Laws in Translation

by Nadia Ho

Foley Square

Now, where should I begin?

Foley Square, a place that might be unfamiliar to many, is in fact one of the judicial centers of  United States, and for that very reason it used to be a popular target for mail bombs and protests. The plaza, located in Lower Manhattan’s Civic Center neighborhood, is circled by magnificent classical Roman-styled courthouses such as the New York County Family Court, the New York City Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the United States District Court, and the United States Court of International Trade. The New York City Criminal Court and Civil Court buildings are within two blocks, and behind the Supreme Courthouse is the Southern District Courthouse, my destination today.

I am not a morning person, and neither is that bearded man meditating on a bench right by the Supreme Court Building. Having watched too many heroic lawyer movies, I was hoping to overhear some conversations between the colonnades about the conscience and deep thoughts about the purpose of justice. But that’s not likely to happen on a September day like this; all the entrances to the building have been blocked off, with only one narrow path for those who have real deals to make behind that marble-shine façade.

After I passed through the security screening at the visitors’ entrance, manned by four guards, I checked in my mobile phone as instructed. Soon I found myself at the intersection of three corridors, each leading to rows of heavy-looking doors. All the doors were shut. I only knew where to go because someone had told me beforehand.

Who is allowed to sit in a court room and witness a trial? Theoretically, anyone; but today: no one else. The schedules and information about proceedings are accessible to the public, however, they are always subject to change. And then everyone gets lost in the courthouse because the floors are cold and confusing. Visitors are not allowed to bring phones or other electronic devices, so you can’t really text people to come meet you in the court room. There is an elevator transferring system: one has to take an elevator in this wing and continue the ride in a different elevator on the other side of the building. The shut doors are emotionless and silent.  But then again, courthouses aren’t designed to make people feel like home. They are physical embodiments of authority.

How (difficult is it) to become a court interpreter?

Interpreting should not to be confused with translating. Although both require highly disciplined training and certain skills that can only be honed from experience, interpreting involves live performance that transmits messages through a very complicated processor, that is, the human brain. Another professional skill just as demanding and methodical is the practice of law.
The practice of law typically involves a lot of speaking; thus, interpreting the law requires at least twice as much speaking, given that the interpreter needs to communicate between both sides, as well as the judge.

Proficiency in two or more languages doesn’t make one qualified as interpreter; having educated, near-native mastery of BOTH source and target languages is only the preliminary requirement for a court interpreter candidate. Additionally, the candidate must

  1. have received at least two years of college-level education
  2. have had training to perform interpretation in three modes: Sight Interpreting (in brief, reading from text), Simultaneous, and Consecutive mode, AND
  3. display wide range of general knowledge – because lawsuits are life stories full of realistic details and complex human relationships

If you possess all the qualities stated above and would like to work as a court interpreter, you can start by considering taking the exam in your state. In New York State for example, one must pass a series of written examinations in English and a second language, including reading and comprehension, sentence completion, grammar, vocabulary, and legal terminology. Once you pass the written exam, you’ll be invited to take the oral exam. Each state court administers exams in different sets of languages, depending on the demographics and demands. A Tagalog interpreter in North Dakota for example, where only 0.1% population is Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders (around 700 ~800 people), might not be very much needed in court, or even outside the court.  Spanish is always in demand, but then the competition is also greater. In 43 out of 50 states in the U.S., Spanish is the most widely spoken language after English, which explains the existence, in the world of American interpreters, of this commonly-used abbreviation: LOTS (Languages Other Than Spanish).

The National Center for State Courts offers a quick self-assessment to see if you’re ready for the state exam. Here is one question (of out five) for you to try at home:

When watching the nightly news on television, I can simultaneously render the newscaster’s speech into my specialty non-English language without falling behind.

a) ___always
b) ___most of the time
c) ___often
d) ___rarely
e) ___never

And if your answer is not a) or b), you’re not ready.

Ms. Bonny Llyn, a California State certified court interpreter in Mandarin and Taiwanese who decided to become an interpreter after reading an article about simultaneous interpreting in Taiwan, had been ready for years before she dedicated herself full-time to a career in interpretation.

“I sent my resume to more than one hundred agencies,” she said. “In this job you can’t afford to be picky.” And during these years of preparation, she worked full-time in the software industry, and later in finance, while building working relationships with medical institutions and the legal system.

On an Indian summer day, I meet her in the café at the corner of Fairmont San Francisco. She hurries in on heels, dressed all in black and wearing a purple wristband for LGBTQ rights. She speaks with a charismatic smile and pays attention to every nuance  in the wording of my questions throughout the interview.  throughout the interview.  Just knowing a slim portion of her work schedule and clientele already conveys how well regarded she is in the trade. At the beginning of our conversation, she asks me why I wanted to interview her.

“Readers would want to know how to be successful like you.”

“How do you define success?”

“To achieve what you want.”

“Then I am successful,” she says.

She opens up to me about all the hardship she’s been through, including her fight against depression. Just to emphasize that successful figures don’t really see themselves the same way as the bystanders do.

From my point of view, the path to becoming a successful interpreter is similar to that of becoming an artist. One starts with small freelance jobs and builds up a portfolio. It takes years and lots of discipline and training. You have some companions of same profession, but when you’re on site, you’re on your own. Being the only person in the room who understands both sides of the story is stressful.

How does a junior interpreter get working credits to boost their career and make enough money?

“Let’s put it this way, there are Wal-Mart shoppers and there are Neiman Marcus shoppers. It all depends on who you are talking to.”

A Day at the Federal Court

An interpreter thinking long term might go for a federal certification examination after serving in the state court for several years. The requirements for federal court interpreters, also through written and oral exams,  are much higher, but once passed, you can work in any district court nationwide, including tele-interpreting for an understaffed town hundreds of miles away. The federal certification program is only available in Spanish/English and two other languages – this is where it gets interesting – Navajo and Haitian Creole. For other languages, people have to go through another process and become professionally qualified (P.Q.). What are the differences between these two? One major thing would be the pay.

One thing I learned in the U.S. is that anything at the federal level is bigger and better, especially the courtrooms.

A few days ago, I called the district executive’s office around 4 pm and told the person who picked up the phone (apparently not the executive himself) that I was trying to get permission to interview the staff court interpreters and perhaps follow them to the court to see how they work.

The person on the other end of the phone didn’t understand. “So you mean you want to become a court interpreter?”

“No, I am a journalist, I want to write an article about how the court interpreters work, and the interpreters I met wouldn’t speak to me unless I get permission from their supervisor, that’d be the district executive. Is this the district executive’s office?”

“Yes, it is. What is it that you want from here? Did you say you want to become a court reporter?”

“No. I want to observe the work of staff interpreters in court.”

This went back and forth for a few minutes. I had a feeling that he was surprised that someone would bug the executive (or him) about such an inconsequential subject matter. He asked me if I spoke with the Chief Staff Interpreter already.

“The reason I am calling,” I repeated, yet again. “Is that they don’t want to answer my questions unless I get their supervisor’s permission.”

“Call the Chief Interpreter!! Call her! Alright?” He shouted the Chief Interpreter’s name in the phone several times, and then he hung up.

I got what I needed.

So here I am, on a Wednesday like this when a court interpreter could get either really bored, or extremely busy.

Court interpreters, like many other functionaries related to or inside the courtrooms, e.g. the marshals, the court reporters, the clerks, the attorneys and even the journalist sitting in the audience, need to follow every rule set for the house. Anything that could possibly disrupt the court procedure will be strictly prohibited. The court must go on, no matter what.

Some basic principles to know about the job on site. Firstly, the court interpreter must speak on behalf of the party; prefacing the sentence with “he or she said” is forbidden. And of course, maintaining confidentiality is required at all times. In short, they should be invisible for the parties. Metaphorically, they let the unbelievably complex combinations of words flow through them and come out the other end as well-structured paragraphs in the target language; the processing time is only a few seconds. Simultaneous mode, which is the least time-consuming mode, is required in most types of proceedings, except for when the party is at the witness stand, when it switches to consecutive mode, i.e. interpreting when the party pauses between paragraphs or thoughts. Sometimes the interpreter will be asked to “standby” in the courtroom, when the party’s English proficiency is good enough to understand most of the context and will request for interpretation only when necessary.

I used to wonder why most court interpreters are mostly native speakers of a LOTE (Language Other Than English) but not the other way around. The answer is that the majority of the work in court is to translate from English to a LOTE, you only translate from a LOTE to English when the defendant speaks, which only takes a very small portion of time in most proceedings.

It’s almost noon and the judge arrives; all rise. Sunlight shines through those tall neo-Roman [should this be Roman?] windows behind the bench, falling onto the shoulders of prosecutor, who sits one row in front of the defendant’s table. On a big day with a big federal case, the front row may be full, D.A.’s, F.B.I., C.I.A., D.E.A and so on; but today there is only the D.A. and his dark-colored suit.  Behind him sits the public defender, in a khaki suit and a worn-out leather briefcase with files and documents spilling out. [Watch tense in the following segment.] The defendant is a small-time criminal from a Latin American country. The interpreter stands throughout the entire proceeding, interpreting in simultaneous mode to a microphone that connects to the defendant’s headset and my own. No pauses, no hesitations, and no delays, it’s as amazing as going through an automated carwash. At the very end of the sentencing session, the judge asks if the defendant has anything else to address. This is when the interpreter walks up to him and stands side by side while translating his response facing the judge, like a mother standing next to her young son who made a mistake. I am deeply moved.

Reading through their codes of ethics, one might think that court interpreters are being asked to be robots.  Yet from what I see in the federal court, the act of interpreting is extremely human.

Rainy Day Brooklyn

But reality bites. It bites me on a rainy Monday morning.

I get an email from a lawyer friend,

… You may have enough exposure for your research with the Federal court, but if you would like a state court experience (state and federal court are very different – state court involves a larger portion of the population) ……

He gives me a name with contact information.

I text back immediately, “You described it gracefully.”

I am already at a state court, in line with about one hundred of my fellow Brooklyn residents to enter the Kings County Civil Court building. Kings County, New York, encompassing the borough of Brooklyn, also known as director Spike Lee’s favorite block party location (he moved to Manhattan, though), has 2,636,735 residents (2015 census data) and is the second most densely populous county in the U.S., as evidenced in the lobby of this building, which is crowded and full of plastic-bagged belongings.

Now I understand why all my contacts kept emphasizing that it is “very different” in the state courts. During the first hour of the day, an average of fifty people wait in line outside the building to pass three security scanners. It looks dramatic, partly because of the heavy rain, but I didn’t have to check in my phone.

I am here to support my unfortunate homegirl Dooll, who is now trapped in a housing dispute with her former landlord who called her and roommates “trust fund babies, “spoiled brats” and “pigs” (They are none of the above, just broke art school graduates).

Room 612 is a courtroom specially designated for housing disputes, because there are so many. The courtroom has everything a courtroom should have; it’s just smaller and a lot less glamourous than the federal facility. Several cases are scheduled together for the morning so the public seating area with an approximate capacity of 36 is almost full. Inside the bar it’s also packed: several lawyer-looking men sit around a table, two ladies walk back and forth delivering documents and calling names, a court officer in a bullet-proof vest sits behind the clerk’s desk. Tired lawyers form a line in front of that desk.

When Dooll’s name is called, she goes into the bar; I have to stay outside. The screen in the court room continuously displays slides to the public in multiple languages, indicating that “Anyone here is entitled to request an interpreter, assigned by the court and free of charge,” and so there is one for my Mandarin-speaking friend. A Chinese man in white shirt and grey pants with metal frame glasses, whom we’d describe as an “Uncle” in our culture, goes to stand next to her. I look on from a distance. I can’t hear what they say, but I can guess where the case is going to.

The session wraps up quickly because, after all, this is such a small issue among the entire room full of civil problems. Yet it is such a big problem for my friend. “Did you understand the interpreter?” I ask.

Apparently the interpreter was a native speaker of Cantonese. He was not entirely proficient in Mandarin and couldn’t quite keep up with the proceedings. So it was a half-interpreted session, but I am not surprised. I have heard similar stories from other people, and I know for a fact that every public service in Brooklyn is understaffed.

Laws in Translation

Working in a second language has its challenges, but I never feel stupid when I have to ask for further explanation for context. When dealing with the law, however, legal language often makes me feel ignorant and unprepared.

“They want to make you look stupid.” So says Selva, a Spanish interpreter.

According to Selva, a court interpreter translates between four languages instead of two.  First you process the legal terms from judges and lawyers into plain English in your head, then translate it from English to the foreign language of choice, then try to find a parallel term in the other legal system, which could vary significantly. For example, all the Spanish interpreters cover all Spanish-speaking countries, where legal terms in Argentina might be different from those in Uruguay.

It’s not possible to be an interpreter and a stupid person at the same time, no way. Some interpreters might be slower or less experienced than others, so when they are given a job that’s beyond their capacity, they are blamed for the miscommunication.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. If in Flushing, Queens County, a young immigrant mother’s neglect and limited knowledge of English results in her losing custody of her children, it would not be directly the fault of the Mandarin-speaking court interpreter even if she only understands Fuzhou dialect.  She loses custody because she is at the bottom of the social hierarchy. When a person with limited English proficiency, a new immigrant, a foreigner, a small-time criminal, or an unlucky tenant, is put on the defendant’s stand, he/she already begins with a serious disadvantage. None of the representatives of the law will speak to or with him/her, they speak with only each other, and the court interpreter, if present, may be the defendant’s only friend.

Before the judge arrives, my new friend Selva comes out of the bar to sit next to me. Selva reminds me of the bright sides of both cultures: Argentina, her home country, and the U.S., her home for the last forty years or so. She came to New York as a teenager and was involved in social movements, believing in freedom and equality and, above all, justice.

“After a few hours of interpreting, you hear about the young criminal’s childhood and family conditions, you start to feel that the big guys are bullying the small guys, and  there is no justice in this country. “

As she speaks, the two marshals pause and look this way for two seconds, then return to their dull conversation about visits to the relatives’ homes. They’ve heard this kind of statement before.

Only in America can a foreign journalist walk into a courtroom like this and start pondering the meaning of linguistic diversity, while a paid employee freely expresses her doubts about the justice system in front of federal law enforcement and be disregarded. Only in America.

Editor: Mike Fu

About the author

dscf7002-sqNadia is a Taiwanese novelist/ journalist living in Brooklyn. A Columbia-SIPA and iHouse NYC alumna; currently Writer-in-Chief at Crossing. She also writes long-form journalism on Human Rights, Conflict Resolutions and International Affairs for media across China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. She is bilingual in English and Mandarin Chinese, speaks some Japanese and Taiwanese Hokkien Twitter: @dirty_shoes

Copyright © 2016 Commonwealth Magazine All Rights Reserved

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