Bridging growing language gap in court

Interpreters make sure all sides understand

Friday, June 11, 2010


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Staff photo by EMILY BARNES
Spanish interpreter Suli Schehr at the Charles County courthouse in La Plata.


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Staff photo by REID SILVERMAN
Edith Iwanow, pictured here recently in front of the circuit court in downtown Leonardtown after a case, is a Spanish court interpreter in four Maryland counties: Calvert, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's.

It wasn't until after she moved from Argentina to America that Suli Schehr learned the Spanish word for "dismissal."

Growing up under a repressive regime, she had little knowledge of trials, judges and lawyers. Partly this was because her school taught nothing about democracy. Partly it was because the punishment for lawbreaking at times was immediate death, and there was almost no crime where she lived.

"So even the simplest words, I had never heard of," she said.

But now she stands between attorneys and clients, judges and defendants, witnesses and questioners and helps them communicate.

As a court interpreter who lends her services to Southern Maryland, Schehr works a subtle and self-effacing job, but it's also an increasingly necessary one.

A greater need

Statistics show a rise in the number of people living in the area whose main language isn't English.

The number of people older than 5 who speak a language other than English at home totals 7,768 for Charles County, 3,671 for Calvert and 6,597 for St. Mary's, according to U.S. Census estimates for 2006 to 2008. From the year 2000, that's a rise of 2,037 people in Charles, 777 in Calvert and 1,661 in St. Mary's, census figures indicated.

For courts, this means there's a greater need for interpreters.

"I have seen it change," said Edith Iwanow, who started working as a court interpreter about 10 years ago and spends much of her time in Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's. "Before, it was not that often I was needed. Now it seems like almost every day."

Donna Gasparovic, who coordinates the court interpreter program for the district courts in Southern Maryland, agreed.

"I have noticed an increase," she said.

Speaking from experience

Schehr and Iwanow are at the ready for the increased workload with years of interpreting experience under their belts.

After Schehr immigrated to the United States about 30 years ago, a healthy dose of John Grisham and Judge Judy introduced her to the world of the courtroom. She worked as a librarian for a while, but grew bored with the job.

One day, a lawyer friend of Schehr asked her to help interpret for an uncontested divorce hearing, then handed her a paper showing her how the proceedings likely would progress.

From that point, there was no stopping her.

Iwanow, also from Argentina, started helping Spanish and English speakers converse in her day-to-day life after she immigrated.

"I found that every time I was working, I was interpreting. So I said, ‘Why not do this for a living?'" she said.

Both of them became certified through the Maryland Court Interpreter Program.

Joining the ranks

It's not necessarily an easy task.

People who are interested in becoming court interpreters must first attend a one-day workshop before taking a rigorous written examination to test their knowledge of English, legal vocabulary, idiomatic expressions and court ethics, said Ksenia Boitsova, administrator for the state's interpreter program. If they pass the exam, they undergo oral interviews in both English and their other language.

The final step for applicants is attending a two-day orientation to learn about the Maryland judiciary and work with groups to improve their translation and interpretation skills.

"Then, they are considered eligible interpreters," Boitsova said, adding that to become certified interpreters, they must take an additional exam.

After the orientation, the applicants are added to the list of people the court can hire. The state registry includes about 450 interpreters, who speak everything from Albanian to Urdu, and they are paid for each assignment they complete.

The fiscal 2010 Maryland "Court Interpreter Invoicing Manual" online states that rates for interpreters vary from $40 to $55 per hour, depending on the level of qualifications, with reimbursement for travel and other expenses.

When a district court hearing in Southern Maryland requires an interpreter, Gasparovic is the go-to person. Working from an office in the Calvert County courthouse, she knows how to process the requests and find people who don't mind heading to Southern Maryland.

"It's sometimes hard to find an interpreter willing to come down to Leonardtown," she said.

So the Southern Maryland courts often rely on a few key interpreters, and Schehr and Iwanow are among the regulars.

Learning the knack

There's a knack to the job of interpreting, both Iwanow and Schehr said.

At first, to get comfortable , Iwanow said she seized every opportunity to practice, working about 12 hours every day.

"If I watch a movie, I'm translating the movie. If I'm watching the news, I'm translating the news. If I'm in a family meeting, I'm translating the family meeting — to the point where my family asked me to stop," Iwanow said, laughing.

But it paid off because now interpreting feels natural, Iwanow said.

Schehr and Iwanow said they use two forms of interpretation during hearings: simultaneous and consecutive. During a trial, they must listen to a witness' full answer to a question without interruption before they begin consecutive interpretation. Even if the person talks for half an hour, they aren't supposed to interrupt and instead take notes so they can remember the statement.

In other hearings, they can interpret at the same time someone is speaking, which Schehr likes better.

"I am very hyper," she said. "I can go very fast because I speak very fast."

In addition to interpreting, Schehr and Iwanow can sight-translate documents.

Rules of the trade

They also have to observe some strict ethical guidelines and take an oath before each hearing. Boitsova said there are 11 canons in the Maryland Code of Conduct for Court Interpreters, including directives to stay accurate and complete.

"It's also very important that interpreters are impartial during hearings," Boitsova said.

Although they watch cases unfold, Schehr and Iwanow aren't permitted to take sides or give legal advice. Even expression through gestures is prohibited, a rule that becomes problematic when witnesses use their hands to show direction or convey meaning.

"I just provide the words," Schehr said.

Most of the time when she's not interpreting, to fill her role as a neutral party, Schehr said she sits silently in the courtroom. For some defendants, not conversing with Schehr is difficult because she's often the only person in the room who understands them. Some of them see her as a mother figure, simply because she speaks their language.

She recalled once after a trial, she was sitting next to the teenage defendant when the reality of his situation finally seemed to strike him.

"He said, ‘I am really done for, huh?'" she said. "And who else was he going to say it to?"

Despite working around people charged with all manners of crimes, Schehr said she's rarely frightened. She said it's because people view her as a link between them and the legal system that will determine many factors in their lives.

Both Iwanow and Schehr said they enjoy their jobs because of the interesting people they meet and the cases they see. But they also love that their jobs necessitate ever-expanding vocabularies, which in their cases have outgrown Spanish, English and legalese to include the languages of DNA analysis and forensics. Because of her job, Iwanow now can expound on ballistics, while Schehr casually drops terms like "angioplasty" and "aorta."

"We are always looking for a new word, always thinking about how we can learn from both cultures," Iwanow said.

A unique viewpoint

Because of their backgrounds and position as neutral parties, Iwanow and Schehr have a unique perspective on the Maryland courts.

They see that many people who don't speak English are bewildered by the legal system as they appear for their traffic, criminal or civil hearings. That's where the interpreters come in.

"My job is to be a bridge between the defendants or victim and English-speaking person," Iwanow said. "The interpreter makes them feel more comfortable."

Iwanow and Schehr also said they see a judicial system that by and large works, and it's something they've grown to appreciate. It's also one of the things that draws non-English speakers to the country in the first place, Schehr said.

"I think it's fair, compared with other countries. I see judges giving people a chance," Iwanow said.