfolds, both sides become clear. Coming to understand different attitudes towards the same issue is a great learning experience."
Connie's personal history lends her the unique ability to identify with her clients. "I understand what it's like to be a Chinese immigrant. Coming from a history of Communism, overseas-born Chinese - especially the elderly - don't understand what it means to be sued, and certainly don't understand the appeals process. They think, 'This is it.'" By explaining the U.S. judicial system to clients, Connie helps transform their fears into confidence.
Connie's job at the San Francisco Neighborhood Safety Partnership, where she conducts crime prevention educational outreach to underserved neighborhoods, allows her the flexibility to attend weekday depositions and mediations on behalf of her VLSP clients. A San Francisco resident, Connie is very community-minded. "I like the dynamic of my own job and how it's tied to VLSP," she says. "In fact, I sometimes refer people to VLSP."
Interpreting, for Connie, has many aspects of social work. Clients are typically anxious, which makes sensitivity just as important as literal translation. The elderly couple was so thrilled with the favorable outcome of their case, they invited Connie to dim sum. "I love volunteering because I can see how the law affects people's lives on a very real level," Connie says.
Connie's skill and patience have, indeed, ensured her clients peace of mind for years to come.
Help non-English speaking clients receive the legal assistance they need by serving as a volunteer interpreter between that client and the volunteer attorney. Languages preferred: Spanish and Chinese (Mandarin/Cantonese); all others welcome. For more information, contact Emily Rodgers Rhyme at (415) 782-8963.
- Pro Bono / Legal Services