In the Umatilla County courthouse, the question, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” may be answered in a number of different languages.
Across Oregon, requests for indigenous languages have spiked in the last year. As languages like Mam, Q’anjob’al and K’iche’ become more common, so do requests for courtroom interpreters that speak them.
Spoken by people in Guatemala and parts of Mexico, Belize and Honduras, these languages are native to the regions from which their speakers come, and are all distinct from Spanish, and from each other.
Roy Blaine, the trial court administrator for Umatilla and Morrow County Circuit Courts, said the need for court interpreters far outweighs their availability.
He said while there may be more people who can translate from Mam to Spanish or to English, that doesn’t automatically qualify them to be a court interpreter.
“I don’t say to anybody in the community, ‘Oh, you speak K’iche’ or Mam, we need you to come to court,’” he said. “You have to communicate in the specific dialect, but also not be related to them, or have no personal investment in the case.”
Local courts work closely with the Oregon Judicial Department’s Court Language Access Services, which provides translation and interpretation services for many languages — including Spanish, Russian, Korean and Vietnamese. Interpreter requests are coordinated through the state courts system.
According to Kelly Mills, the program manager for Court Language Access Services, the number of requests for several indigenous languages statewide has spiked in the last few years. From 2015 to 2016, requests for indigenous languages increased by 42 percent.
In 2017, there were 133 requests for a Mam interpreter across the state. Requests are likely to be nearly double that in 2018, with 97 requested in the first six months of the year.
Mills said there have already been 33 requests for Q’anjob’al interpreters in the first half of 2018, and there were 33 all year in 2017. Requests for K’iche’ interpreters have already surpassed last year’s numbers, with 25 in the first half of this year, and 24 in all of 2017.
In Umatilla and Morrow counties, there have been 15 requests for Mam language interpreters in the first half of 2018, and 19 requests for Q’anjob’al. There have been 11 requests for K’iche’.
There are several indigenous languages that aren’t requested as often, and some requested this year that the courts had not seen before. Two of the most recently requested languages are Ixil and Achi.
But while the courts are trying to meet language needs, Mills said they often have to rely on people from out-of-state, such as interpreters over the phone for shorter court proceedings like arraignments. Blaine said there is one interpreter who speaks K’iche’ that lives in Oregon, but many of the cases that require interpreters are handled over the phone — even for Spanish speakers.
“We have Spanish interpreters living in the area, but only a couple. It’s not sufficient,” Blaine said.
There is one interpreter in Oregon for Mam, the most frequently requested indigenous language in the state. Bertilda Martin-Mendoza is a native of Guatemala, and Mam is her first language. She moved to the United States as a child, where she learned Spanish, and then English. She started working as a volunteer interpreter in 1998 in Washington, at hospitals and community events.
In 2000, someone asked her to help translate for a court case where someone spoke Mam. Afterward, the judge asked to meet with her, and asked if she wanted to start working there, which led to a career as a courtroom interpreter. Based in Portland, she travels within Oregon, and around the United States for her work. Last year, she helped train three Mam interpreters in Washington.
Martin-Mendoza said she’s seen a growing number of native Mam speakers who know some Spanish. But it usually doesn’t work the other way.
“There’s no way a Spanish speaker would speak Mam,” she said. “Native languages are not easy to learn. I’ve never met someone that has said they speak Mam as a second language, though there are probably some out there.”
Martin-Mendoza said she had to educate herself for many aspects of the job.
“A lot of the things we see here don’t exist in native culture,” she said. “You have to educate yourself on how you are going to interpret.”
Another challenge is translating specific legal terms — for which she said courts often rely on “relay interpreting.”
“I would translate from Mam to Spanish, and another Spanish interpreter would translate Spanish to English,” she said.
Blaine said a lack of interpreters means that often, court proceedings will be delayed.
“Somebody ends up sitting in jail, or maybe a family case needs to be heard because there are children in danger,” he said. “It can’t be heard until we get an interpreter.”
He said the new case management system has alleviated the issue somewhat, where the first time an interpreter for a certain language is requested, that request shows up on all subsequent court appearances for that person.
Umatilla County District Attorney Dan Primus said the biggest challenge for attorneys working on a case with an interpreter is allowing time for translation.
“When you’re in court, your mind is going, how you want to approach questions,” he said. “When dealing with an interpreter, you have to slow yourself down.”
Other than that, he said, he’s been pleased with interpreter services.
“It seems to be a pretty smooth system,” he said.
Primus added that while sometimes emotion can be lost in translation, he trusts the interpreters to relay the content of a message.
“There’s not a concern in regards to accuracy,” he said.
He added that while his office has no victim advocates that speak indigenous languages, there is one that speaks Spanish.
“That’s something we use every day,” Primus said.
Many of their clients who speak indigenous languages can communicate somewhat with that advocate, he said.