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Omaha: Demand for interpreters grows

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ask Sarah Shannon how many court cases she's worked on recently and she'll tell you, "Oh my word, too many!"

As the only state-certified Spanish language interpreter in the Panhandle's 12th Judicial District, the Mitchell, Neb., woman's "part-time" job has her working with at least 30 clients each month.

Interpreting accounts for a growing share of the state court budget - an expense that's increased dramatically over the past five years.

On a busy day, four interpreters will be working in Douglas County courtrooms, handling trials in district court, traffic cases, and civil and juvenile court cases, said Adriana Hinojosa, the county's coordinator for interpreter services. She said demand has jumped in the past year.

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The Nebraska Supreme Court provided interpreters for these languages in 2008:

Arab
Bosnian
Chinese
Dinka
French
Korean
Laotian
Nuer
Polish
Russian
Somali
Spanish
Thai
Vietnamese


Last year, the Nebraska courts paid more than $1 million for interpreting services, hiring 160 interpreters speaking 21 languages.

It's a trend that results from Nebraska's increasingly diverse population. The state's Hispanic population has grown by 49 percent since 2000, according to 2008 U.S. Census information. An estimated 9 percent of Nebraska's population speaks a language other than English in their homes, according to the Census.

Court officials are looking for ways to cut costs so they can free up money to recruit and train more interpreters.

One strategy, using laptop computers, Web cameras and Internet conferencing technology for remote interpretation, is being adopted by more than a dozen county courts in rural areas, said Sheryl Connolly, who spends part of her time coordinating interpreter services for the state court system.

The new state budget includes a 10 percent increase, or $105,000, for next year's court interpreter budget.

But it provides no funds for a full-time state coordinator as requested by court officials, nor would it allow the program to grow in 2010-11, the second year of the two-year budget cycle.

In his state of the judiciary address earlier this year, Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican said it "isn't unusual in Grand Island, for example, to need interpreters in languages such as Nuer, Dinka and Nubian in court cases."

In other states, cases have been overturned because of poor interpretation, said Supreme Court Judge John Gerrard, who heads the court system's Interpreter Advisory Committee.

"It's a due process issue," he said. "If you're not being interpreted correctly, you're not having your opportunity to be heard."

In an effort to assure quality, the state offers a certification program that includes training workshops and testing. Interpreters generally need the equivalent of a college-level education in both English and a foreign language to pass the tests.

Judges must use certified interpreters when they are available. Although Nebraska now has 17 certified interpreters, all of them speak Spanish.

That means those who speak other languages often must rely on less-skilled interpreters.

Court interpreters are paid $50 an hour for their part-time work. The state has no full-time interpreters on staff.

Most interpreters live in population centers like Lincoln and Omaha, where they have better access to college-level language courses. Meanwhile, interpretation services often are needed hours away, in towns like Lexington, Schuyler and Dakota City, where the meatpacking industry has attracted many Spanish-speaking workers.

To help save on travel costs, some counties are looking to remote interpreting.

With the technology, an interpreter can participate without traveling to the courtroom. The interpreter can see and hear those in the courtroom, and those in the courtroom can see and hear the interpreter.

The effort started with Colfax County in east-central Nebraska and now includes five counties in the Panhandle and 10 counties in south-central Nebraska.

Connolly, with the state court system, said another county, Lincoln, where North Platte is located, recently notified her that court officials there want to begin using a Web camera and laptop computers to bolster interpreting.

Hinojosa said remote interpreting is not being used in the Omaha metro area, which doesn't face the same obstacles with distance and travel expenses.

Colfax County Judge Patrick McDermott of Schuyler studied remote interpreting for his master's degree project while studying at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

He concluded the state could save up to $450,000 per year.

But Shannon, an interpreter who serves the Panhandle, said she's uncomfortable with remote interpreting.

"An interpreter has to see and hear the attorneys, the judges, the client and everyone in the courtroom to be effective," Shannon said.

Connolly agreed that remote interpreting probably would not be appropriate for complex hearings and trials with many witnesses and multiple days of testimony. She said the effort thus far is focusing on county courts in part because the technology is best suited for simple proceedings.
 

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