Within the court system there are, occasionally, people who are unable to speak or understand the English language.
That can present a challenge. A defendant has the right to a fair trial, but to achieve that he or she needs to understand what it being communicated.
To enable that communication in cases of non-English speakers, the 2nd Judicial District retains interpreters who translate for both the defendant and the rest of the court.
Chief Judge Kurt Wilke, of the 2nd Judicial District, said interpreters are needed throughout the district.
“We have people all over the district who can interpret for us,” Wilke said. “We tend to use people who live here in Fort Dodge.”
In Webster County District Court, Wilke said there are anywhere from four to five cases a year that require the use of an interpreter.
“Some counties use interpreters very frequently,” he said. “In Wright County they use interpreters almost weekly.”
Interpreters play an important role in making the court system function.
“We really need them whenever there’s a party involved that is not fluent in English,” Wilke said. “In all cases we make sure we maintain a good record so that we have an accurate representation of what was said.”
The most common language requested for an interpreter is Spanish, but Wilke said there are also some who specialize in what he described as “more exotic languages.”
“We’ve had interpreters who can translate Vietnamese and African languages,” he said. “But because we don’t have anybody locally, we need to contact Des Moines for those languages. They have a pool of interpreters that we can use.”
Local interpreters are paid on an hourly basis, according to Wilke.
The amount of money they receive depends on a number of factors, according to District Court Administrator Bill Watson.
He explained that there are three classes of interpreters; Class A interpreters are certified by the state. Class B are non-certified interpreters who are either certified by another state, have completed a court interpreter training program with at least a 3.0 GPA or have taken an approved certification exam with at least a 65 percent on each part of the exam. Class C interpreters are noncertified but meet the basic requirements.
“Class A certified interpreters receive $55 per hour, Class B receive $45, and Class C receive $40,” Watson said.
There are also interpreters who don’t appear on the statewide roster who receive $25 per hour.
“We’re expected to use the most highly qualified and reasonably available interpreter,” Watson said. “That depends a bit on the severity of the case. For traffic tickets, the standard of reasonably available would be different than if it was a murder trial.”
Sometimes, such as the case of Webster County Magistrate Court, judges have the option of calling a phone number and getting an on-call interpreter to translate for them.
In Fort Dodge, Maria Kotlarz works as a Class B interpreter for the 2nd Judicial District. She specializes in workers’ compensation and criminal cases.
“Interpreting takes up probably half my time,” she said. “I do more interpreting with the court system than with workmans’ comp, because I like the court system better.”
As a court system interpreter, Kotlarz said she enjoys making sure the defendant understands everything.
“It’s all about making sure the person you’re interpreting for knows exactly what’s going on and that the choices they make are their choices,” she said. “With interpreters, they can ask their attorney a question and know it’s the question they want answered.”
Being an interpreter is not the same as being an advocate, she said.
“Advocates work with the client so they know exactly what’s going to happen,” Kotlarz said. “Our job is only to interpret and to be neutral. We go from English to Spanish and Spanish to English. That’s it. We don’t get involved with the client.”
She doesn’t ask clients how their day is going or anything about their personal lives, and isn’t even allowed to touch the witness stand during court hearings.
Just because someone can speak a different language does not make them an interpreter, she said.
“You have to be so accurate because one word can throw everything off,” Kotlarz said. “You need to tell the client everything as accurately as you can without changing the context of what’s there. You can be bilingual, but it doesn’t mean you can interpret.”
She added, “There are some legal words that don’t translate over, so you have to explain it as close to the English sentence as you can.”
Interpreters also have to know about dialects.
“There are little nuances that go with it because that is going to affect the way you interpret,” Kotlarz said. “Someone who is Puerto Rican is going to speak differently than someone who is from Cuba, and someone who is from northern Mexico is going to have a different way of speaking than southern Mexico.”
Though her job can sometimes be complicated, Kotlarz enjoys it.
“Interpreters are very gung-ho,” she said. “Sometimes we come across as blunt, but that’s just part of the job. We’re trying to get information and be neutral because we can’t take sides.”