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Somali court interpreter in high demand

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Mascuud Xaaji is one of two certified Somali court interpreters in the nation.

Mascuud Xaaji is a man in demand.

One of only two certified Somali court interpreters in the nation, the Rochester man turns down more job offers than he accepts every year. It is, he said, "first come, first served."

Xaaji already has jobs booked for February and could go even further out, but the married father of four has to spend some time at home, he said.

Still, there's an incredible amount of travel. While calls come from across the U.S. — Xaaji had to refuse a case in Kentucky last week — he spends the majority of his time traveling in Minnesota, serving as an interpreter in courtrooms in Marshall, Wilmar, Benson, St. Peter, Mankato and beyond.

Somalis in Minnesota


Minnesota has the largest number of Somalis in the country, estimated at 50,000 or more. Somalis originally came to Minnesota because of the good economy and low unemployment. More recently, they have come because there is a recognized community here — Somali shops, businesses and restaurants.

Xaaji arrived in the United States in 1998 after completing college and working for the United Nations and the Red Cross in his home country.

Even so, he said, "I had no plan" when he arrived in Los Angeles.

"I wanted to get to safety first, then get a plan," Xaaji said. "I knew I had the skills."

Does he ever.

Rigors of certification

The certification test for court interpreters "is extremely rigorous, no matter what language it's in," said Polly Ryan, program coordinator of the state's court interpreter program and language access services.

"Just because someone speaks two languages does not mean they're going to be a good interpreter," she said. "Sometimes people come in and are just so surprised when they bomb out on the test. They might be fluent, but it's a different skill set."


Developed by the National Consortium for Language Access in the Courts, pass rates for the oral certification are low. About 24 percent of test-takers pass the full and abbreviated exams offered for most languages. For some, such as Somali, the pass rate dips to single digits.

Minnesota courts serve requests for about 80 languages every year, Ryan said. The national certification test is offered in 18 languages.

First offered in 2004, the Somali oral test covers all forms of interpreting: simultaneous, consecutive — used when witnesses testify in court — and translating while reading aloud from a document. The three portions must all be passed at the same time; fail one, and you start over.

Those who pass the test not only must prove their language proficiency but also demonstrate knowledge of legal terminology and procedure.

Only Xaaji and Abdi Elmi, of Minneapolis, have passed it.

Xaaji credits his success to his strong foundation in both languages, as well as a sharp short-term memory and a significant amount of preparation.

Career path

After his arrival in Minnesota, Xaaji attended the University of Minnesota, where he received a masters degree in social work. He accepted a job with the Rochester Public School District, worked for the Minnesota Workforce Center-Southwest Minnesota Private Industries Council and eventually began working for Olmsted County as a bilingual case worker.


"My entire life, I've worked in the education and humanitarian relief areas," he said. "I think, what can I do to help my people more?"

His job with the county opened yet another door: The courtroom "is a place where the voice of people with limited English needs to be heard," Xaaji said.

Chuck Kjos, Olmsted County Court administrator, is involved in the interpreter scheduling for the entire Third Judicial District.

The fact that the only two nationally certified interpreters are from Rochester and Minneapolis only makes sense, he said, because they have the two biggest populations of Somalis.

That doesn't mean it's easy to fill the need.

"It's extremely tough," Kjos said. "First, you have to find somebody who's willing to do it. Then if they're willing, what's their level of proficiency? Just because you're willing doesn't mean you're any good at it."

By state law, courts have to first attempt to provide a defendant with a certified interpreter, no matter what the language. If the offer is rejected, courts have a list of "roster" interpreters to choose from. Rostered interpreters undergo training about courtroom protocol and the code of responsibility.

"We're working really hard to get as many people certified as we can" in the Third District, Kjos said, calling Xaaji's skill "a limited resource."


"It's a high level of proficiency, basically a 14th-grade level at both the source language and the target language. How many people do we know with English that get to the 14th grade? It's quite intensive, and it's quite an accomplishment for him to get certified," he said of Xaaji.

The differences

Once a Somali speaker enters the court system, the language isn't the only thing that's vastly different from his or her home country.

"There's a huge difference in justice between here and Somalia," Xaaji said. "There was no justice (there). There was no due process unless you have a lot of money or a lot of (governmental) support. There is no trust in the justice system, and that's carried over to here."

While he is strictly prohibited from offering any legal advice or even moral support to the people for whom he's interpreting, Xaaji said he's seen their views change.

"A lot of families say they were scared to death" when told they'd have to appear in court in Minnesota. "They were amazed to hear their rights. The judge tells them their rights; there is justice here, absolutely.

"Back home, it was very normal for the government to arrest someone," he explained. "They'd disappear, and you'd never see them again. Nobody knows where they ended up."

Though Somalia has made progress in the past few years — it now has a functioning parliament and organized government, something Xaaji calls "a huge achievement" -- there are still adjustments for Somalis new to the U.S.


"A lot of the elements back home don't exist here," he said. "Domestic (disturbances), other minor issues are resolved by the elders there."

It's also not unusual for a defendant to look to Xaaji for counsel. As an elder, his advice would be respected — and expected — back home.

Not here.

"They see (me) as a respected member of the community, as an elder, but I'm only a communication channel," he said. "It's hard to understand; in our culture, we discuss a lot of things, but I'm not allowed to give any advice or any opinion whatsoever. I can't discuss anything about the case. We limit our conversations completely."

Exactly, Ryan said.

"If someone says to the interpreter in court, 'I don't understand, what am I supposed to do?', the interpreter is to say, in English, 'I don't understand, what am I supposed to do?' They simply interpret, as closely as possible, to what's being said," she explained.

The system

Providing an interpreter for people who have limited English, or for the deaf and hard of hearing, is the law.


"This comes right from the Civil Rights Act," Ryan said. "We have to provide meaningful access to our programs and activities for limited English proficient. In the courtroom itself, our standards are really, really high because access to justice is our number one priority."

And it's thanks to people like Xaaji, who said his goal is to "hear, understand and render the message accurately," whether the speaker is the defendant, the judge, the prosecutor or a witness.

In addition to his service as a courtroom interpreter, Xaaji has been asked to translate documents for the U.S. State Department.

His ability to serve, he admitted, makes him feel "very proud" and certainly makes a difference.

"We bring talent to the country," he said of his fellow Somalis. "We have skills, and we want to contribute to society."

The flip side of providing equal access to the courts "is a dysfunctional system," Ryan said.

"The money we spend on interpreters is just a drop in the bucket compared to other governmental systems," she said. "It's not that expensive, in the grand scheme of things, to provide it. What money is spent is well-spent."

26,000: Court cases needing a interpreter in Minnesota in the last fiscal year

14,000: Cases needing Spanish interpreter

3,600: Cases needing Somali interpreter (Hmong was formerly No. 2)

Nearly 400: Cases needing Karen interpreters, up from 30 four years ago.

82: Number of certified interpreters in the state, including 62 Spanish-certified.

500: Number of rostered interpreters

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