Legal Translation

Increased court demand for 'minority language' interpreters

By Paul Russell, Contributor

As the influx of people who speak “minority languages” increases, so will the demand on Canadian immigration courts to provide interpreters, says Brampton lawyer-linguist Suzanne Deliscar.

“It’s very easy to think, ‘for this case, we need an interpreter who speaks Spanish, or French, or Mandarin,’” says Deliscar, principal of Deliscar Professional Corporation, a law firm that offers services in English, French and Spanish.

“However, what if the person before them only speaks a minority language, and is not comfortable conversing in the country’s official language?” she asks.

Some popular minority languages are Urdu from Pakistan and K'iche' from Central America, Deslicar tells

She says, "Are we complying with the principles of justice and giving people a fair chance in court if they are not given the chance to speak in their native tongue?”

The United States is struggling with this dilemma, according to a recent article in the ABA Journal. To lower costs for hearings, it states that the U.S. Justice Department has ordered immigration court judges to use more translators based in call centres to address the increased number of new arrivals who speak minority languages.

“In the past five years, more and more immigrants have been coming to the U.S. from Central America speaking uncommon languages such as K'iche', used by Mayan people in Guatemala,” the article states. “Last year it was the 12th most frequent language spoken in immigration court, just behind French.”

The article quotes a 2004 memo issued by the Department of Justice that says phone-based interpreters should be used for short pretrial hearings unless the same language is required for more than five cases.

“That directive has never been enforced, until now,” the article states.

“Even though we’re a smaller country, we have many similarities with the United States,” Deliscar says. “For that reason, I think it's a good idea to take a look at what the Americans are doing to see if there are lessons we can learn.”

She says phone-based interpreters can be difficult to reach on a consistent basis, and the person may not be adequately trained for the work.

“Ideally, they should be in court and not just listening over the phone,” Deliscar says.

If the interpretation service does not meet the needs of those at the centre of an immigration hearing, she says they may have grounds to appeal the court decision.

“Even though a family is from Guatemala, they may only speak K'iche' and will not be comfortable trying to work through a Spanish interpreter,” Deliscar says.

In Ontario, she says multicultural councils are training new immigrants to become interpreters. Many of these people cannot practise in their past professions, she explains, since their credentials are often not recognized in Canada.

While they may not qualify to work in our justice system, Deliscar says translators can help other newcomers with basic language services, such as when they have to deal with a government agency, schoolteachers or medical professionals.

“The idea of reaching out to people in their own language starts with these councils,” says Deliscar.

The demand for interpreters in immigration hearings is sure to increase, she says, as residents in countries around the world gain access to immigration services.

“People who speak minority languages sometimes lack access to formal education, so they don’t speak the formal language of their country,” Deliscar says. “Just like in the United States, it will be challenging for Canada to find enough interpreters in the future.”

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