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.

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 Her still-unpublished report for the National Institute of Justice assesses the quality of court interpreting on the state and local levels and includes case studies of six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.

Most of the 115 full-time court interpreters in New York are in New York City , where the true melting pot of tongues includes Italian, Spanish, many Asian dialects, and - believe it or not - the ancient language of Chaldean.

New York interpreters are certified by the state Civil Service Commission after taking an examination on interpreting. But Ms. Alva says that among the state interpreters who later took the more comprehensive federal examination in 1979, only one person passed (others passed the following year).

The Abt study focuses on Los Angeles, which has one of the best-organized and most effective systems of courtroom interpreting. The city, whose 70 courts constitute the state's largest county court system, spends $2.4 million annually for interpreting services - compared with the $2 million spent on the federal level. Los Angeles has a full-time staff of 100 Spanish interpreters and 25 to 40 for other languages, primarily Chinese, Korean, and Farsi, the official Iranian tongue.

About two-thirds of the Los Angeles interpreters who took the first federal exam in 1979 failed the test. Nevertheless, Ms. Alva says the city's screening procedure is more thorough than most, and that the system is effective.

Boston Municipal Court Judge Charles Grabau is chairman of the Massachusetts Bar Association's subcommittee on court interpreting. Judge Grabau, who is bilingual, says awareness of the problem is increasing in part because of the growing number of bilingual lawyers now setting up practice. The fact that the subcommittee was created reflects the new concern.

Massachusetts law says ''the court may appoint an interpreter of its choosing.'' Besides being vague, the law does not require legal training or establish a code of ethics for interpreters. Nevertheless, judges and lawyers are beginning to choose interpreters more carefully.

''Most judges aren't going to risk having a case overturned because of it (poor interpreting),'' says Judge Grabau. He recently refused to let a defendant have a relative interpret for him. ''Personally, I won't allow it. . . . Just imagine if you spoke French and you were on trial, and you asked me to let your sister interpret for you. How do I know for sure what you're saying. You might say, 'Yes, I did it,' and she would say, 'I was never there'.''

Ms. Alva says some judges feel it's the defendant's responsibility to know English. ''But that's a moot point by the time they get to court. The fact is that they can't speak English.''

She quotes one study which found that 1 out of 8 Americans speaks a tongue other than English as his or her primary language. ''A lot of people speak some English,'' she says, ''but if they had to defend themselves in court, they'd be lost.''

Ms. Alva says the need for accurate interpreting starts at the time of arrest. Often the arresting officer is asked to interpret for someone he's just arrested, which raises for the officer a possible conflict of interest. The problem reaches even into the prisons, where Alva says prisoners who do not speak English sometimes are forbidden to talk, since prison guards worry about what is being said.

The Abt study, which will be distributed throughout the criminal justice system early next year, stresses a need for interpreters specializing in financial, medical, maritime, and psychiatric terminology. But the hope of most judicial reformers is decidedly more modest. They would probably settle for compliance with the existing requirement for federally certified interpreters and the establishment of standards on the state level.

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