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Case highlights shortage of court interpreters in Hawaii

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Macdon Thromman listens as charges against him are read in Marshallese at a court hearing in Waimea, Hawaii. Hawaii’s court system is trying to recruit more interpreters, particularly those who speak certain Pacific island languages.

A recent case involving a man accused of shooting a woman and a police officer on the Big Island highlights a growing challenge in Hawaii: finding people who can translate court hearings in other languages.

The man speaks Marshallese, and his right to hear his proceedings in the Marshall Islands tongue has led to delays in his case.

Officials with Hawaii’s Judiciary note the state has a limited pool of court interpreters from which to draw, and the ones they do have often must travel between the islands for proceedings, creating logistical challenges.

Meanwhile, requests for their services have soared, fueled by an influx of migrants from certain Pacific island nations who come to Hawaii under an agreement with the federal government. The deal, known as the Compact of Free Association, lets citizens from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau live and work freely in the United States in exchange for allowing the U.S. military to control strategic land and water areas in the region.

"The Pacific island languages are a really hard one," said Debi Tulang-De Silva, program director of the state Judiciary’s Office on Equality and Access to the Courts. "It’s really difficult to find qualified interpreters in those languages."

So far, no cases have been derailed because of the shortage of interpreters. But Hawaii’s court system is scrambling to get ahead of the problem and provide required equal access by recruiting more people for the job.

According to the state’s court system, in 2008 about 6,800 cases required interpreting services, and that figured jumped to nearly 7,700 in 2012. There were more than 8,100 interpreted proceedings in 2013, the most recent year complete data are available.

Marshallese is the third most frequently requested language, after Chuukese, spoken by those in Micronesia’s Chuuk state, and Ilocano, a Filipino language, Tulang-De Silva said.

About 15,000 people in Hawaii speak Chuukese, said Robin Fritz, foreign service officer for the Federated States of Micronesia Consulate in Honolulu. The Republic of Marshall Islands Consulate in Honolulu estimates 3,000 to 4,000 people in Hawaii speak Marshallese.

"I hear a lot of complaints," about court interpreter problems, Fritz said. The complaints are about frustrations with delays or some people not trusting that they’re receiving accurate interpretation, especially for complex legal matters.

Interpreters work on a freelance basis, accepting assignments as requested. Since many of them have other jobs, they might not be available when needed.

There are nine Chuukese interpreters statewide that the Judiciary can call upon, but they’re all on Oahu, so it’s a logistical challenge to get them to the other islands, Tulang De-Silva said. There are six Marshallese interpreters — two on Oahu and four on the Big Island.

One way the court system ensures interpreters are available is by holding "international day," designated days of the month when those needing interpreters are scheduled, allowing interpreters to be used for multiple cases.

In the case against Macdon Thromman, charged with 22 crimes from a recent Big Island standoff and shooting, the initially assigned interpreter participated in a hearing by telephone, but the connection made it difficult for him to hear the judge and attorneys, according to Kailua-Kona newspaper West Hawaii Today. The hearing had to be rescheduled with a different interpreter.

At the rescheduled hearing the following week, the case experienced a delay of several hours when an interpreter who had to fly to the Big Island from Honolulu went to the wrong courthouse, said Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth.

John Tonaki, the state’s head public defender, said that while infrequent, such delays reflect the number of migrants coming to Hawaii under the Compact of Free Association.

"They face the largest challenges in the court system," Tonaki said, adding that’s something new immigrants always face. He recalled that 30 years ago, there was difficulty finding interpreters for Samoan immigrants when they were new to Hawaii.

"The COFA countries just happen to be the latest wave of immigrants," he said.

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