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