Letter to the Editor: Santa Clara County Court System Doesn’t Value Work of Interpreters

This letter was sent via email. —Editor 

Thank you for your excellent article on the Santa Clara County court's self-imposed interpreter shortage.

I’m a Spanish-language court interpreter who withdrew my availability to work in the Santa Clara County courts after a particularly bad experience there almost four years ago. Then-coordinator Karen Jones refused to provide a second interpreter for me to team with for lengthy witness testimony in a felony trial—although extra interpreters were available onsite. Ms. Jones chose instead to send an interpreter to monitor and intimidate me as I worked alone. (He wound up falling asleep in the audience.) Now I work full time for the Alameda County courts.

When best practices and professional standards go unheeded, people’s civil liberties are violated and the entire process of judicial inquiry is undermined. If interpreters are thrown into a case cold with no opportunity to get basic context, or are pushed to interpret too long without a break, we’re more likely to make errors that could impact the case. If we’re spread too thin, lawyers can’t work with their clients and court users with limited English proficiency might not get critical information read to them, such as court orders or details related to the allegations against them. They are less able to seek the court’s help or to defend themselves. If the court uses unqualified “interpreters,” information is misinterpreted or omitted. In all of these scenarios and more, no one will likely ever know that a lack of adequate language access services was to blame.

Court interpreting is a highly demanding and specialized profession. It takes years to master the interpreting skills—and that doesn’t account for the many years (often 10 or more) required to attain the necessary fluency and breadth of vocabulary in both languages. We employ 22 different cognitive functions to do our jobs; the level of focus has been compared to brain surgery. Although it is a tough job to master, there are many skilled Spanish interpreters available.

It’s high time the courts do what it takes to attract and retain enough certified interpreters. Create incentives—including competitive pay scales and professional work conditions—and the “shortage” will disappear. Only then can we guarantee equal treatment under the law for all.

Camille T. Taiara

Oakland, CA

7 Comments

  1. From Reno, NV: Amen, Camille. That recount of your experience there is beyond the pale. And just to make a good point of yours patent: the issue of lacking transparency and accountability that arises from deliberately understaffing (or misstaffing, by using unqualified interpreters) is that there’s nobody there to check on the job. To send in a “monitor” as opposed to a direly necessary relief interpreter (and interpreting during a lengthy testimony is a heavy duty job) is a contemptible attempt on the integrity of the due process of the case and the judicial system as a whole.

  2. Interpreting from a non-English language to English as someone is speaking is surprisingly difficult and demanding, even though you’re familiar with both languages. The intense focus it requires can quickly wear you out. When you add the element that a high level of accuracy is needed for court proceedings, and that many words and phrases require instantaneous judgment calls because the words don’t easily translate from one language and culture to another – well, you really must admire and appreciate the professional interpreters who are able to do this!
    J. Manuel Herrera, Trustee, East Side Union High School District

  3. Kudos to Ms. Taiara for exposing our often deficient work conditions in court settings. She is absolutely correct, due process and justice definitely often take second place to the almighty canons of “efficiency” and short-sighted “economies”. Victims’ rights and a fair trial can often fall by the wayside, when you are not a fluent English speaker.

    Court interpreters prepare diligently, every single day, to provide full and precise communication for all parties. As taxpayers, we, too, suggest that providing a team of two qualified interpreters for every single trial, would save millions further down the road in case appeals, re-trials, recidivism, and prison costs.
    Kathleen M. Morris, Federally Certified Spanish Interpreter

  4. Michael O’Connor, so non-fluent English speakers are not deserving of due process rights when their lives, liberties, and interests are at stake? I don’t know about you, but my great grandparents were certainly not fluent in English when they left their native Ireland to emigrate to the United States.

    Who gets to decide what are “valid” uses of taxpayer money? You?

    If you’re the victim of a holdup in Mexico City on your vacation, do you not have the right to an interpreter, to help you recover your passport and valuable items, because you’re not a Mexican citizen? If you are unjustly accused of a murder (mistaken identity) while on business in Japan, should you be expected to somehow “muddle through” in English at your trial, because Japanese taxpayer funding allocated to interpreter services only covers Japanese citizens? In your mind, are other of the above scenarios right and fair to you?

    Just wondering.

  5. Ms. Morris writes: “but my great grandparents were certainly not fluent in English when they left their native Ireland to emigrate to the United States.” I hate to burst your bubble Ms. Morris, but the Irish have been speaking English for centuries. Ms. Morris continues: “If you’re the victim of a holdup in Mexico City on your vacation, do you not have the right to an interpreter, to help you recover your passport and valuable items, because you’re not a Mexican citizen?” The answer is No, I would not have the right to an interpreter paid for by Mexican taxpayers. The solution is simple–don’t commit a crime and you won’t be in criminal court. Don’t give me the presumption of innocence drivel. Precious few people arraigned in California courts are factually innocent.

  6. Looks to me like interpreters are jockeying for more taxpayer loot.

    Sorry, there are too many special interests with their fingers in our wallets already. Interpreters will have to go to the back of the line — and it’s a long line. In the mean time, please advise your non-English speakers to be good, and they won’t need you. Or, they can move back home, where they speak the language. You could also get a second job. Or even interpret pro bono.

    See? There are other solutions besides begging the public for more money. The public is tapped out, sorry. Just because you speak two languages doesn’t mean you’re entitled to be supported by taxpayers. You could always get a job at the airport.

    We speak English here in America. It’s required in order to be, or to become a citizen. Anyone here legally for more than a few weeks should already be learning English. The classes are free.

    For every argument you make that we should pay you more, the answer is short and concise: “No.”

    You admit that there are plenty of others like you, ready, able, and willing to take your job. You wrote that “there are many skilled Spanish interpreters available.”

    It’s simple supply and demand: lots of folks can do your job. So it comes down to this:

    Do you want your job at the current pay, or not?

  7. Smokey, unless you have been in her shoes, you don’t know what you’re talking about. There is a shortage of certified interpreters and it really is a talent, not everyone can do it. Yes, English is spoken here in America, get real! the ATM’s in Europe are in about 20 languages. Many are not citizens, too many generalizations in your jealous missive.