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Interpreters play linguist and actor

From Spanish to English and back, interpreters submerge their own thoughts and become "the voice in the ears" for defendants, attorneys and judges.

It's 8:30 a.m. and Spanish interpreter Marta Menendez-Lyons is on her way to court armed with the tools of her trade: a beeper, a notebook, comfortable shoes and breath mints.

In recent days, she has spoken the words of a drug dealer, a lawyer, an abused child and a DNA expert, switching in seconds from lilting Spanish to lightly accented English and back. Today, she has no idea what characters she will become.

About 9 a.m., Menendez-Lyons rushes to Courtroom 32, where an old man in a blue guayabera pleads no contest to running a stoplight. Twenty minutes later, she's in drug court to relieve another interpreter. At 9:50 a.m., she interprets for a defendant on a sex abuse charge.

"Let there be chaos," she says, through a faint cloud of mint common to those in her profession, who are breath-conscious from talking only inches away from defendants.

By noon, she has interpreted for seven cases and is ready for a break.

"I'm burned," she says.

Menendez-Lyons is one of six in-house judicial interpreters in Hillsborough County, a small army of native Spanish speakers who race from one courtroom to another, handling about 10,000 assignments a year.

From the outside, the job seems straightforward. They hear a defendant speaking Spanish and then repeat the same statements in English, and for the benefit of those who don't speak English, they quietly translate into Spanish.

But they have to be more than just bilingual. They must know legal terms and slang from all over the Spanish-speaking world and adhere to a strict code of ethics that prevents them from providing legal advice or saying much more than what is on the record.

"Knowing two languages and saying you can interpret is like saying if you have two hands you can be a concert pianist," said Alina Giasi, a staff member at the center since 1990.

They are part linguist, finishing their interpretations just seconds behind the speaker and reaching speeds up to 220 words per minute. But they are also part actor, mimicking as precisely as possible the varied tones, volumes and vocabularies of the courtroom.

"You are not yourself, you are whoever's talking," Menendez-Lyons said. "You are the judge, the defendant, the public defender. The purpose of that I guess is to not interfere. You're the voice in their ears, that's it."

The stories interpreters tell range from the heartbreaking to the hilarious. Some remember being afraid of translating when a judge sentenced a defendant to death, while others recall being embarrassed to swear at judges when defendants did.

When she was new at the job, interpreter Mercy Martin-Crouse worked on a case with a lot of bad language, words she had not learned in English. When the defendant directed swear words at the judge, she would say "cuss," and grow redder by the moment.

The judge told her to approach the bench.

"Madame interpreter, I have a book this big in my chambers. I would like you to learn cuss words. If I am getting cussed at, I need to know the words," Martin-Crouse recalls the judge saying.

She borrowed his book and learned all the bad language she needed to know in Spanish and English. Now, as the person who usually trains newcomers, Martin-Crouse tells interpreters they must get over their inhibitions.

They must also increase their vocabulary constantly. Martin-Crouse, who came from Cuba when she was 19, had to "learn Mexican."

Once, while speaking for a Mexican defendant in Plant City, Martin-Crouse translated his slang-laden comments literally: He was galloping along on a piece of furniture, when the windows got foggy. A chota stopped him for not having a piece of wood and threw him in the boat.

"I was thinking, "It makes no sense what he is saying,' " Martin-Crouse said. "I started asking questions and finally we were able to communicate."

What the man meant was that he was driving when he saw the lights of a police car behind him. The officer put him in jail for not having a license plate.

In such situations, understanding judges have helped alleviate the tension. At other moments, interpreters must come to grips with their own emotions.

In cases involving victims of child abuse, Giasi said, she has a particularly difficult time.

"When children are involved, they don't understand your role," Giasi said. "You feel like rubbing them or saying it will be okay. . . . I'm a mother, so my heart goes out to them."

James Plunkett said he remembers translating a sentencing hearing for a defendant convicted of vehicular manslaughter.

"The mother of one of the victims was crying as she spoke to the judge regarding the sentencing of the defendant. I as the interpreter had to translate what she said, approximating her tone and emotions while withholding tears," Plunkett said. "I'm a tool of communication. That's very hard."

The Court Interpreter Center was created in the late 1980s as demand for interpreters increased. Martin-Crouse remembers that just two people were sufficient to handle the load. Now six people plus freelancers are required to keep things moving.

Members of the center take pride in being at the forefront of their profession. For years, recruits have been put through training, testing and orientation. When incompetent interpreters are allowed to work, confusion, appeals and even unjust convictions can be the result, said Rick Escobar, a private defense lawyer and Spanish speaker.

"I've read transcripts where I've said, "Did this guy know what he was talking about?' " Escobar said. "There's no room for kind of right. It's got to be absolutely right."