March 08, 2006

Not me

A long speech rendered in translation by one brief sentence may be humorous, as Ben Zimmer discusses in his post about Mel Gibson's antics at the Oscars, but there is a serious side to this. People who speak two languages but have no training as interpreters often produce a greatly reduced summary rather than a translation of what the speaker said. When this happens in court, the consequences may be very serious. I have a friend who even now, after three years in prison, speaks only the most rudimentary English. He was convicted of two counts of murder in a trial in which the interpreter repeatedly produced brief summaries of his testimony. (The appellate court overturned the conviction on other grounds and so never addressed the issue of inadequate interpretation.)

Unfortunately, it happens all too often in court. Here in Canada there are no standards for interpreters for languages other than the official languages, English and French. In the United States, there are standards for interpreters in Federal court, but not in State courts, where the majority of criminal cases are heard. Interpreters may be highly qualified, or they may be the bailiff's sister who took a little Spanish in high school. No one really knows how often this leads to miscarriages of justice, in part because it is very difficult to appeal on these grounds because appellate courts normally consider only the written record of the trial, and the written record contains only the English translation of the testimony, not what was actually said.

[Addendum: a reader informs me that in Vancouver the courts require a certificate from Vancouver Community College or the equivalent. This is not the case in the north.]

Posted by Bill Poser at March 8, 2006 07:59 PM