Farhiya Mahamud was used to translating documents and interpreting for members of Lewiston’s Somali community at her parents’ store. Doing it in a courtroom, then, came naturally to her.

“I feel like I am very much helping the community,” Mahamud said. “When I am in court, I can feel that people are very confused. They usually are very frustrated because they don’t know what’s going on. I also can feel the frustration and confusion from English speakers. I feel happy that I can help them all understand what is happening.”

Mahamud, 28, is one of 54 qualified court interpreters in Maine. This group helps people with limited English proficiency comprehend criminal, civil, juvenile and family proceedings in the state’s 38 courthouses, according to Hanna Sanders, access to justice coordinator for the Maine court system.

This position was created, in part, because of Maine’s growing diversity, exemplified by the increased demand for Somali interpreters. In 2012, Somali became the most requested language for interpretation in Maine’s courts for the first time.
Sanders, a lawyer, was hired a year ago to ensure the availability of interpreters and improve the quality of interpretation in the courts. Interpreters must be able “to quickly, completely, and accurately interpret spoken words from one language to another” and have an understanding of basic legal terminology, according to the court system.

The federal Civil Rights Act requires courts to take reasonable steps to provide access to interpreters for individuals who are not proficient in English. Judges, litigants or their attorneys, and court clerks may request interpreter or translation services, which are paid for by the courts.

Before Sanders was hired, court clerks often struggled to find translators who understood and could interpret the legal phrasing used in court. Interpreters were sometimes brought from out of state, or a telephonic service was used at the cost of nearly $1 a minute, said Sanders.

“Before Hanna there was no focused approach,” wrote Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the court system, in an email. “An administrator had supervision as one of many responsibilities. Much of the work for developing the list, qualifying, training, etc. was contracted out to United Way. Needless to say, there is much more attention to this critical access now that Hanna has been hired.”

Complaint sparked review

The roots of the limited English proficiency program go back to March 2003, when a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department alleged Maine courts failed to provide interpreters and other language services to people who needed them. After an inspection visit in 2006, Sanders said, a memorandum of understanding emerged between the Justice Department and the Maine judicial branch in 2009.

The agreement “extend[ed] qualified interpretation, at the state’s expense, to all [limited English proficiency] individuals who are parties or witnesses in any type of court case, parents of minors involved in juvenile actions, or court customers seeking information and other assistance from court clerks.”

The agreement was allowed to lapse two years later because the court system had implemented or was implementing the recommendations, according to Sanders.

Now, court clerks contact Sanders when an interpreter for court proceedings or translation of written court documents is required and they are having trouble finding one who is qualified or available. She also works with a handful of agencies in Maine and New England to provide interpreters for rare languages such as Wollof, only spoken in Senegal and Gambia.

Until this year in Maine, the most commonly requested languages have been Spanish and American Sign Language. In 2004-2005, there were only five requests for Somali interpreters, according to figures provided by Sanders. This past year, however, the number was 241, far surpassing the 138 requests for Spanish interpreters during the same period.

“Maine is now one of two states in the nation where Somali is the most requested language [in the courts],” said Sanders. “It was the most requested language in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, and is on track to be the most requested language this year.”

Minnesota is the other state where Somali is the most requested language, she said.

Demand for interpreters reflects demographics

Interpreters are most often used in courts in Maine’s most diverse cities: Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, according to state data and the U.S. Census. Between fiscal years 2008 and 2010, Portland accounted for 61 percent of the interpreter requests in Maine courts.

Figures reflect a similar trend in Androscoggin County. Between 2008 and 2010, 16.5 percent of the requests for interpreters came from Lewiston District Court or Androscoggin Superior Court in Auburn.

Bangor court, by comparison, was lumped in with the 12 percent “other” that included every county in the state except York, Cumberland and Androscoggin over this same three-year period.

The cost of interpreters has risen over the last few years, according to court data, from $141,341 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, to $238,424 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011.

Although interpreter costs dipped slightly to $232,143 in the fiscal year that ended last June, Sanders projected the cost for interpreters would be $240,402 this fiscal year.

Portland courts spent $87,441 for interpreters in fiscal year 2011 and $93,703 in 2012. Lewiston/Auburn courts, however, spent $46,162 and $22,908 in those same years.

One criminal case can skew the numbers, Sanders said. For example: the cost for interpreters in Bangor criminal cases between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012, was $14,622, with all but $500 going toward three American Sign Language interpreters for the trial of Timothy Damien, 44, of Bradley. Bangor’s interpreter costs the previous fiscal year totaled $7,883.

Requirements for certification rigorous

Interpreters must be 20 years old, have a high school diploma, be authorized to work in the U.S. and clear criminal background checks. Prior legal interpreting experience is preferred, but not required.

They also must agree to abide by the “Policy Concerning Standards of Professional Conduct for Interpreters Providing Services in Judicial Proceedings.” In addition, they must complete training programs and pass written and/or oral exams to demonstrate their proficiency in a language.

Court interpreters earn between $35 and $50 per hour.

Sanders has spent much of her first year on the job preparing interpreters to take a certification exam at the National Center for State Courts in Virginia. The test will be administered in Maine for the first time in September.

“The English written test was very challenging,” Mahamud said of the exam. “It was 135 questions. I think it took about two hours. I had to study a lot of legal words — a 50-page-long English legal glossary. It took awhile to remember all the legal terms that you don’t hear in everyday life. The oral Somali test was much easier.”

Nathan Williams, 30, of Gardiner was one of a dozen people who attended a Feb. 25 training session in Portland that focused on criminal court proceedings. Williams grew up in a Russian-speaking community in Richmond and is preparing to take the the exam this fall.

“Translating from English to Russian presents some challenges,” he said. “The greater challenge is not translating legal terms using the proper grammar and syntax but preserving all of what is said in the same tone and manner without adding or subtracting anything.”

Understanding the native culture of a litigant is as important as being able to translate the language, Sanders said. Immigrants to Maine from many African nations had no experience in a legal system like that of the United States.

“Women in particular are not used to looking to any legal system as a source of help,” she said. “We’re working with the immigrant communities so that in protection from abuse and protection from harassment cases and those related to divorce and parental right and responsibilities, women see the legal system as a refuge. Many of them have been subject to a tribal culture where males make decisions without input from women.”

Sanders said that she has been working to recruit female interpreters so women litigants “don’t have to express themselves through a male,” especially in domestic violence cases.

Mahamud agreed with that assessment.

“I think women are more comfortable and more willing to ask me more questions than they would be with a male interpreter,” she said. “I think with a male they might be a little bit shy and not ask questions that would pop into their heads.”

Her work as an interpreter has steered Mahamud toward a new career. Mahamud plans to take the law school entrance exam next year so that in few years she can represent members of the Somali community in court rather than simply interpret for them.

For information about court interpreters, call Hanna Sanders at 822-0703 or visit http://www.courts.state.me.us/maine_courts/admin/interpreters/index.html.