California guarantees a defendant the right to an interpreter in criminal proceedings. In Los Angeles County, more than a third of the population is foreign-born and more than half speaks a language other than English at home. The Los Angeles Times says that means court officials can scramble for speakers of Chuukese, Marshallese, Mexican Sign Language, or Q’anjob’al, a Mayan variant. “We’re proud of the fact that over 100 languages are represented among our interpreters,” said Greg Drapac, who headed the court’s interpreter program from 1997 to 2005. “Which is great, until you realize there are over 6,000 living languages.”
Interpreters hold the key to whether non-English speaking criminal defendants understand the proceedings and their rights in the justice system. Inadequate interpretation can lead to inaccurate testimony, wrongful convictions, or plea deals in which defendants sign over their rights without realizing what the consequences are. In most cases, only the interpreter’s English translation is entered into the court record. The demand has been growing for interpreters of indigenous languages spoken in Latin America because of an influx of migrant laborers from those places. Court officials, who once automatically assigned Spanish interpreters to everyone who looked Latino, are becoming increasingly sensitive to the diversity and nuances that exist within immigrant communities. Migrants from Mexico, who are largely monolingual and often speak only limited street Spanish, are used to being treated poorly in Mexico and may not complain when they are given an interpreter who doesn’t speak their language. Sometimes a defendant’s silence is mistaken as a sign of mental illness.