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AR: Courts confront need for extra interpreters

Monday, January 05, 2009

Visit a courtroom in Northwest Arkansas and chances are good Anne Yancey will be there, standing next to the defendant.

Yancey is not a lawyer but one of the few certified court interpreters in the state. She is the conduit through which Spanish and English pass, making communication possible.

"I'm there to be like a magic microphone," she said.

Yancey was certified by the state in 2004 and is on her way to becoming federally certified. Before starting on the path to state certification in 2003, Yancey used her knowledge to help people communicate in a variety of settings - from the line at the post office to the doctor's office.

Yancey also serves as an interpreter in other settings but prefers the courtroom, which she considers the most challenging. As an interpreter, it's not enough to paraphrase: Any mistake could mean a miscarriage of justice.

With a growing immigrant population in Northwest Arkansas, she's seen more calls for her help in court. Even after the Arkansas Supreme Court swore in four new interpreters last month, officials said there's still a demand for more.

While the demand for interpreters has slowed some, it was expected to be higher in 2008 than the previous year, said Mara Simmons, director of the Foreign Language Interpreters Program at the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

The office began tracking requests for interpreters differently in 2004, when it had 1,065 requests. The largest single-year increase since then was in 2005, when the office fielded 3,378 requests, a 217 percent increase from the year before.

Demand has slowed since 2005, increasing only by 53 percent to 5,153 requests for interpreters in 2006. In 2007, the most recent year available, the office had 6,112 requests - a 19 percent increase.

There are 15 certified Spanish-language interpreters in the state, Simmons said. Even if the state certified enough interpreters, there's still one missing component - money.

"It's a fine line. If you train and certify more interpreters but don't have money to pay for those interpreters, you are training people that are not going to be utilized," Simmons said.

The state has nowhere near the ideal number of interpreters to handle the state's 239 district and circuit courts, which she estimated would be around 100.

Simmons hopes the program will see a funding increase from the 2007 level of $275,000. The program needs at least $500,000 a year, which is about half what other states use, she said.

The state always sends interpreters that are requested but can only pay for so many, Simmons said. The money usually lasts until about mid-May, she said. After that, the courts, counties and lawyers are asked if they can pick up the tab.

"Sometimes we have interpreters that go pro bono just so they [defendants] will have an interpreter," she said.

Interpreters are paid on an hourly basis and compensated for traveling outside their home county, Simmons said. An interpreter is paid $50 for the first hour and $40 for each additional hour they spend working.

Another challenge is finding interpreters for languages other than Spanish, the most commonly requested language. Simmons often fields calls for requests for languages such as Vietnamese or Farsi, she said.

If there is a request for a language that doesn't have a certified interpreter, Simmons goes to a list of people conditionally approved for their respective language. Conditionally approved interpreters are typically reserved for nonfelony court cases.

If there is no one in the state qualified for a particular language, Simmons can ask other members of the Virginia-based National Center for State Courts' consortium of court interpreting for help. The state pays to bring interpreters to Arkansas.


Despite its shortcomings, the state's interpreter program has improved the court situation for non-English speakers, said former Circuit Court Judge Tom Keith, who recently retired as Benton County Division 1 judge.

Before a state-run program was initiated, Keith required defense lawyers to provide interpreters. The transition to the state system has improved access to interpreters, he said.

Still, scheduling conflicts that arise from the limited number of interpreters often cause hearings to be postponed, Keith said. The lack of funding for the state system sometimes means interpreters have to move from court to court, which can be a burden on them.

"This interpreter business has been a real pain," he said.

Keith said he would like to see an interpreter system fashioned after the public defenders system, in which users have to pay. There is an initial fee, and if the person is found guilty, he has to pay the legal fees, although the cost is much less than the private sector, he said.

Even with an interpreter, Keith rejected a plea if he thought the suspect didn't understand. He rejected the plea of Edi Saucedo-Camacho for just that reason on Oct. 8.

Saucedo-Camacho was set to plead guilty to rape charges, but Keith rejected the plea because the defendant told the judge he didn't understand all of the charges against him. Saucedo-Camacho remains in jail awaiting a jury trial set for Feb. 10.

"It's really difficult for a judge in that position to know if someone's getting appropriate interpretation. It's not easy to know," Keith said.

While the state program has increased access to interpreters, Keith looked to Spanish-speaking employees of county departments such as the sheriff's office - a common occurrence in the judicial system.

Interpreters are needed so often in Fayetteville District Court that Judge Rudy Moore doesn't use the state program. Instead, he relies on one of his employees to translate.

"We have too much of a demand to try to limp through without somebody on staff," he said.

Depending on the offense, such as traffic tickets, Moore sometimes will allow a person to let a friend translate. He does require a translator for crimes that carry prison terms and can't imagine not having a Spanish speaker on staff.

Moore said that when he's needed an interpreter in a language other than Spanish, he's looked to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville for help.

Benton County Chief Public Defender Jay Saxton said his office also relies heavily on a Spanish-speaking employee, though it also uses court-appointed interpreters.

"We use them just about every time we're in court," Saxton said.

Saxton said that Benton County circuit courts have standing requests for interpreters two days a week. When more are needed, the defense lawyers tell the judge, and he requests them.

While the court provides interpreters for proceedings, lawyers are on their own outside the courtroom. Saxton said he uses his own employee to help when he is not in court.


Relying on untrained people to act as interpreters can and does have significant repercussions, said Isabel Framer, chairman of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.

"The bottom line is, when people resort to untrained individuals it puts the entire justice system in jeopardy," Framer said. "Guilty people can go free, innocent people can be accused, victims' lives can be jeopardized. There could be thousands and thousands of dollars wasted in pursuing an investigation with wrong information. It could render an attorney ineffective and the courts can be reversed - the trial can be reversed. Everybody is affected by this."

Framer, a certified interpreter, has testified as an expert witness and can rattle off instances where an unqualified interpreter led to a reversal or dismissal. Though Arkansas hasn't had any such cases, she said, there may be other unpublished results, such as defendants pleading guilty to lesser charges.

Being bilingual isn't enough, Framer said. People must be able to interpret word for word what is being said, not merely paraphrase dialogue.

"Being an interpreter requires skill that goes beyond bilingualism. To be an interpreter you must posses the level of language skill that is native-like in both languages," she said. "The skills that we speak of are really motor skills developed through many years of training and practice to interpret and retain information, and there is also the specialized terminology."

Even if a certified interpreter is used in court, a verdict can be reversed or evidence suppressed because an unqualified interpreter was used in pretrial stages, Framer said. She said mistakes in interpreting Miranda rights have often resulted in charges being dropped or information gleaned from interrogations being kept out of proceedings.

Issues also can arise when lawyers try to interpret for their own clients, said Virginia Benmaman, retired director of a masters program in bilingual interpreting at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

A California appellate court recently overturned a verdict in which a lawyer was interpreting portions of the trial for his own client, Benmaman said. The problem is that when the lawyer is interpreting, he cannot be an advocate for his client, she said.

Court interpreters have to be capable of simultaneous interpretation, which means being able to interpret while dialogue is occurring, Benmaman said. Though lawyers often think they are capable of interpreting for their client, the California case should help people understand why the decision of qualification should be left to an independent party.

"Bilingual means different things to different people, but unless you're highly fluent in two languages, you can't even understand what it means to be an interpreter," she said.

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