An Interview with Claudia Villalba

– by Giovanna Lester © 2015

Claudia Villalba

Claudia Villalba serves on the NAJIT Board of Directors and, until a few weeks ago, was the Supervising Court Interpreter for the 7th Judicial Circuit in the State of Florida. She wears many hats, but that is the nature of our professionals: Claudia is a Federally Certified Court Interpreter, she is a Master-Level Approved interpreter in the State of New Jersey, Certified Interpreter in the State of Florida and an approved rater of state and federal court interpreting exams by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). But that was not enough, Claudia is also an interpreter trainer and instructor – online and in person – with the Florida Interpretation and Translation Institute.

This interview was conducted while Claudia still served on the 7th Judicial Circuit Court and the goal was to obtain a view of how our work is perceived from the outside, looking in. From her vantage point, being responsible for gauging professional interpreters, her professional relationship with other Court players, and having experienced her sense of fairness first hand, choosing her as the subject of this interview came naturally.

1- What stands out the most about cases that use interpreters?

The need for judges and attorneys to keep in mind that average people do not understand legalese (even when they hear it in their native language) or the court system. As court interpreters, we must be faithful to the register of the source language and we cannot explain or clarify anything even when we feel that the LEP individual is not understanding the concepts.

2- Other than understanding their English, what do you look for in determining whether or not the interpreter provided is performing up to the minimum standard, especially in a language you do not speak?

o  Direct speech: if the interpreter, instead of using the first person, says “he says he is not guilty”
o  Protocol: does the interpreter use correct protocol when addressing the court, for example, for repetition/clarification
o  If the interpreter is observed engaging in what appears to be a conversation with the LEP individual instead of interpreting and fails to interpret.
 When the interpreter answers for the LEP instead of limiting himself/herself to interpret the question and then the answer.
o  Professional appearance and demeanor:
    >> Is the interpreter dressed appropriately for the courtroom
   >> Does he/she act with the required decorum for the courtroom
   >> Does the interpreter have a notepad, pens, dictionaries, etc.
   >> Does the interpreter take notes while interpreting in the consecutive mode
   >> Does the interpreter use the correct mode of interpreting, e.g. is he/she interpreting simultaneously the exchanges between the Court and the attorneys.

3- From your perspective, how do judges react to the use of translated documents and interviews?

They do not question the accuracy of the translations. They assume they are correct and don’t even inquire as to the qualifications of the person who did the translations.

4- What are the greatest difficulties in dealing with remote interpreting? And the best part? 


o  Technical glitches
 High speed speech patterns
 The inability to see body language and other non-verbal cues
o  Being physically absent from the courtroom setting.
 The comfort level of the different participants with the technology, e.g. the LEP individuals, the attorney, the judges, bailiffs, etc.
When more than one individual needs to hear the simultaneous interpreter of the event

Best Part:

The ability to deliver quality services to individuals who, otherwise, would have to rely on unqualified bilingual individuals to “explain” what is being said.

5- In your opinion, how can proceedings involving interpreters go more smoothly?  

Educating court staff (judges, attorneys, clerks, bailiffs, etc.) on the role of the interpreter and on how to work effectively with the interpreter.

6- Is there a memorable experience involving a different culture or language in your portfolio that you cherish or hate?

A frustrating experience:

Blind jsuticeAs the supervisor of interpreting services, I intervened in a case in which the defendant needed the services of a Mandarin interpreter. Even though I do not speak or understand Mandarin, I was the only one who realized that the defendant did not understand the nature of the charge of “battery”. A red flag went up in the mind when he kept saying, through the Mandarin interpreter, that he had not hit anyone.

It was never made clear to the interpreter or the defendant that, in that particular case, battery did not mean “hitting or striking” the person but rather “touching them, against their will.” Unfortunately, no one realized this gap in the communication, which went beyond the language barrier and consequently, the defendant rejected a very favorable offer that was made in the beginning of the case because he did not want to plea to “hitting” another person. After my intervention, he subsequently understood the charge but by then, the prosecutor’s offer had been withdrawn. The case went to trial and he was found guilty.

The responsibility inherent to the work of a court interpreter extends beyond the minutes or hours his or her voice is heard in court. Claudia’s comment regarding educating court staff on the role of the interpreter and how to work together becomes more relevant when we realize that very few interpreters have any formal legal background, yet they have to understand the legal terminology in two different languages and two different legal systems. Interpreters become officers of the court when they start their work and their main responsibility in upholding the law is to ensure equal footing between the limited English proficiency individuals looking for justice and those who have complete command of the language. Their impartiality is a tool the Court relies on and should strive to use better.

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