US courts and legal services require multi-lingual professionals

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Legal services in the United States are experiencing a surge in need for bilingual employees. Mostly, Spanish speaking professionals are needed, but a general need for other languages is being felt, also. Immigrants can use specialist language skills to qualify for work permits when seeking U.S. jobs.

Maryland and Virginia court officials say their budgets for Spanish-language interpreters have increased about 10 percent annually over the past decade as more immigrants and illegal aliens have settled in the area. Virginia officials added nine freelance, Spanish language interpreters in fiscal 2005, bringing its total to 113 at a cost of $3.42 million -- a 12.3 percent budget increase from 2004.

Maryland contracted the services of 350 interpreters, about 45 percent of them Spanish speaking, at a cost of $1.75 million in fiscal 2005, with a budget of more than $2 million for interpreters in fiscal 2006.

Washington DC reduced its contracting costs in fiscal 2005 for its federally funded interpreter program, from $650,000 to $450,000. However, the reduction was the result of the system adding more Spanish language interpreters to its staff. The system now has more than 200 interpreters proficient in 56 languages.

Hispanics represent 40 percent of the 1 million immigrants and illegal aliens into the mid-Atlantic/Washington DC region, more than doubled within the last decade. Court officials say the demand for interpreters is quickly outpacing the supply. Characterizing the situation as a desperate need, it is also noted that few colleges offer curriculum's in interpretation.

Interpreters must exactly interpret each word, phrase, question, utterance, objection and slang expression spoken in English, Spanish, or other language necessary. A very precise, expert knowledge of legal terms and implications is every bit as necessary as colloquial expressions.

Inside the courtrooms, quiet, quick and precise interpretation of the exchanges between attorneys and witnesses is required for defendants and their families. This may often be long and complicated, sometimes highly emotional.

An interpreter can also "become" the immigrant witness during cross-examination, first interpreting the attorneys' questions and comments into the native language, then answering back to the court in first person in English, imitating the witness's every pause, stutter and voice intonation to indicate such emotions as irritation, sadness and confusion.

Virginia interpreters served 54,090 persons last year, while D.C. interpreters handled 7,661 cases. Maryland statistics were not available.

According to the Consortium for State Court Interpreters, which regulates interpreting standards in 33 states, Virginia interpreters, depending on certification and skill, earn $35 to $85 an hour and as much as $500 per day -- the highest in the region. The difference in wage may explain why Virginia has fewer interpreters but a higher payout, officials say.

Maryland court interpreters earn $35 to $50 an hour, with no daily option. Interpreters in the District, which is not a Consortium member, earn $329 per full day or $178 per half-day.

Unfortunately, the best interpreters can make more money working in private industry, or for the State Department. This puts pressure on the local courts and services who have more limited budgets.

Adult immigrants are more likely to request interpreters than juveniles, who tend to be bilingual. Some predict that the need for interpreters will decrease over the next decade as these children age and give birth to another bilingual generation.

Adult immigrants experience unusual difficulty. When older, learning a new language to fluency is much more difficult than when younger. Also, most adults work, sometimes two or more jobs, in addition to managing their households. Time to spend learning a language is often impossible to find, and mental exhaustion makes such available time unusable in many cases.

However, as the Asian population swells past 32 percent of all immigrants, court officials report difficulty in finding interpreters fluent in Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin and several Indian dialects. Maryland officials say finding an interpreter for those languages can take weeks or even months.

D.C. officials say they are able to provide interpreters for less-commonly known African languages, such as Eritrea's Tigrinya, only about 80 percent of the time. About 15 percent of District-area immigrants are from Africa and the Middle East.

Even when immigrants, or the children of immigrants, speak English, it is often not at a high enough level to communicate effectively in a critical situation, such as a court room. Interpreters will continue to be needed, not only for testimony, but to explain complex legal language in documents provided to immigrants.

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