Are Minnesota courts discriminating against foreign language interpreters?

Lingua, a group of courtroom interpreters, is demanding a pay raise after 20 years of stagnant wages.

Lingua, a group of courtroom interpreters, is demanding a pay raise after 20 years of stagnant wages. Lingua

Viviana Ortelli never planned to become an interpreter. Back in Buenos Aires, where she’d lived before coming to Minnesota in 1994, she worked in art and design. It was only in 2002, when an acquaintance suggested she try it, that she started training.

“I love it,” she says. It’s her job to translate court proceedings into Spanish and back again. A lot of the people she serves are immigrants, and a lot of her colleagues are immigrants themselves. There’s satisfaction in doing a job that ensures equal access to justice.

There is one part of the job Ortelli does not love. The pay.

Since 1997, Ortelli and her colleagues’ pay has risen by $2. They make $52 an hour. That may seem like a lot, but by the time you factor in the FICA, health insurance, gas, it usually ends up more like $19. Because of the nature of the job -- driving from court to court, showing up early to make sure they and their clients can understand each other -- they can usually only work a couple of two-hour hearings a day.

“We are now making 1997 wages in 2018 dollars,” Spanish interpreter Sally Nichols says. Her gross income is about $45,000 a year, but after taxes and expenses, it’s more like $20,000. Not a lot of money, she says, for a skilled, certified professional who has to translate everything from cases about laboratory drug analysis to parental rights.

Nichols and Ortelli are both part of a group of interpreters called Lingua. They’ve banded together to demand better pay. They’re independent contractors, so they can’t unionize, but they can make their case to the people in charge.

The interpreters have been trying to convince State Court Administrator Jeff Shorba that they need a raise in order to keep up with the cost of living. So far, he hasn’t budged. Nichols says it’s because work studies show the interpreters are making about the same as the average interpreter in the public sector -- about half as much as they would be making in the private sector.

Meanwhile, the court’s sign language interpreters are making $86 an hour, which has a lot of the foreign language interpreters raising eyebrows.

“That also looks discriminatory to us,” Nichols says. Most of the sign interpreters and their clients are white, native-born Americans. Meanwhile, Nichols and her colleagues are usually assisting immigrants and people of color. 

“I feel personally that the quality of justice is suffering on account of a lot of people have had to leave the field,” interpreter Nadia Najarro Smith says.

On Monday night, the interpreters had what they say is their final meeting with Shorba. He still refuses to advocate for higher pay.

“It’s a reminder that our services are not valued,” Nichols.

Certified interpreters are legally required for non-English speakers in court. Without them, there is no trial. In essence, they are just as important as the prosecution, the defense, the judge. They’re demanding to be treated as such.