Sunday, November 27, 2005

Lost in translation: Interpreter positions require more than ability to converse in two languages

By Liz Garone
Special to Bee Creative

In the 2005 Sydney Pollack thriller, The Interpreter, Nicole Kidman overhears discussion of a presidential assassination plot, spoken in an obscure African dialect. Suddenly, Kidman, an interpreter for the United Nations, finds her own life in jeopardy.

While real work as an interpreter rarely is this dramatic or exciting, it does provide a lot of variety and pays the bills, according to Rosela Castillo, a Spanish/English interpreter based in Modesto. "Interpreting is a lot of fun. You get to meet new people every day, because you change assignments all the time," she says. "You hear different stories and say to yourself, 'Wow, I didn't even know this was going on.'"

One of the most common positions is courtroom interpreting for civil and criminal cases. Castillo has covered it all: unemployment, personal injury, workers' compensation, divorce, auto accidents, and juvenile hall. Another popular interpreting assignment is accompanying clients to doctor appointments, which are usually required as part of workers' compensation cases. In both situations, the goal of the interpreter is to translate what is being said, whether it is a judge, doctor, or client doing the talking. Interpreters are also called on to translate documents for both court and medical cases.

One mistake people often make about the interpreting field is that anyone who knows two languages can become an interpreter, says Alexandria Ramirez, also based in Modesto. "It's more than just speaking English and Spanish," she says. Interpreters need to be fluent in English and the second language for which they want to interpret. Their grammar needs to be impeccable and at university level in both languages. "You have to study all the time. You never finish studying," says Ramirez.

Castillo and Ramirez have a number of suggestions for anyone considering becoming an interpreter. Both agree that purchasing a good bilingual dictionary is essential. Language, terminology and grammar tapes and CDs are also helpful. "You have to make sure you really like this field, because you're going to be investing money," says Castillo.

Modesto Junior College ( offers grammar, reading comprehension, and Spanish classes, which are helpful for brushing up on skills before taking the written and oral exams for state certification. The tests are administered by CPS Human Resource Services ( and are offered for both court and administrative and medical specialties. While certification is not required for all positions, the courts do require it, and more and more medical clients are requesting state-certified interpreters. Ramirez says that some doctors for whom she has worked will only use interpreters who are certified. Both Ramirez and Castillo are certified.

Castillo also recommends shadowing interpreters at the courthouse. "Call freelance interpreters, and ask if you can follow them for a day," she suggests. This is how she got started 14 years ago. For six months, she went to the Stanislaus County Courthouse two times a week and observed interpreters through the complete court proceedings. She would jot down any words or phrases she didn't understand and look them up when she returned home at night. One time when she was shadowing, she received her lucky break; the interpreter assigned to the case she was observing didn't show up to work. "The judge told me that it was my turn to work. I worked, and I got paid," Castillo recalls.

Not showing up is a good example of what not to do, Ramirez says. Punctuality also counts. "Be on time, always on time. Otherwise, you won't be called back," she says.

Some interpreters choose to work directly with clients while others go through agencies. Ramirez only works through agencies that hire her as an independent contractor. "It's easier that way. They take care of everything. I'm just responsible for showing up on the day and on time and nothing else," she says. Some, like Castillo, choose to work directly with clients; for example, a lawyer who has seen her work and likes her interpretation style might hire her to attend a medical appointment with a client.

Pay depends on the type of work and the client. The court pays $147.00 for a half day, and $250.00 for a full day. Medical appointments, which can run anywhere from one to three hours, pay between $75.00 and $90.00.

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