In a court of law, with life, liberty and property so often on the line, words matter. So what if you don’t understand them?
That question looms large for the thousands of non-English speakers in Colorado’s court system who are forced to rely on the state’s network of free, court-appointed interpreters as they navigate the legal world.
The provision of free court interpreters has been required in Colorado since 2006, when the state Supreme Court issued a directive mandating the service in order to bring the state into compliance with the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although the directive applied only to criminal cases at first, it was expanded in 2011 to include civil cases like divorce proceedings and property disputes.
Today, there are about 25 staff interpreters in the Colorado court system; the network of freelance interpreters who work for the state is vastly larger. Last year, with a budget of $3.8 million, interpreters working for the state’s Office of Language Access handled roughly 60,000 “interpreter events” across the state in Spanish. Those included interpreting documents, translating testimony, mediating meetings with probation officers and reading verdicts in open court, among other tasks.
That’s according to Emy López, who administers the state interpreter program. She said the job can sometimes be emotionally draining.
“It’s more emotionally taxing than many people give it credit for,” said López. “Sometimes the things that we have to say are disturbing. The interpreter is a sort of medium. It’s more than just reading a traffic infraction or something like that.”
Interpreters, López said, are often the first to announce a verdict in a tongue that a defendant can understand, and documents like victim’s statements and autopsy reports are frequently read through interpreters as well.
In a murder case now working its way through the court system in Glenwood Springs, both Fredy Argueta Cabrera, the principal defendant and his alleged accomplice Josue Israel Joya are using Spanish language interpreters.
In the 9th Judicial District, including Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco Counties, about six interpreters work the eight courthouses spread across the district. Maria De Leyo, the district’s managing interpreter, says her staff handle about 14 cases on an average day.
All of the 9th Judicial District interpreters are certified to work in Spanish, and they serve the district’s growing population of immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. When an interpreter in another language is needed, they are often called up from the more populous cities of the Front Range, De Leyo said.
In court, a person’s fate can often hinge on the meaning of a single word, so the stakes are high for interpreters to get it right.
Only about 10 percent of those who take the state interpreters exam actually pass it. The exam requires that interpreters be able to translate complex legal jargon, but also that they can easily deliver a simultaneous interpretation of court testimony directly into a defendant’s ear, in real time.
“When watching the nightly news on television, I can simultaneously render the newscaster’s speech into my specialty non-English language without falling behind,” asks a true or false question on the website of the state interpreter program.
To keep their skills sharp, interpreters are constantly brushing up on legal terms. In the court interpreter’s office at the courthouse in Glenwood Springs, a bulletin board with Spanish translations for phrases like “plea agreement” and “return of service” hangs on the wall, and interpreters consult it in their spare time.
When working in common languages like Spanish, interpreters also are frequently forced to navigate differences in slang, idiom and dialect across countries.
Anna Stout, a Spanish interpreter in the 9th Judicial District, said she was recently interpreting a meeting between a defendant and his attorney when the lawyer told his client “we’re going to admit you today.”
What the attorney meant, Stout said, was that he would admit to the judge that his client had violated the terms of his probation.
“But it could easily be thought to mean that a person was being admitted to jail,” Stout said.
Sandrina Laroche, another interpreter who works in the 9th Judicial District, recalled an instance where the word “cajeta” was used in court testimony. “In Argentina, that means ‘female parts,’” Laroche said, “but in Mexico it means ‘dulche de leche,’” a common dessert.
In their struggle to navigate the shifting sands of idiom and slang, the 9th Judicial District interpreters are aided by the fact that they all specialize in different strains of Spanish.
Stout speaks a Salvadoran dialect, while Laroche speaks a Mexican form. De Leyo, the district administrator, was raised speaking Cuban and Ecuadorian Spanish, while Gerry Krebs, another interpreter, lived in Chile for many years and married a Chilean woman.
Over the last decade, Colorado experienced a huge influx of non-English speakers. The state’s Hispanic/Latino population increased by 41 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and some of those new arrivals inevitably found their way into the court system.
“In the years that I’ve been here, there has definitely been a growth in demand [for interpreters],” said López. “We are seeing an influx of limited English proficiency people.”
Some interpreters say that the demand dropped off temporarily when the U.S. economy tanked in 2008 and more immigrants decided to stay home or move to a larger city.
Still, keeping enough trained interpreters on staff to meet the demand remains a constant struggle.
“I’m in the process of cutting back and they are going to need more interpreters for sure,” said Krebs, who is now transitioning into retirement.
“The factory ain’t making babies,” said De Leyo, referring to the difficulty of attracting qualified applicants to the trade. Many people, she said, are interested in becoming interpreters until they realize how difficult the job can be, both technically and emotionally.
“We are always looking for new interpreters, because some of our freelance interpreters are always finding other work,” said López.
In Colorado, the need is particularly urgent in mountain towns.
“It’s an area where we just don’t have the same number as we do on the Front Range,” López said.
The pay may be one reason for that. Interpreter wages are regulated by the state. Spanish-speaking interpreters make $35 an hour, while interpreters who speak more rare languages make $45. Working as a private translator can fetch at least twice as much.
But many interpreters say they do the job out of the sense of purpose that it gives them.
“I think part of it is feeling like it’s a real public service, in a broad way,” said Lopez.
“We become a voice for those who can’t be heard,” said De Leyo. “It is heavy duty. Without us, the system stops.”