Boone County court gets a new phone for translations

Thursday, April 19, 2012 | 4:39 p.m. CDT; updated 6:46 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 19, 2012

COLUMBIA — Boone County Circuit Judge Deborah Daniels looks down from her bench at a defendant in court for a preliminary hearing.

Sara Pedroza steps forward. She fidgets with her shirt, but is otherwise still. Pedroza doesn't speak English, and she needs the proceedings translated into Spanish. 

"Are we getting the language line?" Judge Daniels asks her secretary. The secretary presses a button on a black phone propped on a small wheeled cart near the bench. 

A dial tone blares around the room, drowning out the murmurs of attorneys in consultation. A translator on the line introduces herself and starts speaking in rapid Spanish.

Pedroza listens silently, nodding occasionally as the words of Gerald Mueller, her defense attorney, are translated. There are a couple of slip-ups and repeated phrases, but the parties are patient.

Mueller asks that one sentence be restated so his client will understand that her hearing is being rescheduled.

The translator ends the conversation, leaving the courtroom to wait for acknowledgement from the defendant.

"OK," Pedroza says, shifting her weight to the other foot.

Courtrooms can intimidate those who are summoned before them. For those who don't speak English, it can be even more daunting.

Boone County's court system has just one in-house interpreter, who speaks Spanish. For other languages, the courts use a phone translation service.

Court phones have microphones and speakers so plaintiffs, defendants, judge and attorneys can be translated as needed. They are used when a party is speaking a language other than Spanish.

In previous years, phone translations were needed once or twice a year, but in 2011, the number jumped to 68, according to Boone County court records.

The increase prompted the system to purchase a second phone in December, said Mary Epping, assistant to the court administrator.

The obvious preference would be to certify an in-house interpreter for every language, but that is difficult outside metro areas, Epping said. Most court-certified interpreters in Missouri live in St. Louis and Kansas City.

To hire a translator from either of those cities, the court would need to cover the cost of the trip to and from Columbia and pay a two-hour minimum for the interpreter's wages, Epping said. Wages can range anywhere from $45 per hour for a deaf interpreter to $100 per hour for other languages.  

A court proceeding may not require an interpreter until the last minute, Epping said, which may not be enough notice for an interpreter living in another city.

Missouri has contracts for translator services with two companies: Language Line for criminal and juvenile cases and Language Select for all other cases. Both companies are based in California. 

Phone translations cost 59 cents per minute for Spanish. Bosnian, French, Korean, Vietnamese and Russian translations cost 79 cents per minute, and all other languages are 99 cents per minute.

“It's more convenient and cost-effective to be able to call a 1-800 number and have someone bill you by minute for translation services, especially when many of our interpreter needs are 15-30 minutes," Epping said. 

In some cases, however, using a phone translator can be time-consuming. The foreign language is spoken, translated into English, and the response in court is translated back into the foreign language.

It's slower than using an in-house interpreter, but Epping said the process is of utmost importance:

“It’s important that the people in a case know what's going on, what their rights are and what they are agreeing to,” she said.

Currently, the most common language used in Boone County courts is Spanish. There are no clear second or third choices, but recently, there have been requests for Russian, Amharic (an Ethiopian language), Bosnian and Korean translation.

Even though Columbia has three universities where many are proficient in foreign languages, that is not enough to qualify as a court translator. The person must be court-certified, and Epping said there are no local certified interpreters in Columbia. Boone County can only use those who are officially qualified.

"We need someone who knows court terminology and can translate English to the other language, and the other language to English, quickly and accurately," Epping said. "It's not summarizing. It would be great if there were more local folks who could interpret for us."

Anyone who is a court-certified interpreter is encouraged to contact the Access to Courts Specialist at the Boone County Courthouse, Lynette Ricks, at (573) 526-8356.

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