Broken English: MD Court Translators Criticized

by Jill R. Yesko
       Are some court translators taking the words right out of the mouths of clients?
       Yes and then some, according to a scathing a report issued issued in December by the Public Justice Center and CASA of Maryland, two watchdog agencies that work closely with Latino immigrants.
       According to the report, interpreters used in criminal courts have taken justice into their own hands by encouraging defendants to plead guilty to crimes and by bungling translations, resulting in defendants making statements detrimental to their cases.
       The report also cites instances where attorneys have had to “pinch hit” as translators because court interpreters were not readily available. “There are horrible situations where people who are not professional translators are being used [in the courts],” declares Ricardo Flores, an attorney with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore. “Where no one but the interpreter speaks the language, the temptation is for the interpreter to offer legal advice.”
       According to Kimberley Propeack, a staff attorney with CASA, an advocacy organization that has been providing legal and social services to Latin American refugees and immigrants in Montgomery and Prince George’s County for 13 years, and one of the report’s authors, the list of state-certified court interpreters is “woefully inadequate.”
       “Maryland has been very late to realize that it’s an immigrant state,” adds Propeack. “Non-English-speakers are falling through the cracks in all social services.”
       “Baltimore City’s translators are not up to snuff. The list [of translators] is 55 years old,” complains Angelo Solera, a volunteer translator and member of the Latino Coalition for Justice, an advocacy group composed of Baltimore area Latino leaders.
       Who is policing the approximately 400 men and women on the state’s official registry of 436 interpreters for the Maryland State Courts?
       Nobody yet, says Linda Etzold, assistant administrator for the Administrative Office of the Courts in Annapolis, the branch of the state government responsible for maintaining the registry.
       “We really don’t have anyone who enforces them [the state regulations]. We’ve never taken anybody off the list,” she adds.
       According to Deborah Unitus, Assistant State Court Administrator, one of the reasons no one has ever been taken off the court registry is that court clerks are responsible for hiring interpreters. Complaints therefore rarely filter down to Annapolis.
       A 1995 administrative order issued by the state Court of Appeals under then Chief Judge Robert Murphy laid down minimum requirements for court interpreters.
       To become a certified court interpreter, an individual must fill out an application, attend a two-day workshop on the Maryland court system (which includes sections on professional conduct), and pass a language examination.
       “It’s hard to get people to even take the exams,” explains Unitus, adding that to take the exams applicants must have a good grasp of English and be able to translate sophisticated court terms.
       These certification exams are only given in Spanish and Russian. Thus, interpreters speaking all other languages are also included on the state registry without being tested.
       Interpreters who elect not to take the certification exam can also be put on the list as long as they fill out the application form and take the court-mandated workshop.
       “Court clerks are instructed to go through the list and select certified interpreters first,” explains Unitus. If a certified interpreter cannot be found, clerks are supposed to go down the list until an appropriate person is located.
       “Our job is to come up with people who can do the job and that we can monitor,” says Chief Judge Robert Bell of the state Court of Appeals, whose office oversees court interpreters. “[But] we are interested in listening to anyone who has issues in this area.”
       Periodic re-testing of interpreters on the registry might help weed out incompetent translators, admits Unitus. But even that would not be enough to eliminate translators who do not do a good job, says Angelo Solera. He wants Mayor Martin O’Malley to allocate more money to hire interpreters for all City agencies, not just the criminal courts.
       “We are the fastest-growing minority in the State and we want representation,” says Solera.

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This story was published on March 1, 2000.