A Bad Interpretation Can Ruin - Even End a Life

Are you bilingual? Can you carry on a conversation in another language? If so, how deep can your conversation be? How detailed? Can you talk about a variety of subjects: medicine, law, psychology, history, geography, construction, etc.? There is a broadly held misconception that any person with a good command of two or more languages can serve as an interpreter, but this would be the same as thinking anyone with two hands can play Chopin on the piano.

The following are a couple of well-known cases in which an inadequate interpretation resulted in a tragic miscarriage of justice. In the case of Cortez v. Texas, 1902-1904, a bad interpretation by a deputy who acted as an interpreter lead to the death of a rancher, two sheriffs and two ranch hands. Mr. Cortez endured 7 trials and 12 years in prison before receiving a conditional pardon. 

In the Hanigan Trials in Arizona, (1977-1982), three undocumented Mexican men were going to an Arizona ranch to work, and three Douglas ranchers kidnapped and tortured them. At trial, they were provided an interpreter who did not possess the skills to accurately convey what they were describing. There were gross inaccuracies such as “I was chained to a cup” for “I was chained to a toilet,” or “I was burned with a stick” for “I was burned with a metal rod.” The ranchers were exonerated after the first trial. The case was later overturned after a Federally Certified Interpreter helped break the language barrier.

There is a broadly held misconception that any person with a good command of two or more languages can serve as an interpreter, but this would be the same as thinking anyone with two hands can play Chopin on the piano.

Outside the court setting, an inadequate interpretation can also end in tragedy. Consider the 911 call on April 12, 2011, in which an interpreter interpreted into English, “My wife is short of breath” when the correct interpretation would have been “My wife says she cannot breathe.” Then the interpreter also relayed the wrong address to the 9-1-1 taker, which lead to a delay of 26 minutes as the medics were looking for the correct location. Minutes later the mother of 3 had stopped breathing. She was declared brain dead, and three days later she died as her family decided to remove life support.

Despite ample documentation of disastrous outcomes due to poorly interpreted police interrogations, 911 calls and other emergent events, availability of comprehensive educational programs for the preparation of interpreters is sorely lacking. The interpreting profession must be taken seriously and rigorously regulated.

Additionally, testing and qualification standards for certification have gone down in recent years. Today, as in the past, to become an interpreter the candidate must pass a written and an oral exam. The current written portion, however, is now an English only, multiple-choice exam (about 50% pass rate). Previously the written portion was a two-part exam covering both English and the target language, and including extensive reading comprehension and grammar sections (about 4-14% pass rate). Both the skill level and methods of evaluation of the current exam are seriously deficient and do not reflect an accurate picture of the candidate’s proficiency level. 

In today’s exam-oriented system, many schools and seminars are aimed mainly at quickly preparing bilingual candidates to pass the required state exams, rather than providing a thorough education in all areas of this complex profession, not the least of which is Ethics. After passing the exams, a newly certified interpreter can work for months before receiving the mandatory 6-hour Ethics workshop required and provided by the Judicial Council. Additionally, the only current requirement for taking the certification exam is a high school degree. Is it surprising that we still have cases that have been adversely affected by interpreters who are not able to meet the level of knowledge and expertise required by this profession?

In my experience as a student of two of the most attended interpreting programs in LA, and even as faculty in one of them, I can attest that the education that is available today is greatly lacking in cohesiveness and solid content to prepare students to become Experts in language. The minimum requirements for the interpreting profession should fall no shorter than those for a Medicine or Law degree: A minimum of a bachelor’s degree, 3 years of specialized education in addition to the required state written and oral exams, and perhaps even a ‘residency’ period where the candidates would shadow experienced interpreters to get a sense of the practice in real life. 

It would also benefit the profession for regulation to be in the hands of professional interpreters rather than government administrators, insurance lobbyists and politicians, many of whom do not even speak a second language, lacking even that fundamental basis for understanding the realm of our profession. Yet these are the individuals and groups who wield the power to administer at will millions of dollars in federal and state funding, allocated exclusively for interpreting services and language access in the judicial system. The current system of regulation would be tantamount to placing the regulation and administration of the architectural profession in the hands of medical doctors.

It is time to wake up to this serious problem; to take responsibility and take action to protect the Limited English Proficient (LEP) population; to ensure every LEP individual equal access to justice. Education must come first!

By Monica P. Almada, CCI – www.forensiclinguiststudios.com

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FLS offers courses for people who want to pursue a career in Court Interpreting and Translating, and who are preparing to take the state written and oral exams. It also offers Interpreting and translating services for attorneys, and businesses.

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