From Laramie Boomerang
When Julie Sellers is in a courtroom, she’s oftentimes thinking in two languages.
For nearly 10 years, Sellers has been a courtroom translator, providing an impartial voice for Spanish — speaking people who do not have the English language skills necessary to follow the proceedings of court.
It’s not easy — while many people are knowledgeable in more than one language, it’s often Sellers’ duty to translate English to Spanish — and vice versa — simultaneously. This means forever being on the edge of overwhelmed — Sellers explained that to many people, the feeling of perpetually being behind in their translation can be too much.
“Just because you speak some or even a lot of both languages doesn’t mean you have the skills to be an interpreter,” Sellers said. “I found that I did; I was able to stay calm, and that’s one of the things when people first start — especially with simultaneous interpreting — they just freak out because you’re five words behind, and you always feel like you’re never going to be able to cover everything, to remember everything and have the words come out correctly.”
Recently Sellers completed a rigorous course in order to become a federally certified court interpreter — a course that Sellers said has only a 10 percent pass rate. Although Sellers has been translating in Wyoming for years — the Equality State has no certification requirements for court interpreters — her federal certification now means that she can serve as a translator in any federal case, all of which require the use of a certified translator.
“I can be called anywhere there is a federal trial, that could be here in Wyoming or elsewhere. As far as I know there are no other federally certified interpreters in the state of Wyoming so they’ve been having to call people in, mostly from Colorado but they’ve also flown people in from places like Miami,” Sellers said.
Translating for a court means understanding a veritable cornucopia of languages within languages — everything from national to regional slang, Spanish equivalents of legal terms, and everything else from weapons and drug terminology to the tiniest parts on an automobile.
“I knew a surprising amount of weapons terminology, partly because I grew up on a farm in Kansas so I’ve shot,” Sellers said. “But there are other things that were less familiar to me, like intricate vehicle parts. I’ve had to crawl under our truck before so I could look at things and better remember them.”
But being a successful court interpreter means more than just having a seemingly endless knowledge of a second language — it also means doing nothing more — and certainly nothing less — than translating languages. That means when a Spanish speaker asks Sellers what a legal term or phrase means, she immediately translates into English “What does that mean?”
“I absolutely, for the professional code of ethics, cannot offer advice or a legal opinion. I cannot do anything that would give an appearance of partiality,” Sellers explained. “That’s hard, especially in cases here where there may be no one else around who’s spoken Spanish to them since they either were arrested or had contact with the justice system. I’ve had families follow me out before, and I have to tell them, “I cannot talk to you.” It’s hard, because it comes across as rude but that’s the ethical code of the profession which, again, is why it’s important when lawyers or judges are looking for a translator that they have someone who is a professional.”
In that vein, Sellers said that she has been working with a number of local judges to get a more concrete interpreter policy installed in Wyoming.
“The state needs to have that for their own benefit and protection and also to make sure that anyone participating in the judicial system in this state can do so fully and fairly,” Sellers said.