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Nebraska Program Trains Court Interpreters To Help Non-English Speakers Testify


In Nebraska, court officials are trying a new way to reduce a backlog of cases. It's about hiring and training more interpreters. People with limited English proficiency often have to wait longer for trials, and Nebraska wants to change that. Allison Mollenkamp of member station NET reports.

ALLISON MOLLENKAMP, BYLINE: This is what county court in Saline County, Neb., sounds like every other Friday.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Record will reflect the appearance of county attorney...

ALEX PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MOLLENKAMP: The judge and attorneys speak in English, and certified court interpreter Alex Perez translates for defendants or witnesses in Spanish. If that person has a question, he translates it back into English for the rest of the court to hear.

PEREZ: It's a God-given ability to be able to hear, in this case, the judge and to be able to process that in milliseconds to translate that to the defendant.

MOLLENKAMP: Simultaneous interpretation in court also requires an interpreter to not make any changes at all to what's being said, even if they feel a defendant won't understand the language of the court. Jennifer Verhein runs Nebraska's state interpreter program. She says interpreters need to have an exceptional vocabulary.

JENNIFER VERHEIN: Our court interpreters need to speak not only the kind of language that you and I are speaking right now, the kind of midrange register language; they also need to speak street slang and much more casual, informal language.

MOLLENKAMP: And the interpreter must have nativelike proficiency in both languages. That kind of fluency requires special training, and that's what a lot of potential interpreters lack. Rob Cruz heads the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. He says there's a real need for more programs to train interpreters at no cost to them. Training typically cost upwards of $2,000.

ROB CRUZ: The interpreter profession is one of those where, typically, the cost of the training falls on the practitioner, and yet the society as a whole is the one that benefits.

MOLLENKAMP: Cruz says the need for interpreters is growing, especially in the Midwest.

CRUZ: It's like the need is being created at the same time that the supply can't be created fast enough. And I think part of that is because of training and the lack of training.

MOLLENKAMP: In the Midwest, Minnesota is rated as the best state for language access in the courts; that's in part because of the funding it provides. Nebraska is rated second and has the fastest-growing population that's labeled as limited English proficiency in the Midwest.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let's look at section in Part 1.

MOLLENKAMP: Here at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb., interpreter training classes are offered a few times a week. Many students, like Abraham Moreno, grew up bilingual. He quit his full-time job to study for the interpreter certification exam.

ABRAHAM MORENO: Growing up, always interpreting either for family members or just within the community, even everywhere I've worked - construction, customer service, things like that.

MOLLENKAMP: Other kinds of interpreting offer much lower pay. Students who interpret in hospitals, schools and law offices make $15 to $35 an hour. Once they're certified to work in court, they'll make $50 an hour. But for Moreno, it's not just about the money; he sees interpreting in court as something of a mission.

MORENO: You're just able to provide a service where you get to be their voice and give them a chance of a fair trial.

MOLLENKAMP: Having more interpreters will allow Nebraska to be more flexible in scheduling trials. The program will also help recruit interpreters for less-common languages. Nebraska doesn't have any certified interpreters for Somali. So as of now, when one is needed for a trial, the state has to fly in an interpreter from Minnesota. This program hopes to change that.

For NPR News, I'm Allison Mollenkamp.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOSHIO MATSUURA GROUP'S "CHANGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Mollenkamp
Allison Mollenkamp (she/her) is a fellow with NPR's Investigations Unit, where she's worked to cover election denial and the fallout from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. You may have previously heard her on Nebraska Public Radio, where she led national Murrow Award-winning coverage of the state's 2019 floods. Mollenkamp holds a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor of arts in English from the University of Alabama.
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