August 2014 Bar Bulletin
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From the Desk of the Presiding Judge

Interpreters: A Key Cog in Access to Justice

By Judge Susan Craighead


It was standing room only at the swearing-in ceremony of our two newest judges, Judge Chad Allred and Judge Sam Chung last month. Near the phalanx of judges at the front of the room sat a petite Korean woman speaking quietly into a hand-held microphone. In the audience were many Korean faces, framed by headphones. For the very first time, a swearing-in ceremony was interpreted into the first language of a new judge.

Not only was this a warm welcome for Judge Chung, who immigrated to the United States at the age of 12, but it was a terrific opportunity to show off one of the crown jewels of our Court - our Office of Interpreter Services. Under the leadership of Martha Cohen, Interpreter Services has been recognized nationally for its excellence and locally as a KCBA Friend of the Judiciary.

In a county as diverse as this one, interpreters are everywhere in our Court. Interpreter Services has as of July 17 provided interpretation in 147 languages, from Ewe to Oshiwambo. In case you are wondering, Ewe is spoken in Togo and Burkina Faso, and Oshiwambo is spoken in Namibia.

King County is one of the top five refugee resettlement sites in the United States and Tukwila is the nation's most diverse school district in terms of languages spoken. Generally speaking, institutions such as hospitals, schools and courts here are roughly six to eight months behind the latest crisis in the world that sends people fleeing from their homes.

King County Superior Court now provides free interpretation for court hearings to everyone who needs it, regardless of the ability to pay. As I write, Judge Judy Ramseyer is presiding over a civil trial requiring a Telugu (India) interpreter. Interpreter Services flew a mechanical engineer up from California because he is one of the few Telugu speakers who also speaks English well enough to interpret court proceedings.

When Interpreter Services learns that a litigant needs an interpreter in a language we might heretofore not have known existed, Cohen's staff quickly begins a national search to find someone who is bilingual. It is, fundamentally, "detective work," she says. They consult embassies, the Peace Corps, universities (who knew the University of Pennsylvania offers a course in Oshiwambo?), following all leads until they turn up, say, a former Peace Corps volunteer who happened to serve on Kosrae, an 8-mile-long island in the South Pacific.

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