Words of Wisdom
Interpreters of foreign and sign languages offer indispensable skills to individuals who must appear in court or depend on judicial branch services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, interpreters have figured out how to adapt so they can keep dispensing their hard-to-find expertise.
As the novel coronavirus outbreak halted businesses and activities in the United States this March, Ohio courts shifted gears, limiting in-court appearances to only the most essential matters and delaying other cases to protect the public and court staff. Yet non-English speakers and individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing still need the assistance of interpreters if they have a matter in the state’s courts. Interpreters have found ways to deliver their high-quality assistance while adjusting, with their court colleagues, to the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Special Docket Days Held by Video Online
At the Franklin County Domestic Relations and Juvenile Court, the staff adapted by scheduling “Zoom docket days,” said Perla Martinez, the court’s language interpreter coordinator. The trendy tool, which experienced massive upsurges coinciding with stay-at-home orders nationwide, now is relied upon by families, businesses, and many courts, including the Ohio Supreme Court. Martinez’ court conducts Zoom sessions for status conferences in custody matters, for uncontested divorces, and for semiannual reviews in abuse, neglect, and dependency cases. Some of those events require interpreters.
“But video sessions with interpreters shouldn’t be long or complicated,” Martinez states.
Because these proceedings typically are short, they are suitable for interpreting remotely by video, she said.
Martinez also needs interpreters in person at the Columbus courthouse – for hearings involving juveniles, civil protection orders, and emergency shelter-care, as well as when setting up ankle monitoring of youth. The languages most in demand at the domestic relations court are Spanish, Somali, Nepali, and Arabic, said Martinez, who interprets Spanish.
For the meetings inside the court, Martinez looked into purchasing headsets for interpreting at a distance. That wasn’t financially feasible because each courtroom would need not only equipment but also technical support staff to deal with glitches, she said. Instead, the interpreters, court staff, and participants have simply been abiding by physical distancing recommendations and wearing masks.
“It has worked so far. I haven’t seen any issues with it,” she said.
Making It Work with Online Sessions, by Moving Courtroom
Video conferencing has been the go-to alternative at the Lorain County Domestic Relations Court. Dina Hernandez, a certified Spanish interpreter for the court, said she’s been able to effectively interpret via video.
“We would rather interpret in person,” Hernandez said. “With Zoom, there are sometimes technical difficulties. And it’s not simultaneous interpreting, so it’s a little bit slower. But given the circumstances, it’s good.”
Most video and telephonic interpreting takes place in what’s called the “consecutive mode” – the speaker says short sentences or statements and pauses to allow the interpreter to convey the meaning in the other language. Then the speaker continues, and pauses for the interpretation. In “simultaneous interpreting,” the interpreter follows the speaker closely and simultaneously delivers the meaning.
The Lorain County court also holds face-to-face arraignments one day a week at the Elyria courthouse. Hernandez said that early in Ohio’s response to the pandemic the court transformed a juror room near the building entrance into an area for arraignments. Participants don’t have to wander the courthouse, and the space allows lawyers, defendants, court staff, and others to keep appropriate distances. The court’s interpreters now use headsets so they can interpret for non-English speakers from afar, Hernandez said.
In-House Video Software Becomes More Valuable
The Cleveland Municipal Court restricted its operations from mid-March to early June to matters involving jailed defendants or emergency matters. Yrene Starke, interpreter coordinator for the court, said they depended on their internal video technology. While the judge, lawyers, and court staff such as Starke spread out and wear masks in one room, the defendant joins them by video from the courtroom next door.
With dwindling court dockets, the need for interpreters, not surprisingly, declined. Before Memorial Day, Starke said she had court requests to interpret only two languages – Spanish and Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda. Typically, she said, the most prominent languages requiring interpreting are Spanish, Arabic, Nepali, Swahili, American Sign Language, and Kinyarwanda.
During the slow time, Starke seized the moment to attend a few dozen webinars and trainings about technology for interpreters and considerations for resuming operations in courts.
“It was highly informative to seek out guidance from experts and jurists in other jurisdictions, likewise struggling with these new challenges for the safe and expeditious administration of justice,” she said.
She also translated important documents, notices, and administrative orders into Spanish, the language in which she is Court-certified, and coordinated translations of those materials into languages other than Spanish for the court and the public.
Interpreters Offer Differing Levels of Expertise
To assist the person who speaks Kinyarwanda, Starke turned to a telephonic interpreting service called LanguageLine Solutions, offered through the Ohio Supreme Court. Qualified interpreters are critical for fair court proceedings, so the Ohio Rules of Superintendence – the rules governing Ohio courts – direct the judicial branch how to select interpreters, based on training and qualifications.
The top tier is Supreme Court-certified foreign language interpreters or Supreme Court-certified sign language interpreters. Certified foreign language interpreters must meet general requirements, pass written and oral exams, participate in continuing education, and take an oath. Stepping down from that level are foreign language interpreters who are close to being certified (provisionally qualified) or meet certain other criteria (language-skilled). After that, courts can access LanguageLine Solutions to find foreign language interpreters to assist over the telephone.
Court-certified sign language interpreters qualify by meeting basic requirements, attending continuing education, and taking an oath. If a certified interpreter in American Sign Language isn’t available, courts may turn to those with other appropriate certifications, which are listed in the rules.
The Court maintains a public roster of individuals who can interpret a broad array of foreign languages (currently, 29) and who can provide sign language interpreting. While in-person interpreting is the gold standard for legal proceedings, courts already had experience before the pandemic with reaching out across the state and the country to locate individuals with hard-to-find language skills.
Starke said the Cleveland Municipal Court resorts to interpreting by telephone only in emergencies, but it was valuable to have the telephone service available for the individual who needed assistance.
Technology, While Key, Has Limitations
The coronavirus health emergency has pushed technology to the forefront for courts. Tech tools are enabling courts to curtail the spread of the virus while ensuring justice.
“The coronavirus is placing us in a situation where we have to look at technology solutions for interpreting,” said Bruno Romero, manager of the Court’s Language Services Program.
Romero notes, though, that not all courts, nor all people, have the same hardware, software, broadband access, or support available for technical hurdles.
Martinez deals with the technological challenges as well.
“The legal system is complex,” she said. “Domestic and juvenile courts are very stressful to begin with. Tack on that you need to have certain technology now. And not just technology, but then also finding access to an interpreter.”
She adds that these circumstances are most difficult for individuals who don’t have lawyers and are representing themselves in court. She finds they are most likely not to have internet at home or smartphones.
The increasing use of video as a tool for interpreting led the Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Language Services to draft guidance for video remote interpreting (VRI) for the Court’s review, approval, and distribution.
One frontline, easily accessible resource for courts is the Supreme Court’s roster of interpreters. The roster now identifies the languages that can be accessed through VRI and meet the Court’s requirements, as laid out in the superintendence rules for courts statewide. The roster flags the interpreters who can do their work by video.
VRI comes with cautions similar to those given for in-person interpreting. Romero said VRI works best for routine, simple matters, and in hearings or events lasting less than two hours. It’s important, when possible, to obtain consent from the party needing interpreting services. Also crucial are providing the interpreter with detailed case information ahead of time and allowing the interpreter and the non-English speakers or hearing-impaired person to “meet” beforehand.
Courts also should build in time so the individuals needing an interpreter and their attorneys can have privileged discussions with the interpreter’s assistance. That could take place in the courtroom or a separate location, but confidential communications with a person who uses sign language must be shielded from the view of others.
Romero points out that for those requiring sign-language interpreting, courts need to abide by enhanced camera and screen specifications.
“You want to see facial expressions clearly, but you also need to capture more visuals, such as body gestures, for sign language,” he explains.
While courts still have concerns about providing access to justice for individuals in the midst of a pandemic, they also see upsides to depending on VRI more frequently, Romero said. For one, the costs for interpreters’ parking and mileage would evaporate – resulting in savings for the judicial branch.
Starke said that, beginning in June, three or four of the Cleveland Municipal Court’s 12 judges returned on-site, as other courts across the state also were resuming more of their operations. To limit the traffic coming into the building, the court encourages defendants pleading not guilty to do so online. The court also continues to use technology, such as Zoom, to handle most of the criminal and civil dockets remotely. Since early June, requests for interpreters have climbed, Starke said. Among the latest languages needing interpreters were Cantonese, Swahili, and Farsi.
Starke said the most difficult aspects for interpreters in the changing court landscape during the pandemic are ensuring equal communication access for defendants and protecting attorney-client privilege while following the sanitary and health guidelines. For interpreting, her court is addressing the issues by upgrading to headsets that offer two-way communication and disposable ear and microphone covers. The court spent about $2,500 to purchase the equipment, determining that the headsets are essential to continuing its operations.
With their current one-way system, the interpreter talks into a transmitter, and the defendant, witness, or victim needing interpreting has a receiver to listen. Starke said the new headsets both transmit and receive, like a telephone, allowing the individual to hear the interpreter’s words and to speak to the interpreter. The two-way set up supports simultaneous interpreting and makes it easier for interpreters to maintain physical distance while keeping communications between parties private, Starke explains.
In Franklin County, Martinez said the number of interpreters needed in June bumped back up to two to five hearings each day. Of course, all the health guidelines remain in place, so they wear masks and limit the number of people in the courtrooms to fewer than 10.
Part of Romero’s responsibilities is to assist local courts with locating interpreters. Since the pandemic began, he’s received requests for languages never asked for before. The Mercer County Juvenile Court needed an interpreter for the Mossi language, spoken in Burkina Faso and a few other west African countries, and the Union County Municipal Court was looking for someone to interpret an Indian dialect called Kannada.
For a murder case in Mercer County, he helped find an interpreter for the defendant, who speaks Marshallese – the language of the Marshall Islands. A number of Marshallese who left their island home in the north Pacific Ocean have settled in the western Ohio county. Romero said the court couldn’t use any of the local Marshallese residents for interpreting because they knew the defendant and the victim.
Searching outside Ohio, Romero eventually found someone living in South Carolina who had been a missionary in the Marshall Islands. The former missionary did much of the interpreting work remotely by telephone, then flew to Ohio to assist in person, Romero said.
“The language dictates how far I search,” he explains.
Ultimately, he said, interpreters should follow the same guidance during the pandemic as everyone else – skip shaking hands, wear masks, and maintain at least six feet of distance. He notes that it also may be helpful for interpreters to purchase their own equipment, as long as they disinfect the equipment between uses.
Even with the unusual circumstances and occasional difficulties, interpreters have been resourceful and are sorting out how to keep delivering their vital services to the courts and to the individuals who have a fundamental need for their skills.
“Interpreters will still be there for people, but probably in a different form,” Romero said.