A number of Vietnamese-American interpreters have carved out a niche working as certified interpreters inside U.S. courts, a profession that takes superior language proficiency, legal knowledge, as well as a strong sense of integrity and dedication.
These translators are known as Certified Court Interpreters, and are required to take an oath pledging that they will provide precise, truthful translations after they attain the necessary credential for court interpreting.
Those who watched video clips capturing Vietnamese comedian Hong Quang Minh, aka Minh Beo, during the pre-trial process in Westminster, California would have noticed the presence of a court interpreter.
The 38-year-old entertainer was arrested on March 24 in the U.S. on three felony counts, including oral copulation of a minor, attempting to commit a lewd act upon a child under the age of 14, and meeting with a minor with the intent to engage in lewd conduct. He has since been in custody at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange County, California after pleading not guilty at his April 15 arraignment.
Minh Beo’s pretrial proceeding was originally slated for May 14 but he requested to change attorneys at the last minute, leading to the hearing taking place on May 27 at the Superior Court of California, West Justice Center in Westminster, with Mia Yamamoto replacing Vietnamese-American Do Phu as his lawyer.
The pretrial will continue on June 29.
Yamamoto, a Japanese American, is seeking to reduce the US$1 million bail set for her client to $100,000 or $200,000, a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper contributor reported from Westminster.
The above-mentioned video clips feature the court interpreter, wearing a suit, standing next to Minh Beo throughout the court proceedings.
The interpreter is Huynh Tuan Kiet, who was also tasked with assisting Minh Beo and others in court at both the entertainer’s April 15 arraignment and May 27 pretrial hearing.
The 50-year-old interpreter said that he moved to the U.S. at 15, when he hardly knew a word of English.
He made every effort to study and integrate into U.S. society before earning his law degree and practicing in California.
Kiet currently earns his living as an interpreter at the Orange County Superior Court in California based on his passion for the job.
He added that he did not know he was going to appear at Minh Beo’s arraignment and pretrial hearing in April and May until the morning of the sessions.
At Minh Beo’s April arraignment, Kiet’s task was not so demanding as the defendant’s attorney, lawyer Phu, could also speak fluent Vietnamese.
However, Kiet had double the work to do when interpreting for both Minh Beo and his new attorney, Japanese-American lawyer Yamamoto, during the May pretrial hearing.
“An interpreter’s key asset is being true to yourself, as you can sometimes find yourself scratching your head over how to translate a lexical item as clearly as possible,” he explained.
“A responsible interpreter is expected to request that a hearing be adjourned for a while so that they can look up the word in a dictionary or consult their colleagues. They are not allowed to provide irresponsible translations just to get their job done, as incorrect interpretations, to be included in the official court records, may damage the accused’s defense,” Kiet stressed.
Certified Court Interpreters make a point of constantly updating themselves on general knowledge of the law and on honing their linguistic skills.
Kiet and his colleagues have studied hard to complete tough courses before becoming qualified to do their jobs in court.
“I take pride in my English speaking and writing skills, but I had to take the exam four times before finally passing it,” Kiet recalled.
Luu Ngoc Bao, one of Kiet’s experienced colleagues, who graduated in law from California State-Long Beach University after moving to the U.S. in 1979, also failed the exam a few times despite his outstanding English command before finally scraping through.
Thomas Vu (R) and Huong Tram (in black), two Certified Court Interpreters, during a lunch after a court hearing. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Saving client by making out translation mistakes
There are, however, some who pass the exam at their first or second attempt.
One of them was Huong Tram, 23, a Ho Chi Minh City resident who has settled in the U.S. after finishing 10th grade.
In July 2012, one of Tram’s relatives insisted they take an interpreting class together.
The 19-year-old said she initially intended to hone her skills in English and Vietnamese only, but the more she delved into the legal terminology, court proceedings and the U.S. judicial system, the more hooked she became.
Confident about her command of Vietnamese and English, and eager to help the community, Tram made the bold decision to suspend her university studies to take an intensive preparation course for the Certified Court Interpreter qualification.
Her decision was initially met with vehement objection from her family, but she remained undeterred.
Courses given by Thomas Vu, who is one of the Orange County Superior Court’s most seasoned interpreters having worked for 40 years with the U.S. Department of Justice before retiring last year, are divided into two sections, a writing section and an oral one, to best prepare candidates.
After one year, Tram decided to try her luck taking the oral exam in California. She failed, but passed a similar exam in Florida a few weeks after that.
Tram achieved scores of over 90 percent in all sections of her Florida exam, the results of which were announced in late November 2013.
At 20, Tram became the youngest Vietnamese ever to be qualified as a Certified Court Interpreter after two attempts at the exam.
The young woman said that apart from studying at school, she came up with her own way to drill and hone her interpreting skill, including practicing when in the car by listening to radio programs or watching television.
Thomas Vu said he has countless unforgettable memories from his many appearances in court.
He recalled interpreting in an assault case involving two Vietnamese-American youths, in which the attacker was indicted for two counts, assault and murder.
However, thanks to a thorough investigation and Vu’s assistance, the defendant’s attorney learned that his client should not be charged with murder after pinpointing mistakes made by a bilingual police officer in translating the victim’s and defendant’s statements into English.
The accused’s threat to “give you a good beating” in Vietnamese was misinterpreted as “I will beat you up and kill your mother” by the police officer, but was actually a common way for Vietnamese people to vent their anger during assaults.