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US Hospitals, Courts Struggle With Growing Demand for Interpreters

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble and this week on WORDMASTER: we look at the growing need for interpreters in American hospitals and courts ...

RS: And how technology is addressing shortages.

AA: We start with health care. Faith Lapidus has our report.

FL: For more than a quarter of a century, Language Line Services -- LLS -- has provided trained interpreters to help doctors and caregivers communicate with non-English speaking patients. Company president Louis Provenzano says the demand for interpreting services is on the rise.

LOUIS PROVENZANO: "A typical urban hospital, they may treat patients who speak forty to sixty different language. So it's almost impossible to staff internally. Some hospitals provide professional interpreters. Others rely on family members or even janitorial staff. But because their knowledge of medical terminology has not been verified by any regulating authority, the quality of communication can differ dramatically. And in the case of diagnosis and treatment decisions, it could have a tragic consequences."

FL: LLS recently launched the International Registry of Certified Medical Interpreters.

LOUIS PROVENZANO: "It's the first industry resource of its kind to give health care organizations a free online resource for identifying those professionals, medical interpreters, and reviewing their language skills and credentials."

SUSAN AVILA: "This is Susan, Spanish interpreter four-nine-two-one."

FL: Certified Spanish interpreter Susan Avila provides over-the-phone medical translations.

SUSAN AVILA: "It could be anywhere from a little child getting his shots updated, to something very elaborate as the explanation of a surgery. Perhaps a mother is having contractions and we have to calm her down and give her the instructions on how she is supposed to breath."

FL: According to LLS President Louis Provenzano, regulating medical interpreting services is essential to improving the health care system and ensuring equal opportunity for all patients.

LOUIS PROVENZANO: "I think a number of interpreter associations, a number of different organizations like Language Line Services are really pushing Congress and legislators to put various, different regulations on a national basis."

FL: Provenzano says he hopes that will allow health care professionals to focus on the medical services, without worrying about important bits of information getting lost in translation. I'm Faith Lapidus.

AA: Now, we shift from the emergency room to the courtroom, where many U.S. states are also facing interpreter shortages.

RS: Reporter Steve Mort has that story.

SM: A Spanish-speaking defendant, who understands no English, appears before an Orlando, Florida, judge. Ody Arias-Luciano interprets. She leads the court interpreting program for this part of Florida.

ODY ARIAS LUCIANO: "We do have a need for Creole interpreters, for Portuguese, for Russian, for Vietnamese, for every language."

SM: The government says U.S. federal courtrooms needed interpreters in a hundred and fifteen languages in two thousand seven. In District courts, there were nearly a quarter of a million cases that required interpreters. In both cases, the numbers are up.

Jessy Castillo uses her skills in Haitian Creole to guide this defendant through the legal process. Castillo is one of only three Creole interpreters in Orlando. She runs an agency which provides interpreters to courts, and can cite cases where she has struggled to find an interpreter demanded by a court.

JESSY CASTILLO: "They were looking for Burmese and that was quite difficult. We could not retain anyone here that spoke this language".

SM: Some officials in Orlando hope technology could ease the interpreter shortage. This system allows an interpreter in another city or state to use monitors to see the activity in court. An interpreter could translate courtroom discussion from anyplace with this specially adapted phone.

Agustin de la Mora trains court interpreters. He helped develop the remote technology used here.

AGUSTIN DE LA MORA: "It's silly to believe that you're going to find a good interpreter that is trained for every language in every corner of the United States. So more and more, I'm advocating the use of interpreters that are trained that can do a good job at a distance, using technology."

SM: But Public Defender Robert Wesley, whose staff represent defendants in court, is skeptical. He does not feel comfortable using an interpreter who is in a different location.

ROBERT WESLEY: "Because we don't know if that interpreter is also cooking a pot of beans or knitting a sweater or doing something different while she is working to interpret on the phone."

SM: Nevertheless, outside the courtroom, Wesley says he often communicates with his clients through a telephone interpreting service.

The federal courts offer an online list of certified interpreters. And around the country, many of the states are working individually and collectively to ease the shortage, so that defendants who speak no English can have their day in court.

RS: That was Steve Mort, reporting for VOA. And that's WORDMASTER for this week.

AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.