Getting the judge’s message across

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Mike DuPre'
Monday, May 12, 2008
— If you’re going to trial in a criminal case, you probably know that the jury must find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

But if you’re from Mexico or Cuba, not only could the concept of “beyond reasonable doubt” be foreign to you, but the idea of a jury also could be an alien concept.

That’s one of the problems facing not only defendants, victims and witnesses but also the court interpreters who make the proceedings understandable for participants who don’t speak English, said Judge James Daley, the presiding judge of Rock County Court and a new member on the board that oversees the Wisconsin Court Interpreter Program.

And it’s one of the reasons Rock County now schedules a special court on Friday mornings to handle the cases of non-English-speaking residents, chiefly Latinos, using state-certified court interpreters.

The two Spanish-speaking interpreters that Rock County has used for years—Alma Mann and Belem Gonzalez-Regan—are not yet certified, so the county has contracted with Southern Wisconsin Interpreting & Translation Services of Delavan to provide a state-certified interpreter.

“One of the problems is dealing with legal concepts that are foreign to Spanish-speaking individuals,” Daley said.

In jurisprudence derived from Spain, not Great Britain, guilt or innocence is decided by judges, not juries, Daley said.

In addition to legal concepts, colloquialisms, such “ants in the pants,” can provide a translation challenge, the judge said.

Appeal potential

If a defendant doesn’t understand what’s going in court, he or she could appeal the verdict or decision. And so the Wisconsin Supreme Court wants circuit courts to use state-certified court interpreters “as their first choice for legal work when available,” according to the Wisconsin Court System Web site.

If an interpreter is certified, it’s less likely an appellate court would overturn a verdict or decision on the grounds that the defendant did not understand, Daley said.

The state Supreme Court has directed Rock County Court to try to use certified interpreters in all proceedings. As the administrative head of county court, Daley decided to use only certified interpreters in hearings in which evidence may be presented or where the defendant has the right to confront an accuser.

Examples of such proceedings are trials, plea hearings and motion hearings, the judge explained.

Difficult test

Mann and Gonzalez-Regan are in the process of being certified, but as Mann explained: “I took (the test) once. It’s very difficult. I passed half; I need the other half.”

Vicki Bermudez, the state-certified interpreter who works the special Friday court, agreed that certification is “very difficult, very demanding. I think that’s good; they’re setting high standards.”

Interpreting, she explained, is orally changing one person’s spoken words into another language.

Translating is changing written words into another language, either orally or in writing.

“You have to interpret not only the words but the meaning, so it is important to reflect the inflection of voice, the tone,” Bermudez said. “If a judge is upset with a defendant, which has happened occasionally, I’ll raise my voice—because it’s not me who’s speaking, it’s the judge.”

Bermudez also does Spanish medical interpreting, and she said that legal terminology is more difficult to interpret into Spanish than medical terminology.

Mann still is working to pass the certification test.

“It’s difficult because of the pressure you’re under. There are time limits. You’re looking at the time, and even though you know the terms, you forget them. …

“I know two bilingual attorneys who took the test and did not pass. …

“I need to be more relaxed; I really, really do. I don’t know why because I’ve been doing this for so many years (since 2000) and doing a good job. There have been no complaints,” Mann said.

Daley agreed.

No Rock County criminal case involving an interpreter has been appealed, the judge said.

“I’m very pleased with Alma and Belem,” Daley said. “I’m very comfortable with them.”

So is Court Commissioner Charles Holznecht, who presides over intake and jail courts, where Mann and Gonzalez-Regan still work as interpreters.

“I never perceived a problem, and I use them all the time. The interpreters, while not certified, are competent,” Holznecht said.

An observer in Holznecht’s court who was proficient, if not fluent, in Spanish once told him that the interpreter was doing a good job.

Interpretation, not advice

Court interpreters must accurately, completely and impartially interpret both sides of the conversation, but they may not give advice. Doing so would violate their code of ethics.

Defendants typically don’t ask her advice probably because the hearings are so quick, Bermudez said.

Mann said she often is asked for advice. Then, she said, she must tell the judge she has been asked for an opinion.

Noting the growing number of Latino residents in Rock County, Daley said: “Our changing population has required us to do different things. We need to make sure defendants and witnesses can take part in the proceedings.

“We have to have interpreters.”

Interpreter costs rising

The increase in Rock County’s Spanish-speaking population is reflected in what the county and state pay for court interpreters.

Since 2003, the amount has bounced around, but the trend is definitely up: more than $43,000 in 2003 to more than $48,000 last year.

Judge James Daley, the judge presiding over the county’s seven circuit court branches, noted that the county’s percentage of residents with Spanish surnames rose from 5 percent in the 1990 U.S. Census to 11 percent in the 2000 count.

“And those are ones being counted. Traditionally the ones who are most undercounted are illegal immigrants,” Daley said.

Interpreters usually are provided to defendants, but they also must be assigned to help victims and witnesses understand court proceedings.

And Spanish isn’t the only foreign language that courts must accommodate, Daley said.

In the last couple of years, Rock County courts have employed people to interpret Russian, French and several Southeast Asian languages, he noted.

Rock County Circuit Court contracts with interpreters; it does not employ a full-time interpreter.

“It would be cost-effective at some point (to hire full-time interpreters),” Daley said, “and they would be available in the courthouse all the time.”

Hearings occasionally have had to be continued because the need for an interpreter was not noted in the case file or an interpreter was unavailable because of illness or working in another case, he said.

The court’s 2007 reimbursement rates were $30 an hour for non-certified interpreters and up to $50 an hour for state-certified interpreters, the clerk of courts office reported.

The state reimburses the lion’s share of the court’s cost.

Getting certified

To be certified, interpreters must pass four tests, the most difficult of which is oral interpretation. The oral interpretation test includes three parts: simultaneous interpretation, consecutive interpretation and sight translation.

Simultaneous interpretation is what it sounds like: interpreting another’s words as soon as they are spoken.

In consecutive interpretation, the interpreter waits for the first speaker to complete a statement, then says the words in a second language.

Sight translation is reading a document, then telling a person orally what the document says, state-certified interpreter Vicki Bermudez said.

Rock County interpreter Alma Mann said she passed sight translation but still must pass the two interpretation segments of the oral test.

“I failed all three miserably,” Bermudez said of her first attempt at the oral test’s sections. “I really lost confidence. … It’s somewhat intimidating.”

Interpreter costs

Rock County Circuit Court interpreter costs:

2003: County expense, $43,677; state reimbursement, $35,317.

2004: County expense, $39,892; state reimbursement, $35,134.

2005: County expense, $38,164; state reimbursement, $35,962.

2006: County expense, $43,562; state reimbursement, $40,261.

2007: County expense, $48,876; state reimbursement, $45,284.

Last updated: 9:10 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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