Enabling Justice

by Sonali Rana, Policy Intern

Immigrant survivors of violence limited in English fluency and deaf community members require interpreters to access justice in the courts. To further Sakhi’s goal in improving survivors’ access to justice by enhancing language access in the courts both in New York State and nationwide, Purvi Shah, Executive Director, along with policy interns, Sonali Rana and Meena Jagannath, conducted two focus groups with New York State court interpreters in August to better understand challenges court interpreters encounter and to help the courts develop best practices. Two separate sessions were held, one with foreign-language interpreters and the other with sign language interpreters. Key themes emerging in these sessions included court interpreter isolation from the rest of the court system, issues of vicarious trauma, how attorneys and judges can better understand the field of court interpretation, and how interpreters play a vital role in the lives of Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals.

Despite numerous challenges court interpreters face, interpreters who participated in Sakhi’s focus groups clearly found fulfillment in their work, especially noting how they play a vital role in the lives of LEP individuals. One interpreter notes, “The reason I love it is because we have a wonderful privilege that you are bridge between people. It is a very beautiful thing to be. Not everyone can do it.” A sign language interpreter points to the necessity of this role in enabling justice, observing, “Well, without interpreters, deaf people can’t even recognize their own name when the calendar is being called so just even initially as soon as they walk into the door, they can’t speak to anyone – an officer, any personnel in the courthouse – without us there. So we are very essential to them accessing the justice system.”

Along with these professional joys, court interpreters confront daily challenges including isolation. Although interpreters are a vital part of the court proceedings in providing language access, it was in agreement that the interpreter status is diminished. As one interpreter aptly states, “Nobody appreciates interpreters. [We] are like outsiders, [we] are orphans and second-class citizens in a legal system – we are not a part of it. We feel like they want to ignore us – that we are not really there.” Another factor that aggravated this problem was interpreters rarely knew other interpreters who worked within the same language community within the courts.

One interpreter shared that she is the only sign language interpreter for the civil courts citywide, which she indicated consists of 5 boroughs and 8 courthouses. Although she mentioned that the courts try to schedule her in a reasonable fashion, sometimes she feels overwhelmed. Another point brought up by the sign language focus group was a sense that foreign-language interpreters have a better support system in place. Specifically mentioned was that Spanish language interpreters can have someone take their place if they are unavailable to interpret on a particular day. As one sign language interpreter noted, “If we are out, then nothing gets done. They are not going to call a [freelance sign language interpreter]. They will just adjourn the case.”

Both groups of interpreters agreed that lack of support from the court system made their jobs more difficult. A concrete example of how some courts increase the court interpreter’s difficulty in executing one’s job is the logistical placement of the interpreter within the courtroom. This is a common problem encountered when interpreting for a LEP individual. For foreign-language interpreters, standing behind the LEP individual is not conducive to hearing the LEP individual speak. Also the interpreters declared it was difficult to hear the person when the parties spoke too softly, too quickly, or with more than one person at a time. Sign language interpreters said sometimes the courts want to place them next to the deaf party rather than placing them in front of the person – which would mean the interpreter could not read the LEP individual’s sign language or lips when interpreting. Allowing interpreters a couple of breaks and ideally having multiple interpreters on a case were additional areas interpreters felt courts could facilitate improvement.

Moreover, interpreters professed that the courts, rarely, if ever, asked them to hone in on their expertise and discuss what can be done to improve the system. A 25-year veteran of this field reflected, “I have never been asked how we can make this better from OCA (Office of Court Administration). I get [these questions] from attorneys and social workers, but never from the court system itself.” Although the groups experienced different feelings of isolation, their overall sentiments were the same – a feeling of being outside the circle.

One solution raised by interpreters themselves was to have meetings among interpreters to enable talking about their experiences and brainstorming.

Such gatherings could help interpreters to address vicarious trauma. One interpreter, who interpreted for a case of sexual abuse, describes, “The other day I interpreted a forensic examination for a young man from the Dominican Republic who was sexually and physically abused. It was a horrific story. And it took a lot out of me, both physically and emotionally because I am only human. So if he is standing there and he’s talking about an abuse experience, I have to vocalize that, so there is some transference there and I don’t have any outlet and the court doesn’t provide that for me because they don’t understand. And after interpreting that for an hour, I had to walk around, I had to go out, I had no one really to talk to. I called a former supervisor of mine and I was able to discuss this with her and felt better afterwards.” Many of the interpreters agreed the court and court personnel rarely understood the pressure of interpreting in the first person and the affects on the court interpretation profession – pointing to a need to develop responses to address this issue on both an individual and systematic level.

A concern unique to sign language interpreting was the shackling of defendants hindering the defendant from communicating with the interpreter or the court. While acknowledging security needs, an interpreter expressed the importance of defendants being un-handcuffed, saying, “There are times I have a deaf litigant that comes out before the bench, handcuffed. And the officers in the courtroom refuse to remove the handcuffs. That is just like putting tape on someone’s mouth. I can’t do my job as an interpreter.”

During the focus groups, court interpreters shared tips for judges and attorneys when working with them. There was a consensus that judges and attorneys required training on how to properly utilize court interpreters as well as education on the role of court interpreters. Both focus groups felt attorneys should be better prepared when working with a LEP individual and that they must prepare their clients prior to entering the courts. They believed many attorneys failed to validate their client by speaking directly to the court interpreter rather than speaking directly to their client when the court interpreter should be acting as a communicator between the attorney and client. An interpreter portrayed the ideal situation as “when they forget I’m even there and I’m doing my job. And they are having a client-attorney relationship and it is not client-attorney-interpreter [relationship].”

Another issue was attorneys who were unaware of the importance of finding a quiet place with little to no distractions so that the sign language interpreter can properly interpret for a deaf litigant since sign language is a visual language. In addition, the interpreters discussed how in certain cases, the attorneys requested an interpreter not interpret questions when the attorneys were soliciting feedback from the interpreter on what they thought about the case or even if their clients were faking a disability.

Similar to sign language interpreters, foreign-language interpreters believed attorneys and judges need to be educated about cultural differences of the litigant and how that may impact how the LEP individual may answer certain questions. This was fittingly described by one interpreter who states, “A judge once told me ‘She knows more English than she lets on’ and he was right. But she doesn’t know how to speak to a judge because in [her] language, there is a different way in speaking formally. She thinks there is in English too, but there isn’t. She doesn’t know that she can speak to the judge.” Moreover, foreign-language interpreters felt that judges and attorneys needed to realize when interpreting certain languages, word-for-word translations are not possible due to different grammar, words not existing in some languages that exist in English, and even sentence structure. In certain languages, there are a variety of ways of describing the same sentence which still portray the same meaning to the LEP individual or the courts. Furthermore, there are situations where if the sentence was translated verbatim, the meaning could be opposite of what was intended. For example, a Korean interpreter elucidates, “If you ask a Korean the question, ‘You didn’t hit the car, did you?’, he/she will respond ‘yes’ when he/she did not hit the car. So if you interpret the question [verbatim] it will be wrongly translated as that person did hit the car.”

Other advice interpreters had for attorneys and judges included making eye contact with their client, treating clients with respect, speaking slowly, and making their points short and simple. Furthermore, interpreters discussed how an attorney should ask the client to repeat back the information given by the attorney and interpreter, ensuring the client understands the information. A major concern of both focus group attendees included the issue of attorneys and judges using friends or family members, especially children, as interpreters. Both groups felt this was an egregious mistake.

Sakhi continues to work with court interpreters to improve the field for the sake of justice. Overall, these were only a few challenges which came to light during Sakhi’s focus groups. Other barriers the groups discussed included the need for better pay, more accessible continuing education classes, with classes for sensitive issues such as domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault, and the lack of qualified interpreters in the field. The importance of confronting these subjects in the court interpretation field was best described when a court interpreter indicated, “Thank you for having us. No one thought of us before. We have been ignored.”