Any Way You Say It, Laura Garcia-Hein Is Making Her Mark in Federal Court 12/9/16 12/09/16 10:57:24 AM
Laura Garcia-Hein’s office in the Roman L. Hruska Federal Courthouse in downtown Omaha houses TIP machinery, but also her father’s artwork that hangs on every wall, a constant reminder of her homeland and family.
Any Way You Say It, Laura Garcia-Hein
Is Making Her Mark in Federal Court
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
Within the first two weeks of assuming her position as the staff interpreter for the U.S. District Court of Nebraska, Laura Garcia-Hein developed a court scheduling system, in coordination with case managers and judicial assistants, which allows her to cover 100 percent of the Spanish-interpreter-dependent hearings in the district as well as assist probation and pretrial services.
Garcia-Hein has held her post, the first of its kind for Nebraska and one of only a handful in the United States, since March of 2007. The reason there are so few staff interpreters who work full-time for the court is that not many jurisdictions meet the threshold of need to justify a fulltime interpreter. In fact, she was amazed to learn that Nebraska qualified, when places like Kentucky and Indiana did not. She is both a federally certified Spanish interpreter and a state-certified interpreter in Nebraska, Kentucky and Indiana. A native of Costa Rica, she speaks four languages fluently.
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, she explained the difference between an interpreter and a translator. Like slander and libel, one is spoken (interpreter), the other written.
The petite and energetic woman handles those roles seamlessly. As she works in her office in the federal courthouse overlooking downtown Omaha, she juggles questions from the judge and attorneys and defendants, all the while interpreting to and from Spanish and English over the telephone.
She is surrounded by challenging-looking machines that she deftly commands. That’s because she is not only working full-time for the U.S. District Courts in Nebraska, but for the rest of the federal courts in the country as well, thanks to the administrative office of the U.S. Courts Telephone Interpreting Program (TIP), a two-line telephone interpreting system that allows an interpreter at a remote location to deliver interpreting services using the consecutive interpreting mode for the record and the simultaneous mode for the defendant.
TIP has saved the federal courts nearly $2 million last fiscal year, handling over 3,000 “events” in 30 languages.
“I believe that I am very fortunate to be able to work in a field where I can apply my legal background to my passion for languages,” she stated. More on that in a moment.
Laurie Smith Camp, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for Nebraska, makes no secret of her appreciation for the interpreter.
“Laura has been an important resource for the Administrative Office of the federal courts, helping to locate interpreters who speak a wide variety of languages and dialects, and coordinating interpreting services among the nation’s 94 districts,” the judge said.
“Her work for other districts through telephone interpreting saves the federal court system over $200,000.00 per year.”
As part of her job on TIP, she has trained local interpreters in languages other than Spanish in order to provide TIP services to other U.S. districts.
“I am an instructor for the Nebraska interpreter orientation workshop sponsored by the administrative office of the Nebraska Supreme Court, for interpreters who want to become registered and certified by the State of Nebraska, Garcia-Hein said.
“I have mentored students from several translation and interpretation programs as well as candidates for the state and federal certification examination. My door is always open to interpreters who need guidance, or simply want an opportunity to observe.”
“Finding interpreters in languages of lesser diffusion can be very challenging,” she said.
“Some of these languages are spoken by very small communities and are specific to a region, or a small town only. The smaller the community who speaks a language, the harder it is to find someone able to assist with the interpretation in court.”
Finding the right interpreter requires close collaboration with staff interpreters from other districts, professional associations, universities and non-governmental organizations in the United States and abroad.
It’s not easy to become an interpreter.
While lawyers must pass the bar exam to practice law, she noted that “to become a federally certified interpreter I had to pass a demanding two-tiered test requiring a superior level of proficiency in both languages. The first step is a written exam. The second is an oral exam which assesses your interpreting skills in all three modes of interpretation: sight translation, consecutive, and simultaneous interpretation. The overall passing rate is about four to five percent.
“Due to the constant evolution in languages and the law, I need stay up-to-date with new terminology at all levels, legal reforms in the Spanish-speaking world as well as in the U.S. and case law. Lawyers too, need to stay on top of what goes on in their profession, and like them, interpreters must have an in-depth understanding of court proceedings and courtroom protocol.”
“Just as it is for law clerks and attorneys, research and preparation is an essential part of my work. And like lawyers, I must uphold the code of ethics of my profession.”
“One huge difference between being an interpreter and a lawyer: the ‘mental gymnastics’ required to interpret accurately and completely everything that is said in the courtroom, at the same time it is being said, from one language to another.”
From Law to Interpreting
She knows firsthand that difference, having been a practicing attorney in Costa Rica. She earned her law degree there from the University of Costa Rica where she also earned a bachelor’s degree. She added a master of laws degree with an emphasis in international law and alternative dispute resolution from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences.
But, here in the U.S., she is not working as an attorney, because she hasn’t taken the bar exam in any state.
“Soon after moving to the U.S., I inquired about the possibility to sit for the bar exam. I was not allowed to do it, unless I went to a U.S. law school to study law all over again,” she recalled.
That option was presented to her after she had studied law for five years to earn her J.D., and after she obtained her LL.M. Garcia-Hein had been practicing law for some years in Costa Rica, where she remains a member in good standing of the Costa Rican equivalent of the American Bar Association, the Colegio de Abogados de Costa Rica.
“You might understand why I did not jump at the idea of having to do it all over again in order to be allowed to sit for the bar,” she says. “Since I specialized in alternative dispute resolution during my LL.M., I opted to work as a mediator in the U.S., which I very much enjoy.”
The vast majority of federally certified interpreters hold post-graduate degrees, many from disciplines other than law or interpreting and translation, in fields such as journalism, education, linguistics, economics, and even chemistry and biology.
It was her passion for languages in general and for interpreting in particular that drew her to her current position.
“I double majored in English and French,” she recalled. “My original goal was to do postgraduate studies in translation and interpretation. Life presented me with other opportunities well-worth exploring, which I did.”
Following college, Laura worked in the Costa Rican embassy in Sweden.
“I spent six years in Stockholm working as a diplomat,” she recalled. “I was responsible, among other things, for bilateral cooperation and consular affairs. It was there where I learned to speak Swedish,” she said.
“In addition to my experience in court, as a diplomat I had the privilege of working directly for high-profile personalities, such as former Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr. Oscar Arias. I believe my intercultural experience and the fact that I have successfully worked with people from a wide variety of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, speak volumes in regards to my cultural awareness and interpersonal communication skills.” She didn’t know it yet, but she was honing her skills as an interpreter.
From Sweden, Garcia-Hein returned to Costa Rica, studied law, and practiced at a small law firm. It was there she met her husband, Paul. After stops in North Carolina, Mexico, Florida and Kentucky for Paul’s work, the couple settled in Omaha for her career, after what she refers to as an enriching “detour.”
“While I have had the opportunity to live in many beautiful places, [my birthplace of] Costa Rica will always be home,” she said.
The youngest of five children, she has two brothers and two sisters. They all live, along with her many nieces and nephews, in Costa Rica.
Her parents, Rafael Angel Garcia and Maria Eugenia Saenz, live there too. He is an architect, a former professor and dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Costa Rica, a painter and also a former professional soccer player. Garcia-Hein and her husband Paul are blessed with his daughter and son-in-law, and two beautiful grandsons.
Exercise of all kinds appeals to her. “I’m a fitness junkie, so I spend a lot of time at the gym or outdoors running or biking,” she said. “I also love to travel, cook, read and spend time with my friends.”
And, she said, it is true that she once learned a language on a single plane flight.
“Yes, I’m that smart,” she said with an easy laugh. “Joking aside, yes it is true – and one of my mother’s favorite anecdotes – that I at least learned enough to get by during our visit to that country.”
It was Portugal, and after observing her talk to the airport personnel, upon landing her mother said to her, “Really? You learned that on the way here?!” She said she watched the subtitled movie and read all the on-board literature, which gave her a conversational grasp of the language.
In the future Garcia-Hein said she would welcome a chance to offer some training or workshops at one of the law schools in Nebraska on how to work with interpreters. She also hinted her travels may not be at an end.
“My life has been filled with many unexpected opportunities that have led me to many wonderful places, so I doubt my journey will stop here – although I have no plans to leave Omaha anytime soon. I love my job here.”
– Additional reporting by Lorraine Boyd