Meet Karina Levy: The Most Senior Court Interpreter in Los Angeles
By TRILBY BERESFORD | Reporter
If instructed to create a list of all the 80-year-olds one knows whom still work jobs, most people would fail miserably and present an empty sheet of paper.
Unless they are acquainted with Karina Levy, who has held the position of Los Angeles Certified Court Interpreter for 45 years. At 84, she is showing zero signs of slowing down.
On the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 8, Levy arrived to her interview with the Palisadian-Post impeccably dressed in a red floral blouse that complemented her beaded earrings and dash of crimson lipstick.
“I used to dress very formally in neutral colors,” Levy explained, “but there’s a lot of misery in the courts, so now I try and brighten up the hallways.”
Levy was born in Veracruz and attended the University of Mexico where she studied social work, criminology, civil and criminal law in the Faculty of Law. “Education was the number one priority in my family,” Levy pointed out.
She moved to Los Angeles in 1953 and lived in Pacific Palisades for most of the ’60s. “The area was very safe back then,” Levy recalled, adding that she would often picked up hitchhikers in her car and it was perfectly fine.
Suddenly, we were talking about actor Dick Van Dyke. “He lived in the Palisades and I would see him around sometimes,” Levy said matter-of-factly.
Even though things have changed in the community, she continues to enjoy the Palisades to this day. “I’m there about every second day [visiting my son Ed Massey],” Levy said. “The people are lovely and polite.”
While quickly choosing between a tuna melt sandwich and a Mediterranean salad at Bibi’s Bakery & Cafe, our chosen meeting place, Levy inquired—gently, yet firmly—“So, what do you want to know?” And then she was off on a rapid course of picking between a kaleidoscope of memories and details.
Spanish is Levy’s native language, though she’s fluent in many. Her role in court is to work with defendants, witnesses and victims who face communication barriers. She works in jury trials and preliminary trials, and 95 percent of her cases are criminal. “I like to be where the action is,” Levy said energetically.
Over the years, she has become an expert in translating every legal term, weapon type, drug slang, drug name and profane term in both Spanish and English. If something doesn’t translate properly from one language to another, she asks permission from the judge to clarify and then “figures out a way to make it work.” Levy has also mastered the skill of listening through one ear and then rapidly translating, nearly simultaneously.
“Usually people retire after 25 years of service, but I still get up at 5:30 a.m. and go to work every day,” she continued with visible enthusiasm. Pausing briefly to consider her trajectory, Levy decided that “patience, practice and experience” have played a key role in the longevity of her interpreting career.
She hinted that it hasn’t been easy, though she emphasized “no regrets.” Levy rarely looks backward at her life. While she has no plans to retire, Levy is considering writing a book about her experiences in the court system. “Maybe I’d write it as fiction,” she said out loud, though more to herself.
In the next breath, Levy sighed. “[But] libraries and bookshops won’t exist soon.” Another unfortunate realization followed from there. “Oh, no. We forgot to order! I’m hungry,” she said as sweetly as someone ever could. (No problem—we ordered right after that, and food was swiftly delivered to the table.)
Conversation that didn’t pertain to working life was kept to a minimum, however Levy did reveal that she “loves to travel” and is married with three children and five grandchildren.
Her daughter Lillian is a decorator and mother who has also worked in real estate. Sons Ed and Bernie work with the nonprofit Portraits of Hope program, which brings color into the lives of adults and children through public artwork, creative therapy and civic education.
Recalling his experience growing up with Levy, El Medio Bluffs resident Ed referenced her commitment to ensuring her family maintained a life on the right side of the law. “When I was in middle school, she actually put me behind bars [at West LA Court House] to have 20 minutes of alone time,” he told the Post with a laugh. “She wanted me to feel what it would be like [to be locked up after a criminal offense].”
He added that Levy has “met the entire urban landscape of LA and dealt with notorious tough folks.” Throughout his childhood, she would make sure the kids understood the negative effects of drugs, both heavy and recreational.
Reflecting on the healthy continuation of Levy’s career, Ed shared, “What keeps her going is that she has lunches with colleagues who are a third of her age.”
In fact, it is Levy’s passion for life and work that encouraged him and his brother to pursue Portraits of Hope. “She was definitely the impetus for us starting community-based projects,” Ed said. Portraits of Hope is currently working on a project to beautify the LA Convention Center, which includes a 1,200-square-foot linear wall.
As Levy and I concluded our meeting and stepped outside into the evening breeze, she gasped, “You didn’t tell me I was wearing my sunglasses the whole time!”
Just like 92-year-old Dick Van Dyke, Palisadian Karina Levy continues to make valuable and necessary contributions to society and the workforce, encouraging those around her (myself included) to charge forward with wit and tenacity.
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