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State-certified sign- and foreign-language interpreters in Allegheny County assist defendants, victims, witnesses others

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Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, 9:20 p.m.
 

When Romanian-speaking immigrants appear in an Allegheny County courtroom, give a deposition or report a crime to police, Doina Francu is there to help.

Francu, 58, of Bethel Park is among 15 state-certified sign- and foreign-language interpreters in Allegheny County who assist defendants, victims, witnesses and others who speak little or no English.

“Everything that involves the legal aspect needs to have an interpreter when the person can't speak English,” said Francu, who spends most of her time traveling the world interpreting Romanian and French for businesses. “In this job, you never get bored. There is always something new.”

Allegheny County court officials have increased their reliance on interpreters in the past five years, administrators said, because of a greater awareness of the law and a growing immigrant population. Spending on foreign-language interpreters surged more than fourfold since 2008. The court paid interpreters slightly more than $78,000 through mid-September.

“It's definitely a growing need,” said Lisa Herbert, Allegheny County's deputy court administrator in charge of requests for foreign- and sign-language interpreters. “Courts across the country have become more aware of the needs of the limited English proficient population.”

Certified foreign language interpreters are paid $35 to $75 an hour, depending on their mastery of a language, or between $220 and $400 a day.

Federal laws require courts to ensure that parties in court cases can understand the proceedings, said Paul Gatto, assistant director for the Center for Interpretation at the University of Arizona.

“In this country, we have the right to be confronted by our accusers, be present at trial and effectively conference with our attorney,” Gatto said. “You can't do all of that if you have no idea what's being said. While it's always theoretically been the case, in a practical sense, it hasn't been provided.”

As recently as last month, states including Ohio and Michigan reinforced the requirement for courts to provide certified interpreters to people who don't speak English. Pennsylvania established its interpreter certification program in 2006. Pennsylvania offers protection-from- abuse forms in 12 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Russian and Vietnamese.

There are 170 certified interpreters in the state skilled in more than two dozen languages, including Farsi, Portuguese, Mandarin and Urdu. In Allegheny County, there are 15 interpreters certified through the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania's Courts, including 11 in sign language and three in Spanish.

Francu is the only Romanian interpreter working for the county.

Pittsburgh Municipal Court uses a hotline to connect non-English speakers to translators of more than 200 languages, court administrator Angharad Stock said.

Nationwide, the translation services industry is growing about 15 percent a year, said Jiri Stejskal, spokesman for the American Translators Association.

Part of the increase is because of a 1999 executive order by President Clinton requiring programs that receive federal funding — such as courts, schools and hospitals — to provide interpreters to those who need it.

There remains a shortage of interpreters for some languages, said Tony Guerra, head of interpretation services for CETRA Language Solutions in Philadelphia.

To help meet the demand, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Ida K. Chen is working with the Delaware Valley Translators Association — of which Guerra is president — and Widener Law School in Harrisburg to certify more translators, which could benefit every county in the state, Guerra said.

“Every citizen is entitled to due process,” he said. “If you can't understand what's happening in court because of a language barrier, then you're not getting a fair trial.”

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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