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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 21, 2003

Hawai'i's courts dealing with interpreter woes

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

The witnesses for the prosecution, a woman and her child, spoke Korean, so a court-appointed interpreter translated their testimony for the jury in a recent domestic-abuse trial in Family Court.

The jury returned a guilty verdict against the husband last month. Now the defendant's lawyer says they plan to appeal because the husband says he heard the testimony one way in Korean, while the interpreter translated another way in English.

"At the trial, the interpreter didn't properly translate one or both of the alleged victims' testimonies," defense attorney Mark Kawata said. "This was a first-time interpreter."

Justice for some in Hawai'i may be getting lost in the translation, court observers say, because of a shortage of interpreters in certain languages, and the risk of mistakes by interpreters who receive little training, are not tested to make sure they have sufficient skills and suffer high turnover because of low pay.

Languages of law

The state court system filled 2,193 requests for courtroom interpreters in 30 languages in the 2001-02 fiscal year. Here are the most-requested languages:

  • Filipino (all dialects) 589
  • Korean 292
  • Vietnamese 224
  • Spanish 197
  • Japanese 156
  • Chinese (all dialects) 128
  • Tongan 128
  • Samoan 126
  • Lao/Thai 96
  • Chuukese 92

Source: State Judiciary

State courts received and filled 2,193 requests for interpreters during the 2001-02 fiscal year to assist speakers of 30 languages. An estimated 26.6 percent of Hawai'i's population speaks a language other than English at home.

Court professionals agree that, while there are shortages of court interpreters for some Pacific languages — especially the varied tongues in the Micronesian islands — the main problem lies in assurance of quality.

It's not that there are no good interpreters in Hawai'i, said Tuan Jensen-Lech; it's that most of them find better-paying private translation jobs, and that there's no way of certifying the court interpreters as competent.

"My only concern is to improve the quality of interpreting," said Jensen-Lech, whose credentials include teaching at the Defense Language Institute in California. "We can do so by providing training. The lack of ability is not all their fault. Nobody has pointed out to (interpreters) that you can improve here or there. Anything goes."

Diverse requests

The Hawai'i judiciary has 228 interpreters registered and on call for court service. In 2001-02 about one in four requests, 589, were for people to translate various Philippine dialects, followed by Korean (292) and Vietnamese (224).

But illustrating the diversity of need, the judiciary also receives requests for interpreters of such languages as Kosraean, Turkish, Singhalese and even one for Hawaiian.

"We have to have continuance after continuance in those cases because we can't find an interpreter," said Linda Jameson, an attorney with the state Office of the Public Defender.

And even if there are enough translators, providing skill tests in all the important languages would overwhelm the state judiciary budget, Circuit Court Judge Sabrina McKenna said.

"We have such a linguistic diversity in a small population, which creates the need for a large pool of prospective interpreters," said McKenna, a Japan-born, bilingual person who serves as chairwoman of the Hawai'i Supreme Court Committee on Certification of Court Interpreters.

Miscommunication problems

On a recent day in Honolulu District Court, four interpreters, assigned to nine defendants speaking three languages, were translating a judge's instructions in a trespassing case.

Each of the accused was being offered a deferred-acceptance plea of guilt or no contest — an arrangement that erases the charge from a person's record if they stay out of trouble.

The judge explained. The interpreters translated. Puzzlement on one face persisted, and the interpreter launched into another explanation in Mandarin for the defendant. Then the interpreter turned to the judge.

"I'm sorry, your honor," he said, "but he doesn't have much education, so he doesn't understand."

Sue Zeng, another Mandarin interpreter on the case, later said that interpreter was using "strange terminology," so it was no wonder the defendant was bewildered.

"I don't think he understood, even after that," said Zeng, who also teaches interpreter training courses at the University of Hawai'i Center for Interpretation and Translation Studies. "In the end, he just chose (the deferred plea) because he saw that's what the other people did."

Changes in the works

The state Judiciary in May began to train and test interpreters before putting them on the rolls, although for now the class and exam checks only their understanding of the interpreter code of ethics. Additionally, more court forms are being translated into various languages, and workshops on conducting interpreted proceedings are being planned for judges.

And a Supreme Court panel is putting finishing touches on a plan to change the pay scale for interpreters, the most sizable raise going to those who have been certified as skilled translators.

Still, most state court interpreters earn only $40 per half-day.

"If people can't make enough money to make it worth their while, who in their right mind would develop the skills?" said Bill Hewitt of the National Center for State Courts.

The Interpreter Action Network, a group of about 60 translators, has criticized the planned raises, saying it would increase pay by only $10 per session, to $50.

In contrast, certified interpreters can earn up to $178 per half-day in federal court, said Alohalani Boido, the interpreter group's spokeswoman.

Difficult and demanding

Interpreters, as well as other judicial professionals who work with them, agree that the work is exacting and demanding, especially when testimony and instructions must be translated simultaneously as it is spoken.

Even under the best of circumstances, Korean interpreter Chung Potts said, there are nuances in language — such as the strong tone of the Korean language, which can convey a harsher message than is intended.

Potts, who began court interpreting in 1992, recently retired from her office manager job and now has more time to work at the courts. Her primary motivation, she said, is not the pay but the urge to help native Korean speakers to navigate the judicial system.

"I do get a satisfaction helping Koreans to communicate better," she said. "If they can't, then they get in trouble unjustly. ... I've seen quite a few cases where they're arrested because of poor communication that possibly is seen as poor attitude."

McKenna acknowledged that skilled interpreters provide a service more valuable than the level of pay the state is able to afford. Lawmakers this year increased the budget for interpreter services, by only half as much as the judiciary had hoped, she said. Court administrators, now equipped with an annual budget of $268,000 for interpreters, hope to boost that to $360,000, she said.

"We really appreciate their willingness to provide services to our non-English-speaking population at less than what they may be able to command from the private sector, in a spirit of public service," she said.

"We're all children of immigrants. We want to make sure that people are treated fairly in the courts."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.