Linda Li often interpreted court proceedings for Chinese immigrants facing deportation or caught in family disputes. She grew up in Hong Kong speaking Cantonese and English and later learned Mandarin. But when she started interpreting those languages in Vermont’s courts seven years ago, she struggled to pick up another language spoken in the courtroom: legalese.
“It was quite scary,” said Li, 33, of Essex. “I still struggle with the terms.”
These days, foreign-language interpreters working in Vermont’s courts nearly always have some legal training, as well as a Black’s Law Dictionary. But the judiciary has yet to standardize requirements for interpretation.
“There’s been no minimum standard that’s been absolutely set,” said Jacqueline Rose, coordinator of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program’s Interpreting and Translating Services.
In March, court officials took a step toward ensuring more reliable interpretation by distributing to its interpreters a standardized written test, recognized by courts nationally.
“That’s the direction we’re moving,” said Karen Richards, who works for the state’s Court Interpreter Project: “to have interpreters tested under that rubric.”
Court officials also will host a summit later this month to discuss with other state agencies whether Vermont should support a central contact point for foreign-language interpreters.
The Civil Rights Act and an executive order signed by former President Bill Clinton require all state agencies that receive federal funding to provide people who have limited English proficiency with access to important services. In Burlington, the law extends from Fletcher Allen Health Care to the city’s police department.
Streamlining the use of interpreters, court officials said, could cut costs, make interpreters more readily available and transform interpreting in Vermont into a more viable profession.
Vermont’s foreign-language interpreters have no way of knowing when they’ll be called to the courthouse. The impromptu arraignment of someone who primarily speaks, say, Somali, or French, might occur when an interpreter of that language is unavailable.