In Court, Lost in Translation


July 29, 2011, 11:55 am


The most recent controversy in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case has exposed an area in the criminal justice system where questions regularly arise: translations.

Prosecutors, the housekeeper who accused Mr. Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault and her lawyer recently spent hours reviewing audio recordings from telephone calls she had with a man in an Arizona jail after she said she was attacked. The two of them spoke in Fulani, the native language of the housekeeper, Nafissatou Diallo, who is from Guinea.

Ms. Diallo’s lawyer, Kenneth P. Thompson, has questioned the interpretation provided by some of the prosecution’s interpreters. According to Mr. Thompson, his client never suggested on the call that she knew she could make money off of her accusations or that she was trying to, a suggestion that a law enforcement official said was made on the recording.

Disputes over how interpreters translate testimony or documents come up regularly in court cases.

Mark Cohen, a defense lawyer who practices in Manhattan and speaks what he called “fairly fluent” Spanish, said he has found that some interpreters have a difficult time translating for people who are from a different part of the world.

For instance, Mr. Cohen said, when someone from South America is translating for clients from, say, the Dominican Republic, that person may not pick up all of the slang words.

Some of his Dominican clients in drug cases use the word “clavo” to refer to secret compartments in their cars where they hide narcotics, Mr. Cohen said. But clavo actually means nail or study in formal Spanish.

In one instance, Mr. Cohen said that he was actually duped by Dominican slang. When he was reading the transcript of a wiretap, he said, he kept coming across the word “cuarto,” which generally means room. But the context for the word did not make any sense, Mr. Cohen said.

“I’m reading wiretaps and I’m going crazy trying to understand what this means,” Mr. Cohen said. “Why are they saying, ‘the room, the room?’”

A client would later tell Mr. Cohen that “cuarto” was slang for “money,” Mr. Cohen said.

In a 2003 case in the Bronx, a man on trial for attempted murder moved for a mistrial because the court allowed an interpreter for a man who spoke Krio, a dialect from Sierra Leone. The defense lawyer argued that Krio was not really its own language.

It was “nothing more than a Patois,” and “English with a bad accent,” the defense lawyer argued.

He argued that the interpreter was incorrectly conveying the witness’s testimony by paraphrasing English words spoken by the witness.

In the end, the judge ruled that Krio, while similar to English “is a separate and distinct language that cannot be readily understood without an interpreter.”

Using an interpreter “was necessary to assure a clear and orderly process,” the judge wrote.

Arnold J. Levine, a defense lawyer, said that one question that arises during jury selection is whether the jurors would be able to put aside their own knowledge of a particular language and accept the interpreter’s translation.

In a 1991 case in Queens, after a jury convicted a man of selling drugs, a Spanish-speaking juror said that a Spanish interpreter’s translations were partially inaccurate.

But an appellate court ruled that there was “no suggestion here that the juror’s knowledge of Spanish put him into the position of an unsworn witness,” and that the inaccuracies hurt the defendant’s case. The court upheld the conviction.

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Translate this: It’s a growth industry

The global market for language services is wide open, and the positions are available.

By Jane M. Von Bergen
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Posted: Sunday, May. 29, 2011

Dale Eggett, who will finish a master’s degree in less than three weeks, will go to work the week after, having had no problem landing a job.

“I did have multiple, multiple job offers,” said Eggett, whose Spanish and computer skills put him in the forefront of a burgeoning field.

The global marketplace for interpreting, translating and other language services was estimated at $26.3 billion in 2010 and is projected to reach $38.1 billion by 2013.

Most people are familiar with translators, who deal with the written word. Interpreters handle oral communication in government agencies, courtrooms, doctors’ offices and businesses.

But Eggett, 28, of California, who will graduate from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, will be paid $50,000 a year to work in a relatively new discipline: localization management, which provides one of the best chances for steady employment in language services.

Localization combines language expertise with computer savvy. “I’m kind of behind the scenes making the job easier for translators,” Eggett said.

When a website needs to be translated, it’s Eggett’s job to strip out the coding and send the translator only what needs to be translated.

The work is painstaking. Imagine a complex website with multiple drop-down boxes, leading to more drop-down boxes. Each element on each box needs to be translated.

“Some people may find it boring,” Eggett said. “I find it interesting.”

Like many other sectors, language services face unique challenges, said Jiri Stejskal, president of Cetra Language Solutions, an Elkins Park, Pa., company that supplies translators, interpreters and localization experts to a range of clients. That’s how most interpreters and translators get work.

But an ongoing struggle is to educate employers about the difference between being simply bilingual and truly qualified.

Top interpreters need to hear what is said and speak it in another language simultaneously. That’s the gold standard used at the United Nations and international conferences, and high proficiency can merit a six-figure income.

That level of ability isn’t the same as language skills gained by growing up in a bilingual household. “Knowing how to cook doesn’t make you a chef,” Stejskal said.

Geopolitics brings its own demand for language services, and often the supply is not up to the task.

So intense was the need for Pashto, Dari and other languages in Afghanistan that some of those hired were “barely literate,” Stejskal said, “and they were still making six figures.”

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