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Interpreters help courts bridge language barrier

Translators have to think fast, speak fast

POSTED: February 28, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Scott Rogers The Times/

Translator Melva Alvarado speaks into a microphone during a recent courtroom hearing at the Hall County courthouse. Alvarado's translation is sent to a device which includes headphones for listening.

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Some days, courtroom interpreter Melva Alvarado can spend all day talking.

In the Hall County courthouse, she's not the only one. Alvarado and her fellow interpreters are among the busiest people in the local judicial system, translating court proceedings for an ever-growing number of Spanish-speaking defendants, witnesses and victims.

At times, Alvarado, director of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit's Interpretive Services, talks into a mouthpiece as a defendant listens to her voice over headphones. Other times she stands next to the witness stand, translating Spanish testimony into English. She's addressed groups of Spanish-speaking defendants in the courtroom gallery. On occasion she and another interpreter will work as a team.

"I don't know that we could operate on a day-to-day basis without them," said Reggie Forrester, the circuit's trial court administrator.

Alvarado, a native of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, grew up in Gainesville and has been an interpreter in Hall County's court system for 10 years. Those years include being with the office of interpretive services since its inception in January 2000. Along with assistant director Jo Bernarducci and a pool of about 10 independent, hourly paid contractors, she sees to it that equal justice under the law is
understood by all.

"I enjoy my job very much," Alvarado said. "I believe I play a critical role in allowing non-English speaking individuals access to the legal system."

She does so with a smooth, seemingly effortless style that puts many defendants at ease as they hear the proceedings in a familiar tongue.

But the job is challenging. Courtroom interpreters are similar to many court reporters in that they repeat nearly everything spoken in court, yet do it in a different language, almost simultaneously to the proceedings. Besides fluency in at least two languages, it takes a combination of memory, preparation, training and vocal stamina.

"I think they have a very difficult job," said Andrew Hothem, a local criminal defense attorney who praises Hall County's interpreters for their flexibility and ability to assist at a moment's notice. "They definitely earn their paycheck."

Lately, the billable hours for contract interpreters, which ranges from $35 to $45 an hour, has shot up with an increased need for them.

In Hall County Superior Court alone, the amount paid out to independent interpreters rose from $8,000 in 2005 to $19,000 last year. That doesn't count state court, where calender call hearings can require two or three interpreters to work as many as five hours interpreting for misdemeanor cases. The demand for more costly translations in languages like Vietnamese and Korean also is on the rise.

Alvarado and her peers are in the uncommon position of working for both sides of the court system. They may translate for a defendant one day, a crime victim the next. "We're impartial," she said. "We're not on either side; we're there to provide the communication line."

Alvarado doesn't merely walk into a courtroom on the day of a motions hearing and start translating. Many times she will research the motions to be argued, putting preparation into complex hearings she must interpret. And while she and other interpreters take an oath to give "truthful and accurate interpretations," no translations from English into Spanish, or vice versa, can be completely literal.

"Especially from English into Spanish, if there's not a word that would mean the exact same thing, then you would do a little bit of explaining," Alvarado said. "But the intended message is what's supposed to come across, even if it's not a literal translation."



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