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IN: Court translation services spotty, but less so locally

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When a Hispanic girl, 7, took the stand during a criminal trial in May in Tippecanoe Superior Court 2, she was able to understand English and answer questions about her name and age.

But by her side stood a Spanish-language interpreter, who helped translate more complex questions posed by attorneys for the noticeably nervous girl.

"She can carry on conversational English ... but even for people born and raised in the United States, legal issues are difficult to understand," said Tippecanoe County Deputy Prosecutor Laura Zeman, who presented that case for the state.

"For legal matters, it's best for everyone to make sure witnesses are able to comprehend a question in full."

It's one example of how Tippecanoe County courts provide translation services for people who struggle to speak or understand English -- contrary to some state-level courts, according to a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice, part of New York University's School of Law.

The study, "Language Access in State Courts," looked at 35 states, including Indiana, that have higher proportions of people with limited English proficiency.

Results of the study, released in July, found that many state-level courts violate the federal civil rights act by not providing interpreters for people who need one.

Though the study focused more heavily on civil proceedings, it also looked at state mandates as a whole and competency requirements for individual translators.

Indiana maintains a state registry of certified interpreters, although certified interpreters are not required.

But it is required for Tippecanoe County's head translator as part of a $16,500 foreign language interpreter grant the county receives annually from the Indiana Supreme Court, said Tippecanoe Superior Court 6 Judge Michael Morrissey.

Morrissey and Tippe-canoe Superior Court 2 Judge Thomas Busch supervise the county's interpreter program.

"If a concern is expressed about someone not being able to understand English, we always do what we can to accommodate them," Morrissey said. "We use interpreters every Monday for initial hearings in my courtroom and sometimes for cases on Wednesdays.

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