- Associated Press - Friday, November 10, 2017

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) - A language barrier can be a problem for anyone wanting to do anything from finding a job to ordering a meal.

However, when someone accused of a crime can’t speak English fluently, the problem can become a question of justice.

In Riley County, two court interpreters work to bridge the gap, The Manhattan Mercury reported.

Oscar Montenegro has been working with the 8th Judicial District as an interpreter for two years after the previous interpreters moved out of the area. He said he works in Riley, Pottawattomie, Geary and Dickinson counties, and spends about 15 hours a week in court.

Montenegro is a native Spanish speaker who grew up in El Salvador before coming to the United States in the 1980s.

The previous court interpreters recommended him for the job, but he said he enjoys the work because it serves a purpose in the community.

“I serve as a bridge between the law and a human being. The job carries a heavy responsibility,” he said. “I connect the English world to a Spanish-speaker. I enjoy being that bridge, making connection to community need and help individually though the legal system.”

Pam Clark, the language access coordinator for the 21st Judicial District, works with the interpreters to explain cases to defendants.

In the courtroom, interpreters can only interpret the language, not the meaning. If the defendant does not know what the words mean, the interpreter must ask the judge or attorneys to define or rephrase what the meaning is.

Interpreters are paid $50 an hour. Local interpreters are not paid for travel time or mileage, Clark said.

“We mostly use Spanish interpreters, but have recently had a use for the languages of Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and Swahili,” she said.

Montenegro said working with the courts is just an extension of his full-time job as a consultant with Aspen Business Group. He also translates documents between the two languages for medical facilities, financial groups, lawyers, and he has even worked with school districts in events like parent-teacher conferences.

Clark emails interpreters when a case comes up. From there, Montenegro said it’s time for their game faces.

“Once we get a case, we have a brief with the lawyer and the client to get an understanding of the case, of what stage they’re at and what the process will be,” he said. “Then we interpret every single word the judge says, the lawyer says, the district attorneys say. Obviously, if the client speaks, we interpret back to English for the entire court.”

Montenegro said while the job is straight-forward, the work can get difficult.

“It’s a very challenging job. The brain has to think seamlessly, automatically,” he said. “You have to be completely bilingual, really solid. You can’t be iffy on this.”

In addition to the challenges of interpreting correctly in real time, Montenegro said it can be difficult to learn control in the courtroom and not get emotionally invested in the cases.

“The interpreter has the ability to slow down and speed up what’s happening in the courtroom,” he said. “When you have to interpret everything, sometimes you have to say ‘slow down,’ take it a sentence at a time. Part of the job is coaching parties to make them seamless.”

Language interpreters differ from those who interpret for the hard of hearing, as sign language interpreters must be certified by or registered with the Kansas Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and abide by the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf code of professional conduct.

In 2014, a Supreme Court Committee formed the Language Access Committee that makes recommendations to the courts about the development and ongoing administration of a comprehensive language access program, Clark said.

Clark also said if the court needs it, she has hired interpreters from firms in Wichita and Kansas City.

People who are interested in becoming an interpreter are generally asked to send in a letter and their resume or CV, which is reviewed by the chief judge. Interpreters then sign an agreement stating the rules and responsibilities for language interpreters, which is then sent to the state for approval.

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Information from: The Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury, http://www.themercury.com

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