Interpreters play an essential role

WOODSTOCK – Court interpreter Francisco Vinas’ electronic translator is almost useless.

His job requires him to almost simultaneously translate criminal proceedings with defendants who are not confident with the English language. That usually means the entire sentence has passed – and he’s behind – by the time he can type a word into the electronic translator.

“It’s very hard for you to keep up the pace,” Vinas said.

McHenry County’s two Spanish interpreters are called to hundreds of court events a month that can range from routine bond hearings to trials involving complex medical and legal terms. Court administration officials also hire freelance translators as needed for other languages, most often Polish, Russian and American Sign Language.

Court administrator Dan Wallis said their job was both mentally challenging and important. Courtroom interpreters are important for ensuring that defendants who cannot understand English, or be understood by the judge, attorneys or jurors, have fair access to the judicial system, he said.

“What they’re dealing with is someone’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” Wallis said.

Both the full-time staff interpreters are native Spanish speakers. Monica Minnis studied law in Argentina before moving to the United States in 1991. She had to adapt the British English she learned in Argentina to American speaking and began translating about four years later.

Vinas moved to the area from Mexico in 2000, took classes at McHenry County College, and interpreted at Centegra Hospital-Woodstock before the county hired him.

Simultaneous interpreting requires suppressing personal thoughts, blocking out other noise, and translating while the person is still speaking, Minnis said. When dealing with Latin-based languages such as Spanish and Italian, that can mean talking fast, since those languages typically use 25 percent more words than English to express a thought, Minnis said.

“It’s not just translating the words literally,” Vinas said. “It’s translating the message.”

The duo study court records before hearings and trials so they are familiar with how to spell key names and will recognize important information.

Even with experience and preparation, slip-ups can happen.

Minnis laughed remembering a situation in which a defendant used both English and Spanish in the same sentence. Minnis was so used to switching between the two languages that she started speaking Spanish to the judge when the defendant used English.

The judge told the defendant to stick to Spanish, Minnis said.

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