Barstow courthouse Spanish interpreter Carmen Cordova had her first court interpreting experience at the age of 12, when her Mexican-born father got a traffic citation in Los Angeles. At that time, there was no formal court interpreter program in California, so Cordova went with her father to court. She was already used to translating for neighbors and family members, but it was Cordova’s first time walking into a courtroom. Her father still had to pay a fine, but at least he was able to understand what was happening. The state of California has a shortage of people like Cordova, said Lucy Smallsreed, supervisor of the court interpreter program of the Administrative Office of the Courts for the Judicial Council of California. With the rigorous testing and training required of court interpreters and the growing population of non-English speakers in California, the 1,600 certified and registered court interpreters in California are scrambling to meet the demand for their services.
“It’s always a game of catch-up, and we never have enough,” Smallsreed said. Cordova’s fellow interpreter in Barstow, Susie Luna, said a typical day’s caseload could include walking 20 people through traffic court or spending the entire day in a murder or rape trial. Like Cordova, Luna remembers interpreting for her Mexican-born mother and her father, who was born in the United States but speaks limited English. Spanish interpreters are the most commonly requested, Smallsreed said, but there is a roster of 12 languages, including American Sign Language, in which the state tests and certifies interpreters. Speakers of other languages may become registered interpreters by taking an English fluency test. Interpreters of rare languages may be called to move across the state for a period of time to work in a trial.
In San Bernardino County, for instance, where there are currently about 40 certified interpreters, the number of Portuguese-speaking defendants appearing in court has grown faster than the number of interpreters who speak Portuguese, said Sherry Danna, manager of court support services for the Superior Court of San Bernardino County. The state mandated the Judicial Council to certify and register court interpreters starting in 1993. When Luna and Cordova began interpreting, they were not required to pass a test, although both later passed the state test and became certified. Luna was mentored by a friend who had an interpreting agency in Tulare county, while Cordova began by translating legal documents. Later, she would simply walk into the courthouse and ask if anyone needed an interpreter.
Although they were already fluent in English and Spanish, Cordova and Luna had to learn a third language, the language of the courthouse. They must be able to understand both the legal terms used by attorneys and the street slang used by defendants, victims and witnesses. From day to day, they may deal with traffic citations, divorces, murder and rape cases. “You need to know idioms, colloquialisms, weapons terminology, forensics,” Cordova said. And they need to know them well enough to interpret at a rate of 200 words a minute. While attorneys are speaking, Luna and Cordova must be able to interpret simultaneously, sitting next to a defendant and speaking in his or her ear. When a witness takes the stand speaking Spanish, they must interpret questions and answers so the judge, jury and attorneys can understand.
At the same time, they have to explain the process to defendants who may know nothing about the American court system. In Mexico, for instance, there is no such thing as a jury trial, Cordova said, and many defendants are confused by the process.“It’s a very satisfying job,” Luna said. “You have people who are lost and don’t know what to do and you’re able to help them.” Luna recalls her husband urging her to go to court and fight a speeding ticket before she became an interpreter. Even as a United States citizen and an English speaker, Luna said she was too nervous to go into court and fight it. The people she works with on a daily basis are often frightened and confused, not understanding their rights or what might happen to them. Whatever the outcome of their clients’ cases may be, Luna said at least she and Cordova can help them understand the process.
Did you know?
Court interpreters can be certified in 13 languages in California: Arabic, Eastern Armenian, Western Armenian, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese and American Sign Language.