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Nonprofit, court system collaborate to certify Pennsylvania Dutch legal interpreters

(Source: Administrative Office of PA Courts)

Since 2007, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has been training and certifying interpreters to assist people with limited English proficiency in legal proceedings.

Until recently, however, its roster has not included any certified interpreters for Pennsylvania Dutch, the language spoken by Amish, Mennonite and other Plain communities across the state of Pennsylvania.

That is now changing, thanks to a collaboration between the AOPC and the nonprofit Safe Communities.

They recently launched a program to recruit and train Pennsylvania Dutch speakers as interpreters. Late last year, the first 10 individuals, nine women and one man, passed the AOPC’s examination to obtain certification.

More than 300,000 people across the United States speak Pennsylvania Dutch at home. The number of speakers in the commonwealth may be as high as 40,000.

A way to fight sexual abuse

Qualified legal interpreters are essential in criminal and civil proceedings, to ensure individuals’ due process rights are protected. They also are needed in investigations when certain accusations have been made, such as child abuse, so that the police, Child Protective Services, or another agency may record testimony in the process of building a case.

Linda Crockett (Source: Provided)

Safe Communities works to prevent sexual abuse, particularly in Plain communities and provide services for survivors. Linda Crockett, the organization’s director, learned of the need for legal interpretation through conversations with Plain Sect members.

“We work pretty closely with Amish women, some of whom have children who’ve been sexually abused. And I kept hearing that when their children were taken into advocacy centers for their forensic interviews, they were often given interpreters whom they could not understand because their Dutch was so bad.”

Without strong enough evidence, in the form of a child’s testimony regarding abuse, these cases were often dropped, she said.

“Abused children are reluctant to disclose to begin with, right? Then you put them with an interpreter that doesn’t know their culture, doesn’t understand how to ask questions in a way that’s true to what the forensic investigator is asking but also appropriate for the culture, and isn’t dressed in a way that they feel familiar with.

“So, you’ve put these children in a foreign and frightening environment; it’s not hard to understand why you don’t get disclosures from them.”

The Plain Dressing People’s “What Were They Wearing?” Project commemorates victims of sexual abuse by displaying the type of clothing (often the actual articles) worn when attacks took place. It is seen here at Forest Hills Mennonite Church on Friday, April 29, 2022. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Ensuring due process

The AOPC’s Interpreter Program was created in the wake of a 2003 report issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System. It castigated the “ad hoc” approach that courts had taken to interpretation up to then.

With no standards in place, court participants with limited English frequently had to resort to relatives and friends for assistance. The “untrained and incompetent” interpretation that frequently resulted “clearly hinders courts in their ability to adjudicate disputes justly,” the committee said.

Today, every court district has a language access coordinator and certified interpreters are available in 44 languages.

Natalia Petrova is the AOPC’s Interpreter Program Administrator. She met up with Crockett during a regional panel presentation that Crockett gave in November 2022.

Petrova told Crockett that her office had been trying to recruit native Pennsylvania Dutch speakers for some time, but that their outreach efforts had failed. She further lamented that sometimes her office received requests for certified Pennsylvania Dutch interpreters from neighboring states.

Their conversation provided the seed for the new program. The Lancaster Law Foundation made a donation of $10,000 to initiate it. YWCA Lancaster provided in-kind services and scholarship funds to offset candidates’ application fees.

Petrova explained that in the past, the best that could be done was to provide a German interpreter. Pennsylvania Dutch is a derivitave of German, so the two languages share great similarities, but there are differences, too, which can come into play in sensitive conversations where every nuance matters.

Added to the linguistic difficulties are the cultural ones. A young girl or woman in the Plain community might not be comfortable speaking about matters of abuse with someone perceived as an outsider, especially not if they were male – as some of the German interpreters were.

Risser Mennonite Church, Elizabethtown. (Photo: Max Weidman)

Intensive preparation

In many Plain communities, schooling ends after eighth grade. That added another difficulty to the program’s implementation: An interpreter must not only be fluent but must have a solid grounding in legal concepts and language.

So, Safe Communities organized study sessions to help candidates with their proficiency examination. The sessions were held at Risser Mennonite Church, a former one-room schoolhouse near Elizabethtown.

Proficiency examinations are normally held at a central location — a potential barrier for Plain Sect members who don’t drive. To accommodate them, AOPC held a special test session, also at the church.

Petrova said she has already fielded multiple requests for interpreters from individuals representing Child Protective Services, both within and outside Pennsylvania.

Requests for Pennsylvania Dutch interpreters represent a small fraction of those made to the AOPC.

Recruitment of Pennsylvania Dutch court interpreters is ongoing. Click to enlarge. (Source: Safe Communities)

Spanish, unsurprisingly, accounts for nearly 80%. The other languages rounding out the top 10 — Nepali, Chinese, American Sign Language, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, and French — give a portrait of Pennsylvania’s immigrant and non-English speaking populations.

Petrova explained that an interpreter’s duty and oath require absolute neutrality. Testimony must be translated objectively and clearly in order for the legal process to take its course.

To that point, she raised raise one hypothetical: Given the tight-knit nature of Plain communities, the chances are good, she speculated, that a court-appointed interpreter would know the person for whom translation was being provided. That could create a conflict of interest, which would require the interpreter to recuse herself.

Adding to the pool of certified individuals can help minimize that concern. Safe Communities says it is planning a second class in 2024 and actively recruiting potential participants.