Below is a guest post by Michelle Velez, LAS ’14, Environmental Science and Spanish Major.
My first few weeks as an interpreter intern at the Villanova Law Clinic have been both familiar and challenging. Despite prior informal translating experiences, that familiar buzz of adrenaline just before I’m about to answer an incoming call is still there. Translating at the Villanova Law Clinic allows me to draw upon my past translating experiences, but it is nothing like the casual summarized translations I provided when my family from Mexico came to visit, or when I was an intern this summer for the NYC Parks Department and translated for Hispanic community gardeners who were thrilled that someone finally spoke their language. Each case has someone’s livelihood, future, or family on the line. You can hear the stress of the clients’ voices through even the worst telephone connection. Serving as the missing piece for many Spanish-speaking clients who are faced with the challenge of trying to resolve complex legal issues in a language they do not speak has shown me firsthand the utmost importance of accurate and prompt translations.
My first phone call showed me this directly. I was calmly sitting in the cozy office set aside for interns in the clinic, carefully translating a document, when suddenly the phone rang. It took me a minute to come to terms with two things: 1) yes, the phone I had heard so much about over the past week was actually ringing and 2) I was the only one there who could answer it. I picked up the receiver and said my introductory line. Then adrenaline and the channeling of my endurance from the three and a half months in Panama did the rest. I found a panicked man on the other end. He nervously asked if we could help with IRS documents. After a bit of gentle prodding, I realized he was not yet a client but rather someone who had been referred to the clinic for help. As I took down notes about his story and encouraged him for more details, an unfortunate and unfair trail of events unfolded. He had been tricked by a notary who had changed the number of dependents claimed on his taxes, resulting in some sort of scheme that left the notary with more money, and the client with an audit from the IRS. I cannot overemphasize how inadequate I felt as he asked me for advice. Should he call the IRS now and try to explain he doesn’t speak English so that they will extend the deadline? Was the clinic able to take his case? I had no idea and could only record, empathize, and pass along the message as urgently as I could.
Though I have enjoyed being as useful as I can to each client and am learning a great deal about interpreting and the inner workings of a law clinic, one thing still bothers me about these first few weeks as an intern. I never heard if the man’s case about the IRS audit was taken by the clinic or not. I never heard if anyone called him back. This is something that I need to be more mindful of. The system in place at the clinic has a constantly rotating cast of interpreters so that you often do not do the follow-up for clients that you initiated conversation with. My goal is to change that. I hope to confirm that all of the clients I spoke with in the past three weeks were called back or contacted in some way and will continue to follow up in the future. I feel obligated to ensure that the clients are attended to, because for many of them we are their last chance at understanding what they can do to solve their problem.