A Public Servant Finds His Way from Despair to Hope to Promise

By José A. Navarrete

I am a full-time Spanish/English staff court interpreter/translator at the Santa Barbara Superior Court on California’s central coast performing linguistic tasks daily for criminal/civil judges, attorneys, court staff and the community at large. After a successful start as an independent contractor in the counties of Los Angeles and Orange, I made the decision over 14 years ago to move 100 miles north and accept permanent employment in this rural county in California’s state court system. The year was 2004. The state legislature had recently passed a law that for the first time gave judicial interpreters the option to become employees. Whether or not the system was ready for us, or whether we were ready for the system, is still being determined; so far, it has been a bumpy ride. Although I am happy to report that, despite the many challenges that professional court interpreters still face today, there is some light at the end of this dark tunnel—namely, the glimmer of hope that can be seen in future generations of judiciary language professionals. Please allow me to tell you about the outreach we have accomplished at local schools in Santa Barbara County in an effort to introduce the community to the value of professional language access and to encourage bilingual schoolchildren and teens to consider a career as an interpreter/translator.

EARLY RUMBLINGS AND SEISMIC WRATH

This story, however, starts off in a very negative place some 10 years ago. It was one thing to be an autonomous operator, running the streets of LA not beholden exclusively to any employer, and quite another to be directly overseen by a system that hardly understands or appreciates the nature of your work. Having grown up during the turbulent 70s/80s in LA on a steady diet of hardcore punk and hip-hop (both in their nascent stages, no less), it’s never been difficult to readily find myself frustrated, angry or bitter with the state of the world or, now, with my chosen career. Because of this, I was programmed to often find myself misunderstood, to find all the injustices in life, then allow the fury to overwhelm me and rebel against the world with scorching defiance. Now, court interpreting is a career that is frequently misunderstood. Many wouldn’t even know it actually exists, unless they find themselves in court and see an interpreter in action. Even after seeing an interpreter at work, some might not think of it as a career at all, but rather just a simple task that anyone can come in to perform when the need arises. As the late Rodney Dangerfield might say, I dress up in a suit and tie every day of the week, but I get no respect. Our regional union of judiciary interpreters had just come back to work after an unsuccessful strike, which all but confirmed what I already felt: as professionals, we get almost no respect from our own employers, and/or the public.

As if that weren’t bad enough, it turned out that society at large didn’t think too much of us either. After about six years on staff, I had already realized that we live in a town, and actually in a state and nation, where many think that they have a certain command of the Spanish language. This pervasive hubris has eroded the language itself and our profession. I do not mean to suggest that people shouldn’t try to learn and practice this beautiful, complex language, but when it comes to providing service in Spanish, I expected people to be more responsible. I never correct people during casual conversation, because it’s not my place; people learn and speak in their own style, at their own pace. I’m not a language instructor or purist. I do, nevertheless, take issue with those who insist on making themselves out to be bilingual professionals, when they clearly don’t possess the skills. And yes, I lashed out hard, made several enemies and rubbed certain folks the wrong way with direct confrontation. It was just outrageous to me that every type of federal, state, county and city agency has staff, and written material, that employ deficient to mediocre Spanish to communicate with the vast majority of monolingual Latinos that make up the populace. I let them all know exactly how I felt, as many as I could, and definitely got into big trouble because of it. As a result, I was almost fired at least twice.

My outrage led me to call out these “bilingual” individuals: Chicanos, Latinos and Hispanics that grew up speaking and practicing limited Spanish in a monolingual household, or non-Latinos that had marginally studied the language. You communicate well enough with your gardener and housekeeper, and you can order a taco, so of course you know Spanish, right? And, most U.S. Chicanos and other, even native or foreign Latinos grew up speaking Spanish at home (then neglect their study of Spanish, and awkwardly assimilate to English), so of course they’re fluent enough to translate, right? Wrong! I thought about my own childhood, growing up with parents who were looked down upon by both white people and whitewashed Hispanics for barely speaking English. The fact that the articulate Spanish that did speak went unappreciated made the flames of my rage only grow, fanned by the bellows of this collective ignorance and subtle form of racism.

I began to blame some senior court interpreters, who had been operating in this town and state for several years, for producing and perpetuating sub-standard work, and over-charging for the same. I argued that they didn’t realize that our standards have improved, or that they simply refused to work up to those higher standards.

This includes the legions (a whole swath of society that outnumbers us certified interpreters/translators) of “bilingual” attorneys, clerks, secretaries, peace officers, advocates, paralegals, receptionists, community activists, politicians, program directors, administrators, facilitators, counselors, doctors, nurses, notaries, mediators, case managers, or just people in general who insist on using their rudimentary Spanish and/or English, volunteer or charge money, and act like interpreters and translators all over the place, just winging it with choppy, simplified verbiage, when they clearly lack any training or even true, academic preparation in the Spanish language. They insist on using their inadequate Spanish and English to interpret or translate, without bothering to accept the preparatory rigors of the language profession. Aside from terminology (which is huge), their incompetence and lack of sophistication is also apparent in the poor syntax employed in their texts and speech. The message comes across as unnatural and, ultimately, unprofessional. I was not shy about deriding their commonly specious and disingenuous arguments: “the commoners won’t understand the ‘big words,” or, “it’s important to use ‘plain language’ so that people understand.”

In my experience, monolingual Spanish-speakers actually understand proper terminology 95% of the time, and they DO appreciate it when I use the language correctly. Supposedly bilingual people should not attempt to assess a person’s full knowledge and culture based on his or her perceived working-class appearance or educational background. It is wrong to simply assume that a person is illiterate and then and use this deficient assessment as an excuse to dumb down the language (culture, ultimately) for one’s own convenience or to avoid displaying one’s incompetence? I saw this kind of behavior as dishonest, offensive and downright lazy, and did not hesitate to say so..

These were the queries and exasperations that swirled around in my head, and it didn’t take me long to realize how much this boiling poison was literally killing me inside. I was angry at the world, and I wanted to tear it all down with ferocity. I was losing hope. I was becoming self-destructive. Is the world truly this awful? How do I avoid tearing myself apart for picking a career that has devolved? Is it naïve to believe that there can still be hope? What can I do to turn this dark energy into something more productive?

A GLEAM OF HOPE

Prompted by a sudden inspiration to perform actions and develop ideas, as opposed to a reactive analysis and forcefully adhering to beliefs, I began to research volunteer opportunities in Santa Barbara, and found out that the local County Education Office was running a program called Partners in Education. In the mid-2000s there had been a nasty spate of sometimes fatal teenage stabbings in the area, and local educators and community/business leaders were scrambling to find ways to reach out to local youth, trying to show them a way out of the violence, to shake off their demons and think about a bright future. Partners in Education recruited professionals from every possible field and organized Career Days at middle schools, as this was the grade/age level that seemed to be most at-risk—young enough to be impressionable and old enough to understand how to begin making life decisions. There were bigger things happening, and I just needed to look up, above and beyond my dark cloud, and find a purpose.

Your hopeful narrator signed up and got promptly tested for tuberculosis and background-checked. Why not? I always wanted to be a teacher of sorts, probably the noblest profession of them all. If society, my employer and some of my fellow interpreters were not willing to understand what my career has to offer, then perhaps it was up to me to reach out and educate others through any forum I could. I asked for vacation time at work, and to my immense surprise,  the executive director, my supervisor at the courthouse, decided I needn’t use my personal time to attend: I would be participating in these Career Days on the clock, officially representing the Court. (Unbeknownst to me, perhaps someone at work was paying attention to my craft and passion…? Do positive things come to light when you begin changing your perception for the better?) I was quite surprised, and felt further compelled to take this new responsibility very seriously. Every school year since then, Partners in Education sends me the list of Career Days at all the middle schools in the district, sometimes as far as Lompoc, Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez Valley; I let my awesome coordinator at the court know, and she schedules them around my regular court assignments. They always take place only in the morning, so I only have to be away from my duties for half a day.

PREPARING TO REACH OUT

The day before each presentation, I make copies of all my handouts: False Friends/Cognates, a list of examples; Court Terminology, a sample list of terms and their respective translations; and Animal Sounds, a list of some animals in Spanish, their translation into English, and their different sounds, using the simple present tense. I pack my file of transcripts of a real court case for some role-play. I also take a bunch of books to give the students a sense of the language resources I have used to prepare myself for the work on interpreting: my old Larousse Spanish dictionary, my old Larousse English/Spanish-Spanish/English dictionary; the seminal textbook Fundamentals of Court Interpretation authored by Dueñas-González, Vásquez and Mikkelson; a Spanish thesaurus; a Spanish grammar and orthography textbook; Sandro Tomasi’s Glossary of Criminal Law Terms; as well as a number of laws, codes and constitutions I have collected over the years. I pack everything into a big old, fat brief case that was bequeathed to me by this sweet and wacky Colombian lady I used to interpret for years ago at a clinic, whose late Jewish husband had been an accountant and used this dark cherry leather box during his career. It gets heavy with all my materials in it, but I don’t mind. It’s the kind of baggage that actually feels good to carry around for a change.

BUENOS DÍAS / GOOD MORNING

When I get to the school, we are given a name badge and a small map of the school so we can navigate the way to our assigned classrooms. Sometimes we’re in the same room for all three periods. We start off the morning in the library, cafeteria or teachers’ lounge where we are treated to some kind of continental breakfast, mixing and mingling with the other professionals: lawyers, doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, financial planners, airplane pilots, college professors, dentists, entomologists, hairdressers, movie producers, among many others. My involvement at these Career Days has allowed me to inform these other professionals about the court interpreter’s role and importance in society. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that while most of them knew very little about what I do, many of them seemed intrigued and genuinely curious about my calling.

I’ll inform them that the work of the interpreter/ translator is a whole lifetime of working for oneself, as it is truly our job as perpetual students to continue expanding our bi-terminology and bi-literacy, while perfecting our voice and technique.

SOY INTÉRPRETE JUDICIAL I’M A COURT INTERPRETER

Next we are all escorted off to our assigned classrooms, where 20-30 pupils await to hear our stories. With a smile, I begin by introducing myself to the group of young learners, explaining what I do at the courthouse in a nutshell: interpret/translate one language into another for the benefit of the court, staff, parties and counsel in all cases that involve a Spanish speaker who speaks limited English. Then I preface the bulk of my presentation by stating how happy I am to be there with them, in essence, because I stand before future leaders; I ask if they agree, scanning the room, eliciting nods and utterances of approval. Then I ask, “Who can tell me, in a few words, what a leader is”? A few of them volunteer and say things like, “someone who leads,” “someone who guides others,” “someone who takes charge,” etc. I praise all their suggestions, and then tell them how, long ago, one of my best friends gave me a succinct definition of a leader: A leader is the one who does the work. I tell them how life—which can be fun and delightful—is mainly about hard work, and at some point in their lives, they’ll have to decide whether they will work for themselves or for someone else. I tell them how their current “job” as middle school students has the word ‘work’ in it: homeWORK. As adults, we continue using this metaphor to speak of how prepared we are for a given task: “Have you done your homework?” before a sales pitch or a debate or something. I remind them how all the professionals they’ll meet that day have worked hard to be where they are, including their own teacher in the classroom. I’ll inform them that the work of the interpreter/translator is a whole lifetime of working for oneself, as it is truly our job as perpetual students to continue expanding our bi-terminology and bi-literacy, while perfecting our voice and technique.

I then explain the process of looking for words/definitions/translations in dictionaries and glossaries, and our own development of specialized lexicons and sub-glossaries. But to really get things going, I give them examples of the modalities. For consecutive, I ask for random volunteers among them to tell me their names and what they want to be when they grow up. I walk up to them as some of them have soft voices, and I just listen. When they’re done with their exposition, I render their statement into Spanish for the class to hear. Some of the cleverer students will say it in Spanish and reverse it on me. The classmates get a kick out of hearing their peers come up with careers, some earnest, some silly and outlandish, then watching me repeat it all in Spanish. Next is the simultaneous, when I use the transcript of a certified felony plea, and I ask for four volunteers to play characters in the drama of the court: the judge, the D.A., the public defender and the Spanish-speaking defendant, while I interpret their lines into Spanish out loud for all to hear. The activity is raucous and comical enough to pique the interest of schoolchildren, yet they also get a clear sense of the difficulty and complexity involved in our daily task. I explain the importance of shadowing, to exercise the mind in preparation for the demands of the simultaneous mode, and I give them an example of how to shadow. I then engage the class in a discussion/lecture on the pitfalls and complexity of false cognates, a brief sampling of court terms, profanity/slang (they always get a kick out of this part, although I keep it clean by demonstrating, through the use of euphemisms, how we many times, as interpreters/translators, have to calibrate our renditions to equate to the degree of profanity: the teachers ALWAYS appreciate that), the different specialized glossaries and sub-glossaries that we have to acquire and learn (all medical, traffic, all civil, car parts, descriptions, colors, names of crimes, names of trees, fruits, animals, types of dogs, etc.), and by way of example, a sampling of animal sounds. I ask them to look for cat/gato on the list I give them and ask them which of the listed verbs next to cat would be the Spanish translation for “(to) purr,” until one of them figures out it is ronronear. And just as the outreach and the connection with these future leaders purrs along (I could go on and on, when it comes to interpreting/translating, and I encourage and welcome questions throughout my presentation), we are interrupted by the commanding school bell, moving everyone en masse to their next classroom. And so it goes, year after year, the magic happens again, but always different: it’s an evolving, smooth-humming production line of hope and faith in successive generations.

DENOUEMENT

Every time I do these Career Days, my nervous/excited spirit does purr like a contented feline, like the hum of a well-oiled machine, like the natural rustle of leaves on a windy day…indeed a shift in attitude and perspective; less combative, more collaborative, productive. I’m learning to channel my frustrations into energy that I focus on perfecting my craft. This is what I was born to do. I am a public servant, here to provide a resource to my community. The California Courts’ Language Access Plan is being implemented as I write this narrative, and a couple of its recommendations involve implementing outreach programs with local schools and institutions to promote our profession. A couple of years ago, the Language Access Implementation Task Force Chair and California Associate Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar visited us in Santa Barbara County and commended our many initiatives (including these Career Days and free community workshops on how to become an interpreter). While there are still some serious concerns related to the conditions of California court interpreters, not the least of which is the painful and confusing transition our current labor union is facing, it is easy to fall into that dim and ireful chasm, lash out left and right, straining to see the light. I have to maintain that good spirt, I must forever remind himself. We may only be a small corner of the state, but we’re doing our part. The following letters (out of the hundreds I have received here at the courts from middle school students over the years) are what finally make my spirit soar. My dearest colleagues in courts across the nation, we can all soar together to benefit our profession by performing similar outreach at our local schools. It can be rewarding in so many ways.

I’m learning to channel my frustrations into energy that I focus on perfecting my craft. This is what I was born to do.

THE SCHOOLCHILDREN DISPATCH THEIR WORDS OF SUPPORT, EARLY SIGNS OF AWARENESS (RETYPED WORD FOR WORD, AS IS)

Thank you translator for taking the time to speak to us about your job I really liked hearing about your career. I thought that you being able to translate so fast was so impressive. I really liked what you said about, everyone has a right to hear. I think that I’m going to put translator on my career list. I was really inspired by it all because not being able to understand a language & what is going on Feels horrible and being able to help is wonderful. Thank you so much for speaking. I didn’t even know that there was a career to translate in court. Thank you.

-Karla T.

Thank you! Thank you for coming to our school. I appreciate it. I think it is very interesting. I love your job it’s very interesting. I couldn’t do it though. I suck at Spanish. I think you should come next year even though I won’t be here. I think other people would be interested in your job! I think I would be terrified if I had to talk to the judge! From,

-Skylaa B.

Dear Jose Navarrete, Thank you for coming to La Cumbre during my Spanish class. I had to talk and you talked while I talked and it was fun. Thanks again for talking to my class, I really enjoyed it and had fun. Sincerely,

-Luis S.

February 26, 2016, Dear Jose Navarette [sic], I wanted you to thank you for taking the time to come to my school and talk about your career. It is very interesting and it seems hard, but it seems you have everything under control. Role playing was very fun, but really hard because you would be talking at the same time. Out of everyone that came yours was my favorite because your career actually caught my attention. I don’t know why, but I believe it is because I never knew that career (existed) [sic]. I really hope you come back next year so you talk to the incoming students to show how important and fascinating your job is. I really hope you keep on helping people how you help them today and I hope I become like someone like you, giving back to people the help they need. Sincerely,

-Sofia M.

2/24/17 Dear Jose, Thank you so much for coming to my school and showing your job. Today you inspired me to become a translater [sic]. I think I would be good for this job because I speak English and Spanish and with our new president many people will feel scared especially if they don’t speak the language. Thank you for giving us the false friends worksheet. Hopefully I can impress my parents with my 2 worksheets. Thank you Sincerely,

-Maria M.

Thank you Jose for showing us how fluently you can speak English and Spanish. I like your job because it’s interesting how you translate. Sincerely,

-Fabian P.

Thank you for helping all those people understand what was going on. Without you there would be a lot of struggling people in this world. You have influenced me to actually listen to my mom n’ try to learn Spanish when my family speaks it to me. I really enjoyed when we had to read what happened in that one case it was truly amazing how you were able to translate all that in another language so fast. You seem like a very nice man and I’m very lucky that I was able to meet you and learn about your impressive career. You really influenced me. Thank you so much. I hope you have an amazing rest of your life & your career. Gracias,

-Fiona C.

10/07/16 Dear Jose, Thank you for speaking in our class about your job. It was very interesting and I really enjoyed being the public defender during the simulation. I learned a lot and I hope you had fun teaching us about your job, you should do it again. See you around! Sincerely,

-Zosia A.

Dear Spanish Interpreter, Thank you for coming to our Spanish class and taking the time to put together this presentation and showing what you do. It looked really hard to do and you were doing it so easily. I also thought it was really cool how you get to go to court and listen and be a part of all the really cool cases and get to interpret it and be able to do it so easily and get paid a lot of money for it. Thank you for sharing with us and finding the time to come in. Sincerely,

-Kiani R.

10/6/16 Dear Mr. Navarred [sic] Thank you so much for coming to our school. I am very grateful that you have come to our school to teach us about your job. I really enjoyed learning about your job. Being able to talk simeaulantiously [sic] while the person while the person is talking IN A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE is super hard. It also makes me feel good inside because you do this and help people get through court in the easiest way possible. I don’t think anyone should take you for granted because your job is super important. Thank you.

-Kidus E.

[Mr. Navarrete was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, bilingual all of his life—his father from Chihuahua, México and his mother from San Salvador.  He studied Spanish Literature and Literary Theory at UC Irvine.  After college he worked at non-profit organizations and dabbled in the corporate world, then began his training at the Southern California School of Interpretation, under the tutelage of Néstor Wágner, becoming state court certified in 2003.  During and after this training, José picked up a variety of assignments, including: Worker’s Compensation Appeals Board appearances, civil trials and hearings, depositions, transcript readings, medical appointments, physical therapy sessions, among others.  After a year and a half of working independently, he finally settled down into a permanent position at the Santa Barbara Superior Court.]

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NAJIT.

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