Easing the plight of non-English-speaking defendants
Imagine being on trial in an overseas court while having a mastery of the native language extending only to ''Hello,'' ''Where does this bus go?'' and ''How much?'' You've already had a go-around with the arresting officer and the guard in the town jail, who couldn't understand you. You are assigned a lawyer who speaks halting English. You're led to a courtroom where no one - judge or jury - knows what you're saying.Skip to next paragraph
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The person on whom your case depends is the courtroom interpreter - the only voice that can convey your story, your convictions, your emotions, your sincerity - the person who will be playing you in a scenario you hope will have a happy ending.
It is the interpreter's job to tell you everything said by the prosecutor, judge, and witnesses, and to relay your responses to the court. But does he understand what you're saying? Is he translating word for word or just giving the gist of what you say? Is he saying what he thinks you meant to say? What kind of impression is he giving the jury?
These are the misgivings felt by many Hispanics and other non-English-speaking defendants in the US. Often, they have good reason to doubt whether something the interpreter said, or said incorrectly, or didn't say, adversely affected the outcome of their trials.
The US Court Interpreters Act, passed by Congress in 1979, establishes a standardized Spanish-English exam, which all interpreters in federal courts must pass. The test is rigorous, but it does not require applicants to have knowledge of the court system or of the ethics of handling sensitive court matters. Many judges - either unaware of or unconcerned with the law - prefer an often-used friend who speaks a little Spanish. Even if they wish to comply, there are only 196 certified court interpreters available so far - not enough to go around.
There are no standardized nationwide regulations governing the quality of court interpreting in state and local courts in the US.
One of the first comprehensive studies of court interpreting in the US, just completed, concludes that many non-English-speaking and deaf defendants are being deprived of ''due process of the law'' guaranteed under the Constitution. Liz Alva, senior research analyst for Abt Associates, a Cambridge consulting firm, studied court interpreting in 29 US cities. Her still-unpublished report for the National Institute of Justice assesses the quality of court interpreting on the state and local levels and includes case studies of six successful systems.
She says the study aims to help lawyers and judges understand what interpreting services are available and legal, an issue of growing importance since some courts are beginning to overturn cases in which the quality of translation has been questionable.
''Defendants must be able to understand what is happening, and they must understand the charges against them,'' Ms. Alva explains. ''There have been convictions of capital crimes where the only one who knows what the witness said is the interpreter.''
In one case, she says, the bailiff finally had to remind the interpreter to inform the defendants that they were convicted and tell them what the sentence was as they were being escorted out of the courtroom.
Currently, 33 states provide some kind of interpreting for those who request it. Some states have services for all ''linguistically handicapped'' defendants - including deaf and deaf-mute persons - while other states provide interpreters only for selected languages. Not surprisingly, New York State and the city of Los Angeles have the largest interpreting programs.