*Please repeat the question (Spanish); I can’t answer you (Italian) because (French) I don’t understand (German).
The language of lawyers and the courts is often enough to daunt a bold native. Imagine what it would be like to go through trial in a foreign language. [IMGCAP(1)]“I had a case while I was on the circuit court,” recalled Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. of the Court of Special Appeals. “A divorce where each of the parties, who were from an African nation, had a cheering section.”Each side had people who spoke the African dialect and English, who could — and did —advise the attorneys as to the other side’s position, Murphy said. There were so many challenges to the interpretation that the judge had to put the objections on the record and make a finding of fact as to each disputed statement.“It was a wild case,” Murphy said.The cultural nuances may be less obvious in most cases requiring an interpreter, but they are always there.“Just being complete is very important,” said Stephen J. Frank, who interprets American Sign Language and Russian in courts here and elsewhere. “There are a lot of things we take for granted that people from other cultures or people who can’t hear aren’t aware of.”It’s important for parties to know what their rights are — and what rights they may be giving up, Frank said.“To convey this to a deaf person or a Russian person might take 10 times as long as it would to [convey it to] someone who could hear and understand English,” Frank said. “It’s often a foreign concept.”Sign times twoThe state provides spoken and sign-language interpreters when necessary in all criminal cases. It is obliged under the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide sight- and sign-language interpreters as needed in all cases, civil and criminal.One peculiarity of the current system is that each hearing-impaired defendant must be provided with two sign language interpreters, said Molly Q. Ruhl, a Montgomery County Circuit Court clerk. “You have to get two signers for trials,” she said, “because their hands get tired.”Linda Etzold, who helps administer Maryland’s interpreter program through the Administrative Office of the Courts, had a slightly different take on the issue.“Hands might get tired, but minds are the first thing to go,” Etzold said. “An interpreter can only go about half an hour at a time without a break. There really should be two interpreters for long cases or for a case like a high-profile murder.”Marta S. Goldstein, a 22-year-veteran court Spanish interpreter, wholly agrees. Goldstein, who works mostly in federal courts and for federal agencies, generally won’t take a case without a partner. In one instance when she had to work alone, she induced the court to give her a break by putting on the record that she felt she could not uphold her oath to be accurate without a rest.“A whole trial can mistry on one word,” she said.A new emphasisApart from the physical and mental demands of the case, Etzold said, the interpreter must know the court and legal system and its terminology in both cultures because some things really do not “transfer.” She said the interpreter also must be prepared to handle whatever “register” the witness of court officer is speaking in. “You can’t change register,” she said. “If a lawyer is using legalese, this has to be interpreted in legalese. If a witness is speaking in street slang, this has to be interpreted as street slang.”
|“When I was first hired, no one even asked me if I spoke Spanish.” – Marta S. Goldstein|
The AOC conducts a mandatory two-day orientation workshop on ethics and legal terminology for court interpreters, which includes an overview of the state judicial system. The workshop is a general program not geared to a specific language, in which types and modes of interpreting are discussed with short practice sessions in all modes.Interpreters who attend the workshop and submit a form to the AOC are entered into a registry, which the AOC provides to the district court and all circuit courts in Maryland — without any representation as to the interpreters’ abilities. It is up to the court to select, contact and establish the interpreter’s competence by, for example, conducting an on-the-record voir dire as to his or her training, experience and knowledge.But even these rudimentary requirements for the job are relatively new. They date back less than five years, to an administrative order of the chief judge of the Court of Appeals in December 1995.“When I was first hired, no one even asked me if I spoke Spanish,” said Goldstein, who is an AOC workshop trainer.More formalization may be in the works, however.The Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, which Murphy chairs, last month proposed a new rule on court interpreters. Proposed Rule 16-819 would allow the current Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals to prescribe regulations on such things as selection, training and testing, equipment, payment, standards of conduct and the designation of a supervisory authority for disciplinary action.Murphy expects the rule to be considered by the end of the year.“I have to say the state’s really moving in the right direction as far as interpreting is concerned,” Goldstein said. “There are horrendous stories of things that have gone on, people who were working in court who had no business there.”The AOC also is hoping to offer expanded opportunities for registered interpreters to become certified, which requires passing a test administered by the state’s AOC, another member of the 24-state Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification or the U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts. Certified interpreters are called first and command a higher hourly rate ($40 an hour instead of $30 an hour for the uncertified in Maryland’s district court, according to Richard W. Clemens, assistant chief clerk of finance).So far, less than 10 percent of the registry’s 631 interpreters are certified, and the only language for which Maryland’s AOC provides certification testing is Spanish. It hopes to add Russian next year, followed by Korean, Chinese-Cantonese and Vietnamese if there are enough candidates to schedule an exam, Etzold said. Work in progressEven that will barely scratch the surface of the state’s polyglot registry, which represents 65 languages and dialects, including 266 Spanish interpreters and 45 for American Sign Language. Of the 1,100 total circuit court cases requiring interpreters in the last fiscal year, Etzold said 641 were for Spanish speakers, 258 were ASL, 44 Korean, 40 Vietnamese and the remainder for various other spoken languages. The need is even greater in district court, which accounts for 70 percent of the $1 million the state spent on interpreters’ services last year. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties were “by far, the largest users,” Etzold said.And there are still times — in emergency situations, on weekends, for initial hearings or in the early stages of a case — that the courts have to be resourceful in coming up w
ith any interpreter. “They can use AT&T’s Language Line, which is very expensive. It’s over the phone and not in person, but sometime it’s the only recourse,” Etzold said.“In days gone by they would say ‘Bring in a family member, let them do it,’” she said. “There’s this belief that anyone who’s bilingual can do it, but that’s just not the case. You really need a trained and qualified interpreter.” And as good as Goldstein said she likes to think she is, she admits that even the best interpreter is always “a work in progress.”“You have to keep up with what people are saying, how they’re using words,” Goldstein said, adding that as an interpreter, one must always be “listening, learning, asking questions.”