Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Court InterpretersEnsuring Racial and Ethnic Fairness

Throughout the history of New Mexico, interpreters have played an important role. Two historic events show us that the people of New Mexico have been conscious that languages and cultures are a dynamic part of our state. Before 1846, New Mexicans communicated in Spanish and in the languages of the Indian tribes and pueblos, including Navajo, Keres, Tiwa and Towa. In 1846, General Stephen Watts Kearney rode into Santa Fe with U.S. troops and declared New Mexico to be part of the United States. Captain David Waldo, who was a master of the Spanish language, assisted General Kearney in writing the code of laws, known as the Kearney Code, and translating them into Spanish. Consequently, the functionally literate people of the times could read the Kearney Code in either English or Spanish.

The next historic event was the State Constitutional Convention in 1911 when New Mexico sought statehood in the North American Union. At least 33 of the delegates to that convention were of Hispanic descent. Protecting the rights of all citizens, the 1911 Constitution states that citizens will not be deprived of the right to vote because they cannot write English or Spanish. Section 14 is of particular note to persons who are interested in racial and ethnic fairness in the courts and who want to ensure the administration of justice across languages and cultures. It states, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall have the right to appear and defend himself in person, and by counsel; to demand the nature and the cause of the accusation; to be confronted with witnesses against him; to have the charge and the testimony interpreted to him in a language he understands.”
There are many stories about the quality of interpreting in the courts—some factual, some apocryphal. Those stories refer to the professional quality of interpreters before a 1985 law required court interpreter certification. This law was based on a project undertaken by Dr. Guadalupe Valdes, then a professor of linguistics at New Mexico State University and a certified federal court interpreter. She tape-recorded interpretations done in Doña Ana County courts, and I monitored the courts in the northern part of New Mexico. We found many errors committed by court interpreters who had never been certified by an objective criterion reference test as is now done in federal and many state courts. We received the support of then Justice Daniel Sosa, who many years before as an attorney had been an active member and leader of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. We succeeded in persuading the legislature to pass a law requiring certification of court interpreters by an objective criterion-referenced written and oral test. Today, New Mexico, as a member of the National Consortium of Court Interpreters, certifies interpreters by requiring candidates to pass simultaneous, consecutive and sight translation tests. However, for the court interpreter to ensure racial and ethnic fairness and guarantee the linguistically challenged defendant due process of law, teamwork is essential.In this context, teamwork means that the judge, the prosecutor, defense counsel and, in juvenile cases, the probation officer have to work closely with the court interpreter. The judge should speak no faster than 140 words per minute and ensure that all participants do likewise. He should also ensure that all participants avoid jargon and acronyms and speak clearly and loudly enough so that the court interpreter can hear every word clearly. When the court interpreter cannot hear the words of the judge, counsel, witnesses and probation officers, due process is thwarted. Remember, the court interpreter does a very unnatural thing not usually done in civilized society— speak while someone else is speaking. Moderate speed in the source language is basic. The interpreter has to process what was said in the source language through 19 cognitive steps before he or she can translate into the target language. The linguistically challenged defendant has to understand in his or her language what was said in the source language. Otherwise, only a babble of unintelligible voices is heard. For too long, the public in general has misunderstood the nature of the work performed by court interpreters and translators.
Some people erroneously think that being bilingual suffices in order to be a qualified and effective court interpreter. The court interpreter must have a working knowledge of legal, substantive and procedural terms, regional expressions and slang. He or she must keep abreast of the continual changes in both the source and the target languages and have a working knowledge in two languages of technical terms and police and layman’s jargon. For the court interpreter to ensure due process of law, racial and ethnic fairness requires teamwork among the judge, the prosecutor, defense counsel, the witnesses and all the parties who participate in the judicial system at all levels.

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