With 220 Languages Spoken in California, Courts Face an Interpreter Shortage

Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times, September 5, 2017

Federal law enforcement began investigating California’s courts seven years ago after receiving complaints that two Korean-speaking women in Los Angeles had been denied court interpreters.

Courts in other states also were examined and faulted. Along with California, they began working to comply with U.S civil rights law, which bars discrimination based on national origin. Failure to act meant the possible loss of federal money.

But nowhere has the task been so challenging as in California, the most linguistically diverse state in the nation.

At least 220 languages are spoken in California, and 44% of residents speak a language other than English at home. Seven million Californians say they cannot speak English well.

On top of that, California’s court system is considered the largest in the nation, surpassing in size the entire labyrinth of federal courts.

Just finding enough trained interpreters has proved daunting. The state’s courts handle as many as eight million cases a year.

Now two years into its enforcement phase, California’s “language access plan” is pushing courts to provide interpreters for all non-English speakers in all cases.

As of December, 47 of 58 county courts said they were offering interpreters in high-priority civil disputes, including those involving protective orders, child custody and other family law matters, evictions, guardianship and conservatorship and elder abuse.

“The goal is to get interpreters available in all case types,” said 1st District Court of Appeal Justice Terence L. Bruiniers.

“But the reality is we are never going to have enough qualified interpreters in enough languages for every courtroom that needs them at the time they need them,” he said. “That is just not going to be possible.”

California has long provided interpreters for criminal and juvenile cases. The law now says they must offer them also in civil courtrooms.

In the past, non-English-speaking litigants were on their own when they went to court to fight evictions, obtain restraining orders and resolve child custody disputes

Children sometimes interpreted for warring parents. One court employee recalled a woman seeking a domestic violence restraining order having to interpret for her alleged abuser.

Some judges said they felt uncomfortable when they received a one-word translation from an amateur interpreter even though the litigant had spoken at length in his native language.

Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Steven Austin recalled a Spanish-speaking woman in his courtroom 10 years ago seeking a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend.

“He mean to me,” she had written on a legal form.

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Later he read in the newspaper that the ex-boyfriend had visited the woman’s home. He had a gun, and she called police.

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Los Angeles court officials worked with federal authorities to bring in more interpreters, and today the Superior Court is considered the most advanced in the state in providing language help.

Yet even in Los Angeles there are troubles.

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But the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown have been sympathetic to the language campaign and provided $7 million during the past fiscal year.

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The languages for which interpreters are needed are Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, American Sign, Mandarin, Farsi, Cantonese, Russian, Tagalog, Arabic and Punjabi.

But depending on the location of the court, that list expands. It includes Cambodian/Khmer, Japanese, Malayalam, Hmong, Lao and even dialects of the Aleutian Islands.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Manuel J. Covarrubias recalled using “a relay” in one case.

A defendant knew only Mixteco, an indigenous language spoken in parts of Mexico.

The only interpreter who could be found did not speak English. So that person translated Mixteco into Spanish, and a second translated the Spanish into English, said Covarrubias, who has helped lead the courts’ language efforts.

California now has about 2,000 qualified court interpreters but still too few to handle the demand.

Getting certified is a hurdle. Only about 10% pass the state examination.

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Interpreters also are only part of the solution.

Court signs must be posted in multiple languages, legal documents translated and court-ordered services, such as a program on alcohol abuse, must be offered in the languages of the participants, judges said.

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