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After years of pressure from immigration and domestic violence groups, the New York State Unified Court System announced a groundbreaking plan last week to improve court interpretation services for non-English speaking litigants. The new project, widely hailed by the legal community, activists and interpreters, will improve recruitment, training and assessment of interpreters, and raise their pay.

“Equal access to justice demands effective communication between our courts and the people they serve,” said Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman, at an April 5 forum held by the Task Force on Women in the Courts of the NYC Bar Association and Sakhi for South Asian Women, a local nonprofit. Two million New York state residents speak no English, according to 2000 census data, and the court system provides interpreting services for over 100 languages, from Albanian to Yoruba, said Judge Lippman.

Under the new plan, starting May 1, the pay rate for full-time per diem interpreters will increase to $250 a day from $125, the first such raise since 1994, said Judge Lippman. Offering half-day engagements for per diem interpreters will also expand the pool of available staff.

Currently, the New York State courts employ over 300 full and part-time court interpreters in over 30 languages, and have developed a network of over 1,300 private interpreters to provide services in over 100 languages on as-needed basis. Over 200 of the court-employed interpreters specialize in Spanish.

Yet the quality of interpretation has long been criticized by activists. For one thing, they say, the court offers a competitive two-part examination, which produces a ranked list of candidates, only for Spanish language interpreters, and non-competitive tests without rating interpreters for 11 other prominent languages: Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, Haitian Creole, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Vietnamese. Interpreters in twenty other languages take only multiple-choice English proficiency test without any oral components. The new plan will develop oral tests for three other languages this year, and add five more during 2007.

When Saveen Kaushal answered an advertisement in a daily paper to become a part-time court interpreter through a private agency in 1996, she was not required to pass any language proficiency exams. “I did not know how to say the numbers,” said Kaushal, who is fluent in Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu, and a former interpreter for housing, immigration and family court cases. “I just said the numbers in English, and nobody said anything.” Kaushal was also unfamiliar with legal jargon, she said, which made it difficult to explain the terminology to litigants.

Another problem, she has come to realize, stemmed from the interpreter-client relationship. Often litigants, enticed by their shared background, would ask her for legal advice, Kaushal said. “They [clients] were so happy to see me there,” she said.” And I did not know I was not supposed to give my opinion.”

Under the new plan, court employed interpreters will complete a training program in ethics and professionalism, and a similar one-day course will be offered to per diem interpreters.

Critics of the plan worry that such programs are not extensive enough. “The interpreters are just given a manual without any test to prove that they understand the material,” said Purvi Shah, executive director of Sakhi, where Kaushal is also now employed. “And one day for per diem interpreters is not enough for them to grasp the complexities of their duties.”

“There is a lack of professional boundaries in court interpretation,” said Fatma Zahra, a domestic violence advocate with Sakhi. “It is a combination of negligence and cultural background.”

Accompanying a Bangladeshi woman to her divorce hearing, Fatma Zahra, who is fluent in Bengali, heard the court-appointed interpreter giving legal advice to her client and even making comments about the woman’s decision to split from her spouse. Meanwhile, her husband, who was deaf and illiterate, was assigned only a standard sign language interpreter unable to communicate with him.

“We had cases of bilingual attorneys and volunteers in courts finding out that the interpreters do not translate accurately,” said Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at Sanctuaries for Families, a local nonprofit.

Despite the rise in pay for per-diem interpreters, they will still earn less than the federal rate, which is $355. And the new plan doesn’t address fundamental flaws in their work environment. “The last time I was in a state court, the noise level was so high that you could not hear what a person two feet away was saying,” said Nancy Festinger, chief interpreter at the U.S. District Court for Southern District of New York. “How can an interpreter be expected to translate accurately?”

Still, most advocates at the forum praised the plan, which will offer new training materials, especially for first-time interpreters, to help prepare them for court. It will also expand an online system that eases scheduling for interpreters and improves access to remote interpreting via video conference or telephone, often used for less prevalent languages.

“It is great to see that the Court is thinking about the needs of non-English speakers,” said Shah. “These changes are long overdue.”

—Kamelia Angelova

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