When law enforcement agencies do everything they can to avoid hiring a real interpreter.

August 17, 2012 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The other day one of my colleagues asked my opinion about the quality of the Spanish a police officer was using during a recorded interview.  This colleague had been retained by the defense to analyze and transcribe the video of a police interview by a police woman in a very small town in the Midwest. As I sat there and listened to the nonsensical utterances that were emanating from this officer’s mouth, I went down memory lane and lived through them all again. I will never forget the police department that used a monolingual (in English) Hispanic woman as an interpreter for all of their investigations because “she grew up 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border…(and that)…was enough to assume she spoke enough Spanish to communicate with the suspects…”  and how could I forget the police station that hired as interpreters all those who had failed the court interpreter certification test because “…they were cheaper and knew about the same…”  Never mind the disastrous results like the time when a little girl who had been the alleged victim of sexual abuse was considered to be a liar because the police interpreter did not know how to say “Christmas tree” in Spanish.  And the time when the “interpreter” referred to the pedestrian charges as the “pedophile charges”.  And yes! There was the man who interpreted the polygraph tests into Spanish and explained how to wear the wires by lifting, holding, bending, and stretching the suspects.  Hulk Hogan would have been proud of his technique.

During all my years as an interpreter, and specifically through my work as a court interpreter, I have learned that the common denominator among most police forces in the country seems to be their desire to save money on interpretation.  Apparently the fact that the investigation is jeopardized by using the services of unqualified or under-qualified linguists is not a concern.  Even in those towns where cases are systematically dismissed by the prosecution, or dismissed by the judges, because of violations to the rights of the defendant, or where indictments are based on faulty testimony, all due to a lack of communication between the English speaking authority and the non-English speaker defendant, victim, or witness,  because of poor interpretation, chiefs of police,  budget analysts, and city administrators are choosing the cheaper service provider over the sound and accurate legal investigation.

We all know that a dollar saved on a bad interpreter will translate on thousands of dollars spent on a new trial, an appeal process, or a brand new investigation.  Every time I have a chance, I talk to law enforcement administrators and try to explain how a real interpreter costs more, but at the same time she saves you money.  A $100.00 per hour interpreter will do her job correctly in two hours, while a mediocre $40.00 per hour individual will take longer, as he struggles to understand the language, comprehend the process, and communicate the concepts to both, police officer and non-English speaker.  After 8 long hours with a bad “interpreter”, the investigation moved very little, the legal process was violated several times, the cheap interpreter cost $320.00, and he has to come back the next day to finish the interview.  There were no savings.

So, as I sat there watching this video, looking at my colleague working so hard, writing down the mistakes of the interpreter doing the interview, making footnotes of her omissions, charting the additions she volunteered into the interview, and listening to my interpreter friend telling me how this police woman, part-time “interpreter” had already caused the dismissal of many cases because of her lack of skill and knowledge, I came to a strange realization:  The good interpreters are losing these police assignments to the bad ones, but because of this policy by the police departments, these good interpreters are now working as expert witnesses and linguistic advisors to the parties.  Therefore, at the end, the good interpreter wins because it is more lucrative to be the expert witness or advisor. But wait; what about the defendant, the victim, and society at large?  They may all get their justice in the long run after a lengthy legal process of appeals and re-tried cases, but in the meantime the victim will not feel safe, the innocent defendant will sit in a cell, and society will pay a hefty legal bill. All because the police department wants to save by hiring the bad interpreter.  I would like to read your comments and experiences about this topic.

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§ 9 Responses to When law enforcement agencies do everything they can to avoid hiring a real interpreter.

  • I think your conclusions are spot-on. A lot of people suffer in the end, particularly the accused. I wish defrnse attorneys would jump on these interview issues at an earlier stage in the process.

  • D Bos says:

    I remember working on some cases where the police used the person who had called them and made the complaint to interpret for them and the defendant. I asked the officer why they didn’t get a real interpreter. As you may have guessed . . . it comes down to money.

    • Philip Thinggaard says:

      Hi, unfortunately still highly relevant stuff after 7 years….Question: I’m from Denmark, so maybe things are different here, but how does an interpreter go from being a court interpreter to being an “expert witness r advisor”? Any examples from across the pond?

      Philip T.

  • D Bos says:

    I re-read your post again and was wondering where the good interpreters have to go to get paid $100 per hour? It sounds like a dream come true!

  • I really like your blog. I agree with everything you say and I also would apply this issue to translation services. Many times, I saw a very bad translation even in official documents. People don’t want to pay for translations thinking that whoever speaks the language can assist with it. What about education and experience? I guess they don’t care about it because they aren’t able to see and understand the mistakes. Would they hire somebody as a writer just because he/she speaks English or would they make sure about education and experience?

  • wordstodeeds says:

    Excellent post Tony.

  • Diane Chambers says:

    Dear Tony: I’m with you! I’m a sign language interpreter. The Deaf victims/ defendants/witnesses involved with police AND courts often don’t get accessibility because a police officer may say” do you want an interpreter?” and when the deaf person doesn’t understand, the police say ” they refused! I know they understood me because they read my lips!” The reality is most police departments fong want to admit their ignorance in NOT knowing HOW to procure a professional interpreter- much less a qualified one! So, they depend on their rank and file to provide services( though inadequate!) Or, one of the worst case scenarios, they rely on the CHILDREN of the person needing an interpreter to interpret! Then, there is the most amazing and blatant stupidity: the court bailiff who went to the court lock-up and called the DEAF defendent’s name; then, he told the judge the deaf person was not I’m custody because he did NOT respond! HELLO?! Someone once told me that police officers are actually NOT hired if they have above -average IQ levels. I don’t know if this is true. I DO know one of my second cousins( now deceased- rest his soul!) had the audacity to recount ( at a family wedding!) the story of the elderly Deaf couple witnessing a murder and the police ” not being able to communicate with them…” Guess what? My cousin was the Captain and I lived ONE mile from the precinct! He could easily have called me in on the case or called to get a referral, etc!
    I am the author of ” Communicating in Sign; Creative Ways to Learn ASL”( Simon&Schuster) which includes basic vocabulary, grammar AND cultural information. I have literally written the textbook! Yet, I have tried SEVERAL times to train police officers at the precinct AND academy level to no avail! Does anyone have any clue HOW to educate police?

  • Marilyn Trouillot says:

    When you think about the criminal justice and what it stand for, you beginning to think about the unfairness of justice. Thanks for sharing!

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