Court interpreters hold critical role

TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Erica De La Rosa is in court nearly every day, but she never speaks for herself.

“We’re not supposed to exist,” she said.

De La Rosa is a court certified Spanish interpreter for Twin Falls County 5th District Court. Interpreters are not lawyers or advocates and don’t give legal advice or even explain to defendants possible outcomes in their case.

“You say what they say,” she said, no matter how shocking or strange it might be.

Idaho law requires that courts ensure access to all people, including those with limited English proficiency or those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The courts meet these requirements by developing programs that improve the quality of interpretation and increase the number of qualified interpreters in the courts, according to the Idaho Supreme Court website.

Interpreters are under oath to completely and accurately translate what is said in court to the best of their ability, said Mary Jo Palma, the coordinator for translators in Twin Falls County, and a certified Spanish interpreter.

“If an interpreter becomes aware they’ve made a mistake they’re under obligation to correct it,” Palma said. “If an interpreter is challenged, the judge will rule accordingly.”

One case where an interpreter was questioned is currently making its way through court in Twin Falls County.

Valentin Calvillo was sentenced to serve 15 to 30 years in state prison in November 2011 after being convicted by a jury of eight counts of lewd conduct and sexual abuse of a minor in November 2010. His sentence was delayed for a year because Calvillo, 50, skipped his trial after showing up for the first few days.

When he returned, Calvillo petitioned for a new trial, arguing he misunderstood instructions from his defense counsel when he was told to leave and seek medical treatment. With a new attorney, Calvillo unsuccessfully argued for a new trial during the summer and fall of 2011.

Calvillo’s attorney, Virginia Bond, was in court again two week ago asking Judge Richard Bevan for an independent translator to go over transcripts from the case and look for errors in translation.

During one hearing, Calvillo’s family began gesturing to say there was a mistranslation about why Calvillo felt sick the day of the trial, Bond told the court.

Twin Falls County Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Suzanne Craig said Calvillo claimed he didn’t feel good about being in front of a jury, not that he was actually ill.

Since Bond wasn’t the attorney during the hearing when the exchange occurred and doesn’t understand Spanish herself, she wanted someone else to listen to the audio recording of the hearing to see if the transcript matches up.

Bevan agreed to take the request under advisement and a new court date was set for Aug. 2.

When a translation is questioned, it can be a bit embarrassing, De La Rosa said.

“You just say, ‘excuse me your honor, the interpreter made a mistake,'” she said. “If it’s a simple mistake it’s not a big deal, but it’s humbling.”

Occasionally interpreters have to translate for someone in a language other than the one they know best. A person might speak a language that’s difficult to find an interpreter for, with Spanish being their second language and English their third.

The judge speaks in English, the interpreter translates to Spanish and the defendant must translate in their head to their own language and then the process starts again.

“It’s an art,” De La Rosa said.

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