LAS VEGAS -- On a recent afternoon, Carol Partiguian rushed over to an appointment at the Clark County jail downtown. She the only Spanish language interpreter in the county public defender’s office, which means she is usually in a hurry.
“With a hundred-plus attorneys that we have in the office, it is very hard for one person to be able to help everybody,” Partiguian said.
Last year alone those hundred-plus public defenders handled roughly 4,000- 5,000 cases with Spanish-speaking defendants — about 30 percent of their caseload. They need more staff interpreters, but there aren’t the funds.
As the number of people who primarily speak a foreign language grows across the country, it is a challenge for public services to keep up with translation needs.
In Nevada, that strain is particularly evident in the state’s cash-strapped court system.
While dozens of foreign languages are spoken by people in Nevada, Spanish is the most common. Nationally, the number of people in the U.S. who speak Spanish at home doubled to 35 million between 1990 and 2009, according to U.S. census data.
Once inside the jail, Partiguian waits in a small room with public defender Steve Yeager while a guard brings in his client.
“We really wouldn’t really have that much to talk about if Carol wasn’t here,” Yeager said. “I speak some Spanish but obviously not fluently, it probably would just leave us looking at each other trying to communicate.”
The inmate, a young woman, comes in the room wearing a blue uniform. Partiguian jumps in — switching from Spanish to English, English to Spanish — trying to use the equivalent words in each language.
The client’s sentencing is coming up, and Yeager asks her if she has already been interviewed by the probation office. Partiguian interprets her response.
“Yes, the detail was that when they were interviewing me, they had the paper of another person. It wasn't my paper,” Partiguian interpreted in English.
“They had the wrong person?” Yeager asked in English, which Partiguian then translated.
“Yes, they said that they arrest me in El Paso, Texas and that I had possession of marijuana,” Partiguian interpreted in English. “That’s not me.”
It is a mistake that the attorney can get fixed. But the exchange shows the kind of critical errors that could plague a case if attorney and client can’t properly communicate.
Afterwards, Partiguian explains that is why she does what she does.
“If I were in a country where I didn’t speak the language, and I had been accused of something, I would like somebody to be able to help me understand what my attorney is saying,” Partiguian said.
Essentially, she is an intermediary in the sacred lawyer-client relationship. The stakes are high, since any mistakes she makes can have real consequences.
But there isn’t much time to think about that now — Partiguian has to get to her next appointment.
“If I am late, all the others will be late,” she said. “If I cannot make it, they will call the court interpreter’s office.”
Certified court interpreters who work in the courtrooms routinely fill in for Partiguian. But they are experiencing their own resource crunch. Due to budget cuts, the 20 Spanish interpreters who contract with the county recently got a 28-percent pay cut to their hourly wage.
“When I work, I need to be paid the rate that this is worth,” said Judy Jenner, a certified Spanish court interpreter, and president of the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association.
Jenner points out that court interpreters — who do grueling simultaneous interpretation — must train to master the skill. The exam to be a certified court interpreter in Nevada has a first-time pass rate of less than 10 percent.
“I think that the rate that Clark County is willing to pay now stands in no relation to the expertise that you need to do this job,” Jenner said.
Jenner is among a handful of interpreters who refused to sign the new contract with Clark County. Others say they are deliberately cutting back their hours in court to work in the private sector, which can pay three times more.
But in the meantime, the need for their services isn’t going away.
“The reality of America in 2012 is we have these people who don’t speak the language,” Jenner said. “How are you going to give them access? Interpreting is the only way until someone invents a robot where you push a button and out comes the interpreting.”
There are no robots yet. And if there are fewer qualified court interpreters, the already maxed-out court system can expect more delays.