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A matter of interpretation

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Language interpreters — like baseball umpires and train engineers — see anonymity as a sign of success. They know they've had a good day if no one noticed them.

Lately, however, court personnel say they've been noticing a lack of them. The legal system has sent out notice that more people who speak English along with Vietnamese, Bosnian and a dozen other languages are needed to keep the wheels of justice spinning. Putting up recruiting posters — like the Navy — to show the glamours of the job are not an option. The work is rigorous, the pressures real and the rewards more personal than monetary. The courts pay $30 an hour for certified interpreters, which sounds pretty good until you realize that law firms often pay three times that amount.

A top-of-the-line interpreter needs the concentration of a dentist and the dexterity of a three-ball juggler. And like hostage negotiations, interpreting can be fraught with hazards. A popular movie, "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," told the tale of an interpreter for law enforcement officers who cost a man his life because he garbled the Spanish words for "stallion" and "mare." And episodes of television's "Law & Order" have showcased the disasters of courtroom mis-translation.

Some, who have a real gift for simultaneous translation, find themselves in an enviable situation — standing at the right hand of prophets, presidents and international celebrities, for instance. But their ranks are as thin as the number of NBA basketball players. For the most part, interpreters work from a sense of public duty and a desire to help.

And, in the end, their role as "bridge builders" between cultures, countries and human beings serves the state and nation well. That's probably why there are so few superb ones and why the courts are looking for more. Justice demands that defendants understand and can respond to the charges against them — whether they speak, English, Spanish or Swahili. A miscue can cost days of work and even change the course of a life.

An old adage claims that a person who speaks two languages is a bird with two wings, not just one. And right now the court system is beginning to feel that some of those birds — the ones with skills in Dinka, Tagalog, Pashto and Kurdish, to name a few — are becoming endangered.

If you're interested in knowing more, contact the court system.

It's not the Marine Corps, but legal interpretation still needs a few good men and women.