Interpreting and Translating in Alaska's Legal System: Further Discussion

Interpreting and Translating in Alaska's Legal System: Further Discussion

Phyllis Morrow

Morrow, Phyllis. (Fall 2000). "Interpreting and Translating in Alaska's Legal System: Further Discussion." Alaska Justice Forum 17(3): 2. Skilled and effective interpreting and translating are critical for access to justice in cases involving speakers of language other than English. This article discusses continuing efforts in the Alaska judicial system to identify Alaska needs and recommend actions for the improvement of communication in cross-linguistic legal situations and reports on proceedings of an Alaska Bar Association session on "Mutual Understanding: Interpreting and Translating in Alaska's Legal System."

Skilled and effective interpreting and translating are critical for access to justice in cases involving speakers of languages other than English. In the past few years, there has been increasing concern with identifying Alaskan needs and recommending actions to improve communication in cross-linguistic legal situations. The 1999 Alaska Judicial Conference on Interpreting, the groundwork built by the Language and Cultural subcommittee of the Alaska Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Fairness and Access, and the ongoing work of the Alaska Court Service Interpreter Task Force have been significant steps in this direction.

More recently, the session on "Mutual Understanding: Interpreting and Translating in Alaska's Legal System" at the Alaska Bar Association last spring indicates that the effort to meet the interpretation and translation needs of the justice and legal system is continuing.

The panelists and presenters at the convention session included Alaskan legal professionals as well as both Alaskan and non-Alaskan language and cultural specialists. Among the national and international experts were Yolanda Salazar Hobrough, a federally-certified court interpreter in both Canada and the United States and a partner in the Language Bureau, a Vancouver-based interpreter and translator service; Chandler Thompson, founder of the U.S. Court Telephone Interpreting Program; and Susana Stettri Sawrey, a federally-certified Spanish court interpreter. Using dramatic role playing and participant exercises, these presenters demonstrated the complex skills involved in a variety of situations requiring interpretation, including whispered simultaneous interpretation and simultaneous interpretation via telephone. The presenters also offered concrete suggestions for working with interpreters in legal settings, responded to questions about specific Alaska situations, and explained the training required for interpreter certification and the necessity of using trained interpreters.

Since the 1989 passage of RCW 2.43, a law requiring mandatory provision of interpreters in criminal cases, the state of Washington has instituted intensive interpreter/translator training programs. Training and certification require, among other things, forty to seventy hours of practical training, including sight translating, consecutive and simultaneous interpreting, and training in professional standards and ethics. Sawrey detailed the certification process in King County, where tests for Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer, Cantonese, Lao, Korean, and Russian are now in place.

In places like Alaska, where state certification is unavailable, the courts are relying on non-certified interpreters and translators. The history of the use of interpreters in Alaska, summarized in materials presented by Richard Erlich, Superior Court Judge in Kotzebue, is surprisingly scant considering Alaska's diverse historical and contemporary population. Although recent cases show more sophistication than a 1917 case in which the court was required to provide an interpreter for "Assyrian", a language that did not exist then or now, the historical record suggests a continuing lack of clear procedures for identifying needs and using appropriate interpreters. In this context, Yolanda Salazar Hobrough discussed ways to determine the qualities of a good interpreter in the absence of the assurance provided by certification. For specific Alaska situations, Judy Gopaul of the Inupiaq Court Interpreting Project for the North Slope Borough, and Marie Meade, Yup'ik language interpreter and Adjunct Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, noted the availability of experienced and qualified, if non-certified, interpreters for these two Alaskan Eskimo languages. Tracy Pifer, a freelance sign language interpreter, detailed communication problems specific to interactions with people who are hearing impaired and discussed the availability of qualified sign interpreters in Alaska.

Even in states with certification, it is not uncommon for speakers of isolated languages (that is, languages that are not spoken by a sizable enough number of speakers for certification to be locally available) to need interpretation services. Non-English speaking immigrants, refugees, and tourists, for example, may find themselves in legal difficulty and need interpreters. Such cases can be critical since relatively minor legal infractions may have serious implications for immigration status or consequences in the home country—a point emphasized by Robin Bronen, Director of Immigration and Refugee Services for Catholic Social Services. Interpreter assistance for such cases can be sought through organizations such as The Language Bureau or the U.S. Court Telephone Interpreting Program. Telephonic assistance is also available through AT&T, although this service is expensive and provides only a limited number of languages.

A need for assistance is most obvious when someone speaks little or no English and the cultural context of the court is clearly at odds with the person's background. Yet Sharon Lindley, who serves as Cultural Navigator for the Alaska Court System in Bethel, noted that much of her work entails aiding members of the Bethel area population who do speak English, not just those Yup'ik elders whose linguistic and cultural discomfort may be more apparent. Younger defendants, she said, may speak English conversationally but have little understanding of the proceedings that concern them. Because of an apparent shyness, which adheres to the culture, they may prefer to assert that they understand rather than draw extended attention to their misunderstanding.

Legal professionals can contribute to clearer communication by an awareness of patterns of misunderstanding. District Court Deputy Presiding Judge Peter Ashman of the 3rd Judicial District noted that, in his experience, a judge's or an attorney's failure to listen or to pick up clues that indicate a lack of comprehension tends to exacerbate communication difficulties. Galen Paine, Assistant Public Defender in Sitka, commented that attention to social and class differences can be as important as recognition of cultural differences. In either case, she noted, a key to clearer communication is to spend sufficient time with clients before they enter the courtroom. Adequate interpreting and widespread "cultural navigation" services, she adds, are essential to ensure equal access to justice. These cannot be achieved as long as the justice system fails to provide sufficient time and resources, both financial and human, to this effort.

The bar convention session in drawing further attention to the need to address interpreting issues in the legal communication process is contributing to a momentum toward establishing standards.

Phyllis Morrow is Professor of Anthropology at University of Alaska Fairbanks. She has published two previous articles in the Alaska Justice Forum on the issues discussed above: "Legal Interpreting in Alaska", Vol. 10, No. 4 (Winter 1994) and "A Sociolinguistic Mismatch: Central Alaskan Yup'iks and the Legal System", Vol. 10, No. 2 (Summer 1993). They are available through the Justice Center Web Site at