The Devil is in the Details

During an appeal hearing for a non-English-speaker who had been convicted, sentenced and incarcerated for many years, I served as Court Interpreter. In the course of the appeal proceeding, both the Prosecutor and Judge referred to the translated transcript of statements made during interrogation by police as irrefutable evidence that the petitioner had confessed to the crime. The appellant consistently and vehemently denied that he had ever made such a confession and that the statement attributed to him in the English transcript was “a lie.”

Being keenly aware of the potential for error existing in translated transcripts, particularly when both functions are performed by a single individual without benefit of review by another having the ability to confirm accuracy, comparison of the original statement recorded in Spanish with the subsequent translated transcript in English was indicated. When statements made in another language are then transcribed and translated, the slightest errors in the former can be exponentially multiplied in the latter. During a recess, review and comparison of the oral statement in question with the transcript and its translation were performed by myself and another certified court interpreter pressed into service, independent of each other. (This process was made more difficult and time-consuming due to the transcript not being time-stamped and the translated transcript being an entirely separate document.)

The alleged confession attributed to the accused in the English transcript, which had been assumed to accurately reflect the statement made in Spanish was, in fact, never uttered. The inaccurately translated transcript had transformed a spoken hypothetical into an absolute statement of guilt. The erroneous addition of an accent and comma resulted in “if” spoken in Spanish becoming “yes” in the translation – damning evidence upon which the Prosecution and Bench relied during trial and sentencing. Suffice it to say that reactions to this revelation ranged from outraged horror to relieved vindication.
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Courting Disaster: The Perils of Imprecision

Transcription to translation & beyond

Imagine you are an attorney, let’s say practicing criminal law. It doesn’t matter here whether you are counsel for the defense or the prosecution. You are working on a criminal case where the defendant faces serious consequences in the event of a conviction. Let’s also assume that the statements made by a witness during police investigation are crucial for the outcome of the case. Last but not least, to complete our trial scenario: unlike everyone else present in the courtroom, the witness does not speak English very well, so an accredited court interpreter will assist with the testimony.

That key witness is now on the stand during trial and it is your turn to question earlier statements, referring to a copy of the transcript. You ask the witness under oath a question about an essential issue that was also addressed during the earlier police interview to probe whether witness statements are consistent.

According to popular belief, trial lawyers don’t ask questions to which they don’t already know the answers. In this instance, the witness gives a fundamentally different answer, in apparent contradiction with the earlier statement. In such a situation, the text of the earlier statement might be presented to the witness to inquire about that contradiction, with a question such as: “Is it not true that in your statement [made on such-and-such date, in such-and-such place and circumstance] you said, and I quote: […] ?” The witness emphatically denies having made the earlier statement: “I have never said anything like that!”

The witness was truthful in his statement to police, a well as on the stand.

How can that be? Perhaps a more pertinent question here is: why would a court interpreter, i.e. the author of this article, address witness credibility? Let’s rewind to an earlier frame of our fictitious trial scene to unravel the mystery…

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