Skip to comments.A skill much in demand -- certified interpreters needed
Posted on 02/24/2007 9:38:44 AM PST by teacherwoes
With a tide of non-English speakers surging through the state, courtrooms, hospitals and schools are scrambling to find people who are qualified to interpret and translate.
Court interpreter Dora Ornelas interprets for Jose Jimenez in Judge James Gavin's courtroom in the Yakima County jail.
And the limited pool of certified interpreters is expanding career opportunities for multilingual speakers.
In the past several years, many Cantonese, Laotian, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese monolingual speakers have requested services within Washington's judicial system, said Robert Miera, an Olympia-based state court program analyst. Although the state has certified 208 interpreters, Miera believes some counties still need more.
He said the state has tested and certified 151 interpreters in Spanish, by far the largest language group. (By comparison, the 30 Russian interpreters the state trained made up the second-largest category.) Western Washington and Central Washington, including Yakima, have the highest demand for Spanish interpreters, while Spokane and Seattle need Russian interpreters the most, Miera added.
Yakima courts have four full-time certified Spanish interpreters managing 14 courtrooms -- including one in Grandview -- and translating forms and materials, said Gloria Hintze, court manager for Yakima County Superior Court. Her interpreters work in all courts -- district, municipal and superior. However, Hintze acknowledged, the interpreters divide their time among three or four courtrooms to make sure all Spanish speakers in court are helped.
Under state law, courtrooms must provide interpreters for non-English speakers to ensure their rights are protected during legal proceedings in district, municipal and superior courts.
Many local interpreters say they're spread thin, forced to juggle courtrooms and translate forms, signs and other materials, while court officials scramble to find more interpreters.
"We go everywhere and anywhere we need (to find interpreters)," said Dora Ornelas, a certified interpreter and court interpreter coordinator for Yakima's courts.
Ornelas said she has looked for interpreters throughout Washington and Oregon for languages such as Japanese. Courts also have the option of using a telephonic interpreting service, which can connect interpreters from anywhere in the country to local court proceedings.
But seeking outside interpreters imposes a financial strain -- the county must pay interpreting fees, travel costs, room and board, Hintze said.
To ease the financial burden on the counties, state House members last week drafted a bill -- HB 2176 -- aimed at getting the state to pay for half of all interpreting or translating costs that Washington counties incur.
Miera, who oversees the Washington State Interpreter Commission, a task force of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said interpreters can earn $40 to $45 an hour, depending on the demand.
And he said interpreters will remain in high demand as long as non-English-speaking populations continue to grow. Miera hopes to see additional qualified bilingual people taking the state's rigorous two-part (written and oral) certification test. Starting in May, Miera said, the state will introduce an interpreter registration program that will have 50 more languages to be state-tested, though it'll be less intensive than the certification.
"More people are coming to the U.S. -- and Washington state -- (who) aren't able to speak English," he explained.
Yakima is no different.
Hintze said although the courts deal with scores of Spanish speakers, judges are seeing increasing numbers of monolingual Japanese, Russian and Tagalog speakers.
"We're struggling to accommodate their needs," Hintze said. "There is more work than there are people."
She said it's difficult to quantify how many people need interpreters each year, though, because courts don't track the numbers.
The Yakima School District, meantime, needs translations every day, said Jessie Garza Jr., the district's parent and community involvement director. Though the district has employed two translators since the '80s, both Garza's full-timers are handling more work and putting in extra hours these days. Garza said they translate fliers, letters and pamphlets for more than 4,000 Spanish-speaking families. And he expects their load to keep increasing, as it has for the past decade.
The workers translate an average of 84 documents a month to make sure families receive the information they need, Garza said -- a federal requirement since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 passed.
"There's always more work than there is hours," he added.
Nellie Chávez knows the feeling.
Chávez and her husband, who are both court-certified, run their own interpretation and translation office -- Centerpoint Language Services -- in Yakima. And they're always busy, shuttling between courts, businesses, schools and piles of documents they have to translate. They also train bilingual people on how to be interpreters.
"There's a need for professional interpreters, and I emphasize 'professional,'" Chávez said. "In the settings we interpret, it's necessary to have some type of training -- people's lives are involved."
She said it's critical for interpreters and translators to receive training and certification. They need to understand work ethics, master both languages, not add or omit information, and know legal and medical terminology -- depending on what they're covering. Just because people are bilingual, Chávez added, doesn't mean they'll be successful interpreters and translators. Certain skill sets must be developed.
Shirley Mohsenian, technology coordinator with Yakima Valley Community College and Allied Health, offers those skills to Yakima Valley students and professionals.
Mohsenian, who oversees YVCC's medical interpreter program, said many mistakes come from uncertified people translating complex medical terms that they don't fully comprehend. And poor translations that add or omit information can cause doctors to misdiagnose illnesses, she said.
She said hospitals and clinics are required by federal law to provide services for clients in a language they understand.
The program, offered every winter quarter at YVCC, teaches students medical terms, cultural awareness and tactics for precise interpretation.
Mohsenian said interpreting would make a great career, as long as it's paired with another profession such as nursing or medical assistance. Though the need is great, resources are often limited, which prohibits many clients from hiring staff interpreters or translators.
Uncertified interpreters, Mohsenian cautioned, face a tough time finding full-time, full-benefit jobs -- they'll need another degree or profession to go along with it.
"There are some jobs out there, but they're few and far between," she said.
And assignments from the medical field and other agencies go up sporadically, Chávez added.
To survive, she said, interpreters need to work with an agency or have a steady group of clients who trust their performance.
"It's a hard field to get into on your own," she said.
Still, Hintze believes there are great opportunities to make interpreting into a high-paying career.
"It's not an easy job," Hintze acknowledged. "But it can be lucrative."
She sees the need every time parents bring their elementary school children to interpret for various cases, including divorces and domestic violence disputes.
Ornelas wishes there were more qualified interpreters in the Yakima Valley. It would be easier for her to manage interpreter schedules and she wouldn't have to go outside the area to hire others.
"It gets expensive," she said.
At least he could identify himself.
"I speak jive."