Courts: Finding Hawaiian interpreters a ‘challenge’

Molokai woman faces quality issues, postponements

On. Jan. 24, a Wailuku District Court judge issued a bench warrant for a Haleakala telescope protester who spoke only in Hawaiian when asked to identify himself to the court.

The decision sparked an outcry and led to the warrant being recalled and the state Judiciary to review its policies. A day later, the Judiciary said it would provide qualified Hawaiian language interpreters “to the extent reasonably possible.”

Since then, there’s been a slight increase in registered Hawaiian language interpreters, but the state still struggles to find them, and it doesn’t have the resources to create an oral exam that interpreters in most other languages must pass.

“It’s a difficult challenge for us,” said Debi Tulang-De Silva, program director for the state Judiciary Office on Equality and Access to the Courts. “We do want to support the preservation of language and culture and recognize that Hawaiian is an official language of the state. So we’re doing our part, but it is a challenge to provide it because we lack the resources.”

The state Judiciary system has close to 500 registered court interpreters, many of them in Spanish and Asian languages, such as Japanese, Mandarin and Ilocano. There are five registered Hawaiian language interpreters — three on Hawaii island and two on Kauai. Before Kaeo’s case, there was only one, an interpreter who specialized in the Niihau dialect.

“The interest just isn’t there,” Tulang-De Silva said.

Demand for Hawaiian language interpreters statewide “is very, very small,” she said. From fiscal years 2010 to 2015, requests for Hawaiian interpreters made up an average of 0.05 percent of all interpreted cases. During that time period, there were no requests on Maui. Tulang-De Silva said that Kaeo was the only defendant in Maui County to request an interpreter during fiscal year 2018, which ran from July 1, 2017, to June 30.

An assistant professor at the University of Hawaii Maui College, Kaeo was one of six people arrested during a peaceful protest to stop the delivery of telescope parts to the summit of Haleakala on Aug. 2, 2017. Kaeo appeared in court on Jan. 24 and responded in Hawaiian when asked to identify himself in English. Judge Blaine Kobayashi issued a $750 bench warrant for Kaeo that was later recalled.

Kaeo was granted a Hawaiian language interpreter, and charges against him were eventually dismissed because he had not been granted a speedy trial.

Tulang-De Silva said that since Kaeo, the Judiciary has “tried to make a stronger effort in reaching out” to Native Hawaiian organizations, community leaders and schools to find interpreters. Stronger recruitment and the publicity over Kaeo’s case may have contributed to the four additional registered interpreters and the six who are transitioning through the court interpreter program.

“We really tried to hit the pavement and go out and individually talk to people and call about getting more Hawaiian interpreters,” Tulang-De Silva said. “I think in Maui, for instance, because Kaeo’s case took place right there and because he is part of the university faculty, we had several faculty come through.”

Recently, another case has highlighted the challenges of finding interpreters. Linda Henohea Linker, a Molokai resident who was issued a speeding ticket on Maui in July, said that her case has been delayed multiple times because of problems scheduling an interpreter.

Linker first appeared in court on Aug. 21 and requested an interpreter. The court provided one via telephone during her Sept. 11 hearing. However, Linker said that the interpreter “incorrectly translated what I was trying to say about two or three times.”

“That’s when the judge stopped court and asked for another date and translator,” Linker said. “I was asked to come back to court. I live on Molokai, and having to travel back and forth and having to set up arrangements for my keiki. . . . It’s kind of irritating to not have a translator considering ‘Olelo Hawai’i is a recognized language here.”

When Linker returned to court on Sept. 28, there was no interpreter. Her hearing was rescheduled to today, and Tulang-De Silva said that the court has secured the interpreter that Linker requested.

While she’s fluent in English, Linker feels taking the language beyond the classroom “is a kuleana of mine,” which is why she prefers to speak Hawaiian in court. Linker became fluent in college and said her language studies came at a time when she was dealing with an abusive relationship.

“The more I was diving deeper into my olelo, the more ‘Olelo Hawai’i was saving me,” she said. “As I got fluent and would begin to read stories and songs, I learned that our people were not like that. Our people were not drug ridden. Our people were not making excuses for failures. Our people were strong, smart resilient people. . . . I just felt that my olelo, it grounded me back to my cultural identity, which made me realize I was so much stronger than I even knew.”

Linker has a master’s degree in indigenous language from the University of Hawaii at Hilo and was a Hawaiian immersion teacher on Molokai for three years.

Linker is the only Maui County resident to request a Hawaiian language interpreter so far in the current fiscal year, and Tulang-De Silva said her case illustrates some of the Judiciary’s problems. None of the registered Hawaiian language interpreters were available for the Sept. 28 hearing, and the Judiciary even asked the six people going through the program. None were available.

That’s a fairly common problem, given that many interpreters are professors or freelancers with other jobs. However, while the Judiciary has a wide array of interpreters for other languages, the Hawaiian language pool is limited.

Low demand is also a factor; many people “just know they’re not going to get called, so why should they invest in this?” Tulang-De Silva said.

Becoming an interpreter is an extensive process that starts with a basic two-day orientation around February and March. Applicants, who must be at least 18 years old and authorized to work in the U.S., then take two written tests around April or May on English proficiency and court interpreter ethics. If they pass, they earn a Tier 1 designation. In order to move up, they must take an oral interpreting exam, usually given around December.

The challenge for Hawaiian interpreters? There is no Hawaiian language oral exam. Tulang-De Silva said creating one is not as simple as asking questions in Hawaiian and English; it must be tailored to the court interpreting profession and rated by expert interpreters. Creating such an exam could cost as much as $100,000, a price the state may not be willing to pay given the low demand for Hawaiian language services.

Without the exam, the state Judiciary really has no way of knowing how proficient an interpreter is until they appear in court.

“In the Hawaiian interpreters’ cases, a lot of them are either UH-level faculty or DOE language teachers,” Tulang-De Silva said. “At this juncture, with a lack of an exam, if you’re a UH-level Hawaiian language professor or teacher, we’re going to hope that you are proficient in Hawaiian, because that’s what you do.”

When asked whether the requests for interpreters are coming from people with limited English-speaking abilities or from people who are fluent in both Hawaiian and English, Tulang-De Silva said that “we don’t typically ask.”

“If they come to court speaking in another language, we presume that is the language they’re most comfortable speaking in,” she said. “Once we establish that there’s a language barrier of some kind, we do our best to provide language access services.”

None of the circuit courts have staff interpreters in any language on site, so when a person needs an interpreter, their case is often rescheduled. People can call to let the Judiciary know they would like an interpreter, but the Judiciary can’t order one ahead of time. That’s up to the judge to decide during the first proceeding.

“We do have access to a telephonic interpreting service . . . but here’s the caveat with Hawaiian — a lot of phone companies don’t offer Hawaiian,” Tulang-De Silva said. “We haven’t found one yet.”

Tulang-De Silva said the Judiciary “is heavily trying to recruit” interpreters and that registration for the workshops is coming up soon. The workshops will run from early February to late March in locations around the state, including Maui.

For more information on the workshops or how to request an interpreter, call (808) 539-4860 or visit courts.state.hi.us/services/court_interpreting/court_interpreting.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.