Interpreters showing up more often in NH courtrooms
By Jillian Jorgensen firstname.lastname@example.org
June 5, 2011
People expect to see an attorney beside a defendant in a courtroom. But often in New Hampshire courtrooms, there’s another person at the table — an interpreter.
By the end of fiscal year 2011, the financially strapped state court system expects to spend $450,000 on interpreters to help foreign-language speakers understand civil and criminal court proceedings.
“From our perspective, it’s a matter of access to justice,” said Don Goodnow, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
It’s also a federal directive, Goodnow said. The Department of Justice requires courts to provide interpreters at hearings and trials in all cases, even if a person can afford their own.
Through early May of the 2010-2011 fiscal year, there have been 1,995 interpreter appointments made through Language Bank. In fiscal year 2009-2010, there were 2,105 interpreter appointments.
“The proceeding we try to conduct cannot be effectively conducted unless you are able to communicate effectively with the prosecutor, and the other attorney, and the judge,” Goodnow said.
The state has a contract with Language Bank, which is under the umbrella of Lutheran Social Services. The court system occasionally uses other interpretation services, if there is a conflict or if Language Bank can’t find an interpreter. The state also uses a different company for American Sign Language interpretation, which can be very expensive, Goodnow said.
Spanish is “overwhelmingly” the most requested language, he said.
In the last four years, interpreters in New Hampshire courts have translated complex legal arguments and verdicts into 40 languages, from Hungarian to Dinka, from Haitian Creole to Maay-Maay, from Swahili to American Sign Language.
Contracting through Language Bank provides a level of expertise that was missing before, Goodnow said, when the court clerks kept their own list of local interpreters. There was no one to verify their qualifications, and the costs were shifting from year to year, he said.
So, they put the job out to bid several years ago, Goodnow said, and have worked with Language Bank since 2006.
Amy Marcildon, director of services for New Americans, said Language Bank works to ensure all interpreters are qualified.
“We do have a quality control component to our program,” Marcildon said. “We have someone who goes out unannounced when people are interpreting to observe their interpreting and make sure they’re following protocol.”
Interpreters can add time to trials
To find interpreters — especially for some of the less common languages — the agency works with colleges and cultural associations, program director Alen Omerbegovic said.
“We try to do our best to help,” he said. “But sometimes, we tell the court we can’t find anybody, we cannot do anything.”
Omerbegovic also is a Bosnian interpreter for Language Bank. Interpreting legal proceedings word for word is no different than other types of translating.
“You have to do simultaneous interpreting instead of consecutive interpreting,” Omerbegovic said.
Translating a lawyer’s questions, a witness’ responses, the interjections of other lawyers and judges as it happens can be tricky — and it takes time. Judges and attorneys are very accommodating, Omerbegovic said.
“We do try to remind people, and judges, and say, ‘Hey, can you just give them a sign to slow down?’” Omerbegovic said.
For the interpreters, the stakes are high to get things right. While the person they are assisting is sometimes facing a simple traffic violation, in some cases the defendant’s future is on the line.
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “You kind of like have a feeling, like there’s a whole life in the play in front of you.”
The language barrier is not only a challenge for the interpreter, it also is difficult for defense attorneys representing foreign-language speakers.
“Trial lawyers are trained in a particular way and the use of an interpreter changes the dynamic of trial,” Exeter defense attorney Richard Samdperil said. “There’s a pace to cross-examination that you can’t get to, you can’t achieve, with an interpreter.”
Everything slows down, Samdperil said, even the interesting parts of a court case.
“Facts that are important sort of need to be presented in a certain way,” he said. “Everything comes out flat and one-dimensional. It affects how the case gets tried.”
It also is logistically difficult. A defense attorney cannot lean over to whisper to his client, or even whisper through an interpreter, who is busy translating whatever else is happening. Scrawled notes obviously don’t work any better, Samdperil added.
The state does not provide interpreters for meetings outside of court hearings. So, if Samdperil wants to talk strategy with a client, he has to hire a different interpreter. That is paid for by the client, unless he or she has a court-appointed attorney.
The entire hearing or trial takes longer with an interpreter, Samdperil said, in a court system already plagued with delays.
“Particularly in New Hampshire these days, time is a precious commodity in terms of getting hours in front of the judge,” he said.
Scheduling can be a challenge
Donald Blaszka, a Derry defense attorney and former assistant county attorney, said finding a time when an interpreter, judge and both lawyers will all be available can be tough.
“It’s very important that the court system needs to accommodate these people, and they do a great job of that,” he said. “I think the more difficult part is becoming scheduling.”
Blaszka said interpreters have a “very thankless and difficult job” of truly interpreting, not summing things up.
Sometimes, family members will say they can interpret a meeting between Blaszka and a client outside court. But in one case with a Spanish speaker, Blaszka, who studied the language in high school and college, noticed the family member wasn’t being exact enough.
“The family member was clearly summing it up, and I told the family member I was going to end the meeting,” Blaszka said. “The family member was summing up instead of doing it word for word or phrase to phrase.”
Blaszka said he has been impressed with the patience of everyone in the court system when it comes to dealing with foreign language speakers. He said he has been seeing more and more people speaking many different languages, and expects the trend to continue.
“They speak Korean, Mandarin and other languages from all over the globe,” Blaszka said, “not just what people think of Spanish or some of the quote-unquote traditional languages.”
Goodnow, with the court system, said with more Spanish speakers and other shifting demographics in New Hampshire, people are likely to continue seeing interpreters in the courtroom.
“If you look at the census figures,” he said, “I think you’ll see we are an increasingly diverse community.”