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Wyoming Courts Adjust To Accommodate Non-English Speaking Clients

Wyoming is a largely rural state with limited diversity. But as the population grows and the state attracts all sorts of newcomers. Wyoming is learning to accommodate the changing population. One of the areas where the state is making headway is interpretation services in its courts. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports.

IRINA ZHOROV: Last spring, an acupuncturist in Cheyenne was arrested after patients accused him of sexual assault. He was eventually found not guilty. The acupuncturist is an American citizen, but his command of English is limited. His first language is Mandarin Chinese and his experience with the justice system was often frustrating. For example, public defender Melody Anchietta, says police officers questioned him without a translator before arresting him, something that’s technically legal but arguably poor practice.

MELODY ANCHIETTA: I went to see him when he was in the jail and I could tell, I could communicate well enough to let him know that I was his attorney, that I would be there with him in court, but we immediately started looking for a Mandarin interpreter which isn’t very easy to find in Wyoming.

ZHOROV: At his preliminary hearing there was a translator, from Colorado, who translated by phone. Phone translation is used often when an interpreter can’t be in the courtroom…but Anchietta says it’s not ideal. 

ANCHIETTA: It never occurred to me we would need a Mandarin interpreter in Cheyenne.

ZHOROV: She eventually found one in Fort Collins and the woman came to Cheyenne a handful of times to help Anchietta and the acupuncturist communicate. Later, at the trial, the court provided other interpreters but even then, there were issues. For example, the Cheyenne circuit court didn’t have proper equipment – which consists of an ear piece for the client and a small mic for the translator. Instead, they’d have to just stand close and whisper into their client’s ear. Sarah Pfefferle is a Spanish translator in Cheyenne. She says this has been a problem for a long time. 

SARAH PFEFFERLE: It has always been frustrating to me to hang on a defendant’s shoulder, it’s a very close proximity, it’s not very professional, so that I can reach their ear, so that I can be unobtrusive and invisible and nothing more than a vehicle in the process between the judge and the person appearing in the court.

ZHOROV: The court finally acquired a sound system for the acupuncturist’s trial, after Anchietta told the court reporter she’d seen such equipment used in her previous job, in Kansas City.

Pfefferle says another good step has been the establishment of pay scale policies for translators working for the justice system. For the past few years translators have been able to earn higher fees by passing tests and earning certifications. Pfefferle says that’s important.

PFEFFERLE: I don’t work full time, I don’t get benefits, I pay my own employment taxes. Work is spotty. 

ZHOROV: Spotty work is perhaps the biggest obstacle, says Kristi Racines, who runs the state’s 2-year-old court interpreter program. It was established to improve the quality and availability of interpreters in state courts.  

KRISTI RACINES: As a court interpreter even if you’re in Cheyenne or Laramie, in some of the larger and busier courts, you can’t make a living doing it. So it is something that can maybe supplement another income or maybe be good for someone who is retired or maybe works from home, but it is difficult to attract people to this career because really at this point, there’s not enough work to employ full time interpreters.

ZHOROV: Jackson has a large population of Spanish speakers and so the circuit court there does maintain a Spanish interpreter on staff, but it’s the only court in the state to do so. Otherwise, the courts rely on contractors. Racines says right now there are 16 interpreters on the court’s roster that can be called upon an as-needed basis, but they’re all Spanish translators. The federal court’s roster in Wyoming is also exclusively Spanish translators. Racines says there’s a reason for that; other languages just aren’t needed as much.

RACINES: I mean we may need a Mandarin interpreter once or twice in the entire state per year.

ZHOROV: Cheyenne has seen the need for Somali interpreters increase somewhat, and then there’s been a random case here and there requiring a Laotian interpreter, for example. But Racines says her office is still trying to be proactive. Last year they hosted orientations around the state to distribute information about the translation program and try to get interpreters on the roster for potential use in the future. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.

Irina Zhorov is a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She earned her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from the University of Wyoming. In between, she worked as a photographer and writer for Philadelphia-area and national publications. Her professional interests revolve around environmental and energy reporting and she's reported on mining issues from Wyoming, Mexico, and Bolivia. She's been supported by the Dick and Lynn Cheney Grant for International Study, the Eleanor K. Kambouris Grant, and the Social Justice Research Center Research Grant for her work on Bolivian mining and Uzbek alpinism. Her work has appeared on Voice of America, National Native News, and in Indian Country Today, among other publications.

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