Technology helps aid non-English-speaking litigants but has limits

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Does anyone around here speak Yapese?

That’s a question Lourdes Daily-Pendón asked recently. As interpreter supervisor for Marion Superior Courts, she’s used to finding people who can help an increasingly diverse array of non-English speakers understand legal proceedings.

But this was a bit more challenging. The Micronesian island of Yap, about 8,000 miles away from Indianapolis, has around 11,000 inhabitants. And Marion Superior Court had one of them as a court litigant, Daily-Pendón said.

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After some Internet research, she was able to find Mormon missionaries who had spent time on the island and knew the language. They were able to connect by phone and provide interpretation.

While that’s an extreme case, remote connections for interpreting services are becoming more common in courts and legal proceedings. Speakers of Arabic, Mandarin, Punjabi and countless other languages and dialects are entitled to understand proceedings and communicate, but there isn’t always a qualified interpreter who can show up in person.

Making the connection

Courts in Indiana have long relied on a service called LanguageLine Solutions to find interpreters for what professionals refer to as languages of lesser diffusion. LanguageLine provides interpreting services by phone for roughly 130 languages, and any judge in the state may access the service through a contract with state court administration.

But some interpreters worry that remote interpreting by phone, video or other emerging technology will play a larger everyday role as the judiciary focuses more on efficiency.

“It’s a bit like the Wild West out there,” Esther Navarro-Hall said of interpreting technologies and their use in court. Navarro-Hall, chairwoman of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in Washington, D.C., said the organization is developing a position paper on video and remote interpreting in court – advances that promise efficiencies but also pose technical and comprehension challenges.

“We need to find the best way to work with these languages where there’s not that many interpreters in the United States,” Navarro-Hall said. “Going forward, I think we need some standards and uniformity to providing services for language access and quality services.”

Enrica J. Ardemagni is a certified Spanish interpreter for Indiana and federal courts and a professor in the world languages department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She also is president of the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care. She said video interpreting has long been common in the medical field.

“I really think it would be hard to do something like a jury trial or a suppression hearing with video interpreting,” Ardemagni said. She’s seen its use in legal settings and said typically a portable device about the size of a laptop is placed before whoever is speaking at a given time so an interpreter can see, hear and interpret for a non-English speaker.

“The problem is, it’s very hard to capture a courtroom on a screen,” she said. Other interpreters said nuance and body language can be hard to discern remotely, and these non-verbal cues often inform the tone they use to interpret.

That said, Ardemagni and other interpreters say they believe demand for efficiencies will result in a greater reliance by courts on companies that seek to provide interpreting and translating services in as many languages as possible. For example, Tucson, Arizona-based Voiance Language Services LLC offers phone and video interpreters who work from call centers and speak more than 200 languages. Voiance counts the U.S. federal courts among its clients.

Certification an issue

Ardemagni and others say they’re concerned that courts often use non-certified interpreters even when certified interpreters are available, and technology could be at least partly to blame.

Claudia Samulowitz is an Indianapolis interpreter who runs The Language Connection, a business that provides a local network of interpreters for courts around the state. Herself a Spanish interpreter in state and federal courts, she worries about the judiciary taking shortcuts through technology and services that may offer the best price but not the best quality.

“State courts are using people with no credentials whatsoever,” she said. “It has become a matter of looking at the bottom line instead of calling people with the credentials they should be calling. … It’s prevalent.”

Indiana courts register certified interpreters, and Samulowitz said she’s aware of interpreters practicing in courts who’ve been unable to pass the written and oral tests required for passage. In some cases, she said it’s because courts over time have become familiar and comfortable with particular interpreters.

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“I will not assign anybody to cover a job if that person is not certified at least at the state level,” Samulowitz said. She also advocates continuing education requirements for interpreters to maintain their certifications.

The investment of time and resources made by interpreters to gain certification and often receive continuing education also means certified interpreters will command a higher hourly rate – usually about $50 an hour plus expenses and a two- to three-hour minimum per assignment, Samulowitz said. Courts with less-expensive options may chose them, she said, even though ineffective interpretation is an issue that can be raised on appeal.

Carlos Carrillo is a Lafayette attorney who also became a certified Spanish interpreter in Indiana courts after he was admitted to practice in 2008. He said gaining the certification was a valuable service and a calling card he could provide for his clients, and he occasionally offers interpreting services in legal settings at a reduced hourly rate.

Carrillo is not overly concerned about technology that he sees in most cases providing interpreting service for languages where speakers otherwise might not be available in person. But he believes certified interpreters should always be used when they’re available in a needed language.

For many people who speak languages of lesser diffusion, the potential number of cases they may receive might not justify the expense and investment of time they must make to become certified, Carrillo said.

Ardemagni said lawyers and judges should question the credentials of interpreters. She said many institutions offer language certifications, so it’s important to ask someone specifically if he or she is certified as a state or federal court interpreter.

Glimpse of the future?

Indianapolis law firm Broyles Kight & Ricafort P.C. provides legal services for the Mexican Consulate in Indianapolis, and partner John Broyles said the firm has used video technology to facilitate communications with Mexican nationals.

The consulate in Indianapolis serves Indiana, all of Kentucky and southern portions of Illinois and Ohio, and Broyles often travels to mobile consulate events around the region. A few weekends back, he was in Lexington, Kentucky, helping hundreds of people renew passports or take care of other paperwork.

Broyles said interpreters who work at the firm stayed home and communicated via video connection.

“I take a laptop with an extra screen,” he said. “It works out really well. It’s almost like the interpreter is sitting right there.”

Broyles expects technology like video interpreting to become more common in legal proceedings, and perhaps even get to the point that language recognition software could make translated transcripts available in real time. He noted Facebook and other social media already have buttons users can click to translate foreign scripts, although the translation is often imprecise.

Ardemagni said interpreters should hone their skills but should also know that they may be talking on the phone or connecting by video more frequently in the future. She recalled a speaker at a conference for interpreters giving this advice: “Technology is never going to take jobs away from interpreters, but interpreters who don’t know how to use technology will not have a job.”•

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