Navigating Language Access in Legal Proceedings at the Philadelphia Bar Association

As members of ATA’s Public Relations Committee, those of us assigned as event speakers were asked last year to identify groups or organizations in our area that might be target or receptive audiences to our mission of promoting professional language services. Being most comfortable with the legal profession because of my many years interpreting for depositions, I approached the Philadelphia Bar Association last fall about presenting a nuts and bolts review on proceedings that involve a foreign language and require professional linguistic support.

My proposal was accepted enthusiastically. I was asked to develop my one-hour presentation into a three-hour continuing legal education seminar (CLE) that included an ethics credit. Given the opportunity to communicate in detail the ins and outs of our profession to a captive audience, I promptly accepted to present the course on March 8, 2017.

The driving force behind this presentation came from the realization that the level of knowledge, experience, and comprehension for many attorneys, paralegals, and court personnel was uneven at best and, at worst, possibly also risky to clients, legal providers, and due process itself. As a fundamental principle of law, attorneys, judges, and the courts should provide a sound and reliable system of language access services. This will help ensure fairness and the basic right to justice, and promote the integrity and accuracy of judicial proceedings. Limited-English-proficient (LEP) individuals participating in a legal environment should be able to do so in a language they understand, and all parties should be able to comprehend one another throughout the proceedings.

The three-hour interactive CLE session provided an in-depth look at what has and continues to generate the growing need for language access, why it’s so important, how it’s structured so as to achieve effective results, and the circumstances when it’s required by law. Topics included:

  1. The growing demand and challenges of professional language access in courts and private practice;
  2. The perils of inadequate or nonexistent professional language access;
  3. The language services resources that are available and in place for fair and effective due process;
  4. The local impact of foreign languages and LEP populations due to immigration and changing demographics in the courts, health care, education, and business;
  5. The complexity of the cognitive, verbal, technical, and physical skills required of a professional interpreter and translator;
  6. The rigorous training of legal translators and interpreters and the ethical standards and cultural nuances that govern and manifest in daily practice of the profession in legal proceedings; and
  7. Practical tips, do’s and don’ts for attorneys working with interpreters during cross-examination and depositions.

Within these categories, additional subtext covered issues around voire dire and proper identification of LEP persons, a humorous disaster video satirizing the use of a single “polyglot” interpreter for an international meeting with multiple languages, a step-by-step guide to Philadelphia language advocate Judge Chen’s courtroom proceedings when an interpreter is involved, as well as many links to case law, resources, and services useful to attorneys.

Cognizant of my own limitations, I invited a prestigious panel of local and state court, government, immigration, and linguistic experts for the last hour to present their unique perspectives and offer qualified guidance, while I served as moderator during the Q&A session. Panelists included:

Osvaldo R. Avilés
Administrator of the Interpreter Certification Program
Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts

Janet C. Fasy
Deputy Court Administrator
Court Reporters, Digital Recorders and Interpreters,
First Judicial District

Tsiwen M. Law, Esq.
Law & Associates, L.L.C., Philadelphia

Rodolfo P. Téllez (Rudy)
National Board Certified Medical Interpreter
Pennsylvania Court Certified Interpreter
Conference Interpreter
Faculty and coordinator of the Interpreter and Translation Master’s program at La Salle University

Each panelist brought to light their role in supporting language access in proceedings, as well as providing the fascinating trajectory of the professional evolution in each of their roles in this continuously evolving practice. Using case studies, expert practitioners addressed the challenges and obstacles, ethical dilemmas, and cultural considerations in their work. They offered practical solutions, some technology trends, forecasts, and resources. The presentation material was very well received with a great deal of interest.

In addition to the receptiveness to the core legal information, all of the ATA literature, including Interpreting: Getting it Right and half of the Translation brochures, were taken by attendees. These materials were placed strategically at the front of the room and the first break was used to bring everyone’s attention to them. A useful correlation was made during this time to help attendees understand how my local chapter, the Delaware Valley Translators Association (DVTA), works in concert with ATA, applying the comparison of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s dynamic relationship to the American Bar Association with respect to policy, guidance, standards, etc.

A true test of a successful presentation is if one is asked to return and provide another. I was told afterwards that everyone appreciated the complexity of our job and the dedication to accuracy, excellence, and professional conduct. There is an appetite and willingness from the legal community to learn and cooperate with language professionals in support of LEP individuals. One participant mentioned a renewed interest in our profession because of the recent executive orders from the new White House administration. There is also a great interest in the increasing role of technology and how the trends will impact the courts and other legal procedure in the near future. The Philadelphia Bar Association has invited me back to speak more at length on this topic later in the year.

I was honored and proud to represent our terrific organization. This was another crucial step toward establishing and gaining respect for our profession in an ideal setting to a receptive target audience. It was truly a win/win situation in which attendees left with valuable, practical knowledge. The quality of due process is preserved and enhanced by educating potential buyers of translation and interpreting. In turn, we are able to promote our members.

An idea: The format and content could be easily adapted to other cities/states with their own Bar associations, presented by other resident ATA translators or interpreters well versed in their state’s legal administration of language services and pooling from local resources for panelists. I would be happy to share my presentation with anyone interested. 

Antonio (Tony) Guerra, chair of ATA’s Chapters Committee and the current president of the Delaware Valley Translators Association (DVTA), has more than 20 years of experience in the management, marketing, and development of multicultural communications services. A native of Havana, Cuba, he has worked as an independent contractor as well as in-house with companies and agencies. He is a Spanish<>English translator and interpreter specializing in legal, medical, government, and marketing. Besides chairing ATA’s Chapters Committee and DVTA’s Public Relations and Certification Committees, he is also highly involved in numerous volunteer activities for ATA, including serving the Interpretation Policy Advisory Committee, the Public Relations Committee’s Speakers Forum, and ATA’s Mentoring Program. Contact:

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