It’s usually the older, Soviet-era types from Sheepshead Bay who are in court, facing the usual illegal fishing charges. Most need a Russian interpreter. But none expect a lanky, bearded African man to rise to their side.
Kobina Ampah, 49, is a professional Ghanaian polyglot, and he’s a rarity among the city’s interpreters, who are most often native speakers of the language they interpret. Sometimes, he will tell you, even court workers mistake him for a defendant, not a translator.
In his crisp pinstripe suit, speaking perfect English, he seems more lawyer than interpreter. He is at the court of arraignments early on busy days to check the schedule for Slavic surnames: the Dmitrievs, Kuznetsovas, Timoshenkos.
“When you study a language, you study a whole new culture. To master it, immersion is the best way. I was lucky enough to live in the environment,” he says.
That environment was Kiev in 1984, then part of the Soviet Union and now the capital of Ukraine. Ampah had left Ghana as part of an educational exchange program at 22, and stayed in Kiev for nearly a decade. “I went there without speaking a word, not a word of Russian, and they couldn’t believe how fast I picked it up,” he says. “They would joke that the Americans had sent me!”
“But African students faced racism, and it still exists,” he says. “This place is much more tolerant, even though [racism] is still expressed in subtle ways.”
In 1993 Ampah came to the United States, where a friend told him to look into the court interpreter certification test. “I wanted to see the West,” he says. After living here for 18 years, Ampah now jets across the country on federal cases involving narcotics and fraud.
One of the cases was last year’s DEA drug bust, “Operation Relentless,” in which federal authorities arrested eight foreign nationals for conspiring to import $100 million of cocaine to the U.S. In that case, Ampah interpreted for the Ukrainian jet pilot Konstanin Yaroshenko, as well as for defendants Nathaniel French and Kudufia Mawuko in Ghana’s Fante language.
But few days at the court are so action-packed. Ampah and the rest of the interpreters wait for the call in a small waiting room deep within the Manhattan Criminal Court building. Their dictionaries and telephones lie strewn around on a desk. Two interpreters talk in fierce Cantonese while a pair of Wolof speakers nod, solving crossword puzzles, one in the paper, the other on a tablet PC.
Ampah leans over to talk with another Russian interpreter. He is one of eight on staff to serve the the city’s 200,000 Russian speakers in criminal courts.
To serve a community that speaks nearly 170 languages, the court system has an interpreter pool 336 strong. The hardest part, many say, is to stick to the interpretation.
“It does become emotional, but you cannot display it. You have to hold your emotions very tightly,” says Ampah. The task is to remain unbiased in every case, even when a defendant asks his opinion. “You interpret what you hear to the best of your ability and let the court decide,” he says.
“You have to be very sharp. You have a split second to think of the word,” he says. He passes through the courtrooms as if he owns them. The officers know his name, and colleagues in suits call out from across the street, racing through the freezing wind to the warm insides of another court building. “You get to know people,” he says. “It’s like a family.”