“Never trust the translation or interpretation of something without first trusting its interpreter. One word absent from a sentence can drastically change the true intended meaning of the entire sentence.” – The Writings of Suzy Kassem
The need for qualified interpreters in our judicial system continues to increase in Wisconsin.
According to the U.S. Census bureau, 3% of Wisconsin residents report speaking English “less than very well.”1 The Wisconsin Department of Health Services says that 8.6% of Wisconsinites are deaf or hard of hearing.2
Several counties have populations with higher populations of people who speak English “less than very well” than the state average, including Milwaukee (6.35%), Clark (5.3%), Walworth (4.22%), Dane (4.12%), Brown (3.91%), Sheboygan (3.89%), Green Lake (3.76%), Kenosha (3.4%), Vernon (3.3%), Trempealeau (3.27%), and Calumet (3.14%).3
Many of the people in these groups may need an interpreter for a court proceeding.
Megan L. Sprecher, St. Thomas 2007,is a supervising attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin in Madison, where she focuses on barriers to employment.
Limited English Proficiency
The state statute covering interpreters in circuit and appellate courts defines “limited English proficiency” as:
the inability, because of the use of a language other than English, to adequately understand or communicate effectively in English in a court proceeding; or
the inability, due to a speech impairment, hearing loss, deafness, deaf-blindness, or other disability, to adequately hear, understand, or communicate effectively in English in a court proceeding.4
People who have some English skills may still meet this definition and need an interpreter. If the circuit or appellate court determines that a party in interest, testifying witness, alleged victim, parent/legal guardian of a minor party in interest, or another person affected by the proceedings has limited English proficiency, and needs an interpreter, the court shall tell the person that they have the right to a qualified interpreter at no expense to the person with limited English proficiency.5
The Wisconsin Court System’s Court Interpreter Program maintains a list of qualified interpreters who are categorized as certified, provisional, or authorized.
The Court Interpreter Program defines certified, provisional, and authorized interpreters as follows:
Spoken Language Interpreter Ratings
Certified: A certified interpreter holds the highest credential for court interpreting offered by the Director of State Courts. This interpreter has passed an oral performance examination developed by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) that measures an individual's ability to interpret in the three modes of interpreting: Sight Translation, Consecutive, and Simultaneous. This level of interpreter should always be the first choice for court interpreting.
Provisional A or B: A provisional interpreter has scored 65% (A) or 55% (B) or higher on two out of three parts of the oral performance examination developed by the NCSC and may have passed one or two parts of the test. This level of interpreter should be the choice for court interpreting if a certified interpreter is not available.
Authorized: This level of interpreter is for a language where an oral performance examination developed by the NCSC is not available. Therefore, certification is not available. An authorized interpreter has achieved a Superior level on an Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) and should be the first choice for court interpreting.
Sign Language Interpreter Ratings
Certified: A certified interpreter may hold any of the following certificates from Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf such as: a Specialist Certificate: Legal, Conditional Legal Interpreting Permit-Relay, or Certified Deaf Interpreter; Board for Evaluation of Interpreters Court Interpreter Certificate; or another credential deemed to be an equivalent. This level of interpreter should always be the first choice for court interpreting.
Provisional: A provisional interpreter has passed the NCSC court interpreter written examination and met other practice and observations requirements.
Availability of qualified interpreters varies based on how common a language is. With some languages, the only interpreters listed on the roster are from outside of Wisconsin. For rare languages, there may not be any interpreters listed on the roster. Many of the Wisconsin interpreters are based in southeast Wisconsin. Courts may utilize technology, especially in cases where the language is rare, and a qualified interpreter is harder to find.
Code of Ethics for Court Interpreters
Supreme Court Rule 63 details the Code of Ethics for Court Interpreters, including areas such as accuracy, completeness, representation of qualifications, confidentiality, impartiality, professionalism, and professional development.
Requesting an Interpreter
To create a record of the request, use Form GF-149 Interpreter Request or GF-153 ADA Accommodation Request to request an interpreter for a court proceeding. Reaching out to the court ahead of time to ensure an interpreter will be at the court proceeding is also a good idea. The court system maintains a list of interpreter schedulers by county with contact information.
Interpreters are a key component in the legal system. When there is an issue about the quality of language access provided or whether language access is provided, communicate the issue with the clerk of court, district court administrator, ADA coordinator, chief judge, presiding judge of the court where the matter occurred, the Court Interpreter Program manager, or through the methods described in the circuit or appellate court’s Language Access Plan.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Civil Rights also has a complaint process for language access violations by federal funding recipients – many courts receive federal funding in some shape or form.
Awareness Is Key
There are many barriers to justice for people going through the legal system. The appropriate use of qualified interpreters for people with limited English proficiency helps remove one of those barriers, and makes an attorney’s representation of the individual that much more effective.
Additional Resources for Court Interpreters
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.
1 2020 American Community Survey, Selected Social Characteristics in the United States, U.S. Census Bureau.
2 Hearing Loss Information, Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
3 Language Access Plan, Wisconsin Director of State Courts.
4 Wis. Stat. § 885.38(1)(b).
5 Wis. Stat. § 885.38(3)(a).