Hawaii's courts have a shortage of interpreters

Published On: Jan 25 2013 01:00:00 PM HST

Hawaii's judiciary system is finding itself in a unique and difficult situation these days.  There's a shortage of court interpreters statewide.

There's an immediate need for bilingual residents to work in the courts and the search is on for help.

Meaningful participation in your own trial is a civil right.  That goes for even non-English speaking defendants.

But with Hawaii's diverse ethnic population, a lack of qualified interpreters in the court system is a case proving hard to solve.

It’s a huge problem,” said Debi Tulang deSilva, Hawaii state judiciary’s court interpreter program director.

Right now there are 300 court interpreters employed with Hawaii's judiciary system covering 40 different languages, but there's a high demand for Chuukese, Ilokano, and Korean speaking interpreters.

Court interpreting requires a highly specialized skill in three different modes of interpreting -- consecutive, which is a question and answer format; simultaneous, which is talking at the same time the other language is being spoken; and written.

"The have to be able to interpret from a written document," said deSilva.

On top of having strong language and written skills, court interpreters are held to a higher standard.

"They have to have strong moral and strong ethical character," said deSilva.

"It’s not easy at all," said court interpreter Suzanne Zeng.  Zeng is a Chinese interpreter with more than 10 years working in Hawaii's courts.

"You have to think accuracy and how do you say a word or term or phrase in another language," said Zeng.   "Sometimes we have to hold back tears ourselves. Other times we have to hold back anger.  But, yes, you have to be very unbiased."

"Without that language interpreter or a poor interpreter for example, it’s just too hard and (the defendant’s) life might be at stake.  So it’s very important," said Zeng.

But Zeng will tell you the reward is always when justice is served.

Applications for court interpreters are being accepted up until Feb. 1.  Salary ranges from $25 up to $50 an hour.

Click here for the Hawaii website for court interpreters and click here for an application form.

The following is the top three (high demand) languages needing court interpreting services in the Hawaii state courts (as determined by the number of case assignments in each language in Fiscal Year 2012):

First Judicial Circuit - Oahu

  1. Chuukese
  2. Ilokano
  3. Korean


Second Judicial Circuit - Maui

  1. Spanish
  2. Ilokano
  3. Tongan


Third Judicial Circuit - Hawaii

  1. Chuukese
  2. Marshallese
  3. Ilokano


Fifth Judicial Circuit - Kauai

  1. Marshallese
  2. Tagalog
  3. Ilokano


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