In the summer of 1995, I was first called to act as a court translator for the Eighth Judicial District Court. I had been an instructor at Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington since 1981 and teaching Spanish since 1988, so I was not a stranger to the community. I had grown up in a bi-cultural, bilingual family and had worked with Spanish-speaking populations in agriculture and public service programs, so I was not a stranger to the community I was about to serve. As it turned out, some of the defendant’s friends and family members were former students of mine, and other friends and family members would be students of mine in future years.
As a task, translating this case did not present great difficulties to me. I had done various kinds of written and oral translations as well as oral interviews, and as a teacher of language use and writing in English as well as in Spanish, I understood the principle of direct translation—that is, maintaining the voice or point of view of the speaker rather than put things in indirect quotation. So I stayed focused on my task as I translated comments by the judge, statements by the prosecuting and defense attorneys, and statements by the witnesses. The defendant was being tried for possession of marijuana with intent to sell, so the prosecution presented witnesses from law enforcement, the state crime lab, and communications companies. The defense, in its turn, put the defendant on the stand, so I also had the not-so-common experience of standing in front of the defendant, near the jury, and relaying questions and responses.
Perhaps in part because I assumed the speaking role of the defendant, because I had a couple of casual conversations with the defendant during recesses, and because I have a tendency to advocate for Spanish-speaking individuals, I found myself sympathizing with this person whose actions I did not approve of. When the jury went to deliberate, I was told I could go home and I would be called to translate the verdict when it was reached. So I went home and hung around the phone, anxious to know this person’s fate. The defense attorney, a public defender from out of town, told me he would be at the hotel where he was staying. After many hours of waiting, I called the hotel, and I was told that the attorney had checked out. I was left to infer that a verdict had been reached. I called the court the next day, and I was told that the attorney must have forgotten to let me know.
This first case was, as one can see, a memorable experience for me. Part of the defense’s case at the time of sentencing was that the defendant had teenage daughters and that a stern sentence would cause a hardship as well as a social stigma for these daughters. That struck me as a bit of a sympathy plea, but it became real five years later when one of the daughters became a student in my English and Spanish classes at the college. Over a period of about three years, she took six classes from me, and I was always struck by her modesty and her honesty. Once in Spanish class, while we were doing basic questions and answers entailing numbers and vocabulary, I posed questions about how many of this and that a person had. With young women, a natural question was, “How many pairs of shoes do you have?” A typical answer among middle-class Anglo students would be fifteen or twenty pairs. This student had two pairs of shoes. I also knew, from the details of the court case (though I never indicated to the student that I remembered her family from that context), that her family lived in a mobile home. When the student said how many pairs of shoes she had, she said it with dignity.
As I have mentioned, this was a memorable case for me, not only because it was the fullest case in terms of the range of my participation but because it helped me see, from the start, that we are always dealing with real human beings who have real lives beyond the facts of the case. That does not alter the nature of the offense or the degree of guilt, but it helps me keep in perspective what my stake in this is. I am there to help people receive the fair treatment to which they are entitled.
In the years that have passed since that first case, I have had a variety of translating experiences in attorneys’ offices, in the detention center, in Circuit Court, and in District Court. I have translated for people facing the more common charges of improper registration, speeding, and drunk driving, as well as charges of domestic violence, sexual offenses, and drug trafficking. I have not had equal sympathy for all of these people, and some of the less sympathetic defendants have also been friends and family members of former students, but I believe I have succeeded in keeping my eye on my task.
When sympathy works in a positive way, it helps me maintain my dedication to help the community at the same time that in my own small way I help the judicial system function. When sympathy works as a source of difficulty, it causes me to feel sorry for someone who is going to be deported or incarcerated. On the other hand, when my sympathy is subdued, I do not mind seeing somebody punished for wrong doing. It gives me a nice, clean feeling.
A simpler complication of this line of work is that sometimes I do not find out what happened to a prisoner or defendant for whom I translated. On a couple of occasions I translated for prisoners in the detention center who were being tried for having helped family members in drug trafficking. I came in in the middle of the story, I developed a little sympathy for these people who were caught up in larger wrong-doings, and then I did not find out what their fates were. Although I stay focused on doing my job, I have always applied the cultural courtesy of wishing these people well, and out of a mixture of sympathy and natural human curiosity, I have felt a little disappointed in not knowing what happened.
Another drawback is that even when I am present for most if not all of the court proceedings, I am still coming in in the middle of the story. I do not know anything except what comes up in court, and it is not my business to ask about who really did what or who was Confidential Informant Number One. So sometimes there is a small element of dissatisfaction in that respect as well.
Perhaps I will close with an anecdote, as I began. Another memorable case entailed a pathetic charge of stealing ten gallons of gasoline. The defendant swore that he did not steal the gasoline but simply happened to be in the company of the man who drove the pickup. The driver, who by then was serving time in the county jail for having pled guilty for stealing the gasoline, came in to testify that the defendant indeed had participated in the theft. The driver happened to be a friend of mine from way back, and some of his brothers and sisters had taken classes with me. I was appalled by the petty theft of gasoline, and I thought, these are the types of unnecessary problems that people end up in. I also thought he might look at me, as some defendants do at first, as someone who was working for the state. But, no, as he walked out in his striped outfit and handcuffs, he winked at me. I thought, one of these days I’ll bump into him, and I’ll get to tell him how I appreciated his decency in telling the truth. Unfortunately, I read his obituary before I got to have another conversation with him.
Stories like these are no doubt common to people who do court work on a day-in, day-out basis. For my part, I am glad I have not become so inured that I would lose sight of the personal element. Whenever I get a call from the District Court or from the Circuit Court, my first thought is of how it is going to fit into my work schedule. Once I get to court, though, my thoughts are on doing my job well, helping people receive fair treatment, and helping the people in the court carry out justice in an upright way.
This article originally appeared as “Working for the People: Translating in Wyoming Courts,” in The Wyoming Lawyer, the journal for the Wyoming State Bar, in June 2014. I am pleased to be able to share it now with a new audience.