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November 8, 2004

Interpreter program targeted

From: Kentucky Post, KY - Nov 8, 2004

By Paul A. Long
Post staff reporter

Kentucky is revamping its court-interpreters program, trying to get a handle on a system that cost $1.2 million last year, more than double the money spent four years ago.

It plans to hire Spanish-language interpreters in Louisville and Lexington to meet a growing demand. It is requiring that all of its freelance interpreters take a test to be certified within a year of signing up.

And it is standardizing pay scales, rather than negotiating individual contracts.

"We've been working on this for four years to build up a level of quality that is consistent throughout the state,'' said Kathy Schiflett, the program supervisor for court interpreting services at the Administrative Office of the Courts.

"We've had such a dramatic increase in the number of cases. The Supreme Court felt we needed to have strong rules over the whole process."

But they are doing so at the consternation of the state's approximately 100 qualified interpreters.

San Juan Romero of Fort Wright, a Spanish-language interpreter in Northern Kentucky courtrooms for more than a decade, has filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review its new rules. His chief complaints are that court administrators did not discuss the changes with interpreters, that those changes show little understanding of what interpreters do, and the financial changes will make it difficult for interpreters to earn a living.

For instance, Romero said, the new standards do not measure the actual skills needed to be a good interpreter -- indeed, he said, interpreters can be qualified without being tested in the language they are supposed to be interpreting.

The new pay scales, he said, will mean a cut in pay for some. And the uniform rates of $25 or $40 per hour do not include pay for travel time or for being in court while awaiting cases, he said.

A number of interpreters are supporting Romero and refusing to sign the new rules.

One is Tyler West of Frankfort, president of the Kentucky Association of Judiciary Interpreters.

"We're now involved in the process of offering solutions to these problems,'' said West, who does Spanish-language interpretation in Franklin County and elsewhere in central Kentucky.

"What they are trying to impose on us makes it impossible for us to make a living doing this.''

But the AOC doesn't seem likely to change the rules, which went into effect Oct. 1. Schiflett said the rules were implemented after years of discussions with state and national court and interpreters groups.

Leigh Anne Hiatt, spokeswoman for AOC, would not address the specific complaints. She said AOC lawyers will file an answer to the petition by Nov. 22.

"We believe the lawsuit is wholly without merit,'' she said.

Schiflett said the system has needed revamping for years. While some places have excellent interpreters, others in the state did not, and it was impacting justice.

In 2003, the state Court of Appeals agreed that an amateur interpreter botched reading Miranda rights to a suspect in a Montgomery County murder badly enough that a statement the suspect made to detectives had to be thrown out. The suspect, Jose Antonio Orazco Sanchez, was later acquitted.

A Fayette circuit judge threw out Santos Adonay Pagoada's murder conviction and 40-year sentence because interpretation during the man's trial was so poor. Pagoada had to be retried.

The vast majority of Kentucky interpreters -- 75 to 80 percent -- are Spanish language, according to Troy Bell, a field supervisor for AOC. Interpreters for the deaf or hard-of-hearing comprise 10 to 15 percent, and other languages account for the remaining 10 percent, he said.

The state's list of interpreters includes more than 20 languages, ranging from French and Italian to Russian, Croatian, Vietnamese and Japanese. For other languages, it calls on a national phone bank that can provide interpreters in just about every spoken language, Schiflett said.

Under the new rules, interpreters must become qualified by taking a written and oral test showing proficiency in English and knowledge of court rules, and then attending a workshop. Within a year, they must be certified by taking a battery of written and oral tests showing knowledge of their language, along with the ability to interpret properly.

Currently, only eight people in Kentucky are certified -- all in Spanish language. The certification test is so difficult that only about 14 percent of those taking it pass.

Schiflett said proper interpretation is not a summary of court proceedings, nor a word-for-word translation. Instead, the interpreters must use various skills to give an overall sense of the proceedings. They also must remain neutral and refrain from giving advice.

"Interpreters shall ... always (convey) the content and spirit of the of the speaker without altering, omitting, or adding anything to what has been stated or written, and shall do so without explanation or personal interpretation,'' the new Supreme Court rules state.

The interpreters agree their job is tough and demanding, which is why they say the new pay scales are unfair.

Romero, who is retired after serving as the chief air-traffic controller at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, said he began his second career as a favor to an old friend, former Kenton District Judge William Schmaedecke.

When he submitted a bill to the state Administrative Office of the Courts, he was paid $22 for an hour's work. And he became the sole Spanish-language interpreter in Northern Kentucky's courtrooms.

But over the years, the job has grown. Now he is one of more than a half-dozen interpreters in Northern Kentucky, and he has negotiated pay raises to $50 an hour. That includes a two-hour minimum and payments for his travel time, he said.

The new state rules mandate a $40 per hour standard rate for certified interpreters and a $25 per hour rate for qualified interpreters. It includes no minimum time and no pay for travel time, although it does include mileage expenses.

West said that makes it unaffordable for interpreters in rural areas who may have to travel several hours to a court assignment that may last less than 15 minutes.

Copyright 2004 The Cincinnati Post, an E.W. Scripps newspaper.