As King County has grown increasingly diverse, interpreters have become integral players in the state's largest court. The National Institute of Justice singled out King County Superior Court's Office of Interpreter Services as one of three model programs in the country in a 2006 report.

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The leader of a Vietnamese street gang apparently suffered “buyer’s remorse” after hammering out a plea deal with prosecutors and admitting he was guilty of ordering a hit on a fellow gang member-turned-rival.

Quy Nguyen was supposed to be sentenced in King County Superior Court on Nov. 4, and even picked the occasion to beg his victim’s family for forgiveness. But the Vietnamese-speaking defendant then said through an interpreter that he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea.

He claimed his public defenders did not spend enough time on his case, and his “crazy” and “possessed” cellmates had left him confused and sleep-deprived when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder with a firearm and conspiracy to commit organized crime.

But Nguyen, the 44-year-old leader of Young Seattle Boyz, heaped the most blame on his court interpreter, Nova Phung. Not only did Nguyen claim Phung had interpreted months of legal proceedings inaccurately, he said Phung had suggested Nguyen could bribe his way out of prison or have his sentence halved because of government cutbacks.

Judge Julie Spector denied Nguyen’s motion to withdraw his plea on Dec. 20 , saying he was “clearly aware of what he was pleading guilty to and the consequences of the plea.” She said Nguyen had fabricated his complaints against his attorneys and “the maligned interpreter, Mr. Phung.”

As King County has grown increasingly diverse, interpreters such as Phung have become integral players in the state’s largest court, which includes the downtown Seattle courthouse, King County Juvenile Court and the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.

Court interpreters, who typically work as private contractors and travel to courts across the state as needed, participate in criminal proceedings as well as civil cases and family-law matters. Many also work in U.S. District Court.

The National Institute of Justice singled out King County Superior Court’s Office of Interpreter Services (OIS) as one of three model programs in the country in a 2006 report examining how well the nation’s courts help non-English-speaking, battered women obtain protection orders against their abusers.

The office, which “was started from scratch” in 1992, assigned interpreters to roughly 650 cases involving 50 languages in its first year, said program manager Martha Cohen, who is also a Spanish-language interpreter.

In the past year, OIS — which has a $1.1 million budget — found interpreters to participate in 3,000 cases, she said. A couple of weeks ago, Falam Chin, a language spoken in western Myanmar, became the 139th language that Cohen and her six-member team had to find someone to interpret.

Haven for refugees

She explained that King County is one of the top five regions in the country for refugee resettlement. “This is a very desirable place to live, … and we’re just a reflection of all that,” she said.

Spanish always has been the most-requested language to be interpreted, followed by Vietnamese and Russian, Cohen said.

In a later wave, Cohen saw increased demand for Korean, Lao and Cambodian interpreters, then for speakers of a number of African languages, including Somali, “which is definitely in our top five now, where it wasn’t five years ago,” she said.

If Cohen and her team can’t find a local interpreter, they will launch a national search, as they did recently to find someone to interpret Oshiwambo, a language spoken in Namibia in southern Africa.

“We ended up with two — a man in Nebraska who was a Peace Corps trainer in Namibia and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania,” she said.

The complex case against gang leader Quy Nguyen and his Vietnamese-speaking co-defendant caused a temporary shortage of Vietnamese interpreters, requiring the OIS to fly in interpreters from Salt Lake City and Denver as the murder case in Superior Court readied for trial, according to Cohen.

More than 120 witnesses, many requiring the assistance of interpreters, were to testify. At the same time, other gang members faced charges in federal court and were assigned separate interpreters.

For Cohen, turning people away because of the language they speak is not an option. “It’s a question of access to services, access to exercise their rights, access to justice,” she said. “People who don’t speak English have a right to understand what’s said around them and to participate in their cases. We do whatever it takes.”

Cohen described an adoption case from last year as a prime example.

The birthparents, who live in Korea, and the adoptive parents, who live here, are deaf and use Korean sign language to communicate. Cohen found a woman in Lakewood who spoke Korean and knew Korean sign language but didn’t speak English well enough to interpret.

“So we did it as a relay,” in which another interpreter interpreted translated English into Korean and the Lakewood woman then interpreted Korean into Korean sign language, with the biological parents participating in a family-court interview via Skype, she said.

The job of interpreting — the oral rendition of something spoken in one language to another (translation is the written form) — is far more involved than “just knowing two languages,” Cohen said. “It’s a very spontaneous activity and you have to be creative and resourceful,” especially interpreting English idioms or sports references that often don’t make sense in another language.

A demanding job

Interpreters are paid $40 to $45 an hour, although they aren’t compensated for any prep work they do on a case. The work is mentally challenging and fatiguing because interpreters must simultaneously listen, speak, change syntax, adjust grammar and sometimes change word structure, all while ensuring meaning isn’t lost. Frequent breaks are necessary because accuracy begins to be compromised after about 40 minutes of straight interpreting, Cohen said.

Often, two interpreters are assigned to a defendant so they can spell each other off during lengthy trials. Interpreters who are assigned to a defendant cannot interpret for any co-defendants, witnesses or victims in the same case, nor can they interpret for someone they know — safeguards meant to remove the potential for conflicts of interest and ensure attorney-client privilege isn’t violated. It’s why some cases, such as Nguyen’s, require multiple interpreters.

Interpreters don’t interpret word for word, but instead convey “the meaning as close as we can,” said Angela Torres-Henrick, a Peru native who has interpreted Spanish in Western Washington courts for 25 years. She was the first president of the Washington State Court Interpreters’ and Translators’ Society, which was founded in the late 1980s and was behind a statewide effort to certify interpreters and create a code of conduct.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts in Olympia now certifies interpreters in 15 of the most frequently used languages and requires rigorous testing and recertification every two years. An additional 39 languages are registered with the state, meaning interpreters are tested only for language fluency.

Torres-Henrick mostly works on criminal cases and said court interpreters, who can’t offer advice and are ethically bound to keep confidential any discussions between defendants and their defense attorneys, can suffer “vicarious trauma.”

“After difficult trials — it could be rape of a child, it could be murder, it could be vehicular homicide — you come home after interpreting all day and you just want to cry,” she said. “Because we cannot share, many times it just stays with you.”

Nguyen took the witness stand during his Dec. 20 hearing and tried to convince Spector he had not understood the guilty plea he entered a day after opening statements in his trial.

During his testimony, Nguyen’s new interpreter, David Neathery, twice told the court, “The interpreter is repeating the question again,” when Nguyen indicated he didn’t understand what was being asked. Neathery’s statements were necessary for the court record because interpreters aren’t allowed to provide explanations or make comments to defendants.

“He wasn’t behaving the role of interpreter. … He was advising me like a teacher,” Nguyen complained of Phung, his previous interpreter who was dismissed after Nguyen said he no longer trusted him.

But Spector wasn’t swayed. She said Nguyen “looked thunderstruck” after the prosecution’s opening statement, when he began to understand the overwhelming evidence against him. He actively participated in negotiating a plea deal the next day, she said.

Spector said Nguyen’s attempt to withdraw his guilty plea amounted to “buyer’s remorse.”

He faces a prison term of 17 to 25 years when sentenced Jan. 20.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654