October 14, 2014; KTOO Public Radio

When a Latin American immigrant in Juneau, Alaska, was harassed by an abusive local man, her limited English language skills made seeking court-ordered protection difficult. In order to file for a protective order from the courts, forms needed to be completed in English. So the courts directed her to the nonprofit organization Piedra de Ayuda.

Piedra de Ayuda is a national nonprofit comprised by volunteers. Originally a homeless outreach program, it now offers Spanish translation and interpretation services. These language services fill a great need in cities like Juneau, where despite federal regulations, government agencies provide few if any interpretation services to residents. Piedra de Ayuda volunteer Wanda Peña was able to help the woman complete the necessary paperwork and served as her interpreter in court proceedings. This service was provided at no cost.

For those with limited English proficiency, translation services are necessary in legal settings. Without such services, non-English speaking immigrants can be left with no way to voice their concerns and without protection from victimization. While law dictates that interpretation services be offered as needed in courtrooms, service providers can be hard to come by in areas like Alaska. Often, translations must be provided via speakerphone, an option that isn’t the best for effective communication but meets the federally mandated courtroom LEP requirements. Although not contracting with the courts of Alaska, Piedra de Ayuda provides a quality of service to LEP individuals in Alaska not offered by the courts.

Translation services are not only needed in the legal realm, nor do they apply solely to immigrants. Hospitals and their patients also benefit from nonprofit interpretation services for non-English speaking individuals, including translation services for the deaf. While new technologies are making translation services easier to access in hospital and courtroom settings, technology is not immune to complications and mishaps. Earlier this year, a Miami woman sued her hospital for failure to provide adequate American Sign Language translation services when the systems failed to operate effectively. The woman was left feeling uninformed and unable to express her concerns—a scary place to be, whether in a medical or legal environment. 

This leads to questions on the effectiveness of the federal LEP requirements and the means some government agencies have chosen to fulfill them. Is technological access to an interpreter enough when it comes to access to critical services, such as court proceedings and healthcare matters? Should federal agencies be required to have a backup plan for when technology fails to provide effective translations for these individuals? And should directing LEP individuals to outside interpretation services suffice as meeting adequate Limited English Proficiency requirements?—Michele Bittner