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Pa. court system pilots program to help Pennsylvania Dutch speakers become certified interpreters

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts is piloting a program to get native PA Dutch speakers certified as court interpreters.

 Courtesy of AOPC

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts is piloting a program to get native PA Dutch speakers certified as court interpreters.

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The state court system is partnering with a Lancaster county organization and other nonprofits to encourage Pennsylvania Dutch speakers to become court interpreters.

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts’ Interpreter Certification Program, which has 44 languages in its roster, has no Pennsylvania Dutch interpreters. 

“Everybody assumes Pennsylvania should have some interpreters of Pennsylvania Dutch and we have not historically had anybody,” said Natalia Petrova, administrator of AOPC’s Interpreter Certification Program. 

She said people from other states with Mennonite communities often contact Pennsylvania to find certified Pennsylvania Dutch speakers only to find there are none. 

 A growing awareness of sexual abuse in Mennonite communities sparked interest among members of that community to become interpreters for those navigating the criminal justice system. 

AOPC says several people in interpreters programs said they wanted “to be a voice for the children who are abused.”

Survivors of sexual abuse or witnesses in such cases might lack court interpreters to accurately convey their testimonies in court or in conversations with attorneys, according to AOPC and groups that work in the Plain community,.

An interpreter with a solid grasp of the language and the cultural aspects of the community becomes crucial in court settings.

“The interpreter becomes the voice of that person,” Petrova said. “The jury, if it’s a jury trial, they hear their version. They hear the voice of the interpreter. They don’t hear the voice of this speaker because they speak a foreign language, which the jury doesn’t understand. All they hear is what the interpreter says, so what they interpret has to be absolute.”

Pastor Mark Harris of the Lancaster nonprofit Safe Communities, leads workshops in the Mennonite community and said everyone has different reasons for pursuing a court interpreter certification. 

Word of mouth and Amish newspapers have been the most effective tools for finding potential interpreters.

Many are women and younger people, Harris said. Some might be looking to address specific issues in their community, but others want to learn a new trade.

“We have an Old Order Mennonite,” Harris said. “We have folks who are Amish. We have folks who are ex-Amish and ex-Old Order Mennonite, and they’re all learning together in the same room and it’s going very, very well, I would say. Some of them are there because of their own personal experiences, sometimes with abuse, sometimes with other legal aspects of life. We have one person who’s just super-interested in languages.”

Fifteen people are in the pilot workshop and are practicing for an English written exam, a requirement to be certified as a court interpreter. The handful of people who have tried to get certified have not been able to pass the English exam, Petrova said, because of low levels of English proficiency in the community and lack of experience with standardized exams.

The AOPC is using money from the U.S. Department of Justice’s  STOP Violence Against Women grant program to create and deliver a trauma-informed curriculum that educates participants on  sexual and domestic abuse cases.

Safe Communities got a $10,000 grant from the Lancaster Law Foundation to work with members from the Plain community interested in becoming interpreters. The AOPC is also making accommodations for the participants, including excusing members of the Plain community from Sunday required program events and hosting the exams in Lancaster County, where many of the participants live. The YWCA in Lancaster County is also providing grant money to help the participants cover the cost of the program.

The Plain community includes Amish, Mennonite and other Anabaptist denominations.  As of 2022, about 87,000 Amish were living in Pennsylvania, according to The Center for Amish Studies.

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