Volume 17, Number 45 | April 1 — 7, 2005

Martin Anderson outside Lower Manhattan’s Housing Court. A former Texas coal miner, Anderson is the court’s only non-Hispanic Spanish translator, and in a pinch he can also help with Creole and Cantonese.

Downtown Express photo by Andrew La Vallee

Translating housing law for those who don’t speak inglés

By Andrew LaVallee

An elderly Haitian woman walks hesitantly toward the front desk at Manhattan Housing Court, Room 523. There’s no Creole interpreter available today, the harried court officer tells her.

A white-haired man in the corner of the courtroom looks up from his newspaper and approaches as unobtrusively as his tall frame allows. He speaks enough Creole to find out that the woman also speaks French, a language for which they can easily provide an interpreter.

Earlier, a tenant was trying to explain that she would lose her job if she spent the necessary number of days in court. But the lawyer she was working with didn’t speak Spanish. The man in the corner was there again, stooping over slightly as she explained her work conflict. He volleys a few exchanges between the tenant and the court clerk, and the date is rescheduled. Another problem solved.

Although Martin Anderson, 53, says he does his job when his crossword puzzle gets boring, it’s clear that his ears stay alert for people struggling with language barriers at Housing Court. A former coal miner, he’s been one of the civil courts’ full-time Spanish interpreters for five and a half years (and the only one who’s not Hispanic), but occasionally pinch-hits Creole from living in Miami, and Cantonese from his wife, who is Chinese.

When Anderson translates, it’s crucial that both sides continue to address each other, not him. “It’s best to treat me as a fly on the wall,” he says, “but almost everyone tries to turn us into a separate entity.”

When the lawyer this morning repeatedly spoke to him instead of his client, Anderson told him to address her directly. The lawyer bristled at the instructions until Anderson asked, “Have you ever done this before?”

Pronouns can be especially confusing when Anderson translates between landlords, tenants, lawyers and judges. All sides must be clear about their “you’s” and “me’s,” “he’s” and “she’s” when they’re determining whether back rent is due, inspections are required or payments haven’t been accounted for. If the landlord and tenant are both female, and they’re referring to each other as “she” instead of “you,” it’s up to him to sort out what each side means. Because he’s dressed like the lawyers in the courtroom, tenants sometimes ask him for clarification on proceedings, but he makes clear that his role is as a translator, not a legal aide.

“If I give them advice,” he says, “they could end up in Central Park.”

Each year some 350,000 cases are filed with the housing courts in New York City, but the workload for interpreters varies wildly from day to day. Anderson assisted two clients on a Monday, but a dozen the next day. When he fills in for a Jewish colleague observing religious holidays, he can find himself running back and forth between two courtrooms. Usually he’s the one waiting for an overbooked judge’s arrival to proceed with a case, he says, but occasionally it’s the reverse.

Anderson wasn’t always so linguistically skilled. As a coal miner in Dallas, Texas, he relied on others to translate for him when he worked with men who only spoke Spanish. After moving to Miami, Fla., he volunteered to learn the language at age 35 after seeing how many public functions required interpreters.

When he moved to New York, tired of mining and dog catching (another former career), he chose a field that was less physically taxing and more benefits-laden. “Everybody wants to work for the government, right?” he says with a smile.

Despite its challenges, Anderson believes that interpreters in criminal courts face even greater demands than civil court interpreters. Since criminal court interpreters visit inmates in their cells, both public health and violence are bigger risks. Family court is even worse—imagine translating for someone whose child is being taken away from her, he says.

What’s more, the more emotional people are, the harder it is to interpret them, and people who know they’re in trouble may deliberately make themselves less understandable. His job is to translate their words, he says, adding, “We can’t make them more articulate.”

The tenants that count on his assistance seem to appreciate Anderson’s ability to add, however briefly, some clarity to the blur of requests, filings and other negotiations that are part of the city’s civil courts.

“I suppose they are,” Anderson says.“They shouldn’t be. I’m just doing my job, and they have a right to understand.”

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