Court Interpreter Training Program Addresses Growing Need

Oct. 16, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

The court interpreter training course meets at Northeast Community College in Norfolk. From left to right: Julie Clark, Marciela Duarte, Laura Linaras, Nancy Rodriguez, Maria Ortiz, and Abraham Moreno (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

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Nebraska has a growing population of residents who speak limited English. When people who don’t speak English come in contact with Nebraska’s court system, they need an interpreter to help tell their story. Nebraska is working to train more interpreters to address the growing need.

Julie Clark teaches the new court interpreter training course at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska.

Those who signed up for the program already speak both English and a second language. Many of them have been interpreting casually their whole lives. Student Abraham Moreno lives in Woodland Park, Nebraska.

“Growing up always interpreting, either for family members or just within the community, even everywhere I’ve worked: construction, customer service, things like that. I’ve always had to interpret,” Moreno said.

This class helps build the skills particular to interpreting in a legal setting.

Students and professor alike point out what is asked of a court interpreter: to be like “a piece of furniture”. They aren’t allowed to explain a word or put things into simpler terms.

Laura Linaras drives to the class from Crete, Nebraska, where she currently interprets in her real estate business as well as for a local law firm.

Jennifer Verhein (Courtesy Jennifer Verhein)

“In my case, if you do an interpreter, say, for the schools what I have to interpret, you kind of adjust the words to make them understand what you’re trying to say," Linaras said. "In court you just run through, you just say exactly, without really changing the meaning.”

Getting the exact right words while interpreting between English and another language requires a broad understanding of both languages.

Jennifer Verhein is the language access coordinator for the Nebraska Judicial Branch.

“Our court interpreters need to speak not only the kind of language that you and I are speaking right now, the kind of mid-range register language," Verhein said. "They also need to speak street slang and much more casual informal language, and also they need to be able to speak the very high register language of the law.”

That makes court interpreting a difficult job, but it’s also a growing need in Nebraska. The state has the fastest growing population of people with limited English proficiency in the Midwest.

Verhein said there’s a growing need in Spanish, Vietnamese, Somali, and Yazidi. Last year the state provided interpreters in 63 counties and Nebraska interpreters spoke 49 languages. For languages where a Nebraska interpreter was not available, the judicial branch worked with interpreters from out of state.

(Courtesy Nebraska Department of Education)

“The key is that for our court interpreters, they need to be able to speak with native-like proficiency in both English and another language,” Verhein said.

For their knowledge base and difficult work, certified court interpreters are paid well. Students in the class said they currently make between $15 and $35 an hour interpreting in other settings. Certified court interpreters start at $50 an hour.

Verhein started as Nebraska’s first language access coordinator four years ago and wanted to cultivate training opportunities for interpreters. At first she didn’t have much success.

Until one day she got a call from Julie Clark, who teaches the class and is the adult education coordinator at Northeast Community College in Norfolk. Before moving into education, she had a career in law enforcement and interacted with the courts.

“There was always a struggle to find interpreters on a timely basis, and watching people in our country have to wait for services from the judicial system longer than other people who are native speakers had to wait," Clark said.

Training more interpreters becomes an issue of equal access to justice. Nebraska ranks second in language access in the region. Minnesota comes in first, which Verhein said is partly due to greater resources.

(Courtesy Jennifer Verhein)

Training new interpreters has its challenges. Clark teaches the class in English and when students give the translation for a court term, she doesn’t know if they’re correct because she doesn’t speak the language. Getting certified is also difficult. The class helps students prepare for the 135 question multiple choice exam. It’s in English, and covers English vocabulary related to the court system as well as protocol for interpreters.

Verhein said the format of the test makes the 80% required to pass difficult for some students.

“That’s 108 correct answers on a multiple choice test, which is a uniquely western way of testing individuals, and many of our court interpreters were not educated in the west,” Verhein said.

The class at Northeast Community College is funded by a grant and doesn’t cost students anything.

These students will help people with limited English tell their stories in court. Verhein is passionate about giving all people the chance to be heard, a love that stems from visiting the courthouse where her mom worked when Verhein was a child.

“And I was younger then and a whole lot cuter, and the attorneys would let me sit with them at counsel table," Verhein said. "And I discovered, much to my shock as the youngest person in a large and loud family, that in a courtroom, everyone gets their turn. Everyone gets their say. And they get to tell their story.”

Aspiring interpreters have a chance to take the multiple choice exam this November, and if they pass, can go through another twelve weeks of preparation for the three part oral exam.