Legal Language, On the Fly

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Feb 15 14:17:38 UTC 2006
>>From the issue dated February 17, 2006

Legal Language, On the Fly

Charleston, S.C.

Tune in from the master console to this room's dozen
simultaneous-interpreting booths, and a torrent of Spanish pours forth. A
class of seven students in the College of Charleston's master's program in
bilingual legal interpretation is battling a particularly difficult
exercise in interpreting courtroom English. Fluent speakers of Spanish:
Try translating, on the fly, terms like "vicarious admission," "mens rea,"
"attractive nuisance," and "failure to Shephardize."

A tape of a courtroom proceeding rolls; the students render it into
Spanish with strikingly varied styles. One near-whispers, as if confiding
the meaning. A second speaks in spurts, concentrating intensely. A third,
highly skilled, speaks assuredly, with the nuances of the original
English, and its tone and cadences. "That's what we all aim for," says
Virginia Benmaman, who is running the class. For 20 years, the professor
of Hispanic studies and legal interpretation advocate has been reminding
the legal profession that the guarantee of a trial by one's peers is
little reassurance to the millions of Americans who are baffled by
courtroom proceedings in a language they cannot understand.

As the non-English-speaking population of the United States soars Spanish
speakers alone now account for one in seven citizens, and for most of the
estimated eight million illegal residents federal, state, and municipal
courts face severe shortages of qualified interpreters. In theory, Ms.
Benmaman explains, participants in legal proceedings are constitutionally
and legislatively guaranteed the right to be effectively present at them.
"That," she says, "includes providing non-English speakers with the same
opportunities that you and I have to understand what is being said. It's
not a matter of clarifying proceedings or providing special counsel, but
just of allowing the same opportunity for access to the courts."

Even once the judiciary is persuaded of that, the interpreter's task
remains daunting. Imagine, Ms. Benmaman says as her students labor on in
their booths, simultaneously interpreting, from and into Spanish, for a
defendant and for court officials. Certain American legal concepts such as
plea bargaining, indictment, arraignment, and legal precedent may not
exist in the client's native country. So parallel words and phrases don't
either, and have had to be created as neologisms. The defendant,
unfamiliar with both the procedures and the language of the judicial
system, may be confused by talk of his case "going to trial"  because he
thinks he has been on trial from the moment he was arrested, as would be
the case in, say, Mexico or Colombia.

The client may not even be acquainted with the correct Spanish terms
associated with his trade in the United States. In his home country, he
may have been a farmworker, while here he may work in construction, using
Spanglish terms such as roofero for roofer and chiroquero for Sheetrock
installer. On a bad day, the defendant may turn out not to be a Spanish
speaker, after all. His Spanish may be patchy because his first language
is actually, say, Mixtec. Whatever is said in court, interpreters have to
translate it. "Even nonstandard speech such as cursing has to be
translated," explains Ms.  Benmaman, a diminutive, dynamic woman who looks
younger than her 67 years.  "The interpreter also has to be able to match
the legalese of judges. The worst is when lawyers and judges throw case
law back and forth. That's murder to interpret."

Ms. Benmaman pauses occasionally to listen in on different students and
offer corrections to their content or style of interpreting. She is firm,
but hardly gruff in the way many judges and lawyers can be. They are often
impatient with the time that interpreting consumes and ignorant of the
proper role of interpreters which is, says Ms. Benmaman, "solely to
translate everything that is said in the courtroom." It is not to counsel
defendants or to explain proceedings to them. Nor is it to heed judges'
requests to run for coffee. Interpreting being largely a female
profession, Ms. Benmaman has many such stories to tell. Although the Court
Interpreters Act, passed in 1978, mandates the provision of interpreters
when needed, only 860 people in the United States are federally certified
as English-Spanish courtroom interpreters.

Judges often ignore the law, which in any case has a huge loophole: It
requires that interpreters be certified or "otherwise qualified." Into
that "bottomless pit," as Ms. Benmaman calls it, courts have allowed
family members, court officials, and even janitors who happened to be on
hand to serve as interpreters. Such shortcomings, says Ms. Benmaman, make
insufficient interpreting ripe ground for appeals: "The issue is one that
defense attorneys cannot ignore, and the courts cannot ignore, either."

But the problem has no easy solution, she acknowledges. Obtaining federal
certification to be an interpreter is difficult. Only about 4 percent of
the English-Spanish exam's 20,000 candidates since 1980 have passed.
(Federal certification is offered only in Spanish, Haitian Creole, and
Navajo, while 34 states test in a total of 12 languages with a pass rate
of about 10 percent.) Most interpreters enter the trade through
happenstance, as Ms. Benmaman did. A Spanish major in college who married
a native speaker and lived for a time in Spain and Venezuela, she became
interested in becoming an interpreter in her early 40s. Seeing that no
colleges formally taught legal interpretation prompted her to start the
program at Charleston, in 1996. Only six or seven students enroll each
year, and the program has graduated 25 students to work in courtrooms
around the country. As is her hope, many graduates teach private courses

The small numbers stem from a reality of interpreting, she says: Being
fluent in more than one language is not enough. Cynthia Hernandez, a 2003
graduate of the program who has stopped by, agrees. "Growing up bilingual
doesn't make you an interpreter," she says.  "I mean, I have two hands,
but that doesn't make me a concert pianist." Ms. Hernandez is typical of
many program participants in having come to the profession late in life.
She enrolled at 54, with a degree in Latin American studies from Tulane
University and two decades' residence in Mexico with her Mexican husband.
She had also volunteered here in Charleston as a medical interpreter (a
specialization that the program here will add next year).

Like all students in the program, Ms. Hernandez took courses in legal
processes, legal language, and the history and variations of Spanish in
the United States, as well as training in interpreting itself. Students
also complete a court practicum and an internship of 300 hours in a court
that has a staff of interpreters. Interpreting is a notoriously grueling
profession, but it offers varied work in changing settings courtrooms,
health clinics, and government offices, says Ms. Benmaman. The stories,
too, are enthralling. She has interpreted in court for Mexicans who,
handled by extortionist, people-smuggling "coyotes," trekked across
deserts or crawled through tunnels to cross the border. She has
interpreted for a Colombian found aboard a drug-courier vessel who
convinced a jury he was merely a stowaway, and for a young man en route
from Miami to New York who was caught with $800,000 in his possession and
claimed, unsuccessfully, that it was for a shopping spree.

Candra Allen, a recent graduate, recalls program field trips to
law-enforcement agencies to learn about firearms and illegal drugs and to
listen to surveillance tapes of Mexican drug slang. In the program Ms.
Allen, who was born in Memphis of a Bolivian mother, learned the Spanish
for terms like "blood spatter": salpicadura de sangre.  But most
thrilling, she says, is jousting with languages in the courtroom:  "It's
very mentally stimulating; when you leave the courtroom, it's like you've
just been base jumping."
Section: Notes From Academe
Volume 52, Issue 24, Page A56

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