Charles M. Stern and the Stern Autonomous Grant

Laurie Truehaft

In this the fortieth anniversary year of the founding of the Circle, your editor Patricia Stumpp met with long-time member and former President Laurie Treuhaft. Laurie graciously agreed to share with us some of her memories of Mr. Stern and of her experiences in the earlier years of the Circle.

One person who is absolutely thrilled to see the Charles M. Stern Autonomous Grant being launched in this anniversary year is former New York Circle President Laurie Treuhaft. Charles Stern, a founding member of the New York Circle, was its Treasurer when Laurie served as President in 1985-1986.

Laurie remembers Mr. Stern as a delightful British gentlemen, a mathematician turned translator, with an aptitude for countless languages. He had a huge library of books and dictionaries and was a puzzle-solver by nature, often cross-referencing multiple dictionaries in multiple language pairings to find the best translation of a particular word.  He had a deep appreciation for the accomplishments of women in translation and in other professional fields. One contributing factor to this may have been that Mr. Stern was raised by women in his native England, women whom he greatly admired. Indeed, his estate attorney, Elaine Friedman, had been one of the few women to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1946. Mr. Stern passed away in 1993.

Charles Stern, who was already in his ‘80s when Laurie knew him, always walked with a cane. Dignified and discreet, he could also be quite the wit. Laurie recalls him commenting on peers in earlier times who claimed to be models of “physical culture” (i.e., “working out”) and urged him to be more diligent about it. “Here I am,” he quipped, “but those people are no longer around to preach to me!”

Charles M. Stern and Vigdis Eriksen

The Charles M. Stern Autonomous Grant is finally a reality 25 years after the funds for it were bequeathed to the Circle. Laurie, who was the Executor for Charles Stern’s will, credits the project’s completion to the thoughtfulness and sensitivity with which the procedure governing the use of the funds was framed and structured by current Program Director Aaron Hebenstreit, and to contributions by other Board members past and present. She remembers with gratitude that former Treasurer Leonard Morin and former Presidents Edna Ditaranto and Valeriya Yermishova reached out to her in years past in the hope of moving things along.

Charles Stern joined the New York Circle the year it was founded by Virginia Eva Berry-Gruby, who later served as an ATA President.  Laurie was introduced to the Circle a few years later when Susana Greiss – a talented multilingual translator who was very active and widely respected in both the New York Circle and ATA – brought her to a meeting.  At the time, Laurie was working as a translator for Marine Midland Bank downtown. Susana had come to the bank to promote a new word processing system tailored to translators and devised by her son – which was truly revolutionary in those days when everyone translated on electric typewriters. As she listened to Susana pitching her son’s creation, Laurie quickly realized that Susana herself was a translator.   The bank never bought the word processing system but the following week, Susana called Laurie and suggested they meet for lunch.

Laurie was Circle newsletter editor in 1983 and 1984. In those early days, the newsletter was produced in hard copy only; had to be folded, stamped and carted to the post office for mailing; and had no name. When Laurie became President, she asked the new newsletter editor, Erica Meltzer, to invite the Circle’s 100 or so members to submit possible names. It was member Leon Jacolev, whom Laurie remembers as “a force of nature”, who suggested the name the “Gotham Translator.” Mr. Jacolev, a technical translator, owned a translation company in New Jersey.

One of Laurie’s goals when she became President was to make member meetings exciting by inviting special guest speakers who were in the arts or advocating for the profession. She particularly remembers Helen Eisenman, known as the “Queen of Subtitlers”, who did the subtitles for the 1985 film “La Historia Oficial” chronicling the activities of the Argentine Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Another prominent guest speaker was New York Times literary critic Herbert Mitgang, who often reviewed translated works.

Laurie recalls that the earliest New York Circle meetings were generally held in restaurants; board meetings were held over dinner at someone’s home. During her tenure as President, her co-Board members in addition to Charles Stern were Regina Gelb, Vice President, and the late Fouad Kheir, Program Director.

Even once meetings regularly featured guest speakers, everyone went to dinner together afterward. As a way of honoring the linguistic diversity of its membership, the Circle made a point of holding each meeting in a different ethnic restaurant. Laurie particularly remembers a Chinese New Year dinner that she organized with help from Circle member Alex Gross – and sidewalks covered with spent firecrackers when they left the Chinatown restaurant that night. In addition, the summer picnic was always an Argentine asado at her family’s home in New Jersey Those barbecues regularly drew about 100 attendees.

Laurie’s love of languages – especially French – blossomed in her teenage years.  She spent high school summers at a French school and entered Yale’s first coed freshman class with dreams of studying French.  Ultimately, she chose to broaden her major to French Studies, which included literature, history and other disciplines.  Laurie thinks that choice must have been driven by “translator instincts”, though she didn’t fully realize it at the time.  She does remember seeing a sign for an “Ecole de traduction” on a lovely lake near Geneva during a trip with the Yale Glee Club and thinking “That sounds likes paradise!”.  Laurie went on to attend the Middlebury graduate program in Paris, earning an M.A. in French, and holds a degree in translation from Ecole Supérieure d’Interprètes et de Traducteurs (E.S.I.T.), Sorbonne Nouvelle. While in Europe, she passed the United Nations translation exam but there were no immediate openings.  She became a translator for Marine Midland Bank, and seven years later, joined the UN English Translation Service, where she worked for 25 years. Now retired, she frequently returns to the UN on freelance assignments. 

Book Review: “Translation Strategies in Global News: What Sarkozy said in the suburbs”

The following review was kindly provided to the Gotham by Donald Duffy. Mr. Duffy began his career in T&I a decade ago in Washington D.C’s diplomatic and legal space and currently translates for companies in New York’s broadcasting and digital media industry.

If there is one immediate impression to be had of journalistic translation in Claire Scammell’s “Translation Strategies in Global News: What Sarkozy said in the suburbs” (Palgrave Pivot, 2018), it is that the translator’s role within the world of news lacks clarity in certain areas. As style guides of major news organizations are found to vary markedly on the matter, we can partially attribute this unfocused objective to the secondary importance granted it in the editing process. There are solutions to this problem which can be found in literature dedicated to Translation Studies and Journalism Studies. The challenge lies in reconciling the discrepancies between the two academic fields and then penetrating the media industry at the policy level with this body of theoretical knowledge. Now, through a case study of the English-language reporting on incendiary comments made in 2005 by France’s then-Minister of the Interior, we have a book that endeavors to meet that challenge.

The very real-world case of translation given to the readers is specific and focused enough not only to explain the author’s policy recommendations, but also to double as an easy introduction to the theoretical elements that comprise her critique. And for those recommendations to have a chance at implementation, media professionals will indeed need to be given some idea of the theory that underpins those guidelines.

Anyone who reads this book will be able to appreciate immediately, for instance, the relevance and hands-on applications of the theoretical debate between “domestication” and “foreignization”, the competing missions of “bringing the author back home” versus “sending the reader abroad” in a translation, as first popularized by theorist Lawrence Venuti in his seminal work, The Translator’s Invisibility (Routledge, 1995). His theoretical framework is not only introduced, explained and applied, but also scrutinized from the perspectives of figures in the Translation Studies community who challenge important elements of it, such as Mona Baker and Anthony Pym. This is far from being a complete overview of the debates and concepts in contemporary Translation Studies that the book touches upon. Nor is the book intent on providing a survey course on the matter; the ideas asserted are original and offered with clear purpose in mind. Generally speaking, the gist of the conclusions drawn is that a relative shift towards “foreignization” would help to achieve greater accuracy and clarity in news translation.

It bears repeating that the book’s most significant virtue is its accessibility to outsiders, which is key if it is to reach news organizations where often the translation tasks are undertaken not by trained translators but by bilingual journalists and editors with other priorities and concerns at the front of their mind. Even so, the book’s readability does not come at the cost of oversimplification. There is, after all, a considerable gap between the ways in which Journalism Studies and Translation Studies perceive translation, and to bridge it requires a nuanced and functional interdisciplinary approach.

Translators working for major Western media outlets in this era’s iteration of post-truth politics have not been immune to the pressures inherent to their industry’s credibility being called into question. In such times, it becomes increasingly important to reexamine the translator’s place within news creation. This is not just to refresh one’s awareness of method so as to minimize the risk of blunder, but also to arm oneself rhetorically with the grounding of theory in order to defend the work effectively in a media landscape that is being met with increasing suspicion.

D.H. Duffy


Meet the Translator: Elizabeth Hughes Schneewind, MA, LCSW

Elizabeth specializes in the translation of German texts into English. Her exposure to German began as a fourteen year old when she lived in Frankfurt for a year. This was followed by attendance at the University of Munich and at Brown University where she completed an MA in philosophy. She is an ATA certified translator.

At Brown, as she was studying the work of the influential German philosopher Franz Brentano, it became obvious that the existing English translations of his work were not of high quality. Rather than working with a substandard translation, she did a completely new translation of one of his seminal works. She later translated some his lectures on ethics at the request of a foundation that had been set up to propagate his work.

Although Elizabeth eventually pursued a career in social work, opportunities often arose that allowed her to use her translation skills. Among the philosophers whose works she has translated are Hans Reichenbach and Viktor Kraft.  Other projects have included the translation of the memoirs of a gentleman who lived in Alsace during the Franco-Prussian war as well as the published book “For the Love of Cats”. A recent project centering on the life of a Swiss national who lived in Russia and experienced the demise of the Soviet Union will be published this spring.

Elizabeth has been a member of the Circle for about 9 years. She has enjoyed the monthly meetings and remembers in particular the discussion on literary translation that occurred last year. Her advice to fledgling translators is to “get the word out” about one’s skills possibly through direct advertising in relevant publications. She also strongly advocates extensive reading of literature in both the source and target languages.

We thank Elizabeth for sharing her translating experiences with the Circle.

From Translator to Interpreter: The Translator’s Edge

Member Leonard Morin, former president and secretary of the Circle, has provided us with his observations on the benefits and the pitfalls of transitioning from translator to interpreter.

The Translator’s Edge

Is a background in translation an asset or a liability to new interpreters?

by Leonard Morin

There are certain aspects of translation that facilitate and others that hinder a transition into interpreting. The act of translating, in the sense of converting one language into another, is common to both. In itself, this underlying skill is complex and requires significant prior training and experience. Written translation is a task that requires close attention to and study of both the source and the target texts. Making this process a habit allows the linguist to work with greater precision. This tends to be an enduring advantage for the interpreter who has had significant prior training and experience as a translator over interpreters who have not. An advantage translators have over non-translators when embarking on a career in interpreting is knowing the tricks of the translation process, such as converting nouns into verbs, reordering sentences, translating or not translating names, converting the idioms of one language into the idioms of the other, and the invaluable asset of ready translation solutions (whether technical or general) in one’s toolbox. These ready translations often represent many hours of prior research.

Besides the benefit in translation solutions of investing many hours in research work, there is the further advantage of becoming a good researcher. Research is no less essential to interpreting than it is to translating. Of course, translators pass their time in their offices with research resources constantly at their fingertips and under significantly higher accuracy requirements that those that apply to interpreters. Translators tend to be better researchers and more computer literate than interpreters without translation experience.

The Translator’s Baggage

Although interpreters ought to engage in research constantly, and translators generally obtain a higher level of precision, certain aspects of prior experience in translation form impediments to becoming an interpreter. Translators have the “luxury” of being able to look up any words for which they do not have ready translations. I put “luxury” in quotation marks here because in reality translators are almost always under tremendous pressure due to deadlines. Translators, however, who reinvent themselves into interpreters will find they have to adopt a drastically different approach to tackling vocabulary. Whereas the translator can look up a word and forget it (which is relative since the translator may need the same translation later), the interpreter has to commit it to memory. While not actually working (although perhaps at work, as in the case of a court interpreter in the courtroom waiting for his or her case to be called), linguists are exposed to vocabulary in either of the pair of languages that they may need to know in the line of duty. While the translator may listen but put off looking up the vocabulary until later, an interpreter is probably best off looking up the word right away. Whether or not the interpreter has a satisfactory solution right away, she will have to note down the correct translation in a glossary and commit it to memory. This means the interpreter’s ears must always be pricked up for new vocabulary.

Whereas the interpreter is always looking to improve vocabulary, the actual interpreting occurs in a limited time span and generally only partially survives in human memory. As a translator, I found that it was helpful to carry the text I was working on with me in my mind even when I was not working and in many cases even after it was done. New interpreters coming from a background in translation may find it hard to adjust to the fact that the work is done in one shot and there is no going back. Translators generally translate the text and then go over it multiple times. For the interpreter there is only one rendition. Of course the interpreter has to learn from each session and work at doing better the next time around (especially at similar sessions), but interpreters render their performance in one session and there is no going back to change it. The translator who is in the habit of ruminating over work done may find a transition into interpreting difficult and taxing. The interpretation rendered is irremediable and irrevocable. On top of that, the level of perfection is below that of a competent translation. Brooding over something patently imperfect that cannot be changed is futile and can be extremely nerve-wracking, but a translator become interpreter is apt to make this mistake and suffer the concomitant anxiety and frustration: frustration for not being able to correct errors or inaccuracies incurred; anxiety about the next performance, which will be subject to the same implacable spontaneity and finality.[1]

A Different Kind of Stress

On the other hand, full-time translators who transition into becoming full-time interpreters may feel that they are relieved from a certain kind of stress. While interpreters are put on the spot to perform and think on their feet, translators live with the gnawing anxiety of unfinished translations and impending deadlines. Successful translators may find that they rarely do not live in the shadow of one or several deadlines. This shadow marks every other activity in the translator’s life. Once they have dedicated themselves full-time to interpreting, this shadow is lifted. Of course, the linguist will now have to deal with the more acute stress associated with a largely improvised performance. And even though the standard of accuracy in interpreting is necessarily lower than in translating, in interpreting the ramifications of inaccuracy may be just as severe if not more so. One need only bring to mind legal, medical, or diplomatic interpreting, in which a single misspoken word can have harrowing consequences.

Translators have to be or become excellent writers in their target language. They must also have the discipline to work long hours in solitude. Whereas a career in translation will intimately involve linguists with their computers and therefore lead to a higher level of computer literacy than most interpreters boast, the latter must master another set of specific skills beyond being a “translator.” Becoming an interpreter is like learning to master a musical instrument. Linguists must learn the three primary modes of interpreting: consecutive and simultaneous interpreting and sight translation. Doing so requires study and practice. Other subsets of skills, such as public speaking and note-taking for consecutive, and clear diction, especially for simultaneous, are also indispensable.

Another skill for interpreting is everything that has to do with interacting with people. For me, one of the motivations for transitioning from translating to interpreting, besides higher pay and shorter hours, was social interaction. Although interpreting can offer the translator a refreshing escape from solitary confinement, one may soon find oneself saturated with personal interaction, which is not always pleasant. I think the social aspect is one of the biggest appeals of interpreting. In my branch of the industry, court interpreting, I have near constant dealings with lawyers, court clerks, court officers, defendants, judges, and interpreter colleagues. On the one hand, as a per diem interpreter, you are likely to meet a wide variety of people from different courts; on the other, as a staff interpreter, you are able to develop relationships more deeply while still constantly meeting new people.

The Lotus

Many translators became translators because they were enticed by a life of reflection and serenity. If they are like me, their versatility allows them to appreciate the charm of reclusion as well as that of intense human interaction. Yet I think humans usually find disenchantment in getting what they thought they wanted. So this retreat into interpreting may be more tumultuous than the translator expected. After the initial high of intense, spontaneous human exchanges, the translator-become- interpreter may feel overwhelmed by the deluge of human contact. The stressors are as diverse as the people one comes in contact with. Besides being around people non-stop (and defendants are not the only ones who can be unpleasant), there are anxieties, such as trying to capture every detail of the prosecution’s bail recitation. Translators who contemplate becoming interpreters should understand that interpreting is a rich profession, but the rose has its thorns. Indeed, a good interpreter is like a lotus flower that rises above its bed of muddy water.

Leonard Morin is a staff interpreter at Manhattan Criminal Court. He previously practiced as a freelance translator and interpreter from 2004-2015. Leonard interprets Spanish and Dutch and translates chiefly legal and cartography-related documents from Dutch, Spanish, and German into English. He earned a propedeuse degree in law in the Netherlands and graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Latin American Studies from Columbia University. Leonard has earned translation and interpreting certificates and won academic prizes for his Spanish and German. He previously served separate terms as president and secretary of the New York Circle of Translators and is currently a delegate of his union Local 1070 to District Council 37.

[1] Save the scarce opportunities that a court interpreter, for example, has to correct the record after making an error. 

“Google Translate” and the Law of Consent Searches

This is an interesting article that was published on The Volokh Conspiracy blog on June 21, 2018. It was written by Orin Kerr. The publisher has given us permission to reproduce the article here.

¿Puedo buscar el auto?
Orin Kerr | Jun. 21, 2018 3:10 pm

Here’s an interesting question I’ve started to see in Fourth Amendment cases: If an officer asks for consent to search from a non-English speaker, using Google Translate to ask for consent in the person’s own language, is the resulting consent valid if there are possible misunderstandings from the translation? And relatedly, does the good-faith exception apply based on the officer’s good-faith reliance on the reliability of Google Translate?

This issue came up recently in United States v. Cruz-Zamora, decided by Judge Carlos Murguia of the federal district court in Kansas. The case involves consent to search a car during a traffic stop. The officer typed in “can I search the car” or “can I search your car” into
Google translate, which came up with a Spanish translation. When put into Google Translate, “can I search the car” translates to “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” The officer then showed the translated text to the driver, who responded by saying “yeah, yeah go.” The officer then searched the car and found a lot of drugs inside it.

The problem is that the English word “search” has several different meanings. It might mean “to look through,” for example, or it might just mean “to look for.” The officer was trying to ask for consent to search assuming the first meaning; he wanted to look through the car. But Google’s translation picked the word “buscar,” which means “to look for.” As the court explains:

“When put in reverse order into Google Translate, “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” translates to “Can I find the car.” Gardner [an expert interpreter] testified that while “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” is a literally correct interpretation, it is not the question Wolting intended to ask defendant. Gardner noticed several other instances in the video where Google Translate provided a literal but nonsensical translation. For example, at one point, Wolting likely asked defendant about his driver’s license and defendant responded “Do you have a driver for the license?” as if he was repeating the question as translated. And while defendant could guess the intent of the question, Gardner felt that because Google Translate sometimes provides literal but nonsensical translations, it is not a reliable tool for interpretations.

Both interpreters noted there were multiple times defendant responded that he did not understand Wolting’s questions. According to Gardner, defendant claimed he did not understand the question on nine different occasions during the stop. And in regard to the specific question as to whether Wolting could search defendant’s car, Garcia testified that “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” is not exactly how a Spanish speaker would ask to “search in your car.” Defendant, as a native Spanish speaker with very limited English skills, would instead have to make an assumption about what the question actually is.”

The court rules that under the circumstances of this case, the government did not meet its burden to show consent:

“It is impossible to know how defendant translated “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” and whether he was affirmatively consenting to a search of his vehicle or responding to a perceived command. And while he did exit the patrol car and stand by the side of the road without objection while Wolting performed the search, defendant testified that he did not understand the question, and did not know he had a choice when Wolting told him to stand near the side of the road.

Unlike other cases where the defendants’ actions implied that they understood the officers’ questions, here it is not so clear. Yes, defendant did demonstrate some basic understanding of Wolting’s English questions and commands; however, when reviewing the transcript and considering the imprecise translation, the court does not find the government has met its burden to show defendant’s consent was “unequivocal andspecific and freely and intelligently given.”

The next question was whether the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule could apply based on good faith reliance on Google Translate. Another case had so held, and the government relied on that case here:

“The government cites a recent case from the Southern District of Texas in which an officer used Google Translate to look up how to ask for consent to search in Spanish and then asked the defendant “Puedo buscar?” while pointing to his eyes and then to defendant’s vehicle. United States v. Salas Antuna, No. 6:16–86, 2017 WL 2255565 at *1 (S.D. Tex, May 23, 2017). In denying defendant’s motion to suppress—in which defendant argued his consent was invalid because of the language barrier—the court acknowledged that but that the officer reasonably relied on the Google Translate translation and that the good-faith exception applied. Id. at *5.”

The court rules that the good faith exception based on the facts of this case, however:

“[T]he court finds that the good-faith exception does not apply as it is not reasonable for an officer to use and rely on Google Translate to obtain consent to a warrantless search, especially when an officer has other options for more reliable translations. The government has not met its burden to show defendant’s consent was “unequivocal and specific and freely and intelligently given,” because defendant claims he did not understand the question, the transcript from Wolting’s in-car camera supports defendant’s claim that he did not understand many of his questions, and the Google Translate translation allegedly used by Wolting was not a precise translation of “Can I search the car?” Even though defendant answered “Ah, okay. Yeah…yeah. Go. Yes,” it is not clear from the evidence what question was asked and what defendant was agreeing to, and the court will not interpret defendant’s compliance with Wolting’s instructions to
stand by the side of the road during the search as implied consent, considering the totality of the circumstances. The court finds that application of the exclusionary rule is appropriate in this case, and therefore grants defendant’s motion to suppress.”

Interesting case. But let me step back a bit.

Off the top of my head, I would be inclined to think that the good faith exception shouldn’t apply to reliance on Google Translate at all. It’s true that in Herring v. United States, the Court applied the good faith exception when the police relied on an incorrect database entry. The idea was that it wasn’t the officer’s fault that the database erroneously said a warrant was wanted for Herring’s arrest, so you can’t fault the officer so much (enough to apply the exclusionary rule) to suppress the evidence following from the arrest.

But I see a big difference between relying on a police database of open arrest warrants and relying on Google Translate for a consent search. The police create databases of open arrest warrants to know who they should arrest on warrants. The police rely on those databases for that purpose, and they’re usually pretty accurate for it.

In contrast, it’s common knowledge that Google Translate gets you in the rough ballpark of a literal translation but no better. It’s a neat service if you have no alternative and want to get a rough sense of what someone is saying. But no one would think that Google Translate is accurate enough to generate an error-free translation or be anything like the equivalent of an expert interpreter. If the government wants to use such an inaccurate tool to get beyond a language barrier, they can try that. But I don’t think the good-faith exception should apply
when an entirely predictable mistranslation occurs.


The Making of a Court Interpreter

Reflections on language access standards and the actual interpreting in the New York State Courts

I. New York and the US are in the vanguard of court interpreting

The United States has been at the vanguard of court interpreting ever since the Court Interpreters Act of 1978 and the creation of the Federal Spanish Court Interpreter exam under the auspices of the University of Arizona and Dr. Roseann Dueñas González.1 New York was one of the first states to provide free interpreters in every type of judicial proceeding, including civil and family court matters. As the New York State Court Interpreter Manual sets forth, court interpreters must “faithfully and accurately interpret what is said without embellishment or omission, while preserving the language level and/or register of the speaker.” This standard of “legal equivalence” derives from the Court Interpreters Act, which “is designed to put non-English-speaking witnesses, defendants, and litigants on an equal footing with those who are English-speaking” (Tayler, M. R., 1988). “Interpreters must be able to translate with exactitude…while accurately reflecting a speaker’s nuances and level of formality…The interpretation cannot be a summary or convey only the gist of the original source message” (Federal Judicial Center, 1989).2 Despite the admirable work that many of our court interpreters do in the courts, the actual standard would tend to fall short of this ideal of equal access. How do we address this discrepancy?

II. What it takes to be an interpreter

The interpreting profession requires a very broad and high-level skill set. The following is a non-exhaustive list of requisite skills for interpreters:

(1) Interpreters must of course have superior or native command of their two working languages.

(2) They must be able to multi-task complex skills. Simultaneous interpreting requires use of at least 22 cognitive skills at any given moment. 3

(3) The interpreter has to have an exceptional short-term memory combined with excellent note-taking techniques for the consecutive mode.

(4) The interpreter must be able to untangle complex or vernacular utterances at a quick pace in every mode of interpreting.

(5) This process also applies to sight translation, which requires quick-paced translation out loud of written texts ranging from high- to low-register.

(6) Translation in the strict sense, transferring one language into another, is the underlying skill for all language interpretation and takes many years of training, study, and practice to master. A good translator’s understanding of the ideas behind the words results from continued practice, research, and contemplation of her working languages. Idiomatic translation is a fine art.

(7) Clear diction is necessary, in both languages, even at very fast rates of speech.

(8) Accents and dialects with which the interpreter is less familiar are bound to occur. While this deficit underscores the need for continuing education, the interpreter needs to be able to make sense quickly of novel forms of expression and render them into the target language.

(9) This deciphering is also necessary when people speak unclearly or inaudibly.

(10) Other ancillary skills also play a role, such as being able to work under pressure in the high-stakes adversarial judicial environment.

(11) Avid reading is necessary in order to expose oneself to one’s working languages in their many variants. The good interpreter constantly researches, grappling with the new vocabulary and terminology that continuously arises.

(12) Since human interaction is also a constant in court interpreting, court interpreters must be highly proficient in interacting with lawyers, judges, litigants or defendants, witnesses, court officers and clerks, other court staff, and the general public in the courthouse.

New interpreters have to immerse themselves in a plethora of vocabulary and terminology. Of course there are court terms, such as a criminal—as opposed to a civil—complaint, disorderly conduct, or an order to show cause. But there is also a larger orbit of terms that can come up in court. For instance, when I started, I was not sure how to translate “irregular heartbeat,” “nail-polish remover,” or “syringe” into Spanish. Of course, an interpreter may have excellent all-a-round vocabulary in her working languages. Yet in reality she is dealing with two linguistic worlds. What is more, experience living in one language culture is not the mirror image of the other and, thus, the interpreter’s knowledge of one language does not always neatly correspond to that of the other. Finding all the appropriate equivalents requires ongoing exposure to language in context, in addition to study and research. We must strive to expand our knowledge of our pair of working languages so that they replicate each other as completely as possible. The court interpreter will probably come up to speed more quickly in using the court argot than in the larger orbit of general vocabulary that can come up on occasion in court.

III. Coming up to speed

Given the extremely high espoused standard of court interpreting and the broad gamut of skills it entails, few or no individuals command them all at the outset. They will have to work hard, especially in their early career, to complete their toolbox. Training opportunities are sorely lacking, especially for languages other than Spanish. Since there is not an obvious, established course of study to hit the ground running as a court interpreter, as undesirable as the situation may seem, much of the education interpreters get is empirical—learned on the job. The fact that the only official requirements for entry are a high-school diploma, passing the written and oral certification exams, and passing the background check can be misleading. The job is extremely demanding, and there are probably not enough fully qualified candidates to fulfil demand.

The certification exams have gotten more and more difficult since they were first instituted in the 1980s. In New York State, 1,502 people participated in the exam cycle ending in 2016, of which 106 passed, 969 failed, 420 did not show up, and 7 were disqualified. These results were after the application of a bell curve on both the written and oral portions, without which, far fewer than the 106 would have passed. The pass threshold on both exams is 70% accuracy. These exams occurred with optimal sound conditions and hence are atypical of the acoustical conditions in the courts. Assuming the last oral exam is a fair representation of what one can expect to find in court, the goal of “legal equivalence” seems illusory. What is more, it appears that many of the candidates who passed before application of the curve were previously certified, practicing court interpreters.4

On a brighter note, even after the curve adjustment, the 106 who passed this time overall seem to be performing at a higher level than the top 106 from the last exam cycle (2009-2011). The most recent written and oral exams were both far more difficult than the previous time. I took both and scored about the same both times even though I was much more qualified the second time around. I personally know of five formerly certified per diem interpreters who failed the last exam. Just about every one of the 106 newly certified interpreters who were available to work in New York City was employed as staff within six months of publication of the exam results.

IV. Interpreters are not the only link in the chain of communication

The entire onus of language access should not fall on the shoulders of interpreters alone. The individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) for whom interpreters interpret do not always express themselves clearly or understand what they are told in their own language. Attorneys often do not elucidate the legal issues at stake to their clients. Indeed, some attorneys do not always even express themselves clearly in English. Attorneys often go on the record engaging their clients in complex legal transactions without prior conferencing. Lawyers and judges often speak at lightning speed or inaudibly. When one translates English to Spanish, there is about a 25% expansion in the number of words.5  Thus, the Spanish has to be even faster than the English. While court users from the general public are often lost in the court system, working interpreters find themselves in the crossfires of rampant miscommunication.

Finally, while interpreters are not permitted to determine the policies that govern their working conditions, we hope that those in charge of court policies will partner with us to ensure that interpreters remain a strong link in the chain of communication.

V. Some possible solutions

(1) The introduction of monitoring: The Office of Court Administration (OCA) set out a comprehensive language access plan in March 2017, which includes a monitoring program that was set to launch in fall of that year. The obvious objective would be to control quality. Yet the monitoring also should serve to ascertain a realistic standard. I hope that this program will encourage better interpreting in the courts and does not have unwanted negative side effects, like punitively singling out certain interpreters who happen to be the object of the monitoring. Any observer should keep in mind that the performance of an individual interpreter is largely the reflection of the OCA’s historical investment in quality enhancement.

(2) Glossary exchanges: Translation is not an exact science. Ongoing research and consultation with colleagues and subject-matter experts are a must, as is the creation, expansion, and sharing of glossaries.

(3) Facilitate a dialogue about acceptable standards: The monitoring of interpreters and the glossary exchange could facilitate a necessary dialogue between interpreters, administrators, the monitors, judges, lawyers, and other stakeholders about current existing standards and realistic and acceptable standards to pursue henceforth. It seems self-evident that the participation of court interpreters will always be essential in whatever dialogue takes place about language access.

(4) Take stock of the available court interpreter training programs: By law and by moral obligation, the courts need to make every effort to achieve legal equivalence for LEP individuals. The New York State Office of Court Administration, along with the interpreters’ Local 1070, and professional interpreter organizations, such as the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), the American Translators Association (ATA), or the New York Circle of Translators, should identify and utilize the existing training within and without the court system and examine how the courts can partner with training institutions, the union, and professional organizations to improve training programs and further tailor them to the reality on the ground in the New York State Courts.

(5) Engage in partnerships: The courts should also consider partnering with the New York Bar Association, domestic and foreign law schools, and foreign professional organizations. This collaboration would furnish additional resources to enable court interpreters to do their job more professionally. With regard to languages of lesser diffusion, foreign translator and interpreter associations hold great potential for enabling interpreters of those languages to do their jobs better. There may not seem to be many resources for interpreters of Polish or Turkish in this country, but there are sizable markets and hence extensive experience in Poland and Turkey, respectively, in translating and interpreting English. Foreign law schools are also a great potential resource for languages of lesser diffusion, in particular for the pursuit of the best possible equivalent of US (and New York) legal terms. This translation work and research is already being done, and it would be a misfortune not to take advantage of these valuable resources.

(6) Invest in language access: Finally, to make greater strides towards full language access, more money will have to be invested to make training accessible and jobs attractive.

Leonard Morin is a staff interpreter at Manhattan Criminal Court. He previously practiced as a freelance translator and interpreter from 2004-2015. Leonard interprets Spanish and Dutch and translates chiefly legal and cartography-related documents from Dutch, Spanish, and German into English. He earned a propedeuse degree in law in the Netherlands and graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Latin American Studies from Columbia University. Leonard has earned translation and interpreting certificates and won academic prizes for his Spanish and German. He previously served separate terms as president and secretary of the New York Circle of Translators and is currently a delegate of his union Local 1070 to District Council 37.

1-de la Vega, María Cristina (2013). “Roseann Dueñas González: No Longer a Voice in the Wilderness.” ATA Chronicle. Consulted on November 18, 2018 at:
2-Tayler, M. R. (1988). “Interpretation/translation assistance in immigration proceedings.” Immigration Journal, 11(3), 57-61. Found in: Dueñas González, Roseann (1991). Fundamentals of Court Interpretation: Theory, Policy and Practice. Carolina Academic Press. Durham.
Federal Judicial Center. (1989, June). Court interpreter qualification process amended, Navajo and Haitian Creole certification planned (1989-241-150-00006). The Third Branch: Bulletin of the Federal Courts, 21(6), 7. Washington, DC: U.S. GPO. Found in: Fundamentals.
3-Fundamentals. Pg. 176
4-I participated in the last two exam cycles, ending in 2011 and 2016, respectively. The latter was markedly more difficult than the former. After the last exams, I participated in the so-called computational review in which the OCA explained the grading methodology. The civil service list of candidates who passed the exam was published online, where it remained several months until it was apparently taken down.
5-Transfluent. “Why Spanish Uses More Words Than English: an Analysis of Expansion and Contraction.” Transfluent translation agency Web site, consulted on November 18, 2018 at:


Election time is here. Below are the candidate statements for President and Vice-President

Candidate for President

Milena Savova                        

My name is Milena Savova and I am running for President. I have been a member of the Circle since 1996 and I am an Active Member of the ATA. My working languages are Bulgarian and English.

My first job after graduating from the English Department of University of Sofia, Bulgaria, was a translator and interpreter at the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I left after six months to go to graduate school. But I have never quit translation and interpreting. In fact, I incorporated translation into my Ph.D. thesis. I also taught theory and practice of translation at Sofia University.

When I moved to New York in the early 1990s I thought that I was done with that part of my life until I joined the Circle. I found like-minded colleagues whose stories matched those of my free-lance colleagues in Bulgaria. I also started translating once again. I was awe-struck by the knowledge and professionalism of the Circle members.

Later in 1996, I was hired as Director of the Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting at what was then the School of Continuing Education (School of Professional Studies now) of NYU and held that position until 2015.

During my tenure at NYU, we expanded our translation and interpreter certificate programs and launched a Master of Science in Translation. I made sure that the Department developed a close relationship with the Circle and we supported each other. The Circle was always my first go-to resource for hiring instructors. My team and I always encouraged our students to join it as early as possible in order to get their feet wet in the profession.

The NY Circle of Translators is a special organization reflecting the nature of our city and the Tri-State area. It may very well have the largest representation of language pairs of all ATA chapters. We also have veteran members with many years of experience alongside new ones and students.

If I were to be entrusted with the leadership post, I would make sure that every voice is heard and all members feel comfortable in our organization. We need to follow new developments in the language professions and assist our members in mastering them. I would also like us to recognize the differences among those translators/interpreters working with the commonly used languages, such as Spanish and French, and those working with languages of lesser distribution, such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, etc. We must not forget translation companies.

Should I be elected I am sure the board members would also have ideas about our future work and I would listen to them too because I believe in team work.

Candidates for Vic-President

Kate Deimling                    

I’ve been a freelance French-to-English translator for over 11 years, after obtaining a Ph.D. in French from Columbia University and working in academia. ATA-certified since 2009, I specialize in advertising and marketing, art and culture, international development, and fiction and non-fiction. Within the advertising and marketing field, I specialize in transcreation and copywriting, with a focus on luxury brands. I developed a specialty in art and museums while working as the in-house translator for and as the New York correspondent for the French art newspaper Le Journal des Arts. I have spoken on the craft of translation and the translation industry at Duke University, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and Columbia University, as well as this year’s annual ATA conference. I’ve translated five books on topics ranging from the French wine industry to Renaissance portraiture. From 2014-2015 I was program director of the New York Circle of Translators. In 2015, I founded the NYCT’s mentoring program, which I still manage today.

The NYCT has been very valuable to me throughout my career as a translator and I would like to serve on the board once again, this time as vice-president, and contribute to sustaining the organization’s growth and momentum. I hope to support the other board members in any way I can as we maintain the Circle’s program of regular activities and plan for the future. 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the New York Circle of Translators, and I would like to help the NYCT celebrate this milestone. This is a great opportunity to reflect on our organization’s achievements and to raise our profile.

Annette Vazquez     

Hello, my name is Annette Vazquez and I am translator/interpreter. I obtained my Bachelor’s degree from Montclair State University in Spanish with a concentration in Translation.

I am very honored to be asked to run for vice president of the New York Circle of Translators. Through the years I have watched the organization change in leadership to keep up with the times while also fostering camaraderie, professional development and opportunities for translators and interpreters alike. Nonetheless, the work does not stop there–we need to create awareness of the value of our profession in order to thrive and succeed in these uncertain times.

If elected I hope to collaborate alongside with the president and the board to continue the livelihood of the organization by supporting, developing and maintaining a cohesive sense of community with the members.