WASHINGTON – A shortage of certified court interpreters in Maryland is worsening as local law enforcement agencies continue to crack down on illegal immigration, say court officials and immigration lawyers.
“There have been a lot more enforcement and a lot more cases,” said Mary Barone, an immigration lawyer serving Montgomery, Frederick, Washington and Carroll counties. “In addition, because of 9/11, there’s been a lot of litigation regarding delayed approval of naturalization cases.”
There are about 102 certified court interpreters in Maryland who specialize in Spanish and about 30 more who specialize in other languages. The language most in demand in the state is Spanish and the second is Russian, said state court officials.
Costs have quickly risen over the last three years. In fiscal year 2005, certified court interpreters cost the state $1.5 million, compared to $3.1 million in fiscal year 2008.
“There are absolutely more cases and a doubling in usage of interpreters,” said Javier A. Soler, court interpreter program administrator for Maryland’s Administrative Office of the Courts. “It’s definitely a challenge in the field.”
There have been instances when the state was only able to hire one certified court interpreter in a year, said Soler.
Most of the trouble in hiring interpreters is finding ones who can pass the complex examination process. Of every 100 people who attempt the four-step certification process in Maryland, only 2.4 actually succeed on average.
“The skills required to be a qualified court interpreter are pretty unique,” said Wanda Romberger, general manager at the National Center for State Courts. “There are lots of cognitive skills involved.”
The process for certification begins with a three-day orientation workshop that focuses on courtroom protocol, the legal system and legal vocabulary. In Maryland, potential interpreters have 13 different languages to choose from. After completion of the workshop, they take a written proficiency exam. The exam has a 20 percent passing rate, according to Soler.
If applicants pass the written exam, they take an oral proficiency interview that evaluates whether they are fluent in the language. Of those original 20 percent, 80 percent of the test-takers pass the oral evaluation.
Finally, the survivors of the other two examinations take another written examination and of those, only 15 percent pass.
The test was first administered in 2004. Before then, there was no English test required for certification. When the state required all interpreters in its registry to take the test, two-thirds of them were terminated.
“Indeed there has been a tremendous demand since the office of the court clerks administered this test in English a few years back that eliminated a big portion of the interpreters at the time,” said Adil Hizoune, an Arabic Maryland-certified interpreter. “The demand has increased tremendously for court interpreters for translating services in general and I get several calls a week from people wanting some type of service.”
With very few interpreters gaining certification every year, it is difficult to find interpreters with the broad-based knowledge necessary to match the demand.
“In addition to knowing the language, they also have to acquire the interpreting skills, the ability to listen, process what they hear, form it in the other language, speak it and all the time they’re doing that, there’s more input coming,” Romberger said. “So they’re listening, doing all this processing, reaching out for equivalent terminology in the other language, speaking it aloud and all the while they’re listening and more input is coming. It’s really fascinating.”
Because the bulk of veteran interpreters are Spanish-speakers, it’s difficult to find training for other languages.
For example, in recent years, there has been huge demand in the lower Eastern Shore for interpreters in indigenous languages from Mexico and Guatemala that are nothing like Spanish, said Soler. In the central Maryland area, there is also a huge need for South Asian languages like Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi, to name a few.
“I don’t think there’s a state that’s untouched by the need for court interpreters,” Romberger said. “A lot of it has to do with funding and some of it has to do with the lack training opportunities for interpreters. There just isn’t much out there for interpreters, particularly in languages other than Spanish.”
Chirag V. Patel, an immigration lawyer based in Bethesda, said that he has seen instances in which cases have been dismissed because of the delays caused by difficulty in finding certified interpreters.
Another factor in the shortage is that due to high demand in court, Spanish interpreters can make a living while other types of interpreters generally need to find other jobs to sustain themselves. In Maryland, a certified court interpreter will make $55 an hour, with a two-hour minimum.
“The country is getting more diverse and you could see that at the level of county and state,” Patel said. “It could be easy (to hire more) if they put it on the Internet or publicized the job a little more.”