Tania Fernandez - Interpreter gives voice to defendants

April 19, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Criminal attorneys speak a language all their own inside the courtroom, a language few defendants fully comprehend. It is all the more confusing if the defendant does not speak English.

The number of Spanish-speaking defendants in Franklin County (Pa.) Court, has been steadily rising with the Hispanic population, and Tania Fernandez has been doing much of the interpreting for those who have gone before the bar during the past four years.

On most Wednesdays, she is in a courtroom interpreting the words of the defense attorney, prosecutor and judge to defendants and then relating back their responses, questions and comments.

"A lot of the people who come here seem to be very limited in their education ... There are some who have never seen the inside of a classroom," Fernandez said of immigrants from Mexico, Central America and South America. For those raised in tribal regions, Spanish may be their second language, she said.


"There's more to interpreting than knowing two languages ... You have to be able to put it in terms the defendant understands," Fernandez said.

That includes explaining the differences between felonies and misdemeanors, prior record scores and appeal rights.

The very structured law enforcement and criminal justice system of the United States often is different from what people might have experienced in their homelands, she said. Particularly in rural areas of Latin America, there might be little or no justice system, she said.

"How do we expect them to know the legal system in the United States when they come from a place that has no such thing?" Fernandez said. "The extent of your punishment from the authorities is determined from the amount of money you have in your pocket."

That was not the case in Guayaquil, the cosmopolitan port city in Ecuador where Fernandez was raised by parents who both were multilingual. She came to the United States for a vacation when she was 16, but met a man, got married and raised a family on Long Island, N.Y.

"I learned English almost as a matter of self-defense," said Fernandez, who learned it well enough to work as an interpreter for one of the nation's biggest international law firms.

Her journey from Long Island to Franklin County was both physical and spiritual, she said.

Ten years ago, divorced and having lost a son to a vehicle accident, she was attending Mass when a friend told her about Emmitsburg, Md., and its National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes. Soon after, her therapist told Fernandez she dreamed of her going to Emmitsburg.

"Thank you God. I got the message," she said.

Having worked as an addictions counselor in Emmitsburg, Fernandez also did some court work in Adams County, Pa. She later moved to Waynesboro, Pa., and began working as a contract interpreter for the county court about four years ago. She was hired by the county in 2005.

"It's a completely different world," Fernandez said of country life, rather than life in this country.


Name - Tania Fernandez

Address - Waynesboro, Pa.

Age - I am a middle-aged person

Occupation - Court interpreter

Most notable achievement - I raised my children. I actually think I did a half-decent job.

Who is the person you most admire and why? - My father. He had inner strength, and at the same time, he was very gentle and, as a child, that gave me a great sense of security.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? Who gave it to you? - When the priest told me to try and remember God loves me. He told her this following the death of a son.

What is the next goal you would like to achieve? - To just continue to do what I think God wants me to do.

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