Almost daily, people stumble into the high-stakes world of criminal and civil court seeking justice — but the already daunting atmosphere is made even more intimidating by the fact that they don't speak English.
It's up to a team of interpreters appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court to crisscross the state, helping victims, defendants and litigants with limited English proficiency navigate the difficult legal gauntlet.
Kip Britton is one of those polyglots, among the nearly 200 interpreters registered to translate 22 languages. He’s one of nine French interpreters listed on the Supreme Court’s registry and is also credentialed to do English, Spanish and Italian interpreting.
“Every word I say is to help someone,” Britton said. “Interpreters are really key to the delivery of justice to people for whom language is a barrier, because that barrier is actually a barrier to justice.”
Britton’s skills were on display recently in the 19th Judicial District Court during the murder trial of Oscar Lozada. A Baton Rouge jury found Lozada guilty of killing his wife, Sylviane Finck Lozada, and dismembering her body inside the couple’s Spring Lake Drive home in 2011. Lozada now faces a mandatory life term in prison when he’s sentenced April 3.
Britton, 58, sat with the victim’s Belgian family and interpreted the proceedings for her French-speaking relatives so they could follow along during the weeklong trial earlier this month. He also interpreted the testimony of Finck Lozada’s younger sister, Ghislaine, as well as a Belgian Federal Police investigator who took the stand.
“In court, a lot of people suffer needlessly because they are unable to manipulate language," Britton said. "And I think specifically of people of color in Baton Rouge who are in and out of court time and time again in their own lives, simply because they are unable to express themselves properly when they get there.”
Adding more resources for non-English speakers
In 2021, reform group Court Watch NOLA observed nearly 300 cases in which Orleans Parish defendants needed an interpreter. In 12% of those cases, the defendant couldn't get one, the group said in a recent report.
Most often, it happened when the court was not notified for the need of an interpreter in advance, and it usually forced a delay in the trial.
State and federal policy calls for the court to provide translation and interpretation services for those who can’t adequately speak or understand English.
Interpreters orally convey words spoken in a different language, while translators handle the written word.
“People think to be a court interpreter, you just need to be bilingual,” said Louisiana Supreme Court chief deputy judicial administrator Brian Wiggins. “In fact, you need to be an expert in three things: you need to be an expert in English, you need to be an expert in the target language, and then you need to know really a lot of legal and court terms.”
Wiggins, who oversees the high court’s Language Access program, said court interpreters must undergo training to handle stressful courtroom situations and pass a national proficiency exam that tests them on legal terminology before being registered in each language.
So far, the state has 183 interpreters, but the team continues to grow. They added their first Ukrainian interpreter last week.
Wiggins says French interpreting in Louisiana has rapidly given way to a need for more Spanish interpreters. He estimated 90% of the requests are for Spanish interpreters, a demand that outpaces all other languages by at least a 5-to-1 margin.
Spurred by an anti-discrimination complaint filed under the federal Civil Rights Act, the Louisiana Supreme Court entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2019 to phase in its language access program for lower courts across the state. Since then, the court has taken steps to bolster its interpretation and translation services for litigants, defendants and families with limited English skills.
Among the changes is the addition of an oversight committee, along with a centralized system for interested parties to lodge complaints about language assistance, according to the plan Supreme Court leaders approved in 2020.
The Supreme Court has also implemented a five-part online training module for sheriffs, clerks and other agencies that partner with the courts, paid for with federal grant funding from the State Justice Institute.
Wiggins said judges and attorneys told him they consider interpreters as integral as court reporters and other key staff members who help fuel the intricate legal system.
“Without them, there would be a lot of folks losing life, liberty, property, or they wouldn’t know what’s going on,” he said. “So they’re a critical component and we’re glad with the progress that we’ve made in providing them.”
'Magically native' Louisiana tale
As an interpreter, Britton describes himself as a conduit who must pick up on nuances, context and other verbal cues to transfer the essence of what’s being spoken.
“It’s not just to say the words, but it is in fact to say more than the words. It is to convey the meaning,” he said.
Britton’s path to becoming a registered interpreter was years in the making. After graduating from Georgetown University, he got a temporary job for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C., which exposed him to the terminology used by international diplomats. That experience paved the way for him to begin working at United Nations offices in New York City, where he got the accreditation that allowed him to take the court interpreter’s test when he returned to Louisiana in 2012.
Britton credits his propensity for language to the multiculturalism in his family tree. His story is deeply seeded in the Louisiana soils, a cobble of different heritages that include the Choctaw tribe, along with myriad international roots.
His family’s storied history in Louisiana dates back to the 1700s. One of Britton's ancestors, according to ancestry reports, was an African-born man who may have been a conquistador in northern Africa before being purchased as a slave by some of his other ancestors.
The Turnbull family owned the Rosedown Plantation in West Feliciana Parish and taught each of their children several languages at home. A marriage at the turn of the 19th Century united the Turnbulls with the Stirling family, which owned the famously haunted Myrtle Plantation in St. Francisville.
Britton traces his roots to the Stirlings through his mother.
“I come from two families that are famous for their gifts. And I have come to accept that among them happens to be a gift for communication,” he said. “For interpretation or the transfer of information, for messengering. And in me, that gift expresses itself linguistically.”
Britton's mother grew up in Baton Rouge during the Depression era, when unforgiving nuns were notorious for rapping the knuckles of Cajun and Creole children who spoke French in classrooms.
Sisters often disparaged the language by calling it dirty or broken, his mother told him. As a result of that stigma, she refused to teach him how to speak French growing up.
But her brother, who was raised in an uncle's French-speaking household, taught Britton French as a child. He says a natural curiosity helped him develop his language skills from there.
Britton began picking up bits of Spanish by hanging around Hispanic ranch workers who lived near his family’s home. Cousins and other international relatives taught him German and Arabic when they came to live in the U.S.
With each language learned, the world opened up more and more. He’s lived in or visited nine countries and speaks seven different languages fluently, while dabbling in a handful of others.
Bond Ruggles — who runs Hottest Hell Tours, which specializes in haunted French Quarter tours in New Orleans — has worked with Britton for several years and said his wisdom and emotional acuity give him shaman-like qualities showcased through his abilities as an interpreter and translator.
“Some people have this innate empathy that goes beyond just feeling,” she said. “He understands people despite not knowing everything about them. He’s very gifted at reading emotions and being able to communicate what a person is feeling, even if they’re not aware of it. And then there’s something very magically native (to Louisiana) about him.”