Monterey Bay Justice Project

Court interpreting crucial for non-English speaking defendants

By Pamela Martinez and Samantha Calderon

“Mira, esta lavadora es la que me gusta mas y esta a buen precio, la voy a pedir.”

Después de algunas semanas, finalmente llega lo que pensábamos que era la lavadora. Desafortunadamente, la tienda de departamento no envió una lavadora, en vez de la lavadora recibimos una estufa.

Contacting company headquarters is an experience that requires patience from both the customer and the employee, assuming one is able to speak with a representative.

For people who speak English, an incident such as receiving a stove instead of a washing machine may seem like a simple fix: calling corporate, returning the item and receiving the original item ordered. For a person who does not speak Spanish, this task is not a 1-2-3-step process.

Nayeli believes court interpreters are just there for a paycheck, as they do not build a connection with their clients.

“Thank you for calling JCPenny, your call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance…Please press two for Spanish or remain on the line…”

Imagine the situation at hand is not just receiving the wrong item from a department store, but instead, you or a loved one are facing criminal charges.

The confusion that non-Spanish speakers experienced when reading the first paragraphs of this article is how thousands of people in California feel walking into court. They do not know what is going on or what is going to happen to them because they do not understand English.

This is the reality of Nayeli, a mother of three children from Watsonville. “Yo creo que al estilo del intérprete. En veces me sentía mal porque like sentía como que no estaba hablando yo. Así como que no era lo que yo quería decir,” said Nayeli. She believes court interpreters are just there for a paycheck, as they do not build a connection with their clients.

Nayeli said she feels privileged to have a court interpreter but also feels that the language barrier becomes more pronounced because court interpreters mainly use simultaneous interpreting. This type of interpreting is performed on the spot with the interpreter and defendant speaking at the same time.

Nayeli prefers consecutive interpreting, which is interpreting performed after the defendant is finished speaking. However, this approach slows down the court proceedings. “Yo creo que seria mejor si hubiera una pausa, porque a veces si hay mucha gente como hablando y uno no alcanza de entender bien las cosas que están diciendo y escuchar también. No entienden bien de lo que se están tratando uno,” said Nayeli.

Nayeli studied English, but stopped once she got married. She no longer feels confident speaking English, but she understands the language to an extent.

Ahorita que estoy viniendo a la corte yo tengo tres hijos y se me hace muy difícil este ahorita traer a los tres. Y en veces aquí duró mucho tiempo y tengo que traer a mi hija desde Watsonville y yo tengo que recoger a mi niña como a las 11:45 y tengo que regresar aquí. Se me hace como muy pesado la cosa. Tengo el apoyo de mi familia so se me hace un poco más fácil,” said Nayeli.

Nayeli cannot rely on her kids to help her with English translation or interpretation because they are too young and are just now learning English in school themselves. “Como dije like que se tomaran un poco más tiempo que no nomas es de cuando llega uno y ya saber que nomas van a llamarnos y ya de allí no vamos a tener comunicación. Tampoco uno no habla mucho con los abogados. También nomás allí te dicen rápido las cosas como más o menos como ahorita yo hable con mi abogado y no pude decirle exactamente de qué se trataba mi caso,” said Nayeli.

The California judicial system provides equal access and fair treatment to all in the courts regardless of their ability to speak English, according to the Court Interpreters Program website. It also states the California Constitution guarantees individuals who are not proficient in English will be provided with an interpreter throughout court proceedings.

Interpretation and translation go hand-in-hand, but are not to be used interchangeably. Interpreters convert source language (language being translated from) to target language (language being translated to) orally. Translators convert source language to target language using text.

The court recognizes and provides registered interpreters for 13 languages, Spanish being the most common language provided in interpreting for both registered and certified court interpreters in the Tri-County area.

The demand for interpreters has steadily increased each year for the past 10 years. Although court interpreters work to the best of their ability, not every word in the Spanish language translates into the English language. This increases the risk of error.

A Monterey County defendant discusses his case in court.

There are two types of court interpreters: certified and registered. Certified interpreters in California must take the Bilingual Oral Interpreting exam. Registered interpreters are only required to pass the Oral English Proficiency Test.

“The use of interpreters has become more and more common. However the use of interpreters, the way it was before, it has improved a lot. We are held to a higher standard,” said Juan de Leon, certified court interpreter since 1987.

“Although someone is bilingual it does not mean they are ready for the Bilingual Interpreting Exam,” said de Leon.

The exam is offered twice a year and is more challenging than first-time-takers expect.

“I thought the exam was gonna be like, ‘Red? Rojo! Car? Carro! Court? Corte! Not even close. So when I walked out of there, I literally was humiliated. All that cockiness went away,” said de Leon.

Defendants cannot use family or friends as a rule, unless a certified interpreter is not available. In this case a judge can appoint a noncertified interpreter, but it must be someone who already is doing some sort of interpretation in the area, such as conference or medical interpreters.

If a non-certified court interpreter is called upon, the judge must be aware that they are not certified to handle court cases. The judge will tell all parties in the case to speak slowly so the interpreter does not fall behind. This further slows down court cases. Non-certified court interpreters can only be used in a case for a period of up to six months.

“I thought the exam was gonna be like, ‘Red? Rojo! Car? Carro! Court? Corte! Not even close. So when I walked out of there, I literally was humiliated. All that cockiness went away,” said de Leon.

Interpreters must be knowledgeable in both courtroom terms as well as day-to-day phrases and colloquial conversation. Each phrase is not interpreted word for word. They do the best as they can to interpret without bias.

“I have been in two cases in which the cases have been overturned. In [a] case, the interpreter was so, so lousy that the defendant himself, after the case, said that he didn’t feel that the interpreter did an appropriate job and that he felt that he was maligned or that he was disadvantaged because he didn’t have access to appropriate interpretation,” said de Leon.

More than 200 languages are spoken in California. Of the state’s 37 million residents, nearly 40 percent speak a language other than English at home. Of the 40 percent, an estimated 6.8 million residents speak or understand English “less than very well,” according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

The Spanish language accounted for 72 percent of all interpretation in the California courts from 2009-2015, according to the National Center for State Courts. No other language accounted for more than four percent of the remaining service days.

The Tri-County area (Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito) is home to 258,000 individuals who only speak Spanish at home. In Monterey and San Benito counties, more than half of the population self identifies as Hispanic or Latino, while in Santa Cruz county 32 percent of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.

Monterey County has eight certified court interpreters and two contract certified interpreters. Court proceedings are translated in Spanish by interpreters in nearly all of the cases in the Tri-County area, according to court officials. The 10 court interpreters are part of the Judicial Council Master List and work throughout the state, not just the Tri-County area.

The 10 court interpreters in Monterey County must renew their certification annually for $100. They must also do continuing education and professional assignment requirements, as established by the Judicial Council of California. If forms and payment are not met, court interpreters lose their certification.

Court interpreters average a pay of $30 an hour in the courtroom, making it an incentive to efficiently and precisely carry out their duties. Interpreters are hired half a day to a full day in which they continuously interpret back-to-back cases, making it a fast-paced job.

Larger counties, such as Los Angeles County, have accessible complaint forms. There is no complaint form for the Monterey County Superior Court, so there are zero complaints on file as of April 2017. Complaints must be written via email or letter. The Monterey County Superior Court is working on a complaint form, which will be featured online in the future.

*At her request and due to the nature of her case, we did not use Nayeli’s last name.

Nick Giordano and Wesley McCamey contributed to this project.