“No tengo ni diez kilos!”: How the Translation of One Word Can Mean the Difference Between Conviction and Acquittal

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Anyone who has studied a second language knows that there aren’t always precise equivalents for words or phrases in one language or another. Regional dialects, expressions and accents, as well as slang and jargon, complicate matters and make the translation from one language to another difficult. It becomes even more difficult when the translation must be done in real time in a courtroom.

Nowadays in Minnesota, as elsewhere in the United States, a growing number of people speak a language other than English as their mother tongue. Approximately 10% of the population of Minnesota speaks a language other than English at home, while approximately 7% are foreign born. What happens with these individuals when they are placed in a courtroom setting, such as a criminal trial, and must rely on an interpreter to relay their words to the judge and jury? Unfortunately, justice is often denied.

There is famous case of how an interpreter unfamiliar with regional language can bring about disastrous results for a criminal defendant. In the case, a Cuban defendant was convicted on drug charges because he uttered the words, “¡Hombre, no tengo ni diez kilos!” He used the words in response to a request for a loan and given the dialect of the speaker and the context of the statement, the words can be translated as “[m]an, I don’t even have ten cents.” Instead, the interpreter mistakenly translated them as, “[m]an, I don’t even have ten kilos.” With that incorrect yet plausible translation, the man was convicted of the drug charges (fortunately, the conviction was ultimately overturned).

In another case, a Mexican immigrant was convicted of murder. The interpreter in his case spoke Spanish, but one can only wonder how he could correctly translate the words of the defendant, Ramiro Lopez Fidel, who didn’t speak Spanish but rather an indigenous Indian language, Mixtec. The judge and the defense attorney never thought to confirm whether the defendant even spoke Spanish but merely assumed he did because he was Mexican.

These two cases show the importance of language in the justice system. Even for bilingual or multilingual attorneys, we can’t be expected to know all possible languages of our clients. We have to rely on interpreters. We must verify their familiarity with the regional language of our clients and not make assumptions about the language that they speak. Not doing so could mean the difference between justice served and justice denied.

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