District Judge James Dixon has seen an increasing number of Spanish-speaking residents pass through his office in Hazle Township each day, and he and others said more interpreters are needed to make court proceedings run smoother.
“It’s difficult, to say the least,” Dixon said.
His observations have not gone unnoticed. Though there are 30 documented languages spoken in Luzerne County, court Administrator Michael Shucosky said, there are only three state-approved interpreters serving the county’s 300,000-plus residents.
“We need qualified interpreters. There isn’t enough in the state,” said Shucosky, adding that at times English seems to be “a second language in Luzerne County.”
The shortage of interpreters is a nationwide problem, Shucosky said, and he noted the Philadelphia court system only recently obtained a Chinese interpreter for its growing population.
News reports from Ohio and California also chronicle the need for interpreters for the growing immigrant population – and not only at the court level, but throughout the community in hospitals and businesses.
“We’re all competing for a small pool of interpreters,” Shucosky said.
The county budget allocates $80,000 for interpreter services, a number that might increase next year because a new initiative within the judicial system calls for both criminal and civil proceedings to have an interpreter present if needed, Shucosky said.
Currently, only criminal proceedings call for interpreters to be present.
In Luzerne County, there is a certified American Sign Language interpreter, Martha Andras, of Hazleton, and two Spanish interpreters: Joussy Olsen, of White Haven, who is certified by the state, and works as an independent contractor, and Thelma Kennedy, of Sugarloaf, who is qualified by the state and is employed by the county.
According to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, interpreters who are certified are paid between $45 and $60 a hour while those who are qualified receive between $35 and $40 an hour.
The county is fortunate to have Kennedy on staff, but her schedule is packed and she cannot do all of the work herself, Shucosky said. The county previously had two other interpreters, but in October 2012 they did not pass the state test governed by the AOPC, which now requires a more stringent state certification exam than in the past.
Silvana Calderon’s language abilities help in her duties as a secretary in District Judge Dixon’s office. “She is a blessing,” said Dixon. “She isn’t qualified by the state, so we can’t use her for criminal proceedings. But she helps in almost every other aspect.”
Statewide judicial issue
At the July statewide judicial conference in Hershey a major topic discussed among Court of Common Pleas judges was interpreter services, Shucosky said.
“Now, they want to make sure interpreters are available for civil proceedings,” he said. That will spread the minimal amount of interpreters in the county even thinner, Shucosky said, and will require the county to use outside resources more frequently.
Both county and magisterial district courts have the option to use an outside company that provides more than 120 language translations by phone, but these can be used only for court proceedings less than 30 minutes, Shucosky said.
The other option Shucosky has is to call interpreters who serve the state to see if they are available to come to Luzerne County.
The county employs one person who is in charge of contacting interpreters on a daily basis, Shucosky said. Typically, an interpreter is needed up to six times a week for court proceedings. That number will only increase with the additional of civil matters, Shucosky said.
“We have 1,700 new custody cases each year,” he said. “Those alone will call for a greater need for interpreters.”
It is difficult to schedule out-of-town interpreters because they aren’t always available when needed and must often drive significant distances to get to Wilkes-Barre. Shucosky said Pittsburgh is the farthest away an interpreter has traveled to Luzerne County, and that the county recently had to locate a Creole interpreter – twice – for court proceedings.
In other court proceedings in recent history, the county has had to find interpreters who speak Swahili, Russian and Montenegrin.
In March 2012, several Spanish-speaking interpreters had to participate in a homicide trial in which one defendant spoke no English and several witnesses and family members needed translators for the trial and and sentencing three months later.
The proceeding was lengthy at times as an interpreter translated a witness’ testimony into English or while an interpreter spoke to the defendant, Rodolfo Hiraldo Perez, of Hazleton.
If an interpreter is needed for a hearing and then the hearing is canceled, said Shucosky said, the county must still pay a cancellation fee. “I can understand that because they’ve declined other work to help us,” he said.
The state-mandated test often calls for interpreters to translate slang terms or terms that aren’t typically used any more, such as “bailiff,” Shucosky said. Languages such as Spanish also come with different dialects with which an interpreter may not be familiar with.
Despite those complications, Shucosky said, he does not think the AOPC testing should be changed or made easier. “You don’t want the misinterpretation of one word to affect the whole outcome of a court proceeding.”
The AOPC does provide training and seminars to interpreters, held throughout the year. The testing is done orally and certification is required every two years, according to the AOPC.