Las Vegas Sun

August 19, 2019

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Making a case for interpreters: Nevada courts join language program

Nevada, after more than a decade of trying, will adopt a nationally standardized program this week for testing and certifying interpreters in foreign languages.

The move, which will first focus on Spanish interpreters, is designed to give people who appear in court a better understanding of the legal process.

It also could help avoid mistakes in rulings based on flawed translations -- such as an April 2000 case in Ohio, in which a murder conviction was overturned after the court interpreter's qualifications to translate for a Spanish-speaking defendant were challenged.

The state program includes membership in the National Consortium for State Court Interpreters, an organization that provides training and tests to certify interpreters, as well as continuing education for certified interpreters.

Nevada is the 28th state to join the consortium, which was formed in 1995. Clark County currently has the only system in Nevada for testing interpreters.

"We've been trying to get this approved for some time, and see this as a victory for equal access to the justice system," said Beth Mamman, management analyst at the administrative office of courts in Carson City, which will will oversee the program.

Mamman said that various attempts at creating a statewide standard were brought before the Legislature since 1989, but the lack of a national organization to set guidelines on tests and training thwarted the effort.

Once the national consortium was founded, it took until the 2001 Legislature to convince lawmakers to commit to the idea.

"People may not have thought Nevada was big enough to warrant such a step and the money it costs," Mamman said.

The program will cost the state $145,000 this year and $112,000 next year.

The 2000 Census helped make the case for the program, showing a growing population of people who speak other languages, Mamman said.

"The numbers were so compelling, and we know what risk courts and parties are at in not having this program in place -- especially if we don't want Nevada to be the kind of case everybody cites," Mamman said.

During the 20 years Mariteresa Rivera-Rogers has supervised the county's interpreters, she has seen the caseload she coordinates rise from 300 to 2,500 cases per month -- 90 percent of which involve Spanish. There are now 300 interpeters handling this caseload, though only 49 work with Spanish.

Edwin Canizalez, who will direct the program from Carson City with frequent trips to Las Vegas, said his personal and professional experience at a nonprofit group that promotes family involvement in education have taught him that people need information in their primary language.

"Even if it's parents not having simple information like vaccination dates or special events, many Hispanic and Asian parents in Clark County miss out on a lot for lack of information in their languages," he said.

"With this new program, the courts will now be giving greater access to language minorities in the state," he said.

Rivera-Rogers, who helped write the national consortium's test, said problems with the current system include not having enough resources to train interpreters and not having written translations of a defendant's rights and the basic rules of court available in the rural areas, where interpreters aren't readily available, she said.

The state's new program will eventually provide training and ongoing written translations of legal information for rural courts, Mamman said.

Dorothy Bryant, program specialist at the Virginia-based consortium of interpreters, said Nevada is one of six states to join the group in the last year, and that she expects more.

"There's a growing consciousness in the country at large, where the increase in Hispanics and other minorities is leading to an increase in the same groups in the courts, as witnesses and defendants," she said.

"When you put this together with cases where an interpreter's qualifications are called into question -- such as the April 2000 case in Ohio -- you're going to see more states taking this step."

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