Language in the Courts: A Casual Carpool Discussion

Category: Culture, Language

I take Casual Carpool to work most days. The ride takes about 30 minutes; normally drivers tune their car stereos to NPR, KPFA, or some innocuous music station, and most rides are spent in comfortable silence.

But sometimes people feel like chatting, and inevitably one of the first questions asked is: “What do you do?” This gives me plenty of opportunities to practice my elevator speech, which most days this garners the predictable “What languages do you speak?”

But yesterday I got to have a really interesting conversation about language and culture where I wasn’t the one doing most of the talking.

The driver of our carpool was a public defender in juvenile court, and we chatted about court interpreting and the need for broader understanding in the judicial system no matter what the language.

Apparently, much of the courts’ language work is being performed by administrative assistants who may be bilingual but have no background in translation. “Have the secretary do it!” still seems to be the default operation, if anyone takes the time to consider the non English-speaking world, and many people in the courts are frustrated with the miscommunications this causes.

My driver relayed an interesting story about a Spanish-speaking client who had appeared for a court date without her son, the subject of the trial:

The court was about to turn her away when my public defender driver stepped in to ask about how the court appearance had been communicated to her client. It turns out the court had sent the client a letter regarding details of the upcoming trial date — but it was in English only. She’d gotten the address and the date from the letter, and had showed up on time, but hadn’t understood that she needed to bring her son.

Even when planning to reschedule — and send another letter to confirm the details — the court officials hadn’t grasped the need to communicate in Spanish rather than in English, and had my driver not been there to advocate for the client on this so basic a level, proceedings would have ground to a halt.

It was sounding to me more and more as if this public defender took her title really seriously — you know those people who do so much for their clients that “above and “beyond” start to sound like “smack in the middle of your job description?”

She told another story about an Arabic speaking family she had represented: in addition to being up on court charges, the son had been acting out in school and no one could figure out why or make any progress with him. As a last resort, my driver found an Arabic-speaking child psychologist, and it turns out that the boy had been in a bad car accident and actually had brain damage from it! No one at school or in the courts knew, and as the family spoke only Arabic, this would not have gotten across any other way. Apparently the damage was so severe that the son in the end was deemed incompetent to stand trial.

My driver went to some lengths to find an Arabic-speaking family therapist to help her clients deal with the implications of all of this — culturally speaking, this family was in very unfamiliar territory, but still needed to comply with the court’s rulings on their son.

I was really surprised to hear these stories; I’d have thought that in a city as international as San Francisco, the judicial system would be more prepared for dealing with its multilingual audience. Translation and interpretation take effort and money, certainly, but these are people’s lives that are at stake; shouldn’t we be taking more interest in serving, really serving, the people who make San Francisco what it is? Ideally, I’d hope that San Franciscans in the judicial system wouldn’t have to rely on their public defenders’ awareness of cultural and linguistic boundaries to get their basic needs met.

Chatting with this public defender on our drive across the bridge was a refreshing glimpse into the real-world application of language and translation. In my job, it’s easy to get lulled into a sense that translation is all about planning for software and technical documents, but my driver’s stories helped remind me that translation — both linguistic and cultural — makes a profound impact on lives every day.