One Third of Ontario Courtroom Translators Fail Proficiency Tests

Kirk Makin, Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 19, 2010

One out of three Ontario courtroom translators failed proficiency tests administered by the Ministry of the Attorney-General last year.

Another third did poorly enough that they have been placed on probationary status by the ministry, Paul Burstein, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association, said Monday.

Mr. Burstein said the figures were revealed recently by a ministry witness who was called to testify by Mr. Justice Casey Hill of Ontario Superior Court, who has expressed repeated concerns in the past about the quality of translation in the courts.

The CLA called for an inquiry into the ministry’s response to the problem. It also urged the province to make a concerted effort to locate possible wrongful convictions caused by inadequate courtroom translating.

“They have had five years to fix the problem and all they have managed to do is devise a test that shows their efforts achieved a significant failing grade,” Mr. Burstein said in an interview. “Enough is enough.”

In some jurisdictions with a high immigrant population, such as the Toronto suburb of Peel, interpreters are called to numerous courtrooms on a daily basis. Mr. Burstein said it is critical not just for witnesses to understand questions they are asked, but for defendants to properly instruct their lawyers.

“Ask any defence lawyer who has ever done a trial involving an interpreter and they’ll tell you that it is very common to have a witness give five or six sentences in a foreign language, and somehow the interpreter manages to distill it into three English words,” Mr. Burstein said. “You are not getting the evidence of the witness. What you are getting is a summary that the interpreter has made which may or may not be accurate.”

Mr. Burstein said that 77 of the 225 translators tested by the ministry last June failed outright. “It seems to me the simplest place to start is take the 77 interpreters who failed the test, trace back and find what trials they were on, locate the convictions and . . . assess whether there may have been a miscarriage of justice,” he said.

The issue came to a head in 2005, when Judge Hill issued a judgment that was critical of translation facilities. Mr. Burstein said the 34 per cent who failed the test have since lost their accreditation; the 31 per cent who did poorly enough that they are conditionally accredited are undergoing further training and being used primarily for less complex cases.

None of 31 new recruits who were among those tested qualified for accreditation, Mr. Burstein said.

Ministry spokesmen could not be reached for comment Monday night.

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