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Outcome of case may depend on court interpreter's language skills

By Mary Willix Farmer, Special to The Christian Science MonitorFree-lance writer Mary Farmer is a part-time interpreter for the California Department of Social Services. / June 27, 1983

San Diego

''Cruzamos la linea por los cerros y entonces vimos a los inigrantes y echamos a correrm'' (''We crossed the border through the hills and then we saw the immigration officers and we began to run'').

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The scene was a typical one in San Diego's posh Federal Court House, some 15 miles from the Mexican border. The Mexican defendant was being tried for illegal entry, a federal offense. His testimony was being interpreted in the first person by a federally certified court interpreter, Alee Alger. Since early 1980 , when federal certification exams began, only 220 court interpreters have qualified. They earn $175 a day.

According to Mr. Jack Leeth, of the Administrative Offices of the US Courts in Washington, D.C., the consultants who prepare the federal exams have measured the individual tasks interpreters perform in the courtroom. Not only has the rate of speech been measured, but types of language used in the courts have been analyzed through studies of trial transcripts.

''The interpreter must be able to function linguistically on many levels,'' Leeth explains.

The interpreter must know legal terms and courtroom procedures and be comfortable dealing with both street language and the special language an attorney may use to achieve a certain effect. He might need to be an expert in drugs or weaponry.

Just how does the interpreter prepare himself for such a task?

Professional organizations, universities, and government agencies have responded to the need, though still on a limited scale. The California Court Interpreters Association (CCIA), the largest organization of its type in the nation, with some 500 members, has been holding training workshops for the past several years. West Coast interpreters have embraced these seminars with enthusiasm.

''Since its inception in 1971, the Los Angeles-based CCIA has grown to 13 chapters,'' says Ely Weinstein, a highly regarded Federal and Superior Court interpreter. ''There are regional workshops as well as a two-day statewide convention.''

Mr. Leeth and Ms. Weinstein believe that Los Angeles leads the rest of the country in the court-interpreting field. One-fourth of all federally certified interpreters work in California.

Ms. Weinstein, who also works as a consultant in developing and giving federal certification tests, is recognized as a leading educator in the field. She and her colleagues, Sophia Zahler, director of court interpreters for the central district of California, and Frank Almeida, an educator and part-time interpreter, have developed a curriculum which they have presented in part at various workshops and which they will give as an intensive month-long course this summer at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Other summer programs are offered at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and the University of California at Berkeley. San Diego State University has a certification program in translation and court interpreting.

''We have a 15-unit program here,'' says Dr. Gerald Head, director of the three-year-old program at San Diego State. It includes intensive laboratory practice to prepare interpreters for oral examinations.