The Case for Interpreters

By Luba Chernov

The California Federation of Interpreters met this year in San Francisco to discuss vital issues in interpreting.

Court interpreters are a special breed. They live and work in real time, just like hardcore financial investors. And like those professionals, they have to keep their unique, essential skills honed at all times.

To help court interpreters do that, CFI has made it a San Francisco tradition to host a series of annual Continued Education Conferences. This year’s conference was held October 5th through 7th at the newly renovated Cathedral Hill Hotel.

The conference started on a somewhat heroic note, as it ran concurrently with the strike of our comrades-in-arms: the court interpreters in Region 1 (Los Angeles and Santa Barbara). Mary Lou Aranguren, chief spokesperson for the union, was our “embedded reporter,” sending her passionate email dispatches twice a day from the LA trenches to the Bay Area court interpreters’ community. Her general message was, “even the staunchest among us are no more driven than striking interpreters.”

I attended the conference on Friday, October 5. The soundtrack for it was provided by the roaring Blue Angels practicing their deft maneuvers in the blue expanse of the San Francisco skies. The conference started at 6:30 p.m. sharp. The agenda of that day included two hands-on expert-led presentations by a former public defender and a supervising attorney of the family violence law center.

Public defense

James McWilliams, former public defender of the Alameda County, was the first presenter. He kept the audience under a continuous spell reminiscing in a lively manner and drawing on his vast, eventful experience. Early in his presentation Mr. McWilliams pointed out that the role of a court interpreter has substantially evolved. When he started his career in the early 1970s, there was only one Spanish interpreter in Alameda County. Nowadays, of course, you cannot get by with one Spanish-language interpreter; you need many, and in many languages. Indeed, as Mr. McWilliams pointed out, the public defender’s office strives to secure competent and vigorous representation for its clients.

Further, technical innovation in the form of PDAs, Blackberries, laptops, cell phones, and listening devices has reached the realm of courtrooms and law offices, allowing interpreters, lawyers, judges, and support staff to have their business offices on the go, without missing a beat.

Mr. McWilliams also spoke about the evolution of the trial system, including jury trials. Unlike in the early 1970s, when a jury was likely to be composed of only white males, a jury in the courtroom of the 21st century is represented by speakers of Chinese, Singh, Russian—in a word, by every ethnic group of in diverse, present-day society.

Domestic violence

After a short break, Tara Flanigan, a veteran in domestic violence and civil litigation and a supervising attorney in the Family Violence Law Center in Berkeley, took the rostrum as the second presenter.

She shared her knowledge and expertise of such ubiquitous topics as civil domestic violence restraining orders, domestic violence court, child custody and visitation, and legal options for survivors. “Without you, stoical court interpreters,” she emphasized a number of times, “my job would be impossible!”

Ms. Flanagan gave a broad definition of domestic violence, which included physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological attacks, as well as economic coercion used against intimate partners for the purpose of obtaining power and control.

Both presentations were followed by lively Q&A sessions. The three hours of the Friday evening seemed to fly like a nanosecond. Saturday and Sunday promised to be even more enticing. After the conference, walking to the BART station with my colleague, I thought to myself, “Like a prudent money manager, I invested wisely: I saw the CFI community at its finest, its best.”