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Special Topic—A special interview with Osvaldo Aviles, one of the recipients of the Inaugural DPSA

Wednesday, December 6, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Fabiola Ehlers-Zavala
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This upcoming March, AAAL will have the great opportunity to honor two individuals who have made a significant difference in their public service. On them is the Honorable Ida K. Chen who for over 25 years has devoted herself to advance the rights of individuals whose dominant language is not English. Judge Chen has worked to advocate for the use of qualified interpreters in court proceedings. Her accomplishments are vast and numerous, and we will learn more about them at the upcoming conference!

The other individual who will be recognized with this award, and who has worked closely with the Hon. Ida K. Chen, is Mr. Osvaldo Aviles, Interpreter Program Administrator. In order to help us understand the work they have accomplished together and with others, Mr. Aviles has graciously agreed to an e-interview with me, and responded to some questions that the AAAL readership will no doubt find both insightful and inspirational. As you will see below, Mr. Aviles helps us develop a keen understanding for the role of applied linguists in society.

  1. Can you tell us a little about your work? What is your typical workday like?

    As the Pennsylvania Interpreter Certification Program Administrator, my main responsibility is managing the credentialing of interpreters for the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania and maintaining a roster of qualified interpreters. The job consists of planning, scheduling, and implementing the annual calendar of events entailing the credentialing process which consists of registering with the program, attending a two-day orientation, passing a written exam, and an oral examination according to the regulations. The program also provides assistance to the judicial districts in locating interpreters for languages not available in the roster. It maintains a bank of resources that is made available to the courts whenever there are no resources in the roster for a particular language. We also advise judicial districts on interpreter matters including the proper role, use, appointment, and management of resources. And we mediate when conflicts occur between users and providers and enforce the regulations. The program also provides regular training for the judiciary, court administrators, judicial and district staff, interpreters, attorneys, community organizations and other stakeholders about all matters pertaining to interpreters and language access issues. In addition, the Pennsylvania courts are currently in the midst of implementing a statewide Language Access Plan (LAP). As the interpreter program administrator, I am part of the staff serving in the Monitoring and Evaluation Team (MET) tasked with implementing the plan. Besides my overall advisory role in the group and to the Court Access Coordinator, who is directly in charge of the implementation process, I am in charge of the translation sub-group whose task consists of establishing a system for identifying and prioritizing the translation of vital forms for the entire Unified Judicial System. I also represent Pennsylvania in the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC), a nationwide group of program managers and language coordinators affiliated with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), which serves as an advisory group to the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) and the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) of the United States in matters of language access.

    On a typical day, I handle inquiries from the judicial districts about matters ranging from locating interpreter resources for an uncommon language, inquiries on whether to appoint an interpreter in a particular situation, who should pay for the interpreter, and complaints about interpreter billing or alleged unethical behavior. I also deal with issues related to the scheduling or administration of exams and other program events. I may also spend time contracting with raters for the oral examinations or with trainers for our orientations and skill-building workshops. I will also reply to inquiries from potential candidates interested in becoming credentialed through the program and requests for approval of continuing education credits for interpreters renewing their certification. Lately I spend a fair amount of time working with members of the MET and staff on matters pertaining to the implementation of the statewide LAP.
  2. What made you so passionate about language access in the judicial system?

    While working as a paralegal at Community Legal Services (CLS), an organization which represents low- and middle-income residents in Philadelphia, I was often asked to interpret for not only my own clients, but for all of the other attorneys whose clients were limited English proficient (LEP) in a variety of matters ranging from unemployment compensation to social security benefits hearings. It quickly became apparent that there was a lack of access and regard for the due process rights of LEP persons. It inspired me to become a certified interpreter and later take a position as a full-time staff interpreter with the Philadelphia courts. It was at that staff interpreter position where for fourteen years I had a first-hand opportunity to learn about the limitations that LEP persons face when trying to obtain services and stand for their rights. As a result of these experiences I became convinced of the need to improve language access in the justice system. I decided then to make a career out of placing LEP persons on a level playing field and giving them an opportunity to be heard in order to secure their rights by providing adequate language access services.
  3. What are your proudest accomplishments to date and how do they compare to what is happening in other states?

    The successful establishment of the Pennsylvania Interpreter Certification Program has been my proudest accomplishment to date. Starting from scratch, and following a model established by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), we have been able to develop a roster of certified and qualified interpreters to serve our sixty judicial districts. Currently there are around 200 interpreters representing 35 languages in the roster. Considering we started this endeavor much later than many other states, we have been able to catch-up relatively quickly to the point that we are able to routinely satisfy the need for interpreters in the majority of the top ten languages most often needed by the courts. And our program has in turn become a model for others to follow. It also gives me a great deal of satisfaction to have been able to raise the awareness of judges, court administrators, attorneys and other community stakeholders about the proper role and use of interpreters. The educational component of our program has been very important not only for users of interpreter services but for the interpreters themselves. When we started the program, there were no educational opportunities or training available for aspiring interpreter candidates in the state. And there was a big misconception about the role of interpreters in our judicial system. Our program has been able to encourage local colleges and professional organizations to start offering skill-building workshops and training for interpreters. And continuing education requirements for renewal of credentials has reinforced the need for on-going training. All this contributed to changing the perception about the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities required of professional interpreters. It has helped to redefine the understanding of what it means to be a professional interpreter in our state.
  4. What in your view still remains to be done and what are some of the bigger challenges you face?

    Probably the biggest challenge we still face is developing interpreter resources in some of the languages of more common diffusion in our state. And in this we have good company as most of the other state members of CLAC face the same issues. Languages like Arabic, Korean and Vietnamese have low passing rates in our qualification exams. Despite the number of test takers, on average only 10 percent of candidates in these languages pass the tests and successfully complete all requirements. This in spite concerted efforts to offer training. Both NCSC and CLAC continue to work together to develop alternatives to improve these statistics. To this we can add the rapidly growing language diversity in our country. Keeping up with demand for languages like Nepali, Mixteco, Farsi, or Karen is an almost daily challenge.

    Another challenge is trying to overcome certain deeply ingrained beliefs and perceptions about foreign language speakers. Mostly that they somehow refuse to learn and speak English for selfish reasons or try to hide behind the language in order to avoid legal consequences. We have to constantly remind our audiences at trainings that due process is guaranteed by the Constitution to all without regard to the language they speak. And that regardless of the language a person speaks, everyone is entitled to be present, effectively participate, and to understand what is happening in their case in court.

  5. How can applied linguists contribute to greater equity in language access?

    Applied linguists can help to better explain the relationship among national origin, culture and language. By defining and explaining this interrelationship linguists can help judicial systems in this country to understand the importance of language access.

    Linguists can work with the courts to help create effective documents using plain English. They could also work with translators to produce accurate and effective translations of the same documents into the most common languages in each jurisdiction. This would help both native and non-native speakers of English to understand legal documents and help them to better navigate the court system. They can also help train judicial personnel to communicate more effectively with the public by using more plain language to provide information.

    By providing expert testimony or forensic analysis about foreign language usage, structure, grammar and vocabulary that are difficult to replicate and express in English, applied linguists can help judges to better understand why a foreign language speaker may have difficulty expressing, explaining or understanding certain concepts common in this country but which may not exist in their native culture; or how a foreign language speaker’s attitudes and beliefs may be dictated by culture, language or national origin.

    Linguists can also help interpreters to improve their skills and prepare for assignments in certain specialized fields like law and medicine by providing insights and linguistic knowledge about proper translation of specialized vocabulary and developing training to familiarize interpreters with them. They can also assist interpreters to reconcile the terminology of foreign legal systems versus the American legal system in order to establish better and more effective translation of those terms.

    Applied linguists can help the court develop more effective and practical language policies by helping the court understand the language needs of specific populations and language groups.

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