Photo by Xinlu Liang

Slowing the Wheels of Justice: Chinese-Language Court Interpreters Struggle to Keep Up with Demand

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The number of Chinese speakers in the state has multiplied, leaving L.A. County courts straining to serve a growing population.

As soon as the divorce case at Department 87 of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse ended, Chinese-language court interpreter Nathan (Mintao) Huang pattered downstairs across Grand Park, ready to drive 14 miles to the El Monte Courthouse for a traffic case.

On a typical day, Huang works on five cases at three courthouses spread out across Los Angeles County. Recently, he got up at 7:30 a.m., drove to the El Monte Courthouse and arrived at 8:15 a.m. He was assigned a traffic case that took 40 minutes and another misdemeanor case that took about two hours. From there, he rushed to the BHC Alhambra Hospital for a probable cause hearing, spending an hour and a half interpreting for a mentally ill patient. Without pausing for a break, he then drove eight miles to the Pasadena Courthouse, arriving at 4 p.m. for a small claims case. The defendant had been waiting for a Chinese-language interpreter since 8:30 a.m.

Huang is one of approximately 80 Mandarin and 30 Cantonese court-certified and registered interpreters in the entire state. In contrast, California employs roughly 1,400 Spanish-language interpreters to staff its courtrooms.

Huang’s hectic schedule is the byproduct of the friction that arises between California’s shifting demographics and the inertia of state institutions. The Chinese-speaking population in the state has grown 20% over the past decade. It now stands at around 1.2 million, almost 3% of the total population. At the same time, the number of court cases requiring Mandarin interpreters has doubled. But the supply hasn’t, straining the court system and forcing Huang and his colleagues to bounce from courthouse to courthouse.

Nathan (Mintao) Huang studies his notes outside the Pasadena Courthouse. Photo by Xinlu Liang.

“Imagine that they’re waiting for you,” Huang says, “that they don’t know you’ve been working for four hours. They just expect you to come here and finish what they have. So you don’t ask for a break just because you’ve been previously working for four hours.”

According to the 2018 American Community Survey, 19% of Californians have limited English proficiency, which means they might require an interpreter if they wind up in court.

Huang often gets called at the last minute to staff a case and walks into the courtroom just before it starts. In a few moments, he must digest a complex set of circumstances and nuance which can be crucial for the outcome. “It’s like a surprise,” he says. “You must act like you’ve known it for your life.”

Born and bred in Zhanjiang, a coastal city in southwest Guangdong, China, Huang grew up speaking both Mandarin and Cantonese. He moved to the U.S. when he was 17 years old and has worked as a court interpreter for five years. Huang serves as a critical thread between Mandarin- or Cantonese-speaking defendants and the English-language proceedings. He absorbs reams of information inside a tight timeframe to render everything as verbatim as possible, all the while switching between simultaneous interpreting, consecutive interpreting and sight translation.

In 1985, when the Cantonese dialect spoken in Hong Kong and the Guangdong province dominated the local Chinese community, five to six court interpreters worked in a single courthouse for one to two cases a day, according to Stephen Lai, who launched his interpreter career in L.A. after emigrating from Hong Kong.

In those days, being a court interpreter for any language other than Spanish was a more informal arrangement. “There were no exams at that time,” Lai says. “[Chinese] court interpreter wasn’t a job.”

Most of the cases he handled in those early days involved traffic tickets. “Chinese people had to drive here, but they hadn’t learned the skills in China,” Lai says. So they got a lot of moving violations, but large criminal cases were few. “If the Chinese were involved in a criminal case, it was usually selling drugs. Not many murder cases. If there was one, the whole L.A. would know.”

But California has shifted dramatically since then. In 1980, non-Hispanic whites made up 67% of the state’s population. Today, it’s about 36%. And though the state has long had a large Asian and Pacific Islander population, today it’s at almost 15%, up from 5% in 1980. What’s more, the diversity of languages spoken in the state has also blossomed to more than 220.

Among other things,  these changes have altered how the court system operates.

It’s slowing the wheels of justice. Unavailability of certified and registered court interpreters has led to some 10,000 delayed proceedings per year in L.A., according to the Judicial Council of California. Unlawful detainer, small claims and other civil calendars are understaffed, and interpreters are assigned to different counties on an ad hoc basis.

In 2015, facing a massive linguistic challenge, California implemented a “language access plan” in order to revamp the way it offers services in judicial proceedings. Last year, the Los Angeles Superior Court provided legal services in more than 89 languages. According to Mary Eckhardt Hearn, a spokeswoman at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, Mandarin is now one of the top six most requested languages in L.A. courts. The other five include Spanish, Armenian, Korean, Vietnamese and Farsi.

Huang says he gets a lengthy 90-minute lunch break. “But the funny thing is that if you have to travel for one and a half hours, your lunch hour is just to travel to the next courthouse,” he says. He also drinks lots of water while driving to keep his voice fresh.

“Imagine that they’re waiting for you. That they don’t know you’ve been working for four hours. They just expect you to come here and finish what they have. So you don’t ask for a break just because you’ve been previously working for four hours.”

Nathan (Mintao) Huang, a Chinese-language court interpreter.

While the number of court cases in need of a Chinese-language interpreter continues to rise, growing the number of interpreters is hard. Mandarin didn’t even become a certified language in the court until 2010, which means until then there was no bilingual interpreter exam for prospective interpreters. California now has about 2,000 qualified court interpreters, with those interpreting Spanish accounting for about 70%. But that is still too few to meet the growing demand. Less than 10% of all court interpreter candidates in California pass the certification exams; for Chinese, it’s as low as 2%, according to a study from the Prometric Testing Center.

Court interpreting requires a different set of skills than everyday conversation. Interpreters must be familiar with legal jargon, possess “native-like” proficiency in both languages and be able to switch back and forth quickly and accurately.

“You have to have a kind of dedication … and you need to work under pressure,” says Qiang Bjornbak, a Mandarin interpreter with 17 years of experience. She took the certification exam three times before she passed.

Adding to the shortage, according to some experts, is the staggering number of veteran interpreters who are leaving the courts fed up with stagnant salaries.

State courts pay certified interpreters $282.23 for a full day, and $156.56 for a half-day, a rate that has remained unchanged since 2007. By comparison, federal courts pay staff and contract interpreters 45% more, adjusting the rate every three years based on swelling living costs.

Sunny Johnston, who taught Huang at UCLA Extension’s Translation and Interpretation Program in 2014, says not many students are attracted to the profession and there are not many places that offer adequate training.

This can lead to some monstrous delays. Johnston recalls one civil case where the defendant ended up waiting for a week before an interpreter became available.

In its 2018 Annual Report, the L.A. Superior Court wrote that they have begun “an aggressive recruitment campaign,” to educate bilingual community members about court interpreting as a career. They also made frequent appearances at information sessions, festivals and job fairs. Since 2016, the Judicial Council has been developing the Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) Pilot Project that applies videoconferencing technology to the courtrooms, “allowing court users to see and talk to an interpreter in their language without extended delay, despite not being in the same room, or even the same city.”

Despite the long commutes and relatively low pay, Huang gets a lot out of the job. When Shu Hwa Su, a Taiwanese petitioner who has lived in L.A. for 15 years, requested a language service in her divorce case against her American ex-husband, she had no idea why he didn’t need to show up in the courtroom but could answer via phone.

“He knows the system much better than I do,” Su says. “It’s unfair.”

She was unable to afford a Mandarin-speaking attorney and had to represent herself, afraid that she might say something wrong or misunderstand others. Huang’s translation, she says, helped her feel she got a fair shake.

“[The defendants] won’t be understood without [us],” Huang says of the most fundamental contribution of court interpreters. “No communication possible.”

Los Angeleno