Bridging the communication gap in court

Demand grows for interpreters as more trials involve residents who do not speak English


Attorneys handling cases that involve non-English-speaking defendants, witnesses and victims have two options: take a crash course in those native tongues, or bring aboard a courtroom interpreter.

Three trials scheduled in coming weeks in Harford County Circuit Court required the court to seek out licensed Greek, Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese Chinese interpreters. Lawyers and courthouse employees say the need for interpreters - particularly in Spanish - has risen in recent years.

Throughout Maryland, there are more than 110 certified interpreters who can work in any district, circuit or appeals court, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

The state certifies interpreters in Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese, and recognizes certified American Sign Language interpreters.

When court clerks looked up the list of Greek interpreters, they had their choice of three members of the Nicolaidis household: Maria Nicolaidis, her husband, Vassilios, and son Antonios are three of the state's seven Greek interpreters.

"We sort of have a little business here," Maria Nicolaidis laughed from her Baltimore home.

Nicolaidis, a Greek instructor who came to America after high school, will be responsible for making sure the victim in a robbery case set to go to trial tomorrow understands the questions being asked and the testimony that is being exchanged by other witnesses.

"If an individual does not know the language, possess the skills, that can really cause major problems for him," Nicolaidis said. "He is not going to be able to express what he wants to make his case stand in court and support his side of the story."

Nina Lai, a Cantonese interpreter from Ellicott City, has been translating since she was a child. Born in Hong Kong, her family came to the United States when she was in the fifth grade, and she often found herself interpreting for her parents.

Since becoming a court interpreter, she's developed a strong interest in government and law. In two weeks, she will help a 20-year-old Towson man in his trial in Harford County Circuit Court on a charge of driving with a revoked license.

"With more and more immigrants coming to America, some of them can't really speak functional English, and even some who think they can, they really do not understand the courtroom English," said Lai, 54. "Very often they will say yes to everything they don't understand."

The Mandarin interpreters will have to wait until next month for their trial: One defendant in a cigarette-smuggling case was said to be in China and unavailable to appear at his Nov. 2 trial date.

For languages such as Greek, there is no certification test. But Nicolaidis said that doesn't mean the interpreting skills are relaxed or that services are less important.

Despite being a native Greek speaker, Nicolaidis received her college degree in English so the burden was on her to prove she knew Greek. She passed an exam at the Johns Hopkins University, she said.

She travels throughout Maryland and even out of state to assist in cases. When she began finding herself at times committed to two trials in the same day, she enlisted the help of her husband and son.

Last summer, interpreters in the high-profile Baltimore Circuit Court trial of two illegal Mexican immigrants accused of killing three children played a crucial role in relaying detailed DNA evidence and forensic techniques. The case ended in a mistrial in August.

Interpreters work in the courts as freelance employees on an "as-needed" basis and are not judicial employees. Federally certified court interpreters earn a daily salary of $329. State-certified interpreters earn $50 per hour with a two-hour minimum, and uncertified interpreters can earn between $35 and $40 per hour.

Nicolaidis has made a living out of translating and teaching language. She also interprets at hospitals. Translating a patient's problems and a doctor's diagnosis, and interpreting complicated forensic testimony are equally challenging, she said.

"An interpreter is not a doctor, and he or she does not have the appropriate vocabulary to translate what a doctor who has been doing that all his life knows," said Nicolaidis. "You have to be very precise and exact to describe what a patient is feeling. One word can be misinterpreted and really take somebody's life for granted."

Many languages present translation challenges, Lai said.

"English and Chinese sentence structure are completely reversed," she said. "Whatever goes in the beginning in English goes in the end of Chinese."

That means she often has to wait until a sentence is over to begin interpreting it, at which point the attorney or witness has moved on to the next sentence.

"When it comes to simultaneous translating, a person can only concentrate for maybe half an hour. After that, the mind begins to wander," she said.

But while the state has enough Spanish interpreters to have them double up and take turns, interpreters such as Lai and Nicolaidis must push through.

"The only thing is to do the best I can because I'm a human being. I'm not a machine," Nicolaidis said.

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