Due to the city’s diverse population, court interpreters face challenges of dialects and cultural differences
by Asha Mahadevan
Hussean Hassan is not a lawyer. Nor is he a court officer or a law clerk. Yet, when Mohammed Hassan, no relation, accused of groping a woman in a subway car, appears at his hearing, Hussean Hassan is by his side.
As Mohammed, the accused, stands in front of the judge in Part E courtroom on the second floor of New York City’s Criminal Courts building in Downtown Manhattan, Hassan stands to his right and constantly whispers in his ear in classical Arabic. No one stops him. Hassan, after all, is the court interpreter.
In a city as diverse as New York, quite often the people who stand accused of committing a crime do not speak English, said Sandra Bryan, the statewide coordinator of Court Interpreters. It’s the job of the court interpreter to bridge this gap between the justice system and the litigant. “Interpreters play an incredibly crucial role in the justice system,” said Bryan.
According to Bryan, the court system employs a total of 217 court interpreters representing 27 languages and dialects, that are appointed to the New York State courts within the five boroughs of New York city. Of these, 16 are employed in a supervisory capacity, but they also interpret in courtrooms.
“We are the people’s voice,” said Madhu Mishra, who translates Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and Bengali into English. The 51-year-old immigrant of Indian origin began as a freelancer but has been a permanent member of the staff since 2001. “We have to be unbiased and invisible, not get emotionally involved. We have to interpret what they say, verbatim, and not give our own opinions.”
Intrepreters have to intrepret what the judge and lawyer are telling each other so that the defendant is aware of what’s going on. Sometimes, during a trial, when a lawyer or a judge asks the accused a question in English, the interpreter translates it for the defendant in their preferred language, and then translates his or her reply into English for the court. It is not restricted to the accused – many a time, witnesses or victims are also in need of an interpreter. But most of the time, it’s for the defendants.
It is not easy to become a court interpreter. The process involves a written exam to judge language proficiency in both English and the foreign language, extensive background checks and an ethics training seminar. Only 30 percent pass the the written exam and move to the oral exam. Only one out of four clear it.
“The language of criminal courts includes the whole range from forensic terms to street slang,” said Bryan. “People can be bilingual but not necessarily capable interpreters. It is a specific skill.”
The challenges are manifold. Arabic has many dialacts, and even someone like Hassan, who is from Egypt and has been an interpreter in the city’s courts for the past 19 years, does not know all of them. He interprets in classical Arabic, a language that most people in Arabic-speaking nations can understand.
Angela Chin, a resident of Bayside, Queens, and a court interpreter for Mandarin Chinese, says interpreting demands more than fluency. You have to “be impartial, be accurate and fast, have excellent short term memory, and a broad knowledge of the sciences,” she said.
Then there is grammar.. “If they ask you, ‘Didn’t you go to the park?’, in English, you will say ‘No’, to mean ‘No, I didn’t go to the park’ but in Mandarin, you will say ‘Yes’ to mean ‘Yes, I didn’t go to the park’,” said Chin. An incorrect interpretation in such a matter can be the difference between a defendant being found innocent or guilty of a crime and even call the credibility of the witness into question.
Then, same words can have different meanings in the same language, depending on which country the speaker is from, said Belinda Benavides, 52, a Spanish interpreter from Westchester County. In Spanish, she explained the word for ‘balloon’ is ‘globo’ and ‘vejiga’ means ‘bladder’. But in the Dominican Republic, ‘vejiga’ is street slang for a balloon. In a case involving immigrants from the Dominican Republic, she interpreted the statement, ‘the balloon popped,’ as ‘my bladder popped’. “The courtroom burst out laughing,” she said.
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