With what officials say is a growing variety of native languages across the country and the state, professional translators are becoming more and more important in the judicial system.
Keila Mercedes-Lechene is an independent contractor who works as a freelance interpreter and translator. She is a native Spanish speaker and is also fluent in French and Italian. For her and those like her who provide translation services to the court system, training and licensing is required and necessary to do the job.
She said professional translators are licensed by the state and have to go through rigorous training. She said they also take courses in American judicial system training to understand the court system.
“If we understand what is the process here, it is going to be easier just so we know what terminology that we are going to use when we say ‘preliminary hearing,’ for example,” she said, explaining that someone from Mexico may not know what a preliminary hearing is because the U.S. court system is different.
Hans Fenstermacher, CEO of the Globalization and Localization Association, which provides business and government support in linguistics, said because of the highly technical aspect of language used in court systems, it is vital that interpreters know the system and how to explain what is occurring.
“You have to understand that the language skill that is required particularly for police and law enforcement situations is of a higher level than it is for general public interactions,” he said. “In law enforcement you have often very urgent situations, very tense situations, emotions are running high, there is a lot riding on the outcome. So you need someone who is professionally trained.”
Mercedes-Lechene said interpreters provide the link between the defendant and court officials, bridging the language barrier. What translators don’t do, however, is make decisions for the defendants.
“We don’t really provide any counsel, we are just the interpreters, repeating the sentence, just in another language,” she said.
She said one issue is that when an interpreter is brought in, defendants often believe that person is there to help legally with the case. However, she said an interpreter’s job is just to translate from one language to another accurately and without bias.
“Most non-English speakers think that we are going to help them with the case, that we are going to help them understand what is going on,” she said. “They think they send an interpreter to help you, they think it is to help with the case — they don’t think it is just to provide interpreting service. To help them make decisions or explain to them what is going on — no, that is not my goal here. That is one of the challenges that we encounter.”
Fenstermacher said interpreters remaining unbiased and outside the situation is an important part of the process.
“They don’t become emotionally involved in the topic, they reflect very accurately, in a clinical sort of way what is being said,” he said. “As a defendant, I would imagine the key thing you want to be sure of is what you are saying is clearly understood by the law enforcement officials and that there is no or as little bias as possible.”
Mercedes-Lechene explained why she wanted to provide translation services, saying she saw the need and wanted to help people.
“It’s fairness,” she said. “It is just fair that they know exactly, that they understand the procedure, what is being said and what is going on. I do this with four languages myself. I think the need for that, there are not many bilingual staff in different public centers here in America, or in this area, Harrisburg, Cumberland County or different counties that I work for. The United States has opened the doors for the whole world, so they should also provide the language for that, and I thought that I would help with that. I like just being able to provide that ability to fill in that gap.”