A woman with limited English proficiency walks into a court hearing. After months of fighting through the system, she has arrived at this crucial point to obtain an Order of Protection against her abusive spouse.
Before the trial, she meets her court-appointed interpreter who has been charged with relaying this woman’s story in English to the courts. As she begins telling the interpreter her story, he scolds her for wasting his time. Shaken, she begins her story again only to be rebuked harshly once more. “You have a bad habit of talking too much,” he scolds her.
This is just one of the many situations Sakhi Domestic Violence Program Advocate Kajori Chaudhuri recalls from her work supporting survivors of violence. Sakhi recognizes the need for quality court interpretation and has documented numerous cases of faulty interpretation over ten years through the Court Interpreters Project (CIP). On May 18, Kajori presented on this work at the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) 29th annual conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The conference spanned the weekend, with preconference educational programs beginning early Friday morning and presentations held throughout the weekend. The keynote address was given by the Honorable Ida Chen, judge of the Court of the Common Pleas of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“It’s about so much more than just knowing how to speak two languages,” Kajori said. “There must be a level of professionalism.” She explained that the task is more difficult than it might seem and that blame for faulty interpretation does not always lie with the interpreter alone. This is why Sakhi pushes for courts to use only tested and trained court interpreters. Ongoing training is essential, noted Kajori, and evidenced by the input of court interpreters themselves, as our recent national survey demonstrates.
Sakhi has been part of the movement for quality court interpretation for over ten years. The Court Interpreters Project was created because survivors, and Sakhi staff and volunteers who accompanied them to court, observed bias and inadequate skills among some court interpreters.
As part of our work, Sakhi co-chairs Justice Speaks: Initiative on Ensuring Language Access in the Justice System, an effort aimed at improving access to justice for all in the United States.
A 2007 survey conducted by Justice Speaks shows that of 171 court users in New York City, 26% did not feel comfortable understanding and speaking English, and 93% of these respondents did not bring someone to interpret for them, with 40% unaware that courts could provide interpreters.
Kajori presented highlights of data from the most recent Justice Speaks survey of 157 interpreters, conducted from May 2007 to April 2008. These data revealed some optimistic findings: 79% of interpreters felt Courts enable efficient scheduling and 94% said they had rarely been in a situation where it was difficult to be objective while interpreting.
However, the data also show areas of concern, such as discrepancies between training for Spanish language interpreters and non-Spanish interpreters. For example, Spanish interpreters reported being trained in legal procedures and terminology at a higher rate than non-Spanish interpreters. Data also indicate the clear need for training for attorneys and judges on utilizing interpreters as well as continuing education for interpreters themselves.
Kajori explained that there is still room for further analysis. “It’s a very difficult job,” she said. “Sometimes the role of the interpreter is not always clear.”