Katy Van Sant / Louis Goodman – Transcript

Louis Goodman / Katy Van Sant – Transcript


Louis Goodman 00:03
Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we usually talk with attorneys about their lives and careers. Today, we’re meeting with Katy Van Sant, who is a bilingual forensic linguist, expert witness, and court interpreter. Katy has been working as a court-certified Spanish language interpreter in Alameda County for more than 20 years.

If you practice criminal law in Alameda County, you’ve had the pleasure of working with her. Katy Van Sant, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.

Katy Van Sant 00:38
Thank you, Louis. It’s great to be here.

Louis Goodman 00:41
Great to have you. It’s always fun to see you in court. I think you’re the first person that I ever met who did a lot of texting, because I remember, I remember being in court, maybe it was in Fremont or Oakland, and you were sitting in the jury box doing something with your thumbs on the phone. And I said, what are you doing? And you said, oh, I’m texting a friend of mine and you were having this long text conversation. And I always remember that. Where are you talking to us from right now?

Katy Van Sant 01:12
I am in my backyard in a little shed that I had converted into a tiny little office for myself in San Francisco.

Louis Goodman 01:23
Tell us in your words, what type of work you do?

Katy Van Sant 01:26
I am a Spanish interpreter, a court-certified interpreter. I work in mostly criminal court right now. I’ve been working in Alameda County Courts full time for 22 years.

I’ve been assigned to the Wiley Manual Courthouse for quite a long time now. I think about 15, 16 years. And that is my day to day job. I do other things outside of that.

Louis Goodman 01:52
Well, we’ll get to that. Where are you from originally?

Katy Van Sant 01:56
I am from Oakland. I was born in Oakland and I lived in Oakland until I was 10.

And then when I was 10, my family moved up to Southern Humboldt County, very rural area in the mountains, and that’s where I lived until I finished high school.

Louis Goodman 02:15
So what high school did you go to?

Katy Van Sant 02:17
My high school is called South Fork High School. It’s a very tiny high school out in the boondocks.

Louis Goodman 02:24
When you graduated from high school, you went to college. Did you take any time off between high school and college, or did you go straight through?

Katy Van Sant 02:33
No, I went straight to college from high school.

Louis Goodman 02:36
Where was that?

Katy Van Sant 02:37
I went to college on the East Coast. I went to Smith College in Massachusetts, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Louis Goodman 02:43
That’s a very impressive school to get into.

Katy Van Sant 02:47
I was a good student and yeah, I think, I think part of the reason I got into all the colleges I applied to was, being from a rural area, both my parents are from the east coast. So going back there was not completely foreign to me.

Louis Goodman 03:02
So what was that experience like, going from a very small town in Northern California to the East Coast to Smith College?

Katy Van Sant 03:12
I loved Smith. It’s a medium-sized town, Northampton. Although I was, you know, I’m kind of consider myself equally from Oakland and Humboldt County because although we left when I was 10, we maintained a community of friends there and we would come visit and stay in, in the Bay Area frequently. So I wasn’t someone who was, you know, not accustomed to a city.

Moving to the East Coast was, it was different. The weather was a shock to me. I wasn’t prepared for the snow all winter long. I enjoyed it for school. I think I got a really great education there. I spent my junior year abroad in Spain. I didn’t feel like I wanted to live on the East Coast, though. I still felt like a Californian, and wanted to go back.

Louis Goodman 04:05
You spent your junior year abroad in Spain. Is that where you developed your interest in the Spanish language? Or did that happen earlier?

Katy Van Sant 04:13
It was actually earlier. When I was a junior in high school my mother was a high school teacher at my little high school, and she applied for a Fulbright Teacher Exchange. It’s a program they don’t have anymore, but she got that and we all, the whole family, three kids and my mom and dad, we lived in Wales for a year and she taught in a school in Wales. We went to school in Wales, but during that time we traveled as much as we could, taking advantage of being there. And I went to Spain a couple times and really loved it and felt that I wanted to go back. I did go back to Spain and studied there.

Louis Goodman 04:56
Now, you also have a master’s degree and…

Katy Van Sant 05:01
Not yet, not yet…

Louis Goodman 05:02
Oh, you’re working. Okay.

Katy Van Sant 05:04
I’m working towards my master’s degree. I’m on my last class right now, and that will be, I’ll finish that class in at the end of November and, or maybe December. And then I’ll be doing either a thesis or an internship, I’m not sure which, and then I will graduate with my master’s degree in forensic linguistics in the spring of 2024.

Louis Goodman 05:27
Now, I know a little bit about forensic linguistics, but I’m hoping you could tell us what that field of study involves.

Katy Van Sant 05:35
What a forensic linguistic linguist does is analyze language material, whether it’s written or speech, so recorded speech or written documents.

Louis Goodman 05:50
Let me ask you this, is my understanding of it is that forensic linguistics can be used as an investigative tool because if you understand the way the linguistics go together, it’s possible to see whether someone is telling the truth or they’re not telling the truth or they are using language in a way that is inconsistent with who they are, what their training is, or perhaps it’s consistent with who they are and what their training is, and that it’s possible to show things in evidentiary nature, almost like DNA or fingerprints through the use of linguistics.

Katy Van Sant 06:35
It’s something like that. There’s a lot of different ways it can be applied. It’s implied in law enforcement and also as an expert witness. I, for example, could evaluate a body camera recording of an officer explaining implied consent and make a determination as to whether I think the suspect understood that or not. Same with Miranda. I could make a determination, you know, depending on the data that I get, whether they understood the different Miranda rights, whether they invoked the right to attorney or not, how the officer responded that. Consent to search is another area.

So, those are examples using written oral language, and I can explain concepts like gratuitous concurrence, which is, you know, if a person is given a yes or no question, they may answer yes when the answer is not necessarily yes, especially if they’re asked if they understand something. So those are some examples as well as I can evaluate text messages or social media posts for meaning, and I can do this in English and Spanish. So the Spanish would first involve translating into English and then providing an analysis.

Louis Goodman 07:59
You had some early experiences learning Spanish, living in Spain. When did you start thinking about being a court interpreter?

Katy Van Sant 08:08
Honestly, I didn’t even know that profession existed until I was an adult. It was sort of, I kind of lived my life just going with the flow in a certain way and doing what I enjoyed.

So, like I said, I studied Spanish. I majored in Spanish literature in college because I wanted to go back to Spain. You know, my other option was English literature. I love reading and writing. So it wasn’t just because I wanted to go to Spain. I had it, the major was literature, but just in Spanish, not English.

Then I finished college, and I was not sure what I was going to do, so I went to Mexico and lived there for a few years, came back, I was on BART, and I saw an ad on the, on the BART train, and it was for San Francisco State had a program for court interpreting at that time. And it looked interesting to me, so I enrolled in the program and that started me on the path to becoming a court interpreter.

Louis Goodman 09:08
What was your route into Alameda County?

Katy Van Sant 09:10
Once I became certified, which is a difficult process, there’s a very tough exam that you have to pass and there’s a written component and then the oral component. I was living in Oakland at the time, so that’s where I went to see if they were hiring and they were. And so I started working full time in Alameda pretty much right after I got certified.

Louis Goodman 09:33
Now, we’ve already established that you’re a very bright person, that you have a lot of skills, there are a lot of things that you could do, but you’ve stayed working in the court system as a court interpreter for over 20 years. What is it that you really like about that work?

Katy Van Sant 09:53
There’s a few things. Working as an interpreter is a very satisfying job. Every time I interpret for someone, I’m allowing them to understand what’s going on, and to express themselves. Most people who I interpret for are really all of them are people who are living in a world where they’re often not understood and often not able to understand completely what’s going on around them, immigrants who aren’t fully proficient in English.

So they’re accustomed to trying to figure it out and being misunderstood. So when I step in and I make it easy for them, as easy as I can, given the criminal justice system and its complexities, to understand what’s happening, there’s just this immediate sense of accomplishment and that never goes away no matter how many years I do it.

So I have stuck with interpreting. I feel like I’m really serving an important role for people.

Louis Goodman 10:59
If a young person were coming out of school and had the linguistic abilities, would you recommend being a court-certified interpreter as a career choice?

Katy Van Sant 11:10
I’m not sure I would, I would recommend that they look into, you know, things are changing with video remote interpreting. You know, we’re always under threat of outsourcing and, you know, so far it hasn’t happened too much, but the pandemic kind of sped up that process that we were always on the lookout for, although we’ve gone back to mostly the way we were working before. But it is something that I would definitely caution a younger person about.

And I would also, you know, you have to be able to, at the beginning, it was tough seeing so much suffering, so much really heavy and intense situations, violence, all the kinds of things that, you know, you see in criminal court and also in civil, there’s, there’s a lot of upsetting things that you have to witness, and so it’s not for everyone, and I’ve seen some interpreters who don’t stick with it for that reason.

And that’s something some people might know off the bat, other people might find out as, once they’re there.

Louis Goodman 12:22
What do you think’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Katy Van Sant 12:24
That it’s important to talk with my other colleagues about what you’ve gone through, what you’ve experienced in the courtroom, what you’ve seen, you know, obviously without, you know, respecting attorney-client privilege. Because if you hold it all inside, and you don’t have someone to talk with about it, especially at the beginning when you’re not used to being around so much upsetting material, it just eats away at you. So I took that advice, and I have my colleagues who I speak with, because they’re the only ones who can really understand in the same way what it’s like, you know, to, you know, because we speak in the first person. So we’re saying the words of, you know, a victim or a defendant from using I, and so it’s very, it can get to you. Discussing it or just talking about it, letting it, letting it go by, by talking with colleagues who understand has been really helpful through the years and something I still do.

Louis Goodman 13:18
Is that the advice that you would give to a young interpreter who was just starting out?

Katy Van Sant 13:22
Yes. And also I would give the advice that there’s quite a bit of downtime in the job of court interpreter. You’ve seen us sitting in the courtroom for long times. Sometimes we’re sitting in our office waiting for calls.

It’s like feast or famine. So some people can’t handle the downtime and they get antsy and they get bored and they need to be engaged all the time. And if that’s you, you might not want to be a court interpreter.

Louis Goodman 13:55
You’re around lawyers a lot in your work. What mistakes do you think lawyers make?

Katy Van Sant 14:02
The only thing that I would say is that some lawyers don’t always use an interpreter when they should. No matter how fluent you are, it’s, I mean, there are some lawyers who I think are fluent enough that it’s okay, but speaking about the law is very different from speaking, you know, with friends or with family.

And that’s something that we’ve studied. So, a mistake I think some attorneys make, especially young and new ones, is to think, well, I’m bilingual, I don’t need to use an interpreter. And, you know, if you’re speaking with a client and they’re nodding, and you think they’re understanding, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are because clients are in a situation where they feel intimidated or they feel, you know, shy to say they don’t understand and all different reasons.

So that’s, that’s the mistake I would, the only mistake I would want to bring up is that some attorneys don’t use an interpreter when they should.

Louis Goodman 15:03
That goes back to some of that forensic linguistic things that we were talking about a little earlier, doesn’t it?

Katy Van Sant 15:08
Yes. I mean, there’s so much misunderstanding, miscommunication that happens that goes unaware.

Louis Goodman 15:15
How can lawyers be of assistance to you in your work?

Katy Van Sant 15:19
I would say, you know, be patient with us. Sometimes it takes a little time to explain the concepts. Sometimes reading a plea form might take a little bit longer than a lawyer wishes it took.

We take it seriously and we find it important for the client to understand what’s happening, especially when they are taking a plea and from that moment forward, having a conviction on their record for the rest of their lives. I would certainly want to have plenty of time to consider what I’m doing and understand what I’m doing if I were ever in that situation.

So yeah, just be patient with us and also don’t make tons of noise in the courtroom when we’re trying to interpret on the record.

Louis Goodman 16:03
Do you think the legal system is fair?

Katy Van Sant 16:05
No, no, I don’t.

Louis Goodman 16:06

Katy Van Sant 16:07
You know, the first time I walked into the courtroom, my first day as an interpreter, I’d never been in a courtroom before in Oakland, and I’ll never forget feeling so shocked.

And in retrospect, I was very naive to see the an entire audience of black and brown faces, maybe one or two white people. I knew the makeup of Oakland, and I knew that, you know, Oakland is about a third white. And so just seeing that visual of the people who are in criminal court was something that I’ll never forget, and I think that kind of is one way to just say quickly how our system is not fair.

Louis Goodman 16:56
What, if anything, would you change about the way our system works?

Katy Van Sant 17:00
Well, you probably heard what I just said. I think it needs like a complete overhaul, honestly. I think also the adversarial system is problematic. I think it doesn’t lend itself to reaching the truth and what happened and what needs to happen to correct and resolve it.

So I, you know, obviously I don’t have the answer, but I feel that we need a system that has a lot more compassion, a system that’s less punishment-oriented. I personally believe in restorative justice.

Louis Goodman 17:39
Now you and I have talked on occasion about books. You’ve recommended some books to me that I’ve read. And I know that you’ve also I’ve written some, I don’t know if you’ve written books, but I know you’ve written articles and stories. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your experience in terms of your writing?

Katy Van Sant 18:01
Yes. Thanks for asking about that. You’re one of the few people who have read some of the things I’ve written and I appreciate that. I’ve always loved to write and read. I grew up in a home with no TV and I started writing like more seriously I think it was 2011. I participated in National Novel Writing Month. It’s actually international now. It’s really grown. It’s a program where you kind of participate and you, it’s in the month of November that you write a novel, a 50,000 word novel in one month. And you can kind of compete with other people who you know are, are participating. Compare word counts as you’re moving through the month.

It was a colleague of mine, Margaret Lehman, another interpreter who told me about it and encouraged me to do it, and I will always be grateful to her for that. So I wrote that novel in 2011. I did it again I think in 2017. And I wrote another novel.

These aren’t published novels, they’re just novels that I wrote and enjoyed writing. I’ve written some stories and essays that have been published. One thing I did that was really fun during the pandemic, I, you know, we had even more downtime because the courts were closed and even when they come open back up, it was very slow.

So I got a job as a ghost writer and I wrote, I ghost wrote a memoir. The memoirs of a, the bodyguard of a famous person. And supposedly that’s going to be published next year. We’ll see. I don’t think my name will be on it though.

Louis Goodman 19:
I’m going to shift gears here a little bit, Katy. What’s your family life been like and how has working in the court affected that? And how has your family life fit into the work that you do?

Katy Van Sant 19:50
Well, I met my husband in court. So, definitely, my family life has been intertwined with my work life. So, my husband’s a Public Defender and he has two kids and I have one. They’re teenagers now. I can see there’s been a lot of overlap and I mean, they’re certainly used to hearing about court and court things at the dinner table and, but I don’t know if any of them will be interested in going into court. Well, it’s too early to tell. The oldest is in his first year in college right now.

Louis Goodman 20:23
When you’re not interpreting, when you’re not working in court, what sorts of recreational things do you enjoy doing?

Katy Van Sant 20:29
I’m in a dance group. That’s really important to me. I’ve been in the dance group for almost 25 years now, I think. It’s Aztec dance, and we practice once a week, and we perform periodically. We attend ceremonies. It’s kind of more than a dance group, it’s almost kind of like my church, you could say. So that’s and it’s a community people who I’ve, you know, we’ve been through marriage, divorce, having kids, becoming grandparents, all of that together. So that’s a big part of my life.

Also, the house that we have up in in Humboldt County, we still have and I like to go there as much as I can. It’s on 80 acres. It’s a beautiful home that my parents built with another family. Being there and being in nature and in the country is something that’s really important to me that I couldn’t live without.

Then spending time with my kids and my husband, my family. My extended family as well. All of that’s also very important to me.

Louis Goodman 21:35
Is there anybody, living or dead, who you would like to meet?

Katy Van Sant 21:40
Okay, I’ve been thinking about that question. First of all, I would always pick a dead person because if you have that opportunity, Why pick someone who’s alive that maybe you might just meet anyways, right?

So, definitely a dead person would make more sense to me. Someone who I would love to meet and talk with is George Orwell. I just think his writing, his social commentary, and his life are, are so fascinating to me. You know, aside from 1984 and Animal Farm, I really enjoyed, he has a book called Down and Out in London and Paris where he lived with homeless people in London and Paris for I think a year or so and wrote about those experiences and they’re still very, they’re very pertinent today.

And then the time he spent in Spain and the Spanish Civil War. He’s just an amazing person, I think, and a writer, which is something that I’m interested in, and so I would love to just talk to him about his life, his ideas, and anything that he wanted to tell me about.

Louis Goodman 22:45
Let’s say you and your husband came into some real money, three or four billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?

Katy Van Sant 22:53
Okay, if I had that much money, I would not work full time. Would want to have a little better balance of work and all the other things I like to do. I’d probably get a bigger, nicer house. I wouldn’t make a lot of changes.

I might be worried about my kids being like being spoiled brats. So that would be something that would probably, I would have to think hard about how to handle that situation. But with the billions, I think the majority of that money I would. I would need to donate to causes and places where it’s needed because I don’t need all that money. I would probably, like, hire some consultants to help me figure out the best way to donate the money.

Louis Goodman 23:40
Let’s say you had a magic wand that was one thing in the world, legal or otherwise, that you could change. What would that be?

Katy Van Sant 23:46
No war. I would have no war on the planet.

Louis Goodman 23:49
Katy, if someone wants to get in touch with you, especially regarding your bilingual forensic linguistic experience and expertise in that area, what’s the best way to get in touch?

Katy Van Sant 24:04
And my email is KRVansant, that’s V A N S A N T, so all one word, K R V A N S A N T, at yahoo.com.

Louis Goodman 24:19
Katy, is there anything that you want to talk about that we haven’t touched on? Anything at all that you’d like to say?

Katy Van Sant 24:24
I just, I wanted to thank you, Louis, for doing this podcast. As far as I can tell, it’s a labor of love. I don’t know, maybe someone’s paying you, but it’s been, yeah, I didn’t think so. Yeah, I know it takes a lot of time and a lot of energy, and I think it’s a real service to the community, the legal community. It’s, for me, I have listened to several of the podcasts and it’s to be able to learn more about the people who I see all the time at work, but don’t really know that. Well, it’s, it’s a really, it’s a gift I feel like that you’ve given us in the community. So I wanted to thank you for that.

Louis Goodman 25:05
Well, thank you, Katie. I appreciate that. And very frankly, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because, you know, we all see you in court all the time. And I’ve known several of the court interpreters a little bit and, and they’re all bright people and they have a lot to say. Like a lot of court staff, like the clerks, like the court reporters, we don’t really get to hear from them as much as we get to hear from the lawyers in their own words, in their own minds. And I’m very interested in it. So I really want to thank you for coming on the podcast and sharing a little bit about yourself with us.

Katy Van Sant 25:48
Thank you so much for this. I appreciate it.

Louis Goodman 25:50
Katy Van Sant. Thank you so much for joining me today on the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.

Katy Van Sant 25:57
Thank you.

Louis Goodman 25:57
That’s it for today’s episode of Love Thy Lawyer. If you enjoyed listening, please share it with a friend and follow the podcast. If you have comments or suggestions, send me an email. Take a look at our website at lovethylawyer.com, where you can find all of our episodes, transcripts, photographs and information.

Thanks to my guests, and to Joel Katz for music, Bryan Matheson for technical support, Paul Robert for social media and Tracy Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.

Katy Van Sant 26:36
One thing that was difficult in that situation was the attorney was trying to kind of take the words without taking into consideration the full context of the conversation in order to make his point, which is something that attorneys will do, but it’s important.

Louis Goodman 26:52

Katy Van Sant 26:54

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