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MI: Demand for courtroom interpreters rising in BG: Majority of defendants needing service speak Spanish as their first language

Monday, October 05, 2009

The case itself was not one of gripping headlines - a Bowling Green woman sentenced to probation after accepting a plea agreement that amended a felony count of first-degree wanton endangerment to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct.

How the case played out in court Sept. 21 before Warren Circuit Judge Steve Wilson, however, did stand out.

The defendant, Angelina Kanyonga, was a newly settled resident originally from Burundi, and her first language is Swahili.

Rather than standing behind a podium in the middle of the courtroom to enter her plea and await her sentence, Kanyonga and her attorney, Dennie Hardin, made their way directly toward Wilson’s bench so that Kanyonga could more easily understand the proceedings.

Accompanying Kanyonga and Hardin was William Mkanta, a public health professor from Western Kentucky University fluent in English and Swahili who served as Kanyonga’s interpreter.

Kanyonga ended up a criminal defendant after being accused of swinging a knife at someone during an argument, and Hardin came to represent her after hearing about her case from Susan Mkanta, William’s husband who is employed at the Bowling Green International Center and who attends church with Hardin.

Her case is one of several that have required courtroom interpreters this year.

“It’s kind of hard to put a percentage on it, but the number (of cases requiring interpreters) has been growing,” Hardin said. “I tried a case recently in (Warren Circuit Judge John) Grise’s court with a Russian defendant. He spoke pretty good English but he had some difficulty with some of our more complex legal terms.”

The majority of defendants requiring the services of an interpreter speak Spanish as their first language, according to officials in the local court system.

In fact, the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts has 10 full-time staff interpreters for Spanish-speaking defendants, and one of them is based in Bowling Green.

Ervin Dimeny, manager of court interpreting services for the state AOC, said the role of the court interpreter is to act as a bridge between the person needing the service and the judge in a given court.

The AOC, which also employs a full-time American Sign Language interpreter for deaf and hard of hearing clients, fields anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 requests for interpreter services in a year, Dimeny said, and last year the state office fielded requests for interpreters for 35 languages.

“Our 11 interpreters cover more than half of that, and the rest go out to per-diem freelance interpreters,” Dimeny said.

The AOC is a member of the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts, which helps provide people with limited English proficiency access to interpreters in an effort to promote equal access to justice in courts.

The consortium provides the certification tests in written and oral proficiency taken by applicants for interpreters.

Many of the requests made to AOC for interpreters in languages other than Spanish are referred to one of a number of services the state agency contracts with, such as Language Line, for those services, Dimeny said.

Language Line and other contracted services are able to search from a nationwide database of interpreters of dozens of languages and dialects from around the world.

Applicants for becoming an interpreter must among other requirements attend a court orientation workshop that covers the state judicial system and the justice process, courtroom ethics and the code of conduct to which interpreters must adhere.

“It’s very important to know that he’s not an advocate and does not play the role of an attorney,” Dimeny said. “The certified interpreter must completely and accurately interpret or translate what is stated or written in a court proceeding and remains neutral and not engaged emotionally in the process.”

As part of the code of conduct, a court interpreter is required to completely and accurately translate what is stated or written as part of a court proceeding, and is never allowed to summarize part of anything written or stated or provide legal advice.

A Certified Interpreter is the highest level an AOC interpreter can achieve, and requires passing a written and oral exam testing one’s proficiency at English and another language.

“You can be bilingual and very proficient in two languages, but interpreting is an entirely different skill set,” Dimeny said. “It involves a set of skills where they are trained to listen, observe, take in information in one language and immediately release that in a different language proficiently and accurately.”

Connie Devries, court administrator at the Warren County Justice Center, said that a request for an interpreter in a civil, criminal, traffic or other court proceeding can be made by the presiding judge, circuit clerk, herself or other court personnel.

Prior to the AOC Spanish-language interpreter placed last year in Warren County, the local court system handled hundreds of requests each year for a Spanish-speaking interpreter.

Devries said that additionally, in the past year, the court has received about 90 requests for interpreters fluent in Bosnian, 11 for Burmese, eight for American Sign Language, four for Arabic and one for Turkish.

While the state-employed Spanish interpreter assumes Warren County’s caseload in that language, the justice center has options beyond the AOC when it comes to finding interpreters for other languages.

“Locally, we have the International Center, and they’re wonderful to work with,” Devries said. “Most of the languages we need here in court, we are able to procure through contacting the International Center, who are able to locate interpreters for Bosnian, Swahili, Cambodian and other languages.”

James Robinson, executive director of the International Center, said that his agency contracts with interpreters in those languages as well as Russian and other dialects, and the program is coordinated by Jennifer Van Buskirk.

“We have a pretty good size pool of interpreters on call,” Robinson said, noting that the program has built up a regional base of interpreters. “We’ve advertised our services and have probably at least doubled that particular part of our agency. We go sometimes to Louisville, Paducah or Owensboro (to find interpreters) but mostly we send people from out of Bowling Green.”

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