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

''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'').

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.

Training programs began in California after legislation was passed that required that Spanish-language interpreters employed in trial courts in 33 counties pass written and oral proficiency exams. The 1978 legislation also requires certification for administrative hearings interpreters in Arabic, Cantonese, Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.

Some government agencies have their own examinations in addition to the ones administered by the State Personnel Board. In all cases the candidate must pass the written exam before he is eligible to try the oral portion.

What are the skills that a good interpreter must master? A study done by Dr. Head and his colleague, Wayne Stromberg, showed court interpreters feel that the most difficult and important skills are maintaining concentration, memory during consecutive interpretation, accuracy during simultaneous interpretation, and a thorough knowledge of English legal terminology.

Sam Ballesteros, a Spanish-English municipal court interpreter in San Diego, says that an essential quality is the ability not to get involved emotionally. ''The interpreter must stay calm when others seem confused. He must remain objective and interpret exactly what he hears.''

Interpreting is not merely a linguistic skill, the experts point out. The interpreter must continue to process information no matter what is going on around him. He must have a firm grasp on all required terminology, and he must be neutral.

''An interpreter must disqualify himself if he knows that a trial will delve into an area that depends on vocabulary he may not fully know,'' emphasizes Ginny Gomez, a federal court interpreter in San Diego. ''He must also disqualify himself if he believes he will not be able to remain totally neutral.''

Ms. Gomez moved from the municipal court to the federal court because the wages are better. ''Working in the federal court can be monotonous,'' she says. ''The charges tend to be the same: illegal entry, bringing in illegals, and drugs. When I worked for the state I never knew what might come up. But I moved to improve my earnings.''

Court interpreters all over the country are striving for recognition, thorough preparation, and better pay.

State and local government commissions are still studying appropriate standards for court interpretation in state and lower courts. Texas has a bill pending to adopt federal regulations for the state. Florida is considering a licensing process. Other cities and states looking into qualifying devices are Seattle; Portland, Ore.; New Jersey; Minnesota; Iowa; and Utah. Some states and government agencies already have instituted their own exams.

''Both New York and California have testing programs which are unfortunate,'' says Mr. Leeth ''They do not discriminate between those who can do the job properly and those who cannot. The judicial process should not be short-circuited.''

''We must standardize our profession,'' says Ms. Alger. ''We're not far away from the days when a janitor was pulled away from his broom to interpret in court merely because he had a Spanish surname. Interpreting . . . is in its infancy.''

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