Interpreters critical element in trial testimony

Demand for challenging, time-consuming job is growing

SAN ANTONIO – The testimony from witnesses is an essential element in any trial, no question.

Eliciting testimony becomes a challenge when a witness does not speak or understand English, which is the official language in which court records are kept.

To meet the challenge, Bexar County employs a full-time staff of three licensed interpreters and several part-time interpreters to serve State District Courts and County Courts.

The most common request for interpreters is to be able to translate testimony between English and Spanish, though program coordinator Ana Amici says her department is also capable of translating Chinese and other Far Eastern and Middle Eastern languages.

The demand for interpreters, she says, is constant.

“They will be running in, running out; sometimes we have courts waiting,” Amici said.

Interpreters are quick to tell you that it’s not an easy job.

“It never gets easy,” said Norma Nero who has been a licensed interpreter for a dozen years. “It’s hard and it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been doing that.”

“In our court system everything has to be said in English,” State District Court Administrative Judge Ron Rangel explains. “And so to remove that aspect of it will definitely add some time to a trial.”

The job demands more than just translating words. Inflection is part of the equation.

“We need to render not only words, but we need to render emotions, feelings, doubt and hesitation,” Nero said.

And that is a big responsibility.

“I’ve seen the impact lost through the interpretation and I’ve seen – because of an animated interpreter – the impact may have gone beyond what the speaker was intending," Judge Rangel said.

And that can lead to criticism, he added.

“They’re always criticized in regards to phraseology and what the speaker’s intent was,” he said.

The most important trial participants, the jury, can often complicate things when it comes to translation, Rangel said.

“Especially here in San Antonio where we have many people who speak Spanish or understand Spanish and will say ‘I have a different perspective on what was said,’” he noted.

And most judges will agree that at the end of the day, or in this case the end of the trial, it is their perspective that matters most.

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