The Boston Globe

The word's out: Interpreters are in demand

Opportunities abound in law, healthcare

By Davis Bushnell, Globe Correspondent, 1/2/05

Globe Staff Photo/Evan Richman
Jean Pepper, chief interpreter at Lynn District Court, says language skill alone is not enough: Interpreters also need to learn the terminology of law and healthcare.

Globe Staff Photo/Evan Richman
Jean Pepper, a former nurse who is now chief interpreter at Lynn District Court, says language skill alone is not enough: Interpreters also need to learn the terminology of law and healthcare.

Globe Staff Photo/Evan Richman
Interpreter Jean Pepper consults with defense attorney Todd Siegel while interpreting for a defendant in the lockup of Lynn District Court.

Jean Pepper is the chief interpreter at Lynn District Court, working hard each day to help Spanish-speaking defendants understand the intricacies of the court system.

She had been a geriatric nurse, but saw a help-wanted advertisement for interpreters in a Lawrence newspaper about eight years ago, and was intrigued.

Born in Puerto Rico, where her father was a labor lawyer, she liked the idea of using her fluent Spanish to help people while serving a government entity.

Today, interpreting is her vocation. And, due to a growing number of immigrants from across the world and demand for speakers of other languages in the legal and healthcare systems, interpreting is quickly becoming a popular career choice among those with the skills.

''The courts and hospitals have also been globalized,'' said Michael O'Laughlin, who teaches a certification course at Boston University for legal and medical interpreters.

Kevin Hendzel, spokesman for the American Translators Association, concurred.

''The landscape has completely changed for languages that were once invisible,'' he said. ''Spanish has always been around, but now you have, for example, Chinese and Arabic communities'' around the country.

The association estimates there are 12,000 to 15,000 interpreters and translators in the United States, many of them earning $30,000 to $60,000 annually.

The trade group does not break down the number of interpreters, who deal with a spoken language, and translators, who work with written materials.

Neither does the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which says that in 2003, the last year for which data are available, about 25,310 interpreters and translators were employed, compared to 13,640 in 1999.

The bureau predicts that the rise in the number of employed interpreters and translators from 2002 to 2012 will be ''faster than the average for all occupations,'' or a 22 percent increase.The hourly median wage rose from $12.94 in 1999 to $16.10 in 2003.

Interpreters in Massachusetts trial courts handled about 80,000 assignments in fiscal 2004, an increase of 10,000 from the previous year, said Gaye Gentes, manager of the state Office of Court Interpreter Services. The office relies on 160 interpreters, Gentes said.

Those who have been certified, or passed written and oral tests in one of 12 languages, earn $250 for a full day in court.

Those who have not been certified, but who have been screened, receive $165 a day, she said.

All interpreters must have some experience as well as bachelor's degrees.

Like many other interpreters, Pepper said that being fluent in another language is not good enough. Knowledge of language nuances and technical terms is also necessary.

''I've picked up points about the law from the district attorney's office and from talking with defense attorneys,'' Pepper said.

Being up to speed on medical terminology is equally challenging, said Joy Connell, president of the 1,000-member Massachusetts Medical Interpreters Association. ''It requires lots of training and skills, and that's why many more interpreters are needed.''

''Healthcare is the real growth area for interpreters,'' said O'Laughlin, a Spanish interpreter who teaches a one-year certification course for legal and medical interpreters at Boston University's Center for Professional Education.

''Hospitals used to wing it when it came to interpretive functions, but now they're under the gun to provide training for interpreters,'' he said.

A 2001 state law requires acute-care hospitals to provide interpreters in emergency rooms and for psychiatric evaluations.

Ernest ''Tony'' Winsor, a staff attorney for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, helped to craft the law.

''In general, I think the law has had an effect on hospitals, which are taking interpreter services much more seriously than they once did,'' he said, pointing out that the institute is trying to assess the status of these services at Boston medical centers.

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is doing all it can to improve these services, said Diane Hanley, a registered nurse who oversees interpreters.

''One of our strategic goals,'' she said, ''is safe, compassionate care. And in that regard, we've invested a lot in our interpreter system, doubling our staff.''

These staffers speak Spanish, Portuguese, and French, said the program's coordinator, Eduardo Berinstein.

On call are about 50 freelancers who collectively are fluent in 20 other foreign languages.

Dana-Farber is recording about 3,800 interpreter assignments a year, said Berinstein, a Spanish and Portuguese specialist who began working full time at Dana-Farber in 1999.

Pepper, the court interpreter, figures she handles more than 2,800 assignments a year.

''I love the interactions with the people I serve,'' she said, emphasizing that she is always faced with a big challenge: ''not getting emotionally involved.''