Court Interpreters Are Essential to Justice And In Demand in Tennessee

May 3, 2019

When Assistant Public Defender Mary Kathryn Harcombe wants to illustrate the importance of court interpretation in the legal system, she offers a thought experiment. Imagine you are in a non-English-speaking country and are arrested and brought to court.  You do not understand the language of those who arrested you or of those in the courtroom, including the judge. Furthermore, you have no real comprehension of how the justice system works in this country and may not even have any clear idea why you have been arrested.

What would you feel? What chance of justice do you think you would you have?

As an immigration specialist at the Metro Nashville Public Defender’s Office, Harcombe regularly represents people who find themselves in that position.

“It’s just a terrifying experience for people,” she said.

The Tennessee Supreme Court created the court interpreter program to help mitigate the challenges that non-English speakers face in court. Consequently, all non-English speakers who appear before a Tennessee court have the right to an interpreter so that they can understand and participate in courtroom proceedings and have meaningful access to the judicial system.

This essential work is carried out by scores of dedicated people throughout the state who have invested considerable time and energy to hone their skills, progress through the certification process, and become official, credentialed interpreters. The job is a rewarding one, although not without its challenges, and one that is increasingly in demand as Tennessee continues to grow and become more diverse.

For fiscal year 2017-2018, the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts processed 16,215 claims from court interpreters for cases they worked on and paid out just under $2 million for that work. In Davidson County alone, there were requests for interpreters for 22 different languages. Overall, for the prior fiscal year, requests were submitted statewide for the following languages: Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, Bosnian, Burmese, Cantonese, Farsi, French, German, Gujarati, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Kirundi, Korean, Kurdish, Lau, Mandarin Chinese, Nepali, Panjabi, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Somali, Swahili, Thai, Vietnamese, and Zomi.

Looking toward the future, as Tennessee’s demographics shift the demand for court interpreters will only grow. According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, 7 percent of people 5 years old and older in Tennessee speak a language other than English at home. That is compared to 4.8 percent in 2000 and 2.9 percent in 1990.

Playing A Vital Role

Cristina Frasier is a Spanish language interpreter for the Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County Trial Courts. Originally from Argentina, Frasier moved to Tennessee in 2007 and worked in real estate until the Great Recession hit. She was bilingual with a love for language and for learning so she gravitated to interpreting, first gaining experience on a freelance basis over a number of years, and later moving on to the Tennessee court system.

Her dedication, enthusiasm, and self-described status as a “word nerd” have combined to make Cristina an invaluable asset to the justice system.

“I just get great enjoyment from being able to facilitate that communication,” she said. “Speaking some Spanish, or some other language, at a street level or colloquially is one thing, but when you get to the point where you can actually sit down and have a legal conversation about a case and the details of that case and the options they have and at the end they say they understand…that is where it’s worth it.”

Frasier is a certified interpreter for the court system, which is the highest designation possible for court interpreters in Tennessee.

In all, there are three levels of certification in the interpreter program. The lowest level is non-credentialed. Non-credentialed interpreters often work with languages that are relatively uncommon in Tennessee and which may lack testing resources necessary for higher levels of certification.

The next step up is the registered interpreter level. To become registered, interpreters must pass a criminal background check, attend a two-day skill-building and ethics workshop, and pass a written exam and oral proficiency interview.

Certified interpreters like Frasier must complete all of the above requirements as well as pass a three-part oral exam, which is only available for a limited number of languages. According to the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Rule 42, which along with Rule 41 created the court interpreter program, certified interpreters are given first preference for court proceedings whenever possible.

Overall, there are 89 either registered or certified interpreters in the state, 74 of whom are Spanish language interpreters. In addition to Spanish, there are certified interpreters for the following languages: Russian, German, Polish, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, and Farsi. Certified Spanish language interpreters are paid up to $50 an hour, as compared to up to $40 an hour for registered Spanish interpreters and up to $25 an hour for non-credentialed Spanish interpreters. Interpreters in other languages are paid at a rate not to exceed $75 an hour.

The three-part oral exam that certified interpreters must pass focuses on three different types of interpretation and serves as a good illustration of the varied types of work that interpreters do in the courtroom. The three different types of interpretation are sight translation, consecutive interpretation, and simultaneous interpretation.

Sight translation means translating a document from one language to another in real time in the courtroom. For instance, an attorney could provide a document that the interpreter then has to translate for a non-English speaker.

Consecutive interpretation occurs when one person speaks at a time. A lawyer, for instance, will say a sentence, and then the interpreter will interpret it for the non-English speaking person.

Simultaneous interpretation is when the interpreter provides real-time interpretation while a person is speaking in court. While simultaneous interpretation may sound like the most challenging for the uninitiated, Frasier says that is actually not the case.

“Everybody thinks it’s the hardest, but it’s actually the easiest once you master it,” she said. “Any seasoned interpreter will tell you that.”

An interpreter may need to use all three of these skills on any given day in the courtroom in order to make the proceedings understandable to a non-English speaker.

Navigating An Unfamiliar System

Like Harcombe, Frasier is quick to point out the particular challenges that those who do not speak English face in the courtroom.

“You have to realize that even English-speaking people who come to court are scared to death,” she said. “You walk in there, they are speaking your language, and you still don’t know what they’re saying.”

This is complicated by the fact that the type of language used in the courtroom is often different from everyday speech. Not only must interpreters be able to speak everyday English proficiently, they also must have a command of legal terminology and then translate that terminology for people who may come from societies and legal structures that have no equivalent concepts or laws.

That leads to situations in which, as Harcombe put it, non-English speakers face “a doubly daunting prospect of operating in a system that they don’t understand at all where they can’t understand the language.”

Frasier offered the terms “parole” and “state probation” as illustrations of this problem. These are words, she said, which have no equivalent in Spanish because they refer to technical aspects of the American legal system.

“I can do straight translations of these and it could be meaningless to a non-English speaking person,” she said.

In those cases, a skilled interpreter must translate the meaning of the term into another language. For Frasier, that can mean expressing “state probation” as something like “conditional freedom under supervision.”

Harcombe echoed these sentiments, positing questions that many non-English speakers may have upon entering the legal system.

“What is a judge? What is a district attorney? Proof beyond reasonable doubt? The right to remain silent?” she said. These are terms that must be carefully explained to a non-English speaker if they are to be able to fully comprehend their cases.

The problem of not understanding the legal system itself can vary depending on a person’s country of origin.

Tony Tadros has been an Arabic language interpreter for nearly three decades. He is currently one of Tennessee’s two certified Arabic language interpreters. Given the world’s geopolitical realities, he ends up interpreting for many people who hail from countries with non-democratic governments.

Many of them “are totally lost,” he said. “The U.S. judicial system is complicated and very different from other countries, so they don’t understand the process, and in the back of their minds they have negative impressions from their own native countries where when you go to court, your rights are not guaranteed, and the prosecution or the government can do anything to you. They fear that they are not going to get their rights or that they might just be thrown in jail.”

This dynamic can present ethical pitfalls that court interpreters are trained to avoid. Tadros summarizes the problem this way: “If I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language, and there’s only one person who speaks to me I’ll cling to that person.” In other words, non-English speakers may begin to feel a personal affinity for their interpreters. They may begin to view them as “on their side,” even though court interpreters are neutral participants.

Being neutral means that court interpreters must avoid getting personally invested in any case.

“I was trained to be emotionally detached,” Tadros said. “I just do my job and that’s it. I maintain that professional distance. I treat them with respect and everything, but I’m not friendly with them.”

Frasier agrees.

“All you do is interpret,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what I know. It doesn’t matter how much I like one or the other. It doesn’t matter who’s guilty or not.”

Tadros utilizes certain strategies when potentially problematic circumstances arise. For instance, he said he has been asked out to lunch and offered gifts by non-English speakers he has interpreted for.

“I appreciate it, but I can’t,” he may say in those situations. If asked for legal advice, he will explain, “I’m not allowed by law, and I’m not qualified to give you advice.”

He also learned to leave the room whenever there is a break so that he can avoid unwanted conversation. This is just as much for the non-English speakers’ protection because anything they say to an interpreter without an attorney present is not privileged.

Ethics play an essential role in a court interpreter’s job in other ways as well. For example, an interpreter should feel free to interject when something is not clear so that she can ensure that she is doing her job accurately.

“You have to know how to stop the proceedings and ask to confer with the witness without affecting the legal outcome,” Frasier said. That could mean saying, “Your honor, the interpreter needs to clarify something.”

“The record or the case is more important than my pride,” Frasier said.

Sometimes this sort of interruption may be necessary when an unfamiliar term is used in the courtroom. For that reason, judges and attorneys are discouraged from using idiomatic expressions during proceedings with non-English speakers.

“If you know the exact equivalent idiom you will use the equivalent,” Frasier said. “If you don’t understand it, you will ask.”

On a related note, court interpreters must honestly assess their ability to interpret for a given person at the outset of a case. Just because an interpreter and a person in the courtroom speak the same language does not necessarily mean that they can communicate well with each other. This is especially true for languages with considerable regional variation.

“The challenge of Arabic is that there are so many dialects from so many countries,” Tadros said.

Tadros is originally from Egypt, where he said people speak the most widely understood dialect in the Arabic world, so this is not a problem that comes up frequently, but when it does Tadros is quick to raise the alarm.

In most cases, Tadros said he goes to court early in order to speak with the person he is interpreting for to make sure that they can understand each other.

“I can tell in a couple of minutes,” he said.

In one situation, Tadros was asked to work with someone who was from South Sudan. The person grew up speaking mainly a tribal dialect and knew only limited Arabic. Tadros told the judge.

“I said I couldn’t really in good faith communicate with this person,” he said. Tadros suggested finding a Sudanese interpreter.

Occasionally, though, it can be more challenging to assess if a person comprehends what is being said to them.

Harcombe recalls a client from the highlands of Mexico who spoke the indigenous language Cora. That client’s reaction to conversation was familiar to Harcombe.

“Anybody who somewhat speaks a foreign language and has traveled in another country, at some point when people are talking to you, you just start nodding,” she said.

Harcombe was speaking to the client in Spanish and gradually began to wonder if the person could actually understand what she was saying. She realized that the client could not.

“It can be very hard to assess how well people are really understanding,” she said. “Most of them are incredibly polite and unassuming people who don’t want to cause problems so they are just trying to do what they need to do, and they don’t want to hold the system up by explaining they don’t understand.”

Tadros remembered a similar situation where he was interpreting for a man in jail. The man kept nodding and saying, “Yeah,” in response to what Tadros was saying. Suspicious, Tadros began asking more complex questions that did not have straight yes or no answers. The man kept nodding and responding, “Yeah.” He found out that the man’s native language was actually Farsi and that he only spoke some Arabic.

The failure to confirm that a non-English speaker in court accurately understands the interpreter can have severe consequences such as immigration/deportation issues if one pleads guilty to certain offenses.

“Sometimes people come here out of desperation,” Frasier said. “It’s a very scary situation, and for many of them it’s related to them being able to stay in the United States or not.”

Frasier, Harcombe, and Tadros all agree one of the best ways to ensure that the legal system works properly for non-English speakers is to guarantee that their court interpreters have been properly trained.

“Conversational ability does not mean you don’t need an interpreter at court,” Harcombe said. “I speak to my clients in Spanish, but if I were in Mexico in the court system, I would absolutely ask for an interpreter.”

Tadros draws a sharp distinction between those who know a language versus those who are qualified to actually interpret that language in a courtroom setting.

“I always tell them that interpreting is a different skill,” he said. “You can be fluent in two languages, you can be bilingual. That doesn’t mean you can interpret. Interpreting is a totally different skill that you have to learn and develop.”

Frasier has seen how occasionally non-English speakers will request that a friend or family member come interpret for them at court. That raises a red flag for Frasier, both in terms of their ability to interpret accurately but also in terms of objectivity. How can you be a neutral party when you have a personal relationship with the person for whom you are interpreting?

“We are trained to do the opposite,” she said.

An In-Demand Field

Given their importance in the courtroom, it is not surprising that court interpreters are constantly in demand. The Administrative Office of the Courts is always looking out for people willing to take the time and energy to go through the certification process and go to work for the cause of justice.

“We are constantly looking for court interpreters,” Ryan Mouser, the court interpreter program coordinator at the AOC, said. “We’re always needing more.”

To those who may be interested in becoming court interpreters, Frasier and Tadros say there is a lot to love about the job.

Tadros especially enjoys the variety that the job offers and the feeling that he gets from being able to use his skills to help people in difficult circumstances.

“I like it because it’s not monotonous,” he said. “I go to different courts in different counties. I handle different cases. Sometimes it could be as small as a traffic citation or it could be as serious as first-degree murder. It takes me places. I meet a lot of people. I help people who are in a tough situation going through the legal system. I like being there helping people.”

Frasier gets pleasure from the continual quest to improve her craft and her knowledge.

“For me I’m obsessed with the language and the job, and I like to be better and I like to do things right,” she said.

She encourages people who are intrigued by court interpreting to pursue it, but with a clear vision of the dedication the job requires and the enormous stakes at issue whenever a court interpreter does her work.

“Do it and if you’re going to do it do it right,” she said. “It’s not something you just do to make a little extra money. It is a serious profession. It has serious implications. What you do has serious implications on people’s freedom. On the other side, it’s a very good way to make a living.”

If you are interested in becoming a court interpreter, please visit the court interpreter program page on the AOC website and check out the interpreter assessment link.






Spanish language interpreter, Cristina Frasier.