Civil Rights

Webcams the Solution for Court Interpreter Shortages?

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Video conferences, telephone interpreters, and the promise of new technologies that link pockets of the country with deeper pools of certified interpreters to rural counties in desperate need of qualified professionals may be a solution to the rising need for competent court interpreters across the U.S.

Recently, posted a USA Today story linking increasing prosecutions against illegal immigrants to the mounting needs of qualified court interpreters.

Dick Carelli, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, disputes that particular claim. Federal courts, which govern immigration issues, aren’t facing the same urgent problem besetting their state counterparts, which handle 97 to 98 percent of all litigation.

One reason is the use of telephone interpreting. The Judiciary’s telephone interpretation program provides remote interpretation easily and inexpensively in short proceedings where certified interpreters aren’t locally available. In fiscal year 2008, more than 3,300 judicial events were translated over the telephone, and 89 percent of those were in Spanish, says Carelli, who cited the office’s forthcoming annual report. Currently, there are fewer than 900 federally certified Spanish/English court interpreters.

Video and telephone interpretation may also help keep state court translators, who mostly work on a contract basis, busy enough to necessitate salaried positions. State courts “need qualified interpreters very badly when we need them,” explains Wanda Romberger, manager of court interpreting services for the National Center of State Courts, “but we don’t need them often enough to say, ‘Stay with us, and you’ll earn a living.’

Romberger says even a large state court system might only need an interpreter twice a month—making video and telephone interpretation a promising solution, especially for rare languages. “Where one courthouse can’t keep an interpreter busy enough, linking that interpreter to the other 40 states [in the Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification], there may be plenty of work.”

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