Being “One of Them”
For many years, I worked as a translator for the court system.The way I got into it was rather strange, it just sort of fell into my lap. I never wanted to do translating because I knew it didn’t pay well. I had a friend who taught at Drake, and she said that a friend that she has had this agency, which she really wanted me to join. I had repeatedly told her no, and that working as a translator was an absolute no from me. So, she says she accepts that, but she calls me and invites me over to chat. I agree, but for chatting only! When I get there, she shoves an application in my face. I remember telling her “oh no, cutie, I’m here to chat and nothing more”. Now, this was right around the time the Amnesty Program was gaining traction. Just before she and I were “chatting”, the DEA, busted one of the kill floors and they arrested thirteen Mexicans, even though they weren’t supposed to be because Amnesty was starting into function. That was the final straw that finally swayed me. And so then, she calls me, and she says, you know that the Federal Judge had called her and that they had so many arrested people that they absolutely needed translators. She begged me to help her. I wasn’t absolutely sure I could do it, I had done translating before, but never with anything legal. She promised to help me with anything I needed, so I finally decided to just go for it So we walk in there, and there’s six for her and six for me; her attorneys, my attorneys; she worked there and I worked there, and we ran around like a chicken with its head cut off until I went home. I was so sure I would never work like that again, but then she paid me. And so then she calls me the next morning, and she says “you know, the judge called me, he wants me to come again and he wants me to bring my friend”. So, we start the whole thing over. And I have my six, and she has her six, and all that. The next morning, the judge calls me. He called her to get my number. And I did all twelve of them.
That’s how I started. So then my friend told me not to get excited, that she had been here for ten years and this is the first time the feds call. But it exploded. I told them how much I wanted to get paid, I told them how they had to maneuver the things; it was the perfect job. Many times, I would have two or three defendants in the same case. So I would bill the feds for just the one day of my services. A judge then told me that I needed to bill each one separately. Each felon has an attorney and a case. I would have to bill for each one.” I kept insisting that it felt wrong, that it felt like double-billing, and he told me “that’s the way we want it”. It was unbelievable.
I had a business. I was a simultaneous interpreter in English to Spanish and Spanish to English, for the federal courts, for the Polk county courts, a lot of the government agencies, FBI, CIA, DEA, and I was the interpreter for the Witness Protection Program and residents of that program here in Des Moines. They did not even know how to function with an interpreter. So I had to to sit down before the hearings with the judges and the prosecutors and teach them how to work the presence of an interpreter. I had a judge who would….. speak…… like….. this…… It was frustrating at times, but overall I really enjoyed my work. I was a certified simultaneous translator; so when one person would be speaking in one language, I would be repeating it back in another language. But of course if they were to ask me what someone said, I would have no idea. I was able to do from one language to the other so, it was very interesting, and very easy for me to come by work.
Because it was so easy for me to come by the clients, my business exploded. I had work like you wouldn’t believe. I was the only one for many years, and the reason was that a lot of the Latino people were uneducated. It kept growing as people from the south of central America and South America started moving in and needed help with the legal system. They usually came here to work farms, and were largely uneducated, and therefore didn’t speak any English, which is where I came in.
So, I had my business, I incorporated, I had a secretary, and I let my husband run my business cause he did not speak Spanish, but he did have business savvy. So then, I would have clients who would call and they would find out that not only was I bilingual, but I had connections in Mexico. So then they would want me to call the government in Mexico and say “I have a client who wants this, this, this, and this” and they would call me back, and I would arrange the meetings. I was very smart about these meetings. Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, Acapulco, Mazatlán, ah…. You think I was going to go to a town? No way! Beaches. That’s where we met. I would charge them a thousand dollars per day, and they insisted that all my expenses were paid.
Often times, the Feds would bring people up from Mexico to stand trial, and would need my assistance. One particular instance, they called me up to tell me I had a client coming from Brazil. I definitely did not want to do this one. I didn’t speak Portuguese. I understand Portuguese, but I cannot translate it. To drive them away, I raised my fee an insane amount, just so that they would leave me alone. And so I triple my fee, and they told me “ok, we’ll call you”. I thought they had just given me a line, and that they were really never going to call. All it took was one week. They actually did call me back in one week and they actually paid triple my fee!
This work paid my bills for a long time, it even got me enough for a down payment on a condo after my husband passed away. The company kept growing, and I kept hiring interpreters, but at that time, the competition started to grow a bit more fierce. There was an onslaught of new interpreters, both ones who were qualified and those who weren’t. However, after about 15 years I gave it up. My husband had already passed away, the competition was getting way worse, and I was already rather old. So I figured, hey, if they want it so bad, they can just have it.