Matter of interpretation

Danbury court interpreters face daily challenges
Libor Jany, Staff Writer
Updated 11:47 p.m., Thursday, May 26, 2011

DANBURY — The other day in court, John Lombardi sat at his desk at the foot of the judge’s bench, listening intently as the prosecutor ticked off the names of those on the day’s docket.

Whenever the prosecutor called the name of a non-English speaking defendant, Lombardi strode over to the defense table.

For the rest of the hearing, the former high school Spanish teacher hovered next to a defendant, translating legal abstractions in Spanish, his voice mingling with those of the judge and prosecutor, as he delivered a running play-by-play of what was being said.

Lombardi is one of only three full-time interpreters — two Spanish and one Portuguese — and one part-time Spanish interpreter for the Danbury Judicial District.

“We are involved in interpreting from the very first moment the judge introduces the defendant all the way up to the sentencing. They tend to forget we’re there,” Lombardi said. “(Our role) is to place the non-English speaker in the same position as the English-speaking person in judicial proceedings.

“We try to maintain the register of the speaker at all times,” he said.

Many in the state’s legal community say court interpreters play an integral, if unheralded, role in the judicial process.

Their workloads have grown in the past decade with the influx of more languages and dialects, even as their ranks dwindled, further straining Connecticut’s overextended court system.

“We are here to simply help both the court system and the people who can’t speak English well enough to fend for themselves,” said Jose Werneck, the court’s only Portuguese interpreter, who was a lawyer in his native Brazil.

Legal experts say that the recent growth in the state’s immigrant population will likely provide fresh challenges in ensuring due process for non-native speakers, which case law says is protected by the Fourth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.

In 2009, the last year for which statistics are available, the Danbury Judicial District handled 4,515 requests for interpreters — up from 4,262 the previous year — according to a National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators report.

Ninety-seven percent of the requests were for Spanish or Portuguese interpreters, the report said.

Nationally, there was a 13.8 percent increase last year in interpreting events in 94 federal courts.

“I believe nationally there will be an increase in interpretive services (because) immigration is really a lot of times driven by the economic situations in other countries,” said Sabine Michael, a director for NAJIT, who is based in Arizona.

“We are a country of immigrants. There is always going to (be a need for interpreters),” she said.

The demographic shift is reflected in the courts, legal experts say, where more than 60 languages are spoken.

Michael said she would like to see courts do away with the practice of using only one interpreter during long drawn-out trials — often necessitated by staffing shortages — because it can lead to interpretation errors that could alter the complexion of the trial.

“A big factor in interpreting is fatigue,” Michael said. “Anything that takes longer than 45 minutes, ideally should be done in a team.

Interpreters don’t summarize.

“We interpret everything verbatim,” she said. “All that takes an enormous toll on the interpreters.”

Mistakes can arise, though in Danbury, court officials say there has not been a case in recent years that was overturned because of an interpreter’s error.

Most experts agree that navigating the subtleties of regional dialects can be baffling for even the most qualified interpreters.

“Arabic, as with Spanish, has many different dialects, colloquial variances,” said Milena Savova, academic director of the New York University‘s translating and interpreting program. “You need to have interpreters that are fluent in the area’s dialects. Because you can’t have an interpreter from Morocco and a defendant from Egypt. They will not understand each other.

“You may encounter a defendant or a witness who may speak in a dialect or may use a slang word that you are not familiar with … you must know how to deal,” Savova said. “You cannot think in the terms of `probably,’ because (the defendant’s) life, whether this person goes to jail or not, may depend on this sentence, on this very word.”

Programs similar to the one at NYU have sprouted in the past few years, giving potential interpreters a clear path to earning credentials.

“Depending on the level of the court system, there are different levels of certification,” Savova said. “Interpreters need to be well-trained (and) highly skilled in order to be able to faithfully translate this very complicated and nuanced matter.”

Furthermore, Savova said, interpreters “must be familiar with ethics, with court procedures (and) with the whole legal process.”

“I think there’s a high demand because court interpreting is not only (involved in criminal cases). It can be personal injury, it can be malpractice, it can be a housing dispute,” she said. “Every time there is a legal proceeding where somebody doesn’t speak English.”

Connecticut, as a member of the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts, offers certification exams in Spanish, Polish, Portuguese and Russian, and tests interpreters in their ability to interpret both simultaneously and consecutively, and to translate on sight.

Certified federal interpreters make $376 a day, while those who lack certification are paid $181 a day, according to the NAJIT website.

Contract interpreters are paid $15.93 an hour, while those appointed by the court earn around $50,000 a year, said Alejandra Donath, court planner for Connecticut Interpreter and Translator Services.

In Danbury, as at other courthouses around the state with only a handful of full-time interpreters, the judicial branch relies on a legion of freelance interpreters to fill the gaps in service.

Forced to drive to distant courts throughout the day, freelance interpreters often walk into the courtroom with only peripheral knowledge of the case to which they have been assigned.

Their compensation is dwarfed by that of contract interpreters in states like Michigan, where they make $150 an hour, or those in Nevada who earn $120 an hour. Furthermore, they can often lack the requisite training and temperament.

Rosemarie Chapdelaine, an attorney in the public defender’s office in Danbury, recalled the case of a female defendant who would clam up during trial because she was intimidated by the carousel of contract interpreters.

“They were louder in their tone, they were faster in the way they spoke and my client was afraid of them. She would shut down,” Chapdelaine said. “So I think sometimes personalities can impact (the interpretation). I think sometimes you either want a completely neutral personality or you want a friendly personality. But you don’t want a really strong personality, because if it comes through, it can actually make some individuals nervous.”

Attrition has been a problem for years, Donath said, as experienced interpreters go to the private sector and health care industry, where better-paying jobs are available.

“We’re always looking. We’re always in need of interpreters,” Donath said. This year, they have identified the need for Portuguese interpreters.

Interpreter and Translator Services has stepped up its efforts to recruit certified interpreters (Haitian Creole, Albanian, Portuguese, Polish, Vietnamese and Spanish interpreters are needed), often through embassies and state and national interpreter associations.

The judicial branch spent $2.6 million on interpreters statewide in fiscal year 2006 and will spend $3.9 million in 2011, according to estimates released by the External Affairs Division, even as, officials say, the total number of interpreters — part-time and full-time — is expected to continue to decline, from 76 in 2006 to 58 in 2011.

While they often become intimately familiar with the cases they work, Michael said, interpreters are not allowed to dispense legal advice.

Not that that stops some defendants from confiding in the interpreter, whom they see as an ally in the courtroom, said Javier Lillo, another Spanish interpreter and eight-year veteran of the court in Danbury.

“It’s very difficult for us to ignore what they’re telling us,” he said. “The human tendency is to harbor them, guide them through the judicial system.”

“Trials are the most challenging thing an interpreter has to face (due) to the nature of having to interpret complicated legal terms, but sometimes (also) because it’s very emotional,” Lillo said. “We’re human beings, of course, so (we) can’t (always) put aside our feelings.”