Help wanted: court interpreters

This story in USA Today hits on the shortage of bilingual interpreters in the nation’s courts.

I wrote about this issue in January. Here’s the story:

Court interpreters are key to unlocking justice for immigrants

When the anguished woman turned to the man convicted of raping her daughter, it was Rossana Testino-Burke’s cue to be her voice.

Quiero que sepa el infierno que es nuestra vida – “I want him to know the hell our lives are now,” Testino-Burke calmly repeated in English for the courtroom.

Esta pesadilla es de todos los dias – “This nightmare is every day.”

Diez aƱos no es suficiente – “Ten years is not enough.”

Testino-Burke is among dozens of interpreters in the New York court system who become the voice of justice for witnesses and victims who find themselves in a legal system that operates in English. They also are the voice of understanding for immigrants facing criminal charges who need to know what their attorneys and the judge are saying about them.

As the Lower Hudson Valley becomes more diverse, the court interpreters who work in White Plains are busier than ever.

“I’ve had 26 cases myself in one day,” said Sylvia Castellano, the Argentinian-born interpreter in Westchester Family Court. “Every day I’m running all over the place. It’s all day long.”

In the courtroom, interpreters stand inches away from immigrants, softly speaking the words in Spanish or other languages that are being used by the judge and the attorneys in English. Three out of four court interpreters statewide speak Spanish, while the rest represent 19 other languages – the most common being Mandarin, Russian, Haitian Creole, Cantonese and Korean.

The interpreters simultaneously communicate essential information about bail, probation and future court appearances, among other crucial facts. They also stand beside witnesses, repeating their testimony so the jury can understand them. Outside the courtroom, they help attorneys talk to their clients, translating legal documents or interpreting conversations on speaker phones.

The need for Spanish-speaking court interpreters comes from changing demographics. Since 2000, the tri-county area has seen its Hispanic population grow 20 percent, census figures show.

Since 2002, the state has hired two dozen more Spanish-speaking court interpreters. In the 9th Judicial District, which covers Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Dutchess and Orange counties, the number of Spanish-speaking court interpreters has increased fivefold, to 15.

The growing need for Spanish-speaking court interpreters does not mean more Hispanics are committing crimes, said George W. Echevarria, an Ossining attorney and a past president of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition.

“Legal and nonlegal, the percentage is extraordinary small considering the enormous influx of immigrants,” he said. “You’re not seeing an enormous spike in crime.”

Laura Gonzalez, the court interpreter at the Rockland County courthouse, said her workload has spiked since 2005, when she began working in Rockland.

“When I started, I had two busy days,” she said. “Now, I have busy days every day.”

Gonzalez, who grew up in Puerto Rico and Spain, said she handled 92 cases in September – 30 more cases than she had a year earlier. As the county’s head of court interpreting services, Gonzalez said she is hiring more part-time court interpreters who speak Haitian-Creole, Polish, Russian and Mandarin.

“Demands for those (languages) have increased also,” she said. “Not at the pace of Spanish, but it’s growing.”

Being bilingual is not enough. Court interpreters must be familiar with legal and forensic language and be able to simultaneously interpret for long periods of time. But court interpreters are neutral players in the justice system, and are barred from giving legal advice.

“They’ll turn to us and ask, ‘What should I do?’ ” Castellano said. “I tell them to ask their attorney.”

New York employs 330 staff court interpreters who speak more than 30 languages, including sign language. More than 1,300 private interpreters can be called to interpret two dozen additional languages on an as-needed basis.

The New York Office of Court Administration has stepped up efforts to recruit more interpreters. OCA has posted six positions on its Web site, ran public service announcements on the radio and placed advertisements in 300 community newspapers statewide.

Full-time court interpreters, meanwhile, make $43,000 to $57,000 a year, plus benefits. Part-time interpreters make $250 a day – an amount that was just $125 last year – and now can work a half-day for $140.

Echevarria said interpreters are worth every cent, and there should be more of them. He said he has seen judges delay hearings because a court interpreter could not be found.

“I think they do a tremendous job, but I think they’re overworked,” he said.

Todd Burrell, another court interpreter in Westchester, estimated that he is getting called into more than 1,000 criminal cases each year, compared with 700 to 800 cases a few years ago. But he doesn’t mind the grueling pace.

“When you’re in the courtroom and you’re doing your job, it’s like you’re in the zone,” he said.

Spanish interpreters must pass a Civil Service test of their bilingual abilities, both written and oral. The state also requires a written and oral test for more than a dozen other languages. For languages that are not much in demand, interpreters must pass only a written English proficiency test and provide references.

When an interpreter is needed for a rare language, such as Swahili, the court can use an interpreting service to find someone who speaks that language. Those who interpret sign language must be certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

Testino-Burke, born in Lima, Peru, said she became interested in interpreting from a friend who worked as a federal court interpreter and encouraged her to try it out.

“I remember thinking I’ll never be able to do that,” she said. “I thought it was impossible.”

After nine years on the job, she still finds interpreting to be a rewarding career.

“It keeps me on my toes,” she said. “It changes every day. Language changes, every day. It’s challenging, every single day.”

Rebecca Baker

Rebecca Baker joined The Journal News in March 2004. She covers Eastchester, Bronxville and Tuckahoe, and was previously the state and county courts reporter in Westchester County. In prior jobs, she covered the Town of Greenburgh and Rockland County government and politics. Before coming to The Journal News, she was a municipal reporter for newspapers in New Haven, Conn. and Warren, Ohio.