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Open to Interpretation: Court Interpreters Hold the Fate of Justice in Their Mouths 

Wednesday, May 1 2013
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The prosecutor had been backing the defendant into the ropes. Now, he's ready to tee up a haymaker of a question, the kind he hopes will corner the woman on the witness stand into telling an obvious lie or an implicating truth. The prosecutor lets it rip.

His query is precise and thorough and long, a winding run-on jammed with both facts and presumptions, capped off with an "Isn't that right?" The question sizzles through the courtroom as the defendant, one of four accused of a $50,000 fraud, turns to the woman beside her, who repeats the line in Cantonese.

The defendant pauses. Blinks. Shifts in her seat. Furrows her brow. Then speaks for a few seconds in her native language.

Her mysterious words hang in the air. What has she said? The interpreter nods in understanding, then turns back to face the prosecutor. Oh, the tension.

This rhythm plays out daily in dozens of hearings and trials all around San Francisco's Hall of Justice, thousands more across America. The people at the heart of this process, the interpreters, bridge the nation's sometimes conflicting ideals of cultural freedom and equal justice for all. According to the state Judicial Council's database, there are 659 interpreters registered in San Francisco County, including 312 verified in Spanish, 47 in Mandarin, 28 in American Sign Language, 24 in Russian, eight in Arabic, three in Tagalog, and scores more spanning many of the 157 languages covered around the state.

Most are private contractors in San Francisco, and some of them work cases on a daily basis, shuttling between neighboring counties and federal cases. They are certified in their chosen languages, having passed a written and oral exam.

That doesn't mean the process is always smooth.

The tension on the witness stand breaks when the Cantonese interpreter translates the defendant's response: "I don't understand the question."

Perhaps it was an evasive maneuver, a disingenuous plea of ignorance to trip up the prosecutor. Or perhaps she didn't understand the question.

Courtroom English is dense to begin with: a pedantically measured dialect, where lawyers painstakingly calibrate every phrase into airtight legalese. And then that slab of words gets rammed through the translation meat grinder. Anybody who's watched a bootlegged DVD in a foreign language with English subtitles understands the way meaning can be lost when words try to make the jump into another language. Because exact translations often don't exist. In Cantonese, for instance, verbs don't have tenses and nouns don't distinguish between singular and plural. Adverbs, particles, and other sentence markers generally convey time and number.

Because the interpreter's duty is to do her best to replicate a sentence without adding or subtracting for clarity, the potential for misunderstanding is constant.


A few times during this trial, in which all four defendants speak only Cantonese, a lawyer asks a question on one thing, only to hear an answer covering something else. For instance, during one testimony, a defense lawyer asks her client what values she learned from school. To which the defendant answers that, yes, she had gone to school.

This was benign enough. But the language confusions pose more of a problem for the more serious lines of questioning. During one stretch of cross-examination, the prosecutor asks one of the defendants if he had tried to commit more scams while waiting for the original victim, who had gone to pick up her money from the bank, to return. The defendant responds by saying that after the victim left for the bank, he went to speak with two of his co-defendants, then went to the hill to wait for the victim. So the prosecutor repeats the question. And the defendant repeats his answer. So the prosecutor asks again: While the women were at the bank, did you approach anybody else? This time, the defendant replies, No, I didn't.

The exchange underscores the jury's quandary: a witness genuinely misunderstanding a question because of translation problems sounds almost exactly like a witness purposefully avoiding a harmful question.

In a trial that heavily relies on interpreters, the line between miscommunication and deceit can shift within seconds. During another cross-examination, the prosecutor thinks he has caught a defendant in a lie. The defendant had noted that she first met a certain crime boss in November 2011, even though she had claimed in earlier testimony that the crime boss had threatened her in April 2011.

"But I thought you met him in April?"

"Right," the defendant responds.

Then the interpreter jumps in: "Excuse me, interpreter clarification." She exchanges a few words with the defendants. "I'm sorry, that's my mistake, she did say April, not November."

Interpreting witness testimony is certainly challenging — it requires precise hearing, a memory sharp enough to absorb long stretches of legalese and then repeat it, a masterful understanding of grammar and legal terms in two languages, and enough cultural knowledge to occasionally clarify a statement for the court (such as explaining that "renminbi" and "yuan" are interchangeable terms like "dollars" and "bucks").

And that's the easy part of the job. While one interpreter sits beside the defendant on the witness stand, three others linger, wearing headsets, in the back of the courtroom. Each of those headsets is connected to a pair of headphones over the ears of each defendant. (There's one interpreter for each defendant, too, so as to avoid a single interpreter being the sole gatekeeper of the court's communication.) The interpreters in the back are translating in real-time, so that the defendants can know everything that is said in the trial that will determine their fate. They speak in low volumes, so as not to disrupt the proceedings, and cover their mouths with notebooks. A good translator keeps around a three-word lag, simultaneously listening and talking. Which is just as hard as it sounds.

During a brief recess, a group of interpreters gathers at the seating area near the courtroom's door. They talk shop, discussing technique and marveling over the defendant who has been testifying that afternoon.

"He speaks very very clearly," gushes one of the interpreters. "And he's very loud too!"

About The Author

Albert Samaha

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