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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