Court interpreter Ana Armijo keeps a pad of paper nearby filled with infrequently used words during trials.
The list depends on the court case and can range from weapon-related to forensic terms.
It's one of the tools of the trade she has learned since she started working as a court-certified Spanish interpreter about 20 years ago.
Armijo, who has a contract with the Benton and Franklin County Superior courts, said interpreting during a trial is intense because words constantly are being spoken that must be interpret.
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"Every trial is a new challenge," she said.
And it is one reason Armijo loves her job.
Demand for interpreters seems to be increasing statewide, with shifting demographics and more of a push from the federal government to ensure equal language access in the courtroom, said Katrin Johnson, coordinator of the Olympia-based Washington State Court interpreter program.
It also has prompted the Pasco School District to develop a high school program aimed at helping students develop interpreting skills so they can get a job in the medical, legal or social services fields.
And while growing diversity in the Tri-City community -- almost 30 percent of the area's 253,340 residents are Hispanic -- makes Spanish a daily need in the courtroom, court officials say they are not sure if there is enough work to keep a court-certified interpreter in non-Spanish languages busy.
It is a delicate balance between the need for interpreters and sufficient work to make a living, Johnson said.
The demand for interpreters
This past week, Armijo has been one of the interpreters helping Gregorio Luna Luna, 32, understand what was being said during his trial for the murder of 21-year-old Griselda Ocampo Meza, his ex-girlfriend.
She said she and another interpreter switch every 30 minutes or with changes in witnesses to give each of them a mental break.
Normally, Armijo would be interpreting during the Tuesday criminal dockets in Franklin County Superior Court, and in Benton County Superior Court on Wednesday and Thursday.
When she is tied up with a trial, the courts call in freelance court-certified interpreters. Pat Austin, bicounty Superior Court administrator, said there is competition between the local courts to hire the seven or so who live in the area.
Though court interpreting is a growing profession, Armijo isn't sure enough work exists in the Tri-Cities for more full-time court-certified interpreters.
The bicounty Superior Court and Juvenile Court each contract with two court-certified Spanish interpreters. Franklin District Court shares an interpreter with Pasco Municipal Court.
Sharon Paradis, juvenile justice administrator, said that when more than two interpreters are needed, they will try to use one from another court and then call the freelance interpreters.
If an interpreter is not available locally, that means bringing in one from Yakima, Walla Walla, or other parts of the state, and paying their travel costs, Austin said.
Superior Court pays court-certified interpreters about $50 an hour, not including mileage or airfare, Austin said.
Having a court-certified interpreter is necessary to protect people's rights, said Kelly Martin, Franklin District Court administrator.
Her court has flown in a court-certified interpreter from Seattle or brought one in from Spokane for some languages, including Russian and Arabic, she said.
There aren't any Tri-City court-certified interpreters for languages other than Spanish.
And languages such as Russian, Somalian, Arabic, Chinese and Vietnamese are becoming more prevalent. Of those, court officials say Russian is the most common.
But even a Russian court-certified interpreter, Austin said, might only be necessary a handful of times a month, depending on what cases are before Superior Court.
Sometimes court staff have to use a chart or a community member to identify unfamiliar languages, such as Hmong, a language of the Southeast Asia, Austin said.
Since there aren't local court-certified interpreters in every language, Juvenile Court will use a language line, a brokerage service of court-certified interpreters, Paradis said.
Normally, an interpreter can call in for an initial hearing, and then the court can make sure that the interpreter speaks the correct language and dialect for the non-English speaker, Austin said.
But an interpreter is needed in person when court proceedings become more complicated, such as when jail time is an issue, Austin said.
From slang to legalese
Armijo had no plans to become a court interpreter. She said she was a bilingual tutor for the Pasco School District when a friend asked her to take the court-certified interpreter exam with her.
It was the first time the state offered the exam, so no training was available. Armijo received a provisional license in 1991, and then retook the test later to get the full license.
After local courts were required to have an interpreter for non-English speakers, Armijo said she agreed to interpret.
Few who attempt the exam pass it, mostly because they do not prepare enough, Johnson said. It takes several years of training to prepare, she said.
Testing is offered once a year, with the most recent written exam offered this weekend.
Candidates must pass a written exam in English that tests everything from idioms to legal procedures and then take an orientation class. Then, they undergo an oral exam that includes interpreting simultaneously; consecutive interpreting, where someone says a phrase and then it is interpreted into the other language; and interpreting a written document, Johnson said.
A wide range of skills, abilities and knowledge are required, Johnson said. It isn't as simple as being able to speak English and another non-English language.
Legal terms have to be understood in English and accurately interpreted into the other language, Johnson said. And in some languages, getting the same meaning isn't a word for word interpretation.
That's why a court-certified interpreter has to know a wide variety of both languages so that they can interpret both an expert discussing DNA evidence, and a witness using slang and profanity, she said.
But even talented linguists might not make it as an interpreter, because processing language quickly is a requirement, Johnson said.
Interpreting is very fast work, Johnson said. Most interpreting in the courtroom is simultaneous, where the interpreter has to listen closely to what judges, attorneys and others are saying, process it and the interpret it in a smooth, coherent way, Johnson said.
Experience and training help in making sure an interpretation is accurate, Armijo said. Continued education is a state requirement.
Everyone will encounter words they don't know, she said. Then, she said she asks for the meaning and interprets that.
Armijo said she has dictionaries with her and uses available training tools.
Interpreting for a defendant during jail visits with his or her attorney helps an interpreter become familiar with the terms important to the essence of the case, Armijo said. This can give her a subject to research if necessary, she said.
And when a word she knows doesn't come, Armijo said she works around it.
"We are not machines," she said. "We are just human."
High school training
When Claudia Madrigal of Pasco took the written exam, she was seven points away from passing.
But the interpreter class she took at Pasco High School for three years already has helped her land a job. Madrigal, who graduated from Pasco High School in 2010, works as an interpreter for the Pasco School District, helping interpret meetings between parents and teachers, calling Spanish-speaking parents and translating Pasco High School documents into Spanish.
Both Pasco High School and New Horizons High School have had an interpreter program for about five years. And Chiawana High School has one too. But at least at Pasco High School, Madrigal said, not many students seem to be taking advantage of it.
Growing up, Madrigal would interpret for her Spanish-speaking parents. But she took two years of Spanish and three years of interpreting to get to where she is now.
The interpreting class is tough, Madrigal said. Each year, she focused on a different set of terms -- social, medical and legal. And for some of the exercises, students would interpret between 110 and 180 words a minute.
She has her certification as a social services and medical interpreter from the state Department of Social and Health Services. That, Madrigal said, helped her get her current job. But she plans to try next year for her court-certified interpreter license.
At first, Madrigal said she wanted to teach Spanish. "I really like speaking Spanish," she said.
But now she wants to help people communicate. It's tough to see people struggle to be understood, she said.
That's why when she can help, as with a Spanish-speaking woman at a pharmacy recently, she does.
w Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com