Desperately-Needed Interpreters Are In Short Supply


When limited English-proficient speakers have to navigate important paperwork, visit the doctor, or appear in court, they rely on language interpreters to help them understand what they need to do. But at least inside the courtroom, there may soon be fewer interpreters to play this critical role, after many people working in this sector refused to sign a new contract because of low pay and bad policies.

Interpreters cited “low pay, inconsistent and often insufficient travel reimbursement policies, and a general sense of being undervalued given the importance of the work,” BuzzFeed News first reported. They said that the new contract would make their situations worse because the government would hire under-qualified people who are willing to work for even less.

The Department of Justice, which oversees immigration courts, relies on 67 staff and 1,650 freelance interpreters. The DOJ switched contractors in July, awarding $12 million annually to SOS International as part of a contract that can be extended five years. As many as 100 interpreters have already refused to sign the contract, presenting a problem in immigration courtrooms where at least 300 contract interpreters work on a daily basis, BuzzFeed reported.

The true cost of losing competent interpreters is more than just about lost jobs, however. Immigrants are arguably the ones who have the most to lose when they aren’t given a fair trial or provided with adequate services.

It’s critical to have competent interpretation when someone’s in the process of being deported.

“It’s critical to have competent interpretation when someone’s in the process of being deported, exiled from the United States, or [are pursuing] other forms of relief including asylum,” Mo Goldman, an immigration attorney based in Tucson, Arizona, told ThinkProgress. He pointed out that immigrants could lack the understanding for technical terminology to describe court proceedings or their oral testimonies might be mistranslated, which could “make or break their ability to be granted the relief that they’re seeking.”


Poor interpretation could potentially ruin the credibility of asylum seekers. “If there are any discrepancies between the written articles that are submitted, the corroborating documentation, and the testimony, the immigration judge can seize on those inconsistencies to find that someone lacks credibility and deny them relief,” Matthew Kolken, a Buffalo, New York-based immigration lawyer, told ThinkProgress. “It’s absolutely essential that there’s proper translation. Hypothetically if the question is translated improperly and the individual answers the incorrectly translated question with either a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, that may be potentially alter the meaning of the answer to the point where it changes the individual’s eligibility for relief.”

Goldman recalled one particular case in which an Arabic interpreter flew in from California for a merits hearing — arguably the most important hearing during which the individual presents their arguments before an immigration judge — but didn’t have exactly the right language skills.

Some people will say, ‘what’s the difference? It’s still Arabic.’

“My client noticed that some of the interpretation was not quite right,” Goldman said. “He noticed that the dialect wasn’t the same as what he speaks, which is Iraqi dialect. Because of that, we had to reschedule the hearing, get an Iraqi dialect interpreter in to do the interpretation. Some people will say, ‘what’s the difference? It’s still Arabic.’ But it really is critical for the purpose of due process and for the individual’s rights to have a full and fair hearing to have someone do the interpretation the way it should be done.”

The lack of accurate translators isn’t isolated to the courtroom. Non-English speakers also encounter issues when they go to the doctor and can’t find anyone who speaks their language.


At least one-third of farmworkers in California, for instance, speak indigenous languages from Mexico — like Triqui and Mixteco — and may not be proficient in either Spanish or English.

“What we hear from farmworkers is that even in Spanish, it’s often difficult to communicate with a health care provider, the clinician, but there’s also a lack of adequate interpretation in health care settings,” Virginia Ruiz, Director of Occupational and Environmental Health at the advocacy group Farmworker Justice, told ThinkProgress. Poor translations could lead to misdiagnosis, an issue that Ruiz fears could lead to inadequate information about symptoms and being able to communicate treatment plans.

Jessica Romero, Farmworker Justice’s Director of Communications, told ThinkProgress that in focus groups with indigenous farmworkers, one of the most commonly cited issues was a “disconnect between the patient and provider.”

Some of the respondents felt that interpretations even if they could get it, was inadequate.

“Some of the respondents felt that interpretations even if they could get it, was inadequate,” Romero said. “Even if there was an interpreter, they knew enough English to know that what the interpreter said back to them wasn’t the full explanation that they heard the doctor said. It’s another dimension of adequate — not just a loss — but adequate translation.”

Romero said that focus group respondents told her that indigenous patients often waited a very long time, even hours, in clinics until there was an interpreter available. But while some hospitals have made strides in having telephone services to call an interpreter for any language, at least one pediatrician told NPR that she was put on hold for two hours before being transferred to someone who didn’t “actually speak the language you need.”


Ruiz is hopeful that raising awareness about some of these issues may help mitigate issues in the future. She suggested “providing access to people in communities who are able to be a bridge — usually at the state level — for better training, and to have more people be certified to be interpreters.”