Classes aim to certify legal interpreters for S.C. courts

LANCASTER -- At least one day a week, Amparo "Amy" Bowers volunteers as an interpreter at a magistrate's court in Lancaster.

A native of Spain, Bowers is not a lawyer and doesn't have special legal training, but court officials found Bowers through her work at domestic violence and sexual assault prevention programs.

South Carolina's court systems do not require interpreters to have certification that proves their ability to accurately translate technical legal words. Yet, there is a growing need for qualified courtroom interpretations.

Now, steps are under way to ensure Spanish speakers get a fair day in court.

The S.C. Court Administration is in the middle of its first class for training certified court interpreters. And Midlands Tech is offering a new court-interpretation program beginning Nov. 9.

Bowers has enrolled in the Midlands Tech program and hopes it will prepare her to pass the S.C. certification test.

"All of these words are very important to know as interpreters," Bowers said. "We have to know them in Spanish and English. It is not that easy."

The official certification program is not mandatory for court interpreters, but the state's court system is moving in that direction, said Desiree Allen, court reporter manager for the S.C. Court Administration.

"That's the ultimate goal, but if we required that now, we wouldn't have but 15 interpreters," she said.

South Carolina has one of the five fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the country, and as a result, the number of Spanish-speaking victims, witnesses and criminals has increased.

Allen keeps a list of 200 interpreters in South Carolina, but only 15 are certified, she said. The others have sent letters spelling out their qualifications.

Even then, those who say they are qualified are not tested. The S.C. Court Administration also has a code of conduct for court interpreters, but it is not legally enforced.

"We put that out there so everybody knows if you are interpreting in our courts, this is what we expect," Allen said.

In rural areas where bilingual residents are hard to find, courts have been known to pull in volunteers from the community to help when a Spanish speaker is in the courtroom.

These programs are fulfilling a need seen daily by judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese said the Midlands Tech program is a great idea because a trial can require up to three interpreters: One for the official court proceedings, one for the prosecutors and one for the defense.

"There's been a growing need for courtroom interpreters for the past four to five years," Giese said.

Any program that expands the pool of qualified interpreters will help, Giese said.

On the federal level, there are three certified court interpreters for the S.C. District. Chief Judge Joseph Anderson of the U.S. District Court said the lack of certified interpreters creates scheduling difficulties.

"I can tell you eight to 10 years ago, it was very rare for us to need a court interpreter," Anderson said. "Now, every time we set a case, we have to check to see if we need an interpreter."

Federal certification takes two years, and that's if the applicant passes the test, said Britt Hunt, owner of Comunicar Language Services.

"That's the golden chalice for interpreters," he said.

Training programs teach everything from courtroom standards to capturing the nuances of a witness's testimony.

Hunt has been certified as a court interpreter in Georgia, which is recognized in South Carolina. He said he will attempt the federal certification test next year. His company regularly works in Richland and Lexington county courts.

"I've seen people interpret in court who were just horrible," he said. "Some people don't know you're supposed to interpret everything that is said. If it's a trial, you're going to want to hear everything, even the most boring motions that barely make sense in English."