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New UW-Milwaukee Legal Interpreting Program Looks To Set Standard For Incoming Interpreters

Maayan Silver
Entrance to the Milwaukee County Courthouse in downtown Milwaukee.

Going to court, whether it’s as a criminal defendant, to seek a restraining order or even to fight a parking ticket is a stressful experience. But imagine doing it without understanding what the judge or attorneys are saying.

That’s the case for some who are not proficient in English or hearing impaired who end up in a Wisconsin courtroom.

Debra Gorra Barash is a court-certified American Sign Language interpreter. She noticed a need for more court interpreters and better training for them, and so she created a program at UW-Milwaukee’s School of Continuing Education to try and remedy that.

“If a person is not able to understand what’s happening to their lives, an interpreter is allowing that person and everyone else in the environment to really pursue justice. If they’re not able to understand, a person’s constitutional rights could be violated,” she explains.

Barash says that currently Wisconsin has no minimum standards for court interpreters and in Milwaukee, interpreters are given just a two-day orientation meant to familiarize them with working in the judicial system.

She says while the National Center for State Courts offers legal certification in 18 languages, each year in Wisconsin up to 60 different languages are used in court proceedings.

“So for all the languages that do not have a certification, a person can be hired, walk into court and start interpreting and no one has any idea whether that person actually interpret at the level that is needed to preserve a person’s constitutional right,” she says.

The program Barash has created consists of seven classes totaling 280 hour of class instruction that takes place over the course of a calendar year. She hopes this can begin to set a standard of experience that legal interpreters have before they step into a courtroom.

One thing she says that sets this program apart from all other legal interpreting programs is the fact that they teach sign language and spoken language interpreters together. As an American Sign Language interpreter, Barash says she many times works into a courtroom that has a separate spoken language interpreter.

“They are learning the similarities and differences and how to then walk into a case and say, 'What do we need to make sure that we’re working together?' and this is an effective, accurate service that we are providing for all of the people in this situation,” she says.

The first cohort will graduate in August. Some interpreters will go on to work full-time in a court system like in Milwaukee County but for those who interpret for less popular languages, they may only work part-time in a court system. Barash says those part-time workers may look to places like the medical field or other professional settings to use their interpreting skills.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.