Looking to address a statewide shortage of interpreters, Wisconsin’s Court System is pushing for more people to join its court interpreter program to ensure that everyone has a voice in the judicial process.
The program, which has been in place since 2003, employs interpreters speaking over 60 languages, Carmel Capati, attorney and manager of the Wisconsin Court Interpreter Program, said. But recently, the program has experienced a shortage in languages like Spanish and Arabic among others, Capati said. This has made it difficult for cases to progress through the judicial process.
Capati said interpreters have to know legal vocabulary and terminology in both English and the other language, which can be difficult for many people.
“It’s a tough job because it’s a specialty profession that requires someone to be obviously bilingual but also have interpreter skills needed to do the job,” Capati said.
Some interpreters work on a temporary basis and then leave to go work elsewhere, Capati said. Losing interpreters this way requires the program to keep recruiting new ones throughout the year.
Dane County needs interpreters speaking a wider variety of languages compared to other regions in Wisconsin. But it can be difficult to find enough people who speak a common language like Hmong or anyone who can speak a relatively rare language like Arabic, Capati said.
Currently, Spanish has the highest demand for interpreters and makes up 80 percent of the program’s needs. John Rejowski, a second-year law student at University of Wisconsin Law School, said there is a greater need to build up resources for Spanish speakers seeking legal help because of a large influx of Spanish speakers.
“If people have time, can speak Spanish and are looking to do good in their community, they can help people out by volunteering to interpret, which would be a great thing,” Rejowski said.
The courts also face a shortage of people speaking rare languages. For example, Capati said the state has a relatively large Burmese refugee population that needs interpreters. But there are over 30 languages spoken in Burma and not enough interpreters, which has made it difficult to represent people speaking those languages in court.
Marsha Mansfield, a UW law professor, said in an email to The Badger Herald that the shortage also impacts how English-speaking attorneys interact with their non-English speaking clients. Interpreters are typically unavailable to interpret when attorneys want to talk with their clients outside of the courtroom, which can make the process more difficult.
“The attorney is unable to communicate with client either outside of the courtroom or even during court proceedings, such as if the attorney wants to ask his/her client a question while someone else is testifying,” Mansfield said.
Wisconsin has been increasingly using technology as an alternative to having interpreters physically present at court proceedings, Capati said. This includes having interpreters appear via video or telephone from other states. The court system has also reached out to people through career fairs and state universities’ language departments.
Capati said if anyone is interested in becoming an interpreter, they can reach out to their local courthouse to apply. She said she encourages interested people to go and observe some proceedings in their local courthouse before applying so that they get a feel of that environment.
“It is difficult because in a court proceeding if someone cannot understand what is going on or can’t express themselves then the proceeding can’t go forward and we have to wait till we can find someone,” Capati said. “I would strongly encourage people to apply.”
Alice Vagun contributed to reporting this article.