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Bilingual Community Treasures

Court Interpreters:
Artisans in the Eye of the Storm

s mysterious as language itself, the art of interpreting human communication far transcends the mere mechanics of words. A literal word for word translation of the evocative 'eye of the storm' from one language, for example, yields only a ridiculous anatomical image in others.

Computers can't do it right, and likely never will. And it's more than metaphors that tax the art. Each and every word, no matter how mundane, pulls it's momentary meaning from the shifting sands of culture and context, motive and mood. A good translation is an impressive weave under any conditions. But with judges, lawyers, police, victims and defendants all wrestling their version of truth, the art of court interpretation calls for the highest expertise.

With county residents speaking over 40 languages all randomly rolling through court, just the scheduling alone of interpreters is high chess. Sonoma County Interpreter Coordinator, Elva Rivera, this month's "Bilingual Community Treasure", supervises it all and loves it.

Elva Rivera
Interpreter Coordinator
for Sonoma County Courts
(707) 565-3069

ry it! Turn on a radio program in English. As you listen, repeat everything that's being said, word for word in English. That's called language shadowing. When you've mastered that do the same thing while simultaneously writing numbers counting backwards from one hundred to zero. Then do the same writing just the even numbers counting backward from one hundred to zero.

These are real exercises, just a couple of the many done over and over by student interpreters to train the mind in the precision dual concentration the art demands.

Elva Rivera came to the United States with her family when she was 12 years-old. Like most first generation youngsters, Elva picked up English much faster than her parents and quickly became the family interpreter. She readily admits she handled the task like most other untrained interpreters. If something was embarrassing or might upset her parents , she'd just leave it out.

t 19 years-old, Elva moved back to Mexico with her family and soon got a job as a bilingual executive secretary for a multinational company. But it wasn't until she returned to the U.S. at age 26 and began working as an immigration counselor in Santa Rosa, that Elva considered interpreting itself as a career. She went to the courthouse and followed interpreters through the courts. "In a matter of one day", says Elva, "I realized I didn't know anything".

That's when, in 1987, Elva began a two and a half year rigorous program of self-designed study before feeling anywhere near ready for the tough state court interpreter's exams. Self study that started right back with vocabulary. After all, when a DNA expert is called to the stand, she or he talks about nucleic acids, alleles, and electrophoretic gels; a huge sub-vocabulary few of us know even in one language. Then there are the sub-vocabularies of ballistics, drug testing, legal terminology, medicine, regionalisms, and slang. Not just street slang, polite slang too. A Mexican woman often won't say "He raped me", she'll likely say in Spanish, "He abused me"

lva wishes there was more available in Sonoma County to pique the interest and educate multilingual young people in their language and in the art of interpreting. "You definitely have to be educated in both languages to be bilingual" says Elva. "Even if you come from an educated Spanish- speaking home, you have to study the language. And to understand why, for example, something is upsetting in one language and not another, you have to be bi-cultural too."

Though there are no interpreter programs to prepare for state certification in Sonoma County, there are two renowned programs in Northern California. San Francisco State University and U. C. Davis both offer a certification program for court interpreting. The reward, says Elva, is taking people who are frightened and confused and giving them clarity.

Elva was recently assigned to the job of interpreter coordinator. She's now daily called on to find certified interpreters for the common Sonoma County languages of Spanish, Korean, Tigrinian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Laotian, and sign language, and for the uncommon languages too. Just a few months ago Elva had her first call for Albanian.

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Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,

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