Thursday, October 13

Bridging the Language Gap

Article by Ron Reis

Was she guilty of murder or involuntary manslaughter, or innocent by self-defense? It depends on your interpretation. Or, if not yours, certainly that of a professional, court-certified interpreter.

THE FACTS OF THE CASE A Cuban waitress in a bar meets a Mexican drug dealer and moves in with him. After a year of beatings and fights, she goes into her bathroom, retrieves a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, and shoots him. The man dies on the spot.

The women is arrested and interrogated by a police officer. The interrogation, conducted in Spanish, is taped. Key passages, however, are in dispute. As a result, the prosecution, which is asking for second-degree murder, brings in two court-certified interpreters. The defense, which is hoping for involuntary manslaughter, or better, self-defense, has its own interpreter. Even though the interpreters are well trained, highly educated, and certified, differences exist in their interpretation of important passages. What is meant by a given word or phrase can determine whether the defendant spends her productive years in prison or resumes her waitressing.

Enter for the defense, Dr. Alexander Rainof, Ph.D., Head of the Translation and Interpretation Certificate Program at UCLA/UNEX and, for 11 years, the official translator for all elections materials into Spanish for the City of Los Angeles.

"I listened to one key passage on the tape 140 times," he tells me. "I played it at different speeds, on different machines, and in the end did a complete dialectal analysis of the Cuban dialect spoken by the defendant. It came down to this: 'Was the gun moving forward or backward when the trigger was pulled?' The answer to that in turn rested with the Spanish word for finger, dedo."In the end, the jury sided with Alex's interpretation of dedo. The verdict? Involuntary manslaughter. The defendant walked. Had it gone the other way, the women could have faced 15 years of kitchen duty in prison.


The professional interpreter or translator, "Attempts to bridge the oral and written language barriers. The former deals with the spoken word, the latter, with the written word," according to George Rimalower, CEO of ISI, Interpreting Services International.

"Some think translation is accurate and precise, where with interpretation you can say whatever you want," said Analia Sarno Riggle, the simulcast interpreter for Los Angeles television station KTLA. "Not true. In both cases, you're taking concepts and ideas from one language to another, in the best possible way."


"With the growing 'global village' born by the growth of computers, and more specifically, the Internet, there has been an upswing in the demand for translators and interpreters," explains Michael Buss, staff writer for Career Watch. Indeed, to Muriel M. Jerome-O'Keefe, president of the American Translators Association (ATA), "It has gone from a cottage industry to big business." How big, I wondered? According to the market research firm, Allied Business Intelligence Inc., in Oyster Bay, New York, the worldwide market for translation services will reach $10.4 billion by early 1999 and $17.2 billion by 2003.

Just who are these interpreters and translators? "Of ATA's 7,000 members, 70 percent are independent contractors, split almost evenly between full- and part-time," Walter Bacak Jr., CEO of the 40-year-old organization, tells me. "The most common native languages of ATA members," he continues, "are English and Spanish, followed by German, French, and Russian. Furthermore, our members have expertise in 140 specialities, from art to zoology. Every business or technical field requires interpretation and translation."

While court interpretation is well known, and medical translation a growing field, these aren't the only areas where interpretation and translation are required. The film/TV industry, with its need for captions, subtitles, dubbing, and simultaneous interpretation of news, has a strong demand for those with interpreting and translating skills. State agencies, such as the Department of Social Services, Department of Motor Vehicles, Housing Authority, Agricultural Labor Relations Board, etc. are another source for jobs. And there are museums, think tanks, schools and industries. As Carlos Cerecedo, President of the California Court Interpreters Association (CCIA), tells me, "America On-Line has just signed a deal with Latin America. Think of what that means for interpreters and translators."


For non-traditional (as opposed to law and medicine) interpretation, we need look no further than Analia's career. While she has done both court and medical interpretation, and still does on occasion as a freelancer, Analia has for the past 10 years been the Spanish voice of KTLA news, a full-time job. "Through the use of their SAP (Second Audio Program) sets, my Spanish-speaking audience hears only my voice when Hal Fishman, Terry Anzur, or Walter Richards, speak," she tells me. "This is also true for reporters in the field, weather, sports-the whole thing."

"I have developed a style, an identity," Analia continues. "This is different than being in court. In court, you impersonate the speaker. On television I do not."Things can get tricky in the TV news environment, however. "If Stan Chambers is out there live at a fire, and he says 'Right behind me you can see a building burning,' I obviously can't say that, explains Analia. "Instead, I say, Stan Chambers tells us that right behind him…."

Analia is under the same legal and ethical broadcast restrictions as newscasters, she is a member of AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors. As such, she assumes full responsibility for what she says. "If I wish to elaborate on a point, add a little detail to a story, that's OK. If I say the wrong thing, however, or make an inappropriate statement, I can be called to account."


Ask any interpreter/translator what misconceptions they labor under and chances are all will agree with Analia when she says, "Many people think that knowledge of two languages is enough, that simply knowing how to speak English and Spanish, for example, automatically makes you an interpreter or translator. Bilingual is not enough. It is the foundation, the raw material. But to be bilingual is not to be an interpreter or translator."

Alex puts it this way: "It's like saying because you have two hands you're a concert pianist. It is not having two hands, it's what you do with them, how you train them."

Furthermore, to be a interpreter is not necessarily to be a translator, and vice-versa. "Two different mentalities are operative," Alex says. "Often, the translator is a perfectionist, picky, introverted. He or she works alone, surrounded with dictionaries and glossaries. An Interpreter, on the other hand, is more outgoing, highly gregarious."

"An interpreter must think quickly on his feet," adds Walter. "They are people people." "Translators have an area of expertise: medicine, insurance, computers, etc.," says George. "For interpreters, that's not necessarily the case."


So, how to begin, how to become an interpreter or translator? If you plan to do court interpretation in California, you will, with minor exceptions, need to be certified or registered. The two are not the same.

Certified Court Interpreters, according to the Judicial Council of California, are those that have passed exams administered for the following designated (tested) languages: Arabic, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. Registered Interpreters include those interpreters for all other non-designated (non-tested) foreign languages.

To become a Registered Interpreter, you take an exam designed to test your ability to comprehend and speak the English language correctly, and a knowledge of the Judicial Council Standards for Court Interpreters. The exam does not assess the applicant's ability to perform the three modes of interpretation nor does it measure the applicant's foreign language fluency."

What do these court interpreters earn? Statewide, $200 a day, according to Carlos. "But we are fighting for $250 a day by July 1st," he adds.Are there jobs to be had? "If you are state certified, you will work, full-time," George tells me. "And if you possess the more demanding Federal Certification, allowing you to work in Federal Court, you won't have time to do anything else."

Where to get the training, then? The Legal Interpretation and Translation program at UCLA/UNEX, mentioned earlier, is a good place to start. (See sidebar.) Furthermore, Alex gives me some good news, at the conclusion of our interview. "As an assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach, I have been working to establish a bachelor of arts degree program in interpretation and translation." Hardly able to contain his excitement, he declares, "We'll be able to send people out educated and trained for good jobs, well paying careers. I am talking about $75,000 to $80,000 a year. But money is only part of the story. In what other profession can you meet such eclectic colleagues and do good at the same time?"


It depends on whether you are certified or not, and in what fields you work. Most full-time interpreters and translators can earn from $48,000 to $60,000 a year. However, with additional freelance work, some make $80,000, or more, annually.


• American Translators Association (AIA)
1800 Diagonal Road Suite 220, Alexandria, VA 22314-2840(703)
• Legal Interpretation and Translation Program, UCLA/UNEX(310) 825-9082
• Dr. Alex Rainof, California State University, Long Beach(562) 985-4310

Ron Reis is an electronics instructor at Los Angeles Valley College, in Van Nuys, California. His e-mail address is