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Court interpreters endure hectic pace - America, Dec 2005

By Candace Rondeaux

TAMPA - Jorge Padro has a hundred voices. One minute he's a witness. The next he's an attorney. Then he's the judge. He is not, however, a ventriloquist - though there are some days when he feels like one.

"Sometimes I'm talking, and I don't even know what words I'm saying," Padro said.

But the hundreds of Spanish speakers who pass through Hillsborough circuit courts daily do know, and they're listening intently. For them, Padro, a Spanish language court interpreter, is literally the voice of justice. He is one of six Spanish language interpeters employed by the Hillsborough courthouse.

Last year, those interpreters and a small roster of freelance interpreters for other languages were called on more than 23,000 times to help defendants, lawyers, witnesses and judges make sense of the often befuddling court system. High demand means hard work for court interpreters. They constantly shuttle from between courtrooms because there aren't enough of them to go around.

"It's a tough job, but I really like helping people out," Padro said.

With the continued growth of the Hispanic population in the nation, the state and the Tampa Bay area, Padro's job is likely to get tougher. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics are the nation's largest minority group. In Hillsborough County, Hispanics comprise 18 percent of residents, and nearly 21 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home, according to 2003 census figures.

Those numbers translate into an average of 20 to 25 cases a day for some Hillsborough court interpreters. They work at breakneck speed, translating an average of 120 to 140 words a minute, while defendants, attorneys and judges talk in a steady stream of legalese and street jargon, said courthouse interpreter Aida Halluska. "It absolutely drains you," she said.

Two interpreters are typically assigned to full trials, leaving the remaining handful of interpreters to fill in the gaps as best they can.

"You might do a bunch of cases in the morning, and when you come back to the office you have 25 messages saying, "We need you to be in courtroom 9, 10, then 11,"' Padro said.

Staff shortages sometimes translate into short shrift for some who come to court. On one day in early June, it even led to complaints from dozens who were camped out in the courthouse hallway after a judge asked Spanish speakers to leave her courtroom. With nearly 300 cases on the docket that day, the judge said people woul d have to wait outside until an interpreter could be found to help move their cases along. Laura Cruz, a Wimauma missionary worker, said people who showed up at 8:30 a.m. to have their cases heard waited nearly two hours before an interpreter arrived.

"If they're not going to have interpreters, then they should call these people another day," Cruz said. "There are many people here who speak English, but they want to make sure that they understand everything that goes on here."

The language barrier is not quite as high in Pinellas County, where Hispanics make up just 4.6 percent of the population, according to 2003 census figures. Only 12 percent of Pinellas residents speak a language other than English at home. As a result, the demand for the nine Spanish interpreters who work on contract for the Pinellas-Pasco circuit courts is considerably smaller. Last year, the courts called on interpreters just 1,741 times, said Pinellas-Pasco courts spokesman Ron Stuart.

In Tampa, some lawyers say the shortage of interpreters is also tough on their bottom line. Tampa attorney Dirk Weed, a veteran of the Miami-Dade court system who moved to Tampa several years ago, said the set-up for interpreters in South Florida seemed to work more efficiently.

"The interpreters here are incredible," Weed said. "But a lot of times it's difficult because you have to wait an hour or two for an interpreter to come in. For every hour or two that you're here waiting for someone to interpret, you could be back at the office doing more work."

There are about 52 staff court interpreters working in Miami-Dade's 11th circuit. But the numbers are deceiving, said Miami-Dade Court Administrator Ruben Carrerou. Interpreters there cover the circuit's 112 courts but also work for public defenders and state attorneys, providing services in some 366,000 instances last year.

Hillsborough Court Administrator Mike Bridenback said he'd love to have more interpeters on staff, but budget constraints have tied his hands. Court qualified staff interpreters earn about $31,000 a year. But so-called exotic language interpreters for cases that involve Vietnamese, Russian or other more unusual languages work on a contingency basis for an average of up to $75 an hour. Sharp differences in private sector and federal court interpreter fees, Bridenback said, make for high turnover in lower paying state court jobs.