Shortage of foreign language interpreters nags Nebraska courts

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January 16, 2012 - 6:00pm

"This is what America is about."

Raul Escobar says that sums up his strong belief in the service he provides in courtrooms around Nebraska. For over ten years Escobar has been one of a small but slowly growing number of people who serve as interpreters during trials and hearings when a witness or defendant does not have sufficient English language skills.

When Escobar took time to between trials to talk about his job, it was on what seemed to be an exceptionally busy day. In fact, he explained nearly every day was this busy. That demand, he said, underscored the necessity of his work.

Bill Kelly, NET News

Supreme Court Justice John Gerrard advocated providing interpreters for anyone who needed them in Nebraska court cases. State law requiring translators passed in 2000.

Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

The number of Nebraska court cases in 2010 in need of an interpreter, by language

Bill Kelly, NET News

Victoria Welles prepares to take the oath of office for courtroom interpreters from Lancaster County Judge John Foster. In 2011 Welles became the first certified Russian language interpreter in Nebraska.

"I don't think there is any reason we are obligated to do this other than morally. We provide these services for folks who are doing things that we don't approve of but we still want them to be fairly represented, to have a fair trial, to have an understanding of what they are being accused of an the penalties that come along with that."

Escobar is one of 72 language interpreters who are either certified or licensed with the state of Nebraska. Late last year two additional Spanish speakers passed the certification exam required by state law to work as a court translator. They will be, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts, useful additions, but court officials claim a critical shortage of people who assist defendants and witnesses is slowing trials where translators are needed.

It is nearly impossible to keep up with the demand for interpreters, according to outgoing Nebraska Supreme Court Justice John Gerrard. "I was surprised by the breadth and the depth of the need and it has just grown exponentially from 2000 until now," said Gerrard.

In 2010, nearly 11,000 requests were made in Nebraska court rooms for the presence of an interpreter. Numbers for last year were expected to be slightly higher.

Arabic is the second most requested language nearly 500 cases in Nebraska a year but the state has only one registered Arabic interpreter and he has been out of the country for 12 months. Some communities like North Platte have only one tested Spanish speaker in the area to handle dozens of cases. Without an interpreter, trials can be delayed, according to Judges dealing with the shortage.

"I've always had an interest in seeing that every party has a level playing field when they come into court," said Justice Gerrard. "The first basis of a level playing field is understanding the language."

Justice Gerrard sat on a committee in the mid 1990's that studied the need for interpreters. The group discovered many who spoke little or no English frequently had no understanding of what was going on when they were required to appear in court.

"A 15 year old nephew would be brought in to court to quote/unquote interpret for somebody in a criminal or civil proceeding. Or a missionary who just got back from Guatemala was called in," Justice Gerrard recalled.

"Quite frankly it was unfair to them and the interpretation was very poor at that time."

In 2000, Nebraska changed its law. Today it is one of the few states that requires interpreters be on hand not only for criminal cases but any court case, including divorces, civil cases, and child protection hearings. The service is part of the court system's budget, costing 1.2 million dollars annually.

Late last year, Raul Escobar was brought in to interpret in the case of a young man from Mexico who pled guilty to hitting his wife and child. A Lancaster County District judge was ready to hand down his sentence. Seated at the defense table prior to the sentencing, Escobar whispered as he interpreted the English spoken by the attorney to the client and then, just as quickly, provided the lawyer with a translation of the young man's answers.

(At the request of the judge and the defendant, NET News agreed to not report certain details of the translation and the case while we observed and recorded the interpreter providing his sometimes confidential services to the court.)

The protocol interpreters must follow is detailed by the State. All three men rose as the Judge entered the room. Escobar remained at the elbow of the man now convicted of assault, quickly turning into Spanish the judge's detailed and legally technical explanation of what would happen at the sentencing.

"I try to take a position in the courtroom where with my left ear can hear the judge explaining rights and with my right ear, I can hear myself rendering those rights into the source language," Escobar explained earlier.

The oath Escobar took requires his translation be as close to perfect as possible. In Spanish he relayed, word for word, to the defendant what was said by the judge. When the young man has his chance to address the court, Escobar repeated it in English for the judge.

"It would be bittersweet because I would be leaving children here," the man explained to the judge, through Escobar. The defendant's request for leniency stuck in his throat, and after a long silence as he quietly sobbed. Escobar did not need to translate the emotion of the moment as the proceedings continued.

"Well, it's interesting because you never know what's coming out of people's mouths when they open them," Escobar explained. "There have been some strange utterances that I have had to interpret."

The interpreters are not there to serve as an advocate or to take sides with a witness or a defendant. That is part of the profession's code of ethics.

"I am in service to the court, because they need to understand what this defendant is saying, the evidence they are presenting. But it goes both ways, not only for the courts but for that participant They need to understand the proceedings."

There are three skill levels for interpreters used in Nebraska courtrooms. Certified interpreters have the most rigorous training and testing, followed by registered interpreters.

"Our registered interpreters are trained and they are very good but they are not of the quality that a certified interpreter is so there is some difference in terms of quality and the timeliness when there is a shortage," said Justice Gerrard.

Without an adequately trained interpreter a court record may not be as accurate as a judge and participating attorneys prefer. The last resort are interpreters who are neither certified or licensed. Currently there are no certified or licensed interpreters for the third most requested language in Nebraska courtrooms. Last year there were more than 400 requests for Nuer, one of the two languages spoken by newly settled refugees from Sudan.

The state actively recruits interpreters, but it's not easy getting quality translators. Part of the problem is the difficulty of the job and the very challenging testing needed to become fully certified.

Last fall Victoria Welles became Nebraska's first certified interpreter of Russian. "I'll be honest with you I didn't pass it the first time and it was a big challenge and a stab in my pride," Welles said with a chuckle. The exam was much more difficult than she expected.

"It took me a lot of practice, a lot of training, a lot of self-discipline to practice every day and that was probably the hardest."

She had been called upon to translate even before getting her certification and the more she provided the service the more she found the work to be rewarding. It can also be emotionally demanding when faced with someone from her native Russia who gets tangled up with the law.

"It's a lot of challenges and a lot of problems for a human to overcome," she says of the defendants who need her help. "So if there is somebody standing next to them saying I will be your interpreter at least one of those challenges is hopefully going away. They know they will not have to butcher their English and they can speak in their native language and it will be interpreted."

This past year in Nebraska there were requests for interpreters in 70 different languages, including French, Korean, Farsi, Portuguese and services for the deaf.

Back at the Lancaster County Courthouse, Raul Escobar was looking over the court calendar on his iPad. In addition to being an interpreter, he helps schedule translation services for others needed every day. "Another criminal case in Arabic. A divorce action in Spanish, another juvenile hearing was in Nuer, one of the Sudanese languages. It runs the gamut."

The visitor asked if it was like this every day.

Every day," Escobar said with a tired smile. Every day.



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