Opening Statements

Translation Station

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Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in Kissimmee has a language problem: Too few translators to spread over too many locations.

But the circuit has been testing a novel solution: telephone technology that allows interpreters to work remotely to translate in real time. The circuit’s court locations are the first in the nation to test the technology, which seeks to curb delays and costs with a more centralized use of oft-needed translation services for more than 1.3 million people in central Florida.

“Courtroom interpreting is a very specialized skill set, and the demand for interpreters’ services far outstrips the supply of people qualified to do it,” says Steve Metzger, business development VP for Biamp Systems of Beaverton, Ore., which supplies the technology. “Courts have to schedule around the need for interpreters. There’s additional cost, and it really slows down the process to bring someone in to perform this service.”

Here’s how it works: Court translators report to a single location. Once they’re needed, they translate by special telephone and use the phone’s keypad to direct their translation to the proper parties. For example, if a defendant needs translation, the translator presses, say, the “1” key to send a translation to the defendant only, who hears it through an earpiece. Pressing a different key sends the translation to the entire court; yet another number mutes the translation for everyone but the defendant’s lawyer.

Where speakerphones might allow only time-consuming consecutive interpretation, Biamp’s technology allows simultaneous interpretation, Metzger says. (Think of news clips of United Nations proceedings where you see participants using earpieces to hear the simultaneous translation of a speaker.)

J.R. Denman, manager of technology services for the Florida court, says that feedback has been good so far. But the system doesn’t translate to every situation.

For example, filling out forms during a court proceeding—say, when a plea is entered—can be challenging. If defendants “go off to the side to fill out the form while judges go on to other matters,” Denman explains, “we don’t have anybody in the courtroom who can help.”

Nonverbal communication is another hiccup, says Nina Ivanichvili, president of All Language Alliance Inc. in Denver. While she acknowledges that the system has benefits, she suggests that a video component would help translators pick up on important nonverbal signals like gestures and shoulder shrugs. “In an ideal world,” she says, “we need more than crystal clear audio communication; we’ll benefit from a crystal clear visual component, too.”

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