In Yakima County, two full-time Spanish interpreters, supplemented by freelance interpreters, provide assistance for criminal defendants, parties in civil lawsuits and families of juvenile offenders so they can hear court proceedings in their own language and be able to actively participate in the process.

Share story

YAKIMA  — Imagine being charged with a crime, one that could send you to prison for years, maybe even the rest of your life.

But you can’t understand what’s going on in court.

The judge, prosecutor and your own attorney speak a different language than you. Even the legal papers are incomprehensible.

In Yakima County, as in other parts of the nation, that nightmare is rarely — if ever — realized because of court staff who ensure that people understand what is happening in a criminal proceeding when English is not their mother tongue.

Two full-time Spanish interpreters, supplemented by freelance interpreters, provide assistance for criminal defendants, parties in civil lawsuits and families of juvenile offenders so they can hear court proceedings in their own language and be able to actively participate in the process.

While Spanish is the main language in need in Yakima County courts, interpreters have provided help in other languages, including an indigenous Mexican dialect.

“It’s about providing access to justice,” said Hilary Johnson, Yakima County Superior Court supervisor. “We must make sure the defendants can understand what the court is saying, and that the court can understand the defendant so everyone is on an equal footing.”

It is a job where more help is needed, the county’s budget is straining and state reimbursements do not make up the difference.

The price of fairness

Judge David Elofson, the presiding Superior Court judge, said the interpreters do more than just help people understand. They give them access to — and confidence in — the judicial system.

“They do not speak (English), but they embrace what the court offers,” Elofson said. He recalled a case where a man who could not speak English was in court fighting for custody of his child, and the interpreters allowed him to be on a level playing field with his English-speaking ex-wife.

But that service comes at a price, Elofson and others said.

Freelance interpreters are paid $65 an hour and get a minimum of three hours’ pay when they are called in, Johnson said. The county budgeted $63,648 in 2018 for interpreter services — which does not count the full-time interpreters.

The state is supposed to pay half the cost of using interpreters, but the state only pays $610,500 a year to 33 courts across the state. A study by the state Administrative Office of the Courts found that many jurisdictions spend far more than they receive. Yakima County is one of them, Johnson and Elofson said.

The courts are pushing for $2.1 million to be appropriated to help those counties afford interpreters.

Getting started

Yolanda Lopez, one of the county’s two full-time court interpreters, got her certification 14 years ago, almost on a lark.

“I was working at a law firm,” Lopez recalled. “I had my performance review, and my supervisor asked if I had thought about becoming a court interpreter. I was doing a lot of translation for the monolingual clients and attorneys.”

Even though she worked in a legal setting, Lopez still had to study to add criminal-law terms to her vocabulary. And the education continues, as interpreters have to learn medical terminology to handle some civil court proceedings, along with how to translate various expressions that can vary from country to country, or even regionally.

“It’s something I really like to do, and I’m always trying to do it better,” Lopez said.

She started working as a freelance interpreter, meaning she was brought in as needed. Since 2013, she has been one of two full-time Spanish interpreters in the court.

The two handle about 400 cases a month, frequently going from Yakima County District Court as well as the superior and juvenile courts, and civil proceedings.

The starting salary for full-time court interpreters is $52,503 a year, county Court Administrator Jessica Humphreys said.

But sometimes the demand for services is more than the interpreters can provide, or it may require other languages. Fisk said the county has brought in freelance interpreters to provide service with Punjabi, Russian and Karen — a language spoken in Myanmar and Thailand — just to name a few. The hardest, Fisk said, was finding someone who could speak Zapotec, an indigenous dialect spoken in Mexico.

If a certified interpreter is not available, the courts can look for someone who is registered, a step lower than certification but accepted by the courts or use Language Line, a telephonic interpretation service also utilized by the county’s 911 call system.

A freelance interpreter may also be called in if a hearing requires more than one interpreter. For example, during the trial of Jaime Munguia Alejandre, accused of killing his wife in Granger in 2017, one interpreter worked with Alejandre while another translated for witnesses who could not speak English.

That arrangement, Fisk said, avoids potential conflicts of interest for interpreters, as well as eases the workload.

During trials with interpreters, the courts will schedule more breaks, Fisk and Johnson said, to give the interpreters some respite, as they can be interpreting for hours at a time.

It’s not just physically taxing, but mentally draining, Lopez said. It sometimes requires having to restate emotionally charged testimony or gruesome crime details.

“As an interpreter and a neutral person to bridge communication, you compartmentalize, separate yourself to make sure whatever is said is being translated,” Lopez said. “It is hard sometimes.”

A brief history

Court interpreters have been around in some form in the judicial system for decades. One of the more famous examples was the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, where interpreters translated the official proceeding in real time in a variety of languages.

In the U.S. court system, interpreters have been deemed a civil right, first with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which said people could not be denied based on race or national origin from participating in any program receiving federal assistance.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation establishing the right for people to have a certified or qualified court interpreter in a court proceeding.

U.S. Census Bureau data show that 40.1 percent of Yakima County residents speak a language other than English. Of that number, almost 40 percent do not speak English well, if at all.

Because Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the county, the court’s full-time interpreters are certified in Spanish and are required to state on the record they are certified when working in court.

Court certification is more than just demonstrating that you are bilingual, said Chela Fisk, the county’s court-interpreter coordinator.

Interpreters have to take written and oral tests through the state Administrative Office of the Courts, demonstrating not just their command of the particular language, but that they are familiar with the legal terminology used in court, both in English and the other language, Fisk said.

They must also demonstrate that they can read and translate documents, as well as provide what is known as consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, Fisk said. In consecutive interpretation, the interpreter listens to what someone says and then provides the interpretation, while simultaneous interpretation requires the interpreter to do it as the person is speaking.

Consecutive interpretation is usually done for witnesses who are testifying, or if the person is addressing the court. During proceedings, the interpreter will provide a simultaneous translation, either by standing alongside the person and whispering in their ear or, in a trial setting, through headphones.

Court interpreters are required to follow a code of ethics that requires them to serve as neutral parties in the court proceeding, as their translation is considered part of the official court record.