Utah Courts Calling for Navajo Interpreters


For Navajo defendants charged with felonies, Salt Lake City’s imposing federal courthouse can seem like a strange land--where everyone speaks in a strange tongue.

That’s because it is.

And it’s up to Navajo court interpreters to translate both language and culture.

“It is a foreign process to the Navajo people,” said Salt Lake interpreter Bertie Kee-Lopez. “A lot of times they are very, very nervous. They’re taken from the reservation and into federal court. . . . I think that it has an emotional effect on the defendant.”


Although misdemeanors committed on Indian reservations are handled by tribal courts, most serious felonies are prosecuted in federal courts. In Utah, that means at least a six-hour drive north from the Navajo reservation to the capital.

Nationwide, nearly 95% of interpreters used in the country’s federal courts speak Spanish, said Dick Carelli, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Navajo ranks far down on the list of needed interpreters.

But in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah--which share the Navajo reservation--the need is great.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Chris Chaney, who prosecuted cases from Utah’s tiny section of the Navajo reservation for three years, said he usually had about 10 cases pending.


He said defendants, victims or witnesses needed interpreters 30% to 40% of the time.

Chaney found that most tribal members younger than 25 are proficient in English but not in Navajo. Those between 25 and 50 are mainly bilingual, and those older than 50 usually claim Navajo as their first language, he said.

It’s those people who keep interpreter Esther Yazzie-Lewis busy. In November alone, she translated for 22 cases in Albuquerque’s federal court.

Yazzie-Lewis, who started out working as a radio dispatcher with the Navajo Nation police in Arizona, became a deputy court clerk for the tribal courts and with the tribal probation office.


When she began interpreting in the federal courts, she carried a note pad in which she jotted down the translations of legal terms from Black’s Law Dictionary.

From there she developed the English-Navajo Glossary of Legal Terms, which contains 2,000 definitions. Her glossary formed the basis of a certification test for interpreters used by the University of Arizona, where she now helps instruct.

Jonathan Levy, program coordinator for the university’s National Center for Interpretation Testing, Research and Policy, said they have certified 79 Navajo interpreters since 1994. More than 150 people applied for 30 spots in the upcoming session.

The qualifications are stiff. Candidates must not only speak Navajo --which virtually guarantees they are members of the tribe--but must also be able to interpret testimony from expert witnesses, stomach graphic evidence and be able to explain ballistics, Yazzie-Lewis said.


“I think a lot of people go to training thinking they can speak English and Navajo, but they come out of training dumbfounded,” she said.

Utah interpreter Rodger Williams agreed, saying it can be hard to relate the law in a Navajo way.

“To us laws are something like natural laws. They are constant. They never change. You try to explain it in white man’s ways, there’s all sorts of loopholes,” he said. “That’s why traditional people will say, ‘I don’t understand the white man; they speak with forked tongues.’ ”

Kee-Lopez said translating Navajo is probably no more difficult than other languages but presents some cultural obstacles.


For example, she said she has had cases where the defendant’s family wants her to deliver a package from a medicine man, usually a bit of herbs. It’s hard, she explains, to deny the family their wish, especially when they insist she and the defendant are members of the same clan.

“You feel the obligation after they tell you you’re related. A lot of times I feel I have to help because I’m there for my people,” she said.