Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lending their voices so nothing gets lost in translation

An interesting insight into community interpreting in the USA. Oh, and please read the comments at the end of the article!

Charles Sheldon took a seat outside Medford Municipal Court Thursday morning and waited to become someone's voice.

Sheldon, 77, has worked as a state-certified interpreter for Jackson County courts for 23 years. He is one of several freelance interpreters working daily to bridge language barriers across the Rogue Valley.

Freelance interpreters remain on-call for government and private businesses when they need help communicating with non-English speakers, primarily Jackson County's growing Hispanic population. According to 2007 figures by the U.S. Census Bureau, 8.7 percent of the county's residents are of Hispanic or Latino origin.

The basic description of the job is to accompany a non-English speaking person to a doctor's appointment or a criminal trial and translate verbally what is being said by everyone involved.

Sounds easy enough. Right?

An interpreter has to communicate in real time as the events in the courtroom are unfolding. It requires quick thinking and the ability to wrap your tongue around "legalese" in two languages simultaneously.

"It can be exhausting to interpret for long periods of time," Sheldon said. "Often during trials, more than one interpreter will be inside the courtroom to spell each other."

Sheldon works primarily out of Medford Municipal Court, which deals with minor infractions such as speeding tickets within the city and various code violations.

Sheldon said his services are required about 50 percent of the time. He usually meets with the person scheduled to appear for a few minutes before he or she enters the courtroom. He goes over a few details surrounding the case, which may make it easier to interpret complex terminology during a swift-moving trial.

Sometimes, though, the terminology is not so complex.

"You have to say exactly what a person says, to the word," Sheldon said. "That means if someone curses or swears at the judge, you have to say that."

On Thursday, no Hispanic defendants appeared on the docket, but Sheldon stayed for 20 minutes after court began.

"Just in case," he said.

The old days

There was a time when few gave interpreting much thought.

Sheldon remembers when interpreters did not require formal certification before stepping into a courtroom.

"It was a very loose arrangement," he said. "Sometimes defendants would just bring a friend along to interpret."

Most Oregon interpreters are freelance workers who make themselves more marketable by achieving certification in their chosen language.

Rebecca Segura, who owns Segura Language Services based in Medford, said the tests to become certified are rigorous.

"The written tests are very difficult," Segura said. "After passing it, you have to take an oral exam that is just as hard."

Sheldon, who grew up speaking Spanish in Southern California and has done missionary work in Costa Rica, admitted he did not pass the legal-interpreting test the first time.

Oregon employees 100 certified interpreters proficient in languages ranging from Russian to Vietnamese. Interpreters are paid $32.50 per hour, according to the Oregon Department of Justice Web site.

Spanish interpreters make up the bulk of the program, according to Court Interpreter Services Program Manager Kelly Mills.

The need for Spanish interpreters in the court system remains strong, though the numbers of interpreters hired recently have not spiked, Mills said.

"The majority of cases today do not go to trial," she said. "They more often than not reach plea deals."

State-certified interpreters must pass a code of ethics test before they are allowed to serve the public.
The job often puts those in need in a vulnerable position, as they are at the mercy of their interpreter. There have been reports of interpreters bilking clients out of money.

On Feb. 14, The Oregonian reported that court interpreter Phuong Anh Ly, who worked in the Portland area, was arrested for embezzling money from Vietnamese-speaking clients. She was on the lam for stealing the identity of a client when she worked in a medical clinic.

"You are held to a high standard in this work," Sheldon said. "The justice system relies on that."

Something different every day

There is no typical day for a freelance interpreter. The job requires the ability to switch gears to meet challenges in a wide range of situations.

An interpreter can spend the morning at a trial and then accompany an Occupational Safety and Health Administration official to a construction site to interview workers to see whether the company is following state labor-safety laws.

The interpreter could then end the afternoon at a doctor's office with a non-English-speaking patient who faces cancer surgery.

Medical interpreting remains a highly valued skill in the community, and often is traumatic for the interpreter as well as a patient who receives bad news from a doctor.

Natalie Stawsky, 43, has worked as an interpreter since 1994. She started as a journalist with a Spanish radio show in Los Angeles. She then discovered the need for medical interpreters and decided to give it a try.

Stawsky works as a yoga therapist at the Rasa Center for Yoga and Wellness on State Street in Medford. She has a Spanish-speaking woman in one of her yoga classes who benefits from Stawsky's ability to communicate in her native language.

"I started interpreting for fun," Stawsky said. "Translating keeps your mind sharp."

When interpreting for medical clients, Stawsky said she endeavors to build a level of trust with patients, as many are nervous going into a doctor's visit.

Job can be stressful

The job can be tough, especially when an interpreter has to communicate bad news. Stawsky has been in situations when a doctor has told a patient he has a terminal disease. She also has worked as a 9-1-1 operator and been part of some extremely stressful calls.

"I have had to take breaks from interpreting because of these situations," she said. "As an interpreter you cannot say to the person, 'I am so sorry for what I have to tell you' and then say what the doctor said. You have to say exactly what the doctor says without putting yourself into the conversation. It can be hard."

Some of Stawsky's most trying jobs involved debtors seeking to collect money from poor families.

"Those calls are probably the most stressful," she said. "Debtors can be very harsh."

Neither Stawsky nor Sheldon give a thought to a client's immigration status. It is not for them to decide who is allowed to remain in the country or whether someone is committing an illegal act, they said.

The service does have unexpected rewards. Stawsky has interpreted for women who are in the midst of childbirth.

"I have had several babies named after me," she said. "Which is funny because some of the time I only dealt with these people on the phone and have never met them."

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