“It is definitely something that is unexpected when you look at me,” said Cevallos.
Even though these two women are received differently at first, their jobs as interpreters are essential to the criminal justice system.
Legal interpreters are in high demand. Tennessee has roughly 550 courts and only about 55 certified Spanish interpreters available. According to the Tennessee State Courts website, Spanish is the most common language of interpreters in East Tennessee.
Because Dau was not born in the U.S., she did not initially think that this high-demand profession would be for her.
When she was 6, Dau’s family lived in Houston, Texas, for about two years before returning to Chile. In those two years, Dau went to school and learned English as her second language.
“When I was a kid living in Houston, I used to hate interpreting for my parents,” said Dau.
She felt like the liaison to her parents, but she did not realize how fulfilling it would be to help people she did not know later on.
She received her degree in Spanish interpreting in Chile, and did not necessarily intend to use it in the U.S. However, after she met her future husband, who was studying abroad at her school as a Spanish major, she found herself back in the States.
Dau has been a certified legal interpreter since 2010. She moved to California in 2008 after graduating college and started the process of becoming a citizen. Watching many other people in this situation, those who did not know English as she did, helped her decide to become a legal interpreter.
“We're talking immigration and nobody that worked there knew Spanish," said Dau. “Even though courts are getting better at it, [having interpreters], there are still times where there isn't availability."
Dau lives an on-the-go life. She rarely knows what her workday will bring. During General Sessions court, cases are presented to a judge individually as quickly as a decision can be reached. There could be 20 cases in one day, and only two of them needing an interpreter.
While General Sessions interpreting is her everyday work, Dau appreciates the chance to learn more through bigger cases that are not the norm.
“I get excited over the fact that you're helping people and at the same time you're learning so much about the legal system,” she said. “Sometimes you get frustrated, not everything is perfect, but I like the challenge."
Cevallos likes a challenge too, and her journey to Spanish interpreting was unlike Dau’s.
“I had three months and I told everybody, don’t speak to me in English, I don’t have time for that. I have to come out of this summer fluent.”
Cevallos was working toward her degree at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina, when she met her future husband, Juan Carlos, a native of Ecuador. When things started to get serious she realized the fact that she knew no Spanish would have to change.
Her future in-laws allowed Cevallos to live with them the summer before she graduated.
“I had three months, and I told everybody: 'Don’t speak to me in English; I don’t have time for that. I have to come out of this summer fluent,'” said Cevallos.
It was intense, and the most challenging thing Cevallos has ever done, but just as she planned, she was fluent in Spanish in three months. She returned to CIU to test out of a Spanish concentration – the in-between of a major and minor.
After she got married, she and her husband moved back-and-forth between Costa Rica and Ecuador for eight years before settling down with their three children in Johnson City.
“I knew there was potential out there for interpreting services, and it really took me a lot to figure out how that process would happen,” said Cevallos.
She started working towards her certification in 2014, and after the extensive ethics class, background checks and oral and written proficiency exams, she passed the final test in 2017.
She said interpreting has taught her about East Tennessee, as well as about services through the court system for those who don’t speak English.
“There is a solid population of people from Guatemala, and their first language isn’t actually Spanish. It’s an indigenous language, so a lot of them do speak Spanish as a second or third language,” said Cevallos. “There have definitely been times when still I am interpreting for somebody’s second or third language and still not getting to the heart of the matter.”
When she started as an interpreter, Cevallos was surprised at the number of cases she was given. She is still surprised at the number of Hispanic families in court. Cevallos often works in the juvenile courts, where many truancy issues affect Hispanic families. After seeing that in court, Cevallos learned of The Journey Program in Jefferson City and began working with that program.
If a child in Jefferson City is late for school, an adult has to sign them in or they won’t be counted as present. Parents or guardians who entered the country illegally are fearful of walking into a situation like that in schools, and children are therefore missing school. This program gives those families the resources to prevent their children from having truancy issues.
“Stuff like that, where the courts can be helpful in putting pieces back together that the family couldn’t put back together themselves, has been really encouraging to see,” said Cevallos.
Court interpreters are contacted by the judges, attorneys or clerks. According to Supreme Court Rule 41, people who can’t fully participate in court because their English skills are limited are entitled to an interpreter.
Finding the common ground, and breaking down the barrier that is communication, is what these two interpreters find most rewarding in their job. This barrier has to be removed, and interpreters like Cevallos and Dau get a thrill from watching that happen while perfecting a skill not many people have.
“Whenever you can go simultaneous…speak at the same time as the other person, I love that,” said Dau. “That's my favorite interpretation ever."
Above right: Daniela Dau stands with her client in court while he takes the oath before a proceeding begins. Photo by Kathryn Norungolo
Above left: Courtney Cevallos learned Spanish after meeting her future husband, Juan Carlos, a native of Ecuador. Photo: Contributed