Open to interpretation: Russian translator puts her language skills to good use

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By Wayne Peal

Legal News

It's American justice, with a Russian accent.

Irina Jesionowski is one of only three certified Russian language court interpreters in Michigan and she takes her job seriously.

"In the American system, all stand equal under the law, whether you can speak the language or not," the Royal Oak resident said. "It's my job to fulfill that ideal."

Interpretation is a complex skill, she said, involving not only meaning but nuance.

"Word-for-word translation is often impossible," she said. "The phrase, 'She was sitting in a chair' cannot be translated into Russian just like that because there are eight separate (Russian) words describing what kind of chair it would be."

America remains a nation of immigrants and, by percentage, Russian-Americans make up one of the nation's fastest-growing immigrant populations.

There are roughly 5 million Russian-Americans in the U.S. today, according to the American Association for Russian Language Culture and Education. That population has more than doubled since the end of the Soviet era in the 1990s, according to information of the association's website.

Jesionowski, who came to the U.S. in 1998, is part of that new Russian-American boom. Some newcomers are proficient in English, but many are not.

While New York and Los Angeles boast the nation's largest Russian-American populations, a sizable number of immigrants also have found their way to the Midwest. In addition to serving courtrooms throughout Michigan, Jesionowski has participated in trials in Illinois and Ohio.

The cases often involve drunken driving offenses, she said. But even the most open-and-shut case deserves a fair hearing, she said.

"I love my job, but one of my pet peeves is that attorneys are often reluctant to work with a translator," she said. "We're not there to snoop or to interfere. We're there to assure there will be a fair trial."

Interpreters' duties are spelled out under Michigan's legal code.

"The central issue is whether the person can truly understand the nature of the proceedings in which they are involved, not necessarily whether they have some understanding of the language," said Richard Lynch, manager of the Oakland County Circuit Court Civil and Criminal Division.

Interpreters were used in 191 Oakland County court cases in the past year, according to court records.

The American judicial system, Jesionowski acknowledged, is different than the one she grew up under. Those differences were driven home about a year ago when she served as the official translator for a group of Russian attorneys visiting metro Detroit.

"They were visiting the Oakland County Circuit Court and they were amazed with how fast cases were handled," Jesionowski said. "One judge, I forget her name, processed something like 80 cases in three hours and that really impressed them."

That was in part because of plea bargains, a concept alien to the Russian judicial system.

If her countrymen were impressed by American courts, Jesionowski remains impressed by America itself, even if her new homeland initially took her by surprise.

"One thing you quickly realize is that Americans are much friendlier, much more open, much more willing to help others than you've been led to believe," she said.

Yet, her idea of America as the land of plenty also needed some revision.

"I grew up reading Nora Ephron and watching movies like 'Sleepless in Seattle,'" Jesionowski said. "From there, you come away with the impression that everyone in American is wealthy, that everyone has a college education."

That, she soon learned, isn't true but she remains dedicated to the idea that the court system in a pillar in providing equality to all Americans.

She's seen quite a bit of her new homeland, too. She first came to Michigan to attend classes at Oakland Community College.

"I moved to Royal Oak because I had to be near someplace with bus service--I didn't have a car," she said.

The move proved fortuitous in more ways than one. Jesionowski met her husband, Edmund, at the Starbucks in downtown Royal Oak.

Already trained in history, Jesionowski first considered a career in sociology but her language skills would lead her elsewhere.

"Actually, I fell into my current profession as most linguists tend to do," she said.

Jesionowski completed her language studies the University of Chicago and the University of Massachusetts, earning degrees from both, but she and her husband decided to stay in metro Detroit.

In addition to her legal work, Jesionowski provides translation for business clients as well.

"Much of my work is involved with conferences," she said.

She also has helped create an Internet translations service, Interpreter Education Online, in association with Bromberg and Associates, LLC.

"This is something we feel is very unique and Irina and I set it up about three years ago," said partner and co-creator Ginny Bromberg.

The site not only offers training programs of its own, but also points the way to national interpreter training conferences. It is available at interpretoreducationonline.com.

A federal court interpreters' act, providing for sanctioned interpreters in all cases involving the U.S. government, was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

Michigan's state court system provides certification tests in a number of languages, training from French to Spanish and from Arabic to Vietnamese.

Not all languages are covered and, in some cases, she said, even court professionals are oblivious to the need for accurate translation.

"I was in court once on another case and there was this darling Chinese couple there who couldn't speak English," Jesionowski said. "The judge asked if there was someone there who could speak Chinese and, fortunately there was a woman who could but there are several dialects, each distinct from each other."

While Jesionowski also speaks French and Ukrainian, she decided against seeking certification in any language other than Russian.

"While I speak those languages, the job is so complex that I decided to concentrate on just the one language," she said.

Her love for the English language--and American literature in particular--began back in the former U.S.S.R.

"I read many of the classics like Mark Twain, Longfellow and O. Henry," she said. "I also read Hemingway, who is a cultural icon in Russia."

Now, she is writing her own uniquely American story.

Published: Thu, Feb 17, 2011

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