In 2013, real estate in Michele Gillman’s scheduling notebook was scarce.

The black Day-Timer Gillman used to schedule interpreters for Aurora Municipal Court cases was regularly overflowing with notes and appointments, festooned with additions and asterisks. “It looked like a notebook you’d find at a hair salon,” Gillman, coordinator of interpreters for the local court, said with a chuckle.

Over the years, the veteran court supervisor has slowly watched the breadth of languages spoken in local courtrooms balloon.

“When I first came here, it was mostly Spanish, some Korean, some Vietnamese, some Russian, but we didn’t hear Chuukese and Rohingya — I mean I don’t even know where they’re all spoken, I have to do research on them,” Gillman said of the languages she hears around the courthouse. “All of a sudden we sprouted all these new languages, and now … I feel like I’m working at the U.N. It’s pretty cool.”

Eugenie Chen is a court interpreter at the Aurora Municipal Courthouse.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

The numbers reached a breaking point six years ago, when Gillman asked the city’s Internet Technology department to create a scheduling program for cases with interpretation requirements.

“There’d be like 12 cases at 8 a.m. for Spanish, and there was just no more room to write,” she said. “It was just getting too cumbersome to write all these cases down.”

That notebook — and the need to create a custom scheduling program for interpreters — were physical indicators of a rapidly changing city. On average, about 4,100 municipal cases per year require some form of interpretation, ranging from French to Marshallese, according to Gillman. More than 2,000 cases requiring interpretation have been filed in the first half of 2019 alone.

“And that’s just for court administration,” she said. “That doesn’t even include probation cases and city attorney witnesses that require interpreters.”

Though they pay for the services through different departmental budgets, Gillman coordinates interpreters for probation, city attorneys, and public defenders, too.

Finding enough interpreters to promptly and accurately relay complicated legal jargon into, say, the central African dialect of Kinyarwanda, has proven to be an increasingly daunting — and expensive — task for local court staffers.

It’s not all talk

Aurora Court Administrator Zelda DeBoyes said her office — which is tasked with providing adequate interpretation for all defendants that pass through the court — spent $147,000 on interpreters in 2018. That equated to nearly 75 percent of her department’s career and technical services budget last year.

“That means very few pencils and less copy paper,” DeBoyes said.

Aurora Municipal Court
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

The city attorney’s office — which must provide requested interpretation for victims and witnesses — is also scraping the bottom of its coffers to pay for interpreters, according to Deputy City Attorney Julie Heckman.

“We are far over what is budgeted for interpreters,” she said.

Heckman said her office spent some $1,800 on interpreters in a single case over the course of approximately eight months last year.

The case — which largely had to be interpreted into Burmese — was a microcosm of the difficulties associated with coordinating interpreters, Heckman said.

“If you’re going to a jury trial, there are a lot of times when you’ll need one interpreter for the defendant and another interpreter for the victim, and often they speak the same language,” she said during a public meeting in January. “So sometimes it’s difficult for those rare dialects to be able to get two different interpreters there for the entire day.”

That problem is compounded when defendants or witnesses don’t show up to a proceeding, leaving the city liable to pay for a day’s worth of interpretation that never takes place.

“And that happens quite often, unfortunately,” Heckman said.

Court administration pays a roster of about 10 go-to interpreters $35 per hour for their services, according to Gillman. When she has to contract with an outside agency to find an interpreter for a particularly rare language, like the Southeast Asian language Karen or the East African language Kunama, the city is required to pay for a minimum of two hours of interpretation at a rate of $40 per hour.

About half of the city’s “in-house” interpreters are bilingual in English and Spanish, while the remaining half work in Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Amharic, according to Gillman. While Spanish is still far and away the most requested language in the local court  — more than one-fifth of Aurora households speak Spanish at home, according to city data — about 90 languages are spoken in city courtrooms each year, according to DeBoyes.

“Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District have between 125 and 140 languages that are spoken in their hallways,” she said. “Those are the same people in our communities that get speeding tickets, get into fights … and come in for jury duty.”

But the number of interpreters needed for particularly exotic languages is growing, Gillman said. Chuukese — the native language of an island state in Micronesia — has proven particularly difficult to find interpretation for. Gillman said a single woman is widely known as the go-to interpreter for cases involving Chuukese defendants.

“I have one person that I know who speaks Chuukese, and when I see that in my program I immediately email her because I think everybody in the state of Colorado knows her,” she said.

Gillman has also come up dry looking for an interpreter of Rohingya — a niche language native to the region around what is now Myanmar — for several cases that have required interpretation in the past year.

“I have not found anyone in any of the networks that speaks it,” she said.

Serious municipal cases that can’t be interpreted are often delayed until a person who speaks the necessary language is found, or the case reaches a disposition, according to Heckman. In minor traffic cases or desperate circumstances, the city sometimes uses the digital platform Voiance, which provides access to remote workers who can digitally interpret on the fly.

“But for the most part, the court wants a body — not a phone call,” Gillman said.

The difficulties Gillman has had finding qualified interpreters have bled into the hallways and queues around the courthouse, too.

DeBoyes said courthouse employees are occasionally asked to pinch hit for quick interpretations and translations, explaining processes at the clerk’s window, or ferrying lost defendants to the proper courtroom. She said she’s asked a maintenance worker to tell Spanish speakers how to get to the proper courtroom, a former assistant to interpret Greek, and another former assistant to sign for a hearing impaired individual. A current court volunteer who speaks Nepalese has also offered language help around the building.

And while DeBoyes said volunteers and ad hoc city staffers offer appreciated services, bona fide interpreters want to be reimbursed for their work.

“People really want to get paid,” she said. “And people have asked us: ‘Can we use volunteers?’ Well, when it’s cold they don’t come, when they have vacation they don’t come, or when a friend is visiting they can’t come. When a witness is here or someone is in jail, I can’t run a language program like that. We have to pay people.”

Despite local efforts, the pipeline of certified local interpreters is flowing at trickle.

Words can’t fail the justice system

The Community College of Aurora has offered an interpretation certificate since 2009, with specialties in legal and medical interpretation added in recent years, according to Lauryn Gangle-Wythe, academic program support specialist at CCA.

The programs have become popular, Gangle-Wythe said, but they’re only producing about 20 graduates per year.

Gillman, who also sits on the CCA program’s advisory board, said she wasn’t aware of any interpreters from the local community college that had interpreted with the Aurora court.

And the bulk of the CCA interpreters, about 90 percent, are Spanish speakers, according to Gangle-Wythe, which doesn’t directly offset the local court’s needs in languages like Pa’a and Macedonian — both of which have appeared on local dockets.

Harry Budisidharta, an attorney on the city’s public defender commission and executive director of Aurora’s Asian Pacific Development Center, explained that interpreters are often hesitant to step into the highly pressurized and complex realm of on-site legal interpretation.

“It can be difficult finding interpreters that are actually willing to do legal interpretation because it’s difficult, it’s fast-paced and often times you have multiple people talking,” Budisidharta said. “A lot of our interpreters are reluctant to take on a court interpreting job.”

The Colorado Language Connection is a for-profit arm of Budisidharta’s organization that provides interpretation services in more than 80 languages, including at the Aurora Municipal Court.

Illustration by Robert Sausaman/Sentinel Colorado

Budisidharta said the majority of the organization’s work involves Spanish translation, followed by American Sign Language, Russian and Vietnamese interpretation, respectively.

One of the other large firms the local municipal court has contracted with to provide interpretation services, A&A Languages, declined to comment for this story.

Eugenie Chen, a longtime Mandarin and Cantonese interpreter in Aurora Municipal Court, said she, too, had to study how to translate words like “subpoena” into her native Chinese dialects.

“When I first started I felt confused, too, because they do not require a certification,” said Chen, who was born in China’s Guangdong province. “I definitely studied certain words.”

Unlike state courts, the Aurora Municipal Court does not require any formal certification of its interpreters. State court interpreters must pass a written and oral exam to obtain their certification, according to the National Center for State Courts. Additional stipulations are required in federal court.

In Aurora, a longtime Spanish interpreter helps schedule, vet and onboard new candidates for the city’s in-house roster, Gillman said.

Chen said a friend helped get her on the city’s list of possible interpreters in 2000. After having a few meetings and passing a background check, she’s interpreted between her shifts operating the front desk at Denver Health ever since.

“I don’t think of it as a job because it doesn’t pay much, but it helps people,” said Chen, who has also worked at a pair of Front Range restaurants over the decades. “And I like helping people.”

In an effort to maximize interpreters’ time, Gillman said she’s been trying to strategically schedule interpreters like Chen by stacking multiple hearings in need of a certain interpreter back to back.

“We’re trying to save money by doubling up and using a translator that’s already going to be in the building on a given day,” she said.

DeBoyes recalled a recent case in which Gillman’s office was able to use a specialized interpreter that had been flown in from out of town for a felony case in district court.

In the meantime, officials chalk up any snags associated with finding interpreters to life in Aurora — a city where some 75,000 residents were born outside of the U.S. — in 2019.

“It’s a part of the cost of doing business with the huge, diverse community we have,” Heckman said.