Judge Andrea Peeples says having an honest interpreter is crucial. She recalls a case she heard when she first hit the bench, during which a brother was interpreting for his sister.
“While I was saying something to the effect of, ‘It’s a minor misdemeanor, your first speeding ticket, minimal fine.’ He was saying, someone translated it for me later, that she was a goat and that she had embarrassed the family by bringing the shame on,” Peeples says.
Peeples had no idea what the interpreter was saying, and she could not understand why the woman was crying. That experience taught her that accurate interpretation is key – and it affects more than just immigrants who don’t speak English.
“If you’re Joe Smith in Upper Arlington, and your car is struck by someone who speaks Bhutanese,” Peeples says, “we can’t go forward in that trial, you’re not going to get restitution for your insurance if the defendant doesn’t have an interpreter and can’t participate in the case.”
There are just a handful of Nepali court interpreters in Ohio, a state with a Bhutanese-Nepalese population of around 42,000. In comparison, the Ohio Supreme Court lists just 30 Nepali speakers in its internal database.
People participating in the U.S. legal system have the right to legal representation, but that that right can be literally lost in translation without an interpreter. And in Franklin County’s Bhutanese-Nepalese community, the largest in the country, the problem is becoming more common.
Becoming An Interpreter
The Ohio Supreme Court’s language services program oversees training and certification for interpreters. Program manager Bruno Romero says it is a challenge to find interpreters who speak less-common foreign languages like Nepali.
“It’s a small community that has a refugee track,” Romero says. “What I mean by that is, they tend to come from refugee camps, so there’s a particular kind of experience they have.”
Romero says as a community predominantly made up of refugees, most Bhutanese-Nepalese residents know very little if any English.
“Not sufficient enough to become interpreters in the same vein that you see interpreters in the Spanish language and representing the Spanish community, or Russian or French," he says.
Romero says there are probably 150 languages spoken in Ohio. Of those, the state certifies interpreters for 20, including Arabic, Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali. To pass the certification, interpreters must pass an oral and written test.
Padam Adhikari took up medical interpreting when he realized miscommunication was causing people to get services they didn’t want.
“I was very startled with the news I got from my community, that the young children, those who are born here in Columbus, they got circumcised, which is against my culture, and even my community people were unaware of that,” Adhikari says.
More Nepali Cases
A health and science teacher back home, Adhikari then added started court interpreting, a field with a growing caseload of Nepali speakers.
“Actually around 2012, there were maybe a few cases. In 2013, more cases is coming up. In 2014, maybe around 100 cases,” Adhikari says. “After that, I started more than 300, 400, around 500 now from the municipal court.”
Columbus' North Side is home to the largest group of Bhutanese-Nepalese people living in the U.S., with a citywide population of 27,000 people. And Columbus city officials estimate the population has increased by nearly 400 percent in the past eight years.
But there is no centralized reporting system for the demand of language interpreters, so the state can only estimate how many people need an interpreter.
Tara Acharya became an interpreter a couple of years ago.
“Lately, the cases have been growing," Acharya says. "I have been receiving calls and emails from Supreme Court of Ohio. The demand has been growing lately than it was before."
Acharya says he gets multiple emails and phone calls a week asking for help interpreting. But often, his full-time job and family responsibilities keep him accepting assignments.
“Also, if there is a possible way for the Supreme Court of Ohio or anybody else to hire someone as fulltime or something, because then the interpreter could have a secure job,” Acharya says.
There is no standard pay for interpreters, who can make anywhere between $15 and $75 per hour.
“The ability to make a living as a court interpreter in languages that do not have significant volume, make it nearly impossible to attract and retain people in the system,” Romero said in an email.
Peeples says the system needs people who are looking first to help the community.
“You have to have a good heart," Peeples says, "because I don’t know that anyone’s actually paid enough to interpret some of these cases.”