Thanks to Rebecca Beitsch at PewTrusts.org http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2016/08/17/in-many-courtrooms-bad-interpreters-can-mean-justice-denied
In Many Courtrooms, Bad Interpreters Can Mean Justice Denied
Patricia Michelsen-King was observing the proceedings in a Chesterfield, Virginia, courtroom a few years ago when a man shouted in Spanish from the back of the courtroom, “I didn’t rape anybody!”
Michelsen-King, who teaches Spanish interpretation at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the outburst was the result of bad translation from his court interpreter. Though the man was accused of running a red light, his interpreter told him he was accused of a “violación,” which in Spanish does not mean “violation,” but “rape.”
The interpreter should have used the word “infracción,” said Michelsen-King, who was in the courtroom because she was about to begin working there as an interpreter, too. When she approached the distressed man, he was sitting with his interpreter, admitting to the traffic offense but firmly denying what he thought was a rape charge.
Such misunderstandings are surprisingly common in state and local courts. Because many states and localities don’t use tested court interpreters and ignore federal rules for when interpreters are required, many criminal defendants and civil litigants with limited English skills are not equipped to navigate the complex legal system, jeopardizing their constitutional rights.
“There is ample experience and anecdotal evidence to substantiate that many [people with limited English proficiency] regularly come before the courts and are unable, without language access services, to protect or enforce their legal rights, with devastating consequences to life, liberty, family, and property interests,” the American Bar Association (ABA) said in a resolution four years ago urging courts at all levels to adopt standards for interpreter services and calling for adequate funding.
The lack of skilled interpreters is less of a problem in federal courts, where interpreters must pass a competitive test. Most states certify court interpreters, requiring that they pass a test to demonstrate their language skills. But many state certification tests aren’t as rigorous as the federal one, and many state and local courts allow uncertified interpreters to serve even if they haven’t passed the test. Many states also ignore the federal mandate that they provide free interpreters in both criminal and civil courts.
In some states, the U.S. Justice Department has stepped in. Since 2010, the department has investigated courts in Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky, New Jersey, North Carolina and Rhode Island for failing to comply with federal rules.
Because there are so many U.S. residents — roughly 25.6 million — who have limited proficiency in English, the credibility of the nation’s justice system relies on competent interpreters, Michelsen-King said.
“People think the interpreter is just there for the person who doesn’t speak English,” she said. “Maybe it’s the defendant, maybe it’s a witness. But people forget the interpreter is there for the benefit of everyone. So the lawyers can do their job. So judges and juries can make good decisions.”