David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Cost-Cutting Undermines Language Rights in L.A. Courts
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (9/5/99) - First there was English Only. That initiative won in 1986. It was followed in 1992 by Proposition 187, which made even more evident California's hostility towards immigrants and their diverse languages. That hostility became unavoidable with last year's election victory of Proposition 227 -- the broadside against bilingual education.

These haven't been good years to work as an interpreter - a profession based on knowledge and respect for languages and cultures other than English. It's been an even worse time to fight with a conservative court system over the right to make a decent living from it.

And through this bitter period, Los Angeles' court interpreters have been caught up in a long battle to do exactly that. To make matters worse, not only have county judges been generally unsympathetic to their economic needs - they're now embarked on implementing a new three-tier system to undermine the standards of the profession itself, interpreters allege.

If events follow their present course, a strike vote and walkout seem unavoidable. A coming rally on September 15 could result an interpreters' job action, which in turn could paralyze the courts themselves.

Interpreters say they're not just fighting for self-interest, but for the right of defendants to understand what happens to them in a life-and-death situation - court trials that could result in imprisonment or worse. "The issue here is due process," says Uri Yaval, president of the California Federation of Interpreters. "Some people think that's a luxury, which a certain part of the population doesn't deserve. If we were interpreters for the rich, our situation wouldn't even be an issue. But the people who need us are immigrants and the poor."

Luxury or not, California's Constitution guarantees defendants the right to interpretation, a legacy of the civil rights upsurge decades ago. As a result, seven hundred interpreters work in the LA County courts, translating in a host of languages. Spanish is so common that each courtroom has an assigned, certified Spanish interpreter. But others are also so commonly-spoken that interpreters take written and oral exams to become registered - Japanese, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Korean, Tagalog, and Arabic. The written and oral examinations for certification are notorious for being difficult. It took Yaval, who grew up speaking Spanish in Argentina, two years to gain certification.

In addition, there are many languages for which there are no exams, because they are not as common. In these cases, such as Somali, Mixtec or Gujarati, an interpreter can become registered by passing an English fluency test, and complying with continuing education requirements.

Court interpretation is very demanding. "You have to change position many times, so that the jury sees the person speaking," Yaval explains. "Yet you're on your feet all the time. Very often you can't hear, but if you constantly ask the judge to get people to speak up, you alienate them and risk losing assignments to their courtroom. And, of course, you have to speak while you're listening at the same time, and thinking about how to translate. After just a half-hour of this, your mind is completely exhausted. In Europe, where interpreting is a very well-respected profession, they often use teams of interpreters."

Twenty years ago, LA County rewarded the skill by giving interpreters a signed contract, which recognized seniority, and included written rates, productivity bonuses, mileage, training and money for books. That was eliminated in 1991, when the county took back the benefits, in exchange for a $14/day raise - an effective pay cut. Then the state's Judicial Council took over responsibility for interpreters' wages, as part of the trail court funding bill. It promised to raise salaries to $250/day, but despite years of turmoil, granted only raise - to $230 - until this year.

In 1996, interpreters tried to win state legislation giving them the right to collective bargaining. Their bill made it through the legislature, only to wind up victim to ex-Governor Pete Wilson's notorious lack of sympathy for either unions or language rights. Nevertheless, accumulating pressure on the Judicial Council forced another salary concession, and in 1999 the daily rate increased to $243.

But while conceding ground on one hand, the state Judicial Council came up with an ingenious scheme to save money on the other, albeit at the cost of trashing the standards the certifications have protected. First, a new category was created for people who could pass the written, but not the oral exam. In Los Angeles, at the discretion of Judge Lance Ito, who chairs the court intepreter advisory panel, these interpreters are considered "provisionally qualified," and work for $200/day.

And the courts added a third group -- people who haven't passed any test at all, not even the English proficiency test. These untested interpreters are paid $175.

Until the Judicial Council announced the new categories in August, all interpreters were paid the same $243 rate.

While the law has always allowed a trial judge to accept an uncertified interpreter in an emergency, the Judicial Council has reinterpreted it to allow enrollment of people who haven't passed some, or even any, of the exams. Lynn Holton, communications director for the Judicial Council, says that the council has "worked consistently to increase salaries." Courts have always had the right to use non-certified interpreters, and have only done so in a limited way, she points out. "By proposing pay rates for them which are less than those for certified interpreters, they are being encouraged to become more qualified," she added.

In many cases, Ito has had to accept the recommendation of interpreter training programs at UCLA and elsewhere. That's already caused problems. In a preliminary hearing in a Malibu rape trial this year, defense accused an interpreter, who had been given "provisional status," of misinterpreting witness testimony. Although a subsequent hearing did document errors, Judge Lawrence Mira ruled the interpreter competent. Judge Ito didn't return phone calls requesting comment for this article.

The state and the courts claim that there's an interpreter shortage which makes the second and third tier necessary. According to CFI vice-president Robin Urevich, however, "only raising the salaries is going to address that shortage. But the state's and the court's answer has been to effectively take away the right of defendants to interpretation. It's like having an attorney who hasn't passed the bar."

Interpreters say they're fed up, and at their September 15 rally in front of the main courthouse downtown, they plan to take a strike vote. It's not just the money, they say . "America has this attitude towards languages other than English," Yaval declares. "It's the mark of being a powerful, imperialist country - that the whole world should just speak American English."

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