Madame Justice, con permiso

Hussean Hassan is a court interpreter for classical Arabic. (Asha Mahadevan/NYCity Lens)

Hussean Hassan is a court interpreter for classical Arabic. (Asha Mahadevan/NYCity Lens)

Hussean Hassan is not a lawyer. Nor is he a court officer or a law clerk. Yet, when Mohammed Hassan, no relation, accused of groping a woman in a subway car, appears at his hearing, Hussean Hassan is by his side.

As Mohammed, the accused, stands in front of the judge in Part E courtroom on the second floor of New York City’s Criminal Courts building in Downtown Manhattan, Hassan stands to his right and constantly whispers in his ear in classical Arabic. No one stops him. Hassan, after all, is the court interpreter.

In a city as diverse as New York, quite often the people who stand accused of committing a crime do not speak English, said Sandra Bryan, the statewide coordinator of Court Interpreters. It’s the job of the court interpreter to bridge this gap between the justice system and the litigant. “Interpreters play an incredibly crucial role in the justice system,” said Bryan.

According to Bryan, the court system employs a total of 217 court interpreters representing 27 languages and dialects, that are appointed to the New York State courts within the five boroughs of New York city. Of these, 16 are employed in a supervisory capacity, but they also interpret in courtrooms.

“We are the people’s voice,” said Madhu Mishra, who translates Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and Bengali into English. The 51-year-old immigrant of Indian origin began as a freelancer but has been a permanent member of the staff since 2001. “We have to be unbiased and invisible, not get emotionally involved. We have to interpret what they say, verbatim, and not give our own opinions.”

Intrepreters have to intrepret what the judge and lawyer are telling each other so that the defendant is aware of what’s going on. Sometimes, during a trial, when a lawyer or a judge asks the accused a question in English, the interpreter translates it for the defendant in their preferred language, and then translates his or her reply into English for the court. It is not restricted to the accused – many a time, witnesses or victims are also in need of an interpreter. But most of the time, it’s for the defendants.

It is not easy to become a court interpreter. The process involves a written exam to judge language proficiency in both English and the foreign language, extensive background checks and an ethics training seminar.  Only 30 percent pass the the written exam and move to the oral exam. Only one out of four clear it.

“The language of criminal courts includes the whole range from forensic terms to street slang,” said Bryan. “People can be bilingual but not necessarily capable interpreters. It is a specific skill.”

The challenges are manifold. Arabic has many dialacts, and even someone like Hassan, who is from Egypt and has been an interpreter in the city’s courts for the past 19 years, does not know all of them. He interprets in classical Arabic, a language that most people in Arabic-speaking nations can understand.

Angela Chin, a resident of Bayside, Queens, and a court interpreter for Mandarin Chinese, says interpreting demands more than fluency. You have to “be impartial, be accurate and fast, have excellent short term memory, and a broad knowledge of the sciences,” she said.

Then there is grammar.. “If they ask you, ‘Didn’t you go to the park?’, in English, you will say ‘No’, to mean ‘No, I didn’t go to the park’ but in Mandarin, you will say ‘Yes’ to mean ‘Yes, I didn’t go to the park’,” said Chin. An incorrect interpretation in such a matter can be the difference between a defendant being found innocent or guilty of a crime and even call the credibility of the witness into question.

Then, same words can have different meanings in the same language, depending on which country the speaker is from, said Belinda Benavides, 52, a Spanish interpreter from Westchester County.  In Spanish, she explained the word for ‘balloon’ is ‘globo’ and ‘vejiga’ means ‘bladder’. But in the Dominican Republic, ‘vejiga’ is street slang for a balloon. In a case involving immigrants from the Dominican Republic, she interpreted the statement, ‘the balloon popped,’ as ‘my bladder popped’. “The courtroom burst out laughing,” she said.

Mistakes can have far more serious consequences, though. Hassan recalled a case in which a young woman was accused of dangling a baby from a window.. All the parties involved knew it was a joke, but another person passing by called the police. Hassan was in the courtroom to interpret the proceedings for the girl’s family; a female interpreter was on official duty.  “The girl stood up, she was crying and she clearly said, ‘I am sorry I made a mistake.’ I heard her say the word ‘altan’ which means ‘by mistake,’ said Hassan. “But the interpreter interpreted it as if the girl was admitting that she did it intentionally.” ,

Hassan interrupted the proceedings and explained the problem to the judge, but the judge said he could not do anything unless the official interpreter admitted that she made a mistake. She refused. The girl went to jail for one and a half years. The interpreter lost her job.

Then there is the issue of legal terminology. How do you translate ‘arraignment’ in the language of a country whose justice system does not have one? Or explain the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?

Anna Ng, 70, a Brooklyn resident and Mandarin interpreter for the past nine years, finds sexual crimes the most challenging. “Terminology like sexual harassment, grinding, forcible touching, they are too graphic when interpreted,” she said.

It is also tough to stay impartial, say many intrepreters. “It can be a little depressing sometimes when you see one of your people accused of something they swear they didn’t do,” said Moustahpha Diop, 59, a court interpreter for 25 years. “As a human being, you feel sometimes that this is not right, that the lawyer is not giving his client the correct advice, but you cannot get involved. You work for the court.”

With 10 to 15 cases a day, it’s exhausting, stressful and emotionally draining work, says Houleye Sy, who interprets French, Fulani and Wolof. “You have to be sharp all the time, make sure you have enough sleep,” she said. “We are on call on weekends too.”

“If you take cases home,” Sy adds, “it will affect your life.”