Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Interpreter is voice of justice

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 07/30/06
The accused stood before the judge, holding his forms to his chest, eyes shifting nervously. He had been charged with speeding and driving a car with an expired tag. His family waited patiently, talking in the back of the Municipal Court of Norcross.

It was one of those nights Judge Kenneth E. Wickham said made the town look almost crime-free. The benches were nearly empty.

Wickham folded his hands and looked at the man calmly.

"Buenas noches," Wickham said, speaking what Spanish he knew. "Do you speak English?"

The man shook his head. "No," he said quickly.

Mariana Carlisle dashed to his side, touched him on the shoulder and introduced herself. For a moment, her perfect Spanish washed the anxiety from his face.

Word for word, she repeated to the man everything the judge had said during the three-minute exchange: If the man pleaded guilty, the tag charge would be dropped; he had to pay his speeding fine within 10 days; and he should "please, slow down next time."

Carlisle sighed and sat down. So far that night, she had guided more than a dozen Hispanics through the legal process. She was already tired, she said, because it takes every bit of energy to translate without changing a single meaning.

From 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Wednesday, Carlisle, 47, gives voice to about 100 non-English speakers as the sole interpreter for the traffic court. She also interprets for other courts, hospitals and other legal proceedings, which make up a full work week.

"It's psychologically exhausting," Carlisle said, "but I love it."

Even though judges said Carlisle's work is in high demand, Carlisle said court interpreters aren't fully appreciated yet in the court system. "Many people in court are still learning how important our role is," Carlisle said.

'I work like a doctor'

A petite woman with sleek glasses, short dark hair neatly kept and a put-together wardrobe of brilliant colors, Carlisle is an immigrant from Brasov, Romania, near Dracula's castle.

She jokingly calls herself "a small, little vampire on call," a loving reference to her Transylvanian roots and the demand for her work.

"I work like a doctor — they call me when they need me," Carlisle said.

Carlisle has been a court interpreter since she came to the United States in 1996.

When she was a child, the Romanian school system required her to learn three languages, Carlisle said. Linguistics became her passion, and she studied at the University of Bucharest. Seven languages now roll off her tongue with ease: Romanian, Hungarian, Italian, French, Spanish, Arabic and English .

Visiting her sister, Carmen, in Georgia 10 years ago, Carlisle had no intention of staying long — until she met a Snellville attorney named Robert Carlisle. Two weeks later, they married, and soon Mariana Carlisle became a U.S. resident.

Carlisle quickly learned about the court system through her husband. They worked as a team, with Mariana acting as an interpreter for Robert's clients.

Robert Carlisle died about six years after their marriage. But Mariana Carlisle kept on interpreting.

Relaying information between people who otherwise can't communicate requires more than knowing the languages, Carlisle said. Cultural training, sensitivity and an understanding of the law are also essential.

Georgia interpreters are certified and overseen by the Georgia Commission on Interpreters. The commission approves them to serve in the state courts.

Judges call up interpreters they know or trust from the pool of 57 certified interpreters and 319 registered interpreters, said Marva Lamb, administrative assistant for the Georgia Commission on Interpreters.

Trials without errors

Carlisle said an interpreter can't pretend to know everything. The vocabulary of seven languages mingling inside her head can make switching languages in mid-thought more difficult, she said.

"It's frustrating when you're in the middle of a trial and can't think of a word," Carlisle said. "We are required to carry a dictionary, just in case."

Because she has the gift of language, Carlisle said she isn't familiar with the frustration of not being able to speak for herself.

"I try sometimes to put myself in their situation," Carlisle said. "I can't imagine how scary that would be."

Carlisle does some work in murder trials and for other serious crimes. Most of the time, though, she interprets for minor infractions in the smaller courts.

Having grown up under the old Communist regime in Romania, with stiff punishments for disobedience, Carlisle said she is an adamant follower of the law.

"We grew up in fear of what the government would do to us if we did something wrong," Carlisle said.

But although she said she follows her own straight line, she has to stay neutral in the lives of her clients.

"You're not there to be their friend," Carlisle said. "I have to focus on what I'm supposed to say so that they understand what's going on. It isn't healthy to get involved."

Plenty of work

Judge Phyllis Miller, who oversees the Gwinnett Juvenile Court, said interpreters are essential in Gwinnett County.

"I have been here a little over a year and I can't count a day when we have not needed an interpreter," Miller said.

Gwinnett County hires most of its interpreters on a case-by-case basis. Some, like Carlisle, have enough work to be busy five days per week, while others work a case every few weeks.

Despite the high demand, Chief Magistrate Warren Davis said there are enough interpreters to go around for now. The bigger problem, he said, is scheduling.

"It's important to know our calendars," Davis said. "Sometimes we need to use an interpreter right away and get to our other cases later."

The languages most in demand are Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese, said Brenda Avera, director of court services .

Many people who need Carlisle's services are illegal residents who have no knowledge of the law, Carlisle said.

Carlisle herself is a legal immigrant who applied for citizenship about a year ago and still is waiting. "I haven't stayed one day illegally," Carlisle said. "If I can do it, I believe that everyone can."

She said she strives to be productive in the United States, and hopes the same for her son, Amis, 24, an aspiring lawyer.

No matter how many hours she spends in the courtroom, Carlisle said, there is always more to know about the people in it.

"Sometimes I think, 'God, I've seen it all,' " she said. "But I haven't. Every day is a learning experience."


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