AUBURN – Matthew Hood stood before the microphone at the front of the courtroom.

He looked at the judge. Then his eyes moved to the woman who stood in front of the judge’s bench.

She gestured at Hood with her hands.

He watched her closely. Then he raised his right arm, balled his hand into a fist and wiggled it up and down.

“Yes,” the woman told the judge.

The question: Did the defendant want to plead guilty to the new charge?

Hood was entering a plea to a lesser charge than the one brought by a grand jury in Androscoggin County Superior Court. To do that, he needed an attorney – and an interpreter. Like many defendants in court these days, Hood, who is deaf, needed someone else’s ears to navigate his way through the legal system. The judge needed someone else’s voice to translate Hood’s answer.

In this case, Shelly Keniston, an American Sign Language interpreter, provided Hood’s ears and voice. Other defe ndants rely on bilingual interpreters fluent in English as well as Spanish, French, Somali or other foreign languages spoken by local residents who find themselves in court.

More languages spoken

The number of defendants in need of legal interpreters in Maine courts is on the rise, says Jeff Henthorn, director of court services and programs for Maine’s Judicial Branch.

Also growing is the number of languages spoken in Maine’s courtrooms.

That’s part of the reason Henthorn’s budget has ballooned nearly four-fold since 2004, from about $69,000 to $250,000 this year.

Throughout much of the state, French and Spanish is spoken by defendants in need of translators when they get to court. But more recently in urban centers, such as Portland and the Twin Cities, other foreign languages have popped up in court due to the influx of immigrants and refugees, requiring the services of interpreters fluent in more exotic tongues.

Commonly found in court clerks’ offices is a sign just inside the door that directs foreign-speakers to: “Point to your language. An interpreter will be called.” That phrase is translated into 20 foreign languages on the sign, including Arabic, Hindi and Laotian.

But that doesn’t come close to covering the breadth of languages spoken in Portland, Henthorn said.

Portland schools have identified nearly 70 foreign languages and dialects spoken by students, Henthorn said.

Some regions of the world are underrepresented on the slate of qualified interpreters available, he said. For instance, those fluent in Southeastern Asian languages are difficult to find.

Battery of tests

Not all interpreters are equal.

Until now, court clerks have taken spoken language interpreters at their word when they present their credentials.

That’s changing.

Starting in November, all interpreters applying for work in Maine’s courts have been told they need to submit to a battery of tests, including written and oral exams. They also are required to undergo two days of special training for working in the legal system.

Some veteran interpreters have failed the tests; others have opted out, Henthorn said.

The result will be a standardized, three-tier system that recognizes the varied skills of Maine’s court interpreters. The higher the skill level, the greater the pay. The range: from $35 to $50 per hour. The new system is expected to take effect next month.

“The ability to understand is what we’re trying to make happen,” Henthorn said.

Clerks find some interpreters through agencies, but most work independently, Henthorn said.

Interpreters for the deaf already must be certified by the state Department of Labor.

Keniston, who has offered her services in courts in Maine and New Hampshire for more than 10 years, works as a freelance interpreter. She also gets work through Pine Tree Society, a nonprofit advocacy group that provides services to people with disabilities.

Keniston said there’s more to court interpreting than translation. It’s also important to understand the legal system. Courts in New Hampshire differ from those in Maine in many ways, including legal processes and the vocabulary.

Accuracy is key, she said. “It would be terrible for somebody to go to jail because you screwed up,” she said.

Verne Paradie, a local lawyer who represented Hood in court, said it’s not enough sometimes to get the words right. Foreign nationals who end up in U.S. courts sometimes are unfamiliar with legal concepts here.

In those cases, he relies on interpreters to translate word for word and also to make sure the defendant understands what the words mean.

“It’s extremely important that you can have faith in the interpreter to do both things,” he said.

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