By Mark Naymik | November 10, 2015 |

nterpreter Wajdy Charif is key to some divorce settlements in Cuyahoga County’s Domestic Relations Court.

Born in Lebanon, the 49-year-old Charif speaks several languages, including Arabic and related dialects. This made him the perfect interpreter to translate for a Jordanian couple trying to dissolve a nine-year marriage without lawyers last week.

I met Charif at the couple’s hearing to see firsthand the role interpreters play in domestic relations court.

My interest was sparked by the recent comments Domestic Relations Administrative Judge Diane Palos made during a Cuyahoga County Council budget hearing. Palos said that the court will spend about $30,000 by year’s end on interpreters, double what had been expected.

Domestic Relations Magistrate Lawrence Loeb handled the Jordanian couple’s case. He put their case on hold earlier because he wanted an interpreter present to ensure that the wife – who speaks no English – understood the implications of the separation agreement she struck with her Arabic- and English-speaking husband. The separation agreement stipulates that the couple’s young son will live with the father and that the father will not pay any alimony.

The growing need for interpreters is driven by several factors, court officials tell me. One, the court is seeing more cases in which one or both spouses only speak Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Russian or another foreign language. Also, the Ohio Supreme Court mandated in recent years that, in most cases, only interpreters certified by the state’s top court can translate court paperwork and proceedings. The Ohio Supreme Court also requires that courts follow recently refined protocols when dealing with people who do not speak English.

For better or worse, domestic relations courts and other courts often have relied on bi-lingual members of a couple’s extended family to interpret court proceedings, at least in simple or uncontested cases, a practice no longer allowed.

In 2014, the Ohio Supreme Court began offering a “LanguageLine,” a free, 24-hour service that connects courts via telephone to interpreters. But the service was designed to only assist courts in translating paperwork and minor motions.

Courts across Ohio used the service 329 times in 2014, with municipal courts being the biggest users, according to statistics given to me by the Ohio Supreme Court. Spokesman Bret Crow said he expects that 2015 statistics, when completed, will show an increase over last year.

Courts cannot use the LanguageLine as a substitute for certified, in-person interpreters required for trials, hearings and major motions.

“If it is a contested hearing or domestic violence case, you need to have a body in the room,” Palos told council. “If one of the parties speaks a foreign language, the other likely does too. So you need two interpreters.”

In cases involving custody battles, or protective orders related to domestic violence, an interpreter is needed for hours at a time to walk women through the paperwork and special assessments and hearings. The court pays interpreters $70 per hour.

There’s another reason court officials see the need for in-person interpreters: To combat biases against women inherent in some cultures. Court officials say an impartial interpreter is critical to helping women understand their rights within our court system.

Palos said couples’ cultural backgrounds and social norms, such as dowries, shape their views of child custody and financial support.

If it is a contested hearing or domestic violence case, you need to have a body in the room.
“It is very difficult between the language and the culture,” she explained to council. “You have to be aware of it, be culturally sensitive and proactive.”

During the hearing involving the Jordanian couple, Loeb placed Charif and the woman in an empty courtroom and instructed Charif to read the separation agreement and then ask the woman if it represented what she truly wants. Then, in Loeb’s office, Charif translated every word of the on-the-record hearing and translated each document that required the woman’s signature. A couple of times, the woman wrote an answer in Arabic for Charif to clarify.

Charif also spoke to the women’s husband in Arabic so the woman could hear that her responses were being delivered accurately and to ensure that the husband clearly understood her direction. The hearing no doubt took considerably longer than one involving an English-speaking couple.

“There is a saying in mediation and law that you can only move as fast as the slowest person,” Palos told me in an interview.

She said that typically the court needs two or three interpreters a week.

Charif, who lives in Cleveland and translates for businesses and courts from Detroit to Youngstown and beyond, has worked in Cuyahoga County’s Domestic Relations Court more than 50 times, he testified.

Palos said the court and the county can’t ignore the growing demand for interpreters or the county could face a lawsuit.

“Nobody thinks about it,” she said.  “Not having an interpreter is an impediment to the justice.”