In Arizona, a judge threatened to drop human smuggling charges against three men earlier this year because of problems locating Mayan dialect interpreters.
Authorities in Arkansas have struggled with two cases against natives of the Marshall Islands accused of killing children.
And prosecutors in Louisville, Ky., had difficulty earlier this year before finding a Bantu interpreter for a Somali man charged with killing his four children.
Interpreter organizations said it’s difficult to estimate the number of cases affected by courts’ inability to secure translators of obscure languages. That’s because most of the cases are mundane and attract little attention. But as immigrant communities grow, it is not uncommon for cases to be affected by shortages of qualified interpreters, they said.
Federal law requires public agencies receiving federal money to provide equal access to people with “limited English proficiency.” Most courts concluded that means interpreters should be available for all court proceedings when needed, most often at the court’s expense, Mr. Hendzel said.
Interpreters often are at a defendant’s side for an entire case, from an arrest through trial. Ideally, they must be able to keep a running translation of what is said, and be familiar enough with legal or other court terms to be able to convert phrases like “blood splatter” into a foreign language.
Courts often turn to agencies, lists by state judiciaries or online services to find interpreters. With hard-to-find languages, they have to cast wider nets, contacting community organizations or embassies to find people. Often interpreters must be flown in for cases.
Moving beyond the usual sources can prove unreliable. Ideally, courts will hire full-time interpreters who are certified by the state or a professional organization. But in cases involving rarer languages, some courts end up hiring people with little or no court background.
Many interpreters of rarer languages also have other jobs, meaning courts must work around their schedules.
Mayan dialects and African languages are causing some of the largest problems for courts, Miss Framer said.
Interpreters said the problem will only likely grow as immigrant communities swell.
“We just can’t create enough good interpreters,” said Hailu Gtsadek, a translator who runs an African-language interpreter service in the District.