[lg policy] Seattle: Interpreters play bigger role in local courts

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jan 6 16:59:02 UTC 2012

Interpreters play bigger role in local courts

As King County has grown increasingly diverse, interpreters have
become integral players in the state's largest court. The National
Institute of Justice singled out King County Superior Court's Office
of Interpreter Services as one of three model programs in the country
in a 2006 report.

By Sara Jean Green

Seattle Times staff reporter

Vietnamese interpreter David Neathery, left, explains a question
directed at 44-year-old Seattle gang leader Quy Nguyen by his defense
attorney, before relaying the defendant's answer to the court. King
County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector is at right.


    Archive: Upcoming murder trial opens a window on Seattle-area
street gang (Oct. 5, 2011)
    Archive: Vietnamese gang leader pleads guilty to murder (Oct. 13, 2011)

Language and the law
Top languages interpreted in King County Superior Court

1: Spanish

2: Vietnamese

3: Somali

4: Russian

The following languages are not ranked but also are frequently
translated in court: Cantonese, Korean, Amharic, Tigrinya, American
Sign Language and Cambodian.

Source: King County Superior Court Office of Interpreter Services

The leader of a Vietnamese street gang apparently suffered "buyer's
remorse" after hammering out a plea deal with prosecutors and
admitting he was guilty of ordering a hit on a fellow gang
member-turned-rival. Quy Nguyen was supposed to be sentenced in King
County Superior Court on Nov. 4, and even picked the occasion to beg
his victim's family for forgiveness. But the Vietnamese-speaking
defendant then said through an interpreter that he wanted to withdraw
his guilty plea.

He claimed his public defenders did not spend enough time on his case,
and his "crazy" and "possessed" cellmates had left him confused and
sleep-deprived when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder with a
firearm and conspiracy to commit organized crime. But Nguyen, the
44-year-old leader of Young Seattle Boyz, heaped the most blame on his
court interpreter, Nova Phung. Not only did Nguyen claim Phung had
interpreted months of legal proceedings inaccurately, he said Phung
had suggested Nguyen could bribe his way out of prison or have his
sentence halved because of government cutbacks.

Judge Julie Spector denied Nguyen's motion to withdraw his plea on
Dec. 20 , saying he was "clearly aware of what he was pleading guilty
to and the consequences of the plea." She said Nguyen had fabricated
his complaints against his attorneys and "the maligned interpreter,
Mr. Phung."  As King County has grown increasingly diverse,
interpreters such as Phung have become integral players in the state's
largest court, which includes the downtown Seattle courthouse, King
County Juvenile Court and the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in

Court interpreters, who typically work as private contractors and
travel to courts across the state as needed, participate in criminal
proceedings as well as civil cases and family-law matters. Many also
work in U.S. District Court. The National Institute of Justice singled
out King County Superior Court's Office of Interpreter Services (OIS)
as one of three model programs in the country in a 2006 report
examining how well the nation's courts help non-English-speaking,
battered women obtain protection orders against their abusers.

The office, which "was started from scratch" in 1992, assigned
interpreters to roughly 650 cases involving 50 languages in its first
year, said program manager Martha Cohen, who is also a
Spanish-language interpreter. In the past year, OIS — which has a $1.1
million budget — found interpreters to participate in 3,000 cases, she
said. A couple of weeks ago, Falam Chin, a language spoken in western
Myanmar, became the 139th language that Cohen and her six-member team
had to find someone to interpret.

Haven for refugees

She explained that King County is one of the top five regions in the
country for refugee resettlement. "This is a very desirable place to
live, ... and we're just a reflection of all that," she said. Spanish
always has been the most-requested language to be interpreted,
followed by Vietnamese and Russian, Cohen said. In a later wave, Cohen
saw increased demand for Korean, Lao and Cambodian interpreters, then
for speakers of a number of African languages, including Somali,
"which is definitely in our top five now, where it wasn't five years
ago," she said.

If Cohen and her team can't find a local interpreter, they will launch
a national search, as they did recently to find someone to interpret
Oshiwambo, a language spoken in Namibia in southern Africa. "We ended
up with two — a man in Nebraska who was a Peace Corps trainer in
Namibia and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania," she said.
The complex case against gang leader Quy Nguyen and his
Vietnamese-speaking co-defendant caused a temporary shortage of
Vietnamese interpreters, requiring the OIS to fly in interpreters from
Salt Lake City and Denver as the murder case in Superior Court readied
for trial, according to Cohen.

More than 120 witnesses, many requiring the assistance of
interpreters, were to testify. At the same time, other gang members
faced charges in federal court and were assigned separate
interpreters. For Cohen, turning people away because of the language
they speak is not an option. "It's a question of access to services,
access to exercise their rights, access to justice," she said. "People
who don't speak English have a right to understand what's said around
them and to participate in their cases. We do whatever it takes."

Cohen described an adoption case from last year as a prime example.
The birthparents, who live in Korea, and the adoptive parents, who
live here, are deaf and use Korean sign language to communicate. Cohen
found a woman in Lakewood who spoke Korean and knew Korean sign
language but didn't speak English well enough to interpret. "So we did
it as a relay," in which another interpreter interpreted translated
English into Korean and the Lakewood woman then interpreted Korean
into Korean sign language, with the biological parents participating
in a family-court interview via Skype, she said.

The job of interpreting — the oral rendition of something spoken in
one language to another (translation is the written form) — is far
more involved than "just knowing two languages," Cohen said. "It's a
very spontaneous activity and you have to be creative and
resourceful," especially interpreting English idioms or sports
references that often don't make sense in another language.

A demanding job

Interpreters are paid $40 to $45 an hour, although they aren't
compensated for any prep work they do on a case. The work is mentally
challenging and fatiguing because interpreters must simultaneously
listen, speak, change syntax, adjust grammar and sometimes change word
structure, all while ensuring meaning isn't lost. Frequent breaks are
necessary because accuracy begins to be compromised after about 40
minutes of straight interpreting, Cohen said.

Often, two interpreters are assigned to a defendant so they can spell
each other off during lengthy trials. Interpreters who are assigned to
a defendant cannot interpret for any co-defendants, witnesses or
victims in the same case, nor can they interpret for someone they know
— safeguards meant to remove the potential for conflicts of interest
and ensure attorney-client privilege isn't violated. It's why some
cases, such as Nguyen's, require multiple interpreters.

Interpreters don't interpret word for word, but instead convey "the
meaning as close as we can," said Angela Torres-Henrick, a Peru native
who has interpreted Spanish in Western Washington courts for 25 years.
She was the first president of the Washington State Court
Interpreters' and Translators' Society, which was founded in the late
1980s and was behind a statewide effort to certify interpreters and
create a code of conduct.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts in Olympia now certifies
interpreters in 15 of the most frequently used languages and requires
rigorous testing and recertification every two years. An additional 39
languages are registered with the state, meaning interpreters are
tested only for language fluency.

Torres-Henrick mostly works on criminal cases and said court
interpreters, who can't offer advice and are ethically bound to keep
confidential any discussions between defendants and their defense
attorneys, can suffer "vicarious trauma."

"After difficult trials — it could be rape of a child, it could be
murder, it could be vehicular homicide — you come home after
interpreting all day and you just want to cry," she said. "Because we
cannot share, many times it just stays with you."

Nguyen took the witness stand during his Dec. 20 hearing and tried to
convince Spector he had not understood the guilty plea he entered a
day after opening statements in his trial.

During his testimony, Nguyen's new interpreter, David Neathery, twice
told the court, "The interpreter is repeating the question again,"
when Nguyen indicated he didn't understand what was being asked.
Neathery's statements were necessary for the court record because
interpreters aren't allowed to provide explanations or make comments
to defendants.

"He wasn't behaving the role of interpreter. ... He was advising me
like a teacher," Nguyen complained of Phung, his previous interpreter
who was dismissed after Nguyen said he no longer trusted him.

But Spector wasn't swayed. She said Nguyen "looked thunderstruck"
after the prosecution's opening statement, when he began to understand
the overwhelming evidence against him. He actively participated in
negotiating a plea deal the next day, she said.

Spector said Nguyen's attempt to withdraw his guilty plea amounted to
"buyer's remorse."

He faces a prison term of 17 to 25 years when sentenced Jan. 20.


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