San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Justice Is Tongue-Tied

The judicial system is suffering a chronic shortage of English-language interpreters to handle its caseloads involving foreigners.

Only three official interpreters, plus one for sign language, are available for the entire country, and they are scoffing at the low pay.

“I have judges calling me crying, begging for my services because they’ve already postponed cases (involving foreigners) so many times,” said English interpreter and lawyer Arcelio Hernández. “But the bottom line is the judicial branch pays very little, and it’s no incentive to work.”

The courts here pay interpreters ¢10,000 (about $18) per hour, while other government entities and the private sector pay from $50 to $100 per hour, Hernández said. The interpreter and family lawyer said he occasionally handles cases as favors for certain judges and out of a sense of duty.

The Legislative Assembly passed the Translation and Official Interpreter Law earlier this year requiring the courts to use only interpreters from a list sanctioned by the University of Costa Rica’s Modern Languages Department. According to Hernández, the law was passed because of a problem with poor-quality language services that negatively affected criminal cases.

“I have seen cases of bad translations that have even damaged the accused and ended in convictions,” he said.

Because most of the UCR-certified interpreters scoff at the low pay, the judicial branch had to create a system called “inopia,” which means poverty, in which they can contract out interpretation services to whomever they can find on an emergency basis, regardless of UCR approval. That leaves the system is basically as it was before the law was passed.

One of those inopia interpreters is Rosa Monge, who happily scoops up what the official interpreters pass up.

“My agenda is always full because they don’t use any of these (official interpreters),” she said. “I was talking with a lawyer the other day and he said, ‘There’s one who … is sick, one is out of country, and the other is already working another case.”

At least one jurist, Pavas Criminal Court Judge Juan Solano, swears by Monge. Acknowledging the chronic interpreter shortage, Solano said the court was lucky to find her.

“When we found her, we got one of the best because she’s very fast,” he said. “If the (accused) doesn’t speak Spanish, it’s always a trick to find a translator, and days can go by before we can find one. But the problems we have with English pale in comparison when we have to try a case involving Chinese.”

Monge, who started interpreting in 1977 with Channel 7 for beauty pageants involving foreigners, said she gets choked up by some cases. But she can’t allow herself to get personally attached because that would violate the interpreter’s oath of objectivity.

“You do your best with the translations, and that’s the best you can do,” she said.

She said she’s interpreted for cases in which innocent U.S. citizens have been temporarily incarcerated in preventive prison for murder and a Canadian that was ripped off of $225,000 on a business deal in Cahuita, in the Caribbean province of Limón, and never got her money back.

“The problem with foreigners is they have no roots here,” she said. “There are a lot of Americans in La Reforma and San Sebastian prisons, and the lawyers just take their money and don’t help them.”

James Harman, Monge’s business partner at R & J Personal Solutions, said the two team up to help English speakers deal with Costa Rica’s tangled bureaucracy.

“One of the things we do is get people hooked up without mañana or next year coming into play,” he said. “We work with five to six different attorneys.”

The Translation and Official Interpreter Law also labeled foreigners who don’t speak Spanish as “disabled” under the law, granting them, at least on paper, the right to quality interpretation and translation services.

Translators for Hire

Here is a list of some the few English-Spanish interpreters and translators for the court system. All but Monge are on the official list.

Each does individual interpretation or translation work, including for help in filing a criminal complaint with the Judicial Investigation Police or the Prosecutor’s Office.

• Hannia Azuola, 2273-3376, works the first

and second judicial circuits

• Miguel Brenes, 2225-4013

• Arcelio Hernández, 2643-3058, works Jacó

and Puntarenas province

• Rosa Monge, 2239-2923, countrywide.


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